Stories from a Dublin Scientist

Month: May, 2014

The World’s Edge

Hi there! This is my offering for this week’s Picture it and Write from Ermilia’s blog here. Once again, the picture is not mine, I only use it for inspiration. Incidentally, there is a new picture it and write publication available to purchase here. 23 authors, including myself, are contributors. If you like this, buy that. Anyway, Enjoy.

The World’s Edge

Frank awoke confused and frightened. He remembered very little about what had happened the night before. Someone had given him a drink. He could vaguely recall being very unsteady on his feet and trying to run but tripping up on his own feet. It was all very confusing.

Frank sat up in his bed and called out, no one answered. He was in what looked like a hostel, there were half opened drawers and clothes strewn over the floors. He left the building and was greeted by a barren scene. Along the street were many empty cars randomly positioned. Doors opened, some still with bags of groceries on the back seat. Some even had keys in their ignition but when he tried to drive them, none of them even tried to start. It was all very puzzling.

Frank was already feeling a rumbling in his stomach as he wandered the urban wasteland. He found a café and looked inside it for something to eat. The power wasn’t working, the freezer, still stocked with food, was only just beginning to melt. He found some bacon rashers and eggs and was able to cook some breakfast using the gas hob. It was stark, but filling.

Sated physically, Frank began his search for others anew. He spent a good three hours walking around the quiet streets. Many of the stores and houses were unlocked and Frank found a similar story in everyone of them. They all appeared to have been abandoned suddenly. Clothes, toys, books, miscellaneous equipment were all left as is, only people were missing. He looked, he called, he searched, he still couldn’t find anyone.

The sun was high in the sky when he stopped again for more food. He was in the outskirts of the urban sprawl of what he gathered was a medium-sized town. He entered a smallish house and found a can of tuna and bread rolls in a plastic shopping bag that had been dropped in the hallway. By now he had been almost so used to people not being there that he had dropped his guard while he ate. It thus came as a surprise when he heard coughing behind him.

Frank rose suddenly and turned to come face to face with a young woman at the door of the house. She was holding a hammer in her hand and looked frightened “Who are you?” she asked, “Where is everybody?”

“I don’t know.” Frank held his hands out “There was no one here when I woke up. I don’t remember what happened. I think I may have been drugged.”

The frightened face on the woman turned to one of abject sadness. She dropped the hammer and brought her hands to her face and started crying. Frank cautiously approached her and took her in his arms, hugging her. At the physical touch, Frank’s emotions bubbled up to the surface as well. He came to the realisation that he needed it as much as she did. They spent nearly fifteen minutes embracing and crying together.

The woman’s name was Ciara. She had woken in one of the houses in the suburbs and had wandered aimlessly until she had seen Frank through the window when he was eating. She had been through a similar experience as Frank, a mysterious figure who gave her something to drink and vague memories of intoxication, Frank quickly realised that she did not know anything he didn’t about the situation.

Still; having two people to explore was better than just one. They figured that if the town was empty, maybe answers could be found by going out into the countryside. They searched the houses, garages and sheds of outer suburbia for anything that could be useful. There were torches, firelighters and matches, a rumpled tent and a backpack full of tins and other non-perishable food. They decided to stay the night in the comfort of a house and that they would set out in the morning.

Even after all the activity of the previous day. Both Frank and Ciara found it difficult to sleep. The night was cold and there was no heating working in any of the houses they had checked so they tried to share a bed but it was awkward. They both found themselves awake after only a few short minutes of sleeping. After only a few short hours Frank decided that he was going to go out and get his bearings.

Frank had never really looked at the sky in his life, it was only something that was above him but even his inexperienced eyes found something unusual in the sky above. The moon was huge. At least three  times the size that he had remembered. It was already starting to drop low towards the horizon casting it’s ghostly light over dark streets.

Frank felt a sudden feeling that this was important, that maybe this light in the sky had answers. “Will you look at that!” It was Ciara, she had made some cocoa with a camping stove and had wondered what Frank was looking at. “Look at it!” Frank implored “That is not normal! I think we should follow it.”

In any normal situation. What Frank said would have rightly been considered the ravings of a madman but the world was what it was and Ciara did not argue. They quickly gathered their scavenged possessions and set out into the night.

