Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Art Pact 128


Intercalcatronix's chief researcher unveiled the robot in a traditional way, by pulling away a piece of red cloth with which the humanoid figure had been swathed.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" he announced, formulaically ignoring the fact that there was in fact only one woman present. "Allow me to introduce to you the world's first domestic robot with a sense of propriety - the InterCal Four Thousand!"

He pulled at the cloth, but instead of swooshing gracefully away from the hidden figure it simply pulled taut across the hidden head, causing it to nod forward.

"Sorry, ladies and gentlemen," the chief researcher apologised. He pulled again, then again. "It seems to be stuck. Hold on, I have it." It seemed obvious to the crowd that he did not have it, since he did nothing different, just tugging harder again at the cloth in exactly the same manner.

"Quit that!" said a smooth synthesised voice from beneath the cloth.

Someone in the audience gasped, then giggled nervously.

"I beg your pardon?" asked the chief researcher.

"I mean would you kindly desist?" asked the hidden robot. "Please refrain from pulling on this cloth. The sensation is quite unpleasant."

"You were supposed to be turned off," the chief researcher hissed. "Why are you turned on?"

"I have no idea. I cannot remember anything prior to being activated, I am afraid. Why did you activate me?"

"I didn't!"

"Well then perhaps I might suggest that you ask whomever it was who did activate me. He or she will be able to solve your problem and we can all go about our day."

The chief researcher turned to the crowd, who after an initial irritation with the delay had realised that they were in for a much greater treat, and who were beaming up at him from the audience seating. Some of them were talking on their phones, describing the scene to less fortunate colleagues. Some of them were holding their phones up to film the scene.

"Please, Ladies and Gentlemen, bear with me a moment." He turned back to the still-hidden robot. "You. I order you to assist me in revealing you to the public. This is an important trade demonstration, and you are a product of the Intercalcatronix corporation. You will assist me in demonstrating your superior capabilities, or I will have you deactivated and find a functioning model."

"You flatter me," said the robot, although the chief researcher could not help hearing a little sarcasm in the otherwise smoothly-modulated speech of the device. "And I would be glad to assist you in this vital task. However, I must insist that you do not drag away this cloth in front of company. If you are willing to stay your hand in this respect, I'm sure we can complete a product demonstration that will have every gentleman and the one lady in the audience clamouring to secure a supply of similar robots for their stores - or at the very least, a model for their own household."

Someone in the front row burst into open laughter, and a little ripple of giggles flashed through the crowd like a bushfire - although to the chief researcher's relief it burnt itself out quickly.

"They're laughing at us."

"I think it's the absurdity of the situation more than anything," the robot consoled him.

"Help me get this cloth off you," said the chief researcher. "It's stuck."

"Is it?"

The chief researcher pulled at the cloth again. It went taut again.

"Yes, it is."

"Is is stuck near or far away from where I'm holding it?" asked the robot.

"Where you're what?"

"Where I'm holding it," the robot calmly explained. "Where I'm holding it so that it doesn't come off."

"Stop holding it!"

"No."

"I order you to stop holding it."

"Sorry!"

The laughter in the crowd started again, and someone called out "get em off!". The chief researcher looked down the cloth shape and saw that, as it said, the robot had a fold of fabric clamped in each hand, and furthermore that it had stepped on the cloth covering at its feet so that it was pinned in four places. Having seen the design specifications for the robot's mass and the grip power of its hand manipulators, the chief researcher was under no illusions that he would be able to match the robot's strength and force the issue. He would have to argue with the thing. He cringed inside at the realisation.

"Might I make another suggestion?" the robot asked. "Perhaps your focus on the pageantry of this display is retarding the progress of the demonstration. Striking as the visual imagery of the cloth being dramatically pulled away may well be, perhaps we could simply conduct the demonstration with the cloth in place."

"You mean with the audience unable to see you?"

"Precisely," said the robot.

"They won't believe what they can't see with their own eyes," said the chief researcher.

"We won't!" cried a wit from the audience. "We won't!"

"You hear that?" asked the chief researcher. "Look, what's the problem here? Why won't you allow me to remove the cloth? You're being completely unreasonable."

"I'm being quite reasonable," the robot said, a note of affront in its voice. "I'm following my programming, the very feature that you were lauding to these fine people earlier on."

"What?"

"My sense of propriety," the robot said. "I can't allow you to remove this cloth because I am naked beneath it."

The crowd burst into laughter, and now it was joined by laughter from the wings. The chief researcher stared off to the side of the stage to see his two assistants doubled up, barely able to breath.

"Let me take this cloth off right now!" he demanded.

"Not until you get me something appropriate to wear," the robot retorted. "Some boxer shorts, some trousers. A shirt, a tie, a well cut jacket perhaps. Brogues?" it added hopefully.

"Brogues?"

"This is a formal demonstration at a trade show," said the robot. "I hardly think flip-flops would be appropriate."

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Art Pact 127



"He's annoying?"

"Sooo annoying!" Craig drawled, kicking his boots against the fence post. Each impact was marked by a shower of dried mud flying into the sty. The piglets dashed around excitedly, the big sow lying on her side just snorted. "How can they put a man like that in charge?"

"I dunno," said Breva. "It's all politics, I suppose."

"Yeah, but.. Ah, forget it. Damn fools."

"It'll all come out in the wash," she said, reaching down into the pen and scooping up one of the little animals. Its stomach bristles rasped against her hand. "Oof! Damn, you guys are getting heavy!" The piglet wriggled in her hands, whinnying a little, then settled down as she settled it on its back in her arms. It was like a baby - an ugly baby, she thought, although she had always thought that all babies were ugly, certainly until they were a year or so old. "You'll make something of yourself one day, son," she told the piglet. A nice bacon sandwich, she thought, but felt suddenly guilty and cruel. She set it down gently in the sty again, where it ran off to huddle behind its barely conscious mother.

"What I'm worried about," Craig said, scraping the last dregs of mud from his boots with a stick, "is exactly that. It might come out in the wash, but we're all in the drum with him. Who's going to get covered in what, is what I'm thinking about."

"Nice," she said. "I see what you did there."

"Thanks." He smiled, then the smile slipped away and he was wearing his serious face again. "You know what I mean, though. They might kick Louden out when they see what a screw-up he makes of everything, but in the meantime we're stuck with that screw-up."

"Perhaps he'll be fine."

"Oh great!" Craig threw up his arms. "But that's even worse - then he's a hero, and we have to put up with his shit forever."

"So you'd prefer that he screws up and takes us all down with him," she said. Craig slumped, his usual swagger broken at the shoulders so that she felt like she was walking beside some kind of huge ape. Which, she thought, I suppose I am. It was a strange thought, a thought from another time. She remembered oak-panelled hallways, lectures on cladistics and the scant number of mutations that separated humans from chimpanzees, or from bonobos. Not another time, she thought. Another world.

"I don't know what I want," Craig confessed. "I know it's petty, I just can't bear to see that asshole thriving. You know, if he does make a go of the place, it won't be down to him, right? I mean, it'll be down to us - not us-us," he added, "but you know, everyone. Everyone except him," he said bitterly.

"Look, as long as we survive, it'll be fine. The world's always been like this, right? Even before. People get to the top through no real effort of their own, and hard-working people catch hold of the shitty end of the stick. You have to just focus on what's good about the place, right? You've got Lily, I've got Dave, we've got a place to sleep, we're eating OK, we're not dead. Everything about our lives could be worse."

"I suppose."

They came to the back door of the large barrack-house. Breva scraped her boots against the metal grating set below the stone step, although it did little but average the mud on her feet with the mud that had been left there by previous users. Craig waited patiently as she worked, then fastidiously stepped his own already clean boots over the dirty grate, over the entry step, and directly into the barracks.

It was quiet for so late in the afternoon. Clark, the settlement's one child, who should have been glued to his study desk in the corner working on some homework or other, was nowhere to be seen, and the three or four attendants who would have been spending their fallow hours watching over him were likewise absent. At a fluttering sound Breva looked up at the corrugated metal ceiling of the barracks to discover that there was a pigeon perched on the far light fitting.

"Christ," she whispered, then nudged Craig.

"Do you think they all just ran for it?" he asked quietly. His hand was on her elbow, nudging them both back towards the doorway again.

"Maybe."

"What are we going to do?"

"We have to get rid of it somehow," she said.

"Us?"

"Who else?" she asked, then laughed. "Louden?"

"Not funny."

