2. Welcome to my World
3. The Invitation
4. Welcome to my World (2)
5. Hysterical Blindness
6. Welcome to my World (3)
9. Burmese Days
10. The Bargain
14. The Investigation
15. Trois filles de leur mère
16. Club D
17. Glam Metal Detectives
18. Night Journey
21. Rumble Edge Line
22. Trilogies (2)
23. Life on Mars
24. Trilogies (3)
26. King Candaules
27. Free Love
33. The Great Stone Face
36. Iris Recognition
37. Iris Out
"Do you believe her, then?"
"Sssh. She's blind, not deaf, you know ..."
"No problem. She's fast asleep now. Aren't you, Lucy? Luce? See. Not a flicker. And not surprising, either, after what she's been through."
"But what has she been through? I take it didn't you swallow any of that stuff about flying saucers and execution platforms and naked Queens of old Barsoom ..."
"She did explain all that. The doctored air-tank."
"Well, yes, but if you believe that you'll believe anything. How could the hallucinations go on for days?"
"A long involved dream can happen in a flash."
"I know that. I also know that some girls whip themselves, cut lines on their wrists, have active fantasy lives ..."
"And that's your explanation for the signs of torture? The lash-marks, all the lacerations?"
"In a word: yes. She might have been playing some rough games with her boyfriends, for all we know. She's clearly sexually active. She told us that herself."
"And all the other stuff? The conspiracy, the spy next door?"
"Well, her mother has gone missing, that much is true. No doubt about that. As for the identity of their neighbour (if there ever was a neighbour -- don't forget there's no clear evidence of that) ... who knows? He could be anyone."
"Like a member of the security services?"
"Well, it's not entirely impossible, I'll admit. But there's no reason to assume it. The bottom line is that we found her alone, in a cave outside the dome, on the point of death: no heaps of bodies, no gibbets covered with naked women, no miraculous saucers or pyramids ..."
"And no oasis?"
"No Loch Ness monster, either."
"So it was all an hallucination, from start to finish. There never was a Club D, a paranoid conspiracy. And the woman Pat?"
"Gone like the mother. Maybe the two ran off together. Who can say? It's not that hard to change your face and name these days ... and the responsibility of raising a teenage girl, especially one as sassy as this one, could wear you down."
"How do we treat her, then?"
"Now you're talking. That's really the only question, the one you should have started with. We humour her, of course. Encourage her to talk about it, bu focus firmly on getting her better physically and mentally."
"Not unless she resists. I suspect our little Madam has taken a few too many of those already, with all those friends she wouldn't tell us about. Maybe some of the clubs she's been to supplied parts of the fantasy ..."
"Not for a while. It was useful to get the whole story out of her, but all it can do now is confirm that she'd been living in a fantasy world for quite some time, and that parts of it at least still seem quite real to her."
"Observe and treat accordingly, then?"
"You've got it. I was like you once, you know. Keen to take up the cudgels for each new patient - believing their stories, hunting down the corrupt officials and cops who'd victimised them. It doesn't make you any friends, for one thing. Nor does it really help your patients, longterm. The trouble is their stories just aren't plausible, in the final analysis. Either you believe we live on a kinfe-edge of sanity in a world of seething bestial indulgence and mass-murder, or you accept that a few wounded souls have difficulties with the stress of modern life ..."
"I take your point."
"And that's why you'll make a good consultant someday. For the moment, though, observe. Just watch and learn."
Watch and learn. That's going to be my motto from now on. I fingered my eyes under the bandages. Not that hard to fake blindness when you see how useful it can be. How does the saying go? See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil. The three wise monkeys.
That older doctor was probably one of them. The younger one, the woman, still just a potential recruit. He can't have got them all in the explosion. Just the ones directly in the blast-zone. I survived it, after all. And someone must have been left to go back and tidy up.
Dad's been in a few times to see me already, but they haven't told him much of my story. I wouldn't have told it myself if it weren't for being too weak to resist the hypnosist. I have to assume I told them everything, though I don't remember anything about the telling.
Which is why I've got to do it all over again here. Just like those secret posts our next-door neighbour talked about, the P.I. the agent, whatever or whoever he was. He may have screwed us, but he was on the level. I'm sure of that. That's how I see it, anyway. At any rate he gave his life for me, for us.
You see, I saw it too - at the last minute (I hope I didn't tell them that, but have to assume I did. La Sphinx des glaces: sphinx of the snow. Just like that final bit in Arthur Gordon Pym:
... And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.
My mother, Phil. I guess she married him.
You know how it is when you've worked something out, and it all clicks into place, and you lie there wondering how you didn't spot it before, and then you run through it once more in your head, but there's just one little detail you don't quite get, and then, all of a sudden, the whole thing starts to unravel. You know how that is?
Well, whether you do or not, that's how it was with me. I was lying on the couch, just idly dreaming, thinking about my Mum and whether I'd ever see her again, and then it struck me. Why did they need to question me about all that stuff, when they were the ones who told me most of it in the first place? Not the bits about the first explorers, admittedly, which had made it seem reasonable at the time that those were the bits they focussed on ...
And why did they have to dress up to fool me, when I didn't have any particular reason not to tell them all of it anyway. And why was it necessary to fake a flying saucer -- and mock up a Barsoomian landscape complete with canals and pyramids and eight-legged beasts? How was that supposed to persuade me to talk?
And where did John Carter fit in, anyway? Were they just humouring me, stringing me along in some fantasy I'd already concocted? But why that fantasy? I hadn't even read those Burroughs books, just seem a few images and names on the net. Why not Heidi fantasies, or pony clubs, for God's sake?
It'd seemed so reasonable that they should actually be my friends in disguise (or my co-conspirators, if you find the term "friend" too weighted under the circumstances). But how did that make sense? What did any of it mean? Where was I really?
That's when I started to think about the gas tanks and all the stories I'd heard: the interplanetary urban legends.
Here's the kick, though. I'd heard of people constructing whole fantasy worlds inside their head, and acting as if they were true. In which case I might still be safe at home; but then again I might be suffocating in some tunnel - or else in the hands of the people who captured Pat and Mum. There just didn't seem to be any way of knowing.
I ran my hands over my body. It all seemed to be present and accounted for. I pinched myself - ouch! - with satisfactory results. I couldn't see much in the dark, so there wasn't any real way of telling whether I was in an alien spaceship, a tunnel under the surface, or just a deserted building in the dome.
How could I find out? There just wasn't a way. They weren't going to tell me, were they?Whoever they were. Nor was I sure there was really anyone there at all. You see how bad that is? Were Dejah Thoris and her counsellor - or the little weaselly hangman, for that matter - any more (or less) real than John Carter and friend? Than Pat and the P.I., in fact. How real were they?
I was sure of one thing. Mum. She was real. I'd bet everything I had on that. She might be a bit gullible at times, but she was as real as they come. If I just concentrated on her, surely things couldn't go that far wrong.
When they came at last to get me, things had changed. The men looked rougher and even more bloodthirsty than before. What seemed to be going on around us: girls spitted on long spikes and dangling from gallows didn't look that much more real than the Barsoomian legions with banners flying in the great Martian emptiness, but the first stroke of a lash on my butt persuaded me that it was, at the very least, a lot more painful.
And when I saw him again, he was trussed up like a turkey, with blood dripping down his face. His eyes met mine, and -- you know, it was like a flash -- I just knew that he was saying goodbye.
And that's all that I know, all I can see. Those people frozen as if in a tableau or a diorama: naked men - whips and knives - a seething sea of faces - the blade poised at my throat - and then the flash.
I guess that's the last thing I'll ever see, in fact, from what you tell me. I don't know how he triggered it, but that big explosion ...
