Variations on a theme, p.1
Variations on a Theme, p.1William Meikle
Variations on a Theme
Copyright 2015 William Meikle
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1.Variations on a Theme
2.Ask the Cosmos
4.Bait and Switch
6.A Waste Disposal Problem
7.At the Trial of the Loathsome Slime
8.The Watcher in the Dunes
9.A Slim Chance
10.To the Sea Again
11.The First Silkie
Variations on a Theme
They took Johnny Green from class 3a at ten o’ clock on Tuesday morning. He was the last to go. They thought I didn’t notice, but I’ve been onto them for a while now.
It started nearly two weeks ago. Teaching biology is difficult when you’ve got a teenage audience. Almost every topic on the syllabus has something about reproduction in it, and that reduces your typical youngster to giggles, rude jokes or hysteria. I’ve got used to it over the last twenty years, and have come to expect the reactions. I’ve even come to know who to expect them from.
So when Jack Doyle was quiet during my “Asexual reproduction in amoeba” spiel, I knew immediately that something was wrong. And my sense of wrongness really went into overdrive when he stayed behind after class to ask questions.
“So,” he asked. “Every new organism produced by asexual reproduction is genetically identical to the parent – a clone in effect?”
“Very astute Jack,” I replied. “When did you grow the smarts?”
Jack has never been the sharpest pencil in the box. Usually he sits at the back and throws spitballs at the pretty girls. He has never had a grade higher than a solid “F” and has a flat, dead, stare when asked anything more than the simplest question.
But that day, two weeks ago, was different. This time I got a quizzical look, as if I’d been the one being stupid.
“I’ve been thinking about stuff,” Jack replied.
“Watch you don’t strain anything,” I said, but didn’t get a laugh.
“I want to learn,” Jack said. “I want to learn everything.”
“Turning over a new leaf Jack?”
I got the quizzical look again.
“I fail to see what plants have to do with it. I thought we were discussing amoeba?”
And that’s when it happened.
It was just for the space of time it took for me to blink, and I wasn’t really sure of what I’d seen. For that millisecond it wasn’t Jack Doyle that stood in front of me, but a seven-foot thing that looked more plant than human; green, fibrous and strangely gnarled. It looked like nothing less than a stunted oak sapling.
Then it was gone, and I was getting that quizzical stare again.
“Is there something wrong, Mr. Davis?”
I shook my head, partly to answer the question, partly to clear the remnants of what I might have seen.
And that was it for a couple of days. Nothing unusual happened in my other classes and I even came round to the idea of chalking it up to tiredness and overwork.
Everything went normally, just the usual daily grind in the classroom.
Until 3a came round to biology again. Jack Doyle continued to be more attentive in class, but that was a good thing… right?
He asked me again about cloning, and that got us into a discussion on ethics and Frankenstein foods that actually had most of the class interested for once… apart from Jack, and Mary Brown. She had taken on the quizzical look I was getting to know.
“Sir,” she said. “Can you explain parthenogenesis to us?”
“Certainly,” I said. “Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction found in females where growth and development of embryos or seeds occurs without fertilization by males. It happens a lot in simple plants, and has also been shown in some snakes and amphibians.”
Mary put her hand up.
“Sir. Is it true that the offspring produced by parthenogenesis almost always are female?”
She put her hand up once more.
And it happened again.
Mary Brown flickered. And once more I was looking at a gnarled green thing. Instead of a hand, it waved a shoot above the main body of a squat trunk, a shoot with five thin branches, each tipped with a hard thorny edge.
“I want to learn,” she said.
“We want to learn,” Jack Doyle added.
The rest of the class just sat there, open-mouthed.
“Apomixis,” Mary Brown said.
“Reproduction,” they both said.
A giggle ran around the room, but it didn’t last.
“We want to learn,” they said in unison.
They stared straight at me, their eyes black and dead.
“Teach us. Teach us now.”
So I taught. It had been a long time since I’d even heard the word Apomixis, but I dredged enough about asexual reproduction in plants from my memory to satisfy them… for now.
I managed to hold myself together till the end of the class, but by the time I got to the washroom I felt ready to scream.
