Monday, October 31, 2011

Art Pact November Hiatus

There won't be any Art Pact writing appearing until the 1st of December - I'm doing Nanowrimo, so my daily words will be going into that novel. Normal service will resume when November is finished!

Art Pact 63

We reached the main plaza of the zoo just before midnight - me, Caroline, Gobbler and Stumblebum. Gobbler and Stumblebum were still dressed in their Halloween costumes: Unsexy Nurse and Half-Man Half-Unicorn respectively. Stumblebum's horn kept catching on overhanging foliage, until he finally whinnied in disgust and remove it, letting it dangle around his neck like some kind of narwhal hunter's lucky charm.

"This is crazy," he said. "Why aren't we doing this in the daytime?"

"Because the animals are only vanishing at night," Caroline told him. She'd explained it to me while we were waiting for the others: the zookeeper, a friend of hers (jealous, I did not press too much about just how friendly they were), had found one or more of his animals completely missing every day for the last four days. This morning he'd come in to find not only a teenage rhinoceros had disappeared, but also the security guard he'd hired to keep an eye on the place. There was no trace of either of them. The rhinoceros's enclosure was a huge open pit, completely impossible for such a large animal to climb out of. The guard's booth was even more mysterious - there was no way into it except through the door or the window. The window was bulletproof glass, unscratched and locked, and the door, likewise, was still locked.

"Get this," Caroline had said. "When I turned up to examine the scene, the keys were still in the door - on the inside."

We split into two groups on Caroline's orders. She and Stumblebum began to set up her triangulating microphones, the sensitive rig she'd used in the Case of the Absent Janitor that had allowed us to home in on the rattling bones of the first Earl of Dorchester in the hidden room above the grand ballroom.

Gobbler and I, lacking technical prowess, began to wander around the zoo. Caroline had suggested we split up in order to cover more ground, and we did so for just long enough to get out of Caroline's line of sight, each of us taking a different route around the parrot cage and meeting up on the other side.

"This is not what I was planning to do tonight," Gobbler grumbled. Her costume was ill-fitting, and constantly threatened to turn sexy if she didn't fiddle with it, adjusting straps, pulling down bits of skirt and so forth. "Why can't mysteries ever happen on sunny spring days?"

"Perhaps they do," I suggested, "but everyone's too happy to pay any attention to them. It's only on dark autumn days that people are spooked enough to care about-"

"About security guards vanishing into thin air?" she asked archly. Just at that moment we heard a bone-chilling cry - the blood-curdling call of a wolf. "Oh great. So now it's werewolves and stuff. Come on, we'd better check the wolf pen."

Sure enough, there were no wolves in the pen. I read the plaque.

"There should be one wolf. A Liberian Timber Wolf."--I frowned--"Is that a thing? Don't they have, like, lions in Africa? Isn't that where-"

"Yeah, there's something a bit weird about that," she said. "But I think we've probably found the culprit."

My phone rang.


"We have the microphones going. Did you hear that wolf call?"

"We're at the wolf pen now," I told her. "It's empty, there's something strange going on."

"I've got it!" Gobbler said, gesturing to me to hand her the phone. "Listen, Caroline? The security guard is a werewolf. He disappeared because he can't eat a whole rhino in one go. But he's probably still around here somewhere."

Another wolf cry echoed out of the darkness. Gobbler pointed towards the rodent house.

"It's coming from that way!" she said. "Caroline, triangulate please!"

Much against my better judgement, I followed Gobble as she ran towards the building, catching the phone as she tossed it over her shoulder to me. We burst through the doors, into the musty smell of sawdust chips and hamster urine.

The wolf called again - it was strangely muffled.

"There's nothing here," Gobbler said.

"No wolf?" Caroline asked me.

"No nothing!" I told her. "The guinea-pig hutch is empty, the hamsters are missing, and the mouse cage is covered in blood."

"Wait," Gobbler said. "There's a survivor!" She leant down and drummed her finger against the thin cage bars. A tiny furry nose appeared, gingerly followed by the rest of a mouse. The wolf called again, and both of us jumped together, arms wrapped around each other in cartoonish terror.

"I don't like the sound of that," I shivered. "It's getting closer."

"What if it's coming back?" Gobbler asked. She grabbed my right hand, brought it and the phone I was carrying up to her mouth. "Caroline, hurry up with that triangulation!"

"Lock the doors," Caroline advised us. "You should be safe inside if the doors are barred."

We did as she said, stuffing a length of translucent orange plastic hamster-tubing through the door handles. Then we backed as far away from the door as we could. In a rare moment of chivalry, I ushered Gobbler behind me.

"There's no way it can get through the door," I said - as much to convince myself as Gobbler. "If it is the security guard he might have a key, but the barred handles will hold him."

"Like the way he got out of... but that doesn't make sense," Gobbler said, a confused tone in her voice. "How would he get out of the locked door of his booth?"

"He had the key," I explained.

"But the keys were on the inside. That would mean he couldn't have got in or out, you can't lock those type of doors from the outside if there's a key in the keyhole on the inside. The only thing that could get in or out would be something very small..."

Just at that moment, the wolf howled again. It sounded weaker, somehow, as if it were losing its strength. My phone rang again. It was Caroline.

"I want you to put down the phone and get out of the rodent house immediately," she said, her voice tense and sharp.

"But the wolf-" I began.

"The wolf's already been eaten," she cut me off. "Don't argue, get out of there now!"

"But we can hear it calling," I said.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Art Pact 62

In the interim, in the break between the fighting, we could not talk to each other. It was as if the lead in the air acted as a catalyst to speech, and only when bullets were flying around us could we communicate with each other. Of course, under those circumstances the words we could share were strictly limited to the contingent. There was no opportunity for terms of endearment, just single words: "Down!" "Left!" "Reloading!".

But those breaks, tense and silent though they were, were of course welcome. Our guns, that had grown hot in our hands, began to cool. Our hearts, so long straining at their absolute thresholds of activity, relaxed to the simple elevated rhythm brought on by our nearness to one another. I breathed in gasps of gas from my inhaler, Alison fiddled with her clothing, adjusting her bra straps, which the weight of her flak jacket tended to drag out over her shoulders.

We had abandoned our first line in reception, falling back to the top of the building's main staircase. It split halfway up, but the last group who'd occupied the building had managed to barricade all the other routes between the two halves of the floor, so we could pick one side to defend. At nineteen fifteen there was a slackening in the assault, the night-time armistice that we'd come to expect from the enemy, and I guarded our position while Alison disappeared into the building to scout for some means of escape should things go south.

The main stairwell led up to a sort of mezzanine floor, open in the centre so that I could see down into the front line of the enemy position. They'd clambered over our own barricade after we withdrew from it and had set up their own defences, the rusty metal plates that most of their structures seemed to be built from. I could see into it if I crawled to the side of the upturned tables I was using as a shield. Indeed, I could with a steady hand have sniped at some of them (my hands were not that steady after a day of fighting, but I believe possibly Alison could have hit a couple, she being a bit more knowledgeable about bullet drop and other such esoterica). I did not want to, though. I knew that they themselves could easily have picked me off as I watched them, and I was interested to know why not, since they had spent the better part of four days apparently flinging every bullet in Western Europe at me.

Having set up their defences, the squad who'd been sent ahead of the main ranks (seven of them, six of the normal-sized ones and one of the big ones with the spines), formed a circle within them, facing inwards. Then they each began to talk in a sort of intricate ritual. First the larger one said something - a single syllable. Travelling anti-clockwise around the group, each of the others said a different word, all of them single syllables. This was repeated, but this time with two-syllable words. I noticed that although each individual said something different from his peers, I was pretty sure that the first syllable pronounced was the same as the single syllable that individual had said on the first round. This was enough to make me pay attention, and sure enough, they next came to three syllables, and for each of them the first two syllables were the same as the two they'd just said. It was as though each person were building up their own sentence, word by word, all talking at the same time rather than taking it in turns as so many humans would have done.

By the time Alison returned, the creatures were up to twenty syllables each, and they had also begun to make strange head movements - never when they were talking, only when they were listening to each other. Or where they listening? I found it hard to decide. At some moments the movements looked like spasmodic twitches, at other they so closely resembled human conversational nods and acknowledgements that I could almost believe they were talking about football, or politics.

"What's going on?" Alison asked, lowering herself beside me. As I had, she winced as she got onto her hands and knees. "Christ, my joints. Why couldn't they have attacked thirty years ago?"

"They're talking, or something," I reported - the first sentence I'd spoken to her in two days, I realised. "Here, come and have a look."

I shuffled back to give her a better vantage, and after a few seconds she withdrew herself, crawling back so that we were lying side-to-side.

"It looks more like they're singing a round," she said. I felt my heart flutter a little.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Art Pact 61

"What's your objection?" she asked, sitting back in her chair and crossing her arms. I stared out of the boardroom windows over the city, letting my gaze roam out to the orange-lit suburbs in the far distance.

"Well," I said, when I judged enough time had gone by to give her the impression of thoughtfulness. "I don't think we'll be able to get it past the regulators, for one thing."

"Trivial," she said. That was true enough, I knew that she had friends (was that the right word?) in the regulator's office. She could have the details of the plan buried so deep in the reports that only the most stout-hearted official would be willing to wade through and find them. "What else?"

"There's the question of the availability of resources. If you can't get the - uh, the fresh material into the city quick enough to keep up with demand, the whole scheme falls over." I pointed to her diagram on the projector screen. "The problem is that it relies on constantly feeding the front end of the.. uh, the production cycle. If there's a low.. flow? Let's say flow. If there's a low flow in the input, the ripples go all the way through the cycle. There could be some sort of feedback loop, the foul-up at the end of the process would begin to devour - I mean, would interfere with the initial processing."