… At the hour of sunset, as had long been his frequent custom, Ernest was to discourse to an assemblage of the neighboring inhabitants, in the open air. He and the poet, arm in arm, still talking together as they went along, proceeded to the spot. It was a small nook among the hills, with a gray precipice behind, the stern front of which was relieved by the pleasant foliage of many creeping plants, that made a tapestry for the naked rock, by hanging their festoons from all its rugged angles. At a small elevation above the ground, set in a rich frame-work of verdure, there appeared a niche, spacious enough to admit a human figure, with freedom for such gestures as spontaneously accompany earnest thought and genuine emotion. ... In another direction was seen the Great Stone Face, with the same cheer, combined with the same solemnity, in its benignant aspect.
Ernest began to speak, giving to the people of what was in his heart and mind. His words had power, because they accorded with his thoughts; and his thoughts had reality and depth, because they harmonized with the life which he had always lived. It was not mere breath that this preacher uttered; they were the words of life, because a life of good deeds and holy love was melted into them. Pearls, pure and rich, had been dissolved into this precious draught. The poet, as he listened, felt that the being and character of Ernest were a nobler strain of poetry than he had ever written. His eyes glistening with tears, he gazed reverentially at the venerable man, and said within himself that never was there an aspect so worthy of a prophet and a sage as that mild, sweet, thoughtful countenance, with the glory of white hair diffused about it. At a distance, but distinctly to be seen, high up in the golden light of the setting sun, appeared the Great Stone Face, with hoary mists around it, like the white hairs around the brow of Ernest. Its look of grand beneficence seemed to embrace the world.
At that moment, in sympathy with a thought which he was about to utter, the face of Ernest assumed a grandeur of expression, so imbued with benevolence, that the poet, by an irresistible impulse, threw his arms aloft, and shouted, "Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!"
Then all the people looked, and saw that what the deep-sighted poet said was true. The prophecy was fulfilled. But Ernest, having finished what he had to say, took the poet's arm, and walked slowly homeward, still hoping that some wiser and better man than himself would by and by appear, bearing a resemblance to the GREAT STONE FACE.
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Great Stone Face” (1852)
This next bit sounds kind of freaky, I admit. The trouble is that something must have happened, but thanks to the hydrogen poisoning I have no real idea what. All I can do is go on the images I have stored in my mind, even though I know they can't be true.
So here goes. After I'd told them some more about my trip through the tunnels with John Carter and his buddy Tars Tarkas, they cut me down from that gallows thing. Just as well, too - my wrists were almost dislocated already , and those two other girls didn't look exactly healthy (I found out afterwards that they use the bodies of spies to feed those eight-legged things they ride. I don't know if they were already dead. For their sake, I hope so).
One of the mounted warriors caught me up. With a start I saw it was Dejah Thoris herself. As we galloped along she pointed out the sights: the great canals stretching right and left all around us, the pyramids looming in the far distance, and – coming ever closer – the great stone face.
It was a little like Giza, really. Or the pictures that you see of it. The great pyramid, the sphinx, and all that sand.
But it wasn’t the pyramids we were aiming for. An immense semi-circular flying machine was hovering ahead of us, and that was what Dejah Thoris and her troop of soldiers were riding towards.
It landed in a cloud of dust in front of us, the rear doors opened, and a tongue of steel shot out. Without even dismounting we pounded straight into the interior of the machine. After that all I remember is a mass of steel corridors and staircases until we finally reached her state rooms at the top of the ... flying saucer, I guess you’d have to call it.
The room was huge, and hung with billowy draperies. The couches were soft; servants fussed around us. After a while, when everything was disposed to her satisfaction, the Queen simply clapped her hands, once, and everyone disappeared.
She clapped them again and the shutters rolled up. And there before us was the whole expanse of Mars.
We must have already taken off (though I hadn’t heard anything – no screaming engines, no whirr of flying dust), because the view was breathtaking. I know we were at least as high as Olympus Mons, because the curve of the planet was already visible, with the blue-black hardness of space encroaching on every side.
It took my breath away. I mean that literally. I just sat there, almost forgetting to breathe, in awe, unable to speak, let alone think what to do next.
A voice came from the back of the room.
“You see the realm of Helium, girl. Now it is time for you to speak in full. The hangmen are still finishing with your friends.”
I hadn’t noticed that the white-bearded man had stayed when everyone else left. He was sitting at a little shaded desk at the back of the room. As he spoke, he gestured to the wall behind him, and lo and behold, I saw the platform again. And the two poor girls being cut down from their bonds.
“Wha ... What do you want to know?”
I knew it might be fatal to show weakness, but fuck, I am only a kid – and not that brave at the best of times, for all I can talk the talk. I started to cry.
At this Dejah Thoris came over and started to cluck over me. In a strangely clumsy, unpractised way, as if she wasn’t used to such emotional displays. At least she was trying, though, and so, at last, with a lot of sobbing and sniffing, I told her my story. I mean the whole thing, from beginning to end. Dad and Mum’s divorce, and moving to the outer rings, and our next-door neighbour and his schemes, and all the ups and downs and ins and outs and plots and counterplots and lies and carefully calculated truths ... I just can’t go through all that again.
They listened solemnly to all of it. It must have been incomprehensible to them, in their medieval world of jousts and horse-back fighting, but they gave no sign of that.
What interested them most, apparently, because they questioned me most closely about it, was the story of the lost explorers. They wanted all the detail I could dredge up on that.
At length, when I was done – it seemed to take hours, but maybe it was only a few minutes, really: who can say? –the flying machine didn’t seem to have moved at all. With a shock, I realised that the view out of the window was fixed and static, as if it had been painted. Looking round, I saw how threadbare the carpets and couches actually were. And Dejah Thoris and her counsellor. How shabby they looked! More like refugees from a costume party than Martian gods ... like Pat and the private eye in crude Barsoomian disguises.
Something of my feelings must have shown in my face, because she spoke to me:
“You’ve spotted us, I see. I’m afraid we had to trick you to find out all you knew (which isn’t all that much, luckily for you. Your mother’s still missing, I’m afraid. That’s where we will still need your help. Her life’s in terrible danger right now. She’s in the hands of a madman, though she may not know it. She wouldn’t be the first he’s tried to kill, but we’re damned determined she’ll be the last.”
The wind proposed to the snow. The snow and the wind plighted their troth, and a frost-fingered ship probed the pack-ice of their love. A bowsprit probed their season of intimacy.
Happiness is frozen in the froth of a cloud; it’s a light which freezes, then cracks. It’s a thicket of lilies infested with violet snakes, gliding between twilight and the sea, gliding across the blood-red lawns of twilight.
The whip cracks, streaking the snow of your first love. The wild beast falls asleep in a blood-streaked orchid.
– Maurice Blanchard
He said: my hoarse lips pant spotted
panthers who sing
sweeter than bellbirds in the bush
or the blood-streaked bulls of storm cumulus
Inside me I’ve got
steep salt waves
breaking over (so dainty) feast-day flowers
He called Our Lady
a little girl with a basket of vegetables
He said: Then he said:
I’m a poppy
clashing at dawn with pale blue animals
– Jacques Baron
She was aware of its lulling music before anything else, the sound of water flowing over stone. Then she realised that her eyes were already open, that the pearly opalescent sheen over to one side was light flooding into a cave, that she was lying in it, with a blanket or some light bedspread over her, that she was - ouch! - one fiery mass of aches and pains.
She groaned, tried to roll over and saw - him.
He was an elderly man, wrapped in an offcolour robe. He looked a little like her image of Socrates or Plato or one of those Greek philosophers of the past: the robe, the bare shoulders, the comforting white beard.
"Where am I?" she managed, after a while.
He smiled. "I'm sure you know that the answer to that question would mean little to you right now. Suffice it to say that you're right here. That you're alive (just barely). Do you require anything further?"
"Just - water."
He gestured towards the cup beside her elbow. "Water's there. I suggest you get some rest. I'll be back to check on you in a while. For the moment, though, I have some things to do."
Phil tried to ease herself up and off the - surprisingly comfortable - pallet she was lying on. Then gave it up as a bad job, and fell back into sleep: a fitful sleep this time, broken by nightmares of long corridors in the dark, and grinning bloody men with cruel spikes.
"You say you were once one of them."
