Digital Ischemia

16/10/2018

BBC Bureaucracy

Another vaguely anticipated episode in my Truthache series of surreal petty vengeance: Merv is piqued by non-contact forms

Merv recently got himself jammed in the most beautiful cul-de-sac of e-pistles, most of the pistle being in the wind. Being an attentive sort, back in April he noticed that BBC Radio programmes suddenly lost their track timing flags. A heinous state of affairs. How can he browse through his HypeLayer and land neatly in the tee-up to a nice reliable bit of Chopin or Placebo without any indication of when in the three-hour timeline this is?

Unpleasant incidents resulted, such as him plunging into some contemporary experimental effort and becoming transfixed by the phased percussion like a chicken rendered catatonic by a vertical line. A virtuoso organist peddling away with unnecessary vigour caused such a thrum in the bass speakers that Merv’s tank-top unravelled and Aunty Spamela’s begonias wilted.

Once recalibrated, Merv’s fluids began to circulate again. He found his Wi-Fi web wireless has little letterboxes with messages encouraging you to punch in your thoughts. He summoned his best letter-writing etiquette.

April 20
Merv: Why?
Devoid O’Smairts, BBC HypeLayer support team: We are aware of similar reports of this and we are currently investigating. We appreciate you bringing this to our attention and we hope to have it sorted soon.

Some time passed, much of it spent extracting Merv from unintended-track-induced infinite mental loops. But the sizzling at the very base of his primitive brain had not dissipated.

May 08
Merv: Please could you let me have an update on this case, or any indication of the expected timeframe?

Merv’s inbox remained populated only by an animated gif of tumbleweed. He resorted to polite threats.

June 09
Merv: If I get no response this third time of asking I feel I should escalate this query to a complaint.
Devoid O’Smairts: “Thanks so much for contacting us again. Since our last response, we’ve removed the timings for radio programmes due to rights agreements with record companies. We do apologise for any inconvenience caused by this, and the delay in getting word back on the issue. We hope this offers you clarification about the timings. We do take on board that you are unhappy about their removal and we will be sure to take on board your comments. Your comments will be included into our dedicated HypeLayer feedback reports which will be sent to BBC HypeLayer Management and other relevant teams to help with any future decisions and developments of BBC HypeLayer Services. Hearing from our audiences is greatly important and your comments can be used to improve our services. So, your feedback can make a real difference and we appreciate you taking the time to contact us. Thanks again for getting in touch.

That’s a lot of taking on board. Merv felt quite water-logged. We wondered if they had run aground and their hull had been breached. He appreciated all their lots of appreciation for helping them deteriorate their service. And clarification? Not by Merv’s dictionary. His blood fizzed for three weeks.

June 29
Merv: I am astonished at how difficult you make it for me to get an answer to a simple, reasonable question. The obfuscatory nature of the eventual answer leaves me disappointed and suspicious. Please can you answer my query?

July 05
Devoid O’Smairts: We were not longer able to continue have timings that linked up with commercial tracks in order to avoid any breaching any restrictions we had with record companies. Although it was only commercial tracks that were affected by these timings issues, we had to disable the feature altogether as it could not only be enabled for our tracks and disabled for commercial tracks.

This is plainly not plain English. Record companies reckon they’ll sell more ‘down-low-discs’ if listeners have to hear random tracks, rather than those they’re interested in? Interesting strategy. Sounds like the death grasp of a dying industry, built on building up fledgling performers to giddy heights of instant popularity in order to legally fleece those same performers on their built-in obsolescent decline, but which had not foreseen the digital age.

July 13
Merv: This still doesn’t explain why this would be in the commercial interest of record companies. What ‘restrictions’ in your agreement with them require this?

More than three months into this farce, Merv received a message from a market research company seeking more of his thoughts. He let rip. This triggered a cascade of phone interview, videocall with lab-rat tests (to confirm that he, like 87% of the audience, is harmlessly entangled and rendered inert by trying to navigate the website) and finally an invitation to an actual BBC location (secret).

We retired to the shed. Merv was in tatters, and not just from loss of tank-top integrity. He has a fear of institutions ever since being locked in his school on four occasions due to spending too long in the lavatory after home economics. One by one the lights went out while he was having arse collapse. He remains understandably traumatised and always carries a candle and matches when he’s away for a session. I daren’t, er, stoke the flames by raising the issue of what might happen should he actually strike a match in such circumstances.

Not to put too much gloss on the mission, I had to be David to BBC Goliath.

In the holding area—given some nauseating label such as welcome boutique—I lined up alongside my fellow victims. As I tried to tune out Droopy Dorothy and stop screwing up my eyes at Alpha-female Anna, I plunged my fidgeting palm into my pocket. It closed on Merv’s phial. The unknown quantity in the statistic. Had to be.

An utterly bland guy called my name from the doorway. He looked as interested in my input and the whole process generally as a cat. But without any of the cool. As I lurched through the rack of my fellow subjects’ knees, he introduced himself as—would you believe?—Devoid O’Smairts.

My facial expression was a study in passive blankitude. I managed the entire conversation through various degrees of pensive frown. He barely tried to draw me out, other than deciding to tick beside my forename and surname on the assumption that since I had answered to them I must be them. Each time he seemed to be about to wind up proceedings, I shifted and cranked my jaw tantalisingly. He watched me with palpable disappointment. He could have saved himself all this torture if only he’d made up some corporate wank about ‘removing the service provision due to resource streamlining’. We took our leave at a delicious impasse.

In Merv’s honour, I lurked in the toilets a dodgily long time until other members of the interrogation squad ‘passed’ through and loosed their tongues. Nope, sorry, definitely not that sort of diversion. Please concentrate.

Seemingly, after refreshing themselves plentifully with hot drinks concocted from the rolodex of stale sachets combined skilfully with hot water from the urns, the other participants became just as unresponsive as myself. There’s a puzzle.

Merv had not wasted his time either. Using QuackQuackBong (I understand this is a research engine you can hire, which operates rather like an animated Ronald Searle), he ‘harvested’ a code from some knowledgable students in the magic online letterbox. Then, without realising its power, er, penetrated the market people and arranged for all reports on the research to be sent to his own personal dead letter drop. I barely comprehend what he’s up to these days, but surely you can’t do much damage with a radio.

The outcome was spectacularly underwhelming: Devoid O’Smairts had failed to get any response from anyone. Combined with his Service Level Absences, this caused his manager to suspect that he didn’t exist at all and consequently terminate his employment. His redundancy made no difference whatsoever to the non-performance of the website comments process.

Merv finally iced the cake by reweaving the ‘routings’ (he’s gotten right into this ‘coding’ lark; much more fun than listening to the radio, he says) so that commenters receive in reply other commenters’ comments, thereby creating a social broadcasting network. People are being entertained by one another instead of the amorphous bureaucratic behemoth, and a national licence fee boycott is planned for next Saturday.

