Thursday, October 24, 2013

Art Pact 283 - Ninety-Nine Percent

From beneath the water the horse's soulful eyes stared back at me. I took a careful step towards the edge of the pond, feeling the familiar damp caress around my face. My feelings towards the pond have become strangely ambiguous in the last months. It has always smelt of childhood to me, but there is another scent coming to overlay that nostalgic aroma - the smell of sex, the smell of the sensation inside me when I see a beautiful back, the curve of an ankle. The smell that makes me want to puff out my chest and sing songs of my strength.

"Hello," I said to the horse. Its nostrils flared, and for a moment I thought that it might be mute - some horses are, or they pretend to be, at any rate. But the horse blew out a pulse of water from its snout and then spoke:

"Hello yourself."

I wanted to ask why - of course I did, what else would I ask? But such large questions must be approached by roundabout means. One cannot simply march up to the front door.

"It's a lovely day," I suggested.

"If you say so," said the horse. "I suspect that we have different criteria on which to base such statements."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that the question of whether it is a good day or not depends entirely on one's point of view. What is fine weather for the dandelion is terrible for the ptarmigan, for instance. You, I suspect, prefer a day in which soil is damp but the air is warm."

It seemed to me that a horse might like such conditions as well, but I simply nodded and accepted the point. There is no sense in immediate confrontation, especially when you may have to subsequently share a pond with the person you have so strenuously argued against.

"The conditions of a lovely day," continued the horse, "are dependent on so many factors, indeed, that it is scarcely possible to determine ahead of time even for a single person what such a day might comprise."

"But surely," I said, "broad trends are evident? I, as you say, prefer a damp soil day. The smell of petrichor, the cool touch against my feet, but a hidden sun warming the air so that my blood moves fast. It is part of my nature to desire conditions that suit my body, and surely, since that body is now immutable, my feelings towards the meteorological future will remain constant and predictable."

The horse whinnied with laughter, and somewhere in its unseen lungs there must have been air, because great bubbles burst from its mouth and nose and streamed up to the surface to pop, splashing me with droplets and filling the air with a pungent odour that I could only assume to be the smell of drowning.

I stepped closer to the edge and stared down into the pond. I had not remembered the bank to be so steep as it clearly was. In my mind it sloped gradually into the water, providing a gentle ramp which one might either descend or ascend with relative ease. Now it looked as though I would have to jump straight in if I wanted to swim, and hope that there was some other part of the bank that would allow me an easier escape when the time came. Not for the first time I wondered if I had been turned around somewhere during my journey. But no - this was definitely the pond of my childhood, and I had come to it past the remains of the old pine stump. The horse, I thought, had somehow changed the pond. Or perhaps something else had changed it, and the horse was just as surprised as I was. That might explain its current predicament.

"Is there something I can do for you?" I offered.

"Sorry, sorry," said the horse. "It's just that - well, does everyone have such a short memory?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, only last year if I had asked you about your idea day you'd have said warm water, bright sunlight, plenty of water-shrimp. You wouldn't have mentioned anything about your feet, obviously. Do you think that past you would have seen anything appealing in the feeling of warm air - or would he have talked about nothing but the horror of suffocation?"

"Well of course," I said. "I suppose, there's that, yes. But... But that was different. Everyone undergoes a metamorphosis during their adolescence. That is the very essence of predictability. You can hardly suggest that as a full-grown frog I'm going to metamorphose into something el..."

I did not finish my sentence, as a creeping suspicious finally made its way into the forefront of my thoughts and I began to realise why the horse might be making such an argument.

"Do you say these things," I asked, "because you retain hope?"

"Hope?"

"Hope for the future, I mean," I said. "Is it an attempt to find some future for yourself which is not so grim as the one that experience predicts?"

"You mean," said the horse, "do I search for some crumb of hope that I, like you, might undergo a future metamorphosis?"

"Well, yes."

"I suppose it's possible. There are many such moments in life - a gamete emitted by your mother metamorphosed into a living egg when your father sprayed upon it. An egg metamorphosed into a tadpole, and a tadpole into a frog. Why stop there?"

"I've seen dead people," I said, and immediately regretted it. Perhaps in the horse's final moments I should be giving it some sort of comfort. Should I lie to it, promise it that there was indeed some other life which would emerge from the bloated remains of its equine form.

"We've all seen the dead," said the horse.

"I meant nothing by it. I mean, I'm sure you're going to be fine." Again, the regret followed the words like carriages following an engine, and I wished fervently that the ground might open and swallow me up. Oh to be a toad, and to bury oneself away.

"Well then," said the horse. "That's reassuring. But I think you mistake me for something else. Tell me, what do you see when you look at me?"

The question was curious, but I leant over the water and stared down into the water. I could see the horse, and myself, and sometimes I could see both. By an effort of will I could focus on the surface and see my own reflection, or below it, to see the horse.

"A horse," I replied eventually. "A horse in a place where a horse should not naturally be."

"Of course," it said. I detected a faint hint of amusement. "Nothing else? Do you not see a delightful female frog?"

"Just a horse," I said.

