Thursday, May 31, 2012
Bill pecked at a seed, flipping his head up to throw the grain back into his throat with a little cough.
"It's a complex issue," he said, turning his head so that one gold-rimmed eye faced towards me. "I mean, I understand that the fox needs to eat. We all need to eat, it's a thing. I couldn't stand here gobbling down - what are these, grass seeds? Man, the food here is not what it used to be. Man, I remember-"
"The fox, Bill, the fox," I reminded him. He bobbed his head.
"Oh yes. I couldn't stand here gobbling down these grass seeds, if that's what they are, and condemn someone else for eating. I mean I could, obviously, but it would be the basest sort of hypocrisy. Am I right?"
Jim and Bruno nodded their heads enthusiastically, although as they were walking up the roof towards us at the time it might just have been the goofy way their necks worked. I flapped my wings a few times, ruffled my feathers.
"You're right, I guess. It's just..." I coughed. "I don't know how to explain it. There's a sort of a malice about the fox. Do you get that? That malice? The malice in the damn animal?"
"Malice, got it," said Bill. "Where are you going with this?"
"You eat seeds," I told him. "You eat them. They come off the trees or out of the grass and you eat them. It's not a big thing. The seeds don't flap away screaming. The seeds don't have kids in some nest somewhere. You don't bat the seeds out of the air or pounce on them on the ground and shake them all up until their bones are broken. You can't really say that the relationship you have with seeds is the same as the relationship the fox has with us."
Bill picked up one of his feet, examined it, let it rest on the rooftop again. It was the gammy foot, the one with just one long toe in the middle and the other two missing. It made me feel uncomfortable to look at it, and I wondered how he could bear to stand up on it. Wasn't it uncomfortable? I longed to ask him, but there was no way to say it politely. Perhaps I would just have to come out with it one day: Bill, what's it like having that messed-up foot? How did you get it? How do you walk around? But today was not that day.
"What about you and insects?" he asked gently.
"What about them?"
"Don't they have eggs in some nest somewhere? Don't they run away?"
"Not - I mean, I suppose they run away, but you can't really say that an insect is the same as a person."
"Really?" he asked. "Why not?"
"They're-" I stopped. "Well, you know! They're just seeds with legs, is all. Fine, OK, /sure/, some of them do look like people. But not all of them. Not those ants. Not beetles. Not woodlice, for heaven's sake. And anyway, looking like a person doesn't make you a person, does it? They can't feel pain, that is a fact."
"A fact, is it?"
"Yes." I plumped up my chest feathers and clacked my beak. "It's a well-established fact. Insects do not feel pain."
"Well if you say so," he said, but he shook his head sadly.
Anders appeared over the corner of the roof in a flutter of wings, sending Jim and Bruno scattering. Bill was not as skittish as his friends, though, and puffed up as Anders approached, staring the big crow down. Anders affected not noticing us until he was standing right beside us, then nodded a single surly nod.
"Whatcha talking about?" He croaked.
"The fox," Bill told him. Anders nodded.
"That arsehole," he said. "I'm not afraid of him. He can come up here if he can, the furry arsehole. I'll peck out his eyes, get that tail off him, give it to a girl."
Bill turned his head again, so that one golden eye was facing my way, and winked. I looked away, keeping my beak pressed shut so that I wouldn't start laughing.
"There's no fox that can take me on," Anders continued. "No fox in the world. I killed a cat once, everyone knows that. That cat didn't stand a chance against me, but he thought he was the boss of everything. I showed him. I showed him you can't mess with a crow and expect to be walking around the next day. I showed him that, right?"
I slowly nodded my head, hoping that Bill would rightly see a touch of sarcasm in my gesture and that Anders would be too stupid to notice. My father, may he rest in the air, brought me up never to speak ill of another crow: "Ravens, crows, jackdaws, magpies, you've got to remember that they're your people. That's the family you came up from, and no matter what you do in your life, you owe it to the great ancestors of crows. You're a jay, Robert, and jays are crows, and always will be, no matter what anyone says." But obviously my father had never met a crow like Anders, a bumbling bloated self-important idiot, a waddling fool with a head so full of padding instead of brains that his mother must have had an affair with a woodpecker.
"I'll show that fox what's what," he said. "He can't come around here like he's the boss of everything. He isn't the boss, there's no boss that runs around where I'm concerned, that's for sure."
"Right, right," nodded Bill, giving me another wink. "We were just saying it was a complex issue, but it's good to know that there's someone on the case, someone cutting through to the essentials of the matter."
"I'll cut him right up, you got that right," said Anders. A sudden wicked thought crept into my mind, the sort of thought that my father warned me against. I tried to keep it in, but it was a tricky one and slipped out through my beak when I wasn't paying attention.
"You should do it tonight," I said. Bill turned his head sharply to stare at me. "Yeah," I continued. "You should get that fox tonight. He'll never see it coming."
"Now hold on," said Bill. But it was too late.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
There's nothing like the threat of continuing boredom to stir up impotent dissatisfaction. We'd been sitting in the dining room for seven hours since breakfast, pausing (if that's the correct word) only to crawl to the kitchen and make boring sandwiches for lunch. Our plates stood there still, covered in crumbs, just at the maximum reach of our arms because putting them further away would have required movement, and it was into avoiding movement that we had put all of our effort that afternoon.
Diane, sat closest to the window, had at least shifted somewhat. As the day had progressed a sunbeam had chased its way up her body, lighting her ankles first like some Victorian pervert, then crawling seedily up her calves, her thighs, onto the fuzzy fabric of her pyjama shorts, across her belly, her chest, and then finally up onto her face, spurring an uncomfortable shuffle. Every few minutes the relentless progression of the sun would cause the ray of light to catch up with her eyes again, and each time it did she would grunt in displeasure and flail one arm up as cover. Then, discovering again and again that it was too much effort to shield her eyes that way, she would shuffled up like a drunk snake, just far enough to get clear of the sun again - although of course not far enough that it would not catch up with her again a few minutes later. I could see from where I was sat - or flung, rather, since I had collapsed on the ottoman in the manner of a man stricken with a paralytic disease - that she only had a few more inches to go until her head hit the wall, blocking off all further hope for escape. I thought perhaps that there was little point in me doing anything until she had reached that final barrier - if she were forced to move she would break the ennui on her own, absolving me from the necessity of moving first.
"So. Fucking. Bored." Lally said from her corner of the room, hidden deep in the tedious shadows of the piles of books that covered the big table. The sunlight that had trapped Diane threw an imaginary skyline across the far wall, but I was too far gone in my own grey fugue to find it attractive or inspiring in any way. I let my eyes roll naturally in their sockets to the place where Lally's voice had come from, her shape a crazy tangle of arms and gangly legs and chunky-knit wool sweater parts that did not always seem to correspond to rational limbs.
"We're all bored," I told her. "You can stop saying that now. It's getting boring."
"Ha ha ha. Fucking ha," she said.
A lackadaisical breeze rolled in through the upper window, the one I'd forgotten to shut last night. I thought about it, how perhaps I could make it my challenge for the next minute - to get up, to close the window and feel assured that tonight - definitely tonight - it would remain closed. But the thought that tomorrow would continue one just as the same as today, endless and forever, always the same until we became nothing more than furniture, that thought stopped me. I felt as though the window were a way out, a chance, however slim, that something might happen to us. Perhaps someone would break in through the window and attack us, perhaps they might steal all these hideous books that lay around us in their tepid piles. Something, anything. An open window, like a flag, a cry for help. The thought was ludicrous, but so ludicrous that I could not even laugh at it, just sigh at my own stupidity. I left the window open. Let it be a cry for something. No-one would come in. The air outside was stultifying, the heat of it packed close around you like packing foam, preventing you from moving, from doing anything worthwhile. That was why the people in this town were the way they were - they'd been bubble-wrapped by the atmosphere. They were in mint condition - several thousand brains and bodies, never used, perfect to sell off to the highest bidder. Someone on eBay would buy the whole town and keep it in a glass-shelved display cabinets, with hot halogen lamps beneath us to make sure that the temperature inside was suitable to maintain our oppressive atmosphere.
"You look like you're thinking deep thoughts," Diane drawled. "Stop it."
"You stop it," I said wearily. "Stop doing nothing and do something. Entertain us."
"If that's possible," said Lally. "If it's ever possible again."
"You entertain me," said Diane. "I'm so bored I could talk to Nestor again."
"God preserve us. God preserve us from Nestor and from boredom."
"He can't," I said, flailing one arm around until it crashed on the plate my ridiculous cheese and pickle sandwich had sat on. "He's too bored to do anything. He's bored with Earth. We bore him, we bore God. We're so tedious that he's gone away forever, to do something else, anything else, rather than watch over us for a single more minute. Our religion is boring, our atheism is boring, our sciences and arts. All boring."
"And we're the most boring of all," Lally added. "Sitting here. Lying here, moaning about being bored and being boring, the most tedious people on the Earth."
"Should we do something about it?"
