Saturday, September 29, 2012

Art Pact 223 - Adrift

The little boat bobbed on the ocean surface, riding out the swells with all the dignity of a twig travelling under a bridge on its way to coming second in a game of pooh-sticks. The three occupants, laying side-by-side but with their heads in alternating directions, looked from a bird's-eye view like the cargo of history's smallest ever slave ship. Their formerly pale complexions now ruddied by the sun, they slept with pages from the newspaper over their heads so that they would not be burnt. Beneath these tiny and topical tents they grumbled to each other, shuffling uncomfortably to get the best position they could in the curving belly of the boat - just too narrow to accommodate more than the middle one of them entirely, so that the two on either side had to hang their feet over the edge.

"I'm just saying," said the middle one from beneath his newspaper, "I'm the tallest. It makes sense."

"You're the tallest by one inch," said the one nearest the prow. "One inch doesn't mean anything."

"Not what your wife said," said the one to the aft quickly.

"Shut up, Andy," said prow.

"No-one here has a wife, how many times do I have to tell you?", added middle.

"Still stands."

"No it doesn't. You can't insult people by pretending that you've had their non-existent wives. We know you've slept with girls that don't exist, we've all seen the calluses on your hands."

"Zing!" said prow, and he and middle high-fived - or slapped hands at least, the action not being quite as graceful and dynamic as a connoisseur of high-fives might have wanted. A few seconds later prow must have realised that he had started out arguing against middle, who he punched in the leg.

"Ow! What the hell was that for?"

"Just tenderising the meat," said prow, "in case we have to eat it later. I'm not chewing on some gristly mass of fat."

"You love che-" began aft, but middle cut him off quickly.

"Oh lord, not this again. We are not resorting to cannibalism. We're only a couple of days out, and we're drifting into a shipping lane. We're going to get picked up, I keep telling you this."

"Why are we fishing in the day, then?" asked prow.

"Because we're all fat westerners without the mental capacity to go for a whole day without killing something and stuffing it into our stupid maws, and because just because I don't think I'm going to die, it doesn't mean I want to listen to Andy's stomach gurgling for the next forty-eight hours."

"Forty-eight hours, is it now?" said aft. He reached up with his right hand to prop up his sheet of newspaper, then held up the other arm so that he could see his wrist-watch. "Is that God's own forty-eight hours, or is that the forty-eight hours that lasts approximately one-hundred and seventy-two hours, the one that runs on the same clock that told you we had an hour before the ship sank?"

"My god," said middle, throwing up his arms. "When are you going to let that go? I'm not a fucking fortune teller, I can't tell you exactly when a ship's going to go down. If I could do that I'd be in a nice comfortable corner office at Lloyd's shipping, staring out of the window while my secretary gave me a blowjob."

"You could get a blowjob off Andy's girlfriend," prow suggested, holding up his left hand and making a jerking-off motion which none of the others could see. He realised this after he had been shaking his hand for a minute. "I mean... what I meant was..."

"Don't worry," said middle. "We got it."

Far above them a bird uttered a shrill cry, and aft tore the paper away from his face excitedly, temporarily blinding himself. When he could see again, he laughed and pointed straight up at the dark silhouette of the animal way above them.

"We're saved! A seagull!"

"Oh great," said prow.

"A seagull," aft repeated.

"What's it going to do, carry us to the nearest port? Or do we lure it down here and tie a note to its leg?"

"Ugh," said aft. "It's a seagull, they live on the coast? So if we can see one now, we must be near to land. All we have to do is follow it back."

"Oh yes, follow it back. We can row back to safety using all our oars, right?" Prow kicked at the empty rowlock nearest his feet.

"We can paddle with our hands."

Middle peeled the paper away from his eyes for a second, then let it fall back across his face.

"It's an albatross," he said quietly.

"We can't paddle with our hands, there are sharks here!"

"Oh, of course, there are sharks," said aft. "Sharks, the silent hand-takers. Sharks, the Taliban of the sea. If only there were some way we could see them coming, perhaps by looking into the water, then we could simply lift our hands to safety."

