Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chapter Twelve

Blake found himself in some sort of stadium, halfway along a ramp, walking down past endless rows of empty seats. “Where am I” was one of the questions that crossed his mind, along with “How did I get here?” and most important of all, “Which of these seats is mine?”

He realised that he was holding a small sheet of paper. Squinting, he tried to make sense of the words printed on it:

This dream has not yet been rated. Parental guidance advisory. May contain allegory, figures of speech, gratuitous word-play and heavy-handed symbolism.
Then the words fell apart into individual pen-strokes which writhed briefly on the paper before assembling themselves into a new message, with only two letters now: 2B.

“That’s reassuring,” Blake said aloud. “I seem to have reserved a seat – or possibly a soft-lead pencil. What’s more, this place must be the Petropolis Clown Coliseum… but because this is only a dream, I don’t have to feel ashamed of myself for visiting a place which I disapprove of so strongly.”

He looked up from the ticket to search for row B. He had not halted his stroll down the ramp while he was reading, and it seemed that he had overshot. Indeed, he had walked through a gate at the bottom of the rows of benches and right out into the sand-strewn arena they surrounded. Half-buried in the sand he could see age-blackened banana skins and fragments of pie-crust, the evidence that teams of clowns had clashed here in gladiatorial combat. Overhead a cable stretched above the arena between two pylons. However, the only human life in sight was away on the far side of the arena, where a figure was flailing and scrabbling at a gate opposite to the one he had just passed through, as if trying to reopen it and escape from the glaring light of the stadium.

Now Blake noticed that there was a large chest lying on the sand nearby, somewhere in shape between a suitcase and a walnut. Chains and locks fastened it securely. He could hear muffled whimpers of pants-wetting terror from within.

“There should be a word, terrid, for situations that inspire terror,” Blake thought, “Like horrid and horror.” He looked at his ticket again, in case the other side held clues to what was happening. Now the letters had rearranged themselves into a program for the Coliseum performance.

Opening Act [they read]. I. Acrobats. Vertiginous displays of white-knuckle daring on the high-wire and the trapezoid! [Blake glanced up at the cable which he had previously dismissed as a washing-line for nudists].
II. Agapantha the Agorabat. Death-defying stunts in a wide-open space, with no place to hide, exposed to the eyes of all under a pitiless light! [Blake glanced across the arena. The figure on the far side had given up on trying to force the gate and was cowering on the sand].
III. Claustro the Compendious, Claustrobat. Amazing antics and narrow escapes in tight confinement!

Blake examined the closed coffer beside him. Rapping the lid with his knuckles provoked more abject fearful whimpering from inside, presumably from the incarcerated Claustro. “I could be bounded in a nutshell,” Blake said reassuringly, “and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

The voice from the coffer controlled its fear of closed spaces long enough to reply: “T-to-to be or not t-to-to be, th-that is the qu-question!”

“222B?” thought Blake. “No, Sherlock Holmes lodges with Dr. Watson at 221B Baker Street.” And when he remembered his dereliction of duty, a shudder of guilt bubbled up in his stomach. The Petrarch had entrusted him with the mission of recruiting Holmes and Watson to investigate the conspiracies and threats to the stability of Petropolis, even if (as he sometimes suspected) these plots existed only in her fertile imagination. To be sure, his train had broken down before he could reach the Baker Street reality, but had he tried hard enough to catch a later train? Blake promised himself that as soon as he woke from this dream, he would make another attempt to find the stairs back down the to trans-reality tunnels.

He flipped over the ticket. The letters swam quickly across from the first side, reassembling themselves in the process so now they read

Comic Interlude: Man vs. Wild Yeasts! Four clowns will take on four Belgian Beers!
And below that Main Act: Ponzo the Pugilistic, Inventor of the Human Pyramid Scheme!

However, when Blake turned around, the Coliseum had disappeared. The rows of seating stretching up all around in a giant funnel had become a landscape curving up on one side and the sea curving up on the other. Details receded further into the distance the further up he looked, until they faded into the uniform blue of the sky. The sand of the arena had become a beach, with shells instead of pie fragments and seaweed instead of banana skins.

Blake began walking again, for fear of the trees, which seemed to be stalking him. The beach was the home of cute little furry animals living in burrows, so that every step he took produced despairing squeaks from underfoot. Each time he turned his gaze away from the trees and then looked back, they were definitely closer, though he couldn’t catch them in the act of striding across the dunes on their stubby roots. Each tree sprouted a dozen or more stilt legs near the ground, as if branching upside-down; behind them in the sand they left a trail of dimples where the roots had rested.

