Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Art Pact 256 - Creating the morning



Something of a rush, of course. There's never enough time to set such things up in advance, so we're called in at say six in the morning and everything has to be in place by eight, when it wakes up. I work on walls - walls are kind of a boring thing, but they're necessary and it isn't too taxing, so I can be relied upon to do my bit. I like working with brick walls, because they're pleasantly solid. Partition walls - you know, those things that are basically paper and plaster - they're kind of... unsatisfying? I don't know what it is about them that makes them so terrible, but there's clearly something. I think perhaps its the fact that anyone could put them up in a couple of hours, whereas brick is a skill that the average Joe, even the average bricklayer, has to take his time over. You've got to get everything in a line, you have to have the mortar at the right consistency. Don't get me wrong, I know that there are some quick-working and talented bricklayers out there, but if you want a room, or a building created in a couple of hours, I'm kind of the only game in town. So there's that, that sense that you're at the peak of your profession, that no-one else can do what you do. That's job satisfaction.

Still, there are downsides to being on the walls, and being so good at them. I keep getting the feeling that I'd painted myself into a corner, if you like. On the timescales we're dealing with I can't afford to hand the job over to someone else. It has to be me. I could train someone up, but when am I going to do that? We're rushing in each morning on another emergency job, and the jobs are so exhausting really that we can't do anything but take downtime until the next day. Could I do it? Train someone else up to do my job? Of course I could, assuming we start with the correct raw material, obviously. But finding someone with the correct attitude and the natural talent, then convincing them to spend their spare time training up even while they're still taking care of their main duties? That is a difficult one. It's not like it was in the old days. In the old days there was downtime, there were budgets for this sort of thing. There were more of us, I think, and that gave us the slack we needed to experiment. It's efficiency that's the problem here. I think of myself as an efficient builder. I do my job to the required standard with the minimum of effort because I've practised and practised and analysed what I do and when, and I've worked out a foolproof plan - assuming that everything goes ok. I can get my work done in the time allotted - under the time allotted, usually, but all that does is convince the up-aboves that the time they've allotted is too much. They want to trim, trim, trim, always cutting away at the margins. Which would be great if we were machines, but - well, we're not, no matter what some of us might look like. You can't keep pushing and pushing and pushing like that, because sooner or later  someone finds themselves in a situation that's a little out of the ordinary, and for that you need some kind of slack. Let's say that a target wakes up a little early. That's the sort of disaster you have to have a bit of spare energy for. The room's dark, of course, but you need to have arranged everything so that it looks right. That means walls created in the direction the mark is facing when he or she opens his or her eyes. That means shadows hung in the places they need to be hung, it means deviating from the plan so that the shapes of things in the target's eye-line confuse them, paralyse them to give a few moments of response time.

That's the sort of thing you can't learn in just a few courses, you see. That's even more important, and it's something only the old apprentice system could deal with. When I was young we were still doing stone rooms occasionally. Can you imagine that? People sleeping in rooms where the walls were stone. That was satisfying work. I suppose bricks are more like stone than plasterboard is, maybe my preferences are just poorly-concealed nostalgia. Either way, I worked back with old Sacarapustus, that rogue. He was a wall-man through and through, but he'd come up in the days when you learnt everything. He could put in decorations when he needed too. He was a generalist. I think I'm now a better wall man than he was even at his height, but he could do so many other things that I feel ashamed when I think about it.

He could do a dawn light! Oh, I just remembered that. Now that is something I'd love to do. We've got one guy on dawn light, it's kind of simple but subtle. You have to blend it just right - so that it doesn't wake up the target too early but on the other hand it has to be alien enough to be disconcerting, so that when it creeps through their eyelids it's the first hint that something's weird, that they're not in the same world they went to sleep in. It's delicate stuff. Sometimes tinkering with the energies of a band of wavelengths a few nanometres wide is enough to do the job. That's attention to detail! I'd love to do that. It makes sense, too. Like I say, we have one guy on it. What if he dies? What if he's spotted by a target and evaporates? There's no margin, and we'd be screwed. A smart boss would have been training up an understudy for decades by now, but guess what? No understudy. It's like they can only understand that something will fail when it already has failed. Madness.

We can call on the full emergency response, of course, but no-one wants to do that. It's messy, and there are consequences from higher up. Consequences I'd rather not think about. Our job is to make the new world for the sleeper when they wake up. Each sleeper that gets eliminated in an emergency is one less client. Now, perhaps a few less clients in the short term is okay, would give us some breathing space. But in the long term, where are the new clients coming from? Nowhere, that's where, and anywhere. It's unpredictable. Perhaps there won't be any more sleepers, so every one is precious. Or thinking both optimistically and cynically, if we're not working at full stretch won't the up-aboves think that more of us can be laid off? We'll be working at full capacity all the time again, and then what if more sleepers emerge? We won't have the capacity to contain them all. One of them will wake up in the same place that it went to sleep, and then there'll be trouble, won't there? They'll start to expect that. Reality will be more solid to them than their dreams. They'll start to remember. That's a dangerous path to start down, but one way or another we've already taken a few steps. We need more workers, and some slack to do the training in. We need to take some steps back.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Art Pact 255 - My Life As A Petrol Tank



Empty.