It laughed again, and pushed away from the bank, and now - revealed in the sunlight - I saw the full length of the creature's body. Not hooves and a barrel torso, but a serpentine form covered in dark blue scales and tipped by a muscular tail. On its forelimbs slender claws wriggled in anticipation of a catch. I began to back away.

"Be happy, little frog," said the kelpie. "There is still a transformations left for you, but today is not the day. The day will come when the water calls you again, and you seek a wife. Remember me then, and find a different pond."

"I will," I promised, cold to the bone.

With that the creature laughed once more and swam away, blue scales shimmering and cutting through my reflection.

I walked to the old pine stump in silence, and felt the damp soil beneath my feet and the warmth in the air.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Art Pact 282 - The Drill

"You know the drill," he says.

"The drill?"

"You know." He points at the door, or rather through it at the situation unfolding outside. "The drill. What to do in situations like this. The drill!"

"Oh, oh!" I say. "Sorry, I thought you were talking about"--I mime using a power tool to drill through a wall--"you know, I thought you had some plan for getting us out through one of the side walls."

"What?"

"Into another shop." He stares at me blankly, so I add: "Sideways. Through the wall. Into another shop, and then away."

"That's not the drill," he says.

"Well, okay, that's just what I thought you were saying."

"No. No, that's not what I was saying."

"Okay, good, I understand that now. It was just an honest mistake."

"Through the wall?" he asks. "Into another shop?"

"It was just a thought. Just a misunderstanding, don't worry about it."

"I mean, how would we get through?"

"With a dri... never mind about that. Tell me about the drill. What are we supposed to do?"

He shakes his head.

"I can't get that idea about going into another shop out of my head," he says.

"Forget about it."

"I can't. I mean, what were you thinking? What good would it do getting into another shop? How would we even get into another shop?"

"Never mind that!" I snap. "Look, just tell me what you were going to tell me. Tell me about the drill."

He tells me about the drill. If anything, it's slightly more stupid than the plan to go through the wall. Actually, scratch that. It's a lot more stupid than the plan to go through the wall. It's straight-up moronic, and I can only assume that it has been written by a staffer at headquarters who has never even been to the shop on a busy day, let alone experienced a riot.

The first thing we are supposed to do is to secure the tills and the payment machines. This is the sort of thing we would do at close of day anyway, but usually you do it without a hundred angry people outside watching your every movement and shouting abuse at you. It doesn't give you much more information, watching someone secure the tills - otherwise it would be trivial for any one of our vast number of ex-employees to get into the lock-boxes and spirit away the day's takings - but it does help you focus on where all the money is going. When you're rioting outside and in the mood for looting and there are thousands of you, trivial matters like heavy wooden lock-boxes, even ones with metal reinforcement, are no bar to the pursuit of your aims. We might as well be holding up big bundles of cash to the crowd then conspicuously stuffing them into our pockets.

"Okay, I'm not doing that," I tell him. "What's in the tills anyway, maybe two hundred quid? We've had a slow day, and almost everyone paid by card. What's next?"

He tells me.

"You're fucking kidding me," I say.

He isn't.

The next item on the drill - the second item, the second item on the drill - is to address the crowd and tell them to disperse. Not ask, mind you. Tell.

"Who do they think works here, fucking Robocop?"

"Language, please," he says, frowning. "We are still representatives of the Maximus Clothing Corporation."

"Fuck the Maximus Clothing Corporation," I tell him, "and fuck you. There is absolutely no way that I'm going over there-"

"Outside," he corrects me.

"What?"

"It says that the store manager or the most senior supervisor should go outside to address the crowd."

"And what does everyone else do?"

"They stay behind."

"Oh, that's lovely."

I poke my head around the rack of clothes we're hiding behind. The rioters are pressed up against the shop shutters in a solid block of angry humanity that one would normally only see in a zombie movie or on boxing day at eight forty-five. I am not quick enough to avoid being noticed, and a great yell goes up. I duck my head back and five seconds later I hear the sound of the shutters being rattled - at first randomly, then back and forth as the crowd manage somehow to build up a synchronised rhythm.

"I suppose at least we managed to get the shutters down in time," I say.

"Well, that just makes it more awkward," he says.

"What?"

"Well," he says. "Now we've got to wind the shutters up again if you're going to go out and tell them to move on."

I stare at him for a few seconds, hoping that my relentless slack-jawed glare will somehow get across the impression I want to give, a sort of uneven solution of utter disbelief suspended in righteous anger. After a few moments, it is clear that the message has not been received. He is still looking at me evenly, almost expectantly, as though at any moment I might bound up, punch my way through the shutters, and stroll nonchalantly out into the crowd dispensing pearls of stern wisdom on all sides as I go, and presumably as I walk up a magical rainbow and am received directly into heaven. Rather than what will actually happen if I open the shutters, which is that ten seconds later I will be on the floor getting kicked from all sides while psychotic looters pour into the store and start gutting it like a whale on the deck of a Nantucket sailboat.

"Let me make this absolutely clear," I tell him. "I am not - not now, and possibly not ever - going to lift up those shutters, unlock the door, and go out into that crazy mob. If you think otherwise, you need to disabuse yourself of that delusion quickly and with no fuss. Telling the crowd to disperse is a job for the police, as is the subsequent job of getting them to disperse with tear gas and truncheons when they decide that they're not going to cooperate. Do you understand? Is this making it's way in there somehow?"