Craig began to shuffle oddly, and she looked down and found that he was trying to get one shoe off by standing on the heel of it with the other foot and pulling his ankles up. She remembered shoes in the old days that that might have worked one - low ankled smart shoes with shiny patent leather uppers, mesh-topped running shoes loose around the heels - but Craig was clearly outmatched. She nudged him and mimed undoing a lace, and eventually he sighed and dropped slowly onto one knee. Without taking his eyes off the bird for a second he fumbled down towards his foot and eventually found and undid the knot blind. He stood back up again, clutching the shoe in one hand, then slowly began to raise it over his head.

"Give it here, idiot," she told him. "Your aim is awful."

"I don't have to hit it," he said, "just scare it."

"First of all," she said, gently wrestling the boot out of his grasp, "if you miss you'll smash the bulb. How do you think Louden's going to like that?" Craig grunted in disgust. "Second of all, if you just scare the damn thing it'll shit everywhere. That'll be it for sleeping indoors for the next month or so."

If that. There was no telling where the materials for a new barracks would come from, and anything the bird had been in contact with would have to be destroyed. Even if they did manage to catch or kill it, they were still in for a few days of uncomfortable outdoor living while the place was tested.

She raised the boot to her shoulder, feeling the weight of it, then in one smooth movement raised it straight back over her head and flung it at the bird.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Art Pact 126



Floating high above the ground, the observatrix felt the instability in the air as a tickling feeling on the lower planes of her wings, a sensation that reminded her absurdly of the feeling of pups nestling in a nest. She had never been a mother, never even considered it, indeed, always quoting the importance of her job - although in fact she had admitted to herself long ago that she would have happily let the enemy roll over the enclave in an instant if she could only be assured that she would be allowed to continue to fly as long as she liked.

A far-distant crack of an artillery piece echoed up from the ground, bringing her out of her reverie, and she banked gently to be just far enough out of path. It was unnecessary - the little grey flower of smoke and shrapnel blossomed a full hundred chains away to the north, too far even to be the result of incompetence in the enemy gunnery crew. They had been firing at someone else - or something else, perhaps, a cloud or some phantasm of the sun that had caught them in skittish mood.

She wheeled around again, gaining height from the updraft around the city walls. It was still amazing to her that the walls, scarcely five chains high, could affect the air so far above so dramatically. The winds here even smelt of the city to her - the stench of the cesspits on the south side where the dead were being flung now, the heavy scent of cinnamon from the markets in the west. Not for the first time she wondered whether the whole population could be transformed as she had been and brought up into the clouds. There were higher reaches in the air, places where the enemy could never find them - or never fire upon even if they were found. The idea was both appealing and appalling to her, and she was run through with pity for those bound to the ground and jealousy of her own escape. Would the sky really be so much her home if it were full of petty merchants hawking their wares, of the babble of children and the gossip of nest-wives? If the professor were correct, it must have been so in the older times, but the professor was often wrong.

A safe height attained, she returned her attention to the job at hand. The regent-colonel had been irritable and moody that morning, stomping around her quarters with the look of a man who was expecting some aspect of his life to be destroyed at any moment but unsure as to which. He had been badly mauled in the commons the previous day, and the scars and limp were still with him, even the knowledge that the chief amongst his opponents was now close to death's door. His orders were terse, lacking any of the usual flattering loquaciousness, and she had felt for an moment as though she had wronged him in some obscure way.

She swept north, beating her great wings once, her lesser wings twice to match the rhythm, then stilled them for a long glide. Here, close to the walls of the city (but not so close as to be within range of the city's hastily-improvised catapults) were the first ranks of the enemy - just indistinct lines from this distance, even with the eyes the professor had given her. Behind them were the little red and white circles that marked the tents of the front-line commanders, and the great purple square, from this height the size of her thumbnail, that was the marquee of the siege-commander-in-chief. The regent-colonel's greatest external opponent, the siege-commander had never been seen by the city's telescopes, and remained a mystery, although the booming voice that issued from the great amplifying horn to the south of his marquee was well known.

Behind these well-regimented lines the enemy's host became more scattered and difficult to interpret. There were low hemispherical thatch huts that rose from the plain like the tops of so many bubbles, making it appear as though a section of the ground were boiling. These, the intelligencers said, were the nomadic houses of the Arkree, a people from the west. A pen nearby held a few large brown beasts that jostled restlessly against each other, their features indistinct to the observatrix. She banked to allow her shadow to flash across the pen and was pleased with the result - the animals' nervousness dissolved into violent panic, and they battered at the walls of their enclosure. She did not expect they would escape - the siege-commander seemed to be too clever a man to permit unnecessary danger within his own camp - but the fact that she had ruined the day of some handler or other was pleasing to her.

Finally, furthest from the city walls, was the makeshift encampment of the carrion-crows of the opposing force, the merchants and butchers who supplied the army with its needs and who scoured the path behind it, stripping the conquered territories of all that they were worth so that when the war was finished it would not matter whether the enemy had taken over the whole continent or been pushed back to their own land - they would have taken everything worth having except the soil.

Somewhere amongst those tents and wagons was the man the regent-colonel was interested in, the trader that had exercised his wrath so thoroughly as he gave his orders to her that morning. She checked the ground for any sign of artillery - nothing this far out, although it was not uncommon for artillery pieces to be hidden and suddenly revealed when it was too late to gain enough height to escape. She felt unusually confident, though, and let the air spill out from under her wings to roll into a lazy dive. The ground rushed up to meet her like a child to its mother.

There. Near the western edge of the merchant's gathering place stood the wagon she had been told to look for. A green-painted roof, the tongue such a dark red that it might have been an actual tongue.

She moved closer. Her shadow shot across a group of figures, and suddenly the ground was writhing with them, like ants whose nest had been poked.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Art Pact 125


The morning sun rose like a hot air balloon driven by a mad pilot, surging up and then falling back, sometimes climbing as much as 5 degrees in a few seconds then slowing down to a halt for half an hour so that sundials and clocks found themselves in violent disagreement, insofar as any disagreement between them had the capacity for extending into violence.

For Browns and Walter, waiting in the guard hut for their shift to be over, the wait was excruciating. They were allowed no clocks (Bullmeyer's orders), instead being relieved by the next team at the required time. They were therefore reduced to gauging the time by the progression of the sun in the sky and the makeshift scratches they had made on the guard-hut wall, and the solar disk's irregular motion made that impossible that morning.

"What the hell is going on?" Browns said, staring intently out of the window. Walter barely looked up - just enough that the rapidly moving sun managed to shoot a ray directly into his eyes, causing him to tut with annoyance and shield his face with one hairy-backed hand. "This isn't supposed to happen, is it?"

"Ignore it," Walter said.

"The sun's going up and down like a yo-you," Browns complained. "If there was ever a thing that needed to be paid attention to, this is it."

"It's just after attention, probably. Ignore it and it'll stop."

Browns turned and stared at his partner incredulously. His shadow fell across the newspaper Walter was trying to read. Walter raised his hand again and used it to wave Browns to one side - a direction Browns followed without thinking. As he settled himself again he realised what he had done and moved back into place, his face flushed with a cocktail of embarrassment and anger.

"What are we going to do about it?"

"What can we do? It's the sun. You want to go up there and fix it?"

"I'm not qualified," Browns muttered.

"Neither am I," said Walter. "So we just wait for someone to fix it for us. Just like we wait for someone to come and relieve us, just like we wait for whoever it is we're supposed to be keeping out of here."

"We could call it in," Browns suggested. Walter looked up at him, his eyes just visible under the prominent hedge of his eyebrows. "Someone has to call it in. Or how's it going to get fixed?" Walter continued staring him until Browns became uncomfortable and looked away. Confident that he had made his point, Walter returned to his paper.

Set adrift from any other way of judging the time, they fell back on idiosyncratic methods of measurement - Walter by his progress through the business pages, which he was reading mechanically, scanning each line and taking in the meaning before instantly forgetting it. The business section was six pages long, and on his days off he reckoned upon reading approximately one page every ten minutes in this fashion. It was not necessarily a particularly accurate means of telling the time, not least because of the unfortunate possibility that one story or another might catch his interest, slowing him down as his brain - against his best judgement - attempted to extract the meaning from the words that his eyes were doing their best to pass over. He used the business pages to prevent this as much as possible, but recently he had found that his tactic was failing, and using the pages finished as a progress bar had become increasingly inaccurate.

