Four Square Less One

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Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 1 Four Square Less One Collected Short Stories by Trevor Hopkins 2 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 To Tas and Seb – for everything. Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 3 Contents ITCH .....................................................................................6 Afterword - Itch ........................................................................................... 14 HOW TO IMPERSONATE A UFO......................................15 Afterword - How to Impersonate a UFO ..................................................... 23 FRUSTRATION CAUSES ACCIDENTS ............................24 Afterword - Frustration Causes Accidents .................................................. 31 ANOMALOUS PROPAGATION.........................................32 Afterword - Anomalous Propagation........................................................... 39 OCCULT EXPRESS ...........................................................40 Afterword - Occult Express ......................................................................... 49 THE DESERT AND THE SEA............................................50 Afterword - The Desert and the Sea ............................................................ 58 DAEMON BRIDGE .............................................................59 Afterword - Daemon Bridge......................................................................... 68 BROKEN BOX....................................................................69 Afterword - Broken Box............................................................................... 78 THE GHOST OF COMPUTER SCIENCE...........................79 Afterword - The Ghost of Computer Science .............................................. 87 SHADES OF TROY............................................................88 Afterword - Shades of Troy ......................................................................... 97 4 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 STONE AND SHADOWS ...................................................98 Afterword - Stone and Shadows................................................................. 104 DUST OF ANGELS ..........................................................105 Afterword - Dust of Angels ........................................................................ 116 SUSTAINABILITY MATRIX..............................................117 Afterword - Sustainability Matrix ............................................................. 128 WINDMILLS OF NEW AMSTERDAM ..............................129 Afterword - Windmills of New Amsterdam............................................... 144 MAKING THE CROSSING ...............................................145 Afterword - Making the Crossing.............................................................. 162 FOUR SQUARE LESS ONE - AN EXPLANATION .........163 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 5 Itch A short story by Trevor Hopkins Do you get an itch you can’t scratch? No, not that kind of itch You know how it is. You get an itching, tickling sensation, somewhere in the middle of your back, and you can’t quite reach to just the right place. Perhaps it’s between your shoulder-blades, or just below, or to one side. Or if you think you can reach, it’s never entirely satisfactory wherever you scrape or rub. Do you want to know what causes that itch, the one you just can’t seem to scratch? I know the reason why you itch. If you’re sure you want to know too, read on. I’m working as a Research Assistant. You know, one of those underpaid and overworked kids with lank hair and poor complexions to be found in some numbers in their natural environment – the quieter and darker corners of the science faculty buildings. The faculty itself is part of one of those red-brick Universities which was instituted in an act of Victorian philanthropy, and which has grown over time almost organically. The Uni has gradually displaced the back-to-back terraces and narrow alleys that surrounded it with newer buildings which were probably supposed to be soaring white edifices of glass and stone, but seem to have ended up as irregular piles of water-stained grey concrete. Like Mycroft, my life runs on rails. During the day, I try to find enough time to make a dent in the seemingly endless task of completing my PhD thesis, between bouts of sleeping and eating from the nearby takeaway kebab shop known affectionately as the ‘Armpit’. I spend the minimum possible amount of time in my room in a rented house I share with several other postgrads – which is just as well, since it is cold, squalid and damp. At night, I’m working on computer models of brain function – a task as large and complex as the Human Genome project, although we’re a long way off that kind of successful completion. This is one of those crossover subject areas between AI and Robotics (which has been the Wave of the Future for more decades than I’ve been alive) and Bio-informatics (sponsorship home of the big pharmaceutical and 6 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 healthcare companies). Basically, some of us have finally realised that we really don’t know enough about creating smart systems – we need to know more