I splashed cold water on my face, and gave myself a long hard stare in the mirror. I didn’t look crazy, but it felt as if reality was slowly draining away.
That night I sat at home with thoughts swirling like storm clouds in my mind.
I kept coming back to that single image; the fleshy green shoot above the main body of a squat trunk, the five thin branches, each tipped with a hard thorny edge. And in my mind’s eye I saw those same thorns tear into the pale white flesh of Mary Brown.
I drank more whisky than was good for me and tried to settle, but the television was broadcasting its usual inanities and the radio reception was so bad that I was forced to switch it off after a while. I sat at the window, watching a storm build up, until it got too dark to see. And even then I sat, watching my reflection for long minutes before drawing the curtains and closing myself in.
Silence settled around me. Eventually the wind dropped and, apart from my trusty, wheezing, generator there was only the soft patter of rain on the window. Soon I began to hear rhythms in the noise, the weather sending me a coded signal of danger that I was only just unable to decipher.
“Music,” I muttered, needing to break the silence. “That's what I need. Something good and loud.”
I rummaged around in a box of old tapes discarded by my wife when she left. I put on a compilation of pop songs from a happier time and let the mindless mania wash over me.
For nearly half an hour I managed to lose myself in the intricacies of police work in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct while the music swam around me. I even found myself singing along at one point.
Something hit the window, hard.
I looked up to see a branch banging against the glass, leaves pressed flat on the glass, like fingers, prying, trying to reach through.
I was up and out of the chair almost before I knew it.
For long seconds I stood there, my heart pounding a drumbeat in my ears. I half expected to turn and find that I was not alone in the room, but there was only a spilled glass of whisky and a book beside my chair.
The wind dropped.
The branch went back to being just a branch, swaying gently in what was now no more than a breeze.
Slowly… very slowly… my heart rate returned to near normal. But I was very far from being in that state.
I had to do something… anything. But I was at a loss for where to start.
I’m not stupid. I’ve read all the books, see
I had my working hypothesis; that some intelligent alien species was here, in my school, taking over children. Now what I need was patience. Patience to watch, to find out exactly what was happening, patience to test the theory and get real physical proof.
I made my way to bed and at some point I slept, fitfully, only to wake with a start, convinced that they were in the room.
Thin shadows wafted and ran across the ceiling. All I wanted to do was retreat under the covers to a place where I had been safe as a child. But I forced myself to sit up.
I called out.
No one replied. And when I turned towards the window, there were only the trees in the garden, and the streetlight beyond that, throwing shadows into my bedroom.
In the morning I went straight to my laptop.
There was nothing in any of the mainstream news pages of any note, just the usual earthly diet of death and chaos. There was an earthquake in China, concern about the escape of genetically modified crops, and three separate minor wars ongoing in the Middle-East. I had to dig deep, into places where conspiracy theories cluster like ants at a picnic. I found what I was looking for in a UFO chat-room.
“I’ve been seeing them for days,” a lady from Seattle said.
“They’re everywhere,” a boy from Texas replied. “My mother isn’t my mother any more. Oh, she walks, talks, cooks and cleans like my mother. But it’s not her. Not in the heart. Not where it matters.”
I made some discreet forays onto the boards.
All told I found over a hundred cases similar to my own. No doubt some of them at least were from the usual on-line suspects. But I found three separate descriptions of “stunted plants” and one hysterical youth that had been attacked, in broad daylight by a friend with thorns instead of fingernails.
I drove to school that morning with one eye on the road and one on the people around me… if people they indeed were.
I had 3a again the next day.
By now I knew what I was looking for. Three more had been taken, and had moved to the left side of the room to sit with Jack Doyle and Mary Brown.
I started the day’s lesson… one on Speciation, but that wasn’t enough for them. Their hands shot up almost as soon as I began.
“Tell us about mutation,” they said as one.
“How has punctuated equilibrium been a driver for the selection of intelligence?” they said.
Whatever they ultimately wanted to know, they were learning fast.
So once more I taught, of how natural selection is not only about the survival of the fittest, but about how naturally occurring mutations can inhabit, and take over, niches previously occupied by other species and how a single genetic advantage can lead to ecological dominance.
