Solid, Mostly Smooth
short story (15 minute read)
Mr Gibbenbury was hobbling towards the withered park at the end of his street, muttering insults at his equally withered wooden cane, and generally minding his own business, when the world ended. Well, it did not end right there and then. It was more of the start of a slow, tedious decline to the inevitable end of everything, not unlike the last years of Mr Gibbenbury’s life had been.
“Go and scratch, ye cocky rumpnoodle,” Mr Gibbenbury rumbled at a lanky teenager who amiably offered to carry Mr Gibbenbury’s plastic bag for him. “I can bloody carry me bag o’ bread meself.”
Clutching the thin blue plastic handles to his chest, he continued on his way.
“Morning, Mr Gibbenbury,” shouted a sturdy woman through the open door of her shop. Her hands were as large as the loafs of bread she was kneading. “Would you like a biscuit? Fresh out the oven, just an hour ago.”
“Ye stinking biscuits are like a fart in a jam jar, Angela,” Mr Gibbenbury replied, never stopping his hobble, “I’ll rather eat this here dry bread before any of your biscuits ever come near me mouth.”
“Alright, Mr Gibbenbury,” Angela said, “I’ll wrap one and leave it here on the counter for you if you decide otherwise.” She smacked an unbaked loaf on a baking tray with the force of the meteorite that ended the dinosaurs.
“Decide otherwise me arse,” Mr Gibbenbury rumbled as he passed the open door. “Would be a better world if everyone just bloody bit the bugger and dropped dead.”
The stench of rotten produce and old lard wafted at him as he passed a littered alleyway on his way to the park. Five cats sat in a neat circle next to the flaking paint of a rubbish container, meowing agitatedly at each other. Mr Gibbenbury stopped briefly to curse the furry interruption to his journey and noticed that none of the cats were actually moving their jaws. The undulating meows came from the container itself.
Mr Gibbenbury could not help but step a little closer to get a good look. His left eyebrow rose a centimetre when he discovered that the meows came from a badly broken radio lying on top of the other trash. Then his eyebrow rose another centimetre when a glowing blue portal blinked into existence inside the circle of cats.
A large, red tomcat, whose ears told of a lifetime of struggle, meowed a reply to the radio, stepped graciously into the portal, and vanished.
“Not worth a sheep’s fart anymore, me eyes, and bugger this bloody optometrist and his sticky glasses. Knew they weren’t worth the back end of a rat, the bloody things he sold me,” Mr Gibbenbury muttered under his breath as he stepped back out of the alley and turned towards the park again. The bread would not feed itself to the fish, so he better had be on his way.
Berwick Park had been built on a local piece of swamp, and its general atmosphere had never really diverted from that, no matter the number of Elm Trees and rusty swings the district council had added to it. A brackish pond looked as if an artist had simply given up on their oil painting of a park and poured a mix of their leftover colours smack into the middle of it.
Cursing the ducks as he tried to fend them off with his cane, Mr Gibbenbury upturned the entire bag of stale bread into the brown water. On a second thought, he chucked the plastic bag into the pond as well.
“Maybe one of them devil ducks’ll choke on it. Better to throw meself into the drink too, I reckon. No reason for the bloody pump to keep on pumpin’ in me chest anyway,” Mr Gibbenbury said as he turned to walk back the way he came. He lifted his slightly trembling hand to his brow to shield his eyes against the glaring sun.
A nasal, 8-Bit rendition of the Gran Vals by the classical composer Francisco Tárrega broke the bored silence of the empty park. Mr Gibbenbury stopped and fumbled through his trouser’s pockets. He found an elderly mobile phone and held it out at arm’s length. When his piercing glare did not silence the phone, he accepted the call. He had to admit he was a little confused. No one had called him since his wife had passed away twelve years ago. Also, the phone’s battery had run down last week, and he had not yet bothered to recharge it yet.
Someone sighed at the other end. Mr Gibbenbury, for once, remained silent.
“Alrighty, here goes nothing,” said the staticky voice, “I guess you’re one Alfred Robat Gibbenbury?”
Before Mr Gibbenbury even had the time to tell the caller it was none of his business that he was, in fact, himself, he was already interrupted.
