Some short fiction for the holiday. I wrote this some years ago while reading Jared Diamond's 'The Third Chimpanzee' and a lot of Vonnegut. Hope you enjoy.
How I came to be in possession of a human body is a matter of some conjecture. Originally, I could transfer my consciousness from place to place as all the inhabitants of my planet can do, then, suddenly, and without my consent, I became confined by time and space, trapped in this form on a planet the inhabitants call earth, a small blue rock of water and gasses teeming with large, aggressive, talking apes.
They think they are quite clever, these apes. They walk on two legs and have opposable thumbs. They’ve discovered written language, can count objects, and can use a few tools.
I’ve been assigned some sort of symbol-manipulation task. I sit in a temperature controlled room gazing at a bunch of colored dots that form pictures—symbols representing numbers, images, sounds, ideas and concepts. I manipulate these by means of several devices, including one which lets me select and move the pictures on the screen as if they were real, and one which has dozens of printed symbols on it which look like this: ‘A’, ‘W’, ‘p’, ‘@’, ‘7’, ‘*’, ‘<’, ‘?’ and ‘$’. The last one is especially interesting to these apes. They punch that one over and over and over.
One of the apes is standing near me now making the ugly grunting noises with his voice box and larynx that these creatures use to communicate. I decipher its meaning.
“Phil, dammit, we need those figures by 4 P.M. today. Don’t forget this time. The boss is already pissed at you!”
“Phil” is the noise they make to identify me. They’re still into naming things, these apes, as though that tells them anything. How sad. They have yet to move beyond pathetic grunting and noisemaking to true understanding. I hear a sound. It is my electronic remote communication device. It translates sounds to pulses to waves, and back to sounds again. The apes need them because they have not progressed beyond simple vocal communication. At the other end of the line is the ape that I’ve mated with. She says to me:
“Don’t forget we’re going out with the Andersons tonight.”
And I tell her I haven’t forgotten.
I rode in my encased rolling platform over the vast flat surfaces which had been built all across the planet to my dwelling-place. My habitat was a small shelter made from felled trees and heated by natural gas. I lived there with my mate. This particular ape whose body I now possessed had already propagated his genetic code forward by having two offspring, one male and one female. The male was four of their years old, the female six.
They came in an astounding variety of shapes and sizes, these apes. Some were much taller than others, some were much heavier than others. Some had lots of hair, others had very little. They had different amounts of pigmentation in their skin depending on their original habitats. This was used for in-group selection. The one whom I’ve mated with is of just below average stature, little pigmentation, and several deposits of fatty tissue which I’m told were a result of giving birth. For some reason, the mention of these fatty deposits seems to arouse intense feelings of anger in my mate, even though she keeps mentioning them.
“How was work?”
“Did you finish what you needed to get done today?”
She’s concerned about how I am handling the task the other apes have assigned to me. She is often preoccupied about something called money, which are slips of paper these apes trade among themselves for things. It is how they cooperate, or, in many cases, avoid cooperation. She is concerned that we don’t have enough to be suitably comfortable, or have accumulated enough for our offspring and their future. I tell her not to worry, that everything will work out.
The apes managed to devise machines made of silicon which could store and count really big numbers very quickly, like the symbol manipulator I sat in front of all day. This was how they kept track of who had what. So now the apes have dispensed with the paper and organized their social hierarchy around these numbers. Some started out with huge numbers, some with small numbers, and some even began with negative numbers, which don’t really exist. From that point on, they played a game to see which of them could get the highest numbers. Each one tried to add to their total score, sometimes by subtracting from other people’s amounts. Most of the apes had to trade their time for numbers, which is what I was forced to do. Others had the numbers stacked such that their amounts would always rise by means of various numerical tricks involving time, percentages, etc. Most of the subordinate apes never caught on to this. They thought the numbers were real, so they accepted them without question.
They also constructed mechanical devices that rotated at regular intervals and used them to mark off time. Some of the apes used this device to regulate the others’ lives, telling where and when to be at every moment. My task was like this. I was called an “accountant” and I manipulated numbers and symbols all day long. I had to it for at least 28,800 of those intervals every day because the others told me to. If I refused to do it, my numbers wouldn’t be high enough and the other apes would withhold the things my body needed to live and I would die. Unlike the inhabitants of my planet, hierarchy was stitched into the very fabric of their existence. They did what their superiors told them to do. They went where they told them to go. They fought when they were told to. Many of them even died so that others could have more and more and more.
More exists but better is a fiction. The apes thought that more was better, but they didn’t know why. They had been duped. They weren’t responsible for their actions. They were controlled by a tiny tight spiral, a molecule of four distinct chemicals buried inside each one of them that was calling the shots, manipulating them like a puppet on a string.
That small spiral of four chemicals has but one single overriding purpose: to replicate itself, and it has at its disposal a couple hundred pounds of water to do it. It’s really just a complicated virus. That’s all I am here, now—about 24 gallons of warm water held together with carbon and other trace minerals. It’s the same stuff that makes up the plants and trees and stars and asteroids and comets and space dust and other planets. The apes had figured that out too, but apparently it hadn’t really sunk in.