They soaked it all up, and demanded more.
I taught them. And while I did so, I learned more about them. By looking out of the corner of my eyes and letting them go slightly out of focus I could see them… not clearly, but enough. They were still the same gnarled mass of green plant-like matter. But as they listened to me, small shoots rose and wafted in the air. Small nodules on the fleshy trunks swelled and pulsed. Some looked ready to burst.
The other children… the human children, knew something was wrong. They kept looking at me, and back at the small group of what seemed like their classmates.
I wouldn’t acknowledge their fears. I couldn’t, for to do so would give away the fact that I knew them for what they were.
So I kept teaching, and they kept asking questions.
“Tell us about morphic resonance,” they said.
And at that they had me stumped. The words had some meaning to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. It was near the end of the lesson though, and I was able to talk my way through to the bell.
I could tell they were frustrated, but so was I.
That night, I looked up morphic resonance. I realized I had read something about it in the past; a fringe theory regarding morphogenetic fields that worked by imposing patterns on otherwise random or indeterminate phenomena. It had been used to explain how ideas that rise up in one place, can simultaneously rise up elsewhere when enough of the population have assimilated them.
And turning once more to the chat rooms, I found that ideas were indeed spreading.
“How the hell does my mother know about cellular mitosis?” one asked. “And how does she know a teacher called Bob Davis all the way across the country?”
“The garage attendant grabbed me and demanded to know about punctuated equilibrium. I punctuated his ass for him,” another said.
The more I looked, the more the horror grew. My teachings were spreading. Everywhere across the country, the others were learning, and expanding.
As I suspected, things got worse. By the time 3a came round for biology again, Johnny Green was the last one left. He entered the classroom like a whipped dog, and slunk into a seat near the front.
The rest were so confident that they took him, right in front of me. I watched out of the corner of my eye as I talked, telling them what I’d learned of morphic fields, explaining how it wasn’t a recognized scientific paradigm. Even as I spoke, tendrils crept across the room.
Young Johnny never saw it coming. A pustule on one of the green shoots burst, and Johnny’s face was covered in a thin film of spores.
He breathed in, coughed once, and flickered.
They had him.
“Tell us about forced mutation,” they asked.
“Tell us about genetic manipulation,” they demanded.
“We need variation,” they said.
Suddenly I was no longer thinking about aliens or off world intelligence.
I was thinking about genetic engineering, about escapes, and about random mutations. I was also thinking about punctuated equilibrium, and wondering whether it wasn’t time that the human race got its ass punctuated.
Just as suddenly, I had a theory, but first I had to test a part of it.
At the end of the lesson I gave them a new word. I taught them about chemomute, a chemical reagent used to bring about targeted genetic mutation.
That night, in the chat rooms, I was asked whether I’d heard about the use of the new wonder drug. They used the name I had made up… chemomute.
The next time 3a came round to Biology I was ready.
They were waiting for me.
“Variation,” they said. “Teach us.”
I showed them a vessel full of a thick liquid.
“Building variation into populations has been something scientists have known how to do for some time,” I said. “And it is best demonstrated by an experiment. I think it’s time we did some practical work.”
Tendrils waved in excitement.
I taught them about the importance of hypothesis, experiment and results gathering.
I taught them how to make chemomute from vinegar, salt and liquid soap.
I taught them how it would bring about natural, spontaneous beneficial variation in any species that used it.
They told all their friends.
Then they drank it.
There are two things I didn’t teach them.
The first is that even teachers can lie.
The second is that biology teachers know how to make weed killer.
Ask the Cosmos
Dave was getting roaring drunk. He wasn’t enjoying it, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that two of the other three people in the room were his best friends, and they were doing better than Dave was -- better at their jobs, better in their sex-lives, better at life.
But I’m the better drunk.
The other three had made an effort and were smartly dressed for dinner, but Dave had deliberately chosen a tired and faded shirt. He had the sleeves rolled up to show thin forearms, and he wore a very o
When I was the better man.
The remains of a large meal and a heavy drinking session were laid out before them all. Dave took a hefty swig of wine, then remembered he was in the middle of a joke.