Full.

Empty.

Full.

Empty.

Full.

When I'm drinking - when everything's silent except for the ticking of the pump and the gentle whoosh of others travelling past on the motorway - I consider whether this cycle is healthy for me. I mean, I'm ten years old now, been doing the same thing pretty much since the day I was brought into this world. Is reliable conformity a thing? Or is it just mindless roboticism? I'm hungry, I drink until I'm full, everything's fine again. Until the next time, because slowly, slowly, the energy drains out of me and I'm left in the same situation again, hungering, wondering how I got this way so fast and didn't I just drink myself stuffed a few days ago? It seems so recent.

Empty.

Then I'm coughing out fumes as the last of the drink drains away, and you can almost taste it in the hunger, a sort of desperation. A sense that something will go wrong, that I won't quite be able to make it to the drinking place, that it should have been taken care of earlier. Not from me, of course, I don't think about those things - at least, I don't think I do, and isn't that the way the logic goes? I think therefore I am; I don't think about desperation, therefore I am not desperate. Perhaps that's a bit of a reach. But it does affect me. It affects me, that feeling that I've missed some opportunity, that if only I'd been a little more vigilant I could have saved myself a terrible cost.

Full.

You can be filled with regrets. All sorts of regrets. Regret that you drank too much and you kind of burped or heaved and some of the drink came out again, onto the tarmac. You see other drinkers doing that and you think: come on, know your limits! But still they try to drink too much, just stuffing that little bit extra in, and no matter what you might think about their behaviour it's just the same when you next drink. It's that moment when you know - you know you're full, and that's good. But then a few seconds later you're just having a wee dram more, just - you know, can I fit another shot in or whatever? Sometimes you can stop yourself, but sometimes it just all goes wrong. We're all made with a certain capacity for drink, that's what I think. That's the conclusion I've come to. I'm old enough to know my limits. Try to go over those limits, like even I sometimes do, and you're going to fail.

Empty.

Same at the other end of the cycle, when you're just crawling along, when you can sense the desperation, like I said. I can tell when I need a drink. I mean, that's what hunger is all about, right? It's a signal. We can ignore the signals all we like, but the body doesn't lie. The stomach wants what the stomach wants, you know? So when it comes down to it, you have to drink when you're empty. That's all there is to it. No stretching it out as long as possible, no letting yourself go dry. You've got to get on with your duty, recognize that you need a drink, get off the road and have one. That's all there is - no whinging about it, no trying to press on past the point of no return. Just find somewhere to drink, have a drink, fill up, you feel better, job done.

Full.

Empty.

Full.

Empty.

Full.

I'm not saying that it's not impossible sometimes to pull a little extra out of the bag. I mean, psychologically. It's just that a body can only hold so much drink, that's hard fact. That's science. That's maths. Geometry and so forth. Width times height times... what's the third one? Breadth? Depth? They both sound wrong. Anyway, X times Y times Z, and that's it. That's your lot, all you can hold. You can't hold more, so if you're well and truly empty, I mean really empty, down to the last molecule, there's nothing you can do about it. And if you're full, you're really full. Not one drop more of drink you can fit in there. Not one drop, everything has to go somewhere.

Empty.

It happens when you mistake psychological reserves and physical reserves for the same thing. Sometimes that happens. More heart than sense, that's the thing. You can convince yourself that you're all good, that there's more in there to work with, but - well, no, that just isn't the case. It's fooling yourself. And you know, when you try to fool yourself the worst thing that can happen to you is that you're successful. Because then you're sitting there. One the side of the road, just as empty as anything. I mean, parched. Parched, dry as a bone. God, that feeling. Hunger like you would not believe, and you're waiting for a drink. You don't know how long it's going to take. It's not like drinking when everything's relaxed - you can't just throw it back and expect more to come along. No no. You wait, and you wait, and you can hear others going past you and you know that they're looking at you and thinking: well, there's another one. Another one without the sense enough to know when he's done. One that just carried one and carried on and emptied himself out, and where did it get him? Stuck, waiting for a little drink. Just a little one. One that's so pitiful you barely even taste it, it just revives you a bit, like a zombie. That's almost worse than the actual emptiness. The drink where you want to keep drinking but you can't. Up and at 'em soldier! Pull yourself together! Here's mud in your eye! Get moving, hup-two-hup-two, and almost the instant you've had that drink you're bleeding it all out again. But at least you know that you're moving again, that soon you'll get to the pumps and the drink's going to flow.