“Nevermind, of course you are.” The caller sighed again. “I’m here to inform you that your species is dying out, the world is ending, and that there is no one and nothing that can save you.” The voice was a perfect imitation of someone boredly calling out the day’s sales over the speakers of a small, discount supermarket—down to the unplaceable but definitely foreign accent.
Mr Gibbenbury finally found his words again.
“And who in the name of a cat’s willy are you? How did ye get me number?”
“My name would be very much unpronounceable by the sad little strings your species calls vocal cords, so please don’t even try. You can call me Bob, if you must.”
“Aye, and why do ye reckon ye can call me in the middle of the buggin’ day, Bob? Have ye…”
The caller interrupted Mr Gibbenbury with the stoic determination of a police officer arguing with a drunk.
“The rules of my engagement force me to tell you the following.” Bob’s following utter lack of intonation and talking speed left no doubt that he was reading from a script. “The Higher Scientific Council of All Planets of the Left Arm of the Local Galaxy has tragically had to confirm the findings of The Lower Scientific Council of All Planets of the Left Arm of the Local Galaxy, which has found that the main species of the planed EP-12-T-194, locally known as Earth, will go extinct within the next local 2401 years with a likelihood of over 99.998%.”
“You have been chosen at random along with 99 other members of your specific species to be represented at the East Gulffian Conservatory. The designated administrator with whom you are speaking will gladly answer any questions you might have concerning this regretful state of affairs.”
“Should you be unwilling to participate,” Bob obviously skipped several lines, “blah, blah, the right to withdraw or refuse at any time and without giving any reason, blah, blah, unlikely event of a wrong prediction, yada, yada, please sign here.”
“So yer tellin’ me all people will die out?” Mr Gibbenbury asked.
“Ah, I didn’t bother to read that. Always the same: you pollute your planet until it is no longer habitable, war, nuclear or antimatter accident, engineered virus, something like that, I’d imagine.”
“And what in a monkey’s name does this have to do with me?”
“Well, you’ve been chosen to be exhibited at a museum instead of staying on this dying, backwater planet. Your species is deemed intelligent enough to have one hundred of you on display at our museum. Whoever has made that decision has probably never seen a live human, though…”
“Which museum?” Mr Gibbenbury asked.
“The East Gulffian Conservatory on the fifth planet from the star Deneb in the constellation of the Swan.”
“Ye want to take me to space?” Mr Gibbenbury’s voice was as flat as the top of his balding head.
“Why do I always get the marginally intelligent specimens?…” Bob mumbled, before he continued in a forcedly calm voice, “Yes. I have been sent by my species to collect samples from all intelligent species on this planet that are likely to die out over the coming two local millennia. We’ll provide a nice new home for you and the 99 other humans we are inviting to our conservatory.”
Mr Gibbenbury took a moment to reflect on the fact that all of humanity was doomed, decided they had it coming, and changed the subject, instead.
“So, there are other intelligent species on Earth?”
“You know, come to think of it, the fact that you even ask that question probably has a lot to do with why your species is dying out in the first place…” Bob stated with a sigh.
“Cocky bastard, are ye?” Mr Gibbenbury nodded to himself, as if he had not just insulted Bob but found a reason for moderate respect towards him. “Is yer boss, or whoever sent ye, aware that I’m an old cunt? I’ll die within the next five years. Probably. Hopefully. Do ye really want to abduct me to yer museum?”
“Well, first of all, I’m not abducting you. The damned Ethics Committee won’t allow that without written permission. Believe me, we’d long be on our way already if they would. Second of all, you’re not going to die in five years. You’re going to die now.”
This silenced even Mr Gibbenbury for a moment. He could, however, not fail to notice that the fact left him cold.
“If you give written permission, that is,” Bob admitted, audibly grinding his teeth. Or fangs. Or whatever served to mince his alien food into edible bits.
“And why in the waddyladdle should I give written permission then, heh? Stinking alien…”
“You have to die so I can dissemble you into molecules and secure them in cold storage. Your weak human body would never survive the g-forces of acceleration when our ship speeds up to near luminal velocities. Once at the conservatory, we’ll rebuild you into a younger version of yourself and grant you another, happy and comfortable life. The conservatory already built an entirely new section specifically for your species.”
