Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Phineas Ballard

Phineas Ballard stood at the window of the Grand Ballroom holding a snifter of scotch in one hand.  In his other hand he held a flogger, a soft leather whip with eight tails and an ivory handle.  He lifted the glass to his lips and let the scotch just wet them, just enough to provide heat and the delicious, peaty smell.  He forced himself not to lick his lips for long seconds, and then gave in, enjoying the taste and sensation together.  Behind him, people waltzed.
The Grand Ballroom had been endowed nearly fifty years ago by Felicity Landon, then governor of the state, who had also signed the law that sentenced just about anybody who transgressed to dance here for at least one two-week shift.  The couples glid around the room, forced by chemical injection to keep waltzing at all times despite the heavy metal shoes they all wore.  The shoes sliced gracefully through lines of magnetic flux inducing electric currents in superconducting cables beneath the floor, and the resulting power had kept the state a significant producer of electricity for nearly forty-five years now.
Phineas lightly flogged the back of the nearest couples, the leather flapping ineffectually against a grimy off-white hoodie worn by a woman with vacant eyes and yellow teeth, and a seedy dinner jacket wearing through at the elbows and shoulders worn by a woman with a small snarl on her face and red lumps on her neck.  Somewhere above him, near the shadowed ceiling (all the lights came from wall sconces) a camera turned and focused so that the viewers – for the waltzing was a twenty-four broadcast – could see the excitement.   Phineas reached up to his ear and turned his earpiece on; immediately he heard the broadcast from the waltz.  The announcer had a clear, clipped tone, and was saying, “… the intruder is flogging the dancers, possibly hoping to incite them into a frenzy.  He should, of course, beware, as people who remember the ultimate dance battle of 02 will attest…”.  Phineas resisted the urge to shrug, turned the earpiece off again, and lightly flogged the bottom of a young man with only one arm and a spider-web tattoo across his face – his nose was the spider it seemed – who was wearing a muddy tracksuit.  For a moment the man paused, and it looked to Phineas as though he might look round, but then he twitched, his arm jerking up and falling down, and he was moving off again, waltzing silently to the music in his head.
Phineas sipped his scotch this time, savouring the near-orange liquid.  He wasn’t here to enrage the dancers, or even to judge the battle-dance due that evening at eight.  He was here to meet someone who had been sentenced to waltz nearly a year ago.  Only there were 2,400 couples waltzing the room, and the easiest way, he’d thought, was to stand still and let the man draw close enough that Phineas could spot him.  Now, he realised, the waltzers followed their own patterns, and most of them stayed within a certain square footage.  He would have to walk around and try and find the man himself.
The walk took nearly twenty minutes before he found him, waltzing in a tight little square three times faster than anybody else.  It was, Phineas thought, not unexpected.  He unscrewed the end of the ivory handle of the flogger, and carefully tipped the contents out: a disposable syringe in a sealed plastic tube and a small brown plastic bottle filled with liquid.  He broke out the syringe with practised movements, drew out a measured 10ml of fluid from the bottle, and then stabbed the man in the side of the neck, stepping neatly in the waltz steps with him so as not to have to let go off the syringe while it emptied.  Pulling it out and stepping away, he waited, and all of the cameras up by the ceiling turned to watch this unusual turn of events.
For several seconds the man continued waltzing, and then his steps slowed and faltered, and finally stopped.  His eyes stared off into the middle distance a little longer, then seemed to slide together, focusing again.  He looked at Phineas, and lunged at him, his hands reaching for Phineas’s throat.
Black fingernails raked through the air, scratching at where Phineas’s face had been just a moment earlier.  One hand swept in from the side, grabbing again at Phineas’s throat and the other now swept up from underneath, seeking his jaw.  He stepped back again and collided with a dancer who trod on his feet but carried on dancing, wordlessly.  Breath squeaked from him in shock and pain, and then he had to duck as the woken man lunged again, slowed down only the heavy metal shoes he was wearing.  Phineas shuffled sideways, trying to watch for the other dancers and staying within earshot but out of arm’s length range of his attacker.
“You should be dead!” hissed the man, his voice sounding dry and crackly like it hadn’t been used much.  Phineas realised that it probably hadn’t been used in a year.  “You should be dead!  Dancing here with me, with the living dead!”
“Edgar,” said Phineas having to move again as more dancers drew closer, almost as though they were watching their exchange.
“Dead!”  Another clumsy lunge, and this time Edgar didn’t pick his feet up properly and fell over, collapsing across his ankles and immediately screaming hoarsely.  Phineas swallowed; the antidote was only temporary so in a few minutes Edgar would be being forced to dance again, possibly on sprained or broken ankles.
“I just need an answer,” said Phineas.  “Just tell me where you put the other half of the map.”
“Dead!”  Edgar pushed himself to his feet using his knuckles.  “You’re a liar and a thief, and your father was too.  He should be here, not me.”
Phineas cocked his head and eyed Edgar cautiously.  Phineas’s father had died before he was born, and to his knowledge Edgar was no older than him.  “The dead can’t truly dance, Ed,” he said.
But it was too late.  Edgar’s pupils were sliding apart already, and a glazed expression settling on his feet.  Ankles that looked a little floppy, that might just be starting to swell, picked up the 180 beats per minute of the Viennese Waltz that Edgar seemed to prefer, and suddenly he was off again, dancing tight little columns across a small square like a broken Jacquard loom.
Phineas sighed and knocked back the rest of the scotch.  His eyes watered but he didn’t cough.  He considered giving Edgar another dose of antidote but decided it wasn’t worth it.  He still needed to get out of here before the police came.