Now the beach was interrupted by a low rocky headland. Clambering over it brought Blake through a zone of inhospitable vegetation – everything was tough and spiky, even the flowers – and down again to a tiny bay, hemmed in and sheltered from the waves by the outcrop of rocks he had just crossed, and a second one just ahead. No surf disturbed the sand. The water moved sluggishly, swirling around half-submerged boulders encrusted with mussels and barnacles as thickly as wads of chewing-gum encrust a school desk. Some of the boulders, Blake noticed without surprise, had regular right-angle edges, and corners, and handles on one side for sliding drawers in and out. In fact they were filing cabinets. Rust-proof (he supposed), while the filing cards and the folders inside must be sealed somehow against salt water.

In the middle of the smelly stretch of seaweed marking the high-tide line,¹ a desk sprouted out of the sand, as if it had been built there in a sandcastle competition for bureaucrats. In place of a computer screen, a large fish-tank occupied much of the desk-space, while some sort of aquatic snake occupied the fish-tank.

“Ah, Cohort-Inspector Blake, right on time,” said Petrarch Horlicka, reclining behind the desk in a chair that had begun life as a hammock but aspired to grow into a bean-bag. “I know what you’re thinking; this is not my usual office.” She paused to insert the tip of a pencil into a desk-mounted sea-anemone that functioned as a sharpener. “Right now I’m using the office of Morlock II, my illustrious grandfather and predecessor as Petrarch.”

“A man of caprice and whimsy, unmatched originality of concept, and…” said Blake loyally.

“– And no practical sense whatsoever. His body was never found, you know. When last seen, he was 15 kilometres out from the shore and swimming more strongly than ever. But I digress.”

“I did not expect to meet you in my dream at all, Your Grandiloquence.” Blake hoped that the gnawing sensation in his stomach was only the pangs of guilt, and not (for instance) an infestation of carnivorous alien monstrosities in their larval phase.

“It was the only way to contact you.” The Petrarch drummed on the desk-top with her pencil and scowled accusingly. “The total number of messenger bats you have sent, reporting on progress with your assignment, is close to zero. Thus we resort to less orthodox channels of communication.”

“Very close to zero, Your Pusillanimity. Less than one.” Blake did not look forward to the prospect of the Petrarch’s anger, which could involve anything from a raised voice to withering sarcasm. He thought fleetingly of ways to distract her – like asking what was wrong with her usual office ² – but decided it was best to get the explosion of wrath over with, so they could move on to the radioactive mushroom cloud of demotion to Cohort-Constable.

“You haven’t even reached 1908 London, have you, let alone contacting the Great Detective?”

“I had an excuse…” He saw in the corner of his eye that the trees had pursued him over the rocky headland. Now they were creeping closer, tossing their leafy heads, like whorls of green breadknives.

“Ah yes.” She consulted the contents of a folder. “Trans-reality services between Random and Baker Street: Currently suspended, due to failure of ventilation in the tunnels. Apparently where the ventilation shafts meet the surface they are concealed as sand-traps in a golf-course, which is all very well, until some dingbats with the mental capacity of topsoil decide to block the sand-traps with several wheelbarrow-loads of concrete.”

She shook her head in disbelief. “Anyway… pull up some driftwood and make yourself uncomfortable. It’s not easy to have a one-sided lecture disguised as a conversation, when you’re standing there in black robes as if you’re about to challenge me to a game of chess. It occurred to me, after you left Petropolis with such precipitous haste, that the best measure of a civilised society is the calibre of the evil mastermind working to overthrow it. That sounds like an aphorism. How about this? The criminal genius who’s undermining a society reflects the heights of its cultural accomplishments. Yes, that was worth quoting too. Is anyone writing this down?”

At this point the Petrarch’s train of thought was derailed by the ring-tones of a telephone. No phone was visible anywhere on the desk-top so she sorted though its numerous drawers, irritably slamming each one shut while the monotonous ringing continued to nag. At last she reached into the final drawer with a grunt of triumph and pulled out something rubbery and studded with warts that looked more like a sea-cucumber.

The handpiece wriggled as she held it to her ear. With the other hand she alternated between treating her pencil as an invisible laser pointer – aiming it in Blake’s general direction, to see if he would chase the imaginary dot on the ground ­– and scribbling notes on the back of a postcard (the other side displayed a picture of the Flightless Ground-Bat).³ If her side of the conversation was any guide, it consisted largely of ‘Yes’ and ‘Go on’ and ‘Bungling incompetents’.

“Where was I?” she asked, returning the telephone to the drawer.

“About to measure society.”

