Friday, March 30, 2012
Indistinct fires in the distance marked the remains of the town. Beaufort took a deep breath and let the smoke taste of the air swirl around in his mouth. Even at this great distance the fumes from New Hampton tasted like burnt milk, and he wondered whether the blow to the head had awakened some new sense in him, a sort of long-distance taste. He looked down at his map of the area and began to sketch a grey line around the affected area as best he could.
"Sun's too low," Ashleigh said, her eyes scrunched up to emphasise her point. She lifted up one hand to shield her eyes, then the other, then she bent forwards, turned her head sideways, and squinted hard at the vista of devastation.
"Best look we'll get," Beaufort told her.
"We'll have to disagree, then," he said.
Ashleigh sighed loudly and began to remove her tools from the bag. A complicated mixture of scientific and mystical equipment emerged and was laid out in neat rows on the ground - the top row parts of the sun elevation device and the solar charm, instruments for dealing with water and water spirits in the middle, and on the bottom row geologist's and geomancy's tools, the only things that Beaufort recognised. The scientific apparatus was a heavy tube linked to an electric ignition - a device for firing captive rounds into the ground - and a ruggedised computer sprouting a number of robust microphones. On the mystical side, a staff with the symbol of Saturn at one end and a wicked spike the other, three bottles of essential oils, and a clay globe marked out with the patterns of the continents in lines of silvery-green paint.
She picked up the solar charm first, and making a face again at the bright low spring sun she began to wind and unwind the beaded leather tassels that surrounded the charm, draping them over the gold disk that represented the sun's face again and again in different patterns. Each time she reached the last tassel she would place the whole token down on the ground, walk around it first clockwise and then counterclockwise, pick it up and begin again. Beaufort tried to concentrate on his map, but the effect of Ashleigh's movement around and around the fetish was hypnotic, and he found himself drawn into watching her, his mouth moving silently along with the nonsense words she was chanting. He had heard them so many times before that, like song lyrics, he could reproduce them himself without necessarily any comprehension.
Carrion, the third member of the group, sat silent behind the two humans. His eyes were closed, and Beaufort could see that the creature was far into its trance and unlikely to be emerging any time soon. It had been Carrion's idea to flee New Hampton, but although the outcome was favourable he still seemed to be disgruntled about the gap between his prediction and reality, and neither Beaufort nor Ashleigh had been able to get a word out of him all morning.
A sudden flash blinded them for a few seconds, just enough time for the sound of the explosion to rush to them. It was an urgent, violent boom that rattled Beaufort's bones and left his ears ringing. Closer in, he thought, it would have sounded like being crushed.
"Do you think there was anyone left in there?" he asked.
"No," said Ashleigh, a little too quickly. "No, no. No."
"Who do you think got left behind?"
"No-one, of course. Maybe the Guardian. He was always a bit... stubborn, I suppose."
"But we told him what was coming. What Carrion saw, I mean."
She waved a hand around airily - her shortcut sign for we did what we could.
"We can't save them all," she added.
"We can't save any of them," Carrion said morbidly. Beaufort glanced in surprise at the animal. Carrion was on his haunches, his long ears flicking with nervous energy at a cloud of little midges that had surrounded his head. "Do you have all your measurements?"
"Just a few more," Ashleigh told him.
"Well get on with them and let's get out of here," the donkey said irritably. "I need to get somewhere I can concentrate. These little bleeders are driving me crazy." He shook his head, trying to drive the swarm of insects away from his ears and eyes, but only succeeding in spraying the loose spittle at the edges of his mouth across Ashleigh's water-dowsing equipment. "Sorry."
Ashleigh gave him a furious scowl and picked up the divining rods, carefully wiping them clean on the corner of her long jacket. Beaufort returned to his map while she worked, and traced out the pattern of fires as they had appeared from their vantage point.
It was clear that they had started in the north of the town, probably around the park district marked on his map. But the pattern had been curious after that - buildings beginning to catch fire on the west and east sides simultaneously, as if two sources of flame were circling the town in a pincer motion. But fire could not do that. Not except by some unusual chance, at any rate, and Beaufort did not believe that for a moment. Someone - two lots of someones had been setting the fires, that was one option. Which meant that either the fire had spontaneously arisen as Carrion had predicted and then someone had taken advantage of it, or the initial fire had been sparked by a deliberate act of arson, simply the first task on some evil to-do list.
Another option occurred to him - perhaps the first was spreading evenly from the north, but was being prevented from spreading evenly through the centre of the city. That seemed implausible on the face of it, but the strange sensations Carrion had been having around the town hall - could they have been part of some more complicated defence?
"We have to go back," he said.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
During the long journey home I stabbed and poked at myself with recriminations a doubts. The train carriage was almost empty, old rolling stock smelling of must and the stale breath of a million commuters. Ugly grey smears of buildings slid past the window, garishly coloured in by the ubiquitous cheap flashing LED signs: NAILS, 24 HOUR, OFF LICENSE.
In the grand scheme of things it hadn't been that bad a night, but the night had closed in on me and the grand scheme had vanished, to be replaced with a petty diagram of myself, lonely and bitter about my own shortcomings. Dark thoughts cruised through my mind, matching the shadow clouds that crawled past the window. I wondered whether anyone had noticed when I left or whether it had just seemed to the others that there was suddenly more room. I thought of myself as a curtain - a draping lifeless thing that had just hung in the flat and blocked out the light of other people's fun. I wondered whether it would have been better in the long run if I had stayed at home - the safe old standby: pizza, film, booze, brainlessly web-surfing during the ad breaks. Would anyone at the party have had less of a fun time if I hadn't been there? I doubted it, indeed the further I got from the flat the more the idea seemed like a grotesque mockery of reality. How could I possibly think that I had the slightest chance of understanding the others' happiness, let alone improving it?
I tried to think of some counter-example to this cynical appraisal, but all the images I could bring to my head were of me on the periphery of some tighter-knit gathering. They seemed to live their lives as part of each other, every detail intertwined so that their conversations were mish-mashes of in-jokes and references to shared pasts, all but impenetrable to the outsider. I was nothing - a dilettante, an alien dipping my toes into their world, barely allowed by the entrance visa that had been Clark's card, but not recognised as a real person by the locals, just a dull visitor who had somehow wandered into an enclosure of more exotic beasts.
The train drew into a station whose name I could not make out - it was late enough that most of the lights had been turned out, and only the LED indicator was still bright enough to make out, scrolling through the seemingly endless list of stopping points for this train. There were no more entries on the list. This was the last service until the following day. I thought about getting up, and a sudden whim came on me to indulge my despair by wallowing in it - to get up and off the train, to wander out into the darkness of whatever town this was and to spend the night walking the old cold streets. The impulse warred with apathy for a few moments and finally won, only to be defeated as the doors began to beep. I rushed for them, but they closed before I could reach them. The train's motors whined and it began to pull away slowly, wheels slipping so that the carriage shuddered ever few seconds, yanking petulantly at the engine that was pulling it.
I was torn inside - frustrated at the way the train had thwarted my plans, yet at the same time embarrassed that I should have thought that such a self-indulgent tantrum would make any difference to anything in the world, least of all me. I was not the walk in the rain type, not some sort of film noir hero. I was just some anonymous arsehole on a train in the middle of the night, no doubt just like thousands or millions of other anonymous arseholes around the world. I would gain nothing from wandering around, nothing except perhaps a fever or the flu. No-one would stop me and become a friend for life, no-one would have their life changed by spotting me drifting aimlessly from road to unfamiliar road, and certainly there would be no revelation waiting for me with the sunrise. I would have finished the night as I began it, except that I would be lost, I would be down one train ticket, and I would probably be both freezing and starving.
It seemed only fitting that the train got emptier and emptier. Even these strangers, it seemed, could barely stand to be in the same vehicle as me. At each stop I heard the clack of doors and the piercing sound of the guard's whistle, and watched as we pulled out past the newly-minted pedestrians who had escaped the train at that stop - the tired and happy couples, the business-men heading home after some late trip. They seemed purposeful. My carriage emptied down to just me, and at each further stop fewer and fewer people emerged from the other carriages, until I knew that there were just three people aboard the train any longer - the guard, the driver, and in the middle me.
Freed from the constraints of society, I lay down across the old seats and stared up at the ceiling. The light fittings were full of dust and what looked like the corpses of old spiders, but despite the nagging disgust and the fear that one of them might suddenly spring back to life long enough to fall into my mouth, I could not move. I was tired, and the sheer difference between my position now and the energy of the party a mere hour or so ago seemed inconceivable. Had I really been at such a place? Why had I accepted Clark's invitation?
I don't remember closing my eyes, but perhaps I did - I knew that I had at least ten more stops to my station, and I certainly didn't feel that many, but when the train had stopped for five minutes I began to get suspicious. I levered myself up onto my elbow just in time for all the lights to go out. The inside of the carriage was thrown into pitch darkness. I sat up.
We were in some sort of sparse siding - I could see other trains dimly in the gloom, and far behind them a shrubby bank that led up to a curtain of trees.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
I was feeling somewhat rushed that morning, so I skipped my usual leisurely breakfast in favour of a couple of pop tarts and a swill of my mouth with milk (slightly sour, I discovered to my detriment). In hindsight I can say that I had just as much time as I normally would have - there was no real time pressure on me - but the morning felt rushed, as though there were something important waiting for me in the near future, something that was squatting impatiently on its haunches, ready to go without me if I took too long.
