Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Art Pact 260 - Plane in the Ice


We carefully retreated across the ice and viewed the scene from a distance. The "plane" was stuck at a forty-five degree angle, its tail about twenty feet in the air. It looked like a whale that had breached the surface and then become stuck somehow.

"I don't think it's a plane," said the older of the two women.

"Of course it's a plane," I told them. "It was flying."

"It was flying alright, but that doesn't make it a plane. Birds fly."

"Superman flies," said the younger woman, giggling.

"Well it's no bird, and it's no superman. So that only leaves a plane."

"No, boy," said the older woman harshly. "There's all sorts of other things. Especially up here in the north."

"But it's a plane," I said. "Just look at it! It's made of metal and everything."

"Funny looking plane, though."

She was right. It was funny-looking. It was more of a cigar-shape than the usual tube of a plane, and the wings were strange. Rather than sticking out they were just curved stubs. Perhaps there had been larger parts to the wings that had broken off.

"That's an American plane, then," I concluded. "Their planes are all strange shapes. They got them stealth bombers, you ever seen one of them?"

The younger woman nodded, the older one shook her head.

"Well they're about as strange as anything. No knowing what an American plane might look like. It might look like a whale, or a robot, or a spaceship."

"Hmmm. Might look like a spaceship," said the older woman. "But I think that actually is a spaceship."

"Don't be crazy. That looks nothing like a spaceship. Where's its rockets?"

"Ugh," said the older woman, rolling her eyes. She stood up, leant into the wind, pulled her hood down and began to trek back towards the crash site.

"Hey! Where are you going?"

"Back to take a closer look."

"It could be dangerous!"

"It could explode!" called the younger one, who'd stayed back with me. The older woman stopped in her tracks, turned round, and yelled as hard as she could - just hard enough that we could hear most of what she said before the wind whipped the sound away.

"...already have explod... ...plane, there will... ...survivors!"

"She's right," said the younger woman, after a few seconds of thought. "We should see if anyone's survived." She clambered to her feet and set out after her companion, leaving me in the lee of the huge block of ice. I hesitated. There was no-one around to see, and since our meeting had been by accident there was no likelihood of me ever bumping into the two women again, but rumours have a nasty way of flying around and finding their intended target no matter how little information they contain about him. If I let them go off and stayed behind myself, people would assume that I was some sort of coward. I could talk about explosions and ice cracking and other dangers until I ran out of words, but the fact of the matter was that the two women had gone back to the crash without so much as a second thought, and if I wasn't brave enough to go with them I was going to look bad. I pushed up against the ice and stepped out into the wind.

It had got worse during the few minutes we'd been talking. It came in powerful gusts that were heralded by a sort of low whistling from the edge of the ice, so that every twenty or thirty steps I had to stop and brace myself when I heard that alarm. When the sound stopped I had maybe a second before a big gust of wind hit me like a wave, stripping the warmth out of me in an instant.

"Hey! Hey!"

The wind was too strong for them to hear me - with them moving away, at any rate. The old woman must have had lungs like a whale to have been able to shout back to us. I was catching up with them, but not nearly fast enough to get to them before they reached the plane, and sure enough the old woman reached the crashed machine before I was even halfway there.

The wind was too strong for me to keep my eyes on them while I struggled across the open waste of the ice, but I found them sheltering in the lee of the crashed plane, the older woman running her gloves hands over the surface of it while the younger one stood back a little, a nervous look on her face.

"It's warm!" the old woman shouted at me as I got out of the direct blast of the wind.

"Warm like it's on fire?"

"No, just warm like a person! Here, feel!"

Quick as a flash she grabbed my left hand, dragging it onto the surface of the plane before I could resist. She was stronger than I'd expected, too - even when I was touching the metal I couldn't pull away with the effort I was willing to put in (by which I mean I could probably have got away by throwing myself backwards, but that would have looked a bit desperate).

To my surprise, though, she was right. It wasn't freezing cold, like metal should be after being out in this weather for quarter of an hour. But it also wasn't burning, as I'd expected it to be if it was one fire inside. It was, like she said, the same temperature as me - well, as I was inside my furs. My fingers were cold, even inside my gloves, and they could feel the comfortable warmth of the plane.

"Strange," I said.

"Very strange."

