Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Art Pact 113

Mara Kieta Poulde Vors Ratin, having endured years of teasing about her short name, was a "blow it up" enthusiast. If she'd had psychic powers I doubt one rock would have been standing on top of another rock anywhere on planet Earth, if you catch my drift. She had rages that went on for hours, indulgent rants of screaming and shouting and wishing that the core of this world would just crack and let out the lava like white out of an egg. She hated with a fury that was terrifying to behold, and during one of these episodes no-one but me would go near her. Even I was a little afraid, but I'd known her long enough to understand that the anger behind it was because of an impotence regards actually affecting the world. She was strong, stronger than most of the boys we knew, stronger than most of the women and a good proportion of the men, but there was something in her that reigned her back from physical violence. Perhaps if she'd been able to release her fists she might have hurt someone badly, but perhaps on the other hand it would have taken some of the steam out of her. Instead she just fumed and hissed and the rages were like the little blow-outs that hint that somewhere, sometime soon, a volcano is going to erupt. I looked at her and saw a hurricane wrapped in skin, so that it was sometimes hard to think of her as anything other than malignant energy.

I found it hard to take, for two reasons - one empathic, the other selfish. The more honourable side of me wanted to help her, because she was (for better or worse) my friend. She was unlike my other friends, the ones I'd grown up with and knew everything about. Mara was an open book in our shared interests (science and archery), and utterly opaque in all other respects. I had never been to her house; I did not even know where she lived. I knew nothing about her family, or of any other interests she might have held. But despite that, and despite her misanthropy, I liked her. So I wanted her to be happy, or at the least free of whatever it was within her that was the root source of her rages.

And she was happy - sometimes. I think if I'd only ever seen her in her darkest moments I wouldn't have wanted to mitigate them, because there was little in her furies that could remind me that she was a girl like me, and like me deserving of a happy life, of a future that could be hoped for and not feared. It was in between times that showed me that, little things like her face after an arrow thudded into the centre of a bullseye, a little smile of satisfaction when an experiment went as expected - or better still, in some unexpected but intriguing way.

On the other, more self-centred hand, I wanted to calm her down because of the boys. Because of one boy in particular, Lento.

Lento Parasido Ponte Un Block Dos Hill Tres Leilo Vors Kantego was the eldest of three brothers, all equally handsome, all equally repellent. I mention Lento's good looks only because they were a simple fact, not because they figured into my feelings for him in any way. I despised Lento just as thoroughly as Mara hated all of mankind, and although I could agree with so many of the girls in our year that he was good-looking facially, the spirit behind those features was to me so ugly that there was no way I could ever have been attracted to him. It is something of a shame that I now know a man who looks similar to Lento but lacks his awful personality, and I have not thought even for a second that he should be anything more than a friend to me simply because I cannot imagine that sort of handsomeness in the context of love or lust.

Lento had many faults, but the sin I was particularly riled at was his old-fashioned home-style sexism. Lento's mother had left the family after the birth of the third boy, and his father had taken the opportunity to reinforce in his offspring an idea that had no doubt led to the woman's flight in the first place: that women were inferior to men in every way that counted, that they belonged in the kitchen or in bed, that they were untrustworthy backstabbers, and so on. I seemed to spend half of my free time at school attempting in vain to reassure myself that Lento would come to a terrible end, or that he had effectively shut himself off from the society of women for all time so that once school was over no girl would ever have to suffer his presence again, but I knew with despair that it was not true. Lento was handsome, and girls at school were willing to overlook his stupidity for the sake of his face. That in turn meant that I was not just arguing against boys, but against almost everyone (teachers excepted, mostly), when I stood up for the simple, obvious (to me, anyway) notion of equality.

Mara's furies were a weak spot in my defences. When Lento argued that women were not suitable for positions of power because of their emotional behaviour, it was Mara he pointed to. Would anyone make Mara the president of Usmerica? he would ask. That is what a woman is like when you give her access to an education, he would say: flighty and violent. You might as well give the nuclear buttons to an angry chimpanzee.

And the fact was that in Mara's case he was right - you wouldn't have. I knew that that was Mara and not me, and that there were plenty of men who you could have said the same thing about. But I also knew that if Mara was not so... Mara-ish anymore it would be one leg kicked out from under Lento's moronic argument. So I set to work.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Art Pact 112

In between tossing the books onto the fire, we took drinks from the bar that the science club had set out. They were mainly rum, but diluted to a greater or lesser degree with pineapple juice. The mousy bespectacled young man behind the counter must have been at his produce, because the counter-top was covered in spills and the ratio of rum to pineapple juice varied wildly between health drink and pure alcohol. When Brad found a glass with no juice in it he took it close to the flames, taking mouthfuls and then blowing them out in a mist so that clouds of blue fire burst at the edges of the clearing, and Sissy shrieked with laughter.

I could tell that Mr. Dodgeness was getting pretty pissed with Brad, but the burning was going speedily enough, so he kept his mouth shut and made do with pursed lips and a disapproving expression, the sort of look he'd have given us back in school if we'd been taking too long to get the right answer. I didn't feel threatened, though - I knew that if he gave us any trouble we could just bring the whole thing to the attention of the committee and he'd be through in an instant. There was no way anyone would take Mr. Dodgeness's word over Brad's, not nowadays. Mr. Dodgeness just had that kind of a voice about him, and he didn't like drinking alcohol, and even in the old days there'd been a general air of the intellectual about him that made him unpopular amongst the average townsfolk. My mom had liked him - or respected him, anyway, he wasn't the sort of person anyone liked - and my own rule of thumb was that anyone other than me or pop that mom liked was sure to come under suspicion sooner or later. Maybe including me and pop, on account of there being no smoke without fire, or - no, that's not quite it, but it's probably safer if I don't try to think of a better analogy.

Mr. Russell, from the town council, had decided the order that things went into the fire - although some people had argued that it would be better to have written down all the titles and selected with a bunch of dice. Pop was at that meeting, and he said there was an almighty dust-up between the guys on one side who were Russell's supporters and the guys on the other side who didn't fancy that it was a great idea to give so much power to one person when they might turn out to be susceptible themselves. Pop's idea was that it would be much simpler to just dump all the books that were due for the fire in one great heap in the plaza outside the school and let everyone go at it like mad, in a big idiot mob. No chance of anyone displaying a vulnerable intelligence then, he'd said. That was about the time that Mr. Downey from the grocery store punched him in the eye, which was good for Pop because he came out of it with a black eye whereas Downey broke two fingers. Downey had sprained the other wrist a week earlier trying to wrestle a shoplifter to the ground, and between the two injuries he was forced into the indignity of having to get his wife to wipe his ass every time he went to the men's room (probably - I have this only on the authority of Barb Leverson, who works in the store too and reported it to me with disgusted glee).

Eventually we went with Russell's suggestion, simply because people were used to doing what the council said and he was the only one left who hadn't been taken by one of them or killed by one of us. But the fiasco underlined the worst of our problems - that we needed clever ideas to help us out of the crisis, but anyone who was clever enough to have an idea of the sort was automatically at risk. So most of us flailed away at the problem like berserks while the rest of us tried to chip away intelligently but disguise our intelligence as idiocy (or at least mediocrity).

Mom, I knew, had taken a big risk, and it hadn't worked out for her. Officer Sherbet had found her stash of biology books and there'd been a posse waiting for her when she went back. I hated Sherbet, but I had to admit that if it hadn't been him, it might well have been one of the drainers that got mom. She was certainly one of the smartest people in the town, the idea that they wouldn't have been interested in controlling her is ridiculous.

Still, it didn't stop me from spitting on the ground in Sherbet's path whenever I met him, and it certainly didn't stop Pop from scheming to get him on the watch list. What stopped that was me, because when you've already had one parent taken because she was too smart, you get very good at persuading the other one not to risk himself. A scheme can backfire, and a clever scheme could backfire two ways in our town, both of them fatal. My childish response to Sherbet was safe - no-one could accuse me of using my brain in insulting our most respected senior policeman in broad daylight, and because a monkey could have thrown flaming toilet paper at his house, that was beyond suspicion too.

Sherbet was at the burning, but I kept to the other side of the huge blaze from him, making sure that I was just one of the pack of high-school kids dumb on booze and hormones and the joy of destroying the things that a mere three months ago would have been used to torture us with boredom - the things that would have made us better people, that would have helped us grow, that would have made us wise and clever and useful. To us, and to our enemies.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Art Pact 111

If it was up to me I wouldn't talk about it at all, but I suppose I have to admit that I have a pretty good home life. It's just something you don't like to talk about - perhaps even think about, because there's always the chance that I might jinx it. What I'm trying to say is, don't tell Dad or Phyllis that I said anything.

My dad isn't around much - not physically, I mean, but his presence is everywhere. Our house is the biggest in the road, and it's mainly due to his constant obsession with adding rooms. Once (before I was born) it was a three-bed semi. Then he built an extension to the kitchen, then above that an extension to the bathroom, then Carrie was born, then the extension was rolled into the rest of the house so that there were two new rooms above the garage, then I was born, then a utility room came out of the other side of the kitchen, then Bridget was born and mum died, then there was the porch, then the conservatory, then the living room extended out into the front garden, then above that another bedroom, then he met Phyllis, then the conservatory grew again, and that's got us all caught up with the state of the house and how it is now.

You'll notice that there are six bedrooms in the house. One of them - the original, and still the biggest - is where Phyllis and dad sleep (when he's back, that is. More commonly Phyllis sleeps there alone). Bridget and me have the two extended bedrooms, and Boston (Phyllis's son by her first marriage, the younger of her two children) has the smallest of the original bedrooms. That leaves two spare - one for guests, and one which Carrie used to live in. Now that she's at university she hardly ever comes back, but when she does she checks her room carefully for any sign of missing clothes, books, or jewellery. She has a good eye, too - Bridget took two of ten almost identical earrings once, ones that Carrie hadn't worn for five years, and Carrie spotted that she'd been robbed within five minutes of her return.