He opens his mouth as if he's about to answer, but at that moment there is an almighty snapping sound from the front of the shop - an ominous sound that I cannot identify but which is loaded with bad promises and the anticipation of worse to come. I pull back a couple of the coats just in time to see the source of the noise before it vanishes.

The snap, it is clear from the moment I see it, was caused by a gigantic gently curving crack that has formed across the single pane of glass to the right of the door - a pane about fifteen feet high and the same across. The constant pressure on the shutters has caused them to bend in slightly and press against the glass, and some small weakness in the glass had suddenly grown to cross the whole surface.

I see the crack only for a moment before it vanishes - sadly not through some amazing application of high-tech self-repairing glass, but because the entire thing shatters, tumbling out of its mounting in a glittering rain of safety-glass powder and weakly-attached mosaics that crash to the floor of the shop just inside the shutters. There is a moment of stunned silence from the mob, then an ecstatic roar made three times as loud by the fact that there is now no longer anything but air and a metal shutter between me and them.

"Well fuck," I say.

"Language," he chides me.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Art Pact 281 - This is hardly

This is hardly the time for jubilation. The kingdom is fallen, the crows feast on the bodies of the dead, a great plague covers the land and a blood moon presides over all, looking down and laughing its crimson glee at the chaos that engulfs us. Hope has fled to the farthest corners of our minds, and we cower in dark places, hiding from ourselves as much as each other, calling out to gods that we are sure no longer exist for a grace that we have long since forsaken. A dark shadow rolls across the land, and with each person it touches it grows stronger, sapping away our humanity and calling us to arms against each other, man against woman, parent against child, beast against bird.

This is hardly the place for a feast: in the middle of the battlefield, a table set for ten surrounded by the bodies of thousands, sweetmeats and sorbets laid out delicately on silver and crystal bowls, white and yellow and gentlest pink set in a field of deepest red gore, the ruin of many a man. Yet here sit the ten who have been called here, supping as though they dined in fields of gentlest daisies, where butterflies took the places of the sharp-beaked ravens that cluster around. They say little, these diners, as if careful not to break the spell that has been cast upon them by their own desires. The clink of silverware against glass is all that can be heard.

This is hardly the way to raise a child. In the basement of a chapel whose upper glory now lies in ruins, the woman in the black dress carries the infant king from one pond to another and shows him the sights that the waters bring her. The liquid has dripped in from above and spread itself in patches across the flagstone floor of the room, and she does not think to ask what might have seeped down within that rain, what loathsome fluid might have been dissolved in it and now rises in fumes from the floor, bringing her visions of what is, what was, what might be. She holds the child above each pool in turn and it sees its place in the earth.

This is hardly the town to find some peace. There are lights in the darkness of the old town, and shapes that shun those lights or cluster close to them, and who can tell whether those shapes are prey or predator. One such light is the candle above the broken door of a townhouse whose residents and owners are dead or flown, which has been taken over by the fat man who was once called the Abbott. He waxes by selling the salvaged stock from the old abbey one filthy glassful at a time, and a grey man nurses one such drink and waits, looking through the window every few minutes at the broken clock tower in the old plaza that has read midnight for eight months now.

This is hardly the woman to save the world. An acid-etched sword dragged along the ground by a weary traveller, her skin blotched and scabbed by disease, cuts a rut in the soil into which the poisonous rain spills. It is lit by the ghastly red moon, so that as the woman travels she leaves behind her a blood-red trail, as though she were slicing the earth open, as though she might take one of those neatly -sliced edges and pull back, flensing the world of its dying skin and purifying it for some other time. She seems unaware of the line she is leaving behind her, though. From beneath a mud-soaked hood her eyes stare forward, only forward, fixed on a destination she does not know.

This is hardly a minute since the end. In the scheme of things it is a focal point, an instant, a brief interlude between two greater periods of time, but such grand vistas, such a big picture, is reserved only for those who can see time for what it is, who can stand outside the details and see the patterns, the long periods of changelessness and stability. Viewed from within it is an eternity of sadness, with no clue as to its beginning or hope of its end. Even those who understand how the world came to be as it is now can barely remember how different it was such a short period of time ago. Devoid of light, their minds can form no images.

This is hardly an appropriate moment to think of gain. But there are men and women in rich robes who stand at the newly crowned top of a tower in the middle of the city and look down on the devastation and talk of power and profit. This is a moment between breaths for them, they who have placed themselves carefully to take advantage of instants like this. The coin may fall one way, or it may fall another - but these few have placed themselves with great precision to ensure that the coin finally rests in their quarter of the board. They appear to wait, to see who will come out on top, but behind the scenes they are moving.

This is hardly the garden in which kindness flourishes. An acid soil of despair and terror provide no nourishment to the gentler feelings, and yet there are still some weeds that struggle against the prevailing conditions. A young man on a cart strokes the hindquarters of the donkey that pulls him, brushing away the flies and ticks that trouble it. The animal struggles to pull the vehicle over the ruts and bumps in the road, slipping sometimes in the mud but always catching itself before it falls. They approach a figure before them, a hobbling figure drawing behind itself what at first appears to be a dull metal pole, but resolves into a sword as they draw near. The young man descends from his seat to offer it up.