They walked along, using the light of the sinking moon and their feeble torches to find their way. The buildings quickly thinned to open countryside. It was strangely quiet, devoid of even the sounds of nature. They walked and walked as far as they could. Then they came to the barrier.

It was a fence followed by thick briar and bush, followed by a deep chasm filled with a raging river. Frank and Ciara looked at each other in despair and argued about what to do next. Ciara wanted to go back to the town, were there was, for the meantime, food and shelter. Frank said they had only been a there a short time and suggested that if they were to walk along the fence, maybe a way through would present itself “After all.” Frank figured “The town probably isn’t going anywhere.”

Ciara reluctantly agreed and they started walking along the fence. They watched as the moon slowly got lower and lower in the sky until it was just about touching the ground. At almost that moment they noticed the chasm twist and turn at almost a right angle to the fence. Frank ran ahead, dragging Ciara with him until the were in front of the turn in the chasm. “You see!” Frank said to Ciara, panting, “That’s one obstacle gone.” If we go back to one of the farm houses maybe we can find some pliers and tools to cut through this…”

But he was stopped suddenly by the look of shock on his companion’s face. Frank turned to see what she was looking at and was greeted by a sight that melted his heart.

The moon had dropped to the lip of the chasm. Its milky substance was distorting, stretching, and converting to liquid that was falling into the river and adding to it.

It was incredible, it was unbelievable. Frank did not know what to say. Wherever it was they had ended up he did not know. They were at the edge of the world, he did not know where to go next.



The Fermi Paradox

I used to love the Sligo train. I remember it from my days in college, taking it down nearly every Friday night or occasionally on a Saturday morning (what we used to call the hangover express). I loved the scramble to get the front couple of carriages in Connolly Station either for the heat from the engine on cold winter nights or for the shorter platforms along the line.

They were good times, and good memories associated with them. I must say that I was a little surprised when last year I walked into the station to take the five O’Clock train.

Gone were the old orange trains of my youth and to replace them were shiny new green trains. There were proper seats, good sized toilets, even wi-fi. I wanted to check over some work that my group said they were going to send to me while I was away.

But as soon as my laptop was opened two people, a couple in late middle age came up and sat across the table from me. I looked up to nod in greeting and as soon as they made eye contact they dragged me into conversation. I knew the type, probably up to the big smoke for a spot of shopping, even a few short hours anonymous in the city can so shock their system that they demand personal contact when the opportunity first shows itself. That meant that I had no chance to do any work and put my laptop straight back into my bag.

I didn’t mind, I relish the chance to sever my umbilical connection to the office from time to time. There was an announcement over the Tannoy (you could understand what was being said, wonders never cease!) that the train was leaving in a minute. There was another rustle beside me and a young woman, barely more than a girl sat beside me. There was a shudder as the engines started up and the train pulled out of the station. We were on our way.

As we gained speed leaving the built up regions of Dublin, the couple, Noel and Bridget, told their story. They were farmers from Longford, up to Dublin to buy a christening gift for their first grandson, a delightful handmade jumper. They told us of how they walked through the city, marveling some of the sights as well as having tea in Clery’s. They enjoyed it, they said “But ah.. It is a bit too big for me!”

It took me four sentences to say that. But oooooh, it took them a lot longer. Enfield had already past us by before they even deigned to let us speak and I think it was more out of politeness than anything else. The girl, she never said her name, only murmured a few responses, off to visit family near Boyle, taking a few days off school, and yes, she would like a biscuit.

I was a bit more involved however and I gave them the condensed version of the biography. From Drumcliff in Sligo, studies physics in Trinity, moved to the States and became an astronomy professor. Now come home, to give a talk in my Alma Mater and heading home to visit the folks and as an added benefit, give a talk in the school were my older brother is teaching. Me in a nutshell.

My profession always incites an interest in the Laity. Noel and Bridget thoroughly grilled me on the basics. “No I don’t work at night, I keep normal office hours” “No I don’t look much through the telescopes very much, they tend to be too far away.” “Yes! I have worked with NASA, I’ve used data from a few of their satellites in my work.” and so on and so forth.

Mullingar and Edgeworthstown passed us by and before we knew it, the tannoy announced Longford and Noel and Bridget had to leave.

The two of them waved at me while they walked the window and I waved back. I was so engrossed in seeing them off that I it came as a shock when I heard ” Do you think Aliens are real?” from behind me. I turned suddenly to find the unnamed girl, looking imploringly at me “Because I think that there are!”