"What can we do?" She shifted in a motion that looked like the vague hint of a ghost shrug, layers of multicoloured wool shifting over each other. I nodded, letting my head rest back onto the edge of the ottoman. My legs and arms suddenly tensed, fizzing out in a sort of cold paralysis. My heart jumped awkwardly, and for a second I was confused. Were these my limbs, my heart? What could they be doing, acting so-
I saw it. What I must have seen before I saw it. The shape, moving on the ceiling. The shape from the other side.
"Girls..." I said, slowly.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Lavan found the cow outside the entrance to his hut. It had died there, judging by the huge pool of congealing blood that surrounded it. In the middle, like a stepping-stone, the thick tuft of grass that had always previously annoyed him rose from the red lake. He used it to get across from his door, then after a short survey of the scene he crossed it again to go back inside. Finally he emerged with some rope and began the laborious process of dragging the dead animal away from the door. While he was doing that Son the blacksmith passed by.
"You've a cow in front of your hut, Lavan the weaver." Son observed.
"That I have," Lavan agreed, "but I am in the midst of remedying the situation. Perhaps you'd care to help me, Son the blacksmith? I could do with your strength."
Son the blacksmith was lazy, but he was also vain. He nodded, taking station on the rope behind Lavan and heaving ostentatiously so that the thick bands of muscle on his upper arms stood out. The cow began to slide slowly away from the gelatinous crimson ooze that had issued from it. From his position at the back of the rope Son could see little of the body of the cow, but could see that its legs were shattered. He thought this rather odd.
"Did that cow fall off a cliff?" he asked.
"Of course not."
"How did it die, then?"
"How should I know?" Lavan asked huffily.
"Did you not kill it, then?"
"In front of my own home? In full sight of Teklava the butcher's house? Of course I did not?"
"Then how do you know it didn't fall off a cliff?"
Lavan stopped pulling and turned to face Son with an exasperated expression on his face.
"Where's a cliff near here?" he demanded.
When they had dragged the cow to a safe distance from the hut, Lavan began to scrape and dig at the ground, turning it over so that the clay-like soil on which the village stood would have some chance of absorbing the carpet of blood. Son, again, did not want to help. But help he did, reckoning that the only way he was going to find out why Lavan the weaver had a dead cow outside his front door was to stick around until the answer became obvious or until someone with a more persuasive tongue arrived to talk Lavan into an explanation.
He did not have to wait long - partly because it was early morning and there were plenty of people wandering around, and partly because even if only a few people had noticed the cow the village was a small place, and the villagers in it much prone to gossip. After they had been turning over the sod for a little less than five minutes they heard the polite but distinguished cough of Robast the village elder.
"It seems," said Robast, when they had both nodded their respect to him, "that you had a cow in front of your hut, Lavan the weaver."
"It seems that way to me too," Lavan said, rolling his eyes.
"And also to m-"
"Where is the cow now?" asked Robast, glancing in the direction in which they had dragged the cow. Lavan and Son exchanged glances. It was well known throughout the village that Robast rarely (perhaps never) asked a question to which he did not already know the answer.
"It seems to be over there," said Lavan, pointing.
"Yes," agreed Son. "That's where we p-"
"Hmm, yes." Robast cut him off. The elder walked around them in a large circle that encompassed the whole hut so that for a good few seconds he was out of sight, during which time Lavan and Son stared at each other blankly. Nominally Robast was the advisor to the village chief, chosen by lot each year from the eligible adults. But his position as advisor was somewhat undermined by his aforementioned habit, which meant that he was unable to come by any information that did not present itself directly to his eyes or unsolicited to his ears. His questions, it was well known, were designed to carefully manipulate the interviewee into some form of action or other. It was very effective, although whether it was effective because the technique was sound and Robast had taken many long years to perfect it or because everyone simply assumed that whatever Robast wanted them to do was for the good of the town and went along with it quietly, it was impossible to tell. Certainly everyone in the village (the chiefs included) knew that the chief's job was largely ceremonial, which was why there was such great competition for it (fruitless competition, since each chief was chosen at random, but competition nonetheless). Had the unlucky recipients of the sortition actually had to run the village they would have found it most disagreeable, but with Robast controlling them and the rest of the townsfolk behind the scenes (or so he thought) all the chiefs had to do was collect the food given to them, appear at religious festivals, and give Robast the impression that they were unwitting pawns in his arcane autocracy.
It was for this reason that Lavan and Son waited patiently for Robast to appear again, and continued with the soil-turning when they did.
"I hear that this is not the first thing that has been laid outside your door," said Robast. Then, apparently suddenly realising that he had not phrased this in the form of a question, he added: "is that correct?"
"It is," said Lavan.
"You received... what was it?"
"Oh yes, a rock. And.. uhh...?"
"A table. Slightly damaged."
"Was there anything unusual about the table?" Robast asked.
"Yes," Lavan replied. "It was standing outside my door one morning."
"Do you think that it's possible," said Robast, "that you may have a secret admirer?"
Lavan scratched his head.
"It's possible," he said, then smiled with sudden excitement. "I wonder who it might be! I hope it's Evili the brickmaker."
This time Robast and Son exchanged glances.
"You don't think that it might be the dragon that lives in the hill?" Robast asked gently.
"No," said Lavan, frowning. "Why do you think that?"
"Evili the brickmaker's very nice," said Son gently. "But I don't think she can carry a cow."
Lavan nodded solemnly.
"You may be right," he agreed.
Monday, May 21, 2012
Once a map-maker always a map-maker, as my father said, and it did seem to be true. I found myself catching up my notepad and pencil, and before I realised it I was sitting cross-legged on the floor and staring at the paper, imagining the strokes, the lines, the shading. That's how it is with me - the map has to somehow mature in my brain, or perhaps develop would be a more apt word. Like a film image it fades into solidity, to something that I can capture and hold in my head, as though I'm projecting it onto the page and then just pencilling in the lines that are already there. Perhaps it's as much art as anything else, but there were no other artists of any kind in our block, so I have never been able to talk to someone else about it.
There's a more technical aspect to it than plain art, of course - there are proportions to be preserved, relationships to be observed. Compromises are possible, but every compromise must be weighed against the end use of the map. Distances and angles can be compressed or stretched, but stretch one and you alter the other. Sometimes this is acceptable - better to get salient navigational figures in place rather than ensure an absolute flat mapping with all distances at the same perfect ratio to the territory. Sometimes it is vital that measurements made on the map correspond with the reality they represent. Down there, in the basement, I had none of the tools I would usually use - excepting of course those that I carried with me always, which is to say my thumbs, my eyes, my arm span and my stride length. Here is a test to see how prepared you are as a map-maker, as an estimater in general: How wide is your arm span? For most people it is roughly the same as their height, and so knowing your height you can measure with your arms the length of a room's walls, the width of a door, and so forth. A walking stride can vary, but a good cartographer always knows the length of his pace at a normal speed.
I began to lay down pencil lines, tentatively feeling at the edges of the problem. I had a sense that there was something hidden in the map, a section of the basement that I had somehow not visited, although I was sure that I had gone through every door, walked down every corridor. It was something to do with the floorspace of the rooms, I felt, some lack. The building was this big - I had walked around the perimeter of my block many times, looking out of the windows at the grey ash and broken houses below - and if the building were that big then the basement levels must be that big at least, probably larger. I sketched out the path I'd taken from the goods lift to the junk room I was in now, then surrounded the path from memory with the rooms that I'd walked through on the way.
I have a pretty good memory for floorplans, but travelling back along my path I discovered that my estimates for room sizes were all slightly off - but that it was only obvious once measured. The room immediately outside the goods lift, for instance, I'd put down as thirty feet by twenty feet. But it was actually only about fifteen feet deep, quite a discrepancy - barely three times my armspan. I cursed myself for an idiot, and moved on to the next room (the one where all the oil drums were). This time it was the length of the room rather than its depth which was shortened. Were my estimates really that bad, I wondered? Perhaps being underground had disoriented me.
But as I was looking around the room in irritation, I noticed something odd about the placement of the barrels. There were more on the side to my left as I entered than there were to my right. That in itself would have signified nothing except that the door was in the middle of the room and the barrels had been deposited with roughly the same spaces in between them. There should clearly have been the same number of barrels either side. Looking from one side to the other gave me an unpleasant sensation, as though I were moving when I was standing still. My curiosity engaged, I used my arms to measure the far wall again. Approximatly thirty feet, just as I'd measured before. I walked to the other side of the room, intending to measure it, but before I got there I had already spotted the trick.
The barrels on this side of the room were smaller (not shorter, but slimmer) than those on the other side. They weren't oil drums at all, they were props. I moved back, examined the scene carefully. The reason it had looked as though there were more drums on one side than the other was because there were, and that odd asymmetry had somehow fooled my eyes into seeing the room itself as symmetrically arranged either side of the door. Someone had set the whole place up as an optical illusion. I measured the wall - first of all, it was almost five feet shorter than the opposite wall, and second of all, the corners were not square. They'd been painted in some combination of counter-shading that made them look square, but the whole room was actually a trapezoid.
Now that I was onto the trick, it was obvious wherever I found it - subtle arrangements of metal shelving, desks and beams and piles of wood arranged so as to cover up the irregularities in the shapes and sizes of the cellar rooms. I rubbed out lines and redrew them, and even as I began I could see that my sense of something missing had been right all along. There, hidden in the middle of the cellar, was a void - a room roughly twenty feet by ten, directly in the center.