"Albatross," middle repeated.

"I'm sure they'll give you enough warning," prow retorted sarcastically.


"We're not on Krypton, living amongst superhuman sharks," said aft.

"They'd only be superhuman if they were Kryptonian sharks in an Earth ocean," prow pointed out.

"Oh, I'm so sorry my nerd mythology isn't current. Perhaps I'll-"


Prow and aft sat up, their newspapers tumbling forward into their laps, and looked at each other, eyebrows raised.

"Okay," said aft carefully. "Fine, it's an albatross. I didn't realise this meant so much to you."

"Yeah," said prow. "Calm down Bill Oddie."

"What difference does it make, anyway? Albatross, seagull, seagull, albatross. It's just a bird."

"Ugh," sighed middle from beneath his broadsheet. "It's not just a bird, you idiots, its the difference between a short-range coastal scavenger and a bird that can fly halfway around the world without setting down once. That bird is an albatross, and it means nothing. We could be in the middle of the Atlantic still."

"Oh." said the others. They lay down again, drew their newspapers over their heads.

"Quite," said middle. "Now, let's have half an hour of silence please."

They fell quiet. The boat bobbed on.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Art Pact 222 - Sunrise

There's something about the way the light comes in in the morning that makes the place seem almost sinister. The sun doesn't rise here, it creeps up. It comes up in fits and starts, moving when you're not looking so that the shadows seem inconsistent from one moment to the next, daggers of darkness that shrink past you but feel as though they might leap forward again, piercing you with a sudden thrust. They are pitch black, even in the middle of the morning, so that you feel that stepping into one might send you tumbling into an endless abyss.

The trees are deciduous here, so that in autumn they are nothing but dark silhouettes grasping greedily at the sky. Even with their leaves they seem oddly twisted, strangely out of place in the ground that is, after all, the only home they have ever known, but shorn of that covering of decency you can see instantly how this planet has changed them, how the welcoming shelter of the same trees on Earth is not a faculty that has carried over. Perhaps they themselves can sense how far they are away from their native Sun, that by stretching and grabbing at the sky they might be able to snatch down a little bit of their ancestor's air, but the effort has warped them into something that those rolling green plains of the old world would reject in a fit of terror. In the town I was born in the hills of Uzbekistan, I felt sad walking a tarmac'd road, because it was better to walk in the shade of the trees and feel the coolness and life that lived in the scrubs and forests. Here, though, I cheer each road as it is laid. To kill off these terrible plants and replace them with something sterile seems like a kindness, removing the last bit of poisonous hope so that an accepting despair can settling in its place. I walk the roads here a lot, and whenever a referendum comes up to increase the road network, I vote for it immediately and enthusiastically.

But even the rocks here are no defence against the alienness of the place. Before the terraforming the planet's original atmosphere worked on them for millions, billions of years. They have weathered strangely, surface stones covered with odd pits and grooves and other structures that make them seem at one moment natural, at the next artificial. Our human propensity to see faces in inanimate objects is a special curse here. One sees faces in the rocks frequently, and a mythology has grown up around them - the elder race, the adults call them, to the children they are the stone eyes. Not a day goes by when I don't see a stone eye out of the corner of my eye. I freeze, my blood running like ice in my veins, but when I turn to look I discover that I am (of course) mistaken, that a collection of rubble has fooled me into thinking that I am being watched. Of course we are all being watched here - the satellites send back a continuous feed of us whenever we are outside buildings. It should make us feel safe, to know that no harm can come to us without someone being alerted to the place and circumstances of our troubles, but instead the knowledge simply sits in one's mind, uncomfortably seeping into the subconscious so that it is an easy step from knowing that one is being watched by a perfectly explainable electronic eye to believing that there are other eyes - possibly hostile, but certainly alien - hidden in the unfamiliar landscape.

