Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Art Pact 216 - Underwater

Bigger by far than the tanks I was towing were the two huge air tanks attached to the side of the little drone. It buzzed along behind us, its motors making a low thrumming noise quite unlike the high-pitched electric whine they'd made at the surface. The tanks either side of it were almost as large as the drone itself, man-sized tanks with heavy-duty connectors at each end. At the forward end the connectors had been used to attach multi-regulator heads, attachments that would allow two men to breath from the front of the tank - purely a precaution in case any of our suits went out, although we had used them briefly when the time came to change over Alexander's tank and refresh his supply. We'd left the empty sitting on the seabed with a responder beacon, a super-bright bulb that would flash when it received a ping from a friendly device. It would lay hidden until we came to retrieve it, helping to keep our mission secret. I was much more worried about the sound of the drone, but since it was necessary if we were to establish a long-term base within the wreck, there was not much I could do about it.

We were deep enough down not to be seen from above - especially not with our camouflaged suits - but there was a constant fear of detection, so that every time someone pointed up and made the signal for "boat" we froze in place and Louise (piloting the drone) cut the engine and let the thing drift forward until it stopped. The first time she did that we'd stopped where we were so suddenly that the nose of the drone hit me in the small of the back - not painful, but certainly a surprise. I almost popped the regulator out of my mouth. What was worse was that the drone's headlamp (out but not yet cooled completely) had burnt a strip of the wetsuit near my leg, and I knew that there were going to be some interesting (read: painful) times to come when I stripped down.

Ahead of us Alex - still swimming hard, scouting around us in circles and burning through his oxygen and energy as though they were going out of style - darted in and out of little ravines, behind coral stands, around rocks and detritus so that from one moment to the next I could never be quite sure where he was. I was still unconvinced of the utility of the little man, his attitude to Louise made me even more nervous, but I had to admit that if there were something to find his manic dashing this way and that was far more likely to find it than our slow plod to the site of the wreck. The question of whether there was anything to find was something else. If, as Louise thought likely, Nigel had been plucked up by the coastguard before getting to the wrecked ship, then probably all was lost. They might be waiting for us when we got back to land, or they might be waiting for us over the horizon. They could easily have some sort of monitoring device on the wreck proper, a camera or something that would alert them when we had arrived and begun our work. Then they could swoop in and pluck us up at their leisure. None of us could outswim a speedboat. Even the drone was limited to a couple of knots by the huge tanks on its sides - tanks that would take a good ten minutes to release underwater, making them as good as cannonballs on chains.

I let the drone overtake me so that I could hang onto the back of it, the little robot submersible's slipstream bubbling past me. Louise was tucked into the little operator's canopy on the back, steering the thing with a joystick in one hand and hanging on with the other. She'd taken off the harness that would have kept her attached to the canopy with both hands free, but as she saw me she took her hand off the joystick for a moment, looped that arm through the dangling tendrils of webbing fabric and pulled, her right arm now wrapped up so that she could be pulled along and still work the joystick. With her free hand she signalled "hello" to me.

"What distance?" I signalled back. She flashed her open hand at me three times: fifteen kilometres. "All good?"

"Yes. Go ahead."

Behind the goggles I could just make out her eyes, but it was impossible to gauge anything from them - not without the rest of her expression, which was of course distorted madly by the regulator valve and mostly covered up anyway. I wondered whether she wanted be back on lookout or whether she was still fuming over Alexander's earlier bullshit. Either way, I decided, best to do as she said. She wasn't a talker at the best of times, and there was no way she could vent any anger underwater except by punching or spear-gunning something. If that was going to happen, I did not want it to be me on the respective blunt or sharp end.

Alex, having made another of his big loops around us, was in front by the time I got back into position, and waving wildly. He was off our main course by about thirty degrees, so I swam off to him without signalling, reckoning that we could easily catch up with the main body of the group if they passed us by. As I got closer I could see that he was waving me a "look here" gesture and pointing with his other hand down at something on the sea floor. Closer still, I could see that it was a regulator valve.

There was a hose still attached to it, but about six or seven inches from the mouthpiece it had been severed - not cleanly, as a knife would have done it, but more like it had been bitten off. I took my own regulator out and held it down by the one on the seabed. They were the same make. Neil.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Art Pact 215 - Sub-basement

In the first cellar under the house there was a great woven wool rug, a heavy thing of rich but not bright colours, so constructed that it was just over one and a half times as long as it was wide, a feature that my mother tried to remind me on many occasions was the golden ratio much talked of in antiquity. As a child, erudite though I might have been, I was unprepared to deal with the full weight of the artistic and mathematical implications of this fact, and I dismissed it with a roll of the eyes every time after the first. The first time I heard it, of course, I nodded and became - as parlance has it - all ears, as attentive a young child as has ever hung upon the words of its dam or sire, recording the phrase for later use so that I might confound the expectations of my childhood friends or impress those more educated members of the adult class that I might meet. Teachers especially I delighted in amazing with my vocabulary and grasp on matters more usually reserved for the proddings of the intellectuals, and there was rarely a day in which I spouted some fact or another in an attempt to draw attention away from the dullards around me and more forcefully towards its rightful seat, namely myself. Equally frequently, I imagine, the more cynical masters would roll their eyes and mutter something about how one might best apply oneself to the teaching of the precocious, especially when said application involved the hands of the teacher and the gentle throat of the student in question. I now suffer no doubts that I was ill-liked amongst my tutors, and even at the time perhaps I carried fewer veils over my eyes than it might have seemed, but sometimes one must pretend that ones self-image is nothing more than objective truth, and as a child I did that very handily, and very happy I suppose it made me.