Full.

Empty.

Full.

Empty.

Full.

And you won't make that mistake again, that's a promise you make yourself. No foolish pushing yourself beyond your limits.

Empty.

Play it safe.

Full.

But you get to thinking, still. Isn't there more? Shouldn't there be more, more than this endless cycle of filling and emptying? It seems like there should be more. You can taste it in the drink. The futility. Do this, then do that, then do this again. Like it's part of the substance, like the drink is made out of repetition and despair. You can imagine, I suppose, that the drink is like death. Like it's made out of lives that could have been lived with joy and happiness and perhaps some of them were, but the overwhelming mass of it was made out of hunger and death and futile misery.

Empty.

What if there were something else? I don't know. A better drink. Some other way of doing things, something where I'd break out of:

Empty.

Full.

Empty.

Full.

It would be better, I think. Less desperation, less drinking until I was full, less trying to cram that one last shot in. Less regret afterwards. The negatives undone, and some new way of living, open to more possibilities. It's there, I know it - just out of my grasp. But the fact that it's there at all is - promising. I can hold onto the hope. Not all the time.

Empty.

Full.

But some of it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Art Pact 254 - At A Stretch


There were rows of houses stretching off into the distance, uniform flat-top domes. Melin had never seen a surface town so large, although it was nothing compared to the hives underneath. The other members of the caravan seemed less overawed.

"It's just a burb-town," said Fressa. "Houses and houses and houses and nothing else. No factories, no farms, nothing."

"How do they eat, then?"

"They're parasites!" Bryve said loudly, leaning over from her horse.

"What Bryve means to say is, they don't produce anything. They live there because the governor decrees it. All their food is brought to them from elsewhere, they don't really do any work themselves. A bit of art, perhaps, but nothing concrete. If the deliveries stopped, the town would be gone in an instant."

"They can't make anything themselves!" said Bryve.

"That's not entirely true. Some of them were farmers, some of them were artisans down in the hives. But there isn't the infrastructure, or the land. They wouldn't be totally helpless, but conditions would be terrible if they had to fend for themselves. The town wouldn't be anything like the size it is now."

Melin let her gaze drift over the ranks of buildings. She could see smoke issuing from stacks on some of them, and pointed it out with alarm, but Fressa reassured her that they were cooking or heating fires, the design of the houses here deliberately archaic.

"But what's the purpose of it all? Why have a town here when it can't survive."

"Prestige. It's all about the glory of the district governor. If the hive were poorer they wouldn't be able to afford such a waste of resources and manpower, but the hives here are - well, I'll admit it, they're not particularly rich, but they're not so poor that the governor risks a revolt at the amount she's pouring into these projects. The hives would be better off without it, but they're not so dissatisfied that they're willing to challenge it. Be prepared to hear a lot of grumbling, though."

As they rode closer Melin began to make out the subtle differences between the buildings. They were all of the same design - similar to the smaller tents and wigwams that they had seen other surface-dwellers use - but scaled up to twice or three times the size. They were arranged in rows, separated by five or six metres each from the next, and they were surrounded by grey wooden fences arranged in hexagons, so that the road between each row got thinner and then wider again as a traveller passed by each front door. A motif from the hives, Melin thought.

The caravan's trailers, moving at their fastest speed, were still painfully slow, so the anticipation of the town was drawn out to excruciating lengths. Melin could see that people in the streets had spotted them, because every so often a couple would stop, one pointing out at the approaching band, and have a little conversation. No-one came out of the city bounds to meet them, though, and so she had to endure the uncertainty of approach in silence, not wanting to appear too nervous in front of Fressa.

Eventually, though, they passed beneath a wire arch that seemed to mark the transition between wilderness and town, at which point the spell appeared to have been broken. Children playing in the gardens rushed to the edge of the fences, hanging over them with leaves in their hands as a temptation to the horses. Women in the street began to walk alongside them, peppering them with questions - what had they brought, were they from such-and-such a hive, did they have messages or were they just travellers, what was the weather like in the south.

"Why should we know that?" Melin asked, leaning over to Fressa so as not to trumpet her ignorance to the locals.

"Oh, they think we've come from there. They always think that - it's these carts. Don't pay them any mind. But equally, don't do what Bryve is doing." She rolled her eyes at the other woman.

"Sand storms a-plenty, goodwife!" Bryve was declaiming in her loudest voice. "Heading this way at this time of year, too! Keep your eyes to the horizon in a week or two. If you see a shadow there, you can remember my name and thank me in your prayers! My name, which is Lock the Weathermistress!"