When I was a much younger, Carrie and I shared a bedroom. Then Carrie got old enough to need her own bedroom and shortly after that Bridget moved in in her place - until I was old enough to need my own room. If you've been counting you'll see that there were plenty of rooms in the house - before I was born there were already five bedrooms in the house, more than enough for all of us leaving one spare. I think that was mum's idea, that sharing a room while it was still reasonably might make us closer as siblings or something. I never got the chance to ask her sensibly, though. It didn't occur to me, even when I was most annoyed with Carrie or Bridget, that it would have been simpler to have shared out bedrooms to start with. By the time I was old enough to wonder whether it had been whim or one of mum's experimental parenting ideas she was gone.

We get on pretty well with Phyllis, and although Boston gets on my nerves he and Bridget (who are about the same age - Boston is a lot younger than his older sister) are pretty tight. They're both kind of intellectuals, and if they'd not met at such a young age I suspect there would have been some romantic spark potential in their future, but as it is they'll probably just end up as a vetting committee for each other's eventual dates. If Phyllis has a fault it's that she's a lot more traditional than mum was, but on the other hand there's something comfortable in being able to do a few things normally, so that even though we're considered strange by some of the kids in our school we're normal enough to be well up the status ranks. We're not like the religious freaks who aren't allowed to do dissections or the girl in my year whose parents are some sort of fifty-years-too-late hippies who live in a weird commune and (so the rumour goes) partner-swap with everyone else.

Mum's presence in the house is subtle. Phyllis did a bit of a purge in the master bedroom - no pictures of mum there, none of her knick-knacks, new bedding and curtains and paint job so that there as nothing in there that mum chose, no reminder that there'd ever been a mum, in fact. But that was understandable. The rest of the house she left alone, so that although things have got changed or broken or lost over the years there is still enough of mum's residue to keep her in our minds. I think about her when I'm cooking, because although she was gone long before I got into cooking I can remember playing in there while she cooked, the only thing she didn't question about her and dad's roles in the house. Carrie (who lives exclusively on junk food at university which she burns off like it was nothing with her running) says that actually Dad was a much better cook than mum ever was.

Bridget, I know logically, can't really remember mum at all. She was only a few weeks old when mum died, and no-one remembers things from when they're that age, do they? She agrees... but: she says that she's most happy thinking about mum when she's in the conservatory, and I am certainly old enough to remember mum being there a lot during her last days. She came home from the hospital weak, but everyone thought it was perfectly normal - she's just had a kid, right? She sat in the conservatory all the time (it was July, and a hot one), cradling baby Bridget and enjoying the sun.

I don't know, maybe Bridget's onto something.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Art Pact 110

Let me tell you about Doug. If there were no Doug, it would be necessary to invent him, if only for the sake of argument - by which I mean that unlike other people, who are blessed in their life with awkward discussions in which they are neither totally right nor totally wrong, I had been given a living straw man - as if the heavens had opened up and dropped upon me the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, except less jolly and considerably more opinionated. Doug needed both a heart and a brain, although he did not lack in courage (if by courage you mean the strength of will to hold unpopular opinions when everyone around you thought otherwise).

First in his long list of qualifications for straw-man-ery: he was unattractive. Not necessarily ugly (although I had heard that word bandied around, and it made me feel a brief sympathy for him that lasted just as long as it took for me to meet him again and hear words come out of his mouth), but repulsive in an all-inclusive manner. He refused to take any care of his appearance, often turning up to the office in the same rumpled clothes he had worn the night before (and no, we were sure it was laziness and not a "walk of shame", for reasons that will become apparent), his hair was aggressively tangled, he had a body odour that in closer quarters was literally eye-watering, and he would adopt a lurching, leaning posture whenever talking to you that made you feel as though you were being leaned over by a warthog. As a man I escaped the worst consequence of this leaning, but I had watched him arguing at enough women to know that the lean also meant a lack of eye contact. I'll let you guess in which direction the eyes were pointed. Kathleen, the receptionist, told me once that it had been an entire year between her joining the firm and getting to see what colour Doug's eyes were, so thoroughly had he stared into her cleavage during their every conversation. He had a sort of field around him that projected a sort of oily lust, so that even if you were not the object of his interest at the time you felt compelled to move away (and ideally, shower).

Secondly, he was a hypocrite (as all good straw men are). Despite his own complete unconcern with grooming or with the comfort of others, he had - if I might be allowed a brief moment of understatement - /high/ standards for women. Exacting standards, to be more exact. Or, if you prefer absolute truth, impossible standards. He was heavily overweight himself, yet frequently lamented how particular women might be attractive if they weren't "such a lard-arse". He was willing to belittle (behind their backs, of course), any woman wearing clothes that were even slightly comfortable, and his views on girls who wore glasses would have made Dorothy Parker spin in her grave.

Thirdly, the courage. Belittling a woman behind her back was - if horribly unpleasant - at least a clue that he had some idea of the existence of tact. I have had people ask me whether Doug has ever been tested to see if he is somewhere on the Asperger's-Autism spectrum. He has not, but there is no doubt that he suffered from neither of those complaints in any way. He was acutely aware of the distress that his opinions might cause, but under most circumstances he simply didn't care - or worse, was actively trolling for dismay. Even the sotto voce insulting seemed to be designed to cause offence, since he often insulted people behind their backs but not behind the backs of their friends or colleagues, which meant that Doug's opinion would be transmitted back to its target through the unwitting medium of well-meaning outrage. It took me a little while to figure out that if I tattled on Doug to the target of one of his rants it would be equally hurtful to them to learn that they had been described that way to me - someone they liked (I am not too modest to say that I pride myself on being well-loved amongst my peers, although there is an uneasy feeling that I might not be so popular were it not for the incredibly low bar set by Doug. After all, I'm only human. Perhaps compared against an average person I might turn out to be the flawed idiot I see in my bathroom mirror). Occasional underhanded tact aside, Doug was not afraid to speak his mind - and by not afraid, I mean he was willing to go out of his way to turn otherwise innocuous conversations into excuses to rant about his current obsession - whether it be the work shy poor ruining the country with their million children, the inherent intellectual superiority of white people, the idea that women were only good for cooking and baby-manufacturing. He treated all these opinions as if they were god-given truths, yet at the same time would feign not to understand why they might be insulting to other people. To Doug, arguing that people with below-average IQs should be sterilised for the good of the country was comparable to arguing that toilet-paper should be put on the roll so that the loose end hung down nearest to the wall, and he would react in mock horror and amazement that anyone might have strong feelings on the matter.

Ultimately, though, what made him the perfect straw man was not his "outspokenness", nor the fact that his personal habits made him such a tempting target for ad hominem attacks, nor even that his hypocrisy seemed to almost instantly undermine a good fifty percent of his arguments. It was his tortuous logic, and his inability to grasp even the simplest of rhetorical techniques. Arguing with Doug about something was like correcting a calculus exam filled in by a four-year old - there were so many mistakes in his reasoning that when you heard him say something that made vague sense it was like seeing a single sunbeam shining through a thick layer of illogical cloud.

It was with great alarm, then, that one day in early March I found myself agreeing with him about something.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Art Pact 109 - The Previa Hemsfoot Interview, pt 3

Fifteen years ago no-one had heard of Previa Hemsfoot, but now it is a household name. As its careful approach to Jack suggests, it has no natural inclination towards self-publicity. A lot of this is the work of the charity's PR department, headed up by Bellami Coil. Coil is undoubtedly a genius at his work, but he is also notorious for his past work advertising for the cosmetics industry. I have my own grudge to bear against Coil, his advert for Clairol Corporation's Mane-Ribbon oil having cost me a girlfriend in university. I don't hold this against Previa, of course, but it has always given me a rather ambiguous attitude towards the charity's work. Not my most level-headed attitude. I mention Bellami to Previa, and am pleased to learn that it is also not as enamoured of him as their success as a partnership might imply.

"Uh, yeah. Well, Coil's Coil, right? He's been good for the charity, but there was a little tension between us. Certainly the first time we were both at a meeting there were - well, let's say some fireworks."

I have already spoken to a couple of Previa's colleagues at the charity, and its tactful subtext covers up quite a fight. The meeting lasted three days (having originally been scheduled for a morning), and Previa and Bellami almost came to blows over the idea of breaking the charity's tradition of not showing the faces of sufferers in advertisements. Bellami argued that there was a vital need to put a human face on the condition (specifically a Myrmian face, since the public was to some extent already familiar with Fothergill himself). Previa's argument (which seems quite reasonable to me), was that publicising the faces of sufferers would only make them more self-conscious out and about. This is already a serious concern, Previa says. It is part of the psychological aspect of Fothergill's Syndrome - although the inability to change between forms is a confirmed chemical problem and is completely indetectable without medical tests, typical sufferers are consumed with a sort of paranoid obsession with their appearance. Fothergill's original analysis of "Pol", before confirming that there was a biological basis, was that it was simply suffering from an extreme form of the neuroticism that affects everyone nowadays. Jack (who I notice it now fiddling with his camera gear pretending to put it away rather than actually getting ready to leave) suggests that the world of advertising, particularly cosmetics advertising, is in large part to blame for that neurotic behaviour.

"So Bellami's contribution has been to a problem that affects everyone," Previa muses, "and actually slowed down the first diagnosis of the condition. Yes, that could well be. Still, it could be worse. He's helped out since the charity brought him on board, so I suppose we can consider it some sort of penitence."

