Entretien/Interview avec/with Christophe Lemaitre, 200 M. Bronze medalist in the Rio Olympics

Interview with Christophe Lemaitre: Bronze medalist in the 200 m. at the Rio Olympics, French National Record holder in outdoor 200 m. (19.80)

English Transcription below

John Knych (JK): When I was in the train, the train passed Culoz, you grew up there?

Christophe LeMaitre (CL): Culoz

JK: First I’m curious of your childhood there, because it’s a little town.

CL: Yes a little village

JK: 3000 people?

CL: Yes, around there.

JK: So your childhood there, what did you do for fun? When you were little?

CL: There was not a lot to do, to be honest. Spend time with friends, play soccer, go outside.

JK: You have two older brothers?

CL: Yes

JK: Are they also fast?

CL: No

JK: Do you get along with your brothers?

CL: Yes, we got along, they were athletic too, played sports, like I did when I was a kid, but they didn’t sprint.

JK: Why?

CL: They didn’t have track at Culoz. And it didn’t interest them.

JK: And what do you parents do?

CL: My mom didn’t play sports. But my father played a lot of sports in the past, he was athletic. He did swimming and wrestling. But not sprinting.

JK: And I read that you played handball and rugby?

How To Take Down The Internet

4 minute read

Traduction française ci-dessous

All the computers that form the internet are identified through long numbers called IP addresses. But when you want to visit a place like Twitter, you don’t want to type in, “199.59.148.0,” (which is one of the IP addresses of one of the servers that host Twitter), but rather www.Twitter.com.

This means that your computer needs to translate www.Twitter.com into the right IP address. So your computer makes a series of requests: it asks your operating system where to go (in this case let’s say it doesn’t “know”), then a recursive name server (nope, doesn’t know either), then the world’s 13 root servers (yes!) which sends you to the appropriate top-level domain server, the one that runs all the “.coms,” who sends you to the correct authoritative name server, which says, “yes Twitter is 199.59.148.0.” The 13 root servers can be found throughout the world, run by organizations like the U.S Department of Defense, University of Maryland, University of Southern California, Information of Sciences Institute, a U.S. Army Research Lab, etc.

This whole system (called the DNS, The Domain Name System, or the phone book of the internet) of directing your computer to IP addresses needs to be administered by someone..or something… Why?

1.) To verify that IP addresses aren’t given to people or organizations with nefarious aims (so when you type in www.a-bank-I-can-depend-on.com it doesn’t bring you to a website which asks for your banking information and steals your $) 

2.) To keep the whole system secure 

The system is administered by ICANN, The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, an American multi stakeholder group and nonprofit organization. 

(Here’s their most recent press release, 28 February 2022, ICANN-Managed Root Server Clusters to Strengthen Africa’s Internet Infrastructure.

ICANN authenticates and secures the DNS system though a system called DNSSEC.

But what are those keys in the picture? How does the authentication process work?

Asymmetrical encryption. First proposed in 1976 by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman in their paper « New Directions in Cryptography » Quote from the paper’s abstract:

“Widening applications of teleprocessing [computer processing via remote terminals] have given rise to a need for new types of cryptographic systems, which minimize the need for secure key distribution channels and supply the equivalent of a written signature. This paper suggests ways to solve these currently open problems. It also discusses how the theories of communication and computation are beginning to provide the tools to solve cryptographic problems of long standing.”

[This was 46 years before the first Bitcoin in 2009, 8 years before Mark Zuckerberg hatched out of a lizard egg in 1984.]

Introduction: We stand today [1976] on the brink of a revolution in cryptography. The development of cheap digital hardware has freed it from the design limitations of mechanical computing and brought the cost of high grade cryptographic devices down to where they can be used in such commercial applications as remote cash dispensers and computer terminals.”

ATM in 1981, Wellington New Zealand,
Source: https://teara.govt.nz/en
/photograph/24636/the-arrival-of-atms
Genesis Bitcoin Mining, founded in 2013, 3rd largest Bitcoin operation in the world, first located in China and Bosnia, now relocated to Iceland and Canada. Source: https://www.publish0x.com/muchograph/top-5-biggest-bitcoin-mining-farms-in-the-world-with-picture-xqmyqr

“…The development of computer controlled communication networks promises effortless and inexpensive contact between people or computers on opposite sides of the world, replacing most mail and many excursions with telecommunications.” -(The article’s worth a read, only 10 pages long.)

Asymmetrical encryption involves a public and private key. Each key is made up of long numbers that are linked mathematically. This mathematical link creates trust for outsiders accessing a place or a person on the internet. 

You can see in this picture that the mathematical link between Alice’s private key and Alice’s public key allows Bob to trust that the message (Hello Bob) is actually from Alice.

And what is the “mathematical link?” The public and private key are not actually keys but really large prime numbers that are mathematically related to one another. Who knew that prime number’s refusal to be evenly divided by anything besides itself and 1 would help connect millions of humans through trust-injected-super-fast-computer-math?

Everyone can access and read the public key. The private key is extremely secret and can only be held by one entity. 

With a private key, you can make a digital signature over a document/website, thus authenticating the document/website. Because when an outsider wants to access the document/website and verify that it’s authentic, they can “look” at the public key (which again is mathematically linked to the private key) and go “yes, only the corresponding private key could have authenticated this document/website/place, so I know it’s safe.”

This is how DNS is authenticated: the information that www.Twitter.com is 199.59.148.0 is “signed” by Twitter using their private key, then your computer uses Twitter’s public key and the private key signature and goes, “yes, the private key signature can ONLY have been signed by Twitter, it’s safe/really there.”

But is Twitter’s public key also safe and legitimate?

Twitter’s public key is “signed off by a higher authority”: the top level domain server mentioned above, who runs all dotcoms using their private key. And our computers use the top level domain server’s public key to verify that yes, their private signature on Twitter’s public key is legitimate. 

But what about the top level domain server’s public key? What higher authority signs off on that? Basically, we go “up and up” the public/private key chain with higher authorities signing off on “lower rung public keys with higher private keys” until we arrive at ICANN, the company mentioned above.

Up and up and up and up. Root Certificate = highest private key

ICANN has a single private key. 

Every website’s IP address in DNS is secured by ICANN’s single public and private key which is called…

The trust anchor.

Not this anchor…Source: https://www.venafi.com/sites/default/files/styles/823×390/public/content/blog/2020-04/largeanchor_newblog.png?itok=X4W5oe3A

ICANN’s public key is this:

Source: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuCkxoKLYO_EQ2GeFtbM_bw

So how could we access ICANN’s private key to take down the internet?

The numbers that form the private key of ICANN that secure the whole DNS are stored on hard drives inside physical boxes called Hardware Security Modules (HSMs). 

https://cogitogroup.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/hardware.png

There are 4 HSMs in the world, kept in 2 pairs,

One pair is located in Culpepper, Virginia and the other in El Segundo Californian, kept 2,500 miles apart: 

Source: Google Maps

To access either of these pairs of HSMs you gotta get passed armed guards, pin pads, card scanners, monitored cages, and biometric stops.

Biometric stop being made by computer-generated hand, https://medium.com/gdg-vit/is-biometric-authentication-the-one-stop-solution-for-security-breaches-778d9e91c49

Even if you obtain an HSM, an HSM  “resists physical tampering,” in that if someone tries to open the device or even drops it, the HSM erases all the keys it stores to prevent a compromise. So to open the HSMs you need several smart cards. And those those smart cards are kept in other boxes which can only be opened by physical keys, which are held by seven people all over the world. Those people (security experts designated by ICANN) are:

If DNS is ever compromised, 5/7 keyholders would have to go to an ICANN facility, use their keys in what is called a “key ceremony,” to obtain the smart cards, then use the smart cards to physically open the HSM to obtain ICANN’s private key. Then use the private key to shut DNS, and almost all of the internet, off.

But how can the private key “shut the internet off?” I’m not 100% certain, but I think you could tamper with the private key in such a way (change a digit in the prime number?) that the public key associated with it wouldn’t allow lower-rung-keys to trust itself/the public key, because the private key had not “signed off on it”, which would be the equivalent of burning the single phone book that everybody uses to access IP addresses/websites, and there would be this chain reaction of mistrust/computers’ inabilities to access pages down the public-private key chain because they couldn’t verify the addresses as being safe/authentic places so when you try to-

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Tous les ordinateurs qui forment l’internet sont identifiés par de longs numéros appelés adresses IP. Mais lorsque vous voulez visiter un endroit comme Twitter, vous ne voulez pas taper “199.59.148.0” (qui est l’une des adresses IP de l’un des serveurs qui hébergent Twitter), mais plutôt www.Twitter.com.

Cela signifie que votre ordinateur doit traduire www.Twitter.com en la bonne adresse IP. Votre ordinateur effectue donc une série de requêtes : il demande à votre système d’exploitation où aller (dans ce cas, disons qu’il ne “sait” pas), puis un serveur de noms récursif (non, il ne sait pas non plus), puis les 13 serveurs racine du monde (oui !) qui vous envoient au serveur de domaine de premier niveau approprié, celui qui gère tous les “.com”, qui vous envoie au bon serveur de noms faisant autorité, qui dit “oui, Twitter est 199.59.148.0”. Les 13 serveurs racine se trouvent dans le monde entier, gérés par des organisations telles que le ministère de la défense des États-Unis, l’université du Maryland, l’université de Californie du Sud, l’Institut des sciences de l’information, un laboratoire de recherche de l’armée américaine, etc.

Tout ce système (appelé DNS, The Domain Name System, ou l’annuaire téléphonique d’internet) consistant à diriger votre ordinateur vers des adresses IP doit être administré par quelqu’un…ou quelque chose…. Pourquoi ?

1.) Pour vérifier que les adresses IP ne sont pas attribuées à des personnes ou des organisations ayant des objectifs néfastes (ainsi, lorsque vous tapez www.a-bank-I-can-depend-on.com, vous n’êtes pas redirigé vers un site web qui vous demande vos informations bancaires et vous vole votre argent).
2.) Pour assurer la sécurité de l’ensemble du système

Le système est administré par l’ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), un groupe américain composé de plusieurs parties prenantes et une organisation à but non lucratif.

L’ICANN authentifie et sécurise le système DNS grâce à un système appelé DNSSEC.

Mais que sont ces clés dans l’image ? Comment fonctionne le processus d’authentification ?

Le cryptage asymétrique. Proposé pour la première fois en 1976 par Whitfield Diffie et Martin Hellman dans leur article New Directions in Cryptography&nbsp. Citation du résumé de l’article :

“L’élargissement des applications du télétraitement [traitement informatique via des terminaux distants] a fait naître le besoin de nouveaux types de systèmes cryptographiques, qui minimisent le besoin de canaux de distribution de clés sécurisés et fournissent l’équivalent d’une signature écrite. Cet article propose des moyens de résoudre ces problèmes actuellement ouverts. Il examine également comment les théories de la communication et du calcul commencent à fournir les outils nécessaires pour résoudre les problèmes cryptographiques de longue date.”

C’était 46 ans avant le premier Bitcoin en 2009, 8 ans avant que Mark Zuckerberg n’éclose d’un œuf de lézard en 1984.

Introduction : Nous nous trouvons aujourd’hui [1976] à l’aube d’une révolution dans le domaine de la cryptographie. Le développement d’un matériel numérique bon marché l’a libéré des limites de conception de l’informatique mécanique et a fait baisser le coût des dispositifs cryptographiques de haute qualité au point qu’ils peuvent être utilisés dans des applications commerciales telles que les distributeurs de billets à distance et les terminaux informatiques.”

“…Le développement des réseaux de communication contrôlés par ordinateur promet un contact sans effort et peu coûteux entre des personnes ou des ordinateurs situés aux antipodes, remplaçant la plupart des courriers et de nombreuses excursions par des télécommunications.”

Le cryptage asymétrique implique une clé publique et une clé privée. Chaque clé est composée de longs chiffres qui sont liés mathématiquement. Ce lien mathématique crée un climat de confiance pour les personnes extérieures qui accèdent à un lieu ou à une personne sur l’internet.