Fressa shook her head and let her horse slow down enough that she could give Bryve a swift kick in the ankle, but she did not contradict the guard's story.

The town had no centre in a traditional sense - the rows of houses were identical and continued from one boundary to the other, but Fressa explained that by convention caravans and transports would stop in the middle of the middle-most row of houses - that being the main street as much as there was one, with the gates in and out of town at either end. With her usual attention to detail, the caravan scout called a halt to motion when there were five trailers west of the midpoint, five trailers to the east.

"So what happens now?"

"Well," Fressa explained. "If we have anything to trade we start trading where we are."

"Do we have anything to trade?"

"We do, yes. The question is, do they?" Fressa looked around dubiously. "Probably not, I'd say."

"Why don't we just keep moving, then?"

"Because we need a bit of food and water, and the governor keeps them supplied well enough that they can afford to be generous with their host obligations."

"That seems like even more of a waste," Melin said. "But I won't complain."

"The whole point of the place is to show off the district's riches, remember? If they were going to adhere to the letter of custom with their host duties and no more, people would assume that they were in trouble."

"It's not the district's riches they're supposed to be showing off," added Bryve, but she said so uncharacteristically quietly. "It's the gov-"

"Yes, thank you," Fressa cut her off. "Ears, soldier, ears. Melin, there's something else, though."

The scout took her to the fourth carriage, talking about wheels and replacement axles, which confused her, but Fressa made the little gesture with her hand that she'd made at the caravan meeting, the one that she now recognised as "play along", so she chatted politely and made concerned noises when it Fressa mentioned how the carriage was getting old, and that it might need repairs if it was to carry heavier loads. They climbed from their horses directly into the back of the wagon, and once inside Fressa held a finger up to her lips.

"Bryve's right, this isn't just a place for the director to show off the district's money. It's also to show off her power, and keeping the town going isn't all of it. It's also a checkpoint to remind everyone that comes through that they can't keep secrets from the district. Which is a problem if you're carrying one of the biggest secrets." She pointed down.

"What are we going to do?" Melin whispered.

"Play it cool for the moment," said the scout. "We've hidden things from them before. Not live cargo, I'll admit, but they haven't been particularly thorough in the past, there's no reason to think they will be now. But you'll have to be prepared for what happens if they do find her - it, I mean. And I think you'd better explain the situation to it as best you can."

Monday, January 07, 2013

Art Pact 253 - Colours


There were old gods in that place, dry old gods who spoke with cracked voices and whispered in the dark so that the green soldiers who were set around the place grew nervous in the night and almost scurried from their posts when they were relieved. The few blue men who were left unharmed by the unholy storm assured their captors that there was nothing to fear, that those who had inhabited the temple before the war had been driven off long since, and without their help the gods could not be roused, but still the green men slept uneasily, tossing and turning in their beds and crying out with horror when they were selected for their detail on the guard roster.

Meru-shin had no patience for such histrionics.

"Remind them that they are warriors," he told his captains. "And that such displays are unseemly in front of the prisoners. If they see weakness, they will strike. You know how these blue men are."

Sul and Pen nodded their assent and swore that they would drive the fear of the old gods out of their men by replacing it with a more solid terror, but Ashi merely nodded her agreement, and Meru-shin saw in the woman's eyes a sort of contempt for her fellow officers - and beyond that, hearing with his inner ear he could sense that the captain was dubious about his plan.

Ashi was a dark green, but in her skin there was a tone that was almost blue in itself - not a true cyan, for such people had not existed since the days of heroes, but a tint that sometimes caught people by surprise when they saw her from the corner of their eyes.

"Remain," he ordered her, dismissing the others. When they were gone, he nodded to the seat at the foot of the dais on which the throne rested. "You have misgivings about the temple."

"Misgivings might be too strong a word," she said.

"Might it?"

"Then again it might not."

"Tell me."

Ashi pursed her lips, and nodded towards the map of the wheel that hung on the throne room wall. It was embroidered silk, the sort of art that the purples of Meru-shin's home city called a "catch the fool", drawn carefully so that it appeared to be solid if viewed from the right place in the room. From the throne it looked oddly distorted. His interest piqued, he rose from the chair and took a few steps down until he was in the optimal position to view the illusion. From here he could see it clearly - although the wheel was in its normal arrangement, it looked as though it were rolling up until the blue section was uppermost, and the solid sides of the wheel were themselves blue, as though the colour surrounded all others, encompassing the entire world.

"Interesting," he said.

"General?"

"What am I looking at?" he asked, realising that the captain had not indicated the map for the sake of the blue imperialist illusion that it represented, but for some other detail.

"The position of the city," she said.

"What of it?"