I began to look for a way in.
Friday, May 18, 2012
The waterfall drowned out the sound of the conversation. Richard, sitting in the hidden cave, watched the couple as if through a melting window. Their outlines twisted and warped in the constant tumble of lensing water, and it seemed as though they were fading in and out of existence. He ran his finger over the cover of the book, then dragged one stridulating fingernail across the closed pages. There was no sign from them that they were aware of his presence, but there remained a sort of furtiveness around them, an aura of paranoia, perhaps. As though they feared that someone were watching them, and that to be observed would have dire consequences.
Richard's mother had warned him repeatedly about eavesdropping, and he heard her voice in his head now: Richard Prescott Maitland, how many times have I told you about respecting other people's privacy? Sometimes that memory was enough to keep his curiosity under control, but what, he reasoned, was he to do now? If he emerged from the waterfall and alerted the couple to his presence they might be embarrassed - or worse, they might be the sort of people the school board were always warning them to keep away from. He wasn't afraid, of course, but his mother would certainly have worried. Would she really prefer him a corpse to an eavesdropper? No, there was no way out of here without trouble for someone - either the couple or him - so he crept nearer to the water.
It was easier to see them the closer he got to the front of the cave, but for some reason harder to hear. The noise of the waterfall was that much louder close up, and although the couple were nearer too the cataract rumble of water hitting the surface of the pond below was too distracting to allow him to focus on what they were saying.
They were a man and a woman, as he'd first thought. Both escaped slaves, to judge by their tatterdemalion dress. The man was wearing ragged trousers that came down just past his knees, his top bared. His hair had been cropped recently and was growing out unevenly, strange bristle lines crisscrossing his brown scalp. He had an iron band around his right angle. The woman wore a burlap dress that looked as though it had been passed down from at least three previous owners, and wrapped around her feet two strips of heavy canvas secured with twine served as brevet shoes. Her own hair was long, but tied up in a tangled bun that sprouted strands of curling black hair so that it looked like a topiary bush that had been left to run to seed for a few years.
They stood close together, and touched each other occasionally at points in their conversation that Richard could tell from the tones of their voices were significant, even if their words were unintelligible. The woman would reach out to touch the man's arm briefly, or to take his hand for just a second, and in return he often lifted a quick finger to her cheek, or the curve where her jaw became her chin.
Richard, near the edge of the little cave, was now so close to the waterfall that both he and the book were getting splashed by droplets hitting the lip of the opening. He tucked the book under his shirt - then, realising that the sheen of sweat on his stomach might be just as dangerous to the paper, he shucked off his top and wrapped the book in it, placing it a few feet back where it might be spared the worst of the sparse deluge. He crept closer to the edge, bracing himself against the wall every few footsteps. The rock this close was covered in a slippery carpets of moss and algae, and his legs threatened to slide out from under him.
He was just about to get close enough that he could almost reach out and touch the water when it finally happened - his right leg, taking too much of his weight, shot backwards and sent him tumbling precipitously forwards and sideways at the same time. His legs and body below the waist hit the sharp rocky floor, his upper torso falling out of the cave so that the water washed over the very top of his head. The whole thing happened so fast that the wind was knocked out of him. Unable to cry out, he desperately grabbed at anything he could - his right hand finding one of the roots of the trees above that had allowed him to climb in in the first place. He tensed all of his muscles, trying to hold himself in place.
"What was that?" The man's voice, loud enough to be clear now. Richard could only stare in horror as the two of them looked around. He willed himself to be still. The agony of exertion in his shoulder was like a red hot poker, but he managed to hold himself steady. There was no way he would be able to get back up again, though - there simply wasn't enough leverage, and his strength was slowly draining away.
Richard missed the third figure until it was too late - distracted by the effort of keeping still and of working out how he would let himself down into the pool with the least trouble. He wondered whether the couple would be able to see him if he just let his body topple out and hang from the root, and lifting his head to see if they were still looking he spotted the other man just as he was raising his arm. The couple, perhaps looking for the source of the sound they'd heard, were still looking towards the waterfall and the other had managed to creep up behind them unseen. His hand fell. An awful crunching noise. The first man toppled forward. Before the woman had time to react, the hand swung sideways. A brief screaming yelp, cut off in an instant, and she was down too.
The pain in Richard's shoulder vanished in a flash, replaced by ice. He stared out through the waterfall, unable to take his eyes off the scene.
Don't see me, don't see me, don't see me, he mouthed silently.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
We stared at the bomb. I had never seen one like it before - so quiet, nothing like the showy bombs on TV with their blinking lights, their beeping, their rapidly counting down numerical displays. It was as if it were sleeping, and I felt as though we would be OK as long as we did not wake it up. Sandra, more level-headed, simply knelt down and began to inspect the device. She pulled a notepad and a stumpy pencil out of her back pocket and began to make notes and little diagrams on it. Little square pencil boxes, connected to each other by lines with scribbled names following their arcs. She reached out a finger to isolate one of the wires from the rest of its bundle.
"Wait, wait!" I cried nervously. "What are you doing? Don't touch it!"
She looked back at me coolly.
"Why not? It might go off!"
"It's going to go off," she told me, turning back to the bomb. "I don't think it's a ticklish time bomb." She laughed.
"This isn't a joking matter."
"Oh calm down," she said. She picked up another wire, stroked the length of it with her finger and examined where it was attached at both ends, then made a note on her diagram. "Look, the bomb is going to go off unless we do something about it. You just have to accept that. That means it's up to us three, because there's no-one else who knows where we are or can get to us. Agreed?"
"I.. uh, agreed, I suppose."
"Now, given that the bomb is going to go off, there's nothing to lose in poking around in its innards. If we set it off, well, we just lose a few minutes which we'd only have spent panicking anyway. On the other hand, the only chance we have of understanding this bomb is if we look at it, work out which wires are going where, that sort of thing."
"Do you know anything about bombs?" said Race somberly. Surprised, we looked round to see that he was peering up at us from under his bushy eyebrows, head lifted slightly.
"How long have you been awake?" I asked. He ignored me.
"Do either of you know anything about bombs?"
"Not really," Sandra said briskly. "But I know they need explosives. And a detonator. That's a start, surely."
"Yes," Race agreed. He let his head drop down again.
"So we try to work out which is which," Sandra continued, turning to me, "and then we disconnect one from the other. We could survive a detonator going off, probably. Or if possible, we disconnect the electronics from the detonator, then we've got nothing."
"Except some potentially unstable explosives," Race grumbled.
"Christ, the two of you should start up some sort of fatalist's support group."
"Perhaps we should just let it go off. I mean what is it we're trying to achieve here?"
"Avoiding our death?" I asked, my voice croaking out the last syllable in a hysterically high pitch.
"Impossible," he said. "I don't know if you know this, but we're all going to die anyway. Why not here? Why not now? At least the bomb would make it quick for us. Time won't be so kind, you know. Time will fuck us up slowly, turn us grey and old and ossified. The bomb will spare us that."
"Shut up," snapped Sandra.
"Why fight the inevitable, after all? It just makes you tired, and nobody wins in the long run. The house always wins. Ha."
"Shut up!" The yell was accompanied by the fluttering of paper as Sandra flung her notebook at him. It hit Race in the top of his head, but he did not react. "For god's sake, let me concentrate and keep your stupid self-pitying bullshit to yourself! And that goes for you too," she said, stabbing a finger at my chest. "Bloody hell, perhaps I should let it go off. Shut the two of you up for good. I'm sick of having to listen to you bitch about everything that's wrong with the world." She clenched and unclenched her fists. "Here's the deal. I don't want to hear another word out of either of you while I'm fixing this stupid bomb problem, right? The first one of you to whine about your impending death, I'll throttle. That'll solve your problems and mine all in one go, yes?"
I nodded meekly. Race made no response.
"Good," she said. "Now hand me that notebook."
The order was directed at Race, but since he made no move either way I darted forwards and scooped up the little book myself, handing it gingerly to Sandra as if feeding a sardine to a killer whale. She took it without taking my hand as well, and turned back to her work. I glanced at Race. He was looking up again, face twisted into a vicious snarl. As soon as I saw the expression, though, it was gone - replaced by the sullen look he'd had all the time we'd been with him. He dropped his forehead to rest on his knees again, and the arms wrapped around his shins tightened up slightly.
I examined the room again intently. I guessed (estimating from my own height an arm span) that it was about twelve feet long, possibly eight feet wide, and just low enough that I could touch the ceiling if I went up on tiptoes. The bomb was in the middle of one wall, near the floor, and above us a single light in a heavy armoured cage provided the illumination. There were no windows, and more interestingly no doors. How on earth had Mackerson got us in here in the first place?
I gently began to tap on the wall behind me, listening carefully for anything that would suggest that it wasn't just solid brick - a task made difficult by my fear of disturbing Sandra.
"That's odd," she said. "Come here, look at this."
I turned to see that she was pointing to a single wire. I looked closer.
"Is it just me," she asked, "or is this one going through the floor?"