Et quel est le ” lien mathématique ” ? La clé publique et la clé privée ne sont pas réellement des clés mais de très grands nombres premiers qui sont mathématiquement liés les uns aux autres. Qui aurait cru que le refus d’un nombre premier d’être divisé de manière égale par autre chose que lui-même et 1 aiderait à connecter des millions d’humains par le biais d’une mathématique informatique injectée de confiance et super rapide ?

Tout le monde peut accéder à la clé publique et la lire. La clé privée est extrêmement secrète et ne peut être détenue que par une seule entité.

Avec une clé privée, vous pouvez faire une signature numérique sur un document/site web, ce qui permet d’authentifier le document/site web. Parce que lorsqu’une personne extérieure veut accéder au document/site web et vérifier qu’il est authentique, elle peut “regarder” la clé publique (qui, là encore, est mathématiquement liée à la clé privée) et se dire “oui, seule la clé privée correspondante aurait pu authentifier ce document/site web/lieu, donc je sais qu’il est sûr.

C’est ainsi que le DNS est authentifié : l’information que www.Twitter.com est 199.59.148.0 est “signée” par Twitter en utilisant leur clé privée, puis votre ordinateur utilise la clé publique de Twitter et la signature de la clé privée et va, “oui, la signature de la clé privée ne peut SEULEMENT avoir été signée par Twitter, c’est sûr/réellement là.”

Mais la clé publique de Twitter est-elle également sûre et légitime ?

La clé publique de Twitter est “signée par une autorité supérieure” : le serveur de domaine de premier niveau mentionné ci-dessus, qui gère tous les dotcoms en utilisant leur clé privée. Et nos ordinateurs utilisent la clé publique du serveur de domaine de premier niveau pour vérifier que oui, leur signature privée sur la clé publique de Twitter est légitime.

Mais qu’en est-il de la clé publique du serveur du domaine de premier niveau ? Quelle autorité supérieure signe pour cela ? Fondamentalement, nous allons “de haut en bas” de la chaîne de clés publiques/privées avec des autorités supérieures qui signent des “clés publiques d’échelon inférieur avec des clés privées supérieures” jusqu’à ce que nous arrivions à l’ICANN, la société mentionnée ci-dessus.

D’autres traductions seront bientôt disponibles … si vous mourrez d’envie de lire ce qui suit, envoyez-moi un message et je le mettrai en tête de liste des projets…

Primary source for the material in this piece: The Seven People Who Could Turn Off The Internet.

Avez-vous besoin d’un agent ?

Choisir une représentation professionnelle


Au niveau professionnel, l’athlétisme et la course à pied sont essentiellement des sports individuels. Cependant, les athlètes bénéficient souvent du soutien d’une équipe dans la poursuite de leur carrière professionnelle. Idéalement, “l’équipe vous” s’occupe des aspects logistiques d’une carrière de coureur professionnel pendant que vous vous concentrez sur votre entraînement et vos compétitions.

Avez-vous besoin d’un agent ?

Probablement, oui. La plupart des coureurs professionnels ont intérêt à avoir un agent. Mais la décision d’engager un agent n’est pas automatique. Certains coureurs peuvent se passer d’un agent. Cependant, pour envisager de s’en passer, il faut bien comprendre quels services un agent fournit et dans quelles circonstances ces services peuvent être nécessaires.

Concurrencez avec succès sur la piste ou dans les courses sur route.
Bien que les centres d’entraînement fonctionnent différemment en fonction du financement, de l’emplacement et de l’encadrement, l’objectif est similaire : améliorer le niveau de compétition de la course de fond aux États-Unis, tant au niveau national qu’international. Les athlètes sont préparés à concourir sur la piste, sur les routes et en cross-country.

Les places étant limitées pour les athlètes dans chaque épreuve, les rencontres internationales d’athlétisme sont les plus sélectives de toutes les compétitions. Votre agent se chargera de négocier votre inscription aux rencontres, y compris les frais de participation, et vous aidera généralement à organiser votre voyage. En résumé : lorsqu’il est temps de se concentrer sur les courses au printemps et en été, vous avez besoin d’un agent pour vous faire participer aux bonnes compétitions.

Si vous envisagez une carrière sur les routes en participant au circuit USA Running, un agent est moins important. Il existe de nombreux championnats américains sur des distances allant du 5 km au marathon. L’entrée dans ces courses est moins sélective et peut facilement être accomplie sans représentant d’athlète. Les informations et les contacts pour l’inscription aux courses, ainsi que les normes de qualification et les conditions d’admissibilité applicables, sont disponibles sur le site Web de USA Track & Field.

Il convient de noter que les frais d’apparition pour les compétitions dans les grands marathons peuvent nécessiter d’importantes négociations. Bien sûr, il n’est pas aussi difficile d’entrer dans un champ de marathon que d’obtenir une place dans le 800 au Prefontaine Classic. Mais la négociation et l’optimisation de votre valeur d’apparition peuvent nécessiter l’aide d’un agent.

Les trois C : commodité, contacts et coût
Bien entendu, de nombreux coureurs professionnels participent à des événements sur piste et hors piste. Au-delà du type de carrière que vous envisagez, la décision de faire appel à un représentant d’athlètes repose en grande partie sur trois critères : commodité, contacts et coût.

  1. Commodité. Il est plus facile de laisser un agent s’occuper des détails que de le faire soi-même. Trouver des sponsors ou participer à des compétitions peut être difficile et stressant. Selon votre personnalité, un agent peut s’avérer essentiel, vous permettant de vous concentrer sur votre entraînement sans avoir à vous soucier de l’organisation de votre voyage ou de la négociation d’un contrat de chaussures.
  2. Contacts. Les agents ont des contacts avec les fabricants de chaussures et les directeurs de rencontres que la plupart des athlètes n’ont pas. Votre agent devrait être en mesure de vous mettre en relation avec les personnes et les entreprises nécessaires dans ce sport. De même, un agent peut vous faire paraître plus professionnel aux yeux des directeurs de rencontres et des sponsors potentiels. Les sponsors potentiels vous considèrent comme plus sérieux, ce qui accroît leur confiance dans la sécurité de leur investissement en vous. Votre agent doit travailler dur pour tenter d’obtenir un contrat de chaussures ou un autre contrat de sponsoring. Outre le fait de vous faire participer à des compétitions, c’est la principale responsabilité d’un agent.
  3. Le coût. Le coût d’un agent peut être important, mais un agent peut être un investissement rentable pour de nombreux coureurs professionnels. En général, un agent demande une commission de 15 % sur tout ce qu’il gagne, y compris : (a) contrat d’endossement d’une entreprise de chaussures, (b) frais de participation à une réunion ou à une course ; et (c) prix en argent. En outre, il est courant qu’un agent demande une commission de 20 % sur tous les contrats d’endossement autres que le contrat de chaussures principal. L’accord d’un athlète avec un agent – y compris les pourcentages – peut être négocié, mais la plupart des athlètes ont peu de pouvoir de négociation car le coureur professionnel moyen ne génère pas d’énormes revenus. Et malheureusement, moins vous gagnez d’argent, plus chaque dollar devient précieux. Alors qu’un athlète ayant un contrat de 1 000 000 $ peut ne pas ressentir l’impact de la commission de 15 % d’un agent, un athlète ayant un contrat de 30 000 $ fait un sacrifice beaucoup plus important en cédant 15 % à un agent. Toutefois, il convient de noter que, dans de nombreux cas, les athlètes les mieux payés subventionnent les athlètes aux revenus plus faibles. Vos commissions sont des “frais professionnels” et vous devez consulter un fiscaliste si vous n’êtes pas sûr de savoir comment profiter des déductions pour frais professionnels prévues par l’Internal Revenue Code.

Intelligence, Wars, and The Great Silence

4 minute read

The Great Silence, or The Fermi Paradox is the following:

The universe is extremely big: there are more stars than grains of sands on all of Earth’s beaches (or 5x-10x more than that, depending on your approximations). And around many of these stars are orbiting planets. It is estimated that, in our Milky Way galaxy alone, there are forty billion planets that could support life. The universe is also extremely old: 13.8 billion years old. And we’ve only been around for the last 12.3 million years. If the age of the universe was a year, (called a cosmic year), multicellular life first appeared on Earth on December 5th, humans showed up on December 31st at 2:24pm, domesticated fire at 11:44pm, started farming at 11:59:32, created the wheel at 11:59:49, and modern history/when the first bottle of Dom Perignon was popped by a French monk in 1697 occurred at 11:59:59.4.

Due to enormous size and elderly age of the universe, it is reasonable to believe that intelligent life MUST have arisen throughout the universe on many, many occasions. And it is also reasonable to believe that at least ONE of these intelligent, technology-wielding life forms would have had more than enough time to spread across the universe.

So where are they?

As Ted Chiang wrote, in The Great Silence, “The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it’s disconcertingly quiet. Some humans theorize that intelligent species go extinct before they can expand into outer space. If they’re correct, then the hush of the night sky is the silence of a graveyard.”

Ted Chiang is one of my inspirations. Thank you Ted Chiang.

Ted Chiang goes on to talk about intelligent life being out there and aware of us but staying quiet. But I’m more interested in the second idea. When I first read the “universe being a silent graveyard” thought, a theory popped into my mind: What if the intelligence required for ANY life form to leave a planet is also the seed of its self-destruction? Because what does it take for an intelligent life form to leave its planet?

  1. Most likely a sense of identity (Me exist in universe. Me explore universe). Species being aware of themselves can lead to conflict and competition.
  2. A harnessing and concentration of a planet’s resources (Me bring things on planet together to build a ship and leave planet). More conflict and competition. And perhaps exhaustion of planet’s resources.
  3. Knowledge (Me know how to survive in space for long time). Knowledge is power. Power corrupts absolutely…unless you’re George Washington.
Illustration: joecicak (Getty)

Add to this that an asteroid could hit a planet at any time and wipe out your species (sorry dinosaurs). Or, a thought-less thing on the planet could replicate uncontrollably and kill you (F U viruses.)

We were so careful, even wearing masks outside, until the asteroid hit…

And we only have to look at ourselves as a case study to see the danger of intelligence sophisticated enough to engage in space exploration.

During the extremely brief span of the last 110 years, we’ve sent humans to the moon and probes to Mars, well done humanity, but we’ve also accelerated climate change, built nuclear weapons, had two World Wars, and dropped two nuclear bombs that killed over 150,000 people instantly (and 214,000 by 1945).

I can’t help but compare humanity to the literary trope of the genius being linked with insanity/sickness. Our greatest artists were often insane, tortured, suicidal, cruel, extreme. Not all of them, but Caravaggio was a notorious criminal and murderer, Michael Jackson a child molester, Michael Jordan an addicted gambler (when MJ was asked how he could lose $3,000,000 one night in a casino, he replied, “I don’t like to lose,”) Eminem was only good at rapping when he was on drugs, Van Gogh cut off his own eye after a fight with his friend Gauguin then gave the ear to a prostitute, Joanne Rowling suffered through a disastrous marriage and an abusive husband, Frida Kahlo experienced incredible pain, the list goes on. To create great art often means an extreme personality has to experience extreme suffering or take risks and actions that could also potentially cause the creator’s demise. So maybe the great art of having the “species-capability of leaving a planet and exploring the universe” is inextricably linked up to species-destructive behavior? If you are a high-achieving individual, often something else has to give or in some way you have to pay.

Carvaggaio: “I paint, then I kill, then I paint, then I kill.”
Sin Esperanza / Without Hope by Frida Kahlo

Recently I finished reading Jeff Hawkins excellent book, published last year, A Thousand Brains. (Notes on it below.) Highly recommend. And he shared the theory I proposed above, using this analogy (invitation to a party = intelligence in the universe, attending the party = exploration of the universe for other life forms):

“Imagine fifty people are invited to an evening party. Everyone arrives at the party at a randomly chosen time. When they get there, they open the door and step inside. What are the chances they see a party going on or an empty room? It depends on how long they each stay. If all the partygoers stay for one minute before leaving, then almost everyone who shows up will see an empty room and conclude that no one else came to the party. If the partygoers stay for an hour or two, then the party will be a success, with lots of people in the room at the same time.