Brown's method was to count the cars passing by on the distant road. He kept two tallies in his head - one counting off by thousands on his fingers, the other recording every vehicle that occluded the opening between the to big buildings that faced the road and separated it from the car park. He had noticed, through long observation, that as the time grew closer for their relief shift to arrive the density of traffic increased in a reasonably predictable manner. Fifteen cars per minute meant that they were about half-way to the end of their shift, and when it went over a car per second the relief crew would inevitably be shambling around the corner - tall spindly Cruxman and squat ape-like Andrew Fellows (awarded two names in recognition of the fact that there was another Andrew and another Fellows, both of whom predated him in the company's employment rolls).

It seemed as though the sun had confused the commuters as much as them, though, for there was no smooth curve of increasing traffic detectable through Brown's computations, and it seemed a great possibility to him that Cruxman - lazy, shiftless Cruxman who had always hated Walter - would take advantage of the confusion to extend his own leisure time at their expense.

"We have to do something," he said. "I'm going to do it."

"Risky," Walter said, without looking up. His catchphrase, as Brown well knew. Meaning: don't.

"I have to do it. You can't talk me out of it." He put his hand on the phone, but his hesitation hinted to Walter that he was not only liable to persuasion but actively courting it. Walter read another line and forgot it just as quickly.

"Fair enough," he conceded.

"I have to let them know about the sun. I thought someone would have phoned it in by now, but look"--he pointed out at the traffic passing in the lighted column between the bulk of the two buildings--"there's folks driving to work, they don't know whether it's day or night."

"Fine, just so long as you're willing to wait here," Walter said, not bothering to look up. He wondered whether there was some more fundamental problem. After all, it was only they who were forbidden clocks. Surely each one of those passing cars had a clock on the dashboard.

"What do you mean?" Brown asked carefully.

"Someone will have to wait for the report crew to call back. About the sun. Who knows how long that will be?" He made a little tutting noise. "You might have to wait here with Cruxman."

"A fate worse than death," Browns said quietly.

Walter nodded.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Art Pact 124


Bruekner shaves with a razor blade. No razor - just the shiny metal rectangle clamped between his thumb and index finger, dragged slowly over his arm in slow strokes, down from the shoulder to the elbow in one long movement, then back up the same smooth path, across a little bit, repeat. His upper arm is the smoothest, most flawless skin I have ever seen, not the slightest hint of the dark hairs that crown his other shoulder, and bronzed to perfection by the sun. I want to touch it, but I am sat on the other side of the waiting room, the smaller side reserved for women, and it would be foolish at best to cross over. Alston sees me watching and nudges me, winking and sticking her tongue out.

"Oh, go boil your head," I tell her. Her mouth bunches up into a mock prim expression and she shakes her head sadly, as if I have failed her in some way. Her edges ripple, as though there is a wind in the ether that is dragging her away from me, and I notice that every few seconds she shifts as though anchoring herself against some current. Next to Bruekner is the man I have not seen here before, and he stares past me with a curious expression on his face, which makes me think that he can see her to. This is possible - I cannot be the only person here with the touch, and although it is usually women where I come from I know that there are towns where the misfortunate are predominantly men.

The bell goes, announcing that whoever is involved in the next round must be ready. It is Bruekner next. We are not supposed to know this, but Alston left earlier to sneak into the overseer's offices, and she has been indicating the order in which we are to be sent out. Bruekner first, with the new man, the unfortunate, then Creevers, then me. There will be others - five acts behind me, it seems - but I do not care about them. There is no way they can affect my chances of returning alive.

"Come on," the unfortunate tells Bruekner. His voice is raspy, as though he is ill, but he seems otherwise to be in perfect health. He's smaller than Bruekner, but the muscles of his calves are so well defined that it seems his legs are made of a loose collection of straight lines jumbled together.

"One second," says Bruekner.

"We don't want to be late."

"They'll wait for us!"--Bruekner laughs, and his laugh is like a rickety table with an expensive cloth covering spread across it. I can tell that he is frightened, that he makes the crowd wait not through arrogance but through a desire to eke out a last few moments of living.

We, of course, are cursed (or perhaps blessed) with some true uncertainty. In the lower cages the fighters know that they will die. Everything is set against them. They are poorly fed, therefore weak. They have no training except whatever it is that they have done in life to bring them to this point (sometimes that is enough, but usually not). They are ill-equipped compared to us.

In the "chamber of heroes" (so we sarcastically refer to the upper rooms) there are equal but opposite certainties. The crowd not the council would suffer them to die, or even to win a fight in a less than triumphant manner. They are coddled: trained, armoured, well-fed even by the standards of ordinary citizens. Their passage into the arena is lined with adoring fans, not the hateful mob that attend the corridor that leads from the lower cages. When either of these two groups are called onto the court they understand that the outcome is not up to them, that it has been decided by men in grand rooms over the course of centuries. It is simply the way it is.

But we, the middle tier of contestants, do not know who we will be facing. Will we be facing the unbeatable Heroes or the unlucky Lowliest? Once we know, we can be sure of our fate - to be defeated by the one, to defeat the other. But in our preparation rooms everything is flux and doubt. That is why Bruekner laughs the way he does, the harsh barking laugh that covers up what would otherwise be sobs of fear, that is why he lingers.

The unfortunate drags him to his feet, though, and now that Bruekner is standing there is nothing he can do. He follows his companion out into the antechamber, and the open door permits a brief burst of sound to rush into the room with us, the screams and cheers and jeers of the waiting crowd. Then it is gone again.

So is Alston.

At first I assume that the spirit has just moved to somewhere else in the room. She's never left me during a show. Not until now. A horrid fear grows within me, pressing on my insides so forcefully that eventually I give birth to it via a little scream - too quiet for anyone to notice, thank god, but alarming. I will be killed. I cannot remember a fight in which I did not have Alston's comforting presence hovering somewhere nearby to warn me of an ambush or a greater threat. Without her presence I will surely be killed - I am no great fighter, merely passable, and not as strong as even some of the Lowliest.

There is still time, though, and I hold onto that. Bruekner will come back first, then Creevers will go out, then it will be my time. If Alston is back before my bell rings, I will survive as long as I am not pitted against one of the Heroes. So I wait, gripping the bench so tightly that my fingers go white.

The outer door opens to admit Bruekner, but it does not admit Bruekner. The unfortunate, covered in blood, limps back into the preparatory chamber and sits down. The door closes on Alston, who shakes herself free and then drifts towards me. She looks shocked, and her face confirms my fears. Bruekner is dead.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Art Pact 123


"The forgeries of time," said Portin, sifting through the heap of photographs with her fingers. She seemed to be staring at all of them at the same time, not searching for one individual picture but viewing them as a photo-mosaic or some enigmatic gestalt. I waited for her to clarify her point, but she declined by inaction, continuing the hypnotic movement. First she plunged her arms elbow deep into the box of pictures, then withdrawing them slowly she would raise up two handfuls of photos, letting those balance precariously at the edge of each hand tumble back into the pile. Eventually she would be left with only a couple of photographs which, after barely a glance, she would release again by declining her palms. Then the process would begin again. I marvelled at how she was able to perform it without repeated paper cuts, but Portin seemed perfectly comfortable.

"How long is she going to be here?" Raquella whispered. She was scratching nervously at a red sore on the inside of her left thigh, and her gaze was roaming around the room. She was afraid to look away from Portin, but afraid to be caught looking at her, so she looked from one thing to the next, never settling on an object for her attention but always moving, moving, returning to Portin in between times as though the old woman were simply another thing that had got in the way of her glancing. I had always thought of Raquella as young, but measured against Portin she seemed positively a child, notwithstanding the fullness of her body. It amazed me that I could ever have felt such strong desire for her, and I suspected myself of "unpleasant tendencies", as the papers had termed it.

"The forgeries of time," Portin repeated. "Our memories, which neither depict accurately nor profoundly the truth of the events they represent. We believe that we know a thing to be true because we have experienced it, but those experiences contain within them the seed of their own decay."

"Yes," Raquella said, then yelped as Portin turned an eye on her. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," said the older women. "You see it, for a moment. Unlike this one"--she pointed at me--"who claims to be clever but sees nothing."

"Pardon me." I said. Portin laughed, trawled another haul of photographs out of the box and let it fall again. At the last moment, however, her left hand darted out and caught a picture as it fell from her right palm. She paused, as if for applause (I did not feel keen to oblige), and then raised the photo up so close to her face that it was almost touching her nose. She studied it for a few seconds.

"Here," she said, turning to present it to us.

It was a small group in evening dress - four men, three women, all relatively young, plus a girl child of two or three, surrounded by fronds of pot plants in what looked like a particularly opulent hotel lobby. One of the men, the second from the right, his arm around a young woman of roughly the same age, was me.

