Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Art Pact 3

She was not sure at what point the change had come over him - unlike the rigid, routine-centred personalities of her own family, his natural tendency to variability masked a slow process of change behind more pronounced but temporary swings in his mood. When he was one day raging furiously about a colleague, the next completely sanguine, she found herself unable to gauge whether or not he was truly happy. But perhaps without realising it consciously she came to dread breakfasts - the time of day when he was arguably most himself, free from the turbulent influences of the real world and reacting only to those unknown dreams which he pretended ignorance of. Then her questions would become nervous and tentative, and his answers cold.

The morning of the fourth of September, with a field of grey clouds low in the sky outside, found the kitchen dull and colourless. Two of the three light bulbs on the track had blown, and Clare (too short to reach the sockets even when standing on the island) ate her cereal in the one pool of light. She was just shepherding the last few cornflakes around the of the bowl, trying to persuade them into her spoon, when Vincent clumped downstairs, entered the room, and sat down heavily in his chair.

"Good morning!"


"You sleep okay, hun?" Clare caught the last rebel mouthful and shovelled it into her mouth. Vincent ignored her, spreading his paper out so that it covered half of the island's marble top and rested on the cruet set in the centre. "Tea?"

She didn't wait for an answer, busying herself with the various necessary pourings and clinkings. When it was done she set his mug down, her own clutched in both hands as a hot talisman. Vincent glanced at the tea, but continued poring over the various minute numbers on the financial pages. He had produced a red ballpoint pen from somewhere in his dressing gown, with which he occasionally darted a quick ellipse around a cryptic ticker symbol or number. When Clare leant closer to try to see what he was marking, he shifted in his seat - a subtle motion, almost no movement at all, but it was as though he had turned his back on her.

"I'm meeting some venture capitalists today," he muttered.

"Oh, that's..." Clare realised that she had no idea what the meeting might be about. She'd met a couple of VC groups a few years ago, when dealing with the computer vision startup, and she'd complained bitterly at the time to Vincent about their intransigence regarding co-ops. "This is for the-"

"It's a new thing," he said quickly, cutting her off.

"Right. Well, uh, good luck!"


He returned his focus to the paper. Clare stood for a second, watching the steam waft off the top of her cup of tea, then padded out of the kitchen and into the living room. Vincent's laptop was where he had left it last night, its pulse still throbbing white light into the bookcase behind it.

"I'm just going to check my email!" she called. When there was no answer, she sat down quickly, popping up the lid of the machine. The backlight was blinding after the dark of the kitchen, and it took her a moment to recover her eyesight. Instead of the normal drab picture of hedgerows and fields that was Vincent's desktop image, she saw the login screen. There was only one option, and for a second she thought that she might have got somebody else's laptop, but then she realised - he had logged out. He never logged out. Not only that, but he had deleted her account on the machine.

Quietly closing it again, she began to rifle through the mess on the coffee table. Most of it was hers, papers from the failed startup and administration from her day job that she'd brought home, but here and there were a few of Vincent's bills and assorted paperwork. She scanned them intently, but it all seemed perfectly normal. The most promising thing was his mobile phone bill, but reading through that she could see that almost all of his calls were either to home, to her mobile, or to his office.

As she put it down, she noticed the quality of light in the room change. She looked up. Vincent was framed in the doorway, blocking out the bulb in the corridor. His paper hung at his side, and his face was shadowed.

"What are you doing?" he asked. His eyes flicked up to hers, then back to the bill in her hand. "Why are you reading that?"

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Art Pact 2

The robot was waiting for us inside the chamber - a dull grey thing, squat and menacing. As Georgia had warned us, there was a slender red line circling the floor around it, the pilot-light setting for its incinerator beam.

"That's where it will act - if it wants to act," she'd said, circling her finger in the dust around the rock she'd used to represent the behemoth itself. "But don't be fooled into thinking that it can't see you if you don't step into the circle. This"--she drew a larger circle, pivoting her whole arm from her elbow--"is how far it can see you. Depending where they're keeping it, you might not be able to get close enough to see it without it seeing you as well."

It looked as though she'd been right on the ball with that guess. There was a gap of about three meters between the circular concrete walls of the chamber and the deadly red circle. At either side of the chamber were columns that the red line neatly jumped up onto. We split into two groups of two and edged around the wall in opposite directions until we were hidden behind the pillars - although none of us dared to step right behind them, just in case the robot was able to see through the concrete somehow to fire its weapon.

"It has audio sensors," Georgia had explained, "but the system behind them is calibrated for battlefield conditions. It might not be able to hear you if you whisper. I can't promise anything, though, and I also can't promise it can't read lips." She nodded towards Rachel's featureless silver helmet. "You might be OK, but the rest of you."

I held Rachel's hand up and drew my suggestion in single letters one at a time on her palm: D I S T R A C T I O N

She nodded, and the two of us looked around carefully for anything we could pick up. The chamber was full of small cargo boxes, crates of equipment, and other junk, but all of it had been carefully swept inside the robot's sensor circle. While I was still looking, Rachel tapped me on the shoulder and held up one of the spare locking nuts from the collection zip-tied to her suit. I nodded, and she cut the plastic tie, letting the whole lot slide off into her hand. I tensed up, then nodded: GO.

As the thrown nut crossed the threshold, a blinding flash of red light leapt out of the robot's beam spire. A splattering rain of molten steel fell to the floor. I had stepped forward, but leapt back immediately.

"Go!" Rachel told me. "Listen, it's not charging!"

It was true, there was no sound - no whine increasing in pitch that would indicate the beam capacitors charging up. But I thought I had heard something earlier. I pluck a nut out of her hand, tossed it in - then, without waiting to see what had happened, did the same with a bolt.

"Fuck," Rachel breathed.

To our alarm, the beam kept flashing. We looked out to see that Brian and Boris were also tossing objects into the circle - the stones from the bag that Brian had picked up on the beach. Each stone popped like a little grenade as the incinerator played over it, clouds of dust beginning to build up inside the circle.

"It's too fast," Rachel said. She took the whole handful of bolts and nuts and flung them at the monstrous device. A dozen flashes stabbed out in quick succession, barely half a second's interruption in the destruction of Brian's rocks, yet it was enough to reduce the flying nuts and bolts to so many blobs of shiny silvery liquid that hissing and burnt into the floor.

I looked around in dismay at the boxes - some of them were unmarked, but others were covered in writing - French, English, German and some Chinese characters. Two big ones, well inside the circle, read: ACHTUNG! SPRENGSTOFF!

"If only we could get to it."

"Yes," Rachel nodded sadly. "Or - hold on a second." She shucked off her backpack, rummaging in it quickly before pulling out her heavy metal flask. "A bit of a gamble," she said, "I mean it might be stable stuff that needs electric to detonate, but.."

She wound up her arm and threw the flask as fast as I'd ever seen her throw anything - it left her hand like a bullet out of a gun, zooming towards the robot. For a second I thought it might actually hit it, but then the light flared again.

The flask melted and a flash of flame burst out of it, a mixture of fiery liquid and molten steel descending directly onto the case of explosives. Rachel pushed me towards the door, and I saw Brian and Boris running around the perimeter from the other side. I just had time to glimpse the crate on fire before we were out of the chamber again, Brian and Boris slamming the door shut. We kept running.

"I filled it with oil in the garage," Rachel shouted over her shoulder. From behind us there was a dull "whump" noise.

Monday, August 29, 2011

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.