fantasy

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…

Simulated universes?

consciousness-300

The following post is an off the cuff response to a recent article (link below) and to an idea that is floating around a lot these days, (perhaps largely due to its popularisation by Elon Musk via Nick Bostrom), but has a much longer history:

http://motherboard.vice.com/en_uk/read/why-you-dont-want-to-live-in-a-simulation-a-response-to-elon-musk?utm_source=mbfbads&utm_campaign=interest

This is a fun article, but there are numerous things “wrong” with the simulated universe thought experiment (it most certainly isn’t a “theory”), not least of which is the fact that you can’t (at least in science, theology is another matter) base a generally applicable statistical argument on premises for which there is no evidence, i.e. the premise that it is possible to generate such a simulation (even if {and this is already an if} it’s possible in principle, this doesn’t make it possible in practice).

Note that claiming functionalism is “our best theory” (I happen to agree that it is, but many do not) is vastly different from claiming that we could generate an experience with the complexity and coherence of that generated by the universe/multiverse in which we find ourselves. This is a bit of a bait-and-switch.

It also makes assumptions about the nature of time and the generation of complexity that are not even close to being “accepted facts”.

It also suffers from vulnerability to infinite regress, as stated in the article. As a cosmological argument (i.e. a way of explaining why we find ourselves in a universe like the one in which we find ourselves), the simulated universe is essentially theological. As well as infinite regress in the form mentioned in the article, it also suffers from infinite regress with regard to the “problem of fine-tuning” (which is not really relevant to this particular article, I know).

Anyway, it’s a great thought experiment and some fantastic short stories (not least of which by Stanislaw Lem, long before Bostrom wrote about it) have explored it. But it remains great science fiction, which I love but find slightly irksome when presented as plausible science fact.

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!)

The Mainland – a story about fear.

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The Mainland – Timothy N. W. Jackson

It was a long swim to the island but that wasn’t why no one had ever been there. Herpeton – it meant “creeping thing”. Herpeton Island: the island of creeping things.

Franz looked up and saw the island, just a smudge on the horizon. They’d been swimming for over half an hour already and it didn’t seem as though they were getting any closer. An eagle was flying back towards the mainland and for a moment Franz saw himself and Jean-Paul as the eagle did: two monkey-shaped specks alone in a vast and glittering wilderness of water. Jean-Paul was 10 metres ahead of Franz, swimming with an unbroken rhythmic stroke. Jean-Paul was indefatigable. In school, Franz’ classmates taunted him because his best friend was two years younger than he and because Jean-Paul was so clearly the leader of their pack of two. Franz didn’t really care what those other kids thought and besides, Jean-Paul had put a stop to all that when he stabbed fat Paul Smithson with a sharpened Paddlepop stick. That was a good day.

Franz put his head down, tasting the clean saltwater, and kept swimming. There were sharks out here. Just last week he’d been sitting on the wharf when the Graceful Swan had tied up and Old Grizzled Sam had shown him a four-and-a-half metre tiger shark pulled out of this very channel. Franz had looked at the blank and lifeless black eyes and felt sorry; he saw himself in those eyes. When Franz leaned in to look at the giant fish’s serrated teeth, Sam had tried to scare him by saying a dead shark could still bite. Everyone knew Sam was full of it: once he’d told Franz that there was a drowned city in the channel with vaults full of treasure and women who were half fish and knew what men liked. Franz told Jean-Paul about the shark and Jean-Paul said it was a small one and that it didn’t matter if there were sharks around because sharks could smell fear and all you had to do was not be afraid. That night Franz had a dream in which a shark the size of a bus swallowed him and Jean-Paul. The shark’s insides reminded him of that club Jean-Paul’s mum had taken them to when she couldn’t get a baby-sitter: it was dark and there was loud music and girls were dancing without many clothes on. Franz had become hypnotised watching one of the girls dance on a podium; he thought she looked like a fish flopping around on the sand and her eyes were black and lifeless like the shark’s. He’d turned to tell Jean-Paul about it but he wasn’t there anymore – there was just a tiny fish flopping around on the floor opening and closing its mouth as though it was trying to speak but the words wouldn’t come.