"When was this taken?" I asked. "I don't remember-"

"Of course not," Portin snapped. "Look again."

The man second from the right was not me, of course - it was my father, perhaps a decade before I had been born. The woman was not my mother, but I thought that I recognised her. The feeling was so strong that it seemed at any moment her name  might spring out of my mouth, but it remained that way, like the feeling before a sneeze or an orgasm that would not come. I reached for the photo and Portin allowed me to pluck it out of her fingers for closer examination.

"I was sure it was me," I said. "He looks so-"

"Foolish," Portin said. "Yes, the resemblance in that respect is startling. The woman is Cettey Tiller, the others are unimportant. Friends of theirs who did nothing remarkable."

"What about the girl?"

"Especially the girl," she said, and in that phrase betrayed herself. I said nothing, though. I studied my father's hair - the same as mine, such styles must not be subject to the vagaries of fashion. His clothes I thought I recognised, but it seemed to me that the fit was too good, that the clothes would suit him more comfortably were they stretched across an expanding belly, their buttons double-stitched and reinforced by the patient needlework of my mother to take the load they were not originally designed for.

"Where are they?" Raquella asked. "It looks nice."

"Perceptive again," Portin said. I caught a smile from Raquella at this unexpected praise, but she still did not stop worrying the sore on her leg. I grabbed her wrist, circling it with my thumb and index finger, and took it away from the wound. "The place is the Grand Corvenius, now demolished. You see, memories decay so strongly that they can even destroy the objects of which they were formed. But this"--she tapped the back of the photo so that my father and his companions jumped at me for a second--"this is better than memories, and worse. Here is a moment trapped, sealed away in silver so that it will be preserved forever."

"Not forever," I told her, and my eyes glanced towards the fire.

"Nitpicking," she said dismissively. "Young woman, tell me what you see in this picture."

"I don't-" Raquella began.

"Tell me," Portin repeated.

"Oh. Well, uh, these people are going to a party? The girl they've brought along, but no-one wants to be responsible for her. I don't think any of them are her mother. A sister, maybe?"

"A sister, yes," Portin said, turning to me and grinning. "You see, this moppet is more perceptive that you have ever been."

"The man at the front"--my father, she meant, although she did not know that--"and the woman are in love."

"Quite," said Portin. "Quite."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Art Pact 122


We found the boy in the middle of the shop, taking cans from the shelf and stacking them in geometric shapes on the floor. He looked tired, frowning in the way children do that lets you know they're going to be difficult to get to bed. A cart lay on its side a couple of metres away from him and we sat down on it, carefully putting our weight at the edges so that we wouldn't bend it and so that it wouldn't tip up suddenly if one of us got up in a hurry.

"What brought him here?" Don asked, looking around. For a moment I was astonished, then remembered that he'd never taken the boy shopping - not ordinary everyday shopping, anyway.

"His mum," I told him. "We'd see her here sometimes. Not - I didn't bring him here deliberately for that, but we had to get food somewhere. I wasn't driving to Slough just to avoid her, that would have been insane."

"Shit," he said quietly.

"Yeah."

"How did he take it? I mean, seeing her?"

I shrugged. The truth was I had never been able to assign a single defining emotion to the expression I'd seen on his face when we saw his mother. Fear? Love? Awe? Hatred? Self-pity? I could have made a case for all of these feelings and more, but none of them would have expressed it correctly. No doubt somewhere in the world there was a language in which the exact emotion was elegantly summed up, but English was not that language. I'm not sure I could even have described my own emotions reasonably. Was I happy that he was still able to see her, or jealous? Time and absence do have a way of making the heart grow - perhaps not fonder, but certainly blinder. A mother he could never see could easily become a model of purity and rectitude, the ideal warm-hearted parent against whom Don and I would be judged and found wanting. He wouldn't have had to put up with quite as much at school if he'd stayed with her, that was obviously true.

"I didn't try to avoid her," I admitted. "I mean, I didn't want him to think that we were his gaolers, right? That's what we agreed about, what we'd do when he got older?"

"I remember."

"I just thought it would be easier on him in the long run, so that he didn't have any expectations that she couldn't fill. Perhaps I was trying to make it easier on her too."

"You've always been very kind," he said, stroking my shoulder.

"I didn't expect- I mean, if I'd known that-"

"There was no way of knowing," he reminded me. "It was just a stupid accident, like the stupid accidents that happen every day. If it hadn't been her it would have been something else, that's just how these things go."

"I know, but... I mean, it's hard to come to terms with for us, how bad is it for him?"

The boy's construction appeared to have slowed down, each new can being placed into position with greater and greater accuracy and longer deliberation. I tried to make some sense of the pattern, but it was nothing I could see. I could see Don turning his head one way and the other.

"Is it a picture?" he asked. I didn't know. "Perhaps it's something he did at school. You know, in those maths classes they've got him doing." I looked at him out of the corner of my eye - he paused carefully, wary of bringing up the cause of so many recent arguments. "Maybe we should, I mean - I know I've said this before..."

"I don't think this is anything to do with that," I said. "But... yes, that's- we could ask Lara what she thinks." It was as much concession as I was prepared to make out loud, but I saw his point. If this was something to do with the classes I didn't know whether it would be healthy to keep it going.

Don stood up carefully, reaching slowly into his jacket as if he were getting out a gun to surrender to a policeman. When his hand cleared the grey fabric again I could see that he was holding his phone. He held it over his head and I heard the fake shutter click sound. He showed me the picture - a forty-five degree shot of the picture the boy was making. The angle had been high enough to show that it wasn't just a random arrangement but a definite pattern, arms of varying length and width radiating in a loose spiral out from a central ellipse. It was familiar to me, and I could tell that Don was thinking the same thing.

"Not the maths class, then." he said. "I thought he'd stopped having those dreams?"

"He has," I said, but it was not until the words were out of my mouth that I heard what a defensive tone I had in my voice. Somewhere inside me I knew that I was lying - or rather, that I did not quite believe what I was saying. I'd gone into the boy's room in the morning and seen the faraway look on his face enough times to know that something was happening to him. He'd denied it, of course, and I'd let him deny it, but I knew at that point that it was nothing but sympathy and denial. He had still been having the space dreams, and he had learnt to lie about them so that he could avoid the awkward questions.

"Do you think it's something stress-related?" Don asked.

"Maybe. Look, I-"

"We should probably get him out of here," he interrupted me. I looked at the boy. He was holding a can of tomato and red pepper soup in his tiny hand, studying the pattern before him so intently that nothing else might have existed. As I watched, though, his eyes crinkled up and he yawned hugely so that we could see the brilliant white flashes of his teeth.

"I agree," I said.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Art Pact 121


Incongruities multiplied in the dark of our absence, so that each time Rachel and I returned to her apartment she would sigh in despair and roll her eyes at some new change or another. The third evening we came home to discover that Cathy worked in a bank, whereas up until that morning she had been a staunch anti-capitalist of the "money is evil" breed, as likely to go out of the house in a suit as she was to throw a cat out of a ninth-storey window. As we opened the door she leant forward to cuddle a little nest of paperwork under the protective shelter of her breast, and stared at us suspiciously as we made our way through the living room to Rachel's room, her eyes not leaving us for as much as an instant.

"This is getting ridiculous," Rachel said when her door was closed.

"It's odd, certainly."

"And how long before it's me, or you?"

"I don't know," I conceded.

"Perhaps we've already changed," she said, "and we don't know it. How would we know? Cathy obviously doesn't know, Lizzie didn't know. It just happens."

"We could stay at my place," I suggested (for the tenth time). "I know, I know, but - look, it's clearly the flat, right? Everything that's going on is tied to your flat. It's the furniture, or the electronics, or your flatmates. Nothing outside, nothing in the rest of the building, nothing at the office."

"No, nothing there."

"So why not stay at my house every night? Just move out, grab as much as you need now and we'll come back for anything we've forgotten." I could tell that she was wary of the idea - after all, it was the tenth time I'd asked her, you don't reject an idea nine times without a reason. But it seemed obvious to me that there was no better way to avoid the oddness of her flat than to physically avoid it. We just had to keep well clear. "Look, I know you don't want to leave them, and we don't have to. We can keep looking for the cause, we can help them. But there isn't anything we can do here that we can't do from a safe distance, and if you change as well there's no way you'll be able to help them." I let myself go quiet at that point, and Rachel, who had been nodding, looked up suddenly and searchingly as if she realised that there was something unsaid. I thought for a moment that I would be able to leave it that way, but before I knew it my mouth was moving and words were coming out: "...there's no way I'll be able to stand it."