We don’t know how long intelligent life typically lasts. The Milky Way galaxy is about thirteen billion years old. Let’s say that it has been able to support intelligent life for about ten billion years. That is the length of our party. If we assume that humans survive as a technological species for ten thousand years, then it is as if we showed up for a six-hour party but only stayed for 1/50th of a second. Even if tens of thousands of other intelligent beings show up for the same party, it is likely that we won’t see anyone else while we are there. We will see an empty room. If we expect to discover intelligent life in our galaxy, it requires that intelligent life occurs often and that it lasts a long time.”

Only staying at a party for 1/50th of a second. Damn. Open the front door, HEY!, *SLAM*…who was that?

Hawkins goes on to write that humanity needs to engage in “estate planning,” or creating a record of our existence in case we kill ourselves off. I agree, especially after the events of the past week. We gotta get our quarreling asses on Mars, pronto, or create some type of self-sustaining satellite-archive that orbits the sun.

The previous chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, says that Vladimir Putin has lost his sense of reality and that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a turning point in history. According to a New Yorker article published two days ago, Putin has warned the world, “Whoever tries to interfere with us should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history.” He continued to say that, “Russia is today one of the most powerful nuclear states.” Was he flexing or bluffing? Probably. But should we still be concerned? What if Putin is bitter that the World Taekwondo withdrew his honorary 9th dan black belt?

Interesting thought experiment: if you were part of Putin’s inner circle and you learned of his plan to fire nuclear weapons, would you have the courage to take him out?

There are 13,000 nuclear weapons on Earth, located in 9 countries. 90% of all nuclear bombs are now under Russian and U.S. control. Russia is believed to have more warheads, around 6,000. The majority of American and Russian bombs are more than 10x more powerful – in explosive yield, than the bombs that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has spit in the face of international laws and his own past policies. Dmitry Kiselyev, a Kremlin propagandist said last Sunday, “In total our submarines are capable of launching over 500 nuclear warheads, which are guaranteed to destroy the U.S. and all the countries of NATO to boot.”

Putin has failed to rapidly conquer Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. His army is having supply issues. Will Russia dominate Ukraine, or will Ukraine survive? In any case, with humanity’s propensity towards wars, destroying the planet, tripling the population in the last 70 years, constructing nuclear weapons, we gotta engage in estate planning.

The clock’s ticking. Let’s at least leave a calling card at the intelligence-in-the-universe party, and include instructions on why to ignore the cheese plate and to try the champagne.


A Thousand Brains Notes

229: From the universe’s perspective, this is an arbitrary distinction: neither the poliovirus nor the wildflower is better or worse than the other. We make the choice about what us in our best interest. 
226: Interesting: « I have never been a fan of science-fiction literature. »
216: « It is estimated that there are forty billion planets in the Milky Way alone that could support life. »
210: No one knows what will happen, but it is unlikely that we are done creating ways to destroy ourselves. 
205: Copying yourself is a fork in the road, not an extension of it. Two sentient beings continue after the fork, not one. Once you realize this, then the appeal of uploading your brain begins to fade. 
203: The brain has 100 billion neurons and several hundred trillion synapses 
182: False models of the world can spread and thrive as long as the false beliefs help the believers spread their genes. 
143: Without the old brain, no fear or sadness. 
142: Our fear of death is created by older parts of our brain 
135: For example, the way the brain learns models of the world is intimately tied to our sense of self and how we form beliefs.
131 « The brain of an intelligent machine will consist of many nearly identical elements that can be connected to a variety of moveable sensors. »
130: Prédiction os how a column tests and updates its model.
129: To be intelligent, machines:
1.) Learning Continuously 2.) Learning via Movement 3.) many models 4.) Using Reference Frames to Store Knowledge 
80: Discovering a useful reference frame is the most difficult part of learning, even though most of the time we are not consciously aware of it. 
79: what we think next spends on which direction we mentally move through a reference frame, in the same way that what we see next in a town depends on which direction we move from our current location. 
71: Thinking occurs when we activate successive locations in reference frames. 
62: It is as if nature stripped down the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex to a minimal form, made tens of thousands of copies, and arranged them side by side in cortical columns. 
38: Forgetting happens when old or unused connections are removed entirely.
37: Everything we know is stored in the connections between neurons 
37: Thoughts and experiences are always the result of a set of neurons that are active at the same time. 
36: Neurons look like trees 
30: Prediction was a ubiquitous function of the neocortex.
26: vision and language are fundamentally the same. 
23: Intelligence, language, touch, are all manifestations of the same underlying cortical algorithm. 
23: a slice of cortex responsible for touch looks like a slice of cortex responsible for language or touch. 
19: There are no pure motor regions and no pure sensory regions. 
11: The human neocortex is particularly large, occupying 70% of the volume of our brain. 
11: no matter how smart or sophisticated we are, breathing, eating, sex, and reflex reactions are still critical to our survival. 
-Faculty that master chess and Go are not those that can cope with the complexity of the real world. 
-Uploading brain to computer wouldn’t be fun 

Perdu sur Kepler 852-b (Chapitre 4: Capitaine Premidaire)

(To read the English version, click here.)

Background artwork by @huleeb (Lucid Dream)


            “Quelque chose nous a frappé dans le ciel. Ou… plus probablement… plusieurs choses. C’était le chaos. Des parties du vaisseau ont explosé. Je ne pouvais pas quitter la chambre du pilote, mais la porte de ma nacelle d’atterrissage d’urgence adjacente s’est ouverte. Instinctivement, j’ai sauté à l’intérieur et me suis agrippé à une poignée, car je savais, d’après le manuel de l’I.M.C., que l’intérieur me protégerait contre la force de l’atterrissage en catastrophe. Il y avait une fenêtre donnant sur la coque. J’ai vu des centaines de corps se frapper contre l’intérieur du vaisseau. Des sections du vaisseau se détachaient…

            Le capitaine Premidaire était affalé contre un arbre, sous un auvent de fortune que j’avais construit avec mon sac de couchage et du fil de fer. Nous nous abritions d’une pluie torrentielle, violette et semblable à du grésil. Premidaire était en train d’avoir un de ses moments de lucidité, qui devenaient de plus en plus rares, alors j’ai essayé de le guider doucement, encore une fois, vers la question à laquelle je désespérais de recevoir une réponse. Je ne pouvais pas lui poser de questions qui s’éloignaient trop du fil de sa pensée, sinon il se dégraderait à nouveau dans son état de confusion marmoréenne. Premidaire devenait de plus en plus fou et je n’avais aucune idée de la façon d’arrêter sa descente dans la folie.

            “Et après que le vaisseau se soit écrasé, que s’est-il passé ?”

            “Des cris. Des cris horribles. Du feu. Ramper dans les décombres. Puis ils sont venus…”

            “Qui est venu ? Vous n’arrêtez pas de dire qu’ils sont venus. La créature insecte-tentacule dont j’ai parlé ? Celui qui creuse des trous ? Cette chose monstrueuse ?” Premidarie a laissé échapper un rire aigu et maniaque. Il avait déjà fait ça auparavant. J’ai grimacé parce que cela signifiait qu’il allait très probablement avoir un de ses épisodes de démence dans dix à quinze secondes. 

            “Ces choses ? Elles aiment le feu. C’est l’équipe de nettoyage.” Il a ri à nouveau, d’un ton plus aigu. “Ils ne sont rien comparés à ce qu’il y a d’autre sur cette planète. Rien. Cette planète se défend. Ces insectes étaient là quand… les autres ont été emmenés, par eux…”

           “Combien de temps depuis le crash ?”

            “Une semaine.”

           “C’est impossible. J’étais seul quand je me suis réveillé. Je serais mort de soif. Vous m’aviez dit deux jours.”

            “Si l’un d’eux vous avait trouvé, inconscient, il aurait pu vous sauver.”

           “Comment ?”

            “Je ne sais pas. Il y a quelque chose dans l’air. Le temps est différent ici. Tout est différent ici. Et ils… ils nous ont envoyés ici pour mourir.” Les pupilles de Premidaire se sont dilatées et ont commencé à trembler. C’était maintenant ou jamais.

            “Qui d’autre a survécu ? Y avait-il des femmes avec vous ? ! L’une d’elles avait-elle…”

            “J’ai tout mis dans la GlobalDataBase avant de quitter la Terre. Ils se souviendront de moi. Ressentir l’existence, plus de force, ils m’ont dit de remplir des questions, de mettre les Nanorobots-Enregiste dans mon cerveau, de me tenir devant la caméra, c’était pour l’histoire, ils pourraient faire une copie, pas la même, mais assez proche, l’artiste doit créer dans l’obscurité, tout est créé à partir de l’obscurité, pour trouver leur lumière s’il y a une chance qu’une autre…”

            J’ai soupiré. Une autre heure de son bavardage. Puis, quand il reviendrait au silence, ou s’endormirait et se réveillerait, j’essaierais à nouveau. J’ai éteint le dispositif d’enregistrement de ma tablette. Dans ma frustration, je me suis détourné du capitaine, qui marmonnait toujours pour lui-même, murmurant maintenant : “Je dois le prendre à nouveau, mais je dois aussi m’enfuir, me sentir désespéré, désespoir plein d’espoir, combattre cela, fuir ou rester, Siana mon amour, je…” Il me semblait que, quelle que soit la maladie dont souffrait Premidaire, il était incapable de distinguer les émotions, les souvenirs ou les abstractions lorsqu’il avait un épisode. C’était comme si son subconscient prenait le dessus sur sa conscience. 

            “Aie !” Une gouttelette de pluie s’est posée sur ma peau, a brûlé et grésillé, laissant une blessure rouge en forme de disque. Les gouttelettes de pluie ici sont souvent toxiques, comme de l’acide. Premidaire le savait et m’a fait construire notre abri lorsque nous avons entendu un grondement dans la nuit et que l’air est devenu lourd d’humidité. Quand Premidaire est lucide et concentré sur une tâche, il est impeccable et efficace. On ne devient pas le capitaine de la deuxième migration humaine sans être extrêmement efficace dans tout ce qu’on fait, ce qui rendait le contraste avec ses grognements incohérents d’autant plus terrifiant à observer. Je me suis tourné de mon côté et j’ai vu la créature basset hound qui dormait encore dans son niche.

            “Walter !” Pendant un instant, j’ai cru que la créature s’était adressée à moi.

            “Quoi !” Le capitaine avait attrapé ma chemise. J’étais choqué : il n’était jamais sorti aussi vite d’une de ses transes. Peut-être son esprit se défendait-il, sachant à quel point notre survie dépendait de sa capacité à me transmettre des informations pertinentes.

            “Il y a… il y a des aliens de type humain sur cette planète. De différents types, races, cultures. Ils savaient que nous venions. Ils nous attendaient. Les machines qui ont repéré cette planète leur ont tout dit sur nous. Certains d’entre eux veulent nous utiliser pour quitter ce monde, d’autres pour survivre. C’est pour ça qu’ils vous ont gardé en vie, pour apprendre sur nous, je ne sais pas quel est leur but, mais leur sophistication…”

            “Ces aliens sont-ils ceux dont vous vous êtes échappé ?”

            “Non. Je me suis échappé d’autres choses. Ces extraterrestres humains ne voulaient pas me prendre. Ils ont dit que j’étais sans espoir. Les particules dans l’air, elles affectent tout le monde à des vitesses différentes et de manières différentes. Les humains plus rapidement qu’eux. Si l’infection atteint un certain point, il est trop tard, il n’y a qu’un seul antidote, et chaque membre de leur groupe a une urgence pour lui par vie.”

            “Par vie ? Que voulez-vous dire par là ?”

            “Je voulais rester avec eux. Ils ne m’ont pas laissé faire.”

            “Ces créatures extraterrestres ont pris des humains et en ont laissé d’autres ? Qui d’autre est resté avec vous ?”

           “Cinquante-sept personnes.”

            “Et ils sont tous morts sauf vous ?”

            “Oui, j’ai vu la moitié d’entre eux mourir, l’autre moitié est partie dans une direction où aucun humain ne pouvait survivre.”