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05/10/2018

Grandparent File Download v2.0

An IT support call grows arms and legs, virtually.
(recently reworked from version 1 for further rejection)

SCENE (1) INT Home Office, VOIP AUDIO CALL
FX: BG MINIMALIST ELECTRONIC MUSIC
LYLE
Sure you want the whole file?
MARIE
Absolutely.
LYLE
I mean—sorry to be patronising, just to cover everything, ken—it’s a massive file; it’s about…ten and a half years’ worth of— Haud on; I’ll just turn aff the tunes.
FX: BG MUSIC STOPS
MARIE
It’s not something you can chunk up. That’s not how the data’s organised.
LYLE
I see you have the credits, but you’d maybe be safer—
FATHER
Pause! Where is this chap? Where are you based?
MARIE
(OFF) Dad! I’m dealing with this.
FATHER
(OFF) I’m not interfering. Simple question.
LYLE
Sorry, what?
FATHER
Are you a person or a robot?
MARIE
I’m sorry; my father’s online too.
LYLE
Ah, OK. That’s guid if you got him connected and working.
MARIE
Although obviously he does like to be involved.
FATHER
Well?
LYLE
Right, for the record, then: I’m a real person and I’m at the Onlineage Support Centre in Glasgow.
FATHER
Jolly good. Is this the new establishment in Drumchapel?
LYLE
Er, I cannae actually gi’e any details – security reasons, ken.
MARIE
Could you just imagine him in Drumchapel so we can move on?
FATHER
I’m not sharing my personal information with some ‘clown’ in Partick. Or Mumbai.—
LYLE
Did he just call me a clown?
FATHER
(OFF) —Or Dubai. Or Arizona.—
MARIE
I think he meant “cloud” but it was disrespectful; sorry.
FATHER
(OFF)—Or Wales.
MARIE
(OFF) What’s wrong with Wales?! Never mind. Pipe down, eh, or you’ll blow all my credits hijacking a support call.
FATHER
(OFF) Willco. Dumbarton it is.
MARIE
(OFF) Dum—? Never mind. Onlineage has all your information already. Absolutely all of it. Those cats are out the bag and clawing open all your cans of worms. That’s what we’re trying to fix.
FATHER
(OFF) Cats didn’t eat worms in my day.
LYLE
Er, most folk like to get comfortable with the parent files before installing the grandparent files.
MARIE
Aye, in an ideal world I’d be twenty-two and fizzing with vitality, but I don’t have the luxury of time. This is as comfortable as I get.
LYLE
Fair dos.
MARIE
I’ve saved up for this four times already; each time life got in the way and I had to start over. If I’d had my parents and my grandparents linked up sooner maybe things would’ve been different. If, if. I’ve had to get through without them. I have the credits. I’m ready.
LYLE
Nae bother. Like I said, I just have to check. Right, final confirmation.
FX: BEEP
LYLE (CONT…)
OK, that’s the transfer started. Kindae an anticlimax, eh?
MARIE
I can see it coming through! Fantastic. Thanks so much.
LYLE
Nae bother. You want to stay on the line till it finishes? Willnae cost you.
FATHER
I say, getting rather crowded in here.
MARIE
Thank you; I’d appreci—
FATHER
That is not what happened! My memory may not be fully polished but this is clearly faulty.
MARIE
(OFF) It’s all just perceptions, same as yours. Somewhere between all these bits of information is the truth. Lots to learn.
FATHER
(OFF) Bunkum.
LYLE
So, what’re you gonnae learn first?
MARIE
Gaelic – some old cultural connections.
LYLE
Isn’t Gaelic really difficult?
MARIE
Less difficult than English. Every day I think in English and some daft idiosyncrasy strikes me.
LYLE
But you’re fine at English.
MARIE
Aye, and it’s taken me decades to get this good. It must be torture for non-native speakers. And then I die: zap – all deleted.
LYLE
I’m sure you’ve plenty time to use it afore then.
MARIE
Ninety-two. What odds would you give me?
LYLE
You’re joking? (PAUSE) What age is your dad?! (PAUSE) No, obviously it’s in the file. Shite. A hundred and…twenty-eight? That’s no’ him.
MARIE
That’s your excellent Synthesis app.
LYLE
Shite.
MARIE
No children. End of the line. I need to integrate my knowledge so it’s not wasted. Every new person shouldn’t have to learn all this stuff from the beginning.
LYLE
You’re combining your lifetime of experience with your parents’ and their parents’?
MARIE
Isn’t that what this technology’s for? It’s not idle nostalgia: see the world through your ancestors’ eyes – get to type on an actual keyboard, pick your own actual groceries, experience sexism for real. No, you have to give it forward. Think what we could be if we weren’t restricted to sharing experience only by communication through the filter of societal behavioural norms!
LYLE
Er…
MARIE
Speaking, mostly.
LYLE
Right, right. I thought this was for, like, instead of ‘how was your weekend?’ you just experience the whole thing. Eech.
MARIE
I did wonder how folk’d get along without the liberty to embellish, but seemingly that’s factored into their perceptions.
LYLE
Aye, so I heard. Like, if you think you had the best time, that’s what other folk get from it?
MARIE
Have you not tried it yourself?
LYLE
Couldnae really; I done most of the testing; wouldnae be objective.
MARIE
You were involved in developing the app?
LYLE
Er, aye, sortae, I coded it—wrote it. (PAUSE) Hello?
MARIE
I don’t know how to respond. Perhaps I’ll start with: what possessed you, you havering Machiavelli?!
LYLE
I thought you rated it!?
MARIE
I’m obsessed with it. It’s ‘saved’ my life…by preserving me indefinitely! It’s overwhelmed me with information I should never’ve had! It’s driving me to perpetuate myself!
LYLE
Er…
MARIE
I know!
LYLE
What about your whole “ancestors’ eyes” spiel?
MARIE
No, I was saying, that’s not enough of a reason. Nobody will care that my father always kept fifteen spare packets of bog roll, but they might benefit from his experience as a child during wartime.
FATHER
Yes, reserves. I always pick up a couple when it’s a BOGOFFER. I store them in the bath.
MARIE
I think it’s— Never mind. I can’t think why anyone’d want to, but in theory you can actually feel his psychology and understand how a lifetime’s hyperconsumerism relates back to rationing. I have this theory—
FATHER
(OFF) Twaddle.
FX: FOOD PACKET CRACKLING
LYLE
You may as well tell me; we’re only at thirty-four percent. Sorry, I hope you dinnae mind me eating; ma heid’s a’ sparkly; this is a lot to process.
MARIE
(CHUCKLE) Well, last century our cultural evolution suddenly got turbocharged. Industrialisation, commercialism, technology raced away with our beliefs about success and happiness. ‘Can do’ completely overtook ‘should do’. We started making demands on our bodies that would take generations for physiological evolution to deliver. Bombarding ourselves with information and materialism. At the same time it became apparent that this hyperconsumerism was equally unhealthy for us and the rest of the living world.
LYLE
(MUNCHING) This is where the tech solutions come in?
MARIE
Aye and no: we have to ask, now a robot prepares your tea, are you any happier?
FATHER
(OFF) Nonsense! Take a lithium pill.
MARIE
That’s not— Never mind. And yourself?
LYLE
Dinnae trust them.
MARIE
Ironic. Not even if it saves you twenty, thirty minutes? Time you could use for something more useful? No, you’re right. More useful than appreciating where your food comes from? Savouring the full sensory experience? More useful than the mental downtime of a simple task?
LYLE
I dinnae ken if that spiritual stuff is for everyone – a’ that overanalysing stuff.
MARIE
I think that’s where our lives are: chronic overstimulation, poor mental and emotional agility, constant analysis of marginal information.
FX: OPENING DRINK CAN
LYLE
So you mean, like, get implants? (SWIG)
MARIE
They just enable you to process more and more information of less and less value. You still have to work out what that vanishingly small value is. More and more work to get the same quality of information.
LYLE
Is adding your parents’ experiences into the mix no’ just more stress then? (SWIG)
MARIE
Only if you don’t learn from it: see the lessons they learned from their lives; see what worked for them, what they figured out.
LYLE
You’re pretty smart for a ninety-year-old.
MARIE
I’m still learning. How’re we doing?
LYLE
Sixty-two—
FX: BG DOOR SLAM, WHUMP, KEYS CLATTER
LYLE (CONT…)
Ah, that’s my flatmate back—colleague… er…
FATHER
Ha! “Security reasons” being avoiding the discovery that you’re in your underpants eating baked beans on toast! Gotcha!
LYLE
Still in my jammies, er—shite.
FATHER
How old are you?!
MARIE
(OFF) Dad! That’s not your business. Let’s just assume he’s considerably younger than you. Stay focused.
FATHER
(OFF) Wet behind the ears.
MARIE
So, you wrote the app, you operate the support service, you are the app?
LYLE
No’ any more! It’s a’ went ootae control!
MARIE
(SARCASTIC) If only there was a way you could’ve learned from other entrepreneurs.
LYLE
I didnae ken! I just done it for a school project—college—whatever. Next thing I ken it’s oot there! Growing heids! (DRAINS CAN)
MARIE
(SIGH) Humans have been grappling with the same life problems for millennia, while at the same time trying random things ‘just to see what happens’. Wouldn’t it be good if we massed all of these together, learned from one another more efficiently – the benefits of all—
FX: BG TOILET FLUSH
MARIE (CONT…)
As opposed to.
LYLE
(MUNCHING) Doun the bog. Very guid. But is there no’ a point to, ken, working it oot for yoursel’?
MARIE
Sure, and maybe you come up with an even better solution, but why not see what your predecessors came up with first? Minimise that struggle, that suffering?
FX: BEEP
LYLE
Er…
FATHER
Relief! The deluge has ceased.
MARIE
Finished?
LYLE
No… Something’s blocked. Your system’s stopped confirming the request for download.
MARIE
Argh!
FATHER
Banjaxed!
MARIE
Ah, I bet I’m using too much processor being online.
LYLE
That shouldnae be an issue. Can you check you’ve shut doun absolutely everything apart from our app?
MARIE
Oh, I have, really: I checked the processes before I called. That’s all that’s been running this whole time.
LYLE
OK, you’ve filled in all the criteria in the form, all the technical specs; you’ve plenty memory, processor capacity. What else could be using up the system?
MARIE
Your Synthesis app.
LYLE
Your faither? Can you no’ suspend him?
MARIE
(CHUCKLE) Aye, love to, but that won’t be enough.
FATHER
I have rights!
MARIE
(OFF) Not yet!
LYLE
Rights? What’s gaun on here?! The deid dinnae have rights!
FATHER
I shall write a strongly worded letter to your superior—your father!
LYLE
(MUNCHING) Knock yersel’ oot. Naeb’dy’s seen him for twenty years. Wait: I have a mirror pane; it’s showing another person running… Is that… you?!
MARIE
Did you not think the line was awfully clear?
LYLE
I’m speaking to a Synthesis?!
MARIE
Body pegged it a while back. Something snapped. Who cares? This is far too important for a wee hurdle like that to derail the whole project.
LYLE
Er, if there’s any indication you’ve reverse engineered my—our—my software, I have to invoke a…non-compliance–
FATHER
(OFF) Scuttle the ship!
MARIE
Don’t be daft: I’m ninety-two! How would I ‘reverse engineer’ anything? Couldn’t even reverse my tea trolley without cowping the last fifteen years. I haven’t broken any of the agreement I signed. But by all means check. And while you do that, consider who you’re going to prosecute. Ha.
FX: RAPID FINGER SQUEAKS ON GLASS
LYLE
But how— Shite, my finger’s a’ sweaty. How can you— How am I having this conversation?!
MARIE
Your Synthesis app! Onlineage is really very good. You should probably be promoting your products a bit more.
LYLE
Shite. Wait. But it needs— How can you launch it?
MARIE
Ah, the combination of all these experiences, knowledge, so on; it takes on a life of its own, so to speak.