I'd woken up that way, slightly vertiginous and with a feeling that I had been dreaming but the inability to remember any of the contents of the dream. I suppose it was a sort of wrong feeling - perhaps not that the dream had been particularly upsetting or unusual, but more that it had been incorrect, that I had been dreaming wrong. Is it possible to fail a dream? I have never seen any meanings in my dreams (none more than simple wish fulfillment in the case of certain erotic components, that is), so the idea that there might be a way in which I had fallen below the competence required was and is ridiculous to me. Still, the disquieting sensation persisted throughout the time I took to get dressed and preened, no doubt aided at least in part by the bad milk now curdling gently in my stomach.
Another bad omen - despite the in-no-way-extraordinary duration of my morning routine, I nevertheless managed to miss my bus. I must have had some inkling when I left the house, because I noticed how quiet the traffic was. The sound of the dawn chorus (well, the early-mid-morning chorus) was quite enchanting, and for once even the dull constant roar of cars going across the flyover was absent. I suppose that there must have been a traffic jam further down the bypass, and the lack of sound was just a reflection of some greater noise elsewhere. I never did find out the cause, but the effect hit me as I opened the gate at the end of my front garden - the bus, which should still have been stuck at the big roundabout three minutes away, instead shot past me, making perfect time towards the bus stop three hundred meters further down the road. Now, I am reasonably fit. I can still run six or seven miles when I put my mind to it, and even early in the morning I can be quite spritely on my feet when I put my mind to it. But running at forty miles an hour for a third of a kilometer is a task best left to cheetahs and ostriches. I made it about a hundred meters at full pelt before I had to drop back into a more modest jog to protect my lungs (about to explode) and my heels (which, uncushioned by running shoes, felt as though they might shatter like porcelain hand grenades at any moment, filling my socks with deadly shrapnel).
So, already knackered and sweating into my shirt and jacket, I arrived at the bus stop just early enough to watch the vehicle itself turning slowly onto the estate where it would loop around and vanish out through the high street and back onto the bypass at the other end of town. I propped myself up against the post and panted my breath back, then had a panicky moment when I realised that my hands felt oddly light. I looked at the ground around me, then realised that I had left my bag at work the previous day. One disaster averted, fortunately. I pushed my loose fringe back up my forehead and smoothed it down, then examined the timetable. I hadn't looked at it for five years (during which time I'd relied on the only bus that I cared about, the one that would get me from my road to the station), and in that time it had apparently been replaced with a new schedule. A new and unfavourable one, I discovered. I had assumed that it would just be another ten minutes until the next bus, but I appeared to have fallen into a lacunae in the schedule - an barren zone between half eight and midday in which the buses were running only once an hour. The idea seemed mad, but I vaguely remembered protest letters in the local newspaper a couple of years ago from the pensioners and home mothers on the estate. At the time I'd fatalistically dismissed the whole thing - I sympathised, of course, I wasn't that heartless, but the bus company seemed largely impregnable to alternative ideas and criticism and it seemed a waste of time throwing my lot in behind a relatively minor losing argument. Now that I'd been bitten myself, though, I cursed my political apathy and myself as an idiot, and quoted (inaccurately I'm sure) Martin Niemoller to myself.
Realising that the wait was going to be pretty awful at the bus stop but that I was within half a kilometer of my house, I began to walk home. It was only when I opened the gate that I realised something else important about the location of my bag - it had my keys in it. I briefly considered breaking in through the kitchen window, but the cost and hassle of repairing the damage would have been considerably worse than merely sitting down for an hour. I found a place on my stoop that was comfortable enough and within range of the house's wireless, and settled down for a bit of web browsing.
I'd set an alarm to go off giving me five minutes to get to the bus stop, a wise precaution. My misfortunes would not let go of me, however. At four minutes to go my phone rang, and I began the conversation that was to lead to me missing the second bus, and (ultimately) to everything that followed on from not being near to my bag before eleven in the morning.
"Hello?" I asked.
"Yes, who is this?"
"This is your brother," said the voice. It definitely did not belong to my brother.
Monday, March 26, 2012
We rolled up the lane to Fox's house and a hushed silence fell over the passengers in the car. As Owl had said, the house had two driveways - one at forty-five degrees to the other. Each ended in a huge gilded gate, and Hedgehog pulled the car over to the side of the road. As the car stopped he began to rock wildly from side-to-side, squeaking uncomfortably. We watched him for a minute, until Owl (sitting beside him in the passenger seat) enquired politely if there might be some problem.
"I'm stuck!" Hedgehog complained.
"To the seat!" he explained. "The drive was so long, every time I pressed on the brake pedal it pushed my quills further into the fabric."
"What!" wailed Otter, in sudden distress. "Not my seat covers! What have you done?"
"If he's done anything," said Owl sternly, "it's your fault. You didn't have to get banned from driving, you didn't have to sign us all up to Fox's ridiculous plan. Hedgehog was kind enough to drive us here, and now you're going to help him get out of your car whether you like it or not."
"I don't want to get out just yet," Hedgehog said meekly. "I was just trying to turn around. I was going to ask the stranger which gate we should take."
I had no idea, of course - indeed, I wasn't entirely sure it would make the slightest bit of difference. But as the other animals seemed to look up to me, they had apparently decided that I was the arbiter of all their important decisions. I wouldn't have minded that, power being somewhat enticing after all, except that one important decision they were happy to make themselves and make very poorly was what constituted important. Still, I was reasonably sure that there could be no chance of mistake here, so I said in my most authoritative voice:
"The one in front of us." (Reasoning that there would only be more trouble if I made Hedgehog turn the car around in the middle of the country lane, and that it would at least get us to Fox's house and the commencement of this charade as quickly as possible. I was, of course, not to realise quite the mistake I'd made for another couple of days).
Hedgehog stopped his uncomfortable wriggling and settled into his little routine - checking his mirrors (although they could hardly have slipped a thousandth of a degree in the short time we had been stopped), looking over his shoulder (as much he could) at the road behind, starting the engine, and then slowly allowing the car to drift forwards. Hedgehog released the clutch like a mother Duck putting her chicks into the water for the first time - gently and reluctantly.
"The coverings are original," Otter moaned gently to himself. "Six months, it took me."
"What are you blubbering about?" Owl asked.
"Six months to get those seat covers," Otter said. "I had to wait for another car to be scrapped so that I could grab them and replace the crappy old ones. They don't make them any more, don't you see? The car will never be the same again."
"Oh, shove a wet sock in it," Owl told him.
As we turned in through the gates we were immediately presented with a wiggle in the driveway which took it around a bronze statue of Fox as a Roman god, swathed in the folds of a metallic toga and carrying in one hand the severed head of a gorgon and in the other a fistful of lightning bolts picked out in chrome so as to be extra gaudy. I pondered on Hedgehog's choice of word: Stranger. It had not seemed quite so odd to me before that none of them had recognised me - it had been a very long time, of course, and I had done my best to keep my pictures out of the children's books, but nevertheless the animals' individual memories seemed patchier than I would have expected. Perhaps I had really changed out of all recognition, or perhaps they were simply getting so old that their memories were beginning to fail them completely.
Owl at the very least I would have expected to recognise me, but he had been the most surprised of all, and in the month since I'd returned to Bridgetown he'd been the most subservient, clearly not his natural demeanour as his behaviour towards the other animals indicated. If he knew who I was and was hiding it, he was doing a very good job of it. Not only that, but if that were the case then what was his motive - was he working some sort of long con, perhaps? It wasn't his style, but I supposed that if I could have changed so radically during my absence, why not the others? Otter had clearly changed from the gentle hippy I'd known as a child into the bizarrely material creature who was sitting beside me and quietly lamenting the destruction of his property. What changes could time have worked on Hedgehog?
My train of thought was cut short by our arrival at the main house. I have said the word house more than twice now, and in order that it not become ingrained in your mind through over-use I intend at this point to stop saying it and to instead refer to Fox's domicile by a considerably more proper noun (although not its proper noun, which was spelled out in singularly tasteless gold letters stretching across the archway over the main doors). Fox lived, there was no other way to describe it, in a mansion. The building was bigger than anything in Bridgetown, bigger even than the church, the church hall, and the grain storehouse put together. Towers and minarets sprouted from every available flat surface atop it, and windows of countless designs dotted the front wall of the house, which itself stretched half as far as the eye could see.
Fox was standing in front of it, his arms wide.
"Welcome!" he shouted, as we stepped out of the car.
"Hello!" we said, and from behind us Hedgehog's voice issued from the driver's seat.
"A little help?"
Saturday, March 24, 2012
We swam lazily beneath the hot sun, every few minutes rolling from our backs to our fronts or vice versa. The sea was blessedly cool, and during a turn both sides would revel in the feeling. If one had turned so face the sky the deep drying heat in one's back would be quenched by the fathoms-deep chill of the ocean water. Similarly, one's face and belly would be caressed by the sun's hot rays and slowly begin to steam as the salt water was burnt away. We wagged our flippers in languorous circles on the surface of the water, watching the ripples rush away from each of us towards the other and merge in complex patterns. There was no wind, there were no waves on and scale that we could measure with our eyes, although we could sometimes feel beneath us a minutes-long swell that gently pushed against our outstretched bodies.