I was a bit shocked at the suddenness of it all but was able to formulate a response. “I’m not sure. Either way. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t any life out there. But I doubt they come along visiting us.”

She pondered that for a minute. Then said “I have heard stories of sightings in Roscommon, around Boyle,” She took a pile of papers, printouts of websites, from her bag, “That is why I’m going there. Do you think there is anything in them?”

I considered my response for a few seconds and answered. “People see a lot of things which on closer examination turn out to be entirely different in reality. I would suspect that that is what these sightings were. If it were what they say then I would expect, justifiably so, greater, physical evidence. Which always seems to be lacking.”

The girl frowned “You mean the Fermi Paradox?”

“Well.. Yeah!” I replied, if there were aliens visiting us. Then they logically should have been doing so since long before there were any people. Their artefacts, their own bones would be everywhere, unambiguous, incontestable. But we haven’t found anything. And that either means, that they never have been here, or that there is something that is keeping them away. Whatever that is.”

“Maybe they want to keep us safe, like a park?”

“The zoo hypothesis?” I queried “That is an option, but it requires that every being out there conforms to a set of ethics or standards that would allow that and that none of them ever either accidentally, or on purpose to break that protection. Considering all that has happened with people, is that likely with aliens?”

“It could be.” She protested “Maybe they are better than people.” She looked at me with hope in her eyes. “Could that be?”

Now I have dealt with many kinds of students in my long career. There have been the bible thumpers who question everything I teach because because they know the universe is six thousand years old. There have been the liberal arts majors who have read a second-hand copy of Chariots of the Gods and now have definitive ‘proof’ to ‘blow my stuffy intellectual conservatism away’. They all seem to think that they know what the answers are and that they are doing us all a favour by telling us them.

But this girl was different. Rather than knowing what she said. I had a real sense that she needed it to be true. That it not being so would be a great shock to her system.

I decided to be lenient. “It certainly is possible, I wouldn’t want to make any definite statements either way.”

This seemed to placate the young woman, she smiled “I think they are better people, they must be. Anything must be!”

We talked a bit more, about some of the crazier theories going around, about the best way one may contact aliens and the like. Then, quicker than I expected Boyle train station came and she left.

I tried to follow her as she left but did not see her meet anybody at the gates. It concerned me but I had other things on my mind.

The next day found me sitting in the brother’s house watching the 6:01 news and trying to do as little as possible. Most of what was talked about was national stuff and was now so far from my experience that I hardly paid any attention. That was, until I saw the girl.

I immediately demanded that the volume be raised and I listened intently. The young woman, in reality a girl of sixteen called Deborah had been missing from her home for three days and the gardaí were looking for information. I told the brother what I knew and he agreed to take me to Sligo Garda Station after tea to give a statement. They said thank you and sent me on my way.

Deborah has still not been found by the time I was packing up to leave for the States. I followed the story as well as I could from my distant vantage.

I read with growing horror as the realities of Deborah’s home life slowly came into the public domain. The abuse, the violence, what had happened to her sister. In the end, no one would blame her for running away when she did.

As far as I know she is still missing. Another statistic with a particularly grisly story.

I think about what we talked about often. What was she trying to find in the Roscommon wilds? Was it peace? A fresh start?

Whatever it was. I do hope she found it.

Picture It and Write: The Lights Below

Hi there! This is my offering for this week’s picture it and write for Ermilia’s blog here. Once again the picture is not mine, I only use it for inspiration. Incidentally Ermilia have just this day released an anthology of previous picture it and write stories and poems from a wide range of authors, myself included. If you like this, buy that! Anyway, Enjoy!

The Lights Below

“I’m going to be sick!” I murmured to myself, wrapping my arms around one of the loose pieces of wicker that littered the bottom of the basket. I had chanced a look out and was greeted by dark, approaching clouds, clouds that by all the laws of gods and men should be well above me were getting closer. This was not right, I was not happy.

The Master however was ecstatic. “What a marvelous contraption!” he shouted while holding onto a single rope and leaning his whole torso over the edge of the basket, I couldn’t even look at him. “Look at all of this. It’s beautiful!” From my limited vantage point I was still able to ascertain that night had fallen and so he shouldn’t have been able to see anything. The Master though enlightened me further. “I can see lights! Houses, villages, I think that is a whole town over there. Come and look.”

