Art Pact 1

Despite his suspicions, Loughton agreed at the meeting. There were mutterings amongst those who supported his party that he had not so much been persuaded as railroaded into agreement, but since there was no way to prove that anything improper had occurred the matter was only discussed in private. It was brought up briefly by Daniel Rosten, the owner of the northern-most of the village's two general shops, when he gave a talk at the schoolhouse, but even there it was not a safe topic of conversation, and the children listening to his lecture went on the offensive immediately, making "bwawk-bwawk" chicken noises from whichever side of the room he wasn't looking at at the time. The teacher, Miss Harwick (more alert to the ways of her charges) could easily have stepped in to stop them, but she was anti-Loughton herself, and so more than happy to allow the insinuations of cowardice to continue. She sat back, suppressing a smile, and shrugged helplessly to Rosten each time he turned towards her. After the fifth time, when she judged that the store-owner might storm out if the barracking continued, she made a plea to the children to be polite. It had the desired effect (that the chicken impersonations stopped), although she had stepped slightly in front of Rosten as she made her request, preventing him from seeing that immediately after asking for peace she had followed with a broad wink.

Rosten, as well as the other partisans loyal to Loughton, conceded that the climb must go ahead, however foolish. They began to prepare elaborate plans for climbing harnesses, ropes, and scaffolding. Professor Cartwright suggested grapples thrown by compressed air in some manner, although he could not elaborate on how such a device should be constructed, and some concern was at any rate expressed about how the tower might react to sharp metal objects flying at it.

The project began to take on an unexpected momentum in the village at large, as well. Although everyone knew that the climb was not really a charity event but a plan to humiliate the despised Loughton, the fact could not be spoken aloud in case it gave Loughton some route for escape. So the sponsorship sheet, originally pinned up in the village hall, was quickly photocopied and edited so that new blank copies could be spread all around the village. People pledged extravagant amounts - the sheets being public knowledge, it was a matter of honour not to be outdone by one's neighbours - and before the week was half out it seemed that the shelter would be so well funded should Loughton reach the top of the spire that it would probably never require money ever again.

"The whole thing's an enormous gamble now," Robinson pointed out to his wife at breakfast on the Thursday morning. "Loughton can't win, but if he does he'll be a hero. We're sure to win, but if we do we'll lose all the sponsorship money."

"Surely people won't back out on paying their money?" Lisa asked. "That's - I mean, that's an understood thing with charity sponsorship, isn't it? When they do the charity walk, you don't actually pay people so many pence a mile, right? That's just for show. You always pay the full amount, whatever they did."

"Yes, but that's when you know that someone's going to do it. Look at some of these pledges!" He tapped a small pile of paper - those sponsorship lists that had been handed in already by reason of being full, and replaced with new sheets. "Reg Pearson's put down for a pound a meter. A pound a meter! The damn thing's half a mile high, for god's sake! He's not going to pay"-he drew out his phone and did the calculation quickly-"nine hundred pounds? Bloody hell."

"Reg Pearson buys a new car every year," Lisa said. "He can afford it."

"Even so."

"Even so nothing. This is amazing! Alright, there's a chance Loughton will get up there, but so what if he does? He'll be more popular, but we'll get the money for the shelter."

"Ugh," Robinson grimaced. His wife looked at him and narrowed her eyes.

On the day before the climb was due to take place, both Robinson and Professor Cartwright travelled to the base of the spire, on the far north-east corner of the village's boundary, in the place where the local farmers had once dumped their old machinery. They travelled independently, but arrived at the same time, where they stood together in silence and examined the smooth bone-white surface of the alien tower. The tendrils around the base seemed more prominent than before, and Robinson measured their extent by putting one hand (gingerly) against the tower wall and stretching his arms out. The tendrils in the ground beneath him extended a good foot further than his outstretched fingertips.

"It's growing," he told the professor.


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