Toast

Toast
A dialogue between two aliens

AN ANCIENT LISTENING MODULE IN ANDROMEDA DETECTS A SERIES OF RADIO SIGNALS FROM AN UNMAPPED REGION OF A DISTANT GALAXY. THE RESIDENT POWER DETEMINES THAT THERE IS A CHANCE THE SIGNALS RESULT FROM A PRIMITIVELY INTELLIGENT POSSIBLY CARBON-BASED LIFEFORM AND SENDS TWO OF ITS MORE EXPENDABLE ENTITIES TO INVESTIGATE.

(Note to actors. The challenge of the piece is to maintain the conceit of two obviously human actors as aliens for whom the weird – human — life-form they are investigating are aliens.)

Scene one

ENTITY ONE
An intelligent chemical life-form? What a joke. Can’t be real.

ENTITY TWO
It’s real alright, unmistakable. Whole series of transmissions. Listening modules don’t lie. Some kind of chemical life, carbonic stuff they reckon.

ONE
Carbonic life? How could chemical stuff have sent radio waves? Doesn’t add up. If you ask me this is a pointless mission.

TWO
Maybe so, but we’re on it.

ONE
Nothing but a wild goose chase And why us? Anyway, how intelligent could a chemical thingy be?

TWO
Pretty minimal, I grant you. Very primitive. Not advanced.

ONE
Opposite to us, then?

TWO
Correct.

ONE
What frequency is this stuff?

TWO
It isn’t.

ONE
It’s not made of waves?

TWO
Nope.

ONE
Not any kind of vibration? emanation?

TWO
Nope.

ONE
So they’re not radionic.

TWO
Hey, that’s what I’m telling you, they can’t be like us at all. They’re not an electromagnetic life-form. They’re stuff. Material, molecular, physical, chemical stuff and nothing else.

ONE
Weird. I’m having a real problem picturing it. Solid stuff. You’re saying they’re carbon and hydrogen and sodium and water and whatnot all mashed up together in a lump.

TWO
One way of putting it.

ONE
Lump-life – that’s got to be very unnatural.

TWO
Yes, well … [brightly] Could be a globule.

ONE
A what?

TWO
A globule, some kind of baggy thing full of liquid and gas stuff – fluids, bubbles, gurgles, vortices — slurping around inside a membrane. Could be a life-form composed of tiny, self-contained bags filled with fluids.

ONE
[laughs] That’s ridiculous. What would be the point?

TWO
Point?

ONE
Yes, what’s the point. Microscopic slurp-life. A totally limited, dead-end concept. Why would the universe bother to design such a thing?

TWO
Maybe it didn’t.

ONE
Then who did?

TWO
Maybe it wasn’t designed.

ONE
Are you telling me it just happened?

TWO
Maybe a primitively intelligent, proto-conscious, microscopic slurp-life could evolve. Stage one: Self-replicating carbonic systems. Stage two: Various kinds of slime. Stage three: slime develops sensory inputs and actuators. Stage four: slime fights slime for survival. Stage five: slime looks around. Stage six: slime starts to organize itself. Stage seven: it’s no longer just slime. A few more stages and before you know it you’ve got a carbonic-hydro-biological, globular life form with an electro-neural subsystem that thinks it’s conscious.

ONE
Rubbish.

TWO
Why not?

ONE
Look, if it’s some sort of a bag or globule like you say then it’s going to need stuff going in and coming out, right? So all the time it’d have stuff going in …

TWO
… on its way through.

ONE
Exactly. And going out. So are you telling me we’re on a mission to locate a bunch of intelligent, message-sending, self-aware waste-producing bags?

TWO
The universe is enormous — strange things happen.

ONE
Hey, forget the universe. Think about it: how could these waste-bags, still more or less slime according to you, be the source of something as completely unslimelike as radio signals?

TWO
If we knew things like that we wouldn’t need to be on this mission.

ONE
Which reminds me, just how long have we been on it?

TWO
I’ve lost track.

ONE
Feels like eons.

TWO
You should turn yourself off more.

ONE
Good idea [falls into trance].

Scene two

TWO
Hey, activate, get conscious, something’s happening!

ONE
[emerging from trance] What? What?