It was this, I think, that carried us to the edge of the sound-cell and away from the territory we were supposed to be exploring. The booming call of the marker-whale, which had already dwindled to a faint rhythm that one could only feel in the bones, faded entirely without our really noticing it, so absorbed were we in the process of enjoying ourselves, of being free of all necessity to act, even though we knew it was just for a short while. So we unwitting fell off the edge of the civilised world and into the more complicated zones about which we (the expedition) knew less, but about which we (the two of us) were soon to learn a great deal more.
We spotted the object when it was nothing more than a black dot on the horizon. It was floating, oddly, like a person, but far too far out of the water to be even the biggest whale. Indeed, it seemed to us to be like an island in reverse - viewed normally, it was quite small, nothing more than a little sand spit, but if one looked above the waves one could see a great bulk that had been concealed there. We watched it drift closer and closer (that is to say, we drifted closer and closer, brought there by that almost imperceptible current), and a sort of electric nervousness passed through us, a combination of the alien sight of the thing and the realisation that we were outside the range of the sound-cell and therefore would have to guess which way it was back to the beacon.
The thing was huge, but strangely formed. From around a hundred meters we could see that it was smoothly curved and largely featureless except that, like a rock or the back of a whale, it had picked up parasites and moss. Still, there were no openings on it, no irregularities, nothing like a building that would allow entry or exit or safe places to rest.
Above the water, though, the irregularity was amazing. The curving visible surface stretched up out of the sea to form a huge wall that reached up perhaps ten meters into the air. It seemed impossible, and looking up at it gave the disturbing impression that it was about to topple over onto us.
We had enjoyed the silence of the earlier day - the relaxing muteness which we had agreed to practise to better allow us to appreciate the relaxing beauty of the afternoon - but by almost imperceptible signals we began to twitch our mouths and fins, and I perceived that our unity was at an end, that although we both wanted the same thing we would have to become separate minds to discuss this new and bizarre phenomenon. Understanding this, I accepted the shame for being the first to words and I swam down and safely away from the object and hung in the shadow beneath it, in the cool dark where it was easier to think.
"What do you suppose it is?" I said, and the words sounded like the boom of a whale after the long quiet.
"It's pedifactured," she replied, "but it must have taken an age. And how was it risen like that?"
As usual, she confused the what with the how, but I was not perturbed as I often was. It seemed to me that freed of our unity it would be better to allow her to proceed in her analytical manner while I attempted to absorb the whole of the situation. A two-pronged attack might serve us better.
"How big would you say the bit above the water was?"
She swam quickly from one end of the shadow to the other, then rolled around thoughtfully, flicking her tail while she calculated.
"It's the same length as the bit we can see," she said, "perhaps a little longer. About ninety meters, maybe? You could get a couple of sounding whales nose-to-tail along this thing. Above water maybe ten meters tall, and fifteen meters across?"
We swam around it, taking in every angle as best we could, me letting the whole feel of the object sink into me, mindlessly cataloguing its curves and angles and place in the world so that perhaps sometime down the line a concept would occur to me. She measuring those curves and angles and sending little pulses towards the visible surface to see what stuff the object might be made of. Her pulses were her own, of course, but the curved surface threw them back stretched, so that from my place beside her I could sense something of them. Below the timbre of her there was a strange feeling, something both empty and solid at the same time, which I had never heard before.
"It's metal," she said, with a curious tone in her voice. "Lots of metal. Lots and lots of metal."
I just floated there, dumbfounded, listening to the faint echoes of her repeated pulses. I'd heard metal before, of course - the little sand-dollar discs of it that covered the floor in places, but they were barely a few centimetres across.
"It's a ruin," she said excitedly. A shiver ran through my tail.
Friday, March 23, 2012
For someone so remarkably maladroit at any physical activity, Marshall was certainly confident in his ability to not only hit the target but to catch the resulting fallout. The rest of us stood back and watched his awkward wind-up - one of those comedy ones where he flailed his right arm around in huge windmills that served no purpose except the psychological one of fooling him into thinking that he was building up his energy. Then, with a single badly-timed jerk he threw the stone precisely forty-five degrees away from his intended trajectory, which sent it straight at the house.
If Marshall had been a stronger thrower, the stone might have vanished relatively harmlessly through one of the windows of the old mansion, disappearing into the quiet gloom within and summoning one of the inhabitants to peer angrily at us through the shattered remains. If he had been a more accurate thrower the stone would merely have fallen short of its target and dropped with a gentle splosh into the mill pond, where it would no doubt briefly startle the koi that inhabited that watery domain before settling into the thick layer of green mud at the bottom.
But Marshall was neither stronger than he was, nor more accurate. The stone, leaving his hand like an unruly teenager storming out of its parents' house, flew directly towards the house but fell far short, clattering into the metal chain-link fence that surrounded the chicken range and rebounding with a deadly accuracy towards where the rest of us were standing. It hit Clara directly in the ankle, and with a shriek of agony she hopped up onto the other foot, lost her balance, and tumbled backwards into the open cellar doors from which we had emerged, bumping her way down the steps to land in a heap of over-long limbs at the foot of the stairs.
"Are you ok?" I called down.
Clara's reply was delivered with her customary sweet and gentle tone, although the semantic payload of the words did somewhat give the lie to the way in which they were delivered.
"I'm just fine. Would you mind asking Marshall to come down here and help me up so that I can wring his idiot neck?"
Deciding that perhaps the murder of my cousin by my other cousin was precisely the sort of thing that my mother had warned me it would be my responsibility to prevent, I instead climbed down into the cellar myself and slowly raised Clara upright again, then examined her leg. There was no blood, but I could tell that the stone had done a number on her ankle - an ugly great red welt had come up, and there was a lump just above the rise of the bone that was swelling up and provoked a little "yipe" of pain from up above when I gently prodded it with my finger.
"Would you mind ever so much not doing that again, please," Clara said.
I got her arm over one shoulder and with some difficulty we were able to get up the steps again and out into the open air just in time for another stone to whiz past us - fortunately Clara and I were out of the line of fire this time, but the rock his Willard in the stomach and took the wind out of him, so that for the next minute he was sucking up air and trying not to sick up in the flower beds at the back of the guest-house. I could see he was trying extra hard to keep down his lunch because of Clara and me being there.
"You've got to hand it to him," he gasped after a little while. "He's incredibly consistent."
"I just wish he could be consistent in hitting what we actually want him to hit," Clara complained. This seemed to give Willard an idea, and he hollered and waved his arms to attract Marshall's attention. Marshall was in the middle of another wind-up, and released his stone without noticing Willard - causing us all to dive at the floor in anticipation. The stone shot harmlessly over our heads and into the pipe that ran from the guttering on top of the guest-house down to the water butt, shattering the brittle plastic and sending out a splatter of stagnant water that must have been trapped in a column by some blockage further down. Needless to say, the water found its way to the three figures lying on the ground, although once again I was the luckiest, getting only a mild splash. Willard had dropped onto his already bruised belly closest to the wall, and so received a thorough drenching. Clara, aching all over from her tumble into the cellar, took a jet of water directly to the backside. She levered herself up painfully, rubbing at her various joints, and stared daggers at Marshall.
"Sorry!" he called. "I've almost got it!"
"What you've almost got, cousin dear, is my fist down your throat." But Clara's voice, not suited for the purpose to which it was being put, did not carry far enough for Marshall to be able to hear. Instead Willard, levering himself off his poor abused stomach, finally caught Marshall's attention.
"Aim for the crab oak!" Willard yelled.
"The crab oak!" Willard repeated. "Aim for the crab oak!"
Marshall looked around, confused, and pointed at the gnarled old tree. I could see what Willard was getting at - the tree looked as though it were exactly forty-five degrees to the other side of Marshall's target from the old mansion. Marshall still didn't seem to get it, though, no doubt oblivious to what was obvious to us - to whit, that he was some kind of genius at throwing who had just had the misfortune to be badly calibrated.
"That oak?" he asked.
"Yes, that one!"
"Just throw, for god's sake!"
That, coming from Willard, was enough for Marshall. He took his wind-up, set the rock loose, and sure as eggs is eggs the missile flew straight at the tree-house he'd been trying to hit. It described a gentle arc - up, along, and down - and fell gracefully into the mill pond.
"Oh," said Willard.
"Encouraging," I told him, rolling my eyes.
"It's something," he said. There was a hurt look in his eyes, and a sort of defensiveness about him. I suppose it wasn't too hard to see why. He'd worked on it for a long time, and the current system was much better than in the past, but there was no way the board were going to go for it. I did the quick maths in my head - five days to train someone in the new system, about an hour saved every two months, it would take just under seven years before it paid off in time saved alone, not counting the new computer equipment and the training manuals that would be needed. It was a nice idea, and ultimately it would make people's lives easier, but it was a poor return on investment even if Brewston hadn't spent more than two years working on it. Worse, a year of that had been on the company dime rather than in his own spare time. There was no way that the company would ever recoup its money on the system, not realistically. They'd paid for Brewston to do some academic work, essentially, or perhaps to figure out a system that some other company, rifling through their belongings when they went under, would find and perhaps implement as some sort of curiosity. It was something that a management consultant might write a book about which would be widely read among the industry but not outside it, and rarely if ever implemented. "Oh god you're right," he said, sinking back into his chair and letting his head fall into his cupped hands. "It's a disaster. I'm going to get torn to shreds."
