Saturday, April 13, 2013

Art Pact 263 - Shallow Talk

At the edge of the beach, staring up at the land, stood a heavily-armoured fish. It was lying in the shallows, huffing air over its gills and trying to breath. The air was incredibly cold, and every time the fish gaped its mouth it felt a shock of ice passing through its mouth and throat. It was unsure whether the air was doing anything for it - it was still alive, but every minute or so a larger wave washed up the shore, pushing warm water over it.

"Is it working?" called a voice from further out.

"Not sure," gasped the armoured fish.

It shifted awkwardly from side to side, evening out the pressure on its fore-fins. Its actual fins were splayed out on the sand, the weight of its body (not inconsiderable) taken by the heavier bones further up the limbs. It flapped its tail, pushing it a few millimetres further up the sand. It had been doing this every so often for the last few hours, pushing itself an infinitesimal distance with each Herculean effort, and it had got far enough that most of the time only the tip of its tail was in the water. The further it went, the harder it became to move one still further. It knew that there should be some way it could move its tail to press against the sand, but it could not figure out how to do that and stay upright on its fins.

"You're still alive, right?" called the voice.

"Yeah, I'm still alive."

"How about you call it a day and come back?"

"No, I think I'll stay out here a while. You go on, you know? Don't bother waiting for me."

"It's all good," said the voice. "I'm not needed anywhere else, not in a hurry, you know? I can just wait here for you to get back. Take your time."

"Oh, I will. I mean, really. I might never come back, do you understand? So if I'm not back in-"--it tried to calculate how long it could stay out of water if the trick with the air didn't work. The answer was depressingly low. "If I'm not back in an hour, say, you can assume I'm gone."

"Okay," said the voice. "If you're not back in an hour I'll just swim away. I'll be gone, so if you come out here and you want to find me for whatever reason, you'll have to come looking for me. I won't be here any more, so..."

Lying bastard, thought the armoured fish. It considered its options. First of all, it could give all of this up as a bad job from the start. Just swim back out to where the voice was and accept that whatever was going to happen was going to happen. Second, it could continue its futile struggle up the beach and asphyxiate. Third, it could do the most likely thing, the thing it expected of itself and it was clear that the voice expected of it: it would hold out as long as it could, then turn around and swim back out to sea in the full knowledge that the voice wasn't gone, that the voice was in fact hiding under a rock somewhere nearby, waiting to tear the fish to shreds the instant it came back. Not the most appealing of outcomes. In fact far from it - probably the least appealing. The fish itself had attacked and eaten many other fish in its time, and although it felt no guilt about it, it was aware enough to know that it had not been exactly a pleasant experience for its victims. There had been thrashing about. There had been blood. There had been anguished cries for mercy from the food-fish, and terrified yelling and farting from the food-fish's relatives and shoal members. Altogether an unpleasant experience if viewed from the perspective of the killee rather than the killer. The thought of beaks or teeth or whatever it was the voice had at its disposal for the rending of flesh was enough to make the armoured fish shudder violently with horrid anticipation.

Still, the fish had had a good life, it thought. It would have liked to have spawned a little more, but then didn't everyone think that? That was the purpose of life, after all, and it would have been ridiculous to think that it was somehow above everyone else. No, it was just a fish, doing what fish did. Swimming, feeding, spawning, and then, eventually, dying. There was no way to escape that fate, any more than there was a way to fly up into the air and out of the world altogether.

As if mocking the fish, a black dot zipped past a foot above its head. It stopped, well out of reach, flapped a set of complicated-looking wings each smaller than the smallest fin on the fish's body, then zipped away along the beach before the fish could react.

"Bugger me," said the fish, staring after it. A thought crossed its mind. Perhaps there was a way out of this, after all. "Hey!" it called out. "You still there?"

"Yes, I'm still here," said the voice.

"Okay, good. I'm after some advice."

"What?"

"Advice, you know? I'd like your opinion on what to do. Should I stay out here, or should I come back? I mean, it's a long way up to the top of the beach, you know? A long time. I'm not sure I can make it. But I mean, it's worth it, right?"

Sometime long - a tail, a tentacle? - breached the surface a little way out into the bay and slapped down again violently, flicking up a little spray of water.

