Moon Burn

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Their noses bleed and no one knows why.

Submitted: December 05, 2015

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Submitted: October 24, 2013

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January.

 

No one knew for sure when the nose bleeds had begun but it was now four years since the medical community had started to pay attention. What at first appeared to be scattered clusters eventually resolved themselves into a pattern. A pattern that made no obvious sense until a chance conversation between a medical researcher and an astronomer led to an odd conclusion: the bleeds correlated exactly with the motion of the Moon in its orbit around Earth. They occurred in a diffuse circular ‘shadow’ that tracked across the globe as if cast from a point just behind the Moon. That was two years ago, and at first the correlation was suggested very tentatively, as it seemed so outlandish. But by now there was no doubt. Whatever was causing the nose bleeds was up there above us, lurking behind the dark side of our airless satellite.

 

American and Western organizations began referring to it as the “Point of Presence” (P.O.P. for short) – as if naming it meant we had any idea what it was. Scientists in India, China, and Australia referred to it using an old Khmer word that might translate as “navel’. Eventually “navel” won out; while some scientific papers in the West still used P.O.P., “navel” became the standard term in informal discussions between scientists and policy makers. This adoption was driven largely by the internet’s preference; almost from day one, the web conceived of it as the “navel.”

 

Since it insisted on staying on our blind side, there was no direct way to observe the thing. Three separate initiatives were now under way to put up unmanned probes to go take a peek, but it would be at least a year before any of these would launch. Two of the craft were being custom built from scratch; the third involved re-purposing a Japanese craft with help from the European agency and Russia. The Russians were also working with India on a custom probe. The US, Canada, and China had cobbled together another custom job, much to the surprise of political cynics. Rumor had it that the US led project was already suffering delays due to its over reliance on relatively untested Artificial Intelligence applications. At first, the Chinese had been enthusiastic about cramming the probe with AI, but they were beginning to lose their taste for it. The political winds in Beijing were now blowing strongly back in the direction of a less complex home-grown design. Time, money, and ego were wrapped up in ways no one in any of the three projects could have anticipated. And all was made worse by the barely-acknowledged anxiety driving all three attempts. Something we didn’t create was doing something to some of us; what was it? And why?

 

As it could not be observed and measured directly, whatever properties the navel might have had to be inferred. It was already established that it had negligible mass; not even the most subtle effect on the motion of the Moon could be detected. The thing was in the hundreds-of-kilos range at best. As for other properties, there was no sign of it emitting detectable amounts of radiation, no radio waves, no gamma rays, no nothing. As far as anyone could tell, it was small, inert, and inactive – except for somehow making peoples’ noses bleed at a range of roughly a quarter of a million miles. It was of course possible – although no one took this possibility very seriously – that it was natural in origin. Some even wondered if it might have always been there and it was only now that we had a large enough human population and the requisite technology to make its ‘signal’ clearly distinguishable. Whatever it was, our lack of hard information about it was excruciating. As known unknowns go, this one was way too unknown for anyone’s comfort.

 

And now, only in the last several months, a pattern-within-a-pattern had begun to show its outlines; something at least as baffling as the pattern within which it was embedded. A small subset of those people afflicted with nose bleeds every time the Moon passed overhead began to mention vivid dreams or hallucinations. The reporting had been uneven; people in Asia seemed to be more comfortable sharing their accounts of hallucinations. People in the West and in parts of Africa were reluctant to admit they were also having this experience. Pacific islanders were not only happy to share their experiences, they had even begun drawing vivid pictures of their visions, or trying to render them in sculpture in some cases. And one man living in Iceland – who also happened to be a graphic artist – had posted some of his impressions online. The visions were notably consistent; some described becoming a huge whale, a giant serpent, a dragon, a dinosaur, or having such a creature visit them in some altered state of mind and ‘talking’ to them – not in words explicitly but directly in their minds. They had a sense that the creature used their native language when speaking directly to their minds but they couldn’t be sure. But the serpent, the dragon, the dinosaur, or whatever they imagined the creature to be, was always associated with the ocean. It either emerged from the ocean to speak with them or it brought them into the ocean to converse. In the vision, the ocean was warm and safe and they somehow breathed freely. The end of a vision was always tinged with regret that it had ended.

