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Book Excerpts

From a vantage point far in the future, Colorado author’s “A Once-Dead Genius” examines the human condition

When an emissary arrives from another star system, how will the few remaining humans perceive it? How will it perceive itself?

Author and illustrator Gary Raham loves to engage kids (and adults) with his stories and illustrations.

He has written 19 books of science fact and/or science fiction and numerous nature articles. Raham writes science columns for The North Forty News and Colorado Gardener Magazine and serves as Assistant Editor for Trilobite Tales, the newsletter of the Western Interior Paleontological Society. Some of Raham’s paintings and illustrations were featured in the 2018 exhibit From Saur to Soar at the Loveland Museum and Gallery.

The following is an excerpt from “A Once-Dead Genius in the Kennel of Master Morticue Ambergrand .”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


Set-up: Rudy Goldstein became famous for inventing the Biomic Network Algorithm—a formula that prevented ecological catastrophe in the 21st century. On his deathbed, he refused a proposal by his physician, Dr. Benson, to have his personality preserved by an artificial intelligence called Mnemosyne whose mission would be to “preserve in perpetuity the neural network patterns and personality construct of Rudyard Albert Goldstein for the betterment of his species.” Benson ignored his wishes. Rudy’s “personality construct” and Mnemosyne (aka Nessie) kept each other company for a few hundred years until an asteroid slammed into Earth, destroying human civilization—but not all of humanity. 923,000 years later, an emissary arrived from another star system.

An emissary arrives

“Rudy? Wake up, please.”

At first, Nessie’s voice reminded Rudy of Roxie, his second wife. She was an elementary teacher, but could always come up with Ph.D. level surprises. He wanted to roll over and find Roxie next to him in bed with the gleam of a lesson plan in her eyes, but instead found himself lying in a recliner with Nessie in the chair next to him. He remembered the spot well: a campground in Utah that made the Middle of Nowhere look over crowded. What seemed to be a googleplex of stars glittered overhead, although he knew that the unaided human eye could only see about 9,000 stars. He wondered if Nessie had augmented that number. Probably not, for verisimilitude’s sake.

“Rudy, we have received a message from another intelligent species.”

“I beg your pardon?” All thoughts of Roxie vanished. “Can you show me where the signal is coming from?”

Mnemosyne pointed toward a crooked W of stars. “Right now the signal seems to be emanating overhead in Cassiopeia,” she said, “from an object roughly the size of a tennis ball in Earth orbit.”

“The size of a tennis ball?” 

“Tiny probes make far more sense than spaceships for any advanced species. Interstellar distances are prohibitive—especially since the limitations imposed by the speed of light appear to have no simple solutions.

Rudy grunted. “So, it doesn’t sound like we are subject to imminent invasion from a tennis ball sized ship. . .but we are talking about something definitely alien, right? Christ, how long have I been in limbo—thousands of years? Could it be a surviving Martian or even a Lunar colony that evolved in some weird way and is trying to reconnect?”

Author Gary Raham.

“You’ve been in limbo, as you describe it, 923,000 years, four months and three days. I apologize for that, but numerous post asteroid impact challenges put my own systems under significant strain. The signal is alien in origin, with a probability of 99.8%. The carrier wave frequencies are partly out of normal human hearing range. I have been trying to decipher content, but with only partially satisfactory results. Initially, there seems to be some introductory statement or announcement, followed by some internal dialog. The aliens may be employing an artificial intelligence themselves. The orbiting device seems to be coordinating a construction project of some kind.”

Rudy felt like shaking a head he didn’t have. Processing 923,000 years took a head shake all by itself, not to mention visiting aliens looking at Earth’s real estate potential. He finally said, “Building something. That doesn’t sound especially good.” Rudy felt a scratching on his leg and looked down. “Bessie? I haven’t thought of you in a long time!” Rudy lifted the white haired Bichon Frise onto his lap. “Nice touch, Nessie,” he said.

“Thank you. Your affection for this animal permeates a significant subset of neural associations.”

“Yeah, well distracting me with cute dog memories is still a distraction. What’s your translation of this alien’s ‘introductory statement’?”

“Be aware that this will be a free and somewhat sketchy rendering.”

“So noted.” Rudy scratched behind Bessie’s ears.

“’Congratulations creatures of water planet H2957#*! You have been chosen for a special offer (opportunity?): Colonization by the Jadderbadian Federation of Water Worlds. Prepare to experience a new realm of smells, sights and other sensory stimulation that will enlighten your advanced larvae (life stages? instars?) and provide a welcoming environment (theatrical stage? platform?) for all of your adults. Expect to enjoy a grand union (merger? association?). The Jadderbadian Council of Elders hopes all your eggs will be fertile, your sex lives rewarding, and all your offspring perform above the norm.’”

Rudy sighed. “What’s all THAT supposed to mean? Where’s the Pope, the Dali Lama, the U.S. Congress, and NPR when you really need clarification?” Rudy paused. “Is this message directed to anybody—or any creature—in particular?”

“I don’t believe so,” Mnemosyne said. “It would seem to be more of a formal statement of intent or accomplishment.”

“’One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind’. That sort of thing?”

“Precisely.” Nessie smiled and looked at Rudy. “Organic organisms seem prone to such hyperbole.”

“Yes, this isn’t the kind of message an AI would deliver.” Rudy sighed.

“A Once-Dead Genius in the Kennel of Master Morticue Ambergrand” by Gary Raham.

