Wednesday, 31 October 2012


It wasn't the end of the world, though a lot of us had thought it would be.  The Climate Changed, much as the scientists had been predicting, only a little bit faster and a little bit more violently.  In true British fashion the storm that sunk the Isles was named Summer, and when all that was left above water were some of the rockier bits of Scotland and bits of the Pennines, those of us who had been lucky found ourselves slightly adrift on the gigantic vivirafts.
They were intended to house a couple of thousand people each, and those thousand were supposed to be politicians, royalty, and the rich – the people who believed that the country depended on them and their bloodlines (or in the case of the politicians, their opinions).  A separate viviraft had been dedicated to the diplomats, presumably in case the politicians couldn't find an opinion to agree on.  All of the vivirafts had launched, but none of them had carried their intended cargo, as their simply hadn't been the time.  By the time Storm Summer reached Britain people were cheerfully going about as though it was any other squall of bad weather, refusing to believe that it wasn't anything they weren't already used to.  When it hit, there was an hour of horrifically strong winds and torrential rain, and then everything went quiet.  The British mostly assumed that the storm was over.  When it re-emerged, gaining energy in some novel atmospheric system that fed energy from four different directions into a cataclysmic climatic explosion, the country flooded to a standstill in less than half-an-hour.  Eighteen hours later, and it was sunk.
I found myself aboard a viviraft because it floated by while I was trying to drown in peace.  A rope snaked over the edge and landed in the water beside me with a splash, and so I grabbed hold and was hauled in.
The man who hauled me in, with the aid of cunningly powered winch machinery, told me his name was Jonathan, and that he'd been the caretaker of the viviraft, waiting for the people who were supposed to populating it to arrive.  When the flooding effectively launched the viviraft by itself he put the list of approved passengers back in the safe and got on with bundling everybody nearby on board.
"You've been shanghaied," he said with a grin.  "Consider yourself crew now!"
The viviraft was mostly made of some indestructable non-bio-degradeable plastic intended to see out generations at sea.  There was an entire deck of hydroponics to provide sufficient protein for 2,500 people, and an upper poop deck was like a jungle in miniature.  In there, I found Melissa and Sam, biologists who were cooing delightedly over the plants and insects that were there.
"It's like a little pharmacopoeia," said Sam, who had a beard and was nearly twice my height.  "Unless there was a serious emergency we can pretty much make all the basic medicines, and make a good stab at some of the more complex ones.  We can even make anti-venin!"  He proudly pointed out a nest of snakes that I'd not seen, and I screamed and jumped over the railing to the deck below.
"We've got good telemetry, fuel for about six months, generators and redundant generators, and solar power," said Derek, who told me he used to be an accountant with a hobby in civil engineering.  "I don't know a whole lot about this stuff, but I've been downloading stuff off the internet to learn more about it, and it looks like there'll be some decent on-the-job experience!"
"How do you get to the internet when we're on a boat and the country just sank?" I asked.
"Satellite," he replied.  "Not everywhere's gone yet."
"And when it is?" I said, my heart in my throat.  "What then?"
"Then we'd better hope we've downloaded enough of it already," he said, his face suddenly serious again.
"So what do I do?" I asked Jonathan over tea that night, which was something green and soupy, and may have been plankton.  It even tasted green.
"Entertainer?" he said, and by the look on his face he wasn't joking.  "Chef – this food is rank –, navigator, cleaner,... look, the list is as long as your arm.  Even if you just did whatever needed doing when you were near it it would help at the moment.   Just don't do nothing."
I nodded, and sighed a little.  "I was hoping to be a playboy," I said, with a little laugh.  "But I guess I can be more useful than that."

