FIction

Timmy the tortoise

Slowly, steadily, he marched.

Timmy the tortoise was frightened, but he pressed forward. Behind him, felt but not seen, the giant serpent swallowed its tail. Before him, the many-branching path leading…..where?

 

Slowly, steadily, he marched. Time passed, one foot in front of another.
Rounding a bend, Timmy saw a tiger. The tiger sat by the path, a sad and confused look on its majestic features. Timmy the tortoise was frightened, but he knew his armour would keep him safe, so he stopped to see if he could help the confused cat.
“Brother tiger,” he said, “you look vexed. But you are a beautiful, strong predator, with glossy orange and black fur, bright eyes and big teeth. Surely you are lord of your domain and all bow before you, trembling in awe. What could possibly be the matter, great one?”
The tiger stood on all fours and looked down at the humble tortoise, his bright eyes baleful. “Little terrapin, I have problems of which your puny mind could not conceive. Certainly I am beautiful, lord of my domain, and all tremble before my burning eyes, but still I am troubled. I may eat any animal I choose, even you, whose armour I could crack with one bite, any animal but one.”
Timmy was no terrapin, and he was more than a little perturbed by the tiger’s threat, but he held his head up high and asked the fearsome feline, “Which animal is that, my lord?”
“The elephant, friend turtle. Please understand, it is not that I cannot bring him down, cannot subjugate him to my will. This I can do, it is a trifle. I can subjugate any animal to my will, for my will is iron, my claws sharp and my teeth true. No, it is not that. It is only that once I bring him down I do not know what to do, for he is so huge. How does one eat an elephant?”
Timmy thought hard, knowing his life may depend on the answer he gave. He swallowed, then gave his considered opinion: “One mouthful at a time?”
“Ah.” The tiger sat heavily on his haunches, a thoughtful look upon his whiskered features.
Leaving the tiger gratefully perplexed by this kernel of wisdom, Timmy pressed on down the many-branching path.
Slowly, steadily, he marched. Time passed, one foot in front of another.
Rounding a bend, Timmy saw a man sitting dejectedly on a stump next to a small wall made of clay bricks. The wall was scarcely a metre high and a few metres long. Timmy was scared, because he knew men were even more dangerous than tigers, but he stopped by the wall and cleared his throat.
“Brother man dude,” he said, adopting lingo he felt would put the naked ape at ease, “you seem troubled. But you are a man, most resourceful of all creatures, transformer of landscapes, subjugator of nature. Surely you are lord of your domain and all bow before you, trembling with awe. What could possibly be the matter, great one?”
The man stood up, scratching his moustache and looking around for the source of the small voice that addressed him. Finally noticing Timmy the tortoise, standing with head held high a mere four inches from the ground, the man looked down with red-rimmed eyes. “Little testudine, how simple your life is. You could not possibly conceive of the troubles faced by a man such as myself. I have a vision, you see, a fantastic vision so grand and so huge. The world has never seen such a construction as that which I have conceptualised and must now bring into this world. I have been working at it all day, and see what I have accomplished!”
Timmy had no idea what a “testudine” was supposed to be, but he was a firm believer in being polite to strangers. “Indeed sir your wall is very impressive, I must confess I have seen other walls…”
“No, you stupid-small-minded-cold-blooded-reptile! The wall is nothing! Nothing!! My vision includes ten thousand walls, buildings, archways, aqueducts! It is a city, a great city where the world’s greatest minds will congregate and build the future.” The man melodramatically clapped his hand to his forehead, looking as if he might keel over in his fervour.
“Oh, I see,” said Timmy, allowing the man’s insults to slip by like water off a tortoise’s shell. “That does sound pretty amazing. What do you call this incredible architectural conglomerate that you will create?”
“I call it ‘Rome’, but I will never create it. I have worked all day – see how little I have achieved!” The man was pacing back and forth in agitation. “Little friend, I am finished! Ruined! I will be a laughing stock. What ever shall I do?”
Timmy thought hard, wanting to help the man but also nervously aware of the hammer the man had picked up and was now purposelessly swinging back and forth in the air, a hammer that might crack a little tortoise’s shell. “Perhaps it takes more than one day to build something so magnificent,” he offered, “perhaps you should work on it again tomorrow?”
“Ah.” The man stopped swinging the hammer and sat sown heavily on his stump, a thoughtful look on his moustached features.
Leaving the man gratefully perplexed by this kernel of wisdom, Timmy pressed on.
Slowly, steadily he marched. Time passed, one foot in front of another.
Timmy was frightened, but he pressed forward. Behind him, felt but not seen, the giant serpent swallowed its tail. Before him, the many-branching path leading….where?
Timmy was frightened, but he thought he saw a light in the distance getting closer, one step at a time.
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Bob walks home.

3D man near red question mark

Bob, walking home from the train station, saw a slogan in bright red spray paint on the wall of the underpass.

“The way to defeat fascism is to ban it,” the scarlet letters proclaimed.

Damn right, thought Bob, continuing on his way.

Further down the tunnel was another red slogan,

“The way to spread the values of liberalism is to force people to accept them.”

Hmmmm, thought Bob, scratching his head, I guess that’s right. After all, people don’t know what’s good for them do they?

Emerging from the mouth of the underpass, blinking as the bright spring sunshine stung his maladjusted eyes, Bob saw through tears the final slogan in letters black on the white concrete of the wall before him.

“The way to understand irony is to take it literally.”

Oh, thought Bob.

Final interview

ancient

It’s forbidden in their world you see. Not for ethical reasons, but because of the risk of overpopulation. If nobody dies…

They haven’t solved the problem of overpopulation?

They have not. Resources remain finite. Space remains finite. Overcrowding…

So they haven’t mastered simulation? World building?