The strain of constantly coming up with euphemisms for the plan's constituent parts was beginning to tell on me, and I could see that Archangel could see it. She nodded indulgently, as if my points had been made with the logic and stark language that I would have preferred to use, but she tapped on the massive pile of papers on the table in front of her.

"I don't think that... recruitment will be a problem."

"Really?" I asked. "Because-"

"Not a problem. Really, Jones, let that fear go completely out of your mind. There is absolutely no chance that anything will go wrong with supply, and even if it did, the scenario you're describing is unthinkable."

I froze, my hand halfway through sliding a paper out of the slim folder on the chair next to mine. Archangel was staring straight at me, her head haloed by the setting sun. The disc of fire hung behind her, red and swollen, and seemed to flare up so that I couldn't keep meeting her gaze.

"Unthinkable," I repeated.


"Then in that case, I think I have no more objections. Thank you for your time, I have my actionables."

"Good meeting." she said.

I collected Sanders, who was stood by the door where I'd left her, and shut the door behind us. The corridor outside the boardroom was empty except for a guard.

"What was that?" Sanders asked.

"That was the shit hitting the fan," I explained, ushering her towards the lift. I knew that there were microphones in the elevator boxes, so I put my finger on my lips to shush her for the duration of the ride, then back on the fourth floor hustled her into my office and poured a glass of whisky for us both.

"Thanks, but I don't-"

"You do now. Listen, this is something that you have to learn, and quickly. Unthinkable is important. It's not what Joe Public uses it to mean, and it's not the bullshit phrase they use on the lower levels. It's a codeword."

"What does  it mean?"

"It means that it's not unthinkable at all, it's guaranteed."

"Guaranteed?" She frowned, and her lips moved quickly - a nervous habit of hers when she was going over memories in her head. Her frown deepened. "So the whole idea.. but that would mean..."

"Exactly. The whole thing's meant to fail. If the process starts to go critical it won't be a remote problem that they could have avoided by spending more money on safety, it's the whole point of the scheme."

"But that would be a disaster. Literally, a disaster. Wherever they were planning to site the... uh, the factory... would be in grave danger."

I held up the paper that I'd been removing from my file when Archangel had cut me off. The thing that had really told me that my number was up. The planned location of the processing facility.

"That's - here? In the city? They're going to put it in the docks?"

"That's where the raw materials come in-," I began, but I couldn't keep up the euphemisms any more. "The bodies," I corrected myself.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Art Pact 60

At the top of the mountain, when they finally broke the crest, they saw the beautiful rolling vista of the western county. The range stretched out to the north and south, the higher peaks still covered in a thin layer of snow from the winter.

They arrived in ones and twos - the priest first, the bellwether for the others, then the fittest and most driven, then the others graded according to their motivation, health, and the other numberless differences between them. They stopped at the top, quickly perching on all the stones that were big enough to act as chairs. As more and more people reached the pinnacle groundsheets were unfurled, rugs laid out, little folding stools set up, until eventually the rounded top of the mountain was covered in resting travellers. They were mostly silent - the climb had taken too much out of them for them to be as chatty as they were when they set off - but the few children who were among them quickly recovered, and dashed about laughing amidst the supine bodies of the adults. Their parents looked on, nervous about the potential for falls and the number of sharp rocks exposed by erosion, but none were strong enough to want to chase down their offspring.

The priest, first to arrive, was also the first to recover his breath. He lifted himself gingerly from his seat, favouring his aching joints, and moved slowly from one of his congregation to the next, muttering low sounds of congratulation and sympathy. The children swirled around him, but they seemed subdued by his presence, and the whole crowd took on something of the aspect of a whisper - every movement was gentle and tentative, every sound muffled just beyond earshot. Those of the crowd that were looking out over the western county began to point out to each other the aspects of the breathtaking sights that caught their eye - the spires of small towns that none of them had ever visited, rainbows dancing over the rapids of Old Leopard river. An old man dug deep into his pack to pull out a vellum scroll from a battered cylindrical leather case - when unrolled, it revealed itself a map of the western and eastern county together.

The children clustered round in interest. Only one of them had seen a map before, and the old man patiently explained what the drawings and words meant, first locating the towns each of the children had originally come from on the lower half of the map, then pointing to where the day's travel had begun and where they were now. Then, laying the map out so as to orient it to the view, he began to name the towns they could see: Stilfling, Atherton, Weyvill, Cat-come-quick, Bosterleigh, Sam's Town, Rivercross, Windcopse, Boast, Callipoor, Danevill, Lance By The River. There were other towns, too, towns that must have grown up since the creation of the map, and those that the map-maker wrote in but which had either faded to nothingness or perhaps gone underground in the intervening years. The old man got a second piece of vellum for those, one scraped so thin that it was almost translucent, and laid it over the first one, marking the mountains on it with a plume dipped in a little ink-pot from the pouches at his belt. When the unchanging contours of nature had been traced onto the upper sheet, he measured out with his thumb the rough distances between the remaining towns, head bobbing up and down as he tried to reconcile them with the markings on the map. The children stood in a crowd around, aping his movements so that at one moment all of them were stood arms outstretched with thumbs up, one eye closed and the tips of the tongue poking from one side of the mouth as an aid to concentration. Then the instant passed, and every child on its hands and knees staring intensely at the map itself.

The priest watched the spectacle, silently wishing that he himself had such an effect on his flock. He consoled himself with the knowledge that they had followed him up here, but there again, there was no small amount of self-interest in those decisions. He paused for a moment in his rounds to cast his gaze back to the eastern county. The sight was unnerving - the thick black clouds had devoured almost all of the furthest ridings, and were well on their way to Port Fen. At this rate, it would be barely a fortnight before half of the county was gone, and then - a month, perhaps, before the clouds reached the mountains?

They did not have much time.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Art Pact 59

I tried to get it to stand still, but the creature was restless and began to move every few minutes, pacing nervously around the room and setting numerous small fires which I had to extinguish myself, hurrying around from behind my desk with a heavy plastic folder to beat at the flames.

"Sorry!" it growled, frowning. The whole thing was a vicious circle, each new set of blazes making it more and more anxious, and the anxiety making it less and less able to be still and therefore more and more likely to set further fires in the waiting room. I tried to re-organise around it - the first thing I did was move the dry flowers under my desk, then gather up all the magazines from the coffee table - but I was pretty much tied to the phone by the constant ringing of Mrs. Danvers enquiring after the fate of "Little Kimmy". No matter how many times I assured her that I would contact her directly after the surgery was finished, she still insisted on ringing every few minutes, convinced that no news was bad news and no new news for sixty seconds meant the /worst/ news.

"She's likely to be quite a while," I pointed out to the flame creature.

"I'll wait."

"Don't you think you should see a..." I trailed off, not quite sure what to suggest. It was the first creature to come into Roxy's surgery that could talk. I was sure that meant something. In the everyday world it was easy to divide these things up: if you were a person - that is to say, if you were a human person - you went to a doctor. If you were an animal - a non-human animal - you went to a vet. Was that how it worked with the monsters too? You couldn't really divide them up on species lines, because there were so many different types. But I felt that a creature that could speak wasn't just a creature, it was a person. So this was a fire-person, and people didn't come to a vet, they went to a doctor.

Of course, I had no idea if there was such a thing as a monster doctor. Roxy had never mentioned such a person, but on the other hand the list of things Roxy hadn't mentioned was long enough that I'd have needed two other hands to make that point.

"Couldn't you go to a doctor?" I asked timidly. "A mon-uh... a fire doctor?" The creature looked at me, its flaming eyes wide open in a perfect image of shock. I wasn't sure whether I'd offended it or terrified it, but I moved my chair back a little way and held my hands up in apology. "Sorry, I didn't mean to..." I tailed off, because although I knew I had to apologise for something, I wasn't sure exactly what.

"I can't go to a doctor," the creature said. Ah, so there are such things! "He'd have to report my visit. I can't be on a file somewhere, do you understand?"

Not really.

"Yeah, sure."

"They'll find me," it said. "Then they'll lock me away, or worse - they'll offer me a job."

It scratched the back of its head, the flaming hair tousling and throwing off a shower of sparks. It apologised again as I leapt around from the reception desk and began to put out the small blaze where the flaming dandruff had set fire to the carpet.

"Hold on," I told it. "I've got an idea."

Roxy and Vanity glared at me as I entered the surgery. I gestured to the wall and edged around the room. Kimmy was out cold on the huge operating table, its tail lying across the floor. I stepped gingerly over the huge stinger, but to my great relief it did not suddenly spring to life and stab me in the groin.

On the far side of the room was the fire extinguisher and blanket that Roxy had shown me on my first day. I pulled it out of its cylindrical container on the wall, folded it up again, and crept back past Kimmy's deadly tail.

"Something I should be worried about?" Roxy asked.

"No no, all under control."

"It's just, I don't know whether I put this in your duties and responsibilities sheet, but if my surgery is on fire, that's probably something you're responsible for telling me."

"All under control," I repeated.

"If you say so," she muttered, turning back to the chimera's innards. "Hold that suction steady, Vanity."

Back in the waiting room I spread the fire-sheet out on the floor. It was bigger than the normal ones (I had one in my kitchen, my landlord's one concession to fire safety), square and about as wide as my spread arms. I shifted the coffee table to one wall and laid it down for the creature to stand on.

"There you go," I said.

"Thanks," muttered the creature. It looked even more forlorn stuck in the middle of the grey fire-retardant square, and I got it to step off again and arrange the cloth so that it was draped over one of the sturdier wooden chairs (I'd judged the plastic ones too likely to melt, even with the fire blanket's protection).

"There, why don't you have a seat. Take the weight off your feet."

It gave me a strange look, and sat down gingerly.

"Thanks," it said again, but this time I could tell that it actually meant it.

"You're very welcome." I sat down again myself, and realised that I was also more relaxed now that I didn't have someone looming over me. I answered the phone again (Mrs Danvers, of course, convinced that my absence from the front desk had been due to the sudden demise of her pet), then when I had dealt with that wheeled my chair around to the other side of the desk so that I was sitting opposite the fire creature.