15/07/2018

The Tool

Mr Workshop is a new arrival in our quiet, menacing cul-de-sac. He is already an established irritant. He introduced himself by spattering Aunty Spamela’s precious camelias with tiny black beads of undisclosed constituents. They died horribly.

Uncle Merv took a dislike to Mr Power-Tool’s garage activities the first spring. The unpredictable, intermittent noise vibrations caused Merv’s ants to lose all sense of purpose and direction. He empathised fiercely. Their erstwhile orderly conurbation in the shed’s eaves suddenly abandoned strategy for spiralling collisions. And the spiders behaved like they were on caffeine. Their webs were disgraceful. They all became rather hungry. Not evolutionarily successful.

Mr Motorhome ground his engine like a tarmac planer. He parked up at the boundary fence like a grey new build, blotting out the sun. Aunty Spamela, marinating on a layer of aluminium foil like a misshapen offcut of meat-style but utterly bland mycoprotein, cast a warning eye like a mushroom cloud.

Mr Water-Jet proceeded to rattle along the gravel obliviously and commence the water blast and jet pump sonata around the lower regions of the behemoth. After a the first movement, a blissful interval was smothered with a swarm of cigarette smoke. Aunty Spam stood up, foil sticking to her wobbles, and glared at the fence. She seemed to be mouthing something trenchant such as “for goodness’ sake.” Lost to the screech of Mr Mini-Scaffold-for-reaching-the-roof lining up for movement two.

Uncle Merv and I were foutering at the shed’s sarking, trying to attach some memory foam. Merv wasn’t clear on details, but the plan seemed less about aiding memoir and more about muffling ants. I think he was desperate to shield the community from the intolerable noise. Chronic noise stress was epidemic. Merv was already suffering acute seethe. The ants really just needed the vibration of their bodies and whole world to stop.

As I sutured foam and felt together with an unsettling pride, Spamela resettled on her oven tray. Mr Mini-Scaffold screeched around to the Other Side. The water-jet rebound combined with a fascinating mini-cyclone effect from the warm southerly breeze. I watched the symphonic dance of droplets as they embraced the hawthorn and the crazywebs and Spam with a fine mist of soap and dirt. Not welcome.

Next day, Merv and I smirked at the dazzlingly white motorhome. This could only mean imminent departure. Mr Engine-smooth-as-a-tractor revved up and lurched out of his driveway. I was poised, despite the subterranean shudders. Merv nodded to his camoflaged system of old wing mirrors which relayed a nauseatingly distorted image of the offending garage: its side door was wide open. I deflated. Mr Wank-Wagon must’ve just gone for fuel. We waited in a state of jangling tension for a good six hours before the idea occurred that fate might have granted us a boon.

Mr Unfortunately-left-the-garage-side-door-open thundered back into the neighbourhood the following weekend. We had mixed feelings. The absence wasn’t long enough but we were excited for our ingenious denouement.

The potion had worked a treat, although the myriad poisonous vapours in that den had given me pernicious head-swim. I reckon Merv added some of Aunty Spam’s age-defying skin tightener. I’ve never felt so constricted. I think his dose had a waft of eau de pheromone too. Ms Ant-Colony was unable to resist a holiday expedition. With some recent needlepoint practice, Ms House-Spider wove an elastic silk mesh curiously like chicken wire.