Here are the names they gave to those elements, and their relative weights:
As if that told them anything.
My mate headed to another room to groom herself and apply various paints and cosmetics and scented lotions to herself to make her socially presentable to our peer group. I slumped down in a chair and took in my surroundings. I’m tied to time now, and this body is getting old and heavy and worn down. These apes can’t seem to live with that, and take all sorts of drastic and futile measures to prolong their bodies. To them, the natural order is somehow unnatural. On my planet, the natural order is regarded with a sense of, well, the word doesn’t exist in your language because you have
no good sense of this concept. I guess worship or reverence would be the closest sound I could make to describe it to you. After a short while a chime sounded signaling someone wishing to gain entry.
“That’s probably the Andersons. Could you get the door? I’ll be right out.”
The Andersons were another mated couple. We were going out with them to socialize, something we did infrequently. These apes are very social when they want to be. As you might imagine, I find it difficult to relate to the primitive mannerisms of these creatures. I do the best I can, but I have the impression my mate is unhappy with my efforts. They all act strangely around me too. It is as if they are afraid of something, or somehow uncomfortable around me. Do they suspect something?
We went to the movie. A movie, or motion picture, is a series of still images projected onto a large white wall, giving the illusion of reality. It was their method of telling stories. They were really into stories, these apes. They made up all sorts of stories, stories about their past, stories about their origins and where they came from. Some of them even believed the stories were true. Eventually, they had trouble distinguishing stories from reality. They would even fight over them, over which ones were true or not. They were so caught up in their abstractions, so intoxicated with their cleverness that I didn’t have the heart to tell them how ridiculous they actually were.
I furtively glanced at my mate and the people sitting next to me. Their faces were blank, staring ahead. All of their metal power was focused on processing the story in their heads. They used this to obliterate their sense of time. Well, they had to do something, after all, they seemed completely unable to cope with changes. They clung to false constancies and gave the consistencies names to make them real, names like “I,” “me,” “mine,” “past,” and “future.” Furthermore, they all thought that they were alone in the universe. No wonder they behaved so strangely.
After the movie we engaged in a communal meal, a common social act. The others ingest animal proteins, but I refuse to eat the carcasses of formerly living sentient creatures. I reluctantly only intake plant-based materials to keep my body going. My mate explained it the others:
“Phil is a vegetarian now.”
We converse in platitudes. I’m not sure what to say. I would tell them about the tiny temperature envelope needed to sustain life on various planets, but I don’t think they’d want to hear it. They ask me about me feelings. “I feel fine,” I say, “just fine,” I say. I look expectantly about my mate. She looks displeased. What does she want from me, I wonder? I take another spoonful of food and put it into my mouth.
Emotions, feelings. I’ve never gotten used to having them. It’s all just a trick, I tell myself. It’s all the baggage of circuits and hormones and neurochemicals and nucleopeptides sloshing around in my head. It’s abominable. It’s an impulse, a nerve ending playing tricks, the wet circuitry playing it’s game on a meat robot. It isn’t real. This body isn’t mine. I don’t need emotions. I am are more than this.
We finished our meal with fermented grain liquids. The other apes take all sorts of chemical compounds to get away from their feelings. Very often they didn’t like what they were feeling up there in their heads. They couldn’t understand what was going on, they could only cope with what they could see and touch despite all their intelligence. They took drugs to make them excited when they were calm and calm when they were excited. They obliterated their consciousness with chemical compounds found in plants. They had discovered all sorts of them. They were constantly trying to adjust their perceptions to suit them, requiring constant stimulation, as though equilibrium meant death. I felt sorry for them. Evolution had played a cruel trick on them. They hadn’t yet evolved the mental tools to deal with the ramifications of their intelligence.
We parted company with the Andersons and returned to our domicile. Upon arrival, my mate expressed her desire to communicate.
“What is wrong with you? Why do you always act so strange?”
I remained silent, contemplating an appropriate response.
“You know, I’ve had to put up with a lot since you came back. I’ve stood by you. I know things are tough at work. I know your boss is mad at you. I know things aren’t easy. I just wish you’d open up to me.”
She started heaving and gasping for breath. Water began flowing from her eyes, which is what happened to these apes when they became upset. How can I tell her the truth? How can I let her know that she’s just a very complex water-borne virus?
Occasionally several tribes of apes would come into conflict with one another. It was during one of these tribal conflicts that I first became trapped here on earth. The first thing I saw with these eyes was a person with his insides on the outside of his body. I was awash in the nutrient-rich liquid rust that was formerly inside a male directly in front of me. The apes were warring by projecting metal nails at high velocities by means of small explosions. They had discovered all sorts of exploding materials and were constantly working on new ones that would make bigger and bigger explosions. Several of the opposing apes were apparently trying to stop my body from functioning. At first I couldn’t understand what I was doing here. I was frozen. I couldn’t move, not to a different time or location. I couldn’t control my sensory experiences. I was overwhelmed. I shut down. I was trapped, projectiles flying past me, blinding flashes like stars exploding all around me.