"I'm Joseph, by the way," I introduced myself, sticking my hand out.

"PoŇľar," it said. It held its own hand out, but kept it a few centimetres from my palm. Even from there I could feel the searing heat.

"Oh," I said. "Right. Anyway, pleased to meet you."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Art Pact 58

Daniel was woken up that morning by his host treading on his bed.

"What the hell, man?" Daniel grumbled, but Peter stood there and swished open the curtains, letting the bleak low light of the November morning into the room. Now there were two unwelcome inhabitants, and Daniel pulled the duvet up over his head and continued his complaints from within. "Hey, I'm still in here."

I guess he wants me out for some reason, Daniel thought, but Peter said nothing, merely continuing to bustle around the room, tidying things up. He even straightened the duvet, which Daniel found rather uncomfortable.

"Hey, what gives? Hey! Hey!"

No matter what effort Daniel went to to attract his host's attention, Peter continued to give him the cold shoulder. Daniel thought back to the previous night and tried to work out whether he'd said or done anything that might, in the cold light of day, have given offence.

Christ, I hope I didn't make a pass at... no, I couldn't have.

He felt oddly constrained, and feeling around realised that he was still almost fully dressed - the only thing missing being his left sock. He shuffled to the edge of the bed, stuck one leg out and discovered that he was wearing his work trousers. Definitely not what he'd been wearing when he got here the previous evening.

"Did we go out last night or something?" he asked, but Peter continued to ignore him. He pushed back the duvet. A collar shirt, even a tie (although it was not done up tight), if he'd only been wearing a jacket as well he might step straight into the office quite respectably. "Come on, man, help me out here. If I've done something wrong I'm sorry, but I can't really remember it. What's the deal?"

Peter, apparently satisfied with the fussing he'd been doing, left the room. From downstairs Carol's voice called up, asking if he wanted any tea.

"Yes please," called Peter.

"And one for me too!" Daniel added. There was no response.

Having emptied his bladder, which he'd found on standing to be uncomfortably full, Daniel hunted around without success for his missing sock. He gave it up for a bad job after a few minutes, and hearing the sound of a kettle boiling, padded down the (thankfully carpeted) stairs and into the kitchen. Peter and Carol were standing at the breakfast bar, Peter propped up against it while Carol leant into him.

The kitchen, looking onto the front garden, was an airy room - light surfaces, white appliances, and a clean marble floor that was extremely cold under his exposed toes. Daniel lifted his left leg and stood like a flamingo while he looked around for his cup. Nothing. So Carol was in on this too. Perhaps he had made a pass at her.

He watched his hosts for a few seconds. They were both still in their dressing gowns, bright splashes of colour against the pale background of their kitchen. They were quiet, relaxing into each other's arms and occasionally reaching out to one or other of the teas to take a quick sip. A thin haze of steam hung over each mug.

"If this is about something I said, or did..." Daniel tried. No response. "Look, I'm sorry about this, but I genuinely do not know what went on last night. I think I might have had a bad"--what did I eat?--"..maybe I drank too much. But I can't remember anything, so I'm really sorry. I'll just apologise now, and I really mean it."


He flicked the switch on the kettle, took a mug off the little tree by the sink, dropped a tea-bag into it. Peter and Carol, still caught up in themselves, ignored him. He stared straight at them, waiting for a response, but the kettle - still hot from before - interrupted his glower by boiling and clicking itself off.

"So what about Dan last night?" Carol asked. He froze, the freshly-made cup of tea halfway to his lips. Carol was smiling, her left hand resting just inside the right pocket of Peter's dressing gown.

"God, yes - typical Dan," Peter laughed.

"OK, this is getting a bit much-" Dan started, but Carol talked straight over him.

"When he called Joan in to check that thing on the back of his neck - I thought I'd die laughing."

I remember that, he thought. Why don't I remember anything else?

"Shame he left so early this morning," Peter said. "I was going to see if he wanted to come out to lunch with some of the guys from work."

"With Lisa, you mean."

"I think they'd get along, so sue me."

Daniel had stopped paying attention. He walked around the counter to look at the microwave. It was nearly ten.

Left so early?

An odd sensation began to crawl up his back.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Art Pact 57

Her stories were incomprehensible - tales of climbing the sides of buildings that stretched from the ground up into the clouds, of riding on carriages that flew in great columns of traffic that criss-crossed the night sky. Those were the more palatable parts of her history, the ones we allowed the children to hear. Later at night, in the darkness around the glow-lamp, she told us about the war, about being onboard a ship that had floundered, drives destroyed, and fallen on a city.

"When I got out," she said, "I mean, it took me a long time to get out, you know. I was in the drop capsules in the middle of the Anthracite. I had to shoot my way out of the capsule, climb all the way down to the lower levels."

Her timeline was confused, I knew that. She demonstrated how she had lowered herself using her bionic arm to grip on while the flesh one sought out the next handhold, but she'd told the children that she'd lost her arm just before she caught the ship here. Anne and I exchanged glances, but said nothing.

"I saw a lot of the other soldiers in their capsules. Most of them dead, of course. There were some that I helped free, others I - well, I didn't have the key to open the capsules properly, and I only had so many bullets, you understand. I had to save some, in case."

She drummed the metal fingers of her right hand nervously, and I saw the little finger flick out as if to move towards the ruined gun at her side. I wondered again whether it would be better to try to remove it from her when she slept, but the thing looked more dangerous to her than it would be to us. Still, good to get it away from the children's sight. And Lotta herself seemed to become more and more morbid when she glanced at it. Her tales of the wars had all been precipitated by Anne's comment about it, and whenever she talked of the battles she unconsciously touched it - a little click of metal against metal.

"When we got out, you wouldn't believe how bad it was. The fires were out - long out - but you could see what they'd done. It was a city when we fell on it, but now it was just long-abandoned rubble. The tower-blocks had all been flattened by the impact, the roads twisted up like so many black ribbons, our ship was so deep in the ground that although I had to climb down to get out of it, I had to climb back up to get to the ground again. There were animals in the pit - dogs, or something like dogs. I'd kept my bullets back, so I was able to protect myself. There were others who'd been more generous, they'd freed others and used up their bullets. They weren't so lucky. I saw a man - his field had failed somehow, his right arm was just a withered husk. No meat on that, but enough on the rest of him to make him a meal. Hold on, I need a piss."

She got up and wandered into the tree line. When she was out of sight Anne leant over to me.

"But how did she get here?" she asked, in a low urgent tone. I shrugged. It was the question we'd asked, but there was no telling whether Lotta had remembered that she was supposed to be answering it. Perhaps she'd got sidetracked, or perhaps she'd decided that that story was not for us. With the sound of snapping twigs and rustling leaves, Lotta emerged into the campsite again.

"I'm getting too old," she said. "I thought I heard someone talking out there."

"We were talking," I admitted.

"No, not you. Someone else. In the dark. Someone who couldn't be there. Listen, how long have you and your children been coming here?"

"Five years," Anne said. "Every summer, we come down here by bus from the town."

"And you've never met anyone else from the - like me?"


She looked around, and the lights on her arm flashed up and down red for a few seconds.

"Do you know what the stupidest thing was?" she asked, "about the whole business? We dropped out of travel speed too early. I measured the stars when I got out. We fell on a city, we killed everyone in it, and it wasn't even the right city." She pointed across the lake, to the mountains around the devil's cauldron. "Tomorrow I'll show you something," she said.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Art Pact 56

One day up on the rope came a child. About three years old, a boy - light but healthy, tousled black hair and light skin. He was chatty, babbling away to us in some language that none of us could understand. We set him aside to continue hauling on the winding wheel, but there was no way we could just leave him, not like the other debris. He toddled back to us every time we put him at a safe distance, pulling at our robes and demanding attention. He was smiling, too, and strange though he looked we could not help but be charmed by his odd language and cheerful demeanour.

We'd pulled people up on the rope before, of course - people came up all the time, in all sorts of states - but the dead ones were more common than the live, and even the live ones were usually fractious or terrified. When one of the hooks gets in you, pulls you out of your place, for most people it's just too traumatic. But the boy was happy, and we discussed what it might be.

"Too young to understand death," opined Kordon. "I doubt the hook rescued him from some disaster. Or if it did, he didn't know what it was."

We'd seen people rescued by the hook before, rescued right from the moment before death. It wasn't that uncommon. Wherever the rope was hanging, it was hanging in some places that were pretty dangerous, we all agreed. When we pulled people out who were on the brink of death they didn't seem happy. Maybe afterwards, but at the moment of rescue it was far too shocking for them. They came out screaming, hysterical, shocked, yes. Happy, no.

"What can we feed him?" asked Tramp, projecting his own urges onto the boy. But he was right - the boy wasn't like the others, he wasn't just going to wander off and solve himself. The boy took one of the winding wheel's unmanned spokes and mimed pushing at it in time with us, as if he were one of the crew.

"Perhaps we should keep him," Rayle suggested. She stopped the wheel and pulled a piece of furniture off the hook - a chair of strange design, plain legs and seat, but with arm-rests carved and painted like bones. Detaching it carefully she placed it at a safe distance from the apparatus and caught the boy up by his armpits, placed him in the chair. He laughed. "A new recruit might be a good idea."

"Crazy talk," Kordon said. It had always just been the three of us, ever since we could remember. But there was a lingering suspicion, and Rayle's idea brought it to the surface again.

"Why? We must have come here sometime, why not him too?"

We'd discussed our place on the winding wheel before, at great length. We could not remember a time before we'd worked the ropes, cleared off the hooks, but there must have been such a time. Kordon was particularly sensitive to his body's degeneration, and knowing that he was aging we all knew that once upon a time we must have been younger.

"Work would be easier," Tramp said. "Only needs the three of us to wind the wheel, if there were four we could take turns to sit out. Shifts."