"Not really. I've always been aware that others could find their way down here. So many have tried! But these men were different. They had no interest in exploring the farthest caverns: torture and sex-magic were the whole of their world, and heaven help the poor innocents who fell into their hands!"
"Like me and Pat."
"Like you and your friend Pat. She's over there, by the way. I buried her by the landslip over there, where the permasol is softest."
He gestured across the expanse of the huge cavern. He and Phil were sitting by the banks of a broad sea, streaks and filaments of orange vegetation radiating out from their faint human warmth.
"So how do you live down here?"
"All that can be explained another day. For now, I need to know just how you found your way in here."
"That's just it. I don't know. I must have been half mad, because I was talking to her head, and she answered me back! I swear she did! She started the conversation, in fact."
"You think you were imagining it, but you weren't. The radiation down here can have strange effects. It's why I'm still alive, essentially unaged, in this hollow world of rock and water. It's why your wounds are healing up so fast."
"I know it's a lot to grasp, all at one time. And I'd better tell you now - there's no way out of here."
"But the men, the torturers ..."
"Yes, I told you I tried to infiltrate them - for a time. At first I thought they'd grasped the central fact of this place, understood the effects it could have on human beings. I thought they were killing people to bring them back ..."
"And were they?"
"No. But I had to walk among them, talk to them, to work that out. They torture to kill, and to indulge themselves. There's nothing deeper in what they do. No end to the itch they're scratching."
"And did you ..."
"Yes, I had to. Or else they would have captured me, and my head would have been grinning from a pole. Bu tafter that I realised I had to shut myself off from them ... If they found this place not even they could ignore its potentialities."
"Bringing things back to life?"
"A kind of life, yes - life insofar as pain can be suffered by such a being. Certainly it would have skin to scorch and orifices to penetrate."
"Then how did I ..."
"That's what I'd like to know. I found you inside my perimeter. That means there's some way in. I've been closing off all the paths for years, blocking them with landfalls, cave-ins - everything designed to look natural."
"So ... this isn't Paradise."
"No, no paradise, no Shangri-La. I'm not a wise philosopher - just a man, a very old man, kept in a kind of artificial stasis by the lifecycles of this planet. And - I'm very much afraid - so, now, are you."
"And we're alone here?"
"After a fashion. In my early days I adopted a few children."
"Children! Boys and girls?"
"Not as you know them. That's how I know the half-life this place gives. We could dig up your friend's head, for instance - could question it like an oracle. But it wouldn't be her, nor could it tell us anything new."
"Are they flesh and blood? Animals? Machines?"
"Some specimens of each kind. They won't bother us unless we provoke them. They mostly live on the far side of the lake. You'll get to know them all -- if you wish to, that is."
"What's your name?"
"My children call me Philemon. But in the outside world I used to be called Petrie."
"Like the explorer?"
"Like the scientist, I like to think."
"Are we safe here? Can they get at us?"
"I'd have said we were safe, three days ago. That's when I found you, over by the rockfall. But now that I know there's at least one way in left open, I have to find it, close it off."
"But ... we could find it ourselves, escape from here, go back to the city, to the domes."
"Is that what you want?"
"I want to see my daughter, find out if she's okay. I want to get back to my life."
"I'm sorry. I understand what you're saying, but you have to remember my life-force depends on this place. I can't ever leave. There's nothing for me outside."
"But there is for me!"
"Perhaps there still is. Perhaps the process hasn't gone too far in your case. It soon will, though. I had a companion when I first came here, all those years ago. But we spent too long exploring our new world. When he tried to leave he shrivelled into dust. I found his body and buried him. Flint, he was called."
"But ... why didn't you shrivel into dust? If you followed him out."
"He never drank the water or ate the weeds."
Suddenly something clicked into place. She saw the milky mildness of his deep-set eyes as they actually were: a mask for thick, impenetrable cataracts of scar-tissue.
“Yes, I fed you on them. I’m sorry. I want you to stay with me and be my wife."
"My name is Dejah Thoris, Queen of Helium! And who are you?"
Well, wherever I was, it wasn't Kansas. Or anywhere in the domes (or under them, for that matter).
I was standing on a platform, arms hoisted in the air, with two other girls beside me. Our hands were bound to rings on some kind of scaffolding, our feet spreadeagled and tied. We were completely naked.
But somehow that didn't seem to matter much. The commanding figure addressing us was naked, too. Or as good as. She had a kind of leather harness tied around her, and there was a big jewel on her throat, but otherwise her athletic figure stood completely nude and untrammelled.
"I'm Luce - Lucy," I tried to mutter, after a while.
My two companions glared at me, and I saw with a start that each was gagged. Their mouths were filled with a kind of bit, like a horse's bridle. Looking around, I saw a weaselly kind of a guy standing to one side of the platform with a similar leather and metal harness in his hands. Could that be meant for me?
The queen was frowning.
"No, your Supreme Majesty ..."
It always pays to butter up the local dignitaries: especially those who've got you trussed up on what looks distressingly like a gallows. I learnt that much from school ...
"My name is Lucy, if it please you. My friends call me Luce, for short."
"Well, Loose-for-short, what are you doing in my kingdom? We have a short way with spies, as you will presently learn. I take it you're reporting to the Kaldanes?"
"No, your Majesty. I don't even know who they are. All I know is that I set out on a journey to find my mother and her friend, and then I ... fell asleep and woke up here."
Even to my ears it sounded a bit thin. Something impelled me to add a little to the story. I could see the weaselly man beginning to stroke his harness impatiently. Was that a whip hanging down from his belt? My companions seemed to think so; they were now eyeing him nervously as well.
"I met two companions on my journey, who helped me along my way. One said his name was Tars Tarkas, the other called himself John Carter of Nevada."
"John Carter! You have met John Carter. You are lying, slave. You know what that name means to me."
"No, your Majesty! I never heard the name before he told it to me. But he told me many stories of his past, and your name was in almost all of them. He said that you were beautiful, and the love of his life."
"He said that, did he? I still think you are lying, but the whip will tell us for sure."
"Hold, lady!" A talll, white-bearded figure intervened. "Let us hear the girl unprompted, at least at first. Once the cutting starts she'll tell us anything. Let her observe the fate of her ompanions first, then command her to speak again."
A sudden pain seized hold of me, and a taste of rust and sweat filled my mouth. I realised the man with the bridle had crept up behind and gagged me without warning.
The whipping of the two girls was brutal beyond anything I could have imagined. Their backs were soon striped with blood, puddling under their feet.
They bore it like stoics at first, but it went on and on beyond any possible endurance. Finaly, when both of them were hanging like ragdolls from their limp wrists, the Queen gave the signal to stop, and the bodies were cut down.
My gag was taken off.
"Now, child, speak," said the old man.
Girl of the wood-ember hair
otter-cub in the tiger’s jaws
bouquet of sunflowers in your mouth
teeth white mice tracks in the snow
tongue stained blood-red by the Host
tongue of a Barbie batting her eyelids
lashes crayon slashes
– dolphins butting through sea-ice –
card-sharp fingers / my Ace of Hearts
of blackbirds’ nests)
ground fine as grain
sparking like clockwork / or despair
calves shoots from the Rata tree
feet like initials
feet like keyrings / feet like bung-taps
whitewater throat / (my love-nest
in the torrent’s bed)
rosebud nipples spiked with dew
belly like a folded fan
a giant claw
your back / a jump-jet hovering
nuque of the neck / a rolling stone
a glass that shatters in your hand
pale as a peacock
sex panning for gold / platypus pussy
sex soft as anemone/ jujube sweet
eyes pricked with tears
violet eyes / my magnetic north
eyes water to a dying man
eyes one second from the chop
eyes deep as a well / eyes free as air / eyes dry earth and eyes
– André Breton
- It wasn't your fault.
- I'm sorry?
- I just said it wasn't your fault, what happened to me.
- I never thought it was! If anything, it was your ...
With a start, Phil realised she was speaking out loud. The voices in her head were at last starting to spill out into the world. At least, that seemed the most plausible explanation. Wasn't it?