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
I saw him for the first time hanging around the corridors. The bell had gone, the end-of-lunch bell that calls us all back hyperactive and sullen at the same time, to the first of our afternoon classes. I was slow, making a point to my maths teacher that he was not the boss of me, and I shuffled through the the echo-ridden halls almost on my own, just a few of those two most despised other classes - the dullards, too stupid to get to class on time even if they wanted to, and the prefects and teachers' pets roaming around on their various pointless missions. I kept clear of them by snaking, by zigging and zagging, by making up my own route through the labyrinth like the prize rat they thought I was. It was for that reason that I spotted him.
He should have seemed awkward and out of place, but he did not. There was a confidence about him - not an attractive one, though, the sort of lazily aggressive self-confidence that made you think that he was leering all the time, a repulsive sense of possessorship. He leant against the display cabinet, peering within, and my first thought (since he was not in uniform) was that he had come in to steal some sporting trophy. Fine, I thought, let him. Such things were worthless anyway. All they led to was jingoistic belief in the superiority of the school, and that was the starting place for teachers believing that we loved them and worshipped them as tiny gods, that we would come at their beck and call and stand still while they shaped our rough clay with their clumsy hands. Bollocks to that. I slowed down and observed my surroundings, looking for a comfortable hiding place from which to observe the crime.
The school was built in the fifties, in a style which - well, there's no point me trying to pretend that I know anything about building styles, is there? The sort of fool who talks about modern brutalism and Doric columns wouldn't be here, waiting to see someone break into a trophy cabinet. They'd be at my cousin Hester's dinner parties, talking pretentious shit and staring at me on the sly when their wader-bird girlfriends weren't looking, as if just because they knew something about how some dead idiot put up a house they stood the slightest chance with me. Anyway, however those sly winkers would have desrcibed it, the school was sturdy, and the appearance of sturdiness came from thick blocks that ringed the corridor at regular intervals, providing convenient alcoves behind which a girl with a bit of self-control could hold herself so that no-one on the other side of the obstruction could see her. I found one of those and made use of it.
Imagine my disappointment, though, when the target of my surveillance turned out to be admiring the trophy case, not casing it. He took out his mobile (another clue he didn't belong here - all mobiles banned in school hours), and took a photo - first of the case on its own, then another of himself by the case, framed in classic arms-length style.
Disgusted, I checked my watch. There was a danger of making my point to Mr. Creek too well, and I was rapidly approaching it. Without the frisson of a crime to observe, there was little point in hanging around any further and risking the headmaster's office or detention. At the moment I was late enough for the maths teacher to complain about it, not late enough for it to be worth him escalating the issue to a higher authority.
Safely back in class, I put the trophy-case lurker out of my mind. I'd assumed, I think, that I would never see him again. But that was not to be the case. About half-way through the class, when we'd got onto the quadratic formula and Mr. Creek had finally stopped directing every question at me (his preferred form of passive-aggressive punishment, slightly derailed by the fact that I was so incompetent at the application of the formula that we had only got about one-tenth of the way into his lesson plan), we heard a knock on the door. Everyone looked up, obviously - such a distraction is not to be wasted - and I was surprised to see the horrid self-satisfied grin of the lurker pressed up against the door's little safety window.
Mr. Creek, to his credit for once, looked annoyed at the interruption. Apparently oblivious to the power of the frown, the lurker let himself in, slouching into the room and observing the assembled mass as if we had gathered there to await his arrival. There was something horridly venal about his look.
"Yuk," said Claire Sanforth, but she said it in a tone of voice that suggested there were parts of her that thought otherwise. The lurker crossed the room to Mr. Creek's desk, offered a hand. Mr. Creek looked at it for a few moments.
"Mr. Stepney," he said. "How can I help you?"
"Hi Mr. Creek," said the lurker. He still had his hand out, and after a few seconds in which I could see him visibly wrestling with his emotions, the maths teacher took his hand and gave it one quick shake. "Just popping in to say hello, see how things are going, see the old place."
And with that - and Mr. Creek's expression - I understood. This figure, this Mr. Stepney, was one of the colourless ghosts of the school, the terrible revenants that came back from their depressing and empty teenage lives to revisit the site of some perceived glory days and to lord it over the younger ones. For once I sympathised with Mr. Creek, because a teacher cannot simply tell someone to fuck off. Instead, Mr. Creek gestured towards the class. Mr. Stepney looked us over - the girls hungrily, the boys with a sort of disdainful amusement.
"I'm afraid we're busy at the moment. I believe there is an open day next month," Mr. Creek suggested menacingly. "Why not come back then?"
Mr. Stepney took the hint, but as he left he winked at us. I had the unpleasant feeling we would be seeing more of him.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
"Emperor," I said solemnly, bowing my head before the altar. The emperor said nothing, merely flicking its tail as if a horse attempting to swat away flies on a hot summer's day. I looked around nervously at the waiting attendants. Some of them were watching me, others looking away. I paused. Behind me I felt the presence of the liaison. It was an icy-cold sensation in the small of my back, the feeling of being watched by something with ill-intent. Still, I could trust it here, and I had done the things it had asked me in the emperor's service, so I did not feel that I was in any danger of hearing a lie from it. I turned. It was there - I think - a collection of black specks that washed across the front of my eye. "Should I talk?" I asked it. "Or should I wait?"
The proper protocol, it told me, was to wait until the emperor signaled me to continue.
"What will the signal be?"
It shifted lazily, a gesture I understood was its equivalent of a shrug. It moved behind me, and when I turned to try to keep it in my line of sight it moved the other way. Trying to pin it down was impossible. It informed me that I should be paying attention to the emperor if I wished to know when I should continue. Panicked, I turned back to see that the emperor had stretched out one leg. It flexed the muscles of its paw, and I could see four wickedly curved claws slowly emerge from their hiding places.
"I have done as you asked, my lord," I told it hurriedly. Its head turned to focus on me, the strange cat eyes searching out the meaning of my words. I wondered whether it actually understood someone as lowly as I, or whether the there were not some other liaison, some more secretive one, whispering the translation of my words into the emperor's ear. I suppose there were as yet no translations necessary. It was unthinkable that one such as I would come into the emperor's presence without the proper obeisances, nor would I have come if I had not completed the appointed task. Those things being understood, there would be no need to translate my barbarian syllables into more elegant speech. Let it remain the due of the emperor, not to be questioned. "I went to the place you decreed, and waited for the given time. The woman passed by, just as you said she would, and as instructed I said nothing, merely following her to her house. I have the address written down."
I had been about to take the sheet of notepaper out of my pocket, but the liaison, leaning in close from behind, told me that I should just keep the address to myself. The emperor did not need it itself, it already knew where it could find the woman if necessary. I nodded.
"Should I inform the emperor what she was wearing?" I asked quietly. The liaison told me I should. "Emperor, she was wearing the same yellow wellington boots, but a rain-coat in black with chalk-white piping. The coat had a hood, which was up against the rain, so I could not see if she was wearing a scarf."
The emperor flicked its tail lazily and looked over at one of its advisors, the grey rat in the tank to the right of the throne. The rat was digging in its notes, obviously looking for something relevant to my statement, but there were papers scattered everywhere across the floor of its office. The emperor looked back at me and rolled its head. Its stretched arm it now withdrew, and I felt an acute loss, as though a light had been taken away from me. I shuddered, and bowed my head again before its power.
"I do not believe that she saw me, my lord, but there were other people around. Still, I followed your directions. I now know her place of work and her home, I can follow her whenever you command me to. If you have other work for me to do-"
The liaison pressed an icy hand over my shoulder, cutting me off. It warned me that I should not attempt to second-guess the emperor. Patience and silence, it said, these are the virtues of a good subject. To attempt to anticipate the will of a greater being is the sin of hubris, it told me. Was I not ashamed to think such things? The emperor would say what it willed in its own time.
"I apologize, my lord," I said, cowering and falling to my hands and knees. It said nothing, but I could feel its gaze on the back of my neck, the awful raw power of it as it looked down on me as a man might look down on an ant. Then the moment was passed.
The liaison, whose dark strands danced in the corner of my vision, whispered that it commanded me to continue watching over the woman. There are those that wish to hurt her, to corrupt her, it told me. Do you understand?
"I'm not sure..." I said.
It told me that there were forces in the world outside, wires and sounds that inhabited the air, that could be seen by those with sufficient power. The emperor was one of those with that power, of course, and the liaison, and certain other creatures here in the throne room. I would know the forces only by a wrong feeling, an odd sensation that I could not name. Did I understand, it asked?
"I think so," I said. "She has to be kept from harmful influences."
That was exactly it, the liaison told me. It sounded, for once, pleased with me. My hands were shaking, my arms, even my legs trembling on the ground, I felt as though I would be sick. But I knew that I would do what the emperor commanded me to. I would watch the woman, and if anyone asked me why, I would tell them that it was the emperor's decree. No-one could argue with that.
Wednesday, May 09, 2012
"Oh yes," the guide agreed enthusiastically. "All the greats came here. Einstein. Nobel. Marx. I could go on."
"Please do," I prompted. The guide stopped for a second, bit his lip, frowned.
"Curie," he said after a long pause. "And countless others."