Previa also pointed out a corollary of this psychological problem - that there is nothing apparently wrong with Fothergill's sufferers, certainly nothing that could be easily displayed on a poster. Previa itself looks perfectly healthy, indeed it is probably one of the healthiest graciles I've met here, possibly a result of its confinement.

"I do spend a lot of time away from the sun," it agrees. "But you see my point of view, yes? When you can still see undernourished children on the evening news, or the faces of kids with premature hatch scars, or... you get the idea. A perfectly normal warrior or gracile is going to look quite boring. There's no way of looking behind the face and seeing that there's something important lacking."

I wonder at this - because what I saw earlier of Previa made me feel just that, and quite acutely. I want to make an excuse to look at Jack's photos, to see whether they have captured what I saw, but I cannot find a reasonable excuse.

"The odd thing is that I sort of threw myself under the bus as a result of that meeting, but it's worked out well for me. No-one was interested in being the face of the condition, and I argued for a long time that there wasn't any need for it, that it would be counter-productive. But eventually Bellami prevailed - he's got a good line in persuasion, but I suppose that's his thing, yes? So to prevent it from becoming some sort of Miss Fothergill's competition I volunteered to do it myself. It was pretty grim at first, but then I started to come to terms with it. I suppose it was something that I had to do, so I did it and as a part of that I sort of changed inside even if I couldn't change outside."

Previa shrugs. It has been wearing the warrior mask this whole time, giving its voice a weird muffled quality. It removes it carefully, and I can see something that reminds me of the girlfriend who left me as a result of Bellami's advert - the closure flaps of Previa's air-holes, at the side of its temples, are rippling subtly. It is a subtle emotion, a sign of a sort of nostalgia that my girlfriend was unable to describe to me. My textbooks do not mention it, but it is my theory that it is a genuinely unique emotion, something that Myrmians can feel but that Terrans cannot.

"It's a tricky thing," Previa says. "I hated publicity, but then the more I got of it the more indifferent about it I felt. Bellami used to say that I'd get to like it, but I don't think I would have. Even now - I'm feeling a little uneasy about giving this interview."

I look over to Jack, who has stayed much longer than he'd intended to, and I see that he is thinking what I am thinking. I thank Previa for its time, and the relieved look on its face tells me that I have timed our exit just right to avoid overstaying our welcome.

I never get to ask about the genetic question. Whatever it is that Previa thinks about the controversy, it will have to remain (for the moment at least), its secret. It seems fair - it has been in the spotlight for long enough, it deserves to go back to a world where there is plenty of privacy.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Art Pact 108 - The Previa Hemsfoot Interview, pt 2

There is a mantelpiece in the living room, although the fireplace inside it either never existed or has been bricked up and plastered over. Pride of place goes to a photo proving the meeting that Previa claimed: Markham Fothergill as an old man, already showing signs of the liver problems that would eventually claim his life. He looks pleased, and Previa looks happy - as though it has met a hero.

Markham Fothergill was not typical hero-fodder. Curmudgeonly, but not in a witty way that could be forgiven as a sign of genius, conservative in his views towards integration, in his early life even a member of a separatist group (Fortego, long since gone, its more liberal members dispersed into the community, the right-wing rolled into DKB and its equally objectionable splinters). Fothergill's degree in psychology led him eventually to work in the Toronto Baines clinic, where he was to meet the first example of a sufferer of the syndrome that would later take his name. Fothergill's notes from the day note nothing particularly unusual about Pol (the name by which he identified his patient in his monograph). But two months later his diary is buzzing with excitement:

It seems that my suspicions have been confirmed (he writes) Pol's condition is not psychological - or rather, his psychological issues stem from a genuine inability to enter metamorphosis. Beecham's analysis is too complicated for me to fully understand, however. I will need to go back to my books if I am to help him!

I quiz Previa about "Pol"'s real identity. It claims to have met Fothergill's patient.

"We weren't introduced properly, though," it tells me. "I could probably find out, but I think it's better to preserve Pol's privacy. We know too much about him, right? That's why Fothergill was so keen on keeping it a secret."

Jack takes his final shot and begins to pack up, but Previa presses him to take another few shots, as a favour. Apparently his disarming manner has completely overcome Previa's earlier suspicions.

"I've got a full suit," it says cryptically.

Full suit turns out to be almost an understatement - after ten minutes of preparation in the other room it emerges made up as a full warrior, complete with mask and heavy padding on its forelegs. It's not particularly convincing, although I can imagine from a distance it might look quite authentic. There is something unusual about it, something that eludes my grasp but which Jack will later put his finger on quite accurately - we are not unaccustomed to seeing Myrmians in "drag" like this, but they are usually lampooning their own forms, in the same way that a Terran festival-goer might wear a comically outsized codpiece. Previa's costume is hardly lifelike, but it is an attempt to simulate the real shape of a Myrmian in warrior form - the real shape that Previa itself might be able to take if it were not for Fothergill's.  We are looking at the person that Previa wants to be, and what makes me uncomfortable (even though I cannot pin it down in the moment) is the sense of a longing, a gap between desire and reality that can never be filled, and that has made another person's life more painful.

Jack takes the pictures, then wires them to Previa and deletes them from his cache. I get the impression that this is something he has done before, which he confirms (not all photographers are so polite, he tells me, having once worked as a lighting expert for a fashion photographer who refused to send a copy of a photo he'd taken without payment - the model in question had died that week, and it was the last image of her alive. Her grieving parents had asked for the copy. "The single biggest act of dickishness I've ever seen," Jack comments).

With "Pol" a secret and Fothergill dead, Previa is the best-known face in the small but visible world of Fothergill's Syndrome. With so few sufferers it is still hardly a major priority for medical science, but there are a small staff of biologists, doctors, and chemists still working on the possibility of a cure. I ask Previa whether it believes that a cure will come during its lifetime.

"I suppose so. But I don't want to just sit back and wait. I have to live my life now, not put it off."

It tells me that its charity work is rewarding, but that it has decided to scale back in the last few years.

"The problem is that if you're campaigning for a charity that directly affects you, there's basically no downtime. A year or so ago everything in my life was the condition, you understand? It was getting on top of me, and I thought it might be useful for someone else to take the lead, or more than someone else. It's not very - well, I also think perhaps I was giving people a sort of fatigue, that they would get so used to seeing my face that they'd start to think of it as a charity that was only about me. But the truth is that I'm pretty lucky: I don't have to stay in social housing, I could afford my own place. There are children suffering from the condition - the most recent person diagnosed on Earth is only six, they got picked up by the genetic test and then the chemical test confirmed it. They're hopefully going to have an easier life than I did when I was six, and that's what the charity is really about."

Still wanting to avoid the issue of genetics, I ask whether Previa thinks there is a wider benefit from the charity, expanding our still patchy knowledge of Myrmian biology.

"Oh, definitely. It was charity money that discovered the role of Myrchitinase A in breeder baldness, did you know that?" (I did not) "Not exactly much use to me - well, maybe one day, with luck! But it's a good outcome. If there hadn't been the charity, perhaps they'd still be looking."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Art Pact 107 - The Previa Hemsfoot Interview, pt 1

I meet Previa in its apartment, a neatly-kept five-room space on the third floor of a block that had once been offices. The exterior of the building is in a fairly advanced state of decay - the metal cladding that once covered it all the way down has (almost unthinkably) rusted near the top, and at the bottom to a height of about four or five meters the panels have been removed, presumably stolen for scrap by the local gangs. I note with interest that it is about as high as a normal ladder could reach, so the thieves must not have had access to a cherry picker. Under the cladding the building is a morbid grey, and the whole scene feels like some frightful photo from the new world, a dead body having its clothes slowly stolen, lying face-up in some slum in a parody of sun-bathing. Graffiti on the walls suggests that there are (or have been) DKB supporters in the area. I wonder why anyone would choose to live here, much less a Myrmian, much much less a Myrmian with Fothergill's Syndrome.

"Hey there!" Previa answers the door cheerfully, though, and I can see that the flat is spotless. After the ruin outside, and the damp corridors and stairways that led up here it's like walking into another world. "Come in, come in!"

I came with the cameraman from Novvivo, Jack, and at first Previa is unsure about his presence, but it soon warms to him when he compliments the oil paintings that line the walls of the little corridor that leads from Previa's front door to its lounge (later on he will phone me to tell me that he blew up one that was caught in the background of one of the photos, and a friend of his who runs a gallery had expressed interest in meeting Previa). The first picture inside the door is a strange melange - clearly thick paint applied with a knife, but styled so as to appear to be a composite picture made from magazine cut-outs. It shows a Myrmian of many parts - the right side of the head a warrior, the left side a breeder, both stuck atop a gracile's torso, and so forth. As with a composite photo the colours of the various skins do not match, and the limbs join the body at odd angles. The effect is disjointed, somewhat jarring.

"That's how I painted it," Previa agrees. "And I put it here so that it would be the first thing people saw when they came to visit me. It's a test, I suppose, an insight into a person's empathy."

I relay my feelings of unease, wondering whether I have passed the test.

"Too soon to say," it says coyly. Then: "but unease - /dis-ease/, you might say, is a good start. That's the way I feel all the time, in parts."

"Because of the Fothergill's?"

"Partly because of that, but partly the way we all feel, all humans. Everyone has their own disjunction, the space between what it is they are and what it is that they want to be. It's worst for me"--it laughs--"sorry, how arrogant! It's worse than usual for me, I should say, because of my condition. Then there's what all Myrmian's feel, being late to the party when it comes to being a human, being not quite right because we don't fit into those categories the Terrans settled on long ago. But even you two leggers have the same thing, right? That's part of it, not being quite at ease in your skin, or with your voice, or your job, or... god, the list is endless!"