 

As for what the creature talked about, no one seemed to have a very clear recollection. The talk was pleasant, reassuring, but the dreamers could remember the tone and the emotion, not concrete words or symbols or ideas. And it was becoming evident that those susceptible to the visions tended to be very old or relatively young. To date there were no reports of anyone between the ages of twenty-five and seventy being visited by a dream creature. The “sweet spots” for receiving visions seemed to hover around ages eleven and seventy-six; there might be a very slight preponderance of female ‘receivers’ but given the relatively low reported numbers, that was debatable.

 

The emergence of the visions somehow removed any doubt anyone might have had that the navel was a created thing, a device of some kind; most certainly not a natural phenomenon. Everyone involved – whether studying or experiencing the nose bleeds and visions – had the distinct sense that some form of communication was being attempted. There was no hard empirical evidence for this conclusion – nothing that could be corroborated scientifically or explained mathematically – so it remained out of bounds for published articles and media interviews. But all involved believed it to one degree or another, and expected the visions to continue, perhaps become more elaborate, less ambiguous, maybe even more accessible. The researchers who interviewed the youngsters and old men and women about their dreams and hallucinations couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy; they were excluded and could only witness whatever was happening second hand.

 

September.

 

The nose bleeds and visions had not stopped abruptly; they tapered off into the summer and none had been reported in over a month. To add to the frustration, the Chinese had suddenly become reluctant to share data. They had never been keen to discuss the dreams and hallucinations; now they spoke and acted as if these might have been phantom events, the result of a kind of low-intensity mass hysteria. Chinese researchers were now more likely to be no-shows for video conferences and symposiums; there was always an explanation but the pattern was clear to everyone; the Chinese were becoming withdrawn. This naturally led to speculation that they had figured out something everyone else had missed and didn’t want to share their secret. However, researchers from India and Vietnam who had somewhat closer ties with their Chinese counterparts had another explanation, one which experts in the West found difficult to swallow: it concerned a very old Chinese prophecy that predicted the fall of the Middle Kingdom from its exalted position above all others to a level of ignominy that would make it “the beggar of the world.” The fall would be preceded by the arrival of a great dragon that spoke only to children, warning them that the sins of their parents put them in great peril. This old tale had been around for centuries, and had been largely ignored for almost as long. It was hard to believe that the autocrats of the Central Committee would listen to anyone peddling folk lore in the middle of a scientific event, but there was no denying that China had suddenly become tight lipped, and there was word from the intelligence community that the People’s Republic had begun re-deploying forces out towards its borders in all directions. There was a definite whiff of fear in the breeze from Beijing. Then, to cap it all, two senior members of the Politburo had started acting out of character, sometimes disappearing for days at a time. There were unconfirmed reports of one of them being spotted at a remote monastery in the far west of China. Usually exemplary creatures of habit, both men had begun keeping odd working hours, taking tortuously complex routes to work, visiting relatives they had not seen in years. And the harder you worked the Chinese grapevine for clues, the more it shrank from contact. There was a great deal of smiling and apologizing, but nothing in the way of solid information.

 

Chinese opacity only fed Western anxiety. The Indians found themselves constantly trying to draw one side out while reassuring the other. With the cessation of visions, peoples’ nerves started to get the better of them. Work on the three space probes continued while analysts trawled through the backlog of gigabytes of data that had accumulated over the previous two years. To the relief of Chinese engineers, the American-led effort had jettisoned much of the AI from the original design. Since the round-trip time for a signal between ground control and the probe would never be more than about three seconds, the Americans finally came around to the idea that the craft could be instructed in near real-time and didn’t need all those Silicon based brains on board. As the chief engineer from NASA had put it, “We don’t need to wallpaper the damn thing with experimental chip technology and unproven apps.”

 

 

 

 

March – Second Cycle.

 

It began with sporadic reports of visions. These were still preceded by nose bleeds but the bleeding was less profuse and ended sooner. But the greatest difference was the vastly reduced number of cases. Less than a tenth of one percent of the known receiver population seemed to be involved in this second wave; to date, fewer than three hundred individuals had been confirmed. Observers took to designating them with the abbreviation “C2R”, meaning “confirmed second-wave receiver”. There were other differences from the first wave too: C2Rs seemed to be more deeply affected than they had been first time around. Many became withdrawn, disengaged from social contact, seeming to prefer their own company to the company of others. Those who had been religious appeared to lose all interest in attending services or reading their sacred texts. There was also evidence of decreased appetite and an increase in the consumption of fluids, especially water. This second wave was at least as puzzling as the first.