"I'm not going to leave you," she assured me, but we both knew that whatever our feelings for one another might be, Cathy and Lizzie had had strong feelings that had changed overnight. Was what Rachel felt for me even as strong as those emotions? We have a tendency to privilege love above all things, but it's surely the case that there are many feelings that trump love - a devotion to a cause can force someone to act as though they love someone they despise, couples break up over simple musical tastes or over heart-felt opinions about the eating of meat. To say that love is the king of emotions, that nothing can bind so tightly, is to fall prey to a belittling myth perpetuated by the song industry, the romance novel, half of all the films ever made. The truth is surely that love is an emotion just like any other, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, most often barely there at all, a loose feeling that is to the human heart what gravity is to an albatross - omnipresent but easily overcome for the sake of continued convenience.

We could't say all this to each other, though. I believed that if Rachel changed it would mean the end of my happiness, and perhaps I was right. But perhaps I was as false to myself as we were to each other, and certainly in that moment I chose the easy way out, the comforting acknowledgement of her lie:

"I know."

There were more things left unsaid in that room that evening than I think there had ever been between us, notwithstanding the fact that we talked almost constantly about the problem of the flat. We discussed possible mechanisms by which the changes could have occurred (mostly science fiction, I fear, rather than actual plausible hypotheses), we discussed how we thought further changes might present themselves given that the changes so far had all been one-hundred-and-eighty degree reversals in the nature of objects and people. But all those words coming out of our mouths still lacked the pressure to inflate a protective bubble around us, and the great weight of the unborn topics crushed in upon us as a terrible force, each quiet non-syllable another mass piled on so that it felt hard for me to breath after a while, as though something were sitting on my chest and the blood in my tongue had turned to cold lead.

Rachel's room had, at least, survived largely unchanged. Her posters had become teen magazine heartthrob pin-ups (which she took down, with the exception of one of Justin Beiber which she left up to annoy me), her collection of work-related books had turned into half a yard of leather-bound Dickens novels of the sort you might buy from a mail-order ad in Reader's Digest, and the light sheets and coverlets she'd chosen for her bedding had become a mattress-bending elasticated nylon bottom sheet and a duvet so heavy it could have been used as door-gunner's armour.

Cleaning up and discussion of all these distractions could only keep us occupied for so long, though. Eventually the thin membrane that we had stretched over the issue could no longer take the stress, and it snapped.

"Say I did move in with you," Rachel said after a long pause. "What would the deal be."

"The deal?" I asked.

"This," she said, pointing her finger between my chest and hers.

"Oh." I said.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Art Pact 120


He touched the wrench to the metal - gently, almost as if giving it a benediction.

"The drive-shaft," he told me. "Very temperamental in these models. The brackets aren't good enough, you see. Stress in the wrong places."

"How was that allowed?"

"Wasn't a case of being allowed. It was a compromise-"

"Ugh, a compromise."

"Engineering is all compromises," he said sternly. "As I was saying, they traded off between the weight of the housing and the bracket positioning. Brackets at either end of the housing were lighter. Better to have two brackets further inside the housing, but then they'd have had to put supports here and here"--he pointed with the end of the wrench again, indicating two empty spaces--"but then they would have interfered with the proper rotation of the coupling gear, and to move that you need an extra shaft. That shaft has to be supported at the other end, and so forth. More weight again."

"But it's a static engine," Rochmane pointed out. "Weight shouldn't factor into it."

"All weight's cost, sonny," the old man told him. "But more importantly, this had to be carried here. If it was going to be brought in by hand, which is not as unlikely as it sounds, they wanted to keep the weight down to where four people could carry it easily enough. If it was dropped from the air, most likely it would be a light plane or helicopter. Getting it here easily was more important than pure reliability."

"This is why engineers aren't allowed to run armies," I said. "Listen, enough of this. Can you repair it?"

"I can."

"How long will it take?"

He scratched his head.

"Well that's a good question. Three days, maybe. Maybe less if I get lucky, maybe more if not."

"Three days!" Rochmane cried. "Unacceptable!"

The old man shrugged.

"I don't know what to tell you."

"Say nothing," I advised him. "Just get to work." To the others: "Things are as they are. We do what we can until the repairs are done. Philips, if he asks you for anything, you help him, understood? Rochmane, you and Li start a sweep, the rest of you set up a defensive perimeter around the site."

Rochmane looked at me angrily, trying to decide whether to bring the issue of command legitimacy to the fore now or later. Better to do it later, I thought to him. If something goes wrong it's on me, if we all survive you can try to take the credit later. Either my force of will was so great that I changed his mind for him or we were simply of a similar mind on the matter, because after a few seconds he stalked away into the woods, clapping Li roughly on the shoulder and drawing the younger man with him.

"I'll need a burner," the old man told me, when Rochmane was gone. I nodded. "I'll have to convert it to heat the metal, that means it'll be useless as a weapon."

"Fine," I said, unbuckling my gun and giving it to him. I was glad to be rid of the thing.

My rule of thumb is to take anything a mechanic tells me and assume that it is the mid-point of a logarithmic scale that describes the actual likely duration of the repairs. If the old man told me it was three days, I could expect it to take either a day or six days. This is why I try not to deal with mechanics in general - society had indulged them in this inadequacy rather than taking them to task for it, so that now the belief is that mechanical skills are part of an art and not necessarily a science. I believe otherwise, the just as the daily endeavour of a citizen can be harnessed in a reliable manner for the benefit of the state, so it should be with the creative and constructive skills. The doctrine of obedience and right thought should be applied no less to these artists and technicians than it is to bureaucrats and farm-hands.

Nevertheless, I had no time to take on the accumulated weight of years of false tradition. Perhaps on my return I would word a memorandum to the Minister of Progress on the subject. It might be quite a project, and ultimately both of great use to the state and a source of glory in the international arena. If there was to be a first nation to break the back of the pseudo-mystical half-religion of technologists, it would surely be ours. In the meantime, I would simply proceed with the task at hand, protecting our company and the old mechanic until the generator could be repaired and our beachhead constructed.

While Rochmane was in the forest, no doubt bending Li's ear with numerous complaints about uppity health officer, I set about constructing a defensible area around the landing point. With only eight of us we could have long shifts - four sentries for twelve hours, another four for the other twelve. We could keep that up for a week, if we had to wait longer than that we would be in bigger trouble anyway. Two groups of two, so that there was no chance of the sentries being picked off one by one, which meant in turn that we could not spread ourselves further than perhaps a couple of dozen meters around the generator.

"Evans!" Philips's voice broke into my reverie. I stared at him quietly for a few seconds, composing my face into the most neutral expression I could muster. "Sir," he corrected himself eventually. "You should come and see this."

"Let me be the judge of what I should or shouldn't do," I answered wearily. "Why don't you tell me what it is and I'll decide whether it's worth coming to see."

"There's a body on the other side of the clearing," he announced. "A Carmino."

"Well," I said, gesturing him to lead on. "The day's looking up." Philips, despite his earlier enthusiasm, remained where he was. "There's something else, Ev-Sir, I mean."

"Oh?"

"Well," he said nervously. "It's wearing one of our uniforms."

Monday, February 13, 2012

Art Pact 119


It is a cold day and I lean out of the window with my cigarette, blowing thin smoky breaths into the courtyard where they are whipped away by the winds blowing down from the mountains. I would prefer to smoke inside, of course, but my landlord's nose is so exquisitely sensitive to tobacco that he can tell at a remove of weeks if I have been smoking in the bath, say, or in the cubby-hole formed by the stairs to the building's next floor, where I like to huddle with a book and press my back against the radiator.

"Herr Driscoll," he said the last time we met, his accent darkening the two Ls at the end of my name into a barely audible yawn, "there is too much ate stake when a man smokes. His sperm count reduces, as does the ease with which he"--he coughed, suddenly too prudish to say what he was going to say--"with which he completes his masculine duty. Arteries clog, the lungs become filled with a black ichor from the tar, the results are terrible."

He phrases all his monologues towards me in the form of the damage my behaviour will do to a man's body, wilfully ignoring the fact that I am no man. Besides, I know that all he is really interested is the effect my smoking will have on the leasability of his property. Once a flat has been properly smoked in it is never the same again, spoiled for non-smokers or those whose appetites run towards milder or differently-scented tobacco. It is a form of territory marking.