Back to the rug, however, for I have strayed so far from my subject that a stout party of young orienteers might find it difficult to make their way back there, and I have important information to impart about the rug - or more properly, of course, that which lay beneath it. It was not the rug itself, you see, with which I am ultimately concerned, but the door which it covered, a door of which I was unaware for the earliest years of my life, indeed, quite until I was in my twelfth year and on the cusp of teenagerhood, that tempestuous sea upon which many great minds are wrecked against the rocks of sexuality never to recover. I did not stumbled across it by accident, even, having to be shown the thing by my cousin, then some species of punk or other. I had simply assumed that the rug in question, having remained forever in place so long as I had lived in the house (and, by solipsistic extension, perhaps for the preceding eternity), and that it concealed beneath it nothing more exciting than the faux-wooden flooring which covered the rest of the cellar except for the small square of concrete on which the washing machine and tumble-dryer sat (thankfully covered from decent sight by a plasterboard partition wall and a slim door). It came as something of a surprise, then (and here the astute reader will understand that I am using - indeed, perhaps abusing, at least stretching to the very limits of its capacity - the common but gentlemanly gambit of understatement) for me to learn at the hands of my garishly-haired relative that rather than fake hardwood, the rug indeed covered actual wood, and not in the form of floorboards but that of a trapdoor, including recessed hinges and an inlaid ring-handle that became flush with its fitting when released. How many times I had, as a child, played upon that rug, unaware that merely an inch of wood separated me from some yawning void! I had rolled on the soft surface thousands of times, and never once had I felt the slightest hint of the metal-work beneath. I would, it is clear, have made a very poor fairy-tale princess!

Never let it be said, though, that I am a man incapable of adapting myself to changing circumstances or one who is easily stunned by revelations of mystery. I of course disclaimed any ignorance of the trapdoor's existence, and assured my rebellious cousin that it was common knowledge throughout the house, no more a mystery to me than my own nose was. My cousin, of course, may well not have believed me. She was (and remains) a perilously gullible person in the world at large, prone (as her punk phase shows) to falling prey to all nature of fads and cults, and it is a constant source of wonder to me (one that of course I do not show) that she continues to inhabit this small earth with the number of her natural predators that infest it. One would think that the sheer weight of fraudsters would drive such as she to extinction within a generation, but it seems that with one or more suckers born every minute (I feel Mr. Barnum would surely increase his estimate nowadays) those unfortunates like her benefit from protection in numbers. Put plainly, there are simply too many fools for all the hawks to destroy.

Having made such a grand show of my knowledge of the trapdoor's existence, I could hardly claim to be unaware of its contents, so I found myself in the unfortunate position of being forced to open it myself to demonstrate my apathy about the mystery below. It was therefore me (rather than my cousin, as I would have preferred), who pried the great steel ring up from its housing, grasped its curving top, and pulled up the trap to reveal the darkness of the sub-basement beyond. I did it in a flourish, as if a magician revealing the end of his trick. I think I can safely say that the result was just as astonishing as if I had pulled a live puma from a top-hat.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Art Pact 214 - Odd Conspiracy

I had discovered a conspiracy - although the nature of the conspiracy was so strange, and its aims seemingly so pointless, that the very word seemed wrong. Conspiracy implied to me a smokey backroom filled with arcane geniuses manipulating the world for their own sinister aims, but the conspirators here seemed to be nothing more than middle-aged idiots, the kind of corporate nobodies that formed the undifferentiated matrix in which traditional conspirators might have floated. If you'd met any one of them individually you would be convinced that there was nothing more interesting going on in their head than the patio extension and last night's episode of Top Gear, but somehow they had managed to arrange themselves into a cabal capable of doing such a complicated and unlikely thing as ensuring that the price of staple-removers remained in a narrow band bounded by £3.49 at its floor and £4.25 at its ceiling. A little digging - now that I knew the names of the main conspirators - showed that they had been all over in the pursuit of this goal. They had tinkered with the prices of the raw materials at the factories (even those that were in China, and therefore rather hard to get to), they had jiggered, altered, or just influenced in some subtle way the results of price comparisons, market surveys, and opinion polls. They had intercepted sales reports from retail outlets to show that the price point they wished to maintain was the sweet spot for sales and profits - which it might well have been, I had no idea, but they seemed to have gone to great and mendacious lengths to ensure that that was how it seemed to their higher-ups. They had, for all intents and purposes, completely controlled the pricing of a relatively trivial piece of office equipment - so thoroughly had they been successful, in fact, that within the band that they had restrained the prices to, those prices could further be plotted as a bell curve, so that almost all of the staple-removers being sold over the last year anywhere in Britain were somewhere between three pounds eighty and three ninety-five (the bell skewed slightly, but it was close enough to a classic distribution to be accepted as one).

The mechanics of the conspiracy, then, were impeccable. They had kept it a secret for more than five years (according to the retail sales data I could get my hands on the prices had been more variable before then, so it seemed like a reasonable start point for my theory), they had controlled the prices very successfully and very resiliently in so far as even when there had been fluctuations in the prices of raw materials or the consumer demand other constraints they had put in place had ensured that the prices neither rose nor dropped outside of their desired bands, and they had done it all in so subtle a way that even when I had discovered them it took me a great deal of digging to convince myself that I had stumbled across a bone fide conspiracy and not just some series of mundane coincidences that just happened to all point in the same direction. If they had been involved in the sort of melodramatic shadowy conspiracy to take over the world that was the meat and drink of television series they would have been well on their way, and in some ways good luck to them, since their meticulous attitude towards control was at least more laudable than the seat-of-the-pants governance I'd been getting from my higher-ups (and their higher-ups) over the last four years, and possibly even more successful. After all, imagine an exchequer capable of controlling interest rates or growth so finely as the members of the micro-conspiracy had been able to control the price of staple-removers! They'd go down in history as one of the most fiscally adept governments of all time.

Such praise aside, the question remained: Why? All that effort, all that subtlety and genius, and for what? Could they really be controlling the price of staple-removers for its own sake? None of the conspirators appeared, as far as I could tell, to be profiting directly from sales - indeed, if they had, obviously the conspiracy would be an odd one, since one would expect them to be driving the prices up rather than constraining them to a tight band. They all lived modest and uninteresting lives in middish-to-largish houses, most of them married with children with just a few recalcitrant bachelors and one homosexual (in accordance with the traditional conspiratorial blueprint, I should point out, they were all men). There seemed to be absolutely no reason for the target of their conspiracy, it being of no benefit to them and causing no hardship to any group I could identify as their enemies (they were, in fact, relatively heterogeneous politically and spiritually, so that under normal circumstances I would have thought that finding a common ground between them to be vanishly unlikely).