            “Et les humains qui sont restés… qui ont été pris par ces aliens-humains ? Avez-vous vu une femme parmi eux qui…”

            “Elle est juste là ! Vous ne pouvez pas l’emmener ! Vos erreurs vont…”

           “Shhh, quelque chose arrive…” Il y eut un cliquetis et un fracas à travers les vignes et les arbres.

            “Vous n’auriez pas dû venir ici.. Maintenant les particules peuvent vous affecter plus rapidement.”

           “Taisez-vous ! Ou je vous bourre la gueule … bordel !”

            Bunky, mon basset alien, s’est réveillé et a grogné.

            A travers la jungle, un autre monstre insectoïde s’est écrasé, se dirigeant directement vers notre abri. En une fraction de seconde, Bunky s’est élancé sur le chemin du monstre et a commencé à ronger les tentacules internes. Le monstre a hurlé comme il l’a fait quand je suis tombé en le fuyant. Il a essayé de s’accrocher au basset, mais celui-ci se déplaçait si rapidement parmi les bras qui se tortillaient qu’ils n’ont pas pu l’attraper. En une minute, la moitié de la créature était dévorée, dix secondes plus tard ce n’était plus qu’une petite boule (Bunky semblait manger la chose exponentiellement plus vite). Puis le monstre avait disparu.”

            “Vous avez de la chance que cette créature vous aime,” a dit le capitaine Premidaire.

            “Un de quoi ?” Je fixais Bunky, ébahi, tandis qu’il se léchait les babines avec tristesse.

            “Cet animal.”

            “Comment savez-vous qu’il m’aime ?”

            “Je sens que je perds le contrôle. Le regret. Je n’ai jamais voulu qu’elle le fasse. Mais l’atmosphère me pèse. Je suis désolé Siana. Je vais tout arranger. Nous…” sa voix perdit de sa force et il recula en trébuchant. 

            Une heure plus tard, Premidaire dormait et la pluie avait cessé. Un lever de soleil éclatait à travers les vignes et les branches. La lumière étincelait et scintillait tandis que des gouttelettes tombaient des arbres. Peut-être commençais-je aussi à perdre la tête, ou peut-être était-ce le manque de sommeil, mais les couleurs ont commencé à se mélanger et à se brouiller, comme de la peinture étincelante étalée sur une toile. Cela m’a inquiété. Je devrais peut-être arrêter de questionner Preston Premidaire sur ma femme et les survivants. Je devrais peut-être me concentrer sur notre propre survie. Pendant un de ses moments de lucidité, je lui ai fait expliquer certaines des fonctions de ma tablette. Il m’avait montré une carte qui menait à une ville qui était censée être en construction depuis la première migration. Il m’a montré la ligne de train magnétique F.A.T. (Frictionless Automated Transport) que les machines ont construite à leur arrivée. S’il y avait des humains vivants de la première vague, ils devaient être dans la ville. J’ai chargé la carte. La ville était à 4000 kilomètre. Je devais faire 800 km tout seul jusqu’au F.A.T., puis… attendre un train ? Premidaire n’a pas pu m’expliquer comment fonctionne le système de transport. Nous aurions… nous aurions besoin de l’aide de… mes paupières commencent à… si nous ne contactons pas les gens d’ici, nous mourrons… nous…”

            Je me suis endormi. Quand je me suis réveillé en sursaut, la pluie avait cessé et la clairière était lumineuse. Avant même d’être pleinement conscient, je savais que Preston Premidaire était parti. Pourquoi… mais quand j’ai regardé autour de moi dans la clairière.

           “Non…”

            Preston Premidaire était pendu à un arbre.


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Lost on Kepler 852-b (Chapter 4: Captain Premidaire)

(Pour lire la version française, cliquez ici.)

Background artwork by @huleeb (Lucid Dream)


            “Something hit us in the sky. Or…more likely…multiple things. Everything was chaos. Parts of the ship exploded. I couldn’t leave the pilot’s chamber but the door of my adjoining emergency landing pod opened. Instinctively, I jumped in and grabbed hold of a handle, since I knew from the I.M.C. manual that the interior would protect me against the force of the crash landing. There was a window looking out at the hull. I saw hundreds of bodies slamming against the ship’s interior. Sections of the ship were breaking off…”

            Captain Premidaire was slumped against a tree beneath a make-shift canopy I’d constructed using my sleeping bag and iron filament. We were taking shelter against a torrential, sleet-like, purple rain. Premidaire was having one of his lucid moments, which were becoming more and more rare, so I tried to gently guide him, again, to the question I was desperate to receive an answer to. I couldn’t ask him any questions that were too far from his thread of thinking, or else he’d degrade back into his state of mumbling confusion. Premidaire was steadily going insane and I had no idea how to stop his descent into madness.

            “And after the ship crashed, what happened?”

            “Screams. Horrible screams. Fire. Crawling through the wreckage. Then they came…”

            “Who came? You keep saying, they came. That insect-tentacle creature I mentioned? The one who digs holes? That monstrous thing?” Premidarie let out a high-pitched, maniacal laugh. He’d done this before. I grimaced because this meant he was most likely going to have one of his dementia episodes in ten to fifteen seconds. 

            “Those things? They just like fire. They’re the clean-up crew.” He laughed again, a higher-pitch tone. “They are nothing compared to what else is on this planet. Nothing. This planet is fighting back. Those insect things were there when…the rest were being led away, by them…”

            “How long ago since the crash?”

            “A week.”

            “That’s impossible. I was alone when I woke up. I would have died of thirst. You told me two days.”

            “If one of them found you, unconscious, they might of saved you.”

            “How?”

            “I don’t know. There’s something in the air. Time is different here. Everything is different here. And they…they sent us here to die.” Premidaire’s pupils became dilated and started trembling. It was now or never.

            “Who else survived?! Were there any women with you?! Did one of them have-”

            “I put everything in the GlobalDataBase before I left Earth. They will remember me. Feel the existence, no more force, they told me to fill out questions, put the Enregiste-Nanobots in my brain, stand in front of the camera, these were for history, they could make a copy, not the same, but close enough, the artist must create in darkness, everything is created from darkness, to find their light if there is the chance another…”

            I sighed. Another hour of his babbling. Then when he returned to silence, or fell asleep and woke up, I’d try again. I turned off the recording device in my tablet. In my frustration I turned away from Captain, who was still mumbling to himself, now whispering, “I have to take it again, but I also have to run away, feel desperate, hopeful desperation, fight this, run or stay, Siana my love, I…” It seemed to me that whatever sickness Premidaire was suffering from, he was unable to distinguish between emotions, memories, or abstractions when having an episode. It was like his subconscious was overtaking his consciousness. 

            “Ouch!” a rain droplet landed on my skin, burned, and sizzled, leaving a red disc-shaped wound. The rain droplets here are often toxic, like acid. Premidaire somehow knew this and had me construct our shelter when we heard a rumble in the night and the air become heavy with moisture. When Premidaire’s lucid and focusing on a task, he’s impeccable and efficient. You don’t get to become the captain of human’s second migration without being extremely effective in everything you do, which made the contrast with his incoherent grumblings all the more terrifying to observe. I turned to my side and saw the basset hound creature still sleeping in his nest.

            “Walter!” For a wild moment I thought the creature had spoken to me.

            “What!” The captain had grabbed my shirt. I was shocked: he had never escaped one of his trances so fast. Perhaps his mind was fighting back, knowing how much of our survival depended on him relaying me pertinent information.

            “There are…there are human-like aliens on this planet. Different kinds, races, cultures. They knew we were coming. They were waiting for us. The machines who scouted this planet told them everything about us. Some of them want to use us to leave this world, others to survive. That’s why they kept you alive, to learn about us, I don’t what their purpose is, but their sophisticated-.”

            “Are these aliens the ones you escaped from?”

            “No. I escaped from other things. These human-like aliens just didn’t want to take me. They said I was hopeless. The particles in the air, they affect everyone at different rates and in different ways. Humans faster than them. If the infection reaches a certain point, it’s too late, there’s only one antidote, and each member of their group has one emergency for themselves per lifetime.”

            “Per lifetime? What do you mean by…”

            “I wanted to stay with them. They wouldn’t let me.”

            “These alien-creatures took some humans and left others? Who else was left with you?”

            “Fifty-seven people.”

            “And they’re all dead except you?”

            “Yes, I saw half of them die, the other half went in a direction where no human could survive.”

            “And the humans that left…which were taken by these alien-humans? Did you see a woman amongst them whom-”

            “She’s right there! You can’t take her away! Your mistakes will-”

            “Shhh, shhh, something’s coming…” There was a clicking and crashing through the dense vines and trees.

            “You shouldn’t come here. Now the particles can infect you faster…”

            “Shut up! Or I’ll stuff your mouth god damn it!”

            Bunky, my alien basset hound, woke up and growled.

            Through the jungle another insect-weeping-willow monster crashed, heading directly towards our shelter. Within a split second Bunky darted into the monster’s path and started slash-gnawing on the inner tentacles. The monster screeched like it did when I fell running away from it. It tried to grab hold of the basset, but the basset was moving so rapidly amongst the squirming arms that they couldn’t catch him. Within a minute half the creature was consumed, ten seconds later it was a small ball (Bunky seemed to eat the thing exponentially faster). Then the monster was gone.”

            “You’re lucky one of those likes you,” said Captain Premidaire.

            “One of what?” I was staring at Bunky, in awe, while he dolefully licked his chops.

            “That animal.”

            “How do you know it likes me?

            “I feel myself losing control. The regret. I never wanted her to. But the atmosphere weighs down. I’m so sorry Siana. I’ll make everything right. We-” his voice lost its force and he stumbled back. 

            An hour later Premidaire was sleeping and the rain had stopped. A sunrise burst through the vines and branches. Light sparkled and glistened as droplets dripped from the trees. Maybe I was also starting to lose my mind, or maybe it was a lack of sleep, but the colors began mixing and blurring together, like sparkling smeared paint across a canvas. This made me worried. Perhaps I should stop questioning Preston Premidaire about my wife the and survivors. Perhaps I should focus on our own survival. During one of his lucid moments I had him explain some of the functions of my tablet. He had shown me a map that led to a city that was supposed to be under construction since the first migration. He pointed out the F.A.T. magnetic-train line (Frictionless Automated Transport) which the machines built upon their arrival. If there were any humans alive from the first wave, they’d be in the city. I loaded up the map. The city was 2500 miles away. I’d have to travel 500 miles on my own to the F.A.T., then…wait for a train? Premidaire couldn’t explain to me how the transport system works. We’d…we’d need help from…my eyelids are starting to…if we don’t contact the people here we die…we…”

            I fell asleep. When I woke up with a start the rain had stopped and the clearing was bright. Before even becoming fully conscious, I was aware that Preston Premidaire had left. Why…but when I looked around the clearing.

            “No…”

            Preston Premidaire was hanging from a tree.


Subscribe below:

Lost on Kepler 852-b (Chapter 3: Contact)

(Pour lire la version française, cliquez ici.)

Thanks to Jonas Büttner (Instagram: @poly4g) for sharing his artwork.


            I’ve always wanted to choose my last thought before death. I always planned for it to be the first time I kissed my wife in an all-night dive bar after we bought cigarettes in a bodega. The dive bar was one of the few places in City Sector 33 that allowed regulars to smoke in a back room after midnight. I thought, at the time, that my wife didn’t like me very much. She looked nervous during dinner, constantly looking away, practically grimacing when I talked, fixing her translucent body suit, and didn’t laugh much at my bad jokes. I thought she was only enduring my poor company for the night because we shared a mutual friend who set us up. I thought, “Yup, here we go again, another woman who’s bored with a mediocre janitor whose only hobby is writing a stupid sci-fi blog. Way out of my league.” But while smoking and admiring her beautiful face in the shadows, her mysterious glances, letting the silence between us build, I felt the flame of courage and thought, “Why not? Worst comes to worst, she denies me, and I move on like I’ve always done before,” and I went in gradually for the kiss. When I was close, her lips parted, her eyes seemed to ignite, then she replied with a wild, unexpected passion, grabbing my hair and pulling me in. We went back to my place and didn’t leave my cramped studio in the Bronx for three days, both of us calling off work. I didn’t even know I had that in me. She awakened a desire that I never thought was possible, something primal that was beyond me, or perhaps hidden deep in an unexplored recess of my soul. And since that moment our lives have been locked, fused, and intertwined.