"You want me to decide for you?" said the voice, coming from roughly the same place where the unidentified limb had appeared. The armoured fish wondered whether it was a threat - it was a pointless threat if it was, of course, since there was nothing at all appealing about the idea of returning to the bay to be eaten.

"Well, I don't know about decide. But I mean, if I come back there, I'll somehow feel that I've failed. But on the other hand, the chance of me succeeding in getting up the beach seems pretty low. It's failure to the front of me, failure to the back of me, right? I need to know whether the risk is worth it. Actual failure or psychological failure, right?"

"I suppose so," said the voice thoughtfully. "I mean, you can always think of it not as failure, but as a stepping stone to a greater thing, right? You can know whether the approach you took was good or bad, you can refine your approach, think about things, what to try on your next attempt, right?"

The armoured fish knew that it would not be getting a next attempt. But the voice, it thought, must be assured of its success.

"I guess," it said. "I mean, that makes sense. I come back out there and regroup, and work out how I could have done things differently. I mean, I suppose I would have stopped that thing from laying eggs in me, for instance."

"There you go- wait, what did you just say?"

"Oh, there was a thing - like a little animal, actually up in the air. It came down on my back a minute ago, I'm pretty sure it laid some eggs back there. I'll come back in and then everything will be fine, right? There won't be any problems with my back, will there? No problems that you know of?"

"I'll - uh, I have to go," said the voice. "Good luck with that!"

Limbs flailed out of the water and pushed out to sea quickly. The armoured fish waited a few minutes, then began to turn itself back to the waves.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Art Pact 262 - Tombs

"This is all very well," she says to me, brushing the sand out of her hair, "but it's not really getting us any further in there"--she gestures towards the opening to the crypt, which is still covered by the carved stone block.

"Look. Do you really want to go in there?" I ask.

"Of course I want to go in there. It's the whole reason I came here."

It's not the whole reason she came here, and I know it. And she knows that I know, and I know that, of course, because otherwise I wouldn't be able to tell you. But we haven't yet crossed that line, the line where she admits to me that she came here to seek revenge as well as fame, and I admit to her that I know that, that I've known it all along, that anyone who met her during her voyage has a good chance of having worked it out too, that it is, as they refer to them, an open secret.

"I came here to get my place in the department by being the first person into the tomb and by getting some photographs that will go in textbooks hundreds of years from now," she says gently. "I didn't come here to piss about with side excavations and dodgy monoliths."

"'Don't get too focused on means and forget your aims'," I quote, which she responds to with a disgusted face and a dismissive wave of her hand. "No, listen. You want your place in the department, it doesn't matter how you get it. This will get you it, I guarantee. Well, actually I don't guarantee, but I mean this is better than going into the tomb. Safer, more interesting. Your dean wants a steady source of donations to keep the department in professors and undergraduates for years to come, right? This will have him sitting pretty. This is a gold-mine of research right here, you've got hieroglyphs, you've got artifacts, you've got the whole shebang. Just give up the idea of going into that damn tomb!"

Before I finish the sentence I know I've chosen the wrong word. Her face, which has been relatively open to my argument, sets into stone the instant the words "give up" leave my mouth. There's no telling Nur to give up. She's not the giving up type. She's not the type, even, to forgive someone easily for suggesting she might give up. Once upon a time I would have tried to infer something about her upbringing, her school days or home life by this, but that sort of thinking bit me in the arise when it came to Michelle, and I have learnt not to speculate so far beyond the bounds of the information I have.

"I didn't mean give up," I say quickly, putting my hands up. "I meant postpone. We can come back to the tomb, of course, but the tomb is going to be there for a long while. Everyone knows about it, and in all these years no-one's been able to get inside. But this stuff is-"

"Let me just stop you there," she cuts in. "When we met, on the boat, you promised me that you could get me into the tomb. You said that you'd discovered something that would make it easy, that all I needed to worry about was providing the equipment and the funding. Well, I've done that. Here's the equipment you asked for, and I distinctly remember handing over what seemed like quite a lot of funding at the time. Hmm, let me think"--she cupped her chin between finger and thumb, and stared up into the sky with a mock pondering expression--"yes, it still seems like quite a lot of funding. Are you telling me that you cannot, in fact, get me into the tomb?"

"Well, I mean-"

"Don't tell me what you mean, say something that actually means the truth."