So banal was the goal of the conspirators that for months I remained convinced that they had somehow misled me, knowing that they had been found out. I searched in vain for another possible goal, something for which the control of staple-remover prices was just an odd side-effect, something that would justify all the resources they had poured into the task. But there was nothing - or if there was anything it was too subtle for me to find despite a great deal more digging - and I was eventually forced to admit that the conspiracy was just what it appeared to be to me - a cabal gathered together to affect the prices of a quotidian piece of office equipment to no profit. There was nothing else to it, no grand plan of which this was just stage one, no awareness even that they should, if they were putting so much effort into the task, at least alter it to one from which they might benefit.

With that admission I was forced to fall back on my last remaining hypothesis, a suspicion that had been growing in me ever since I had first discovered the apparent aim of the conspiracy: that perhaps the conspirators were all just nutters. It was unsatisfying, but did at least fit all the evidence.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Art Pact 213 - The Puppet Dragon

Sir Cloister trod carefully into the clearing. Around him the smouldering skeletons of trees formed a perfect circle, as if they had once been distributed evenly throughout the glade but had backed away in horror from some disaster that had occurred in the middle of their ring. The air was quiet - no wind, just the distant call of a songbird high in the sky and the gentle crunch of undergrowth as the knight moved closer, ever closer to the ground zero in the centre of the empty area. There was the stone, just as the seer had told him, and beside the stone the great open mouth of the monster's lair, the den to which it had retreated with the princess, possibly with the gold it had inexplicably taken from the kingdom's coffers.

He moved as swiftly as he could without causing too much extra noise, and soon gained the relative security of the stone, which he placed between himself and the hole, although not without a certain nervousness about whether the creature were flying above him or perhaps waiting somewhere at the edge of the clearing to rush in when his attention was taken up with its front door. There were no noises, though, no heavy breathing or rustle of gigantic wings, and so encouraged he gathered his wits, unlaced his shield from his back and grasped it firmly in his right hand, with his left hand drew his sword from its sheath, and stepped forth.

He expected the cave to smell, the foul stench of decay from the carcasses of the many cows the dragon was accused of stealing, but there was no such smell. If anything, it exuded a slight odour of honey, not strong enough to be sickly but just enough to make the place rather homey, if anything. Heartened, he peered into the dark. It was possible to see about fifteen yards in, then nothing. He would have to draw the beast out if he were to have any sort of advantage against it, but it was unlikely to simply come out at his request. He would have to venture inside.

Inside, it was clear that although he still thought of it as a cave, it was really a burrow. The nearly cylindrical tunnel walls were made of nothing more than hard-packed earth, although they were reassuringly solid. The floor led down at about a thirty-degree angle - steep, but not so steep that he thought he would not be able to back out relatively easily - and was clear of any roots or other obstructions that might make for an embarrassing end to the battle. When he was about ten yards in the slope reduced slightly and began to curve to the right. Just before he reached the limit of the lighting, he heard - then saw - the dragon.

The noise it made was a repetitive grating sound, a monstrous snoring, and what he could see of it was the part of the dragon that was making the noise - two great nostrils, each as big as the ring that would have been made by touching his thumb and index finger together. The creature was obviously lying down asleep, head on the floor, and his heart raced with a sudden possibility - could he sneak up on the animal and deal the final blow before it woke?

It was naturally repugnant to him to take such a cowardly path, but there were other (smarter, perhaps) parts to Sir Cloister, and it was those that drove his train of thought as he stepped forward, leaning off the footplate to show that the diverging track ahead was as terrible on the more honorable fork as it was on the service they were providing. Since a great number of knights before him had come here (so he had been told), and none of them had succeeded either in slaying the dragon or in returning alive (or at all), the beast was clearly not a foe to be lightly dismissed. Thinking the best of his fellow soldiers he assumed that they had taken the honorable path of fighting the dragon fairly, or had perhaps been forced into it by coming upon the beast in the clearing, or in flight, or in some other situation in which there was not the possibility of a swift despatch. He was a confident soldier, but he knew that he was not the best fighter even among his cadre, certainly not one of the strongest warriors in the land, so the chances were not good that he was the best knight yet to have faced the dragon. If those better than him had tried the honourable path and failed it seemed unlikely that he would be victorious in similar circumstances.

No, terrible as it was, he had been given an opportunity by the gods and he would have to take it. They would not sing songs about his noble battle, but neither would they mourn his loss, and perhaps a farmer or two might give a brief thanks for the safety of his livestock. Hefting his sword, Sir Cloister stepped forward into the darkness, aimed for the point where the dragon's fiercesome head joined its long neck, and struck!

There was no blood. Instead, to his amazement, he heard a sound like lute strings snapping. The beast's head, half cleaved from its neck, twitched madly and its eyes - horrid great saucers - flew open. It made no move other than that, though, and bizarrely it kept snoring. Cloister struck again, this time cutting the head clear off. Again, more twanging of lute strings, but also this time a surprising sound - that of a woman's voice.

"Ow! What on earth did you do that for?"

The voice was coming straight from the dragon's belly. As Cloister watched, unable to believe his eyes, a rectangle of light appeared in the animal's side, hinging open to reveal itself as a hatchway lit from within. A head emerged, then a torso, and finally two legs in a long dress clambered free.

It was the princess.

"What time of day do you call this?" she demanded.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Art Pact 212 - Eviction

We'd come to the last branch of the tree, standing underneath it in the remotest outpost of shade that the plant could offer us, and turned to look back at the house. Marshall Flowers was still standing there - still looking at us with that mixture of pity and conviction that he'd had from the moment Justice had opened the door. He nodded, just the very slightest tip of his head, but he did not look away from us for all the time that we were stood there. I don't know what he thought we might do. Assume that he'd gone and make a beeline back? There was no hope of us getting back inside, and even if we did the bailiffs would just have him break in again. It would be a kindness to him, I thought, not to make him go through all that again. Besides, it wouldn't be good for the children. Just more false hope for them. They'd lost so much, it wouldn't be fair to make them go through it all again. They'd need their strength, I supposed.