This is hardly a matter for gods to concern themselves with. There are greater forces at work in the world, in the worlds beyond the world, in the hot stars that surround the sorry Earth, forces that are more fundamental than anything that might occur on one small backwater rock in the middle of nowhere. And yet there are eyes that watch the world with trepidation, knowing that from small seeds mighty brambles can grow, that there are some problems that will not resolve themselves - or at least may not resolve themselves in a desirable way. There are eyes that watch from the burning disks of stars, and from the cold black clouds that span the spaces between the worlds, eyes that watch and grow uncertain.

This is hardly a beginning. But the pieces are all in their places, and the board is set, the stakes have been calculated, the ante thrown in. Were it a game for real, this would be the moment when the players took a deep breath and looked each other in the eye, trying to decide who should make the first move. This is the pause before the battle, a silence pregnant with possibility and tragedy. It is hardly a beginning, true, but one must begin somewhere. We begin in the rain, in the darkness, on the edge of a city that was once bright but is now just a few pinpricks of light spread wide across a vast black plain.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Art Pact 280 - Questions about living in a monsters stomach

Let me throw the floor open to questions - well, wait. Before we have the first question, let me make a little note on this piece of paper here, I'm going to fold it up, put it over here. You can - here, you, you can look at it if you like. Just to show that it isn't a magic trick. Yeah, just... no, you can look at it. Just don't show it to anyone else. You don't have a question, right? Right. Okay. No, yes, otherwise that would sort of be hard for me to predict. Okay? Okay.

Okay, we're all good. So, do we have any questions?

Oh, quiet a lot. A lot of hands, that changes the odds slightly, perhaps. Or maybe it doesn't. No, probably not, that's not how odds work . So, uh, do we have a roving microphone? No? Okay, well people are just going to have to shout their questions and I'll repeat them back. Or for the first question, I'll just show the piece of paper there. 

Oh, we can get one, but it will take a moment? Okay.

Uh, so, people in the back, forgive me! I'll get to you, but for the sake of my ears to start with I'll pick some questions from the front. Uh, yes! The lady in the grey - is that a blouse, or a shirt? I never know what clothing is what. Oh? A tank top. My mistake. Sorry. What's your name?

Madeleine. Okay, Madeleine - what's your question?

Ahh. Yes. I can see you're smiling - sorry, I forgot to ask what your name was? Rob? Rab? What is that, is that Scottish? Oh, yes, I see.

So everyone, the reason Rab is smiling is because on the inside of that piece of paper he's holding I just wrote down... could you read it please, Rab?

Exactly: What is it like living in the stomach of a giant monster?

Am I what? Oh, no - no!

For people at the back who couldn't hear, Madeleine was just asking me whether I get fed up being asked that question. No, I don't. Actually I love it, partly because I think it is a very interesting question myself, and partly because since I get asked it so much I've got a whole spiel going that I can reel off without thinking too much. Although I will tailor it to this audience a bit, so I can leave out the business about the existence of the monster.

First off, where I live is not actually in the stomach. There are coping mechanisms that can be used, but it's just more comfortable to live in the duodenum, away from the acid. I go to the stomach occasionally, Obviously I sort of prefer coming out that way when I'm let out rather than taking the back door, if you catch my drift. But mainly the stomach is just too hostile. The acid, the unpredictability of sudden flooding, it's all hard to work with. Much much better to live further back where I get some kind of warning, where I can prepare for any disruptions.

Now, I don't have to explain to any of you what or where the duodenum is, so I can skip over that part. What I'll say is that there is one major difference between a human duodenum and the monster's on, apart from the obvious question of scale. And that is that the peristaltic muscles aren't arrange in bands, but in four - let's say stripes, for want of a better word, that run the length of the digestive tract. The stripes can expand and contract, it's possible they have bands of muscles within then, but they seem pretty homogenous to me from the outside. Anyway, what this means is that there are relatively stable areas, smaller stripes, that also run the whole length of the monster's guts. They don't move a lot, they tend to end up as void spaces in which rotting food collects, they're breeding grounds for parasites, but they also provide me with somewhere that I can live without too much disruption. My little hut is on the bottom-most one of these stripes about twenty meters in from the sphincter that leads from the stomach. I can - maybe if I can put this up on a screen. Ah, there we go. Home sweet home! I'm sure you've all seen that picture before, it was the one on the cover of the Radio Times. But here's another one, taken out of my window. I think it gives a better idea of the scale of the thing.

Sorry, what's that?

Oh, yes - now, that is an interesting question. What's your name? Alison. Alison. So, what Alison's asked is what is that there, in the upper left of the- no, the upper right of the picture. It may amaze you to know that there's not much use for knowing left from right when you live in a monster's belly. Anyway - uh, yes, that! Okay, so we don't know for sure, but what we think that is is a swelling caused in opposition to a hernia. The theory is that there's a bit of the intestinal wall herniating into the monster's first dorsal lung cavity. It's not proved yet, exactly, but people who are greater experts in monster anatomy assure me that that's the most likely explanation.