about existing intelligences before it makes sense to attempt to build artificial ones. Of course, brain function mapping has all sorts of potential spin- offs, which is why Big Pharma and the healthcare consortia are interested in what we do. So much of human behaviour is determined by our hard-to-predict reactions to external stimuli, and there’s so much we could do with a deterministic model of the machine between our ears – everything from improved anti-depressants (which is a pretty big market these days) or even a better contraceptive with no side-effects. Yes, ladies, you might just be able to think yourself not pregnant Selling these big ideas to the big companies, and gathering in the resulting big research grants, is of course the responsibility of my university supervisor and his professor, leaving me the menial task of actually making the technology work. So, I’m steadily fumbling my way towards constructing a highly- abstracted model of total brain function. It has to be a hugely simplified abstraction – even the immense supercomputer in the basement (supplied at an extremely cut price by Big Blue, who really know how to woo the Big Pharma marketplace) was theoretically capable of representing only a tiny fraction of human mental activity. Really, I’m refining a nearly automated process. I’ve been developing a suite of programs, including a library of rapidly- reconfigurable heuristics, which is capable of a statistical analysis of a huge number of brain scans. We’ve a library of recorded scans from NHS hospitals all over the country, all completely anonymous of course, as well as access to the results of stimulus-response experiments from all over the world. With static, structural information available in increasingly detailed form from CAT scans and the like, and dynamic information from the experiments, there’s a wealth of data in there which just needs a structure to pull it out. So, my heuristics take the raw brain function data, map it to a set of conceptual ideas of brain function, and then compile it into an abstracted executable model in a form that can be executed directly on the thousand-odd processors of the machine in the basement. In short, I’ve built a brain capable of being run on a supercomputer. You can’t really tell what its thinking, or even if it is Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 7 thinking in any real way, but you can tell if the model’s responses to stimuli correspond to the measured responses in a real brain. There’s just enough complexity in the model to show genuinely emergent behaviour and detectable emotional reactions. Of course, this takes vast amounts of computer power, both to compile the model itself and to execute it. It takes an hour or so of all those processors crunching away to simulate the effect of five seconds worth of what I can loosely call thinking. Naturally enough, most of this work is done in the middle of the night, when no-one else wants to use the machine. A few uninterrupted sessions in the wee hours are exceptionally productive, when the building is dark and quiet. The whole process is directed from the networked workstation in the corner of the office I share (if I was ever here during the day) with two other RAs and an indeterminate number (it seems different every week) of research students. Now, a large part of our brains is associated with processing optical inputs – there are other inputs as well, of course, but we are, fundamentally, visual creatures. So, part of the model itself, one of those conceptual ideas of brain function I mentioned, involves stimulating the optic nerves and modelling the corresponding movements of the eyes themselves. This coordination of eye movement and the inputs from the smallish number of high-resolution optical sensors in the retina is one of the novel features of this model, and it seems to successfully overcome some of the limitations in previous attempts to build a truly effective visual parser. It’s well-known that we use only a small fraction of our brain. Actually, that’s not really true, more an urban myth. More sophisticated measurements and less intrusive techniques has allowed recent experiments to detect neuron dynamics in regions of the brain previously thought to be redundant. Still, there do seem to be some areas with no discernable purpose, and part of the research is to find out more about unused brain cells. Basically, I showed pictures to the model. Some of these came from a library specifically for this purpose, but I found I got some interesting reactions, and in particular some dynamic behaviour in regions thought to be inert, by using images with distinctly emotive contexts. Some images were already available online whilst others I simply scanned using the multi-function printer-copier down the hall. 8 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 All was going well until I started showing the model pictures of naked people. Look, fine, this is the kind of thing you do when you’re working all alone in the middle of the night, at a task which requires occasional flashes of insight, a few minutes of concerted effort and several hours of boredom. Besides, I knew about this collection of well-thumbed magazines hidden away in the back of the filing cabinet. Of course, I expected some emotional reactions – perhaps some analogue of prudery and