Saturday, December 31, 2011

Art Pact 94

As I bowed my head and entered the narthex, the sound of whispering grew to a great ocean of sibilance, echoing, bouncing, reverberating from the inside of the cathedral's stone walls. The sound was recognisably the whisper of autoprayers, but unlike outside the sheer density of prayers trapped by the shell of the building enhanced the sound and shifted parts of it so that it seemed to fill the whole range of my hearing. For my first few seconds inside I could barely concentrate enough to keep walking.

It was nothing, though, compared to the sound as focused within. I turned left to take the commoner's route around the baffle at the back of the narthex and made my way into the nave proper. The great circular area of the nave was one hundred and fifty chains across, technically larger than could be covered by a hemispherical dome, but I knew that some clever trickery of the architect's art allowed the dome to be taller than its radius, which somehow allowed supporting structures to be constructed within it that would spread its load in a way that the cathedral's thick stone walls would allow. Nonetheless it looked like a perfect hemisphere from this side, and for a moment, looking up, I was at the exact point where the abstract paintings of clouds and suns that lined the ceiling was visible as something else - a trompe l'oeil in which one could see, just for a second, the stern countenance of God looking directly at one. I shivered, thinking both of the spirit itself and of the uncountable weight of stone that separated us from it - then the disturbing corollary, that the dome might collapse with me beneath, and so also be the agent of reunion with God as well as division from it. It was rumoured that in backrooms in the cathedral there were autoprayers focused on the structural integrity of the dome, and I hoped that was so.

I put such thoughts from my mind, though, and stepped in, following the commoner's aisle towards the grand opening at the centre of the Nave. As I should have expected from the sheer volume of prayer, the building was packed - pilgrims in the centre, milling about and taking in the sights and sounds, the local devout arrayed in one of the dozens of rows of pews that grew ever smaller as the aisles between them converged on the raised dais that formed the focus. It was empty, but I doubted whether with so many autoprayers present even the most faithful could withstand more than a few seconds there without being deafened. Even outside the focus the sound was so thick in the air it was almost like soup, a dense sound that I could taste on my tongue as a sort of sour copper sensation, the concentrated flavour of holiness and one-upmanship. I twisted a bit so that I could reach the dial on my own autoprayer. The machine, made by a firm in Cordyline, had a little safety on it - a button that you had to depress while turning the dial to allow it to access its final setting: SELF. A special feature added by some sanctimonious designer who reasoned with false pride, no doubt, that none but absolute paragons would seek out and buy his autoprayers. That no self-respecting, god-fearing person would ever have any reason to tune their autoprayer to SELF, and so although it must by law be included on the dial, the user should have to take extra steps to activate it - since they would almost always surely mean simply to turn it to the penultimate setting: FAMILY.

I was no paragon, though. I held down the button and turned the dial to its final position. The last prayer ended and the machine began to whisper its petitions for my health, for the success of my goals, for the betterment of me as a person that I might bring greater glory to God above and other such things, all equally unlikely to be realised at any time in the foreseeable future. It made me feel somewhat better, though, knowing that if there were any way to distinguish my machine's selfish pleas from amongst the seething broth of supplication for the good of families, villages, cities, nations, then there might be some slight protection or blessing that God could bestow upon me, allowing my mission to succeed.

I was prepared to be disappointed, but it seemed that God (or someone) had indeed that power of discernment, for at that moment the sacristy door - high up in the east wall - opened with a distant clunk and the bishop emerged.

I took a deep breath, and began to thread through the crowd towards him.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Art Pact 93

My mother was an actress first, a magician second. Although her stage act (The Mystical Nora) was billed as a magic show, it was considered to be something else by the other magicians that we came across on our tours. The Incredible Jones, for instance, sitting in the audience and paying more attention to the props than to my mother's spiel, pointed out to me that he had learnt every single trick in her show at the age of ten and that a most stage magicians would have been ashamed to be showing off such simple gimmicks to the crowd.

"There's nothing past a bit of card-forcing and some false-bottomed bags, see?" he said. I was not sure if he realised who he was talking to. He'd seen me backstage earlier on, when I'd been watching his own act from the wings, but I doubt he'd connected the spindly, unprepossessing young boy to the voluptuous Nora who swept around backstage like a tropical storm of drama and lust. "Mind you," he admitted, "the punters are lapping it up."

It was true - although my mother's tricks were of the cheapest variety you could purchase in any magic shop, her special genius was that she had spent a great deal of time (the time the other prestidigitators would have spent refining the tricks and adding twists that would distinguish them from their professional rivals) perfecting her stage presence, the intangible quality which could keep an audience mesmerised through even the most trite card trick.

"The secret," she'd once confided to me in her cups, forgetting that I was too young to talk to about these things (as she maintained when sober). "is to make people look where you want them to look, not where the trick is happening. Men are easy. As long as you have a low-enough top, they can't see anything to the left or right of your chest. Women are trickier, but quick movements distract them, and they'll believe anything you say. Ha!"

I had trouble accepting that - after all, my mother seemed to regard anything I said to her with intense skepticism, even the most innocuous of statements. If I told her that someone was waiting for her at the stage door, she would look at me as if I was asking her to believe that the king had flown over the theatre on a broomstick. If I let her know that dinner was ready she would be five minutes in coming, then act surprised that I had been telling the truth about such a simple matter.

"The reason is," she said, leaning forward conspiratorially so that her ample chest seemed poised to tumble free of the dress it had been barely contained in, "is that all our lives we're told to be nice. Nice! Listen, my boy, my baby, if you meet a nice girl, run a mile. Nice people have to agree with each other, to spare their feelings. That's all very well in day-to-day life, but when a girl's been taught to be nice to people, she gets it so in her head that she can't ever get rid of it. You tell her that the card isn't up your sleeve she'll agree, even if she watched you put it there. Worse, she won't just agree, she'll believe it. You can't rely on someone like that."

I do not know, all these years later, quite what to make of it. My first girlfriend, and my second, were both nice girls of the sort that my mother had so vehemently disapproved of that night. But she seemed to like them at the time, and she was polite and supportive and not the kind of domineering control-freak that her colleagues had warned me she would be. Was she talking rubbish that night, or was in a case of in vino veritas, and the later politeness merely the studied actress's mask?

She certainly seemed to practise what she preached in her own relationships. Her magnetic personality being even stronger than her undoubted bodily charms, she had no lack of suitors, but long-term relationships seemed to elude her (if indeed she was searching for one, upon which matter I could not honestly hazard a guess). Her penchant for honest disagreement, for pointing to cards that were held up her lover's sleeves even when they had told her that their sleeves were empty, did not apparently endear her to them. So through my early teenage years my mother kept no boyfriend for a period of longer than a few weeks before driving him, exasperated, to call the whole thing off. She did not seem unhappy, though. For her, it seemed, better to tell the truth and risk losing the man than lie and keep him.

I did not realise for close to a decade that she applied the opposite doctrine to her son.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Art Pact 92

I don't know what it was that made me do it, but I reached out one trembling arm and the next second I had the key to the outer gate in my pocket and my heart was pounding so fast I thought I would pass out. Inevitably, I knew, one of my eagle-eyed uncles would have spotted what I'd done, and I expected that within a couple of seconds I would be desperately trying to explain why I had done it. But I waited, and I waited, and after a minute had gone past I realised to my surprise that no retribution was going to come, that by some miracle they had both been distracted for the vital second and that they had no idea that the bulky key ring with its heavy old-fashioned key was no longer hanging over the fire but was instead nestling uncomfortably in my breeches.

(I realise now, of course, that there was no miracle involved, merely the subtle agency of the thing that had me in its grip, extending its power towards the elders. The power that had such a complete grasp on my mind could not control their much stronger souls for long, but it could for a moment direct their attentions elsewhere and allow the theft it had perpetrated through me to go unnoticed).

Over the next half-hour, as they talked, my heart managed to slow down to something approaching its normal rhythm again, although the palm in my pocket - still wrapped around the key - perspired so heavily that I was quite surprised to find that it had not dissolved when I finally removed it. Eventually the meeting broke up, and when everyone but the storekeeper and I had left and the theft still had not been noticed, I slipped away and ran up Calle road to the little side-passage that led to the garden.

The outer door was a double one, wooden and two heads taller than even the tallest of my uncles, making it about twice my height. Each door had been cut from a single block of wood (probably one larger block of wood which had been carefully separated into two equal boards), then been planed into true and finally carved with the wriggling protective runes. These had been bare wood in the old days, but a hundred years before (give or take the inaccuracy of the storytellers) the grooves had been inlaid with their current gold lining in order to make them easier to see, it being well understood that, like us, the dark spirits were getting worse at seeing in the dark than they had been in the old times.

I didn't dare look around to see whether I'd been followed - if I had there was nothing I could do now to avoid being caught anyway, since curfew had descended with the end of the meeting and home was in the other direction from the garden. As quickly as I could, then, I slipped the key into the lock and fumbled it open. It made a noise like a shield falling in an empty hall, and terrified that I had just alerted everyone in the street I tugged frantically at the door for a panicky ten seconds before realising with embarrassment that it opened inwards. Even that it did grudgingly, though, screeching like a boat-bird, and when I was inside and it was closed again I had to sit with my back to the wood for three or for minutes until I was calm enough to focus on anything other than my terror of being discovered. Weighing my options, I decided to lock the outer door behind me - if someone tried it they would assume that nothing was out of the ordinary. Then I looked around.

Inside the first set of doors was the outer garden, drab in its early-winter aspect. Empty flower beds hugged the walls, and diamonds of brown earth among the crazed stone pathways were inhabited by naked collections of twigs and spindly branches that had been bushes a few months ago (and would be again a few months hence). All of this was nothing to me, though - for in the centre, surrounded by iron railings, was the inner garden - a sunken thing a mere ten paces across, in the centre of which was the fountain.