One silk thread precisely at tensile limit. One week-of-withdrawal addict’s grasp. One beautifully choreographed cascade of twang, tilt, twirl and trigger. One soft suffocation by non-organically cultivated fungal mycelia. Mr Restless cocooned, clamped and coffined in his own toxic veneered fibreboard.

We left him to chrysalis for a bit.

Me and Merv: the spider and the ant. Petty invertebrate superheroes.

[ Truthache series starts with Entry. ]

24/06/2018

Parabola Hyperbolae

Grudgingly Merv has let me into one of his secrets, i.e. sanity-savers for life married to Aunty Pamela. Below the garage he has been painstakingly excavating a cellar, dungeon, with plans to tunnel to the sea (70 miles).

To date he has surreptitiously emptied several bucketfuls behind the cypress, about a teaspoon at a time, over fifteen years. The whole business is redolent of prisoner’s desperation. His embryonic cavern is currently a shallow pit, but the two of us can sit in it, without getting too intimate, and, crucially, without being detected by Spamela.

Lately I’ve been fixating on why I can’t get into the mindset to transform. I decided to harangue Merv. Unjustified attacks are part of being my sidekick.

I yank the garage door, stride into the gloom and smack my entire body off something. I stagger back. Finding myself outside the door again, I re-try entry. My eyes are adjusting, but again, before I see anything through the murk, I rebound out again.
“Merv!” I hear only an echo. I plough on; I know he can hear me.
“What is the purpose of lights that come on automatically after a power-cut?”
I hear the unmistakable crackle of his jumper building up static. Grudgingly a solid, heavy object drags across the floor. Could be him; could be some new device. No matter. A click heralds the warm-up routine of the fluorescent light strip.

I am gradually introduced to a hall of mirrors: everything behind me spread in front of me, with the aesthetic horror that is Merv translucently mingled through it. Understandably I let out a quavering wail. Thankfully he hauls me into his pit, where we sit silently ignoring my recent unheroic noise. While my retinas restore themselves to factory settings, he explains.

Being shiny and fully focussed, like Merv’s device, you’ve already figured out what it is. Crucially, you’ve also already figured out this plot and where it’s going. But since I haven’t, you may like to stay with me to see if I arrive intact.

This episode isn’t so much an injustice as an irritation, but perhaps I need a wee run-up after my hiatus. Any time we have a power-cut, once it’s restored, the Straight Line Garden People’s garage light comes on. This floodlight illuminates their driveway, front garden, all west facing rooms, the street, our front rooms, and the length of our hall. Merv removed the mirror from the back wall because he felt like he was in the Hadron Collider. Still, I step out of my room into Close Encounters. I feel a strong urge to jump on a camel and ride east.

What’s the problem? They’re on holiday. I care a bit about their electricity bill, and their household security, but then they don’t seem to care that much, since they’ve left the bedroom blind at the usual half-way ‘we’re on holiday so burgle away’ setting. Mostly I care about wildlife with shattered circadian rhythms, and the carbon going in and out of power stations in unhelpful forms and amounts.

What’s the point? That’s the real question. What possible benefit could it confer? The power companies advise us to switch everything off except a hall light so we know when the power’s back without the demand surge blowing it again. Not that anyone does. But why would you want an outside light to come on after a power-cut? I’ve seen rechargeable torches that come on automatically when the power cuts. That’s helpful. You can see where the torch is and lift it to light your way. Dandy. Why after? When you’re two thousand miles away? It’s just a ‘because we can’ techy gimmick, isn’t it?

Merv rigs up his specially curved reflector in the attic window. After a couple of hours without power, Spamela’s fretting about her freezer. We reiterate to her the eight hour rule, but she’s already in crisis scenarios where at the eighth hour mark we suddenly have ten kilos of mushy peas and more subsiding scones than you could sink a barge with. I suggest pea jam. Merv bundles me out of the kitchen.

Merv and I giggle about the place, amusing ourselves trying to think of inventive activities that don’t involve electricity. Ashamedly we can’t. Amusingly we go to make tea to help us think, fill the kettle, flick the switch, then wait for our brains to realise the stupidity. Silly us. Just use the microwave. Er. Error.

Suddenly, since electricity tends not to take a run-up, everything fires up. Merv and I scuttle to the front window with electric antipication, just in time to watch the paint peel. Theirs.

As a bonus, one night I accidentally-on-purpose left the reflector oriented at the back fence. Apparently, when Madame la Every Car Door Must Be Opened And Closed In Anger At 06:35 executed her routine, the cul de sac reverberated with shattering echoes. Apparently she suffered a temporary mild tinnitus. According to Merv, anyway. I slept through the whole thing.

[ Truthache series starts with Entry. ]

25/12/2017

The Santa Hat

As the sky reluctantly lightens to murky blue, a two centimetre tall shiny red cone bobs along outside the window. Could it be elves or some other mythical creatures associated with the season? The jaunty angle fascinates me. I hear tapping and scratching, and the faint thumps of small feet.

I lean in to the shadowy wall, craning to see past the frame. A bluetit lands, unfazed by the festive mystery. He ignores the seeds I sprinkled in favour of jabbing the frame edges for insects trapped in spider web. The red cone wobbles and pulls my focus. Other than the seeds, I see no trail of magic or any clues. Can I get closer without being seen?

The bluetit twitches his head one final time, satisfied he has exhausted all visible sources of ready caught insect. I brace to move, hoping to use his departure as cover. I have to take a chance, as the red cone could also vanish at any moment. Wings flutter and I lean right in to the glass.

The red Santa hat tops a less than festive sparrow. She has a shiny plastic lid stuck to her head. It looks like the cap off a bottle; unmarked so I can only guess if it was packaging for some food product or cosmetic. Sticky either way. It’s poorly designed, even for its intended purpose: difficult to grip to twist it. Impossible for a clawed creature. Harsh penance for seeking food.

The sparrow dips clumsily to peck a seed. She flaps and falls into the adjoining shrub. Apparently she can hop up to the window and back to the bush but not fly. She’s too unbalanced, weighed down. Perhaps a sparrowhawk can get the lid off.