But the head in her hands continued to talk:
- This isn't the end of it, Phil. You have to listen to me. There's some stuff I have to tell you ...
It all seemed amazingly real. The muscles in her jaw clenching and declenching as the words came out, each one wrung out of the inertia of rigor mortis - the pale light coming on and off at the back of her eyes.
The blood had long since ceased to drip from that clean, transverse cut, but now a little colour had come back to her cheeks.
- Pat, is ... is that you?
She couldn't stop herself from addressing the thing that used to be her best friend's head, that mouth she'd kissed, those eyes she'd stared into so many times. For all she knew, it mightn't be Pat at all. She'd read of demons, souls of the dead, who possessed the bodies of the departed before the life force left for good ...
What if it was one of those? And yet, she felt so forlorn, so lonely, naked and cold here in the dark.
- Of course it's me, who did you think?
The speech came easier now, as if the head was recovering old motor skills, learning how to lubricate its sound-box past a croak.
- I know I'm hallucinating, I know it can't be you, but ... Oh, Pat, I'm lost, I don't know what to do ...
- Stop blubbering and feeling sorry for yourself, that's the first thing.
But it was quite some time before she could control the racking sobs enough to speak again to the blood-stiffened thing in her hands.
- Why have you ... come back? Aren't you dead now?
- My God, I don't know how I ever put up with ... Of course I'm dead you stupid cow. Can't you see I've had my head cut off? D'you think I'm trying to get you to give me the kiss of life? I'm here for you, you numb cunt.
Somehow being sworn at by a severed head brought Phil back to herself. The circumstances might be insane, trading insults with the (slightly-deflated) severed head of her ex-friend and lover in the dark, but then ... the situation definitely was insane, had been for longer than she cared to think - since she'd taken that pie round to the hunky new guy next door.
Perhaps even before that ... since she'd caught her husband screwing round on her, had found out that he'd stationed one of his buddies behind the curtain to watch her undress, had fucked her in full sight of that same friend (she'd wondered at the time at his unaccustomed vigour) ... then, the meeting with Pat, the naughty talk, the pussy-licking parties ... all insane. A trajectory that led here, to the dark.
- There's no need to be like that. I'm not completely stupid. Which one of us is still alive, I'd like to know?
It was kind of a relief to surrender to it, to talk to the head as if the whole thing made sense. Perhaps that's all she'd needed from the start, in fact: a friend to talk to.
Stripped of all else, she still had that, at least.
- Fair enough. Point taken. That was pretty smart of you, I must admit, slipping that sticker between his ribs. Crawling out of that hell-pit was good, too. You've done well so far, girlfriend. Mind you, I played my part -- distracting them till you could get the jump on them.
- Distracting them! You mean screaming and moaning and trying to give them information as they tortured you ... you would have sold out everyone you knew for another five seconds of life ...
- Okay, okay. Maybe I would have. Things were different, then. I still had stuff to lose. You're still alive. You don't know ... how it feels.
- Oh, Pat, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scream at you. It's just ... I'm so alone. Can't you tell me what to do?
- That's just what I can't do, I'm afraid, cutie-pie. I can talk to you like this. That is, if I am talking to you - you're halfway to going insane, you know, girlfriend. This could all be in your head, in which case ... I'm afraid you really are talking to yourself ...
- Don't say that! I can see you. That's what I thought at first, too, but now I'm sure it's you. I'm sure I'd never think to say the things you're saying to me now.
- Really? Well, anyway, whether it's me or not, it's time to get to the point. You've got to get up and keep going.
- Why? I'm going to die here, aren't I?
- I'm not going to lie to you. There's a very good chance of that, I've gotta admit. But you don't want to just sit here and wait for it.
- Why not?
- Because those guys are still behind you, and they're pissed.
- Oh, Pat! No!
- Yes, I'm afraid so. One thing to sit here and die of cold and hunger in the dark, but it's quite another to get spitted by those creeps ... I should know. That's what they're doing to me right now.
- But where should I go? The tunnels all look the same ...
- Yes, and that's how we've stayed ahead so far. It was hours before they discovered the body, and then they set out to hunt you down. No girl has ever gotten away before, but they've had a lot of manhunts in the tunnels. At first it was easy, all they had to do was follow the gouts of blood. Sorry about that.
- You mean, while you were still bleeding from the neck?
- Yeah. But I dried up pretty fast, I have to say, so that didn't give them much of a clue. And then you have been wandering around here for quite some time - I don't think you realise just how long. And there is the whole underworld of a planet to hide in here ...
- Are they going to catch me, then?
- Eventually, I'm afraid, they will. They're not all that far off. You can't hear them, but I can -- I can somehow sense them coming. That's why I had to ... come through, come back to you.
- Thanks, Pat. I loved you, you know.
- I know, I know. Jeez, kid, I love you too. I wouldn't be doing this otherwise, I can tell you. I can't feel pain anymore, but there's no way you can know just how tiring it is to keep this up.
- So should I just get up and keep running? Try out tunnels at random until I reach the surface? Before I sat down to rest I was wondering where the light was coming from. I even thought it might be coming from you, at first ... Is there a way up from here?
- No! You mustn't go up. Don't you get it? The surface is not your friend. The cold and lack of air would kill you in a second. That's just for a last resort if they get too close. You've got to go down, go deeper into the crust.
- Why? What's down there?
- I don't really know, to be quite honest - just that there's something down there. I'm being blocked from knowing, if you really want to know. Something's telling me that it's not a place for the dead. You've still got a chance, just the slimmest of chances, of reaching there, though.
- And if I don't?
- Well, you'll die. Of cold and exposure here, if you don't move and they don't find you in time. Of torture and abuse, if they catch up with you (and that's looking pretty probable right now, I have to say). Of asphyxiation if you follow the light back to the surface. None of them especially attractive ways to go.
- So you're saying I've got no choice?
- You've always got a choice. You can take up any of the three I've mentioned - or else you can try to live.
- Fuck, I feel so tired. Is it so bad, being dead?
- Well, Phil, I just can't recommend it. The tiredness doesn't go away, that's the first thing. It's just that you can't refresh yourself by resting. And there's no pleasure left in things: in eating, drinking, sex ... all that's gone for good. There may be more to it than that, mind you. I'm a pretty new corpse. But I can't see things changing much. Time ... doesn't mean the same thing over here.
- You're scaring me a bit.
- Good! At last! I must say, you're taking this whole dialogue-with-a-skull thing a bit too easily, I think. You should be scared. You should be putting those gorgeous little buns of yours into action, and trying to find your way down to ... the place you've got to go.
- It won't be worse than here?
- Well, that I can't say. I don't see how it could be, but I don't know for sure. I don't know much of anything at this point, actually; I'm really pretty fucking tired, Phil.
- I'm sorry, Pat. ... Pat?
- Hmmm? I was nodding off there, kid. If there's anything else you want to know, you'd better make it fast. I don't know how long I can keep this up.
- Do I really have gorgeous buns?
It seems as though they've been walking for hours. Every time they reach a junction in the tunnels, Phil chooses the one heading down. As a result, the faint phosphorescence she could rely on further up has faded out almost to nothing. If it weren't for the pale light in the eyes of her friend, she'd be completely in the dark. Not that that matters so much down here. What is there to see but rock and tunnel entrances and more rock?
- You're fleeing for your life and you're still worried if your arse looks fat?
- Not worried, exactly. It's just ... You were the one who mentioned it!
- It's a great arse, believe me, honey.
- Yours was great, too.
- Yeah, tell me about it. You know, in retrospect I feel I spent a bit too time sculpting those buns of steel. I mean, where has all that expenditure of energy got me now? All that's left is a head. And I'm not even going to start on all the jokes you could concoct on that subject ...
- It's just ... you know my husband.
- Oh yeah, I know your husband. Fucked him a couple of times, I guess you knew that.
- I guessed.
- That's okay. It doesn't matter now. It's just that ... you know he showed me off. When I wasn't looking.
- He was proud of you.
- Is that what it was? Pride? Having his friend hide behind a curtain while I got undressed, fucking me in front of him ...