I ran to the gate. From close-up I could see that the fountain was still running, but so weakly that it appeared to be dead. A slight bubble of water at the top of the central spire supplied an anaemic trickle of water that ran down the stone until it rejoined, almost without making a ripple, the water below.

The gate was padlocked, of course, and I had not the key for it. But now that I was safely inside, a stray thought (or so I assumed) told me, there were other ways around locks. I began to look around for something that might perform as a lever or club, and that was when I saw a little flash of light from the outer door, the one that I had locked.

Someone had been watching me through the keyhole.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Art Pact 91

Johnson walked slowly back to the lifter, heaved the kitbag off the back, then walked back to the tree, both arms stretched out full as the weight of the kit tilted him to one side. With an audible puff of air he finally heaved the heavy weight at Darwell's feet and stood in place, racing his eyebrows and waiting.

"Fine!" Darwell exclaimed, and kneeled down to begin. Behind the double-zip of the kitbag was the jumbled collection of machinery and battery packs, still tangled up and bearing witness to the hurried packing at the end of the last job. He began to pick out the wires and prop sticks of the cutter, twisting and pulling at the knotted mass until he could tease out the two connector ends, then working back from them and beginning to stretch the machine out of the back to either side. It reminded him of untangling christmas lights as a child, and again he cursed the feature of his memory that allowed him to recall every sensation, every smell and sight and sound of that time, almost a hundred years ago, but would not remind him what he'd eaten for breakfast or when he'd left the barracks. "Jesus Christ."

"Oh, whinging about it, are we?" Johnson said archly. He was leaning on the target, the big red X that marked it for cutting sitting over Johnson's head like a spiky halo. Again, Darwell found himself wondering where the mistake had been made. The tree's base was more than twice around as the distance he could reach with his arms - he'd tried it when he first arrived, before Johnson had got there in the lifter - easily three or four times the size of any of the trees they'd cut so far.

"We should call back," he said. "There's been a mistake somewhere along the line."

"There hasn't been a mistake. Well, there's been one mistake, but in personnel."

"Oh, very droll." His hands, still digging in the kitbag, found the cutting head trapped between a handsaw and some blocking wedges, and he let himself slow down to extricate it carefully from its tangle. "Look, if this tree isn't for the chop, if it's been marked wrong... It can't hurt to send a packet back to base, double-check before we attach the cutter." He stopped, still kneeling, and looked up at Johnson's unsympathetic face, putting on a neutral expression to underline the reason of his point.


"Oh, for God's sake," he said. "Look at this thing! We've never been asked to harvest a tree this old, it's got to be a mistake, what's the harm in hanging on for half an hour to make sure?"

"The harm is," said Johnson, pausing for effect, "that there's no mistake, and we'd have dropped half an hour behind our schedule, we never catch up again and my rating drops a rank. There's your harm, old man - now quit fucking around and get the cutter out so we can drop this bastard."

"You little shit," he said, hoping it would be enough provocation, but Johnson appeared to be too canny for him, and the younger man just turned on his heels and began to walk around the target, checking out the best direction for it to fall. Johnson already knew that there was a clear area on the other side (it would take out a couple of saplings, but they'd probably grow back unless a branch dug into the ground near their roots). It was troubling - usually a tree this magnificent would have been surrounded at a safe distance by others nearly full grown, but this one was on its own. Like me, he thought.

The cutting ring was out of the bag completely now, and he laid it along the ground and began to check that all of the prop sticks were the right way round, the connectors at either end of the belt were in the right orientation without any twists, the cutting head free to move along its tracks. The constrictor actuator at one end was low on batteries, and he briefly considered leaving the old ones in just to slow down the process, but the ones that were in place would last a couple of hours at least, more than enough to have cut through the bark and the first inch or so of wood, and he knew that that would be enough to kill the tree anyway, even if it wasn't enough to bring it down.

"Right then," Johnson said, appearing from the other side of the tree. "Let's get this party started."

He picked up one end of the cutting belt and gestured for Darwell to take the other.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Art Pact 90

"That's clearly the worst thing that's ever happened to her," I said, staring down on the scene from above. "I mean, if you can't rely on your mother not to give you your birthday present at the precise instant on your birthday that you want her to, what can you do?"

"I don't suppose she'll ever be able to overcome the betrayal," Yasmin drawled. "That's it for her - over, the rest of her life ruined. She'll be driving around in that tractor with the pure taste of ashes in her mouth. It'll be like a burning ball of embarrassment and resentment in the middle of her gut. Oh sure, she'll be getting from A to B in style, she'll be fending off the envious looks of the lower classes as they walk, or cycle, or - god forbid - sit in a bus, but what good is all that when deep down she'll know that the whole thing is meaningless? The car will be a huge albatross around her neck, just weighing her down with the knowledge of what could have been, if only her mother had followed instructions and given it to her at the climax of the party."

She leant on the banister and, carefully plucking the olive out of her martini, she slid it along the cocktail stick until it popped free, then dropped it over the edge of the landing into the crowd below. I craned my neck to follow the path of the fruit - her aim was perfect, the little green bullet plopping into a cup of coffee being held for the birthday girl's father by the waiter who was standing patiently behind him. A little shower of low-fat americano flew out of the mug, staining the front of the waiter's white jacket and the rear of the proud father's light-blue shirt, clasped in the back with a pin. He turned, furious.

"Now look what you've done!"

Yasmin, content to have thrown the golden apple without knowing what chaos had ensued, was already looking away from the scene, staring across the landing to where a drunken couple where fumbling with doors, obviously attempting to locate somewhere they might continue their tryst with greater privacy.

"Idiots," she said. "Of course the best rooms are going to be locked. What's the point of a drunken assignation at a party if you don't seize the chance to ruffle the homeowner's bedspread?"

"You mean we should only attend parties in houses where the internal doors don't lock?"

"Good lord, no! Can you imagine what sort of party that might be?" She shuddered, although there was a wicked gleam in her eye behind the studied apathy of her expression. "No, I'm saying that the only responsible thing to do is to find the best room when one is sober and pick the lock. You have to take a chance that someone else won't find it first, of course, but that's part of the game I suppose."

I looked at her out of the corner of my eye.

"Did you pick a lock earlier?" I asked. She turned towards me, holding my gaze for a second and then letting her eyes roam up and down from my feet to the top of my head.

"Your optimism is quite endearing," she said, smiling, and turning away to look down at the fracas in the reception hall again. "But I did not. A good thing too - if you'll forgive me the frightful sin of expressing myself honestly, I have to say I'm getting a little tired of this place. Can you imagine what sort of medical examination you'd have to go through if you spent any worthwhile amount of time in the same bed that those people"--she extended her left arm in an airy wave over the crowd--"fucked? It doesn't bear thinking about."

She fell silent just in time for us to hear a slap and then a surprised gasp mixed with nervous laughter from below. I had hoped that the ungrateful hostess's mother had laid one on her demon spawn, but to my dismay it appeared to be the other way around.

"That car," Yasmin said slowly, "is wasted on that horrid creature."

"Quite," I replied. We surveyed the crowd, and noticed that their attention was unanimously centred on the newly adult ingrate and her red-faced progenitor - and, therefore, resolutely away from the object of the dispute, the brand-new Jeep. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"If you're thinking how tedious it would be to have to walk home from this disaster, and how pleasant it would be to be able to leave early with a... party bag," she said, turning to smile at me, "then yes."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Art Pact 89

During the fiftieth day of the siege, much to my surprise and to the annoyance of the Shil who were billeted with me, I gave birth for the first time. I'd been supplying them with food, of course, and I could tell immediately I woke up that there was something different going on with me that morning. I crouched in bed and let the leathery egg-casing slide out of me with a few quick convulsions of my abdomen, the examined it carefully. The two Shil, who had begun to stir at the other side of the room, padded over and began the polite coughing routine that would work up to one of them asking when breakfast would be ready.

"Nothing today," I said, forestalling them. The egg-case rippled under my touch, and I bent over to sniff at it. It was subtle, the slight tinge of essence mixed in with the sulphur fumes and the slightly iron smell of blood, but it was definitely there. The oddness I'd felt was exactly what I'd thought it was.

"Nothing?" growled Lasta. "Whaf you mean, nothing?"

"Nothing to eat."

"Whaf you gof there?" Last asked suspiciously, extending a tendril from his right hand to point towards the egg I was holding. I wiped some of the membrane fluids off the darker end of the egg, remembering from my sex and reproduction classes that the darker end was usually the head end. Under my right thumbs I could feel the contours of a tiny face, and a sort of twisting gumming motion from within confirmed it as my child tried to grip my thumb with its nurse-teeth.

"A baby," I said to myself, although loud enough for Lasta and Gesh to hear. Gesh uncurled from his sleep-tree and scuttled over to join his colleague, the two of them propped up at the end of my bed on their first row of arm-legs, their snouts working furiously to detect the scent of the child.

"Whaf fifferenf?" Gesh asked. "Smells the same fo me. Why nof breakfass?"

"This one's a child," I said. "It's alive."

"Look now, your job is fo feed us. There is food, give if fo us, the same as yesferfay."

"But it isn't the same," I pointed out to them. "Look, this one's alive."

"One yesferfay was alive," said Lasta. "All are alive."

"No, no - those ones were just-"

I realised that it was going to be difficult to explain this one to them, and that I would need to make alternative arrangements. The food shortages were getting worse, and at yesterday's morning conference there had only been eight women still producing. With luck I'd be producing again tomorrow, but Gesh and Lasta wouldn't be able to survive the day unless there was something for them to eat, and all of the other producing women already had soldiers garrisoned with them. The baby wriggled in its casing. It would be perhaps another hour before it was ready to emerge, I could go to the council and see whether they had any suggestions. I laid the egg gently on the bed, and swung my legs out.

