Nobody’s Going to Solve the Universe

First things first: corrections and clarifications.

It was brought to my attention that some of the language in my recent attempt at being slightly less lazy and cowardly may come across as fatalistic, or over-emphatic of the importance of ‘talent’. That was not the intention, although it is certainly not an unreasonable interpretation of lines such as:

“His brain is so much better suited to the task that the gulf is effectively impassable.”

And:

“…de facto hard ceilings do exist on an individual’s ability to draw ‘well’ in a given context.”

The overall sense that I wanted to convey with that post (and that series) was some combination of the following:

A: It’s fine not to be good at things.

B: Not being good at things doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun with those things.

C: Not being good at things doesn’t mean that you can’t become good at those things.

D: Things at which you are not good are an excellent sort of thing to do if you want to improve in general.

And perhaps I did a bad job at that.

The reason talent, as a concept, came up is really just because I found it interesting and got side-tracked. I do think it’s worth acknowledging, however – not as a counterpoint to the narrative of self-improvability and embracing failure, but as a little bit of extra seasoning. Well, that’s a topic for a different day. I just thought it was important to address any potential miscommunication. Writing is nothing if not an attempt to communicate, after all. Simply being ignored may be a poor way to fulfil that function (although it is kind of an inevitability), but giving the wrong impression is far worse.

That’s part of what’s attractive about fiction, as a medium. Your ideas are couched in a much more overt layer of abstraction, and the reader has an automatic expectation that your ‘intent’ may have a relatively fuzzy correspondence to much of the verbatim content, or may be plural, or only very loosely defined. A more straightforward approach is much more liable to backfire. Today’s ‘idea’, such as it is, is something that I would absolutely have expressed via story in the past – so we’ll try nonfiction and see how it goes.

On another note, this isn’t a report on my tepid adventures in meditation. That is coming (oh, the excitement), but I had a busy weekend, in an intensely slothful sense of the word, and want to try a couple more things first. If I choose something more ‘one and done’ next week then things should end up back on track.

So, today I thought I’d just briefly ramble on a shower thought I had.

It was prompted by the memory of an overheard conversation – I was sitting in a GBK (for some reason), next to a pair of young men who it would be safe to assume were students. Young Man A mentioned something about “Zeno’s paradox”, which isn’t particularly descriptive. Young Man B requested a description, and was supplied with a sort of hybrid of this:

“In the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Achilles is in a footrace with the tortoise. Achilles allows the tortoise a head start of 100 meters, for example. If we suppose that each racer starts running at some constant speed (one very fast and one very slow), then after some finite time, Achilles will have run 100 meters, bringing him to the tortoise’s starting point. During this time, the tortoise has run a much shorter distance, say, 10 meters. It will then take Achilles some further time to run that distance, by which time the tortoise will have advanced farther; and then more time still to reach this third point, while the tortoise moves ahead. Thus, whenever Achilles arrives somewhere the tortoise has been, he still has some distance to go before he can even reach the tortoise.”

And this:

“Suppose Homer wishes to walk to the end of a path. Before he can get there, he must get halfway there. Before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a quarter, he must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on.”

(Both descriptions lifted straight from Wikipedia – if you’d like something a little more academic, try here.)

Young Man B expressed his incredulity that somebody so presumably intelligent as Zeno could have said something so obviously stupid, then uttered the words that triggered the shower thought, some weeks later: “Surely that can be solved by…”

I’ll admit that I didn’t hear what followed (probably I was busy eating a burger). It may have been ingenious. It may have been a revelatory new insight into motion, space and/or tortoises. Even if that were the case, however, it wouldn’t matter much to the topic at hand.

What I found striking was the automatic assumption that a paradox is something you’re supposed to solve – a problem for which, given time and thought, a satisfactory answer will emerge. That seems like some combination of optimism, stubbornness, and misinterpretation – but it’s an attitude that we see represented in STEM-ish conversations (and elsewhere) all the time. There’s a sense that if something hasn’t been comprehensively solved, that’s only because we haven’t gotten there yet. There is much less often a sense that ‘getting there’ and ‘solving’ may not be as broadly applicable as we might like.

Now, as ever, this is all overly simplistic. There’s a million different things that somebody might consider to be a paradox, and a million different ways to engage in the practice of ‘solving’ them, and many of the combinations of those two things are going to be totally sensible.

I suppose the gist of what I want to say is this:

A: A paradox is not necessarily a ‘problem’ or ‘statement’, in the sense of being something that should be proved, disproved, or otherwise resolved, and it is not necessarily fruitful to think of one in this way.

B: It may be more fruitful to think of a paradox as being a compact expression of an interesting discontinuity or pitfall in human thought/perception, or as a way of describing a categorically insoluble problem. In other words, they’re thought experiments at heart. Their most consistently valid application is in promoting discussion on a topic that either has not or cannot be solved.

Returning to Zeno, let’s give him more credit than Young Man B did. Zeno is not saying that Achilles cannot overtake a tortoise, nor does he expect for a moment that anybody will ‘agree’ with his account of their race. That doesn’t seem like too big a presumption. What he’s actually saying may be a little fiddlier. Our friend Wikipedia states that it is “usually assumed” that Zeno’s assortment of paradoxes were intended as a defence of Parmenides. That is to say, that he was looking to promote a Parmenidean view of ‘existence-as-one’ by demonstrating the absurdity of the perceived alternative – an infinite descent into discrete fragments. Perhaps that’s the sort of polemic context that leads people into a ‘solving’ mindset rather than an exploratory one. It seems better to look at Zeno’s offerings in the following sense:

A: An obviously true premise. To walk down the entirety of a path you have to walk down half of it.

B: An obviously false conclusion. Therefore, you can’t ever walk down the path.

C: An invitation to have fun in the space generated by those two things.

Now, perhaps Zeno did believe so firmly in the impossibility of motion that he felt like he was presenting statements of pure fact. That’s unlikely, but it still wouldn’t remove the world’s ability to play around with those statements and the disconnect that they express. Likewise, Escher doesn’t expect you to start building impossible structures, “This sentence is false” is not an impossible natural language sentence, and you certainly don’t need to find ways to justify your intuition that one door is just as likely to conceal a goat as the other. Let’s not even touch Schrödinger. All of those things have been excellent at instigating and sustaining discourse in both academic and popular milieux, however. That’s their strength, whether or not there is or ever will be a ‘solution’.

Which is not to say that solutions cannot emerge – especially in fields that are well equipped to develop proprietary solutions to their proprietary paradoxes. If somebody, in paraphrasis via Wikipedia article, were to say this…

“Let us call a set “abnormal” if it is a member of itself, and “normal” otherwise. For example, take the set of all squares in the plane. That set is not itself a square in the plane, and therefore is not a member of the set of all squares in the plane. So it is “normal”. On the other hand, if we take the complementary set that contains all non-(squares in the plane), that set is itself not a square in the plane and so should be one of its own members as it is a non-(square in the plane). It is “abnormal”.

Now we consider the set of all normal sets, R. Determining whether R is normal or abnormal is impossible: if R were a normal set, it would be contained in the set of normal sets (itself), and therefore be abnormal; and if R were abnormal, it would not be contained in the set of all normal sets (itself), and therefore be normal. This leads to the conclusion that R is neither normal nor abnormal: Russell’s paradox.”

(I’ll start using better sources at some undetermined future date. It’s hard. I’m not at university anymore and have become functionally illiterate.)

… then somebody might decide to develop an axiomatic set theory that resolved the issue. Which would be a good thing to do – a lot of people would be happy with that. Of course, it could be argued that the foundations of mathematics form a closed system that generates its own data, and so the role of a paradox therein is quite different to elsewhere. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that myself, though, because I know nothing about mathematics. Regardless, the luxury of defining axioms and then putting them into effect yourself isn’t going to be universally available, and that seems like a game-changing tool to have at your disposal.

The woolly, unsound message here is that, most of the time, a paradox isn’t your enemy. It’s not something that you have to defeat, and it’s not an attack against you or your intuitions, even if it might be being used as one. Your intellect will almost always be better spent treating it as an invitation rather than a challenge. An assumption of solvability might be comforting, but if you cling onto it too tightly then there are waters that you will never really be able to navigate. Without wishing to get too obvious, good luck explaining your existence. To return to Parmenides, ex nihilo nihil fit, and so on.  In other words, you’d best start believing in paradoxes… you’re in one. Nobody’s going to solve the universe – not now, not ever, unless something very peculiar happens. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of universe to discuss and plenty of exceptionally good reasons to do so.

Well, that’s at least as much as one total non-expert should really ever say on the subject. Again, I’m trying to find a discourse method that works. It’s hard to know what to do with these smaller ideas, apart from ‘just don’t express them’, which feels like a totally unsatisfactory solution. It’s possible that their inherent sloppiness is simply better contained by fiction.

In any case, hopefully everything made sense, and feel free to let me know why it didn’t.

That’s all for now.