It was hard. But obedience has been molded into my family and I pried myself from the bottom and lifted my head over the edge. True enough, beneath us in the dark were hundreds and hundreds of lights, spreading as far as the eye could seem, it was as if the stars themselves were below us.

That was a thought that really shouldn’t have raised its ugly head. I began to feel even worse. The Master, on the other hand was jumping around like a schoolboy. He raised his hand and pulled the lever on the flame mechanism that he had invented. There was a pressurized spray of kerosene that ignited in a open flame and burst into the yawning canvas above us. I understood, (partially) that this was needed to keep us aloft but the only thought I had was If that catches fire, we’re dead.

The Master was so unconcerned that he didn’t even look up. Instead he opened a box of his precious instruments and started examining then. I was almost starting to relax, even enjoy the view when The Master called to me. “Stephens! I have made a barometer reading but I need to calibrate it. Here!” He tossed a ceramic vessel at me, I barely caught it. “Drop this overboard and tell me when it hits!”

I looked at the dark abyss beneath me. I wouldn’t be able to see it hit and told my Master my concern. “My Mind Stephens! I sometimes wonder.” He came over with a lighted taper in his hand and light and lit a wick on the top of the vessel. He had a stop watch in his hand. “Now Stephens. You shout when you drop it and when you see the flare of it bursting. We can use that to gauge our elevation. Go ahead!”

I stared at the flame on the wick then over the edge to the lights on the ground. Here there were, houses, farms, so many flammable things. What was he asking me to do? I was about to raise my concern when he shouted “What is blazes man! Drop it.” With a yelp I dropped it over the side and there was a click from my masters hand. I watched in dread as the light of the flame. Dropped and dropped, growing fainter and fainter until finally there was a blossom of flame on the ground. “My God!” I shouted “I think it hit something Master!” But I only heard him mutter “Two hundred and thirty eight seconds. Good” 

We continued high above the ground for several more hours. The Master explained to me that our “Heated Vapour Bag” as he had dubbed it was proceeded along at the mercy of the winds much like the clouds and that he believed that these winds moved in different directions at different heights and that we could proceed in different directions at different heights. To that effect, he periodically altered our elevation by igniting the kerosene burner or by pulling a rope which “Opened a flap in the bag to release some of the heated vapours allowing a controlled descent”, an explanation that, you can imagine, filled me with utmost confidence. 

At each elevation adjustment, The Master bade me to drop yet another lighted vessel to further add to his measurements. I had stopped trying to argue with him as to the wisdom of this move and noted in the distance to my horror that a number of the fires appeared to have expanded somewhat. I hoped that no one had been hurt in the conflagrations.

I was almost used to the feelings of being aloft so high when The Master announced that it was time to return to the ground. He pulled the rope for descent and I indeed felt a slight drop in my weight as we began to slowly drop. “Stephens!” The Master addressed me “I have endeavored to harness the air currents to return us as close as I could to our estate but I fear that we may still be at least a score of miles from home. Did you remember to bring sufficient funds to purchase lodgings for the night?”

“Yes Master!” I answered. I was looking out as the black light-dotted expanse of ground grew larger in my vision. The Master looked over my shoulder. “From my measurements I believe that me are only a hundred feet or less from the ground.” He ignited the burner to arrest our fall. “There is a village in the distance. We shall stay at this height until the wind brings us close enough.”

So for the next couple of minutes we sailed along at our new stabilised height. The ghostly visage of trees passed silently beneath us, occasionally painted a fiery orange by the light of the burner. Coming over a dense copse we spotted the collected lights of the village the master had spotted earlier. I heard the tug of the descending rope again and The Master said “Oh look Stephens some locals have come to greet the intrepid aeronauts!”

Indeed I too could see the line of lights as a series of torches made their way into the field into which we were dropping. Some were proceeding at a great turn of speed indicating that some were running or possibly on horseback. I looked at them and again to the village.

“Master?” I asked “Do we have sufficient fuel to ascend into the air again?”

“Why no Stephens! I believe that we have almost exhausted our supply Why do you ask?”

I looked again at the village and the conflagration that had consumed at least two houses and the church. “I believe Master, that these locals may not be very welcoming at all!”



Doctor Joe: Agony Uncle 24

Doctor Joe: Agony Uncle, the ultimate fixer*.