Her expression is now way beyond mockery - she's no longer poking at me verbally to goad me into action, she is actually genuinely angry at me, angry in a way that I've only seen her be before in the matter of her father's death. I realise that she's close to lumping me in that great category of grudges she has in her head: obstructions to justice. Once I'm in there, I'm dog meat.

"Look, we can get into the tomb," I reassure her. "We can get into the tomb."

"Get us into the damn tomb, then."

"It's just a little more complicated..."

It is a little more complicated, but not in any way I can tell her without bursting the bubble. We can get in there easily enough if we have something from the new dig site. I was just hoping to be able to tempt her from her current destructive path by one of the other baubles that we'd uncover on the way to the important one. Perhaps I should have been more up-front with the information in the first place, let her know all along that what she needed for getting into the tomb was in the antechambers and let the lure of the antechambers themselves work to drag her off her path.

No, that would never have worked. On someone as single-minded as Nur? No. She would have marched straight through the place without so much as an interested glance left or right. The quest for vengeance has grown inside her to such a monstrous size that it's blinkered her to everything. If she stumbled across a way to bring her father back from the dead I doubt she'd even notice it, so warped has her judgement on this matter become.

"Simplify it for me," she growls.

"Okay, okay!"

I tell her about the keystone. She's skeptical - perhaps something in her senses the trap that I had just been thinking about, that it might be enough just to walk her through the potentially fabulous discoveries in the antechambers - but her expression begins to thaw slightly. I describe roughly where I think it is (this is more of a lie, since I have only the vaguest idea, but I put in sufficient certainty to give her hope, sufficient fuzziness to buy me some time at the other end), and slowly, slowly, she seems to have forgotten about my slip of the tongue earlier. Now she has a straightforward path ahead of her - we go into the antechamber, we find the keystone, we open the tomb, and after that...

"If you'd just told me this in the first place we could have been down there already," she says, pointing into the tomb. Which is precisely why I didn't tell you, I think, because the longer we're out here and not in that damn tomb the safer we'll be and the better I'll feel.

"I wasn't certain before," I lie. "I mean, there's a lot of space around here, I wasn't sure I'd be able to find the antechamber that easily, that's why all the equipment and the money, you know? It wasn't a done deal."

"Well," she says, "it's a done deal now. Good work, old man. I'll get my kit together and we'll start inside in about half an hour, okay?"

I nod, sadly. There's an old saying - Chinese, I think: "If you dedicate yourself to revenge, first dig two graves". Well, I think to myself as Nur begins to walk towards the tents, just look at that tomb:

There's room inside it for thousands of graves. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Art Pact 261 - Winnowing

When there were just three of them left, Rama's composure began to slip. It stared to its left, at the ragged hole in the earth where Cospid had been, and its outer tendrils writhed with a nervous energy that caused them to brush against Laxi.

"Stop that!"

Rama said nothing.

"Stop that!" Laxi repeated. "Stop it this instant!"

"Sorry," said Rama, its voice shaky. "It's - look, maybe I was wrong. Maybe this is something bad."

"We told you that," called Polis.

"I know, it's just-"

"Cospid told you that," said Laxi.

"I know, I know. Where's Cospid gone? One moment it was there, the next moment: nothing! I didn't expect that. I thought there'd be some warning. I thought I'd see something."

"I thought you said there was nothing to worry about."

Rama twisted back to look a Laxi, bowing down with an expression of shame.

"I thought it was lying, like it always did."

"I can't believe you," said Laxi. "Always thinking the worst of the world, but you have to let your petty short-sightedness get the better of you on this one. You heard Cospid? We heard it too, it didn't sound like it was lying."

"Oh, you don't know it like I do. You're fine, you've got Polis over there buoying you up all the time. I've got you on one side of me with your relentless logic and Cospid on the other side of-" Rama fell silent for a second. "I had Cospid on the other side of me," it said slowly, "feeding me improbable bullshit all the time. It told me it could move, can you believe that? It said it could pull itself out of the earth and walk around and about. Bloody hell!"

"What? What?"

"Oh, that is... That's just wrong. We're going to die," said Rama.

"What is it? What can you see?"