"Remember it, kids," said Molly. She had a strange tone in her voice, and I raised an eyebrow. She shook her head, mouthed: not now. I nodded.

I realised, looking back, why it was the picture had been so bad the last few weeks - the wire that should have been attached to the aerial was flapping loose, frayed or cut about a foot along its length so that it was dangling over the utility room window. We hadn't opened the curtains in the utility room for three years, not since the Murcheson's moved onto the next lot and we discovered that they liked to have sex with their own curtains wide open. We didn't want to risk awkward questions from the children, so we'd never opened the windows on that side - the kitchen and the utility room. If we had I'd have seen the aerial lead drooping from the gutter (of course, that wouldn't have been the only thing I'd have seen drooping from that window, so in the long run it was probably worth the inconvenience). The signal we'd been getting must have been picked up in the metal of the lead itself, making me wonder at how surprisingly good the picture had been, considering. Ironic, I thought, that I would realise that when there was every chance that I might not see the house again for a long time (perhaps forever, I thought, looking over at Molly. She was staring back at me with a cryptic expression which broke into a cheery smile when she saw me looking). Still, it had been my firm believe that the house could function only when there was something wrong with it, so my not solving the picture problem had probably saved me a lot of worrying about whatever broke to replace it and keep the house not quite ship-shape.

We took the opportunity to rearrange our bags. Marshall Flowers had said that he'd arrange for our furniture to be sent on to us or stored (at our expense, of course) in the lock-up business in the lot across from his office. There wasn't all that much that was ours, though - we'd been renting most of the furniture just as sure as we'd been renting the house (in the case of the bunk beds, indeed, from the same person). There was Grammy Pueller's old kitchen table, there was the couch that we'd found outside the dorm building back when Molly was in college and I'd been working at the copy place, that was about it. Everything else we had was either food or in the various collections of bags, school satchels, and boxes that we'd assembled to hurriedly stuff our clothes, knickknacks, toys and so forth into. I had the two biggest boxes, but when we juggled them around it turned out that they weren't the heaviest (by quite a long way, in fact), so we shuffled stuff around and arranged matters so that I was carrying the bulk of the things, Molly the next biggest bundle, and Aiden and Chick were just carrying their own toys and some of their own clothes - the sort of things they couldn't complain too much about having to carry. Aiden did kick up a bit of a fuss about having to carry his toy truck (I knew that thing was too big), but Molly gave him the option of leaving it by the side of the road and that shut him up pretty quickly. You can take the boy's house away, that's one thing, but take away his truck? I could have guess that.

Neither he nor Chick, in fact, were taking it as bad as they might. They'd cried when the bailiffs came in, of course - that had been bad, the men pushing their way past Justice and without a word beginning to pile our stuff out in the front yard. Chick was yelling that we were being robbed, and Molly had to take her to one side and try to calm her down while I was doing just the opposite, shouting at the bailiffs, getting in their way, anything I could do to try to make their life a little bit harder without actually having Flowers arrest me for assault or something like that. Eventually he had to call me outside and tell me that things were going to happen whether I shouted or not, so I might as well calm down and get out of this without a burst blood vessel. I didn't want to calm down, but I could see which way the wind was blowing, and I figured it was best to stop while Flowers was still on our side (well not quite, but sympathetic at least).

We let the kids walk on ahead while I craned my head around looking for Justice.

"Where the hell did she get to?"

"She'll turn up," Molly said. "Listen, I found out something." She put her hand on my arm, stopping me. "Something important."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Art Pact 211 - In Orbit

When a fortnight had passed, we went over central Europe again.

"Hey, I can see your house!"

I glanced over at Critz, who was pointing excitedly down at some microscopic spec on the landmass slowly rotating under us. Could he actually see my house, or was he just making a joke? His understanding of human idioms had increased vastly over the previous two weeks, so he could just have been parroting something he'd heard elsewhere. On the other hand, it was not completely impossible that he could indeed see all the way down to the surface. His eyes were certainly better than mine - as well they should have been, given how big and numerous they were - and I supposed that if a spy satellite were able to see my house there was no reason why a living thing shouldn't be able to. I checked the continent - it was only patchily visible under a great mass of cloud, but I could see the boot of Italy and the outswelling bulge of southern Spain, so tracking up there were definitely parts of Germany visible, and it could well have included the town-house in Koln.

"Can you-no, no, never mind."

I tried adjusting the radio channel knob again, watching the numbers click up smoothly on the computer screen beside it. The little light beside the knob - the one that had flashed green on the first day we were here, when we'd talked to Manfred - stayed resolutely red. I knew enough English also to understand the word "No", although "Signal" beside it I had to guess at.

It occurred to me that Critz might read - or even speak - English himself. He had obviously done some research on Earth during the long course of his journey, was it possible that he had prepared himself so badly that he had decided to learn only German? Had I been an alien myself rather than simply a shop assistant I would certainly have paid more attention in my English lessons at school - perhaps I'd have learnt Spanish and Chinese too. That would have been a smart thing to do, although it was clear that perhaps Critz wasn't the smartest example of his race. I thought of our position up here, aboard the little space station. I hadn't even know of the orbiter's existence, that was how ignorant I was of space matters (in my defence, the cryptic message from Manfred hinted at and the presence of what were very obviously missiles clearly implied that it was not something people were supposed to know about, whether they did or not). I knew about the ISS, but nothing about how it worked, or how it had been put into orbit save that it was something to do with rockets. Perhaps Critz was no brave star-faring astronaut but merely some redneck who'd bought a space-ship in a dealer's lot and taken off in it with no plan whatsoever. Although how he'd then come to learn German I did not know. The whole thing seemed utterly preposterous, and it was only with a very strong application of willpower that I dragged myself away from considering the practicalities of his trip to the more important matter at hand - namely, freaking out over the fact that I was a shop-assistant from a supermarket in Koln who was now orbiting the planet in a mysterious satellite accompanied by a giant alien.