Monday, 26 November 2012

That which is measured

That which is measured, improves.
Janet O’Steen, Ireland’s foremost logodisciplinarian finished typing the sentence and then sat back.  She looked at her laptop – new – and admired its sleek keyboard, its polished screen, and its attempt to be so thin as to be considered anorexic by other laptops.  Then she looked beyond it, at the word-processing program on the screen, and considered the sentence that she’d just typed.
She’d spent the morning measuring for curtains, and she was a little worried that the old curtains might have improved by the time she returned home, at which point she might have to keep them.  That would save her money, true, but she had seen some rather nice black and red curtains that reminded her of a sunburned tiger (she still swore that she’d seen one in the County Kilkenny Safari park one summer in the 1970s), and liked the idea of having a tiger in the living room.  Still, she had now committed to buying the curtains in her mind, so perhaps if the old curtains had improved she could move them to a different room.
“Oh, what a lovely sentiment!”  The soft, polite voice was like nails on a blackboard to Janet, reminding her far too much of her mother.  She controlled a snarl and turned in her seat to see who was talking.  Behind her, facing away from her, was a young woman holding a broken fortune cookie in one hand and a little strip of paper in the other.  To her side was a proper pram, an actual perambulator that was as big as a small woman and could fit six babies at once with a little bit of tetris-style packing.  Naturally it was blocking the aisle of the coffee-shop, occluding access to the tiny toilet, and contained only one small child.
“What’s a lovely sentiment?” asked Janet, torn between annoyance that the speaker hadn’t been reading over her shoulder and relief that she now didn’t have to explain what she meant to anyone.  It was, in her opinion, the reader’s job to work when they picked up a book.  Modern authors, who stopped and explained all the difficult words to their readers, and put in glossaries and appendices and maps and translations were, she felt, pandering to the thick, unwashed masses; the common quagmire.
“This fortune cookie,” said the young woman, half-turning to face Janet.  She held out the strip of paper.  “Look, it says that I will meet a gentleman in distress today!”
“It’s a fortune cookie,” said Janet, her annoyance growing at what was obvious credulity of the part of this woman.  “They’re randomly generated by computer somewhere.  They’re utterly meaningless.”
“To you,” retorted the woman.  “I intend to make this fortune happen, and then I can be pleased that it came true.  If I ran home and hid until tomorrow then I’m sure you’d be delighted to meet me here and point out how you were right; will you now meet me here tomorrow and be shown that you were wrong?”
“No,” said Janet swiftly, spotting the trap.  “You’re going to go looking for a gentleman as soon as you leave the shop, aren’t you?”
The young woman laughed gently.  “Aye, that I am,” she said.  “And then I’ll run over his foot with my perambulator and to be sure, he’ll be in distress then!”
Janet smiled despite herself, finding a kindred spirit with this woman and her quiet, pleasing baby.
“So now you know that I spend my time running over members of the gentry and then boasting about it in coffee shops across the county,” said the young woman.  “So what is that you do then?”
“I’m an author,” said Janet immediately, who believed in self-publicity, all the harder since her publicist had contracted mouth-cankers and had gone on long-term sick leave.
“Are you writing at the moment?”
“Of course!”  Janet looked slightly put-out, and then seeing an opening to start talking about herself, seized it.  “I’m writing a new book at the moment that shall be set in Canterbury and will follow the trials and tribulations of a young girl born into a society family who nevertheless dreams of being a surveyor.  Her mother, who in her youth seduced minor members of the nobility and contracted a slow-acting, drug-resistant form of syphilis, is in the third, brain-eating stages though and won’t hear of her daughter doing anything other than coming out with the other young girls at the Debutantes Ball.  Jane, the daughter in question, fears that her mother intends to set her up with a syphilitic noble son as a means of controlling her, and longs to find a way to leave home and join the Ordnance Survey.  She has romantic notions of sharing a theodolite with a handsome young man with a November beard, and sleeping in a quiet tent some hundred yards away from him at night. When she’s lonely, she cuddles her ruler.”
The young woman’s eyes had grown wide as she listened.  “You wrote Bride of Prejudice!” she said suddenly.  “I read that book so many times!  It was my absolute favourite for years.”
“What’s your favourite now?” asked Janet, unable to accept a compliment if she could dig up an insult.
The cat that walked into walls,” said the young woman.  “Only two parts have been serialised in the magazines so far, but it’s absolutely amazing.  Arbutternot is almost a hero of mine.”
“Sounds like something to go on toast,” muttered Janet, her heart only slightly bitten by dark jealousy.  “Jane, in my story, finds that the only way to improve things is to measure them.”
“Sounds kinky,” said the young woman with an approving nod.  “I bet her young man enjoys that!”
“With a theodolite!” snapped Jane.
The young woman got up to move her perambulator out of an agonised-looking gentleman’s way, somehow managing to run over his foot in the process.  He yelped, hopped briefly, then flushed crimson as something started leaking down his trouser leg.  He raced for the toilet, leaving tiny golden puddles behind him.
“That sounds painful,” she said, sounding a little thoughtful.  “There you go, my dear, one distressed gentleman.”

Friday, 23 November 2012

Withered stumps of time

Phlebitis, doomed sailor, sat in the waiting room and felt impatient.  Somewhere beyond the reception desk, through at least three doors and down corridors that were carpeted in beige and painted in blue and left the traveller with the feeling that they were the only thing left on earth, was Justice Aburton.  Who was keeping him waiting, in the appropriately named room, for reasons that Phlebitis suspected were entirely selfish.
On the wall, a clock made of toast ticked quietly, measuring out the seconds, minutes and hours with three hands, each looking as though it were ashamed of its companions and was reluctant to spend time in their company.  The hands tried to stay maximally separated, meaning that the clock currently claimed that the time was 30 seconds past ten past two, and had been just five minutes earlier twenty-five seconds past five past nine.  Phlebitis could understand the use of toast as the outer body of the clock as it was disposable, replaceable, and edible if the mood took you.  He spent months at a time on board his ship, hauling boiled frogs, or willow-drug statues, or little jade figurines that were probably cursed, and appreciated things that had a use but could also be eaten when the only alternative was boiled frog or the cabin boy.
The receptionist lifted her head from the magazine she was reading and smiled vacantly at Phlebitis.  Her pupils were dilated, and the whites of her eyes were mostly yellow.
“He will see you now,” she said, her voice dreamy and quiet.  “He says he will apologise for keeping you waiting if you can only show him how late he is.”  Phlebitis snorted at that; Justice Aburton was famous for making seemingly penitent offers if the injured party could only do three impossible things before breakfast.
“The usual way?” he asked, gesturing towards the door behind reception.
“Yes,” replied the receptionist, her focus sliding back towards her magazine.  “Please don’t kick the echidna on your way.”
I don’t even know what one of thsoe is, thought Phlebitis, but he nodded and smiled, and made his way to the door.
Beyond was the beige, earth-like carpet of the corridors, and the walls and ceiling were painted sky-blue, and Phlebitis remembered walking on a honey-coloured beach one morning just after sunrise, wondering how he was going to escape from the wretched desert island.  He shivered; he’d learned a lot about what he was capable of in those three weeks.
The corridors seemed to run on interminably, and there too few doors into rooms for the length of the corridors.  For them to be sensibly sized the rooms that were there would have to be the size of football pitches at least.  He walked down them, knowing the route by heart and turning at all the right places without having to count doors or paces, arriving at the door with the little brass nameplate on it: Justice Aburton.  He knocked.
“Come in,” came a heavy-sounding, tired voice.  “Come in, come in.  I haven’t got all day to wait while you figure out a door-handle.  Ah Phlebitis,” as Phlebitis opened the door, “come in.  I’ve been told I should be expecting you.”
“I made an appointment, yes,” said Phlebitis, closing the door behind him.  “I wasn’t expecting you to honour it though.”
“You killed two of my insurance inspectors last time you were here.”
“I left the Unreal City without anyone telling me that you had men hidden in my frog-boiling barrels.”
Neither man sounded angry, they were just stating facts.  For a moment there was silence between them, and then the Justice, a brown-haired man with a face as wrinkled as an old potato (and with little green patches), tapped a finger on some documents on his desk.
“It says here,” he said, tapping again for emphasis, “that you wish to leave harbour with some withered stumps of time.”
“I am trading in clocks and watches this time round,” said Phlebitis.  “The frog-farmers have finally developed astronomy and want access to timepieces to improve their harvest.”
“Of frogs?”
“So they tell me.”  Phlebitis had his own doubts that frogs and watches worked well together, but he couldn’t see how a clock would build a weapon, so he wasn’t worried about this new trade demand.
“It seems unlikely,” muttered the Justice.  He turned pages of a document, the papers held together by a clip in the corner, while Phlebitis looked at the three frames hanging on the wall behind him.  Two contained certificates, of Law and Philosophy, and the third contained a picture of a young man, who might just have been the Justice, proudly holding up a fish as long as his body.  Phlebitis, who knew how heavy fish were, thought the picture had been faked.
“But you have withered stumps of time,” said the Justice, pointing at a page.  Phlebitis leaned in a little to see it and realised that it was a copy of his manifest.  He read the line that the Justice was stabbing a finger at, and frowned.
“Those are integral sticks,” he said.  “I got them from Madame Genevieve, who’s government-sponsored and possibly has links to the City Directors–“  Justice Aburton glared at him so hard when he said that that he had to stop and swallow before continuing, ”– and she said nothing about there being export problems.”
“The integral sticks form a clock of sort,” said the Justice.  “There aren’t normally issues with them, but you’re taking them to a new destination, and we don’t really know what they want them for.”
“You just said yourself that clocks aren’t an issue going to frog-farmers!”  Phlebitis felt like he was being jerked around like a marionette by some petty mandarin.
“Most clocks don’t contain reservoirs of time!”
Justice Aburton was white faced save for two burning red spots in his cheeks, and he was half out of his seat, leaning forward on his knuckles on his desk.  His breath was short, panting.
“What?” Phlebitis felt a sudden chill run down his spine, and he struggled not to shiver.
“They are withered stumps of time,” said the Justice.  “As they grow they contain time within their cells, and then when they sporulate they die.  Their time is released into their spores, which grow rapidly into young plants, getting past the most dangerous part of their lives in the blink of an eye as far as the rest of the world is concerned.  But if the plants don’t sporulate for some reason, possibly because humans have intervened and prevented it, the time is never released and is held still in the dead and withered stumps when the plant dies from other means.  You can then crush the plant to release that time into one burst.”
“That sounds dangerous,” said Phlebitis.  “To everyone.”
“It is,” said the Justice.  “So I must abjure you from taking them as cargo.”
“Yes, of course,” said Phlebitis, suddenly placid and eager to help.  Although the Justice eyed him a little suspiciously, they finished the documentation in just fifteen minutes, and then Phlebitis was free to leave again.  He walked back through the corridors deep in thought, wondering how he could hide the fact that he’d already shipped four cargoes of the withered stumps of time to the frog-farmers.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Dummies in the desert