 

With fewer subjects to observe, the observers were able to devote greater attention to each individual. The C2Rs tolerated the constant medical exams, blood and urine samples, psychological evaluations, and questionnaire – but no more. They seemed disinterested in the researchers and what they had to say. A perceptible emotional distancing arose like a wall between the two groups. The physicians and researchers felt even more excluded than before. Then, as time went on, the receivers became less forthcoming about their visions. Descriptions became more vague, or when prompted to recount a vision, a receiver might deflect by remarking that the vision was so boring it was hardly worth remembering or recounting.

 

Then things changed again. Towards the end of April, most of the receivers reported that the visions had stopped. It was verifiable that they no longer suffered nosebleeds. Those whose visions stopped also had difficulty remembering any of the details of their visions, from both the first and second wave. They had no recollection of becoming distant or solitary, and the religious among them returned to church, temple, and mosque. They seemed eager to forget the entire thing.

 

Not all the C2Rs had lost their visions, but they numbered in the tens at best. The upper estimate was forty individuals worldwide; the lowest estimate put the number at fewer than ten. Many of the researchers found themselves adrift, without subjects to study. Those few who still had a receiver to observe guarded the privilege jealously and rebuffed unsolicited offers of help. Then two individuals emerged from this small remaining group and began what became known as the Third Cycle.

 

Island Girl.

 

Like her father, Odette had been born on a remote outer island in the Faroes. Her mother was from Denmark. The couple had met while her father was attending college in Copenhagen and they had lived there for two years before moving to the Faroes, where he abandoned his thoughts of practicing law and found a comfortable life as a full-time farmer and part-time fisherman. Soon his days in Denmark were far-off memories and, apart from meeting his wife, not especially fond memories. It had come as a shock to him to realize how strongly rooted he was to the islands; even after is parents had passed away, his attachment to their bleak slopes, frigid bays, and ever lamenting sea birds had not diminished. He could not imagine living anywhere else, and loved the islands with a visceral intensity.

 

Odette’s Danish grandmother had been an admirer of the French Resistance, and had wanted to give the name Odette to her own daughter; but she had been overruled by her husband. She died less than a month before Odette was born, so Odette’s mother decided to use the name as a way of honoring her. Odette’s name was unusual in the Faroes: her class mates and friends had names like Birta and Lisbita (although there was also a boy at her school named Elvis). The family kept sheep and hung fish to dry in their sheds for the long, dark winters ahead. Odette’s father took part in the annual whale hunt and, in her early years, Odette had gobbled up whale meat treats eagerly. But she had lost her taste for whale meat, much to her father’s disappointment. Her mother, forever to be considered an outsider by the native born Faroese, never took to the meat and tended to glaze over when her husband tried to explain its place in Faroese culture. Now, at age eleven, Odette was considering becoming a vegetarian. She dared not mention it to either of her parents yet but knew her mother would be the first one she would tell.

 

Like her fellow receivers, Odette had experienced the nose bleeds, followed by vivid dreams. But they were more than dreams: while they often came at night, they also came during the day. She might be sitting in class when a slight light-headedness would leave her detached from everything around her. To her teacher and classmates, she would suddenly seem catatonic, her eyes closed, her body rigid and immobile. She would grip the edge of her desk as if to steady herself. The visions usually lasted around five to ten minutes – although to Odette it felt like they had lasted for hours, so much seemed to happen before they ended. The light headedness was followed by a total silence; she could not hear her teacher’s voice asking if she was okay, could not hear the chairs scraping on the floor as others turned to see what was happening, could not hear their voices as they called out to her, wondered nervously what was happening, or joked about the “trance girl” disappearing again.

 

Odette’s dream creature was explicitly a large whale – much larger than the whales found in the waters of the Faroes. It had a green-blue cast to its skin and a warm, feminine voice. Its mouth did not move when it spoke to her; as is often the case in dreams, she simply knew what the whale was saying. The voice seemed to her very ancient and very reassuring. She never felt fear when it came to visit her. Once Odette was fully detached from the world around her, she and the whale would sometimes travel back in time to memories from Odette’s early childhood; a picnic on a sunny hillside, opening a gift under the tree on Christmas morning. They would talk about the memory, recall how good the moment had felt. At other times the whale would show her things she struggled to comprehend: a sky filled with stars, larger and closer than any she had ever seen; things that looked like cobwebs but were alive and moved delicately against a red sky; an ocean made of silver; a ball of light that changed color and seemed to pulsate like a beating heart. Sometimes if felt as if they traveled half way across the universe. Sometimes Odette was absorbed into the whale’s body; she understood this was for her own safety but she was not sure why.