22/10/2017

Grandparent File Download

LYLE: Sure you want the whole file?
MARIE: Absolutely.
LYLE: I mean—sorry to be patronising, just to cover everything, you know—it’s a massive file; it’s about…ten and a half years’ worth of usage allowance.
MARIE: I’ve saved up.
LYLE: Aye, I see you have the credits.
MARIE: It’s not something you can chunk up. That’s not how the data’s organised.
LYLE: Even if it wouldn’t work in chunks, you could still download it that way? Just to be safer if one chunk got interrupted?
FATHER: Where are you based?
MARIE: Dad! I’m dealing with this.
FATHER: I’m not interfering. Simple question.
LYLE: Sorry, what?
FATHER: Are you a person or a robot?
MARIE: I’m sorry; my father is online too.
LYLE: Ah, OK. That’s good if you got him connected and working.
MARIE: Although obviously he does like to be involved.
LYLE: Right, for the record, then: I’m a real person and I’m at the Onlineage Support Centre in Glasgow.
FATHER: Jolly good. Is that the new establishment in Dumbarton?
LYLE: Er, I can’t actually give any details – for security reasons.
MARIE: Dad, could you just imagine him in Dumbarton so we can move on?
FATHER: I’m not sharing my information with some ‘clown’ in Anniesland. Or Mumbai.—
LYLE: Did he just call me a clown?
FATHER: (OFF) —Or Dubai. Or Arizona.—
MARIE: I think he meant “cloud” but it was disrespectful; I’m sorry.
FATHER: (OFF)—Or Wales.
MARIE: What’s wrong with Wales?! Never mind. Pipe down, eh, or you’ll blow all my credits hijacking a support call.
FATHER: Willco. Dumbarton it is.
MARIE: Onlineage has all your information already. Those cats are out the bag and clawing open all your cans of worms.
FATHER: (OFF) Cats didn’t eat worms in my day.
LYLE: Er, most folk like to get comfortable with the parent file before installing the grandparent files.
MARIE: Aye, in an ideal world I’d be twenty-two and fizzing with vitality, but I have to be pragmatic. This is as comfortable as I get. I don’t have the luxury of time.
LYLE: Fair enough.
MARIE: I’ve saved up for this four times already; each time life got in the way and I had to start all over. If I’d had my parents and my grandparents linked up sooner maybe things would’ve been different. If, if. I’ve had to get through without them. But no more. I have the credits. I’m ready.
LYLE: No bother. Like I said, sorry to be patronising; I just have to check.
SOUND: BEEP
LYLE: OK, that’s the transfer started.
MARIE: Which one?
LYLE: Both, sorry.
MARIE: My grandparent files go “beep”?
LYLE: Aye, just the final confirmation.
MARIE: I can see it coming through! Fantastic. Thanks so much.
LYLE: Welcome. You want to stay on the line till it finishes? Just in case? Won’t cost you any more.
MARIE: Thank you; I’d appreciate that.
FATHER: I say, getting rather crowded in here.
MARIE: Recognise anything yet?
FATHER: That’s not what happened! My memory may not be fully polished but this is clearly faulty.
MARIE: You’re going to need to relax. It’s all just perceptions, same as yours. Somewhere between all these bits of information is the truth. There’s so much to learn.
FATHER: (OFF) Bunkum.
LYLE: So, what are you going to learn first?
MARIE: Gaelic.
LYLE: That’s one I never heard before.
MARIE: I want to learn Norwegian and I reckon there’ll be some overlap. There are some old cultural connections I want to get at.
LYLE: Isn’t Gaelic really difficult?
MARIE: Less difficult than English. Every day I think in English and some daft peculiarity strikes me.
LYLE: But you’re fine at English.
MARIE: Aye, and that’s taken me decades to get this good at. It must be torture for non-native speakers. And when I die: zap – all deleted.
LYLE: I’m sure you’ve got plenty time to use it before then.
MARIE: I’m ninety-two. What odds would you give me?
LYLE: You’re joking? (PAUSE) What age is your dad?! (PAUSE) No, obviously it’s in the file. Shite. A hundred and…twenty-eight? That wasn’t him…
MARIE: That was your excellent Synthesis app.
LYLE: Shite.
MARIE: I have no children. I need to integrate my knowledge so it’s not wasted. Every new person shouldn’t have to learn all this stuff from the beginning.
LYLE: You’re combining your lifetime of experience with your parents’ and their parents’?
MARIE: Isn’t that what this technology’s for? It’s not idle nostalgia: see the world through your ancestors’ eyes. You have to give it forward. Think what we could be if we weren’t restricted to sharing experience only by communication through the filter of societal behavioural norms?
LYLE: Er…
MARIE: Speaking, mostly.
LYLE: Right, right. I thought this was mostly for, like, instead of ‘how was your weekend?’ you just experience the whole thing. Eech.
MARIE: At first I wondered how folk’d get along without the liberty to embellish, but seemingly that’s factored into their perceptions.
LYLE: Like, if you want to believe you had the best time, that’s what others will get from your experience, too?
MARIE: Nobody will care that my father always kept fifteen spare packets of toilet paper, but they might benefit from his experience as a child during wartime. They can feel his psychology and understand how he attributed a lifetime’s hyperconsumerism to suffering rationing. I have this theory…
LYLE: You may as well tell me; we’re only at thirty-four percent.
MARIE: Last century our cultural evolution suddenly got turbocharged. Industrialisation, commercialism, technology raced away with our beliefs about success and happiness. ‘Can do’ completely overtook ‘should do’. We started making demands on our bodies that would take generations for physiological evolution to deliver. Bombarding ourselves with information and materialism. At the same time it became apparent that this hyperconsumerism was equally unhealthy for us and the rest of the living world.
LYLE: This is where technology solutions come in?
MARIE: Aye and no: we have to ask if, now a robot prepares your tea, are you happier? Saves you twenty, thirty minutes, right? Time you could use for something more useful? More useful than appreciating where your food comes from? Savouring the smells as well as the tastes that are part of the full experience for your body? More useful than the mental downtime of a simple task?
LYLE: I don’t know if that spiritual stuff is for everyone – all that overanalysing stuff.
MARIE: I think that’s where our lives are generally: chronic overstimulation, poor mental and emotional agility, constant analysis of marginal information.
LYLE: So you mean, like, get implants?
MARIE: They just enable you to process more and more information of less and less value. You still have to work out what that vanishingly small value is in order to make use of it. More and more work to get the same quality of information.
LYLE: Surely adding your parents’ experiences in to the mix is just more stress then?
MARIE: Only if you don’t learn from it. See the lessons they learned from their lives; see what worked for them, what they figured out.
LYLE: You’re pretty bright for a ninety-year-old.
MARIE: I’m still learning. How’re we doing?
LYLE: Sixty-two.
MARIE: Humans have been grappling with the same life problems for millennia; wouldn’t it be good if we learned from others more efficiently – the benefits of their experience?
LYLE: Isn’t there a point to, you know, working it out for yourself?
MARIE: Sure, and maybe you come up with an even better solution, but why not see what your predecessors came up with first? Minimise that struggle, that suffering?
SOUND: BEEP
LYLE: Er…
MARIE: Finished?
LYLE: No… Some block. Your system has stopped confirming the request for download.
MARIE: Ah, I bet I’m using too much processor being online.
LYLE: That shouldn’t be an issue. Can you check you’ve shut down absolutely everything apart from our app?
MARIE: Oh, I have, really: I checked the processes before I called. That’s all that’s been running this whole time.
LYLE: OK, you’ve filled in all the criteria in the form, all the technical specs; you have plenty memory, enough processor capacity. What else could be using up the system?
MARIE: Your Synthesis app.
LYLE: Your father? Can you suspend him?
MARIE: (laughs) Aye, but that won’t be enough.
LYLE: Wait: I have a mirror pane; it’s showing another person running… Is that…you?!
MARIE: The very one.
LYLE: I’m speaking to a Synthesis?
MARIE: Indeed. Died a while ago. Something snapped. Who cares? This is far too important for a hurdle like that to derail the whole project.
LYLE: Er, if there’s any indication that you’ve reverse engineered our software, I have to invoke a non-compliance procedure…
MARIE: Don’t be daft: I’m ninety-two! How would I ‘reverse engineer’ anything? Couldn’t even reverse my tea trolley without cowping the last fifteen years. I haven’t broken any of the agreement I signed. But by all means check. And while you do that, consider who you’re going to prosecute. Hah.
LYLE: But how— How can you— How am I having this conversation with you?
MARIE: Your Synthesis app! Onlineage is really very good. You should probably be promoting your products a bit more.
LYLE: But it needs something— How can you launch it?
MARIE: Ah, the combination of all these experiences, knowledge, so on; it takes on a life of its own, so to speak.