He examined the wedge carefully, tracing the route his troops had taken from the green wedge out across the border into blue territory. It seemed so simple: he might place his thumb on the city of Geridor and the tip of his little finger would rest upon the captive city. Geridor was close to the border, of course, and close to the holy city so that the journey had happened at the small insides of the wheel, but it was still something to be able to stride the world in one hand. He imagined the move forwards into purple territory. Not so far, to be sure, but it was likely to be considerably better guarded than the blue border.

"It's not in the same position as on our map," Ashi said.

"What?"

"The map that we have shows the city of Bronze as being here," she explained. "Where we found it."

"Of course it does. It's the same map that everyone uses, why would it say anything different?"

"It doesn't - it agrees with all the other maps. But it doesn't agree with that map," she said, pointing. "Look."

She brought out a copy of the great map of the siege, a scroll that she had tucked into a horn cylinder that rested against her thigh. The scroll itself was lamb-leather, fine and new - not the one that Meru-shin had given her, he knew instantly. She must have seen it in his eyes, because she dropped her own and apologised immediately.

"Your map was too precious to risk during the fighting, general," she said. "I had this copy made. But I have checked it against others, it is a perfect reproduction of the official map, and of the map you gifted to us. This can stand as an example."

She moved in front of him, unrolled the map and pointed out the points of interest. It was obvious at once that she was right - every city shown on the silk map was in the same position as its equivalent on the vellum map, except for one. Bronze. It was perhaps half the width of his little finger to the edgeward-spin on the smaller map, the length of two knuckles of that same finger on the silk wall-hanging. Given how perfect the rest of the map was, it could have been no mistake.

"What does it mean?" he asked.

"The blue priests of Bronze were always very careful," Ashi began. "And their silk-workers were very precise. If they did not put the city on the map here where it is in real life..."

"It can only mean that the map is correct, but that every other map is wrong," he said, the thought dawning on him.

"It had occurred to me," Ashi said, letting her map roll up under its natural spring.

"So then this place is somewhere new," he said.

"A decoy city," she told him, returning to her chair. Meru-shin sat down himself, and dragged his ragged fingernails across the bald space at the top of his head. "Imagine that you wished to defend yourself against attack. You could put up walls, send out screens and scouts, of course, but such measures can be overcome, particularly if you face a brilliant enemy who contrives to take you by surprise."

"I am already impressed, captain," he said. "The flattery is unnecessary."

She laughed.

"So how do you solve this problem? You allow your enemy to attack - you provide him with false target, though, something of no actual strategic worth and little economic worth that he can dash himself against. When he overcomes it, your enemy transforms from conqueror into a governor. He turns his assault troops into guards, he begins to concern himself with food gathering, he believes that he has nothing more to fear. You leave him to the poor pickings available around the territory he has won. You let him sit on your throne and scorn you, deriding the poverty in which you must have lived if there is so little food to feed his army. He grows weaker, he grows softer, he grows more arrogant, and then-"

"You strike," he said, cutting her off angrily. He wanted to yell at her for her insolence, but everything she had said was true. He had done all that she said. "One thing bothers me," he said. "Why leave this map here?"

"That is a question, certainly," she mused. "Arrogance of their own, perhaps? Everyone makes mistakes, after all."

"True. People say that. But what they do not say is that everyone does not make all the mistakes at once. We must be cautious with this knowledge."

"Ay, General."

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Art Pact 252 - Running


The four of us running, helter-skelter pelting down the alleys and up the roads, pouring our hearts into our legs so that we could feel nothing except the pulse pounding of rubber soles on tarmac and concrete, running with all of the desire for freedom and fear of punishment that our friends and enemies respectively had filled us with, we were a team, a herd, a flock of miscreants escaping from the predators of law and custom, the men in their grey coats and blue uniforms that were ever on our heels. We were alive for those moments, perhaps because in the other moments we had let ourselves become dead by our ways, but in those moments such differences, such philosophies were all forgotten, our flight was just nature, the call and response of fists and feet, the old story of animals that must catch other animals to eat, and those that must survive by escaping such capture. We might have whinnied to each other, we might, when the spirit took us and we were so close to our foes that we could mock them but not so close that we had not an inch to spare, have bokked, leaping extravagantly over stalls and railings in manoeuvres that gained us no extra spot of earth, no extra molecule of air between us and our pursuers, but which lifted the heart and reminded us of what we were about, which was tweaking the noses of those in authority, of committing our crimes as if we could never be caught, and then proving that in truth we never could. Those were moments of spectacular time, of treacle seconds that moved so slowly that as you were in the air you could see every wrinkle line on the old faces of the watchmen, ever twitch of muscle in a policeman's scowl, you could count the feathers on the wings of pigeons in flight and shoulder aside raindrops that were falling too lazily to the ground. Those moments made the heart sing and the loins burn, and the lungs and the legs and hands and all the other bits of you that were one small part of the great multi-legged many-headed self that we formed into as we ran in our pack were made of gold and joy and did their work with the pride of the greatest master. There was no ego, no separation between us. There was no my hand, my leg, because the leg of the man beside you was your leg as well, and his face your face, and both of you shared a hand with the woman further along, and a all three of you a heart with the man in front of her, so that for one to leap was for all to leap, so that you could watch yourself fly through the air and come down gracefully on the other side of a barrier. There was no greater feeling than that, not one watered down by being spread so thin over so many of us, but enhanced, bounced back and forth within our hearts and our grins like a cry of ecstasy in an echo chamber so that it grew stronger and stronger with each return, with each one of us that it flowed through, climbing higher and higher and lifting us until it seemed that we flowed across the city like water, our legs were so light, our splittings and rejoinings so fluid. You could not have counted the steps, because all steps were one and none at the same time, because where our feet landed they left no footsteps, because all of our faces were the same, boy and girl, as different and identical as the waves crashing upon the shore, and like that too in that small treasures were washed away in our wake...