 

The whale did not have a name. It was just the whale; Odette’s whale. It seemed very concerned not to overload Odette’s mind with too many things all at once, and constantly checked to make sure Odette was okay and was happy to continue. It somehow made her understand that the nose bleeds were an unavoidable part of preparing for a visit, but also that they might diminish over time – perhaps even disappear. Odette told her she didn’t mind; they only bothered her if the blood dripped on a favorite sweater or shirt and wouldn’t come out in the wash. The early visits had been mostly concerned with drifting through Odette’s memories but over time more of the dream involved observing things that were utterly strange to her, things she did not recognize or understand. The whale didn’t try to explain what they were seeing; she just showed them to Odette and watched carefully for any sign of exhaustion or distress. The moment Odette seemed tired the whale would lead her gently back through some favorite memories then “hug” her somehow and bid her goodbye for now. With that, Odette would find herself awake and the sights and noises around her would crowd back in. She never remembered all of the dream, just its vague outlines and the fact that it had felt warm and safe and slightly magical. She knew that lingering impression would fade and regretted its departure.

 

Somewhere towards the end of the second cycle Odette started to feel instinctively that the whale was trying to teach her, perhaps even trying to prepare her. It was all a little bewildering but she knew that very few people were able to experience the things she was experiencing, and she felt lucky. Much as she loved life on the island, her greatest enemy was boredom. Some days it seemed there was nothing to do – nothing fun or interesting, at least. Odette dreamed of leaving some day, going out into the wider world. She harbored a secret dream of maybe one day moving to America, not for any particular reason other than it seemed like the least boring place on the planet. Or maybe she would go to France. Or Australia. Lots of interesting places to see. Now the visions had arrived out of nowhere and her sense of having been chosen had banished boredom for the foreseeable future. She wasn’t sure why but suddenly she was at the center of something mysterious and remarkable. She could sense that clearly in the voices and attitudes of the researchers who had been assigned to monitor her.

 

Odette’s principal observer was Ian McAlpin, a Scottish medical doctor who had quit his hospital post to take up a research position in neuroscience. He didn’t speak Danish or Faroese but luckily Odette and her parents spoke some English – Odette’s mother being especially fluent. When the nose bleeds had first appeared, along with news that they seemed to be part of a global phenomenon, Odette’s family doctor had contacted a government agency in Denmark, which went through various channels in Brussels before putting him in touch with McAlpin’s group. The group in Scotland eventually formed a three-person team lead by McAlpin to monitor the girl in the Faroes. They had settled into a rotation – with one of them based on the island for a month at a time while the other two were based in Scotland. There was a constant flow of emails in both directions, and a secured web site where they could share data, discuss the work, speculate on the rumors coming in about other similar groups. When in April the number of C2Rs still receiving suddenly collapsed to a few dozen, and one of those few was their subject, they decided that all three of them would be based on the island for at least the next two months. The administration at the research center were skeptical about the necessity for this, but the reduction in air fare overhead persuaded them not to object too strongly. And so it was that all three were present on a Tuesday morning when Odette walked in the front door of the cottage they had rented and announced to them, “I need to speak to a man named Chandra.”

 

Chandra.

 

Chandra had been born in a ramshackle village near Shimla, in the foot hills of the Himalayas. Based on what his parents and neighbors had told him, he believed himself to be either seventy six or seventy seven years old: there was a reference to a boy that might have been him in some old and disintegrating school records but record keeping in this area, and for people of Chandra’s low social status, was a hit and miss affair. It wasn’t even clear that “Chandra” was his real name; it was simply what everyone called him. He had been an only child and his parents were long gone, leaving him a small house that might be described as a cross between a cottage and a shack. It was poorly maintained, with the occasional hole in a screen or door, and he preferred to sit cross-legged on the tiny veranda, as chair legs had a habit of puncturing its flimsy floor. Chandra had never married; there had been a series of infatuations in his younger days but nothing ever came of them. Even by local standards he wouldn’t have been considered a good catch – having no profession or steady job, he worked when he could at odd jobs: helping out on a farm, laboring on a new road or bridge, painting a house – whatever came his way. Like many of the locals he supplemented his diet with animals and birds caught in the nearby forest, or bartered them for fish, salt, sugar, whatever was most in need. Chandra’s sole vice was smoking a pipe. He saved his tobacco carefully in a battered old tin labeled “Navy Cut” (with a suitably bearded English sailor on its lid) and tried to limit himself to one pipe per day. Sometimes, on special occasions, he would permit himself a second pipe full. At other times the tin contained little more than dust and he went without his secret pleasure until he could earn some money or sell his latest catch from the forest.