TtBSLLaC: Some Very Ugly Drawings

Last week, I set myself the task of drawing “a convincing approximation of a human”. Here’s an approximation of how that went.

The first hurdle I came across was the complete absence of any pencils in my flat. This forced a decision point between acquiring some and deciding that biro would be an acceptable medium. I opted for the latter, reasoning that I would be too amateurish to actually make use of the pencil’s advantages vis-à-vis shading, that preparation is all too often little more than slightly beautified procrastination, and that giving myself the option of using an eraser would be symbolically inappropriate. To a substantial extent, this exercise is about granting myself the license to fail – something that is extremely difficult, even though failing is the only thing I could reasonably be licensed to do in almost all contexts.

The next decision concerned what sort of drawings I’d need to produce. Unsurprisingly, I opted for the most lenient possible interpretation of my own criteria (behold the complacency of self-direction). This meant that the aim was to draw portraits, with no need for a body, and that a two-dimensional, cartoonish style would be acceptable.

Since I lacked the skill to translate even the ghost of a face from my mind’s eye to a piece of paper, I needed a visual aide – congratulations to conventional wisdom for that sound advice. A photograph of somebody’s face would be the natural choice. I chose Willem Dafoe:

Dafoe, clearly, is a paragon of human facial construction, and should be a shoe-in for the role of holotype should that task ever be undertaken for Homo sapiens. More importantly, as can be verified by watching any film in which he appears, he is interesting to look at. Conventional wisdom was also quick to point out that drawing should be fun, and a photograph of a grinning Willem Dafoe seemed like objectively the most fun choice for this exercise.

Please be forewarned that none of my pictures resemble this photo, even remotely. It was nonetheless useful as a point of reference. There are also more drawings than appear in this post, for reasons both practical and ethical.

The first thing I did was to test the waters, employing the time-honoured method of ‘just eyeballing it’. Here’s how that came out:

… that’s not very good at all. He looks more like some kind of forgotten archaic Homo species, or else a fantastical troglodyte or ogre of some description. It’s an approximation of a human, but it’s certainly not a convincing one.

The next attempt went off the rails almost immediately. I drew the eyes about sixteen miles further up the head than they should have been, meaning that the only way to fill the excess of space was to have the mouth and jaw be freakishly elongated. This, too, did not look sufficiently human for my liking. It did look excellently demonic, however, so I decided to lean into that concept rather try again:

The early attempts demonstrated beyond even the slimmest penumbra of doubt that a raw, unguided approach was beyond my means, even with my trusty Willem Daphoto as a compass.  More assistance was required. I found some lists of quick tips concerning the proportions of a face – the appropriate alignment of the eyes, nose and mouth, the approximate width of the head, that sort of thing. I crosschecked them against the photo, and they basically held up. Another resounding victory for the internet.

The rules were all perfectly simple and required no special effort to observe, which was convenient. I did, however, fail to account for the slight extension of the head caused by Willem’s smile:

Now, this is still a devastatingly bad drawing, and an equally crude application of the lessons gleaned in the ten minutes preceding its creation. Nonetheless, two things are true about it:

1: It is much better than the first attempt.

2: It is undeniably a picture of a human. That human is clearly not Willem Dafoe, and they have also clearly done a number of unsavoury things in the very recent past, but they are a human nonetheless.

Satisfied that this approximation was sufficiently convincing, I focused my attempts to improve upon it not on precision or verisimilitude, but on trivial, self-directed entertainment. I did a fair few of those, so here’s a couple.

Pseudo-Willem, Benthic Deity:

Pseudo-Willem as some kind of horrible, miasmatic nightmare. This one’s honestly pretty good:

Conclusion

Drawing accurate, visually appealing representations of real-world objects and/or mental images is a challenging feat that likely requires some combination of talent and tutelage. In most cases, these will have to be supplemented by copious amounts of self-directed practice, but I’m not sure that even the most manically devoted autodidact could achieve good results without those two things – or at least the talent. That said, the large number of very good drawings out there indicate that this talent exists in more people than may realise it, and can be successfully brought out through a process of nurture that is not too galling.

Technically speaking, we can’t say outright that the diagraphically challenged are incapable of drawing as well as their more skilful counterparts. It’s just markings on paper, and given the existence of appropriate apparatus, we’re all capable of making the same markings – or at least markings of an equal quality, however that would end up being determined. In that sense, the upper limit for drawing skill would have to be universal among humans. Sadly, that sense is basically meaningless. Whilst my hand could theoretically generate the same images as that of say, Stephen Wiltshire, it’s never going to. His brain is so much better suited to the task that the gulf is effectively impassable. The majority of people would be in a monkey/typewriter situation if required to draw ‘as well as’ Wiltshire, or even somebody who was simply extremely good in a less extraordinary way. So, it’s probably the case that differences in innate (or simply current) starting ability combine with differences in plasticity, dexterity, mental image detail, etc. in such a way that de facto hard ceilings do exist on an individual’s ability to draw ‘well’ in a given context. They would certainly exist within a limited time span, which… well, we are all going to die at some point.

There are a lot of deeply fuzzy concepts involved there, but I think what I’m saying is general enough that I don’t need to worry about it.

The real conclusion, though, is that nobody is so bad that acquiring a little bit of extra help won’t allow them to produce dumb, misshapen images that are:

A: Sufficient for the purposes of self-entertainment.

B: Capable of communicating a good amount of their intended sense to an observer.

This week’s goal: Meditate.

Well, “Get drunk and watch the Super Bowl” seemed a little too easy, although it would be a first.

I’ve never made any serious attempts at meditation. This state of inaction is increasingly out of touch with the current discourse on personal welfare, which appears increasingly favourable towards intentional states of inaction. Meditative practices of various kinds now have a fairly solid foothold in the set of advice given to people who want to get their act together, approaching the level of exercise, diet, avoiding drugs, regular sleep schedules, and not buying Monster Hunter games. Those last two are pretty much a lost cause (no regrets).

Clearly, further investigation is required. There’s a whole wealth of literature on the topic, an equally broad range of methods that a budding meditator could try, and doubtless a few dozen people in Cambridge willing graciously to take money in exchange for guided sessions. So, really no excuse not to try.

That’s all for now.

 

Trying to Be Slightly Less Lazy and Cowardly

In some ways, modern life is debilitatingly easy.

If I start entering random letters into my address bar, the results are illustrative of this. From the well-worn motion of pressing Ctrl+T, then a single letter (and maybe nudge the down arrow a few times), then enter, here are some of my possible destinations:

  • Not one, but two video streaming services on which algorithms tell me what to watch, in case I was having trouble.
  • Not one, not two, but three social networking/messaging services through which I can share perfunctory interactions or else browse the idle thoughts of a number of people, almost all of whom probably have pretty similar opinions to me. At least, they appear to be annoyed by the same things.
  • A handful of news outlets, which definitely have pretty similar opinions to me, otherwise I wouldn’t be reading them.
  • Two separate services through which I can spend money to avoid having to cook or walk to a place where cooking is being done.
  • Amazon. Although, I am pleased to report that AngryMetalGuy.com is above it on the predictive list. That being a site where a group of reviewers spare me the effort of discovering new metal bands for myself.

Et cetera. And no, this isn’t going to be a variation on ‘modern technology has made us all lazy and ignorant’ – laziness and ignorance have never needed the help, and I wouldn’t want to offend them by implying otherwise. Besides, I’m saving all of my incredibly original Black Mirror fanfic ideas for another day. What is true is that our comfort zones are now more comfortable than at any point in history, with fewer occasions than ever when it is necessary to leave them. They are also outfitted with systems of distraction whose specific purpose, more or less, is to keep us there. These, as it transpires, are simply too effective and too numerous. Without even trying, you will probably never run out of things that you know for a fact you will enjoy. The wealth of available content is such that anybody can just flop into their niche and remain there for life. Which is to say that that the creators and distributors of entertainment are doing their jobs extremely well. There’s nothing inherently sinister about that – it’s just that one side of the bargain is being held up with such oppressive competence that it actually becomes detrimental to the deal as a whole.

In no particular order, here are three of the things that I fear the most.

1: Intellectual stagnation.

2: Leaving these last gasps of relative youth with nothing to show for them, then entering the mire of adulthood having involuntarily shed all the supports of earlier life, thereby being condemned to navigate a bitter, futile existence without so much as a compass until liberated by the kindness of death.

3: Loneliness.

(The conventional joke would be to have number 3 be something cute, like ‘Spiders’, but I like this version more.)

Having ready access to unlimited, safe, challenge-free diversion is therefore terrifying. There is no more effective way to induce stagnation and hamper efforts at improvement than to repeatedly hammer somebody with comfort. Indeed, even as they see themselves succumbing to your ceaseless discharge of formulaic Sci-Fi shows and RPGs, their panic will likely manifest itself only in yet greater consumption of those chosen poisons. The same goes for just about anything in life – not just Netflix and video games. Although those are two good ones.