“So they find the clitoris is missing... it's been cut away.”
He swilled more wine.
“And the nurse says...” He paused, looking around the table. Nobody seemed to care.
In that case, I’ll just have to speak louder.
“Go on guess what the nurse says.... Go on.”
By now he was nearly shouting. But nobody answered him - nobody even looked interested in answering. He was too far gone to stop.
“She says... It can't have been a man then... He'd never have found it!” He laughed, too long, too loud, spraying a fine mist of wine down his shirt. “He'd never have found it!”
He laughed again, far too loud in the quiet room. The rest of the guests looked weary and bored... not a single smile from any of them.There was a long, embarrassed pause which Dave pretended not to notice. After another large swig of wine he ploughed on. He’d come with the intention of saying what was on his mind, and the drink had now loosened his moral center enough to let it through the usual filters.
“Do you remember Jane, that night in Malaga, when the moonlight played on the sea and we slept on the beach?”
He was almost pleased to see Jane look embarrassed. Beside her, and directly across the table from Dave, Jim Barr, Jane’s husband went red in the face, but this wasn’t embarrassment. This was impending rage.
“Why do you always have to be such a knob-end Dave?”
Jim looked to Dave’s right, addressing the woman that sat there -- the one that Dave had been studiously ignoring since he sat down to dinner.
“He's always been like this Maggie... even when we were students.”
Dave finally turned to look at the woman the others had deemed would be his date for the night. She was actually very pretty in a kind of hippy-goth type way, but he wasn’t in any mood to be placated. Besides, she seemed more amused than anything.
I’ll soon put a stop to that.
“And what are you smirking about?”
He struggled to focus.
“Come to think of it… who are you?”
As Dave knew she would, Jane Barr tried to calm the situation.
That’s my girl.
“I told you already Dave,” Jame said. “Maggie's new in the area.”
“So is Tesco,” Dave said. “But you didn’t ask it round.”
Jane ignored him and continued.
“I invited her along to welcome her to town. … We met at my yoga class.”
Dave leered at Maggie.
“Do you do contortions?”
The woman laughed.
“Well, I could tie you in knots.”
She had a soft American accent. Dave was about to reply but the drink had slowed him down by now, and she was already speaking across the table to Jane.
“When you said you'd introduce me to your friends, I thought you meant your sober ones.”
Dave laughed -- too long and too loudly.
“Nobody sober here except us chickens. We've all been drinkers, back since first year at university, since Jane and I got together...happy days.”
Jim Barr butted in.
“There's your problem right there Dave. All you do is talk about 'The good old days', and drink too much.”
“They were the best days of my life,” Dave replied.
“We were young, we were students, we drank a lot. Big deal. What else is there to know? Move on. The rest of us have grown up,” Jim said, his face getting red again.
Jane tugged at her husband's elbow, trying to stop him, but the argument was starting to get heated, and the booze was doing Dave’s talking for him.
“Grown up? Is that what you call it?”
Jim was in no mood to back down.
“You'd rather wallow in your own sad little dream world? Look at the state of you. Get a life Dave.”
“I had a life... once.”
He looked at Jane, then back at Jim.
“You took it away from me.”
Jim sighed loudly.
“Not that old tune again Dave. Give it a rest. It's been nearly ten years... and it was your own fault. It's high time you faced it. You lost it. You had it all. Now look at you. Just another drunk with a grudge.”
Dave stood, too fast, knocking over glasses
“I might be drunk, but you're an uptight prig with a pole up his backside. In the morning I'll be sober. But that pole will still be there.You stole my life. And I want it back. I want what I deserve!”
Glasses flew, tumbled and broke as he banged his fist on the table.
There was a sudden deathly silence.
All anger gone now, Jim spoke softly.
He motioned down to the table.
Dave looked down to see a long cut on the outside of his hand where he had banged it down on broken glass. The drink had dulled his senses, but his sight was still good enough to spot the long sliver embedded in the wound.
He touched the edges of the glass.
Without thinking Dave pulled the glass out.
“... take it out,” Jane finished.
The wound gaped open. Blood flowed and mixed with spilled wine, causing a dark shadow which lay on the highly polished wood of the table.