I agree, although something about Previa's list troubles me. Does it think that things would be much better for it if there were a cure for Fothergill's, I ask. It scratches its mane-ribbons, perplexed.

"I see what you mean. No, it would definitely be better. I mean, maybe not for me, but there are going to be more people hatched with the condition, it would be better for them as children."

As we set up for the photo shoot I point out that it has referred to "the condition" twice in response to my questions. Have I made a faux-pas in calling it by Fothergill's name?

"No," it says. "No. I don't, because Fothergill himself wasn't very keen on the idea. He said at the EHO that he wasn't fond of the idea of naming diseases after people anyway, you know, because they were discoveries not inventions. But also he said to me - I met him once, at a conference - that someone in the old Myrmia must have discovered it first anyway. He couldn't believe that it was a new thing, although the genetic basis for it was only discovered a year or two after he died."

Jack and I exchange slightly surprised glances.

I don't mention my misgivings while the shoot is going on, instead focusing on Previa itself. I had not noticed when it came to the door that it was wearing prosthetic warrior's legs over its rear leg-spines. The prosthetics gave it a jaunty walk (perhaps jaunty isn't the right word, but it is hard to describe). I ask whether it made them itself.

"Oh, no - there's a company that does fancy-dress parts. They make them for two-leggers. I've heard people say it's all a bit racist, but they've been very good to me. I wired them a few years ago, asking whether they would consider making them a bit sturdier. Their chief designer came to see me, and they made these specially for me."

I ask whether Previa thinks there might be a market for prosthetics.

"Well, maybe. Probably not, I suppose. You know there are only nine of us with the condition on Earth? And of those, five are warrior-form, so the local target market would be me plus three others. I don't think anyone would be getting rich that way. I did tell them to put the design into the collection, though, so who knows? Someone on one of the outer planets could print it out. Maybe someone on Myrmia's wearing a set right now!"

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Art Pact 106

Our stakeout, now well into the fifth week, was beginning to take its toll. There were twelve of us on the team, three shifts of four, two cars per shift so that for eight hour stretches we sat with other person and tried to ignore the fact that we had exhausted all possible avenues of conversation a month ago. We were supposed to be radio silent, but after the first fortnight it became obvious that the target had absolutely nothing in the way of electronic equipment, hence there was no chance that they would pick up our transmissions. On day thirty-two I was switching shifts, so I had a double - the morning with Sutter, the afternoon with Evans. I took a book (Gross's Psychology, the textbook for the evening classes I'd had to cancel because of the case), and lay the passenger seat as flat as I could so that I could lay down along it and prop up the book on the back seat at the relevant page.

"You see Blue Court last night?" Sutter asked.


Wrong answer - I should have just said yes, then nodded in agreement with whatever he said. I hadn't watched Blue Court for a year though. It made me want to throw my remote through the TV, and since I'd splashed out and bought a nice new flatscreen only last year: a) it was sure to smash the screen, not like my old tank of a tube, and b) there was no way I could afford to replace it. My credit cards wouldn't even recognise the number zero if I showed it to them, it's been that long.

"Oh man, you missed a great one!"

(I doubted that).

"There was this terrorist planning to blow up the judge's chambers, they catch him because Pearl finds that the judge's daughter had been talking on a chatroom to someone who'd warned her that this other guy was some middle-aged guy, but then the first guy it turns out knows the second guy - or maybe he was the second guy, I had to go out and get a beer, I'm not so clear on that. Anyway, it was all a setup to make her grateful so they could get information out of her about when the judge was going to be working, when he was going to be home."

This is one reason I don't watch it any more - it's all terrorists nowadays. Everyone's obsessed with them, no-one cares about just finding criminals. I get it all the time when I meet my brother-in-law's folks: "when you going to catch those terrorists, John?"

"You should watch the repeat," he told me. "Nine tonight."

"Can't. Date."

"Oh yeah? How come I didn't hear about this-agh!" He winced, having finally bit his tongue instead of the gum he'd been nursing for the last hour, and which had miraculously survived his earlier monologue.

"Because I don't tell you everything," I said. "I'll be honest - I usually try to make a point of not telling you /anything/."

"Whoa, turn down the love a little there Romeo!"

Of course, I knew why he thought he should have already heard - Charlie. She and I had been partners for years, and she claimed to know things about me that I didn't know myself. She'd have got it out of me somehow, if she'd been trying, and I might not even have known it. But what genetics and upbringing had given her in intuition they had taken away from her in discretion. She knew all about me, but she knew nothing about how to keep that knowledge to herself.

"So who is it?" he asked. I considered not answering, but unfortunately there was no way I was going to be able to keep that detail a secret anyway.



"Anna from records Anna."

He wolf-whistled, and clicked the radio link open.

"Hey Charlie!"

"What?" said Muller's voice.

"Put Charlie on," Sutter told him.

"She can't talk right now."

"Oh? Something I should be telling Denise?"

"Get your mind out of the gutter," Muller said wearily. "We've got a bet on about who can keep quiet longest. I did an hour fifty earlier on. She's up to one-seventeen."

"Never mind that, she can try again later. Listen, Charlie, your boy has a date with Anna."

"Fuck me," Charlie said, her voice squeaking. We heard her coughing, then fumbling the radio handset away from the console. "I mean, what? Anna from records Anna?"

"The very same," Sutter confirmed.

"The one with one tit bigger than the other?"

"She does not have lopsided-" I began, then stopped. What was the point?

"She does," said Sutter.

"He's right," Charlie said. "I'd say one was what, five percent smaller than the other?"

"More," Sutter said. "Like ten percent, the left is ten percent smaller."

"No, not that much. Seriously, the difference looks more because of her bra. If you see them in the flesh it's much more even." Sutter coughed, almost swallowing his gum. "I heard that. Before you ask, we happened to getting changed at the same time at the gym, so yes, I do know what I'm talking about."

"You have all the luck."

"Not my sort, Earl," she told him. "All that aside, I think she'll be good for you hon. She's pretty smart, and she's forthright, you know what I mean? Plus, she's fairly straight out when she likes someone or when she wants something. Did you ask her out, or the other way round?"

"She asked me," I admitted.

"Guys..." said Muller.

"Yeah, well," Charlie opined. "When she wants something she goes for it, so try not to be too surprised if she asks you back to her place. I know how you get, hon, all flustered."

"Sounds like the professor here's going to have his hands full," Sutter said.

"Guys, seriously." said Muller.

"Well, one hand full," Charlie said. "The other about ninety-five percent full." She burst out into her half-chuckle half-cackle laugh, which was cut short suddenly by someone pressing the radio's squelch button.

"Guys!" Muller repeated urgently. "Look at the damn building!"

Monday, January 23, 2012

Art Pact 105

In the dug-out trench, clutching his rifle gloomily, Baggsie listened to Father Feldman giving the blessing to Carruthers and Strone. He put up with it as far as the speech went (there was little he could do to stop that, after all), but when Feldman came to make the mark of the fifty gods on Strone's forehead Baggsie slapped the big man's hand away angrily.

"Leave him alone, you goddamned vulture. Hasn't he done enough for us?"

Feldman withdrew his hand, but stayed close to Strone as he marked Carruthers's forehead. Carruthers himself shot Baggsie a dirty look, then closed his eyes for the final prayer. After that it took him another five minutes to die - an agonising gurgling five minutes which Baggsie tried in vain to ignore. In Feldman's favour, at least the big man stayed with Carruthers to the very end, crouching over him protectively and holding his hands, whispering constantly to Carruthers about the reward he could look forward to in the afterlife, of the two of them perhaps meeting again in one or other of the honourable conflicts that the Books told them raged wherever the dark spirits craved unnatural power.

"How can you do that at a time like this?" Baggsie asked him when Carruthers was gone for good.

"Bring solace to the dying?"

"It's preying on them in their moment of weakness. Strone isn't even dead!"

"This is the time they needed it," Feldman said simply, shrugging and sitting back into the forward wall of the dug-out. Somewhere up ahead one of the enemy snipers must have seen him moving, for they heard the high-pitched whistle of a bullet flying past overhead, then a sound like a branch snapping. "There's no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole," he quoted.

"Sure, just like there's no such thing as a man who prays for the fifty gods to cure his athlete's foot," Baggsie said. "He goes to the damn clinic. Where are we now? I'm an atheist, and this sure as war looks like a foxhole to me."

Feldman looked at him thoughtfully.

"We'll have to agree to disagree," he said.

"Fine, as long as you stay away from Strone. Carruthers is gone, there's nothing we can do about that now."

"To more just wars," Feldman muttered.

"Oh shove it!" Baggsie told him.

It was two hours more before their first sight of the support teams - a buzzing black dot far to the west that immediately retreated when two ugly black puffs of smoke appeared around it, the sign of enemy AA.

"If we can see them the enemy can too," Feldman said sadly.

"What a mess," Baggsie agreed.

If they'd still had Strone with them they could have tried to confuse the enemy's spotters, earning the support flier a few minutes in which to get close enough to land and pick them up without drawing fire. But Strone had made the ultimate sacrifice, making a hall of mirrors with the opposing psi the enemy had brought forward, waiting to send his own scan back down the channel. When the enemy psi had begun his scan he'd gone through Baggsie's mind, then Feldman's, then Dinmer's. They'd all had the right training, working themselves into a fever pitch of terror so that they were as open to the enemy as possible, and in the embarrassment of riches they'd given the scanner they'd managed to hide the fact that they had a psi of their own. If the enemy had scanned Carruthers next it might have been for nothing, but luckily Strone was next in line. Like lightning discharging down a line of greatest potential Strone leapt into the other man's mind, scanning him so that the two of them were trapped in an endless loop, each viewing the other viewing their own mind viewing the other... so on into infinity, so Strone had explained it to Baggsie as they prepared. Now they were both gone - it would be impossible to move Strone or wake him up without killing him, but at least the enemy psi was in the same state, and since no charge had come from the top of the hill it seemed probable that he had not even been able to tell his commanding officer how few of them there were.