You might ask how it is that anyone ever comes here, knowing all of this. Surely people have seen pictures, vids? Heard stories? True, all true. I had seen plenty of images of the surface, of daily life here, yet I still came. No photo can show you the way the morning light stalks up on you like a spider, no video can capture the horrid faces in the rocks, no story can explain quite what torture it is to hold your hand against an oak tree that does not want to be where it is, that is straining with a malevolent spirit to scratch at the heavens. Even this - I write with a sense of hopelessness, because I know deep down that what I should be doing is discouraging anyone else from following me, but my words are inadequate to that task. Just reading it back, that first sentence about the way the light comes, it seems more romantic to me than horrible. Who would not want to witness that strange dawn? I have failed in my task if I cannot even convince myself of a truth that is buried deep in the bones of me after all these years here. A story rings false, a word is too clumsy a grain to record the exact horror of being so far from home in a place that is so nearly recognisable but which at every turn presents an aspect unlike that which one is expecting. People will continue to come here, some because of economic necessity, some because like the trees my honest description of the discomfort they will experience will be twisted by the language I use into a kind of seduction. Those will be the most tragic, because they will soon realise that I have somehow deceived them, that what my words promise is far from the truth, but they will be unable to call me to account. Reading back at what they had found so tempting before they will see the stark truth of the matter in these words - that I have thrown all my muscles into the task of convincing them to stay on Earth, on safe, reliable Earth, among the trees that are relaxed and benign, walking on rocks that have been weathered by the air and the water in predictable ways, where the eyes that watch them from the landscape are our birds, our mammals, our insects.

They will understand at that moment.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Art Pact 221 - Boat across the silent sea

Between my home town of Levitia and the fishing colony of Gaspar there is an impassable sea, as there is between all of the colonised islands. The silent sea, into which no man or woman can plunge for more than a few seconds without their lungs burning, their skin bloating. Our town walls protect us from it, but to travel without Levitia, to visit the colonies, we rely on the ferry boat. I am fifteen when I take my first trip on the boat, the right age for a woman to begin to follow her mother's trade. She looks me up and down that morning. Her expression is serious - my mother frowns a great deal, especially around me, and the lines it forms in her forehead have become fixed there by overuse so that she presents a stern aspect even when she is in her most amiable of moods.

"Cassie," she says. "No school this week. We're going to Gaspar."

I am excited and terrified at the same time. The ferry to Gaspar is the safest of all of the ferries, but it has still gone missing before. The ferry, operating a fixed schedule, frequently turns up (at our end, or Gaspar's) with no passengers. Perhaps once a decade this is not routine, but a disaster. Such tragedies are subtle - it sometimes takes days for someone to discover that a passenger they expected had not simply stayed over at the other end of the route for a few more days. But by then others have travelled, have spoken to the port authorities at Gaspar and confirmed their records with Levitia's, and it becomes clear that a ferry that arrived empty had left the port full.

It would be easy, of course, if there were someone on every ferry. It has been proposed - a ferryman who will travel with the ship on every voyage. If he or she does not arrive, we will know straight away. But finding a volunteer for such a role is more problematic. To travel with the ferry always would be a death sentence. One would be of use only when one was lost, a shameful state of affairs. My mother says that a ferryman would end up drunk all of the time, and the ferry ride would be less enjoyable for it. Cooped up on the boat with the stink of alcohol and some pathetic lush, she says, hardly puts one in the right mood for transacting business at the other end.

I put on my best clothes, but my mother shakes her head and sends me back upstairs for something a little less ostentatious.

"It doesn't do to look too prosperous when you're talking to your suppliers," she tells me. "You want to aim for a responsible appearance. That way they won't think you're profiting too much at their expense, but on the other hand they'll feel comforted that you're going to be sticking around, not going bankrupt and leaving them high and dry when time comes to sell their next harvest."

After a few minor wardrobe changes she's satisfied that we are presenting a unified front in our appearance, and she hands me a token for the ferry. It's carved out of wood, and has our family crest at the top with my name below it. I check the other side - nothing. That's where a limiter icon would be, that would restrict me only to the Gaspar-Levitia ferry. Instead my mother has given me an emancipator token. I can travel anywhere, to any of the colonies. I don't know what to say.