Dave sat down, hard.
Jim got up quickly and came round the table.
“Nice shooting Tex. How bad is it?”
Dave held the hand away from him. Thick drops of blood oozed onto the table. Jane also stood to come round the table. Dave waved her away, nearly knocking over another wine glass in the process.
“I'm OK. Don't fuss,” he said.
Jane ignored him and turned to her husband. Just the sight of the look that past betewen Jim and Jane made Dave’s heart lurch, and suddenly all he wanted was more booze.
Lots more booze.
“The bandages are in the bathroom cabinet,” Jane said to Jim. “I'll get them. Can you clean up?
Jim, suddenly sober, nodded nd turned back to look at Dave.
“Try not to bleed on the carpet mate... If you remember, I've still got the mop pole up my bum.”
Dave smiled wanly, and felt a well-recognised hint of shame for his inner turmoil.
Lots more booze.
Jim picked up the largest bits of glass and left for the kitchen.
Dave held his arm up, studying the cut. Blood flowed down his arm, pooling in the rolled up sleeves of his shirt around the elbow. At the same time Maggie leaned forward, taking a crystal pendant from around her neck.
“Here. Let me.”
She started to run the crystal along the length of the cut. Dave took a while to focus, then pushed her away roughly.
“Hey! What do you think you're doing?”
“I'm using the healing energy of the crystal to rebalance your blood flow and...”
“Well you can stop that right now. I don't believe in any of that.”
“That doesn't matter. It's working anyway. Look. You've stopped bleeding.”
Dave looked at his hand. The bleeding had indeed stopped. But he wasn’t about to become a convert - not to this doe-eyed hippie.
“And the fact I'm holding my hand above my heart has nothing to do with it? Hello? Has no one else done O level Physics here?”
He pushed her further away.
“Healing crystals? It's a bloody rock. It has less healing energy than an aspirin. Do you want to stick some needles in me as well? Or maybe we can do some aromatherapy?
“A better smell around here might be nice.”
She was still smiling, and that just made Dave push harder.
“I'll tell you what... I'll fart, and
The smile got wider.
“Bitter. Very bitter.”
“Ho ho. Very funny. Away and play in the garden. There's plenty of trees needing a hug out there.”
The smile finally slipped.
“Jim was right,” she said. “You need to ask the cosmos for a life.”
Jane came back in, carrying a small first aid box.
“I've been hearing about that recently...Ask the Cosmos... What's that all about?” she asked Maggie. Dave butted in before the woman could reply.
“Superstitious claptrap bollocks...that’s what it is.”
Jane held up a bandage.
“Are you going to play nice, or do we have to tie you up?”
I never could refuse her.
“Give me another drink and I'll be as good as a very good thing at obedience classes.”
Jane started to bandage Dave’s hand, grimacing at the mess.
“Come on Maggie. Tell us about this 'Cosmos' stuff. It'll take my mind off this,” she said.
“If we're going to be listening to a load of old bollocks, I need a drink first.” Dave shouted.
Jim returned, on cue, carrying a full bottle of whisky.
“Just one more. A wee nightcap,” he said, and Dave smiled.
“You had the pole removed.”
Jim smiled back.
“No. I'll need surgery for that. Thanks for reminding me.”
“Hey. That's what friends are for.”
Jim poured the drinks while Jane kept working on bandaging Dave up.
“Maggie?” she said. “You were going to tell us about the Cosmos thing?”
Maggie took a glass of whisky from Jim when offered, and took a long sip before replying.
“It's the latest thing in California.”
Dave grunted, but a look from Jane quitened him fast as Maggie continued.
“It works on the principle that everything in the universe is connected.”
Dave couldn’t help himself.
“It's called Quantum Theory dearie.”
Jane gave him a slap on the shoulder.
“We've listened to your crap patter all night Dave. Give it a rest.”
Anything for you darling.
He went quiet and stared glumly into his drink as Maggie started to warm to the task.
“The theory goes that if you make a request to the universe in the right way, then the cosmos will grant your wish.”
Dave kept his tongue, but it seemed the whisky had loosened Jim’s.