"Light'll go in a minute," Feldman observed.

"I guess."

"Better for us or for them, do you think?"

"Them, definitely. We might make a break for it. I suppose. But it'd mean.."--he gestured to Strone.

"Leaving him behind? We can't do that, surely. We could support him between us."

"Sure, but what's the point? I mean we don't know what range the link is. Strone told me he could do five kilometres, but it's the weakest of the two. What if the other guy can only do a K? half, even - we're not even three hundred meters from them, they could have brought up someone with low range."

"We can't leave him," Feldman said definitely.

"Well we can't take him without risking killing him. There's still a chance, I don't want his death on my hands if we could have pulled him out of it."

"Then we go nowhere," Feldman said, with a resigned sigh. "I suppose there's comfort in knowing that our loyalty will be rewarded in other battles."

"Oh, cram it!"

As night drew in, though, both men began to feel the weight of their decision. Baggsie knew that Strone had gone into the hall of mirrors willingly, knowing that he would most likely die in there. But he had known that Feldman was the sort of good-hearted chaplain who would want to do the right thing, and that Baggsie's mulish stubbornness would not let him abandon Strone. It's like he's holding us here, Baggsie thought resentfully, then felt overcome with guilt at the uncharitable emotion.

"We have to think of something," he said aloud.

"I know," Feldman said gloomily. "Even if it means..."

"Yes," Baggsie nodded. "We'll say an hour, shall we? It'll focus our minds on saving him. If we can't come up with something by then..."

"We'll go," Feldman agreed.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Art Pact 104 - Machine of Birth

"It's a new app," Mei told me, holding out her phone. "Jordan got it for me. He's on thin ice."

I looked at the screen. It didn't look particularly impressive. It was a single word, rendered beautifully in a serif font - I recognised that from graphic design class, so that'll show Chrissy the next time she gives my dad some blah blah about how I can't be taught. What does she know?


"Is this something to do with AA?" I asked suspiciously. Mei's parents are constantly going on and on at her about drinking at parties, they're strict as. She scrunched up her lips and frowned at me, which she doesn't realise makes her look like her mother. I didn't say it though. I wanted her to stay together with Jordan, and if she was already grumpy later on when she saw him...

"It's a new app," she said slowly. "Apps for old lushes are one hundred percent yesterday."

"What does it do?"

"It tells you why you were born," she said.

"Duh, we did sex ed last year," I told her. "If you don't know where babies come from, maybe you should be keeping your legs shut when Jordan picks you up."

She rolled her eyes, and swept the app closed with a thumb.

"If you're going to be facetious.." she said.

"No no, I'm sorry. Go on, tell me. What does it do?" I realised I'd crossed the line, and it was danger zone with Jordan if I didn't roll it back a bit. She gave me a slow stare, then reluctantly started the app up again. Its start-up screen glowed for a few seconds: MACHINE OF BIRTH, in a seventies-style fat font, some derivative of Arnold Bocklin I guessed (damn, I was on a streak!) Then the screen blacked out again, and went back to that single word.

"So, sambuca."

"It's the reason," Mei told me.

"The reason?"

"The reason why I was born. Well, conceived I suppose. You have to get your folks' permission, because it needs access to their lifestreams. You give it your date of birth, then it goes back through the lifestreams and works out everything that led up to... you know..."

"Your dad showing your mum his credentials," I finished for her. We both shuddered.

"Thank god it doesn't go into details," she said.

"So then what?"

"So then it analyses the reasons and breaks them down into a one or two word phrase. It's not perfect, but..."

"But you believe it." I read the screen again. I'd met Mei's parents (well, I'd met her mum and I'd seen her dad picking her up from school and dropping her off at the mall). I could totally believe it. They were all over her about the evils of alcohol - properly freaking out, so that you knew they must have been booze-hounds in the old days. Her mum looked like she was a hard drinker, certainly. I could imagine her as a student, knocking back the voddie like a Russian fish.

"All that crap she spouts about staying sober, and now this?" she grimaced. "But that's just something I have to hold onto."

"You say you've got to get their permission?" I asked. "Sounds lame."

"Don't be such a baby. I signed off the access myself."

I suppose I could have got mum's access key - she doesn't keep too tight a grip on it when she's going out. But Dad's key? No, Chrissy's such a suspicious bitch she keeps everything under lock, her stuff and dad's too. I suppose it's so she can grab it all if dad kicks off.

"So that's all that it can do, though? It can't do me, or Jordan or whoever, unless we can get our folks' access keys?"

"Even worse," she said, "they totally charge for it, so it's locked to the original lifestreams." She grinned slyly. "But don't you see?"

"See what-oh!" I got it. It was useless for me, because Danny was Chrissy's boy with her first husband, and the baby was Chrissy and dad's. But Mei's snotty elder sister and her pain-in-the-tits younger brother? Knowing their secrets could be gold, if the secrets were embarrassing. "Are they good?" I asked.

Mei nodded, leaning towards me.

"The best..." she whispered. She swept the app screen back to the main menu, opened up a date selector. "I had to ask Yumi what her birthday was - I said I'd seen the best present for her. Can't believe she fell for it!"

She tapped in the numbers, then a few seconds later held up the screen for me to see.


"Oh shit!" I said, and burst into laughter. "What the hell?"

"That's nothing. Check out Ken's!" She fiddled with the phone again.


"Oh. My. God." I said, and we both burst out laughing. "That completely makes sense! You realise we can destroy him with that, right?"

"I know. Shame it wasn't the other way round, but this is pretty good." I nodded, although I didn't really agree. Mei thinks her biggest problem is Yumi, and fair enough she is kind of stuck-up, but at least she keeps to herself. Ken's a pure-bred douche, and a miniature pervert in the making, always trying to find some excuse to barge in on us when I'm over at Mei's place. "We spread this around school and I guarantee inside the week there won't be a single person who isn't reminding Ken of it every time they see him. That'll serve the little creep right."

"Let's get right to it," I suggested. "You're meeting Jordan at eight, right?"

"If he doesn't piss me off," she said grimly.

It would hold, though, I thought. She'd be so pleased with her plan to make her brother's name mud that she wouldn't have enough venom left in her to ditch Jordan. And as long as she was with Jordan, there was no chance of her draping herself all over Rich and getting her claws in him before I'd had a chance to. She'd break up with Jordan eventually, but by that time I'd have worked something out to take care of her permanently.

Something to do with sambuca, I thought to myself, smiling at her pleasantly.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Art Pact 103

We entered the library through the third-floor window. Either the ground had piled up around it or the entire building had sunk, so that the windowsill was actually about a foot below ground level, and we were forced to step down and bend awkwardly to get under the upper half of the sliding window frame - empty of glass except for a few shards trapped around its edge, but held solidly in place by some hidden nail or perhaps a warping of the outer frame. As I passed underneath it I felt my back scratch across the underside, and a shower of paint flakes fell behind me.

"Careful," Taspet said. I rolled my eyes at her, then stepped down onto a chair on the other side of the window and then to the debris-littered floor of an administrator's office. She clambered in behind me, and Raffla behind her, and it was only when we were all in that I realised that the chair was not where I might have expected it to be.

"Someone's been here before."

"They can't have been," Raffla scoffed. "No-one knows about this place."

"We know about it."

"Correction. I know about it. You two only know because I told you. I didn't tell anyone else, ergo no-one else knows."

She crossed the office to an empty door frame on the opposite side from the window/entrance, stepping over a pile of painted wood slats that I assumed must have once been the door. In the doorway she peeked left and right, and after a moment beckoned us to follow her.

"Yes," she said, leading us to the right, "this is correct."

"Correct for what? I thought you said you hadn't been in here."

"Correct for what I read, correct for what's in the book."

The corridor was less messy than the office, but I began to discount my theory about the earth being piled up around the building - something serious had clearly happened, and I was all too ready to believe that the whole edifice had simply sunk three stories into its own basements or foundations. I wondered exactly how far down the constructions had gone, and whether the building had bottomed out or was just waiting for some extra provocation - some extra weight, perhaps the weight of three young women, one of above-average mass - before continuing its journey downward. The place seemed stable enough, but no doubt that was what the original occupants had thought, and where were they now?

We passed the evidence of the cataclysm: great swathes of plaster fallen away from walls to reveal breeze-block beneath, areas where the ground was littered with rotting ceiling tiles that had tumbled out of metal grids above our heads. In those formerly hidden levels were pipes and wires, some still shiny, some torn, some broken under the force of the impact. In more than one place it looked as though the appetizing plastic covers of electrical wiring had been chewed through by pests, and from far in the distance we could hear the echoing sound of water trickling out of a broken pipe and splashing onto bare concrete. If it had been as long since the incident as Raffla claimed, I would not have been surprised to find holes washed in the floor by erosion. But at the next junction we turned away from the noise and into the stacks. Taspet and I gasped in astonishment, and even Raffla seemed overawed by what she had led us to.