What? Oh, why don't we investigate? Well, that's a good question but a simple one. We can't risk doing any damage to the monster given its current position. What we do know - well, what I know, and what I'm telling everyone - is that you have to be very careful what stimulus you apply to the inside of the monster. It's... well, ticklish isn't exactly the right word, but there are sensors or nerve endings in the monster's gut that don't respond very well to irritation. I know this because of what happened to North Pelton.

Ah, yes, I see you know about North Pelton. Well, that was pretty tragic, but it was a long time ago when towns were much smaller. I would say the estimates today are pretty good, perhaps a hundred or two hundred people killed all in all. But you can look at a map of the areas that lie above the monster now and do a little calculation based on census data and - well, a spasm the same size as the one that ended North Pelton could kill a hundred thousand people? Two hundred thousand? It's a serious business. Even at the milder end of the scale we're talking about thousands of people dead, lots more injured.

Oh, we have the microphone - good, well, I can see a lot of hands up at the back there, perhaps - yes, the gentleman in the cloth cap! And may I congratulate you on your fashion bravery. People don't wear a lot of hats nowadays. Not like when I was young. Anyway, yes, go ahead.

Well, hmmm.. So, I have ambiguous feelings about this. On the one hand, it would no doubt be much safer in the long run. But the short term problem is how do you do it? It would have to be instant - absolutely instant. If the monster so much as flinched, the effect on Pelland would be devastating.

And, I won't deny, if the monster comes to an end, what about me? That would be the end of me too, I think, although it's not one hundred percent certain. There's also a little bit of me that says - well, what right do we have to kill the monster? It was here first.

Good question, though. I'm genuinely conflicted.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Art Pact 279 - Comodina

Of all the worlds in which I might have lived, the great moon of Comodina-5 was the one that I found most pleasant. When I was a boy of a mere six hundred and ten I fell from the sky and landed in a clearing in the centre of a Mushtik village. It was midday during a dark month - the period during which the moon was cut off from sunlight by the great bulk of Comodina itself, which filled the noontime sky with rolling red clouds and violent flashes of light - the result of lesser moons and rings falling into the atmosphere of the gas giant and being consumed. I fell hard - I had dropped a lot of speed coming through the atmosphere, at the cost of my clothes which had been ripped to shreds and were no doubt flitting around the upper atmosphere, but not enough to prevent me from embedding myself three meters into the soil of the clearing. I lay there, staring up at the me-shaped patch of red sky that was all I could see (I did not know at the time that I was seeing the sky of another planet, not the one of the moon I was on), and I was just beginning to wonder how I could pry my limbs free of the earth and get out of the hole when a head popped into view above me.

"Chomack?" said the head. It was broad and flat, and split vertically by a horrid-looking mouth flanked on either side by two pairs of glistening black orbs that I chose to assume (correctly, as it turned out) were eyes. "Chomack Amatu?"

"Yes," I said. "Yes, please."

If the creature was surprised that it could understand me, despite my obviously foreign language, it did not show in its mind. It seemed to be taking the whole thing rather matter-of-factly, as if naked aliens dropped out of the sky on a regular basis, and it vanished for a few moments to return with a rope, which it lowered down to me. The end of the rope dangled tantalisingly near to my belly, but I was unable to free my arms from the soil they had fallen into, the blow having compacted the soil quite handily into a thick clay consistency. I struggled against it for a moment then saw the rope being winched back up, repositioned, and lowered again so that it fell directly into my right palm. I was able to grab that easily enough, and with the extra strength of the local pulling up with his rope we were able to free my right arm. Once that was out it was trivial to free the rest of me, and finally I climbed out of the hole on my own by bracing myself against the sides. The creature was surprised about that, and when I got out I saw why - it was only about half a meter tall at the shoulders, although it was close to two meters long. For it, being in a hole three meters deep would have been quite a prison, and although it was obviously not phased by my presence or the other unusual facets of my appearance, the fact that I was tall and not long seemed to be something out of the ordinary for it.

It was a common body plan on Comodina-5, I was later to learn. All of the creatures who lived there were longer than they were tall, and in some cases comically so, so that there were insect-like creatures with the cross-section of my thumb but perhaps ten or twelve meters in length, so long that it was not uncommon for the animals to criss-cross their own paths while foraging, and for animals to physically tie themselves in knots accidentally. The intelligent people - the Mushtik, of whom my rescuer was one - were less ostentatiously long, but they were still more centipede than ape in appearance, and it was clear that my height would provide a constant source of amazement and amusement for them.

"Fretmao?" asked the local, pointing up at the sky. "Oman Fretmao Chomack?"

"Oh, no. I mean, yes, I did fall from the sky. But not from that place. From space. From elsewhere." I made a big gesture, in case the local was unfamiliar with the concept of space but somehow an expert at charades, but it was unnecessary - I could see in its mind that it recognised that I had come from further afield.

"Koka May?" it asked.

"No, I'm fine. I've fallen farther before. Maybe a few bruises."

I had fallen farther before, and faster. I'd been falling through space for approximately thirty years by that point, and as I'd been ejected from the ship at around half light speed it was clear to me that I must have lost a lot of energy coming through the outskirts of the system - if I'd hit the moon at 0.5c I would probably have blown the thing in half. Whether the impact would also have killed me I did not know - they'd obviously hoped that at the other end, but I had good reason to doubt that anything so simple as kinetic energy would be the end of me.