            But as this horrifying creature slithers and clicks and sucks towards me, on this planet 64 light years from Earth, my mind loses control. Remember when I said I hate insects? Well, this creature is something between a giant praying mantis and a squirming, writhing mass of centipede-like tentacles, slimy sinews, and clicking pincers. It’s like a grotesque, shuddering weeping willow with something metamorphizing or being tortured and trying to escape on the inside. But after the first moment of terror, the certainty that this extraterrestrial abomination is going to kill me (the creature is so massive there is nowhere to run), that it has killed everyone on the ship, I feel a strange separation from my body. A defense mechanism, perhaps, against the horror, against the expectation of having my skin ripped clean off the bone. I suddenly think of the last time my wife made me laugh, the day before the ship crashed on this planet. Concentrating on the memory to prevent my descent into blackness, I mechanically put out the fire, as if someone else is doing it, haul my supplies over my back, then close my eyes as the creature moves over the debris of the ship. I remember I was talking about how excited I was to discover this new planet, to start a new life with her, and my wife gave me one of her mischievous smiles and said,

            “But how excited are you?”

            “Really excited.”

            “No, I mean Walter…tell me exactly how excited. Be specific. Like really excited. Or really really excited?”

            “Hmm, eight reallys excited.”

            “Nooo. Eight reallys? I don’t believe you. You’re only…let me see your eyes, three reallys.”

            “How would you know.”

            “But maybe if I poke you in the armpit you might be four reallys…” and as I started laughing she kept her face serious, squinting her eyes, as she slowly moved her finger towards my armpit.

            “Don’t go in there, your finger might not come out…”

“Oooo. Now I’m curious…” And in the middle of the ship’s greenhouse, while people nearby were picnicking in the miniature bio-sphere, I trapped her finger in my armpit and we tickled each other and rolled around. I know it’s one of those simple, silly things that couples have together, inside jokes that only they understand. But my wife could always make me laugh, no matter where we were, what was happening, and I loved that about her.

The creature-insect is less than twenty feet away. The stench is so overwhelming I taste a hint of it in the back of my throat, a mix between rotten sashimi and skunked beer. My thoughts plummet into darkness and I wonder: what if my wife is somehow still alive? What if she has managed to escape this creature? This thought galvanizes my stupefaction. The insect didn’t react when I put out the fire, nor when I hauled my supplies on my back, and even though there is nowhere to run, the insect seems to be moving haphazardly, without an object. If there is any chance my wife is still out there, I need to survive, I can’t wait here like a sitting a duck. I always promised her I’d be the first one to die…

I fix my sack of supplies more firmly on my shoulder, take a breath, and jump out of the crevice-cave, directly towards the insect. The moment I leave the little cavern in the rubble, the insect-creature shoots a centipede-tentacle towards where I’d been standing. I sprint towards the left edge of the mass, not knowing what will happen, and when I am ten feet away, prepared to tackle into the squirming creature, the thing leaps towards the cave, following its arm, attaching itself to the wreckage.

I keep running into the darkness, away from the spaceship across the field. I can’t believe my luck, but as I turn my head to see if the insect is following me, I trip. A screech (like metal scraping metal) erupts from the creature and I see it shooting towards me, huddling and rapidly slumping over the grass. “This is it,” I think, but the giant insect stops twenty feet away and begins sort of spinning, or gyrating. Gradually, the creature sinks into the ground and disappears.

Slowly, I stand up and walk cautiously to where the insect has burrowed. There’s a giant, circular pit in the ground, the same kind of smooth, abyss-like pit I saw on top of the cliff where my landing pod crashed. Why did it burrow when it was on the verge of killing me?

As if in answer to my question, I hear a Sniff Sniff. Son of a bitch… But as I turn I see, in the light of the four, green moons something that I can only describe as…cute and cuddly. A long, furry creature is trotting on eight, tiny legs towards the pit, sniffing the ground constantly. The thing resembles a basset hound, with floppy ears sweeping the grass. It has a pink snout, with a three-nostril nose at the tip, but no eyes, and a fat, swinging belly. It sniffs the edge of the pit, then moves towards me, the ears flopping up to its nose, as if they are attracted to it by a force. On an impulse, I get on my knees and give it a rub behind the floppy ears as if it is actually a dog. I can’t help myself. I love dogs. And this creature somehow exudes safety and goodness. While I scratch the floppy ears, the creature purrs like a cat and gives me kisses with a long, purple tongue. I see sharp fangs glint in the green moonlight.

The eyeless, purple-tongued basset creature trots back over to the pit, tilts on to its side, and shoots sparkling liquid into the abyss. I think I heard a distant, echoing screech. The basset returns to my side, licks my calf, and trots the direction it came. I decide to follow this cute companion. My instinct tells me that following this animal is my best chance at survival. 

While following this dog-like animal, who I’ve named Bunky, my thoughts return to my wife. Until I find irrevocable evidence that she is dead, I will continue to stay alive and keep searching, fighting against (or running away from) whatever I come across. If I find other members of the ship (or somehow make to the city that was supposed to be under construction by Migration Wave #1) who confirm that she has been killed, then I’ll commit suicide. That’s always been the plan between us…or least, the plan I told her, and which she constantly argued against. 

My wife is 16 years older than me. As we were falling in love, we discussed her dying before me and thinking about how I could survive without her. I wouldn’t want to. I’d kill myself soon after she was gone. I don’t have any friends and in general I don’t like people. So, after this lighthearted discussion on who would die first, I immediately start working like crazy, hardly sleeping, taking X30 stimulants, so that my body would give up before her body and so we could potentially live in luxury and comfort in the present… 

That’s why my wife wanted to have a child. So that when she passed away, I would still have someone to love, something to live for, a piece of her left behind. But when we met she was 41 and only producing fragile eggs that couldn’t hold (she had led a wild and exhausting life between 20-40, she had 2 miscarriages), so we were too late. For weeks she cried against my hairy chest every night in bed, telling me that if I wanted a family, if I wanted a child, to just leave now, to not waste her time. I told her no. There was only her. My love. I didn’t care about a child or a family. I told her that it made no difference to me whether or not we went on adventures just the two of us, or with a child in tow. If anything, a child could hold us back. She didn’t believe me. She saw how I loved dogs and children. She fell into a deep depression.

That’s when I started applying for us travel to Kepler 852-b, as part of the Great Migration wave #2. I figured that if we couldn’t have children, we might as well take advantage of the fact and voyage to a new planet. Secretly, during my breaks at work, I worked relentlessly hard on our application, calling the right people to give us the best chance. Somehow, we were accepted, and when I told my wife she burst into tears of happiness. 

Before being put in deep sleep on the spaceship, I reminded my wife of my pact: if she died before me on this planet, I was following her soon after. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but nor do I believe in a life worth living without her. She said, “No, if I die before you, I want you to find an alien wife on Kepler 852-b. Promise?”

“No.”

While lost in these thoughts, I notice that Bunky and I are approaching a jungle. He slips through the thick foliage. On the other side, in the shards of moonlight, I see a small clearing and a small nest, where Bunky plops down and immediately starts snoring. I guess now I wait, I think, for Bunky to wake up. Surveying my surroundings, I see that there are colorful vines hanging from the trees, violet and orange, and web-like threads connecting the branches and trunks. The moonlight is dim in this enclosure, the shadows seem to contain unspeakable dangers, hidden malice, and I feel uneasy. 

*Crack* *Shkt**Crack**Crack**Shkt**Snap*…something is bushwhacking nearby. I hurriedly pull out my little axe (why didn’t the NASA scientists pack a gun or some sort of projectile?!) Bucky is still in a deep slumber. I nudge his belly with my foot and he grumbles. No help from Bunky. 

The noise is getting louder. It’s approaching. Without thinking, I stupidly yell, “Stop! Who’s there? What’s there?” Silence. I ready myself. At the other end of the clearing the foliage parts, and a man stumbles towards me, a man I know…

“We…we don’t belong…here,” he splutters, as he trips and almost falls. In the moonlight I see that his face is dirty and scratched, his clothes torn, his darting eyes wild, and his mouth drippling spit. “They…they sent us here…to die…how can we…” The contrast between the wreck of the man before me, and the man I knew, is almost too much to bear.

“Captain Premidaire?” The last time I saw this man he was giving a magnificent speech in front of the entire crew of the spaceship, before we all went to our deep-sleep chambers. Preston Premidaire, the leader of Migration #2. He had been clean-cut, perfectly-dressed with glittering badges on his uniform, with a charming smile. He was one of the most respected military generals on Earth.

“Aye, my friend, fancy a wouldayouknow place?”

“A what? Where is everyone else on the ship? What happened?” For a moment the disoriented general seemed to concentrate and he looked at me with grim determination.

“We escaped, there was so much, you have to find the, go now because I won’t abandon the calling to-” he collapses in the clearing and I rush to lift him up. 


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Perdu sur Kepler 852-b (Chapitre 3 : Contact)

(To read the English version, click here.)

Thanks to Jonas Büttner (Instagram: @poly4g) for sharing his artwork.


            J’ai toujours voulu choisir ma dernière pensée avant de mourir. J’ai toujours voulu que ce soit la première fois que j’ai embrassé ma femme dans un bar miteux, après avoir acheté des cigarettes dans une bodega. Le bar miteux était l’un des rares endroits du secteur 33 de la ville à autoriser les habitués à fumer dans une arrière-salle après minuit. Je pensais, à l’époque, que ma femme ne m’aimait pas beaucoup. Elle semblait nerveuse pendant le dîner, détournant constamment le regard, grimaçant pratiquement lorsque je parlais, fixant son body-suit translucide, et ne riait pas beaucoup à mes mauvaises blagues. Je pensais qu’elle ne supportait ma mauvaise compagnie pour la nuit que parce que nous avions un ami commun qui nous avait arrangé le coup. Je me suis dit : ” Ouais, c’est reparti, encore une femme qui s’ennuie avec un concierge médiocre dont le seul hobby est d’écrire un stupide blog de science-fiction. Je ne suis pas du tout à la hauteur.” Mais tout en fumant et en admirant son beau visage dans l’ombre, ses regards mystérieux, en laissant le silence s’installer entre nous, j’ai senti la flamme du courage et j’ai pensé : “Pourquoi pas ? Dans le pire des cas, elle me renie et j’avance comme je l’ai toujours fait”, et je me suis approché progressivement pour l’embrasser. Quand je me suis approché, ses lèvres se sont écartées, ses yeux ont semblé s’enflammer, puis elle a répondu avec une passion sauvage, inattendue, en saisissant mes cheveux et en m’attirant. Nous sommes rentrés chez moi et nous n’avons pas quitté mon studio exigu du Bronx pendant trois jours, tous les deux en arrêtant de travailler. Je ne savais même pas que j’avais ça en moi. Elle a éveillé un désir que je n’aurais jamais cru possible, quelque chose de primitif qui me dépassait, ou qui était peut-être caché au plus profond d’un recoin inexploré de mon âme. Et depuis ce moment, nos vies ont été verrouillées, fusionnées, et entrelacées.

            Mais alors que cette horrible créature glisse, clique et aspire vers moi, sur cette planète à 64 années-lumière de la Terre, mon esprit perd le contrôle. Vous vous souvenez quand j’ai dit que je détestais les insectes ? Eh bien, cette créature est quelque chose entre une mante religieuse géante et une masse se tortillant, se tordant de tentacules semblables à des mille-pattes, de tendons gluants et de pinces cliquetantes. C’est comme un saule pleureur grotesque et frémissant avec quelque chose qui se métamorphose ou qui est torturé et essaie de s’échapper à l’intérieur. Mais après le premier moment de terreur, la certitude que cette abomination extraterrestre va me tuer (la créature est si massive qu’il n’y a nulle part où s’enfuir), qu’elle a tué tout le monde sur le vaisseau, je ressens une étrange séparation d’avec mon corps. Un mécanisme de défense, peut-être, contre l’horreur, contre l’attente d’avoir la peau arrachée à l’os. Je pense soudain à la dernière fois où ma femme m’a fait rire, la veille du jour où le vaisseau s’est écrasé sur cette planète. Me concentrant sur le souvenir pour empêcher ma descente dans le noir, j’éteins mécaniquement le feu, comme si quelqu’un d’autre le faisait, je transporte mes provisions sur mon dos, puis je ferme les yeux alors que la créature se déplace sur les débris du vaisseau. Je me souviens que je parlais de mon enthousiasme à découvrir cette nouvelle planète, à commencer une nouvelle vie avec elle, et ma femme m’a fait un de ses sourires malicieux et a dit,

            “Mais à quel point es-tu excité ?”