Monday, 29 October 2012

The end of Mrs. Harrow

"Hello?  Oh, it's you Mrs. Harrow.  Do you know what time it is?  No?  Neither do I, but I was asleep, so let me just che–.  Ah.  Mrs. Harrow, it's 2:43 am.  Goodnight, Mrs. Harrow."
"Ok, stop ringing the damn phone already.  I know it's you Mrs. Harrow.  Why are you calling me, insistently, at this ungodly hour of the morning? ...I believe you'll find that most major religions would agree that this is an ungodly of the day, actually.  Why don't you call some of them and find out for yours–? ...No.  No.  Three times no, Mrs. Harrow.  What do you want?  Why are you calling me? ...Your washing machine doesn't work?  Why should I care? ...No, I'm not your landlord.  I'm not.  I can assure you I'm not, and if I were, I'd be evicting you.  Oh dear God, don't start crying.  Oh for the love of–"
"Good morning, you've reached Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations, Department of Soft Power and broken cuddly things.  Goodbye Mrs. Harrow."
"Good morning, you've reached Data Analy–.  Oh, it's you again.  I thought you'd stopped calling me repeatedly after you finally stopped calling last night.  I don't care about your washing machine, Mrs. Harrow.  I'm not your landlord, Mrs. Harrow.  I'm not related to your landlord either.  Where did you get my number from, Mrs. Harrow?  What do you mean?  Well that can't be right, we're ungooglable.  By the way, we've copyrighted that word, just in case.  You can sued for even thinking it, if we get wind of it.  Where did you get my number from Mrs. Harrow? ...I see.  I'm not sure how she would have my number, but I have my suspicions.  I'm still not your landlord, Mrs. Harrow.  Goodbye Mrs. Harrow.  Goodbye.  Good–"
"Jeronica?  What's the problem, you sound... well, you sound almost human.  You have a call for me?  Yes, of course I sound suspicious, I can only think of one person who might be trying to get to me via you, especially after I spoke to the switchboard.  Would this be Mrs. Harrow, by any chance?  No!  Don't put that harridan through to me!  She's got my home number and spent a lot of last night; well, this morning actually! calling me.  You know I can't take the phone off the hook at the moment, the Sweden thing... yes, quite.  Look, Jeronica, can you do me a favour?  Yes, I know I'll repay it fourfold, I haven't forgotten what you're like.  Yes.  Tell her I died, of a heart-attack, when the phone rang."
"Jeronica?  Hello again.  She started crying?  Oh good, that should keep her off the phone for a while.  You sound happy... really?  You're letting me off the favour bargain?  She must have done more than just cry then... hah, I see!  What?  No, I don't know anything about her washing machine.  I think it's broken.  Of course I could get it fixed for her, but why should I?"
"Hello?  Is that Swed–?  Mrs. Harrow?  I'm dead, Mrs. Harrow, I know you were told."
"Hello?  Hello?  This is a pretty bad line, can you tell me who you are again, and which ministry you work for?  Hans?  That's not a Swedish ministry... oh, you're calling from there?  I didn't think we were doing business with you at the moment though.  Oh.  Well, if you don't know what I'm talking about then you're probably not supposed to, so I wouldn't worry about it.  How can I help you, Hans?  ...There is no ordinance disguised as a broken washing machine.  No.  No.  Really, stop it.  Mrs. Harrow put you up to this didn't she?  She called you up and wouldn't stop until you gave in.  Yes.  Yes, I've been on the receiving end of her calls as well.  No, don't worry about it.  Well, do worry about it, but only in a low-key kind of way.  Thanks."
"Julius?  I've got an address for you.  ASAP.  No, the P does not stand for please, don't be ridiculous."
"Mrs. Harrow, I've been expecting your call.  Well yes, you've been calling me and people you think can influence me for nearly a week now, haven't you?  You were bound to call again, as you've still not got whatever pound of flesh you're after, have you?  Yes, yes, I'm well aware you want a replacement washing machine, not a pound of flesh, I was alluding to Shakespeare.  I doubt very much he is a gigolo, Mrs. Harrow.  No, I'm not replacing the washing machine.  No, I'm not your landlord.  However, before I hang up one last time, Mrs. Harrow, I'd like you to ask yourself a question.  Yes, I realise it may be hard for you, but try anyway.  In all the time you've been calling me, and please remember that I've never met you, and you called me first, you've never told me your name."
"Julius?  Fire at will."