"Could be radioactive," said the younger woman. We both turned to look at her. "You said it was American, right? Could be radioactive. They use that in their submarines-"

"This isn't a submarine," said her companion.

"I was going to say in their submarines and their spaceships."

"They've got atomic spaceships?"

"No, no. Listen. The radioactive rocks give off heat, like warm heat. Then they've got machines that turn that into electricity. This could be the same thing."

The older woman looked dubious, but she let go of my hand and took her own hand off the shiny metal surface.

"Why hasn't it got any writing on it?" she said.

"What?"

"No writing. Planes have got writing all over them, even the secret ones. I've seen them at the base."

"What base?"

"Pituffik."

"Oh."

"They've all got writing all over them. This doesn't have any writing."

It was true. Now that we were at a better angle, I could see that the plane's silver surface was unblemished. It was shiny - not mirror-like, but more like brushed metal. From this angle I could also see that the wings were sort of like chunks of a circle. In fact, the wings were just the right size that if they were one solid block that went through the fuselage it would almost certainly have been a perfect circle.

"Do you still think this is just an ordinary plane?" asked the older woman.

"I never said it was ordinary."

"You know what I mean," she said. "Do you think this is an American plane, or do you think it might be something else?"

I stared at the shiny metal object. I couldn't see any evidence of engines, yet it had clearly not just been thrown - before it crashed, it had definitely been flying.

"Maybe," I said cautiously. "Maybe something else."

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Art Pact 259 - Tunnels


"I hate tunnels," she said, her body rippling with disgust. I pushed past her, peering into the darkness. There were tiny points of light inside, tiny points that I could just about see if I was not looking directly at them. I tried to catch them sidelong, but they really were just indivisible atoms of light, impossible to place as distant or near. I moved aside, sat on the ledge and scratched at my tail nervously.

"I'm not fond of them myself," I told her. "Although I am a little surprised about you. Aren't you - I mean, don't you live in a tunnel or something?"

She rolled her head slightly so that more of her eyes were facing me - an unusually Tillian expression, one that I hadn't thought to see from a Polypede.

"I live in a warren," she said coldly. "A barbarian lives in a tunnel."

"What's the difference?"

"You might as well ask what the difference is between a house and a cave."

"But that's - I mean, you have to build a house from nothing, and it's-"

"Never mind," she said, turning back to the tunnel. "You'll just have to come and visit my home town some day."

The thought of going to a Polypede town was even less appealing than going into the tunnel, and thanks to my unfamiliarity with their expressions and tones of voice I couldn't even tell if Poppy was having a joke at my expense. I frowned, shrugged off my backpack, and started to go through it for the flashlight I knew I had somewhere.

"I was being serious," she said. "You should come."

"What, and be eaten alive?"

"We're not barbarians. We wouldn't eat a guest. Ha ha, that was a joke."

I stopped my rummaging.

"Oh. Uh, wait - what? Is it a joke that you wouldn't eat a guest, or is it a joke that you would eat anyone who wasn't a guest? I'm confused."

"Oh, on my last two feet! The joke is that everyone thinks we eat people, but we eat fungus. No-one would eat a living thing, the very idea is disgusting."

"Well not that disgusting..."

"Very disgusting!" she said, curling up her body tightly. A ripple of disgust travelled along her segments, causing each pair of feet to jerk in turn. "Could we please stop talking about such things and get back to the work in hand. We have to go into the tunnel. I hate tunnels."

I started searching again, and my hand closed on the cold metal cylinder that was the flashlight. The batteries still appeared to be good, and I pointed it into the dark opening. It was rock-sided, carved out with hand tools if I was any judge of the pattern of rocks. With the light on all the little pin-pricks of light were invisible, and I was no wiser as to whether they'd been further down the tunnel or right at the entrance. I took a few steps inside, and heard the sound of Poppy unwinding and scuttling after me. She made no effort to come along side, content to hang back.

The tunnel had, I thought, been made by a Tillian. It was wide enough for me to stand up in, and sloped down at a comfortable angle. Seven or eight Polypedes could have walked down it at once, perhaps more if my suspicions about Poppy's ability to hold onto the ceiling were correct. She didn't confirm it by her actions, though, simply gliding along the path behind me. Her legs made a sort of drumming noise as she walked which echoed oddly in the cylindrical tunnel.

"Say we find this box," I said.

"Yes. We will find it."