embarrassment in the higher regions, and some pretty direct sexual responses in more primitive areas. What I actually got was a curious mixture of disgust and loathing, even fear, and a distinctive activation of the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. If it was a real person, it would be feeling some horrific combination of stomach- turning revulsion and stomach-knotting fright. I just had to investigate, although I’ve now come to seriously regret that decision. It’s fairly easy to find out what part of an image the model is concentrating on, since it is, in essence, moving its eyes as it scans and comprehends the scene in front of it. I’m sure you can guess the body parts I had expected to attract. I was wrong. Over the course of an hour’s run, the model’s simulated eye movement ignored the external genitalia and various wobbly bits, and focussed almost entirely on a small area between the shoulder-blades. You know, I believe this might have been the moment I first started itching in that exact place? I carefully checked for image defects and scanner problems, and found nothing. The model’s reaction to images of people with their clothes on was unsurprising, and completely consistent with its response to other, less emotive, contexts. On closer investigation – yes, I really did download all those pictures from the Internet for scientific reasons – I found that the model would display plausibly randy reactions to pictures where the back and shoulders were not visible, but fear-and-loathing when presented with shoulder-blades. One projected use of highly detailed brain models is truly effective hypnosis – the ability to remove compulsions and inhibitions, or even be able to introduce them artificially. You can imagine the government and military wetting themselves thinking up ways of using that capability. So, my initial hypothesis was that the model had somehow gained an artificial neurosis, produced as some obscure reaction to an anodyne part of the human body. These kinds of discrepancies Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 9 between modelled and real-life behaviour are always interesting, and often a fruitful source of material for papers to be published in some of the more obscure journals. Oh, and of course it adds to my professor’s credibility in the never-ending pursuit of sponsorship money. My objectives were two-fold: first, to reduce the variables, to avoid any side-effects of image coding techniques or copyright-tracking steganography. For this purpose, I captured an image of me, from the back, and wearing no clothes. I borrowed a high-resolution digital camera from the image-processing labs on the next floor down, and used the most loss-less image encoding format I could identify. The single picture took up a substantial fraction of my personal disk space quota. I even printed out a copy and blue-tacked it to the wall above my workstation. My second objective was to present the stimuli and the model’s reaction in a way that was comprehensible to mere humans. I set about writing a new program to extract an image of how the model itself perceived the scene it was viewing. This took a lot of programming, and I sat up over my workstation for several nights until the new interfaces began to show signs of working. During these few days, I found myself neglecting my write-up and sleeping even less than usual; inevitably I was compensating by eating even more of the blisteringly hot kebab-and-pitta-bread concoctions from the ‘Armpit’, washed down by alarming quantities of caffeinated cola drinks. Finally I was ready for a full test run. Sitting at the workstation, I reloaded the most recent model, and hooked up the new visualisation software, then typing the few commands which started the model’s reaction to the image of my back. I’d displayed the evolving picture of artificial perception in a window I’d placed in one corner of the screen. It showed a desperately low resolution at first, with each pixels worth of enhancement being painfully computed as the kilo-engine processor in the basement ground away. Eventually some kind of comprehensible picture began to emerge from the twin mists of simulated perception and digitised noise. Frankly, I was utterly horrified. The details that emerged showed some kind of growth, a green bump embedded in my own skin between my own shoulder blades. 10 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 Somehow, my own inherent perception changed at that moment. I’ve heard that expression about ‘scales lifting from my eyes’, and that was exactly what happened. My picture, stuck to the painted breezeblocks above the workstation, seemed to shimmer and twist, a green blob appearing before my eyes and between my shoulder-blades. Opening one of the filing-cabinet magazines showed me pictures of bronzed muscular men and compliant young women, all with one – or sometimes more than one – of the green appurtenances protruding from their backs, just where the model showed they would be. I rushed to the gents bogs and lifted my shirt, looking at my own reflection in the rather grubby mirror over the cracked washbasin. There it was, a bright virulent green, like a really ripe green pepper – a bell pepper or capsicum – somehow seamlessly merged with normal pink skin on my own back. In the mirror, I could see a slight sense of