That bit was unlikely, at least. I had expressed to him a few months ago my view of how the board would respond to the news I thought he would eventually give them (of which opinion reality had now vindicated me). What I had neglected to inform him today was that I had at the time been somewhat drunk, and I had fallen back on the oratorical technique of hyperbole rather heavily. There was unlikely to be any summary firing, unlikely to be any shouting, and extremely unlikely to be any blood-letting of the sort which would require more than a quick spray of stain devil on the boardroom carpet. In short, screwed though he was in terms of getting his ideas implemented, I thought that Brewston probably had very little to worry about in terms of either his job or his physical safety. The most likely outcome, I supposed, was that the man would be shunted sideways into some sort of honorific job which could then be allowed to wither and die until it wrapped itself neatly around him like clingfilm and forced upon him the choice of either finding another position in another company where they didn't know him or gently allowing himself to be suffocated until retirement. I said nothing of this, though.
"I'm sure they'll be interested," I said instead. "I don't think that they'll be wowed."
Interested and Wowed were the buzz phrases of the month, the subtle distinguishers between those ideas which would be taken on by some boardroom patron and those which would be shown the door. We were all about wowing our customers at the moment, wowing our supply chain (and required them to wow us in our turn), wowing our shareholders. If someone was interested in an idea it simply meant that they were passionless about it, and with the apotheosis of H.M.Brightly into chairperson of the board that was the only sort of passion which was approved of.
"Oh god," Brewston said, hiding his face again. I was surprised - I honestly hadn't expected him to be so au fait with the current company trends as to be able to recognise my choice of words for the left-handed compliment it really was. I had not given him enough credit, obviously, just as I had given him too much credit when I first heard about his theory.
That was the crux of the matter, of course - how to gracefully disengage myself from the idea before I was blackened with the soot from it. Brewston would survive the debacle, of course, and in a way I thought that he might even thrive on the failure, growing comfortably into his new position - whatever it might be. But for me that stagnation would be career death, and therefore tantamount to physical death. I had to keep moving in the company if I was to complete my goals, and that meant not getting tarred with the same loser-coloured brush that Brewston was about to get redecorated with. That meant making it abundantly clear that the idea had not been mine (true), and that whatever people thought had been early enthusiasm for it was in fact a sort of amused condescension (false).
"Look," I said carefully. "Perhaps we should put off showing this to the board just yet. There's a bit of leeway on the dates of the presentation. Maybe we can arrange it to be dropped back a couple of months. You might find some way round the... limits, if you catch my drift."
"There are no limits," he moaned. "I mean, there are limits, but they're all fixed in stone. I've done the maths over and over, it's hopeless. The system as it stands will never get any better than it is now. It can't, because that's the way it's constructed."
"OK, well - what about just a different spin on it? If you can work out some better way to teach it, say, or just some.. I don't know, some braver face to plaster on the whole thing. You could say that it's kind of a dead end in itself, but now you understand the problem space more thoroughly. Does that sound like it makes sense?" I had to ask - buzzwords du jour aside, I'm never entirely comfortable with research jargon.
"I guess," he said hesitantly.
"That's settled then." A stay of execution for him, and a couple of months for me to distance myself from the disaster. I smiled encouragingly at him.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
There was, if you looked at him with a generous eye, something of the lion about the man, but there was also something of the jackal, and something of the spider - and it was this last facet of the man's seeming that Wilhelmina, her eyes crusty with the gunk of fitful sleep and her mouth choked with dry saliva, saw most clearly. She looked at him, in his dark suit, and discerned in his features an emotionless calculation that might just as well have been the dry maths required of a web builder or the dark hunger of a hunter. He stood before her in the lobby of the library and stared at her, his eyes flickering only to blink, his back ramrod-straight so that he towered over her and she was able to look over the rims of her glasses without even letting them slip down her nose, as she usually did in such situations.
"I'm teddibly soddy," she said, "but we cawt led you tate a bood widout a cawd."
She frowned, partly at the audacity of the young man, partly at the realisation that there was no way to sound authoritative with a blocked nose. She knew that under the counter there was a handkerchief, but a cold calculation of her own told her that it was beyond her reach from her current position. She would have to bend down - or sit - in order to be able to get at it, and she was reluctant to do that for some reason.
"I'm afraid I don't understand," said the man in the suit. His voice had an unpleasant timbre in it, something that Wilhelmina thought would have made her walk out of a recital if she'd heard it in the tones of a musical instrument. She had a sudden urge to just let the young man go, to be done with the whole thing and mark the book down as just another unfortunate incident of shrinkage (of which there was enough from the local homeless population, who had somehow worked out a way to bypass the library's metal scanners so that they could take books out to sell). As she was about to open her mouth to wave him on, though, another thought came to her - that he might be doing it deliberately, putting that horrid buzz into his voice in order to make her let him past, and the idea that the young man was manipulating her she found so abhorrent that she doubled her resolve, pushing the unpleasant sound to the back of her mind so that it was drowned in procedures and rules and the simple proper decencies that made a library run. The book was still on the counter in front of her, and she put one hand on top of it, claiming it as the rightful property of the library and re-affirming her position.
"I said I'm soddy," she repeated. "You cannod tate de bood."
The young man looked at her without any glimmer of comprehension, and she suddenly wondered if, despite his flawless english accent, he was in fact a foreigner. Wilhelmina's salary had not allowed her the privilege of foreign travel since the time (now a good twenty-four years ago) when her school had taken her and the rest of her class on a two-day trip to the French coast. She remembered little of that, and all of her exposure to other countries had been via the medium of television drama - in which accents, one might say with the utmost discretion, politeness, and generosity towards the esteemed actors, were treated somewhat inconsistently. It seemed odd to Wilhelmina that a foreigner might have no discernable accent which would mark him apart from the solid English men and women who were entitled (if parishioners of one of the administrative parishes encompassed by the borough) to not only use the library but to withdraw books from it.
"Are you a barishoner?" she asked, her mind having been turned to that thought. Her one concession to politic speech, she thought, would be to at least allow the man the dignity of not accusing him of being an outsider directly but to lead him towards a confession of that status by a series of more or less gentle questioning.
"I am not," he replied.
"Oh. Well, do you lib in on ob de bodough adeas?" Wilhelmina asked, indicating the ancient administrative map of the borough behind her. The map was intricately detailed within borough borders, those other boroughs in the county which abutted it being rendered in misty greys crosshatching, as if the Victorian cartographer responsible for drafting the map could hardly bring himself to believe that anywhere outside the borough existed. The young man studied the map for a few moments.
"No," he said.
"Den I'm teddibly soddy," she said, mustering as much finality as she could into her mucus-burdened voice, "bud you cannot tate dis bood oud ob de libady."
Using the hand that she'd placed atop it, she swept back the book across the polished counter and allowed it to fall into her other hand which she had positioned waiting for it. She bent down and tucked the book away into one of the sorting shelves below her counter (so rarely used that the other five sorting shelves were filled with mugs, teabags, her handbag, and other assorted kipple), and when the book had cleared her hand she took the opportunity to put a little flourish on her victory by sweeping up the handkerchief and blowing her nose as she stood up.
To her astonishment (and, it must be added, to her disappointment) the young man was gone. Wilhelmina blew her nose again, folded the cloth square up, and with a sense of accomplishment realigned all of the leaflet holders that the young man had pushed aside to put the book down. It was as she was doing this that Wilhelmina realised that although he was out of her sight, he must not yet have left the building. If he had, the geriatric bell above the door should have rung.
The girl with he snake around her made her way slowly down the road, letting the reptile's huge and ominous head swing freely from the foot or so of body that extended past the point she was holding in her hand. Gregson watched warily from the other side of the road, at first not sure what he was seeing. The body of the red-yellow-and-green snake was wound in lazy loops around the girl's body. She was not skinny, but she was slight enough that Gregson thought the snake could easily have crushed her with a single spasm of its muscular body, and that it had got into position in which to do that. The girl seemed unconcerned, though, smiling happily and walking with a slow, relaxed pace - almost rhythmically, Gregson thought.
Her hair was long, and flowed with a gentle ripple behind her, spreading over her shoulders and the stretched form of the serpent alike, swaying gently in time with the movements of the snake's head. Every time her foot hit the ground the sake bobbed a little, and although it was too far away to see, Gregson was convinced that every time she swung it from side to side it turned its head a little and flickered out its tongue, tasting for the scent of something. It looked disturbingly as though the two of them were one creature, the girl a pair of legs that the snake had grown to speed up its search. It was searching, he could see that now - there was a look of intent about the beast, and now that he knew to look for it, a similar one on the girl's face, hidden behind the smile. Her eyes were not smiling, although the cast of them and the way they were shadowed under her fringe had made it look convincing until he had spotted the expression on the snake. That in itself was odd and disturbing to Gregson, the realisation that he had been fooled by the expression of a human, the expressions that everyone interprets hundreds of times a day, but had picked up on the expression of an animal that he (along with most people) would have described as completely expressionless.