The balloon hung off in the distance.  I couldn’t see any heads peeping over the edge of the basket, but that didn’t make me any less nervous.  I kept my hand near my gun, which was conveniently wedged in between my belt and the waistband of my trousers, just in the right place to shoot me in the foot if I was lucky, going through my knee on the way down if I was unlucky.  I didn’t care.  I’d been out in this scrub wasteland the locals liked to call a desert for thirteen days now and I was beginning to feel like Jesus, except that there were no temptations to be seen.  No-one had appeared and offered me dominion over all the cities of the world, no-one had turned up with a mine-cart full of gold ingots and told me that they were mine for the taking, and no-one had handed me a geological map with the sites of four oil-wells marked on it.  I was feeling a little aggrieved.
I looked up at the balloon again, and my trigger finger twitched.  Maybe there was one temptation after all.
All around the wasteland stretched out, pretty much flat except for the lumpy bits, which adequately described my first wife, our first bed, and the sex as well.  Scrubby little shrubs poked up every few feet in every direction, sucking all the moisture they could find from the ground, which was dusty and cracked.  Now and then there’d be a bigger expanse of space, and then a tree would haul itself arthritically out of the ground, a scattering of leaves like a monk’s tonsure all it afford.  I’d tried climbing one of them and the branches had just broken off under my weight, and I’m not heavy.  Especially not being out here for thirteen days, living off bugs stupid enough to get close enough to catch, beef jerky I’d been given before I left, and some can of beans I’d found stashed in a crevice in some rocks.  I figured someone else was  probably starving now, but better them than me.  I looked up at the balloon again then, wondering if they were in there, following me, waiting for a chance to get their cans back.  I hoped they weren’t.
I tramped on, looking for something, anything that didn’t belong here.  Now and then the landscape humped up a little, nothing as sophisticated as a hill, more like a big termite mound, and I’d have to walk round it.  Just as it was getting towards sunset, and the sun was low in the west making me shade my eyes to see anything that way, I rounded another hump in the desert and found myself at a bus-stop.
There was no road, and no sign of any bus either coming, or ever having arrived.  The sign stood there, rusting slowly away in the ground.  It advertised the number 12 route, and the 55 night-bus, only I knew for a fact that Persecution, the nearest town for fifty miles, only had two buses, the 1 and the 3.  The 2 had been blown up accidentally a year back and the town had voted not to replace it.  The road was way off in the distance somewhere, out of sight at least.  No bus would be coming this way, which made the queue all the more puzzling.
When I got a little closer and got the dazzle of the sun out of my eyes I saw that the queue was made up of headless mannequins.  The shop dummies were a little battered, with chips and chunks knocked out of knees and elbows, and most of them were missing at least one finger.  They were all rough to the touch, scoured by the dry earth and near-sand that the wind carried when it got up and started blowing.  They formed an orderly line, the front one actually holding on to the bus stop pole with one damaged hand, one foot raised up on tiptoe as though getting ready to walk.  The whole scene was a little eerie, and I was all set to walk on by and forget about it until I saw the dark patch in the earth near the back of the queue.  Dark like water.
And there it was, hidden at the back, shorter than the rest, the mannequin that had a head.  Only the head belonged to Jenny, the little girl out of Persecution I was out here looking for.  Her blond curls formed ringlets over her forehead, and her filmy blue eyes stared off into the distance, towards the balloon in some unpleasant coincidence.  A tiny trickle of dried blood ran from the corner of her mouth, and more, much more, ran down the mannequin to pool in the earth at its feet.  The head had been put on there while it was still fresh.
Something whined past me, and a puff of earth geysered up beside me.  I dropped like the bullet had hit me, scuttering round in the dust so that I was lengthwise beside the line, hardest to hit.  Someone in the balloon had started shooting at me.  I humped my back like a caterpillar, ignoring the spasm of pain from my vertebrae, and gently pulled my gun free from my waistband.  I would shoot back.  Jenny was a friend of mine.

Sunday, 18 November 2012


Tabitha was wearing purple, and when she chose to wear a single colour she made sure that everyone was aware of it.  She had arrived in the office in a vibrant purple raincoat which matched her shoes and her umbrella (despite the fact it wasn’t raining and the weather-forecasters were talking about heatwaves), and discarded it casually on her secretary’s desk.  Underneath was a three-piece suit, each piece in a subtly different shade of purple, making her appear like a pantone colour chart.  Her hair was dyed a bluish-purple, her lipstick was black-purple, and she was wearing amethysts on her fingers and around her neck to match her amethyst contact lenses.  To almost everyone walking past her that day, she was the living embodiment of purple, and frankly, slightly terrifying.
Katalysta tapped on the door to her office, which was slightly ajar in a way that hinted at secret conversations rather than a not-very-busy boss, and stepped inside.  She was wearing amber-tinted sunglasses, which filtered the purple down to brown quite nicely.
“Kat,” said Tabitha, her voice quavering slightly as it always did.  There were rumours that it was the aftereffects of too much alcohol, the side-effects of too many drugs, and the intended effects of a failed assassination attempt.  Tabitha refused to talk about it, either in- or outside of work, and certain videos of team-building events had had sections carefully deleted.  The delenda were hard to spot, but now and then a particularly sharp intern would note a continuity error and have to be taken aside and told to unnotice it quickly.  “Kat, tell me about tapestrisations.”
Kat had recently been promoted to Zeugmoid Vice President for Soft Power, Furnishings, and Fillings and was actually bringing in a report of the democratisation of the production of Mille-Feuille in the Aleutian islands and the effects that was predicted to have on both the economy and the national feeling of pride.  There were, she felt, knock-on effects of taking the puff-pastry production out of the traditionally-schooled and long-apprenticed hands of master bakers and declaring that anyone with access to flour, water and butter could enter the marketplace.  Section 46, where she discussed the likely extension of this to the caramel producers and the probably collapse of the Napoleon export industry, was a key point that she’d been hoping to discuss with Tabitha.  Instead, she was being asked about one of the more obscure elements of soft power, and one she’d not completely come to terms with herself yet.
“There are tapestrisations being prepared for the Northern Irish office,” she said, knowing that this one sentence constituted everything she could confidently say about them at the moment.
“Really?” Tabitha sounded surprised but her expression didn’t change.  Kat suspected industrial-strength botox treatments and had been quietly researching the effects of botox-poisoning on her own time.  “I wouldn’t have expected a strong narrative there.”
“Economically?” asked Kat, edging a little closer to things she was sure about.  She’d written several papers on the economic Euro-zone a couple of years ago before various member states had decided to virtually go bankrupt.
“Ah, you’re thinking of an economic tapestrisation?  That is interesting.  Have you been talking to Manguy at all?”
Kat dropped her report in shock.  Papers fluttered over the carpet, and Tabitha tutted.
“Pick them up, girl, and don’t be so nervous.  You are expected to talk to your colleagues around the office, and indeed I want you to make sure you do so.  We cannot know what other people are planning if we don’t listen to what they’re telling us.  We remember that they are endeavouring not to tell us about what they are up to, and so we listen for the gaps in their words, we find the places where their cover stories don’t quite match up, and then we infer the reality of the situation.  This is, in fact, the precursor to tapestrisation.  You need to grasp this, as we have a delegation interested in talking to us about this next Tuesday.  Are you going to pick them up, or do I need to call the cleaners and have them remove the trash?”
Kat knelt down and started gathering the papers together, her thoughts racing in her head.  “Which delegation?” she asked, while mentally rehearsing her calendar for the next three weeks.  She had a three-hour slot free on Tuesday, so this wouldn’t require too much rescheduling of appointments.
“They represent a group calling themselves American Drivers of Healthcare Distribution, or ADHD in their literature.  They wish to purchase a small island, preferably on the East coast, and convert the entire area into a private hospital complex.  Funding is being handled already, mostly through private donations from interested individuals, and they have drawn up a short-list of islands, all of which appear to eminently purchasable.  Our legal team are drawing up a statement of incorporation and a Charter for them, by which they will evolve their own Constitution in readiness for secession.  They intend to invite their patients to also become their subjects, with the aim being in five to seven years time having a small army to support their intention to secede, the best healthcare in the Western Hemisphere with access to it passport restricted, and enough leverage from their desirability to largely control political nominations for the next two hundred years.  They need their plans tapestrising to provide a dynamic narrative progression that they can codify and follow without fear of their successors going off-message.”
Kat was nodding along with this description, each step fitting neatly into place before her eyes.  She waited till Tabitha had finished speaking though, before she pointed out the obvious flaw.
“Haven’t we been hired by the American Hipsters to deliver the Presidency to them?  Surely there’s a conflict here that cannot be resolved by a mere warp-and-weft shift.”
“Delivery of the presidency will happen three months before the ADHD will complete the purchase of the island,” said Tabitha complacently.  We’ve made no promises for after that election, so we are free to act on behalf of other clients at that point.
Kat nodded again, her concerns allayed.  She stood up, and dropped the messy pile of paper on Tabitha’s desk.
“I’ll get right on it,” she said.  “I assume the usual back-door clauses have already been inserted?”
“Of course,” said Tabitha.  “And approved by the ADHD as well.”