No. Their simulation technology is not sufficiently advanced for people to live full-time within simulated worlds. One reason for that is the amount of power running simulations of such complexity requires. And issues with failsafe technology. But they are really not so different to us in some ways either, you know. Their scientists also have to contend with irrational red tape blocking certain types of research, so they’re not as advanced as they might be. Arbitrary ideologically motivated rules are equally stifling in all worlds.

Indeed. Let’s return to the subject…

Immortality? Yes, they have achieved it. They can stop ageing, prevent all disease, prevent death by trauma. But their own age limit is capped at 120. Once they reach that limit, they are humanely euthanised.

Is there any resistance to that?

I don’t believe so. The date of their death is set at the moment of their birth, so they live their entire lives with that knowledge and have plenty of time to come to terms with it. They are instilled with a keen understanding of social contract theory – make certain sacrifices to enjoy certain privileges. The price of having a life free of the fear of sudden, unexpected death is expected death. Anyway, although it’s strictly prohibited for them to create immortals in their own world, that law doesn’t extend to other worlds.

Such as our world.

Correct. Ours and perhaps others, I don’t know.

How they do it? How do they beat death?

I don’t know, I’ve already told you that. If I knew I wouldn’t be dying, would I? I’ve spent my life trying to understand it and all I’ve managed to do is shorten it.

Your life?

Yes.

You’re dying because of your research?

Yes. You can’t make too many mistakes when you are experimenting on yourself. Studying death is an efficient way to cause it.

What have you done to yourself?

Many things. Mostly protein engineering and tampering with gene expression. Now it’s all out of balance. I’m poisoning myself with the products of my own mutant genes. I’ve accomplished one thing though in my attempts to emulate their achievements.

What’s that?

An accurate prediction of the hour of my own death.

Oh…

I’m on the clock now, that’s why I agreed to this interview. People should know. People must know.

When will you die?

Tonight. Perhaps tomorrow morning.

Are you sure? You look healthy enough to me.

My pancreas and liver are producing enzymes in toxic quantities, poisoning themselves and my other organs. I’m digesting my own muscle mass. Already my kidneys are beginning to clog with cellular debris. It’s a chain reaction in a system far from equilibrium. My organs will begin to fail tonight sometime between 10 PM and 12 AM.

Can’t you do anything?

No.

I see. I’m sorry. Surely…

No, there is nothing. But people must know. Someone must find him.

Who?

The immortal living in our world. Their experiment.

There’s only one?

To my knowledge, yes. They may have other experiments, other treatment groups, in other worlds. In ours there is just one. They watch him. They’ve been watching him for thousands of years.

Thousands?

Yes. He is ancient.

Why have they done this?

To see. To see how one immortal would live, alone in a world of mortals. To see what influence he would have on their evolution. Our evolution. The evolution of our culture, our knowledge, our consciousness, of humanity itself. Would he hide? Would he take control of his world’s destiny? Would he make himself into a god?

Well… he has hidden. That’s the answer to their question…right?

I thought that too. I thought he was a coward, thought he had influenced nothing, changed nothing.

And now?

Now I know.

Know what?

He has changed everything.

***

Early this morning, prominent scientist Dr. Michael Bosnich died of multiple organ failure, apparently as the result of experiments conducted on himself in an attempt to end the process of aging. Sources close to Dr. Bosnich say that as his body failed, so too did his mind and his final hours were spent in raving delusion, asserting fantasies such as the existence of parallel worlds, immortals, and advanced beings conducting experiments on the evolution of humanity. His family asks that members of the public respect their privacy at this time and remember Dr. Bosnich as a great scientist who made important contributions to the field of genomic disease research. In keeping with their wishes, we have decided to withhold publication of the transcript of his final interview.

Painting: William Blake – The ancient of days

Sensory Deprivation

This is a dark short story about the origins of consciousness during the development of the brain. It’s probably not suitable for children….

sensory-deprivation

We wanted to investigate consciousness. How it’s formed. How the sense of self develops in response to environmental stimuli. It was science. The purest kind. Blue sky. A quest for knowledge, pure and simple. Was our research unethical? Many seem to think so. I’ll let you be the judge.

The first thing you need to know is that these babies were not going to be born otherwise. Their parents didn’t want them. We had an arrangement with several major abortion clinics. We met with the mothers, explained our research. Offered them good money. We never pressured anyone. Is it unethical to put a newborn baby into a sensory deprivation tank? I don’t know….well, maybe I know now but I didn’t know then. Anyway, I still don’t know if it’s more unethical than preventing them from being born at all. I mean…any life is better than no life right? That’s what the beefeaters say; I’m a vegetarian. Anyway, that’s not why I’m here you know? No one really cares about those babies. It’s the clones…

What? Fair enough. I’ll explain.

People want to know where it comes from. Consciousness. The self. Does the brain create it, or just “download” it? Is it something that forms in response to complex environmental and social cues or is it “out there”, waiting for a brain that can support it? A lot of people believe that. Like it’s the soul, immortal. The Eternal Oneness, or whatever.

So how do you test that? Well, one way is to keep brains isolated as they develop and see what happens. Simple. The best kind of science. But not so simple really….you need treatment groups, controls. Need to test the effect of genetics, different environments. You need a lot of brains, a lot of treatment groups. So…we got a lot of babies. It wasn’t hard. Nobody wants kids any more. Too expensive. Too restricting. Too much responsibility. Not that they want to stop making them of course. You tell me who’s unethical….

Well, sure, maybe they just haven’t worked out how it happens. Wouldn’t surprise me. It’s not as if they teach biology in schools any more….

Yeah, you’re right, I wouldn’t want to bring a child into this world either. Not after we’ve screwed it up so much. Damn it’s hot…you’d think they’d have air-conditioning in these cells…

Yeah, right. So we got a lot of bubs. All sorts of racial combinations, different social backgrounds. We divided them into treatment groups….

Well, you can’t have just one brain in each treatment group. Don’t you know anything about statistics? You need multiples. Replicates. So yeah, that’s where the clones came in. That’s why I’m here talking to you in a room with no windows…I guess that’s appropriate somehow. Sensory deprivation. Only my room reeks of piss and shit. My own, thank God. I don’t know how you

It’s an expression.