At the risk of sounding like a schlocky motivational speaker, comfort is laid across a bed of quicksand. You can stroll across from time to time, but if you find yourself sinking then it’s important both to escape and to conduct that escape in a way that won’t actually trap you further.

All of which is my clumsy, distracted way of saying that most people ought to push themselves more. Specifically, me. I need to challenge myself, even in ways that are entirely petty and mundane. The alternative is a kind of wretched living death, but with a really nice chair and a lot of naps.

Some people are able to expand their boundaries using an arcane combination of willpower and confidence. I don’t have any of those things. Instead, like most people, I will be relying on the illusion of accountability.

A popular method of weaving that illusion is through contracting somebody to join you in the endeavour, in the hopes that your bond of solidarity will prove stronger than your basic torpor and cowardice. It might. In any case, however, there is no buddy who is as reliable as the uncaring void of the internet.

Therefore, I’m doing it here. Every week I’m going to set myself a small, pointless challenge or activity, something that I would never otherwise do, and every week I’m going to report back on how the last week’s effort went. The results might be interesting or entertaining, or they might not be. Unimportant. As a feeble act of defiance against the descent into honeyed oblivion, hopefully it will work.

This week’s goal: Draw a convincing approximation of a human.

To illustrate exactly how pathetic the ‘challenge’ is allowed to be, here’s one that a significant portion of people seem to be able to do with no effort whatsoever. I am not one of those people. Here is a self-portrait of me, aged 3 or 4 (somewhere in that region). I’m sorry to announce that my abilities have not improved much since. Further apologies for the low quality of photography, although I suspect a clearer image would only be more traumatic.

Drawing, as far as I can tell, is sorcery. It involves tapping into some innate well of mystic power to which I have no access. People who are proficient at arranging lines such that they resemble things often claim that their abilities are the results of ‘hard work’ and ‘practice’. It is my firm belief that this is one of those areas in which diligence can make a skillful practitioner out of a competent one, but where the gulf between incapable and capable simply cannot be bridged. All past attempts have resulted in swift capitulation. But, foolishly, I’m still going to try.

Communication sometimes feels like you’re conducting a sequence of jailbreaks, where your ideas and emotions are the inmates and your mind is the prison. Your success in these attempts will often be determined by your command of the various methods through which internal concepts can be externalised with acceptably minimal loss of information. Those methods are dizzyingly numerous, but they are far from equal in their application. Body language, for example, is very good at conveying social discomfort but would be a poor choice for your comprehensive history of the Punic Wars. For that, you would probably want prose writing, which is pretty versatile but noticeably inferior to more specialised options when the latter are in their element. For example, suppose you wanted to show what somebody looked like. You could probably muster up a decent written description, but its communicative effect would be dwarfed by that of a competent drawing.

But imagine, if you could only draw a convincing approximation of a human. A whole new universe of possibilities. Really, though, the aim is just to give up after a week rather than after an hour.

We’ll see how it goes. That’s all for now.

Update

Well, I’m back to putting words on the internet. To the three people who may have noticed an absence, I apologise. To everybody else, I apologise for the opposite reason.

I had stopped posting things here mainly because I didn’t want to write short stories. There a few reasons for that:

A: I didn’t have any short-form fiction ideas about which I was excited.

B: Time spent writing short stories correlates very directly with time not spent trying to write books.

C: I was in a pattern of trying to force concepts to work in fiction of <5000 words, then forcing myself to write those words. This was bizarrely stressful, given the total absence of stakes.

D: The resultant work was mostly awful.

At some point, I must have filed this outlet away as ‘place for short stories and nothing else’. A more accurate pigeon hole would have been labelled ‘place for short stories and basically anything else’. I could do reviews. I could do short essays complaining about things. I could draw a bad picture of a woodlouse, write “woodlouse” underneath it and declare that to be a valid form of content. Short stories are a lot of work, both for me and for anybody with poor enough priorities to be reading them. That unfavourable scenario can be substantially mitigated if I only write them for ideas that I feel enthusiastic about translating into shorts (less work for me) and that are likely to work well within the format (more readable for you). There’s plenty of other things that I could put here, and much more regularly.

Conventional wisdom in the field of putting words on the internet dictates that budding word-putters should pick a niche and stick to it. For those looking for ‘success’, in some quantifiable sense of the word, that is probably good advice. Unfortunately, the most that good advice can really do for you is help you to achieve happiness and stability. Those are fine, but when the road in that direction is paved with boredom and dissatisfaction, then you’re better off either finding a different road or ignoring the advice and just wandering around like an idiot. I’m not sure if the full calculus of that analogy actually works or not, but in any case my preference is for the latter. If you’re an idiot, you may as well commit to it – the alternative is working extremely hard at mediocrity.

In conclusion:

A: More and more varied content from now on. The specifics of that are yet to be determined. The process of determination will likely consist entirely of trial and error.

B: Maybe I will actually write some books.

C: Nobody cares, just be honest and do whatever you feel like.

Cii: There are a large number of potential exceptions to that.

That’s all for now.

Mischief (ii) – Cozy Mystery

Ms. Solomon went to bed feeling quite at ease, all things considered. There was a certain gut displeasure to what she had seen, but it would take much more than one desecrated goat to phase her in any meaningful way. That sort of local horror could never hold a candle to the subjects in which she was immersed daily – what was one display of gore in comparison to Kristallnacht, to Nanking, to the decades before Westphalia? Not much. On reflection, it was lucky that the incident had fallen into her lap rather than one of the more sensitive types – she doubted that any of the maths teachers could have survived the ordeal.

The process of interrogation would begin the next day, at a measured pace. There was no particular hurry. One advantage of a boarding school is that there is no need to detain the suspects. All parties, regardless of guilt, were locked up together just the same. If anything, a nice, long inquisition would provide everybody with something to do. She flicked the nightlight off, settled into her pillows, and slept well.

Breakfast consisted, as ever, of a croissant, a cup of coffee, a glass of orange juice, and a glass of water, in that order. She drew up her plan of action for the day during the coffee segment. Her initial reaction upon seeing the mess had been that it was so far beyond the usual nonsense that she would have no idea where to start. That feeling had now subsided. Any teacher worth their salt knew where to look first for any given kind of trouble. In the event of an unkind rumour, Heather Clayden was the safest bet. If there had been a fight, the odds were on her brother Martin. If urine had appeared where there is normally no urine, one needed look no further than Justin Mixon. Those same shortcuts would serve her here, even though no current students had form for this sort of thing. It was bizarre, disturbing, and clearly one or more steps beyond the usual fracas of adolescent culture. In short, she would be best off pursuing the weird ones. The students who were the least predictable, and the most frequently presumed to suffer from mental illness of some kind. The outsiders who seemed entirely unconcerned with that status, whose actions and attitudes were in equal measure inscrutable and unsettling. These walls were filled with the children of the very wealthy. The presence of an undiagnosed sociopath was practically a guarantee.

With that in mind, one name sprang readily to mind. Or at least, one nickname. Sal was a consistently mystifying boy – easily charismatic, but with few friends, grades that fluctuated wildly and with no discernible correlation to attendance or classroom performance, frequently truant but just as frequently to be found studying alone…  In short, exactly the kind of aberration she was looking for. On a more intuitive note, she had always found there to be something a little eerie about Sal. He had a sort of mocking, unambitious confidence that was totally unflappable, the air of somebody who was merely observing the world rather than being part of it. Martin Clayden may well have had an assault charge or two in his future, but Sal, if anybody, would be the serial killer. The violent ones at the classroom level rarely escalated along that axis in the same way as the quiet ones, cliché though it may be. As for the terms of address, it seemed that both the boy and his father had such an extreme antipathy for his full name that the latter had demanded that “Sal” and only “Sal” be used whenever possible. The occasional odd demand was another fixture in the business of storing people’s children, and the academy was willing to oblige in this instance.

Once breakfast was done, she dispatched Mr. Randall with instructions to bring Sal to her, and to make a mental note of the location of his friends. Randall had glided naturally and without discussion into the role of sidekick, being apparently glad to put away his mops and brooms for the time being. That suited her fine, as there was nothing particularly appealing about legwork, especially in this weather. If she was going to be playing detective, she would rather be a Wolfe than a Holmes, although she doubted that either man would approve of her assuming the mantle. Randall would likely be out on the hunt for some time. Sal and his companion were rarely to be found in the expected gathering places, as one might expect. She had advised him to start with the emptied-out rooms around where the goat had been found. In the meantime, she wondered whether or not Sal would be any help at all. She was certain (perhaps unjustifiably) that he was involved. The issue was that he could not be relied upon to respond to the time-honoured methods of bribery and intimidation, nor would he offer the bull-headed, petty defiance that defined the garden variety of miscreant. He was just as likely to admit to the deed with a smile as he was to deny the whole process.

There was a knock on the door, and then Sal entered before she could respond. He wore a grin somewhere between smugness and bemusement, sliding down the room and into the chair across from her desk. His uniform was pristine, his hair a mess, and his office-entering decorum clearly non-existent.