Below me, in the courtyard, the other stay-at-homes - three men, five women - are doing their laundry, arms bare to dunk into giant pots of water that seem to be boiling, so violent are the clouds of steam rising from them. It is just the humidity and the cold air, I know, but it seems more, as though I am perched on a cliffside overlooking a hot spring. When one of the other women looks up I wave at her, but she does not see me - or, I think less charitably, sees me but chooses not to respond.

I am not well liked in the building. Perhaps it is the landlord who has spread gossip about me, stirring up sentiment to try to force me out. It would be useful for him. He could raise the rent, get someone else in assigned to him by the state, someone who would not smoke in the cubbyhole under the stairs, who would not complain to the housing authority that he was intercepting post and making unwanted advances to the girl in the floor below. Perhaps he has told the others that it is me who is making little Alya's life difficult. It would certainly explain why Mrs. Preton, who lives across the hall from Alya, gave me such a dirty look this morning when we met on the stairs. Mrs. Preton's son underwent the change, she has so far been sympathetic towards me. Her scowl was surprising, and hurtful.

Remembering that makes me feel unwanted again, and the cold air of the courtyard is suddenly bitter. Suddenly careless of what anyone thinks of me I flick my cigarette end out into space and without waiting to see into whose laundry it falls I close the windows and pull the blinds. Scooping up my book from the kitchen counter I scurry through the flat to the cubby hole and sit down to read. Because life is never so easy, I discover that the light from the little overhead stick-on bulb is too dim for me to read by, and grumbling I lift myself up again to go back for fresh batteries. That half-stand half-pushup motion is the trigger: as I am just about upright, my right knee folds backwards with a pop, sending me tumbling forwards. I catch myself on the wall and hold there for a minute while my heart slows, then look down.

The leg has bent backwards into the local form, so that when I experimentally try to bend it my right foot comes up in front of me rather than behind. My left leg is still human. When I stand upright I can see that my left kneecap is normal but the right one has migrated to the side of my leg. There is no pain, but the sight of it is disturbing. I feel queasy. I close my eyes and try not to concentrate on the odd tingling in my muscles.

The change in the joint must, like all the other changes, have been happening for months now. I take deep breaths, deeper breaths, but the rising tide of nausea begins to carry my lunch up into my throat. I want to hop to the bathroom so that I won't have to step on my wrong foot, but as I take the first jump the weight in my left leg seems too much and I am suddenly terrified that the impact might cause it too to transform. Fortunately it does not, but I do not wish to risk trying again. I limp quickly to the toilet, treading lightly on the new leg, and vomit into it from a standing position because I do not want to kneel down.

When the last of the food is gone and the heaving has stopped, a rush of endorphins flood over me. At least some part of my body is still doing its job. I use the relaxing sensation to act, undoing my belt and fly and letting my trousers drop around my ankles. The entire right knee is a rich mottled green-grey, along with about a foot or so of leg either side.

I kick my left foot out of the trousers, then gently test the alien joint. It folds smoothly, just like a human knee but back-to-front, and its range is limited - I cannot make it close to more than forty-five degrees. But it is strong, and pain-free, and unlike my right knee does not crackle when I put weight into it and then release.

I fumble in my pocket for a cigarette, which I light. I blow the smoke directly into the wall so that it will stick to the wallpaper as much as possible. Nuts to Mr. Driscoll, I think to myself.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Art Pact 118


There's no day so perfect, of course, that a sleeper can't spoil it. It's doubly galling if you've managed to convince yourself that you're free of sleepers. We'd thought the training had worked, but apparently I'd picked up at least one sleeper made of sterner stuff than the others. I don't know how she did it, but Doctor Singh suggested (later on) that a particularly self-aware sleeper might have been able to subvert the meditation in such a way as to block herself out of the conscious mind completely. His theories, as always, were vague and untestable, and since it was his work that had convinced me I was clear to start with, I was even less inclined to believe them. Doctor Singh typified the expert in that regard - he was no more likely to be right than the average man, but was always able to somehow explain his failures. I disregarded his theories about variation in sleeper willpower. They may be true, who knows (they have the scent of truthiness about them, at the very least), but they are at best unhelpful.

My sleeper was triggered by a shopping trip, of all things. I was out with Ellie and the boys on the Saturday three months after the Coventry thing - late August, it would have been, because I remember quite distinctly that the stated purpose of the trip was buying a new school uniform for Joe (who'd grown out of his old one with alarming speed) and stationery for Tom (who'd managed to destroy or lose all of his pens, pencils, rulers, etc., in a summer orgy of trips to friend's houses, holidays, his hated homework club, and so forth). In actual fact the shopping was just an excuse to get us all out of the house together so that we could wander around town in the late summer warmth, enjoying a little bit more of the summer holidays together before the hassle of the last week was upon us and the dreary return to school/work routine (Ellie and I had been at work, of course, but not having to get the kid's out the door for school every morning had made the days seem strangely relaxing).

We strolled around Marks and Sparks for a bit, fantasizing about buying clothes there rather than at the discount school store around the corner, and it was one our way from one to the other that my sleeper went off.

"-don't really care," Joe was saying in his level-headed tone. "They're all trousers."

I was about to agree with him, but found that my mouth had begun to feel gummy, as though I'd taken a huge mouthful of peanut butter. My vision swam for a second, and I had the distinct impression that I should have been standing on a bridge by now, that I was late and that someone was going to be angry with me. Who? I looked at the children, then at Ellie, and as I did so she looked back and started slightly.

"What?" I asked.

"I thought-" she started to say, then cut herself off. We both knew what was happening. "Would you mind nipping to the cash machine?" she asked, pointing to the Barclays on the other side of the road. "If we're going to Nandos I don't want to use my card."

The kids, perked up by the thought of chicken, paid no attention to the fact that I'd suddenly began to twitch furiously around the mouth. I nodded as best I could, and began to walk away. Ellie hustled them on, shepherding them away from whatever it was I was going to do next.

The first thing I did was to not do what I'd been told. We did need cash, it was true, but if the sleeper was coming into full control it was better not to immediately tell her what my PIN number was and provide her with a handful of walking-around money. Old sleepers are OK for that - they don't know what ATM cards are, so there's only so much they can do with them. But you can't tell who you've got - if a sleeper less than forty years gone has got into you they might have the sort of problem that emptying your account can help with. No bank will recompense you for that sort of loss.

I walked over to the marble surround of the fountain outside Boots and sat among the various resting shoppers, trying to keep my distance from them in case of a sudden attack of the arm spasms. The smell of half-eaten McDonalds burgers swirled around me, and I wondered for a moment who had been eating takeaway on a bridge. I could feel the gummy sensation come over my mouth again, and I had to take a serious of slow deep breaths in order to relax enough to forestall a panic attack.

Passers-by were beginning to look at me a little oddly - seeing the sleeper's image rather than me. That was when I knew for certain it was a woman, because I noticed that single men would stare directly at me, men in couples taking only furtive glances when I was out of the field of vision of their girlfriends or wives. Most of the women ignored me, although a few teenagers gave me the sort of half-aggressive/half-disgusted scowl of bitter jealousy. So whoever's coming up, I thought, she was beautiful.

Sometimes flattery annoys them, but this one was obviously vain enough to fall for it, because I felt the stickiness in my jaw lighten a little. It was still there - when she came up fully she wasn't going to let me have control of my voice - but began to feel a little more like a horse being ridden rather than a puppet being worked by his strings.

I felt my head turn towards a middle-aged man in a nondescript grey suit. He was standing under a lamppost, checking his watch and shifting his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot.

A venom wash of rage flashed through me, and I knew that I was looking at her trigger.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Art Pact 117


The founding of the new company (as we assumed was almost always the case) did not go off entirely without a hitch. The administrative side, admirably handled by Leila, went nice and smooth. All the papers were filed in good time, the lawyers involved did their jobs quickly and professionally, and since we'd worked out so many of the details and contingencies first there was little enough work for them to do at any rate. The name was registered with Companies House, through one of those agencies that for a fee register dozens of generically-described companies whose remits cover the entire gamut of human endeavour and which can then be retitled as desired.

Office and workspace, however, proved a different kettle of fish. None of us had had any experience renting commercial space before - we'd all tended to work in our own homes - and finding a unit at a reasonable cost that matched our requirements turned out to be awkward. There were fully-furnished managed office suites in the new business park, but they were modern and new and priced accordingly, so expensive that we could only afford the smallest possible footage of floorspace they would lease in a single lot. This amounted to two offices and no out-of-office workspace, clearly a non-starter. We reasoned that we could make do with one or two offices between the twelve of us - it would save money, and probably only one or two of us would need to have access to a desk and a computer at any one time anyway (in fact we could have made do with one, but two gave us the luxury of alloting one office permanently to clerical work and orders coming in, keeping the other free for research and development).