No, wait. Can't leave it here, or they'll eat it anyway.

"I am hungry," Lasta said stubbornly, rising up onto his rear arm-legs so that he was almost as tall as a man. I stood up myself, snatching the child up and cradling it over my belly, staring down at the belligerent Shil. I could smell the scent of hunger coming off him, the slightly acid odour in his mouth that signaled he'd used up his fat reserves during the night. He clearly /was/ hungry.

"I can't feed you a person," I told him sharply, then softening my tone a little: "Come on, we'll go to the council. They must have a plan for this. They'll have something you can eat to hold your stomach until tomorrow."

"Alrighf," he grumbled, and dropped another pair of legs to the ground. Gesh rose up into a matching walking posture, although he was looking at me oddly, speculatively turning his left eye up to my face and then down to the egg-case again. Working out his chances, I thought, and clutched the egg instinctively closer to me. The child's membrane twitched, and I felt it grasp onto the carrying pad on my belly. The sensation was comforting for a second, then a second later I idly thought to myself: I have a baby, and it felt as though I were falling off a high building.

"Come on," I told them, forcing myself to focus. "Let's go and get you something to eat."

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Art Pact 88

On the journey we didn't have too many festivals, apart of course from the annual festival of mourning. That wasn't as gloomy as it sounds, by the way - just one of those things, a remembrance of the tragedy, a chance to slow down from the constant bustle and worry about the mechanics of the journey and think about the ones that we'd lost. We both looked forward to it and dreaded it equally, because it was a time of great emotion.

On the ground they had festivals at the drop of a hat, though - great things that lasted for days and days, bustles of colour and excess, of dressing up and dancing, and eating on a scale that we from the ship could scarcely imagine as sane. Some of them were festivals we could understand, that revolved around important themes like the harvest, the landing, or the month in which babies were born, but others seemed to us utterly frivolous and inexplicable: the feast of the seventh tree, for instance (there were no trees on the ground, not like the ones in the lost arboretum), the three days of gold, the top of days, the moon drop (which happened irregularly but predictably, whenever it so happened that the cycles of Dryad and Naiad synchronised so that they fell below the horizon within a minute of each other), the bounce-day, and tempersong.

Tempersong was particularly inexplicable to those of us who'd only recently completed the journey - the greatest waste of food (although there was so much food on the ground that my use of the word waste is more indicative of my upbringing on the journey and my personal prudishness about efficiency than of any actual foolishness in the disposition of the vast harvests at the disposal of the on-grounders), an obligatory exchange of poetry, lights and fireworks in the night. No two on-grounders could give the same explanation as to what it was that Tempersong was a celebration of - it was commonly understood among the recent arrivals (although we never mentioned it to the on-grounders for fear that it would be actually offensive) that it was merely a festival of bad poetry, since the style most favoured among the on-grounders was a sort of half-rhyming doggerel which to our ears sounded both unsophisticated in structure and rhythm. Equally, I am sure, they found the elegant iambs in which we rendered our emotions quite dry. We wrote our poems nonetheless, attempting to pluck from the tangled meanings of the on-grounder's poetry some vague idea of the theme of the day which we could then weave into our own works. It was always fruitless: if you for one moment allowed yourself to get the idea that you understood the festival, your triumphant verses would be met with stunned incomprehension on the part of the assembled crowd. It would be followed, of course, by thunderous applause, since the on-grounders were, if nothing else, a friendly and accepting lot, but we were astute enough to realise that in that split second between the end of our recitations and the applause, cheers, and drinking to the poet's health that followed, there was a a whole world of alien thought that we, despite being the same race, from the same ship, would not be able easily to comprehend.

But the fact that we had no idea what these festivals were about did not prevent us from joining in, as you can see. The mere fact of such grandiose feasts, intellectually distasteful as they were to our austere upbringings, were nonetheless seductive to our bodies - which had suffered the same spartan repasts as our intellects, but with none of the understanding which sustained them in place of nutrition. Starved of fresh fruit and vegetables, we fell upon them like mad animals, and since the on-grounders showed even less restraint during the festivals than normal, we mirrored them, filling our mouths with corn and oats and pickles so wantonly that sometimes we could barely even get the leverage to chew, savouring the rich flavours of the harvest and feeding our bellies so that they stuck out of our bodies, erasing the lines of muscle around our midriffs in huge stretched bulges.

After the dry years of the journey it was like falling into a sea of food, and we began to understand how, despite the manual work with which their days were filled, so many of the on-grounders had come to carry around the comforting padding of fat. We did no begrudge them it, but applied ourselves to obtaining similar physiques so that we might fit in.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Art Pact 87

There are several ways in which I like to spend my free weekends - I am a keen gardener, I paint miniature figurines (although don't get me wrong and assume that I'm some kind of table-top gaming nerd, nothing could be further from the truth), I enjoy watching old war films on TV and making fancy dinners for two which I then eat on my own over two days, dressed up nicely the first day so that I can feel like I'm in a swanky restaurant. Those are the ways that I enjoy my weekends, my respites from the daily toil.

What I do not like, I could previously have safely said and now can put a definitive stamp on due to the sad fact that I now have first-hand experience, is to spend my weekend running down back alleys and cutting through gardens with two of my business acquaintances while merely fifty feet behind us thugs from the Syndicate crash crazily along in our wake, firing guns and shouting promises about which of our bodily orifices are soon to be graced with which of our severed limbs. You, dear reader, as no doubt a man or woman of great taste and refinement, will of course see instantly, with a mere description, that I am far from espousing an unreasonable prejudice against this experience. You would, were we through some magic able to converse over the unthinkable gulf of years which I assume separates my exposition of this unfortunate story from your reading of it, agree that you yourselves would be dismayed if a friend or acquaintance of your own was to invite you for a weekend retreat in which you were expected to run for your life down a succession of alleyways, each smaller and more unsavoury than the next, while beset on all sides by angry dogs and unpleasant homeowners, and on one particular side by the unruly thugs of a faceless (but surprisingly well-staffed) organisation. You would immediately be able to ascertain, I believe, that such a weekend would not be quite your cup of tea, no matter whether the friend or acquaintance should attempt to sway you with arguments along the motherly line that one is not qualified to judge an experience (or foodstuff) until one is in the midst of it (or it is in the midst of you). You would demur, and quite rightly, putting off this terrible experience hopefully forever, or at least until it was thrust upon you against your will - the position, sadly, in which I found myself.

"They're gaining on u-!" Scabs yelled, his sentence cut short as he bounced off a trellis, having veered wildly to the left while he looked over his shoulder. I'd had to leap right to avoid his erratic weaving, but it was a lucky stroke, since I realised that directly ahead of me was an upturned wheelbarrow immediately before a compost frame that was twice the height and was in its turn immediately before the fence between this garden and the next. I ran up them like a set of steps and leapt over the fence, landing neatly in the next garden alone.

I briefly considered breaking off from my little group. Surely the Syndicate goons would chase after the much bigger and louder target provided by Scabs, Mucker, and Rantzen? But then again, I thought, what if they didn't? Face to face we might be in with an infinitesimal chance against them as a group, but one my own? The three goons had guns, and I wasn't entirely sure how many rounds they'd already fired at us. If I was with the others I could count on them to absorb perhaps just enough lead to ensure that the enemy was out when they came to me. If I was on my own it wouldn't matter how many bullets the goons had left - any one of them could have pounded me into my component atoms with a hand tied behind his back. No, sad though the realisation was, my best chances were to stay with my partners in crime.

This garden - neatly tended, I noted, with a beautiful range of varicoloured crocuses arrayed in a half-moon around a raised area of decking (well, nobody's perfect I suppose) with a cast-iron-framed park bench in the centre - also had the pleasing property of an unlocked rear gate onto the alley I rushed that way, thinking that it would be the easiest way to escape, only to be brought up short by the sight of a dog in my path.

Now, I may have given the impression by my use of the word dog that it was a normal animal. Not so. I can only assume that hell pays badly, and that this vicious hound, snarling and slathering, poised before me in a posture of mortal aggression, had been forced to take a second job to afford the surgery to remove his two extraneous heads. Should I take one step forward, his stance implied, I should say my goodbyes to my organs lest I never see them again. My only hope was to reason with him, lulling him into acceptance of my continued stay on Earth.

"Good dog," I tried. My greeting was punctuated by the sound of a gunshot.

The hound, sadly, was unimpressed.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Art Pact 86

The quickest way to get from the top of the town to the bottom was to jump from the town hall, of course, but it was not without its risks. When I was five my uncles raced from the atrium to the gateway (the longest uninterrupted distance in the town) to win a bet over a girl. Uncle Blanka misjumped, possibly as a result of the weak left leg that runs in our family, and hit a lampost by the gate. It was an awkward collision, the cross-bar underneath the lamp connecting with the point between his neck and his shoulders, resulting in a shattered clavicle that left him unable to use one of his arms (the left one, although when we were young and he wanted to get out of chores or particularly tiring games, he would often pretend that the effect had spread to hsi right arm as well). The council prohibited jumping along the town's axis from then on, except in cases of emergency, and there were propaganda posters to that effect on the walls of our senior classrooms - a stylised picture of Inspector Malona carrying a butterfly net.