"We need to get out of here," I told him. He turned away from the big viewing window and stared at me with four of his eyes while the other two - the head-end ones - wheeled and gyrated in their sockets disturbingly, examining the rest of the station's interior bit by bit.

"We can't get out," he told me. "We'll die."

"I meant," I explained slowly, "that we needed to get out of here into your spaceship, or into something else that would take us back down to Earth safely. Is there such a thing?"

"There's my ship," he said.

"Good. Yes. Can you call it?"

"Call it?"

"Yes, don't you have a remote or something? Can't it fly up here again and get us?"

"How would it do that? There's no-one in it!"

The plot thickened - did Critz's spaceship really have no autopilot? Then he himself must have navigated the vast distances between his unknowable homeworld and Earth itself. That would have taken a great intellect, certainly not whatever was displaying itself to me now. I turned the knob again, watching the numbers click up from channel 0 to channel 120 without, again, any of them actually locking onto a signal.

"Critz, were you joking when you said you could see your house?"

He pulled a weird expression, the three eyes on the left side of his face pointing one way, the others pointing the other, while his right mouth opened and his left one pursed in a grotesque moue.

"No, of course I wasn't. Why would I joke about your house?"

"So if you can see that, can you see your ship?"

"Yes, of course," he said. "It went straight back down again. It's in the Vorgebirgspark, right where we started. There are lots of people standing around it." The expression cleared, to be replaced by the same one he'd had one when we first met. "Ooh, I see where you're going! We could ask one of them to fly up and get us!"

I just stared at him for a moment. He'd said it in such a matter-of-fact tone that for a moment I thought it really would be as simple as him lending someone else his car keys so that they could nip out and pick us up. Then I remembered again that I was supposed to be freaking out, and that there was no-one on the planet below us that could fly the alien's weird spaceship - perhaps some that could learn, but not, I guessed, in the time available to us. Still...

"Could we get their attention somehow?" I asked, thinking that he might be able to signal the ship to glow or flash or something.

"Sure! HEY!" he leant over the viewing window, waving wildly. "HEY DOWN THERE!"

"Oh lord," I muttered.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Art Pact 210 - Petral Park

Petral Park was a large parcel of land on the north side of the city, in the shape of a circle with its top and bottom removed, an area which the town planners idiomatically described as a "fat square". It would not have been a true circle had it not been decapitated and depeditated, more a flattened ellipse. The truncation - caused on the north side by the coast and on the south side by the Miltown to Capitol railway line - resulted in the park's exterior having four obtuse angles and no acute ones, a situation which was responsible for the confusion of many a young park-goer mislead by the inaccurate depiction of the park as a stylised square on the twenty-year-old map and information boards scattered around the perimeter of the territory.

Visitors often expressed surprise at the linear nature of the coast which bounded it on the north side, but those aware of the history of the park (and indeed of Miltown in general) knew that the answer was more than a hundred years gone, having its roots in the corrupt reign of Mayor Tombi. Tombi, fed up with the profits of the dockyards and their lucrative sea trade being funnelled away from city hall in general and his own deep pockets in particular, decided that in order to get his own beak wet he would have to create a new harbour, paid for from public funds and yet controlled secretly by his cronies. The project would be portrayed as a job-creating and modernising scheme, making shining new facilities to the west of town that would allow the old docks eventually to be reclaimed and gentrified, turning them into an evening destination and the site of restaurants and upscale apartments. In fact, of course, the shutting down of the docks and transferral of their fleets to the new facility was the whole object of the exercise, the gentrification and modernisation merely an adjunct to a power grab, and therefore not blessed with all of the resources that would have been necessary to accomplish them. The new harbour was barely more than a flattening of the coastline and a dredging of the waters around it before Tombi began to forcibly evict the inhabitants of the old docks from their traditional moorings, with the result that one particularly stormy winter night a good ten percent of the town's fishing fleet was destroyed in dock, unprotected because the harbour breakwater walls had not yet been fully completed. Ships still in the old dock were safe, but the trauma to the town's aquatic industries was of such a magnitude that a secret council of fishermen and merchants decided that the city was no longer viable as a fleet home and began to slowly divert their money and boats north, to the island state of Meshtil. Tombi, faced with the collapse of most of the town's trade, had panicked and taken the kind of measures that (although not technically so) had a great many people muttering the phrase "martial law", and not as popular with either the government nor the local militia as he thought he was, had been found dangling under a bridge a few days later. The old docks were re-opened, most (although not all) of the merchant fleet returned from Meshtil, and the new docks became just an area of particularly straight coastline, their buildings and roads conquered and subsumed by the park that began to grow there twenty years later, first through the efforts of volunteers and then (when they had been embarrassed sufficiently) through the auspices of the Miltown Open Spaces Commission, the mayoral department tasked with the upkeep and promotion of Miltonian public parks.

The nearest gate to the town was the Eagle Arch, so called because of the carvings (actually a simurgh, not an eagle at all) that appeared to hold up the arch proper from either side. A long road led two kilometers out of the town proper, from the west edge of the Canto suburbs, and on weekends it would be filled with bicyclists, horseriders, and large numbers of pedestrians tracking their dusty way to and from the park for family picnics, barbecues, and ball games. The road was new - new enough, in fact, that it was made up of two strands, a wide pitch-covered area for vehicles, and a grass path for horses and walkers - but it had the feel of an old road. Over-use of the footpath had caused it to become nothing but dry dust, dust which had drifted over the ten years that the pitch-topped strand had been there so that the two halves were only distiguishable after a heavy rain. There were no motorised vehicles in the city with the exception of the mayoral steam-car (not used except in the annual parade), so the pitch side of the road was exclusively used by cyclists who shot back and forth at various speeds on their penny-farthings and boneshakers, each variety of cyclist cursing the other for either his lack of stability, excessive velocity, or general ill-manners. On the dirt strand the pedestrians cursed the horsemen and vice-versa, but when they came to pass under the great arch they were all friends again, as they spread out into the welcoming green spaces and began their days relaxation and revelry.