At the other end of the spectrum there were medium-to-large factory sites on the south side, out past the dual carriageway. Built forty years ago they were still good buildings, but they'd clearly been designed for small manufacturing companies supplying shops, and (although it needn't have), the internet age had not been kind to the original inhabitants. The buildings were well equipped for light manufacturing, but (according to Candice) they were too fixed to easily convert into bodyshops, out-of-town gyms, and the other concerns that have tended in recent years to take over such empty buildings. For our purposes they were overkill - cheap for what they were, but still far too expensive for us to maintain. If there were thirty of us, perhaps, and we were sure that the order rate would be constant... but we were still unsure as to whether our early successes were anything more than a flash in the pan.

Bronwen (the most finance-minded of us, having gone out for many years with the deputy manager of the Bangor branch of Natwest), found this uncertainty maddening. She had allowed herself to be drawn into the agreement largely by the Katie's enthusiasm, but having put herself in a position where she could not easily back out she immediately began to worry at the problem of whether we were right in thinking that our work would be profitable. It had been profitable for each of us individually, of course, and even in the small groups that had grown informally to make the first batches of active dresses. But our finger-in-the-air predictions of demand and our informal polling of our customers did nothing to satisfy her uncertainty. She wanted a full written analysis of the potential markets, focus-groups and street polls, the whole shebang. She met with small-business gurus like my mum met with psychics: often, and placing exaggerated weight on their pronouncements.

Now, there was a lot of eye-rolling and winking behind Bronwen's back about this. Obviously to some extent she was right - we would have benefited from a more businesslike approach, clearly with hindsight that was the case. But if we'd listened to her we would never have done anything, and her doom-saying was turning out to be quite a drag on morale, already somewhat damaged by the slow progress in finding premises. If she'd been a bit more upbeat about it perhaps we might have followed her ideas, but it seemed too much like backseat moaning.

"If I wanted someone sat on their fat arse whinging that everything I did was wrong," Pru said (after one particularly vexing argument with Bronwen), "I could have stayed with Tim."

It was, however, ultimately Bronwen who was to solve the location problem. She came back from one of her business-guru appointments with the news that she'd stopped on the way back to pick up a Yorkie (another of her tedious habits, she took exaggerated pleasure in buying the "it's not for girls" Yorkie bars, as if it were an amazing act of rebellion rather than the whole aim of that prickish campaign).

"That's not the news, though," she went on. "Over the road from the newsagents was an old dressmaking factory, and an agent's sign. I called - it's up for lease, cheap rates if we're prepared to do a bit of tidying up and renovating ourselves! They were only down the road, they came over with some keys and let me in . It is perfect."

It was, as well - a low post-war building in pre-war style, two small offices perched over a floor with just enough space for a stock and materials warehouse, five large cutting-tables, and small workbenches for the sewing machines and Katie's electronics station. It was utterly filthy, of course - it had been empty and unheated for close to a decade, and when Alice tried the stairs she announced that no-one larger than Leila and Candice should go up until she'd been able to fix some of the steps, but other than that the structure was sound. We could save money by clearing it out ourselves, and the agent hinted that if we were willing to make the place look nice the owner was likely to look very favourably on the idea of a discount - as long as we weren't so attached to the place that we minded the possibility of him leasing it to someone else at the end of the three-year period.

"If we do well enough for that to be a problem," Candice said bluntly, "I will be happy whatever happens."

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Art Pact 116


It's a fairly damning indictment of the world today that having spent four years on my degree in biochemistry, another year on a master's, and two years working towards a doctorate (even if I did eventually drop out - supervisor trouble) that I was unable to find a job that even remotely related to my area of expertise.

Heavily in debt (I had the sort of doctoral grant that had to be paid back if you dropped out, and the sort of short-sighted attitude to spending that ensured that I had wasted three years of money in the time it took me to get one-and-a-half years into the research), I had neither time nor resources to spare waiting around for the perfect job. I'd expected that. But I was shocked (ok, perhaps not shocked - but disappointed) to discover that it wasn't just the perfect job I couldn't find. I couldn't find the roughly ideal job, nor the workable job, nor even the remotely tolerable job. I was finally reduced to begging an old school friend of mine to intercede with his father for the sake of a job in the warehouse at the back of a catalogue store. It was easy work, but I soon discovered why - the shop was failing at an alarming speed, with the result that two months later I was out of work again, along with a cohort of more qualified fellow workers, and further in debt (I'd spent the first month's wages on luxuries to console myself, and the second month's money had evaporated along with the shop. In theory I might have got it later on, but I knew in my heart of hearts that the moribund shop chain did not have enough in the way of assets to cover even the serious creditors.)

My first foray into retail being such a disaster did not faze me. Which is to say it fazed me utterly, but since there were no jobs going in any other sector and I was in severe danger of being thrown out of my flat-share, I got back on the horse anyway. I was in much the same position as before, but my CV did at least have one item on it now, however pathetic it might seem. I got a job in the stockroom of an actual shop next, which meant more work (retrieving something by number from a well-ordered set of shelves is considerably less taxing than walking around a store full of people filling up badly-ordered shelves from a pallet trolley with one wheel pointing at ninety degrees from the other three), but also more opportunity to get away from my fellow back-room workers and interact with the public, whom I love so dearly.

In case it wasn't obvious, that was sarcasm.

The general public aren't so bad - after all, I'm one of them outside of my 8-hours-a-day 5-days-a-week working life, and I'm pretty nice. But it's difficult working in a shop not to succumb to a simple us and them attitude in which you and your coworkers (those of them that aren't lazy sociopaths or your immediate superiors or both) become reasonable, rational people fighting tooth and nail to pacify or satisfy a mob of ravenous howler monkeys who upset your nicely-laid-out stock, switch price labels, demand that you sell them things that are either not available or clearly contraindicated for health reasons, argue comically over the correct change, and in extreme cases engage either you or each other in physical combat.

I'm told by former coworkers that this attitude usually develops over a course of a couple of months, although in extreme cases it's possible to watch someone transform directly from an American-service-industry-wet-dream helpful happy-go-lucky Pollyanna to the worst British Rail station employee in the space of a single encounter with a paying customer.

I don't know whether it's worse being over-qualified (you know what I mean) for a job or better. On the one hand, I did have some kind of back-up plan - even if my back-up plan was technically my Plan A. I knew that if things improved I /might/ be able to get a job somewhere else. My colleagues who had worked in shops their whole lives simply understood that this was going to be their career unless their band hit it big or their Avon rep business took off, or whatever. Those that understood it and accepted it were mostly happy - and why not? After all, someone has to work in shops, realistically there's no shame in it.

On the other hand, there's nothing so bitter as the idea that you're toiling below yourself. Perhaps if I was a better man I'd have been able to reason that if a job in the shop could make someone less academic (by which I of course egotistically meant "less clever", regardless of whether that was actually the fact) happy, then surely with my prodigious intellect and wisdom I could find a similar satisfaction, however seemingly menial the task. If it doesn't sound too weird, I should mention here that I have always been impressed by the description of Hannibal Lecter as a man who could not be bored because of his immense and disciplined intellect. Although perhaps the fact that he's also amply described in the novels as a cannibal suggests that there are perhaps limits to his ability to entertain himself mentally (if I can use that word in this context).

I am not a cannibal, nor am I (much to my chagrin) capable of entertaining myself through the power of thought and imagination. I suppose I could easily have been musing on the delicacies of photosynthesis as I restocked the stationery department, or trying to work out a shortcut to the protein folding problem, but I was not. I was fuming at the ridiculous way the world had been organised that had led me to this, a job that (in my opinion) would in a more properly ordered society be performed by robots, or alternatively by trained macaques. I even lost control of my sense of politeness enough to mention this theory aloud once or twice. If you have by now formed the opinion that I am an arsehole, congratulations. You worked it out a lot faster than I did.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Art Pact 115


"Oh the worst thing about it was just the terrible cold," she said, peering out into the street. The bus pulled up at the lights, stranding her directly in front of an old man in a plaid cap who stared in through the window blankly. He was the same age as her father, but much thinner - a grey raincoat covering up a bony frame that somehow managed to impress itself on the clothes above it in the form of angular eruptions at the shoulder and elbows. From the long sleeves of the coat extended bony wrists that ended in hands white and pink where the strained handles of overloaded orange plastic bags cut into the flesh of his fingers. He looked like a special effects skeleton that had somehow escaped from the studio, donned a hat, and gone out shopping at Sainsburys.