Jean-Paul was getting further ahead so Franz tried to concentrate on swimming. It didn’t matter that he was scared: he would follow Jean-Paul anywhere. In truth, he was a lot more scared of the island than he was of sharks anyway; everyone knew that the island was cursed. In school they’d been read a passage from the Bible:

“And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

Mrs Andrews had told them that a great man, a saint, had banished the serpents from the mainland and that they were all exiled to Herpeton Island, which was so called because nothing lived there but serpents which spent all their days creeping around on their bellies. She said that the serpents were hungry because there was nothing to eat but dust, so that if anyone ever went there the serpents would finally break their fast and feast on human flesh. Everyone in Franz’ class had been very frightened by the story, but when he’d told Jean-Paul the younger boy had just laughed and said, “What a bunch of cowards! Personally, I think snakes are fascinating.” Franz had never seen a real snake and he knew Jean-Paul hadn’t either; as far as Franz knew no one had ever seen a real snake. The only snakes he and Jean-Paul had seen were in drawings depicting them swallowing humans whole.

They’d been swimming for over an hour now and the island was definitely closer, Franz could begin to make out yellow stripes of sand and the shapes of forest clad hills in the background. He realised the island was much bigger than he’d thought and that its thinnest part was facing the mainland; he could see now that it stretched into the distance and he thought that the dark silhouettes behind the hills might even be mountains. The whole place looked rather foreboding and Franz wondered again what Jean-Paul had got him into. Jean-Paul had approached him only yesterday, looking like he did that time Sadie had let him put his hand up her dress, and said, “Tomorrow, we’re going to swim to Herpeton Island.” It was a statement, not a suggestion. Franz hadn’t said a word in response, but Jean-Paul had seen the fear all over his face. “Fear is all in your head man, it’s not real. I had a dream last night that we swam there and the snakes prepared a feast in our honour. They called us ‘little masters’ and told us all the secrets of the world. It’s going to be great!” Franz hadn’t argued. He didn’t argue with Jean-Paul because Jean-Paul was always right and anyway Jean-Paul was his only friend. He didn’t have a choice. “Listen,” Jean-Paul continued, “do you want to spend the rest of your life here, afraid to see the world like the rest of those cowards? As soon as I’m old enough I’m getting out of here and I want you to come with me. The swim to the island is going to be our first real adventure, the first of many!” Franz just nodded and swallowed. He’d told his foster parents he and Jean-Paul were going for a hike in the hills behind town and the next morning he’d walked down to the beach at first light. Jean-Paul was waiting; he looked Franz in the eyes, smiled, turned without a word and ran into the ocean. The adventure had begun.

Franz was getting tired and the island was still a long way away. His shoulders were beginning to ache. He looked ahead again and saw Jean-Paul swimming with the same unbroken rhythm; he hadn’t looked back once since they’d left the beach. Franz wondered if he could make it; if he just stopped swimming and began to sink would Jean-Paul even notice? He would sink down into the depths of the channel, down into the drowned city to live with the fish women. When he’d told Jean-Paul what Sam had said about the fish women Jean-Paul had told him all women had a fish between their legs so in a way they were all part fish, but they didn’t all know what men liked, that was for sure. Franz didn’t have much experience with girls so he had to take Jean-Paul’s word for it.

Once Franz and Jean-Paul had found a man’s body in the rocks at the southern end of the beach. The body was white and blue and the lips and eyes had been eaten away by fish. Jean-Paul poked it with a stick and a crab crawled out of its mouth and hid itself in the rocks as though it was ashamed to have been seen in a place like that. It made Franz think of that night at the club again when he’d seen his teacher Mr Bergmann putting money into Jean-Paul’s mum’s underwear as she flopped around on a podium. Mr Bergmann had seen Franz looking at him and his smile had vanished: he’d taken his money back and rushed out the door of the club as though the hounds of hell were on his trail. Franz knew he’d been embarrassed but he didn’t really know why: so what if Mr Bergmann liked watching girls imitate asphyxiating fish whilst taking their clothes off, there wasn’t much else to do in that town.