The stacks extended from ground floor all the way up to the very tip of the building, eighteen floors above if Raffla's information was to be believed. It was not a single unified room, more like a series of ring-shaped levels looking out onto a central space which kept the same diameter from top to bottom, so that as the girth of the library increased the ratio of open air to floor decreased. Near the top there was almost nothing - just circular bookcases lining the wall of the building, with a thin walkway beneath them as floor. On the next floor down the walkway was slightly wider, and so on until where we came in there was enough room on the walkway that it could no longer truly be considered a walkway, more a floor, and simple freestanding bookcases were arranged radially in two concentric circles in addition to the books that lined the outer wall. The library floor would have been even bigger were it not for the administrative offices that ringed the stacks - unique to this floor (again, if Raffla was to be believed, but we soon confirmed it), making a sort of constriction in the otherwise unimpeded flow of books.

"Mother of god," Taspet whispered - then, louder: "It's going to take us forever to find it. I mean, it could be anywhere."

"Not anywhere," I told them. "They'll be in some kind of order. Well, most of them..."

Plaster and ceiling tiles, of course, had not been the only things that the fall had dislodged. A surprising number of books had remained in their shelves - tightly packed by some harried cataloguer, no doubt - but perhaps ten percent, perhaps twenty, had been knocked out of place and fallen greater or lesser distances. On the third floor the floor shelves had occasionally fallen over entirely themselves, spilling their contents in great slicks of paper before them, and around the edge of the level there was a steady ring of books that had been thrown clear of the wall shelves. A short trip to the edge of the opening in the floor confirmed what I had suspected - that the top two or three levels of the library had lost a great deal of their contents directly into the open shaft, and they formed a forlorn mountain of books on the ground floor, a mountain down whose sides white drifts of literature and science slowly ground.

"Better hope it's still on the shelf," Taspet said glumly. "I don't think we've enough food to search all that."

"If it's anywhere," I said, "it'll be on the shelf still. It's that kind of book."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Art Pact 102

"I suppose," said Brightman, "that a person has at some point to plant a flag."

Rogers looked at him, bleary-eyed, and tried to focus. They had been drinking heavily, and now his eyes seemed to be under the control of some malignant operator who adjusted their lenses nearer and further, so that the objects along the rough line between him and Brightman swam in and out of clarity - first the half-empty pint-glass that Brightman was holding up near to his face, ready for his next swig, then the man's round magenta face itself, and the two thin lips trapped on its surface as though abducted from some other face at an early age, finally the light-up sign on the bar-room wall that advertised Heineken.

"Oh?" said Rogers, leaving his mouth open so that he could add something. After a few seconds he realised that the bon mot which he had been preparing was utter gibberish, and he closed his mouth again, embarrassed but at least relieved that he was not so far gone as to be unable to recognise when he was not in a fit state to speak.

"You mean literally plant a flag," Orlov said.

"I mean figuratively plant a flag," said Brightman. "I'm not suggesting we invade somewhere or discover a new country."

"That's what I said."

"No, you said... never mind." Brightman shook his head. "I can see you're not ready for this."

The arrogant fuck, thought Rogers, his anger sobering him up.

"Who do you think you are, Bertrand Russell? Tell us your idea, drunky."

"Yeah, drunky!" Orlov parroted, breaking out into a hysterical laughter. Brightman and Rogers shared a glance, then worked together to grab their companion under his armpits, one on each side. "Drunky..." he giggled. "Yeah, Drunky!" The shepherded him carefully into a chair at the booth they'd vacated, and arranged him so that he couldn't topple over easily, but nor could he without great effort get out again. When he was comfortable and secure, they left him and returned to their places by their drinks.

"Go on," Rogers said. "What do you mean, plant a flag?"

"I mean, put your ideas and opinions on display. Make sure that everyone knows what you support and what you're against."

"Complete disclosure of your principles, you mean? Wearing a badge, like in Nazi Germany?"

"Jesus," Brightman swore. "That was quick."

"OK, fine. Like... I don't know, but I can't see that being a good idea."

"It wouldn't be like that," Brightman explained. "Look, the badges and stuff in Nazi Germany weren't about what you thought, they were about what sort of person you were, things you couldn't change, like being Jewish or a Gypsy or Gay."

"...or a Communist, because I remember from biology class that they're born Communists."

"Alright," the other man conceded. "Sometimes it was like that. But mainly it was about birth, not about decisions."

"Fair enough. But I still think it would be a bad idea. People who might otherwise be friends would never meet, because they'd know already that they held opposing views on something they felt strongly about. He had been toting an empty bottle for a few minutes now, and finally realising what was wrong with the weight in his hand he signaled to the bartender, which slid smoothly along the bar towards him and stood there, silently blinking the one green light that served as its eye. "Another one.. actually, you know what? Never mind." He turned back to Brightman. "I think there'd be the same - what's the word? Begins with a B..."


"That's the one. Balkanisation, the same Balkanisation as on the net. Balkanisation," he repeated, trying the word out in his mouth. "Balkanisation."

"Yeah," said Brightman, smiling. "I think you made the right decision. Time to call it a night."

He downed the rest of his glass, then the two of them wrestled Orlov out of his chair and made their way to the bar door, which hissed open in front of them and then closed behind them with the serious clunk of a closing shop. Were we really the last customers? Rogers wondered.

"I think people are better than that," Brightman said. "I mean, I think they can be. They aren't always. I'm not, not always."

"I see. I think."

"I think once more opinions are out in the open there'll be more understanding about how popular certain feelings are, and why. There's a lot of talk of silent majorities, and I for one think that it's bullshit. You can't work with a silent majority."

"I suppose by definition," Rogers said carefully, "If someone's silent about something, they don't care about it as much as someone who's vocal about it."

"Possibly. But anyway, if everyone's position on something is known, there's no talk of majority this or minority that. It's just a case of counting up."

"So you relegate every decision to democracy? Isn't that just as - I mean, no-one wants to be told what to do by some dictator, but..."

"Everyone wants to be told what to do by some dictator!" Brightman said excitedly. "That's the most fundamental thing about us, we dislike responsibility, we're all always looking for someone else to tell us what to do. We have the phrase 'benign dictator', as if there could ever be such a thing. We invent god because we desperately want someone with a perfect plan, someone we can follow with confidence, someone we can submit to. But it's crap, we have the power to make up our own minds, but it scares us!" He threw his free hand up in the air, which caused him to lose balance and fall towards Orlov, who in his turn was far too drunk to balance and fell against Rogers. With some effort Rogers managed just about to right them before the whole group sailed sideways into the road.

"Whoa there!" he called.


"I suppose you're right about that, though," Rogers said when they'd righted themselves again. "I mean, there is that trend. I guess you get it as a child, when your parents seem to know everything and things go right if you do what they say."

They walked on in silence for a few more minutes, putting the bar further and further behind them.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Art Pact 101

On the top of the mountain sat a pile of stones, a salt-and-pepper collection of granite, chalk, and flint pieces, rounded by wind and water into smooth fist-shaped pieces. It had stood there for hundreds of years by the time the little group reached it. They sheltered in its lee from the northerly winds and looked back at the way they had come.

There was no doubt about it - the waters were rising, and rising fast. To the far south the could no longer see the familiar inward curve of the bay - now a ragged line of white cut across the land, separating the ever-shrinking green of farmlands and woods from the endless gunmetal grey sea beyond. Of the city only the very tips of the towers remained, poking out of the choppy water, and a rhythmic flickering that was the fire at the top of the lighthouse. The attendant had kept his promise, then - marking the site of the port as long as it was possible to prevent ships from colliding with the submerged buildings and perhaps draw the attention of rescuers.

Beyond the water-line they traced their day's journey. The sea had not yet overtaken the farmhouse in which they'd had breakfast - still visible as a tiny dot to those of the group with good eyesight - but there was no doubt that by tomorrow morning it would be underwater unless there were some miraculous reversal of the tides. Then the water would flow into the lower valley, refilling the shape cut by the ancient river that had once run there, and there it would halt for just a few hours, as though taking a deep breath before pushing onwards across the cornfields and copses on the other side, drowning the crops so that even if it were to recede it would have devoured everything of any worth to the survivors.

In the sea itself they could occasionally spot the humped backs of leviathans that had dared to come with the sea, risking their own lives to follow the surging flood. A huge grey shape surfaced in the middle of the old port town, blowing a gargantuan spume of salty water far into the sky, higher than the highest towers. It must have been the length of New Street, and the barbells by its mouth themselves the size of five men laid end to end. It dropped below the surface again, but even at this great distance they could see its immense form moving below the surface, gliding monstrously over the low cottages of the fishermen's quarter.

When they had regained their breath they began to silently unpack their food, each taking the first of the three packages they had made at the farm and devouring it as though it were the first time they had ever eaten. They passed around one of the canteens of water and drained it dry between them, and when they were finished they huddled closer together, colder now that the heat of exertion had gone from them.

When they had been like that for an hour or so, slowly watching the scene to the south fade, one of them stuck an arm around the edge of the fairy castle and indicated by gestures to his companions that the wind had lessened somewhat, and that he was going to go around and take a look at what lay ahead of them. The desire was echoed by the others, and since they would at some point have to travel that way, they moved clockwise around the circular base of the makeshift tower until they could see to the north.

Their hopes were dashed. The map they had was wrong, or if it were correct, it had been made long ago, or far away. To the north the sea curled around the land again, and although it was further off (perhaps three days journey) there was no doubt that it was part of the same rising ocean, and that travel in that direction would merely bring them closer to the waters they were trying to avoid. Traipsing around the peak of the mountain they saw water in every direction - sometimes nearer, sometimes farther, but on all sides the world was bounded by a dull grey ring that stretched from the far horizon towards them. They sat back down on the rounded rocks and stared at their feet. Some wept, some made fists and wordlessly cursed what mute gods might be watching them from above.