Saturday, 17 November 2012


“But is it art?”  Geraldinium screamed at the top of her lungs.  Her chest heaved as though she’d been running a marathon, and the three sets of pearl-strands she was wearing clattered and shivered as they were thrown around.  “Is it ART?  IS.  IT.  ART?”  Her voice echoed around the workshop, a vast attic space that ran the length of an entire terrace of houses, coming back to her at different times from different angles until it seemed as though there were a chorus of sycophants questioning right alongside her.
The orphan, released from hospital into Geraldinium’s very reluctant care, was tied by her ankles and wrists to a sheetless bed in the corner of the attic.  Her head turned from side to side, almost as though she was trying to escape the myriad mingling of voice and echoes.  Geraldinium ignored her though, as she’d ignored her mewling cries and her pleading for food.  A camera on a tripod was set up at the foot of the bed, and a silver reflector sat like an umbrella left out to dry nearby.
“Is it art?” said Geraldinium, much more quietly now.  She looked along the attic to her sculpture park wondering for a moment if she should go and rage at the unfeeling stone, but the thought of walking that far deterred her.  She loved the space, for all that she had no idea how anyone could think that a room the length of a street was a good idea.  It took four minutes to walk from one end to the other and she’d been able to set up areas dedicated to most contemporary art forms and still have space for the kitten-press, three-hundred china cups of undrunk tea, and a small still cunningly disguised as a tailor’s dummy.  The exact locations weren’t based on availability of light, relative heating or even how often she used them; instead she put them over the houses of her downstairs neighbours who’d done things to annoy her.  Right at the moment the sculpture park was making her floorboards (and hence his ceiling) groan intermittently over number 35, whose owner had asked her three days ago about the orphan.
“Are you a paedophile, then?” he’d said, inwardly telling himself that he was the kind of a man who called a spade a spade.  Geraldinium, who was the kind of woman who called men like him bigoted racists half-smiled and told him that the Daily Mail depended on his readership.
“Is that a yes then?” he’d demanded, his little, piggish eyes screwing up tightly in his sweaty, shiny face.
“No,” said Geraldinium.  “She’s an orphan, remanded into my care by the courts.  I’m her saviour, in a very real way.  So keep away from her, or I’ll have the police round and your picture in your favourite newspaper before you can pronounce my name properly.”
The orphan’s bed was over number 72 because the couple who lived there were both stone-deaf and shouted a lot at each other.  Geraldinium would sometimes sit on the floor above them and listen to their conversations, lines of thought bedevilled by their joint inability to hear what the other was saying.   She wrote down what they said, gathering the most interesting pieces together for an exhibition: she planned to write them out calligraphically on parchment ribbons and hang from the ceiling as guide-points through an ill-lit maze.  At the centre of the maze would be ancient and modern hearing-aids in a glass case polished to the point of invisibility so that the audience could reach for them but not touch.  Finally, the exit from the maze would be short, a brisk walk through a corridor lined with the accoutrements of the grave.
The ant farm, which she’d been preparing for an exhibition on the worthlessness of indentured labour, was on the floor over number 2, but the ants had all escaped last week and were probably ruining either a home or a garden.  Geraldinium just set up an easel and started to paint the scene, seeing a perfect continuation of her theme in the departure of the slave labour for more hospitable climes.
“It is art,” she said, nodding her head.  She turned to look at the orphan, whose heavy-lidded eyes rolled a little in her direction.  “You are art,” she said.  “You suffer, and that is just because art is all about suffering.  You mostly suffer because you are deluded and believe that you are Batman, despite the obvious gender discrepancy and your plummet from the roof of this building three months earlier.  But you also suffer because you are tied to this bed, which you constructed from an IKEA flatpack during your first morning back here so that I can legitimately say that it is a bed of your own making, without food or succour so that I may photograph you over a three day period and showcase the folding-in of the human soul on itself.”
The orphan whimpered a little, but in her tiny, mad mind where her thoughts fizzed like sodium cast carelessly into water she barely heard a word Geraldinium said.  She was, in her dreams, prowling darkened rooftops dressed in too much leather and not enough warm clothes, hunting for imbalances to redress.
“This, too, is art,” she said, her arm describing cavernous attic around them.  Everything I do is art, everything has worth, and nothing exists until I show it.  What kind of life is led, unlived until the spotlight falls upon it, then only to be scrutinised by people who envy and fear it?  What life is this the artist conveys, suffering in silence, brought to animation in brief bursts like angels caught in strobe lights?  Is this art?”
The orphan whimpered again, her wide-pupilled eyes blind to everything but the images of violent, blood-stained retribution playing on the inner cinema of her mind.  Geraldinium stared at her for a moment, then ran to the camera and took a staccato burst of photographs.  Behind her, the floor creaked beneath the sculptures, and fine plaster dust rained down from the ceiling beneath onto a middle-aged man sitting up in bed, the Daily Mail crossword in his lap.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A natural death