Whether it was the gasps of the people around him that alerted him to the others or whether he simply allowed his focus to extend outwards from the girl who had captured it all in that bizarre moment, he suddenly became aware that ten feet or so behind the young girl was another snake-carrier, a teenage boy. When he had seen her before, coming out of the group at the market, she had been alone. That had been - what, four, five hours ago? It was difficult to remember. So much had happened, and so little, and he could not longer easily say whether it was even that day. She had definitely been alone, though, and although he had remarked on the snake at the time, it had not seemed so unusual - nor so much a apart of her. Then they had been an ordinary snake and an ordinary girl - albeit slightly extraordinary for the fact that she was carrying a snake. Now there was something much more sinister about them, and it was not just the intentness with which they seemed to be working on their plan, but something else - the mere fact that there were two of them made them seem more of a force, more of a threat. Had they come here together, or had they met in the town for whatever purpose they were about? He saw another - a middle-aged man this time, walking along about ten feet behind the boy. Gregson wondered whether he was the ring-leader, but he dismissed the idea as idiotic bigotry almost immediately. It was clear that the man was no more the controller of the group than the teenage boy was, and as he admitted that he knew with certainty again that it was the girl who was in control - or perhaps the snake the girl was holding, or even more likely the strange hybrid creature that the two of them seemed to Gregson to have become in the time since he'd first seen them. He began to walk along the pavement, pacing himself against the girl on the opposite curb. In front of him other pedestrians became static obstacles as they spotted the procession on the other side of the road, suddenly stopping to stare slack-mouthed across at the girl and her followers. Some began to point, some froze with worried looks on their faces, and some - Gregson noticed - just stopped and began to smile faintly. It was just the hint of a smile, the ghost of amusement or approval, but as he went Gregson began to see the same furtive grin again and again, and a nervy, uncomfortable feeling started to creep up from the base of his spine. He turned away to stand in the doorway of a darkened shop, and watched both the procession and the reactions of the others.
There were more of the snake holders than he had realised, he saw immediately. Behind the middle-aged man where two more young men - in their twenties, he thought, older than the girl - and behind them the first woman other than the leader. Behind her there was another woman, then a man in a business suit - including a briefcase, around which the tail of the snake was gently but firmly coiled. Then after that - Gregson froze, stunned. It was Boxer. For a moment his brain revolted, assuring him that there was no way it could be Boxer, that the barrow-boy wouldn't have been a member of some weird cult for this long without mentioning it, that he must have a brother. But it was Boxer all right, there was no mistaking the man's blunt features. This morning, when Gregson had spoken to him at length, he had been his own man. Now he was part of the strange snake-handling procession, and smiling the same furtive smile. Gregson understood, and knew that he must get away fast.
Monday, March 19, 2012
Here is the plot of my life - man is born, man grows, man dies.
There's a lot of detail hidden there in "Man grows", of course. Let me give you an example. On my twenty-first birthday, having been dropped out of a moving car onto a bridge over the river Creese, I found myself stuck in the middle of a town whose inhabitants did not speak Andrevian, with no money (local or otherwise), and flagrantly in abuse of the local red laws. In Kresford they are not like our own red laws, but the principle is the same - that tourists and other foreigners must wear something to identify them. Just like our own laws, they are there (as the cynics say) to protect foreigners from petty criminals and to expose them to the more complex machinations of the bureaucratic criminals in the local government offices. It was this last lack, rather than money or a command of the Marian tongue, which was to prove my undoing.
It was quick, almost as if the officers had been tipped off beforehand. I knew that this was impossible - my friends, those who drove the car I was thrown out of - would have had to do the tipping off more than a few days in advance, and I had been with them all of that time. You may think that the sort of person who would throw you out of a moving car might not easily be described as a friend, but at least they slowed down to such a pace that I was barely scraped, and it was after a mere five minutes of lying on my back and staring at the patchy blue-and-white Kresford sky that a shadow fell over me.
"Katyin?" A man's voice, heavily accented Marian of the kind for which Kresfordites are mocked by their countrymen. "Katyin, Herri?" Hello? Hello, Sir? - I knew that much at least.
"Katyin kat," I croaked, levering myself up. I thought it best to get things off on the right foot: "Bes tenera, Herri. Spechera Marianisch el." Sorry Sir, I do not speak Marian.
"Apra Herri." The voice said. "Tolist."
That I did not understand, although perhaps I might have picked them out in a language class. As I got myself partially upright, though, made an educated guess. I had expected the voice to have come from a bystander, but of course (as you know), it was not. It was a policeman, dressed in a dark red uniform and carrying a half-moon badge which he was tapping with one out-stretched finger.
"Bes tenera," I said again.
He reached down and helped me to my feet (none too gently, I might add), then indicated that I should follow him by means of a gesture. Having corrected my misconception about his proper title he seemed to accept immediately my assertion that I spoke no Marian and did not attempt to engage me in conversation, even when I attempted to discover our destination by exercising what few words I could either remember from guidebooks or foreign-language films, or by attempting the Andrevian word for a concept, but in a Kresfordite accent (I only tried this once, fearing as the word left my mouth that the policeman might take it for mockery).
Nonetheless, he took me on a quite detailed walking tour of the bayside area of Kresford. I'm sure if my guide had been an attractive young woman in the traditional local dress it would have been quite interesting, but with the uncertainty of my reception at the police station (for I assumed that was where I was being led) hanging over me, I found it difficult to see the town in a positive light. The bayside itself wasn't too bad - a long cobbled road leading south along the bank of the Creese with a lovely view out over the river itself and the docks and quays a few miles down - but when we turned off into the little maze of side alleys around the old marketplace (I'd been there the previous evening drinking), I began to feel unnerved by the claustrophobic way that the geriatric buildings clustered around us, cutting off line of sight so that I could see no more than a few tens of meters ahead of and behind me at any one time, and I began to wonder whether the policeman was a policeman at all or rather a killer who had taken the advantage of meeting someone unprotected by the correct attire for the red laws to exercise his murderous impulses safe in the knowledge that he would not be recognised.
I was soon (fortunately) disabused of this fear. Rounding a corner we emerged from an alley into a small open plaza. Forming the north side of the square (and probably the reason for it) was a third-century-style stronghold-house, a conscious copy, no doubt, of buildings that had been a hundred or so years old when it had been designed. Now all those buildings were gone and this one remained as a poor reminder of the town's more glorious past. Two great flying buttresses extended from the fascia of this edifice, and between them a step-lintelled stone doorway housed two great oak-wood doors, one of which was insolently ajar. The policeman led me to it and then stopped at the threshold of the office, gesturing me inside.
Office it was, for within I discovered not a police station as I had expected, but some sort of government building which it appeared to me served some kind of liason purpose. There were the shields of all nations arrayed around the walls of the atrium, although naturally all of them were smaller than the black-and-grey shield of Marianite-Eastland, and even that was dwarfed by the municipal shield of Kresford that hung beside it. The policeman seemed reluctant to enter himself, but pointed me to a desk at the far side of the hall and waited where he was, sternly ensuring that I followed his instructions. I walked to the desk, bowed politely to the formidable middle-aged lady behind the desk, and greeted her.
"Oh yes," she said, in thickly-accented Andrevian. "Ordered to expect you, we were."
Friday, March 16, 2012
They took their apathy to quite an extreme, avoiding the slightest hint of any news that might cause them to become concerned for something or someone outside their limited group of friends. In fact even within that group they attempted - wherever possible - to keep any extraneous information about a person's history or motivations firmly out of the light of knowledge. It was as if, to them, each of the others were a black box or an atom, perfectly formed and with no internal information or state that might be analysed to provide an insight onto their behaviour. They were simply the people that they were, and their actions might as well have been random. They were, of course, consistent - it would be obvious to even the most lackadaisical of inspections that the group of them could not long have held together in the face of unpredictability, but it pleased them to allow themselves to think otherwise. To care about another would have seemed a lot of trouble - and, in some ways more importantly, would also have appeared somewhat gauche.
They met regularly in the saloon bar of their local pub, an establishment finely balanced between the chrome-fixtured hard-drinking family gastropub and the stick-mahogany dimly-lit old man's drinking den. The Lame Duke was run by a blowsy Welsh-woman in her late fifties who disliked everyone and therefore was not above allowing the group of them (who even in small numbers other people often found profoundly irritating) from colonising the west-most area of the pub, the leg of a big L which the open floor of the building formed around the bar. It was as far from the main door as it was possible to get, which suited both them and the landlady perfectly - they because they were not constantly interrupted by the coming and going of other drinkers, and her because they did not disrupt the constant coming and going of other drinker who (had the group been seated closer to the door) might have taken one look at them and fled to the Wetherspoons down the road, giving the whole place up as a bad job.
"They do drink," she said to one of her other regulars, a tired-looking old woman called Ruth who seemed to only exist during licensing hours. "I'll give them that. And they never get handsy."
Ruth looked up from her gin and crossword and gave the landlady a surprised look. She thought it very unlikely that anyone would ever attempt to get handsy with the landlady. Ruth had been a looker in her youth, and had never quite got over the habit of judging everyone (herself included, to be fair) by the standards of attractiveness she had once attained. The landlady was not a handsome woman, by any stretch of the imagination, although there was a certain je ne sais quoi about her which had captivated one man away from his wife ten years ago. Perhaps, Ruth thought, it had been the constant slight smell of alcohol about her.
"They don't start fights, either," continued the object of Ruth's musing. "They never ask for credit, they tend not to vomit on things."
"They sound ideal," Ruth murmured, staring at the grid in front of her: 13D: Boutique food shops turns on the darkness, 7 letters, she read out silently.
"I just wish they weren't so... you know."
Ruth did not know, but she sensed that she was not necessarily a required part of the conversation and kept her mouth closed.
"Ah," said the landlady. "There's not a problem that the sound of money going into the register can't solve, now is there?"
Correctly surmising that this was likely to be a theme that the landlady would expound upon at quiet-shattering length if not nipped in the bud, Ruth fumbled in her pockets and stuck a fiver on the driest part of the bar within reach.