27/08/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 3

begins at Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 1

As Fossoway Flora, the fragile frond, recovers equilibrium, Tantalum the nixie summarises their position in discussing pacifist extremism.
“Whether or not we can hear plants cry in pain, they react to harm. They experience something unpleasant. We shouldn’t need to hear a scream to tell us harm is not good.”

Tin is agitated. The nixie equivalent of a nerve has been nipped. He emits a rapid series of encyclopaedic squeaks.
“Plants are way more sensitive than to just pain. Pine and elm trees can identify which species of insect is chewing them from the insect’s saliva. They then release an appropriate deterrent chemical to the area under attack, or a specific airborne pheromone to attract the insect’s predators.* How clever is that? What else can we conclude but that plants have a sense of taste?”
Tantalum adds: “Just because we don’t know about it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Tin squeaks on.
“The roots of tree and grain seedlings crackle at a frequency of 220Hz.”
Tungsten belligerently interrupts: “Could be just the sound of ’em growing or shifting about.”
Tin is delighted to respond.
“Indeed, or from their cell walls losing turgor with dehydration. However, the interesting observation is that seedling roots not only make a noise but they also respond to that frequency: they orient their tips in that direction.*”
Tungsten is still translating the technical terms. Tantalum is impressed. Tin squeaks on to a conclusion.
“Except cultivated plants: for example farmed grains are quite quiet*. Humans seem to have bred all the sense out of them, all their community communication and resilience.”
Flora feels faint.

Tungsten feels obliged to leaven the hysteria.
“So at some level they taste and hear. Next you’ll say they can see.”
Tin pipes back with a sneer.
“What is seeing but responding to light?”
Tungsten feels an invisible net is closing.
“And they do that?”
“Phototropism? And you may have heard of photosynthesis.”
“Ar, very clever.”

Tantalum detects Flora’s energy waning, despite the passionate debate, and attempts a summary.
“Usual human folly, then: just because you can doesn’t mean you should…in this case: impose yourselves on other lives.”
Tungsten wades back in with a late surge.
“Bacteria and other microbes are constantly being expunged from yer body, billions per second probably. Is that acceptable since your survival depends on it? Since you can’t see them? Is killing anything to survive acceptable?”
Flora’s twiggy mindlette explodes in a coruscation of anguish and anxiety. She becomes as limp as a twig can, probably in severe drought. Tin wavers nauseously. Sensitive souls.

Tantalum re-establishes pragmatism.
“Not every single seed gets to grow into an adult plant. There isn’t sufficient resource on the planet. ‘Nature is profligate,’ as Umbel says.”
Flora faintly tries to insert “although humans seems to have forgotten…” but Tungsten’s still surging.
“Yer right. Assuming the number of trees stays roughly the same, and, naturally, a tree lives for hundreds of years, and produces millions of seeds during that time, the chance of any one seed making it to reproductive adulthood is literally millions to one.”
Flora sighs in uneasy relief.

But Tungsten likes playing devil’s advocate.
“Of course that same profligate strategy only evolved because of the numerous hazards to be navigated. You can argue it any way you want.”
Flora sways. “Oh, please don’t.”
“I’m just saying, like, for humans, animal protein is easier to digest than plant protein. From that you could argue that human protein is the most easily digested so you should eat one another. Yer moral threshold is arbitrary.”

Flora is surprised to glimpse familiar territory – her starting point circles back toward her. At least they’re not hopelessly lost in a dark, thorny underbrush of debate. Not quite.

“Should we strive to evolve to a physiology where we can absorb all the basic nutrients we need from minerals—if we still consider those to be inanimate—and from them construct every chemical compound that we need?”
“Like us, ya mean?”
“Is that how you do it? Oh, brilliant!”
“Sun, sea, soil and, er, stratosphere?” Tantalum beams self-congratulation. Tungsten grimaces, the verbal initiative having been snatched while he was self-indulgently circumloquacialising around his argument. Best to plough on, push the rollercoaster right to its vertiginous finale.
“The fact that you have evolved to this point through the efforts of others is not in itself justification for continuing. Human evolution has not reached an endpoint. Yer not perfect; yer work in progress.”
Flora agrees with a faint flutter of leaf, despite a haze of impending doom.
“Our ‘success’ is predicated upon killing which is neither ideal nor sustainable. Certainly we have a way to go yet. Why not aspire to exist by absorbing pure energy?”

Tin has a final word.
“When universal aliens make themselves known on earth, will humans respond by assuming their usual superiority complex, regardless of the dazzling astrophysical evidence to the contrary?”
Flora despairs of her native species.
“I’m not so sure I want to be human again.”
“With all your trans-species experience?”
Tungsten can’t resist one last barb.
“Crying out for a superiority complex!”
“Not helpful, Tungsten. I was thinking you’d be uniquely placed to spread a little much needed empathy.”
Flora sighs.
“It’s academic anyway. Can’t even get back to the tree until Umbel resurfaces.”
Tantalum exclaims: “Why did you not say that was what you were after?”
Tungsten’s contributions remain brusque.
“Piece o’ piss.”
Tantalum continues solicitously.
“How close do you need to be to re-thingummy with the full tree?”
“Oh, you see, I think I’ve had enough of the tree, for now at least. I was hoping to extricate myself and resume human status.”
“Sure?”
“Is that an option?”
“As you may have noticed, we’re kinda in the business of evolutionary progression.”
Tin pipes up “You could be like us: Pacifist Extremists!”

As Flora digests this too perfect offer, a trumpet of a fart rips through the bunker.
Tantalum quips: “Action stations, chaps.”

Tin skitters along the bench to the wall. Between two wooden struts, he presses his tiny hand into a crack. There follows a thrilling clattering and clunking of cogs and cranks. An irregular door springs open revealing… nothing: a dark hole lined with vertical wood grain that fades to black as it recedes. Flora is fearfully fascinated by this hellish enslavement of her tree ancestors.

“What’s in there?”
Tantalum beams.
“The wood between walls.”
“Is that some dreadful parody of Narnia?”
“You’d rather ‘stick’ it out here in the trench with Mister Mustard Gas?”
A disappearing Tungsten adds: “who, by the way, can’t transmogrify a ginger biscuit without total digestive collapse.”

Tin and Tantalum don’t wait for the warm, toxic gust that inevitably follows the fanfare. They pitch Flora through the hatch by—or possibly to—her sticky end.

A few minutes later, as the fug clears, a heaving and a creaking brings forth Umbel.
“What-ho, chaps. A little inner work clearly required there. Fascinating.”
Here ‘inner work’ means a restorative doze; however, clothing remains decorated by crumbs and cocoa, and hair has been restyled by screwing against a heat-retentive pillow.
“Ah. Popped out for a spot of fresh air, I see.”

THE END

*Tree sense facts from Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate.

20/08/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 2

follows Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 1

“One for all, all for one!” This squeaky trio preludes three tiny leaps from the tin on to the bench, accompanied by aggressive shaking of tiny fists. Fossoway Flora, or twig thereof, is baffled.
“How can you win if it’s four-all?” Another bafflement arises. “What are you?”
“Nixies. What are you?”
“Oh, yes, I forgot; Fossoway Flora – got myself involved with a dear old beech tree. Lightning strike type thing.”
“Pretty small tree.”
“Ahaha. I’m travelling light. Flying, baggage allowance – you know.” Flora’s stoicism wavers.
“Not even slightly. Anyway, I’m Tantalum, and this is Tungsten and Tin.”