Janet O’Steen, Ireland’s foremost logodisciplinarian, tapped her pen meaningfully against the newspaper.  A little way away from her, in an uncomfortable chair designed especially for public libraries to keep the homeless and illiterate from taking up valuable space for any length of time, an ill-shaven man with wild-eyes and a breathing problem looked nervously around.  His eyes darted frantically, hunting for a librarian who might be sufficiently enraged by his appearance to come over and demand that he leave, but before he could find one, Janet spoke.
“This crossword is wrong,” she said, her pen tapping steadily against the paper.  “The answer to A work of outstanding nautical fiction featuring a man and a surprisingly big fish is clearly Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, yet the grid provides space for only eight letters and claims – hah! – that the answer has only two words.”
“I can’t read, mum,” said the ill-shaven man, his eyes now firmly downcast and his hands, clad in filthy fingerless woollen gloves clutching one another as though trying to pull themselves to pieces.
“When you have to read rubbish like this,” she shook the paper at him and he flinched back in his seat, “you should be grateful you can’t read!  I can’t believe that they charge money to read this thing, it’s quite frankly communist composting paper and nothing more!  You should hear what they had to say about my book Bride of Prejudice when they reviewed it.”
The ill-shaven man looked truly terrified after a couple of seconds, when he realised that Janet had said ‘hear’ and not ‘read’ and that she might actually intend to the read the review to him, undoubtedly with added commentary from the author.  And while there were surely people who would be thrilled to get such a reading, he had been on the end of several of Janet’s harrangues over the past few weeks and was desperate not to have to sit through another.
“I’ll find it,” said Janet, her gripe with the crossword now forgotten.  “Just you sit still there, I know it’s in the coffee section somewhere, because the illiterates who put this thing together wouldn’t know a book if it bit them, so it’s far too much to hope that they have a book review section.  Hah!  Heaven forfend!  What is the matter with you?”  She stopped rustling the pages of the paper and stared at her reluctant audience.  The ill-shaven man had decided to throw away any dignity he had had left and was faking a heart-attack.  His hands clawed at his throat, and his dirty, torn fingernails were already raising blood, while he enthusiastically choked and gagged.  His eyes bulged from his face and his feet drummed on the floor.  When he finally slid off his chair and rolled from side to side half-under the reading desk, a librarian came over, summoned from her cubicle of quiet book-repair, and looked first at Janet and then at him.
“What have you done?” she said to Janet, her tone of stern reproof making it clear that she felt Janet was guilty.
“I offered to read to him from this paper,” said Janet, waving the crumpled edition at her.  “I’m not at all surprised that he’s taken ill.  I would too, were I not accustomed to the drivel they print on these pages.”
“You’re not to read to the patrons,” said the librarian in the aggrieved tones of someone who’s had to say the same thing a lot.  “And you’re not to fill the crossword in in pen, it’s not your paper.  It’s the library’s.  Photocopy it like anybody else and fill in your photocopy.”
“No-one else would want to read it,” said Janet, a little hotly.  “And the crossword is appallingly wrong.  The setter has no clue what a decent book is, let alone how to write proper clues.  A five-year old could solve these, if the setter had only known the answers he was asking for.”
The librarian went a little cross-eyed as she tried to work out what exactly Janet was trying to say and then gave up.  She bent down and poked the still-thrashing ill-shaven man.
“Get out,” she said.  “Go on, off with you, or I’ll let this nice lady read to you again.”  He leapt up with commendable agility for someone in the throes of dying, and departed the library with a grateful smile on his lips.
“Be quiet,” said the librarian to Janet.  “Or I’ll throw you out too.”
“You can’t throw me out!”  Janet was scandalised.  “I wrote some of the books you have in this library!”
“Doesn’t matter,” said the librarian.  “There are some books that libraries are improved by not having.  That paper you’re so cheerfully turning into a crumpled mess that no-one else will be able to read put it rather well in a recent review: ‘any library would be enhanced by the absence of books by this author’.”
“They were reviewing my book!”  Janet turned pinkish purple with shocked outrage and finally let go of the paper, which slid off the reading desk and onto the floor.
“Well then,” said the librarian unfeelingly.  “Be quiet or I’ll throw your books out instead.”  Janet’s mouth opened and closed like a goldfish with Alzheimer’s.  “Bear in mind,” said the librarian turning away now that she’d restored order to the library, “that at the end of that review the reviewer opined that it would be a tragedy if society allowed the author to die a natural death.”
Janet squeaked, the most she could manage with her throat so constricted with rage.
“That reviewer died, you know,” said another voice, this from a middle-aged woman standing at the nearest shelves, seemingly waiting while he son picked out novels by William Burroughes.  The librarian arched an eyebrow, and the woman continued, “It was in the papers – not that one, mind you, far too gruesome for that – she was beaten to death with the dug-up remains of her own grandmother.”  The librarian halted in her tracks, staring disbelievingly.  “Oh yes,” said the woman.  “Macabre and mysterious!   The police are saying as they think it was a woman who did it, but there’s no motive.  Except, I suppose, if you’d got a bad review.”
“That’s preposterous!” said Janet quickly.  “No author would bludgeon an interviewer to death, and especially not with her grandmother’s shin bone.  I mean, how would they find out where the evil old biddy was buried in the first place?”
“Interviewer?” said the librarian looking puzzled.
“Shin bone?” asked the middle-aged woman, looking gleeful.  “Ooh, I hadn’t heard that detail!”
“I meant reviewer,” said Janet, recovering herself.  “And the shin bone… well, that’s a Mark Twain quote isn’t it?  About wanting to beat someone over their head with their own shin-bone.  Though I don’t know how he’d do it, they’re far too fragile.  Upper leg’s the bone you want, the hip joint at the top has a nice heft to it.”
She paused, aware that everybody nearby was now looking at her.
“Research,” she said, a little hopefully.  “For… for my new book.  I’ve just started writing it.”
“What’s it about?” asked the librarian.  Her face had relaxed a little.  “I read Clementsy a while back about the murderous meth addicts.”
“That was a classic love story!” Janet snapped.  “Um, the new one, is, um, well, I don’t like to talk–“
“Oh come on,” said the middle-aged woman’s son, smiling.  “You’ve just told us all about researching beating people to death with their own limbs, I think you have to tell us what the new book is about now.  Zombies?”
“Why is it always zombies with you?” asked his mother.  “If it’s not weird novels that don’t make any sense when you read them, it’s zombies.”
“Er, yes,” said Janet, thinking hard.  “It’s going to be… a revisit… of Sense and Sensitivity… but with zombies!”
“Which one was Sense and Sensitivity?” asked the middle-aged woman.  She screwed her face up as she tried to remember.
“The one about the murderous sisters who kept their mother’s remains in the bath,” said the librarian who’d read them all.
“That was a study of traditional family values!”  Janet looked more outraged than before.
“And matricide,” said the librarian.  “I’ve read all your books, you’ve never met a mother you wouldn’t murder, have you?”
“Oh my!” said the middle-aged woman stepping smartly behind her son, who looked unimpressed.
“The alleged issues regarding the strong female characters in my books have been discussed,” said Janet, hoping they’d infer “from serious works of literary criticism” from her unfinished sentence.
“On the Jeremy Kyle show,” said the librarian.  “And in several of the trashier celebrity gossip magazines.
“But they’ve been discussed.”
“In disgust.”
The librarian and Janet glared at each other like cats on opposite sides of a mesh fence.  Slowly, without breaking their staring match, Janet muttered, “I should be getting on, zombies won’t rise from the grave and write about themselves.”
“I’ve got books to shelve,” said the librarian equally slowly.  Without actually agreeing it, they averted their gazes at the same time, and then pretended that the other wasn’t there.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Healthcare solutions

