Thursday, September 26, 2013

Art Pact 280 - Questions about living in a monsters stomach

Let me throw the floor open to questions - well, wait. Before we have the first question, let me make a little note on this piece of paper here, I'm going to fold it up, put it over here. You can - here, you, you can look at it if you like. Just to show that it isn't a magic trick. Yeah, just... no, you can look at it. Just don't show it to anyone else. You don't have a question, right? Right. Okay. No, yes, otherwise that would sort of be hard for me to predict. Okay? Okay.

Okay, we're all good. So, do we have any questions?

Oh, quiet a lot. A lot of hands, that changes the odds slightly, perhaps. Or maybe it doesn't. No, probably not, that's not how odds work . So, uh, do we have a roving microphone? No? Okay, well people are just going to have to shout their questions and I'll repeat them back. Or for the first question, I'll just show the piece of paper there. 

Oh, we can get one, but it will take a moment? Okay.

Uh, so, people in the back, forgive me! I'll get to you, but for the sake of my ears to start with I'll pick some questions from the front. Uh, yes! The lady in the grey - is that a blouse, or a shirt? I never know what clothing is what. Oh? A tank top. My mistake. Sorry. What's your name?

Madeleine. Okay, Madeleine - what's your question?

Ahh. Yes. I can see you're smiling - sorry, I forgot to ask what your name was? Rob? Rab? What is that, is that Scottish? Oh, yes, I see.

So everyone, the reason Rab is smiling is because on the inside of that piece of paper he's holding I just wrote down... could you read it please, Rab?

Exactly: What is it like living in the stomach of a giant monster?

Am I what? Oh, no - no!

For people at the back who couldn't hear, Madeleine was just asking me whether I get fed up being asked that question. No, I don't. Actually I love it, partly because I think it is a very interesting question myself, and partly because since I get asked it so much I've got a whole spiel going that I can reel off without thinking too much. Although I will tailor it to this audience a bit, so I can leave out the business about the existence of the monster.

First off, where I live is not actually in the stomach. There are coping mechanisms that can be used, but it's just more comfortable to live in the duodenum, away from the acid. I go to the stomach occasionally, Obviously I sort of prefer coming out that way when I'm let out rather than taking the back door, if you catch my drift. But mainly the stomach is just too hostile. The acid, the unpredictability of sudden flooding, it's all hard to work with. Much much better to live further back where I get some kind of warning, where I can prepare for any disruptions.

Now, I don't have to explain to any of you what or where the duodenum is, so I can skip over that part. What I'll say is that there is one major difference between a human duodenum and the monster's on, apart from the obvious question of scale. And that is that the peristaltic muscles aren't arrange in bands, but in four - let's say stripes, for want of a better word, that run the length of the digestive tract. The stripes can expand and contract, it's possible they have bands of muscles within then, but they seem pretty homogenous to me from the outside. Anyway, what this means is that there are relatively stable areas, smaller stripes, that also run the whole length of the monster's guts. They don't move a lot, they tend to end up as void spaces in which rotting food collects, they're breeding grounds for parasites, but they also provide me with somewhere that I can live without too much disruption. My little hut is on the bottom-most one of these stripes about twenty meters in from the sphincter that leads from the stomach. I can - maybe if I can put this up on a screen. Ah, there we go. Home sweet home! I'm sure you've all seen that picture before, it was the one on the cover of the Radio Times. But here's another one, taken out of my window. I think it gives a better idea of the scale of the thing.

Sorry, what's that?

Oh, yes - now, that is an interesting question. What's your name? Alison. Alison. So, what Alison's asked is what is that there, in the upper left of the- no, the upper right of the picture. It may amaze you to know that there's not much use for knowing left from right when you live in a monster's belly. Anyway - uh, yes, that! Okay, so we don't know for sure, but what we think that is is a swelling caused in opposition to a hernia. The theory is that there's a bit of the intestinal wall herniating into the monster's first dorsal lung cavity. It's not proved yet, exactly, but people who are greater experts in monster anatomy assure me that that's the most likely explanation.

What? Oh, why don't we investigate? Well, that's a good question but a simple one. We can't risk doing any damage to the monster given its current position. What we do know - well, what I know, and what I'm telling everyone - is that you have to be very careful what stimulus you apply to the inside of the monster. It's... well, ticklish isn't exactly the right word, but there are sensors or nerve endings in the monster's gut that don't respond very well to irritation. I know this because of what happened to North Pelton.

Ah, yes, I see you know about North Pelton. Well, that was pretty tragic, but it was a long time ago when towns were much smaller. I would say the estimates today are pretty good, perhaps a hundred or two hundred people killed all in all. But you can look at a map of the areas that lie above the monster now and do a little calculation based on census data and - well, a spasm the same size as the one that ended North Pelton could kill a hundred thousand people? Two hundred thousand? It's a serious business. Even at the milder end of the scale we're talking about thousands of people dead, lots more injured.

Oh, we have the microphone - good, well, I can see a lot of hands up at the back there, perhaps - yes, the gentleman in the cloth cap! And may I congratulate you on your fashion bravery. People don't wear a lot of hats nowadays. Not like when I was young. Anyway, yes, go ahead.

Well, hmmm.. So, I have ambiguous feelings about this. On the one hand, it would no doubt be much safer in the long run. But the short term problem is how do you do it? It would have to be instant - absolutely instant. If the monster so much as flinched, the effect on Pelland would be devastating.