movement, somehow pulsating gently like a TV special effect from an early edition of Doctor Who, its movements distinctly out of sync with my own breathing and heart rate. I was heartily sick, there and then. I think they’re some kind of symbiote, or more likely parasite. They grow on people, on everybody, their roots digging deep into our bodies. My best guess is that the growths form links into the spinal column and produces some kind of hypnotic effect in our brains which prevents them from being seen. Somehow, we all share a worldwide neurosis, an induced inability to see what quite literally sits on our own shoulder. I’ve been looking at these things for several days and nights now, not sleeping much. Now, I can see them everywhere, even detect their presence under tee-shirts and fleeces. Everyone has at least one and some people – particular very slender and attractive people – have several. Perhaps the physical drain of keeping two or three of the parasites alive from your own bodily resources means you have no excess fat – and the added induced neurosis that exceptionally well- inhabited hosts are both thin and beautiful. What I still can’t work out is why the growths are not hidden entirely within our bodies. My best guess is that they are some kind of plant, and they can’t quite get all the nutrients they need from us directly. So, they must retain some kind of vestigial photosynthesis, to produce some vital trace compound not available from our own blood streams. Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 11 Just for my own reference, just a way of hooking them to a name, I’ve taken to calling them Monkey Plants, after the expression ‘a monkey on your back’ in that modern sense of a serious problem that just will not go away. I’ve spent some time thinking about how to remove them, and what would happen if I did. My back seems to be itching all the time now, and I know what’s causing it, and I’d dearly love to rip the offending growth from my skin. In fact, I’m not even sure that they even can be removed. I can see the Monkey Plant on my own back, but I can’t touch it – not my own, not other peoples. Even though I can see exactly where it is, I can’t control my own hands, or the movements of my body, to actually press my fingertips against its surface. There’s something deeper in the hypnosis, something at a detailed level that my computer model won’t let me reach, which prevents the physical contact. Another one of those supposedly inert regions of brain cells kicking in, I expect. I’m not a parent, and may very well never be, but we’ve all heard stories of babies crying incessantly, inconsolable despite the best efforts of their increasingly fraught mothers. It must be incredibly painful, the initial infection before the first of these things has fully integrated itself with the spinal cord. A baby can’t move in a coordinated way, or communicate; it has no way other than bawling to show the agony it is enduring. I think the infections move from person to person, with some kind of seeds or spores being transmitted from parent to offspring, and growing and living with us for all our lives. Imagine our bodies aging, wearing out, drained by the incessant physical demands of feeding the things. I’ve seen old people, hunched and feeble, bent nearly in two by the Monkey on their backs. These things don’t think, in any way we understand the term. But they have desires, needs – they want to grow more, and the more people there are, the more they can grow. I suspect this endemic infection has pushed us, our society, in certain directions – to live in large groups, in villages and cities, and to alter our environment, our world, driving our evolution, making us invent technologies to give us the resources to support more bodies – just so that they can reproduce more. I think the reason human beings are taking over the planet is because the Monkey Plants have taken us over. 12 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 I believe there’s yet another mechanism that the plants have evolved over the millennia. If you try and talk about them, the growths on your back, you are comprehensively ignored. Not disbelieved, just ignored, as if you had said nothing at all. I’ve showed my results, the pictures, to my supervisor, and he just changed the subject back to the next round of grant submissions – no real difference there, then. I’ve tried to engage some of the other postgrads in conversation, even buying the pints in the back-street pub we occasionally visit; again, they just don’t seem to hear what I say. So, this is my attempt to communicate – to tell the world about this disease, this parasite, which is warping our bodies, and our minds, and our societies. And, you know what, I just bet you won’t believe me. Oh, you’ll read my words, even declare that you completely understand what I’ve written. But that monkey on your back just won’t let you believe, really really believe. It’s just a story to you, isn’t it? 2993 words 8 pages 10/02/2008 07:36 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 13 Afterword - Itch I used to say that the closest I get to writing fiction is journalism – certainly, the standards found in much of the popular press could lead you to believe that most journalists do not hesitate to simply make it up. This was the very first short story of mine