"How would you measure a shift?" One of the things we'd noticed - whatever else we pulled up on the wheel, we never pulled up a clock. But the answer we knew already. The wheel was a clock, as long as we kept turning it. We could measure out our lives in trips around the circumference of the apparatus, or by the appearance and reappearance of the one hook that was attached to the rope backwards, than grabbed at our robes because it was the wrong way round. It irritated us, but at the same time we were never tempted to fix it in case we lost our grip on time's arrow.

"Do you think he'll be able to learn our language?" Kordon asked.

"I don't see why not. He's little. Can't little children learn languages? I seem to remember that's how it works. Hey, boy!"--she waved at the child on his little throne, and he waved back--"come over here!"

He did not, of course, understand her request. But when she beckoned as well, he carefully turned round and lowered himself down from the chair, then ran over to her.

"Rayle," she said, pointing at herself.

"Ray-ul." said the boy.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Art Pact 55

When a man has once admitted that his promises to be faithful forever are not within his power to keep, there remains forever an air of untrustworthiness about and within him, so that both he and others in the know remain acutely aware that he is not capable of the sort of fidelity which society demands of him. Of course, this is a generalisation rather than an absolute, and there are certain those who, through a lack of self-awareness, believe themselves victims of circumstance, cheaters simply because of fate or the adverse actions of their partner rather than due to their own weakness. Although it can be rather amusing to converse with such people, impervious to irony as they are and defenceless against mockery, being attached to one in a romantic relationship can sometimes stretch the nerves almost to breaking point. It was for this reason that I greeted the news that my boyfriend had decided to leave his husband with some trepidation.

Although not a particularly bad man - I appreciated that his infidelity although a sign of weakness was not entirely a selfish act, his husband suffering from real problems - I heard his excited confession with a fixed smile on my face. I set it somewhere between pleased and sympathetic, a troublesome mix which I suspect that I did not achieve with much aplomb. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I can honestly say that I have never seen such an expression - perhaps future scientists will have a word for this emotion. Until then, I shall describe it piece by piece, painting it out of primary colours so that even the most intellectually uncomplicated reader will hopefully be able to understand.

First of all, as I have said, I found it necessary outwardly to show either sympathy for the end of a long marriage or happiness that the long-standing arrangement between us might no longer qualify me as the other man, a badge which I find gratifying amongst some of my friends, but less pleasant amongst strangers and those acquaintances of mine who have strong moral viewpoints on the subject of marital infidelity and those who enable it.  Since his delivery of the bombshell had not been sufficiently polarised for me to ascertain whether he himself was completely sure if he should feel happy or sad, I was forced to attempt to blend the expressions.

In truth, I felt neither happy nor sympathetic - not at that moment. Beneath the mask, I felt as though the ground had gone out from under me and I was falling into an endless pit. My blood was like ice, I had a lump in my stomach so large I might have passed as the world's first pregnant man, and my legs appeared on the edge of an open revolt against their customary task of supporting the rest of me. I could not move, rooted by fear to the spot as I was, and yet at the same time I had never wanted anything so much as to simply run as far and as fast as I could.

The simple fact was that now that he was in imminent danger of becoming a free agent, there was the terrifying prospect that he might squander that freedom on asking to marry me. I knew him well, and the thought that he might wish to spend some time on his own seemed so alien to me that I simply could not imagine it. It is a truth universally accepted, and all that - Lonnie was pretty much the definition of a serial monogamist, his current situation notwithstanding, so I understood very well that being in want of a husband, he would not spend his time on any other pursuit than the acquisition of a replacement. I could see the scene unfolding from that moment - he would wait until the divorce was finalised before proposing formally, of course, but there would be hints and assumptions aplenty in the meantime, and a tacit assumption that it was only a manner of time before the two of us were joined in the bonds of "holy" matrimony.

I began to marshal my arguments - first the personal (I wasn't the marrying kind), then the practical (he should spend some time working out what he wanted from life), then the brutal (I didn't know - see above - if a man I knew was capable of cheating on his spouse would make a particularly good husband). You can imagine my surprise and consternation, then, when my preparations were pulled out from under me like so many rugs by the one thing I could honestly not have predicted.

"...and I'm going to marry Carol," he concluded.

I confess that my smile was washed away instantly to be replaced by an expression of unalloyed confusion that represented entirely accurately my underlying emotions. Is there such a thing as whiplash of the emotions? If so, I had it at that moment.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Art Pact 54

Cruising down the highway the car flashed blinding glints of light into the far mountains, from where the silent watchers kept their vigil. Several of the shapes flinched whenever the light leapt up at them, protecting their unseen eyes, but others maintained their ceaseless stares. Sometimes one or the other even of those more stoic of the forms shuffled in place, but there were those that might as well have been stones trapped at the top of the bluff, great silent monoliths that had stood since the dawn of time and would be there still when the occupants of the car were long dead, the car itself nothing but iron dust, the civilisation that had built the one and birthed the others nothign more than a footnote in the great chronicles of earth written by some future archaeologist.

In the car itself, thoughts were strictly short-term. In the passenger seat sat a gruff young man, nursing a six-day beard that he was forced to guard as much from the criticism of his fellow travellers as from his morning urge to unpack his trimmer. Behind him was an older man with a greyer, thinner, but more impressive looking beard that had benefitted from a year without a razor and which was mature enough to suffer no adverse comment from the other two occupants of the car - a youth of fourteen, and a woman in her mid-twenties who was sat in the driver's seat, working the accelerator with her right foot and holding the wheel in place with her elevated right knee.

"Are you going to do that all the way down the road?" asked the teenager. One finger was hooked under the headband of an old pair of headphones, hoisting the speaker away from his right ear. From the lurid orange foam that covered it a stream of invective backed by bass beats pulsed into the car's passenger compartment, causing the older man to surreptitiously move his right hand up to cover his ear. "I said, are you going to do that all the way down the road? Is she going to do that the whole way?" he repeated, opening up his request as an imprecation to the rest of the passengers. When the others ignored him, he blew out a long annoyed sigh, shrugged wildly, and let the earphone snap back into its appointed place. The driver looked around at the others, first to the young man in the passenger seat, then to the older man in the back, and in turn rolled her eyes within sight of each of them. Neither responded.

"We've got about two hours to go," she reported, after a short silence. "Two hours. Maybe two and a half. Or maybe less, maybe if we find a gas station I can take us off the economy cruise and we can burn up a bit." No-one replied. "Anyway, two hours I guess."

"If she can do that," the teenager said, this time with both earphones in place, "surely I could - I mean, she's not even paying attention. Why can't I drive? I'll be safer, safer than steering with my damn legs. What if a cop catches us?"

"What if?" asked the young man from the front. "What are we going to say if he catches us when you're driving? At least she's old enough to drive. When we see the cop she can put her hands on the wheel in about half a second. How quick do you think you could scramble into the backseat without crashing the car in the process?"

"I don't know - let me give it a try and we'll find out."

"Longer than half a second," the young man said. He scratched at the light fuzz at the point at which his neck met his jaw, the spotted the woman watching him. She was smiling, and in return he snarled and quickly jerked his hand away from his face.

"Give it up," she said.

"Not until I've won."

"Fine, your funeral. I get itchy just thinking about it. It must be like thousands of little spiders crawling across your face."

"It's fine," he said, although his face twitched a couple of times and he looked somewhat strained.

"Sure, of course."

"Leave him alone," the older man called from the back seat. "He can't help it."

"I don't need your help."

"Fine, then - what she said. Your funeral."

As he said this, far away on the bluff, a collective shiver ran through the dark watchers. One of the larger ones detached itself from the group and began to move towards the cliff edge.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Art Pact 53

As I looked into the smoldering eyes of the monster my throat seemed to tighten and my heart to rush. The tendrils around its face writhed in waves, seeming to draw the gaze in to the sinister aspect of the nostril holes that ran in two short lines up from the scaly lips between the two lower eyes and up to the single greater one in the centre of its forehead. I took an involuntary step back and stared. It too a long breath in and out, jets of steam from its lungs shooting out in white plumes like a row of moustaches, then almost in sync six flaps shut off the nostrils.

"You're amazing," I breathed. "The perfect monster."

It blinked - first the top eye, then the left, then the right, and parted its mouth to show two rows of gigantic cone-shaped teeth. They were not sharp, but they looked solid enough to crush bone and they were covered in a sort of fetid red slime that could have been the remains of some past encounter or a manner of naturally secreted venom. I remembered the old priest's warning about the danger of the creature's bite, and involuntarily let my free hand wander down to the pack of healing vials in the bag hanging at my side.

The creature's perfection was not just in its face, though. It moved to emerge from the little cave, and I stepped back to allow it out. The first thing to appear was a huge three-fingered paw, covered in what at first glance appeared to be shaggy hair but which resolved itself in better light into a mass of smaller tendrils of the type bedecking its neck and face. The tendrils were mostly passive, but occasionally one would whip up like a snake about to strike. I could see that the behemoth would be well defended against attack by smaller creatures - they might be diminutive and nimble enough to avoid the powerful but doubtless slow blows of the paws, but should they get near enough to attack they would be grasped instantly by the tentacles, immobilising them as helpless fodder for the great jaws. The tendrils were not the only noteworthy feature of the paw, however, since emerging from them were three huge claws, each with the aspect of obsidian and no doubt just as hard and sharp. They were the length of my own sword, making the paw alone as well armed as a lance of soldiers - and I did not think for an instant that there might not be at least one other such limb.