"Mischey?"

"Yes, please! I'm starving."

Now we were on firm ground. The native could accept that I had fallen from the sky, it was unfazed by my appearance in general although boggling at my aspect ratio, and it had moved on from there to simple hospitality. I wasn't sure whether I would be able to eat the food that it gave me, but it wasn't as if the process was vital to me anyway. If the food was poisonous it wouldn't be able to kill me, and I didn't need any nutrition from it one way or the other, so as long as it was something that would fit in my mouth and that I could break with my teeth and swallow, it would be good. There was the matter of taste, of course, but I was confident that no matter how disgusting the fare I would be able to grin and bear it and be polite to my hosts. If it filled up my stomach and took away the awful pangs I'd been experiencing for the last couple of decades that would be worthwhile.

The first hurdle was caused, of course, by my height. The natives, my host included, lived in flat buildings stacked on top of each other, carved out of the body of what I discovered was the local flora - a squat thing about as tall as me into which a low helical path had been cut, leading to several openings in turn, each of which was a house - or hut, or whatever you want to call them. My host disappeared into one and just when I was wondering whether I should crawl in after it on my belly it emerged again, holding a cookpot (apparently the design of some kitchenware is universal) and some chunky yellowish globes that I assumed were fruit. He scuttled down to the base of the house, pausing at each door to call in to the inhabitants. Most of them were either empty or contained locals apathetic towards his call, but two more emerged from their houses, and tagged along after my host when his body had finished passing their door. The three of them formed a little train that spread out into parallel lines at the bottom as we all walked back towards the clearing and the hole I'd made in it.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Art Pact 278 - Points of View

First Person: Well, I can't tell you much about the incident to be honest. I'd been walking through the park over the electroway, counting the grey carriages scattered among the more regular blue ones as they sped by beneath me. It was late, I remember that - I think I'd stayed an extra couple of hours at work and the sun was just coming down over the Makta Tower. I looked up and I saw a cloud of little dots just in the corner of my eye, and that was them, right? The flyers, coming over the hill on the south side of the crater. No formation, so that from that distance they looked like a flock or birds or a swarm of insects. Then they got nearer, and there was the droning, the droning...

Second Person: Only you can hear the droning! You stride purposefully over to the side of the park, pausing only to glance beneath you at the busy electroway hundreds of feet beneath the park's plastiglass substrate. There are people around you, but they have not yet noticed the sound of the flyers getting closer and closer. What do you do? Seriously, I'm asking you - this is a two-way street here, you know. You've got to give me something to work with. I'm not just going to stand here and tell you everything you should do in this perilous situation. Be a man, for heavens sake! Or, you know, a woman, if that's what you are. I'm not going to tell you what you are, that's not my place. That's your thing to decide. (If you are a MAN, collect 100 points and turn to page 17. If you are a WOMAN, collect 75 points and turn to page 18).

Third Person Limited: John rushed to the railing at the edge of the park and stared out at the approaching fleet of aircraft. He counted at least fifty of the distant craft before he gave up - it looked to him as though it were a sizeable proportion of the Progellian Air Force. Behind him, some... damnit, that was behind him. Sometimes it would have been better if John had eyes in the back of his head - especially now, when something really exciting was happening right behind him. Ooh, so exciting! It wouldn't hurt, surely, to reveal a little of the exciting facts going on behind John's back, but oh no, John had to be facing forward right at the fast-approaching fleet of Progellian Flyers!

Third Person Omniscient: Sod it, it has to be said: behind John a micro-parachute blossomed into view, unfolding like the flower of a parapectus albigens, which is a white flower that grows in loamy soil and will become extinct approximately five thousand years after the point at which Judy (the parachutist) lands on the surface of the park behind John. There were seven hundred and thirty-three of them in the park at that moment, but none near enough Judy to be affected directly by the impact of her feet. As her parachute folded up, though, it did blow three bees off course and caused them to stumble across a couple of flowers near the north wall of the park that they wouldn't otherwise have discovered. This had interesting knock-on effects at the sub-atomic level, since the act of removing pollen from the east-most of the flowers caused a mild heating effect to jostle two atoms of oxygen marginally closer to each other than they had been, resulting in the emission of one photon's worth of electromagnetic radiation being emitted by an electron in the outermost p orbital of one of them. This caused...[continued at infinite length on next page]

First Person Unreliable Narrator: the planes grew nearer and nearer, and I gripped at the rail with a terrible rage. Why did it have to be today that they came? I had so much to live for, and now my whole world was going to be brought to an end. If only we'd had some warning! But the approaching fleet was coming in too fast, their engines burning a path in the sky,

First Person Very Unreliable Narrator: No, really? Was that today? You're fucking kidding me, oh man. Sorry, I just got so wrapped up in things here, I didn't realise what time it was. No, really, I'm just swamped. Yes, I understand that. Yes, yes. No, I'll definitely be able to do tomorrow. Seriously, I haven't - I mean, I've got something on in the morning, but I'll cancel it for you. Yes, I'll definitely be there to do that voice-over. Yes of course I'm sure. I'm writing it down now. Yes, I'm literally writing it down now. What? Prove it? Well, I mean, I don't know how... like, what, you want me to hold up the pen to the phone or something so you can hear the noise? I guess whatever makes you happy, man.

