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Doctor Bob (Dr. Robert T Bob), ever a slave to convention, was abducted by aliens whilst changing a burst tyre on a lonely road in Wyoming. He could almost have predicted it – the spot should have boasted a little sign reading "UFOs – request stop only" and a time-table.
He awoke (but was he awake?) some nameless time later, into a dream-like scene. The aliens had only followed convention so far. There were no little grey men with huge black eyes and surgical tools. Nor, he observed with mild regret, were there any silver-Lycra-clad space-Amazons seeking to replenish their dying race. Instead he was adrift in a sea of warm light of shifting colours. He couldn't feel or see his own body, which caused him to doubt his own consciousness, but he did feel astonishingly alert.
"Hello?" he tried to call, and though he made no audible sound, he perceived the essence of his utterance radiating out from him as a shell of dim blue light.
"Weird," he whispered, and again, instead of sound, another burst of faint luminance burst forth, expressing the opinion 'weird'.
In a nameless direction, the shifting clouds of light surrounding him suddenly congealed into a complex pattern of slowly-dancing sparks. He had no sense of scale – he could be watching fireflies or galaxies. The sparks pulsed and emitted a burst of bright orange light. "How do you feel? Are you in any discomfort?"
"Uh, no," he responded in blue light. "Ah, I feel fine. Thank you. Um, where am I?"
Orange light responded, "We beg your apology… Is that right? No, we beg your forgiveness. We have never done this before. We were not sure if we could."
Far from being concerned, Doctor Bob was finding this strange situation most intriguing. "Ah, no, that's fine. I'm really not sure what's happening though."
"It is hard to relate. We have few… connectives? Shared concepts? We are only lightly touched to your state of reality."
"You're from another dimension?" he asked.
Orange sparkled briefly. "That is close enough, though we are tied to a space-time nexus in your own universe. We are travellers and observers. We found your planet some time ago, and have been fascinated by the strange patterns we perceived on its outer surface. It was a long time before we realised these recurring patterns might be life forms. Much longer to decide if intelligence of some form might exist among you, and how to isolate. Am pleased to suggest success."
Am pleased to suggest success? Doctor Bob wondered. "You picked me?"
"Correct. Long observance of your pattern has suggested you may be suitably receptive to contact, and may help us understand you; your world of physicalities."
"Well, I'll be happy to help if I can," he agreed, strobing blue. "Um, I'm feeling a bit disoriented though. Can you tell me where I am?"
"Not easily," Orange said with a pretty display of twinkling embers. "Close to where we met you, in space-time equivalencies. And not. Vagueness – we apologise again."
"Ah. Well, will this take very long? I will be missed. Friends and family, you know?"
"Friends and family? By this you indicate familiar relationships with similar local patterns? Cause to emit comfort and feelings of well-being?"
"Quite possibly," said Doctor Bob guardedly. "I think so, if I understand you correctly."
"Cause for joy! We honour these connectives too. Our discourse may last some time. Unable to predict quite how much, but only a small portion of your overall duration."
"Life-time?" guessed Doctor Bob.
"Correct," agreed Orange. "Much less. However, to be sure, we have arranged a temporary replacement. We have seen that you do this frequently in your life patterns. One pattern may be trained to fulfil another's role for a short time. Is this not so?"
"Broadly speaking," he admitted. "Um, we are very specific about who can replace us though and to what extent. Uh, social interactions between my people are very, um, intricate and subtle."
"Worry not. The individual we used was very similar to you in many respects. We approached him and he was agreeable to fill your pattern nexus. We supplied him with the necessary augmentation to match your pattern closely enough that other patterns should not be adversely affected."
By which he assumed "they" had found some volunteer who closely resembled him and altered that person and supplied the knowledge to stand in for him. Impressive, but also a little worrying considering the aliens' apparently tenuous understanding of the human race. "Um, who did you choose to replace me?"
"Someone local to your nexus when we appropriated you," explained Orange. "It works best this way. He was a… excuse complicated concept… farm worker? A farm worker sometimes?"
"A temporary farm hand?" exploded Doctor Bob the Planetary Nova. "I'm a specialist in theoretical propulsion!"
"Understood," Orange radiated reassurance. "Please be calmed. You will understand with apology that by our standards your most advanced methods of pattern translation are… um… not impressive?"
"I suppose so," allowed Doctor Bob.
"It was an easy thing to provide your level of understanding to Temporary Farm Hand. To furnish understanding, compared to me, you and Temporary Farm Hand equal each other to-" Orange expressed a number that was practically unity. "We are sorry your removal causes you disconvenience. As compensation, an understood shared concept, may we proffer understanding of our methods of pattern translation. We feel these may be of some value."
"You'll share your propulsion techniques with me?" Doctor Bob repeated. "In a way I can understand?"
"We are sure the concepts can be expressed in a universally simple way," Orange flashed.
"So what is it you wanted to ask me?"
In the strange world of shifting lights and colours, it was difficult to judge time. Doctor Bob was fairly sure a lot of it passed, but whether it was hours, days, or years, he couldn't tell. Lacking any physical manifestation, he did not feel fatigue or hunger or any other biological clue.