ever published; indeed, my first fiction of any kind to appear in print. The very first time that something where I had just made up got out there, as opposed to books and research papers which merely reported the truth, as I saw it, or some close approximation thereto. I got, in the email, a suggestion to enter Itch in a competition to appear in the Abaculus 2007 anthology. This turned up out of the blue, much to my surprise. The suggestion came from Danielle Kaheaku, Editor in Chief at Leucrota Press. She had apparently discovered the story browsing my web site. As the editor of the anthology, and therefore presumably strongly influential in the final selection, it would be churlish not to put the story forward. Of course, I did enter the story, together with an early draft of How to Impersonate a UFO. The latter got nowhere, but Itch was selected to be one of twenty stories in the anthology. I can still remember that moment in the closing days of 2007, being presented with a postal package which contained the volume itself. I was delighted – an excellent Christmas present. After Abaculus 2007 was published, and my author’s copy had been delivered, I spend a few minutes comparing the text as published with the material I originally supplied. An insight into the mind of the editor, perhaps? There were a few words inserted, and a whole paragraph deleted – all of which meant that the story was altogether just a littlebit tighter. Still, I was confused by a couple of substitutions: “pitta” was replaced by “pita” – presumably just one of those variations between British and American English – and “OK” was replaced by “fine”. The latter still seems strange to me, but no explanation has yet been forthcoming. 14 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 How to Impersonate a UFO A short story by Trevor Hopkins It all started with a chance remark last year, a question I put to my father. My old man was a pilot in the Royal Air Force for many years, in that interesting period of world history after the Second World War known as the Cold War. He had flown all over the world, in an age where this was very unusual. He had even dropped bombs on Suez during that ill-advised political embarrassment. Dad is, or was, I should say, a great raconteur, a pillar of the local Rotary Club and very much in demand for his after-dinner speeches. He had a great fund of stories and anecdotes, often based on his flying experiences. But there was one tale which I had not ever heard him tell, one which I discovered buried in the draft of his autobiography when I was reading the proofs. He had written that he “felt sure he had caused a UFO scare on one occasion”. So, here’s how to do it – how to provide a convincing imitation of an Unidentified Flying Object. Don’t try this at home, kids. For this trick, you need a night with completely clear skies – no cloud to form a visual reference – and with no moon to provide undesirable illumination. Pick a time of year when the jet streams are blowing strongly – you know, those fast-moving stratospheric air currents that the pilots of commercial airlines like to blame for their late arrival. Wintertime is preferred. Oh, and you’ll need a military jet. My Dad did this in a Canberra, but I dare say that any modern jet fighter would work just as well. So, off you go. Fly up to 45,000 feet over some major conurbation, and head into the wind. Now, the jet streams are probably running at around 150 knots, so you throttle back until your airspeed is about one-fifty. From the ground, you are now more-or-less stationary. If you’re equipped with a radar ground speed indicator, you can fine-tune your direction and airspeed until you are completely stopped, just hanging in the air. Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 15 Then, you turn on all the landing lights. These lights are typically distributed fore-and-aft, and on the wing-tips, and around the undercarriage. So, from the ground, you look like a disk with illuminated portholes, or engines, or whatever, all around the circumference. You sit there in the jet stream for ten minutes or so, chuckling with your co-pilot about the stir you’re probably causing on the ground. What a wizard wheeze. Then, you turn about and throttle right up, so that you are streaking through the skies. Then, just when you’ve reached your maximum speed, turn the lights off again. Your observers have just seen a hovering object suddenly accelerate from rest to a phenomenal speed – “no known aircraft can fly like that” – and then disappear. Now you’re a UFO. Good, huh? With a bit of luck, your appearance and sudden disappearance will be reported in the more sensationalist newspapers with banner headlines, and some no-doubt anonymous government spokesman will be quoted in the small print explaining that this was a just “an ordinary unscheduled military training flight”. Now my old Dad has something of a reputation as a prankster. He’s always ready with a joke or two, often highly politically-incorrect and downright filthy, but usually irresistibly funny for all that. He was the editor of the Rotary Club newsletter, which also gave him an outlet for his personal sense of humour and, since he was a bit of a Silver Surfer, he had taken to trawling the Internet for humorous material. I would occasionally send him ‘funnies’ in the electronic mail