Yes, quite, I thought. I could have believed Einstein's presence, but Nobel seemed very unlikely. Marx, possible again - he had spent a long time living in London, after all - but Curie no. My suspicions as to the guide's accuracy were now confirmed, and the only thing remaining to be decided was whether he was an innocent chump in the scheme or whether he was the mastermind behind it (although I use the word mastermind less than seriously).
"Is there a plaque up somewhere?" I asked. "I mean, don't they put plaques up, the heritage people?"
He looked at me, his eyes narrowing and shooting daggers at me. Then, for a second, I noticed his gaze flick across the crowd to the woman standing at the back, and the young man beside her in the shooting jacket that I'd spotted earlier. Now that was interesting - they'd been quite bubbly at the beginning of the tour, was it possible they were stooges? Or even the real brains behind the operation.. I saw the girl mouth something indistinct, and I looked quickly back to the tour guide just in time to see him nod and a brief look of relief pass over his face.
"Normally yes," he told me (and I could not help but detect a certain triumphant tone in his voice), "but here the historic character of the buildings means that plaques aren't allowed. It's a complicated thing to do with local councils and the listed building system."
...all of which sounded like utter bullshit to me, but just plausible enough to fool the other punters. I looked around me and noticed two more things. First, the other punters clearly were fooled, because half of them were nodding and smiling to show that they understood. Second, I was in very real danger of making myself the bad guy, because the half that weren't smiling and bobbing their heads like toy dogs were staring in my direction with the sort of malevolent concentration that suggested they were willing me to shut up. They wanted to be on with the rest of the tour, and I realised that I had little chance to strike now anyway - the two on the edge of the crowd would be away on their toes before I could get anywhere near them, and grabbing the guide himself in the middle of his presentation seemed foolhardy in the extreme. I nodded - although I kept my face neutral as a sop to my own conscience, lest I appear too heartily approving of the guide's blather.
"Now, if you'll follow me we'll move on to the meeting place of the famed literary group the Circle Rouge."
My ears pricked up. Could he really be so blatant on his normal tours, or was this for my benefit? Had I been rumbled? I risked a quick glance back at the other two, but they seemed to have shifted their position in the crowd in order to stay out of sight. If they were Red Circus then the whole enterprise began to make sense. The tour guide position seemed like a poor way to make money, but if it were a test or preparation for a more complicated endeavour? Then it could be as poorly-paid as it liked - a money loser, even, as long as it gave the guide enough experience in confident extemporisation, acting, and general lying as a Red Circus member required. I pushed forwards a little, using the natural ebb and flow of the group as we weaved our way through the light foot traffic that accompanied us along the pavement. My fellow tourists, speeding up and slowing down to examine post-boxes, advertising bills, shop windows and so forth, created an ever-shifting pattern of roadblocks and voids which I was able to exploit in order to carefully nudge closer and closer to the guide.
He himself strode at a slow but steady pace, marshalling the rest of the group with a flag on a stick - a fairly innocuous yellow one, devoid of any identifying insignia. I tried to focus on the bouncing flag rather than the man himself so that I didn't look too obvious that I was closing in. I made it to within a couple of meters of him when I felt a hand on my elbow and a voice murmured into my ear:
"Keep walking, keep smiling. Don't turn around"--this last as I swivelled my head to try to catch a glimpse of the owner of the voice. It was the woman from the back of the crowd, I was sure of it. Apparently while I'd been sneaking up on the tour guide she'd been making faster progress moving through the rest of the group. I slowed my pace slightly, and felt an extra point of contact in the small of my back - something metal-hard, but blunt. "Keep walking, nice and easy."
We moved together, her steering me through the sparse pedestrian crowds by means of gentle nudges with the barrel she'd pressed against me. I felt like a joystick-operated robot, but I kept eyes front as directed, and tried to clear my mind enough to watch the one person I could - the tour guide. He seemed somewhat more relaxed, and I wondered if his colleagues had managed to signal him in some way. Could they be wearing transmitting earbuds, I wondered? Little bluetooth bulbs, tucked away? His hair was dark and unruly, spilling over his ears. Plenty of cover for an earpiece. And the woman had had long hair, her companion a woolly hat pulled down low. Yes, that was it. They must be communicating with each other. Which meant that I had a possible weapon - my radio squelcher. It might work, it might not.
I let my left hand brush against my trouser pocket as I walked - subtly, as if it were just swinging - and by deftly flicking out a finger managed to toggle the on switch through the fabric. On the next pass I pressed down on the squelch button.
The effect was instant - the tour guide recoiled madly to one side, and I felt the gun move away from my back. The woman yelped in surprise, and I turned round to grab the gun from her as she was desperately pulling the earpiece from her head with her free hand.
"Aha!" I shouted, pointing the gun at her.
To my surprise, there were no sounds of alarm from around us - certainly not what I'd expected from pulling a gun in the middle of a tour group. I looked around nervously.
The rest of the group had formed a tight circle around us, shielding us from the passing members of public. Every single one of the other "tourists" had a gun in his or her hand. They were all pointed at me.
"Oh balls," I said, lowering the weapon.
Tuesday, May 08, 2012
"What do you do all day?" I asked. He raised an eyebrow, turned to look out of the window. Thinking that he hadn't heard me, I was about to ask again (louder), when he suddenly leapt up and hammered at the frame.
"GET OUT OF THERE!" he yelled. I saw a flash of ginger shoot out of his herb garden and across the lawn, leaping up in one fluid movement onto the brick barbecue and then over the fence and away. "Bloody cat," he muttered. He turned back to me again. "Sorry, love, what was that?"
"I was just asking what you did all day. I mean, here."
"Oh, yes. Of course. You'd want to know that."
He nodded, sat back down in his chair, and pointed to the books surrounding him.
"Yes, I read."
"What sort of thing?" I said, standing up to examine the spines. The bookcases, covering three walls of the room, were packed with slender books of various types and styles - plastic and card-spined books that were obviously the product of the last couple of decades, leather-bound volumes that might have been either new or old, a few padded, or with faux pink feathers running down the spine. What they had in common, though, was their anonymity - none of them had any markings to indicate what they were. "Fiction, is it?"
"No, my dear, not fiction! Not fiction at all!"
He gestured to me to pick one up. Running my hand along the shelf edge I let it come to rest in front of one of the leather-spined ones - a genuinely old one, I thought, tatty and coming slightly apart at its stitchings. It took a bit of delicate teasing to extract it from its cosy position between two slightly newer tomes, but I managed to get it out without damage. There was no title on the front cover either, no blurb on the back, but I felt an unusual sensation - a sort of ticklish precognition about what I was about to read, so that when I let the book fall open and saw the handwriting inside I was not actually surprised. I read from about half-way down the page:
"April 7th - awful day at the factory, quite the worst I've had since I was moved up here. Trouble with the workers, and Smith asking for permission to fire a couple to set an example for the rest. Not really what I wanted to achieve, but the old man is telling me to get on with it. I think he and Smith must have had a pretty cosy relationship in the past, I wonder if I'm getting in the way of some money-making scheme the two of them have cooked up. Melissa still intractable. I wonder if the doctor is telling her something that he's not telling me. Seems ridiculous, but I can't get that feeling out of my mind. I shall have to go down there and confront him. I'm her husband, damnit, I have a right to know!"
"April 10th - situations eased slightly at work, but disastrous meeting with the doctor. He threatened to call the police on me. I have made arrangements for Melissa to see a doctor in the next town, recommended to me by the old man - one of his cronies, no doubt, and I have ambiguous feelings about the whole thing, but I seem to have no other recourse. We shall see."
I closed the book, slid it carefully back into its place and selected another - a much newer one, a mass-produced hardcover notebook that had probably been intended as a lab book or exercise book. I imagined that the original owner had stolen it from work or school. I opened it at the beginning.
"10/9/2008: New book! Not sure what to do with the old one. Not sure whether to keep it or whether its done its job. Could burn it, make sure no-one can ever get hold of it. But all that writing! Plus, what if I want to read it again myself at some point?"
"11/9/2008: C being a bitch again. Too angry to write."
I flicked through to the final pages. They were blank, and I had to travel back to the half-way point to read the final entry. I'd been worried about what I might find - a suicide note, perhaps? Some signs of depression? But in fact the entry was utterly mundane:
"9/3/2009: Maths test today. Did OK, I think, no scores until next week. Mum says I can have a new phone, iphone 3gs I hope, but will have to chip in some of my own savings I think."
I flipped it closed, eyes scanning the shelves nervously, and turned back to him. He was watching me silently, an expectant expression on his face.
"Where did you get them from?" I asked. He nodded. That was what he had been expecting me to ask. I felt a brief stab of irritation.
"Some I buy, some come to me when their owners pass away."
"Some? What about the others?" For some reason I didn't think that the girl who'd written the last diary was dead.
"I have a supplier," he said. "He in turn has associates who work in the field of asset redistribution."--he laughed--"Thieves, my dear. They steal them for my supplier, knowing they can get a good price from him, and he buys them knowing that he can get a better price from me."
I turned slowly back towards the shelves, sluggish, all my senses except my sight contracting so that the room seemed to be moving away from me to a great distance. I scanned the shelves frantically, remembering the break-in, the surprise my landlord had showed at how little had been taken. I had never looked in the suitcase under my bed, though.
