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.