"Thank you," say my lips, mechanically.

My mother says nothing, and we leave for the port.


The ferry port is one of eight attached to the docks at the lower end of town. Each port is set out from the dockside by two gangways leading to a length of quay. The right gangway is for cargo, and is heavy and wide, taking most of the strain. The left gangway, lighter and narrower, is for passengers. We will be using that on the way out, and hopefully both on the way back. At the entrance to the quay a dockmaster examines our tokens, confirms them against our descriptions in a logbook chained to the window, and then waves us forward. We join three others waiting for the ferry. One I recognise - a policeman from one of the upper districts. Two are Gasparians, dressed in their strange golden suits that cover them from ankle to neck to wrists. The suits, although I have seen them before, still seem odd to me. To my shame it is only when one of them speaks that I realise she is a woman, so flat-chested do the clothes make her, and I wonder that there is not more outrage amongst the town folk of the colony.

"I'll bet anything that he hasn't caught that pike yet," she is saying to her companion (who is male, I discover to my relief when he replies - my powers of observation not totally inadequate).

"No saying," he says tersely. It looks a little as though he is glancing at us as he says it.

"I suppose if he called Baytis, like I told him," she continues, oblivious to his signal.

My mother, obviously taking pity on someone she knows, breaks in at this point.

"Corale, Ikthio," she says. The Gasparians turn, and the woman's face breaks out in a sudden surprised smile. The surprise is genuine, I think, the smile less so. "How lovely to see you. I don't think you've met my daughter, have you? This is Atabel."

We shake hands. She doesn't repeat their names, so I have no way of knowing which is Corale or which Ikthio, although this in itself tells me something - that it is a trivial fact as far as my mother is concerned. I am sure to learn a lot on this trip, but this is a thing I can forget and learn later if necessary.

"Pleased to meet you," I say politely.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Art Pact 220 - Voter Strategy

"Vote early, vote often," he says with a sly grin. The others laugh, and I manage to rustle up a half-smile, the least I can do to avoid looking like a humourless ass. I can tell that McReedy isn't fooled, but he would have seen through anything more demonstrative anyway. My half-smile is for the benefit of the rest of the goons. And as long as they're fooled, he won't say anything. That's the unwritten rule here - I can think what I like, I can even tell him what I want, but make him look a fool in front of the others is a serious offence.

"Now, the question is: how do we do that? The sad fact of the matter is that the so-called authorities don't know that we know better than them what's good for this town. They're going to insist on ID cards shown, voter registration forms, all that good old-fashioned bureaucracy that keeps the fat cats in city hall in hookers and blow."

Another sincere laugh from the crowd, and an insincere one from me. But now I'm genuinely interested. I'd assumed that McReedy's plan was going to be much the same as his predecessor's - that is to say, leaning on the voters until the got in line. But he doesn't seem to be in that kind of mood. He seems too pleased with himself, and if there's one thing I know about McReedy, it's that violent though he can be, he sees it as an inelegant solution to problems. He likes to think of himself as a cut above, as some kind of refined villain rather than just a common thug. And that means that he'll only resort to physical force with a sort of resigned distaste, as though it were below him. If he's this cheerful, it means something else.

  • Which is good, because my position is precarious. I cannot get involved in violence against civilians, and any refusal might blow my cover. 
  • Which is bad, because for all I like to disparage him, McReedy is smart, and a plan that he's this pleased with is likely to be harder to stop.