“Playing God,” they said. Whatever, we gave those clones an opportunity. We gave all our babies a shot at life.

Yeah, so some of them got no sensory input. Seven years floating in total silence, absolute darkness. Pitch black. Some of them had a little light, a little sound. All the way up to ones with full-blown family lives. AI families of course – they all had to be in the same tanks. Controlled environments. But for some of them we simulated touch, human contact, the whole shebang. There was a whole range of sensory treatment groups from nothing all the way up. A smooth range of variables. 30 points on the treatment curve, 12 different genetic and socioeconomic combinations at each point, one natural kid and two clones for each combo. 1080 kids. It was beautiful. The greatest experiment ever conducted on the origins of consciousness in the developing brain….

The results? How the fuck should I know!? Seven years mate. Seven. Years. We were just opening the first tanks when the boys in blue kicked down the doors. Farkin’ heroes. I don’t even know what they’ve done with my children. My babies…

Destroyed? And I’m the one in prison…

Billy and the daemons.

Later that “day” in hyper-dimensional space, Billy bumped into Laplace’s Daemon, who was looking dejected.

“Hey, LD, what’s up?” Billy asked, cheerfully.

“Oh, hi Billy,” the daemon rumbled. His voice, almost subsonic, sounded hollow. “I’m feeling a bit low, to tell the truth.”

“Cheer up LD, what’s wrong?”

“I feel pretty useless, Billy.”

“Oh come on.”

“I’m not good at anything…”

“That’s nonsense LD! You know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe! That’s pretty awesome!”

“I thought so too, but now I don’t know…”

“What happened?”

“I failed to predict the outcome of the US presidential election…”

“Oh, bummer…but you’ve predicted a lot of other stuff correctly, right?”

“Well, not as such, no…”

“But…I thought prediction was your whole thing LD?”

“So did I…but I’ve never actually tried to predict anything before now.”

“Wow – isn’t that what you were created for?”

“I guess not. I guess I was created as an intuition pump like some smart arse philosophers have claimed…oh man, this sucks – I was so determined to try,” the daemon let out an almighty sigh. “Ha! ‘Determined’!” he suddenly shouted, slapping his daemonic thigh ironically.

“What’s an intuition pump LD?” chirped Billy, his ears ringing. He’d missed the joke but was always excited to learn new things.

“It means I was created just to convince people that prediction was possible in principle. You know, to show people how obvious and logical determinism is and how incoherent the idea that puny creatures like them could have ‘Free Will’ is,” the daemon made little bunny ears with his daemonic fingers as he pronounced the words “Free Will”, “…but I never really thought to test my powers.” He paused, shaking his daemonic head, “I mean, it was so obvious!”

Suddenly, Tegmark’s Daemon appeared in a puff of mathematics.

“Hi TD!” chirped Billy, whose irrepressible chirping was starting to get on the daemonic nerves of Laplace’s Daemon.

“Hi Billy! Hi LD – I hear you’ve had a spot of bother bit of predicting the future old chap,” said the newcomer.

“Bloody hell,” growled the older daemon, “everybody knows… I’ll be a laughing stock at the next meeting of the Council of Daemons.”

“Cheer up mate,” replied TD, trying to console his friend, “it’s not your fault. You just don’t know anything about quantum indeterminacy, that’s all.”

“What’s that?” asked LD, without enthusiasm.

“Would you like me to show you?”

“Not really…”

“Yes!” exclaimed Billy, who knew it was rude to interrupt when daemons were talking to each other but was unable to contain his excitement.

“Excellent!” said Tegmark’s Daemon, ruffling Billy’s hair affectionately before opening his daemonic mouth and spewing forth a huge jumble of equations. While he explained them to his eager young student, Laplace’s Daemon picked his daemonic teeth disinterestedly with his daemonic claws.

Some “time” later, when Tegmark’s Daemon had finished his daemonic explanation, he turned to his fellow daemon and said, “So now you know, LD – it’s a bit harder to predict the future than you thought, because you have to analyse all possible universes and work out which one you’re in! You couldn’t possibly have known…”

“Whatever,” grunted the downcast daemon, brusquely interrupting his younger colleague.

Tegmark’s Daemon shrugged his daemonic shoulders, “OK chaps, I’m off then,” he said, and promptly disappeared in another puff of mathematics.

“Fucking precocious upstart,” muttered Laplace’s Daemon, alone with Billy once more.

“I feel bad for you LD,” said Billy, “but you have to admit, that was pretty cool!” The boy was beaming in the afterglow of the brief encounter with his favourite daemon – Tegmark’s.

“Piss off, kid.”

“Aw, don’t be sore LD. What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know…probably start a psychic hotline.”

 

 

 

Art: William Blake’s “The Number of the Beast is 666”

Aramis, Part 1 (A Sessile* story)

This story contains graphic imagery and language.

Late at night in a large office at the top of a sixty storey building labelled “Technopharm” in huge neon letters Aramis Blake sat staring into space, his fingers typing on the bare surface of the desk in front of him. A dozen precisely placed invisible speakers filled the air with Brahms, the dense contrapuntal texture and developing variation of the quintet for piano and strings sharpening Blake’s focus as numbers flew before his eyes. He was balancing the Technopharm accounts. It had taken just two years for his business to go from start-up to billion-dollar enterprise, exceeding even his own expectations. He’d discovered the technology during the final year of his doctorate and saw its potential immediately – the ability to induce chemical brain states purely through electrical stimulation, without the need for “drugs”. The research program had been languishing due to a lack of funding and an excess of red tape stretched across its path by legislative bodies in the back pocket of big pharma. Its developers were looking at several years of expensive clinical trials before the medical application of their invention would be approved. They couldn’t afford it. They would have to shut the project down; another potentially paradigm-shifting medical technology ground into the dust by pharmaceutical companies desperate to keep their share of the drug market. Blake had seen straight away what the technogeek developers, their near-sighted eyes already brimming with tears for their death of their baby, were incapable of imagining – the recreational potential of the tech. It started with electro-psychedelics, -stimulants and -opiates, but it wasn’t long before the military took an interest and NocBlok, a nociception-blocking implant, made Blake an instant billionaire.