Saturday, 20 October 2012


The little woman was picking her nose, inspecting whatever she found on the end of her finger, and then wiping it on the floral wallpaper next to her chair.  Madame Sosotris, clairvoyant and haruspex, contained her rage, and sniffed.  Her apparently incurable cold continued to make her nose run, and even her balm-dipped tissues weren't enough to keep the skin on her face from getting chapped.  The little woman started at the sniff, and promptly sat on both her hands before looking around her.  When she saw Madame Sosotris standing in the doorway she tried to look both surprised and innocent at the same time.  The end result was a little like the expression of a concussed chipmunk, as drawn by Disney.
"You still have both your hands!" said Madame Sosotris in a tone of mild surprise.  "Please, come through to my drawing room.  The spirits find that room the easiest room to communicate in."
The little woman shuffled to the edge of the chair and actually jumped down.  Madame Sosotris was startled to see that she was actually only a little over three feet tall; looking down on the top of her head made her own head swim and she felt a little dizzy.
"What would happen if the spirits felt most comfortable in your bedroom?" asked the little woman.  It sounded conversational, even a little flirtatious, but Madame Sosotris was still annoyed about the nose-picking and -wiping and so gave an honest answer.
"I'd burn cedar wood in there to make it inhospitable for them, and light votives in the drawing room to make it more attractive," she said.  "I've sacrificed a number of birds and small mammals in the drawing room, burned several expensive essential oils there, and boarded up some other... sacrifices... alive in the walls.  The drawing room is a spiritual magnet now, and to be honest, I doubt you could get hold of a spirit anywhere else in a two-mile radius."  She coughed, a throaty, mucusoidal sound, and her shoulders hunched with the force of it.  Instantly her nose began to run again, and she patted her pockets for a handkerchief.
"Oh," said the little woman in a little voice.  "That must take some effort.  Don't the council complain?"
"No," said Madame Sosotris, her voice muffled a little by the enormous white handkerchief she was trying to blow her nose with.  "They don't."
The little woman, whose name was Jo, now came into the drawing room and looked around.  There were windows in two walls, across which gauzy purple fabrics were drawn, giving the light a definite blue tinge.  The floor was stripped-back floorboards with a couple of hexagonal rugs laid on them at opposite ends of the room.  There was a round wooden table with four irregular chairs set around it at this end; at the other end were two overstuffed, soft-looking couches set at right-angles around a coffee-table.  There were three half-empty cups on the coffee table, and a pile of what might have been dried tea-leaves between them.  Jo found herself looking round the walls, which were wood-panelled, wondering where things – sacrifices she reminded herself – might have been boarded up.  The walls seemed solid, but there were various framed pictures of different sizes that might have been hiding things.
"Sit down," said Madame Sosotris, gesturing at the chairs.  Jo sighed, but only quietly.  Sitting on the couches would have been easier for her.  "While you sit," said Madame Sosotris turning away to an escitoire hidden behind the door, "I shall get the tools we need for this divination."
"I haven't told you what I'm here for yet," said Jo, struggling onto the chair.  To her annoyance, the chair wasnt' quite high enough for her to see over the edge of the table.  Madame Sosotris turned back holding a brown envelope and a cushion, and handed her the cushion.
"I wouldn't be much of a clairvoyant if I didn't know why you were here already," she said, sniffing.  "You're here to find out about Phlebitis, the doomed sailor."
Jo folded the cushion in two and got it under herself and was pleased to find that this boosted her up to the point where she could rest her arms comfortably on the table.  "Doomed?" she said.  "It sounds like this will be a short consultation!"
"Not at all," said Madame Sosotris sitting down opposite her and tipping some colourful squares of paper out of the envelope.  "Phlebitis's long term future is clearly visible, but his short term destiny is a shifting mess of images and mist.  He must do certain things, that is written, but how he achieves them appears to be largely up to him.  He is the pawn of a greater power than we humans normally deal with.  Choose a piece of paper, dearie,."
Jo looked at the papers, all of which were the same size but differently coloured.  Nothing seemed to distinguish them apart from colour, so she selected a pleasant beige square by tapping it with her finger.  Madame Sosotris nodded, and put all the other squares away again, then set the beige square in front of her, and starting folding it.
"You are not here to find out if there will be a romantic liaison between you, either," said Madame Sosotris, running her yellowed, horny nails along a crease to sharpen it.  "You are here simply to find out where he is headed and how you might intercept him."
Jo opened her mouth to deny it, and then paused.  For a moment she could have sworn that the paper shape that seemed to emerge from the paper as Madame Sosotris folded was a crown.
"His whereabouts are important to us," she said finally, kicking herself as she heard herself say us.
"Of course they are," said Madame Sosotris calmly.  She turned the paper over and starting making more folds on the other side.  "You understand that he is under protection though?" She sniffed again, but a trickle of mucus escaped her nose anyway and ran down swiftly to her lips, where it hunted for a way around them.
"I hadn't," said Jo, watching the paper folds with rapt delight.  She'd never seen origami used in divination before, and it was fascinating watching how the paper seemed to catch sparkles and twinkles that shouldn't be there.
"He had protection," said Madame Sosotris.  "I can show you how to find him, but I would advise you to take advice from someone else before you approach him."
"Why someone else?"
"Because I will not tell you who protects him, nor will I expose myself to their regard."
Madame Sosotris stood an origami unicorn up on the table, its eyeless face pointing at Jo.  "The unicorn will find Phlebtitis until it is identified, after which it will probably be useless.  This is all the help I will give you."  She sneezed, and although the unicorn was caught in the middle of the blast of air it didn't even move.
"Good enough," said Jo seizing the unicorn.  "How much do we owe you?"