But all such races must come to an end, and so did all of hours. In a dark parking garage, in an alley in a maze of similar alleys, in someone's house - one of ours, or a house that just seemed right to host us and whose occupants were elsewhere. When we began, finally, to tire, and made that last extra effort to put the law so far behind us that we could not hear them and neither could they hear us, then we started to become separate entities again. Carl, at the head of us now, a mind over our minds, not the same person but a welcome or unwelcome leader, would turn us towards one of the shelters we had spied out before and we would hurry inside and stop, like water that had frozen and shattered into quarters. Those people who had a second ago been my brothers and sister - no, more than that, had been myself - they were suddenly other again, nothing but Carl and Tracy and Rudolph again, petty thieves and criminals and idiots who thought that the law could not touch us just because it never had, three fools who had let another into their midst to confirm their folly, painfully limited human beings who thought themselves gods above their others and mistook cynicism for wisdom, ignorance for practicality, anecdotes for experiences, a year for a lifetime. The change was so abrupt that it was as though we did not run into a shelter, but into a brick wall. The moment of sameness, of closeness, was gone, that long instant that flashed by, and we were left broken and tired to face the thousand years of isolation that awaited us, of having to talk but having nothing worthwhile to say, of discussing our new possessions as if they were the keys to happiness rather than just some trinket we had bought with another's petty misery. What did it profit us to gain things we could only use when we were standing still if we could only enjoy life when we were on the move? It gained us nothing - worse than nothing, it gained us ballast that would keep us anchored to the ground and tie us there forever more so that each new prize we won held us back more and more from the only worthwhile endeavour. We could not put it into words - not words that we were willing to say to each other, that is - and without words for the outside world we were confused about how we could communicate our thoughts even to our own selves, so that we did not even know, not truly, how miserable we were. We cheered and jeered where we could, showing off the things we had stolen and making light of those we had stolen from and those we had outrun, but there was an emptiness at the heart of us. So separate were we that at first I thought that it was merely me, that I as a newcomer was not so knitted into the fabric of the gang, but it must truly have been all of us, all of us thinking that we were alone when just a few minutes earlier we had known right to our marrow that we were not, that we were closer than lovers, closer than twins, closer than any humans had a right to be, that we had stolen gadgets and purses and tidbits of food, certainly, but that the real prize we had stolen was our closeness, a prize we had pickpocketed from the gods, that we had swiped from nature. That was our true treasure, and we did not even know when we had it.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Art Pact 251 - The Old Campus


In the dark of the night I sometimes wake, my heart pounding like an unbalanced engine, my legs tangled in the sheet and twinging to hint at cramp should I move the wrong way or put too much weight on them. Those are the dreams of the old campus, confusing and sometimes terrible dreams that have, I think, begun to feed on themselves.

The old campus was big - perhaps two kilometres by four, if you could have rearranged all the various roads and alleys and buildings and scrub areas and so forth into a single regular shape. But you could not - no-one could do that, the way it had grown, both by design and by accident, defied organisation. It was easy to become lost in one's first year, so easy that it was taken into account during scheduling - when a work party was required, it was drawn a quarter as big again as was necessary, assuming that so many of the group would become lost on their way to the muster point that the final gathering would be roughly the right size. It was not uncommon to see newcomers wandering around with makeshift maps in their hands, puzzling over where they had taken a wrong turning. There was no official map - every few months a request was put in to the chancellor's office, and every few months the idea was rejected on the grounds that the cost would be too great, the utility too little. There were suspicions, of course, that such excuses covered up a darker purpose on the part of the higher-ups. But since the chancellor was rarely seen except by the council of fellows, there was no easy way to confirm even whether he really existed, much less what his motivations for any given action might be.