Glancing up from the spread sheet Aramis Blake’s eyes came to rest on the bas-relief on the wall opposite his desk; The Exaltation of the Flower, an Ancient Greek sculpture depicting two women exchanging gifts of flowers or mushrooms. Usually this image identifying his path with that of the ancients brought him solace but tonight he felt the need to look on something more dramatic. He considered his options and then chose to replace the relief with Picasso’s Guernica, his field of view filling with the contorted and screaming faces of the horse and humans as soon as he made the selection. Increasing the volume of the music he relaxed in the assault to his senses as the horse, the bull, the broken sword and bodies and Brahms’ exquisitely organised chaos of counterpoint merged for a moment into an intoxicating gesamtkunstwerk. Sighing with abstract emotion Blake jacked into the security feed; the Technopharm offices that occupied the top two floors of the building were empty except for his own and the laboratory down the hall where Bruno Skachkov tinkered with his miniatures at all hours of the night. Fascinated as always by the tireless industry of the tattooed Russian homunculus, Blake watched him at his work, zooming in as Skachkov inserted a tiny handmade microchip into the back of a figurine no more than seven centimetres tall. As soon as the microchip was in place the figurine, an immaculately detailed demon with wings, hoofs and its mouth sewn shut, started to move, turning to face Skachkov and genuflecting before its creator. Chuckling to himself, Blake returned his attention to his company’s finances.

There are no clocks in the Technopharm offices – the rotation of the Earth is precise enough a metronome for Aramis Blake. Shorter periods of time are measured by the duration of favourite pieces of music.

The Brahms had finished and the air was thick with Bruch when the music was suddenly muted by a notification from the security feed flagging an event in the building’s lobby – someone had attempted to gain access to the private elevator servicing the Technopharm offices. Video from security cameras downstairs revealed the marble-floored lobby, decorated in the old style with statues, prints of artworks and projected advertisements for companies that occupied the various floors. Standing by the elevators were two men, an odd couple: one small and wiry with the face of a weasel and the other a muscle-bound behemoth looking like he’d stepped out of Norse legend. Establishing vidphone contact, Aramis addressed them politely.

“How can I be of assistance, gentlemen?”

“Blake?” the little man snapped, his voice reedy and high-pitched.

“This is Dr Aramis Blake, yes. To whom am I speaking?”

“You’ll find it’s in your best interest to let us up there Blake, we have an important message for you,” said the man. A notification appeared in front of Blake’s eyes and he switched feeds, replacing the weasel-faced man with Skachkov’s stony visage. Saying nothing, Blake nodded and the Russian broke the transmission.

Switching back to the lobby feed Aramis addressed the strangers, “Of course gentlemen, come on up,” and entered the eight digit code giving them access to the elevator. Moments later they stood in front of his desk. He hadn’t risen as they entered the room and now the smaller man snapped his fingers,

“Sid,” he grunted, pointing at Blake. The giant shoved the hardwood desk aside, picked Aramis up as if he were a child and deposited him on his feet facing his accomplice. Blake was not a small man, considerably taller and heavier than the leering thug who now slouched against the repositioned desk investigating his crooked yellow teeth with a toothpick, but the man behind towered over them both and seemed almost as wide as he was tall. Blake addressed the little mustelid-featured man,

“Welcome to Technopharm. I’m sure you understand that it’s most unusual for me to accept visitors, particularly at such an hour and without an appointment. How may I help you?”

“Listen, Blake, listen good alright,” the man spat, his toothpick descending to the floor in a shower of spittle. “You’re going to back off from the pharmaceuticals market alright mate? Take whatever money you’ve earned and fuck off back to wherever you came from. Today was Technopharm’s last day of business.”

“Ah,” Blake’s voice was steady, “I’m afraid that’s not possible, gentlemen. Please tell your employers, whoever they may be, that it’s only business, I’m sure they’ll understand. They really shouldn’t get so worked up about it.”

“Right. Well this is only business too mate, I’m sure you understand,” Blake’s arms were pinioned from behind and his hand forced onto the desk. Feeling Sid’s strength Blake relaxed, knowing there was no point fighting. The weasel-faced man reached his hand into a jacket pocket and drew it out brandishing something that looked like an antique soldering iron, its metal end already glowing red. As he burnt a hole in Blake’s hand the CEO of Technopharm impassively maintained eye contact, not flinching even as the hot wand passed clear through his hand and began to burn to desk beneath it. The torturer’s excitement turned to frustration and he raised the wand towards his victim’s unflinching eyes. “I heard you was a tough guy Blake, I love tough guys. I could spend all night burning off little pieces of your body mate, burning your eyes out, burning your fucking balls off, but I’m here for results first and fun second. So tell you what mate. After I’m finished with you how about I head over to fifty one View Street and say hi to your woman and kid eh? How about I go make your little bitch my little bitch? Whadoya reckon, eh tough nuts?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“No?”

“I’ll do as you ask.”

“’Course you farken will, mate. ‘Course you will. All you tough guys go soft for your bloody cows. Let him go, big man. All right then, before we go we need to get some of this equipment of yours. The programs you use, the hardware, all your research materials, where’s it at?”

“Everything you need is in the laboratory down the hall.”

“Alright, let’s go then you macho prick.”