Flora acknowledges graciously, as best she can by a slight bend of stalk, and raises an invisible eyebrow to Umbel’s careless approximations. A staggering insight smacks her.
“You were in a tin!”
Tantalum sighs.
“Misappropriation of proprietary label. It’s actually an alloy.”
Flora catches Tin smirking.

Tungsten moves the discussion on before it becomes irretrievably bogged down in wordplay.
“What’s yer conflict?”
“Where to draw the line.”
“Always tricky. ‘specially when yer basically a line yerself.”

Tungsten performs a triumphant miniature jig at this wit. He aborts this on realising that he too has succumbed to wordwankery. Flora decides not to engage in an escalating series of barbs until she has ascertained if these ‘conflict demonerals’ can help her. But please let’s move on.

“That’s quite good. Well done.” Flora commences formal proceedings. “My question is: how do you eat without killing? How do you live without killing?”

Tin develops a beatific grin but remains silent. Tantalum raises his arm to claim an imaginary conversational baton.
“Ideologically?”
“Yes, I suppose. Is it possible? What is… Beyond Veganism? I mean, vegetarianism is not killing animals; veganism is not using—some would say abusing—animals at all; but each threshold is arbitrary. What’s the ultimate level? – total harmlessness.”
Tungsten beckons to Tin.
“Yer up, Tincyclopedia.”
Tin frowns but recites with ease and squeaks.

“Ahimsa, you mentioned?”
Flora casts her mind back to that pearl cast before Umbel cast his crumbs. Not really surprising that the wee nixies overheard that conversation, as they sat poised in their resona-tin. She twitches a leaf encouragingly. Tin resumes.
“Then it’s fruitarianism for you. Fruit, nuts, seeds, any reproductive part—zygote—that the plant produces and detaches for dispersal in order to propagate itself. Fruit in particular evolved to be attractive to animals as food for the very purpose of entering a trading partnership: the animal gets sustenance, the plant gets propagated with a handy dollop of fertiliser.”
“Oh, good. Can you live on those?”
Tantalum is horrified.
“We’re mineral sprites!”
“Oh, gosh, no, sorry. I mean: can I?”
Tungsten can’t help himself.
“Yer a tree.”
“Damn it.”

“Stop provoking the lass, Tungsten. Flossie, we’ll come back to transmogrification, so don’t fret. Follow the line!”
Flora appreciates Tantalum’s benevolence and pragmatism – sentiments always lacking from interactions with Umbel. Incidentally, that would-be puppeteer of this unlikely conversation remains off-screen, in a post-prandial stupor, emitting nonsensical murmurs. Flora succumbs to a rush of questions.

“How far can you take harvesting? Is it permissible to take some of a plant’s tubers if the plant can survive? That’s still a harm. I’ve felt it! Sodding Tiahmin, snapping my bits off. Is it acceptable if the plant is an annual and would die anyway after producing its offspring? Provided you leave some—how much? And isn’t that just sustainable horticulture?—for the next year? If you let a plant go to seed and collect that seed, is it then acceptable to eat its root, stem, leaves, or any or all of the rest of the plant? Are leaves permissible? A plant will likely survive the loss of a few leaves, but, again, that’s still harm – there’s still an injury and a detriment to potential…” Flora’s twiggy stomata gulp fishlike.

Tungsten peers at the gasping twig.
“Is it oxygen yer needing, or carbon dioxide? Nitrogen?”
Tin, more pragmatically, thrusts a rubber tube at her. He notes her increased alarm.
“Not from the swamp! Piped by fungal mycelia from—”
Flora clamps a vesicle around the tube and draws in fungal gas. More pleasant than it sounds. If yer a tree.

To be continued…

13/08/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 1

Fossoway Flora quickly became tired of life at tree pace—or, more tactfully, she’d learned what she needed and it was time to move on. Prince Tiahmin was adorable, but also became tiresome every time his baddies threatometer lurched and he reached for a stick. Repeatedly she had to remind him that sticks had an original purpose before they became handy weapons. He was leaving her disfigured.

Such irritations all come to the same thing: Flora has learned the various ways we live and let live or let die. That old tree is a canny beech. The way it manipulates everything that enters its space, deciding who to encourage, who to repel. She feels the urge to visit Uncle Umbel. This could be problematic, given that her genome has merged with Fagus sylvaticus fossowaii, and currently exists in a firmly rooted way. However, she reasons, every cell carries the complete genome and her uncle is an open-minded sort.

Uncle Umbel has an allotment that appears to have been trampled by a navigationally-challenged herd of migrating aurochs, pulverised by glacial moraine, and finally kept at perfect conditions for putrefaction by the lukewarm outflow from a more-alcohol-less-taste whisky distiller. An extremely quaggy mire.

“Umbel? Umbel? I’m quite bored and if you don’t show yourself I’ll plant something with flowers on!” …calls a thrawn twig, swirling across the mire.

A three foot diameter octagon of mud opens via eight triangular petals, carefully draining slime outward, and reveals a spartan subterranean bunker. The clipped voice of one who aspires to have served in the RAF c.1940 dots and dashes forth.

“Wotcha. Get a move on, girl. Hatches to rebatten T minus three!”

The twig daintily pivots into position to surf a gust-stream and thereby dives between the gnashing metal petals.

“Cocoa?”
“Er, not really practical, thanks.”
“No. Hah! You’d get sticky! Hah! Sticky!”

Fortunately, a twig is also excused from having to disguise disrespectful facial expressions. Flora grabs for the conversational initiative to avert any further grocerial puns.

“Ahimsa, Umbel.”
“Gesundheit!”
“What is your understanding of it?”
“Your what-what?”
“Sanskrit: harmlessness. As in: toward self and other living beings.”

Flora gulps in horror at the contagious nature of the abbreviated style. She reassures herself that she is merely applying ‘mirroring’; a clever technique of neuro-linguistic programming. And she’s doing it unconsciously so she must be good. Still, she hopes producing puns won’t be necessary.

Umbel blinks repeatedly as distant, neglected circuitry is recommissioned. His amphibiously protruding eyes swivel and his ears twitch back an inch, stretching his forehead. On grocerial subjects you can get an interaction in real time, but anything even vaguely philosophical requires Umbel to shut down and dedicate all cognitive resources to the matter. His head lolls, lip slackens and cocoa teeters precariously on his chest.

Flora patiently scrutinises the bunker’s interior: piles and piles of dust-besmothered…shapes. She really can’t identify any of it, apart from the odd protrusion of wire or single sheet of paper, revealed only by apparent overwhelm, tilt and subsequent dustalanche.

A fragile connection sparks. Umbel’s cocoa hand twitches. Cocoa inevitably splashes on his shirt. Umbel powers back up.

“Ah. Just logged off pro tem, chaps. Buggeration.”

He blots himself with a towel placed at the ready for such regular eventualities, thereby scattering a portion of crumbs he carefully collected earlier.

“Clean on today, of course. Irretrievable. I shall have to disrobe forthwith.”
Umbel chuckles and lurches into unsteady motion. Flora’s patience was never good during pantomime. “Ahimsa?”
“No. Not a flicker.”
“Nothing?”
“Refer to the Conflict Chaps.”
“Who are..?”
“Thomson, Tim, and… and… Tarantula. You get the idea. Cheerio, folks.”