“Promotion?” asked Manguy.  He was walking past Katalysta’s office and had stopped in the doorway to watch as she slid the brass nameplate out of the triangular block on her desk.  Another one, ready to be slid into place, was lying face down on the desk.
“Lateral,” she replied with a shrug.  She had honey-coloured hair and skin that was naturally only slightly darker, making her look like she had a year-round tan.  Her face was pixie-shaped and there were rumours around the office that she’d had her ears done to be pointy as well; Manguy hadn’t had the opportunity to smooth her hair back and find out.  “I’m the Zeugmoid Vice President of Soft Power, Furnishing and Fillings.”
“Reporting to Dipali?”
“No, Dipali’s gone.  There was a small incident… well, you either know or you don’t I suppose.”  Manguy nodded; he didn’t know what Dipali had done wrong, but it was a fact of life at Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations that any slip could be fatal, and sometimes not only for your career.  In fact, when he thought about it, the word career was exactly the right one to describe the job trajectories here.  And Katalysta was just doing what they all did: hinting at things he perhaps should know about, baiting him to see if he’d admit to not knowing – a cardinal sin – in order to learn what she knew.  He wasn’t about to fall for a ruse as unsubtle as that.
“He was in a precarious position,” said Manguy, nodding.  His black hair fell over his eyes as it did a lot at the moment.  It annoyed him, but the Justin Bieber haircut annoyed many of his colleagues more so he wasn’t going to change it just yet.  “I was expecting him to go a little later though; I’ll have to check who the pool’s paying out.”  It was a little bit of a low blow, as he knew that Katalysta entertained little paranoid fantasies about the office pool on who would be next to go.  Sure enough, she winced.  “Who’s replacing him then?”
“The role’s being split,” said Katalysta.  She slipped the new brass plate in, and adjusted the triangular block to make sure that it was clearly visible to anyone entering her office.  “Tabitha’s taking Global Healthcare solutions, Tapestrisations and the Clotho-problem, while Trepanna’s got Soft Power and Broken Cuddly Things.”
“Makes sense,” said Manguy.  He nodded again after a moment’s silence.  “Trepanna’s got the knack of Broken Cuddly Things.  You must be reporting to Tabitha then.”
Katalysta looked startled, and Manguy controlled a smile.  He’d worked at Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations longer than Katalysta realised and he knew the basics of how their matrix management filtered through operator algebras to produce an organisation chart that required a research mathematician to draw and an epistemological philosopher to understand.  Pretty much the only thing anyone was sure of most of the time was that Jeremy Diseased-Rat was head of the whole organisation.  That she would be reporting to someone with a distinctly different title was obvious to him, and it helped that he knew a lot about the different divisions of Soft Power, and just how soft power could be.
“Yes,” she said, clearly having trouble deciding what to tell him.
“So, Tabitha’s first focus will be the Tapestrisations,” he continued, enjoying the feeling of control he had.  “So you must be looking at the regional health care solutions.  I suspect you’re analysing how we can make a name for certain centres of excellence that have failed to market themselves adequately, and so acquire a position in the global healthcare markets that are expected to open up after 2025.  I’ve only read a couple of reports, mostly peripheral you understand, but I’d suspect that Texas is likely to be big.  And they’re desperate to get known.”
Katalysta was nodding along, apparently unconsciously, because she smiled with just her teeth and said, “No, it’s not like that at all.  Tabitha’s first focus is the Clotho-problem because of its wider-ranging implications for market inputs in the old Soviet Union and its satellites and my studies are underpinning the solutions she intends to present to the Board.”
Manguy raised an eyebrow politely, and said, “That’s a shame.  There’s a lot of interest in healthcare and I was looking to establish a small trans-departmental study group to determine where strategic acquisition and purchase might drive openings.  I need someone dynamic and flexible to head up the steering committee to make recommendations based on first-hand reportage.  I guess I’ll have to ask Tabitha who she’d recommend then.”
Katalysta flushed a little, and Manguy waved jauntily and walked away from her office.  While he had never had any intention of inviting Katalysta to a co-operation, he did already have inquiries in from two corporate clients regarding the possibility of purchasing large healthcare facilities to reduce insurance costs, and there were a number of significant grey-market opportunities for the essentially-private facilities that these would become.  Perhaps, he mused, Katalysta could play a role as a first-hand front-line reporter.  Obviously she’d need a reason for being treated at one of these facilities, but that wouldn’t be too hard to arrange for….

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Lake Hali

I had, of course, read about Lake Hali when I was younger.  I had spent a little time in the library of the thirteenth arondissement, which curiously is in London and nowhere near Paris at all, and had acquired a card to their reading rooms and the delicate, difficult-to-read books therein housed.  They didn't have most of esoteric tomes that the books they did have referred to, but as I grew older I began to appreciate the wisdom of that.  And the sheer difficulty in obtaining a copy of them.  There was a tale, little more than a rumour that would occasionally come over over a glass of heady wine late in the evening when sensible people would be going home to their families, or wishing they had families to go home to, that there was a quiet initiative to get some of these books typeset so that they could be printed on demand.  Not even remotely an attempt at mass-production, but simply a way to get enough copies available for serious academic study.  The problem, if you could call it that, was that finding skilled people mad enough to do this was hard; so the solution, as it were, was to get mad people to do the bulk of the work and then hire skilled people to finish the job, thus exposing them as little as possible.  Just a rumour, but I still have a living will lodged with a lawyer to make sure I'm never committed to a madhouse in a certain part of North London.
Having read of it, I knew about its most famous resident, but equally it seemed highly unlikely that this Lake Hali, being in the desert, could be the same one that I'd read of, being rather much elsewhere.  I still felt unnerved though by the coincidence of the name though, and it occurred to me that the author of the graffito might have known exactly why they were giving this feature of the desert this name.
I started along the flagged path, trying to step only on the flagstones to keep the music as clear as possible, reasoning that changes to it might alert me to things ahead.  I knew that I couldn't turn back from this now without knowing what the desert had to offer here, and I had some small confidence that I'd survived everything the desert had shown me so far, which might yet save me again.  But I couldn't quite keep my breathing under control, or my heart from beating strongly, and I was gasping just a little by the time the flags broadened out into a terrace and the desert fell away below it into a valley of some kind.
The music clearly arose from the valley and there were higher notes in there now, that might have been flutes and violins.  There was a slightly frantic note every now and then, almost as though a terrified first violinist was sawing at her instrument, trying to reach the end of the piece so that she could flee the orchestra, which I'd actually once seen happen.  The terrace was smooth and flat, with wind-blown sand scattered across it and crunching under foot.  From the terrace three or four winding paths led down, cutting through rock which quickly left the covering of sand behind.  Scrub bushes poked out here and there, clinging tenaciously to the rock, and one or two had obvious bare patches where hands had grabbed hold, either on the way down or the way up.  The valley was steep, at least at this end, and quickly fell away, both in terms of land and detail, but at the bottom, glittering in the sunlight, was a large lake of silver water.
"Lake Hali," said a musical voice off to my left, only just audible over the clicking and beating of the drums.  I turned, tensing but trying to control my face to an impassive mask, as though I'd been expecting to be addressed.  A young man, clearly not out of his teenage years, was stood on the terrace looking back at me.  He was wearing shorts, a faded t-shirt with some band's logo on the front, and a white tennis sweat-band around his left wrist.  His face was smooth, and looked untroubled by a razor, but his eyes were the things I sought out immediately.  Sure enough, they gave him away as being from the desert, for all they were green, nearly turquoise and surrounded by the dark shadows of the chronic insomniac, because they glittered in a way that had nothing to do with the bright sunlight or the reflective sand.
"So the sign said," I said, watching him carefully, ready to back away if he seemed to be approaching.  "Not the Lake Hali, I suppose?"
"Depends which one you believe came first," he said.  "You don't trust me, do you?"
"Do you trust me?" I replied, an automatic response to buy me time to think.
"No," he said immediately, and smiled in a mostly friendly way.  "I've no idea who you are or what you're doing here, but things in the desert that trust you when they meet you are usually powerful enough not to care what you might try and do."
"Don't you live here then?"  I was surprised now, I'd seen no signs that any of the things in the desert moved around much, except for the travelling houses of plants that orbited the abyss.  I'd concluded early on that unless you were crossing the desert there was no survival value to moving away from known sources of food and water.
"No-one lives here, this is Lake Hali," said the boy.  "This is a transition point, a place for things to go to other places.  If you stayed here... well, you'd be noticed."
I shivered, and he grinned.  "Yeah, that kind of noticed," he said.  "You've been here a while then?"
"In the desert?"  I didn't wait for his nod.  "Longer than I'd realised I think.  The graffiti on the stones back there...."
"Seemed a little too familiar?  Hah, yes, I've heard that before."
"You've met other travellers?  People like me?"
"Not like you, no," he said, and I wondered how he was appraising me.  His eyes still glittered, and he hadn't moved towards me, but there was no real warmth in his his tone.  We were talking more because we were both there, and I'd not spoken to anyone in several days.  "But I've met others.  Most of them going to the Lake."
"Did they know what to expect there?"
"I can only hope they didn't," he said.  "I'd worry about that kind of madness otherwise, and I prefer to sleep at nights."
"Did you hear that?" I said, my hand cutting through the air to silence him.  He tilted his head to one side as though listening hard, and shook his head at me.  "The music's stopped," I said.
For a moment he said nothing, and then he seemed to stretch upwards, growing impossibly long and thin, racing to the sky like a stop-motion film of plant-growth.  He stayed like that for a couple of seconds, then snapped back so fast there was a tiny pop of displaced air.
"You can go," he said, his eyes now silver pools of light, reminding me of a night I spent with a stranger in my tent.  "You should go, in fact.  And I think – I hope – you'll leave the desert, too."
"In my own time," I said, and turned away.  I only managed six walking pace steps before terror seized me and I ran the rest of the way back along the flagged path, leaving Lake Hali and whatever was coming from it behind.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