The sun sank into the ocean itself to be lost for another day, and a fire was started without much enthusiasm, an apathy that seemed to have been transmitted into the flames themselves. They jumped and lapped at the wood listlessly, throwing out a careless heat only when they could be bothered, then retreating into a sullen darkness so that it appeared for a few moments that the fire had gone out entirely. Those trying to warm their hands had to be on their guard constantly. When the fire waned they had to lean forward to glean the least bit of heat, only to be forced to jump back when a sudden spurt of yellow flame leapt out of the embers towards them.

Eventually darkness overwhelmed both the camp fire and the campers, the former dying away to a smattering of orange glows hidden in a field of ash, the latter forming themselves into a loose ring as close to the remnants of the heat as they could, each one with his or her head towards the dying fire, lying at an angle so that the circle could close up as tight as possible and allow everyone to share their heat with those to either side of them. Then one by one they drifted off, filled with despair that only the cold in their feet could distract them from, and then only momentarily.

Around them the ring of sea drew ever closer, and the things in the sea swam over fields and roads and old deer paths and wondered at their new territory.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Art Pact 100

It was the morning in the suburb, and fire sprites danced from rubbish-bin to rubbish-bin, leaving behind them melted plastic lids and the acrid scent of smoldering waste. Cats watched them from the safety of the spaces between double-glazed windows and net curtains, feline breath misting up the glass in front of them as their eyes tracked the bright spots from one bin to the next, ever alert. In the Wilkinson's house their own cat Damson let her tail flick idly as she watched, sending ripples up the fine lace material of the net to her back, and thought more about her plan to catch one of the things.

Damson the Tortoiseshell, her peers called her, or if they were of that set of disrespectful half-growns who thought of all older cats as irrelevant furniture, Damson the Tortoise. She herself preferred Damson the Calico, since she had been born in the new world before the Wilkinsons had moved their family back to their old house in the grey drear of Slough, and she liked to pepper her speech with Americanisms to remind her of her birthplace and to annoy those of the more stuffy neighbours who mocked her accent (slight, after all these years) and presumed to offer their opinions about the intellectual and moral superiority of Europeans - a shaky theme at best, considering the current situation, but one to which a few of the local blowhards returned time and again.

"You've no chance," a voice said behind her. Whistler.

"Keep your opinions to yourself, fossil," she growled.

"Just saying. No chance. Leave it to them." The word was full of scorn.

She turned to face Whistler. He was on his middle perch, flicking his head from side to side to observe her in turn with one eye and the other. It was too early for the central heating to come on, so his breast feathers were puffed up into a ridiculous ball.

"When I want your opinion I'll break in there and eat it out of your skull," Damson told him. He let out a bored chirp, but jumped up to the high perch - a sign, she'd noticed, of nervousness.

Laughing to herself silently, she leapt down from the window ledge and padded through the quiet house to the kitchen. At the door between the kitchen and the utility room she waited, nosing it open until she could just see the little plastic square where the biggest Wilkinson had cut out a section of wall and replaced it with a cat flap. She was a little earlier than she'd planned, but after a few moments of silent crouching the flap began to flip inwards and a head poked through - tentatively at first, then the whole thing to the neck, craning the soft grey-furred face at the front of it from left to right. When that sweep was done a forepaw came through, then another, and it was at that point that Damson stood up and walked into the kitchen.

"Hello, Popsicle," she drawled.

The other cat, caught half-way through the flap, frozen for a second in surprise and then attempted to back out, flailing with his front paws on the slippery surface of the utility room floor. The flap was designed to be travelled through in one direction at a time, though, and the bottom lip of it caught on his collar, trapping his head. On the other side of the door he must have been pushing with his hind-paws - if he'd only stopped he might have been able to free himself, but Damson's ambush had frightened the wits out of him, leaving him incapable of measured thought. He mewed plaintively, and tried to dodge as she bounded forward suddenly and caught him a cuff on the nose.

"Let me out!" Popsicle cried. "No, let me in!"

"So you can steal my food again?" she asked.

"I'm begging you! Damson, have mercy, they'll hear me!"

"They will," she told him. "They'll be here in a second to burn off your tail."

"Oh god!" Popsicle yelled in terror. "Not my tail!"

She let him blubber for a few seconds, but she had already decided that she would let him in. If he hadn't mentioned the sprites it might have been different, but with him half-in and half-out of the cat flap and waving his arse around like a flag it was very likely that one of them might spot the opportunity to leap in through the open space, burning poor Popsicle to a crisp on the way. She wouldn't wish that on him, and she certainly didn't fancy the disaster of a sprite loose in the house with all the Wilkinsons asleep. Even if they were awake a single sprite might be capable of burning the whole place down around their ears.

She stepped back, and Popsicle scrambled gratefully inside, letting the flap click shut behind him into its draft-proof frame. He crawled underneath the metal shelf that held all the Wilkinsons' paints and rubbed his nose with a paw.

"You didn't have to hit me so hard," he complained.

"I wasn't hitting you," she said. "I was hitting the you of tomorrow, and the day after that. You I can talk to, I might not be near enough to talk to them. I had to give them a souvenir so that when they come around they'll think twice."

"I could have been burnt to death."

"Oh don't be such a kitten."

She sat to cleaning paws, washing off any hint of the scent of the younger cat that she might have picked up while hitting him. When she was done she took a few unenthusiastic bites of the dry food that had been left out for her last night and in a fit of uncharacteristic generosity sent a few of the little shapes skittering across the floor to where Popsicle huddled beneath the shelf. He ate them nervously, as though expecting that they might at any moment explode.

"Good," she said. "Now you've had something to eat, you're going to help me fight the demons."

Popsicle looked up at her, eyes wide, staring as though she'd grown another tail.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Art Pact 99

It became clear to us that what we were seeing was actually some kind of religious ceremony, a revelation that sent the ethnographers on the orbiter into an excited frenzy. A machinegun stream of (sometimes contradictory) demands came down to the camera bots, as the scientists changed and rechanged their minds about what waqs hte most important aspect of the ritual to focus on. They seemed to be finding endless nuances and intricacies among the crowd, although to me it just looked as though they had arranged themselves pretty much randomly along the beach front, all facing out into the choppy but slightly odd waves that covered the surface of the sea.

"We should probably move back a bit," Vincenzo suggested. "I mean, what if they're precious about it?"

The boffins backed him up, Karenova in particular pointing out that segregation in Earth religions was extremely common, a fact which she explained to me as if I had been born on moon. When I sarcastically asked her if she could provide more examples she huffed down the link at me and I saw my mission approval coins decrement in two quick clinks in the corner of my vision.  After a few seconds the two coins clinked back into my account and I accepted that as as much of an apology as she was willing to concede to me.

"I think we should stay," I said. The scientists, obviously keen on being able to stay, went silent to hear my pitch, although Beaufort crossed his arms and motioned his two goons forwards. "They might have some sort of segregation, but it must obviously be a distinction we can't see ourselves, because I'm not spotting any pattern here."

"True," Vincenzo said.

"Let's be generous and assume that everything we've seen about them so far carries over to their religion. They're much more even-handed than we are. And they've been pretty open about letting us in to what we'd think of as private moments"--I saw Beaufort blanch at the memory of the cave two nights ago--"so it seems unlikely they'll really care about us seeing them at worship. In fact, they might just assume that it's pretty much the same for us."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, whatever their religion is. If they haven't been in contact with any of their other demes in as long as they say, they might have no idea that there's any other way of thinking. Perhaps that's why they're so calm about us - we're strange to them, but if they don't have any concept of alien, of other-ness, then they probably have no idea just how different we are. They've been as chatty as anything, right? Maybe they even think we understand them, maybe they think we're just not talking back for some reason."

"Like we're deformed, or something," Vincenzo suggested. My mission approval clinked up a few coins - probably just ordinary crewmembers who happened to be impressed by my speech, but I was glad that I'd got through to someone at least. I wondered if Beaufort was one of those political types who liked to have everyone else's M.A. visible in his overlay at all times. Perhaps he was, because as mine started increasing I could see him shifting into a less and less adversarial stance until finally he nodded and it appeared that my argument had been successful.

We carefully stepped between the seated locals, who received us with the same placid expressions that the scientists told us were probably the local equivalent of smiles, or at least amiable apathy. The cam bots swooped and hovered over the scene, bobbing uncertainly in the slow but constant wind, unable to hold their position as well as normal in the low-noise mode I'd switched them too. Someone in the ship must have come to the same conclusion, because I didn't hear any complaints from above. We took up a position about half-way between the rearguard and the few locals that had ventured right up to the sea-line.

"Sand looks like it does on Earth," Vincenzo noted, crouching down to let his fingers run through it. I heard a collective intake of breath from the more cautious of the science panel, but nothing bad happened to him, and as he stood up he let a thin stream of fine white sand trickle through his fingers and blow away in the wind. It would have made a high-quality resort beach, I thought, were it not for the weather. Vincenzo smiled, and nodded out to the surface of the ocean. I looked out and instantly gasped in amazement.

The storm front that had been slowly approaching the village over the last few days had changed during our journey. Something about the geographical arrangement of the bay, perhaps, or thermals rising off the water as it grew shallower at the edge of the sea. I have no idea how we could have missed it until that moment - I can only say that we must have been so focused on the locals that nothing above head height really registered for us. However it came about, it was as if one moment the sky was normal, the next it was filled with a thick rippling gold band, like thousands of metal columns arranged together that had begun to melt under the influence of some monstrous heat. The cloud bank had descended to perhaps a couple of hundred meters overhead, still amazingly coherent compared to the clouds we were used to, and as we watched a single powerful column of lightning leapt down from its underside to strike the sea.