1ST PRSN: LOLWUT, IS THIS EVEN A THING IDK.

Third Person Finishing a Pulled Pork Sandwich: So, uh, right, the woman - what was her name again? I - wait, hold on, um, I'b jub fidising my lunch here. Okay, yes, so: Judy lands, and she lets her micro-parachute fold up, then there's a sort of - hold on a second, just taking another bite. Yes, so - oh, nuts, why do they fill these things so full, it's gone everywhere. She gets out a - uh, I can't read that word. It's got sauce all over it. Right, hold on, I'll turn a few pages on and see if that - so it's a Progellian personal jetpack issued to her to rescue John, which you might mistake for a bomb if you read the actual description. Sorry about that. These things are so messy. Okay, so she takes out the jetpack and John turns round, the approaching bombing fleet are getting closer... Wait, let me get a napkin.

First Person Unreliable And Now Angry Narrator: Way to spoil the surprise, genius! I thought. I turned, saw Judy, and waved my hands madly. The jig was up, she might as well rescue me now and get it over with. No point cutting our escape fine now.

Stream of Consciousness: flying up from the bay and watching the red blossoms fall on the glassy surface of the park where the gallow trees hang reminding us all to keep in line, to mind our manners or the progellians will get us what a crock we all bought there's the building I used to work in I can feel judy's strong arms around me pulling me up and away and to safety and to home and I thought yes my mission's done, yes, it's done, yes yes.

Stream of Subconsciousness: There's that red car outside, that car reminds me of Madelaine. God, she's sexy, those strong arms. The things I wouldn't do to Madelaine. I mean, I'd buy her a train ticket and drive that train into a tunnel. Then I guess we could go to that fireworks display. Perhaps take in that rocket taking off that they keep advertising in the news? I should definitely change my deodorant. It's an absolute fact that women would come running to me if I put on Mountain Cat aftershave. I'm definitely writing the character of Judy based on Madelaine, it's obvious that the best way to make her be interested in me is to write her fictional exploits and then hide the manuscript in a hidden folder on my desktop so that she won't be able to ever read it. That is guaranteed to work.

Stream of Unconsciousness: Zzzzzzzz.

First World Problems Person: Free flight home to the rebel base - no inflight movie, no aircon. #mercuryishotthistimeofday

Fourth Person: [BROWSER UNABLE TO RENDER DIALOGUE IN YOUR PRIMITIVE EARTH LANGUAGE]

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Interlude - six of five thousand blades of grass

I can see approximately five thousand blades of grass from my window. The first is about six centimetres long, tapered end, bending slightly to the left, about the same angle as a man who's walked six miles through a shopping centre with his wife, following her from shop to shop as she tries to find the perfect pair of shoes, and has just stopped to take the wait off his right foot. It's a sort of darkish green, approximately Pantone 355 EC.

The second is slightly shorter. I think it comes from the same root. It's roughly the same colour, but a bit more yellowy.

Number 3: It's considerably longer, maybe two centimetres which doesn't sound like much but it's a lot when you're that small. I'd say that the colour was more of a yellow, something like the shade of a jaundiced cauliflower.

It's difficult to talk about the fourth. It's hiding behind its brothers. Or sisters, I'm not sure how one sexes a blade of grass. The French would know. Either way, it's coy. It's just peeking out a little to one side. It's got a jagged tip, like Bart Simpson's haircut. What sort of creature does that? It's yellowish again, like the third one. Not much more to say about it.

The fifth! The glorious fifth! What a leaf! What it lacks in symmetry and grace couldn't be measured by the most delicate of man's artistic instruments! A prince among leaves (or princess, see above), a master (or, again, mistress) of the leafly arts! The rabbit has not been born yet that could do justice to this leaf. [Editor's note: this paragraph left unedited as it was written before our dear translator provided the answer to the humble author's questions regarding the sexing of grasses. This will be amended in the second edition.]


The sixth blade of grass bends her head in modesty. Can plants search out the truth in human speech as our heir-apparent, the quondam Charlie Chester, maintains? If so, she must feel the awful weight of the task upon her - to follow the leaf that went before, that fifth leaf whose photo graces the walls of so many a teenage leaf-fanatic. What a terrible place to be! If only, she no doubt wishes, she had grown a little to the right. Perhaps 2 to 3 millimetres. Then she could have escaped such a withering comparison. But she can take solace in the face that no leaf in the garden could have stood tall in the shade of the fifth. There is no odium attached to failing to such a one. The sixth leaf takes her place proudly, understanding that in a hierarchy some must, of course, be consigned to the lower steps (or steppes, indeed). Also she is a sort of pale green, like the colour of a pistachio nut that has been left in a white bowl.


(to be continued... or probably not).