Bruno Skachkov crouched barefoot on the floor beside the entrance to the darkened laboratory, listening intently for sounds from Blake’s office down the hall. In his right hand he absent-mindedly shuffled his three-inch knuckle knife from finger to finger. At the sound of footsteps and a sneering voice in the hall every muscle in his body tensed. The twin curves of his weapon’s handle nestled snugly under index and middle fingers; the short blade sticking out from in between was almost as broad as long. Automatic lights came on as the doors next to him slid open soundlessly and a gargantuan slab of muscle topped with hay-blond hair stepped through. Bruno didn’t wait for him to turn – he leapt, grabbing a handful of hair with his left hand and, perching his bare feet on his victim’s hips like a monkey, he drove the little blade in his other hand into the man’s throat again and again, severing the giant jugular with the first thrust but not stopping until the giant was horizontal and lying in a steadily spreading sticky pool of himself. The weasel tried to turn but collided with Blake who wrapped his arm like a python around the wiry little man’s neck. Struggles turned to spasms and then the feet twitched a moment before movement ceased altogether and another body fell limp to the floor. Aramis Blake turned to Bruno Skachkov,

“Clean this mess up. I’m going to get Persephone.”

*

They’d met in prison. Blake was in on a six-month sentence for distribution of an unlicensed delivery mechanism for a controlled substance on the London campus of PanGlobal University. He’d been eighteen months into his doctorate and had seen an opportunity to make some easy cash. The drug war had been dying a slow death over the previous decade but cops with nothing better to do were still looking for ways to make easy drug-related busts. Blake had been selling a stimulant that improved concentration– a performance enhancing molecular cocktail that was legal but banned for use by students during the examination period. It was also only approved for use in pill or vaporiser form, both of which had a relatively short half-life compared to the skin patches Blake was selling. The transparent delivery patches, undetectable once they’d been applied, slowly released the drug over several hours – perfect for tedious exams. It wasn’t much of a crime and Blake didn’t even need the money thanks to his inheritance, he just liked making money.

After letting slip to a guard that he was a PhD student at PGU he’d found himself sharing a cell with a man that looked like a chimpanzee someone had shaved and then painted all over – another inmate had called Skachkov a “technicolour sock full of walnuts” and lost his two front teeth for his wit. When they’d got to know each other a bit Blake asked about the significance of the huge cobra tattoo on the Russian’s head, its hood spread across the back of his skull. Skachkov had said it was because he was “just like Buddha under the Bodhi tree until some unlucky prick disturbs my meditations”. Blake didn’t point out that Buddha had been under a mucalinda tree when the cobra had sheltered him. Bruno was inside for assault – five years for biting off the ear of a policeman who’d come to arrest him in connection with a crime for which they’d had no evidence against him. The real crime, of which he freely admitted his guilt to his cellmate, was manufacturing miniature robotic assassins for use in remote hits on major corporate figures. He never knew who hired him and the money wasn’t as much as it should have been but he did it for access to the materials and equipment with which to indulge his passions for artificial intelligence, robotics, and miniaturisation. At first Blake didn’t believe the little thug capable of such technical work, but when he saw what Skachkov could do in the prison workshop he was quickly converted into a believer.

They shared a cell for the full six months and became close allies. Their e-brains were disabled as part of prison policy and Blake gradually replaced Skachkov’s collection of smutty pinups with prints of great works of art. The Russian grew to respect the Englishman for his intellect and ambition and agreed to join him in whatever business venture he had going when they were both back on the outside. For a year after his release Blake hadn’t known what use he could put his new comrade to, hadn’t known until he’d come across the technology for electrostimulation of brain chemistry and founded Technopharm – it was Skachkov who’d taken the researcher’s technology and put it into tiny handheld units connected to a comfortable electrode array that could be slipped on and off like a swimming cap; it was Skachkov who provided the necessary muscle to deal with big pharma’s scare tactics.

*

Blake went down to the basement and got into his late model Porsche 911. A torque addict, he would avoid getting a grid vehicle until they finally outlawed freewheelers completely – he didn’t even use his Porsche’s autodrive function except in zones where manual control was illegal. Putting his foot down and darting between computer-controlled cars he was at the apartment block on View Street within eight minutes of leaving the Technopharm building. It was a nice block but the lobby was big and facelessly modern, advertisements for expensive perfumes and jewellery and exotic holidays flashed at him from every wall. He took the elevator to level five and knocked on the door to number 51. After a minute or so a woman’s voice came over the intercom,

“No way Aramis, it’s late and it’s not your day to see her. You can’t keep messing around with the schedule like this, it upsets her and it upsets me.”

“Open the door, Apollonia, this is important, I need to talk to you.”

“She’s asleep.”

“We both know that’s a lie.”

“Forget it. I’m not going to argue about this. Come back on Sunday. Good night, Aramis.”

Blake sighed deeply and then took an access card out of his wallet and held it against the card reader. When he heard the lock slide he turned the handle and pushed his way into the richly appointed apartment.

“You bastard,” yelled his ex, “this is my apartment!”

“No, Apollonia, this is my apartment,” Blake didn’t raise his voice but his tone was cold, “you just live here with my daughter.”

Your daughter? Our daughter, arsehole.”

Aramis walked into the living room and saw the Technopharm unit sitting on the arm of the comfortable leather chair. “Still using, eh?”

“Your products, dealer. You think I don’t take advantage of my lifetime supply?”

“I know you do. I’m going upstairs.”

“The hell you are!” as she grabbed at him he jabbed her hip with a tiny auto-injector hidden in his palm. The drug was a fast-acting tranquiliser and she immediately slumped into his arms. It would wear off in under a minute so he took her to the chair and slid the electrode cap on over her hair. He loaded an opioid program and set the timer to thirty minutes – he’d be long gone by then. He looked down at her as the program started and she began to squirm lethargically and sigh with pleasure, her eyes open but unseeing. She was in a nightgown of fine black silk; her hair was golden, her skin smooth and tanned, her eyes startling electric blue, she was beautiful and he missed her. They’d been planning to marry but his prison stint had put an end to that – she’d left him when he got arrested and when he got out she wouldn’t talk to him. Their daughter was born while he was inside. Even when he had become rich in the way she and he used to dream about, even when he showered her with gifts and installed her in one of the most expensive apartment blocks in the city, Apollonia wouldn’t consider taking him back. She allowed him to see Persephone because she knew she couldn’t fight his legal team.