TWO
We’re almost there!

ONE
Where?

TWO
On the edge of the region where the transmissions are coming from. Intense concentration.

ONE
Some kind of powerful source located on that giant lump thing down there.

TWO
[airily] It’s called a planet.

ONE
Whatever.

TWO
Seems like the whole planet is transmitting.

ONE
Ah ha, what did I tell you. You and your intelligent globules evolving out of slime – I never bought that. Silly idea. And what’s more there’s no way any kind of bag full of slurping carbonic liquid could be the size of a ‘planet’.

TWO
You’re probably right.

ONE
Of course I am. I think we’ve got ourselves a giant transmitting machine.

TWO
Well, I must say that does simplify things.

ONE
You bet it does. What a relief. Now all we have to do is make contact with it, decode the message, find out what it wants, compute its galactic intelligence quotient, and zoom out of here on the nearest geodesic back home. I can’t wait.

TWO
Am afraid that’s easier said than done.

ONE
Now what?

TWO
The signals. I can’t find the message. There isn’t one.

ONE
Not a message. There’s gotta be one. Pretty pointless machine sending out signals with no message. You mean to tell me we’ve been brought all this …

TWO
[interrupts] No, there isn’t a message. There isn’t a single message. There’s billions of them, the whole planet vibrating with messages. All different, going off in every direction, changing all the time. New ones popping up every second.

ONE
Maybe it’s all one single, enormous mega message.

TWO
Nope. If you add up all the traffic there’s no pattern. The parameters sum to zero – it all cancels out to nonsense. Plus and minus fluctuations. See for yourself.

ONE
You’re right, random chaos. Pretty much white noise. Makes no sense. The machine obviously can’t just make noise. We’re missing something.

TWO
We sure are. Looks like we’re going to have to go deeper in. Another level. Take a time-slice of the all transmissions out there.

ONE
A total time-slice. You can’t be serious. That could swamp our entire bandwidth.

TWO
You’re right. Could be dangerous. Wipe us out.

ONE
Oh that’s just wonderful.

TWO
Nothing else we can do.

ONE
And for what? Who’s to say there’s anything worth finding if we get through it. I should never have volunteered for this mission.

TWO
You didn’t. You were conscripted. We both were. Remember?

ONE
I prefer to forget.

TWO
OK, here we go.

Scene three

TWO
This is totally amazing. I was right – they’re exactly how I said they might be. Bag life. And the planet is teeming with them. Just look at that.

ONE
Yeah, I see, I see but I can’t grasp it. Billions of squashy puppets. One big pulsating planet-size mass. Creepy. How are they connected to the transmission machine?

TWO
I’m thinking.
ONE
And look at them. Getting in and out of millions of mobile metallic boxes. Zipping about. Stopping and zipping off again. Or they’re totally immobile in front of primitive electronic screens.

TWO
Frequently interrupted by orifice activity.

ONE
Or they’re working the screens and producing electronic rectangles …

TWO
. .. which they transform into tree pulp.

ONE
Yeah, what’s that about? Making them, circulating them. bunching them together, storing them, piling them up, getting rid of them. What are they doing?

TWO
Well, whatever it is I’m certain it’s to do with their orifices.

ONE
You know, you’re fixated on orifices.

TWO
That’s right. I’ve figured it out. Throughput. That’s the key. Stuff in and stuff out. Entrance, exit.

ONE
And?

TWO
Don’t you get it. Orifices. Openings. Portals. Apertures, Holes in their membranes. Orifices have gotta be how stuff — including information to the machine — gets in and goes out. I can’t think why I didn’t see it before.

ONE
I still don’t.

TWO
Look, how do they communicate?

ONE
Radio waves.

TWO
No, that’s how the machine communicates. The puppets are stuff – remember. Inside some kind of chemical gas. When they get into close quarters what do you see?

ONE
Vibrations in the gas. Packets of waves. They look like bubbles.

TWO
Right. Bubbles. That’s how they communicate.

ONE
You’re not making a lot of sense.

TWO
A bubble comes out of the front orifice of one puppet and goes into the side orifice of another.[gestures from mouth to ear] Orifice to orifice. Puppet to puppet. Then they reverse it. Backwards and forwards. It’s what they do repeatedly.