Naturally, the more effort the council put into stopping the long jump, the more effort the rest of us (well, the ones who counted) put into circumventing the prohibition. Since the inspectors mostly slept during the standard cycle, the simplest way to get round them was to sneak out of our houses at night and travel up through the back ways, clambering carefully up through the narrow passages and ladder-runs. We would see the others in the distance, on the other walls of the town, little shapes in grey worming up and up and looking out at us making the same journey. We would wave silently, knowing that in half an hour's time they would be our dread enemies, our competitors and rivals. At the top, in the deep shadows around the atrium, we gathered in oru little clusters, whispering and planning. Conversation was only for the other members of your gang, and (by some gentleman's agreement reached long before any of us were born yet which we still honoured without question) a gang could not have more than five members, one from each street. We spoke to the other gangs only to pass on news of an inspector that might still be awake and on its rounds: vital information if we were all to avoid having our collars felt.

My gang was short a member - Callima had been our middle-streeter, a sturdy girl with a barking laugh and a particular talent for plucking bees out of the air by their wings, which had delighted and amazed us. She would hold the little things up for our examination, their legs rippling frantically in their attempts to escape. After a minute she usually released them with a little flick of the wrist that sent them far enough away to forestall any attempt at vengeance, although in tense fights with other gangs she would often employ her little captives as poison pins, collecting them carelessly if a fight seemed to be in the offing, then jabbing the unfortunate insects into the cheeks of her opponents. My neighbour's gang called her Callima the Witch, although we were on such good terms with them most of the time that she considered it a title of honour.

But Callima the Witch was gone now, taken from us by the disease that we called Empty Bed. One day her chair at school was empty, and when I called on her mother to find out why she was off the door was opened by her father, a man we never normally saw.

"They took her to the hospital," he said, and that was all he needed to say. The children they took to the hospital were the ones the doctors couldn't cure, the ones we'd never see again.

With only four of us, we were forced to jump double to compete against the other gangs - our first jumper would have to start climbing back up the outside of the town as soon as she or he touched down, racing back to the atrium in time to jump again with the last member of the opposition. As I was the fastest climber it was inevitably me who made the second jump, which meant that it was I, exhausted and hiding in a lower-street garden, who saw the gate open for the first time in living memory.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Art Pact 85

The good news was that far from having missed the target, Simon had nailed it square on - the baseball punching the metal plate back along it arm and flipping the mechanism behind it. Their teacher seemed to hover in the air for just a second like a cartoon coyote, then his precious gravity got hold of him. His eyes were wide with surprise and shock, and as he began to descend he too must have seen Ms. Galvanos standing at the side of the cotton-candy stand, her mouth open ready to take one delicate bite from the top of the wispy pink cloud she was holding in front of her. His mouth opened, as if to try to explain something to her (even though she was far too far away to hear), and then an instant later he was in the tank with a gigantic splosh.

"You did it!" Boris yelled, pumping his fist in the air. Simon, still looking the other way, was buffeted from side to side as the three other boys shook his shoulders in triumph, trying to direct him to the sight of Mr. Quail thrashing and spluttering in the ice-cold water. But Simon was transfixed. He thought that if he took his eyes off her she might vanish, but she stayed exactly where she was, stood at the edge of the carnival tent, staring out at him. The blind-fold that had made her the statue of justice was pulled up onto her forehead, and from beneath her fierce brows two blood-red eyes stared out at him. To either side of them were black streaks, as if she'd been crying and wiped damp mascara away, but he could tell that she had not been crying - he would have bet at that moment, staring into a gaze so alive, but at the same time so alien and distant, that there was nothing that could make her cry, that the very idea of crying would seem weak and foolish to her, as he had to pretend it did to him.

Her arm was raised to her temple, shielding her eyes from the harsh rays of the early afternoon sun, and at the end of each green finger he could see a stumpy nail, iron-coloured and sturdier than one of his. He had not imagined it, then, not earlier, when he'd seen for an instant her grip on the scales shifting. He tried to take a step towards her, but Boris's grip on his shoulder (he was still shaking with laughter and excitement) prevented him. He tried again - it was unthinkable to him that he should not get closer to her, but her irresistible force and Boris's immovable object conspired between them to twist and crush him in place, so that he could not take a step forward nor stay where he was.

"Look at him!" Boris shouted, roaring still with gales of laughter, doubling up but still keeping one hand on Simon's shoulder. "He looks like a total idiot! Take some swimming lessons!" he shouted at Mr. Quail, still flailing wildly in an attempt to pull himself out of the water. It would have been deep enough to drown him - had to be, in order to prevent the unlucky victims from injuring themselves on the bottom - but there were plenty of handholds. It was enough to keep his head above water: Mr. Quail was in no real danger. Nonetheless the carnie who could have helped him out seemed less inclined to do so than he had with the girl earlier, so Mr. Quail fumbled at the handholds and get slipping off them when he tried to get his feet up, tumbling back into the water with a comical splash that set Boris laughing like a madman each time, so much so that the boy could hardly speak. Simon twisted to look back at what he was missing, and in seeing the apoplectic expression on Quail's face he realised that he had freed himself from ever feeling intimidated by the man again. He had also freed himself physically, Boris's hand on his shoulder shucked off by his new position. Turning quickly, he began to rush back towards the tent.

The girl was gone. He looked around, desperate to catch a glimpse of her, but the crowd had thickened up behind the booth as more and more people stopped to stare at the spectacle of Mr. Quail splashing like a dying fish. He pushed his way between a couple by the toffee-apple stand, then ran through the alley between the tents to get to the edge of the crowd.

There - a slender green ankle disappeared behind the banners blocking off the petting zoo. He gave chase.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Art Pact 84

What's in a name, he'd asked, coming out of the registry office, and at the time I couldn't really give him any sort of a reply. It was important to me, and I was glad that he'd gone along with my request, but I couldn't articulate why it was so important. It would have been a deal-breaker, though, if he'd stuck his heels in and resolved not to take my name.

Now, having to explain who I was, it seemed like an awkward and petulant request.

"And you are his sister?" the woman in the uniform asks me.

"His wife," I tell her.

"Ah," she says, nodding, as if this explains everything. I am filled with a sort of of furious embarrassment. How can she judge me, now, of all times? I can feel my blood pressure rising, and below the lip of the reception desk, where they cannot be seen, my fists bunch up so tight that even an hour later on I will see the crescent-moon shapes that my nails are making in my palms. "Now, do you have some form of identification?"--she looks up, smiles with a sort of institutionalised sympathy, the sort of look someone in HR would give you while you were being fired--"I'm sorry to have to ask, but obviously we have to make sure in cases such as these."

Cases such as these. The horrible blandness of the euphemisms is almost as bad as the concepts they're trying so hamfistedly to hide. I take a deep breath, release it in a long sigh, and release my right hand from its tight fist to dig into my handbag. Here is my driving license, here is my passport, here is our certificate of marriage.

I decide to give her the driving license. It's the least personal, something I had for my job. I never drove him - on the rare occasions we hired a car he always insisted on taking the wheel, and since I had no feelings about driving one way or another I was happy to concede this to him. He was a nervous passenger - when we travelled in other people's cars I could see him pumping furiously at the invisible passenger's-side brake, wincing when the engine was overrevved, leaning to one side or the other as if it could make us avoid oncoming traffic that was too close for his comfort.

"Thank you, Mrs. Argent," she says, barely glancing at it. She returns to the endless tapping at her computer. When she looks up again, the smile is gone. "Could you take a seat," she half-asks, half-orders. "Someone will be with you in a moment."

Something is wrong, I can tell. Her face is frozen in that impassive expression people use to mask fear - fear that someone will make a scene, fear that they will have to watch painful emotions, perhaps even a physical fear. I lean forward, testing my theory, and the woman behind the desk leans away from me, flinching noticeably.

"Please," she says, the first time she has used the word, and, it is clear, not sincerely. She indicates the waiting room chairs again, more timidly this time. For a moment I find the exchange satisfying, the feeling of being able to physically intimidate someone five inches taller than me, then I remember why I am here again - and that something has come up on her system, some problem that means I will not be able to see him, not today at least. Nothing that starts with me taking a seat will be resolved quickly, I know that much about how the bureaucracy works. I lean back again, and free of my immediate presence she bouys up again with false bravado: "You'll have to take a seat."

I turn away, but she is wrong. I don't have to do anything. I'm Silver. I walk to the door, press on it, find that somehow it has become locked. Behind me the receptionist is moving further away, trying to get into the office behind her desk, where she can lock the door and trap herself safely out of my reach. I'll be here, in the reception hall, when the security officers get here. If she's looking through the window she'll see if I finesse the door. Normally that would bother me, but now?

No, let her see. I am Silver, and I will not be denied this last chance to see my husband. I reach through the metal face-plate of the lock, grab hold of the latch, and pull. Ribbons of metal follow my hand as I draw it back, and the door swings open.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Art Pact 83

Having made it the practise of her daily life to check the shed for wasps, Mathilda was the first to notice the little nest of eggs, the tiny white pearls wrapped in a loose silk container. She was not overly fond of insects as whole, but her particular fear of wasps left her with a more laissez-faire attitude towards their relatives, so she noted the nest with an apathetic disinterest and went about her day, safe in the knowledge that whatever else might be lurking in the family home, there were no wasps there.

Young, however, and therefore unaccustomed to the growth of most insects, she was not the first to comment on the less than usual manner in which the eggs began to develop. It was Mathilda's mother, on her evening sweep of the garage, who spotted that the eggs had hatched but had become individual cocoons almost immediately, rather than yielding some more mobile grubs or larvae. It was as if the cocoons had been directly inside the eggs, and had become visible the instant they hatched.

Mathilda's mother had begun her evening investigation of the gardens in response to the Mathilda's recurring night terrors. Realising that Mathilda's own patrols were designed to reassure her that everything was well, she also reasoned that if she were to find wasps in the garage - or anywhere else in the grounds - it would simply remind her daughter of her terror, and so she had decided that - it being unlikely that a wasp's nest would pop up overnight - she would secretly search the area each evening and take care of any wasps's nests that might have been constructed during the day, thereby ensuring that when Mathilda made her own search she would find nothing.