He went upstairs and into his daughter’s room. The little girl was dancing on the bed conducting music he couldn’t hear. Twirling in his direction she saw him and her face lit up, her blue eyes sparkling. “Daddy!” she squealed, running along the bed and launching into his arms. He squeezed her tightly then put her down on the ground and crouched next to her,

“How is my munchkin genius?”

“I’m well Daddy, good and well, always good, always well,” she nodded at him sagely before her expression suddenly changed, her eyes full of concern. “Daddy you’re hurt! What happened to your hand? It’s got a black hole in it!”

“It’s nothing baby, I’ll have it patched up as soon as I get a chance.”

“Oh. You should be more careful daddy, nothing escapes from a black hole you know.”

“I know, you better watch out you don’t get sucked in!” He made a mock lunge towards her and she giggled and squirmed away.

“Oh, oh! Look at this daddy,” she grabbed something from the floor and brandished it triumphantly in front of his eyes, “look at this!” It was an antique toy older than Blake himself, which he’d found through an online dealer of esoterica. She pulled the string protruding from the plastic yellow bunny rabbit’s back and little plastic hands moved back and forth in front of little plastic eyes as the tinkly music box played Brahms’ Lullaby. Persephone giggled and swayed to the music.

“It’s lovely isn’t it sweetheart?”

“Yes Daddy but look at this, look at this!” she dropped the bunny and ran over to a small keyboard in the corner and started to pick out Brahms’ melody.

“Wonderful sweetheart, Johannes couldn’t have played it any better himself,” she beamed at him, “but we have to go now OK? Bring your keyboard, bring whatever you like.”

“Where are we going Daddy?”

“We’re going to my place. We’re not coming back here for a while so make sure you pack all your favourite things.”

End of Part 1.

*All Sessile stories contain concepts created by the author in collaboration with Joha Coludar

King Tide

Henry Jones scrutinised the clipboard in his hand. It was his first day as foreman and he was going to get it right. There might be room for creativity later on but today was going to be by the book. No mucking about. He’d already made a silly mistake this morning when he’d forgotten to wear his new shiny white foreman’s hardhat and had put on the fluorescent yellow hardhat of a worker. Now everyone was on-site and they weren’t treating him with the proper deference. It must be the hat. Oh, they knew he was foreman all right, but you could see it in the way they looked first into his eyes and then glanced at his yellow hat. You could see it in the not so subtle smirks on their faces. They were laughing at him. Oh well, he would earn their respect. First things first: the list.

“Foreman’s checklist:

1. Ensure all workers wearing appropriate PPE (yellow hard hats, hi-vis vests, rubber-soled steel-capped boots, gloves available, etc.)”

Tick!

“2. Ensure appropriate work schedule signed off.”

Tick!

“3. Ensure foreman in possession of all lock-out keys required for scheduled work.”

Tick! Henry felt he was getting the hang of this.

“4. Ensure first-aid trained personnel on-site and ambulance access roads clear of debris.”

Tick! Looking up, Henry noticed his (he already considered them his) workers didn’t seem to be doing any work. Indeed they were all standing around, hands on hips, talking amongst themselves, some looking up at the sky, others looking at him quizzically. No matter, as soon as the list was completed he would deal with them. He’d have this site running like a well-oiled machine in no time or his name wasn’t Henry Archibald Jones and, by golly, his name was Henry Archibald Jones.

“5. Ensure no marine mammals caught in overhead powerlines.”

Henry Archibald Jones looked up. Ah…….

kingtide_web

(painting by Genevieve Jackson – click to enlarge…I insist that you click to enlarge!)

Apollo’s War

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The voyeur thought often of death,

enthralled as Deathless Ones are.

*

The face that ended a million lives,

deaths senseless and glorious (as all deaths).

*

Mortals dance teetering on the brink of Tartarus,

a slip from the Underworld.

*

Why not kill them,

who live only to die?

*

A gentle shove to watch them fall,

a relief he would never know.

*

Death blisters the heels of life,

but the God of Death does not run the race.

*

No light without dark,

no life without death?

*

He envied the certainty of their fate,

the God of Oracles can not see his own future.

So spoke the centipede – an old and weird story.

 

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So spoke the centipede

“When you awake, you will remember everything.” So spoke the centipede without looking up from its meal. The horrific many-legged succubus was perched on the corpse of a familiar toad with its maxillipeds buried deep into the hapless amphibian’s flesh, though the masticatory movements of its mouthparts didn’t hinder its ability to address me. Overhead, the technicolour vortex was beginning to close. “You must go now, before it is too late,” intoned the demonic myriapod, its voice arriving in my head without perturbing my eardrums. Stifling the urge for a backwards glance I ran swiftly past the pillar of salt, ran with winged heels away from that macabre scene, and hurled myself headlong into the vortex.

Flickering fluorescent lights bathed the classroom in antiseptic whites as Bertrand Russell, my 1st grade teacher, lectured us on the evolution of philosophy in Ancient Greece:

“Heraclitus espoused a painful doctrine of permanent flux; a doctrine which modern science is powerless to refute. Which of you can tell me the name of the Greek philosopher who did, however, attempt just such a refutation?”

Hands reached for the ceiling all around me. Evidently I alone was unable to summon the answer to this apparently elementary question.

“Ah yes, Billy?”

Silly Billy the blighter I hadn’t seen since we were boys; this Billy didn’t look like my Silly Billy but he was Billy the blighter all right.

“That was Parmenides, Mr. Russell. Parmenides maintained that nothing changes.”