"One more Bombay Sapphire, please," she said, staring over at the group of young people in the corner. They didn't seem quite so bad to her as the landlady seemed to think they were, but she was the first to admit that she was no real judge of modern youth. The group - ten of them on this night - sat around a small circular table in a tight huddle, talking intently. Every so often a head would turn to face the rest of the bar, revealing itself to be powdered to a deathly white (the boys as well as the girls, Ruth noted), although they lacked the contrasting dark eyes and lips that would have marked them out as emo or goth.
She had unwittingly stumbled upon the one area of their behaviour about which it was considered acceptable to care - their appearance. It had long been the fashion among them (if fashion can be used for such a long-lasting phenomenon) to affect a pallor only slightly north of the grave. It had begun with a woman who had now left the group, a young woman for whom apathy and cynicism had come with her genes, so it seemed. Aping her either unconsciously or consciously in order to somehow bask in her reflected nihilism, the others had therefore adopted a uniform of sorts, although it extended as far as the face and no further, their clothes generally picked so as to be as unobtrusive as possible and thrown on with an uncaring hand to produce no effect other than a lazy muddle of styles. That was the way they liked it.
The landlady, having poured out Ruth's drink, placed it in front of her next to the half-finished glass of her previous round, inhaling the fumes from the glass as it passed in front of her on the way to its destination. She then rang up the sale and grinned at the satisfying "CHING!" from the antiquated register.
"Delightful," she said.
Good lord, Ruth thought to herself, scribbling the word DELIGHT into thirteen down. The sound of money going in really does solve all problems!
Thursday, March 08, 2012
Jones and Forester walked out onto the edge of the desert, past the last of the squat prickly shrubs that clung onto the dry land around the mountains. Just shy of the furthest point that the shadow of that tenacious plant stretched, they spread out their blanket and lay down, placing the containers of food between them to form a little wall against intimacy.
Jones, sun-toned by her years at the outpost, lay face up and draped her hands over her eyes to shield herself from the insistent sun, from the endless light blue reaches of the sky. Forester lay face down on his side of the blanket, close to the musty smell of the wool that had been stored badly throughout the winter and the drier scent of the fine sand.
"I heard from Carly today," he said to the tartan fabric, and across the little wall of food Jones took one hand away from her face, and - turning on her side towards him - used it to prop herself up.
"Oh? How is she?"
"Pretty freaked. They're saying on the news that it might be another four months until a plane gets out here."
Jones rolled onto her back again.
"Hmm," she mused.
"You think Chris is lying?"
"About the plane? No... No. I mean, in a way I kind of want him to be, but no."
"I know what you mean."
She propped herself up again, regarded the young man with fascination.
"Sure," he said, without looking over. "I mean, he's been such a dick you just want him to be wrong about something, or you want him to be lying because he's sure to be exposed, right?"
"Yeah. Yeah! That's exactly it."
He awkwardly twisted up his right arm so that he could give her a thumbs-up.
"Told you I wasn't just a pretty face."
"I didn't think of it like that before," she said, "but you've hit it on the head. I do want him to be wrong. I do want him to get his comeuppance. Just - you know, not like this. I'd rather keep my indignation and for us all to be home. Hmm, or would I?"
"You're not that cruel."
"No," she admitted. "I couldn't do that to you and Carly."
"Or Nigel," he said. "Jesus, did you see him in the all hands this morning?"
"God, yes. I thought there was going to be - you know." She mimed, punching the sky with a balboa rhythm of two quick jabs followed by a slow hook. "Chris looked like he was going to have a heart attack."
"They've got to get him out of here. Soon."
They fell silent, still staring in their opposite directions. Jones saw a black speck zooming against the featureless expanse of sky and for a moment thought it a plane before realising that it was just one of the dry grey crows that eked out their precarious living from the station's detritus. On the woollen blanket Forester watched one of the tiny iridescent desert beetles clamber through the tough forest of hairs and make its way from one edge to another before disappearing beneath into the cool shadow beneath.
The desert was quiet - unnaturally quiet, perhaps, next to the low din in the station. The cooling generators were louder than the heaters had been over the winter, and everywhere within there was the constant murmur of discontent, of people wondering how long it would be before their fuel ran out or the rescue plane came or before one of Chris's edicts tipped the module seven biologists over the edge into outright rebellion. There it was hardly possible to hear yourself think, but out in the desert Jones and Forester could hear each other's breath, and without knowing it as they relaxed they slowly began to drift into a lazy synchronisation, albeit out of phase so that each deep in breath Forester made from the must-scented air that clung to the blanket was paired with a warm damp breath out from Jones that sent an invisible little plume of moisture up into the bone-dry desert air.
Eventually Forester's hunger got the better of him, and he levered himself away from the ground into a pushup and walked his legs in to bring himself into a low crouch. He had left an impression in the sand and blanket bearing the rough shape of his body, into which a tiny avalanche of sand poured from the back of his trousers.
"What do we have, then?" he asked.
"Apples," Jones told him, pointing to the container that had been between their heads, then counting off each of the thick plastic-ceramic pots in turn until she reached the one between their hips: "Bread rolls with butter, yoghurt, rice cakes, baklava."
"Nice," Forester said, nodding appreciatively, then: "uhh..."
"No nuts in the baklava," she said. "I didn't forget. Just honey and pastry. It's not quite right, but I tried a couple when I was making them. They're fine."
"I'm sure they're excellent," he said, fishing a roll out of the second container.
"I got the recipe from Carly."
"Eh?" He looked surprised.
"From her website, I mean," Jones quickly amended.
Forester brushed a little area of the blanket clear of the fine sand that had by that point covered everything, carried there by some otherworldly wind too light for them to feel, and set down his roll on the blanket, one bite out of it. He opened the container of baklava, quickly plucked up one sweet and ferried it whole into his mouth hurriedly, as if he were trying to do it before he could come to his senses. He chewed - slowly once, then again, then swallowed and smiled.
"Nice," he confessed. "I mean, I assumed it would be nice, but - I don't know, maybe my subconscious thought otherwise." He frowned. "Carly's never made these for me."
"Oh?" Jones looked away. On the far distant horizon, swimming towards them in the heat haze, she was surprised to see a car.
"I wonder why," Forester said, picking up another of the sweets and examining it carefully.
Tuesday, March 06, 2012
Plentiful were the days, and long as we could want them, and bathed in the warming lights of the grow-arcs. We ran through fields of corn, chased by each other and by the machines that rolled up and down blindly according to their nature. The endless black skies of summer provided the audience, a million twinkling spectators hidden by the lights during out performance which suddenly appeared at the end of the night, fading into resolvable points as the grow-arcs flickered and died and our eyes grew once more accustomed to the endless dark of the space above the colony.
It was our game, started mid-summer by Johnny Q, to try to spot our home star. The quickest one to find it after the last arc died was the winner and king or queen for the night. Nature had balanced the game well - Sol being much brighter from the colony than Abraxus it was easier to see, but Abraxus was part of a constellation that lay above the main plane of the milky way, allowing the searching eye to cling on to that easier formation and work its way up (or down, depending on how late in the cycle it was) to the star itself. Rarelle was excused from the games, since the Bleak Star was not visible from anywhere on the colony, and although we did not at the time understand why, we accepted it in a rare display of solidarity. Although it did not play, I sometimes watched Rarelle when the arc went out, and saw it turning its featureless head from side to side, scanning in some arcane direction. Sometimes the gesture continued until we were called in and ran laughing back to our mothers and fathers and father-mothers. But sometimes - rarely - it would slow and stop, and I would wonder whether Rarelle had given up the hunt or whether it had found the home from which its elder part had once travelled.
You will have to excuse me - I have not thought of the game for a long time, and there are certain other emotions tied up with it. I just remembered Lexi N, who I have not thought of in a hundred years. She-he was the smallest of the Abraxans, the follow-on of a clutch, fast on Her-his feet and brought up by a father-mother who was a teacher of human languages. She-he could ape a human perfectly, so much so that over the radio you could not tell that she-he was Abraxan at all.
It was a tending machine that did for her-him, one of the man-sized things that we fled before in fits of nervous laughter. It had been reprogrammed to search for red-fleas after dark, but the programmer had made a mistake in his code, accidentally bypassing the safety routines that prevented the machine from colliding with unexpected objects in the fields. While she-he was looking for Abraxus, stood in the dark and staring at the sky, the machine rushed silent and swift through the ranks of corn. The farmers in their high towers must have seen the accident, but to them it was just a marker light atop a dark shape that rolled and rolled and rolled and briefly slowed and rolled on.
That was how it ended, of course. We were banned from the fields after that, I remember now and understand. At the time we were torn between selfishness and compassion, the way children often are. We understood that our parents (those of us who had them) were terrified by the prospect of another accident, and that it was better to play along just for a while than to work them into a still more restrictive frenzy of care. We also missed our playmate, the one who had more than any of us acted as a bridge across our differences (a revelation that came to most of us only years after her-his death, when we reached the ages that our troubles began). But at the same time we resented her-his stupidity - how could she-he be so foolish as to have allowed her-himself to be killed like that? We knew that the adults blamed their programmer, and that he had been put on trial for negligence, but we saw things differently - we had outrun the machines hundreds of times ourselves, each time successfully, why did she-he not simply jump aside? These were the things we said to each other, and perhaps they were the start of our schism, because when we said them to each other we thought nothing of it, but when we overheard others talking amongst themselves we allowed ourselves to become outraged on Lexi N's behalf. The adults had nothing on us when it came to believing two things at the same time - we were the champions of hypocrisy,
Eventually our boredom overcame our prudence, and while we came in early to avoid notice we nonetheless returned slowly to the fields that we had been forbidden. We went back to our games of dodge the machine, adding to the rules the extra wrinkle that we must also now give them a wide enough berth to avoid their sensors and any undue interest from the farmers that might get back to our parents. The great bulk of us, me included, forgot entirely about Johnny Q's game - we did not miss it, and perhaps in our minds it was so inextricably mixed with Lexi N's death that it would not have afforded us much pleasure anyway. But the bulk of us was not the all of us, and one at least, one who had had no real reason to comply with the restrictions placed on the rest of us, seemed to remember and long for the sport. Rarelle was its own parent, in a way, and although we assumed that it had been warned off playing at night it is only with hindsight that I realise that it had simply gone along with the crowd in staying away.