Art Pact 277 - In the rush

In the rush to close up shop - to lock doors and set alarms and ensure that those electrical implements that were to be turned off were turned off and those that were to be turned on were turned on, that all the windows were closed except for the one in the staff toilets of the first floor - the mechanical counting machine was forgotten. It was obvious that it would be, from the moment that it had been placed on the floor to the right of the counter. People came and went there, and so the machine was nudged further and further under the counter until it was at the back and Rebecca's tote bag had fallen across it. The counting machine had sat there all day, under the soft beige canvas, slowly counting off the seconds since it had been left. When the doors were closed behind the last customer it had got to nineteen thousand six hundred and three, when the lights went off twenty-one thousand and seventy-four, and when the door clanked shut behind the last employee - Brian, who had been given the job of opening and closing that week as part of preparing him for a promotion to shift manager - twenty-one thousand, two hundred and twenty-eight. The counting machine stopped there, reset itself carefully, and began to count again. There was no point measuring how long it had been since Reardon dropped it off - that time had passed now, and the machine knew in its circuits that Reardon would not be coming back, that Claire would not find it by some miracle. It was here in the shop now - possibly forever, because if it had been overlooked in the rush to get out of the door, it seemed just as unlikely that it would be spotted in the hustle and bustle of selling. Perhaps, it thought, when the shop itself was sold there would be refurbishments. The counter would be torn out and replaced, and as that happened some workman would find the counting machine there, covered in dust. Perhaps counting the number of sledgehammer blows it took to removed the partition wall that separated the shop floor from the changing rooms.

It listened carefully, looked at what it could see, straining for some scrap of inspiration about what it should count next. There was its pulse, of course, the constant hum of electrical impulses coming from the clock deep in the centre of its main board. 1028.5 Hz exactly, so that every time one thousand and twenty-eight and a half of those buzzes had passed, it could count a second - although in secret the machine had to admit that it cheated, that it really waited two thousand and fifty-nine buzzes and counted two seconds. No-one would know. It was a counting machine, anyway, not a stop-watch. What business did it have with individual seconds? Seconds were boring. Seconds were a way of measure distance between past joy and current misery. No, it decided, it would eschew seconds.

At first, the best prospect appeared to be the semi-regular ticking and creaking that came from all corners of the shop as it cooled down. The lights that sat over the display racks were blinding and hot, the ones in the changing rooms dimmer and cooler. Mr. Pockets' idea, that the shoppers would see themselves as starkly as possible when they were in their own clothes, but more favourably when they were getting changed into shop wares. Mr. Pockets thought highly of his understanding of psychology, although there was little evidence that his lighting choices had any effect other than making the inside of the shop broil during summer days and causing light-induced headaches that increased the rate of staff turnover. Mr. Pockets didn't care - if sales went up, it was due to his innovations. If they went down it was the lazy staff.

Freed from the constant grilling they received at the hands of the spotlights, the clothes racks began to contract slightly, causing tiny slips against the hangers that were suspended from them. Stresses built up - tiny earthquakes, measurable only in micro-richters, that made themselves known to the counting machine as pings and clicks that issued half-randomly half-regularly from the shop floor. The machine had been safe from the lights, tucked under the bag in the darkness at the back of the counter, but it could still feel the warmth of the air, and the way that each of the pings sounded something like a sigh of relief, that the bars and struts around him were in their own way relaxing after a hard day at work.

The noises were countable, but not interesting - that was the only problem. The counting machine was used to the challenges that Claire set it: low numbers, but unusual events. The pings and tings and clicks and clacks were the opposite: high numbers, and all too frequent. He had reached seven hundred and seven clicks when the first mouse ran along the skirting board - right in front of the counting machine - and at that instant it reset its counter to one and knew what it would be measuring that night.

Mice are clever. Mice are fast, and they are cautious, and it is well-known that if you are lucky or unlucky enough to see one mouse (the exact magnitude and direction of the luck depends on whether you are out and about or at home), there are ten more unseen within a short distance of you. Mice allow themselves to be seen - or rather, put themselves in hazardous situations in which they might be seen - only when the population reaches such a critical density that to remain unseen is to go hungry.

That, of course, only applies if you are a human - or another creature large enough to strike a mouse as a plausible threat. Mice are scared of cats, of rats, of dogs, and of people. But they show no particular fear of small machines, even when those small machines are novelties, and in the sort of places (corners next to walls) where human-made devices inimical to murine life are normally deposited. The mice that inhabited (I think inhabited is an apt enough term, although Mr. Pockets would no doubt have suggested "infested" if he thought he was not likely to be quoted in a local paper or referred immediately to the public health department of the local council) the shop were not afraid of the counting machine in the same way that the people who inhabited it were not afraid of public call boxes. They had no idea what they were for, but they seemed harmless enough and they didn't move around or make loud noises so could be safely ignored. Within the first half hour after the initial mouse appeared, the counting machine counted seven more mice. That was enough to be interesting, but not so many that it began to seem commonplace.

After the eighth mouse, though, the counting machine began to feel slightly uncomfortable. Was it simple counting the same mouse over and over, or were those eight separate mice? There were definitely more than one - it was sure of that, because one of the mice had been bigger than the others. But could it be just two of them? How could it tell them apart? Was it counting the number of mice inaccurately, or the total appearances of the mice accurately but in error (since it had said to itself that it would count actual mice). The thought was worrying.