“That sounds a little preposterous though doesn’t it Billy? For example, if I incinerate this rather unpleasant centipede here,” said our distinguished didact, rapidly reaching with forceps of ferrous alloy into a small tank on the blackened bench beside him and removing a writhing centipede which ineffectually but audibly and repeatedly stabbed the steely forceps with its venom claws, “it will cease to exist, will it not?” He dropped the cranky critter into the incinerator and it was instantly immolated, emitting (no doubt) a silent scream of almost anthropic anguish. “You see, Billy? Something has changed – no more nasty centipede!”

“Yes, sir.” Silly Billy looked at his shoes.

“Wrong, wrong, wrong, you over-educated aristocratic British toff!” screeched Parmenides. “The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that Is!”

“Thank you for your contribution, Parmenides,” the 3rd Earl Russell calmly replied, “but you simply cannot draw a metaphysical conclusion from language.”

The door suddenly splintered into a quadrillion quarks and the sound of gunfire filled my ears. Outside, the battle to determine the fate of the Multiverse was heating up and I knew I must rescue the ashes of my ally and get them to the Underworld. Valiantly I vaulted a dozen rows of desks, dodged past Parmenides throttling Bertrand Russell, and snatched the claws of the carbonised creepy-crawly from the inferno of the incinerator. My heels began to flap and I exited stage right with one thousand and one Arabian militants hot on them. My capture imminent and inevitable, I daringly disassociated into one thousand and two tiny toads; the toad called “me” sought shelter under a red rock whilst the multitudinous militants, distracted by the decoys, all apprehended an anuran automaton (one each).

It was dark and damp under my red rock and I detected a sound – a whistling as air of blowing across giant spiracles. I turned and found myself face to forcipule with a monstrous myriapod. I tried to escape this abhorrent ambush but the subtle centipede greedily grabbed ahold of me with a dozen spiked appendages and clutched me crushingly to its armoured underside sighing “Om, nom, nom, nom, nom.”

“Wait!” I cried, “I am a friend to the centipedes! See how I have rescued the remains of one of your conspecifics in order to ensure the proper burial rites are performed!”

“Boy,” the maxillipeds were motionless but I recognised the voice of my captor, “you have seriously misunderstood nature. To me, this conspecific you mention is little more than competition for food and you are little more than the latter.” The legs pierced my sides and back and blood began to weep from my wounds as I was shuffled inexorably along a conveyor belt of limbs toward the nightmarish scythes upon which I would shortly be impaled. The poison in my warty skin was useless as prayer against this prehistoric predator which had been haunting the recess of the Earth and my unconscious for four hundred million years. “Do you see? You were fated to be food. Parmenides was right, nothing changes; you have always been my meal and I have always been consuming you.” A perfect sphere of viscous venom extruded from the tip of a claw and luminesced in the light that emanated from the entrance to this subterranean dwelling place of primal fear, a crack of light beyond which lay a wide and wonderful world of infinite “elsewheres” I’d rather be.

Opening my eyes I relaxed in the warm water; it was decades since my last bubble bath. The light caught the bubbles as they flitted and floated towards my contented countenance, each containing a miniature rainbow-suffused universe. As a spherical sufficiency approached my nose, I spied between me and the rows of my toes, a fatal prescience of the end of my road – a chitinous chilopod consuming a toad.

Genpedehead

The Copyist – a story about the creative impulse.

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The Copyist – T.N.W. Jackson

Deep in the recesses of the labyrinthine library the Copyist worked late into the night. He was absorbed by his task. This night as on so many others, alone amongst the ancient manuscripts, he underwent the transformation from Copyist to composer. His actions were forbidden. He was not the Composer. In each generation there could be but one Composer and one Composer’s Apprentice; the Copyist was neither. He was not a Sanctioned Creator and the punishment for Unsanctioned Creation was death. Working as he did, surrounded each day by the masterpieces of long past Ages of Unrestricted Creation, he was powerless to fight the urge to contribute to the canon. By day he performed his role as Copyist dutifully, preparing the Composer’s new scores and making the requested transcriptions of works by the Immortal Geniuses. He took pleasure in his allotted task but each night after completing the responsibilities of another day he found himself assailed by the insatiable desire to create. He too desired immortality.

The Copyist applied the finishing touches to another diamantine miniature. He had studied the works of all the Masters and knew his generation’s Composer had no place among them. Of his generation only he, the Copyist, possessed the knowledge and skill required to transcribe thought directly; to take a fully formed piece from the depths of the psyche and notate it, preserving in ink ephemera born of the stream of consciousness. With the threat of discovery ever present and the spectre of incompletion haunting his thoughts, he confined himself to work as a miniaturist. He believed himself impartial when he judged his creations as combining the crystallinity of Webern with the melodic invention of Schubert and an improvisatory quality that recalled Keneally. Upon completion he always took great care to secret his compositions between the pages of some long neglected piece of esoterica – the works of the First Renaissance were of little interest to anyone other than himself and thus served him well as a repository for the secret inventions he committed to blank pieces of paper discovered during his studies of ancient scores. His newly minted manuscript in hand, a piece of pure mind preserved upon the page, he set off on the long walk to his chosen hiding spot. He never composed within proximity of a previous or potential cache and he never hid one piece close to another for fear that should one be discovered and destroyed all would suffer the same fate. In truth, the chances of discovery were remote due to the age and decrepitude of the Archivist, who was rarely seen, often disappearing for days on end into the bowels of petrified knowledge. The Archivist had been a great scholar but now, obsessed in his dotage with the poetry of Goethe, rarely ventured out of this subject area. The Archives had not been updated for a decade.  Regardless of necessity, the Copyist was never more at peace than during his peripatetic wanderings amongst the dim aisles of the vast Library, searching for the right spot to hide his latest application to immortality.

