The following short story is the first chapter of a book called ‘Stories for the Children of a Strange World’. The book is planned to have short stories, such at this, alternate with with a broader narrative told in second person that links them all together. It’s an ambitious book that I hope to be able to finish over the next few years – I think this first chapter may be the best thing I’ve written to date.
Chapter 1 – Insects
My sleep has been a prelude to death not invigoration for life.
Some sticky substance had attached itself to my leg. It didn’t matter much though because I knew that I was done for. The hovering, mechanical creatures were drawing in.
Looking at their polished bodies and clean, sharp claws you would imagine that their killing of a person might be surgical and calculated, but initially the three machines clumsily fought each other to get at my flesh. They collide with one another while haphazardly slicing chucks out of my body. Then they suddenly seem to resolve to impress upon me their true abilities. They send out fine antennae which punch into my body to wind around my skeleton. This way the creatures secure themselves so that however much they might be battered by their sibling rivals they are assured some purchase; chucks of my very own body is now pulled from its place to be masticated by chemical jaws. Most of the nerves in the human body exist on the surface, the skin. The creatures have already passed beyond this layer and I have the peculiar experience of seeing my innards, the viscera, being tugged and ripped apart – without explicit pain or any real sense of distress. (I was beyond being distressed! I had exceeded my pain threshold to become a vapid figment of my own senses.) Besides: being eaten alive wasn’t really my main concern at this point. But still, let’s continue with the eating alive thing for now.
A tendril suddenly jets out from below one of the insect’s bloody jaws and blasts through one of my eye sockets, immediately bursting the membranes and spilling the intraocular fluid. But why focus on the eye, on that minute detail, when the insect is already emulsifying my brain. “Why”, as if that word could make sense now. As if sense could remain. Yet here I am, still conscious, still following this macabre scenario. (Pain isn’t a factor – not a consideration at all. Rather than picture myself screaming and struggling I focus, meditatively, upon letting go.)
More ripping and tearing ensues, but really it isn’t long before I am consumed. The three insects have nothing else in common besides their dangerous hunger and so rapidly assess the waters into which my blood has been spilt to see if there is anything else worth having and then go their own separate ways.
I have become despondent to the broader context of this ‘event’; the visual splendour of the ‘future world’ I had thought up as a pretext is too difficult to maintain in full and I only have the concentration now to mention it in passing when it is important to. I must resign myself to a digested fate. As I became an emulsion in the creatures’ ‘stomachs’ I reflected how peculiar it was that machines would be designed with organs like birds or insects; why not have some completely different system, of digestions, of replenishment, of transit? Perhaps that is inconceivable?
Where I was one I am now three. I must focus now and try to keep the separate trajectories in mind.
The first insect moves instinctively through the underground sewage system, which I will say, laconically, sanitizers the futuristic metropolis above. This insect cuts and weaves through a number of different openings and ducts before coming to a long straight pipe whence it accelerates at tremendous speed (while I bubble in its belly like words within brackets). I’m tired now, always tired, but must focus.
The first insect suddenly emerges from the dark pipe. Now its speed can really be gauged and I – we – saw over a desert terrain, already a distance from the peripheries of the silhouetted metropolis. (An arid sun bakes the landscape and for a fleeting moment I see, though of course my eyes are long since gone, the city float like a mirage through the ripples of heat).
The insect momentarily slows and with a sound of wet rubber against polished steel I am ejected from the creature as a single, well-formed excrement. Falling through the air is enough for me to start to dry out and as I hit the sand below I remain intact. But now I’m feeling very relaxed and – lying here – I can easily imagine time speeding up. I can see the ripples of sandstorms like tides flowing in and out against a sky that explodes and implodes with each day and night. I become brittle and the constant beating of the sand, as well as the momentary labour of a scorpion seen for a micro second in this macro time-scale, wears me away. I am becoming smaller and smaller – the limits of my physical form so small now that they are becoming imperceptible. I can train my attention on the area of sand where I imagine myself to be scattered, or imagine myself to be now embodied in this or that microscopic grain of matter, or on a macroscopic level as the desert itself, or perhaps even more metaphorically as time, entropy, energy. But what are such areas and embodiments if not still I, trying to establish some territory to call me, to house my still dualistic consciousness?
The second insect moves from the place where I was dismembered with a sense of deliberation. Something in this insect’s demeanour suggests a sense of duty – of social responsibility – the others did not exude such self-importance. Where the first insect moved quickly and laterally this insect winds its way slowly upwards. Slowly the pipes began to open out into larger concrete chambers. Passing through a dim alcove the insect passes into a more habitable kind of space; habitable for machines that is. Like a multi-storey car park the space recedes in a series of partitioned areas of gloom.
The sounds of distant activity: heavy drums being tipped and emptied, vehicles moving behind hidden walls taking garbage through various refuse channels like worms sorting waste soil. Air ducts hum an unearthly song.
Pushing through some double doors the insect, carrying part of my entrails within its stomach, heads down a series of gray painted corridors. Off a small dimly lit alcove my host enters a locker room and takes out a key. “Number 23” is written on the key and the insect idly scans it before heading towards an identical tag on one of the lockers. The lockers are beige with dull orange doors. The insect opens its locker and pulls out a red tracksuit with ersatz designer strips up the sides. Maladroitly the insect works its way into the tracksuit pressing two legs though each trouser leg and one through each sleeve, walking clumsy-erect like a stooping teenager (clumsy erectus).