The shiny black patent-leather back of the diary was sitting about half-way between my head-height and the ceiling, just as high as I could reach on tip toes.
"In case you're wondering, my dear," he said from behind me. "Yes, I have."
Monday, May 07, 2012
The drills rushed downwards, glorying at the sight of the work coming towards them. Their bits spun eagerly, they revved and relaxed, they tucked their bodies away neatly in preparation for the plunge, calling to each other with honks and hoots that echoed across the landscape. For a moment more they were in cold air, then their cries were cut off suddenly as they plunged into the soil.
Twisting, claylike earth grabbed at the helices of their bits, trying to keep its place in the earth. But they were too strong for mere clay, ripping at it and twisting it up behind them. What came to the base of their bits flew out in compressed pulses into pouches at their throats which their collections of tiny limbs then cleared out, pushing these tailings towards the backs of their bodies.
In the ground, blinded by the substrate through which they joyously worked, they could no longer see each other. Yet they could feel the patterns of vibrations coming through the earth through which they moved, and that was enough to remind them of the presence of their brothers and sisters. The sheer pleasure of travelling downwards was enough anyway to remove all fears and doubts from their minds, and to allow them a glorious sense of a future free of idleness and hunger, a future in which they would drill on downwards forever. They began to relax into their task, and with relaxation came the chance to play, to stretch ligaments and test muscles, to weave from one side to another and to turn in tight and intricate patterns that left behind them larger helices, giant unseen negative space self-portraits of their own bits. Although they could not see each other, their sensitivity to each other's place around them was enough that they could begin to group into pairs and circle around each other on their way down, completing the sculptures.
Their time in the clay did not last long, and soon they came to rock - patchy at first, but soon turning to vast solid stretches of brittle turbidite interspersed with surprising but delightful blobs of granite. This was harder work, but more satisfying, and they slowed down a little to revel in the feel of the rock dust grinding before the tips of their bits. As the dust was pushed back by their legs they took little samples of it with smaller limbs and conveyed them to the tastebuds located in their necks just behind the great muscles that span their bits. The turbidite tasted spicy to them, with just a hint of sulphur and aluminium in it, an unusual taste that had them buzzing to each other as best they could. The rock carried vibrations more faithfully than the earth, so their sense of each other's positions became more acute, and by modulating the speed at which their bits span they could signal to each other - simple signals only, but enough to pass on the direction of interesting finds and unusual tastes. Their geometric paths now became chaotic ones as they darted from side to side on their way down, calling to each other and responding to each other's cues.
Slate, Marble, Schist, layers upon layers of other rock they found as they drilled. It seemed like a paradise to them, their drill muscles burning with a warm sensation, tired but comfortable so that they felt as though they could continue indefinitely. The contrast to the cold thin air they had fallen through for so long was dizzying, as though an explosion of colours and lights after a lifetime spent in darkness.
Then, so suddenly that for a good minute after they were stunned, they were brought to a halt. They had just emerged from a rich layer of basalt - scratchy and warm, like being massaged by a hedgehog - when they discovered on the other side a substance that pushed back against the tips of their bits. They drilled harder. Nothing. Reluctantly, painfully, they used their weak legs to draw back a few centimetres along their path to examine the surface of the barrier, letting their stalked eyes protrude from their recessed covers behind the drill heads and snake along the curved surfaces of the bit until they could see clearly.
It was dark, as black as obsidian, but not shiny. The limited light given off by the luminescent parts of their bits seemed to fall directly into the object and vanish forever. Each of the drills, now more sensitive to its surroundings, felt the quiet that told it that its brothers and sisters were not drilling either. They buzzed to each other with increasing perplexity. They withdrew their eyes, drilled again, and feeling no give, stopped again and again extruded their eyes to examine the surface. It was unmarked, even after eight or ten attempts.
Consternation rippled through the rock, carried by the frightened buzzes of the drills. The most nervous contorted themselves awkwardly and laboriously began to scratch at the sides of their tunnels until they could gain enough space and enough purchase to drill sideways and feel tentatively towards their siblings. It was a dangerous business emerging into someone else's tunnel - come through at the wrong point and you could drill right through them. Gingerly, therefore, they drilled centimetre by centimetre, until by warning their host to back away to a safe distance they could then poke the very tip of their bits through into the other tunnel.
The barrier remained intractable, though, rejecting all attempts at drilling. Alarm grew, and the drills began to discuss the nightmare scenario. In soft cries and calls they chattered to each other in the awkward right-angled meeting places they had made, and began to wonder whether they would have to resort to painful backward crawling. They could turn around, of course, but drilling in any direction but down was equally stressful and uncomfortable. But was there, they asked each other, no other option?
Had they stumbled upon the unthinkable - an undrillable rock?
Saturday, May 05, 2012
Swirls of steam drifted lazily around the kitchen, idly traversing it as if the lords of that domain. They carried with them scents alternating between the delightful and the horrific, which Rushforth sampled with suspicious snorts - short sharp intakes of breath that made a whistling noise as he sucked in the air through his good left nostril and his ruined right one. He remained beneath the counter, letting the smells come to him, and as each one passed he pronounced judgement on them, either a pleased whimper when the scent was pleasant or a disapproving sneeze when it was not.
Rushforth's owner, visible to the dog only as a pair of fluffy slippers and a set of sheer-stockinged legs scribbled blue with varicose veins, bustled around the room in pursuit of her alchemical purpose. She sang nonsense songs to herself, by means of which Rushforth kept aware of her position at all times, even when she went behind the island in the middle of the room and disappeared from view. She seemed nervous - the dog would have said flustered, had he both the power of speech and the necessary emotional introspection to make such a fine distinction - but her voice only very rarely betrayed her, the gibberish lyrics maintaining an even and melodic tone even as she exerted herself pouring the contents of tin A into pot B and pot B into mixing bowl C and so forth. Only at one point in the last half hour had she ceased moving, when for a whole two minutes she had stood stock still in the centre of the open area between the counter and the island and shivered, muttering to herself and drumming the fingers of her right hand nervously against the flat blade of a spatula she had happened to be holding at that moment.
The dog himself, although mildly concerned about his owner's distraction, was focused on a much more personal and intractable problem. Somewhere in the room was the trail of the rat - or whatever it was. The cooking smells, pleasurable and noxious as they were in their turns, hid beneath them the more subtle clue for which he had been searching for the last couple of days. It seemed that every few breaths a tiny hint of the trail would reveal itself to his nose, but with his faculties diminished as a result of that ancient battle he was unable to follow the evidence as he would have been as a young pup. Not for the first time (and not, for a while at least, for the last) he thought back to the fight with sorrow and regret, and wished that he had known then what he knew now. Such thoughts inevitably led him further, and for a strange moment he experienced something that for his owner was quite routine, but which for Rushforth was an unusual - perhaps unique - sensation, the imagination of a in which he had solved the question of the rat (if that was what it was) and could act upon the information he had deduced.
The otherness of the experience made the old dog shudder - a long ripple of unease rolling at a leisurely pace down his backbone - and he lurched to his feet. His owner, who had been chopping something rhythmically on the near side of the island, paused at the sound behind her and turned to murmur something or other about food - either a warning not to interfere with her current project or an offer to decant some canned meat into Rushforth's bowl, he did not know which and for that moment did not care. He walked across the kitchen floor, claws clicking gently on the smooth flagstones, and made his way to the side of the fridge. He had been overcome with the strange notion that if he wished to find the rat (or whatever it was, and for the first time he also became aware that there were a lot of other things it might be that were not rats) he might be able to better triangulate its position if he were to move himself, and by observing the air currents in the room (currently visible in the patterns of steam), he might be able to trace the wafting scents back to their source.
At first it seemed hopelessly complicated, but after a few minutes in his new post by the fridge Rushforth began to make some progress in deciphering the motions of the air in the room. He understood that it was affected chaotically by his owner's motion back and forth - she acting as a spoon wielded by a particularly lazy cook to stir the air in random patterns, but that the shape of the room constrained the patterns of air when she was at rest, and that her motion caused only very short-lived perturbations. Most of the patterns were stable, and were to do with the heat coming from the front of the oven, the top of the stove, and the radiator just inside the door. He imagined lines of force in the air, lines populated with slow-moving convoys of scent, and traced out their position in the empty volume of the kitchen. If they were as stable now as they seemed to be, he reasoned, then the hints of smell that he was getting from the - he still thought of it as a rat, but he knew now that that was merely a placeholder in his mind, something his dog brain could hang onto to somehow understand the concept of a dangerous but solvable problem that he felt was the right attitude to take towards the unknown thing.
There it was - a small hole between the skirting-board by the door, and the cupboard unit in front of it. The cupboards were raised off the floor, so there was a run beneath them. The hole was too small for Rushforth to get in himself, but he slowly padded across the floor and stuck the good side of his nose inside, taking a strong whiff. Yes, the alien had been there.
Alien? Rushforth thought. How do I know about aliens?