The park was arranged internally in the form of a series of concentric rings formed by gravel pathways and stands of trees - alternating between evergreen and deciduous plantations. By convention walkers travelled the outermost ring in the clockwise direction, the next ring in counter-clockwise, the next clockwise, and so forth, so that if you were walking you would always have broad-leafed trees to your right and firs to your left. It became a mark of the clueless tourist to walk against the flow, although near to the gates it was impossible not to, particularly near the great entry and egress point at Eagle Arch. It was for this reason that Herr Coulterdan, on his way home, walking between an elm on his left hand side and a blue spruce on his right, collided with the young woman.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Art Pact 209 - The Body

It was an hour before I could move. I knew this because the church bell was ringing when I found him, and it rang again as I finally managed to reach out an arm and touch it gently against his throat. His skin was cold, clammy from the mist in the air that had fallen on him. I think perhaps until that moment I had hoped that he was just sleeping, but that touch dispelled all vain hopes in an instant. He was dead, of course, and all of my hopes for him, my dreams, had died with him. That was a strange thought - to realise that something had died within me, and that at the time I had not known it. Shouldn't I have felt my heart breaking, my dreams collapsing into dust? Shouldn't I have looked up from my book, frozen in my stride, jerked uneasily from a deep sleep? What had I been doing when he had gone, I wondered? Had I been thinking about him? Or had I just been going about my business, completely unaware that the obsession that had grown to take up its own life within my mind had just had its foundations dynamited?

I had never touched him. I had wanted to. I had dreamt of it, an imagined world where he was not married, where I was not so paralysed with desire that I could talk to him easily and explain my feelings, where he reciprocated and treated me as a woman rather than as a sexless friend. This, then, was the realisation of the dream. Not an embrace, but an assay. Rather than affirming his life and my own, I was checking for it. The pulse that I had dreamt of kissing was flown now, and touching my fingers to his neck felt like looking down a long-abandoned tunnel and knowing that no more trains would come, that the air would be silent and still.

He was lying almost face down, but propped up slightly by his left arm, his right splayed out on the other side of him in what I realised after a few seconds was the recovery position. Had someone moved him this way after he died, or had it been before? I could see no signs of injury, maybe someone had found him in distress and put him this way before going away to... to what? Call an ambulance which never arrived, perhaps? Perhaps he had died while they were putting him in position and they had panicked and run away. I wondered if there were any traces around, signs of who the mysterious benefactor(?) had been.

The graveyard filled up the corner plot of the great triangular block formed by Cambridge street on the north, Euler Street on the east, and Walwich Avenue to the south. Cambridge and Euler met at almost a right angle, and at that point was the church itself, the burial grounds surrounding it to the south and west. He had ended up a couple of meters inside the southern boundary, in the shade of a great elm tree overhanging the fence that separated the consecrated ground from the neighbouring garden. The headstones here were old - possibly from the first founding of the church, before it had burnt down and been rebuilt in the eighteenth century, and the action of time and lichen had smoothed their surfaces into unreadable stone smudges. Here and there a name was visible, but on the nearest headstone to where he lay I could only make out the words "the Lord", the word "the" written with a thorn rather than in the modern style.

A strange thing - I had a vivid memory then, of watching a man writing. I remembered sitting in a dim room, the air filled with wax smoke and the only illumination a battery of candles clumped together in the middle of a row-carved table. The man was old - perhaps in his sixties - and tonsured like a monk in an old film. He was writing something in a language that I remember not being able to read, but I watched carefully as he formed the thorn letter in scratchy ink on vellum, slowly working the tip of his quill pen across the surface. The candle light flickered madly against his face, and as he put the finishing touches to the letter he turned to me as if for approval, and I nodded. He nodded too, and began to roll up the paper.

When I left my reverie I was still sitting on my knees in the graveyard. It seemed like five hundred years had passed. I took a deep breath, settling myself again. He was dead, and I had never touched him until it was too late, had never kissed him. I thought that perhaps I should take the last chance I would ever had, so I leant forward and braced myself with my hands against the grass, lowering myself inch by inch until my lips brushed against his - so gently that I could not feel the cold.

I closed my eyes, held the kiss, breathed in. His scent, of course, and the smell of damp soil, but there was something else underlying it - not an almond smell, which I realised oddly I had been expecting - but something that reminded me of acid, and oddly of chips. Vinegar, I realised. Specifically, the sharp dark scent of balsamic. I opened my eyes, pushed myself up until I was sitting straight again.

Something else was odd. I was looking down on the man that I loved, that I had never been able to tell that I loved, and although inside me I could feel a little bit of me that was screaming and crying and wailing for her loss, I did not feel the need to let it out. I'd taken his pulse, scanned the surroundings, tested him for signs of poisoning. Why had I done that? How had I known to do that? I pushed myself to my feet, suddenly spooked - and spooked again when I realised that it was my lack of fear that had frightened me, and nothing else.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Art Pact 208 - Mermaid Revenge

There wasn't a man-jack of the complement who had the slightest sense of humour about the whole situation, but I tried to soldier on regardless of their intractability, using a little levity here and there in an attempt to make the rest of the journey a little more bearable. The trouble was that without the sails there was no way of judging quite how long the journey would actually be. We were still moving - the captain kept reminding everyone that the current would take us all the way to the coast eventually - but it was very difficult to judge our speed, and the quartermaster reminded us every day that we had only taken aboard enough supplies to last us for the journey as originally planned.