In fact, when I had retreated sufficiently to allow the entire creature to emerge, I could see that it was one of six, arrayed along a powerful torso. The tendrils on the paws were a continuation of a theme - those around the face were the largest, diminishing in size until they were little more than the length and width of a small snake where they covered the ends of the limbs. The torso itself seemed to just end in a blocky stump at first glance, but as I circled around the monster (and it in turn circled around me), I could see that in fact it had a tail almost as long as the rest of the creature, who had concealed it from me by tucking it underneath its belly. The tail, like the face at the other end, was only wreathed with tendrils at its base, the main length of it scaly and in marked segments. It was tipped with a sort of fin, held parallel to the ground, which the creature fluttered up and down beneath itself ominously. The fin was spread out between five spines that supported it, each of the spines the length of a dagger and looking just as sharp. The flapping noise the thing made was the only sound that came from the monster apart from its deep breathing.

"So you've a whip tail, poison, huge teeth, tentacles, eyes a plenty, and paws the size of a horse. But are you smart?" I asked.

"Clever enough," the monster growled. My heart pounded like a drum. I imagined the two of us fighting in a field of corn, the creature's powerful claws crushing the crops flat and its tail scything ears in a wide arc. I would dance past the blow, leaping across the tail to swipe at the monster's rear-left leg with my sword, only to be thwarted by the leviathan's uncanny agility.

I was in love.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Art Pact 52

Notwithstanding the presumptuous youth of the day, E____ took it upon himself to awaken me from my pleasant sojourn into the sandman's realm by calling upon my stateroom in some state of agitation. My mechanical man-servant attempted of course to dissuade the unwelcome visitor, but sadly crippled by the unnecessary morality programmed into it by its over-cautious creator it was unable to fully execute my thunderous command to "dispatch" the intruder, instead choosing to allow him egress to the outer chamber of my suite, all the while protesting in its grating electronical voice that this early hour was no time to be calling on a gentleman of my stature. While I appreciated the sentiment entirely, the d___d machine's voice box, lacking any overall control of volume, could not provide its suggestions in low enough a tone to avoid dragging me entirely into wakefulness, a state which I am normally scrupulous in avoiding until at least ten of the ship's bells have rung.

"I really must insist!" E____ argued, unwary of the fact that the robot well understood that there was no binding compulsion upon its fleshy counterparts to do anything. I emerged from the inner chamber to find it standing across the door: unable to lay its hands on E____ it had resorted to disabling its joints in such a fashion as to make of itself a wall which it rightly judged the smaller man of being unable to breach. Indeed, I myself was unable to exit my boudoir without first commanding the machine to stand down, upon which order it move aside gracefully although I saw its several optical sensors swivel in E____'s direction in a very creditable impersonation of distrust and irritation.

"Mister E____" I said. "What in the universe can have possessed you to burst in here at this hour? I warn you, I am not a man who takes sleep lightly. To be well-rested is necessary, if not perhaps sufficient, to the vigilance the job of ship's captain requires. Should we, later in the day, travel at relativistic velocities into the heart of some foreign sun simply because of an ill-timed yawn on my part, I shall view the matter as entirely your fault, proceeding directly from this early-morning alarum. Speak your piece - and make it compelling, or I shall be forced to delay my swift return to the arms of Madam Sleep just long enough to convey you to the brig."

E____, naturally flustered by my commanding presence, quivered along the length of his body, and the stress-meter in his uniform bleeped once as a warning that he was dangerously overawed. To his credit he rallied quickly, drawing himself up to his full (if unimpressive) height and perpetrating a salute so crisp that it might have stood in easily for an autumn morning.

"Sir," he reported, "you must come to the bridge immediately. We are being hailed from the planet."

"From the planet?" I queried, astounded.

"Yes, sir. From the planet. A distress call, we believe, although the translators are still working on the full extent of the message."

While the Indefatigable, as a battlecruiser, was not equipped fully for any use other than the efficient and large-scale manufacture of woe, it did (I regret to confess) contain within its hold some supplies that might admit to one or more humanitarian uses, thus rendering me powerless to maintain with a clear conscience that we were unable to do anything to aid the landlubbers below us. I frowned mightily at E____, causing him to withdraw a number of paces.

"I will be there directly," I said. "Inform the translators that if they do not have a full transcript of reasonable accuracy by the time I arrive I will recycle them into chaff drones at the very earliest convenience of the enemy's torpedoes."

"I... yes sir," he said snappily, although he immediately diminished this gratifying appearance of competence by remaining in place, staring at me blankly as if hit by a stun-ray.

"Well get on with it man!" I roared. He turned on the spot and ran, so fast that the automatic door was scarcely able to avoid him as he left, his tail-flaps whisking after him.

"Carson." I called.

"Yes, captain," the machine said calmly, clanking up behind me.

"Lay out my dress uniform. I shall be needing it directly, I imagine."

"Of course, captain."

While the machine went to work I submitted to the indignity of dressing myself in my ship suit and warbands for the second time in a week. For a routine patrol of an uninhabited sector, this mission was beginning to become unpleasantly exciting.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Art Pact 51

Carla found the paper tucked underneath her keyboard, one white corner poking out from beneath the number pad, only visible when she sat down in her cubicle. She assumed that it was some receipt or other, some piece of paper she'd dropped herself weeks ago that had somehow avoided her frequent tidy-ups by escaping under the keyboard, but when she opened it up to double-check before tossing it in the recycling bin she saw that it was a hand-written note - red ink joined in a smooth looping hand into the words: THERE IS A MOLE IN YOUR OFFICE. BE CAREFUL.

She looked around, then folded the paper up and tucked it back where it had come from. It looked innocuous enough there. She opened up outlook, began to type a nonsense email to herself, stopped suddenly in the middle of a sentence and listened for laughter. Nothing. Just typing from the other cubicles and the muted sound of telephones warbling for attention over in the technical sales section. She pulled out the note and looked at it again.

The handwriting was unfamiliar - neater than anything she was used to dealing with (the angular scrawls of the sales staff or the elegant, flat, but erratic script of her supervisor-mentor). Perhaps too neat, she thought to herself, it had the sense of someone who had forced themselves to write smoothly against their normal inclinations. She wondered if she would find eight or nine previous iterations of the letter in a bin or shredder somewhere around the building, discarded as practise runs before this perfect specimen had been created.


She jumped at the voice, quickly dragging the keyboard forward and shifting her right hand over the numpad.

"Joan," she smiled, turning her chair slightly and looking up. Her supervisor was leaning on the corner of her cubicle divider, elbow immediately above the motivational poster that had been left over from the desk's previous occupant: TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, below an Anne Geddes photograph of a muscled young man holding a tiny baby. I have to get rid of that, Carla thought for the sixth time that day. "How are you - I mean, how can I help you?"

"It's to do with the Brigham sale," Joan said. As she talked, she leant forwards into the cubicle. Every few words her eyes would flick away from Carla's face and onto the pecs of the man on the poster. "I was checking with Terry in accounts receivable, and..."

Carla let herself go onto autopilot, nodding along with the rhythm of Joan's voice to simulate interest. Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether or not you had to pay attention to what Joan was saying, but the serendipitous mention of Terry from accounts receivable had instantly clued her in that the following five to ten minutes was likely to be a content-free discursion on the likelihood of Brigham paying on time, exacerbated by Terry's paranoia about delinquent customers and the bizarre religion he seemed to have built around the idea that a 60-day payment window was likely to affect everyone's (read: his) pension. Brigham Auto Dealership had never paid them in a longer period than fourteen weeks, so the chance of their relatively modest bill being the straw that broke the company's financial back seemed remote at best. Perhaps Terry's got something against Brigham himself, she thought - then: perhaps Terry's the mole.

She clamped down on the thought immediately, hoping that she hadn't given Joan any sign that she was thinking when she should be listening. She turned a quarter-turn to the right, letting her left hand slide over the keyboard to take the place the right hand had been hiding a moment ago, then teased the slip of paper into her palm with her left thumb, crumpled it slowly, and flicked it into the bin when Joan's eyes next glanced at the man in the poster.

"Mole." Joan said suddenly.

"I'm sorry?"

Joan looked at her, her eyebrows descending in a sort of slow-motion frown that she did when she was particularly displeased.

"I mean, I'm sorry, I was just trying to remember the mandated and actual payment dates for Brigham in the past. I do apologise. You were saying?"

Joan leant forward, peering at Carla over the top of her glasses.

"I was saying that Terry wanted to send Brigham a letter reminding them of the payment date and that the overdue account would have to be paid in full."

Carla, who had been expecting something that sounded like "Mole" but which was perfectly innocuous, was somewhat surprised.

"Uh, good idea," she said, realising as she said it that it was nothing of the sort.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Art Pact 50

Character is the choices you make in the dark. That's what they said, what my parents said. I can't imagine them ever in the dark. When I cycled home from the woods in the middle of the winter I would see the house from miles away, every light blazing, a beacon drawing me in to normalcy, the mundane routines of family life: breakfast, lunch, dinner, all at the same time every day - lunch and breakfast my mother's work, dinner that of my father except on special occasions. I always stopped when I saw it, the first moment that I could glimpse a spark or shard of brightness through the dark wall of trees, put my right foot down (always my right foot) and propped myself up to examine that evidence of my family. It was easy in the woods, in the darkness of the winter evenings, to forget that there was anything other than shadows and trees and the cracking sound of wood settling, but that first glimmer of light brought me back to myself.

Now, in the house, there is no true darkness. The glow of LEDs in every room, throwing blue or red or orange shadows from the devices on standby. In the hallways there are sodium rectangles thrown against the walls opposite the windows, in the bathrooms mirrors reflect what little light the other rooms provide, so far from a midnight black the house is full of colour and contrast. I make my way silently through it, throwing my own sharp shadows on the walls and floor.

Deprived of darkness, I do not know what I am making of myself through my choices. I step over the supine partygoers. I expect at every moment to stumble across a late-drinking klatch of survivors, but it seems that the celebration achieved such apocalyptic levels of consumption that there is not a single attendee left conscious. The floors and stairs are strewn with bodies in various poses. I step over a girl in a long beige dress. Her hand is still clasped around a glass with a few millimetres of red wine trapped in the side - a lot of the rest of the contents seem to be in the cotton fabric at her front. I lean down to put my nose a few inches from her leg, and the smell of alcohol is overpowering - although underneath it I can detect a faint miasma of vomit coming from further up the landing. I stand the glass up, take the girl's head carefully between my hands and twist - slowly, slowly, until I can set it down again arranged more comfortably. She does not wake, but hopefully I have mitigated some potential neck ache.