Dear Dr. Joe,

I’ve just discovered I have a dissociative personality disorder and I’ve been sneaking out and picking up guys in a hotel bar for the last two years. I mean I kind of knew. When you wake up sore with booze on your breath and a new French tip manicure… Anyway, it turns out one of the guys is my own husband. What do I do?

~ Unwanted in Me


Dear Unwanted,

Firstly let me say categorically to you and all my readers that if you have a personality disorder or any other sort of mental affliction or suspect that you do (Let me say the fact that you have written me is a strong indicator of having one.) then you should contact your doctor or other mental health professional and seek treatment. It’s just good sense.

Now that the general good Samaritan, Public Service Announcement is out of the way Unwanted, let’s get to the meat and veg of this problem.

It is a sad state of affairs that even in this modern, liberal age, people still view everything sexual of being filthy or ‘Taboo’. This puts a pressure on all of us to conform, something that is more difficult for some than for others.

Unwanted, I think that the restrictive environment that you live in has repressed your natural desires to such an extent that they have burst out in the this most unusual fashion, namely picking up guys in the evening and having your wicked way with them, leaving the ‘normal’ repressed you with a nasty hangover and the occasional suspicious bruise.

I suppose, in the scheme of things stuff could have gone a lot worse for you. I mean you could have woken up in some guy’s sex dungeon chained to a guy in a gimp suit which I can tell you is very little fun.

It hasn’t even seemed to have damaged your marriage. I can’t ask your husband’s side of the story but he obviously knows about your nocturnal liaisons and seems to tolerate it.. if not even enjoy it.

This, Unwanted, is an opportunity for you to cure your ill. If, as I suspect, your affliction is caused by your oppression then the answer is clear. You can rebalance yourself by letting your inhibitions go free. Whatever you want to do, whatever comes to mind, no matter how deranged or insane do it. It may just save you.

Include your husband in this, he seems game. You could have a threesome, a devil’s three-way, maybe even a good old fashioned orgy. Your limit is only your imagination, and local population demographics.

The very best of luck,
Doctor Joe

*Editor’s note: a professional may be needed to fix what he ‘fixed’.

To see more of Doctor Joe’s columns or to ask a question yourself click here.

Picture it and Write: Through the Lens

Hi there! This is my offering for Picture it and Write from Ermilia’s blog here. Once again, the picture is not mine, I only use it for inspiration. Anyway enjoy!

Through the Lens

“Bollix!” I muttered, turning over the camera to examine it.

“What did you say?” Said Violet, eyes not leaving the road.

“The flash was off.” I replied, turning the camera in my hands. “I just tried to get a photo of you driving but without the flash I don’t think you’ll be able to make out much.”

Violet hazarded a quick glance at me. “Don’t you dare take a picture of me Seamus! I know you! You’ll just upload it and show it to everyone. You know I don’t want that!”

I had overstepped a line. I knew I had to roll back. “It was only going to be a memento Vi. I swear! Private. Just for us.”

“You know the rules.” She was looking at me now, only looking at the road to make sure that we weren’t about to hit anything. “Nothing personal! This was only to find inspiration.”

I nodded. In truth, the reason we were driving down this desert road was as strange as the way we had met in the first place. We were both writers, from opposite sides of the world, drawn together by the fact that our work at some times complemented and at other times greatly diverged from each other. We had decided, when the Fates had brought us in close proximity, to leave Violet’s city and travel together out into the wilderness, camera in hand, looking for inspiration. What either of us would find, through the lens, could only be interesting.

Unfortunately, things had not gone well. We had pictures, some very good ones but not one of them really inspired us. Violet was starting to get frayed at the edges.

“I really can’t believe you Seamus! I’m trying to make it to the Freeway before dark and you want to flash me in the face? What kind of idiot are you? I have to get back to LA. Then I have to drop you back at your hotel. And after all that, before I finally get my first sleep in two days, I have do all the chores that I couldn’t do this weekend because; guess what, I’ve got work to do tomorrow. Jeez! Why did I agree to this?”

“I’m sorry.” I murmured and said nothing else, instead turning the camera over again. To pass the time I turned on the viewer to look through the images. The first one I saw was the last I had made and it forced me to ask Violet “Could you stop for a second Vi? You should see this.”

It was only a hope but I thought we’d found our inspiration.

Looking through the lens. I finally saw the sky.