The ragged hole where Cospid had been had suddenly vanished, filled-in in an instant with the loose soil that had surrounded it. A few seconds later a straight pole had appeared in it - a dry white thing with a sheen of green which Rama recognised for what it was: bone. It was bone, carved and shaped into an unnatural line, a thin cylinder of material which rose straight out of the ground and flared out only a touch at the top to support a pair of almost invisible lines, like ultra-fine tendrils, that stretched off to either side further than Rama could see. It was obvious to Rama where the bones had come from: They were Cospids, torn out and fused into this mockery, this ghost of Rama's quondam neighbour. Whatever horror Cospid had been talking about, it had if anything understated the situation.

"What can you see? What's going on?" Polis called.

"Uh... nothing," said Rama. "Nothing at all. It's just I was overcome with grief."

Cospid had been an itch in Rama's skin ever since they were children. They had been further apart then, of course, but Cospid had always had a loud and screechy voice, and it had been particularly vocal all its life.

"I wish I'd been where Polis is," Rama said quietly, so that Polis couldn't hear.

"Well of course you do," said Laxi. "Polis is going to be the last one to go. It's going to outlive the two of us. Not by much, of course, and it's going to be a bloody boring few hours it has left with no-one to talk to, but..." it fell silent for a moment. "We're really going to die, aren't we?"

"Yes," said Rama.

"Fuck. I thought we'd live long enough to spore, at least. I'm not greedy, you know? I just wanted there to be a point to life. You land as a seed, you grow, you spore, and that's the cycle done. You've kept the tendrils growing. Your life wasn't, you know, in vain. That's not too much to ask, is it?"

"Not too much, no," Rama agreed. It looked nervously over at the dead artifact. "I suppose you could say that if a bit of you lived on, that would be something, right?"

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, nothing. Ignore me."

"I don't want to ignore you," Laxi said. "You might be gone when I stopped."

Rama couldn't stop its tendrils from shaking now. It didn't want to think about what had happened to Cospid, but that seemed to be all there was in the world. Just Cospid's ghost and the two horrid tendrils snaking off further than the eye could see. Were they reaching out from the afterlife? Or to it, desperately trying to pull back and reunite the pale white ghost thing that was all that was left of Rama's neighbour? Rama shuddered violently. One of its major tendrils whipped out and collided with the outer halo of Laxi's tendrils, but to Rama's surprise Laxi did not withdraw, but caught it and held onto it.

"I wanted to be where Polis was because I thought it would be the best of both worlds," said Rama quietly. "Not because I would be the last one alive. I never knew that would even be a thing. I thought we'd all die together, perhaps after sporing, you know?"

"Yeah."

"I wanted some quiet, but not to be out in the middle of nowhere like a solitary. I thought that if I was where Polis was I could have quiet when I wanted it and I could talk to you when I didn't want it. Polis always seemed so calm, I thought it wouldn't have mattered if it had swapped places with me. It would have been able to put up with Cospid's nonsense." Rama laughed, bitterly. "You know, I think that's what so annoyed me about Cospid saying it could move around. I wished that was a real thing. I wished we could pull ourselves out of the dirt and I could have just swapped places with Cospid, easy as anything. It was like Cospid was mocking me."

"You know.. perhaps Polis wouldn't have been quite so relaxed if it had been in your place. If what you say is true, I mean."

"It's true."

"What's this about me?" Polis called.

"I was just saying you might have been different if you'd grown where Rama is. You know, there but for fate go I, and all that? There's a thing."

"Oh, yes!" said Polis. "No doubt!"

Its cry echoed across the landscape. In the far distance they could hear the sound of perchers flapping away from the tendrils of the hidden villages. Rama wondered if those villages too were suffering from sudden disappearances. They'd never seen the people who lived there, of course, but Rama had always imagined that those people must be arranged in a line just as they were. How could one live any other way? A group of people could be all bundled together like primitives, but how would one not go mad with the constant voices?

It looked back at the dead remains of Cospid.

"I want you to promise me something," it said to Laxi.

"Of course."

"When I- when I vanish, don't look at me. I mean, after you see that I'm gone. Turn away. Look at Polis until your time comes. Or maybe your time won't come. Look at Polis until you spore and die, in that case. Just don't look back my way."

"Why?"

"Um, I just want you to remember me the way I am now, that's all. Just promise me."

"I promise," said Laxi.