Franz knew he was going to drown. He couldn’t swim any further; he’d give up and begin to sink and Jean-Paul wouldn’t even notice. Franz saw the body in the rocks again, only it wasn’t the body of an anonymous man anymore, it was his own. The world was becoming dark and peaceful; he knew he was sinking but he felt no fear. Somebody poked his cadaver with a stick and Jean-Paul crawled out from between his blue and nibbled lips and started shouting at him: “Wake up! We’re going to make it!” Franz opened his eyes and he was in Jean-Paul’s arms: the younger boy had him on his back and was dragging him through the water. He looked up and saw his friend’s determined face and knew nothing could stop him, nothing could hold him back.

“I can swim, I can swim,” said Franz. Jean-Paul released him and he began to swim again of his own accord. He looked up and saw that the island was much closer than he’d realised: he could make out the shapes of individual trees now, exotic shapes he’d never seen before. Jean-Paul was a few strokes ahead already and suddenly a huge dark shape loomed up out of the water between them like some great submarine about to breach the surface. Franz felt his scream catch in his throat; he would die after all, he would save Jean-Paul by throwing himself at the shark. He lunged towards the shadow but instead of a mouth full of hundreds of razor sharp teeth a head like the tip of a round and scaly iceberg broke the surface and Franz found himself looking into the large and personable eye of a giant sea turtle. He saw his own face, wild with fear, reflected in the eye of the turtle and burst into maniacal laughter. Jean-Paul’s own astonished laughter reached his ears, barely audible over the sound of turtles exhaling as their nostrils broke the surface. Franz looked around and saw that they were suddenly in the centre of a vast flotilla; sea turtles in their hundreds were surfacing around them and beginning to swim towards the island.

“Grab one!” shouted Jean-Paul and they each caught hold of the carapace of one of the great beasts which scarcely noticing their new passengers began to tow them towards the island that had been their goal for the past two hours. The turtles carried them into the mouth of a great shallow water bay filled with dozens of tiny sand islands encrusted with shrubs and small trees. The trees on these islands were unlike any Franz had seen before although they were strangely familiar as though remembered from a dream. They had gnarled trunks and spiky leaves and what passed for their fruit were strange pods that looked like bunches of steel wool. Some of the shrubs were flowering and they had beautiful inflorescences composed of hair-like petals of bright red and yellow. The water was crystal clear and Franz could see swarms of tiny brightly coloured fish and a myriad sea slugs and unidentifiable worms of exquisite beauty. The water was now shallow enough to stand so Franz let go of his turtle and let his feet fall down to rest on the soft sand; the water was warm and the sand felt pleasantly squelchy between his toes. Jean-Paul, following Franz’ example, let go of his turtle and they both stood marvelling at their surroundings. Ahead of them on the beach dozens of turtles were hauling themselves out of the water and beginning to dig nests in the sand. Franz moved closer to one of the small islands, wading in amongst the tangled roots that protruded from its sandy banks. Ahead of him, hidden among the roots, he saw movement. Suddenly an enormous lizard broke cover and swam slowly away, all the while observing him with a large amber-coloured eye that contained a Franz unlike any Franz had seen before: a Franz without a trace of doubt. Feeling no fear Franz caught the lizard by the tail and it turned to face him directly, flicking a long forked tongue from its narrow jaws. Franz admired the intricate patterns adorning the animal’s leathery skin, skin so tough a bullet would not pierce it. After a moment he released the lizard’s tail and it resumed its unhurried escape from his prying eyes. Looking over at Jean-Paul Franz realised that the younger boy was looking at him in a way he had never before done so: with admiration.