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The house that Jack built

Dr. Roszó let go of the gate, and suddenly felt much lighter, as though he'd been carrying a heavy weight, somehow without knowing about it.  Sweat sprang out all over his body, abrupt and cold, and he shivered.  He looked over his shoulder: Adam was wiping sweat off his forehead and looked a little shocked, and the dull-eyed policeman was still staring resolutely ahead, seemingly acting on automatic.
"That was hard," said Adam.  He rubbed his hand on his trouser leg.  "That felt harder than when I tried opening the gate."
"I know," said Dr. Roszó.  "But that was guiding it through the the gaps in the pattern.  If we'd had to brute force it, it would have been harder still."
"How much harder?"
"Just harder."  Dr. Roszó didn't feel like telling Adam at this point that the pressures involved would probably have crushed the house and its occupant down to a small cube.  Assuming, of course, they could find enough people to generate that amount of force.
"So do we go in then?"
Dr. Roszó looked at the house and wondered how hard it was going to be to get inside there.  So long as the occupant was focusing on the gate, it couldn't be too bad, but the gate was open now, which meant that the occupant may well have switched its attention elsewhere.  He linked with Adam again, feeling the comfort of the flow of refined energy, and looked at the house and garden through enhanced eyes.
The coiling red and black snakes of the occupants power were still roiling around the gate, holding it firmly fixed in its now open position.  Tracing them back Dr. Roszó saw that they were emerging from an upper window, either a skylight or an attic window, set into the roof.  Concentrating, he looked at the front door, and after a few seconds effort realised that the coiling snakes around the gate linked to the front door as well, but that the windows on either side were free from influence and looked to be entirely unprotected.
Then he looked at the path to the front door, and immediately saw the attempts at hiding lines of force beneath it; the paving stones looked rucked up and impossible to cross in this view.  There were tendrils of power spread out across the grass of the lawn as well, but the flower beds bordering three edges of each half of the garden away from the path, were untouched.  Dr Roszó nodded slightly as he recognised this; it would have been impossible to hide their presence there in realsight as the plants would draw up energy straight away and start growing or mutating.
He let the energy flow drop, and noticed that Adam was staring at him.
"I got some of that," said Adam.  "Red and black snakes crawling over and under things.  It was yuk."  He shivered.
"Those are the lines of power," said Dr. Roszó.  "The occupant of the house has trapped the path and the grass, and the front door, but seems to have left the downstairs windows alone at least.  The flower beds are untouched as well, so we do have a path to get in to the house, but it looks like they're upstairs, probably on the top floor.  And I would expect that when we enter the house, the occupant will draw some of its power back so that it can deal with the intruders."
"When?" said Adam.  "You mean we're still going ahead with this?"
"Yes," said Dr. Roszó.  "We have to, we're the guys who deal with these kinds of problems."
"Can't we just call in a SWAT team?"
"Apart from the fact that that's American, we are the SWAT team."
Dr. Roszó looked at Adam, evaluating him.  He'd been hinting at much of this for the last few cases, but Adam had always been on the periphery until now.  Dr. Roszó didn't dare go into the house alone, given that he'd not been able to shift the gate without Adam's help, but he was also horribly aware that Adam wasn't prepared for this.  If there had been any way to pick an easier case to introduce him to these things, he'd definitely have taken it, but it looked like this would be first blood.  For someone.
"We'll have to check the windows first," said Dr. Roszó, deciding to take things as slowly as he dared.  "We need to be sure that there's no more subtle trap set."
"How do we do that?"  Adam's voice sounded oddly hollow, and he wasn't smiling any more.
"Throw rocks," said a new voice, cheerful and female.  Adam turned round, but Dr. Roszó had seen her waddling up the street already behind him.  The short, rotund woman with the rosy-apple cheeks, plaid skirt and ridiculously tiny hand-bag was Madame Annabel, Head of the department.
"Throw rocks," he agreed.  "There's never any need to be any more high-tech than absolutely necessary."
"We have a name," said Madame Annabel, arriving.  "The occupant was once called Jack Panatheikos, but in recent months has been insisting on only being called Jack."
"Who told us that?  The neighbours?"  Dr. Roszó looked puzzled, as the houses nearby had gently twitching curtains that suggested that the neighbours were all home and nervous.  He started wondering where the evacuation squad was.
"The post office," said Madame Annabel.  "Apparantly he's been phoning them up and complaining that his post is wrongly addressed for months, so that they've now gotten into the habit of blacking his surname from every letter and parcel with a marker pen."
"Were there many parcels and letters?"
"Why does that matter?" asked Adam, who was turning his head between Dr. Roszó and Madame Annabel like he was at a tennis match.
"Lots," said Madame Annabel.  "It matters because those parcels may have contained things that have resulted in this... occupation.
"Yes, but how could we know?"
"Ah," said Madame Annabel looking pleased with herself.  "That one's easy; we know the kinds of things that would be needed for this occupation, so we can simply do a sympathetic check if any of them have been delivered here in the last few weeks.  We can go back about four to five weeks for most of them, a bit further with some of the... let's call them exotica."
"We should start with the exotica," said Dr. Roszó.  "Given the strength of the occupant."
"That bad?"  Madame Annabel appeared to squint at the house and the gate, and after a few seconds she relaxed her eyes and looked at Dr. Roszó in admiration.  "You got the gate open with all that going on?"
"Between us," said Dr. Roszó, attempting modesty.
"I'm still impressed," she said.  "Let's get going then!"