On the landing where the staircase twists around to make its way up to the first set of bedrooms another girl - younger, the source of the vomit smell. She is too young to be here, I think, one of the people invited by my assistants. I will have to have words with them. I rearrange her into a more comfortable sitting position and scribble out a small note: DO NOT COME HERE AGAIN. I AM NOT ANGRY WITH YOU, BUT DO NOT COME HERE AGAIN - which I tuck into her hand, making a little fist of her fingers around the paper. She makes a little whimpering noise, but does not wake.

Now, in the corridor leading to the bedrooms, I begin to search the pockets of the inebriated, and the bags that are scattered around the floor among them. There are twenty-eight partygoers here. Everyone has a phone, of course, and I take them, carefully memorising which phone goes with which person. Seven fingers have wedding rings on, and of those three of the owners are wrapped in sleepy embraces with other people - two with each other, one with a woman with no ring, and - I examine her finger closely - no band of tanned or smooth skin to indicate that one is normally there. I collect all the rings, arrange them in a line on the floor at the head of the stairs, photograph the collection and return them all to their owners. As a little prank, however, I put them all back on the ring finger of the opposite hand.

At the end of the corridor is a broom-cupboard. I slip into it, tenderly edging aside a middle-aged man in a pizza-stained T-shirt so that I can open the door. Safely inside I operate the secret catch and feel the panel move around. There are two ways I could go from here, and this choice I do make in the dark. Upwards. There is work to be done.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Art Pact 49

"This is some sorcerer's apprentice bullshit," Simon said, stepping backwards through the ever-growing pile of bolts at his feet. The trickle of parts falling off the end of the conveyor belt continued relentlessly. "Did you try pressing  the button again?"

Alice rolled her eyes and made an exaggerated show of pressing the emergency stop button - once, twice, and with a final flourish a third time. The machine buzzed each time the little red mushroom was pushed into its housing, but body of the machine was still hissing and clunking and the conveyor belt kept churning out more and more of the little hexagonal bolts.

"We can get another container in," she suggested. "I saw three more of the things out the- Eek!" She was cut off in a shriek as the waxing cone of bolts underwent a major landslide on its near side, spilling out a great torrent of tailings that swept around her toes. "OK, this is getting ridiculous. I'll get a container in."

"Then what?" Simon asked.

They took it in turns to wheel the containers in and out, letting one fill up with bolts before quickly swapping it out with another and emptying the full containers into the service trench outside the door. Alice pointed out that if the process went on long enough they might be able to walk across the trench to freedom and just leave the factory to run itself to pieces, but they both knew that that would only be a temporary solution to their problems.

"Besides which," Simon added "I don't trust these things to hold our weight. There's something weird about how they're coming out." He held up one of the bolts for Alice to see - unlike the first batch that had poured out of the machine, the bolts were less strictly hexagonal. They still had six sides, but they seemed more rounded rather than flat, as though the bolts had fattened up - but at the same time they were smaller than the original bolts, the threaded lengths much shorter. It was as if they were getting confused, Alice thought, trying to turn into ball bearings rather than bolts. She scooped up a handful and let them run out through her fingers. They felt slightly oily, and they flowed much more easily than she would have expected for metal bolts. If they tried to run across a dam made of these things, she realised, they would sink in and disappear never to be seen again.

"Here, let me try something," she suggested, bracing her back against the machine and kicking the container away from its position near the end of the belt. As she'd feared, the bolts began to pour onto the floor and immediately roll away. The neat conical pile they'd formed before was no more - just a low mound where the bolts were coming in more quickly than they could escape at the edges. Now it didn't resemble a mountain, just a sludge-pile in the middle of a lake. "We'd better go and look in the control room again."

The little booth on the gantry was still unpleasant to be in - the emergency lights blinking on suddenly every few seconds with blinding flashes - but they found a couple of ear defenders hanging in a safety station by the top of the ladder which meant that they could at least hear themselves think. Alice looked at the controls, tried to use them to get the conveyor to stop, failed as before, then set to examining the screens above. The left hand screen still had the picture of the prototype bolt on it (complete with a nut which the screen said was being churned out on line 5 - one thing at a time, she thought to herself), but the right hand screen was showing a tiny silver sphere.

"A ball-bearing," she said, "just like I thought."


"A ball-bearing!" she shouted.


"A ball-bearing," she repeated, when she'd dragged Simon back out along the gantry to a safe distance and plucked the ear-defenders off his head. "The machine's got confused somehow, or it's been programmed oddly. They control computer is trying to make two things at once - the ball-bearings and the bolts - and for some reason it can't just make them in batches. It's like it's been told to make them both forever, so it can't start making ball-bearings because that would violate the command it's received to continue making bolts. But it can't just keep making bolts because that would mean it would be disobeying the order to make ball-bearings. So it's trying to make both at once, something that can be used either as a ball-bearing or a bolt."

"But that's impossible," said Simon.

"True," she agreed. "But the machine doesn't know that."

"What are we going to do?"

"I'm not sure."

"Well whatever it is, we'd better do it fast," he said, pointing down. As far as Alice could see, the floor of the factory was covered in a foot-deep layer of ball-boltings. "Otherwise we're going to have to swim out of here!"

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Art Pact 48

"The Earth is in love with the Moon," she told me, the fire throwing black and orange stripes across her face. "He reaches out to her all the time, chases her around the sun, but she is too light for him, too fleet of foot. She dances rings around him constantly. She pulls at his hot metal heart, at the magma blood of him, at rivers that are his tears and the oceans that are the sweat on him from his long chase."

She doodled a helical pattern in the dust - a large circle, the Earth travelling around the Sun, the Moon around the Earth and the Sun at the same time.

"It won't ever catch the Moon," I said.

"That's where you're wrong. There will come a time. She can't run forever, not from someone who was made for her. Sometimes you have to give in to the inevitable. She'll slow down as she ages, she'll give up her freedom and come to rest in the arms of her suitor."

"Then that will be the saddest day of all." I thought of the Moon colliding with the Earth. I could not imagine it happening fast for some reason, just a slow thing where the Moon grew larger and larger in the night sky, closer and closer until in some town or city somewhere all you could see would be the rocky white plains above you. You would climb to the top of a tower block, feeling so light that there seemed to be almost nothing of you, and reach up, put your hand into an old footprint, pick up an old flag. You could climb up onto the moon, you could almost feel as if you were pushing it away, but down it would move, down, down, pressing you against the top of the building then going on, crunching red through you and smashing grey beneath and pressing and pressing down until there was nothing left of the towers or the town and still pressing into the surface. Magma would pour from the cracks around the Moon's embrace, the Earth would be torn to pieces, until finally the Moon reached its heart and that would be the end of both of them. All the energy that had been stored up over the years released in one apocalyptic moment. No good for the Earth, no goo for the Moon, no good for anyone nearby.

"The Moon should stay where she is," I said. "In the sky, with the other moons. She doesn't have to come down to Earth. She shouldn't."

"She has to," she said sadly. "That's the way the world works. You don't get to be free forever, you either climb into a cage that you like or you realise that someone has built one around you without you knowing it. Maybe that someone is you."

I couldn't tell if she meant me personally. I stretched my hands out to the fire, letting my palms warm. There was silence for a while, and when my hands were warm enough I crossed them over my chest, one palm cupping each breast to warm them up.

"Perhaps the Earth doesn't love the Moon," I suggested. "Perhaps she only thinks that because it's been pursuing her for so long. Perhaps it doesn't even know it itself. It's so lonely in space that it's convinced itself it's in love, but what he really wants is someone, anyone, just to acknowledge it exists. He'd - it would get the Moon, but then it wouldn't know what to do with her. If I were the Moon I wouldn't want to take that chance. I'd want to make sure that it was really love first. And I'd want to make sure that I loved the Earth in return."

She looked at me from under half-closed eyes, a probing stare. I was wondering if she was thinking what I was thinking, that I was losing grasp of the metaphor, that I was coming dangerously close to just saying outright what we were dancing around. She blinked, and as she did so a thing clicked in my mind - a decision, or just perhaps the part of me that guarded my feelings suddenly turning off.

"I don't think you should go back," I said. Her eyes widened for a second, then she looked away as if I had become Medusa. Her hair covered her face. The light from the fire flickered up and down the curls and twists, and the cold night air played with the tiny free strands, but beyond that curtain I could see nothing.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Art Pact 47

I watch Carrie through the window. She and her friend are laughing, and I feel an unfamiliar pain in my throat. I sit down at the outermost table, close to the curb. Free of their rush-hour jams further into the city the cars are thundering past, swirling up choking storms of road dust and heavier rubbish that jostles around my feet, nestling into the lee of my legs. Carrie says something that makes her friend throw her head back in an uncontrollable laugh, and I look away to see that an empty packet of Doritos has captured a Coke can, and the two of them are trying to escape the cold fingers of the wind by banging repeatedly into my shin. I can't feel anything there.

I don't notice the waitress, so I jump when she says (from behind my shoulder):

"There's plenty of room inside, wouldn't you rather sit there?"

Yes, I would.

"No, I'm -" I start hesitantly, but I realise that this will only inflame her sympathies. Brusqueness is the key here. "A black coffee. Please."

I hate coffee, but I have to have something to stay here, and there is a great danger that I might spoil my terrible mood if I get something that I would enjoy.

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather come in?"

"No thank you, just the coffee."

"Coming right up," she says, rolling her eyes. I assume that it will be some while before she comes back - she has the look of someone who has already mentally discounted the chance of a tip. I suppose that's the best I can hope for.