"Now, that means there's going to be one man one vote. Oh"--he chuckles--"not forgetting the skirts, they got them the vote now too, I guess." The table laughs. This time I can barely force out a smile, but I slap the table, aping the goon next to me (whose name I still don't know - Solomon? Something like that?), who is hammering on the maple in front of him like it's the funniest thing he's ever heard. Is that really the case, I wonder suddenly? Perhaps everyone here is like me, forcing themselves into a united front to keep McReedy happy, while inwardly cringing. I'd been thinking myself superior to all the others, when in fact perhaps they were just better actors than me. For a moment I consider the possibility that McReedy is the only person who's straight here, that in a colossal mix-up every other one of his lieutenants is also undercover. It's an amusing thought, and I let it lift up the corners of my mouth slightly so as to better fit in, but I know that it's just a fantasy. There are strict protocols to prevent this sort of thing, I would have been informed if there were anyone else working the case. No, I am here on my own and I am superior to all these other thugs. I've never seen the guy next to me do anything, but the guy next to him is Frazer, and him I've seen beat up a shopkeeper who had the temerity to look at him a little odd when we were collecting protection money. A bad minute, standing by the counter trying to suppress my instincts to wade in, drag Frazer off his feeble victim. But that would have meant awkward questions, and an enemy in the company, so I stood there and watched, counting each blow and calculating how long before I called a halt - the longer I let it go on the better for my cover, but the more chance of the poor shopkeeper sustaining a serious injury. In the end it was a simple patrol car that gave me the out - some knuckle-dragger from the motor pool rushing around with his siren on so that I could pull Frazer away with the excuse that we had to get out of here in case the cops were coming for us.

I look up and discover with some surprise that while I've been pondering the question of whether I'm alone and ruminating on that horrible incident with Frazer, McReedy has brought someone else into the conference room - someone that I don't recognise, but who looks nothing like McReedy's normal crop of heavies. He's a slight man - younger than thirty, I would have guessed, but with his teenage years long behind him, so let's say twenty-nine (this is pretty much the whole process I go through to guess ages, but I don't let juries in on quite the extent of the hand-waving that goes on). He's wearing steel-rimmed glasses, a plaid shirt and trousers that are clearly the bottom half of a suit, and he's carrying a bundle of papers under one arm. His face is sort of nondescript, the kind of guy you'd have difficulty picking out of a line-up because your brain just gets bored of looking at him almost instantly.

"Gentlemen - and Steven," McReedy says (cue another laugh), "meet the future of directed democracy. This fine specimen of a poindexter is my special advisor on electoral matters, and for the next two months you are going to be doing everything he says - unless he says something stupid, in which case you double-check with me." McReedy slaps the young man on the back, so hard that his glasses slide down his nose making him look like a disapproving librarian. "Go on, Nelson, give them the spiel."

The young man - Nelson - clears his through nervously.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Art Pact 219 - The door in the east wing

"Let me be blunt," she said imperiously. "This business has become completely untenable."

"What?" whispered Dent.

"She means it's got out of hand," I explained, apparently not quietly enough, for the Duchess stared me down. "Sorry Grandmama."

"Hmm. As I was saying, this business has become completely untenable"--she fixed Dent with a gimlet eye as she pronounced the word--"and I for one think it is time that certain irresponsible members of the family curtailed their ridiculous gadding about through time. Why only last week I was looking through the diary of my wedding day and I realised with some shock that the mysterious guests who turned up must have been none other than Cousin Cyril and young Lady Frightweather." She drew herself up to her fullest seated height, and cleared her throat. "It it with that in mind that I am having Carruthers seal off the east wing entirely. We have no need of the rooms during the winter season, and at any rate it will save on polish and wear and tear on the servants." She laughed at her little joke - her only joke - but it was a slight laugh since none of us had joined in politely as we usually did. We were all too busy staring angrily at Cyril, who was standing in the midst of the assembly with a ridiculous top hat clutched in his mitts. He had the decency to look ashamed, although he also threw back a few accusing glances as if to assert the argument that it was our fault as well.

"And it's no use you all blaming Cyril," the Duchess said. Cyril perked up. "Although he is an idiot." He perked down again. "You only have yourselves to blame if you think you're being hard done by. When I was born the east wing was just that, an east wing. I grew up without the benefit of a mysterious portal into the past, and if any of you thinks that not having access to bygone times might be harmful to your prospects, just consider me in admiration and reflect on how it was I got to my current position. Not by gallivanting around in the past, I can assure you! By hard work."