“It pains me to say this,” he said. “But I'm with Dave on this one. It sounds like more Californian New Age bollocks to me.”
Dave and Jim clinked their glasses together. Dave was about to say more, but was stopped once more by a sharp glance from Jane. She finished bandaging his wound.
“There. All better.”
Dave flexed the bandaged hand and smiled sheepishly. But Jane had already turned away to listen to Maggie.
“Never underestimate the power of the universe,” Maggie said.
“Oh, I'm very careful around huge inanimate objects... they might fall on me,” Dave said, earning him another of those looks from Jane.
At least she’s noticing me.
“Maybe we should give it a go sometime?” Jane said.
Dave took a large gulp of whisky.
“To hell with sometime. There's no time like the present.”
He turned to Maggie.
“What do we have to do?”
Maggie looked at Dave and smiled.
“It could be dangerous,” she said.
There looked to be a hint of sadness in her eyes, and maybe condescension. That pushed Dave into more taunts.
“It's put up or shut up time... or are you all mouth?”
Maggie looked across at Dave, and this time the anger was obvious.
“OK. Let’s do it. Can I have some paper and pens please Jane? And do you have four envelopes?”
While Jane was away Dave and Jim helped each other to more of the whisky. Dave was getting a buzz on again, and the pain from his hand had dulled to a mild ache. He knew he’d pay for it in the morning.
But that’s nothing new.
A minute later they all had pen and paper in front of them on the table.
Dave pretended to write while reciting sotto voce .
“Dear universe. Sod off and die.”
That came from Jane.
“Live long and prosper?” Dave said, and Maggie laughed.
“Better. But not couched properly.” She paused and looked at the other three. “The thing to remember is that you should ask directly, say please, and ask for something you really want.”
“What a load of old bollocks.”
Maggie looked about ready to take his head off.
“Just remind me. Who's idea was this?” she said.
The other three started writing. Dave stared at the blank paper.
“Tell me again... how is this supposed to work?”
Maggie began as if reciting something she’d read.
“The universe is more than just a collection of atoms. Advances in physics have proved that. A particle can also be a wave form, and Heisenberg showed us that the particle's state could be changed just by looking at it. Nothing can be observed without the observer having an influence. And that influence is what has created the universe that we perceive around us. In many ways it is a construct of our minds. The collective subconscious acts as a filter through which we create the consensual reality that we all experience. When we ask the Cosmos for a favour, we are really asking ourselves for a way to change our view of reality to one that is more favorable.”
Dave laughed loudly.
“Ah... psychobabble... I recognize that right enough... I remember when...”
Maggie’s chair screeched on the floor as she pushed it backwards in anger.
Dave laughed again. Jane put a hand on Maggie’s arm and gently motioned her back into her chair before turning to Dave.
“Oh for God's sake Dave, let's just get on with it.”
Jane started writing, tongue between her lips as she concentrated.
Dave watched her then wrote.
“Please Cosmos, I want Jane Barr.”
Jim leaned over and filled Dave's glass.
“Have some more, mate. It's the one you got me for Christmas.”
Dave looked, from Jane to Jim and back again. Disgusted with himself, he scratched out what he'd written, and replaced it with one long sentence that he wrote so feverishly that his new bandage went from white to red and two fresh drops of blood fell to the paper to be incorporated into his handwriting.
Finished, he looked up to see that the others had also written their wishes.
“I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours?” he said to Jane.
Maggie was insistent.
“No. You mustn't let anyone else know. Fold your papers up, and put them in here.”She gave each of them an envelope. “I’ll pop them in a post box for us all.”
They all did as she told them.
“Who do we address it to? Sanity Claus?” Dave said. He left a smear of fresh blood on the envelope trying to get the sheaf of paper inside.
“No need,” Maggie said, collecting the four envelopes. “The cosmos knows where each needs to go.” She checked her watch. “Speaking of which... I've got to be going too.”
“Nonsense,” Dave said, making for the whisky bottle. “The night is yet young...”
Jane spoke softly.
“It's half past one Dave. Some of us need to get to work in the morning.”
Variations on a Theme by William Meikle / Fantasy / Horror have rating 4.5 out of 5 / Based on18 votes