“Good morning, Ms. Solomon.”

“Good morning, Sal.”

“I brought Anna and Hugh with me, since I expect you’ll want to talk with them too. They’re in the corridor.”

“How considerate. I suppose that means that you’ve not got anything to tell me?”

“Of course. I don’t know anything, especially not about goats. I’ve never even heard of them. Is that a kind of insect?”

She sighed internally (and externally). The chance that Sal would commit to anything beyond mockery was clearly spent. She considered throwing the proverbial book at him, but decided swiftly against it. Minor disciplinary action would mean nothing to the boy, and severe disciplinary action was more of a threat than a serious proposition, a threat which would be transparent in the present company. The headmaster was decidedly against any actual book-throwing, physical or figurative. Expulsions didn’t look good.

Sal had offered her Anna and Hugh as substitutes. That was Anna Germanus and Hugh Melrose. The Germanus family were indeed German, although they had not been Germanuses for very long – the name had been changed as a somewhat uncomfortable show of devotion to their Germanness. This was germane to the issue at hand insofar as Anna, their youngest, maintained that she could not speak English, rendering conversation impossible. Whether this was a matter of Teutonic pride, filial piety, or pure, opportunistic deception was unclear. It was almost certainly not a question of linguistic proficiency, as her essays were always flowing, elegant and entirely comprehensible to even the most monolingual of anglophones (content notwithstanding). Unless, of course, Sal was writing them for her. It was speculated that they were an item. In any case, the faculty had decided that the whole Germanus situation was a mess best ignored. Her grades were fine, she would graduate, and her space beneath the rug would be freed up for whatever came next.

Hugh Melrose was clearly the odd one out in this triumvirate. He was a meek boy possessed of an academic prowess that was moderately below average and a response to authority that was massively above it. It was unclear to her what use Satan’s own power couple could have for him, save for as a pet.

“Come on, Sal.”

“I don’t see why I would.”

“Are you going to make me bully poor Hugh into snitching?”

“Yes, actually. I am.”

“I didn’t know you were so unkind.”

“Oh, my heart bleeds for the terror you will most likely inflict on my poor friend. But your own prejudice has forced my hand in the matter, I’m afraid. Shame.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’d be willing to offer you an account of the goat incident. It would be honest and complete to the best of my knowledge. But you wouldn’t believe me. You’ll believe him. So why bother? Your blatant mistrust for me, and for Anna, demands that the most innocent among us suffer before you will be satisfied with a functionally identical expression of the truth. We might as well skip the intervening steps.”

This was the sort of thing that had fostered the mistrust.

“Sal, may I remind you that you are addressing a member of staff. Even if you feel that way, you need to watch how you say it.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because…”

“It was rhetorical.”

She scowled.

“Suppose I listen to your story, making every effort to be more credulous than history would indicate is sensible?”

“Not going to work. You only think that it would. I promise that your attempts at credulity would fail.”

“Well, I think you should take some time to consider that promise in relation to your comment on prejudice. But, for now, I take it your mind is made up?”

“That would be a correct taking of it. Am I excused?”

“That might be a stretch. But you can go. Send Hugh in.”

“Yes, Ms. Solomon.”

Insufferable.

Hugh Melrose inched feebly into the room, shoulders tensed, one hand nibbling anxiously at the other. Ms. Solomon caught herself feeling relieved to have regained her place of power. If pressed on the matter, she would express some general reservations about formal hierarchy. In this moment, however, she was finding it rather comfortable.

“Good morning, Hugh.”

“Good morning, Ms. Solomon.” He stared intently into his lap.

“Hugh, what have we discussed?”

He turned his gaze upwards to meet hers, slowly, as though a tremendously heavy and precarious weight rested on his crown.

“That I should look at people when I talk.”

“Correct. Now, what do you have to say about this incident with the goat?”

“… what did Sal say?”

“That’s not important.”

Feeling impatient, and perhaps a little vindictive following Sal’s performance, she deployed one of the heavier weapons in her artillery – a stern expression. This was an armament that could readily and immediately break the will of the weak-willed, and nobody else. It was a gun designed exclusively for shooting fish in barrels, a searchlight needed only to stun deer, rabbits, and other creatures of similarly profound  timidity. For Hugh, whose spirit animal was certainly one such entity, this was the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. Excessive force, inhumanely deployed. No need to negotiate a surrender.

“I don’t…” He stammered.

She continued the barrage. His face seemed to lose solidity at an alarming rate, become a rapidly shifting mass of trembling, sweat beads, and the beginnings of tears.

“The… the man in the cellar told us to do it.”

“Who?”

Hugh’s skin grew some number of shades paler. His eyes widened, and panicked energy seemed to flow from every pore before subsiding just as quickly as it came. It was, in her opinion, the expression of somebody who had realised a terrible mistake, then swiftly thereafter realised the full certainty of the doom it entailed.

“Hugh? Tell me about this man.”

That remark seemed to set him off again. Flailing wordlessly, looking like he was probably about to expel something unsavoury, Hugh sprinted out of the room.

End (ii)

Mischief (i) – Cold Open

It was the middle of winter term, and the weather was out to prove it. Snow besieged the Hermann Academy, smothering the grounds, bombarding the walls, and lashing into anybody unfortunate enough to be outside. Even in the summer, the Academy was a model of faux-gothic isolation. Now, it all but disappeared into the blizzard and the valley. At this time of year, it became a world unto itself. Of course, that was largely the point of a boarding school. The headmaster (and all his predecessors) felt that a contained environment, far from the homes of the students, was necessary for a proper education. ‘Home’ was a byword for chaos, a state of pandemonium into which a teacher’s hands could scarcely reach. Better to eliminate it. He would gladly have relocated to an island in the sky, or the city of Atlantis. Given the failure of those options, a snowbound valley in the highlands was as good as it got. Staff and students alike were now imprisoned by the elements, sentenced to a long winter of study, community, and personal growth. At least, that was the idea. And since it had been the idea for a couple of centuries at this point, things were going to stay that way.

Another advantage of all that distance from society was that it made any unsavoury business much, much easier to contain. Adolescence tended to invoke trouble, and even the teachers were only human. Over the Academy’s history, it had become quite clear that concepts such as ‘crime’, ‘reckless endangerment’ and ‘horror’ existed only in the eye of the beholder. Right now, any beholders would have a hard time even seeing the building, let alone anything that was going on inside. In other words, the wilderness was also an impenetrable defence against scandal. It was an advantage that the institution had leveraged generously over its metropolitan rivals. In education, as in all things, some measure of disaster is inevitable. A shrewd leader ensured that such things were resolved in private rather than in public.

The shrewd leader of the age, their Headmaster, had just stormed in and out of Ms. Solomon’s office like some kind of fusty berserker. ‘There’s been an incident’, he had said. ‘Get on it.’ It was a parsimonious sort of leadership. She rubbed her temples, having been interrupted from her reading. It seemed the task of resolution had fallen to her on this occasion. Some practical joke or act of petty vandalism, presumably. The students never seemed to get bored of those. She would just have to locate and slap the relevant wrists. Not the most elucidating use of her evening, but not too difficult.

She heard the headmaster barking in the corridor. This was swiftly followed by a rather flustered member of the custodial staff stumbling through the door – one Mr. Randall. This meant that the incident probably occurred in the boys’ dormitories (Ms. Solomon happened to have memorised the janitors’ schedule). He was in a cold sweat, looking like he’d seen one or more ghosts, with a small vomit-stain on his jacket. Either he’d already caught his death of the cold, or it was a particularly lurid one this time. Teenage boys did have a peculiar fondness for excreta. Randall ushered her to the scene, remaining silent as they barrelled down the halls. It was past curfew, and so the students were all neatly sequestered away with their assigned peers. Still, there was always a certain static in the air whenever something like this happened. Even from behind locked doors, they had an unnatural sense for trouble.

Randall stopped in front of one of the empty rooms, on the extremities of the building. He gestured mildly at the door, and insisted that she do the honours of opening it.

The first thing she noticed was the blood, which was everywhere except the ceiling. Then, the carcass of what looked to be a feral goat, minus the head and hooves, split open down the middle. Then, the smell of those two things – fresh and disgusting, like raw steak, tripe, and hair. She turned to Randall, whose face conveyed some unique combination of solidarity and residual panic. There was a timely shriek from the wind outside.

“Jesus.” She said.

“Yup.”

She looked back at the room. It was still there.

“So… what do you think?” Asked Randall.

“I don’t know.” She replied. “I’m just a history teacher.”

End (i)

Argus

The Argus was, to date, the greatest piece of engineering in human history. That was a long, long history, full of fantastic and improbable feats of science, each more wondrous than the last. Each stretching the film of scepticism closer and closer to its breaking point, ripping holes that ushered in age after age of creative and intellectual passion. Still, even the giddiest march of progress will one day meet its crowning moment, and consequently its end. Whispers in high society (which, by this point, was all of society) were making that claim about the Argus.