"By not dying as easily as her sisters," Dent whispered. I tried to lean away, so as not to be implicated if the Duchess's disapproval fell on him, but he kept leaning until I was on the point where leaning any further would cause me to topple over sideways. I chose surrender rather than indignity, although there is of course a limit on how much dignity one can reserve by leaning sideways at a forty-five degree angle while one's brother-in-law spits into one's ear. "By nagging her elder brother into an early grave."

His insinuations were true, but they were insinuations that it was the family's business to insinuate, not that of some jumped-up tradesman who my sister had formed a romantic attachment to. I frowned at him, causing him to withdraw slightly.

"I know some of you will come to me," the Duchess continued, "asserting some right or another which you think makes it appropriate that you should have access to the east wing because you have duties or special agreements in the past which it is vital for the family's fortunes that you should maintain. But my talks with Professor Woolcroft have reassured in me a suspicion that I have held independently for some years, namely that our current position was predestined, that none of the ridiculous meddling you have engaged in in the past has had any material effect on the current state of affairs."

The room erupted into a babel of indignation at the Duchess's statement - or rather, at the soft-headedness of Professor Woolcroft, since it was perfectly acceptable to attack the ruminations of an academic, whereas to suggest that the Duchess might be wrong about the matter was tantamount to familial treason. Her position, like that of the Catholic Primate (we did not say the P word, for obvious reasons), rendered her infallible in the aspects of family law. Woolcroft, however, had committed the unforgivable sins of firstly offering advice to the Duchess in the mistaken belief that his particular discipline of muddle-pated thought had some validity without the walls of his ivory tower, and secondly of having the disgraceful bad taste and lack of ambition to turn down the bribes that various of us had offered him to ensure his absence. For someone so obtuse in matters of grace and taste and as socially adept as a foxhound, he did not lack perspicacity when it came to spotting a bribe, either, since no matter how subtly I had proffered the money (as a donation to a favourite charity, as an endowment towards a scholarship fund in his name, as a chair bought at the university), he had seen through it to the root of it, and politely rejected it, asserting that independence of thought could only come when one was in no way at all beholden to the object of that pondering.

"Quieten down! Cease this childish caterwauling at once!" the Duchess demanded. "This is my word on the matter, and my word - as I'm sure you are all very much aware - is final. The east wing will remain closed over the winter, and when the new year comes I may consider allowing one or two of you to travel through. Even then, though, your argument will have to be particularly compelling, and I will hear most sympathetically Professor Woolcroft's counter-arguments."

Well that really was intolerable. Of course, Woolcroft would want any trip into the past to be part research, and he would blackball any excursion which did not take along one of his army of blank-faced post-graduates. The thought of going about my business with some dullard intellectual looking over my shoulder was enough to make me shudder. There would be no privacy, and hence no fun.

I would have to break into the east wing before it was sealed. I began to carefully move my way to the back of the gathering.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Art Pact 218 - Ticks

There was no doubt that the house was full of ticks - that it was, in fact, a house owned and run by one big tick, for the benefit of smaller ticks. The inhabitants were packed in so close that I doubted there would be room even for the tiniest of additional occupants, yet whenever I thought that, one more unfortunate would arrive at the door and be ushered grimly inside, assigned to a bed - or, if they were unlucky and arrived late, to the floor. In this manner the building was packed even more tightly with the poor workers from the dump, until it resembled most closely an eighteenth-century slave ship. The heat from so many people in such close confines was tremendous, so that even with the winter cold outside and the drafts from cracks and ill-fitting window panes, one could hardly breath for the closeness of the air. As you might imagine, with so many people breathing in and out the air quickly became stale with carbon dioxide and the smell of the unwashed mouths of the workers.