The aliens were thorough in their questioning, and he gained many insights into their way of thinking. They actually did share a great many concepts with humankind, especially when discussing theoretical or intangible ideas. Friendship for example. Emotion. Mathematics. Art. Where they ran into difficulties was with the more physical aspects of life. Lacking anything Doctor Bob could perceive as a physical form, the aliens lacked anything more that the most rudimentary understanding of biological life.
"How is this," Orange called forth an image of a coyote, "different from this?" A dog.
"It's what we call a different species."
"But they are congruent to-" Orange again fluidly expressed a quantity with a lot of decimal places.
"They are closely related species," Doctor Bob explained patiently.
"They could, supposing they were of opposite gender, spawn sub-patterns of a self-sustainable nature?"
Could dogs and coyotes mate? He supposed so. "They could have children, yes."
"All mammal sub-types may do this?" Images of a hump-back whale and a sheep.
"Uh, no, only if they're close enough genetically."
"Genetics are the minute recursive sub-patterns that define biological life?"
"Express congruency necessary for sub-types to spawn sub-patterns?"
"I couldn't tell you," Doctor Bob admitted. "You need a biologist. I'm a physicist."
"Ah. Yes. Explain the difference please…"
Orange led the questioning, but there were other colours too. A red presence and a green, a torquoise, and amethyst. Others were so subtly different it was hard to call them different colours – he doubted human vision could tell them apart, but that sense didn't seem to be what he was using in this strange place.
It was Aquamarine who showed him the secret of "translation". Neatly side-stepping the cumbersome physical laws that made physical travel so exhausting, it was so elegant, so simple, it seemed scarcely possible.
"I don't believe it," Doctor Bob said, astounded.
"It is true," asserted Aquamarine.
"This could propel a ship across the universe in a second!"
"True. Mass is irrelevant. We do not involve momentum – the mathematics get quite horrible."
"But…" Doctor Bob tried to express his incredulity. "You can make this out of paper!"
"The physical construction is irrelevant. I must stress the importance of the small purple dot near the top however."
"Yes, I see that," Doctor Bob agreed. And he did see it. The Thing in front of him, an illustrated concept, was so amazingly, profoundly simple and obvious that he just couldn't imagine why no human had ever stumbled on it. A child of four could understand this! All you would have to do was take a piece of scrap paper, fold it this way and that, crinkle that bit thusly, and as Aquamarine had stressed, the small purple dot was critical (he could only laugh at the idea of what would happen if you used, say, a green dot). And that was all! That was the essence of a device that could move any physical object near-infinite distances in an instant. Or not move it: a minor refinement and this gidget would be the long-theorised anti-gravity device.
The ramifications were beyond calculation: this would change the human universe forever. And the secret was his. All his.
Doctor Bob was not a greedy man, but he knew the value of this knowledge. It would take a little thought, since you could hardly patent something so profoundly obvious – it would be like trying to patent fire, or air. A little care though, and he would be made for life. A Nobel prize? They'd rename it the Bob Award!
"I would really like to return home now," he said to Orange.
Orange made an apologetic sparkle. "Ah. This was anticipated. Nothing would give greater joy, but…"
Sapphire interceded. "We are experiencing difficulties with our pattern extraction device. It has become impossible to return you to your original nexus."
"What?" Doctor Bob exclaimed. "You mean I'm stuck here?"
"Not so," Sapphire said. "But we cannot return you to your accustomed pattern. Temporary Farm Hand has merged irretrievably with your pattern. But we can return you to Temporary Farm Hand's original pattern. However, based on what you have told us, this may not be desirable."
"You are most welcome to remain with us," Orange offered.
Doctor Bob thought about it. This wasn't welcome news, but… did it really matter? Anyone could come up with this device! It could as easily come from the mind of some hick farm-hand as a scientist with four doctorates working for NASA. He sure wouldn't be a farm-hand for long!
"I am flattered by your generous offer," he said, "But Temporary Farm Hand's pattern will be just fine. I think I can easily adjust to this."
"There is high congruency," Sapphire agreed. "Very well then. Are you prepared?"
Farewells were said, with mutually expressed gratitude. Doctor Bob's pattern was then transferred, and the aliens vanished.
He wasn't at all sure what to expect. He wasn't sure how much time had passed for a start. He awoke with a vicious headache that overrode all other sensations for a while, but things began to clear. The scent of straw and animals assailed his nostrils which wasn't much of a surprise. The fact that he seemed to be lying naked on a bed of straw did surprise him. Surely even a low-grade farm-hand warranted a bed? And sure it was warm enough, but buck naked?
The notion occurred to him that he might open his eyes to find himself in a hayloft with the rancher's daughter. A pleasurable notion but there might be complications – possibly of the double-barrelled variety. Opening his eyes and looking around assured him that this was not a likely problem however.
Resignedly, Doctor Bob stood up on his four massive legs and shook his huge head. His vision was slightly distorted and each eye showed an independent view unless he looked straight ahead, but he appeared to be a horse. A large, male carthorse to be precise. He was in a crude wooden stall looking out over a yard where a horse-drawn plough and a four-wheeled wagon with shafts drew his attention.
The thought arose that just possibly, when dealing with aliens who don't readily understand the biological difference between a sheep and a whale, let alone dogs and coyotes, the description "farm worker" should be examined from all angles.