Carrie and her friend have started to chat again. Carrie chops the air with the side of one slender hand, making some point or other. The friend agrees, and her outstretched index finger taps against the edge of her cup twice - then a pause - then again. Some esoteric point of music, I guess, so perhaps her friend is a work friend, some colleague from the school, an administrator in the music department or (unlikely) another teacher. I realise that this makes me feel better about her (the friend, that is). I can't imagine her as someone who is a great confidante, so perhaps Carrie has not told her about me. I haven't met her, that's certain. I narrow my eyes, trying to pick out from the stream of lip movements what Carrie might be saying. Perhaps she'll say the name of her friend. No, stupid, no-one says the name of the person they're talking to. I need to calm down, the name of this unknown friend is unimportant in the long run. Nothing's important in the long run, because Carrie and I are over.

I feel the pain in my throat again - it is horrible, like a tense cramp in the muscles beneath my jaw. I do not understand where it is coming from, or why I have never felt it before. The wind from the passing cars is cold and acrid, perhaps it's something to do with that. As if to disprove my theory a juggernaut passes, the wake of it turbulent and filled with choking diesel fumes. My throat hurts just as it did before, neither more nor less. It is not that, then.

"There you are, sir." The waitress was quicker than I expected, dropping off the coffee and the bill and scurrying away quickly - presumably in case I ordered anything else. Her uniform (such as it is) looks cold - an apron over jeans and a t-shirt that roughly matches the cafe's colour scheme. A modern phenomenon, the desire for employees to look casual but somehow maintain the company line. Her life would be so much simpler, I think, had they simply given her a set of clothes to wear, a set that matched everyone else.

The thought makes me look at Carrie again. Like all the teachers, she is dressed the way she likes. Carrie likes smart but slightly frumpy, a look that seems to be unique to the scholastic profession. She brushes a stray strand of hair away from her face, tucking it behind her glasses and adjusting the butterfly grip at the back of her head.

The Coke can batters at my leg again. I kick it away, then the Doritos bag after it, and the two conspirators are torn away by the breeze from the traffic and spun off into the distance. They have done their work: my trousers, standard sixth-form black slacks, are covered in crisp dust down one leg. I take a sip of my terrible coffee. Bitter, bitter, and suddenly I understand what that pain in my throat is. I am trying not to cry.

I let the pain ease.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Art Pact 46

"Mole Squad assemble!"

That was the rallying call of the premier almost-blind underground super-hero group of the nineteen-seventies. Moles of my generation grew up with their pictures on billboards and splashed all over the front-pages of newspapers. I had Mole Squad pyjamas, and a nightlight that projected a picture of Mega-Mole fighting Nega-Mole onto my bedroom wall. Where in school tunnels of the centuries before people would have played Worm Run or Vole Versus Rat, now they were the scenes of titanic battles between the Mole Squad and their mortal enemies, the League of Evil Diggers. I was small for my age, and not popular enough to be one of the Mole Squad themselves unless I was playing on my own, so at school break I always had to be Mouse-Trap, the cowardly scout who was always the first to be caught when the LED hatched one of their evil schemes. Such games proceeded mostly by rote - there were favourite stories which everyone knew, and which were played out as though scripted. First of all the LED would meet and discuss their plan to take over all of the underworld - usually by kidnapping the queen, but sometimes by undermining the government tunnels so that the senators would tumble through into the lower caves.

The choice of plan was affected by the available players, which was in turn affected by one of the subtleties of the school hierarchy. Clearly, the queen was a goodie. That meant that she could only be played by one of the more popular children, and as the queen was also legendarily beautiful it was an honour that the popular girls would fight over - simple, except that the queen's place in the story was to be kidnapped by the LED, so whoever played the queen would have to accept that she would be tied up and spending a lot of time with the unpopular kids consigned to represent the League's villainous ranks. Finding a popular and good-looking girl who was not afraid of being tied up and left in the company of the despicable was not a trivial task. It became a task of compromise - how far down the ranks of the beautifully people would a girl have to be to be willing to spend time with the losers in exchange for everyone acknowledging briefly that she was good-looking enough to be the queen? Sometimes there were no takers, and it was in those situations that the League's alternative plan came into action.

After the kidnap (or the initial digging), events played out like this: The Mole Squad's leader (Mega-Mole, the underworld's greatest sleuth) would discover a clue that would either start them on the trail to finding the princess or the tunnel-works. They would be sent to a rough part of town where they would be ambushed by the League's lesser members, who they would fight off (more or less roughly, depending on whether they thought they could get away with it). They would find a clue that would lead them to another location, where I (as Mouse-Trap) would be trying to find out information on - something or other. It was not usually specified, and when it did it often didn't make sense since being popular enough to play Mega-Mole - and therefore dictate the terms of the story - did not automatically confer a child with a natural skill at plotting or logic. Whatever, I would be captured by the Mole Squad and then tortured for the information that would allow the Squad to home in on the League's evil lair. As children we had not grasped the idea that the Mole Squad were not keen on torture, and the play interrogation I was subjected to, while not real, was not gentle either. I was often brought to the point of tears, despite being perfectly willing to divulge any knowledge I had. The player of Mega-Mole, of course, being the storyteller as well, decided when I had had enough. I was not told the information I was to pass on beforehand, only we he deemed that I had received sufficient motivation, so I could not simply blurt it out.

You'll notice that I talk as though the mole-child playing Mega-Mole was always the same. That is not quite true (there were a few blessed interludes), but it is largely the case. There were no competing priorities in the choice of Mega-Mole. It was good to be in the Squad, and best to be him. For that reason Mega-Mole was (unless he was ill or away) always played by my nemesis - the boy whose muscled velvet silhouette had overshadowed me since we were both pups. My next-door neighbour.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Art Pact 45

We jumped off the boat at fifteen hundred give or take, scattered like seed pods around the big central bulk of the Ranger - you always boot that out first in case it lands on someone. The boat pilot was a greenie, first live delivery since he'd got here. You can always tell by how they deal with the Ranger drop - he hadn't accounted for the mass of the thing suddenly easing off the boat's repellers, so the boat leapt up about ten meters as the first of us went out the door - an extra ten meters is enough to wipe out the shocks on a man's boots if he's put on a few extra stone, so Tubby One and Tubby Two ended up on the floor rolling around like they'd been shot, grabbing their ankles and whiting out our headphones.

Course, we couldn't just leave them there when there was a boat so close, so the pilot got his punishment: having to wait around for five minutes like a sitting duck, repellers roaring and the heat off the boat's sinks slowly lighting up against the infra-back like a flashlight in a cornfield. It was good for us, though - reassuring to know that there weren't E in harpoon range, or they would have dropped the boat no problem. I guess the captain must have already known that, or he'd have got the boat to set down while it was waiting - he just wanted to give the pilot a bit of a kick for not keeping us steady. Something to learn him for next time.

The doc took a look at the Tubbies and pronounced them fit to walk - sprains at worst, and their boots could take all the weight until the doc thought they were fit to walk on their own. Tubby One started bitching about it, of course, but the captain was having none of it - his own fault for eating while he was on leave, he knew where he was, no excuse for putting on extra mass, certainly not in a place like this, so on. I could see old Tubs was pissed off, but if he ever wanted his name back he was going to have to knuckle under and get back down to fighting condition, so there was nothing to be done about it.

Anyway, the boat shot up like a rocket the minute the doc gave his OK, and the last we saw of it was the nav light on the underside shooting off across the canopy tops. We were at Point A, the hillside overlooking the central valley, and our job was to get to Point B, around the perimeter of the caldera. I say "get" there. Obviously what I mean is "cut through" - we'd been sent out here because no-one else had been in months, so the whole place was likely to be completely solid with plants. If the Es hadn't been here either, there was likely to be ten minutes of grinding from the ranger for ever hundred meters of progress we made, so time to Point B could be anything up to a week (an Earth week, about three local days).

That's exactly how it looked like it was going to be for about the first four hours. The Ranger rolled on ahead, babbling away to itself and its handler while its two long arms scythed through the undergrowth. We walked along behind it on the pressed vegemat walkway it was leaving in its wake, and muttered to ourselves about how it was that they could make a robot that would follow any order except the one to shut up. We stopped once in that time so that the doc could check on the sprained ankles, and Lance-Corporal Bursleigh shot what he thought was a beef-deer but which actually turned out to be a lucky-fucker. When we started having a go at him the captain told us all to stop acting like superstitious children, but we still made Bursleigh walk at the back - well at the back - when we started the column again. That's probably why we didn't notice he was gone for so long. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

At nineteen hundred the Ranger stopped, turned round on the spot using its tracks, and waved the captain to come forward. He told off me and Gunderson to come with him, and the three of us jogged ahead to where the Ranger's handler was standing, staring out silently into a huge opening in the forest.

"E," he said as we reached him. "Thousands of them." I was halfway through hoisting my gun to my shoulder when he stepped back so that I could see. "Dead."

The bodies were scattered over a circle about five hundred meters in diameter. They were clothed, apparently uninjured except for being dead, and all clutching strange metal objects. Gunderson stepped forward and picked one up.

"It's a gun," he said. "A melted gun. What melts a gun?"

"Nothing we have," the captain said grimly. "Gentlemen, I think we may not be alone here."

"We know that," I said. "The E."

"No," he corrected me. "I mean I think there may be more than one war on this planet."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Art Pact 44

The problem with being so much shorter than everyone else, of course, is that crowds tend to be a huge forest of crotches, so I like to climb on tables and things wherever possible, get above what can seem like an endless array of more or less loosely packaged genitals. That's why my lair (which is not what I call it, by the way, you can thank Sgt. Johnson for that) is arranged the way it is - a sort of central pit around which there are ledges that allow me to walk around, sit down, so forth, without being at groin height. It's sort of like one of those film-set trenches, I suppose, that are designed to make the leading man look taller than his love interest, except that, as I keep trying to point out, I am not actually insecure about my height. I'm the right height for me. I made very sure that I got the ledges built at exactly the average height for a human, so that most people I'll be looking dead square in the eye (give or take). If people are taller than average - well, I get the same experience that everyone else does of them, it doesn't bother me. If people are shorter than average, I can sit down and get at their eye level and make them feel comfortable. It's all good.