There were maps, of course - everyone had their own map, part of it in their mind and the rest on scrap paper scavenged from the various bins and silos that were set up. There were no electronic devices there - in the labs, yes, in the machine rooms, yes, but there were no toys that would navigate the maze of walkways, alleys, roads, spaces between buildings that comprised the campus.

My map is with me now. The physical part of it - I can barely recognise. There are streets and alleys with names that mean nothing to me. Perhaps, I think, it is not my map. Is it possible that there was a mix-up somewhere? Maybe somebody swapped their map with my own. But the writing is my own, and the lines seem the sort of confident but awkward lines that I remembered  from my first years on campus.

The campus has grown in my head. In my dreams it is endless, a confusing jumble of buildings, alleys, roads, archways, odd devices that are part statue and part generator, science-fiction objects that in my dreams I accept as perfectly normal. When I wake up I try to find these places on the scrap of paper, but of course they are never there. And the mental part of my map, the larger and more important part, has become hopelessly corrupted. There is no way of knowing what its original contents were now, not when it has been overwritten and overwritten by darker and darker dreams, the original traces in my mind scribbled over mercilessly leaving it no longer a memory by only a palimpsest.

I should return to the campus - I would, if I could. The solidity of brick, of concrete and tarmac and metal railings and chain link fences, of lampposts and signposts and street names, the reality of rubbish, graffiti, of people thronging the walkways at lunch breaks, of the sounds of machinery and people and the crows and seagulls that fought in the skies above the campus's canyons. All of those things would bring the truth back into focus. Perhaps I could compare the map to the terrain and remind myself what it was I was trying to draw, reassure myself that I had been to those places before, that the author of that scrap of map truly was me. But I cannot. Even if it was possible, there are other things to consider. It is almost impossible for me to sleep well as it is. Would visiting the campus in my waking hours dispel its hold on my sleep, or would the visit simply act as a spur to further dreaming? That terrible risk is more than I am willing to take.

In the summer, the light would wake me early but naturally, leaving little trace of the dreams that I had been having. Just a vague sense of malaise, quickly blown away by the morning winds running down from the mountain ahead of the dawn, and the comforting presence of the sun itself. Then, in the hopeful light, I would dig around the mess at the side of my bed for the pen and notebook that I always leave there, and try to make notes about the geometry of the campus as I had experienced it. It was always pointless, though - to wake normally is to forget the details of your dreams, sometimes to forget even that the dreams occurred.

Now, in the depth of winter, I wake when my alarm clock goes off, although I have no real reason to listen to it any more. There is no need to get up early - arguably no need to get up at all, because the apartment's heating grows feebler and feebler and the only way to stay warm is to pile on duvet after duvet wherever I wander. Simpler to leave them where they start the day.

I remember all of the details these days - the size of a building that I walked through to find Cheryl in a red dress, one of the bridesmaids in a wedding that is taking place. The rows of benches in an electronics lab that I must leave, but which I find myself stuck in, endlessly trying to gather together my belongings that are spread out across the room. The strange avenue down which I walked to get there, standing aside every few steps to allow cars to squeeze past, the empty machines brushing against me despite the apparent width of the road. I remember them long past the time I wake - the confusion of the dream dogging me into the daylight hours, random images slowly seeping into the fabric of my memory so that the reality becomes even more confused. These sharp memories of the dream campus I could easily capture. They are like photographs, almost, in the minutes after I wake. If I were calm I could so simply just reach down to my left, feel around for the notebook and the pen that I have looped into the coils of the notebook's spine, and begin to draw.

But what the dream gives in detail it takes away in motivation. I come up from the fantasy flat, drained of all my tolerance for emotion. I am a machine, depressed and lost, and there is no need to record that fact, nor any facts. What was good in the dream I try to capture, but it slips away and reminds me what I lack in real life. What was terrible or confusing in the dream blurs as the day grows long, but the emptiness it has placed in the heart of me remains, untethered from its source so that it seems more and more a part of me.

I long for the summer days again.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Art Pact 250 - In Rebellion


"If there's an end to this in sight," said Mantell, "I must be facing in the wrong direction, because I certainly cannot see it."

"It's inevitable, though. A fire that burns this fast must burn itself out."

Mantell gave me a sympathetic look, shook his head sadly.

"I do appreciate your attempt to make sociology one of the more exacting physical sciences," he said, "but I fear that rebellion and conflict do not work entirely the same way that fluid mechanics does. This, my friend, is a potential disaster. You can say what you like about it coming to a natural end, but I fear that the only natural end it is likely to come to is one where we all die, making it impossible to continue conflict."