I still hadn’t become used to time, so I don’t know how long I was there. I hovered for a while between my home and here, a shimmering thread binding me to home planet, to its far away beauty and lavender skies, its subtle vibrations and harmony. I felt the force of cosmic birth inside me, universal light penetrating the void, radiation endlessly propagating, mutating, changing from one form to the next in endless cycles of rebirth.
After a while some of the other members of my tribe came to rescue me. They discovered me laying there among the corpses, speechless, shaking, covered in my former compatriots’ non-nuclear cells. They repaired my body as best they knew how.
Eventually, I became used to this new primitive form and my sensory overload decreased to a point where I was able to function adequately. I became used to seeing and hearing with my sense organs rather than direct experience of reality. I reluctantly resigned myself to communicate only through sounds rather than thoughts. I wouldn’t participate in any of these violent tribal conflicts, of course, but fortunately I wouldn’t have to. After that battle, I was removed from the conflict, and other apes came to take my place.
They gave my behavior all sorts of names to explain it, as if that told them anything. They said I had “amnesia,” and that I had “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” That was why I was acting the way I was, they said. That was why I could not move very well. That was why I didn’t like to talk or use words. That was why I couldn’t remember any events that happened to me before the battle. I knew they would never believe it if I told them the truth. How could they possibly understand? How could anyone?
I came back to my home, to my particular tribe. I began the process of acclimation. I was assigned a communal task to do. I gradually learned about the sorry life this particular ape whose body I now inhabited had lead. He was a low-ranking male. Apparently he had done whatever that twisted little molecule told him to do. He ate, drank, fornicated, reproduced, amassed material resources and hated other tribes. He did everything it wanted, and what did he get in return? Fortunately I know so much more now, more than I ever imagined possible. Now I gave it all up. Now I don’t do any of it anymore.
My mate is feeling better now. She had put on new coverings and is preparing for her daily sleep cycle. She is affectionate now, tender. She says, “Phil, honey, please come to bed” presses a switch, and deactivates the room’s artificial lights.
Tonight my mate wants to exchange bodily fluids for some reason. It doesn’t make any sense. There’s no purpose. Apparently we can’t reproduce any more due to exposure to some kind of radiation I suffered in the conflict. She wants to mate anyway. It’s so strange how these apes continue to engage in sex even when reproduction is impossible. I suppose I should try, if only so she won’t suspect anything, if only to make her happy…
I’ve been here for a while now. It’s really my own fault, of course. I was told this could happen. I was told not to wander too far or I might not be able to get back. I had a hard time believing it was true. My peripatetic existence was over. I might just as well get used to it. I would hate to think that I will have to wait until this body runs down and quits functioning before I am free and can see my home planet again. Time passes so slowly inside this body. Of course, it will only last about a billionth of a billionth of the ultimate age of the universe, but it seems like forever sometimes.
Shortly after I arrived I bought a telescope, which is a device with lenses for augmenting vision, so that I might look out from the planet and see my home, a tiny speck among the vast blackness. I set it up on a tripod on the patio outside my wooden shelter. I spent many hours gazing up at the stars. The other apes had a name for it. They called it astronomy. Of course, it was really homesickness.
Sometimes I hope that my people will show up and rescue me. They’ll send a craft. They’ll come here and assume physical form and take these foolish apes by the hand and tell them the error of their ways, the futility of what they are doing to each other and to their natural habitat. They will open their eyes and end all the needless pain and suffering and death. At times I think I see them among the stars, but it’s never them. Are they out there? Are they trying to find me?
I awoke from my fitful sleep sometime in the early hours of the morning, just before the arrival of the sun. I looked over at my mate. She was still fast asleep. I walked outside onto the patio and looked at the stars through the telescope. I became startled when one of my offspring, the female, silently walked up behind me and said, “Daddy, what are you doing?”
“What are you doing up?” I asked her.
“I couldn’t sleep. What are you doing?”
I said to her, “Daddy’s looking for his home, sweetie.”
“But this is your home.”
“This is my temporary home, yes. But my real home is up there,” I said, pointing at the starry night sky.
She followed my finger and gazed upward, wide-eyed.
“Do you miss your home?”
“Very much, yes. I hope to go back someday.”
She looked at me plaintively and said, “But I don’t want you to leave.”
“Daddy’s body may not always be around, but he will always be here with you,” I said. I told her all about my home planet and my adventures before my time on earth, about the galaxies and nebulae and supernovas and comets and all the wonders and crystalline beauty of the universe that she was a part of. She listened attentively to every word, without a trace of doubt or skepticism. We talked until the clouds began reflecting the new sun’s rays all across the horizon. Finally, she said:
“I love you, daddy,” and wrapped her small arms around me.
Perhaps being trapped here for a while won’t be so bad after all.