which I feel sure became newsletter material and I would often get something hilarious in return. Having re-read the words from his book, I had simply assumed it was a practical joke, a lark. I tackled him on the topic during one of my inexcusably infrequent visits. We were sitting in the small but well-maintained garden at the back of the house last summer, basking in the early evening sunshine and enjoying a glass of sherry before dinner. My wife was occupied elsewhere in the house with our children. My mother was busying herself in the kitchen, producing one of those splendid roast dinners I remember so well from my childhood, but which I feel I must resist most of the time these days, if only to keep my weight and blood pressure down. 16 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 Dad went uncharacteristically quiet for a few moments. Then, in low and serious tones, he told me what actually happened on that night back in the fifties, an episode which occurred before I was even born. He made it clear that this was not a prank, a whim, but that he had been specifically instructed to go up and perform this trick. I already knew that, for many years, my old man was a pilot instructor and flight examiner, flying Canberras. He had countless old comrades and acquaintances that he had met in the service, many of whom he had actually trained at one time or another. Night training flights were a standard part of the instruction programme, an essential part of the military role to be able to be airborne at any time and under any weather conditions. He reminded me that there was a three-man crew for these early- version Canberras – a pilot, a co-pilot and a navigator-bombardier. The aircraft were equipped with twin controls, highly suitable for pilot training – indeed, Dad had done his own jet training in one of these aircraft not so long ago. My father explained that, on the night in question, the routine pre- mission briefing for what was originally a standard night training flight was unexpectedly interrupted by the Wing-Commander himself. The Wingco was a RAF officer of the old school, right the way down to the ginger handlebar moustache. He had served with distinction during the War and was widely regarded as one who did not suffer fools gladly. On this occasion, the Wingco seemed extremely annoyed at the disruption and the sudden change of plan, though my father thought he had detected an undercurrent of nervousness uncharacteristic of the Old Man. The Wingco was accompanied by three other men, two of whom were not wearing any kind of uniform but nevertheless had the bearing of military men. Dad never did discover the origins of these two men, but he strongly suspected that they were from the US Central Intelligence Agency. At that time, CIA pilots were required to resign their military commission at the time of joining the Agency, a process wittily known as ‘sheep-dipping’. The third man was in the uniform of the US Air Force. This in itself was not unusual; the RAF maintained a close collaboration with the Americans at this time. In those Cold War days, there were American airbases all over Southern and Eastern England, many of Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 17 which were reputed to house air-delivered strategic nuclear weapons. As a child, I clearly remember disparaging remarks being make by my father, when passing by in the car, about the bra-less anti-war protesters at Greenham Common with their “ban the bomb” slogans and CND posters. Of course, in spite of the close collaboration, there was a certain amount of friendly (and occasionally not-so friendly) rivalry between the air forces. My Dad summarised it thus: the Americans considered the RAF tiny and under-equipped to the point of irrelevance, while the Brits found the erstwhile colonials both arrogant and unwilling to take risks. The USAF officer took immediate charge of the training briefing, leaving the Wingco fuming at being required to do nothing other than to lend his authority to the instructions being issued by the American. The trainee pilot was quietly but firmly instructed to return to barracks. His place on the mission was replaced by an unsmiling man my father was instructed only to refer to as Rex, one of the officer’s near-silent companions in mufti. The navigator was retained, although it turned out that his role was very limited, since they wouldn’t be flying very far. Dad said that he was killed a few years later in a freak accident, one which was never satisfactorily explained. At the time, the Canberra was one of the few aircraft capable of flying extremely high – well above the heights achieved by modern commercial jets. My father pointed out that this aircraft was designed as a Cold War bomber, capable of delivering nuclear weapons to foreign capitals whether they wanted them or not. Early versions of the aircraft had a service ceiling of 48,000 feet, but in the late fifties, Canberra variants set a series of height records, in one case in excess of 70,000 feet. In fact, I understand from Dad that the official maximum height for late-model aircraft is still officially restricted information. Of course, there were a very few other aircraft then capable of reaching these kinds of height. Dad had heard rumours of a classified aircraft he later discovered to be the Lockheed U-2 spy plane, which was by then in service with the CIA, flying intelligence missions over potentially hostile foreign soil. The U-2 could travel higher and further than the Canberra, but had a reputation of being tricky to fly and with difficult – even dangerous – handling in poor weather conditions. 