“Once you die of old age for real,” Bob continued, “we’ll conserve your body and exhibit it in our museum under the section Solid, Mostly Smooth. Right next to the section Mostly Solid, Smooth, where the 100 octopuses we’re taking will be on display. Sound good? Sign here.”
Mr Gibbenbury frowned deeply. He always frowned deeply when he thought.
“So, it wouldn’t matter if I was already a dead bloke then, I reckon?”
“Yes, it would.” Bob obviously omitted a duh. “How could you give written permission if you were dead?”
“But, in principle, you could take a dead person, right? Rebuild them and everything?”
“I fail to see how that even remotely matters. But yes, I guess we could take a dead person and reconstruct them into a younger version.”
“Take me wife.”
“You heard me, you smelly dog. Take me wife instead of me. I’ll give written permission. Give her another lucky and comfy life. She’s earned it, not me. I’m just a grumpy old bugger. I’ve never deserved to live longer than she, anyway.”
Bob produced the most horrible sound Mr Gibbenbury had ever had the displeasure of hearing. It sounded like someone sucking particularly wet jelly through a straw while breaking several bones in a meat grinder. Apparently, it was the name of Bob’s coworker.
“Hey Shshlucktchch, quick question. This guy wants to sign for his dead wife so we can take her… No… No, instead of him. Can we do that? Hm, yeah I guess then.” Bob turned his attention back to Mr Gibbenbury. “Sure, we can do that. Give me the precise location where your wife was buried and I’ll teleport her up to the ship.”
“And her life will be perfect and happy?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s what the Ethics Committee forces us to provide…”
“She takes her tea with one-and-a-half teaspoons of sugar, without milk.”
“Pardon?” Bob asked.
“Don’t ye mess up her tea, alien. This is Martha we’re talking about here. Best goddamn person ever lived on this lousy planet. Be sure to write that down somewhere!”
Mr Gibbenbury grabbed his cane with vigour and shook it in the air.
“She’s always wanted one of them little rat dogs that sit on yer lap. Y’know, a Pomme Iranian or how they’re called. Get her one of those.”
“Well, I can see what we can…”
“And she only sleeps on the left side of the bed. Her pillow has to be hard as a stone and the mattress piss-weak, ye hear me?”
Spittle was flying from Mr Gibbenbury’s shaking lips in his agitation.
“Her favourite colour is light green, so you’ll paint two walls of her room in those colours, the others a creamy white. And hang one of them ugly, jangly metal lamps in there, as well. She loved those things…”
“Mr Gibbenbury, I’m sure…”
“No, you listen! No buggerin’ aliens going to abduct me Martha without making her second life perfect! Lord knows I’ve not made her first one perfect. So, you listen to me! At tea-time, ye’ll set out precisely three biscuits for her, one with salted butter, one with raspberry jam, but not the one with seeds in it, because they’ll get stuck between her front teeth, and she hated that more than the devil hates flowers in May. And the third biscuit with…”
“Oh, for quantum’s sake, just come with her then, will you? They can’t demote me any further, anyway. What’s worse than listening to you blabbering humans all day? Screw it, I’ll just take 101 of your species. I’ll make something up. Do all that stuff for Martha yourself, no way am I going to report all of this back to the conservatory.”
“A second life? With me Martha?” Mr Gibbenbury asked with trembling fingers. He fumbled for a dirty handkerchief in his pocket and laboriously wiped his glasses with one hand.
“That’s what I said, right? Can we please just get this over with?” asked Bob.
Mr Gibbenbury let the mobile phone sink away from his ear. His gaze drifted over the dreary park before him and to the brick walls around it. Just across the street was where he and the other kids had waited for hours until the ice cream truck finally drove along on Sundays. His first kiss and fistfight had both been behind the squeaky swing on his left. He knew everyone in town, and no one outside of it. And he had to admit to himself that he rather enjoyed Angela’s dry biscuits.
He put the phone back firmly against his ear.
“I don’t have all day down here, laddie. Where’s that bloody blue portal I can step through?”
Read or listen to
and explore the science and philosophy behind it.
Stay in the know about new stories and nubs,