I can't always be at home, though. I'd love that - it would be very convenient. Whenever I hear bellyaching from vigilantes about their "secret lair" being discovered by bad guys, I'm like what? You're complaining that you have to work from home? I know, I know, it's not quite that simple, but really - I mean, I have like all my gear hear. If I'm going to be able to defeat someone anywhere, home is the place. I get to see them coming on the cameras, I have everything handy, all laid out neat the way I like it, I've got the advantage of knowing the terrain and (if things do go wrong) the little escape routes. Which again - because I'm so small, that's another advantage. They're totally not going to be able to chase me down the air conditioning ducts, because an average-sized guy is going to get completely Pooh-Beared in the opening. So long, suckers!

Sadly, it's not to be. The sort of criminals I work with (you know the kind I mean) are smart enough to realise that there's no profit in robbing a weirdo like me. I've got some nice toys, but nothing they couldn't make for themselves if they wanted. The only thing I have worth stealing is my power, and since that's unstealable they stick to the things they really want - diamonds, gold, good-looking women and brainy scientists.

That's why when I got the alarm call I wasn't surprised that I'd have to get out of my pyjamas to deal with it, and why at seven thirty in the morning I was standing on the top of the central bank depository in comfortable clothing (and mismatched socks, annoyingly), and trying not to stare directly into Destruktor's armoured codpiece.

"So," he rasped, edging slowly around in a circle to keep facing me. "Midget, we meet at last."

"We met last week," I reminded him.

"That didn't count," he said. He was probably right. He was in his civvies rather than his armour, so I suppose technically he was just Alan Rutherford then. Don't get me wrong - I would still have punched the hell out of him whatever he was wearing, but I was dealing with Q-Bit at the time, and she can be a bit tricky to pin down. "What were you doing there, anyway?"

"Enough talk!" he yelled. He stepped forwards, but at that moment the head of one of his employees popped up through the hole Destruktor had punched in the bank roof.

"We need another five minutes, boss. The safe door's bigger than one the plans."

Destruktor waved him away.

"Alright," he conceded. "A little more talk."

But the distraction had been enough for me to make my move. As the word "talk" left his helmet's mouthpiece, I landed on his shoulder-armour. My nails dug into the titanium plating and I heaved, pulling up just one corner of it enough to jab the muzzle of my hypodermic gun in.

Destruktor's left fist performed a sort of awkward 180-degree hook and caught me in the side of the head, propelling me off my perch on his shoulder and into a chimney.

"You little prick," he said slowly, and his head described a stately arc as he toppled into the hole. I can't say I was entirely pleased - but Destrucktor was that kind of arsehole, the kind who'd steal your witticism and make it unfunny.

I picked myself up, brushed myself off, and jumped into the hole after him.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Art Pact 43

"I know you're probably tired of hearing this," she said to me, "but he was a great man. Regardless of your... disagreements, I suppose..."

I snorted.

"...he still did a lot for the country. And for the town. Probably for the world, if you think about it. Imagine how the war would have ended if it hadn't been for his intervention. If the Merlia had won it wouldn't have gone-"

"Spare me the history lessons," I snapped.

She fell silent, and in lieu of any more productive action she poured us another cup of coffee each and I in turn reached into my box of biscuits and took out two to share between us. I could see she wanted to keep talking, but there was nothing more I wanted to hear. I was, as she guessed, tired of hearing the constant patriotic drumroll that the people were playing as a hagiography to my father.

When we had sipped our way down to the bottom of our cups Alice pushed her chair back from the table and looked to the outside, the first time she'd done so since coming into the shop. I was facing the window, and had seen the slow descent of the sun, from perfect orange circle mid-sky to a wavering red blob that hovered over the buildings at the long end of the avenue. It was a surprise to Alice, though, as though the star had dashed in an instant from the apex of the heavens into the horizon, throwing the previously well-lit world into sudden darkness.

"It's got so dark," she exclaimed. "That time of year, I suppose."

"He hated autumn," I said. "He was worst in winter, but he hated autumn. What do you think that means?"

She looked at me, and the left side of her mouth twitched.

"Look, it's clear you don't want to talk about this. Perhaps we should do this later."

"Thoth, make your mind up!"

Alice shook her head, the long dangling chains of her earrings rattling chaotically. She began to fiddle with her messenger bag, collecting up the papers she had spread across the cafe's table, and shutting down her laptop so that she could put it away.

"Most of the paperwork is fairly simple," she said coldly. "I can just send it to you, I'll mark where you have to sign. You can read it if you like, or if not you'll just have to trust me."

"I trust you," I said. "After all, who'd cheat the son of the great hero?"

"You think you're so superior to him. Just because you were perhaps on the right side of one ancient feud that no-one else understands. But you're not, because that's all you have."--Her eyes flashed angry--"Everything else he did was what made him great, and you can't gainsay all of that just because of some stupid childhood spat. You have to do something yourself, cut yourself out a piece of the world before you get to judge him. And me! And everyone else - Thoth, if it was just you and your dad, maybe there wouldn't be any problem. You'd just be that weird eccentric that had some odd views about a hero - but everyone would forgive you because you're his son, you're allowed to have strange ideas."

"Thanks for your permission."

"Shut up. That. That right there, that's the problem. You don't just think you're superior to him, do you? You think that because we look up to your father we're inferior to him, and that makes us inferior to you to, since you're his great superior. So you've managed to win some ridiculous pointless argument as a teenager and somehow you've parlayed that into a position as the smartest man on the planet."

"Who's to say I'm not?"

"Son of.. you certainly can't be the smartest man on the planet until you realise that there is no smartest man on the planet, any more than there's a best soldier on the planet, or a best clothes-maker. Intelligence is a diverse thing, and you can be smart in one way and stupid in another. The truth is that there are hundreds of smartest men on the planet, hundreds of smartest women on the planet, just by a conservative estimate. Everyone's cleverest at their own life, so why not say that everyone's the smartest person on the planet? Then such a thing is meaningless."

She tucked all of her things into her bag and pushed the two clasps closed.

"I'll see you soon," she said.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Art Pact 42

"We'll push the fifth button in the row," Rostok told me. "There's a good reason for not pushing the other four, but no reason not to push that one. Since we have to do something, we'll do that."

I examined the glyphs and icons surrounding the buttons, but couldn't make head nor tail of them. They looked like octopus tentacles with serifs to me, or half-mutated trees.

"Why aren't we pushing the other four buttons?" I asked. The others groaned. "OK, ok! I was just asking!"

"Why don't you just press it," Garn said, "and quickly, before we have to go through another explanation."

"I didn't hear the first time," I said.

"Or the second or the third, but whose fault is that? Just get on and do it before Rostok starts talking again."

"She does deserve to-" Rostok began.

"PUSH IT!" the others shouted, and startled into action I stabbed my finger down onto the button. It felt old, like something from an Indiana Jones film - stone, badly smoothed, that scraped against its socket and then clunked solidly into place. The glyph above it lit up - not at once, like a light, but in a spiralling pattern travelling out from the lowest part of it, as though following the stroke of a calligraphic brush. When the whole sign was full of life it began to glow strongly, pulsing and throbbing. The chamber began to fill with a deep hum that waxed and waned in time with the light. Around me the others shuffled nervously.

"I don't like the look of this," Garn muttered. "Did you do it right? I mean, you pressed the right button, didn't you?"

"Of course I pressed the right button!"

"Well did you press it right?"

I took a swipe at him, dissipating his face for a few seconds into a cloud of whispy fragments. When he reformed he frowned at me furiously, then strode through my outstretched arm and carefully examined the console.

"A simple yes would have sufficed," he said testily. He peered at the buttons for a few minutes, then shrugged. "But I see you're right in this particular instance."

"Yes," I said, rolling my eyes. "Miraculously, given that there's only one way to press a button, I did manage to do it correctly. Now that we've got that sorted out, perhaps one of you could just go through the walls or something and have a look for what's making that noise?"

"Can't," Rostok said. "Walls are too old."

"Oh great, now you tell me."

"I did explain several times befo-"

"Can it," Esselle told him. "Look, idiots, we're not going to get anywhere by hassling Alex. We need her here, don't forget."

"That's right," I agreed. I stared at Garn. "You do need me here."

"Of course, of course," he said airily. He seeped across the floor to the closed door (still closed, sadly), and poked around its edges with some of the more vapourous of his tendrils. The flapping twists around his right leg pushed and probed at the slight crack near the hinge, but could find no entrance. "Well this is getting us nowhere fast."

The humming continued to get louder and louder, although it still matched the variations in the little light. I began to feel around the walls to see if I could sense the source of the vibration. It seemed slightly stronger around the door, but not enough that I could definitely say that I wasn't just imagining it. I motioned Esselle to the corner with me, and asked her to try it.

"You never know," I said, when she arched a questioning eyebrow. "What if it's thing that exists in the - you know, on your side?"

"Unlikely," she said. "Why would you be able to hear it? Or feel it?"

"I can hear you," I pointed out.

"True, but you can't feel us." She put her ghostly hand around mine, and squeezed so that little puffs of essence drifted away from her fingers into a little halo. I smiled, and slowly withdrew. "Anyway, I can't feel it. I think it's most likely to be in the live world."

As if to prove her point, the vibration reached a sort of high-pitched peak, like a gnat flying around in circles. After a few seconds of the squeaky whining it suddenly lowered and began to focus. Now it was definitely coming from the space above the closed door, and the stone itself began to slide slowly aside.