- Well, no, not pride exactly, I guess. It just turned him on, I suppose. Showing off his very best toy to make his friend envious. Like that Greek story, I suppose.
- Greek story?
- Yeah, I read it once, or heard about it, maybe. This King invites the commander of his palace guards to watch the Queen undress. He reckons she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, but he had to show her off to someone to prove it to himself. He chooses an underling because he thinks that way he’ll run less risk of the story getting out.
– What happened?
– Well, the story does get out, somehow. And the Queen is royally pissed! She summons the captain of the guard and tells him he has to kill her husband or else she’ll have him killed. So he does, he kills the king and marries the queen. So he ends up sleeping with the woman he was invited in to perve at. And he sires a line of kings.
– And the moral is?
– I don’t know. Beauty is dangerous, perhaps. Or it’s easy to lose the thing you value most if you take it too much for granted. That’d be your husband, certainly. He wasn’t even that good of a screw.
– And me?
– You what?
– Am I that good of a screw?
– To me you are, baby. You’re the best. But don’t forget that I’m never going to have you again ... or anything else for that matter. Just dust to drink and dust to eat and dust to lie in and dust to fuck and dust to talk to and dust to ...
The voice drones on and on, like an old-fashioned tape recorder running low on batteries, but Phil is paying little attention. She can see again, just faintly, and hear – hear something, something like the gurgle of a stream, of running water, the splashing sound of a stream encountering bare rock.
I might have known that's what they'd do. Of course I'd heard about it, even laughed when it was some other kid who'd slipped up and fallen asleep at the switch. Literally, in this case.
The trouble is, it's one thing to play pranks when the only thing at stake is wounded vanity and hurt feelings (though come to think of it, the chances of someone getting hurt were still not that inconsiderable). It's quite another when it's already a matter of life and death.
I had no idea that's what it was, at first. How could I? That's the whole point of the joke, really. What you do is a bit like a card trick, really. You know, the ones where you ask someone to pick a card, any card -- only there's something in the way you're holding them that makes your victim choose the one you had in mind for them all along.
In this case it was suits and oxygen tanks. You leave them all higgledy-piggledy, so that everybody chooses seemingly at random, but actually you've already monkeyed with the breathable air gauges on one of them so that the mixture's all messed up.
Result: a kind of stange euphoria, shading off into hallucination and (I guess, eventually) unconsciousness and death. Unless someone finds you first, that is.
When I set off I was alone, but by the time I'd gone a mile or two I had at least two companions with me (I say at least, because I was pretty sure there were more creeping along just out of eyeshot, visible only through their movements in the shadows).
It was therefore kind of a comfort that they were warriors. One was a muscular, practically naked human about my height and weight. He told me he was looking for his girlfriend. Dejah Thoris, I think he said her name was.
The other was even stranger. Roughly four metres tall, with four arms and a green skin (I guess I must have seen something like him in a picture once -- I'm not really one for bug-eyed monsters as a general rule).
They were good to talk to, to tell you the truth. I mean, it wasn't all that easy to say just what I was looking for, but they seemed to understand that. The concept of a quest against overwhelming odds made perfect sense to them.
They told me stories about their past exploits (I wish I could remember half of them), and so we covered miles like that, just strolling along, listening companionably to whoever was discoursing at the time.
Which is not to say that there weren't intervals of silence. They pricked up their ears at every strange sound. On Mars, you see, little ever moves - there's none of that perpetual susurration of dust and subsiding rock you get on earth (or so I'm told).
So sound means danger, especially in the tunnels below the city. They knew that, and I knew that, and so did the strange dog-thing they had with them.
I don't know when I noticed how hard it was getting to keep on walking. I must have been staggering like a drunk, to tell the truth. They were far too polite to comment, but after a while they had to start helping me along.
I'm sure they could have carried me themselves, if they'd been real. They still seem quite real to me, looking back, but I didn't know then that my air had been tampered with.
So it's like a long dream, the whole memory of that walk, and I really have no way of knowing just when and where I finally collapsed. I couldn't take you there, if that's what you're wondering.
All I can see is water and green grass. Unlikely on Mars, I know, but that's what I'm seeing now.
There’s a persistent tendency in humans to try to make sense out of everything they see. When Perceval Lowell turned his telescope on Mars, he saw canals. Saw them, mapped them, wrote about them. Others saw them too. The question is, would he ever have seen them at all if he hadn’t already read Schiaparelli’s claim to have observed canali – which translates as “channels” rather than “canals” – crisscrossing the red planet’s surface?
The Rorschach blot test demonstrates our ability to construct a meaning – a story even – out of random shapes and lines. How many of us have seen a figure waving at us beside a road at night, only to have it transform into a fencepost as we pass? Or else some long-lost loved one, turning a busy street-corner in front of us?
The so-called pyramid and face on Mars are surely little more than this. Coincidental shade effects recorded on a sole exposure, copied, talked about, enhanced until they’ve taken on the accoutrements of fact?
And yet. Is that all they are? Can there really have been life on Mars in some far distant epoch? Is there life there now? And, if life, has there ever been intelligence, civilisation, history? I guess the more relevant question is what we hope to achieve by asking?
The only hopeful thing about us, it sometimes seems, is our curiosity. We fondly imagine that the more that we find out, the happier we will become – the wiser, rather. This time we won’t go wrong because we’ve finally seen something amazing enough to matter. …
Submitted for your approval:
• In December 1984 the meteorite ALH84001 was found in Allan Hills, Antarctica. At c. 4.5 billion years old, this is one of the oldest pieces of the solar system still in existence, and it is thought to have originated on Mars. On closer examination, it revealed structures which may be the fossils of microscopic organisms, nanobacteria. At any rate, no completely convincing non-biological explanation has yet been submitted for these traces. Nor have experts ruled out the possibility that, in a far-distant past, such meteorites were instrumental in transferring life from a wet, fecund Mars to Earth.
• In March 2004, NASA announced that its remote-controlled robotic rover Opportunity had discovered evidence that Mars was, in the past, a wet planet. This evidence is mainly in the form of sedimentary bedrock deposits and erosion features difficult to account for under any other hypothesis.
• In December 2006, NASA presented images from its Mars Global Surveyor satellite which suggest that water still occasionally flows on the surface of Mars. While there were no actual pictures of flowing water, changes over time in the appearance of craters and dark spots in the landscape do strongly suggest that something has been flowing there. Dust, possibly, but then again, maybe the Red Planet's lifeblood, liquid water.
La vie – labyrinth
La mort – labyrinth
Says the Master of Ho
– Jules Superveille, “Le maitre d’Ho”
How had she got here? It was so hard to remember. These tunnels, underground chambers stretching around her in the dark ...
Dark, yes. How could she see at all? There was no perceptible source of light. Had she somehow developed new senses, grown new night-adapted eyes? So much else had changed, so little was left of who - or what - she had been.
Looking down, she saw the lantern in her hand. So that was it!
But ... a strange lantern it was. The handle like a rope of hair wrapped round her wrist, the swing of it somehow heavy, unresponsive.
She lifted it up to examine it more closely.
And saw Pat's eyes.
Those eyes were still open, glaring at her. That much she was certain of. She'd walked a fair way since then, since realising just what it was she was holding in her hand.
And, when you thought about it, that went some way towards explaining the length of steel in the other hand. The crusted hot sharp cruel knife she couldn't bring herself to let go of for a moment.
Pat's glazed, accusatory eyes, by contrast, she would have dumped miles ago, heaved into one of the pits and adits besieging her path. But by now the long hair was so caked and tangled around her wrist that there was no breaking free of it. Short of hacking through it with the knife, and that she balked at still. Not good old Pat -- false friend though she might have been.
She'd been the one shouting near the end: "Take her, take her - not me. I'll do anything you like ..." But it hadn't saved her. Nothing could have saved her then. Saved any of them.
So what or who had intervened on her behalf, spared Phil from her friend's fate? Had one of those thugs had a change of heart, looked beyond their game of jutting cocks and cruel instruments of pain to see a person, see a woman stretched on the rack of torment?