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Drop

We had to stop the car and get out when we reached The Drop.  It was a town: small, quaint, carefully looked after by bucolic residents, and it was right on the edge of the Drop itself, a cliff that no-one had descended to the bottom.
Well, no-one living that is.
The roads were smooth blue-black asphalt with broken white lines painted down the middle.  On some of them were houses, offices and public buildings to the sides; the houses were wooden constructions, usually three or four stories high, though we did see a bungalow off in the distance at one point.  Trees grew around them like sentinels, standing alone but in sight of other trees, evergreen and tall.  The offices were steel and glass, very modern looking affairs.  They had carparks outside, and often underneath, accessed by gentle ramps and never blocked by yellow-and-black striped bars or severe metal gates with automatic openers.  The public buildings were usually brick, either red or yellow.  We figured it out after a while: the colour of the brick indicated how close the building was to the edge of the Drop.  The library was red and about two streets away from the Drop, but the town hall was yellow and right on the landside edge of town.  I think it was Paula who eventually pointed out that all the academic and intellectual side of life in The Drop seemed to be edgeside, and all of the political and infrastructural life seemed to be landside.  Marcus gave her a filthy look when she said that.
We parked the car outside the homeless shelter, which was less than fifty feet away from the edge, and went to look at the view.
There were no railings at the edge of the cliff, no warning signs either.  Nothing to tell you that you were stood at the top of the Drop, a height that had never been measured.  Nothing to tell you that if you stepped forward, or jumped off, or were pushed, then you'd fall for a long time, and the last thing you'd see would be something that very few people, if any, had ever seen before.
"It's like they want people to jump," said Marcus.  I'd positioned myself between him and Paula, in case either of them tried to do anything stupid.  "There's no warnings, nothing!"
"It's like the roadsigns," I said.  We'd passed several; the ones for the traffic going landside had numbers on, usually limiting the traffic to 50klicks an hour.  The ones going edgeward simply read "Your speed is your choice."
"Yeah," said Marcus.  "Did you see the road over there?"  He pointed, his tattooed hand and fingers stretching out across my face.  I turned my head, and saw what he meant: the asphalt went right on the edge and only ended when the land did.  "And did you see where the street-lights ended?"  I shook my head because I hadn't.  "About four streets back," he said.  "If you were driving at night, you'd get here just as you thought you were able to see things clearly, and the open air wouldn't warn you at all that you were about to drive off the Drop."
"So... you think they want people to fall off?  Why?  It's not like shipwrecks, there's nothing to pick up unless they've got a way of getting to the bottom.  And even then, what's going to be left after a car hits the ground at terminal velocity?"
"Perhaps it's an unusual form of impact mining?" said Paula.  Marcus and I shuddered, her voice was raspy and buzzed slightly on the nasal consonants.  She'd been the same ever since she'd been invaded, although sometimes in her dreams she spoke in her own voice again.  She said strange things, it sounded like she was dreaming of places that we'd never seen, and sometimes it sounded like she was crying.
"Must be something very tough down there then," said Marcus, a little shortly.  He'd been Paula's boyfriend until the invasion.  Now he said he wasn't sure what he was to her.
"Well," I said.  "It's what we're here to find out, isn't it?"
"Only if it works," said Marcus.  He started to turn away from the Drop.  "It's not worked for anyone else."
"No-one else has me with them," rasped Paula.  I turned away from her them, unable to cope with the way her eyes gleamed without any light to fall on them.  I saw that Marcus was watching someone coming out of the homeless shelter.  They were stumbling, one arm thrown protective up over their head.
"It's worth a try," I said.  "Let's see how far down we can parachute Paula's camera first.  We don't want to be going down blind ourselves."
"I don't want to be going down at all," said Marcus.  He was still watching the stumbling homeless man.  "He's going towards the Drop!"
We all looked, and it was true.  The man was still stumbling, couldn't see properly with his arm thrown up like that, and was heading towards the edge of the cliff, the Drop.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