 

Chandra had not been much of a reader in his younger days, and had almost lost the ability to read. He had certainly lost the desire. But on one of his many odd jobs the owner of a house he was helping to repair took an interest in him and gave him a couple of books. Slowly, painfully Chandra began to recall how to read – with frequent assistance from the owner of the house. The books were non-fiction: a history of the East India Company and one volume from a twenty-volume encyclopedia, mostly concerned with words beginning with the letter “L”. Chandra re-read them until he could quote entire passages from memory. To his surprise, he discovered an untapped love of reading, and began borrowing books, buying books, reading anything and everything he could get his hands on – from the list of ingredients on a food container to discarded newspapers and magazines.

 

Chandra’s budding literacy was eventually noticed by some of his neighbors, some of whom did not read very well, or could not read at all. People started coming to him to have a letter read or to decipher whatever government form they were trying to fill out. Eventually he had found a small source of extra income acting as an informal tutor to locals and their children. This had the added benefit of connecting him more closely to people in the village, so that he became less of a hermit, regarded as less of an oddity. A group of men who met each weekend to play chess and discuss events of the day over strong tea and cigarettes invited him to join them and he became a regular. He learned how to play chess quickly, and just as quickly decided it didn’t interest him, but he enjoyed listening to the men discussing Indian politics, world events, stories from their glory days – exaggerations and all. Sometimes one of the men would bring a copy of a newspaper and the group would play chess while Chandra read the news articles to them.

 

Chandra had experienced mild nose bleeds as a teenager so he was surprised and slightly annoyed when they returned, but not at all concerned. But when the visions started soon afterwards he was very worried. He wondered if it was a symptom of some brain disorder or an early sign of impending dementia. He mentioned the dream visions to no one but later in the year, while sitting with his new social group over tea and cigarettes, he read the first mention of this odd rash of nose bleeds appearing across the globe and the fact that health authorities were looking at it – presumably concerned that it might be a leading indicator of something more serious. Chandra almost volunteered that he had been experiencing the nose bleeds, and the accompanying visions, but caught himself. He had been an odd man out for many years and didn’t want to disrupt his new found integration with local society.

 

Chandra’s dream creature seemed like a great dragon, with blue-green skin and great black eyes, but it did not breath fire. It looked like some of the old dragons he had seen in books about Indian and Chinese mythology. Chandra’s dragon was kind and seemed able to access every memory Chandra had, even some he had long since forgotten. He enjoyed the dragon’s visits but he was afraid one might happen when he was among people. He was never sure how long a visit had lasted but he knew that while he was having a vision he became unaware of his surroundings. This was bound to strike people as odd if they witnessed the event. Being alone much of the time, Chandra spent a lot of time thinking – about all sorts of things: the way migrating birds knew where to go even if it was the first time they had made the journey; how reincarnation made no sense to him, since the number of people in the world kept increasing (where did the new souls come from?. He wondered if dragons were somehow a residual memory of dinosaurs – stored for eons in the memories of the little mammals whose line of descent would lead to the first primates. If that were the case, what other ancient patterns lay within us, not just in our brains but even in the way we move? For all our talk of the wonders of the human mind, maybe it was just a thin veneer laid over unimaginably older foundations. He never discussed his oddball thoughts with his village.

 

And now he felt as if the collective dragon memory was somehow speaking to him. Not just to him but to others all over the world. What on earth could it mean? It troubled him but also made him feel lucky; and connected. He wondered where it would all lead.

 

One day while he was checking some traps in the woods to see if he had caught a free meal Chandra had the most vivid visit of all. By the time it was over the sun was setting behind the mountains and Chandra had a name in his mind: Odette. And not just a name. He knew she lived on an island far from India, in some northern place where it was cold and the sun hardly rose during winter.

 


© Copyright 2018 Laurence W. All rights reserved.

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