And yet, it wasn't her blood on the knife, she realised. Nor was it Pat's (thick and copious though that had been when the narrow blade descended). They'd left her alone after that, she realised now -- left her alone in the dark.
Had one of them come in for a quiet ... ?
Had he bent over just a bit too low?
Had she ... somehow?
(Where had she learned to be so quick and sly?
With her ex?
Her mischievous little daughter?)
Had she slipped it in between his ribs?
Cut her own cords with it?
The slashes around her wrists were smarting still, come to think of it ...
Rolled his obese corpse from her?
Eased herself up on hands and knees, with infinite precautions, crept through the dark until she bumped up against a wall?
Followed it around until she felt free air, crept on, and only realised when she got outside in the corridor that that thing rolling ahead of her was Pat?
One part of Pat, that is - Not the naked, jointed haunch still jutting from the guillotine.
And the light?
Where was that coming from?
Could it be?
Aran Ashe’s first series of novels, The Chronicles of Lidir: A Saga of Erotic Domination delineate the kingdom of Lidir, a fantasyland dedicated to bondage, teasing, bodily manipulation and torture. It was published by Nexus, a British imprint of Virgin Books, specialising in sado-masochistic pornography for straight male readers. Hence the gender-ambiguity of Ashe’s pseudonym?
The books are, in order, The Slave of Lidir (1991), The Dungeons of Lidir (1991), The Forest of Bondage (1991) and Pleasure Island (1992).
Then came The Chronicles of Tormunil, beginning with The Handmaidens (1995)and Citadel of Servitude (1997), and continuing with Slave-Mines of Tormunil (2002) and Love-Chattel of Tormunil (2003) a few years later, followed by Leah’s Punishment (2008).
Her concerns, on display here even more obsessively than in "Lidir", include spanking, piercing and erotic lactation.
Further research reveals the interesting fact that Ashe also writes as "Valentina Cilescu." Cilescu, author of the bestselling Mara Vampire series of erotic titles, has a number of other pseudonyms, including Anastasia Dubois, Sophie Danson, Louise Aragon, Sue Lightfoot, Sue Dyson, Aurelia Clifford and Zoë Barnes.
The Mara Vampire series (so far) comprises Kiss of Death (1992), The Phallus of Osiris (1993), Empire of Lust (1994), Masque of Flesh (1995), Vixens of Night (1997) and Lusts of the Forbidden (1999).
Choosing Lovers for Justine (1993) was a slight departure from type for Ashe, concerning the adventures of a young submissive girl in Edwardian England.
It has had - as yet - no successors.
The greatest detective who ever lived made a somewhat inauspicious debut in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887.
A Study in Scarlet combined a tale of detection with a lurid story of revenge set among the Mormon pioneers of Utah.
Its successor, The Sign of Four (1890) used essentially the same method to parallel contemporary London with India at the time of the Indian mutiny (1857-58).
The last in this series of "double-stories" was The Valley of Fear (1914) contrasting a brilliant piece of deduction by Holmes with a tale set among the "Molly Maguires," trade-union activists from the mining regions of Pennsylvania in the 1880s.
In each case the frame story is set in the present, whereas the recounted events date from thirty to forty years before (an exception to this pattern can be found in the only other Sherlock Holmes "long story," The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), conceived originally as a tale of the supernatural rather than a straight Holmesian detective narrative.)
The first hundred settlers on Mars immediately start to terraform the landscape, despite the ecological protests of a few "Red" Martians ...
The newly prosperous colony decides to revolt against the homeplanet's sovereignty, initiating a bloody civil war ...
The surface water freezes as a result of all this devastation, leaving a chastened people to make their homes in the permafrost.
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1999)
Don’t get me wrong – I’d been out there a couple of times before. With friends, admittedly. And yes, they were boyfriends, and yes, they were trying to get into my pants (a bit difficult in a spacesuit, you would have thought, but man was born to strive).
This time, though, was different. For a start, I had no real idea whether the air tanks on the suit were fully charged or not. Even if they were, that only gave me thirty hours or so before I asphyxiated. That sounds like a lot when you’re safely at home leafing through a Cosmo, but it’s not so much when you’re stumbling along a dusty crater rim, trying to keep out of sight and avoiding falling in at the same time.
Then there was the nagging question of what I was doing out here in the first place. Mum would go spare if she knew! But then, she had other things on her mind at present, from what I could gather (he wasn’t sharing all the fruits of his research with me, that’s for sure … happy to receive information but not so keen to dish it out, that was my impression of our esteemed P.I. )
Which was one reason I wasn’t anxious to share with him my one and only lead. Not so much a lead as an indication, really. Among all the stuff I was reading about Ovid and his exile there’d been some references to a place called Otherworld.
It sounded like a virtual game environment to me, but the thing was that I’d heard of it before. One of the boys who'd taken me out exploring outside the dome had mentioned it, in fact.
He’d said there was a place called Otherworld within (extreme) walking distance of the dome. He’d never seen it, or met anyone who had, but it was a persistent rumour among the other kids. They all claimed to know little bits and pieces about it, but the funny thing was (he told me – I guess he was still trying to impress me, but by this stage I felt that he’d kind of forgotten about my even being there – that he was talking to himself, really – trying to sort a whole bunch of impressions into one coherent tale), the funny thing was that a lot of what they said seemed to be basically consistent, which made it seem a bit less like Cloud Cuckoo Land or the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
They said there was an old man who lived out there (most said a prospector, but others called him an explorer or even an astrogator off one of the big interstellar expeditions). What they all agreed on was that he was blind.
“He’s blind, but it’s like … he can see better than people with ordinary eyes. D’ you get what I mean?”
“You mean he’s got artificial sight lenses?”
“No. That’s what I thought they meant at first, too, but then I understood that they meant more than that. That he had some kind of insight into things. That he lived out there because he couldn’t stand to be with ordinary people – that he was too wise for everyday petty shit like we all waste our time on.”
“So he sits out there staring at rocks, does he?”
“I guess so, if he really is a prospector. I don’t know. Nobody does. Nobody I know has seen him or spoken to him, but he’s supposed to see things and think about things that nobody else has time for. It’s like he lives on a different time scale, you grok?”
“You mean he has no time for sex or drugs or anything like that?”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not him. But I kind of got the impression that if he had sex with someone he’d already be seeing the child in the egg before he’d even had the orgasm. That the whole process would be clear to him from the get-go …”
“So he’s a kind of god.”
“Maybe. More like that than a guru, certainly. He doesn’t want to teach anybody anything. He just sits out there among the rocks and broods on stuff, cosmic stuff.”
“That idea really turns you on, doesn’t it? You’d like to be him, to live like that out in the cosmic wastes.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Right now there’s too much I’m interested in here, but I can see the attraction, I guess.”
“So how do you reach him?”
“Why would you want to reach him?”
“Oh, you think that because I’m a chick I wouldn’t have anything I wanted to talk to him about? That we can’t be as otherworldly and mystical as the rest of you? That I’d want to redecorate his cave with wall hangings and rearrange the furniture?”
“No, I just wondered what you’d want to talk to him about.”
“I don’t know really – in any case, it’s never going to happen, so I guess it’s not really worth thinking about.”
“Not so fast. It could happen.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I was thinking about it one day, and I started trying to imagine the logistics of keeping up a small base under the surface without anybody knowing – whether it could even be done or not: at least without attracting attention.”
“And could it?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be easy. It’d be damned expensive, for one thing. You’d have to get everything shipped out there, and I suspect people would start to get curious if they saw a bunch of supply trucks disappearing into the desert every few weeks.”
“It’s impossible, then. It must be bullshit.”
“Not so fast. You know that there are lots of old tunnels and watercourses under the surface?They run for hundreds of miles, some of them, and a lot of them have never been explored.”
“Yeah, I learnt that at school, too. They also told us that it’d be crazy to try and explore most of them, 'coz they’re far too dangerous and unstable.”
