The Ancient Relative – or the pursuit of perfection

Intro

I wrote the short story Ancient Relative quite some time ago now, thinking about how different from us our far future descendants might become, to cope with the world we are currently creating.

The Ancient Relative

“Rinse away, please.” 

The final patient of the day gobbed a mixture of filling, rotten tooth and spit into the silver funnel, to be whooshed away with a gurgle. Alan’s back ached after nine hours of picking, drilling and filling. His head ached from endlessly giving his new assistant the same instructions. At last he was done for the day and for the week. It was Friday – and his wife Maria was away for the weekend.

He knew that Maria Turner-Smythe was considered by some to be pushing forward the frontiers of the paranormal, and by others to be completely dotty.  A year ago, she had been elected Chairperson of WUU (Women of the Universe Unite), a radical group dedicated to linking all females regardless of the constraints of race, space or time. Since then, she had spent so much time on the Internet or at UFO conferences that Alan rarely saw her, so every cloud did indeed have a silvery lining. This weekend was a climactic event for Maria. She was to give the keynote address at the WUU Annual Conference.

…Which left him alone to play with his cactus collection. Filling tiny pots with the right mixture of soil and sand. Lovingly writing on the little labels. And best of all, sprinkling the tiny seeds on top, each with its tiny spark of miraculous life. To Alan, they were his children. The large greenhouse, originally constructed for Maria to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and other necessities was now filled with an alien landscape of cacti that resembled everything from small green hedgehogs to enormous grey-haired phalluses, and the floor was thick with sand.

The greenhouse was Alan’s home planet.

As Alan scrubbed flowerpots in the kitchen sink, his thoughts turned to his wife. He could not understand Maria’s obsession with WUU. Could it be possibly to do with him? But he was rational and in no way obsessive. She had become increasingly obsessive about the whole subject of UFOs and had been convinced by fellow WUU members that THEY were already here, controlling the media and advertising.  Maria explained to him that the only way of avoiding intergalactic warfare was for females of every intelligent race in the universe to get together and do their networking. 

Alan wondered whether he should try to get involved in WUU, so that they could share an interest.  Could men really participate in networking? Cactuses had failed as a form of communication between him and Maria. She made it very clear that she did not like extracting spines from her fingers, and the holiday to the Peruvian desert had not been a success. 

Pleasantly exhausted from another two hours of sieving and mixing soils, he sat on the patio supping a pint of beer and reading Cactus Grower’s Weekly, but at the back of his mind was a niggling thought. What could be so interesting about the possibility of life on other planets, when there were so many different types of Cactus on Earth?  If only Maria could try to understand the importance of his interests.

He sighed and went indoors. 

The kitchen could wait to the morrow. Its work surfaces were covered in the dirtiest flowerpots, destined for the dishwasher. Soil and sand seemed to be everywhere.  He smiled at the prospect of potting up his babies, then climbed the stairs wearily, a Cactus Keepers’ Annual under his arm.

As usual, he donned his striped cotton pyjamas, buttoned to the neck, pushed the lank strands of hair across his shining scalp, and of course, brushed his teeth properly for five minutes. Once in bed, he blew the dandruff from his glasses and placed them on top of the annual before snuggling under his duvet. His last thought before falling asleep was the hope that aliens might be half-human and half-cactus, thus unifying his interests with those of his wife.


At about 3 a.m., Alan awoke with a terrible pain in the chest.

His first thought was that he was having a heart attack, but he could not move his arms either. As his eyes adjusted to the light, his thinning hair tried to stand on end. There was someone sitting on him.  He worked his dry mouth and a strangled croak came out. The stranger made a dry rasping noise like a wood-boring insect. Alan could now see that it was indeed a huge insect of some kind. Very thin (but quite heavy), shiny like moulded plastic. Hairy too. The head was a smooth oval shape like a hazelnut, with a hooked mouth and bug eyes. It looked like some kind of praying mantis. Alan kicked his legs furiously until two gleaming claws waved into the air and clamped them fast. He relaxed, and to his surprise the creature nodded sagely.

Still holding him, it scuttled off the bed and then let go. Alan floated about one metre in the air, he estimated vaguely. His body started to rotate ever faster and as he span, he could see two streams of silver liquid being jetted over him from the sides of the creature’s head. Eventually he was encased in silver. Rather than being terrified, he felt drowsy and strangely relaxed.

When Alan awoke for the second time, he was sitting in what looked like his favourite armchair, but it was located in a room so big that he could not see the ceiling or the walls. There was only a silvery-white glow that faded into the distance. Nearby there was a new greenhouse of breathtaking proportions. He stood up, not noticing that his skinny body was quite naked, and walked over to it. Inside was the biggest collection of cacti he had ever seen, and at least half of the species nearby were unknown.  Te greenhouse seemed to go on endlessly. He walked through it for some time until he came to a white door. He entered and stopped in surprise.

The room was just like his lounge, complete with television and shelves filled with reference books. In front of the television sat a very old man, also naked other than his white beard, which was long enough to hide his genitals.  The old man looked up from reading an ancient cactus manual.

“Welcome, my friend. Do make yourself comfortable. Tea?”

Alan was so astonished that he sat down on the sofa, and was handed a Dresden china cup filled with an aromatic brew of Earl Grey tea.

“I know you like Earl Grey tea, Alan.”