“Ah yes. I have been reading more profiles of master criminals. There was Professor Moriarty, a worthy adversary to Sherlock Holmes; and Dr Mabuse; and Fantômas; and…” She looked around, meaning to back up her words by gesturing at the books in question, but they had not found their way into the dream, unless they were disguised as decomposing jellyfish. “And I realised what a mistake it would be to apprehend a villain too early, before he or she has learned all the skills of the job. It would be like breaking a butterfly on a wheel while it is still a caterpillar.” Her eyes were staring out to where the horizon would be, if there was one. “It takes a genius for weaving elaborate plots with swiss-watch precision… a grasp of the smallest details as well as the big picture… a thousand disguises… diabolically clever inventions and infernal machines to devise…”

The Petrarch’s eyes snapped back into focus on the foreground; her voice hardened. She referred to her telephone notes on the postcard. “Your dithering incompetence, in short, while unforgivable, is not actually a bad thing. Were you aware that the Bughouse Institute for the Differently Sane has reported an epidemic of an entirely new form of insanity?”

“No, Your Perspicacity, I had not heard that news.”

“The victims are unable to sleep at night. They are drawn outside, where they stare up into the darkness. They insist that up there in the night sky they can see hundreds and thousands of points of light, which they call ‘stars’.”

“That is without doubt the most fascinating news I have heard since, um…”

The Petrarch leaned forward across the desk to pass the postcard to Blake. “The story resonates. It has the feel that it could be a clue, if only I could see it in the proper context. It will come to me. For now, file it away, would you; file it under ‘star-craving mad’.”

Blake waded out to the filing cabinets, the shallow seawater soaking into his black robes and weighing them down. However, a large seal had chosen a sunbathing spot that blocked access to the drawer containing records from Scoria to Suavity. “Don’t mind him!” the Petrarch called out, safe on her side of the desk. “He’s just the Official Seal of Approval!”

It bared its teeth at Blake and exhaled an odour strong enough to drown out the seaweed rotting on the beach. He splashed back for further instructions.

It came as no great surprise to find that the scene had changed again. The beach had morphed into a kitchen, and a large oven had taken the place of the desk. The Petrarch had slipped an apron over her office clothes. She was also wearing a paper party crown, as if the dream’s costume department had not been able to find a proper chef’s hat.

“This is your dream,” she reminded Blake, “so I can only speculate what it’s about.” She waved an egg-whisk in the direction of the oven, where the front elements were empty, while umpteen frying-pans and simmering saucepans cluttered up the rear elements. “My guess, however, is that it’s meant to symbolise the delay in your mission. All this culinary activity, but only using the rear-range… to match how I rearrange your instructions.”

She grimaced in distaste at the coating of grime on the stove-top and cooking pots. The rest of the kitchen was equally dirty, with piles of unwashed dishes blocking every sink. Years of exposure to cabbage steam had dyed the whitewashed walls as grey-green and greasy as the Limpopo River. Her apron was splattered with juices to form a pictorial menu of every meal ever cooked there.

“If this were my dream,” the Petrarch continued, “I would have it thoroughly cleaned, condemned by the hygiene inspectors, or simply destroyed with fire. Is there a word ‘sordor’ to go with ‘sordid’, the way ‘squalor’ and ‘fetor’ go with ‘squalid’ and ‘fetid’?” Blake twitched in surprise. “It’s all right, characters in dreams are allowed to know what you’re thinking. I suppose I should be grateful that it’s not the Stern Schoolteacher dream.”

There was a pause.

“I said, destroyed with fire!” she repeated more loudly. This time the stove lost its balance and toppled over backwards with one loud crash and a series of quieter after-crashes. Something – perhaps an oil-soaked cook-book – began to burn. “That’s what happens when one has too many projects on the back-burner. Now, the delays of which we have spoken, they bring good news and bad news.”

The new-found friendliness in the Petrarch’s voice did not encourage enthusiasm. “I can’t help suspecting that I won’t like either,” Blake mumbled glumly.

“The bad news, Inspector Blake, is that the longer you’re away, the more chance that the enemies of Petropolis will track you down. The good news is that I am not going to shout at you or threaten you with condign punishment in the unlikely event of you returning alive.”

Blake recalled that he still held the Petrarch’s postcard. He glanced down to see that it now displayed three words: Endanger ­– End Anger.

The stove was well ablaze now, like the funeral pyres where French chefs are cremated; flames were licking the grease from the wall behind it. The air tasted like a Tibetan temple where someone has dropped the yak-butter lamp. Blake and the Petrarch edged away from the bonfire. “Do you still have your weapons?” she asked.

“The dagger?” Blake felt for the concealed blade up his sleeve, but in the way of dreams, it had transformed itself into a live haddock, flapping in his hand. Its eyes and expression reminded him somehow of the Petrarch. He flung it towards the nearest sink, where it made itself at home in the cold dirty water.