These traitorous hands

Clytie, short for Clytemnestra because her father preferred to read about ancient Greek history to just about everything else, shouted up from the street below.  It was a little hard to hear what she was saying because there were car-horns blaring, some of them sounding quite frantic, and sirens were beginning to become audible in the distance.  Xoggie, short for Xogenes which name his mother refused to explain, thought about ignoring her while he cleaned his paintbrushes.  He dipped them into the small, smeared jar of white spirit and methodically squeezed the liquid and paint residue from the bristles with a scrap of paper towel, until he could no longer hear the drip-drip-drip of the liquid back into the jar.  Then he sighed, a heavy, melodramatic sigh that lifted his whole chest up and let it fall again, reminding him that he'd gained yet more weight, and walked to the window.
The sky outside was blue with scraps of white cloud scudding across on whatever urgent missions clouds have, and the pavement, a broad pedestrian walkway put in as a traffic-calming measure two years ago, was clear and clean.  The planters, containing small evergreen trees were mostly upright, only one having been tipped over by drunks from one of the eight nearby pubs, and little soil had escaped this time.  The road – the road was blocked with stopped traffic, and it sounded like all of the cars were now wailing their horns.  Xoggie couldn't see into any of the cars, the sun was behind him and low enough to bounce off their windows blinding him when he tried to look, but it looked like a voluntary stoppage.  And there, out of the road but very visible from it, was Clytie, holding a small man in a soiled suit by the neck, looking rather red-faced and embarrassed.
Xoggie waved, and to his surprise and slight horror she waved back.  Using the hand holding the small man, who swung worryingly at the shoulders as though his neck might rip and his penduluming body would fall to the pavement.  She shouted something, but he couldn't hear her over the noise, so he started to sigh again, thought better of it, and went downstairs to let her in.
"What's going on?" he shouted in the hallway, where even with the front door closed the traffic noise was unpleasantly loud.  He led the way through the back kitchen into his sculptor's conservatory and closed another set of doors behind Clytie, which thankfully dulled the noise to a distant hubbub.  He sat down on the twisty-stool he used when throwing pottery, and Clytie remained standing, while the man she was clutching continued to slowly strangle.
"I don't know," she said, a hint of a girlish giggle in her voice.  "It my hands, I think they've gone wrong."
Xoggie looked at her hands, which were elaborate metal contraptions that she'd had replace her own hands a couple of years earlier.  She'd replaced them one at a time, to give herself a chance to get used to the idea of vastly increased power and speed, and then she'd had them upgraded a little here and there, first weaponising the fingers with blades and electricity; then going from relatively human hands to much more obviously abhuman hands.  She now had eighteen fingers on hands that were outsized for her arms, all done in black, silver and brass that was an artistic statement by itself.  There were at least two artificial intelligences in each hand that consulted on actions, although they were supposed to be subservient to Clytie's own entirely natural intelligence.
"Won't they obey you?" he asked, rememebering a time a little while back when she'd not gotten used to her new strength and had put her hand through his front door.
"They're feeding back to me, they're saying that I don't understand the importance of this," she said.  "They say it's very important that this man is not allowed to talk to someone, but I can't work out who this someone is.  I think perhaps they don't know this someone's name."
"Can't you just turn them off?"  Xoggie had spent days trying to convince Clytie to get an override switch installed that would cut the power to the hands in emergencies.  This, he felt, was just such an emergency.  She had the grace to look guilty.
"No," she said, and clearly had no intention of explaining herself.
"Well," said Xoggie, leaning on his potter's wheel while he inspected the man who was looking bluer and bluer, "who is he?"
"He was coming out of the Unsantiago Gallery," she said.  "I was walking past, wondering what you were exhibiting this week, when he came out of the gallery and my hand just grabbed hold of him."
"By the neck?"
"No, not at first.  They... I?... no, they – grabbed his arm, pulled him close, then grabbed his neck and lifted him off the ground.  I've been trying to work out what to do next."
"I'm not exhibiting at the Unsantiago gallery," said Xoggie thoughtfully.  "I'm exhibiting at the Colostreum this month.  So it's probably not me he's not supposed to talk to."
"Why would this be about you?"
"It's not.  It means that your hands can probably stop squeezing the life out of this guy while I find out from him what he's doing and then we'll know what's going on."
"Hmm.  If you say so."
Clytie's face relaxed a little, smoothing out in a surgically maintained death-mask of beautiful perfection while she talked to the AIs that ran her hands for her.  Xoggie watched, growing increasingly aware that the little man had soiled his suit recently, and then finally she reanimated and her hand relaxed its grip enough for him to suck air into his lungs again in reasonable quantities.  While he gasped, Xoggie dug around for a pencil and paper to make notes on.  Whatever Clytie had got herself into this time, it looked like trouble.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Analphabetic Soup