It was an achievement so outlandish that it naturally invited such pessimism – learned, cramped minds could scarcely conceive a more impressive technology (that retained some degree of plausibility), and so reached the conclusion that no more would be forthcoming. This naysaying began in the same places it always began. In cohorts of the supremely old, people whose fear of death had proved more enduring than their love of life, and who now sat all but idle through bitter, cynical, grossly prolonged years. Some of these people had been living since as far back as the 40th Renaissance, and they were all but spent. Little more than databases with the ability to express disapproval. Most were not quite so old, but few retained any meaningful vitality. And so they clustered together, and declared to one another that whatever had most recently been done was pointless, and that there was nothing left to do. Those declarations were always proven wrong, and almost never left the circles in which they started. This time, however, they had leaked out. There was a numbing sense blanketing the whole culture. A sense, however small, that they had all been outdone, and all that remained was to observe the emptiness of defeat. It was a spectacularly busy emptiness, with an incalculable number of things to see, but that was all that it would be – seeing. Some of the flightier critics had already declared that anybody not involved with the Argus was now as good as useless, doomed only to consume the wonders it had to show them and never again to create their own. That was particularly hurtful, since the group behind it were widely known to be talentless malcontents. For their part, its creators disagreed, having already declared their project to mark the beginning of the 48th Renaissance (the chroniclers in charge of that designation would not be so quick). Then there were the claims of fraudulence. Certainly, the scientific possibilities of the time lent themselves just as well to trickery as to genuine progress, and the tight lips that surrounded the Argus did little to preach its legitimacy. In still other corners, people were beginning to consider the old taboos, those areas of endeavour deemed too dangerous or immoral to undertake. For now, these thoughts were contained safely within the brains of their conductors. But the fact of their existence represented a ripple in a pond that had been still for some time.

The source of all this discomfort lay somewhere out in space – at least, a tiny part of it did. The Argus was an inestimably complex structure, with a size to match. But that vastness was totally irrelevant. All but a doorway, a foothold, was contained within a pocket of space created for that express purpose. As its impresario billed it, it was the first object to have stepped outside of the universe. From that nebulous vantage point, its instruments could perceive an arbitrarily large number of other universes (albeit only those with a sufficient structural similarity to this one), presumably running the gamut from utterly dull to utterly wondrous. Critics had suggested that taking only a handful of sand from an infinite shore would prove infinitely unsatisfying. The response had been that any number is infinitely preferable to zero. Others had asked how the creator knew not only that a multiverse of this nature existed, but that this device (of decidedly monoversal construction) would be able to interact with it in any way. To this, they offered only the explanation of a lucky guess. That was not considered particularly satisfactory. And so these myriad threads of debate and discontent continued to unwind.

There was, however, one person on whom all of this was lost. Somebody who had not been subjected to none of this quiet uproar. Alone in their control centre, swallowed entirely by their apparatus, the operator of the Argus was at work. The discourse of the time was a whole universe away, and communication between the Argus and its birthplace had yet to be established. The machine could look backward into its own universe or outwards into others, but not both at once. This operator had become the ultimate recluse, a lone observer hidden within a planet-sized hermitage, gifted with infinite data and their own spacetime in which to peruse it (indeed, no real answer had been given to the question of time and its relativity as it applied to this endeavour). They were willing to believe that this was a happy state of affairs. In a world of constant relation, they had been granted the one exemption. The world had not been kind. It was good, briefly, to be apart from it.

The machine’s sensory organs flicked through the endless catalogue of worlds available to it. They were looking for complex life. It was the natural choice for the maiden voyage. There was no sense in being systematic, given the infinity of stimuli available. Besides, that philosophy belonged to the past – progress in this epoch was a matter of bangs, not whimpers. The search was for the most striking phenomenon, not the most elucidating. Intelligent life would be a fine showpiece, even if the only possible interactions were voyeuristic.

The Argus was quick to flex its muscles. Its systems were not especially fast (understandably, given what was asked of them), but they were expert. It took about half an hour before the first match was found. With the operator’s consent, a reconstruction found its way down the wires and into their brain.

This universe was tiny. It was much smaller than a planet, smaller than a continent, smaller even than some buildings. The operator’s first instinct was one of doubt. Either the system was glitching, or there was some algorithm buried in its process that had cut down a whole cosmos into one point of interest, or the whole thing was a fabrication. They pushed this doubt aside in the interests of professionalism. For now, it would be best simply to trust the machine. So, they accepted what they saw. A minute world of graphite and diamond, whose spires and caverns played host to solid clumps of unspecified, barely mobile biomass. This diorama played host to all of two sentient beings. They were startlingly humanoid (again, the operator supressed a note of scepticism). The scenario seemed rather poetic – a world of only two people, a culture dictated entirely by a single dyad. The operator was immensely glad not to have to share this with Earth, at least not yet. The moment they sent news back, the Argus would become host to a travelling circus of artists, poets, sociologists, anthropologists, and (worst of all) linguists, to say nothing of the physical sciences. The world from which they were currently so pleasantly extricated would come flooding back. This seemed intolerable. They resolved to spend some with this place and its two inhabitants before doing anything else. It was only right that the Argus’ first discovery be given the fullest patience and scrutiny.

So, the operator sank deep into their role as observer. They marvelled at the familiar yet alien forms of this world, where light and matter abided by known laws, but presented through unknown filters. They pondered the limitless other possibilities of limitless other places, although soon shied away from the thought. Mostly, though, they fixated on the two. Time ran unnoticed as they became immersed in this bipartite society, drinking in their routines, their quirks both human and inhuman, their rituals of conflict and reconciliation, of calm and festivity, of courtship, mating, eating, crafting…

The operator scarcely noticed as the veneer of curiosity peeled away. Indeed, it was not long before the eyes of the beholder came to coloured more by envy (and its close complement, bitterness) than by any more intellectual sentiment. How fortunate these two were, to have such a small and harmonious existence. They had a peaceful world that provided for them, they had one another, and that was the sum of it. How wretched was the vastness of Earth, where such simple pleasures were so readily denied by tricks of zeitgeist and politics, by star-crossed dynamics of personal temperament and cultural preference. Ruminating on the perceived injustices of their own past, the operator indulged in a wistful self-insertion. For a while, if only vicariously, they were able to partake in the idyll they perceived before them.

It left a sour taste. The operator cursed the misfortune of their place and time. For all the wonders of the age, the basics of happiness had yet to be guaranteed. Indeed, they had yet even to be identified in a convincing manner. The 47th Renaissance was, by the official chronicle, the acme of human accomplishment. An era of such genius and wisdom as to erase all misgivings, all yearnings for the past, all fears for the future. And yet the operator, relatively young for the standards of the time, could not help but feel their better place in history had already passed. Would it not have suited them more to have been forced into exile with the Luddites of the 44th, to have seceded with the Hedonists of the 40th, even to have fought in the noble wars of the 35th? Whatever the chroniclers had to say, the past was a taunting expanse of greener pastures, all unreachable. That was the danger of history, and hindsight. It was a predator whose nose was particularly tuned to the scent of those feeling left behind, and one that such stragglers had great difficulty escaping. It was, however, a threat native to the human mind. The Argus was an invasive species, an unstoppable devourer against which there was little to no natural defence. Its greener pastures belonged to the present. No need to reach through the fog of time and memory, no need to speculate or to imagine. Here was an anglerfish with infinite lures, each as captivating as the last. The operator swam deeper and deeper.

The Argus reached out into the unending reality beyond, its vast inquisitive powers tuned not for the edification of its master, but for their bittersweet satisfaction.

Back on Earth, the great minds of the time watched with morbid relief as their fears were punted some distance into the future. A freak surge of energy had destroyed the Argus’ anchor in real space, leaving it severed, adrift in its own puddle of existence. It was gone before it could prove itself, before it could exert any significant upheaval. Consigned by unanimous decree into a small and rather disparaging footnote. The agitation it had provoked was written off as a cautionary tale on the dangers of wild claims. This version of history proved highly successful. It became fashionable in the following decades to construct “New Arguses”, machines designed to provide an entertaining facsimile of something scientifically impossible. These effigies were enjoyed, then ceremonially obliterated, all in raucous humour. Quietly, the multiverse was added to the list of ‘taboos’. Just as quietly, the mind behind the Argus disappeared into the shadows, perhaps in disgrace, in defeat, or perhaps simply in wait.

For their part, the operator never noticed.

The Eye of Silence, 1943 - by Max Ernst

The End

 

Civil Disobedience

Mr. Church had few pleasures in life. He spent his days grinding through a job that bored him and everyone around him. He spent his days off huddled up in a capsule apartment, clicking through webpages, consuming approved content, and occasionally finding some of that approved content stimulating enough to experience a vague sense of enjoyment. A perennial bachelor with no hobbies to speak of and no opinions on which to speak out, he was more or less a model citizen.