Friday, May 04, 2012
Bronwen ran the flower shop at the bottom of the tower block. The flower shop ("Full Petal Jacket") had occupied the fourth of five small retail caves in the ground floor ever since the tower had been constructed, and was owned (and, sadly, named) by a recluse known only as Mrs. Janis. Bronwen had never met her employer, having been interviewed by an employment agency, a placement specialist, Mrs. Janis's lawyer and finally the incumbent manager of the shop, who had one month after hiring Bronwen emigrated to Thailand for unspecified reasons. That had been seven years ago, and although Bronwen had taken the position without the slightest hint of managerial or administrative skill she had grown into the task, keeping the shop ship-shape and profitable despite the lack of either passing trade or a proximate customer base. The people of the tower block were not natural flower givers, although they did tend to resort to flowers as an apology - either post-fight or post-infidelity - and so their natural appetites and lack of control did provide a certain baseline income.
Working in a flower shop was hardly a dream she had had since childhood, but it was a cosy and easy life. She had in her early twenties struggled with the idea of finding meaning in her life, but unlike so many of her friends she had been able to come to a simple and easy conclusion - that since there was no meaning to life, there was no point in searching for it. Meaning could be where you found it, and that meant that she was free to choose or build her own meaning. Bronwen chose simplicity - books from the library, a few friends that she'd managed to keep from university, a small flat on the outskirts, and her job to finance it all. She eschewed the idea of working for the weekend, opting to stay in a job that gave her plenty of time to think and to spend the weekends and evenings in almost interchangeable ways. Three times a year she would go away for one-week holidays (the longest she could leave an agency assistant in charge of the shop and hope to return to it in any reasonable state), and at Christmas she got leave from Mrs. Janis's lawyer to shut up completely between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day, completing her annual round of time off.
Thomas lived in the estate to the north of the tower, a maze of red-brick terraces that had been built as a family-friendly alternative to the block itself. It had not been a success - or rather, it had been too much of a success, quickly gentrifying so that the houses were unaffordable to the original target audience. They were bought up by rich city types - not types that Thomas would naturally have gravitated towards, but the flat had been left to him in his elder brother's will. The brother, dying without a wife or children (that they knew of at the time, although ten years later Thomas and Bronwen would be visited in their home by a teenage nephew searching for his family), had bequeathed his home to Thomas as a way of attempting to make peace for a decades-old fight over a woman which had lead to an estrangement. Thomas, himself at the time barely finished with his doctorate in entomology and emerging from his chrysalis into the cold hardships of the outside world, could not afford to pass up free accommodation - even if it did mean paying inflated council tax bills. He was a frugal liver, and managed to pick up through a contact from his school days a low-paying job in the local park maintenance department - too poorly paid to be useful to anyone with a mortgage to pay, but offering him the perfect blend of low pay and scant work.
They met one day in the middle of summer, on the hottest day of the year. Roses and tulips wilted in the midday heat, Bronwen dancing around the shop from display to display attempting to keep as much of the stock well-watered and shaded as possible. The sun moved unpredictably across the sky, vanishing behind other tower blocks and suddenly reappearing at strange angles as powerfully hot reflections from the mirrored surfaces of the huge modern office buildings to the west. No sooner had Bronwen moved one set of plants into a more comfortable position than a sunray would burst across another.
Thomas had the day off, and was sitting on the bench across the road nursing a bottle of premixed Pimms which he'd hidden inside the shell of an old thermos so as to avoid the disapproving stares of his rich neighbours and imprecations to share from the tower block inhabitants. He was reading a book, and out of the corner of his eye kept becoming distracted by a cerise shape buzzing from left to right, right to left, vanishing and reappearing. Looking up, he saw that it was the shopkeeper of "Full Petal Jacket". He'd always assumed that the owner would be older (which indeed she was, but Thomas did not at that time realise that Bronwen was not, in fact, that arcane worthy), and he permitted himself the (as he thought then, and again, more ruefully, later) somewhat seedy privilege of observing the young woman at work, enjoying the spectacle of her wavy hair tumbling unruly over her face at every opportunity - at which point she would have to lean backwards and flick the loose locks back into place, a manoeuvre which caused her curves to heave alluringly. She was, Thomas thought, a marvelous example of embonpoint - fleshier than the pared-down yuppies in the gentrified estate, nor yet corpulent or skeletal as many of the tower dwellers were.
He watched her work for an hour - an hour he would later describe as the worst waste of time in his life - before summoning the courage (and the alcohol content) to cross the road and introduce himself.
"I'm Thomas," he said bluntly, stepping into the shade of a badly-placed awning. "I was just wondering if there was anything I could do to help?"
Thursday, May 03, 2012
We line up on the safe wall of the trenches, the one closest to the enemy. During the night the rain has poured down like the judgement of God, so that the bottom of the trench is just one huge shallow puddle reaching a mile in either direction. As we shift to try to keep our feet free from the mud it ripples away from us towards our company-mates, each of us therefore culpable for sluicing the fetid liquid over the tops of boots. The slatted wooden walls leak a thick mud that seeps into our clothing - we try to stand clear of it but each time someone goes past us we are forced to step back to allow them passage, mumbling at the idiots who dug the fortifications so narrow.
"Now then!" shouts the sergeant, uncomfortably loud. It seems impossible that the enemy cannot hear him just as well as we can. "It is thirteen hundred hours now! At fourteen hundred hours precisely our beloved captain will sound his whistle, and I and the other sergeants will sound our whistles in response. Do you understand?"
"Yes sergeant!" we cry.
"When you hear the second whistle - that is to say, my whistle - you will immediately proceed to scale the ladders on the safe side of the trench. Is that understood?"
"If one of you is having difficulty, the others will help him! If one of you is reluctant, the others will remind him of his duty, and encourage him to scale the ladders!"
"How will we do that?" one of us asks. He's the weedy one down at the end, constantly pushing his broken glasses up his nose. They never stay here. He's got his hand up, like a child in a classroom asking to go to the toilet, and we all feel a little sad for the poor chap.
"Perhaps you could repeat your question!" the sergeant yells, "bearing in mind that in a strict hierarchy there are certain forms that need to be observed in the communications between superiors and subordinates!"
"That's alright!" cries the sergeant. "This is a tense moment, and it is perfectly understandable that you might make a mistake. I would hardly have commented on it except that the rest of your conduct has been so exemplary that I feel you are ready to take constructive criticism on small points!"
"Thank you sergeant. How will we do that, sergeant? I mean, encourage the others to scale the ladders, sergeant?"
"I'm glad you asked that, private, and that's more like it!" The sergeant points to the scaling ladders - they are filthy with mud, and we imagine how difficult it will be to clamber up them in the heat of the charge. "You will remind your fellow soldiers that to travel forward we must travel upward! You will remind them that they have undergone a gruelling training regime to get this far, and that if the powers that be did not think they were capable of performing this necessary task, they would not have sent them here. You will help your fellow soldier to think of his family and friends at home, and how they would cheer him on if they could be there at that moment! Does this answer your question, private?"
"Yes sergeant!" calls out the weedy private. We are proud of him, because deep down we all wanted to ask that question, but most of us lacked the emotional strength.
"Now then! It will not have escaped your notice that our rear-line boys have been pretty active over the last few days! Those of you who have been on overwatch will be acquainted with this already, but for the rest of you - do not be surprised when you go over the top! Our artillery has been hammering the area with feel-good literature, pillows, and a delightful glitter that has made no-man's land quite festive, if I do say so myself! You will not be fazed by these features of the landscape! Oh no! For you are the king's soldiers, and well-prepared for your duty! Do you agree?"
"YES SERGEANT!" We shout in unison.
"Very good!" He struts along the line. It has begun to rain again - just a light spitting - but the thin sheen of water collecting on his face makes him look extra passionate, as though the effort of instruction and encouragement has brought out a sweat on him. "You will indeed not be fazed. In fact, you will use these features to your advantage, just like your drill sergeant told you! You will look at the beautiful glitter and it will lift your hearts. What will it do?"
"LIFT OUR HEARTS, SERGEANT!"
"Yes it will! You will pick up some of this literature and briefly flick through it while you run towards the enemy, and it will remind you that you and he are human beings, brief candles on this world but with the power to do good. What will it remind you of?"
"OUR CAPACITY TO DO GOOD, SERGEANT!"
"I can't hear you!"
"OUR CAPACITY TO DO GOOD, SERGEANT!"
"That's better!" The sergeant gives us a thumbs-up. "Now, you will run directly towards the enemy, brandishing any pillow you may pick up along the way! If you do not pick up a pillow, you will not worry? What will you not do?"
"That's right!" he reassures us. "You will not worry, because those pillows are just gifts, and the best gift you will be able to give the enemy is the knowledge that he is a valued human being, loved for his existence and his potential. So if you do not pick up a pillow, what will you do?"
"We'll run with our arms open?" asks the weedy private.
"Wide open!" agrees the sergeant. "So that when you meet the enemy you will be able to give him a friendly hug with no delay! How much delay, soldiers?"
"NO DELAY, SERGEANT!"
"Very good! There are a lot of enemy troops out there, and each one of them needs to be turned into a friend with reassurance and encouragement! It's a difficult job, but you're the men the king has trusted to do it, and you're the men who are going to do it. What are you?"
"THE MEN, SERGEANT!"
He gives us another thumbs up.