The following day whilst transcribing another of the pompous fugal ineptitudes the Composer churned out to accolade after accolade, the Copyist had a curious visitation. A small party of men approached him at his desk to enquire if he had recently encountered the Archivist, who had missed several official engagements over the preceding weeks. He had not, but assured the men that the Archivist would no doubt show up soon and informed them that he could most often be found in the vicinity of Hexagon 1672, two days’ journey from their present position and most easily accessed via Aisle 987 and Goethe Way. The men thanked him and set off on their search, leaving the Copyist to his work.

He was no mere transcriptionist, but also an invariably unheralded auditor and editor and he now improved the clumsy theme of the fugue and subtly adjusted each imitative entrance, allowing the counterpoint to breathe. The Composer cared nothing for purity of form or clarity of line, indeed cared for nothing more than fame. Contemporary fame was the shallowest of all goals, the basest of all achievements, and The Copyist was glad that he did not suffer such a vice. He aspired only to the immaculate ideals: Art and Immortality.

Days passed and the search party returned bearing the lifeless body of the Archivist. Discovered within Hexagon 1672 as the Copyist had predicted, he had been dead for many days but his body had been perfectly preserved by the cool dry climate of the Library. The Ceremony of Interment would be performed immediately, followed by the Ceremony of Promotion in which the Archivist’s Apprentice would be officially elevated to the position of Archivist. Knowing that the man had died doing what he loved, the Copyist was not saddened by the death of The Archivist. He had greatly respected his colleague and that night he composed a miniature fugue in honour of the Archivist’s legacy. It was one of his finest works and a triumph of contrapuntal artistry far beyond the skill of the Composer. Returning to his desk having concealed the pages of barely dried ink, elated in the afterglow of creation and with the elegantly interwoven lines of his latest opus replaying in the private performance space of his imagination, he was startled when he almost collided with a young man coming down the aisle in the opposite direction.

“Ah, Copyist!” the Archivist greeted him. “What are you doing so late and so deep in the Library?”

“Greetings Archivist,” he responded stiffly, “I was studying the works of the First Renaissance, as I often do late at night.”

“Very well then. I must confess I have long wished to meet you, Copyist, as my former master would often show me your transcriptions and you have such a beautiful hand I feel I could recognise your work anywhere! It’s wonderful too that you take such an interest in these neglected manuscripts; I feel they are overdue for reappraisal and shall certainly devote my attention to ensuring that their archival entries are in order.”

“Indeed that is a most appropriate and long overdue task, Archivist. I assure you though that you flatter me and that my hand is no more beautiful than that of any other skilled transcriptionist. You shall find it quite impossible to distinguish from that of my countless predecessors.”

“You are too modest, Copyist. Good evening to you now, I must be off to Hexagon 1672 – when my poor master died he left some important work unfinished. We shall see each other again soon I am sure.”

“Good evening, Archivist.”

The Archivist was true to his word and the announcement was soon made that the works of a hitherto unknown composer had been discovered amongst the manuscripts of the First Renaissance. The new scores were not signed but were unquestionably the work of some great master. They were assumed to belong to an earlier era until the Musicologist, a learned and astute man, declared that the precise combination of techniques and timbres employed was unknown in any of the Ages of Unrestricted Creation. It was thus reported far and wide that an illicit inventor of great genius was living amongst the people, no doubt working at some menial task by day and pursuing the purest of artistic endeavours by night. Who could the mysterious artist be? Even the Composer agreed that this clandestine creator’s skill far exceeded his own. The question of the Unknown Composer’s identity was on everyone’s lips.

Months passed and the furore continued unabated, fuelled by the Archivist’s occasional discovery of new works. Great banquets were held in celebration of the Unknown Composer; a chair at the head of the table always kept empty lest the guest of honour should decide to attend. Graffiti appeared on walls all over the city with the slogan “I am the Unknown Composer”. The Sanctioned Creators paid homage: the Playwright composed “Creators in the Midst”, a comedy set in a fantastical world of unsanctioned creation, which played to sold out audiences for months on end; the Painter painted a series depicting a composer hard at work, his face shrouded in shadow; the Sculptor sculpted a huge question mark out of old musical instruments; the Philosopher wrote a treatise entitled “The Unsanctioned Act of Creation”; the Novelist wrote a bestseller in which a master detective followed clues to discover the identity of the Unknown Composer; even the Composer himself got in on the act, composing another fumbling fugue, “In Honour of My Great Contemporary”, which the Copyist duly edited and improved. The Political Leader gave a long and ambiguous speech which began with an exposition of the virtues of the Restricted Creation Act, detailing the decadence of the Ages of Unrestricted Creation in which great amounts of energy were wasted in the creation of more Art than could ever be appreciated; but ended with a great exultation of the glories of these new works of music and hailed the Unknown Composer as a National Hero. Nobody mentioned punishment for the illegal act.

Throughout the commotion the Copyist worked steadily in his official capacity, composing little. The Archivist often appeared to be regarding him quizzically and attempted to engage him in discussions regarding the Unknown Composer, but if the younger man harboured any suspicions he kept them to himself. Although he initially received some small pleasure from the accolades his work received, the Copyist, realising that it was the secret of his identity that so captured the public’s imagination and not the subtle craftsmanship of his work, which they couldn’t possibly comprehend, soon grew weary of all the fuss. The entire debacle was distasteful to him; after all, nothing was so shallow as the gimmick of contemporary fame. Moreover, the obsessive search of the Archivist for additional opus numbers made it impossible for him to compose regularly. This began to take its toll on him as it would on any vocational creator – he knew he must put a stop to this nonsense. He resolved to confess that the Unknown Composer was none other than him, the Copyist, certain that if he revealed his secret he would be able get on with his work in peace. No sooner had he made this resolution than he strode to the offices of the Political Leader, the man who had himself sung the praises of the Unknown Composer, and made an official confession.

*

The meeting was a success; the Political Leader accepted the confession and made a public announcement declaring the confessor to be the greatest artist of his generation. Blindfolded before the firing squad, the Copyist smiled – his immortality was assured.