“Yeah, and I guess most of them are. But what if there are a few that are stable? What if there are some which actually lead to ground water?”
“You mean dry ice? Carbn dioxide vapour?”
“No, I mean water. What if there was actually water under there somewhere?”
“What if there were angels and demons? It’d be nice, but where’s your evidence?”
“That’s just the thing. There isn’t any. Why not? Because none of the prospectors have come back to report it. But how many prospectors have actually gone out and looked for it lately?”
“Thirteen, wasn’t it? The first thirteen?”
“Yes, and how many came back in all?”
“Three. But they saw how the others died.”
“Not all of them.”
“You mean those two who got separated, early on? What were their names?”
"Flint and Petrie."
"Yeah, the missing explorers. But weren’t their bodies found some time later?"
“No, some bodies were found, but nobody really knows how many people got lost in the hinterland before there were proper settlements here. It was more than a hundred miles from where they’d last been reported, and the bodies were crushed and mangled beyond recognition."
"So you think your man of mystery might be one of the missing two, that they – or he – found water on Mars and decided to stay beside it, to set up a hydroponics farm and just go native?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“And your evidence for this is …”
“Entirely circumstantial, yeah, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
“It doesn’t mean you’re right, either. How come there are so many stories going around about your old man of the desert if no-one’s seen the lost explorers since?”
“Well, that’s just the point. Obviously someone has seen them – or him, rather. Perhaps only one of them is still alive.”
“He must be pretty old by now.”
“He’d be 110 or so. Still within the theoretical limits of gerontological drugs at the time they disappeared.”
“You’ve really made a study of this, haven’t you? This – what d'you call it – Otherworld?”
“ I have, yes. It really fascinates me, I don’t know why. I suppose you think it’s pretty stupid?”
“No, not at all, actually. In fact, I’m kind of impressed. Non-shallow thinking in guys is an evolutionary trait which I think every woman should encourage if possible.”
“Oh yeah, what about you chicks …”
“But just a second, before we go off onto something else. If I wanted to meet this guy, how would I go about it? You must have some ideas on the subject?”
“Well, obviously, if I knew, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now, I’d be out there trying to talk to him.”
“Fair enough. I know you don’t actually know. I just want some kind of guess. You're way more familiar with this area than I am.”
“Well, they were last seen around the old water course east of here, so that's where all the searches to date have concentrated on.”
“Searches fifty years ago.”
“Yeah – and more recently. But what I’m thinking is that if they stumbled onto something, it would have been running north to south, the way the ancient water table did.”
“So south of here, then?”
“No. That’s just the point. I think they would have gone north. That’s the only direction where there’s the slightest chance of water still existing under the permasol.”
“In the direction of the pyramid, then?”
“In the direction of the pyramid.”
… Another voice came from an angel called Ismaïl, saying: “Heavenly stairs, show yourselves and descend!” upon which the ladder of heaven descended all the way from Firdaus, the loftiest paradise, until it reached the Temple of Solomon. The arms of the ladder shone with two heavenly lights, red amethyst and green jasper of the greatest perfection. Every believer is going to see that ladder and climb on it. It has one hundred steps and it goes from the temple to the first heaven.
Gabriel called Muhammad [peace be upon him] and the heavenly creature called the buraq carried him up the first step. There Muhammad [pbuh] saw all kinds of angels red in colour. On the second step, Muhammad [pbuh] saw angels in yellow cloth, on the third step the angels were green and all of them were greeting him and giving him heavenly gifts which he took and gave to Gabriel to keep as a trust for the believers on earth. On the fourth step messenger-angels came and said: "Gabriel, keep rising for the Lord is waiting!" And Muhammad [pbuh] saw their subtle bodies shining and their faces glittering like mirrors in the sun.
Then he climbed the fifth step of the ladder and saw a huge world of angels that had no beginning and no end. All of them were praising Allah and their only words were: "There is no God but Allah." He asked Gabriel: "How many are these angels?" for he was awed by their numbers. Gabriel said: "If the skies and the earth and the moon and the sun and the stars and galaxies were crushed into dust and were all piled up, their dust particles would not be one tenth of the angels of this step of the ladder of paradise." Then the buraq climbed up to the sixth step and there a great surprise awaited Muhammad [pbuh], and a great event took place which passed all description. An immense, white-upon-white angel sat on a chair of burnished white gold, accompanied by a great host of angels with wide, awe-struck gazes looking at the divine majesty. The white angel stood up and said: "Muhammad, welcome! I beg you to bless my seat by sitting on it." When Muhammad [pbuh] sat on the chair, it melted with love for him and became a cloud of multicolored light chanting the praise of Allah. Out of every drop of that cloud Allah created another throne and another great angel sitting upon that throne.
Then the buraq climbed to the seventh heaven and Muhammad [pbuh] saw angels whose light replaced the light of his vision, as in the case when someone looks at the sun and his sight is stolen away. At that time, he became able to see whatever these angels were seeing. Then he climbed the eighth step of the ladder and saw nothing but angels in prostration. He quickly climbed to the ninth so as not to disturb them. On the ninth step of the ladder he saw angels which passed description and he stood in awe, unable to comprehend their creation. At that time their leader appeared and said: "Praise Allah! we are dressing you with the secret of our creation and enabling you to understand all things by Allah's permission."
Then Muhammad [pbuh] went up to the tenth step of the ladder and saw the angels that praised Allah in all the languages that had been created since the beginning of creation. Muhammad [pbuh] wondered at the limitless creations of Allah. At the eleventh step, the angels numbered even more than the angels of the fifth step, and out of them an infinite number of colours glowed, different for each single one of them. At the twelfth step, Muhammad [pbuh] found angels with faces like moons and eyes like stars. The light of their faces were covering their words. On the thirteenth step, the most beautiful angels appeared and these were the angels of Allah, praising Allah with soft voices and revelling in other-worldly beauty. Their music did not resemble any other kind of music and if one tone of that music were heard on the earth everyone on it would faint.
On the fourteenth step Muhammad [pbuh] saw the angel Ismail with seventy thousand angels riding on horses. Behind everyone of them was a battalion of one hundred thousand angels created from the attribute of Beauty. It is the duty of each and everyone of these angels to appear on earth at least one time to bring it the touch of his beauty. The fifteenth to the twenty-fourth steps were under the command of the angel Ruqyaïl, great and small, thin and wide. The twenty-fifth step to the ninety-ninth were presided by the angel Qalaïl. His right hand was under the first heaven. Between each two of his fingers there are seven hundred thousand angels continuously praising Allah. For each of the praises that they utter strings of pearls come out of their mouth. The diameter of every pearl is eighty-one miles. For each pearl Allah creates an angel that guards it and keeps it as a trust for human beings until they enter paradise.
Then Muhammad [pbuh] saw a huge throne from a precious element other than gold standing on five posts. Each post has two wings and each wing encompasses the constellation of our world five times. On each wing rest fifty thousand angels, each of whom ask forgiveness for human beings in a different dialect and yet in complete harmony and with an angelic sound that melts the rocks of the seven earths. Out of each one of their tears Allah creates fifty thousand angels more whose task is to ask forgiveness in the same way as these angels do and in many times more dialects than they. Then the throne spoke to Muhammad [pbuh] and said: "I and the angels who guard me were created to carry human beings to their stations in paradise." Then, the throne invited Muhammad [pbuh] to sit on it, and when he sat he felt a pleasure he had never experienced before.
– Gisèle Besson & Michèle Brossard-André, trans. Le Livre de l’échelle de Mahomet: Liber Scale Machometi. Préface de Roger Arnaldez. Lettres Gothiques. Paris: Livre de Poche, 1991. pp.109-13.
Phil’s first thought was of Dante’s Inferno. The room was full of naked people, crowding around the most extraordinary assortment of ropes and chains and other instruments of torture.
She turned to rush out, only to feel her arm pushed roughly up behind her back, high enough to almost dislocate the shoulder, and a man’s voice breathing in her ear:
“Not so fast, baby. You’ve got to choose a number first.”