The blast of the thunder, originating perhaps a kilometer away, was incredible. Vincenzo, standing a few meters ahead of me, almost fell over with shock, and I myself dropped low as though I'd walked into something. The lightning had not just affected us, though. After a second, when I had recovered my senses, I saw that the entire surface of the ocean was glowing: peppered liberally with thousands of bright points of light that floated below the surface.

"Wow," said Beaufort - the most human thing I'd ever heard him say.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Art Pact 98

"A full-frontal assault," Henni says, holding her hands out as if she has a pistol in one hand and is steadying her aim with the other, "on the youth market." She mimes pulling the pin out of a grenade with her teeth, then lobbing the imaginary explosive over the boardroom table. I imagine it bouncing once off the lip of the table's painfully shiny polished mahogany surface, leaving a scratch that the furniture restorers would be called in to deal with immediately. Then it would fly through the open door, coming to rest in the little space outside the boardroom where the coffee machine is. Two temps are blown to smithereens. They can't be repaired or restored. They'd simply be replaced by the agency.

Henni is standing still again - as still as she ever gets, of course. Her hands are on her hips, defiant, and she shifts her weight from leg to leg every few seconds so that her arse cheeks dance side to side beneath the edge of her tailored jacket. She looks like a model at the end of a runway, and I half expect her to turn around and strut back towards the whiteboard, where she would no doubt vanish only to reappear thirty seconds later in some less believable outfit.

"Very interesting," Marshall drawls. He is holding a pen, which he waves around as though stirring the air with it. He sees me watching him - of course, like everyone, my attention is drawn to his languid speech. His tongue protrudes from the side of his mouth, as though it were some loathsome parasite taking the air, then is drawn across the line between his lips. "I wonder what the advertisers would say about it, though."

This is Marshall's catch-all system for burying ideas he does not favour - like a blowhard TV christian complaining about some sitcom sacrilege by pointing out that the writers wouldn't be that rude about muslims. Later on, Marshall can claim with a straight face that he liked the idea himself, it just wasn't what the advertisers were looking for. You can't blame him, of course, for their timid conservative ways. That's just the reality of the world we work in. It's bullshit, of course, but it works for him, and I can see that there's no need for him to change a system that has been so successful in putting an end to any innovation that he dislikes. He's finely honed this tool so that it requires little work from him, and avoidance of extra work is Marshall's unholy grail.

I can see that Henni knows this too. She takes a step back with her right foot, crosses her arms to show that she's not intimidated by Marshall and neither is she open to his comment. She fixes him with a stare, and says through gritted teeth:

"I think that they would welcome a new market segment, one that isn't so cynical about new ideas, one that is up and coming."

That's Henni's buzz-phrase, "up and coming". She's said it five times already, like a prayer to the gods of commerce. It's been that way for a year, ever since the Baldstown conference, the words rolling off her tongue in her polished but still accented English: "Up and car-ming." She has been staring straight into Marshall's eyes for five seconds of silence, and when she looks away again to take in the rest of her audience it is so sudden a movement that it is as though something has snapped. Whether inside Henni or Marshall, it is difficult to tell.

My phone vibrates in my pocket - on silent, but just loud enough with the thing's ridiculous buzzer that Anderson (next to me) can hear it. He turns for a moment, frowns at me. Phones are verboten in the boardroom, but I am for this week at least untouchable, free to flout any rules short of storming up to the head of the room and mooning the assembled worthies. I raise my eyebrows, a gesture which I intend to be ambiguous, and Anderson turns back to the confrontation. I slip the phone out of my pocket and look down to see that my inspiration about mooning people was obviously some sort of psychic premonition or message from the morphic field or whatever other bollocks my brother might be spouting this week: I have been sent a picture of somebody's arse. Whether this is good or bad I can't tell, the lighting in the picture is so terrible that it might be an excellent picture of a terrible arse or a terrible picture of an excellent arse. The number is anonymous, and I wonder whether it is someone in the room who has sent it. Henni has her arms crossed, so it isn't her - Marshall doesn't know how to operate any feature on his phone more complicated than dialling a number (he can't even use the speed dial). It could be Anderson in some complicated double-bluff, but it seems unlikely.

Keeping my face neutral, I look up again as apathetically as though I've just been sent a text about an investment opportunity in Nigeria or a two-for-one subscription to my local gym. I look at Henni first, then let my gaze drift around the room as if I were waiting for someone else to ask a question.

"Robert," Henni says, skewering me with a glance. "What do you have to say about this? You're golden with Carlyle at the moment, give us your opinion."

It's bold of her. I wince with irritation, partly at being called away from my search for the phantom texter, partly at her blunt assertion of my favoured status (and particularly the words "at the moment", and their correct but unwelcome implication that the situation is far from permanent, indeed is strictly limited).

"I suppose we do need to open up a new market," I say. This is uncontroversial. "I don't know if this is the one, though."

She is clearly unsatisfied with my wishy-washy answer, which is understandable. My phone buzzes again, and since it is still in my hand I risk a quick glance down. Another arse, a different one.

"Well," says Henni. "Well."

Friday, January 06, 2012

Art Pact - Brief Pause

I am currently doing a story for submission as my daily writing, so I'm not posting here. Normal service will resume in a couple of days...

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Art Pact 97

The next day, at first light, the human was back. Loso, the least wary of the group, walked to where the thickset creature was sitting and nodded to it, gesturing it to stand up. Again, the thing's size was unnerving - a head taller than Loso, its two upper limbs lumpy and misshapen with muscles.

"We don't want it walking around like that," the abbots had said in the half-light of the previous evening's meeting. "Hopefully it won't return, but we can't have it carrying things."

"It's strong," Loso and Conyiad had argued. "We couldn't have carried that many blocks so fast. If it comes back, why not use it?"

"It's a disturbance," the abbots insisted.

That had been the end of the argument. Nothing could break the peace of the construction site, that was the rule and they would stick to it as much as possible. Sectarian nonsense, Loso thought, but there was no-one he thought sufficiently of his mind to sponsor the stating out loud of such an opinion.

Still, there the human was, and since Loso required no sponsor for action, he sat down next to the interloper and made hands to it, to which the human responded with their common mimicry of the gesture, the delicate bony fingers at the ends of its upper limbs clasped around each other as if carrying something precious.

"My name might be Elizabeth," it said in a low-pitched voice. It was apparently all the human knew how to say in the tongue, because it stopped there and nodded its huge head, as if waiting for a reply. Loso indicated with a wave that he had understood, but since he could not with any certainty reply, he decided that it would be best to get on with things.

His plan had formed in the night, while he rested in the rope shelter at the north end of the valley. Dust from the volcano settled gently on his upper surfaces, and he had thought about getting up and fixing the plates - but it was too dark to work, and the dangerous likelihood of being carried off by a bird made the prospect doubly unpleasant. They had put up the shelters in a hurry on their first day, and he had assumed that someone had been assigned to rebuild them in a more sturdy fashion, but every time they returned to rest he found the shelters in their same ragged state, plates not properly supported so that they sagged and bowed inward rather than remaining flat to the ground and only twisting outwards to dump a load of ash when they were overburdened. It was sufficient to prevent them from being buried, but every morning since they had arrived the work crew had emerged from their rest like ghosts of themselves, covered in the thick static-charged dust that clung to every part of their bodies. The amount of time spent washing each morning, Loso thought, might easily be recovered in a couple of days if only two people were assigned to rebuild the shelters.

That, he thought, could be the job of the human if it returned. It would only take care of the matter for a day, of course, but it would certainly not be a disturbance. If the creature were occupied at the north end of the camp, far away from the carving and foundation zones, the abbots could hardly argue that it was upsetting the other workers or the sanctity of the labour. If they were determined to be racist (again, a thought that there was no possibility of saying out loud, since none of the others would sponsor a blatant attack on their leadership), he would have to make some concessions, but he saw no harm in allowing the human to work. Not, he thought, that any of them would be able to stop it if it decided otherwise.

He walked away a few steps, then turned back to it to see if it was following. It seemed to get the idea, and began to stomp after him, the ground shaking under his down feet with every step it took. It must have weighed three times as much as him, he thought, and again the inadvisability of angering the creature overtook him, and he ticked nervously with his up arms, a jumpy twitch that was immediately answered with a repetitive booming noise from behind him that he recognised at the laugh-sound.

"You might not have to be afraid of me!" The human said, much to his surprise - then something in its own language, a gibberish mish-mash of the sibilants that humans could make with their teeth. "I might be friendly," it said, again switching to the tongue.  Its half-hearted reassurances did nothing to relax him, but he was unwilling to see his plan fail in front of the abbots (even if he had not been able to tell them about it), so he forced himself to continue walking, holding his up arms rigidly at his side in an attempt to keep them under control.

As they reached the shelter he could see for the first time how shoddily they had been constructed. When he'd woken he'd been too covered in dust to see properly, and after the call to prayer that ended the day's work it was too dark. Now, under the light of the rising sun, he could see that the wrong knots had been used, that the plates had been threaded onto different supporting ropes in different positions, that the stakes that held the ropes forming the lower end of the shelter had been driven in at unsuitable angles. It was purely the will of the spirits that the whole thing hadn't come tumbling down on them in the middle of the night.

He waited until the human was closer, then began to undo one of the knots with his front up arms. He gestured to the shelter, then down to the ground, then back up again.

"You might want me to rebuild it might be my question?" it said. Apparently it was quick on the uptake. He moved his body in what he hoped was a passable imitation of a human head nod, then pointed to another of the bad knots. To his immense satisfaction the human immediately began to fiddle with it with its fingers.

Good, he thought to himself, this will show the abbots.