It was not clear to me whether it was preferable to be in a bed or on the floor. The floor, uncarpeted and rough with splinters, was of course physically less comfortable in the absence of other factors. But with so many people lodging in the building, each bed was filled way beyond its capacity, so that in a bed made for one person you might find three, topped-and-tailed, and in the building's one double bed I saw at one time five people. The cover for that bed was thinner than the mattress, which meant that the two outside sleepers slept uncovered, but since it was foolish to take off one's clothes for sleep anyway and the building fairly steamed with the mass of bodies within it, there was no real need for a cover anyway. The floor, by contrast, was at least large enough that one could stretch out - by canny manoeuvring one might even get one's legs beneath a bed. This was not possible with all the beds, since some were simple pallet beds laid directly on the floor, but there were enough beds that were built from actual frames where this luxury was available.

What the bed- and floor-bound sleepers had in miserable common, though, were the biting insects that were the true rulers of the house. While we were packed in like sardines, living and sleeping in such considerable discomfort that had it not been the depth of winter outside vagrancy would have been preferable, they enjoyed all of the luxuries that we could not, by virtue of their degenerate evolution and miniscule size. They could stretch out their legs as much as they liked, they could find plenty of space in which to promenade, they could sit still and reach as far as they might without bumping into one of their fellows. And of course, they were as well-provided with food as we were starved of it.

Every man and woman among us was bitten dozens of times a night. (There were a few women, who for the sake of propriety were all bedded together in one corner of the upper room, separated from the men by a series of sheets pinned to the ceiling with carpet tacks. Every night at least one of the tacks would fall out of the ceiling plaster, sometimes more than one, so that the sheets sagged madly at the top). It was common to wake up to find one of the foul beasts sitting on one's arm, bloated fat with blood it had taken in the night. Then they had to be removed carefully, teased out so that the fragile mouthpieces would not break off under the skin. The process was at the beginning painful and distressing, even worse if the tick had chosen a less public place to being its feast. It was amazing, then, how quickly one came to find the whole process not horrid but merely tedious and annoying. By the time I had been living there for nine or ten days I was so used to the frightful chore that I often found myself doing it while still only half awake, only realising what I was about when I found myself looking at one or two crushed corpses in the palm of my hand, my fingers stained with a dark juice that must mainly have been my own blood.

The death toll among these arachnid tenants must have been horrific if quoted in actual numbers, but in terms of the percentage of their population it was trivial - certainly lower than the turnover amongst the human occupants, since we lost two people during the first month I was there. First, one of the men simply died in the night (causing a certain amount of panic about contagion, since he had been coughing mightily ever since he had been there, I was told). He lay in bed until the late morning, when one of the other occupants of the same bed complained that he could not wake the unfortunate to get him to move over. He was carried out by me and three of the other irregular tenants. We took him straight to the doctor, who advised us that if there were any suspicion of sickness the body should be burnt directly, and we should present ourselves back at his surgery for a sterile scrub - itself a terrible ordeal involving stripping down and being sluiced with cold water before being swabbed with some noxious chemical that I had a suspicion was related to sheep dip. We reaped an unforeseen crop of good karma, though, as for a few nights after the scrubbing we were unaffected by the ticks, who apparently did not like the taste nor smell of the residues.

The second of us to die could have benefited from that, if only someone had taken the time to examine her. It was one of the women - at twenty-eight more susceptible to the endemic tick-induced anaemia than the men - who began to fade, and finally one day collapsed at the bottom of the stairs and could not be roused.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Art Pact 217 - Happiness in Numbers

The people on that planet had a curious attitude towards maths, which stemmed from their language. Their ancestors had been one of the third wave out of the homeworld, the grand and forgotten wave, and like so many of the other ships in that ill-fortuned expedition, they had become lost in the great space-time ripple that came unexplained out of the Antlia Dwarf Galaxy and washed across the Milky Way like a tidal wave, scattering warp ships before it like so many pond-skaters. Unlike many of the ships that had been lost forever, their ancestor's had survived with little damage, flung out of the warp at a low speed because of a routine balancing manoeuvre it had been in the middle of at the time. It came out in the middle of nowhere, engines wrecked for anything other than short-distance travel, but as luck would have it the science crew detected a system a mere twenty light-years away, a system they were able to limp to over the next three decades.