One evening, four days after Mathilda had first seen the eggs, her mother pulled open the sticky door from the back garden into the garage, brushed a small web away from the top right of the opening, and stepped in, wrinkling her nose at the musty smell. She made her way first around her husband's kit car (still in the same half-constructed state it had been in for the last year and a half), past the workbench on which stood a number of Mathilda's little figurines, drying from the weekend, and to the open area where the tools were kept, the place (since there were several holes between the corrugated steel ceiling and the wall) which she thought it most likely that wasps would be able to infiltrate.

The little collection of cocoons that she'd seen the day before was nestled in a broken paint sampler pot which had become stuck to the shelf it was on by its contents - a little slick of hardened lavender colour which made the tiny white silk shells against it look like early seeds sitting in the faded glory of the petals that had birthed them. They were larger than they had been the day before - and, Mathilda's mother noticed - fewer. One was missing, and she took a step back without knowing why, unnerved by the thought that some caterpillar might even now be crawling towards her.

"Get a grip, Janice," she whispered to herself. She stepped closer, lifting her feet to avoid a bag of of concrete that had split at the seams, emitting a small landslide of the fien grey dust that swirled and grasped at her wellies even as they flew above it. From her new position nearer to the nest she could see that there was no indication that there had ever been another cocoon - not strands of silk discarded when the occupant burst forth, nor an obvious open place in the strictly regimented arrangement of the others. If she had not been so diligent as to count them when she spotted them before (and to have made a note, there being seven and it being Mathilda's seventh birthday the coming month), she would have assumed that there had always been that many.

She reached out a glove-clad finger to touch the rightmost of the little packets, but withdrew it in a flash when the thing - just a centimetre away from the end of her index finger at this point - suddenly writhed, bending in the middle as if its two ends were reaching out to her. The let out a little gasp and stepped back, kicking up a great cloud of concrete dust around her legs.

As she watched, dumbfounded, the cocoon began to move sideways, pressing itself against its neighbour, which in turn pressed against the next in line, and so on. The cocoon that had moved began to shrink, as though it were a deflating balloon - so quickly that within a couple of seconds it had just vanished. The remaining cocoons were larger.

Mathilda's mother stood and stared.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Art Pact 82

There couldn't have been more than a few days until the frost arrived, but life in the camp went on as though it were high summer, despite Nera's growing distress. Every morning she woke up as the sun crept feebly over the horizon, and every day she slept as the sun sank wearily down into the mountains again, but there was less and less time in between, and what light the sun did manage to throw down on them was a cold and discomforting, nothing like the strong warm like of the months past. There were fewer animals on the slopes below them, so few that some days the hunters would not be able to bring back even a deer, and yet the others scoffed at the sentiment that they should move on. Nera pointed mutely at the scrubby grass, tried to indicate that it was not growing, but the hunters simply pointed to the stacks and stacks of smoke meat at the back of the cave, the stockpile that seemed to be infinite, so large had it grown during the rich summer. Nera tried to show that despite their bravado it was still shrinking - how could it not, when they spent less time hunting (and were less successful when they did hunt) and so much more time back in the cave eating - but her appeals fell uselessly at the feet of the elders, so proud of their new discovery that they could not seem to admit any possibility that it had not solved all of their problems forever.

That evening, sitting in the mouth of the cave with the others, huddled around the great fire that kept out the mountain cats, Nera realised that nothing would change if she did not change it herself. She could destroy the stockpile, of course, but that would mean the death of her. If she were to survive the winter she would have to strike out on her own - travel south before the child grew too big for her to walk comfortably. She should have started earlier in the year, of course, but now was better than never.

That night she rested at her customary place in the side-gallery, curled up in the bundle of furs that Farad had left her. She only pretended at sleep, though, nestled deep in the bedding so that the ox-hairs tickled at her nose and the stink of the cave was filtered into a pleasant low funk, the scent of her family. It was so powerful a sensation that for a moment she almost thought about staying, but then the vision came back to her - the cloying cold, like a memory of something that had not already happened, a bone-deep chill that rushed unchecked around the cave, freezing the family in their sleep so that they barely had time to experience their own deaths. She shivered violently, and with that thought threw back the covers.

The rest of the tribe were asleep - no sentries, so much did they trust the tame fire at the mouth of the cave. Nera felt a cold in the air, and for a moment she thought that her imagination had been nothing but the truth, that it was too late and the freeze was already here. She plucked the furs from the floor and wrapped two of them around her shoulders, one around her waist, the rest she rolled into a manageable bundle and tied up with a harness that could go over one arm.

At the back of the main cave her grandfather slept near the stockpile. He looked grey when he slept, sometimes orange when the fire flickered enough to send a particularly agile shaft of light so far back. His hands twitched, clutching at some dream-foe, and she stepped carefully over him.

The cold had lessened the smokey, gamey stink from the stockpile, but it was still strong. She fetched her cutting stone from the bundle of furs and carefully began to cut out pieces of the meat, brushing the worms and fly-children off it as she did. How much would be enough? It might take weeks to get to the safety of the winter plains, could she even carry that much food for herself, let alone the child inside her?

In the end she settled for two deer-legs and the haunches attached. If she could still collect nuts on the way it should be enough. She wrestled and cut at them until they snapped away from the rest of the animal's corpse with a sharp crack. She froze, certain that someone must have heard her, but the rest of the tribe slumbered peacefully on.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Art Pact 81

I had learnt that when Sally was in a proper rant that it was best just to sit back and let it burn itself out - any oxygen I expended attempting to mollify her would just power the flames, which freed of outside influence would simply die out in their own time.

"...the motherfucker, the cheap son-of-a-bitch, the two-bit child of seven whores..." she continued.

I tapped my pen on the desk and thought about the possibility of transferring positions. There was a space coming up in accounting, and normally I'd have sawed my own head off to escape such a job, but it was looking increasingly comforting. I could just sit back, fiddle with my calculator eight hours a day, and go home on time having spent perhaps less than half-an-hour a day being shouted at. I tried to imagine how that would be, but I had spent so long working for Sally that there was no longer any part of my brain that wasn't attuned to constant tension.

"...shove his proposal up his arse, the slime cock-sucker, the brown-nosing shit..."

I could tell that she was just working up to the peak of her anger - it always tended to evolve in the same way, the sexual accusations working up to the thing she really despised, toadyism. Once she'd started accusing someone of working to climb the greasy pole, the wave would be about to break. I popped the pen I was holding into the little organiser on my desk and opened up a document.

" suck-up cu-" she stopped suddenly, causing me to look up in surprise. This was new. I'd never heard her just cut herself off in mid-flow before.

She was staring out through the office window to my right, looking into the sales pool at the sea of low cubicle walls. I followed her gaze, and immediately saw what had stopped her. Standing on the other side of the common office, looking directly at us with a stern expression on his face, was a tall handsome man in a dark suit. The other office-workers were still moving around, passing one side or the other so that he looked like an obsidian monolith emerging from a stream. I didn't recognise his face, but it was certainly striking - dark eyes, a firm jaw, perfectly balanced between being broad and sharp. His hair looked like he'd come here directly from the barber's shop, so finely was it arranged, and his suit fit him perfectly, a slender cut that emphasised a pair of broad but not over-muscled shoulders.

"Fuck me," Sally breathed, and I couldn't tell whether it was an expletive or an expression of desire. I looked back at her, then at the guy again, then back to her. Neither of them had moved.

"Uh, do you know him?" I asked. Always best to start with a lowball, something to which the answer is obvious.

"Of course I know him," she said, as I mouthed along with her.

"Who is he? Is he from HQ or something?" I suppose this was possible, although I'd met most of the people from headquarters, and most of those I didn't know I'd at least seen in the annual report (and therefore knew their names - we did live up to the stereotype that upper management had names, workers appeared without caption).

"He's my nemesis," she said. Again, that was strange. I don't think I'd ever heard her use the word before, it seemed unusually circumspect for her. I kept silent, hoping that there might be some sort of elaboration. Nothing.

"Uh, what group does he work for?"

She turned at that point, bestowing on me a look of utter contempt, the sort you might save for someone who'd turned to you in a board meeting and asked you whether it was profits going up or down that was the good one. I looked back, dumbfounded.

"So he's not company, then?" I asked.

"No, he's not company. He's my nemesis. The person appointed by the gods to bring about my doom. Get some education, girl, for fuck's sake."

"No, I understand the principle of a nemesis," I explained, "I'm just slightly surprised to find myself in ancient Greece all of a sudden."

"Well pay closer attention, then," she told me coldly. "That's your job, after all."

I should explain (if you are interested), that my job is in fact nothing like that. If anything, I'm paid not to pay particularly close attention. I'm the gatekeeper to Sally's domain, and anything I learn there I should generally speaking forget unless it is important to her. I decided to focus on the first of my duties rather than get bogged down in semantics.

"So I should probably not let him in, then?" I guessed.

"No," she said sullenly. "Let him in."

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Art Pact 80

My dining companion, now so drunk that he was slurring his words and barely two-thirds of the wine in his glass was making it into his mouth. The hat-wearing woman at the neighbouring table had begun to sniff so violently and frequently that it sounded as though she were trying to inhale the restaurant. I was enjoying her discomfort, but my own had grown to such intolerable levels that I thought it would be a good time to take care of the bill and leave, which I did in one comfortable move by shepherding my companion out of his seat, slipping my hand into his pocket to liberated his wallet. While I guided him to the door I dropped a couple of hundreds into the waitress's hand (she had taken up a defensive position at the door in case we absconded without paying, a precaution I am sorry to say I had made necessary during my youth). It was comfortably twice what we owed for the meal, but since I wasn't paying I felt some compunction to make up for my earlier indiscretions, and since the money appeared to come from me it might also guarantee some preferential treatment the next time I ate there. Our waitress certainly seemed very pleased.