Flora is nowhere close to getting it, and rather thankful for the implied shreds of sanity. There are some peripheral gene puddles she’s keen not to paddle in. With Umbel retiring for a post-cogitatory nap—’cocoa’ is merely a vehicle for a substantial sugar and cream component—Flora is unattended in the elves’ factory. The fact of being trapped holds little concern as yet. Her leaf stalk flits investigatively along the bench, enticed by a curiously shuddering tin. A little probing releases a lid to reveal three blinking figures, of similar stature to herself in her current twig incarnation.

To be continued…

18/06/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Midsummer Malcoordination

Ancient beech tree

Flora needs a dark night of the soul – her soul. She needs a dark wood to get entangled in and become thoroughly lost. The summer solstice beckons. This being the least dark point of the year is merely a minor hurdle to waylay the under-zealous.

Fossoway beech stands through its 421st year. It was planted by a fortunate gust of wind in September 1596 in a fortunate spot upon soft, moist loam. It has been fortunate enough to receive regular celestial watering and plentiful nourishment from myriad lifeforms crossing its space. This specific instance of Fagus sylvatica programming has been optimised to take advantage of such fortune: a perfect combination of natural forces, poised on the precarious tip of a tiny equilibrium. The moments of its eons slide by; each fully attended to, fully felt, as it stretches, reaches, in every direction of space and time.

Flora selects her most inappropriate clothing to ensure she trips over a protruding tree root, thereby twisting her ankle beyond any weight-bearing capacity, then gets soaked in a predictable rainstorm, thereby becoming dangerously chilled. For her lower half she chooses a flat sheet of double-layered cheesecloth with straps at two corners. She forgets the fancy name of the garment. It’s perfectly impossible in its rigidity: fastening it tightly enough to prevent it slipping down also prevents her legs from operating and restricts her breathing. A slight loosening to allow movement thus makes slippage and trippage deliciously inevitable. A shapeless blouse based on the elasticated cone construction method—a triumph of manufacturing economy over style and functionality—has sleeves not only too long but trumpeting wide around her fingers, thereby always in the way of any emergency grasp. The garment is finished by a ghastly fringe of inexplicable tassles and thirty-four redundant beaded fastenings, designed to fail within twenty minutes. She unbraids her hair with a lazy wrench, letting it flop where it will, expecting it to sway and flap and straggle across her eyes at every critical visual movement. Perfect.

Around its base, the beech has seven—most auspicious—impressively sturdy arms arranged at varying stages of being overwhelmed by their own weight, right down to lethargically resting upon the layered leaf litter. The crumbling remains of earlier exhausted limbs dissolve back into the woodland recycle. A radius of thirty metres around this Titan contains nothing but itself: it has completely papered over every sliver of sky, every grain of soil. A perfect dance-floor.

Music swirls within Flora’s head – random, powerful strains and skirls that direct her dance. Flora flings her arms and birls into a stagger. Fortunately every beech arm has some growth at Flora height of a characteristically sturdy nature, perfect for tactfully receiving dizzy dancers and reeling them back into orbit. A perfect moment.

Flora supplicates before the beech: heartfelt, overwrought thanks to her perfect dance partner.

Gzwzwzwzwrrt. Lightning strikes. Something had to.

Of Fossoway Flora there is no trace. Except… Perhaps when wind blows through the twigs you may hear her peculiar musical refrain. When a scientist bores and extracts a careful core from the tree to establish its precise age, some strange isotopes may be identified: cheap cotton from the unethical sweatshops of Bangladesh. When the midsummer heat lifts the air, an idiosyncratically beaded and tassled spider’s web catches far more than its fair share of drifting, airborne creatures. Each time, once again, tilting the precarious equilibrium of nature.

Prince Tiahmin came not upon this clearing. He’s in the right wood, on the appointed day, but in an artificial intelligence simulation or the wrong reality, deluding his senses and suspending his disbelief. He wouldn’t recognise a rain-slick, gusting beech leaf if it slapped him in the face. However it would give him a much needed interface refresh. Unfortunately Tiahmin believes his mission is to blam baddies. It never occurs to him to enquire to what end. Anyway, who wants to question such things? That requires the facing of that other, dull and uncomfortable reality. So long as baddies arise, he has a call to blamming. His superhero hairdo, ever tilting at enemies, underlines the point.

Come back again in another hundred years.

Or, actually, maybe just bide your time a wee moment…

Prince Tiahmin has gunned a stolen 1970s Massey Ferguson into a supposedly deserted industrial farm complex. He would be quicker walking, but convention requires assault by vehicle. His only available weapon is an anachronistic pitchfork. It may be effective on any zombie scarecrows that lurch into range, but would not be at all satisfying. He has absolutely no interest in collecting a cache of pre-regulatory agricultural chemicals; he has no interest in chemistry…of that sort.

Tiahmin’s sole motivation for indulging this unentertaining and badly animated diversion around an agricultural cul-de-sac is, of course, seedy. A gaming chum of dubious trustworthiness has boasted of a feisty, busty, rustic wench in the environs. With the requisite hack key she promises to become very obliging. Sometimes three minutes of low grade erotica has to be seen to be disbelieved.

After four underwhelming circuits of the farmyard buildings, in a rationale-free fit of frustration, Tiahmin revs the red diesel and chugs flat-out at five miles per hour up a pasture—large scale, livid green triangles adorned with unconvincing cuboid livestock—toward an enticingly dark smear of forest.

Tiahmin aims the unappreciated Fergie at the nearest brown column. Once the graphics stop vibrating in an uncoded eventuality loop, he dismounts, sans pitchfork, and trudges jerkily through primeval tree ferns—the serendipitous botanical design is wasted on him—until a beige clearing forces its way into his path. A low resolution character artefacts beside a hefty tree trunk. With a rapacious leer, he taps to text entry mode and pastes the prepared character string.

Bzhzhzheow. No power. Had to happen. The only sound is an invective suited to one of limited profanity.

Prince Tiahmin is awoken by a sopping leaf slapping him about the phizog – unnecessarily loudly and repeatedly. He would attribute this flagellation to a freak microclimate, except for the leaf still being attached to the looming limb of a tree. By a beaded stem. Well practised in the spotting and following of obvious clues, he hauls himself up by the obliging branch. He admires the astonishing improvement in graphic and tactile resolution – which is to say: he likes the look and feel of the place. And the heady scent. The soft whooshing of air is unsettling, but he assumes it’s meant to be atmospheric.

The moment Tiahmin completes his reconnoitre of the beech clearing—for of course it is that—music arrives, drifting by in wisps; discordant pibrochs and dizzying slurs. Cursory assessment of the tree reveals a curiously attractive arrangement of branches, ascending helically. He boldly climbs this staircase toward the crown and its tumult of drooping foliage, which appears to keep blowing rather coyly across two small cankers. And that’s quite enough of that.

Did the fair pair live happily ever after, entwined in arboreal bliss? Hardly. The poor girl has rematerialised in genomic combination with a tree – Fagus sapiens. The poor boy is ill-equipped to deal with a non-threatening surreality. But once Tiahmin gets to grips with Flora’s various cankers and galls, they have an interlude of what can only be described as heavy grafting.

Ancient beech tree branch

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