At least twice I saw it, even in the day, stop running suddenly and begin to scan its head from side to side; the motion slowing as it homed in on its hidden home on the other side of the warp curtain.
Monday, March 05, 2012
The whole house seemed to be coated in misery, a thick oleaginous coat of sadness that clung to the walls and exuded a bleak vapour. To step through the front door was to be instantly shrouded in the family's unhappiness, and although guests came to make their condolences and attempt to help them through the dark time, they knew the minute they crossed the threshold that their efforts would prevail naught against the overpowering sadness. They came in with hopeful smiles and lively steps, but left bearing a harsh load of grief across their shoulders and a despair in their heart against the hope that their friends might ever again laugh.
The building itself began to shrink away from its surroundings in some way. As the month of February rolled on the greenery in the neighbouring gardens slowly emerged from its winter hibernation, grass clearing and beginning to grow in earnest again, snowdrops peeking up coyly from the margins of flowerbeds, and many a fat fly banging at a window or spiraling up into a bright morning sky. But in the garden of the house the brown sticks of the sleeping bushes did not quickly develop their new buds and the sickly cherry tree that had been planted to mark the son's birth faded somehow, so that the gardeners among the street's residents thought that it too must have died during the long nights, and that it must be rotting from the roots up. No birds landed in the back garden except for the braver of the crows, and even those grew ill at ease and hopped nervously from one paving stone to the next until finally the oppressive aura grew too much for them and they flapped away, cawing out a warning to their fellows to stay clear.
Inside the house the three remaining members of the family moved around each other in chaotic patterns, each the hypocentre of their own anguish, so that their different memories and regrets constantly blended in differing proportions to reinforce that drab emulsion that filled their home. The daughter was the quietest, the most immersed in her own feelings. She, the younger child, had had a pillar of her life removed - she had never lived in a world in which her brother had not existed, so the sudden transition was to her the most alien. She had not recognised how much he did for her - not willingly, or even consciously, of course, because he had been far from a loving or nurturing elder brother, but his presence alone had assisted her path, even as a mad elephant might be dangerous close up to a human but yet provide by its bulk an easy path to follow through dense woods. It was an apt thought when she thought it, and she drew misshapen elephants in her diary, filling each one in with black marker pen that bled through onto her white pine desk and left it stained with carbon-dark lines. When her mother dared to enter her room to clean it she found dozens of the shadow elephants romped angular and crippled in her daughter's waste-paper basket.
The mother stuck to her routine, and her pain was to let herself become hollowed out from inside so that she seemed to resemble her son's empty room. She cleaned the house more thoroughly than she had ever done in the past, but the very meaning of cleanliness escaped her, so that it became a pointless struggle against entropy. In the morning she would climb out of bed the instant the alarm clock rang and begin cleaning the kitchen - even, as was often the case, if she had cleaned it last thing at night and no-one else had used it. Her friends, when they came to visit, offered to help; each time they were rebuffed, and there was some discussion (when they had reached a safe distance, for they could not talk about it when immersed in the close and quiet air of the house itself) of whether she had developed some sort of obsessive-compulsion. They were none of them experts, though, and none of them wanted to be responsible for adding to her burdens by calling in the doctors to assess their friend. So they left their theories outside when they went to visit, and since they could not bear to visit for long it was not a great trouble to them. If the mother had known their thoughts she might perhaps have laughed - a joyless laugh of course - because at least a compulsion would have given her something to think about aside from her loss. Her true obsession was with the emptiness in the house, the feeling that the platform on which their peace rested was now missing a leg and might topple over catastrophically if it were not balanced askew. If her relentless cleaning had served to keep in check some need in her she would have welcomed it, but it did nothing of the sort. She might as well have been a robot, her body on autopilot while her mind focused and refocused on their loss, examining it from all angles as if there were some way of viewing the present that might allow it to be reformed, or at least admit an escape into the past.
The father was stillness where his wife was motion, sound where their daughter was silence, and dreadful presence where the son provided absence. Curled in their bed in the master bedroom at the top of the stairs he refused to rise, even for guests, who were forced to ascend the dreary steps to hold court around his great bulk as he sobbed and railed against the fates that he blamed for taking his son. If any of them worked hardest to propagate the enveloping sadness that inhabited the house in their forms, it was he. He cried when he was tired, when he was sleeping even, and when he roused from those wet slumbers he yelled at the top of his voice so that in the buildings around the neighbours were forced to keep their windows closed at all times, even in the early warmths of that spring when bright days came quickly and the warm-blooded sweltered in the airless confines of their homes.
So passed the months.
Sunday, March 04, 2012
Let's just say my first day on the job didn't go particularly well. For starters I was late - it turns out that only one train in every three actually stops at the bump station, so the train I'd intended to catch just went straight on through the blacked-out area. I had to get off at the next stop and wait for a train that was going back and would stop. As it turned out, that wasn't too long - if it had been more than ten minutes I might have just given the whole thing up as a bad lot and gone home to the tender ministrations of bed and tea. That might have been preferable. At any rate, I got off the train with perhaps five minutes to spare. If I'd ever been allowed off at the bump station before I would certainly have made it to the shop on time, but naturally the whole thing was a complete shock to me.
I was expecting some kind of doorway or gate or tunnel or something, but what I hadn't realised was that when the train goes into the tunnel to the north of the bump station (or the south, if you're coming the way I was supposed to have come from) you're already in the past. The whole train goes through the little bump, and even if you don't have a permit to disembark you've still gone back to your ancestors time, back to the good old thirties. You can smell it the minute the outer doors open, the strong scent of carbon in the air, the raw fuzz of low-level ozone in your nostrils. Anyway, that's where my troubles really began. Some blue was outside the door, stopping everyone who came out and demanding papers, and when I got to the front of the queue he must have recognised that this was only my first time through the bump.
"New, are we?" he asked. I had not idea what I was supposed to say to that - I didn't know whether he was new himself, so I could hardly answer. I suppose I should have paid more attention to the orientation pamphlets, but I just stood there like a robot flapping my jaw without a sound until finally he pointed to the papers I had in my hand and then to the reader. I dropped them on and felt the weird tingle in my magnasense where the old-fashioned near-field reader queried it.
"Yes? I mean: yes, that's me." I told him.
Apparently the first time you come in there's some sort of extended protocol - I sort of assumed all of this was covered by the permit agency at our end, but apparently the oldies want to stamp their authority on the whole deal too. I had to answer about a thousand questions about every aspect of my health and religious preferences (which I attempted to report as good and none respectively, as the orders I'd received suggested).
Once I'd got out of the interrogation room there was the next hurdle - I had a little map, obviously, they gave me that at the employment agency, but I didn't bank on how confusing the past is. You can find out exactly where you are with their weird satellite navigation thing, but even when you know exactly where you are and you can see where you're going to it you still can't work out how to get there. I could literally have thrown a stone and smashed a window of the shop, but in between me and it there was a road three lanes on each side. I started climbing over the barrier on the near side of the road, hoping that I might be able to wait for a gap and somehow dash across to the middle then repeat the performance, but I was only halfway across when a couple of teenage oldies grabbed me by the arms, pulling me back to safety.
"Are you crazy?" the one on my left side yelled at me. "You could have been flattened!"
They dragged me back and started giving me a lecture about how things might look bad but it wasn't worth it. I had no idea what they were talking about, but it certainly seemed to be getting them all warmed up. Then I understood, and by an amazing coincidence at the same time they must have spotted something about me that clued them in, because the one on my right suddenly pulled away from me, hitting her friend on the shoulder.
"Oh god, forget it - look, she's a fuzzy."
"Really?" the other one replied, but then she stepped back a bit and spotted whatever it was about me that marked me out as a piece of the future. The two of them headed off, although they at least helped me in one way - I saw that they were heading down into an underpass, and when I'd dusted myself off and made myself presentable again I followed them. The underpass was a footway below the busy road. I sprinted down it, and up the ramp on the other side I found myself a mere hundred meters away from the shop, and a mere half an hour late (which is to say, five minutes after the shop opened). My contact was on the door, arms crossed and tapping his feet.
He gave me a bit of a barracking for my time-keeping, but I managed to fast-talk him with the tale of the interrogation. He seemed to buy it, so after only a relatively mild tongue-lashing he sent me inside to get my uniform. That was the next thing that I hadn't expected about the past - the crazy clothes. I'd worn the most neutral suit and trousers I could, which had not seemed to raise any eyebrows, but that wasn't what I was working in. Everyone in the store, and I mean everyone, were dressed as bears. You ever seen a picture of a bear? These costumes were worse.