Of course, there were solutions to that - we had plenty of water surrounding us, and although it was not quite fresh water, it was considerably less salty than the ocean, and potable without danger of illness. The overlake was also remarkably well stocked with fish, silvery pilchard-like creatures that swarmed together in such great shoals that it looked as though a man might be lowered over the side and walk quite happily along their backs. Unfortunately, we soon learned that if we had tried that the unfortunate sailor in question would have plummeted to his death in short order. First of all, of course, despite the fact that most of them had spent a great deal more of their lives on water than on land, none of the sailors (not even the captain) was able to swim, making me the only one with any hope of surviving should the ship founder or anyone, as I said, be lowered over the side. Next, it appeared that the mermaid's revenge extended further than just damaging the sails - she had also apparently said something to the fish that meant that they were less than averagely cooperative with us. Considering that a fish's normal cooperation with an angler is already weighted towards thwarting the man's aims, you can imagine quite how awkward they made life for us.

Every morning, since they had nothing else to do, the rigging teams were sent out with rods and hooks and nets to stand at (or hang over, in the case of the more daring crewmen) the side of the ship and attempt to supplement our food supply with some of the local fish. The captain and quartermaster both assured me that on normal trips the fish were relatively easy to catch and also tasty (if the heads were removed). I think I'd rather have heard that they were obnoxious, since the prospect of a delectable morsel hanging just out of reach was the worst part of the torture that hunger slowly began to work in me. It's possible that the captain knew that, and he was being deliberately informative (surely unlike his normal self) in order to ensure that I was suffering just as much as he was. He was certainly crafty enough for that.

For the first few days the hooks were baited with the less appetising scraps and morsels from our larder, but all that happened was that the hooks came back empty of either food or fish, so that either what we had put on the metal was dissolved in the dull water of the overlake or the fish were so canny that they could come up to the line and nibble off pieces of the bait without taking the hook. The cannier seamen quickly realised that it was better to eat the scraps themselves than simply feed them to the fishes, and a few of the more cynical ones noted that as they themselves might soon prove fishfood it made no difference in the long run who got to eat the bait except that if they ate it they might at least go to their graves a bit fuller in the belly. I could not fault their reasoning, although the quartermaster and ships cook both cottoned on pretty quickly and simply cut off the supply of scraps, retaining them for equal distribution (in particular it was deemed a little unfair that the rigging crews, who had little hard work to do, should be getting more than their share of the food compared to the bilge teams).

The fish shoals also managed to avoid nets, simply opening up and reforming once the net had gone past, and a experiment with chumming the waters and spearing a shark or two turned out rather sinister. The harpoons were knocked up in the ship's chandlery (a rather grandiose term for a carpentry block in the dark at the bow end of the cargo hold) - straight poles of wood tipped with a crude barbed head and with a hole drilled through the other end which a line could be passed through. We expended one of the few remaining live chickens to form the chum (about half the chicken's meat and all of its blood), then waited patiently. We were soon rewarded by the appearance of a shark that must have been twice the size of a man, but rather than coming to the surface the beast merely waited for the chicken meat to begin to sink - which it did, terribly slowly, over the course of perhaps a couple of hours. Once it was down far enough that the shark could get at the meat without our throws being accurate it simply gobbled up the food we'd supplied it. We made a few cursory attempts to spear it, but none of the sailors was good enough to hit it through the water. The spear would slow down once it had gone under the water completely, making it trivially easy for the shark to avoid it. On the fifth throw to our horror it looped around and grabbed the spear in its jaws before we could pull it back and shot downwards, the wood still gripped solidly in its teeth. It was only my quick reactions in grabbing the unfortunate sailor's legs that stopped him being pulled in before he could let go, and even then it was a full second before he released his grip, enough for the skin to be stripped off his palms.

We did not try that again.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Art Pact 207 - What's his name?

What's the name of that guy who works on the hotdog stand at the Odeon? You know the one, the one who was always trying to hit on Alyss every time we tried to get those... uh, what were those sweets we were mad on? It wasn't maltesers, something like that? Began with an M. Oh year, minstrels. God, I hate the orange ones. I know, Alyss used to think that I was weird, but it all worked out. I like the coffee ones. Hmm, I just thought - isn't that racist? I mean, minstrels. Isn't that..? Oh, I don't know.

Anyway, you know the one I mean, don't you? About so tall. You know, always hitting on Alyss, like every time we were there. So annoying, I mean - you know what it's like, they always think they've got a chance with Alyss just because of her - you know - and they never realise that she's just so totally out of their league that a little bit of soap isn't going to get them anywhere. He was the worst of the bunch. I kept telling her she could wait, but no, she was like "if I tried to avoid every idiot who was hitting on me I'd have to just stay home with my head under the blankets", which I suppose-

But no, we've talked about that enough. I was trying to tell you about the guy who works on the hotdog stand. You know. You do know! About this tall, kind of - I dunno, white but sort of darkish?  What kind of a question is that? Black hair, short, sort of emo but not quite, wrist-bands. Ooh! I know! Nose hair!

Yes, that's the one! God, so terrible. You'd think he'd do something about it, I mean, imagine how embarrassed he'd be if he knew you could only remember him because of that. What a loser. Anyway - yes, he was always hitting on Alyss. Of course Alyss, why would you think it was you? Oh, really? I guess someone like that will be what he's like all the time. You should tell Alyss, maybe it'll make her feel a little better. You know what she's been like after the Ben thing. No. No. No. Look, are you going to let me tell this or not? Right.

Ok, so you know the guy I'm talking about. You remember what he looks like and all that, yes? You'd know him if you walked past him on the street. Well, that's what happened to me the other day - I walked past him, and I knew it was him, like I was one hundred percent convinced of the fact. I looked up just as he went past - so he wouldn't see that I was looking at him, and I wouldn't have to say hello or something. Yeah, exactly. Yes. Yes.

Anyway, when I looked up, it wasn't him. I mean, I'd been so sure that it was him it was really confusing. It was this old guy, sort of pale, long straggly hair, sort of blond I guess but mostly grey. Hunched shoulders, really minging face. It was mad - I was certain, like so certain that it had been the hotdog guy, and now there was just this old geezer there.