Out on the street we blended seamlessly with the hustle and bustle of the post-prandial crowd, our progress made somewhat eccentric by the need to steer my companion, who having stood discovered that his legs were now working on their own time, collapsing under him at awkward moments, refusing to travel in the direction indicated, and so forth. Someone watching from above would have seen two dots moving erratically through the throng, weaving this way and that, inevitably after a few meters ending up stepping off the curb into the gutter before I could manage to direct us back to safety.

If you have never walked the streets of the city at night before, you will perhaps be unaware of the incredible risks which one takes to do so. Despite the recent prohibition on operating a car while drunk, the great majority of drivers around at this time of night tend to have been in their cups at lunch, and like the pedestrians are travelling from the place in which they ate to the place in which they intend to spend the rest of the evening - some nightclub or bar. So the situation, bad already, is only a mere promise of the carnage to come later on, when the rapid approach of dawn sends them all scurrying from their various bolt holes, now even more drunk and tired to boot.

Even with the more mild hazards available on the roads at ten, I struggled to keep my companion safe from the subconscious death wish which caused him to make his way into the street at every opportunity. He was big - heavier than he looked, certainly, which was already somewhat solid - and since I am slight of frame (if we are being charitable), I had to exert myself to the fullest to maintain a steady heading, often being forced to switch sides in order to support him like a pit prop, leaning into him with my full weight. Eventually, though, I managed to get the hang of him. It still required frequent trips to one side or the other, but I maintained a precarious equilibrium in his balance which merely required frequent but subtle tilts one way or another to direct him in a roughly straight line. It was exhausting, since I had to travel at least twice as far as he did, but on the other hand I successfully steered us to the speakeasy I had been aiming for, the cost of drinks for the rest of the night sufficient compensation for my efforts.

Dave's Midnight Bar is a converted warehouse in the old business district, about a mile from the restaurant (or two miles if you are supporting a gigantic drunkard). Its bare breeze block face is interrupted only by a metal door painted a garish red - now standing open, and emitting the sounds of drunken talk and polish music. I was well known there, and it was that infamy which caused the guarding bouncer to eye me with suspicion as I arrived.

"Who's this?" he asked without preamble, indicating the drunk who was swaying gently beside me.

"A good evening to you too, Jonathan," I declared. "This is my good friend... uh... my very good friend," I amended, realising at that point that I had no idea what the man's name was.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Art Pact 79

"There's the question of the payment," the old man said delicately. Brusca ignored him, but Examiner Folkes nodded gently, her hair bobbing out of time with her head. When it became apparent that the old man was in his turn ignoring her, waiting for some kind of signal from Brusca, she coughed into her hand and made a rolling "continue" gesture with her wrist. "Well, it came in twice."


"Twice," he agreed.

"That's unusual. From the same account?" she asked. The old man shrugged: how would I know?

She'd stepped forwards to ask her question, and now in the window she could see Brusca reflected from behind her. He was examining the various certificates hung on the wall and fiddling with his cuff-links. Irritated, she wondered how long she would have to drag out the interview to ensure that he would miss his lift.

"If it was from two different sources," she explained to the old man behind the desk, "we'd like to know. Could you please get in touch with your financier and ask him to contact me?" She slipped one of her coins out of the roll on her belt and placed it on the desk between them, keeping her finger on top of it. "It may be nothing, but this is a serious crime, so all cooperation is required."

The financier was unlikely to be swayed by talk of justice and the common good, but it might work on the old man. She split her bet there - perhaps the financier would be willing to risk breaking his anonymity to help her out, perhaps not. But if she hadn't made the request she would never know - and she also wouldn't have been able to read the old man's thoughts on the matter either.

It was plain from his expression that he did not like their financier, whoever it was. That wasn' t unusual - no-one liked their money-man, obviously. But it was usually irritation rather than - fear? hatred? Folkes was irritated that she couldn't distinguish between the two choices. But either would have been unusual. She wondered if that meant something particularly interesting.


When they'd left the shop, she quizzed Brusca on his impression of the old man.

"I don't know, he seemed pretty ghastly," Brusca drawled.

"Nothing out of the ordinary? None of your special feelings?"

"Oh, that. Sorry, I wasn't really paying attention. He's not a serious suspect, is he? I thought we were just there to get the details of the night straight."

"God's Ears!" Folkes whispered under her breath - then, louder: "Perhaps in future you wouldn't mind paying full attention to everyone we interview, just in case something interesting turns up. We are supposed to be Examiners, you know." To emphasize her point she tapped twice on the iron worm on her chest. Brusca rolled his eyes.

"Understood, Crowner!"

"Fine, whatever. Listen, there was something weird about him. When I mentioned the financier he looked like he was afraid of him. Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but maybe it's something to do with the killing."

"What's so important about the payment anyway? You're not going to hear from that guy. Not in a hundred years."

They got to the town's main road just as a long-distance came through. The vehicle's carriages thundered past them, clipping the edge of the permitted speed limit. It seemed to suck the air from the side-road they were standing in, pulling them forwards so that they had to clutch onto their hats and lean backwards slightly. Finally, twenty carriages later, they were pulled sideways into the wake and then it was gone.

Since the town ordinances required a clear period of half a minute either side of a long-distance, Folkes crossed the road without looking, clutching her hands into fists and trying to put a bit of distance between Brusca's question and her reply. On the other side, she whirled round and saw that he had not followed her - instead he was standing on the far curb, checking his HandyCom.

"Get a move on!" she called.

"I've got a car coming!" he called back. "Party, remember?"

Obviously her stalling tactics hadn't been enough. She dug in her pocket for her own HandyCom, checked the time. The Examinary would still be open to the public, which meant that she would be able to get in the front way and lessen her risk of running into the Crowner.

She opened her mouth, thinking for a moment that she might magnanimously tell Brusca to have a good time.

Sod him, she thought suddenly, and closed her mouth again.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Art Pact 78

I crept around the room as silently as I could, trying to ignore the sound of my own heart, the rustle of my trousers rubbing together as I walked, the low murmur of traffic from the bypass. The last was the worst - too far away to make me feel the comforting nearness of other members of humanity, too close to leave me the silence that would help me locate whatever it was that was making the noise. I closed the window, hoping it would drown out the traffic, but the old wooden frame was so ill-fitting that it seemed to prevent no barrier to noise.

As I rounded the end of the bed I saw something moving with the corner of my eye, but when I turned all was silent. Although it was dark the floaters in my eyes seemed to be luminescent with a mischievous light, causing me to jump at shadows that existed nowhere except in my own lenses. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, thinking it stop me from becoming distracted, but all it did was focus my hearing and bring the sounds closer to me. Deprived of the comforting distance of sight, all sounds seem nearer than they are - a scuttling in the loft might as well be on the ceiling above your head, a noise at the skirting board around your feet instead. With my eyes closed I was so terrified that the sound of my own gasping breath grew and grew until it seemed certain to block out any more useful noises.

At the midpoint of the room, equidistant between the foot of the four-poster and the big window, I took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm myself down. It was somewhat successful, although immediately my heart began to slow, the noise happened again - this time above my head, on the cupboards to the right of me. These ones, unlike the closet by the door, did not stretch all the way up to the ceiling, being late additions to the room's furnishings. Their tops were cloaked in shadow, being too far above the floor to receive any light from the bedside lamp and too far from the window for the downward-slanting moonlight to throw any illumination upon them. The sound again - something like a scurrying sound, something like the light pad of a cat. I knew that it was no rat.

"Come out," I whispered. It moved again - closer, this time, a definite run. It went to my right, then there was a second of silence, then the sound of something landing heavily on the dresser. Another moment of silence, and again a thud as it hit the floor. I recoiled, jumping away from the bed towards the safety  of the window, leaving several meters of clear floor between us so that if it emerged I might be able to see it before it was on me. It did not attack, though. I saw the counterpane on the left side of the bed tremble slightly. It was underneath the mattress.

Now we were in a stand-off. I could not get closer to it without risking attack, it could not come to me without revealing itself, which seemed to be its aim. I say, of course, that it was the risk of attack that kept me pinned to the window, but in fact I am rather aggrandizing myself even to say that - for it implies that I understood what it was that I feared. In fact by this time I was simply paralysed with terror. My blood seemed to have turned to so much ice, freezing me in place lest an unwary movement might shatter my whole mass of veins and arteries. My right hand had found a grip on the window-frame, and was clutching it so tightly that I could nearly have shattered my fingers. My breath was shallow, rapid, as though I had run a marathon.

"Come out," I repeated, although I was terrified that I might be obeyed. The counterpane rustled on the side of the bed nearest to me, and my heart leapt into my throat, choking any further lunatic words that might have been lurking there.

Then the edge of the thing lifted, and from behind that fabric curtain extended a horrid thing - a snout, shaped like a rat's but wrinkled and scaly as a crocodile's, and sprouting from either side of the single gaping nostril were five fine hairs - I say hairs, but they writhed and grasped like fine tentacles, and I knew that they were no whisker as I knew it.

I saw no more, for the shock was too great for my mind, and the floor lurched up to meet my insensible head.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Art Pact 77

Wit a full twelve of our shields down, the chances of us getting back through the atmosphere looked slim, so we rolled the ship over and bounced off the air when it got dense enough, using our speed to throw us back up into our awkward orbit for another few hours.