            “Vraiment excité.”

            “Non, je veux dire Walter… dis-moi exactement à quel point tu es excité. Sois précis. Comme très excité. Ou vraiment vraiment excité ?”

            “Hmm, huit vraiment excité.”

            “Nooon. Huit vraiment ? Je ne te crois pas. Tu es seulement… laisse-moi voir tes yeux, trois vraiment.”

            “Comment tu pourrais le savoir ?”

            “Mais peut-être que si je te pique dans l’aisselle, tu pourrais être quatre vraiment…” et comme je commençais à rire, elle a gardé son visage sérieux, plissant les yeux, tandis qu’elle déplaçait lentement son doigt vers mon aisselle.

            “N’y va pas, ton doigt pourrait ne pas ressortir…”

“Oooo. Maintenant je suis curieux…” Et au milieu de la serre du vaisseau, alors que les gens à proximité pique-niquaient dans la bio-sphère miniature, j’ai coincé son doigt dans mon aisselle et nous nous sommes chatouillés et roulés. Je sais que c’est l’une de ces choses simples et stupides que les couples font ensemble, des plaisanteries internes qu’ils sont les seuls à comprendre. Mais ma femme a toujours réussi à me faire rire, peu importe où nous étions, ce qui se passait, et j’aimais ça chez elle.

La créature-insecte est à moins de six mètres. La puanteur est si forte que j’en sens un soupçon au fond de ma gorge, un mélange de sashimi pourri et de bière empoisonnée. Mes pensées s’enfoncent dans l’obscurité et je me demande : et si ma femme était encore en vie ? Et si elle avait réussi à échapper à cette créature ? Cette pensée galvanise ma stupéfaction. L’insecte n’a pas réagi lorsque j’ai éteint le feu, ni lorsque j’ai transporté mes provisions sur mon dos, et même s’il n’y a nulle part où fuir, l’insecte semble se déplacer au hasard, sans objet. S’il y a une chance que ma femme soit encore dehors, je dois survivre, je ne peux pas attendre ici comme une cible facile. Je lui ai toujours promis que je serais le premier à mourir…

Je fixe plus fermement mon sac de provisions sur mon épaule, je respire et je saute hors de la caverne crevassée, directement vers l’insecte. Au moment où je quitte la petite caverne dans les décombres, l’insecte-créature lance un tentacule de mille-pattes vers l’endroit où je me tenais. Je sprinte vers le bord gauche de la masse, ne sachant pas ce qui va se passer, et lorsque je suis à trois mètres, prêt à m’attaquer à la créature qui se tortille, la chose bondit vers la grotte, suivant son bras, s’attachant aux décombres.

Je continue à courir dans l’obscurité, loin du vaisseau spatial à travers le champ. Je n’arrive pas à croire à ma chance, mais alors que je tourne la tête pour voir si l’insecte me suit, je trébuche. Un cri (comme le métal qui racle le métal) jaillit de la créature et je la vois tirer vers moi, se blottir et s’affaisser rapidement sur l’herbe. Je pense que c’est la fin, mais l’insecte géant s’arrête à une vingtaine de mètres et se met à tourner, ou à tournoyer. Petit à petit, la créature s’enfonce dans le sol et disparaît.

Lentement, je me lève et marche prudemment vers l’endroit où l’insecte s’est enfoncé. Il y a une énorme fosse circulaire dans le sol, le même genre de fosse lisse et abyssale que j’ai vue au sommet de la falaise où ma capsule d’atterrissage s’est écrasée. Pourquoi s’est-il enfoui alors qu’il était sur le point de me tuer ?

Comme en réponse à ma question, j’entends un “sniff sniff”. Fils de pute… Mais en me retournant, je vois, dans la lumière des quatre lunes vertes, quelque chose que je ne peux que décrire comme… mignon et câlin. Une longue créature en fourrure trotte sur huit petites pattes vers la fosse, reniflant constamment le sol. La chose ressemble à un basset, avec des oreilles tombantes balayant l’herbe. Elle a un museau rose, avec un nez à trois narines au bout, mais pas d’yeux, et un gros ventre qui se balance. Il renifle le bord de la fosse, puis s’avance vers moi, les oreilles remontant sur son nez, comme si elles étaient attirées par une force. Sur une impulsion, je me mets à genoux et je le caresse derrière les oreilles tombantes, comme s’il s’agissait d’un chien. Je ne peux pas m’en empêcher. J’aime les chiens. Et cette créature respire en quelque sorte la sécurité et la bonté. Pendant que je gratte les oreilles tombantes, la créature ronronne comme un chat et me fait des bisous avec sa longue langue violette. Je vois des crocs pointus qui brillent dans la lumière verte de la lune.

La créature basset sans yeux et à la langue violette trotte jusqu’à la fosse, se penche sur le côté et projette un liquide étincelant dans l’abîme. Je crois avoir entendu un cri lointain, en écho. Le basset revient à mes côtés, lèche mon mollet, et trotte dans la direction d’où il est venu. Je décide de suivre cet adorable compagnon. Mon instinct me dit que suivre cet animal est ma meilleure chance de survie. 

En suivant cet animal ressemblant à un chien, que j’ai appelé Bunky, mes pensées reviennent à ma femme. Jusqu’à ce que je trouve des preuves irrévocables qu’elle est morte, je continuerai à rester en vie et à chercher, en luttant contre (ou en fuyant) tout ce que je rencontrerai. Si je trouve d’autres membres du vaisseau (ou si je parviens d’une manière ou d’une autre à atteindre la ville qui était censée être en construction lors de la première vague de migration) qui confirment qu’elle a été tuée, alors je me suiciderai. Cela a toujours été le plan entre nous… ou du moins, le plan que je lui ai dit, et contre lequel elle s’est constamment battue.

Ma femme a 16 ans de plus que moi. Alors que nous tombions amoureux, nous avons discuté du fait qu’elle mourrait avant moi et nous nous sommes demandé comment je pourrais survivre sans elle. Je ne le voudrais pas. Je me tuerais peu après son départ. Je n’ai pas d’amis et en général, je n’aime pas les gens. Donc, après cette discussion légère sur qui mourrait en premier, je me mets immédiatement à travailler comme un fou, à dormir à peine, à prendre des stimulants X30, pour que mon corps s’abandonne avant le sien et que nous puissions potentiellement vivre dans le luxe et le confort du présent…

C’est pourquoi ma femme voulait avoir un enfant. Pour qu’à sa mort, j’aie encore quelqu’un à aimer, une raison de vivre, un morceau d’elle laissé derrière moi. Mais lorsque nous nous sommes rencontrés, elle avait 41 ans et ne produisait que des ovules fragiles qui ne pouvaient pas tenir (elle avait mené une vie sauvage et épuisante entre 20 et 40 ans, elle avait fait deux fausses couches), nous sommes donc arrivés trop tard. Pendant des semaines, elle a pleuré contre ma poitrine velue tous les soirs au lit, me disant que si je voulais une famille, si je voulais un enfant, je devais partir maintenant, ne pas perdre son temps. Je lui ai dit non. Il n’y avait qu’elle. Mon amour. Je me fichais d’un enfant ou d’une famille. Je lui ai dit que cela ne faisait aucune différence pour moi que nous partions à l’aventure juste tous les deux, ou avec un enfant. Au contraire, un enfant pourrait nous freiner. Elle ne m’a pas cru. Elle a vu combien j’aimais les chiens et les enfants. Elle est tombée dans une profonde dépression.

C’est alors que j’ai commencé à demander à ce que nous voyagions vers Kepler 852-b, dans le cadre de la vague #2 de la Grande Migration. Je me suis dit que si nous ne pouvions pas avoir d’enfants, autant en profiter pour voyager vers une nouvelle planète. Secrètement, pendant mes pauses au travail, j’ai travaillé sans relâche sur notre candidature, appelant les bonnes personnes pour nous donner les meilleures chances. Nous avons été acceptés et lorsque je l’ai annoncé à ma femme, elle a fondu en larmes de bonheur.

Avant d’être plongé dans un profond sommeil à bord du vaisseau spatial, j’ai rappelé à ma femme mon pacte : si elle mourait avant moi sur cette planète, je la suivrais peu après. Je ne crois pas à une vie après la mort, mais je ne crois pas non plus à une vie digne d’être vécue sans elle. Elle m’a répondu : “Non, si je meurs avant toi, je veux que tu trouves une épouse extraterrestre sur Kepler 852-b. Promis ?”

“Non.”

Alors que je suis perdu dans ces pensées, je remarque que Bunky et moi approchons d’une jungle. Il se glisse à travers le feuillage épais. De l’autre côté, dans les éclats de lune, je vois une petite clairière et un petit nid, où Bunky s’affale et se met immédiatement à ronfler. Je suppose que maintenant j’attends, je pense, que Bunky se réveille. En examinant mon environnement, je vois qu’il y a des lianes colorées accrochées aux arbres, violettes et orange, et des fils en forme de toile qui relient les branches et les troncs. Le clair de lune est faible dans cet enclos, les ombres semblent contenir des dangers indicibles, une malice cachée, et je me sens mal à l’aise.

*Crack* *Shkt**Crack**Crack**Shkt**Snap*… quelque chose fait du bushwhacking à proximité. Je sors précipitamment ma petite hache (pourquoi les scientifiques de la NASA n’ont-ils pas emporté un fusil ou une sorte de projectile ? !) Bucky est toujours dans un profond sommeil. Je pousse son ventre avec mon pied et il grogne. Aucune aide de la part de Bunky. 

Le bruit devient plus fort. Il s’approche. Sans réfléchir, je crie bêtement : “Stop ! Il y a quelqu’un ? Qu’est-ce qu’il y a ?” Le silence. Je me prépare. À l’autre bout de la clairière, le feuillage s’interrompt et un homme s’avance vers moi en titubant, un homme que je connais…

“Nous… nous n’avons rien à faire… ici”, bafouille-t-il en trébuchant et en tombant presque. À la lumière de la lune, je vois que son visage est sale et égratigné, ses vêtements déchirés, ses yeux vifs et sauvages, et sa bouche dégoulinante de salive. “Ils… ils nous ont envoyés ici… pour mourir… comment pouvons-nous…” Le contraste entre l’épave de l’homme devant moi, et l’homme que je connaissais, est presque trop dur à supporter.

“Capitaine Premidaire ?” La dernière fois que j’ai vu cet homme, il faisait un magnifique discours devant tout l’équipage du vaisseau spatial, avant que nous ne rejoignions tous nos chambres de sommeil profond. Preston Premidaire, le chef de la migration n°2. Il était propre sur lui, parfaitement habillé avec des badges étincelants sur son uniforme, avec un sourire charmant. C’était l’un des généraux militaires les plus respectés sur Terre.

“Oui, mon ami, ça te dirait d’aller dans un endroit que tu connais ?”

“Un quoi ? Où sont tous les autres sur le vaisseau ? Que s’est-il passé ?” Pendant un moment, le général désorienté a semblé se concentrer et il m’a regardé avec une détermination sinistre.

“Nous nous sommes échappés, il y avait tellement de choses, tu dois trouver les, vas-y maintenant parce que je n’abandonnerai pas l’appel à-” il s’effondre dans la clairière et je me précipite pour le relever. 


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Chapter Two: Sorted Into Slytherin

Sorted-Into-Slytherin-1

            The door swung open at once. A tall, black-haired witch in emerald-green robes stood there. She had a very stern face and Harry’s first thought was that this was not someone to mess with.