18 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 The point is that there was very little else up there – still isn’t, really. All modern subsonic commercial traffic is at 40,000 feet or below and, now that Concorde has been grounded, anything you see at that height is likely to be military in origin. Dad’s first thought, given the haste and obvious secrecy surrounding this mission, was that there was some military emergency, some reconnaissance that was urgently needed, and that for some reason the U-2 could not be used. But that aircraft was not equipped with cameras – although Canberras were used as flying camera platforms well into the twenty-first century – and, from that height, the human eye is more-or-less useless as a way of spotting anything on the ground. The mystery man Rex was clearly familiar with modern military aircraft. He also made it clear that Dad was to concentrate on flying the crate while he gave directions over the intercom to the navigator, confirming the directions to set a direct course to over-fly central London, climbing to 48,000 feet and making best possible speed. He also instructed my father to keep a close lookout. My father was a very experienced pilot, having spent at least thirty years of his life flying various craft around this planet. He also had exceptionally good eyesight. Even in later life, well into his sixties, he was more able to spot objects in the sky and to provide an instant aircraft identification much more quickly than I could ever manage. So it was no surprise that it was Dad who first spotted the multi- coloured lights in the sky, flying on what he thought was a roughly parallel course. The laconic instruction from the mysterious American came over the intercom: “head towards the object at eleven o’clock”. At first, my father thought the other aircraft was only a mile or two away, but the true size of the other craft soon became apparent after some minutes flying towards it at 600-plus knots. As Dad described it, it was as large as an ocean-going liner, circular in overall shape and smoothly rounded at the periphery. The bodywork was a deep black, but there were lights streaming from multiple openings or windows all the way around the disk. It was completely unclear how the strange craft could possibly stay in the air at all. It was making no attempt to get away from the following Canberra. Despite flying at nearly full throttle, Dad reported that he got the strangest sensation that the mysterious flying machine was merely ambling along, deliberately allowing itself to be observed. Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008 19 Now, it’s difficult to see any kind of facial reaction inside a flying helmet and oxygen mask. Looking around at his companions, Dad reported that the navigator’s eyes were wide in shock. By contrast, Rex seemed unsurprised but his eyes seemed to have a slightly manic gleam of exultation reflecting the lights from the instrument panel. The mysterious American had come aboard equipped with several cameras and a powerful torch. As Dad flew in formation with the giant craft, under and over – ‘like a tom-tit on a round of beef’, as my old man put it – the American shot off reel after reel of film. He also shone the torch through the canopy; they were flying close enough so that the beam of light could clearly been seen passing over the smooth black hull. After a few minutes, the other craft dimmed its lights to almost nothing, with just an eerie blue glow remaining around some of the orifices which Dad took to be its engines. Rex’s twang came over the intercom, breaking into Dad’s thoughts. “OK, I’ve seen enough. Break off and descend to 45,000. Head west.” Dad complied immediately. Looking behind, he could see that the mysterious craft seemed to darken and then recede into the distance. It was only after a moment that Dad realised that the machine was going straight up. It disappeared after only a few seconds. There was an instant of strange stillness in the cabin, despite the ever-present roar of the engines. The moment was broken by Rex’s voice, instructing my father to perform the strange manoeuvre I described earlier, the significance of which he did not appreciate until he heard about the reports in the those ‘sensationalist newspapers’. Why? What was the purpose of the ruse? Dad wasn’t sure, but I’m convinced it was what these days we would call ‘plausible deniability’. It was a provable matter of record that, yes, a military aircraft was flying over London on that day, on a course which corresponded to any sighting which might have been reported, and which had genuinely been practicing ‘unconventional manoeuvres’ which might have confused an observer. In the post-mission de-brief, it was made very clear that the RAF crew were not supposed to tell anyone about this, not now, and not ever. There were appeals to patriotism, which rankled a bit in the presence of so many Americans, and there were vague threats, not 20 Copyright © Trevor Hopkins 2007-2008

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