There was a table right in front of them. It looked, incongruously, like a turnstile table. And – sure enough – a little man in uniform was sitting behind it sorting through a box of tokens.
“Ah, two new girls. That brings us up to a baker’s dozen …”
Looking down further, Phil could see a pair of bare feet protruding from underneath the green felt table-cloth. Whoever’s feet they were was evidently crouching under the table, and … Oh my God: the little fellow’s face did seem a trifle flushed, his speech quite slurred. Now was his predicament in any way unusual. Everywhere she looked there seemed to be bodies thrusting up against each other – voluntarily, one might have assumed: except that most of the bare-arsed girls had their arms bound cruelly behind them.
Putting out her hand, she took a blank ivory tile from the box.
“We’ll need an item of clothing to attach it to, my dear. Perhaps your string?" said the little man in uniform. "Justine, would you do the honours, dear?”
A slender girl backed out from under the ticket table, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
“My God, she looks just like Luce!” was Phil’s first thought, until she saw the large tattoo across her bird-like chest: a single, lidless red eye.
The naked girl reached up to remove Phil’s string.
“Justine!” said Pat.
Frowning, the girl continued slipping off Phil's panties as if she hadn’t heard. Evidently claiming acquaintance was not the thing to do down here. Attaching the g-string to the ivory token (which had, Phil saw, the number 13 embossed on it), she dropped it into a drawer full of just such frilly feminine undergarments.
Meanwhile the waiter, Bruto (as Pat was calling him) denuded her of her remaining covering, with what seemed quite unnecessary roughness. When this was complete, he tethered her by the wrists, adding a coil of elasticised rope around her elbows, which had the effect of bringing her shoulders back and forcing her chest out.
When the same operation had been performed on Pat (her few, futile attempts at struggling and cursing resulted only in a stinging slap on the behind), the two of them were frogmarched, still in their high heels, to the small group of similarly naked women in the middle of the room.
When she saw the long line of stocks, the leering men, each with a naked girl on his arm, above all, the hangman’s nooses dangling from high up in the ceiling, Phil began to scream.
D for Dolcett. That's all they’d tell me. Not even what the name meant, who "Dolcett" was. The owner, I suppose.
It’s strange at home, now. We’ve all had sex with one another (except for me with Mum – ewww), so it’s hard to know just who should sleep with whom.
Mum doesn’t approve of my sleeping with Pat, as she says she doesn’t trust her - and, besides, I’m too young. But then, if she bunks down with Pat herself, that leaves me with her boyfriend, and she’s even less keen on that (it’s true I’ve had sex with him, but we’ve never actually spent the night together – not sure I’d like to, but then again, not quite sure I wouldn’t). So that pretty much leaves each of us on our own. Except that, in practice, she ended up with him and I ended up sneaking off to finish up the night in Pat’s arms again.
But then they got all dolled up and went out.
“Don’t wait up,” they said. “Don’t worry if you don’t hear from us … We’re on assignment.”
Yeah, right. On assignment. A right pair of Glam Metal Detectives, they looked – not an inch of non-see-through material on either of them (Mum looked great, I had to admit … Pat, on the other hand, was just sex on legs. I had to pinch myself to stop from going over and kissing her right then and there).
So there I was, tossing and turning, all on my lonesome, with only my little toys for company – and you know, they’re great and all, but they’re no substitute for the real thing.
And I got to thinking.
Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong places on the official sites?
If you want to make something unfindable – or rather, if you want to make it unfindable for everyone except the people who have the key, how do you go about it? You publish under a false name, at a fake address – yeah, yeah, all that’s fairly standard. But how do you hide from repetitive search terms?
I guess you can have an agreed-upon code – that’s possible. “Apple-blossom” stands for “machine-gun,” and so on. But how do you tell people which words mean which things?
I remember one day when I still used to go to school, one of the maths bots got sidetracked one day and started to talk about secret codes.
He said that you had to count on someone intercepting your secret messages, and that if they had enough text, sooner or later they would crack it through letter-frequency or some such technique.
“Imagine you have a steel box with a secret message in it,” he - it - said. “You lock it up with your own padlock and key and send it to the friend you want to read it. But he can’t open it, of course, because it’s locked and he doesn’t have the key. So instead of spending lots of time trying to pick the lock (which is what anyone who intercepted the box would do), he simply puts his own padlock and key on it and sends it back to you. So now you have a steel box with a secret message inside and two locks on it. But the important thing is this. You unlock your padlock with your key, and return it to him, and he unlocks his padlock and key and that way he can read the message. In other words, there is a way to exchange a message without ever exchanging the secret key that unlocks it.”
He went on to explain that the difference between encrypting a message and locking it in a steel box was that it doesn’t make any difference in what order you unlock two padlocks, but it usually does make a difference what order you decode them in. The point is, though, that keys are easy to intercept if you have to send them to people, but they’re much more secure if you don’t share them with anyone.
So let’s say that these stories on the Internet are the message in the steel box. They’re being sent out to anyone who wants to read them, but that most or all of those people have no idea of the key, or even if there is a key. They’re locked and invisible because no-one knows they’re there – and even if they do know, they have no idea what’s in them.
Sending the box back with your own padlock attached, though, what’s that? I guess that every time someone reads one of the stories, that could send information to the original host / author … that way he or she would know that someone had at least received the message.
The way to find them, then, would be not really to look for them at all – rather, they’d cross your path or they wouldn’t, you’d find them and be intrigued by them (if that's the kind of thing you're intrigued by).
And yet this agency on earth must have found them and got worried by them, if they decided to send an agent to Mars (that’s if any of that story is actually true, of course). So they must contain something subversive. Unless the mere fact that they were so difficult to find was in itself evidence of subversion.
I shook my head to clear it. This was getting me nowhere – just chasing my tail round and round the mulberry bush.
So what was all that stuff about the woman obsessed with her own arse? “Burmese Days,” he called it?
Burmese Days proved to be no use. It was the title of an old novel written by a man called George Orwell, which was (the index told me) the pseudonym of one Eric Blair. It was about a man called John Florey, who got into trouble because his native mistress wouldn’t leave him alone when he tried to get married to a white woman. He committed suicide as a result.
Burma is the old name for Myanmar, one of the border countries between India and the Chinese conglomerate.
“Arses” was no help either – just endless pictures of girls’ (and guys’ – and even aliens’) behinds. Ars longa vita brevis: Art is long and life is short. That was in Latin, written by a man called Horace. Strange name for a poet – Horace Horsecollar.
Latin – tons of Latin authors listed: Apuleius, Catullus, Caesar, Livy, Ovid, Propertius, Virgil. Any specialise in writing about love and sex? Most of them, it seemed. They all had married mistresses and spent their time whining about it.
One of them actually wrote a long treatise on how to pick up girls – and then a sequel on how to get rid of them. Oh, and then he got sent into exile for writing disreputable poems …
Exile to the border regions: mistresses, love affairs. I started to click on a few more links from him. Pictures, statues, texts of the poems …
There was a certain fascination about it all, one had to admit. He’d got the emperor’s granddaughter (or was it his daughter? Opinions seemed to vary. They were both called “Julia,” anyway) to go to bed with him. Or maybe it was just that she liked reading his poems. Or that her lover/s had used the poems as an instruction manual on how to seduce well-brought-up, aristocratic girls. Anyway, there was some connection between her committing adultery and him being sent off to the Black Sea.
“As far away as Mars.” That’s what one of the write-ups said. Could that be it? Was that the link? Was Burma – Myanmar, rather – a mask for Mars? A place as far away to the ancient Romans as another planet is for us?
I shook my head. This was all very well, but I hadn’t got any close to finding … whatever it was I was searching for. The reason my Mother and my lover were going undercover to some freaked-out nightclub. The answer to all our troubles – for this guy who'd come into our lives, at any rate: the one who was using us as bait to flush out his quarry.
There had to be some way to turn the tables on him, get him off our backs. Unless he really was our friend, unless the person or people he was hunting really were worse than him.
Until I found that out for certain, I preferred to believe my enemy’s enemy was my friend.