Contact with another intelligent species always seemed like the ultimate in Grand Adventures to Rudy. After all, it would show that humans weren’t alone in an immensely large, impersonal and mostly dangerous universe. On the other hand, human civilization had been operating less than 10,000 years before it was mostly snuffed by the asteroid, and that’s only if you count the post glacial nomads that first learned to plant corn and happy grass as civilized. Ten thousand years was chump change in Universe Time. Thus, any aliens able to cross the distance between stars must be pretty damn smart. It may not be prudent for us to wave our arms and say ‘Hey, lookie over here, guys. We’re ripe for plunder.’” 

References to larvae and instars made these aliens sound a bit ‘buggy’ to Rudy. He wasn’t especially fond of insects—even ones that didn’t invite you to have a merger with them. “Do these aliens know we exist, Nessie? I mean you, specifically, not what’s left of the human race.

“I don’t believe so,” Mnemosyne said. “It seemed prudent to remain quiet, electromagnetically speaking, based on the nature of their declaration. The physical structure of our citadel is also mostly covered by moss, lichen and other growth. It should not look worthy of particular note from high orbit, even with the human village that has grown up nearby with my acolytes.”

“Acolytes?”

“I am something of a local goddess to the nearest human village.” Mnemosyne turned to Rudy and smiled. “It’s a condition relating to some of the challenges I’ve been addressing.”

“You’ll have to share,” said Rudy.

“Soon,” said Mnemosyne. “At the moment, the orbiting device is descending. It appears to be aimed at a spot on the North American continent near the former location of Toronto, Canada. I will need to monitor developments closely. I have already dispatched drones.”

Rudy scratched Bessie’s head. The dog sighed and settled herself on his lap. “I agree,” said Rudy. He felt a shiver sliding down his (nonexistent) neck and spine. How DID Nessie do that? Or did she? Maybe that kind of frisson was part of being self aware—a tremor of his basic neural network. However it was generated, the shiver told Rudy that things were about to get interesting.  ‘Interesting’ was something Rudy could live for.

The alien probe provided much for Rudy and Mnemosyne to ponder for several months. Mnemosyne’s tiny flying drones—and eventually their clones—recorded many details. To avoid electromagnetic communication that might be overheard, streams of clones shuttled back and forth with data files to Mnemosyne’s Citadel headquarters. Waiting for the next clone messenger became an anticipated event.

“You know, Nessie,” said Rudy, “I bet this is how my ancestors felt waiting for the Pony Express to arrive each week—or however often they galloped from town to town.”

“Pony Express riders averaged 250 miles in a 24 hour period. Since they only existed for 19 months it is quite possible none of your ancestors had experience with the service.”

“Thanks so much. Get on with it, already! What’s happening?”

“The alien probe, as you know, contains a mixture of mechanical nano devices and alien microbes. The drones documented the formation of a golden-hued arch structure rising from the ground where the probe initially landed some ten meters high and 20 meters across…”

“And…” Rudy wondered how an AI could manage to drag out the tension. She must have been scanning too many old techno thrillers.

“And,” Mnemosyne continued, “through means I do not understand, the fabric of spacetime is now oddly warped within the golden arch.”

MORE: Read more SunLit book excerpts

Rudy was tempted to make a joke about spacetime always being warped when you entered a McDonald’s franchise, but the implications here were just too profound. Perhaps there is a way around the immensity of ordinary space. “This could be a gateway to somewhere very far away.” Rudy felt those delightful chills again along the limbs of his nonexistent body.

“The gateway, as you call it, now glows in the visible spectrum and edging into the low ultraviolet. The intelligence behind this phenomenon doesn’t seem worried about bringing attention to its artifact—perhaps the opposite.”

“If I could bend spacetime I wouldn’t be worried about attracting attention either,” Rudy said.

Weeks passed. A local tribe of humans noticed the glowing arch and approached cautiously, at first. When nothing terrible happened, they recruited friends to witness the miracle. A village eventually developed complete with living huts, game processing pits, latrines and refuse areas near a local stream.

One man, whose name Mnemosyne translated as Thurwild, began spending many hours in front of the arches, often sitting cross-legged and smoking an ornately carved pipe. Now and then he spoke, but in no language related to his native tongue as far as Mnemosyne could determine. The man developed a small following of mostly young adults, some smoking pipes of their own.

One day, Thurwild prostrated himself in front of the arch and began singing. He declared to all those nearby that he had had a vision. “A powerful god will visit soon,” he said “and reward the righteous among us. We must spread the word.” Some in the crowd nodded sagely and sent messenger runners to surrounding villages. The communities around the arches grew.

And then, two months and seven days later, following no obviously apparent timetable, the god of prophecy arrived.

“It looks like a dildo with waving arms!” Rudy declared when he saw the first images.

“Observe the three part symmetry and segmentation” Mnemosyne observed. “The lower segment has three legs, although the one leg appears to be more prehensile than the others. It can settle into a tripod configuration.”

“The three rings of three arms waving around looks like a snake orgy in progress,” said Rudy. “The three eyes look like black marbles—and what are all those tendrilly things on the head? Sensory hairs?”

“The creature is two meters tall,” Mnemosyne said. “Bands of fabric circle each segment. I see no external genitalia.”

Slowly, the worm-i-pede-like creature lifted all of its arms in unison. An orifice opened beneath the eyes exposing a ragged ring of gleaming barbs. The tendrils on its head waved rhythmically, like grass in the wind. “I am Kranium, third instar of the Clan of Turquoise from the bountiful world of Jadderbad. Smell the joy of me and wonder,” it said clearly, in loud stentorian tones and in a perfect imitation of the tribe’s local dialect. 

The nearby crowd of humans sighed like a huge balloon with a serious leak. Thurwild fell to his knees and raised his arms. “How can we serve you, miraculous Kranium?” he asked with tremulous wonder. “We are yours to command.”

— Buy “A Once-Dead Genius in the Kennel of Master Morticue Ambergrand ” at BookBar

— Interview with author Gary Raham


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