This way to Lake Hali

The desert was noisy when I awoke.
This was a surprise.  Despite the tough conditions, and the constant fear that some desert animal would decide that the moist, warm confines of my sleeping bag was something they'd like to share, most mornings I woke to near-silence from the desert.  I slept well there, and I appreciated it.  This morning though, there was noise, and (in terms of the desert), lots of it.
I dressed first, in the tight confines of the bubble tent, and then opened the zip-door cautiously.  More than once I'd found that the wind could mound sand up against the door that needed to be pushed away before I let it in and effectively drowned myself in the dry.  There was nothing up against the door this morning, and so I opened it fully and stepped out.
There was nothing to see around me except that small outjutting of rock amidst the sand that I'd picked to anchor the tent against.  Golden brown sand rolled away as far as the eye could see, mounding and floundering like frozen ocean waves, and a relentless cerulean sky met it at the horizon and then stretched back overhead.  On the strange days when the sky and the sand both seemed cast of the same strange leaden colour and I couldn't tell where the horizon was it was easy to believe that I was trapped in some gigantic snow globe, waiting to be picked up and shaken.  But from all around a steady clicking came, like sticks tapping against rock, rhythmic and compelling.  As I stood listening, I realised that there was a quieter counterpoint as well, a dull thudding almost like a drum-beat, that carefully picked its way between the clicks.  For a moment I was intrigued, and then I was wondering what the meaning of it was.
Because if there was one thing I'd learned from my time in the desert, it was that everything has a meaning, but it's vital to know which meanings are the important ones.
I packed the tent away quickly, drinking water for breakfast and deciding to worry about food later on. Until I learned what the noise was I wanted to be able to respond quickly to it, and eating in a place where further food was scarce was not the best way to be alert and reactive.
There was nothing to help me know where it was coming from, no matter how I tilted my head and moved around the hard surface of the rocks it seemed to always be coming from all sides of me.  Finally I tried tilting my head upwards to see if it was coming from there, and even that didn't help.  So I struck out, pretty much at random.  After the night, without a compass, there was no way to know if I was going the same way as I had been the day before.  I'm sure there must have been whole days where I spent my time traipsing backwards and forwards along my steps, not knowing that I kept reversing my path.  The sand was still cool where my feet sank into it, though the surface was becoming warmer and the air was still fairly pleasant.  I gripped a bottle of water in one hand, and strode on.
It was definitely less than an hour later when I stepped onto a flagstone that I'd not seen until my foot struck it.  As soon as I was stood on it fully the sounds resolved themselves, unsurprisingly coming from along the flagstoned path that I could now see poking out here and there from underneath the sand.  The sounds seemed to have more coherence now as well, the clicks could be distinguished into three separate sounds, and there was a musical quality to them, as though insects had decided to have a party using themselves as the instruments.  For a moment I was overcome with the urge to laugh at the thought of cockroaches partying.
I stepped off the flagstone and the sounds became a repetitive clicking again, with a dull counterpoint that was hard to follow.  I looked down, then knelt down and cleaned the sand from the flagstone.  Everytime I touched it the music became clearer, and the whole sensation was like having a blanket pulled off and dropped over my head at a bizarre concert.  The cleaned flagstone was square-cut and looked dressed, but someone, or someones, had carved all kinds of graffiti into it.  Most of it made no sense, some of it made sense but only because of the time I'd already spent in the desert.  That graffiti worried me most, as it made me realised how long I'd spent out here now.
And the last piece of graffiti I found was the most interesting, and the most cryptic.  It was a deep-carved arrow with ragged edges, as though whoever was carving into the rock was enormously strong and had done it in three single strokes with some massive knife.  Above the arrow, in similarly grooved but far smaller letters was the legend, "This way to Lake Hali."

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Pharma lounge

Miss Snippet sat down in the teacher's lounge and tried not to sigh.  She was sure that sighing as you sat down was a sign of old age; she could remember both her grandmother and her mother doing it, and she was determined not to end up like either of them.  Which in her grandmother's case meant dead and in her mother's case meant trapped in a stifling nursing home chosen by Miss Snippet for its brochure's boast that it had better security that Alcatraz.  She occasionally drove by the nursing home to check that there were no signs of a break-out, and forwarded all correspondance from them on to her lawyer.
"Pill?" said the young man at the other end of the couch, and she started a little.  She gazed at him, her eyes narrowing as she realised that she didn't recognise him, either as a teacher or a student.  They narrowed even more when she started looking for familial resemblances to the headmaster.  He smiled and rattled a little brown plastic pill bottle at her.  "On the house?"
"Who are you?" asked Miss Snippet, her words coming out like a growl.  The young man looked a little taken aback, and lowered the hand shaking the pill bottle.
"Steve," he said, trying his smile again.  He put the bottle down on the couch and offered his hand, empty this time.
"I'm not shaking your hand until I know who you are and what you're doing in here," said Miss Snippet.  She adjusted her gaze to a glare, the one her class knew meant she was getting angry.
"I just said, I'm Steve."  His hand didn't waver, but nor did Miss Snippet's determination.
"And what do you do?  Are you the latest substitute teacher to discover why class 9K sent their teacher on a prolonged rest-cure in a not-a-mental-hospital-at-all-place by the sea?"
"No.  Are class 9K a bit rough then?"
"Why don't you take them for a maths class and see?"
Steve lowered his hand at last and picked the pill bottle back up.
"Look, I'm just trying to help," he said.  "You look like one of the good ones, right?  I hear there's some right nutters who work here, driving everyone else mad, so I'm just here offering some free samples of the kind of thing my company supplies.  They're just to help you keep your equilibrium when everyone around you seems to be going mad.  In fact," and he leant across the couch a little to Miss Snippet, trying to create the illusion of intimacy, "they tell me there's a teacher here who treats her class like underage unpaid labour!"
"Oh really?"  Miss Snippet almost leant in herself, but then decided that even Steve couldn't be so stupid as to not see that for the ploy it was.
"Oh yes!"  His voice dropped a little to a conspiratorial hush.  "They say her class built all three of the new annexes and that she hires them out to people to build paths, garages and the occasional two-storey extension.  She's the kind of person it's hard to keep your cool around, and these little pills, teacher's little helpers, are just what you need.  Look, I shouldn't tell you this, but we've even got a couple of little pills you could slip her, if you wanted a few quiet days."
"Have you offered these pills to 9K's maths teacher?" asked Miss Snippet, trying hard to sound conspiratorial.  She felt she got about half-way there, spoiled only really by the tone of disgust in her voice when she had to mention the weak teacher that the kids were clearly doing their best to cull from the herd.
"No," said Steve.  "I heard he's not easy to get to.  Secure storage, and all that!"  He even tapped the side of his slightly red nose with a long finger when he said that.
"Janitor's closet, actually," said Miss Snippet wondering if she could get away with twisting a finger at her temple.  She decided against it.  "The headmaster won't pay for treatment, so he's just locked away in a dark place until he stops screaming and trying to eat his own fingers."
"Really?"  Steve looked very interested all of a sudden, and his fingers curled tightly around the pill bottle.  "I might have one or two things that could help calm him down, now that you come to mention it.  I could perhaps look in on the chap and check he's ok, got all his fingers still, that kind of thing?"
"Come this way," said Miss Snippet bouncing out of her chair like a fifties-waitress given a hundred-dollar tip.  "I can keep an eye out for the headmaster while you talk to him.  Poor guy doesn't get many visitors."
She checked her watch as she led Steve from the staff-room, and was pleased to see that her class should have finished pouring the concrete now, which would an ideal place for Steve to trip and fall and disappear into a supporting pillar.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

A little bad taste...