“No, dolt – the dagger and stiletto are merely parts of your disguise. I meant the skulls. Have you completely forgotten your briefing in how to use them for self-defence?”

Blake swiftly decided not to remind the Petrarch that he had left Petropolis with barely time to receive his costume and his cover story, let alone a briefing. He looked around the lumpy black sack… it had followed him into the dream, and now sat at the Petrarch’s feet.

“This one, in particular.” She reached in to show him a skull larger than the others. It was as misshapen and gnarly as an ogre’s fist, ridged with bone like a fossilised ball of rope.

“Do I creep up behind assassins and crack them on the head with it?”

“It has its place in the plan.” The Petrarch waggled her egg-whisk roguishly, which is as infuriating as someone telling you ‘all in good time’. “This cranium belonged to Egill Skallagrimsson, Viking fighter and poet. Died in 990. Through a complicated series of coincidences, three exhumations and re-burials, it ended up rolling into a cave beneath the Snæfellsjökull ice-cap. Now although Iceland has no underground trains, the Viking era is linked into the trans-reality rail network by that cave (and the natural tunnels behind it). It would take too long to explain how the skull found its way to Petropolis… also the details are classified, for Biosecurity reasons.”

Suddenly things went wavery, rippling sideways like the image on a TV screen that’s about to fail. Near the stove, shelves were charring and cracking asunder in the fire, jars of spices exploding as they hit the floor. “Fishburger gearbox,” the Petrarch continued. “High Dudgeon – concertina totem.”

“Excuse me, Your Intransigence, it may be the smoke from the spice jars, but I can’t understand a word you’re saying. Also everything is swaying like a hula-dancer.” The sideways jiggling stopped for a moment but the scene went flat, turning into a picture. “Poor reception,” she said. “KRRKthing’s disrupting the signal. I’ll call you KRRRK later and explKRRK.” Then the dream flattened from top to bottom, collapsing into a horizontal white line on a black background, while her voice dissolved in a sea of white noise. The line collapsed into a blinding white point. Even that was not the end of the process… the point found several more ways to collapse before it disappeared completely.
¹ Since the world of Petropolis is a hollow cavity, surrounded by an unbounded expanse of rock, it has no moon. All the same, it has tides. I have no idea how this works. Petropolis scientists believe that there are other bubbles of open space scattered out there in the solid void. They have ambitious plans to drill tunnels to them, though there is no way of telling in advance which ones are habitable.

² In fact she rented it from the Petropolis Am-Tuat Association, and they needed it for their monthly training session.§

§ How come the Petropolis calendar has months, when there is no moon? It is a mystery.

³ This highly specialized species is unique to Petropolis. To the unpracticed eye it is indistinguishable from a mouse… to the experienced observer, it is indistinguishable from a shrew.


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I'm waiting for the part in which he says, "This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife!"

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

“He’s just the Official Seal of Approval!”

Nice touch!

Substance McGravitas said...

Also everything is swaying like a hula-dancer.

Could be worse.

mikey said...

Man, how long do I gotta plow through this thing 'til we get back to Knuckles and Kneebone? I like a backstory as much as the next guy, but c'mon.

Also, for current research into answers to the Petropolis questions, I would refer you to the work of Dr. Laura Mersini-Houghton...

ckc (not kc) said...

"Caprice and Whimsy"? - they're my stockbrokers!

Another Kiwi said...

No, I likes meeting Mr. Blake and getting to know a bit more of the Smut universe. T'would be an interesting place to live.

Smut Clyde said...

Oddly enough, that's just what I think about reality.

Smut Clyde said...

Wackyweedia reckons that Dr. Mersini-Houghton's research interests include "higher-dimension braneworlds". ZRM take note.

'til we get back to Knuckles and Kneebone?
Wasn't Chapter 11 enough for the moment? (I know, they were using false names).

mikey said...

Her theory that the WMAP CMB "Cold
Spot" is evidence of a collision between our universe and another, entirely external universe tantalizes me. Yes, that's correct, I stand before you tantalized. Now ordinarily, I don't have truck with unprovable, unfalsifiable theories (yep, you can keep your sorry little strings) but for sheer audacity, this one makes me all tingly.

Like the discussions that gravity is so much weaker than the other three forces because it doesn't originate in our universe, but is merely a residual manifestation leaking over from another universe, the mind-numbing possibilities are sufficient to bring me to consider them as worthwhile of discussion.

Yeah, that's right. I'm getting high on multiverse theories. Got a problem with that?

tigris said...

I was hoping the Petrarch would treat us to a sonnet.

Another Kiwi said...

Don't get a bee in your bonnet
Just because there is no sonnet

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

ZRM take note.

I'll take a C-sharp and three Es.