And, I won't deny, if the monster comes to an end, what about me? That would be the end of me too, I think, although it's not one hundred percent certain. There's also a little bit of me that says - well, what right do we have to kill the monster? It was here first.

Good question, though. I'm genuinely conflicted.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Art Pact 279 - Comodina

Of all the worlds in which I might have lived, the great moon of Comodina-5 was the one that I found most pleasant. When I was a boy of a mere six hundred and ten I fell from the sky and landed in a clearing in the centre of a Mushtik village. It was midday during a dark month - the period during which the moon was cut off from sunlight by the great bulk of Comodina itself, which filled the noontime sky with rolling red clouds and violent flashes of light - the result of lesser moons and rings falling into the atmosphere of the gas giant and being consumed. I fell hard - I had dropped a lot of speed coming through the atmosphere, at the cost of my clothes which had been ripped to shreds and were no doubt flitting around the upper atmosphere, but not enough to prevent me from embedding myself three meters into the soil of the clearing. I lay there, staring up at the me-shaped patch of red sky that was all I could see (I did not know at the time that I was seeing the sky of another planet, not the one of the moon I was on), and I was just beginning to wonder how I could pry my limbs free of the earth and get out of the hole when a head popped into view above me.

"Chomack?" said the head. It was broad and flat, and split vertically by a horrid-looking mouth flanked on either side by two pairs of glistening black orbs that I chose to assume (correctly, as it turned out) were eyes. "Chomack Amatu?"

"Yes," I said. "Yes, please."

If the creature was surprised that it could understand me, despite my obviously foreign language, it did not show in its mind. It seemed to be taking the whole thing rather matter-of-factly, as if naked aliens dropped out of the sky on a regular basis, and it vanished for a few moments to return with a rope, which it lowered down to me. The end of the rope dangled tantalisingly near to my belly, but I was unable to free my arms from the soil they had fallen into, the blow having compacted the soil quite handily into a thick clay consistency. I struggled against it for a moment then saw the rope being winched back up, repositioned, and lowered again so that it fell directly into my right palm. I was able to grab that easily enough, and with the extra strength of the local pulling up with his rope we were able to free my right arm. Once that was out it was trivial to free the rest of me, and finally I climbed out of the hole on my own by bracing myself against the sides. The creature was surprised about that, and when I got out I saw why - it was only about half a meter tall at the shoulders, although it was close to two meters long. For it, being in a hole three meters deep would have been quite a prison, and although it was obviously not phased by my presence or the other unusual facets of my appearance, the fact that I was tall and not long seemed to be something out of the ordinary for it.

It was a common body plan on Comodina-5, I was later to learn. All of the creatures who lived there were longer than they were tall, and in some cases comically so, so that there were insect-like creatures with the cross-section of my thumb but perhaps ten or twelve meters in length, so long that it was not uncommon for the animals to criss-cross their own paths while foraging, and for animals to physically tie themselves in knots accidentally. The intelligent people - the Mushtik, of whom my rescuer was one - were less ostentatiously long, but they were still more centipede than ape in appearance, and it was clear that my height would provide a constant source of amazement and amusement for them.

"Fretmao?" asked the local, pointing up at the sky. "Oman Fretmao Chomack?"

"Oh, no. I mean, yes, I did fall from the sky. But not from that place. From space. From elsewhere." I made a big gesture, in case the local was unfamiliar with the concept of space but somehow an expert at charades, but it was unnecessary - I could see in its mind that it recognised that I had come from further afield.

"Koka May?" it asked.

"No, I'm fine. I've fallen farther before. Maybe a few bruises."

I had fallen farther before, and faster. I'd been falling through space for approximately thirty years by that point, and as I'd been ejected from the ship at around half light speed it was clear to me that I must have lost a lot of energy coming through the outskirts of the system - if I'd hit the moon at 0.5c I would probably have blown the thing in half. Whether the impact would also have killed me I did not know - they'd obviously hoped that at the other end, but I had good reason to doubt that anything so simple as kinetic energy would be the end of me.

"Mischey?"

"Yes, please! I'm starving."

Now we were on firm ground. The native could accept that I had fallen from the sky, it was unfazed by my appearance in general although boggling at my aspect ratio, and it had moved on from there to simple hospitality. I wasn't sure whether I would be able to eat the food that it gave me, but it wasn't as if the process was vital to me anyway. If the food was poisonous it wouldn't be able to kill me, and I didn't need any nutrition from it one way or the other, so as long as it was something that would fit in my mouth and that I could break with my teeth and swallow, it would be good. There was the matter of taste, of course, but I was confident that no matter how disgusting the fare I would be able to grin and bear it and be polite to my hosts. If it filled up my stomach and took away the awful pangs I'd been experiencing for the last couple of decades that would be worthwhile.

The first hurdle was caused, of course, by my height. The natives, my host included, lived in flat buildings stacked on top of each other, carved out of the body of what I discovered was the local flora - a squat thing about as tall as me into which a low helical path had been cut, leading to several openings in turn, each of which was a house - or hut, or whatever you want to call them. My host disappeared into one and just when I was wondering whether I should crawl in after it on my belly it emerged again, holding a cookpot (apparently the design of some kitchenware is universal) and some chunky yellowish globes that I assumed were fruit. He scuttled down to the base of the house, pausing at each door to call in to the inhabitants. Most of them were either empty or contained locals apathetic towards his call, but two more emerged from their houses, and tagged along after my host when his body had finished passing their door. The three of them formed a little train that spread out into parallel lines at the bottom as we all walked back towards the clearing and the hole I'd made in it.