Alan smiled. “Yes, it’s my favourite.  Now, I’m being very calm because I am a dentist, but I don’t think I can continue much longer. Who are you?”

As he spoke, his hand trembled, spilling some of the tea.

“I am Marcus Turner. My son married Wendy Smythe in 1879 thus creating the Turner-Smythe line, so you are my direct descendent, carrying the obsessive potting gene into the future.”

“Okay,” Alan said slowly, and took a sip of tea. “Go on.”

“It’s very simple, really.  The people that live in this city collected me when they were gathering cacti. They thought that I was a natural part of the greenhouse ecosystem, and I suppose I am.”

Alan started to worry. He did not want to take over as the curator of this alien collection.  “So why am I here? I mean, it’s very nice to meet you, Marcus, but…well, you’re just like me…”

Marcus shook his woolly head emphatically. “Not very interesting, you mean? You’re here for a different purpose, Alan.  You are here because you have something that they need.”

“What?”

The old man smiled. “You have cactus DNA in your body. Didn’t you know?”

Alan recalled the Sci-Fi channel. “Are they going to put something in my brain?”

“Wrong, wrong, wrong!  Alfresia will explain it to you herself. She’ll be right along any minute.”

Alan heard the scaly scratching noise again and shrank back in fear. As the door opened, long black antennae waved in the air. In the strange white light, it did not seem so horrifying.  It was about the size of a human and walked like a human, but the body was as thin as pipe cleaners and seemed to be made of a beetle-like substance, black and shiny. Its shoulders were spiny, its fingers long and thin. It walked up to Alan and held out one of its repulsive claws. Years of etiquette kicked in and he took it then gasped as his fingers were crushed and his arm pumped up and down vigorously.  Then it turned to Marcus and started to speak.

“She says, put this in your ear so you can understand what she is saying,” Marcus translated. He opened his hand and on his palm was a shiny little worm. Alan prodded it doubtfully and it curled into a defensive ball.  He counted to five and placed the worm in his ear. There was a pleasant sensation like warm eardrops, and that was all.

“Alan, can you understand me?”  The voice was distant and tinny, but definitely feminine.

“Yes.  It’s remarkable. But what the hell is going on?  I demand to be taken home immediately. You…you…,” he clenched his bony fists in rage.

“Follow me, Alan,” she replied, then hopped up and strode from the room.  He had to walk fast to keep up and did not have time to say goodbye to Marcus.  They entered another long white corridor, and then the spindly insect figure stepped into a room.

When Alan entered, his jaw dropped. It was his dental surgery, complete in almost every detail, including the faded Van Gogh print and the tropical fish.  Alfresia was waiting by the chair and had donned a white coat. Alan wandered forward in a daze and settled into the chair.  The creature leaned over him. She was wearing a surgical mask above which her huge, multi-celled eyes reflected his face a thousand times. She turned and picked up a syringe from the instrument tray.

“Wait- I’m not quite ready for this,” he babbled, and a bead of sweat ran down his face.

“Alan, I am just going to numb your mouth a little bit. I have to take a skin sample and we don’t want it to hurt.” 

Before he could stall her anymore, she injected his gum with surprising skill. “There, not so bad, was it?  Would you like to sit and read a magazine for a few minutes, whilst I prepare for the next stage?” She waved a claw at a chair.

Alan sat, naked, reading a special issue of Cactus Almanac. It contained species that he knew could not come from Earth because of their colours – blue, red and purple. A few minutes later it was time.

“Nice and numb now, Alan?”

“Mmmm.”

He settled back and Alfresia turned with a long, silver blade in her claw. The creature looked at him with her head tilted to one side, and then made a curious grating sound. She moved so quickly that he did not have time to react, and then triumphantly held up a sliver of skin, before dropping it into a small metal container. There was no blood. The implement she used seemed to cauterise as it cut.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it, Alan? Would you like to wash out your mouth?”

She held out a cup of purple mouthwash, and he swizzled it then spat into a silver funnel.  She handed him a paper towel.

“Can I go now?”  He was incoherent.

She removed the facemask.

“Alan, try to understand me.  Right now, we are on Earth. We are the humans of the distant future and we need your DNA for our survival. You could call us genetic engineers, modifying our race so we can survive in hostile environments.  That’s why we travel the universe, collecting other cactuses and merging their genes with ours, but it all started with you. The planet has changed a lot, you know.”

He was shocked beyond belief. “You mean…?”

She laughed. “Yes, Alan. Only you can provide us with the essential genetic material. And your wife also interests us.”

“What, you want to take Maria as well?”

Alfresia looked like she might be trying to frown. “Why are males so stupid?” she asked via the earworm. “We are a race of females. We want to join WUU. So you must tell her that we will visit again soon. Goodbye, Alan.”


Alan felt he was falling and spinning. Streaks of light whizzed past and translucent veils parted, and then he stopped. Cautiously he opened an eye and looked around.

“Holy Christ, what the hell are you doing? Look at the state of the kitchen.” Maria sounded equally annoyed and astonished.

He was still stark naked, lying on his back on the cushion linoleum floor, and a small worm had just dropped from his ear.

“Maria, thank God it’s you. Thank God.”   Alan sobbed with relief.

She looked at him. “Honestly, Alan, you really need to get out more. Why don’t you look up an ancient relative?”