Still, there were a pair of little weaknesses that were keeping him on the ‘less’ side of that expression. Firstly, he had a disquieting fondness for travel. Any administrator worth their salt would look twice at somebody with a propensity for international holidaymaking, but Mr. Church’s pattern of behaviour was even more noteworthy. He would horde vacation time, stockpiling it for months on end before spending it all in one extravagant binge overseas. There was a time, not so long ago, when this fact alone would have been enough to condemn him to a permanent leave of absence somewhere off the grid. But the administration was more enlightened now than in years past, more lenient. As a result of this lenience, Mr. Church’s wandering feet were presently unshackled. A citizen of his grade was free to travel, true, but there was an unsubtle preference for that travel to remain within the state. The newer, kinder administration wouldn’t bare its fangs on matters of preference. But it would turn its gaze. Hundreds upon hundreds of patient, unblinking watchers, hiding in plain sight behind screens, wires and lenses. At their most attentive, they collected every act and every pattern, tracked every step of a foot or stroke of a key. This information, once digested, was regurgitated before a human overseer, a trigger man who would comb through the data, just looking for a reason to shoot.

That is where Mr. Church’s second indiscretion became relevant. He was a poor voter. The same dull, unopinionated rigor that made him such a steady payer of taxes, such a punctual reporter of metrics, also made it very difficult for him to engage in the voting process. It seemed he simply didn’t care. He had no interest in matters of policy, nor could he be riled up by appeals to emotion. In general terms, these were both ideal qualities from the administration’s standpoint. The dizzying breadth and penetration of the current voting system was designed largely to placate the public’s appetites in this regard – to provide a constant outlet for their intellectual and moral panics, to drip-feed them with the opiate of apparent self-direction. It was a chew toy, a pacifier for an electorate prone to bawling. And chew they did. Even a citizen of the lowest grade could expect to be casting a vote on the hour, rendering numerical their views on trade, tax, borders, justice, civil rights… anything that could reasonably mobilise them, but not too much. Keep them feeling happy and powerful, and so alleviate the need to actually provide happiness or power. The view from the top was that it was better to let the masses paralyze themselves than to go through the trouble of crippling them. The despots of past generations had lacked both the imagination and the tools of distraction needed to prevent rebellion, and so had found false solace in autocracy. The present view was that democracy was one of the finest and most loyal servants of any budding autarch.

Mr. Church, however, was not playing with the toy that had been so kindly provided to him. In fact, he was barely even meeting his minimum quota for votes cast and petitions signed. To say nothing of the quality – he engaged with his sacred, democratic duty as little more than a chore, often spending less time on the voting system in a month than most spent in a day, throwing votes away without care or consistency. All this, of course, was being recorded. Such admirable passivity was a growing chink in his armour. The administration would not act on matters of preference, but it would feast on matters of technicality. Failure to engage with the state’s democratic process was, technically, illegal. It just so happened that this hazily-defined law was only ever levied against those with nonpreferable traits. Which was all fair game, as far as the general public was concerned. At least, they never seemed to vote on the matter.

So, as Mr. Church returned to his capsule apartment one night, still flush with foreign adventure, he was in tremendous danger. Unbeknownst to him, he was walking on a well-slicked precipice. His dalliances abroad had left him with a voting backlog that would have to be cleared, tonight, and cleared in a fashion that left no room for doubt. What appeared to be a quiet evening at the computer was in fact a matter of life and (eventual) death. In a surveillance office, somewhere in the depths of a nameless bureau, an executioner watched on. This man was under strict instructions, of which he wholeheartedly approved, to authorise Mr. Church’s disappearance at the first hint of democratic indolence.

His name was Mr. Collins, a veteran of his post and a hardliner of the oldest possible school. To him, all people were either patriots or deviants. The former adhered to the will and values of the state, whatever those happened to be on the given date. The latter, well… whatever went on in those off-the-grid locations was too good for them. He was not especially competent, but he was attentive beyond measure, and that was far preferable. He carried out his assignments to the letter and without hesitation. His citizenship record was impeccable. He took what praise and material reward he was offered with clear pride and warmth, but never pursued any beyond his station. Needless to say, his higher-ups were quite content with their pit bull.

Certainly, Mr. Collins was feeling rather muzzled. He’d been at this long enough to remember the good old days, when scum like Church would be whisked away without a second thought. Now he had to wait, watch as this shameful excuse for a citizen continued to enjoy the freedoms of a state he so clearly did not appreciate. He’d read the dossier, seen the data, and he hated him. He hated him even before having to spend months of dedicated, intimate surveillance on the man. That exacerbated things. Anybody spending that much time abroad was up to something. Anybody turning away from their civic privileges was a false citizen. In Collins’ mind, Church was almost certainly a spy, a terrorist, a covert theist, or something equally grotesque. But he was wily enough to tread water. The data alone was never enough to indict him – merely to indicate the form that such an indictment might take. Thus the need for some more discerning, more human eyes. They’d gotten soft, upstairs. Putting checks on their own powers when simple common sense would suffice. But rules were rules.

Church would be voting tonight, a hundred times or more. He had to, if he wanted to make his quota. Collins was secretly hoping that he’d just fall asleep. Let the clock run and find himself waking up somewhere entirely unfamiliar. Sadly, Church wasn’t quite that stupid. He would reach the bare minimum. This, Collins knew, was all a part of his treasonous design. He did not even entertain the thought that Church’s minimal participation was a result of minimal interest. Innocent apathy would necessitate innocence, and that idea was off the table as far as Collins was concerned. Guilt was a matter of fact – the trick lay in proving it. His aging skin formed into a snarl as he leaned back in his chair.

Church shed his outdoor clothing and put down a hefty batch of souvenirs. The computer assured Collins that these items had all been vetted in transit, and were perfectly above board. He rejected this conclusion, but followed along with the clemency it required. There was, for some reason, and in spite of his best efforts, no law against souvenirs. The bag of bomb components, biological agents and outlandish foreign pornography would have to stand. Church then shuffled over to his desk, booted up his laptop, and logged in to the voting system. He yawned audibly. Collins surged forward towards the monitor, then sat back again, deflated. Had he sighed, or swore, or otherwise demonstrated explicit displeasure towards the task… well, that might have been good enough. Yawning, according to the powers that be, was not conclusively disrespectful. It would be Collins’ neck on the line if he jumped the gun. A perverse state of affairs, as he saw it. But he knew the rules inside and out. He’d get something.

He had until midnight to meet his quota. Easy enough to crank out a hundred or so clicks in that time – that was all the computers looked for. But beneath that flat turf lay a pitfall just bristling with technicalities, all sharpened and ready to pierce the veneer of citizenship that Mr. Church had so artfully constructed. Proper engagement, by the letter of the law, demanded that votes be cast across a ‘full spectrum of policy areas’, show ‘internal consistency’, be free from ‘demonstrably seditious or ulterior motivation’… all open to Mr. Collins’ interpretation. These were the tricks that the long arm of the administration kept up its sleeve. Overuse would lead to outrage – apparently, it would be imprudent to go stomping out beloved figures on these grounds.  Mr. Church, however, was a boil of the sort they were most often used to lance. Somebody unwanted, but not particularly criminal, who would not be missed. He was barely even known, let alone beloved.

Mr. Church began to make his civic voice heard. Over the course of hours, Collins’ expression changed. He began with a look of contented malice, that of a trophy hunter who knows that the prey will walk into his sights, sooner or later. Over time, that face wilted, drooped into embittered belligerence. The grimace of an easy task turned sour, part surprise, part anger, all dug-in heels and rekindled enmity. By the end, all that remained were two of the more volatile components – incredulity, and anger. In short, it was a bravura performance. Church fluttered untouchably through the democratic process, casting votes with the generosity of confetti and the precision of scalpels. He tickled the keys with all the skill and elegance of the pianists of old, each click and press serving as one particle in a tune that was sweeping, cogent and (to Collins’ ear) utterly maddening. It was grotesque, an irreverent composition, the work of a rogue Shostakovich who did not fear censure, because he knew the rules and the rules were too soft. A liberalising, ‘humanitarian’ platform across all areas, from court cases to tax code. Utterly distasteful, but undeniably consistent, and undeniably thorough. Collins could feel his muzzle tighten, feel the ties on his hands. He watched, impotent, as Church returned for an encore performance, surpassing his legal minimum by a healthy amount. That, he felt, was a slap in the face.

Collins clenched his teeth so hard they felt close to breaking. Somebody must have coached this prick, some foreign spymaster or domestic traitor. There was no way he could have designed so complex a scheme on his own. But there was nothing ‘demonstrable’ about any of it. By the letter of the law, he was looking at a perfect citizen. And he was a slave to that letter, an increasingly cruel and temperamental master that now stayed his hand from wiping away the smug, hateful stain on his screen. He had lost in this invisible duel.