Latto grunted from the other end of the room. He had been sitting on the ottoman by the window, staring down into the chaos below. He still had the bandages on his leg from an injury he had sustained last week, run down by a cavalry charge while attempting to extricate himself from one of the mobs. He raised an accusing finger and pointed it in my direction.

"They'll find a way to carry on fighting even when we're all dead," he said. "That one will help them, with his accursed machines."

I stepped slightly to my left, placing myself in between Latto and the prototype in the corner as though to protect my work from all such curses. He simply laughed, and turned back to his morbid observations.

"Baxter's machines have no application in war," Mantell told him. Latto waved an arm as if to swat away Mantell's argument. "They are irrelevant to the current problem, and your anti-technological bent is well understood, Mister Latto. I should hardly expect you to be an unbiased observer of the automatonoid's prospects."

"Bah!" said Latto, turning back to us again. "Isn't it the case that Baxter is always prattling on about the machine's omnipotential? That it can do anything that a man can do, and many things that he cannot? Well step up to this window, Mister Mantell, I beg you." He shifted to sitting upright, freeing up space on the ottoman. "Or if that is too much effort, I pray you take a seat beside me. Observe with your unbiased eye what exactly it is that men can do, and I dare you not to shiver at the thought of it being done with greater and greater efficiency by Baxter's mechanical man."

"To what purpose?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"To what purpose would the automatoid prosecute the violence that you watch with such apparent delectation?"

"Oh," Latto said, a grim set to his jaw. "Oh, you think to paint me as some form of carrion crow, do you? This is a wound got by hovering too close to the object of my affection, is it? Mister Mantell, you would do very well to watch your tongue in such accusations, lest by accident or design you are forced to shut your mouth to prevent more embarrassing truths from escaping. The more widely your tongue ranges, the more likely it is to be caught outside and severed from its natural attachment. I think you might consider that very carefully."

"I apologise if you thought I was impugning your tastes," Mantell said stiffly.

"In which case I pray you believe that I have forgiven you."

There were a few moments tense silence, then Latto turned back to the scene outside and Mantell took a few steps towards my prototype. The prototype itself had said nothing during the altercation, although I had given it enough motive in the subject of peacemaking that I would have expected it to step in somehow to defuse the argument. I began to examine it, then noticed with some embarrassment that I had left it disconnected from its power-line, so that it was operating from the small acid-pile in its back, just enough electrical energy to keep its brain working and memories stable, not enough to work any of the mechanical parts that would be required for speech. When I plugged it into the power supplied by the great batteries in the basement, it rolled its eyes towards me and nodded its thanks.

"I have no particular desire to see your machines turned to war," Latto said suddenly. "Do not think that of me, please." When I turned I could see that he was looking directly at me, rather earnestly, ignoring Mantell as if the older man simply were not there. "But I think that it is the inevitable end of such scientific pursuits. No matter how well-intentioned a technology might have been in the first place, inevitably the intelligence of man will find a way to turn it to the disadvantage of his fellow men, either by swindling them more efficiently or by depriving them of their lives more quickly. It is not your fault, Baxter, just a simple but horrible truth. I believe you when you say that your machine is designed for the promotion of a peaceful world, to lift the yoke of toil off our backs. All fine words. But there are parts of it that I can already see have the potential for murderousness. And if I, of all people, can see that potential, surely there are those who are far more capable of spotting it than me! There are idiot-savants of the martial kind, unable to perform a simple computation or to grasp the workings of a water-wheel, but who would nonetheless be able to tell you in an instant the great properties of your inventions in the prosecution of war or torture."

"I would endeavour to prevent my automatoids from falling into those sorts of hands," I objected.

"You would, of course, but would everyone? When there are hundreds of automatoids in every factory, thousands lining the streets, a handful in each home? Who are you then to stop them falling into - as you say - the wrong hands? Would it even be possible for you to determine which hands those wrong hands are?"

"If the glove fits," said Mantell dryly, but Latto ignored him.

"You should have to be the most energetic inventor ever," he said. "To continue your studies and simultaneously police their application. I believe if any man can do it then it is you, Baxter, but I also believe that no man can do it, you included. You should have to personally vet everyone who bought one of your machines. Your business model should resemble a recording star's, in which you simply sit back and collect royalties on your designs. Instead you wish to turn it into an adoption agency, in which you calmly interview prospective customers as if they were taking charge of a newborn. Can you not see how your two desires are at odds with each other here? You cannot spread the automatoids far and wide enough for them to transform society for the better without also spreading them wide enough for them to fall into the hands of the world's natural oppressors. Not," he added with chuckle, "without in addition spreading yourself so thin that you would be in grievous danger of snapping."

I looked back at my prototype, to discover that it was subjecting Latto to an intense scrutiny. I recognised the expression on its metal face as one of concentration, but there seemed more to it than that. I got the strange notion that it was having an idea.