No, it wasn't just-

I didn't-

Would you please shut up and let me finish? Fine, OK. OK! God. OK, so, I saw this guy and I definitely wasn't just having a blonde moment. Even when I was looking at the old guy I was still convinced that I should have been looking at the hotdog guy. It was doing my head in. But I couldn't look away. I mean, literally, I had to follow him. He didn't know that I was there - I don't think, anyway - but I sat down on the bench by the- yeah, that's the one. So I sat down there, and I just waited for like twenty seconds or something? In case anyone thought I was mental I made out like I was hunting for something in my bags, then I got up and went the other way, following the old man through the crowd. He went down the chav end of the town, then he turned down Conner road. There weren't so many people there, so I had to go a bit slower. I was worried, you know, that he'd see me? But I shouldn't have worried, because he never looked around once. All of this time I was still convinced that I should have been seeing hotdog guy, right? It was like, if I closed my eyes, when I opened them again I expected to see hotdog guy and I was completely surprised when that didn't happen. It was so weird. So weird. But I kept following him, anyway.

No, I didn't think about that. I mean, there were still people around, right? But I just didn't think about it. Anyway, I'm still here aren't I? So. He goes down Conner road, and then about halfway down you know there's that alley that goes behind the shops? Where they used to get their deliveries, I think, except that it's too small for lorries now because when they built the McDonalds the back of it was too close to the wall on the other side. Yeah, Josie's brother worked on it, he said they knew. So now it's just full of those big wheelie bins. That was where he went, and-

No, I didn't go down there, what do you think I am, stupid? I don't want to end up on Crimewatch. They'd show that picture of me from the end of school. God. My mum loves that picture. Cat lady hair, yeah, thanks, I love you too.

So the guy goes behind the first bin, but not all the way behind. And I stood at the end of the alley. He looked round so I ducked out of the way and I don't think he saw me. That's when he started to change.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Art Pact 206 - Birds Eye View

The ground glided along underneath me, green patches of garden interspersed with the red-tiled shapes of houses, all bound into neat little plots that were themselves separated by the grey-black rivers of tarmac. I flew through the thin columns of smoke that wafted up from barbecues, through patches of faint perfume that had spread out from flowerbeds until they were almost too weak to detect, through the little eddies and whorls that spun away from the exhausts of central heating units. I looked down on a little gathering that from this height looked like ants.

I swooped down a little closer. Yep, ants. I landed.

Ants are funny things to eat. You have to peck at them quickly, which takes a stable stance, but you also have to do a little dance while you're standing there so that the little buggers don't climb up your legs and start biting your privates. It really is quite uncanny how they know to have a go at you under the wings or around the edge of your cloaca. I suppose they've got that way over millions of years - the ants that didn't bite their attackers in the what-nots got eaten, so only the what-not-biting species continued. Are you following me? It's a little idea I've worked out, it's a bit complicated but it seems to fit nicely with everything I've seen. There could be other explanations, of course, but that's the one that presented itself to me. I've tried to explain it to the other birds, but they just look at me blankly. I think they get all confused if a sentence doesn't start with "You're looking at my things".

Anyway, you look like a right prat eating ants, but they're still popular. I jiggled around for a few minutes, kicking out one foot for a second, then the other, then pecking at the ground and maybe (one time in four, I think) getting an ant as well as a mouthful of dust. These ants were plump and juicy, the kind you really want to save up and have with some berries and some cage fat, but berry season was many months away yet, and the houses round here don't go in much for cage fat, just that horrible cage seed stuff - ugh, I have never got the hang of it. My mother used to swear by it - or I assume she did, because she kept trying to get me to peck at it despite my calm but utter refusal - but I've always found the taste to be dry and boring, and the after-effects... Well, the less said about them the better. Suffice it to say that a clear head is one of the things I insist on maintaining, so the fuzzy-brained thinking that follows on from a cage-seed binge is all time wasted for me. I'd always told my mother that I'd eat them if I was starving, but I don't know whether I necessarily would. I mean, fine, sure, it would keep me alive - but would it be a life worth living?

When I'd had my fill I hopped up onto a nearby fence and - filled with exuberance and ants - let out a sharp belch that I deftly turned into a song at the last moment. Perhaps not the most graceful piece of music ever uttered, but it was better than just sitting there burping. There didn't appear to be anyone else around but you can never tell with women. They're pretty good at hiding.

I picked a few stray soldiers out of my quills and ruffled up my plumage - the sort of habit I've developed as I've grown up despite my best efforts to control myself. To try to distract myself I flew up to the roof of the big house on the corner, disturbing a couple of collared doves who fluttered nervously to the other end of the gables and eyed me suspiciously. I've never been able to work out doves - they're obviously even more stupid than the rest of the feathered idiots I'm related to, but they seem to have a sort of idiot-savant sense for the uncanny, which makes them avoid me as though I were something dangerous. I don't know what it is they see in me, but it's something that other blackbirds can't spot until I start talking to them and they go all googly-eyed. I suppose shuffling away from me with a scared expression is better than going straight for my eyes (sadly the most common response from other members of my species), but it does make me wonder whether this is another example of the thing I was talking about earlier. What if over time people like me have been dangerous to doves, so doves have only survived if they were blessed with a heuristic to avoid us?

The thought is troubling. Will my apparent gift for oration turn sour one day? I mean, sourer than it already is, since it's done me no good in the traditional sense of winning me either territory or mates. Not that that's what I want, you understand, but I suppose it is if nothing else a yardstick along which one can measure one's success in the wide world. Perhaps this is how it starts - to consider the possibility of evil in one's nature is to let a little of it inside in the form of bitterness.

My morbid train of thought was interrupted by a buzzing noise that I had come to associate with anger. I jumped from side-to-side and scanned the surroundings. There - at the front of the corner house's garden, the man with the hedge-cutting machine. He was standing on top of a shiny folding ladder, with the orange cable that powered his machine dangling loosely from the crook of his right arm and disappearing in through the open doorway. He was also distracted. I took the chance - leaping off the roof I swooped down as fast as I could, pulling up just before I hit the back of his head but raking the bald spot with one solid peck.

Got him!