That instant, that thought of defeat, was the moment when something clicked. Hot rage transitioned into cold, and a strange sort of smile found its way back to Collins’ lips. Yes, Mr. Church (or least the Mr. Church in his mind) was very clever. He had held Collins in check, danced mockingly over very tripwire, exploited the clemency of his home all in an effort to undermine it.  A master of technicality, an enemy of the state, and completely devoid of any rigor or virtue save for this power of gamesmanship. And there, he had failed. Games are comprised of players and rules, and Mr. Church had mastered only one of those things. He had not considered that a human administrator, for being human, might break rank. He had not considered that an angered, vindictive man with a bomb might detonate it regardless of his own proximity. He was prepared only for an opponent who was as clever and dispassionate as he was. He had not considered the inverse.

With a flash of intense satisfaction, Collins issued the order.

It took a couple of days for Collin’s arrest to go through. He had been planning on killing himself in that time, but never mustered up the will to pull the trigger twice in such quick succession. Somewhere, in his heart of hearts, he still believed in the administration. Believed that his handlers would stay true to him, that his ardour and loyalty would be recognized, that they would overlook this minor indiscretion and focus on the humble, willing servant behind it. He did not put up a fight. Perhaps this tiny, paralysing speck of faith did not waver even as he was beaten, bagged, and ushered away.

In a dim and frigid room, somewhere in the depths of a nameless prison, Mr. Collins found himself shackled, starved, and lost in some muddled borderland between despair and elation. Across from him, now pale and bruised, was a familiar face.

The End

 

Sleepless (ii)

Al was a good talker. He seemed genuinely pleased to be able to air his views, albeit only to a camera that was not particularly sympathetic towards them. That was a lucky state of affairs, because Lois was far from her usual conversational dexterity. Her questioning was languid, flopping out of her mouth without thought or planning. She caught herself drifting off frequently during the answers. Had she been awake enough to care, she would have been furious at herself. An agile, slightly malicious interview was part of the show’s winning formula. She needed to be taking everything in, laying traps, leading the guest along whilst fanning the viewer’s incredulity. She was going to hate cutting this one together.

Fortunately, Al was able to carry the segment on his own. He spoke at length on his hatred for sleep, the softness of his voice gaining a little heat as he did. He talked about how it disgusted him in all ways. It was physically repulsive, a sweaty, snoring, drooling monument to the failings of the human form. He detested being caged in a body that required hours of inactivity before yielding control to its owner – a profitless tax on his time and liberty. He railed against dreams, sickened by the thought of having to submit, powerless, to the whims of the subconscious, an uncaring master that would just as soon trap its subjects in nightmare as gift to them a pleasant fantasy (only to take it away when the eyes crawled open). He described how, as a child, he would try many and varied methods to escape the horror of sleep. Each defeat along the way remained a scar in his mind, a point of shame and anger to be ruminated over but never discussed. It was in his early adolescence that he found a way, but that was all he would share on the matter. Thus liberated by this unknown method, he claimed (with open pride) that he had not slept in the decades since. In living free from an otherwise universal tyranny, he believed that he had in some small way transcended the general squalor of the human condition, being thereby free to delve into hitherto unexplored realms of art and intellect. Sleep was the shackle, the limiter, a flaw propagated by the powers-that-be, through methods however mundane or however mystical. On this point he presented a dizzying array of competing theories, all apparently of his own construction. Be it psychological indoctrination at the hands of the illuminati or genetic seeding at the hand-like appendages of cosmic interlopers, the gist was consistent throughout.

It was, in many ways, the same old shit. Another lonely, imbalanced person who’d ‘found the truth’. Seen through the lies of some oppressive force, attained a rarefied state of knowledge, and so lost his place in society at large – just as that force would like it. There was a vague but massively powerful enemy, there was a hidden truth, and there was the superior, rogue mind who had found it. She had interviewed hundreds of conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, cultists. Most of them were quite forthcoming with their secret lore, and so she’d been led down the same roads many, many times. Al was giving her a whirlwind tour of familiar territory (although, mercifully, not stopping to point out the synagogue). Still, she felt that something was different. He was better spoken than most, more charismatic once in full, lunatic motion. At the same time, his rhetoric did not feel rhetorical – it lacked the stink of artifice that so often lingered about these people. She wasn’t buying in, of course, but she did find herself believing two things. Firstly, that Al was probably too compos mentis to be a hoodwinked believer, roped into the crackpot fold by the words of others. Secondly, that he was also not in the hoodwinking business. His belief was sincere. It was extremely rare for somebody this far afield to fall into neither category.

Or perhaps that was just the fatigue talking. And talk it did, veering from murmurs to outright roars with little regard for the fact that she was trying to work. She had moved beyond heavy limbs into light ones – fuzzy, tingling shapes in freefall that allegedly belonged to her. It was thus with no small measure of joy that she brought the interview to a close, once it seemed that they had enough to work with. Al met the end with a mixture of disappointment and condescension, presumably upset at losing his audience to something so petty as nightfall.

Al refused to have sleep anywhere within his house, but gave grudging permission for it to occur in his back yard. They pitched a tent. He was entirely happy for them to film more during the night, giving them explicit license to come and go as they please. It wouldn’t affect him too much, after all. He’d just be painting, reading, communing with the world serpent – whatever it was he did in all those privileged hours. The brevity of their time here did mean that they were unlikely to get the money shot of him sleeping. All he had to do was tough out one night, which was hardly a spectacular feat of wakefulness. A shame, but the episode would be functional without it.

With the blinding speed of the truly exhausted, she set an alarm, cocooned herself in a sleeping bag, and prepared to claim her well-earned rest.

It didn’t work.

Perhaps she had dragged herself into a thoroughly unwanted second wind. Maybe the depth of the rural night was too much, too heavy and stifling a blanket for her flimsy urban sensibilities. Certainly, there was a disquieting sense of place. There was also a disquieting sense of grime and nasality coming from Tom’s end of the tent. Al had not been entirely wrong in his contempt for the less savoury aspects of sleep. Whatever the cause, she was awake, and she lay awake for some time. No amount of internal screaming, scrunched eyelids or deep breaths had any effect. The battle was lost. She had no choice but to continue, against all common sense, to wade through the fatigue.

Cursing all the while, she rustled up a flashlight, a camcorder, and a semblance of composure.

She took a moment to appreciate the sheer darkness of the outside – then it was back to work. Shining the light beneath her face, she recorded what amounted to the introduction to a low-rate found footage film. Some whispered nonsense about going back in to get a better look at Al’s life by night. It wasn’t a fantastic piece of improv, but that didn’t matter much. Her viewers were hardly expecting the Upright Citizens Brigade. She did a good enough job of selling the atmosphere, and the footage would do the rest. Everybody was a sucker for infrared.

The walk to the house felt longer than it should have. Part of that was dramatic timing, of course. And part of it was the night. Everything feels bigger after sunset.

It was pitch black inside, too. A true nightmare of a place, all creaking and crawling, air writhing with dust. Enough for a lick of sweat and to feel your heart beat, even for a seasoned veteran of this kind of nonsense. She took a few more ‘creepy house’ shots for good measure. The door to the basement looked picture-perfect in grayscale, complete with the yawning of distant floorboards. That would definitely make the final edit.

There hadn’t been any human stirring from the floor above – any noise would have shot right through this quiet. Whatever Al was doing, he wasn’t moving much. She’d need to get some candid footage (or, more likely, stage some). She moved as lightly as she could, and painfully slowly. Not that there was any need for stealth. Her footsteps simply felt intrusive, a vibrant invasion into this otherwise moribund soundscape. They didn’t fit.

She found him, as expected, in the ‘bedroom’. A muffled oil lamp in one corner cast warm, amber splashes into the air, providing enough light for shapes but not for details. He was at the easel, dabbing away at a piece of canvas almost entirely covered by shadow.

“No more light, please. You’ll ruin the painting.”

He spoke with the calm and patience of somebody ticking off a social box, reciting a line he had known was coming. She obliged, placing the flashlight on the floor before entering.

“Mind if I film?”

“Be my guest.”

“Alright.” She yawned. “Good.”

He went back to his brushes. She leant against the wall, gingerly, for fear that it might collapse, or groan, or be host to something unsavoury. The footage was dull, tremendously so. A man slowly applying paint to canvas is not compelling viewing, even if that man is insane. Still, she kept the camera trained on him for far, far longer than needed. Drowsiness was overtaking her again. Having missed its cue in the tent, it was now hurrying, flustered, back into position. Her eyelids were floating downwards, her brain drifting feebly in and out of pre-dream kaleidoscopes.

“I suppose you’re tired?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t you sleep in the tent?”

“Couldn’t.”

“Funny. I suppose you see that as a bad thing?”

“The worst.”

“So, you must see what I mean? Wouldn’t it be better not to need it?”

“Sure. Having to sleep is bullshit. Not sure why you care so much about the act itself, though. Bit odd.”

He frowned, the creases on his face gaining cavernous depth in the dim light.

“Maybe. It always seemed obvious to me.”

“Well, I should probably make another attempt at it. Any last stuff you want to get on camera?”

Al paced, muttering below his breath with increasing speed and (hushed) intensity.

“You alright?” She asked.

“Turn the camera off. I have something to show you, but you mustn’t film it.”