My editor, an otherwise lovely woman with impeccable taste, had insisted that I pay a visit to this restaurant.
"It's new!" she said, as though that meant anything.  "There will be celebrities there!"  She fluttered her hands in front of her face as though fanning herself.  "I've even heard that... Gordon might be there!"  She sat back in her chair, the expression on her face suggesting that I was supposed to know who Gordon was and why it was significant that he was there.  Wherever there actually was.
"Look, I don't normally do this," I said, feeling unaccountably like I was turning down a date.  Possibly with Gordon, as there's no way I'd date my editor, and I suspect her ogre of a husband has similar feelings on the matter.  "I pick my restaurants based on research, not on looking in the paper for whatever's new this week.  I don't generally go anywhere where there are sublebrities clamouring for attention, as they tend to get served the better food and the rest of us can go hang, because if Kate or Britney is eating the soup then everyone wants to.  Even when Kate's throwing it up in the toilets five minutes later.  Oh, and I don't know who Gordon is."
"He's a chef," said my editor, putting so much emphasis on the job title that italics and bold wouldn't do it justice.  Imagine her leaning over you, looking down the length of her nose at you, disapproving with every syllable.  "How can you not know a chef?"
"Easy," I said.  "I eat the food, from the restaurant.  Very often it's not been cooked by the chef du jour at all, but one of his brigade.  And while Norman Normal might be a very nice kid, two years out of cooking school, on his third stage and turning out beautiful pierogies, no-one cares because he's not got a name that people pronounce in special ways that my keyboard can't transliterate.  But he's the one producing the food, and that's what matters when you're the one eating the food."
"You're going," said my editor, her face doing that blank thing it does when she doesn't want to listen anymore.  "I'd come with you, but I've got another engagement that evening.  But you're going, and you're eating, and I want you to meet Gordon and make sure his name gets in the article.  And get a picture of him too!"
"Topless?" I asked, and she shot me a filthy look.
I arrived at seven fifteen for a seven thirty table and there was a queue at the door.  I took this in, a little surprised, as the restaurant itself seemed rather smaller than I'd been expecting: almost like someone's front room, completely with tiny, hedged garden outside the window.  I strode confidently to the front of the queue, ignoring the cries of distress and the whimpering of small, starving children.
"I have a reservation," I said to the maître'd, noticing that his suti looked creased and the lapels appeared stained.  "For seven thirty."
"Your name, please?" he asked, and I told him.  He stared at the page of the appointments book for a moment, and then dipped his head, a jerky little nod.  "You do," he said.  "That makes a change.  I see it's a table for one.  Would you like to choose a dinner guest from the queue outside?"
"No," I replied.  "Desperation does nothing for my appetite.  What are they all there for?"
"They want to meet Gordon," he said, with just a hint of anger in his voice.  "What else?"
"The food?" I said, slightly surprised that there should even be a question.
"Hah, hardly," he said.  "I'm sure you'll form your own opinion though."
"I have a meeting with Gordon too," I said, as he showed me to a wobbly table with a threadbare tablecloth.  I looked at it, he looked at me, and slowly I realised that I would have to sit down as he had no plans to seat me elsewhere.
"Oh, you're that guy," he said, sounding tired.  "Gordon will come and meet you between courses."
"Topless?" I asked, but the maître'd had already turned away to answer the question of a belligerent, chunky woman with a feather boa.
The menu was insipid, with nothing that looked particularly interesting, or even appetising.  Since the starters all seemed to variations on prawns save for the soup, I ordered it.  When it arrived, I stared at it, and the waiter walked hastily away while I consulted the menu again.  There it was, in small print: analphabetic soup.  Swirling in a salty, hot broth that tasted industrial were strands of pasta that, at a push, might have been Chinese pictograms before they were overcooked.  I pushed them around, wondering if I was making sentences or just piling them randomly and offensively together.
As I laid my spoon down, deciding that not eating the soup was better than eating it, Gordon appeared. Somewhat to my astonishment he wasn't just topless, he was also naked save for a chef's toque, that he was incongrously wearing on his head.  Well, incongruous given his state of undress.
Without hesitation I took advantage of the screaming groupies throwing themselves at him to duck out of the restaurant and hide in the nearest bar that carried single malts.  My editor could pick her pictures out of the blogs in the morning.