            “The firs’-years, Professor McGonagall,” said Hagrid.            

            “Thank you, Hagrid. I will take them from here.”

            She pulled the door wide. The Entrance Hall was so big you could have fitted the whole of the Dursley’s house in it. The stone walls were lit with flaming torches like the ones at Gringotts, the ceiling was too high to make out, and a magnificent marble staircase facing them led to the upper floors.

            They followed Professor McGonagall across the flagged stone floor. Harry could hear the drone of hundreds of voices from a doorway to the right – the rest of the school must already be here – but Professor McGonagall showed the first years into a small empty chamber off the hall. They crowded in, standing rather closer together than they would usually have done, peering about nervously.

            “Welcome to Hogwarts,” said Professor McGonagall. “The start-of-term banquet will begin shortly, but before you take your seats in the Great Hall, you will be sorted into your houses. The Sorting is a very important ceremony because, while you are here, your house will be something like your family within Hogwarts. You will have classes with the rest of your house, sleep in your house dormitory and spend free time in your house common room.

            “The four houses are called Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Each house has its own noble history and each has produced outstanding witches and wizards. While you are at Hogwarts, your triumphs will earn your house points, while any rule-breaking will lose house points. At the end of the year, the house with the most points is awarded the House Cup, a great honor. I hope each of you will be credit to whichever house becomes yours.”

            “The Sorting Ceremony will take place in a few minutes in front of the rest of the school. I suggest you all smarten yourself up as much as you can while you are waiting.” Harry saw Draco slick his blond hair back with his hand. Vincent’s cloak was wrinkled and fastened under his right ear while Gregory’s cloak was covered in chocolate stains. Harry nervously tried to flatten his hair.

            “I shall return when we are ready for you,” said Professor McGonagall. “Please wait quietly.”

            As she left the chamber, Draco whispered, “Another Muggle-lover, I bet. Talks like she’s got a unicorn horn up her-” Vincent and Gregory chuckled loudly before Harry could hear the punch line. He didn’t like that Draco was insulting their new teacher, who seemed severe but also just. Harry swallowed.

            “So you said there’s an old hat that they use for the sorting? How?”

            “It’s some sort of test.”

            Harry’s heart gave a horrible jolt. A test? In front of the whole school? But he didn’t know any magic yet – what on earth would he have to do? He hadn’t expected something like this the moment they arrived. He looked around anxiously and saw that everyone else looked terrified too. He saw the girl, Hermione, standing next to the tall, gangly, red-headed boy and talking animatedly. The red-headed boy nodded and smiled, but then frowned and looked like he was about to puke. Harry tried to listen, and he heard snippets of Hermione whispering about all the spells she’d learnt and wondering which one she’d need. Harry stopped listening. He’d never been more nervous, never not even when he’d had to take a school report home to the Dursleys saying that he’d somehow turned his teacher’s chalk into a garden snake. He kept his eyes fixed on the door. Any second now, Professor McGonagall would come back and lead him to his doom.

            Then something happened which made him jump about a foot in the air – several people behind him screamed.

            “What the – ?”

            He gasped. So did the people around him. About twenty ghosts had just streamed through the back wall. Pearly-white and slightly transparent, they glided across the room talking to each other and hardly glancing at the first-years. They seemed to be arguing. What looked like a fat little monk was saying, ‘Forgive and forget, I say, we ought to give him a second chance-”

            “My dear Friar, haven’t we given Peeves all the chances he deserves? He gives us all a bad name and you know, he’s not really a ghost – I say, what are you all doing here?”

            A ghost wearing a ruff and tights had suddenly noticed the first-years.

            Nobody answered.

            “New students!” said the Fat Friar, smiling around at them. “About to be sorted, I suppose?”

            A few people nodded mutely.

            “Hope to see you in Hufflepuff!” said the Friar. “My old house, you know.”

            “Move along now,” said a sharp voice. “The Sorting Ceremony’s about to start.”

            Professor McGonagall had returned. One by one, the ghosts floated away through the opposite wall.

            “Now, form a line,” Professor McGonagall told the first-years, “and follow me.”

            Feeling oddly as though his legs had turned to lead, Harry got behind Vincent and Draco and they walked out of the chamber, back across the hall and through a pair of double doors into the Great Hall.

            Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place. It was lit by thousands and thousands of candles which were floating in mid-air over four long tables, where the rest of the students were sitting. These tables were laid with glittering golden plates and goblets. At the top of the Hall was another long table where the teachers were sitting. Professor McGonagall led the first-years up here, so that they came to a halt in a line facing the other students, with the teachers behind them. The hundreds of faces staring at them looked like pale lanterns in the flickering candlelight. Dotted here and there among the students, the ghosts shone misty silver. Mainly to avoid all the staring eyes, Harry looked upwards and saw a velvety black ceiling dotted with stars. He heard Draco whisper to Vincent, “It’s not actually the sky, you stupid troll spawn, it’s only bewitched to look like that.”

            It was hard to believe there was a ceiling there at all, and that the Great Hall didn’t simply open on to the heavens. Harry whispered to Vincent, “I thought it was the real sky too,” and Malfoy smirked. 

            Harry quickly looked down again as Professor McGonagall silently placed a four-legged stool in front of the first-years. On top of the stool she put a pointed wizard’s hat. This hat was patched and frayed and extremely dirty. Aunt Petunia wouldn’t have let it in the house.

            Maybe they had to try and get a rabbit out of it, Harry thought wildly, that seemed the sort of thing – noticing that everyone in the Hall was now staring at the hat, he stared at it too. For a few seconds, there was completely silence. Then the hat twitched. A rip near the brim opened wide like a mouth – and the hat began to sing.

Oh I may not be the cleanest hat

Or the most good-looking wizard’s cap

But when I’m on top of your head to sit

You will understand my exceptional wit!

Keep your boaters and chic berets

Especially fedoras, keep those away

For I’m the Sorting Hat of this wizarding school

And I have never been anyone’s fool!

There’s nothing hidden in your mind

The Sorting Hat cannot know or find

So try me on and I’ll announce

Where you should be, your Hogwart’s house!

You might belong in Slytherin

The house for those with ambition

[Draco nudged Harry, nodded, and smiled.]

Enduring all struggles to achieve their ends

If you’re cunning and ruthless, these are your friends!

[“I know you’ll get in, Harry,” said Draco. Harry felt nervous. Draco put his hand affectionately on Harry’s shoulder, felt Draco’s hand shaking, and for the first time Harry thought Draco wasn’t that bad.]

Or you might belong in Hufflepuff

Who shine the brightest when the going gets tough 

They are loyal and patient, just and true

If you’re quiet and kind, this House’s for you!

Or maybe you’ll be in Ravenclaw

If your reasoning mind’s without a flaw

For those of wit and who love to learn

Choose this house when it’s your turn!

And last we come to Gryffindor

The brave of heart who…[Draco said something to Harry which he couldn’t hear, and which distracted him]…explore

Their daring and…Harry whispered, “Be quiet Draco!”

…the house to choose!

So put me on! Don’t be scared.

I promise you, you are prepared.

You’re safe with me, even though I can’t move.

I’m a Thinking Hat! With nothing to prove!

The whole Hall burst into applause as the hat finished its song. It bowed to each of the four tables and then became quite still again. 

“So my father was right,” said Draco. “We’ve just got to go and try on the hat. This’ll be a piece of cauldron cake.”

Harry smiled weakly. Yes, trying on the hat was a lot better than having to do a spell, but he did wish they could have tried it on without everyone watching. The hat seemed to be asking rather a lot; Harry didn’t feel ambitious or patient or witty or any of it at the moment. If only the hat had mentioned a house for people who felt a bit queasy, that would have been the one for him.

Professor McGonagall now stepped forward holding a long roll of parchment.

“When I call your name, you will put on the hat and sit on the stool to be sorted,” she said. “Abbott, Hannah!”

A pink-faced girl with blonde pigtails stumbled out of line, put on the hat, which fell right down over her eyes, and sat down. A moment’s pause – 

“HUFFLEPUFF!” shouted the hat.

The table on the right cheered and clapped as Hannah went to sit down at the Hufflepuff table. Harry saw the ghost of the Fat Friar waving merrily at her.

“Bones, Susan!”

“Hufflepuff!” shouted the hat again, and Susan scuttled off to sit next to Hannah. Harry thought maybe he’d like to join Hufflepuff, since it seemed to be the most popular house so far and the girls who were chosen looked pretty nice.

“Boot, Terry!”

“RAVENCLAW!”

The table second from the left clapped this time, several Ravenclaws stood up to shake hands with Terry as he joined them. “Brocklehurst, Mandy” went to Ravenclaw then “Bulstrode, Millicent,” went to Slytherin. Perhaps it was Harry’s nervous imagination, but the Slytherin table didn’t look very pleasant. But didn’t Draco say it was the best house?

“Crabbe, Vincent.” Next to Harry, Vincent didn’t move. Everyone started to look around. Professor McGonagall coughed into her hand.

“Crabbe, Vincent,” the hat repeated. Harry gently prodded Vincent, saying, “That’s you.” 

“Oh, um, yeah.” Crabbe lumbered to the sorting hat.

“SLYTHERIN.” Crabbe went to the Slytherin table and gave Harry a trembling thumbs up.

Harry was starting to feel definitely sick now. He remembered being picked for teams during sports lessons at his old school. He had always been last to be chosen, not because he was no good, but because no one wanted Dudley to think they liked him.

“Goyle, Gregory!”

Sometimes, Harry noticed, the hat shouted out the house at once (as it did for Vincent), but at others it took a little while to decide. Gregory sat on the stool for almost a whole minute before the hat declared him a Slytherin.

“Granger, Hermione!”

Hermione almost ran to the stool and jammed the hat eagerly on her head.

“GRYFFINDOR!” shouted the hat. Harry felt a twisting sensation in his stomach.

A horrible thought struck Harry, as horrible thoughts always do when you’re very nervous. What if he wasn’t chosen at all? What if he just sat there with the hat over his eyes for ages, until Professor McGonagall jerked it off his head and said there had obviously been a mistake and he’d better get back on the train? Harry didn’t care which house he was in, as long as he could stay here. Harry lost track of time until he heard,

“Malfoy, Draco!” Malfoy swaggered forward and got his wish at once: the hat had barely touched his head when it screamed, “SLYTHERIN!” Malfoy went to join Crabbe and Goyle, looking pleased with himself, then he stared at Harry, mouthing the words, “You can do it.”

There weren’t many people left now.

“Moon’…Nott…Parkinson….then a pair of twin girls, Patil and Patil…then ‘Perks, Sally-Anne, and then, at last – 

“Potter, Harry!”

As Harry stepped forward, whispers suddenly broke out like little hissing fires all over the hall.

Potter, did she say?”

The Harry Potter?”

The last thing Harry saw before the hat dropped over his eyes was the hall full of people craning to get a good look at him. Next second he was looking at the black inside of the hat. He waited.

“Hmmm, said a small voice in his ear. “Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either. There’s talent, oh my goodness, yes – and a nice thirst to prove yourself, a burning ambition, now that’s interesting … So where shall I put you?” Harry gripped the edges of the stool and remembered the train ride, Draco saying, And how we can get into Slytherin, then he remembered the Salazar Slytherin Chocolate Frog card, lucky you! He’s rare. It must be a sign. You’ll definitely be in Slytherin house. Harry then imagined the Slytherin table, and Malfoy being annoying, and Hagrid saying all of Voldemort’s followers were in Slytherin…

“Uncertain about Slytherin, eh?” said the small voice. 

“Yeah,” Harry thought, “I don’t know which house to…to…”

“You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that.”

“Really?” Harry didn’t know much else about any of the other houses, and his three friends from the train had already gone to Slytherin. Harry remembered Draco putting his hand on his shoulder and Vincent giving him the trembling thumbs up. He remembered all the advice Malfoy gave him on the train, and him saying, I’ll know you’ll get in…

“Oh, and what do we have here, you’re a parseltongue!”

“A what?”

“You can talk to snakes?”

“I can?”