There was a compellingly demented strand in his tone, some prosodic turn that promised something interesting if followed. She put the camera down. You didn’t have to get a shot of everything – sometimes, a little mystery was just the twist you needed. Her viewers wanted to gawk at the strange and the spurious, but they also each harboured a secret little kernel of belief, of suppressed deviance. The trick was to reach out and touch it without them noticing.

“Alright.” She said. “Let’s see it.”

She boarded the return flight the next night. Another red-eye. Familiar tortures resumed their operations – sterile in-flight air to parch her lungs, screens to scorch her eyes, long hours to test her sanity. This time, at least, she was wide awake. Her mind buzzing with ideas, she reached for the laptop. Her life was about to get much, much more interesting.

Sleepless (i)

Lois Barnum sat, bleary and uncomfortable, within the voluntary prison of a red-eye flight. She hated flying, but it was a necessary evil. Flying overnight, in this grotesque, screen-lit limbo, was not. It was either the sign of an intensely well-managed schedule, or of a botched one. This, of course, was the latter. But there she was, not quite half-asleep in a metal box trundling through the night sky. All for the reward of rushing out another episode of the bullshit TV show she hosted.

She adjusted her eye mask and pillow for the thousandth time, and began to grumble for the hundredth over how this had happened. Season five of the euphemistically titled “Out of the Ordinary” was all cut, spliced, and ready to go, and she was ready for a holiday. Then some fucker in the network decided that three of the episodes would be ‘problematic’ given the ‘current climate’. So, she had to say bye-bye to the man who thought that Jews invented Africa, the man who thought that space was a myth perpetuated by Jews, and the man who… well. It involved a certain ethnoreligious group. All quality stuff, in the sense that it possessed the show’s most saleable quality in being reckless, exploitative and tacky. But apparently it was a little close to the bone. That was the problem in dealing with a network that was morally bankrupt, but not yet close to being actually bankrupt. PR.

So, she had to dip into the files and find three more lunatics to present to her viewers, as quickly as possible. Preferably people who weren’t going to say anything racially inflammatory – at least, not so much that it couldn’t be edited out. Sadly, most of the quick hits were already covered for the season. They had reptilian shape-shifters, they had gruesome dietary habits, they had an embarrassment of outlandish fetishes. They had flat earth, hollow earth, pyramidal earth – any shape but spherical, basically. That was a bumper episode. Still, she wasn’t allowed any raging anti-Semites. In short, she had the bearded lady, the tattooed man, and the conjoined twins, but her freak show had just been robbed of all its growth disorders. To the bottom of the barrel she went.

She managed perhaps two hours of sleep before being rudely ejected into a harsh airport morning. Tom, the camera guy, had the misfortune of already living in Georgia and would be meeting her there. He was loitering outside as planned, twirling the keys to a beat-up SUV.

“Hey.” He said. “You look like shit.”

“Very astute. Fortunately, there are people willing to take my money in exchange for a solution to this problem.”

“Mine is to stand on the correct end of the camera. You can have that one for free.”

She made a vulgar hand gesture and climbed into the passenger seat. They were on the road, which was better than being in the air, but still pretty miserable.

“You know where this guy lives?” She asked.

“Yeah. Never heard of him, though. What’s his deal?”

“Claims not to have slept in the past forty-odd years. He’s had a few local news articles to his name. I guess he thinks that sleep is some kind of engineered flaw in humans that he’s managed to overcome. Like a test from our space-alien overlords, or whatever.”

“Or a magical Jewish curse.”

“Don’t get me started. Anyway, we’ve got to bust this out quick, so hopefully a day and a night should do it for footage.”

“Not exactly going to leap off the screen, is it? We gave the viewers somebody who was willing to fuck a box of old socks, and now we’re asking them to settle for somebody who’s just quite tired?”

“Well, he probably lives in a total pigsty. That’s always good for a start. Then I’m hoping he’s a good talker, basically. Maybe­ he has some mysticism stuff going on. If we’re lucky we can get a shot of him sleeping.”

“Right. That’s always good stuff.”

“Get a sequence of him explaining that he wasn’t actually sleeping, just communing with the world serpent. You know how it goes.”

“Yeah. Should be an easy gig for me, anyway. All hinging on the interview this time.”

“Nothing new there. How far out are we going? I should get some shut-eye.”

“Middle of nowhere. Rest up.”

Sleep proved to be more of a technicality. She was able to flicker in and out, but only at a rate that made the whole endeavour rather fruitless. It was enough to remind her of how punishingly tired she was, but not enough to provide even the most perfunctory relief. The internal grumbling began anew.

It was deep into the afternoon when they arrived. Even so, it was hotter than hell and many times more humid. They’d gone some way off the beaten track, taking dirt roads and detours (Tom was not a fantastic navigator), before finally arriving at an old farmhouse. She rubbed her eyes, clenched her forehead, and winced her way out of the car. First impressions were good. It was always a boon when things played exactly to stereotype, and this place was putting on a virtuoso performance. Dilapidated, tucked away in an overgrown pastiche of rural isolation, pocked with the shoddy repairs and contraptions of a man who clearly had little connection to modern life. Inside would likely be even better.

“Alright.” She yawned. “Let’s get some shots before the family of cannibals that so clearly live here decide to greet us.”

“Sounds good. Might as well die doing what we love. Producing crap.”

“There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, but I am far too tired to reach for it.”

She was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the misery of being sleepless and exhausted on a plane was handily outmatched by that of being sleepless and exhausted in the depths of Georgia. Her head was spinning in the heat, she felt like she’d been sweating for two days straight, and any kind of complex thought was rapidly fleeing the scene in a doomed hunt for cooler pastures. In theory, this was her time to prep some interview questions. This was a rushed shoot, so every stray little window of time was important. Wasn’t going to happen, though. A yawn and a grimace was the most she could get done.

It didn’t take long before Tom felt satisfied with his collection of ‘spooky countryside’ footage (a technical term). It was time to go and meet their man. The house was even more flamboyantly decrepit up close. Strips of bare wood rubbed shoulders with three or four different paint jobs. A motor flecked in seven different shades of rust puttered away to one side, serving as vanguard to a liquor still of equally ruddy complexion. This house was an old, forgotten pauper that never got the help they needed, all trauma, isolation and decay. It was perfect.

“Right, let’s get this over with.” She said. “You good to go?”

“Yeah.”

His name was Al – that was all he was willing to give. He certainly looked the part. Long, tangled salt-and-pepper hair. A pair of coarse red eyes presided over cavernous dark circles. He wore a hodgepodge of thick, greasy fabrics beneath a leather jacket, seemingly unperturbed by the heat. He stank, enough that she was confident it would come across on film. Some smells can reach the eyes. For all that, he was quite affable.

“You the TV guys?” That was the greeting. He had a soft, educated sort of voice. “Want to start with the tour? I expect you’re going to want to get some footage of the mess.”

She could hardly argue with that. It was a pleasant surprise to be working with someone who recognized the conceit of the exercise. You normally had to spend some time convincing the star that you were offering them a serious platform (then deal with the hate mail later, if it came to it). Al seemed happy enough to go along with the demands of the show from the outset. He ushered them merrily about the place, which was palatial, albeit for a particularly undemanding definition of ‘palace’ – a creaking labyrinth of dust, splinters, and strata upon strata of discarded knickknacks. He pointed out areas that might be of particular interest. The cupboard whose sole purpose was to play host to an improbable array of spiders. The bathroom that could only be described as ‘disconcertingly brown’. The flight of steps rolling down to a cellar that even Al had never found the stomach to enter. He was also a painter (of sorts), and his work was nailed up all over the house, unframed. The prodigious volume of the work was probably to be expected, as was its nature – a melange of abstract and minimal styles, slathered onto canvas with titles scrawled illegibly above.

Then, of course, there was the bedroom. For an episode about a man who never slept, that was naturally going to be the centre of attention. ‘Bedroom’ was something of a misnomer, even if that was what Al called it. There was no bed, for one thing. A slightly grimy-looking armchair squatted in the centre of the room, flanked by heaps of books. The walls here were smothered in paintings, some applied directly to the wood. An easel stood in one corner, a padlocked old chest in another.

“This is where I spend the nights, mostly.”

“In the chair?”

“That’s right. Or painting. I like working in poor light. Means you can’t really see the finished product until dawn.”

“Sure. You happy to shoot some interview stuff here?”

“I am.” He looked over to Tom. “Have you filmed enough of the house? Don’t be shy about it.”

“Oh, more than enough.”

She let out a prolonged yawn. The house’s charms had kept her stimulated, but that spell of alertness was fading quickly. The fuzz and the fog were rushing back in. She had forgotten how hot it was, how heavy her limbs and eyelids were, how nice an imaginary bed felt.

“Are you tired?” Asked Al. “Would you like some coffee?”

“No, no. Maybe later. Let’s just press on.”

Well, that was probably a bad decision, but she was sticking to it. Time to let the madman say his piece.

The End (i)