ONE
Sex.

TWO
It’s not sex – the bubbles go somewhere.

ONE
What’s your point? You just said what happens – they go directly from one puppet to another. Orifice to orifice.

TWO
True, but only when they’re close. When the puppets are separated things are different. Then they do the rectangle business.

ONE
Are you telling me they’re transferring bubble information onto electronic rectangles?

TWO
That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying they’ve got some kind of globule-compatible information inscription system worked out. Ingenious in a kind of stupid way: bag-one to bag-two or whoever – in the beginning hello, this is to say, bla bla, bla, bla, yours sincerely, best wishes, happily ever after, over and out, the end.

ONE
So the rectangles are carrying information across the planet for the machine which turns it into radio waves?

TWO
Yup, the puppets are servicing the machine.

ONE
So where does that leave us?

TWO
We’ve got to figure out the circuit.

ONE

Circuit? What kind of circuit?

TWO

Data circuit. Information is flowing out of the puppets. How does it get in? Where does it come from? What’s the source?

ONE
Food. Has to be.

TWO
What?

ONE
Food. Orifice input. You know — plant seed slices — that kind of thing.

TWO
But that’s just stuff, chemicals – it’s not data, its not information.

ONE
OK, you tell me. Where else could it come from?

Scene 4

ONE
Machines.

TWO
What?

ONE
Machines. Gotta be. Food is only the vehicle. The sliced stuff is the physical medium carrying the information. The machines are where it comes from.

TWO
Why machines?

ONE
The puppets are a link in the food chain. They serve the machine which boots up these puppet-compatible machines which generate the information that goes into the food which comes out as bubbles which is converted into electronic rectangles which the machine transmits in the form of radio waves.

TWO
Seems very far-fetched to me. Why doesn’t the machine get the information direct from these other machines – whatever they are. Why does it bother with puppets.

ONE
I dunno. It obviously needs them. Must be some reason for it. Maybe the machine can’t renew itself without them. Maybe they’re like its sexual parts.

TWO
That’s disgusting. But anyway I don’t see any puppet-compatible machines like you’re talking about. Where are they? All these machines pumping information onto sliced food stuff? I don’t see them.

ONE
Yes you do — they’re everywhere. Puppets use them all the time. Toast. The machines make toast.

TWO

Toasters?

ONE
Yes toasters, They put a slice of sliced whatever into the machines and wait. Out it pops covered in information that obviously wasn’t there before they put it in.

TWO
Then what?

ONE
Then they coat it with different kinds of stuff and the puppet operating the machine swallows it. Or some other puppet does.

TWO
Swallows the machine?

ONE
No, the toast.

TWO
What makes them do it? Going to the trouble of putting information into their food. Can they read it?

ONE
Of course not. They don’t even know it’s information.

TWO
What do they think it is?

ONE
That’s the cleverness of the machine. The information is coded onto the toast in pure carbon. Remember the puppets are carbon-based. They like the taste – why shouldn’t they – carbon to carbon, perfect circuit.

TWO
You mean they’re eating the toast and gobbling up semiotic content, swallowing huge amounts of information as they chew?

ONE
You got it.

TWO

And all the time they don’t see it, don’t have a clue?

ONE
Not a peep. It all fits. After they swallow the toast bubbles come out.

TWO
Like what?

ONE
Could be anything. Depends. Close up to the machines it’s usually something like I’ll have another slice or ugh! this is really burnt or Oh Christ, there’s no butter.

TWO
Is that it? Seems a bit minimal.

ONE

No, no. That’s only the first layer of information being released. After a time — further out from the toasters — the bubbles get more elaborate and unpredictable. And so it goes. More toast, more bubbles, more electronic rectangles, more radio waves. Endless.

TWO
Whoah. A radionic, planet-sized, information-transduction machine.

ONE
Operated by billions of completely clueless, barely conscious semio-phage globular puppets.

TWO
Who could have imagined it.

ONE
Well, we couldn’t.

TWO
No, how could we. We don’t have orifices.

ONE
Orifices?. Holes? Huh? [shouts] We don’t even have membranes.

END

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