The boys waded ashore, each of them feeling exhilarated and truly alive for the first time. “Man, I wish Sadie were here,” said Jean-Paul. “I’d show that fish I meant business!” Franz gave him a quizzical look and they both suddenly fell to the ground shaking with paroxysms of laughter. Franz was the first to recover his composure and the first to enter the jungle that fringed the beach. All around him was an exotic new world with sights smells and sounds that were completely unfamiliar. The jungle was teeming with life: huge technicolour butterflies flitted back and forth between patches of light, the humming of insects drowned out the sound of his own breath and the smells of fresh and decaying fruit and flowers filled his nostrils. He knew at that moment that the stories he had been told at school were false: even if there were serpents here they had plenty to eat besides dust! Jean-Paul walked ahead of him and turned over a log; they both stooped to look at the universe he had revealed. There were dozens of types of insects and other creepy-crawlies under this one log: things with armour-plated backs and things with more legs than they could count; things that burrowed into the soft soil as soon as they were exposed to the light and things that looked ready to stand and fight; things they didn’t even have names for on the mainland where they knew no insects other than ants; things Franz had never seen before but which seemed somehow familiar. Jean-Paul replaced the log and said, “If they have girls here, I’m never going back.”

The boys continued a few metres further into the forest when suddenly Franz saw it: a large green snake coiled around a branch at head height, just a metre or so ahead of them. So: they were real. Both boys froze, unsure if the snake would suddenly strike at them in an attempt to envelope them in its coils as they had seen in their books at school. The snake, however, appeared undisturbed by their sudden appearance; perhaps it was asleep. Franz took a step closer and admired the creature. Jean-Paul had been right: it truly was fascinating, amazing to look at. Its skin was bright green velvet with a line of pure white a single scale thick running the length of its spine; its eyes were large and grey and subdivided by the tiny slit of pupils running from top to bottom. Franz could see intricate blood vessels criss-crossing the eye like a beautiful fishing net. When Franz was less than half a metre from the snake’s head it appeared to notice him, slowly turning in his direction. Franz could see deep pits in the scales around its lips and he knew that the animal was sensing him in some manner unique to snakes. He tensed himself, ready to jump back and run if it should strike, but the snake turned slowly away from him and began to slither into the jungle like some giant tentacle being withdrawn. Franz glanced at Jean-Paul and saw that once again his friend was looking at him in smiling admiration. Franz returned his smile and said, “I’m glad I came.”

Advancing through the jungle the boys found themselves at the edge of a large clearing. Through the green filter Franz could see shapes moving down a slope on the far side, shapes that looked like people. He could hear a strange humming sound that recalled the music of church services. He parted the leaves and gasped: coming down the hill towards them was a large group of bipedal reptiles. The creatures were similar in size and shape to humans but covered in green scales and with teeth more frightening than those of any shark. Franz felt his fear returning, the familiar gnawing sensation in the pit of his stomach swept away all the joy of the past hour and his knees began to shake. He was frozen to the spot. Even worse than his fear came the realisation that the newfound respect Jean-Paul had for him would surely disappear when the younger boy saw what a coward he truly was. He looked at Jean-Paul and saw for the first time that he too was gripped by obvious terror: he had turned as pale as the moon and beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. Neither boy moved as the reptiloids made their way across the clearing, their fearsome fangs gleaming in the sun. As the terrible creatures drew close the boys realised that they were singing: rising above them, a nest of intertwined serpents, were the lines of a four-part canon. Illegal intervals, subtly employed, generated harmonies of a sophisticated beauty that eclipsed any the boys had heard in the churches of the mainland. As the music filled their ears the boys felt their fears melt away, replaced by a dreamlike aura of contentment. When the reptiloids were only metres away they stopped advancing and one, larger than the rest and with teeth the size of daggers, stepped out from their ranks. The song of the other members lowered in volume until it was scarcely a murmur. “Welcome, little masters,” said the lizard man, removing his mask, “welcome to the mainland.”