"We can't keep this up," Jones told me, watching the predictions that the computer on the ground was feeding him. His face glowed red, a troubling hint to the machine's estimations of our chances. He said nothing, though, still nervous about how the captain would respond.

"He'll think of something," I said. But Captain Morello himself did not respond. His seat was at the front of the cockpit, and from my angle in the engineer's chair all I could see was the back of his head and one ear. I wondered if he was even listening to us - one of the cockpit's terrible design flaws was that the acoustics were terrible. The noise from the air recirculators was enough that if he'd turned off his earpieces he might not be able to hear what we were saying. It was the sort of thing that Morello might do, the sort of thing that the assessors glossed over in their reports because of the pressure put on them from above. Morello was a great captain, according to the brass, and there was to be some leeway accorded to him in respect of his talents. Were Jones and I, I wondered, to pay the price for those talents?

The thought reminded me that the three of us in the cockpit were not the only living things on board the ship, and I redirected the cargo cameras to my console - assuming that Jones had neither the time nor the motivation to look in on his charges. The two cats we'd plucked off the station were in a pretty ragged state - nervously pacing their cage spitting at each other, probably all riled up by the massive bump when we'd skimmed off the atmosphere. The other thing... well, it was still moving, and obviously alive, but it seemed considerably more subdued than it had been. It had formed itself into an odd shape - a central cylinder around which all the black fur seemed to have coalesced, and then two outrider arcs of flesh that left the body at the "back", reached out in simple arcs, then rejoined the body at the "front". It looked for all the world as though it had made itself into a backpack, although the slow undulation of the central area would have made it far too disturbing to put on. The cats were ignoring it, though, rather than trying to reach through the cage to bat at it as they had when we'd first brought them on board, so I suppose it had taken the shape for the sake of a quieter life. It was still odd, though.

"Pearson," Morello said sternly. The first word he'd said in an hour.


"If we jettison the cargo, what difference would that make to our mass at this point? Enough to regain control?"

"I.. uh.."--I did a few quick calculations--"I suppose so, there's about half a ton. It wouldn't be enough on its own, I don't think..."

"No," Jones confirmed.

"...but if we were rolled and the cargo were ejected the right way it would be reaction mass. Low energy, sadly, but a half a ton push might help if it were timed perfectly. We can't do it, though. Not without venting the whole hold."


"..uh, well the sample is in there. And the cats from the station."

"Screw the cats," Morello said angrily. "If we hadn't stayed to grab them we wouldn't be in this situation."

I glanced over at Jones, who rolled his eyes. I wasn't too eager to sacrifice my life to save the cats either, but it seemed a bit cold-blooded. And it hadn't really been the cats I'd been thinking of.

"The sample, though. I'm not saying it's not an option completely, I'm just - well, it is important. Perhaps the most important thing. If we kill it now we might not come out of this looking particularly good."


There was his weak spot. If we got back to Earth, everyone knowing that we'd picked up alien life, only to have to admit that we'd killed it to save our own skins... It would be understandable, but it would put on display for everyone the feet of clay that Morello had been so diligently hiding.

I wondered if the cats would ever know that they owed their lives to the travelling companion that they were so displeased about.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Art Pact 76

It wasn't what I'd expected at all. From our homes under the bridge we'd only been able to see the surface of the water, thick and brown, and we hadn't realised quite how shallow it was. In fact it only came up to just above my father's knees, and since he was the shortest of us by a good hand, the rest of us were no worse off. The water was warm, too - I only learnt later that we should have been wary rather than pleased at that discovery, so we splashed happily in it, scooping great handfuls up to fling from one to the other of us. Although it had been dank under the bridge, and far from pleasant in a number of other ways, it had been good at sheltering us from the rain, so we had never had the experience of being properly wet before, not so wet that the water was running off us and our hair slicked to our heads. We laughed and ran around, all the tension of the trip down from our homestead dissipating as we realised that although we could never go back to our homes, we were not about to die. The laughter had a touch of hysteria in it at first, but as we grew more and more confident I began to hear a more relaxed timbre in the voices of my brothers and sisters, my mother and aunts and uncles and cousins. As more and more of us clambered down from the town beneath the bridge and took our first tentative steps into the water our confidence in the new world grew and grew, and even though the more senior adults of the town began to join into a serious-looking cluster at the foot of the great support, the rest of us took on more of an aspect of a festival and looked less and less like what we really were: people abandoning our homes in fear of our lives.

It was while the informal council was underway that my brother said something to me that in retrospect I should have paid more close attention to. We'd wandered further out into the stream, following our cousin - always the bellwether in exploration - almost to the middle of the river, where the water was less sluggish and came up almost to our wastes. Our cousin was fearless about the unknown, and when large dark shapes began to dart around her legs we skipped back in alarm, but she just plunged her hands into the warm water and emerged with a struggling animal that I recognised as a fish. She laughed and tossed it back into the water, then set about trying to catch another.

"I'm going to see if there's something I can do," my brother said, looking back towards the bank where the council were.

I nodded distractedly. Our cousin looked back to see me watching her, and bared her teeth in a bizarre half-smile half-grimace. I took a step forward, almost toppling over as my lead foot slipped on some underwater plant. My cousin laughed.

"Yeah, I'm going to go," my brother said, and began to wade back towards the gathering place. I looked up at the underside of the great bridge and could see that almost all the lights were out now, and beneath the town there were hundreds of little figures making their way down the netting and ladders that our family had completed earlier on. It was definite - the whole town was evacuating, we were no longer Underbridge. We were the town of Underbridge-in-Exile, or (for those who preferred it) the new town of Groundwalk.

I spent the rest of the afternoon cautiously following my cousin as she explored the bounds of the world beneath the town. We could go a long way without losing sight of the others, and my cousin went further, trusting me without explicitly saying so to act as a link between her and the town. As long as she could see me she assumed that I could see the rest of our family and therefore we would be able to get back without any trouble. She was right - I was too nervous to go out of sight of them, even if there had been someone like me to act as a bridge.

It was only when night began to fall and there was some danger of us losing sight of the main camp that I began to reel her in, moving slowly back towards the others until I was within hailing distance, and my cousin ran back to her parents while I returned to my own to discover what we were going to do about food and shelter now.

"Where's your brother?" my father asked, as I greeted them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Art Pact 75

I had no way of calculating exactly, but judging by fullness of the mountain range to the west I thought that he was right - we probably were equidistant from all three of the kingdoms. I found it all rather depressing, the idea that there was no single footstep I could take outside the clearing which would put more time between my neck and a knight's sword. But he was positively glowing, as though it had been his life's ambition to wander out into the (precise) middle of nowhere and there to build his dream - well, to call what he constructed a house was perhaps to treat the word in too cavalier a fashion, but a cabin at least. He set about it with great gusto, using the measuring rope with him to fashion a giant right angle by some mathematical wizardry, then marking out lines and points in the clearing and hewing down trees left and right in order to make the clearing a perfect square. Well, as perfect as was possible given the tree-based substrate. The rope and axe seemed to be all the tools he needed - the one employed to topple trees in favourable directions or to create straight lines where nature could provide none, the other to set the trees toppling in the first place and to carve the various notches and blocks into the side of the felled logs which allowed him to stack them in such a manner as to manufacture walls from them.

For my part I was not entirely opposed to helping, but I did not seek out any particular task from him, and so happy did he seem with his work that he did not comment at all on my apparent idleness, only asking for a lend of my arms on the odd few occasions when a tree needed particular husbanding to the ground to prevent it from destroying part of the structure already in place.

Apparently, though, my torpor (although perfectly acceptable to him) was not approved by everyone. On the third day that we were there, as the square of the grounds began to take shape from the irregular clearing, I began to notice certain shapes and colours at play in the woods around us - shapes and colours that I did not expect to see in the forest, the odd purples and reds of the Order's servitors. At first they simply hovered around, slithering up and down the trunks of the trees at the periphery. But by the time a week had gone by they had lost their fear of failure, and they began to creep forwards. None of them wanted to be the one who had to actually make contact with me, so the approach had the feeling of a slow race, an awkward shuffling of infinitesimal gains, just enough to ensure that any given servitor could not be accused of cowardice but not enough that they would risk emerging into the full light of day, causing whatever reaction it was that they feared from me.

Ultimately, it was my own irritation with the game that brought it to an end, rather than a fatal misstep on the part of one of the servitors. While the cabin in the middle of the clearing was being roofed, three weeks after he began its construction, I noticed that there was a line of five of the competitors only a couple of steps into the forest proper. I moved backwards, lifting my arm so that it looked as though I were just surveying the continuing building work. I knew they would be unable to retreat, so although they could circle around the servitor in the middle would find its options somewhat limited by reaction of the creatures on either side of it. I kept walking backwards until I was within what I thought was leaping distance, then in one movement I twisted and sprang, catching the servitor's throat in my hands and wrestling it to the ground.

"Don't kill me!" it begged, writhing in a desperate attempt to escape. Its skin was a terrified violet, and under my palms I could feel its spines pressing up, trying to dislodge me. I held on tighter. It tried to pry my fingers away, but even the poison spikes at the end of its claws were nothing to me.

"Tell me why you're here!" I demanded.

"You didn't tell them you were leaving!" it screeched. "They want two years!"

I released it suddenly, letting the creature tumble to the ground.


"Two years," it croaked, rubbing its neck. "They're fining you two years."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Art Pact 74

"Oh my beating heart!" she exclaimed, turning away from the window. Her face was a red bloom. She turned again slightly, sneaking a little peak, then back, redder still. "I never did!"

"Whether you did or didn't," I said coolly, "they are now. Which means that there's nothing for us to do except stay here and keep ourselves to ourselves."

"But surely you can't mean we're trapped?"