We – the insect I mean – take out a few more items from the locker. A wallet with various shop club cards, a bank card and some paper money and a tiny note book and pencil are stuffed into the flaccid tracksuit pockets. The insect lopes out of the changing room (where absent is the sweaty smell common to such spaces – I guess mechanical insects create a very different bodily ambience.)
I try to pan around the scene as the insect emerges into a brightly lit shopping mall. Lights in the roof are made to look like windows letting in natural light, though I suspect we’re still kilometres underground. The insect eyes some shop windows, but otherwise heads fairly directly for a coffee shop. The insect orders a latte and sits in a chair positioned in a quiet but slightly awkward alcove. Drinking the latte relatively quickly the insect seems apprehensive and detached. As if aping a human the insect keeps rubbing its face as if to convey a sense of personal fatigue and pressure.
Having a slight but undiagnosed caffeine intolerance the insect resigns its spot and goes to the toilet. I’m ejected out in an explosive, liquid push and enter into the bowl to be flushed down into the pipe. I become a literal stream of consciousness as I mix with water in the clamouring darkness. The pipe loops round so that I almost feel that I’m coming back on myself. The pipe then branches out and branches out splitting me multiple times. With the gushing of water there is a low metallic hum as you might get in horror films. Although this noise might be used to signify evil I do not see it as a morally embedded noise in any simply way. Rather is seems to undermine my singular consciousness – the morally responsible kernel of my own self recognition – and a dispersed sense of being expands and consumes me.
I only realise that I was asleep when some external discomfort wakes me. From the darkness of my last thoughts my mind reasserts itself and I feel duty bound to finish what I started. Yet I have little strength. My sleep has been a prelude to death not invigoration for life. I revisit this phrase frequently when the nausea of knowing that I have little time left overcomes me. A warm hand touches mine.
After this great adventure I have chance to see one another. I see my body lying on a hospital bed. It is the body of an old lady. She has – I known of course – had a difficult life. Yet the face, my face, remains elegant – or so I have been told. The bone structure ensures that I will always look dignified. And this matters to me now – more than ever. Though I may have lost a lot of weight due to this illness I don’t think my appearance will upset her: Evelyn.
I cannot move to open my eyes, but know the hand is hers and feel much safer inside – but at the same time such a longing to hold her again. My beautiful granddaughter this world is cruel, but we have had such good times together. Our imaginations they made things happen together that were beautiful.
My house, as little as five years ago, was a place for us both to be free together. A large bay window at the back offered a humble view of my garden, trees extending from below, and the humdrum town beyond. It seemed so safe and we would talk and paint pictures and then I would cook. We played games.
Geoff is here too I sense. Your father, Evelyn, is a dull man. Ever since your mother died my son has not been able to connect to the world around him. What does ‘connect’ mean? To have some kind of balanced emotional response I suppose. Creativity helped us. He turned instead to rules. He must know that rules don’t really map onto the world. What moral rules presented a situation in which your mother could die so young? None. The world works itself out in ways that cannot be foretold.
We worked with the material world at hand Evelyn and yes we lost ourselves as I have been trying to do just before you came. I’ve been trying to extend myself, break myself, do what we used to do when we would paint imaginary worlds and play at being other people and animals. I wish I could tell you this story, but I can’t.
The dull waves that spread across me seem to push me apart. If my consciousness is like iron filings coming together under the force of a magnet then my present state sees the paper between the magnet and filings getting thinker and thicker, Evelyn, I am forgetting everything. Without choosing to, I become a mindless mantra:
“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear”
Eve, I cannot break through the fog to reach you.
As the second insect discovers that it is financially overdrawn and swears at an invisible source of frustration, the third insect is high above the city through a dark, oily blackness that seems to encompass everything. In response to the bright lights of the city below the insect’s body produces a chemical that gives it a sense of joy, a chemical no doubt partly extracted from my body. My mind still lingers in the insect’s main stomach compartment. I feel content for the insect and feel a sudden and unexpected sense of empathy for it. Perhaps that is pathetic, to project so much that is human on a fantasy machine that should be anything but: yet to fly free from my encumbered self – what a joy.
The insect rises up and up. The city recedes behind the carpet of clouds and the insect exerts itself against the thinning atmosphere in order to break free from it.
Perhaps as a reaction to my feeling of empathy, perhaps because the sense of nausea I have mounts, I watch the insect rise into the shadowy unknown to suddenly be caught in the jaws of a much larger mechanical insect. The larger insect, terrifying in light of the relative comfort I felt with my first three imagined companions, shakes the small insect violently breaking some of its circuits and effectively causing it ‘brain damage’. Connections to my companion’s legs still exist but the circuits to co-ordinate them do not and so it whips about wildly. With the sudden change in scale my imagination has to suddenly take account of the whole theatre of space as an ocean of ravenous predators. The predator taking my companion turns out – quickly – to be only small fry and a giant beast roars through taking everything in its path – more inhaling than swallowing it is so enormous. The earth seems like an aberrant piece of detritus and is lost to my ‘vision’.
Crushed, beaten and then digested even more; lost to a swill of so many other rotting and decaying creatures. Not all simply ‘mechanical’ but from systems I have not the ability to clearly consider. As an aside I remember that the word ‘mechanical’ derives from ‘mechanic’: it always presumes something anthropomorphic or derivative from people. A warm hand touches mine but I cannot recognise it as such.