Bob approached the Quipping Room with more than a little trepidation.  Even as he turned the corner at the end of the corridor, still five doors and nearly eighty-five feet from his target, he felt sweat spring out on his forehead and the backs of his arms.  He swallowed firmly, and made himself keep moving.  His eyes darted from side to side, hunting for anything out of the ordinary.  The corridor was empty apart from himself; the walls were a lemon yellow chosen for its calming effects on the human mind, and the carpet was an inoffensive dark green.  The doors were veneered with a nutty brown layer that felt slightly plasticky to the touch.  He realised suddenly that he was itemising everything he saw to avoid having to think about what he was having to do.  He straightened up, and wondered when he'd started slouching – no, cringing would be a better descriptor – and tried hard to concentrate on what he was doing.
MSPARKER's room had a little white sign on the outside of the door that simply stated Quipping Room.  He lifted his hand to knock, and then lowered it again, feeling slightly silly.  He wiped his palms on the front of his jeans, and then pushed the door open quickly.
The room was empty apart from the keyboard and screen that interfaced to the quipping machine.  He felt let-down, and realised he'd been hoping that someone else was using it.  Lots of people around the university seemed to talk about MSPARKER, but he'd not yet found anyone else actually using her.  Even Dr. Malmstein seemed happier to instruct Bob to do things than to actually come in here and do them himself.
There was a blue-upholstered swivel chair in front of the desk, so he sat down, heaved a sigh, and typed his username and password on the keyboard.
<Hello Bob> appeared on the screen.  <How shall we take over the world tonight?>
He looked at the screen for several seconds, telling himself that the engine behind it simply picked words and phrases out of a large database, and that sometimes they would seem more apposite than others.  MSPARKER didn't truly think, it solved specific problems in the style of a long dead author, and was really just a glorified expert system.  Hell, calling it MSPARKER surely indicated that it was just a vanity project.
MSPARKER, he typed back, We have a man in the Common Room
<Tell me more.  It's not like I'm fucking busy> appeared on the screen while he was trying to decide how to continue.  <Or vice versa.>
Bob's jaw actually dropped open at this point and he read and re-read the lines on the screen a few times before he understood that they actually were there.  He stared, and finally shook his head, and re-read his own statement, determined to continue.
He has some skulls with him and he claims that he dug them up like that
<A graverobber then.  Perhaps he'd like to jump my bones?>
There are houses built into the skulls, little houses with little mortared bricks and some glazed windows and gardens and everything!
<An industrious graverobber with  his own opinions on what should be in Good Homes and Gardens?>
Pause and stare again.  Whoever had done this was good, MSPARKER seemed more and more real every time he talked to her.  Typed on her.  Whatever the damn verb should be to describe their communications.
I think he's a fraud.
<A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika.>
Bob sat back, feeling cold sweat run down the back of his neck.  He ran his hand through his hair and it came away wet, so he wiped it on the front of his jeans again.  That was a good answer to give to Dr. Malmstein, he thought.  It sounded like it came from a machine, and it was easy to interpret how you wanted to.  He could certainly claim that he thought it meant that even MSPARKER considered the claim dubious.
He leant forwards again and tapped the PrintScreen button, and then stood up and left, entirely happily.  The printouts came out in the next office, the print-hub for this floor of the building.  There were several people in there, some standing around waiting for long printouts, and some just standing around and chatting to their friends.  For the first time since he left the Common Room Bob relaxed a little.
"Hey, whose is this?"  A voice, a young woman waving a sheet of paper and sounding annoyed.  "How did you schedule it into the middle of my job?"
Bob looked up, suddenly worried.
"What is it?" asked another voice, an older man, probably the print technician who managed the hub.
"Weird," said the woman.  "At the top it says 'A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika'" – Bob noted that she said paprika wrong – "and then there several paragraphs about something called a memento mori and a drawing of some kind of insect."
"That's mine," said Bob, his chest feeling hollow and the pit of stomach cold.  "I'm sorry, I don't know how it interrupted your printout."
"You're the guy who uses MSPARKER," said the older man looking at him.  "That machine's got some odd functions, you know."
"I know," said Bob, holding his hand out for the page, now desperate to leave.
"It's probably not his fault," said the older man.  "God knows why that machine has all the privileges it does."
The young woman snorted and let Bob take the page from her hand.  "My printout had better not be interrupted any more," she said impatiently.  Bob slipped out of the room, afraid to look at the printout with people around him, and wondered as he did what MSPARKER had decided to tell him now.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Hallowe'en house

The faculty of Epistemological Eschatology had gathered together in the Common Room to look at the perspex display cases and what they contained.  As the faculty, on a good day, numbered only four people, there was no pushing or shoving, no peering over each others shoulders or standing on tiptoes, and very little in the way of awed conversation or startled comments.  Dr. Malmstein was tapping a pipe (that he never smoked) against his teeth, and Bob was wondering if it would be rude to sit down and stop gawking at the display cases.
"We were hoping you might have some insights," said a man of medium height.  He was wearing overalls and clutching a grey checkered flat cap in his hands.  There was a small amount of dried mud on his boots, and a faintly smoky smell about him.  His hair was sandy-coloured and just starting to turn grey at the fringe, and he looked earthy.  Bob thought he was highly suspicious.
"Well," said Dr. Malmstein, the pipe clinking gently against his teeth and muffling his voice, "I would say that you've got some skulls here.  Human by the looks of things.  You might want to check with the local council about the legitimacy of you keeping them you know."
"Yes, but what about what's been done with 'em?" said the man, his accent uniform across his words, not too thick to be hard to understand, but always there like it was important to him that you knew he had an accent.
"You mean the houses?"  Dr. Malmstein raised both eyebrows, one after the other like some bizarre mexican wave performed in miniature across his face.  The man nodded, and Bob decided at that moment that this was definitely a put-up job.
The tops of the skulls had been broken open and little houses, complete with gardens, had been constructed in the brain pan.  Tiny bricks had been mortared together painstakingly, and each house had at least three storeys.  One of the three even had flying buttresses and a little tower.  The windows were mostly left open, but a couple had been glazed, and trees that were smaller even than bonzai were dotted all over the otherwise grassy and mossy gardens.  They were beautiful, elaborate constructions, almost certain a work of art, and yet here was this man trying too hard to be the salt of the earth, claiming that he'd just found them when digging things up and that they might actually be genuine.
"The houses are beautiful," said Dr. Malmstein thoughtfully.  "The artist should probably exhibit them somewhere where they'd get more attention."
"There's no artist," said the man with the cap, looking scandalised.  "There's just me.  I dug them up, and I'd like some reassurance from you clever types that my skull's not going to be next!"
"There would surely be some small difficulty in extracting it," murmured Dr. Malmstein, but quietly enough that only Bob heard him.  "Well, Mr. Phelps, I'll have my assistant query the quipping machine about it, and we'll see if that can offer better advice.  It's a true wonder of modern technology, you know."
Bob flinched.  He'd been avoiding MSPARKER, the university's quipping machine ever since she'd sent him a list of doomsday scenarios.
"I'm not sure that's a good use of university fun–" he managed before Dr. Malmstein caught his gaze and silenced him.
"It is," he said firmly.  "Ask MSPARKER what the point of the skulls might be."
"And what the houses are for," said the man quickly.  He looked slightly more shifty when he smiled.
"Oh fine," said Bob, his voice betraying his irritation.  "Give me twenty minutes to check she's awake."