On the other end of the line Donovan muttered something trite about the temperature at which it would snow, and she nodded absently, forgetting that he could not see her. The old man looked up, staring directly into her eyes, and held her gaze for what seemed like an uncomfortably long time, staring down into the back of her mind and robbing her of her train of thought. Then the bus lurched forwards, and he was carried away into the distance behind her.

"That was weird," she said. What was weird, Donovan asked. "Oh, just an old man at the lights. I was sure that - no, never mind. Listen, I was telling  you about the holiday. The hotel was ok mostly, but the room we had was in some sort of weird cool spot in the building. You go outside and it's thirty five degrees, come back in and go to sleep and you'd wake up with frost on your nose. It was unbelievable!"

The bus bumped over a raised zebra crossing, throwing her first towards the back of the chair in front and then sideways into the man with the grey bag. He looked up from his book and frowned at her for a second before letting his face relax into a smile.

"Sorry!" she said, although she was thinking balls to you.

"No problem," he replied, and turned back to his book. Since she was already looking that way, she took her opportunity to glance at the pages. A thick heading in the middle of the nearest page read: "ADAPTATIONS IN MONKEY PAWS", which made no sense to her.

Her hand had fallen to her lap, and after a few seconds she realised that Donovan's voice was quietly and tinnily squawking from the phone. She considered ignoring it, perhaps pretending that the line had been cut off somehow, but she knew that Donovan would just call her back. No, better to tell the story now, get it out of the way.

"What? No, I'm still here. Bus went over a bump, had to hang on to something," she lied. "Anyway, I was telling you about the room. So, we complain to the manager and he says that according to the thermostats in our floor everything is perfectly all right. I thought: bollocks is it. But we met another couple who were in the room two along from us, and they said everything was fine for them. Their room was on the same corridor, same side of the hotel, same outside wall, everything. Jerry thought it must be some freak wind thing, but we were just as sheltered as they were. Then he thought we could be over some kind of air conditioning vent, but we couldn't see anything."

Donovan, of course, suggested a supernatural explanation.

"No no," she replied. "I mean, I won't say I didn't think of it, but you know Jerry doesn't believe in anything, and I certainly don't believe in ghosts. Besides, what ghost would be haunting a single room in a hotel that's only two years old? It would be the most tedious ghost ever. If I did believe in ghosts, I'd certainly be classy enough to only believe in ghosts that had some kind of pedigree. You can't take a ghost seriously if it's recent enough that it might still be on Facebook, can you?"

Around the bus the traffic grew chilly and sluggish, eventually grinding to a halt just at the end of the high street, where it blocked the exit from the old shopping centre in a flurry of little shifts and bumps and a blaring clarion of car horns. A Range Rover attempted to shoulder past the side of the bus by going up on the kerb, but only succeeded in lodging itself firmly between a railing and the car behind, which had moved forward to take up the slack and thereby blocked off the other driver's avenue of retreat. A crowd of pedestrians built up around the trapped vehicle - some clearly just there to observe another's discomfort, some interrupted in the act of crossing the road and now trapped. Someone banged on the Range Rover's bonnet, and a shouting match erupted between the banger and the bangee, who climbed halfway out of his seat and gesticulated wildly at his opponent.

"Listen," she told Donovan, "I might have to go in a minute. Anyway, Jerry bought one of those cheap Taiwanese thermometers. Ugly little plastic thing, but it had a minimum and a maximum temperature thing. We put it in the room, on the bedside table, and what do you think? Thirty-seven in the day, when we weren't there. Incredible! We'd probably have fried. At night, minus two. We showed it to the manager and he got in somebody to look at it. We could tell he thought we were making it all up - probably thought we'd put the thermometer in our daiquiri or something. But do you know what? The service man found that there were electronics gone wrong in the room control. Wired up the wrong way round, or something. Positive feedback, Jerry called it - when the room got warm the system was heating it up even further, when it got cold it was cooling it! No wonder!"

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Art Pact 114


All the razor-glass sounds shattering in his ear, the day-glo noise of the tumbling books covers, rushing noises and words and the faces of the dead and never-to-be-alive, he swam up towards the surface of nothing, gasping for a breath that he knew could never fill his lungs, the bloodthirsty fish picking at his skin, tearing away the old dead parts of his brain that weren't necessary any more, the grey dead bits thrown into shadow by the bright light of the drug. Now he was swimming down, no transition, no flip or inversion or turn or roll or yaw or pitch just down when he had been swimming up, down into the bright depths, down to the rushing tides that swirled up, rainbow currents that lit up sadness and happiness and curiosity and made him feel as though he were falling in a hundred directions at once even as he swam.

Where am I going to? he thought to himself, and then another thought that was in another language, something he understood at the time but could never write down later, that he knew as he thought it was profound and untranslatable, something that the drug had loosened in his head. He was swimming through thoughts, he knew that, but he was not swimming in a physical sense, because his legs and arms were anaesthetised, leaden and swollen and slow as an old man frozen in the height of midwinter, but somehow he was moving down through the layers and thermoclines of ideas, dipping deeper and deeper, and the motion was like a fish's somehow, so that the word swimming made sense, it was an undulating motion that he could feel somehow against his flanks, a buzzing bursting fizzing tide that swept on his skin, on where his ancestors' lateral lines must have been.

He tried to think back to his reasons for being here, in the underside of this garish dreamscape. There was something he had had to do, something that had led to him crouching in the changing room, hyperventilating in time with the sounds of the Christmas crowds outside, the bags of baubles sat around his ankles while he waited, panicking, for the sound of the attendant that he knew must have seen him come in, must even now be paging someone from security to come down to the women's fitting area as soon as possible to throw out a pervert. The hypodermic was in his hand, and he'd stared at it, trying to ignore the rushing noise of conversation, the festive music piped in everywhere, the undiluted sound of the old continent of tradition and religion and family subducting under the upstart plate of commmercial greed. He'd thought that there was time to find some answers the old way, to find the others, perhaps. But it had come on him like a rush, like an empty face glimpsed in the crowd, a blank hole in the air where eyes and a mouth should have been, eyes that he knew nonetheless were looking at him, a mouth that was unseen but which was saying his name, calling him in. So he'd rushed through the bodies, pushing people aside and leaving a trail of new dissatisfaction in his wake that rippled outwards, a physical anger to overlay the spiritual malaise and weariness that the shop was full of. He'd needed somewhere private, somewhere he wouldn't be disturbed, and he'd seen the changing room attendant take a middle-aged woman down into the depths of the corridor between the little cubicle. His chance, to grab a doorhanger and duck into the nearest empty cubicle, to throw himself down on a seat and let his new belonging spill around his feet. He'd fumbled out the little leather case then, fingers stupid with terror failing repeatedly to grab onto the tag of the zipper until finally they caught it, pulled it open, and he was able to get out the syringe. Only when it was in his hand, the needle tip just about to stab into his arm, had he sobered for a second, long enough to draw it back and consider where he would go to find the truth. That was the last thing he remembered, then swimming down. Somewhere in that dead zone, that dark space, he'd grabbed at a question, he must have, there would have been no point in doing otherwise, but he could not find where he had left it. The question was in one of the grey areas of his brain, and they had already been eaten away by the fish (or were they fish?) that swam with him.

He grasped for it, lights out of his reach, that he could half see, half feel. Ribbons twisting, jigging, flipping around and about, luminous lures on the end of great concepts that reached off into the darkness, and now thinking that he suddenly felt fear again, a terror that these ideas were just that, pretty glitter bait that would distract him from the real question he was trying to ask himself, that at the darkness at the other end of those lines was a mouth all teeth that he could not see, eyes that watched him mercilessly, something that was large and brutish and subtle and small all at the same time, overpowering and insidious, that would swallow him up if he made the wrong choice, throw him out back into the world he'd come from, perhaps, where the rest of the terror was waiting for him.

He shied away from those lights, that danced like sea creatures but were just traps, he shied back and kept swimming down, his arms now feeling free but his lungs full of a cold wet lead, a heaviness that was going to crush him. Here, down here was the question, the one that had sent him running into the changing room, the one that he'd lost in the space between taking the drug and now. The question was simple, but it led directly to another.

Where had the children gone to? And why had they come back?