Saturday, March 03, 2012
Punch-drunk and still feeling the last blow that hit him firmly in the stomach, Rostra stumbled from one wall to the other, making great progress frmo side-to-side but poor progress towards the road. The two brick guards to either side of him helpfully prevented him from veering off into the distance north or the far south, but each time they corrected his direction they did so with little grace and scant gentleness, pushing their rough baked surfaces into the softness of Rostra's hands and nudging his head violently where it sloshed one way or another at the end of his floppy neck. He remonstrated with them, but they remined silent against all his accusations, simply standing in place unflinchingly - so tall and wide that they stretched all the way from the bar to the main street, their skin tough and red so that he wondered where they had been born.
It may have been some time later - indeed, it was an hour, although Rostra had no way of knowing this - he finally stumbled out from between the two watchful guardians who had constrained his drunkard's walk, and out into the glaring neon of main street. He threw up his hands in shock, as if he had not been walking towards the lights for the last sixty minutes; as if the lights had been waiting, in the dark, lurking so that they could pounce upon his poor unsuspecting eyes; as if he had been in the dark all his life and only now was he being introduced to the concept of illumination.
"Jesus!" he said. "I'm sorry, for god's sake close the curtains! For god's sake, Margie!"
He let his left hand drop slowly, then when his eyes did not burn out instantly, he let his right hand move degree by degree towards his chest, so that pedestrians passing by on the other side of the street saw him as a sort of blood-spattered human statue (and those that did pass by all did so on the other side of the street, for his appearance was so disturbing that foot traffic on the same side of the street crossed over, giving him as much clearance as was humanly possible).
"Move along," he yelled at them. "Move along, nothing to see here!"
The thought of him as a policeman made him burst out laughing, a mad laughter that drew even more attention. He yelled again, then realised that the more attention he drew the more likely it was that a real cop would make an appearance. He waved the crowd away, tried to turn left, turned left twice more so that he was facing right from his original direction, then began to weave along the curb.
"Hey!" called a woman from the opposite curb. "Hey! Hey, get off the road you idiot!"
He waved back, just at the moment that another illuminated assault on his senses began. Two bright white lights rushed at him, accompanied by a furious blaring noise. He weaved one way then the other, but the lights followed him, and finally he just threw up his hands again. The lights squealed in addition to the siren, but their rushing stopped. The squeal cut out, and an irate voice shouted at him from behind the two blinding suns, something he thought should be more profound than it actually was, an angry god calling down curses upon him. He waited for forgiveness but it was not forthcoming - eventually, like all gods, the voice behind the light simply got bored with waiting and climbed back into its chariot, steering the two stars around Rostra until there was nothing but darkness and two huge purple blurs in his eyes.
"Ah, who needs you!" he bawled at the two red dots that followed the god into oblivion. "You weren't there when I needed you, were you? Who was there? No-one! No-one but Jones and his fucking goons! Sons-of-bitches."
The rage was gone as soon as it came, and Rostra wobbled back onto the pavement again. He fumbled in his pocket for his wallet, but it was gone. Of course, one of them would have taken it. Not Jones - it would have been beneath him. But one of the lesser thugs perhaps. A cold wave hit him, as though he'd been splashed with a bucket of water. My keys! He clapped his hands to his thighs. Nothing. The panic sobered him in an instant. He flapped at his jacket, at his back pockets, at the edges of his jacket where the lining sometimes admitted the contents of his pockets.
"Fuck. Fuck, balls, fuck."
To his amazement, although his keys were gone his ancient mobile was still in the inside pocket of his suit. Too old and worthless to steal, although he was surprised that nobody had thought to smash it, or to take his SIM. The battery had fallen out, but it had done that at least once a day for the last year, so he pushed it back into place and powered the phone up.
Beep beep, said the phone. 3 MESSAGES.
He stabbed at the buttons with his thumb. Churlishly, however, the phone refused to let him get at his messages without first entering his PIN, and he typed it twice incorrectly (once by putting in his bank PIN, then by remembering the right PIN but fumbling the last two digits), before finally getting it right. He ignored the messages, instead tripping through his address book until he found the number for Margie's mobile. It rang and rang.
"Come on Margie," he said urgently. "Come on, come on..."
But there was no answer.
He turned again, trying to orient himself and determine which was the quickest way to get to Margie's place. He tried to run, but before he'd gone more than four steps his legs twisted under him, his feet knotting themselves into a lumpy shackle that sent him to the pavement. His phone clattered down just out of his reach.
"Margie," he whispered. "Run. Run."
Friday, March 02, 2012
The most notable thing about Mellie Jones was her walk - a kind of half-bird half-tiger stalking strut that looked as though it were being performed in slow motion. Opinion among the group varied one the matter of whether it were graceful or comical, with the lines being drawn generally (but not entirely) along gender divisions. Defectors from the party line were Nadia - who thought that Mellie's walking style was reminiscent of a catwalk model - and Boss Vince.
"She's pretty," Boss Vince conceded, "but she's not a model."
"I didn't say that," Nadia replied. "I said she walks like a catwalk model. It's not natural, but it's got something about it. A line."
"A bloody crazy line," said Boss Vince.
The group watched Mellie walking across the bridge every day. Mellie's family lived on the island and had no car, which meant that to get to school she was forced to cycle down the long beach on the inner side of the island before dismounting and crossing the kilometre-long stretch of the iron bridge that linked the little spit to the mainland. Their school, built so close to the bridge that the more daring members of the senior class could throw water balloons at passing traffic, offered an unrivaled viewing platform to observe Mellie Jones on her way in. She always arrived five minutes exactly before the bell, and since most of the group were there a good half an hour early in the interests of getting away from their various parents, they could guarantee that they would be in place and ready to greet Jones's peculiar stalking gait.
"I don't know why she doesn't just cycle over the whole way," said Boss Vince.
Dumpling, peering up from his homework (which he was, as usual, filling in at the last possible moment), coughed and pushed his tiny glasses up his nose.
"Would you leave your bike where Kevin Willoughby could get at it?" he asked.
"I suppose not," said Boss Vince. "I'd beat the hell out of him if he touched it, obviously."
"Obviously," Nadia chorused sarcastically.
"But it would be too much hassle to be worth the effort."
The mention of Willoughby set Lassa and Clicky into a little paroxysm of giggling blushes, which Nadia and Kim observed with some distaste. They had been trying to persuade the other two girls against this particular crush for some time now, but with little effect.
"My theory," said Dumpling, putting the finishing touches to some mistakes in his maths answers, "is that she has bendy baby syndrome."
Other conversations, even those involving the rugged attractiveness of the bad-boy Kevin Willoughby, came to an abrupt pause, and everyone looked at him.
"What the fli-" Lassa began, but Boss Vince, irritated with her inability to swear properly, cut her off in mid-sentence.
"What the fuck," he asked, "is bendy baby syndrome?"
"It affects the joints of young children," said Dumpling. "Extra long tendons or something. It makes it difficult for toddlers to learn to walk." He pointed one bony finger at the figure of Mellie as she stalked past them. "Perhaps she had to learn to walk with that... affliction." He savoured the word, as though its exotic rarity gave it a particularly toothsome taste.
Apart from Boss Vince, the three boys watched Mellie pass across the near part of the bridge with undisguised lust. Dumpling's bony shoulders trembled, Plain Dave's eyes looked like they were about to pop out of his face, and Buzzcut's hands and face flushed red with embarrassment - one of his famous foot-to-forehead blushes. Boss Vince himself watched Mellie walking, but he sighed with apathy and rolled his eyes in the direction of Kim, who was making a disgusted face.
"You might be onto something there," Nadia said thoughtfully. "Perhaps she did learn to walk with some weird disease. Or maybe," she added, "she learnt to walk on the moon."
It was obvious that the others were rather amazed at this sudden turn towards science-fiction from their ordinarily rather down-to-earth friend, but they did not respond for another full ten seconds - the amount of time it took Mellie to complete her traversal of the bridge and disappear behind the beech hedge that separated the playground from the car park at the front of the school. As her left leg - the last part of her that was visible - vanished behind the leaves, the others slowly turned one by one to stare unbelievingly at Nadia.
"Alright," said Boss Vince. "Go on."
Lassa burst into a nervous laugh.
"It was just something I heard," Nadia said quietly. Boss Vince raised his left eyebrow quizzically. "Alright, something I heard from Klein."
"OoooOoooh!" chorused the other girls and Plain Dave.
"So it's true, then," said Boss Vince. "You've got a crush on Mad Klein."
"Don't call him that."
"Fine. You've got a crush on Crazy Klein. Nutter Klein," he added after a moment. "Loony Klein." He waved his hands, trying to think of another alternative.
"Mental Klein," Plain Dave supplied.
"Mental Klein," Boss Vince repeated.
"Whatever," Nadia said.
They fell silent, and the boys shuffled around in their seats to wait the three minutes it would take Mellie to round the two stone ornamental giraffes that flanked the entrance to the school on the side away from the river, traverse the long low slope of steps that led up to the main doors, travel through the main corridor along which the arts, english, and history classrooms were arrayed, and emerge like some newly-hatched flamingo from the side entrance.
Usually, she would cross the playground to the far end and read until the bell went (a mere two minutes - as Dumpling had said, barely worth the time), but the conversation and Klein's theory had sparked a little flame of rebellion in Nadia's head. As Mellie appeared in the side door, her book already in her hand, Nadia began to march towards her. At first the other girl did not notice that anything was different, but she looked up just in time to avoid a collision and stood, blinking, staring down at Nadia, who realised for the first time just how much shorter she was.
"Hello Mellie," Nadia said.