"There's only one way out of the tower," I told her, "and that's through the front door. Unless..."--I sniffed, and tapped the heel of my shoe against the table-leg--"unless you'd like to go out through the ladder in the basement."

I'd intended the possibility as a false option, knowing that she'd never condescend to descend into the dank maze of passages that had connected the buildings in the snow times, but to my surprise and dismay Rita took the suggestion seriously, so seriously in fact that she almost immediately assented.

"Of course, the ladder! Good thinking, Joan."

I raised an eyebrow at that, not one hundred percent sure whether she was mocking me or not, but whether she was made of stronger fibres than I had credited her with or not, she was not made to mock, and the expression on her face was one of awed admiration.

"Come on then," I said.

She sneaked another imprudent glance out of the window, this time colouring so far red that she might comfortably have hidden on a /field gules/, and then we made our way down the spiral stairs that followed the outer wall of the tower. On the ground floor I heard her step hesitate, and I turned to see that she was stopped, her dress train sliding down the stone steps like a cataract tumbling over a dip in a river. She was looking at the front door, and perhaps considering whether or not it would be possible to avoid the tunnels by slipping out in some manner that would not disturb what was going on outside.

"There's no chance," I told her, breaking her out of her ratiocination.

"What? Oh, yes - no" she flustered. But I was convincing enough, and she followed me down the steps again until we reached the absolute base of the tower, finally a room with no windows in which she could not be distracted. The basement room was a simple bare circle with four racks of shelves arranged in a cross-fashion in the centre in such a way as to support each other from toppling over. The shelves were lined with the artificer's supplies - brass cogs and spindles of many sizes, grub screws, lanterns ready for the insertion of a magic flame, a skull limned with silver, pottery grotesques, dried animal foetuses, snakes suspended in murky fluids, hammers, knives, glass jars of acids or potions or tinctures, iron brackets, spiral spring coils, and countless other wonders which might have entranced or repulsed Rita if only she had not been so consumed with a need to escape the tower's environs for a short time.

I knew immediately where the trapdoor into the basement was, but I let her think that I did not in order to observe her attitude towards searching. She was of a methodical bent, I learnt, starting at the outside of the room and working her way around. Sadly, since the trapdoor was against the wall on the opposite side of the tower she discovered it after only half a revolution, and so I had no way to confirm my conception that she would spiral inwards keeping in the same clockwise direction if she had not found the thing so handily in her initial circumnavigation of the room.

"Here it is! Help me."

Although there was, strictly speaking, little I could do, I bent down anyway and pretended to grasp the iron ring attached to the trap door. We heaved, and I saw a few muscles ill-accustomed to use stand taut in her forearms. It was almost too much for her, but buoyed up by my apparent assistance she tapped into some hitherto virgin reserve of strength and the door cracked loose of its over-right frame, popping open and then allowing itself to be tipped up against the wall where it rested nonchalantly.

"You're very strong, you know," she told me.

"Would you like to go first?"

"I'd..."--she peered down into the darkness--"I'd rather not."

"That's OK," I assured her, feeling for a moment more sisterly than I was accustomed to be. I felt around for the first rung of the ladder with a hand, then turning round stepped onto it and began my descent into the gloom.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Art Pact 73

We bobbed on the water's surface. Zara had found a a storage tank with a flat top which was still buoyant, and she lay full length on it, hugging it like a child its mother. The rest of us clung onto fragments and splinters, whatever pieces of wood we could find that would help hold us up - I knew intellectually that I was lighter than water without the assistance of the long spar I was holding, but like the others I could not bring myself to release my grip and trust to physics. The parts of the old ship seemed like they were still protecting us, even now that it was destroyed, and to let go would be to forsake a lucky charm that had seen us through the night and (in a way) through the storm as well. The New Amsterdam may have failed in the face of the hurricane's might, but it had sacrificed itself in such a way that its remains were still helping us, even in the morning.

"I see land in that direction," Zara pointed, barely raising her head away from its resting place.

"East," Johns told her without looking.

"I see land to the east," she repeated.

It was true - there was land there, a low strip of grey rising out of the ocean, still somehow in shadow despite the height of the sun. I felt as though it might not be impossible to get there, although it would take a long time. I did not think that I was prepared to swim for days on end.

"Smoke south," Johns said, and that was the other option.

"More chance there'll be people there," said Carlos. He was calm - through the clear waters I could see his feet kicking ever so gently back and forth, holding him in place. "Someone had to make that fire."

Not necessarily someone we wanted to meet, especially since we had Natalie with us, but the chances were that they would be friendly or neutral or at the very least those great proportion of our enemies who were bound by the common laws and decencies towards captives. Although the idea of seeing out the rest of the competition in some Dutch jail didn't appeal to me greatly, I could see the advantage when compared to dying of thirst or hunger on some tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

"It's further away," Zara pointed out. "I can't see any land there, or any ship. What if it's just the tip of a volcano poking out of the sea?"

It was a creative possibility, I had to give her that, although I was beginning to wonder whether she had ever heard of Occam's Razor.

"Not very likely," Johns confirmed. "Most likely an island, possibly another ship, although if so the whole thing would have to be alight to send up that much smoke. Probably not the best idea to go there in that case." He let go of his float with one arm, using it to paddle himself around in slow circles, observing both options one after the other. "The land is closer, yes. I say the land. The smoke is too much risk."

I looked at the little grey smudge on the horizon, still inexplicably shadowy, and wondered if he'd fully thought through just how much risk there could be on an uninhabited island, but I agreed with him - if we were going to get anywhere, it was to that island. As much as I disliked the look of it and was dubious about our rag-tag bunch paddling that far, something we could see was infinitely more likely to be reachable than something invisible over the horizon.

"The land," Zara agreed. Natalie nodded, and Carlos, who added:

"If the fire dies out after we've got halfway there, how will we know where to head for, anyway?"

"Good point."

So we began to paddle towards the sliver of land that we could just about see. We did not swim all of the time - in fact, I had been unduly pessimistic about our chances, not realising that some of the shards of the New Amsterdam would make inefficient but usable paddles, allowing two people to sit astride the storage tank and row while the other three swam alongside. It was probably slower than just swimming, but we rotated out the swimmers so that everyone got a chance to rest (in a sense) aboard the tank, and if we became exhausted while in the water it was easy enough to cling to the netting that was still wrapped around it and thereby save ourselves from drifting off or drowning.

Still, when nightfall came we were still not halfway to land.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Art Pact 72

(Bonus!: the art pact for the 6th of December, which I forgot to post...)

There's no telling how long we waited, but eventually the locals waddled out of the enclosure, accompanied by a few of the grunting noises that Asher theorized might be their means of communication. He reached out an arm to me and told me that we should wait until the locals left the room. I focused on his under-stream, which told me that he was thinking that the locals might not be able to detect us unless we made some noise. If they couldn't see us directly and couldn't hear us, he thought, perhaps they really did have no idea that we were there. I followed a route through him into Capstan's under-stream. It was no surprise to me to learn that he was more cautious. They're lulling us into a false sense of security, he thought.

The large wooden panel that separated the enclosure from the rest of the huge construction swung closed, and the opening mechanism clicked. They're gone, I sent through the connection, and I reached out to Daylan to let him know too. He was cautious himself, although not as much as Capstan. I trusted Daylan more, he had always seemed more even-tempered.

I took the lead, rippling forward to peek out from underneath the odd structure that we'd hid beneath. Capstan, who had been analysing it while we were quiet, reached out an arm to let me know his results. The first thing I saw in his under-stream was that he'd waited until I was out from under the thing to tell me what he'd found - the second thing that the structure had been made of organic material. I shivered in disgust, and the others rippled hurriedly out after me, infected by my emotions.

The enclosure was much warmer than we'd expected it to be, although out from under our cover I could feel a draft of the planet's cold atmosphere issuing from the transparent openings and curling uncomfortably over my surface. I tried to ruffle up my skin as much as I could to preserve my heat, but without rolling myself up completely there was little I could do. Behind me the others flopped forward across the flat surface of the enclosure's lower bounds. I had an uncomfortable thought, and stretched out an arm to Capstan to check. No, he thought, we're OK here. The soft covering we were inching across was similar to some of the materials we had scanned in the enclosure, but it was made of a perfectly natural plastic compound processed into a fur rather than the horrid organic materials that seemed to fill the rest of the room.

There's rock and other minerals, Daylan thought to me. He was trying to hid his emotions beneath his under-stream, but I had known him too long to be fooled. He had gone beyond caution and was well into nervousness now, which he was attempting to keep to himself so as to avoid affecting the rest of us every time he talked to us. I sent him a query, but he withdrew further, sending me the memory of our briefing, and asking for my trust. I let it go, pulling back from Capstan and Asher for a moment so that there would be no leakage through me of the conversation.

We got about halfway across the floor of the enclosure before disaster struck. It was slow going - our transit gel was being absorbed by the floor covering almost as fast as we could secrete it, so we weren't able to move naturally. Instead we had to roll up halfway and then flop forward, trusting in our body mass to carry us a little way before the friction stopped us again. I was rolled almost double when I felt the click from the wooden panel, then I was knocked back by a gust of wind as the panel swung open at high speed. Before I could right myself again I heard a piercing screech from the opening, and when I flopped down I saw that one of the locals was looming over us. One of its upper arms was stretched out towards me, and it made another terrible shriek from the noise-hole in its upmost arm.

Everyone froze - the four of us on the floor, and the local by the opening. It was a pale colour, possibly trying to blend in with the colour of the enclosure, and the extended limb was trembling slightly. A tremendous thudding vibration heralded the arrival of the other one, which appeared through the enclosure opening and made another similar noise, then froze itself. I felt a conversation from Daylan as he brushed his arm against the back of my body.

Now what? He asked.