"Okay, but what then? I mean, do we bring it out, or do we attempt to open it where it is? Did your guru or whatever have anything to say about that? Is it going to be hard to carry? Is the box going to be intrinsically valuable, or just what's in it?"

"No, he didn't say any of that. Just that I should find the box. Perhaps it will be obvious when we get there."

"I don't like not having a plan," I said. "It's - I just don't like it."

"Well then you must find life in general a terrible tribulation," she told me. "You have to learn to relax and take things as they come."

"That sounds like a rather passive philosophy. We have to prepare for a hunt, we can't just do... whatever it is you do. What do you do, if you don't eat meat?"

"Ugh, I thought we weren't going to talk about eating living things."

"Sorry. But I mean, what else is there? Do you go out and look for fruit?"

"We farm, obviously. Mushrooms, groundberries, that sort of thing."

"You eat mushrooms?" I made a disgusted face which she could not, of course, see, but I think it was obvious in my voice.

"Yes we eat mushrooms, of course. You needn't sound so horrified. Imagine what we think about you."

"I-"

"You can't, of course, because you think that we eat people. Well, you will just have to start practising that sort of sympathy. You can go back to your towns - or your caves," she added, with an acid tone, "and tell them what we really eat. Then perhaps this ridiculous rumour will come to an end once and for all."

"I guess," I said. Up ahead I could make out sharp spikes hanging down from the roof of the tunnel. They looked disturbingly like fangs, and I picked them out with the flashlight. Just stalactites. "But isn't it something good, that rumour?"

"Good? What could be good about it? It's insulting."

"Well, I guess, although it's not - is it really insulting if it's just-"

"It's insulting to say that we're like mad barbarians who would eat people, yes. Move on."

"Okay, okay."

We reached the stalactites and the floor grew bumpy with tiny conical hillocks, no more than a few inches tall, which I guessed must be stalagmites growing up to join with their descending brothers. I turned the light towards the floor so that it would be easier for Poppy to wind through the little field of bumps - a mistake, because I walked straight into a stalactite that I hadn't seen, and the shock knocked me flat on my tail backwards. If Poppy hadn't been paying close attention I would have ended up sitting on her head, but she was quick enough to rear away from me.

"Ow!"

"Are you alright?" she asked. I rubbed at my snout. Fortunately I'd been looking down when I hit the rock, so that the blow had fallen across my forehead and not directly on the end of my nose. I thought I would probably have a hefty lump there, but the injury didn't feel too bad. My tail and legs, on the other hand, had taken quite a shock when I hit the floor, and my back felt as though I'd been punched in the spine.

"Yeah, I'm... I'm fine," I said weakly, carefully rolling so as to be able to walk my hands up the tunnel wall and get myself upright again. "Just a bit of a shock, that's all."

I let go of the wall and tried out my legs for a second - which was about all I got out of them. My left leg crumpled under me, pitching me sideways. I was only able to avoid crashing down again by clinging onto the stalactite that had floored me and then letting myself slide gently to the floor.

"Now you know why I hate tunnels," Poppy said.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Art Pact 258 - In The Heat of the Day


"Oh, this is intolerable!" the major blustered. He waved at the cloud of flies that attended him like a halo, succeeding only in dispersing them for a few moments before they regrouped again into their holding pattern. Frobisher could see that one of the insects had made a daring landing on the very tip of the major's ear, and was dabbing cautiously at the skin there with its proboscis. It was a brave creature - there had been many a larger animal that had wanted a piece of the old soldier, and Frobisher had seen an array of them strung up on the man's wall at the hunting lodge. One, in particular, came to mind at that moment - a rather surprised looking elephant whose head took up the greater part of the north wall between the two windows that overlooked the gardens. It seemed to have been killed in a manner entirely unexpected to it, judging by the look on its face, as though it had stumbled in upon its wife in the middle of a sordid affair with a kangaroo, and having then attempted to dispatch the cuckolder with its own boomerang it had been unprepared for the weapon to curl around mid-flight and return to strike it fatally in the rear. Of course, such fanciful thoughts bore no connection to the truth of the matter - that being that the creature had been shot at blank range by the major and then stuffed by a taxidermist who was not, perhaps, at quite the very height of his art, but it made Frobisher feel a little better about accompanying the old man to think that the elephant had died in some purely natural manner and had then simply been acquired. The brutal truth - that the major was a murderer of our four-legged friends on a grand scale - was simply too much to bear for long. There were only so many hours that Frobisher could spend convincing himself that the past was a different country where the customs were alien and the attitudes towards the sanctity of life considerably more flexible. He could tolerate such behaviour only to a certain degree, and then he of necessity fell back on more whimsical methods, fooling himself about the quality of the man he was accompanying in order that he himself might rest more peacefully at night and not be haunted by the vengeful spirits of the veritable menagerie of the deceased with whom he shared the house.

