Art Pact 156

The animals are supposed to be talking animals, but this one just blabs at me, a sort of stream of consciousness gibberish that reminds me of reading William Burroughs:

"Counter in the woods, the autocathartic end of the idiot which we were saying no to the end of grass and towering over him in a blue vest we blue vest you blue vest can in the ineffable time we drop dark sea to the end of place.."

Its little squirrel hands rub furiously one over the other in Fagin movements, but its gaze is unrelenting, always up at me expectantly, begging for something - perhaps understanding, but understanding that I am powerless to partake of.

"What is that?" Nina's voice buzzes in my ear. It's the first time she's spoken since the fight, and the volume on my earbud is uncomfortably loud, causing me to flinch. I fiddle with the volume clumsily, first blotting her out then bringing her in again even louder.

"I can't ..... OUT OF THE FRame... is telling me we HAVE TO ... go."

"Sorry, say again?"

"I can't see any others," she says. "Are there others out of the frame?"

"No, just this one. I think." I look around. "Yeah, just this one. What was that about having to go?"

"Oh, nothing. Can you get a little closer? I can't quite make out what it's saying on the audio feed."

"It's just talking gibberish," I tell her, leaning closer. "Uh, is there something - I mean, should I be going? Are you going?"

"Forget about that. Get closer."

I reluctantly lean closer to the squirrel, who flicks his brush in annoyance, chatters at me in actual squirrel noise, and backs out of arms length. He starts to talk again, the same gibberish as before.

"It's glossolalia," says Nina.

"What, this squirrel is possessed by the holy spirit? That seems unlikely."

"Why not a squirrel?" she asks, indignantly, and I remember too late that she is a Christ Reformed pantheist. It is a nightmare trying to keep track of the tangled web of religious loyalties aboard the ship.

"I mean, unlikely at all."

"Well we shall have to agree to disagree on that. But that's not what I mean, anyway. The squirrel's talking in tongues because it's malfunctioning. It's just generating streams of phonemes and your brain is assembling them into words. It's partly you, you see. Pattern matching gone mad."

"Oh." That does make more sense, and I relax into a state of no-mind, concentrating not on the semantics of the squirrel's speech, but on the flow of sounds. It is quite musical, or perhaps poetical, experienced this way, but the exigencies of the mission prevent me from releasing my mind completely so that I keep picking up partway through the stream of noise and suddenly finding that I'm hearing words again rather than noises. It does not help that Nina has kept the microphone open at her end and I can hear urgent speech in low tones faintly in my right ear.

"Seriously," I ask her, "what is going on over there? Am I being pulled out? Are you pulling out and abandoning us here?"

"I told you not to worry about it."

"Yeah, excellent advice. Perhaps you'd like to tell me not to think of an elephant, while you're at it."

I stop, surprised. I'm not sure where the phrase has come from, but it sounds familiar. Like something someone has said to me recently. I understand the concept of it - it would be impossible not to think of an elephant if someone had just told you to - but the idea seems to have sprung from my head fully formed and packaged with a ready phrase. It seems unlikely.


"Nothing," I say, still puzzled. "Listen, you can be straight with me. If I need to get out, I should know. But if you're bugging out the whole ship there's nothing I can do about it, right? So I'll just get on with what I'm doing and hope you come back soon."

"Please, I said to not worry about it. Just continue exploring."

The squirrel chitters, then bounds off into the forest. I consider chasing it, but it seems like now is not the time for foolish exertion in the pursuit of animals who can climb faster than I can anyway. Still, it seems that in the forest is the place to find things of interest, so I begin to saunter between the trees, further and further away from the open area around the wharf. I take a glance back at the landing craft - glass dome now empty, which means that at the very least the diver must have swum away - and then move further into the dark.

The trees are oppressively tight around me, some species of dark-needled pine that seems to be able to tolerate growing in close quarters. In some places I can barely squeeze between their trunks. Branches scratch and pull at me, and every few steps I have to stop to disentangle one or other of my straps from where they have become hooked around awkwardly-shaped twigs and protrusions. It is hard going, but I realise that away from the sounds of the water washing against the wharf I can hear much more - in fact, I can hear the sound of the squirrel moving through the undergrowth ahead of me, mainly making squirrel noises but occasionally letting out a burst of nonsense syllables.

I follow the sound for a few minutes, keeping as quiet as possible myself. Nina has closed the microphone again at her end, and on my wrist the signal readout bars grow fewer and fewer until eventually the last one blinks out. I try opening the channel, but there is nothing but static. It is while I am distracted doing that that I almost trip over the squirrel, who jumps nimbly aside at the last moment before my foot hits it.

"Careful!" it squeaks. I must be staring, because it points to my ear. "Your ship is out of range now, it's safe to talk."

"Uh... ok."

It glances around nervously.

"We haven't much time," it tells me.


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