The star was attended by three planets - two gas giants and the one I had landed on, a rocky place just big enough to provide half a standard gravity, with an atmosphere thick enough to breath outside if you did nothing more strenuous than standing still. In the villages and fields loose densifier fields packed the air into a more useful thickness. It had the strange property of being lower in nitrogen than standard air, a shortfall which was made up by helium that constantly seeped out of deep underground reservoirs that must have been opened up in the planet's last few tens of thousands of years, for they were still leaking prodigiously and had not yet vented their contents into outer space. The air thus fortified transmitted sound just slightly faster, causing my voice to raise by a semi-tone whenever I came out of my ship to talk to the locals. On each occasion I quickly grew accustomed to the effect, but the acclimatisation wore off almost the instant I returned to my quarters, so that for the first few minutes of each day I sounded consistently slightly off to myself, the effect so strong that I sometimes felt that the words I was hearing had been spoken by someone else.

The language of those people, which had once been the standard tongue, was barely intelligible to me upon arrival, and only after an exhaustive analysis by my ship's computer could I begin to pick up the changes which made it easier for me to understand. They still had archive materials stripped from their own lander, and they could had they wanted have kept their language attendant to old patterns. But during the five-hundred year gap between their arrival and mine someone had made the decision - perhaps deliberately - not to put the brakes on to the natural slippages that language is prone to in practise. Their dialect had therefore slowly begun to move away from its root, undergoing a vowel shift backwards into the mouth (perhaps some attempt to compensate for the effects of the planet's atmosphere), and in commonly used words (but not rarer ones) a fairly consistent consonant shuffle. Furthermore there were grammatical changes, such as an unusual system of gendered pronoun-to-adverb matchings in which adverbs were split into two classes and the correct pronoun had to be used, but only when an adverb was attached to the sentence. For example, to say that someone ran you could simply say "Fa tid cor" (He/She did run), but to say they ran quickly (quickly being a class A - or female, as I thought of it - adverb), you had to change the pronoun Fa to Fal: "Fal tid kikle cor". Awkwardly was in the other gender (class B, or male): "Fana tid ekardle cor". No conjugation or agreement was required for verbs themselves, or for prepositions, or for normal verbs, and I found it so hard to remember that I must frequently have made mistakes. My hosts were tolerant of mistakes, however, and since it was only a slight redundancy in the language I suppose that no information was lost. I noted it chiefly because of its uniqueness (as far as I am concerned, having heard of no similar system), and because it rendered the formation of certain sentences impossible (for instance one could not say "She ran quickly and smoothly", because quickly and smoothly were of different classes and the pronoun could not be conjugated to agree with both of them at once).

The most unusual feature though, was that of their maths. The numbers four and seven ("Var" and "Esef") were the same as the words for fear and happy. They therefore took great pains, where possible, to make their calculations in such a way that the intermediate steps used no fours and as many sevens as possible. This they did with great facility, to which I can do little justice. For an example, though, if a teacher wanted a schoolchild to calculate (22 x 2) + 3, they would break it down into intermediate steps first, such that the step (44) + 3 was written as (37 + 7) + 3. They would also fiddle simple sums, adding on fudge factors so that trades never involved the number 4, and no parent ever referred to their child as "four years old", instead saying "Mos de te" (older than three).

They were realists, of course - where the outcome and final result of a sum involved the number four. and that outcome fed into some physical process, they accepted the result. But they considered such sums inauspicious, and if (for example) a densifier field had to be tuned to 84 micrometers in order to work optimally over a crop field, the farmers working those fields would shake their heads each morning as they worked, bemoaning the unhappy necessity of such an act. The technician responsible for the tuning would be given no other work for a day afterwards, so that the bad karma he had accumulated be given time to dissipate harmlessly without contaminating other machines.