The major, unaware of the insect that was even now attempting to make something of a meal of him, tugged at his collar and fanned himself ineffectually with his open hand, trying at the same time, it seemed to Frobisher, to shrink back so as to cram his generous body further and further into the meager shade allowed by the parasol. He had become steadily pinker through the course of the morning, and now, in the full heat of the day, he had begun to resemble a lobster that was slowly wising up to the fact that it was being boiled alive. A distressing red colour had begun to creep across his sparsely-covered pate, although its blotchy nature led Frobisher to believe that it was a heat rash rather than the onset of sunburn. Frobisher had been called upon very specifically by the major's physician to watch out for the slightest hint of sunburn and call an end to the morning's expedition, although how he might persuade the major into any course of action (or in this case inaction) against his will was a mystery to Frobisher. The doctor himself had never, so far as Frobisher was aware, been able to persuade the major to change his lifestyle in any way that would materially benefit him, and it seemed exceptionally optimistic, given that fact, that he should expect the far less qualified Frobisher to succeed where he had so frequently failed.

"I wonder," Frobisher suggested, "if it might not be a better idea to have some of the locals build a hide for you."

"A hide?"

"Yes, a hide. A covered-"

"I know what a hide is, for God's sake. What I want to know is why you think that my mission would be improved by building a structure in a single place when all of my plans are arranged around mobility and the opportunity to follow on of the creatures should it present itself."

"Well," said Frobisher. He was unsure quite how to proceed, but he looked at the insect - still perched on the major's ear and sucking away at it quite happily - and realised that if a creature like that was not afraid of the major when he might kill it without a second thought, he should at least be capable of speaking to the man in the capacity for which he had been hired. "I think that until the animal turns up you're doing a lot of sitting in one place anyway. Since the locals aren't doing anything much at the moment and you're paying their wages, we might as well have them erect something here just in case you have to wait a significant period of time. Anything that gets built we can abandon when the time comes to follow your quarry." If the time comes, he thought, since he was still extremely skeptical about the existence of the creature.

"Humph. Well, I suppose I am paying them," said the Major. Frobisher was not too surprised to hear that that was the reason that the old man took most seriously, although he was a little surprised about how unsurprised he was. Had he somehow decided that the man's chief motivation in this wild goose chase was money? Frobisher understood well that a creature so improbably would be a terrific money-spinner if it should turn out to be real - the major would get book deals out of it without a doubt, he would be able to name his price for speaking engagements, and if nothing else he was unlikely ever to have to buy his own meals ever again - but was that his primary motivation? Had it been the motivation behind his relentless slaughter of more quotidian beasts? Frobisher thought not. There had been a solid streak of glory-hunting behind it, and no doubt he had sold the rest of the animal when he kept their heads, but the major had spoken of the old hunts as though they were personal tests, as if they were things that he had had to do to prove something to himself (or possible, Frobisher thought, to the spirit of his father - the major was wont to invoke the old man when lambasting Frobisher, and he wondered sometimes if he were not actually hearing the echo of some dressing down that the major had received himself as a young man).

"I could have them start in the morning," Frobisher suggested. "If all goes well we'll be on our way before they have the skeleton in place, but as they say, plan for success but prepare for failure."

The major raised an eyebrow.

"They say that, do they?"

"Uh, yes. Well, I mean not often, but it's a known aphorism."

"Really. Well I suppose if it's well known then it must be true."

The major shifted uncomfortably in his chair, then raised up his left hand. For a moment Frobisher thought it was all over for the fly, but the insect's reactions were faster than the old soldier's. The major scratched at his ear furiously, but the fly was gone even before the shadow of ancient fingers fell over it. Frobisher watched it spiral away into the cloud of its compatriots and found himself breathing a sigh of relief on the little animal's behalf.