“Yes, you can, hmmm, very interesting, very interesting indeed…” Harry remembered talking to the snake at the zoo on Dudley’s birthday. He thought that had been his imagination. “You know,” said the hat, “Salazar Slytherin was a parseltongue too.”

“Yeah, I read that on his Chocolate Frog card.”

“Very powerful wizards have been in Slytherin house…wizards who have changed the world. And you happen to have many qualities that Salazar prized in his hand-picked students: resourcefulness, determination, a certain disregard for rules. So what’s it going to be?” Harry furrowed his brow and tried to reflect. He must have been sitting on the stool for over two minutes.

“Er – maybe, Slytherin, I guess, but-”

“SLYTHERIN!”

Harry heard the hat shout the last word to the whole Hall. He took off the hat and walked shakily towards the Slytherin table. He was so relieved to have been chosen to be in a house at all, he hardly noticed that beyond the gruff shouts and hoots of congratulations from the Slytherin table, the rest of the Hall was deathly silent. The other tables stared in what seemed like a terrified awe, and it seemed to Harry that some of the other students were frightened of him. “We got Potter! We got Potter!” shouted Draco as he menacingly gestured his fist towards the other houses. Harry sat down opposite a ghost with blank staring eyes, a gaunt face, and robes stained with silver blood. “Meet the Bloody Baron, Harry,” said Draco.

“Hi – er – Bloody Baron,” the ghost replied with a guttural, “aarrhhhggg.”

He could see the High Table properly now. At the end farthest away from him sat Hagrid, who caught his eye and looked at him with a curious frown. And there, in the center of the High Table, in a large gold chair, sat Albus Dumbledore. Harry recognized him at once from one of Draco’s Chocolate Frog cards on the train. Dumbledore’s silver hair was the only thing in the whole Hall that shone as brightly as the ghosts. He was also looking at Harry with a curious frown. Harry spotted Professor Quirrel, too, the nervous young man from the Leaky Cauldron. He was looking very peculiar in a large purple turban, and he smiled at Harry in a bizarre, almost frenzied-like way.

And now there were only three people left to be sorted. ‘Turpin, Lisa became a Ravenclaw and then it was the boy from the train, Ron’s turn. After Ron was sorted into Gryffindor the last name was called,

“Zabini, Blaise,” a haughty looking boy with high cheekbones and long, slanting eyes approached the hat. Draco whispered to Harry, “His mom’s famous.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, wickedly beautiful and filthy rich too, some kind of witch model. She’s been married five times and each of her husbands died mysteriously, leaving her mounds of gold.”

“Oh…”

“He’d be a good person to know if-”

“SLYTHERIN!” The Slytherin table cheered and Draco elbowed Harry and winked. “Sit next to us Blaise!” Professor McGonagall rolled up her scroll and took the Sorting Hat away.

Harry looked down at his empty gold plate. He had only just realized how hungry he was. The pumpkin pasties seemed ages ago.

Albus Dumbledore had got to his feet. He was beaming at the students, his arms opened wide, as if nothing could have pleased him more than to see them all here.

“Welcome!” he said, “Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Tweak! Oddment! Blubber! Nitwit!”

“Thank you!”

He sat back down. All the tables except Slytherin’s table clapped and cheered. Harry didn’t know whether to laugh or not, and started to clap, but Draco stopped him.

“Is he – a bit mad?” asked Harry.

“Mad?” said Draco accusingly. “He’s completely insane. My father thinks he’s the worst thing that ever happened to this place. But we’ll talk about him later, he’s probably listening. Slow down Goyle you’re going to choke on something.”

Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: filet mignon, buttered lobster, spicy buffalo chicken wings, Mikey special pizza slices, garlic break sticks, coconut fried shrimp, buttermilk pancakes, pure maple syrup, pineapple fried rice, juicy hamburgers, bottles of siracha, and, for some strange reason, a black and green can of Monster’s energy drink.

The Dursleys had never exactly starved Harry, but he’d never been allowed to eat as much as he liked. Dudley had always taken anything that Harry really wanted, even if it made him sick. Harry piled his plate with a bit of everything except the vegetables and began to eat. It was all delicious.

“Stuff ya soft face ya greedy pig,” said the Bloody Baron, watching Harry rip the meat off a chicken wing.

“Can’t you-”

“I haven’t eaten for nearly six hundred years,” said the ghost. “Don’t need to, of course, makes me sick watching you all gorge yourselves.”

“Then why don’t you leave?” asked Malfoy. “Nobody’s stopping you. Float away.”

“We ghosts gotta be here,” leered the baron. Harry stared at his blood-soaked robes.

“How’d your robes get all bloody?” The baron let out a wheezing, raspy chuckle.

“That story’s for anudder day. Too violent for kids like yourselves.”

When everyone had eaten as much as they could, the remains of the food faded from the plates, leaving them sparkling clean as before. A moment later the deserts appeared. Strawberry cheesecake, cookie dough ice cream, chocolate lava cakes, peanut butter pies, chocolate chip cookies, caramel creams…

As Harry helped himself to a chocolate lava cake, mixing the piping-hot chocolate sauce with french vanilla ice cream, the talk turned to their families.

“I’m pure blood back two hundred years,” said Draco. “I think there’s a crazy aunt who married a Muggle two hundred years ago, but we burned her off the family tree.”

“Never met my dad,” said Blaise, but based on what I know about him, I think he might have been a Muggle…” The table went awkwardly silent.

“Anyway…” said Malfoy while widening his eyes, shaking his head, and glancing at everyone knowingly except Blaise, “There aren’t many 100% pure blood families left.”

“My family’s pure back one-hundred years,” said Millicent.

“Not bad Milly,” said Draco, “Not too bad.” She blushed and looked down.

“You think classes gonna be difficult?” asked Vincent. “My dad says I’ll probably fail out. I’m worried.” Harry put his arm around Vincent’s shoulder. “I’m worried too, Vincent. We’ll help each other.”

“Well all I care about is learning the dark arts. Most of the other courses, charms, transfiguration, care of magical creatures, are a big waste of time.”

Harry, who was starting to feel warm and sleepy, looked up at the High Table again. Hagrid was drinking deeply from his goblet and listening to Dumbledore, who was whispering in his ear and glancing at Harry. Professor McGonagall seemed to also be listening and looking in Harry’s direction. Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose and sallow skin.

It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes – and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.

“Ouch!” Harry clapped a hand to his head.

“Shut up Harry,” said Draco, “I was telling a story. So I was flying around my manor on my uncle’s broom when-”

The pain had gone as quickly as it had come. Harder to shake off was the feeling Harry had got from the teacher’s look – a feeling that he didn’t like Harry at all.

“Who’s that teacher talking to Professor Quirrell,” he asked the Slytherin prefect named Walter.

“Oh, you know Quirrell already, do you? No wonder he’s looking so nervous, that’s Professor Snape. He teaches Potions, but he doesn’t want to – everyone knows he’s after Quirrell’s job. Knows an awful lot about the Dark Arts, Snape.”

“My dad knows him, Harry,” Draco interrupted his story. “I’ll tell you everything I know about him later.”

“Thanks.” Harry watched Snape for a while but Snape didn’t look at him again.

At last, the deserts disappeared and Professor Dumbledoor got to his feet again. The Hall fell silent.

“Ahem – just a few more words now we are all fed and watered. I have a few start-of-term notices to give you.

“First-years should note that the forest in the grounds is forbidden to all pupils. And a few of our older students would do well to remember that as well.”

Dumbledore’s twinkling eyes flashed in the direction of a red-headed twins seated at the Gryffindor table. 

“I have also been asked by Mr. Filch, the caretaker, to remind you all that no magic should be used between classes in the corridors.

“Quidditch trials will be held in the second week of term. Anyone interested in playing for their house teams should contact Madam Hooch.”

“I’m definitely trying out,” whispered Draco.

“You can’t,” said Walter, “first-years aren’t allowed.”

“What? No way. That’s no fair. What if-”

“Shhh!”

“And finally,” Dumbledoor continued, “I must tell you that this year, the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very painful death.

Harry laughed, but he was one of the few who did.

“He’s not serious?” he muttered to Walter.

“Must be,” said Walter, frowning at Dumbledoor. “It’s odd, because he usually gives us a reason why we’re not allowed to go somewhere – the forest’s full of dangerous beats, everyone knows that. I do think he might have told us Prefects, at least.”

“I told you he’s insane,” added Draco.

“And now, before we go to bed, let us sing the school song!” cried Dumbledoor. Harry noticed that the other teachers’ smiles had become rather fixed.

Dumbledoor gave his wand a little flick as if he was trying to get a fly off the end and a long golden ribbon flew out of it, which rose high above the tables and twisted itself snake-like into words.

“Everyone pick their favorite tune,” said Dumbledoor, “and off we go!”And the school bellowed:

“Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy warty Hogwarts

Teach us something we insist,

Even if we’re boring and dull

We’ll listen and try to get the gist

Our heads could do with some new things

Interesting facts and new equations

For now they’re empty and full of space

Limited thoughts with no variations

So teach us things we’ll never forget

Bring back the wisdom we don’t remember

Just say some words, we’ll understand

And learn until our minds surrender

Everybody finished the song at different times. At last, only the red-headed twins were left singing along to a very slow funeral march. Dumbledore conducted their last few lines with his wand, and when they had finished, he was one of those who clapped the loudest.

“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes, “A magic beyond all we do here!” And now, bedtime. Off you trot!”

The Slytherin first-years followed Walter through the chattering crowds, out of the Great Hall, then to a passage on left.

“Where are we going?” asked Harry

“Down to the dungeons,” replied Walter. They walked down stone steps into the darkness. Harry’s legs were like lead again, but only because he was so tired and full of food. He felt sleepy as they walked deeper and deeper under the school. After a quarter of an hour of moving through a labyrinth of passages, they arrived at a stretch of bare, damp stone wall.

“Pure-blood,” said Walter, and a door concealed in the wall slid open. They all scrambled through and found themselves in a long, low underground room with rough stone walls. On the ceiling were greenish lamps hanging on chains. A fire was crackling under an elaborately carved mantelpiece ahead of them, and several Slytherins were silhouetted around it in the carved chairs.

“The Slytherin common room,” said Walter. He directed the girls through a passageway on the left and the boys through another passageway at the far end of the room. At the end of another stone hallway they found their beds at last: king-sized mattresses floating three feet above the stone floor, with translucent curtains waving around the beds. 

“Wow, look at this,” Draco said as he touched the curtain around his bed. Whenever he tugged the curtain, it turned from clear to black. 

“For privacy,” said Walter. Their trunks had already been brought down. Too tired to talk much, they pulled on their pajamas and fell into bed, playing with the curtains.

“Now you see me, now you don’t, now you see me, now you don’t” chortled Malfoy. 

“Aren’t you clever,” said Harry.

“Hey, it’s fun.” Harry could tell that Malfoy was in a good, hyper mood. “Maybe this place is as interesting as Durmstrang. At least the food’s good, right? Hah! Look! Crabbe and Goyle are already passed out. Like giant babies. Wake up giant baby!” Malfoy tried to poke Vincent in the face, but his wand couldn’t pass through the curtain.

“Guess you’ll have to wait to be an annoying git in the morning,” said Harry.

“Real funny Potter.” Harry was going to ask Draco if he’d had any of the spicy buffalo wings, because he felt mouth still burning, but he fell asleep almost at once.

Perhaps Harry had eaten a bit too much, because he had a very strange dream. He was wearing Professor Quirrell’s turban, which kept talking to him in soothing tones, saying, Welcome Harry, I’m glad you’re in Slytherin, you were meant to be here, it’s your destiny. Harry told the turban that he only chose Slytherin because that’s all he really knew, that Draco was his friend and that he wanted to be a great wizard. The turban got heavier and heavier; he tried to pull it off but it tightened painfully – and there was Malfoy, crying while he struggled with it – then Malfoy turned into the hook-nosed teacher, Snape, whose laugh became high and cold – there was burst of green light and Harry woke, sweating and shaking.He looked around the dungeon and no one else was awake. He poked the curtain so that it was black and completely silent, so that he was lying in a void-like space. Then he rolled over and fell asleep again, and when he woke next day, he didn’t remember the dream at all.

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