"You've got an hour to prepare," he tells us. "Get comfortable, limber up, and above all, think positive thoughts! Dismissed!"
Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Transcript One (Day 22):
175: I'm getting the hang of this now. Listen to this. [SINGS] Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high!
92: So I hear. I must learn to control the gain on these microphones.
175: Oh, man, don't be like that.
92: Like what?
175: A hater. Hating on me, like a hater.
92: Christ, when were you bottled? Twenty-ten?
175: 2011. If you must know.
92: Yeah, I guessed it. Listen, I don't have the privilege of politeness any more. I can't just get up and walk away, now can I? I can't ask you to move into the next room to practise. All I can do is sit here and listen to you, and if I have to listen to you singing show tunes for the rest of eternity I might as well just boil myself in this jar.
175: Gawd, alright. Fine, so you don't like show tunes. How about this: [SINGS] The Jim-jam-jive is-
92: Stop! Please, for the love of all that's holy, stop.
175: You could have just asked nicely, man.
92: Apparently I couldn't.
Transcript Two (Day 24):
268: Do you think about things a lot? [SILENCE] You there?
92: I'm here. I just didn't want to dignify that with an answer. I mean, what else is there to do? We're brains in jars, you know? Of course I think about things.
268: I don't.
268: No, I mean I remember a lot of things, and I have emotional responses to them. Sometimes positive responses, sometimes unpleasant ones.
92: Like when you remember one-seventy-five's singing.
175: Not cool, dude.
268: Memories from my past, when I had a body.
175: Never happened.
92: Now what?
175: Never happened, man. We never had bodies in the first place.
268: I have memories, you tool.
175: Made up.
268: I can remember my family.
92: So we're all just made up people, is that your argument?
175: Not all of us, just two-sixty-eight. I'm as real as anything.
268: All I meant was, I don't do a lot of thinking. Deep thinking.
92: I wonder if I tried really hard, whether I could grow some arms and throttle one-seventy-five.
175: Come at me, bro!
92: Or failing that, myself.
Transcript Three (Day 78):
268: No, I'm pretty sure it was green. Anyway, that day we went out to the woods, the four of us, and I thought - well, this is my lucky day, this seems like good odds. Two guys, two girls, you know? So we're walking through these - just these beautiful woods, you know, like idyllic woods, sun beaming down through the canopy and dappling the ground, oceans of bluebells and foxgloves making the undergrowth a study in blue, the sounds of songbirds, everything, I'm just on top of the world, and really both of the guys were unbelievably hot. One of them - Donny? Danny? I can never remember his name. Anyway, he was the one I was specially after, but I'll be honest with you, his friend would have done as well. Both really smart, really nice - I mean not clever-clever smart, but just interested in lots of things and you know, real interesting people, the kind who can't ever be boring because their brains are just constantly following line after line and they're always branching out. You know? You know what I mean?
92: Yes, I think I was - I mean, I met plenty of people like that, and I always tried to be one, but perhaps not always successfully. It was just that-
268: Anyway, so things were seeming pretty sweet. We sat down and had a little picnic that the guys had prepared, it was all just - like picture-book perfect, like an illustration in a fairy tale or something.
25: So what went wrong?
268: Oh, I didn't realise you were here.
25: I'm always here.
268: I mean, listening.
25: Go on, anyway. If it helps, forget I exist.
268: No, it's not - look, let's start again.
92: Not from the top? I think we got the build up. The prolegomena. The scene-setting.
268: No, I mean, just. Look, OK, so we were out on this fairy-tale picnic, except that I didn't realise how apt that choice of words might be. You understand? It wasn't two guys and two girls and good odds, really. It was two guys together, and their friend Josie, and Josie's new work colleague - which is to say, me.
92: Was Josie?
268: Oh no, she was - you know, she was just inviting a new co-worker out for a nice picnic with her flatmate and his boyfriend. That was all. It was just me that read too much into the whole thing.
25: Yeah, figures.
Transcript Four: (Day 102)
92: OK, this is great. This is great. This is all golden. OK, go on.
25: Of the four of them that made it through the first round, there were three men, two spouses, three with children, one bald, two with beards-
92: Can a bearded man be bald?
25: Of course he can.
92: It's just - OK, I accept that.
25: If he has hair on his chin, he's bearded. No hair on his head, he's bald.
92: But the chin is part of the head. You see what I'm saying.
25: Do you want to hear the rest of this puzzle or not? I can just shut up, if that's what you want.
92: No no, go on.
Transcript Five: (Day 125)
175: This is like seriously weird. I mean, seriously. Tell me what I look like.
92: You look like a brain in a jar.
175: Oh man, how did you do it? How did you do it? Tell me, I want to see too.
92: You just - I can't explain it. I just kind of got my head round what the information was coming in, and it turned out to be an image, or a camera feed, or something. I don't know, I can't turn them. I can see straight ahead. I can see all of you.
175: Is it video? Or just a picture?
92: How would I know? You're a brain in a jar. You're not doing a lot of moving around.
Tuesday, May 01, 2012
She dangled the key between her index finger and thumb, swinging it tantalisingly over my supplicant palm. I watched it travel to and fro, wondering whether Ian's warning about her hypnotic powers were actually true. I could hear her dog snuffling around my legs, and smell the wet hair scent, but I found myself unable to take my eyes off the key.
"You'll need this," she said. Her voice was low and gravelly, and carried an interlineal tale of cigarettes smoked in endless chains. I was struck with a sudden image - her body in a bathtub, details obscured modestly but tantalisingly by drifting islands of bubbles, a book in one hand and a Rothman's in the other, pale wisps of smoke drifting up from the ember end.
Her fingers stopped moving, and I snapped back to attention to focus on the key being lowered towards my hand. When it was within reach I quickly grabbed at it, only to have the prize whisked away from me sharply. I looked up to find her staring at me sternly, the index finger of the other hand help up rigidly.
"Not so fast," she told me. "Before you can take the key, you have to understand what it is."
"What is it?"
"It is a key," she said simply, then laughed. The laughter was the horrid laugh of a trickster, a joy in humiliation and cleverness, and I felt my face burn with shame. With her spare hand she took mine, spreading out the fingers again until the palm was flat and open, beseeching. "But what is a key?"
"It opens a door," I said - then, suspecting another trick: "Or a lid."
"It unlocks a door," she corrected me. "This key unlocks a door, but you must open it. You can open a door with-"
"With a handle, yes," I cut her off with malicious joy. "But which door?"
"Which door does this key open," she said dreamily, turning to stare up at the corner of the small room. "Yes, that is part of the question. I can tell you where the door is, but which door it is, that is something that you will have to find out for yourself."
She lowered the key again until the rounded bow rested cold against the centre of my palm. I tensed, but when I looked up again she simply nodded, and before I could react I felt the key fall from her fingers into my hand, which closed over it reflexively. It was cold at the bow end, warm at the bit end where it had rested between her fingers, and heavy. I had thought it metal, but it felt oddly as though it were made from some type of ceramic.
"Where did it come from?"
"Another good question," she said. She reached out one slender index finger to tap on the fist that I had closed around it. "Knock knock."
I tried to open my fingers, found that I could not.
"I will not take it back," she promised.
I was about to tell her that it made no difference to me if she did, but to my surprise her promise did make a difference to me, and I watched my fingers unfurl as though they were operating on their own will. Her finger hovered around it, circling above me as if teasing a child with a game of round and round the garden.
"I was given it, as I am giving it to you, but for a different reason. I was already on the other side of the door, and there is a second thing that keys do. The woman who gave it to me had got it from an older man, but there the trail ends because he was the man who made it."
"You thought perhaps that it came from somewhere else?" she asked. "No. A key is made by a person, and this is no exception. So you understand that - that this is a thing made like any other, and that like any artifact, what one man makes can be copied by another. There may be other keys like this one, other women like me, other men like you. If you unlock a door with it, do not rely on that door to stay open."
She took her hand away again, and like a flower in the darkness my own hand closed over its prize again. I turned it over, looked at the veins on the back. I could feel the presence of the key even in my arm muscles, even in my shoulder - heavy, so much heavier than it should be.
"The door," she said, "whatever it is, is in the north part of the city. Over the bridge, in the old factory district. McFadden's factory. That is as close as I can tell you."
"Have you been there?" I asked.
I nodded, and put my hand in the pocket of my jacket. It would not release the key, constricted by the tight material, and I withdrew it again. The pockets in my jumper were larger, but when I tried to release the key into them my hand refused again. It seemed that I was to be stuck that way until I found the door.
"When you open the door-" she stopped abruptly, corrected herself: "if you open the door, be careful. Listen at it first, to make sure that there is no-one on the other side. Unlock it, step through quickly, and close it behind you again. Once you are through, nothing can come in without the key, but there is a moment. A moment as the door is opening."
She shook her head.
"You don't. You can't. But you can follow my instructions."
I was annoyed, but I nodded and stood up to leave.
"One more thing," she said, just as I was putting my left hand on the door-handle. "I got it from someone else, who got it from someone other. You got it from me. Do you understand?"
"I'll have to pass it on in my turn," I said. My hand twitched uncomfortably around the little shard. I hoped it would be easy to give away, but I feared it would not.