Fizz Mission

She was Fizz Mission, abandoned at a young age by the nuns who had been to take her in and bring her up as one of them.  She had only dim memories of them: shadowy black and white people, vaguely conical in shape, moving silently around large, echoing spaces.  Geometric symbols adorned the walls, and for the last six months she was there she had entertained the idea that she was being raised by mathematicians.  Invisible mathematicians, mostly.  There has been murmured words, which she later learned were prayers, and later still learned were the prayers of desperate people, who perhaps should have been more cautious around a child they feared.  There were long polished floors, and hard, high-backed chairs.  There had been hours of sitting still and being silent.  And there had been a vegetable garden.
They took her out to the vegetable garden to punish her, telling her that the eyes of God were everywhere, but it was an imposition to ask him to see inside buildings and through walls.  So she was beaten outside, usually pressed face-first against a rough-barked tree by a calloused, strong hand, and she was told the whole time that God was observing her punishment.  If there was anything unjust, a woman's voice said, then God would surely intervene, and if He chose not to, then there as no wrong done in his eyes.
When she was three, old enough to know what was happening, two of the nuns dressed more heavily than she'd seen any of them dress before; robes over robes over thin metal sheets beaten into curves that approximated the human form over padding and thin blouses.  Then, attired as rather bulky, unattractive women, they'd taken her out from the nunnery, walked for half a day to a pleasant cliff-top where a river ran along a stony bed and then leapt off and out, a rainbow-laden waterfall to a valley below.  Birds called to one another and swooped and sang in the air, and insects chittered and chattered as they busied themselves about their business.  The nuns pointed out the birds, showed her with infinite care how to draw back leaves and grasses to see the insects, and marvelled with her at the infinite variety of God's Kingdom.  Then they took her to the cliff edge to see the rainbows hanging the in the spray from the waterfall, each took a hand, and swung her back and forth three times.  At the peak of the third swing they let go, and she flew out into the air, off and away from the cliff, and fell to the valley below.
The world seemed to tumble around her as she flew, the air growing cold as it rushed past her ever faster, and the birds cries of astonishment turned to drawn out screams as the sound dopplered away.  When the tumbling stopped she was head down, and the trees and grasses and rocks of the valley were growing larger and closer by the second.  She closed her eyes, tensed her whole body, and screamed.
"Fizz?" The voice was thin, and it tasted white.  She swallowed, not entirely pleased with the flavour.
"Fizz, open your eyes please?"  She shrugged, wondering if she was being held again – wait, why did she think again? – and opened her eyes.  She could move freely.  Above her was a suspended ceiling, with those funny acoustic ceiling tiles that deadened noise so that large offices could be open-plan without confusing everyone with unending echoes.  There was a fluorescent light tube a little way away from her eyes, turned on.  Of course.
"Fizz, where do you think you are?"
She thought about that; she could remember falling to the ground again, screaming into the light, but... but that wasn't here, was it?  This was an office of some kind.  This was... this was the office of the psychiatristic Moore, wasn't it?
"I'm here with you, Dr. Moore," she said.  Her voice was warm, but it never tasted of anything.  She didn't know why.  "You're psychiatring me, aren't you?  As you do every Monday and Thursday, business permitting."
"I'm providing you with a safe space where you may talk freely," said Dr. Moore, his voice quavering slightly on the sibilants.  "As your boss wants, as you know."
"Then are we done for today?"  Fizz sat up; the office around her was small, cluttered, and beige.  The walls were beige, the desk was tan, the blotter on the desk was beige, and the pens on the blotter were muddy brown.  Even the paper, squared neatly with the edge of the desk, was an off-yellow colour.  Dr. Moore seemed to live in a sepia world.
"We got no further than last time," said Dr. Moore.  There was a tapping noise, perhaps a pen against a pad of paper.  "We need to be more productive.  It would help if you could remember why the nuns wanted to get rid of you."
"Yes," said Fizz, memories stirring in the back of her mind, but none coming forwards.  "That is odd, isn't it?"
"Murderous nuns usually make the news," said Dr. Moore.  He sighed.  "Unless they were all killed of course."
There was a pause, a momentary silence while Fizz's memories coiled in the darkness of her mind like snakes settling down again to sleep.  "Killed?" she asked, sure that Dr. Moore wouldn't wake the snakes now.
"There's a possibility," said Dr. Moore, his voice fainter still, "that someone, or something, killed the nuns shortly after they thought they'd killed you."
"The ones who threw me off...?"
"All of them."