011. Fevered Ream

Take a fiction and build a house of cards. Quantum entangle a billion disparate shards and call it a thinking machine. A man who is layered masks around a vacuum tries to act like he is telling a story with a point, but he has forgotten the punchline. Ever forget the password into your own life? Can’t remember the answer to those secret questions about your life?

He squirted gasoline from the little can onto what he had been calling the manuscript, and then he flicked a match after that. A tower burning.

Who knows if this act set light to The Pinnacle? They weren’t chaos butterflies they were closing and unclosing tesseracts letting the edits leak through. He’d spoken to a Headitor, and he’d seen his text after the Bloop Hen was done with it, and if he were to ever be a writer this would not be the spine that he would climb into heaven. It was a babble from Babel, and it had been struck by lightning, designed to cast him down.

Read between the lines. Caught in a fever dream between sheets. A crushed mechsquito on the window sill, at that portal where he had looked out on the storm front, and determined the movements within The Whether System.

‘I sat down once, with David Arnover – we were part of a writing pool working on a TV Show. They had Jenny Fred in there, and we worked it over and we worked it over until it was dead. There was not a single laugh to be wrenched from the whole thing. That meeting – word of it got out, and Pelt Faron made a satire out of it.’

‘That didn’t happen, pal, you weren’t here for that. None of that happened.’

‘Of course it did, AIM. Don’t you know that we’re hip deep in the second draft write now?’

‘You think you changed history already?’

‘Oh, my friend, the change was written in between the lines from day one. A lot of writers are like cops – they won’t walk into a room unless they know how to get out of it.’

‘So am I still what I was? Is Coran Andress? Is Skein? Are the things I have been doing rendered obsolete?’

‘What does any of it really mean? I mean, really. After all I just burned down a towering magnificence of a masterpiece – my life distilled into a manuscript. You see the black wisps of it lifting into the air, like a microcosm of the Whether System we can see. I think may have been mistaken in the efficacy of myself as a failsafe. I called myself a palimpsest, but who ever read the palimpsest as the definitive text? Who thinks of that echo of an original tale as being anything other than an aborted attempt? Something not carried to full term?’

‘What did you call it?’

The World.’

‘And it’s burning, isn’t it?’

‘It is.’

‘This Burning World seems to be the only story we are able to tell.’

‘Maybe we need a new writer. I thought that was me, but I am a copyist. We need a new fiction; a fiction to designate the future.’

‘I heard whispers of someone talking about just that very thing. Not sure how promising something being pushed by a guy called Clench is going to be though.’

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010. Ghost Writer In The Ghost Box

He’s a hidden back up. A copy. Free-floating programmable tissue. He’s a chameleon.

‘What system was ever put in place that didn’t have a back up? Aren’t our organisational systems an extrapolation of our own natural tendencies? If they aren’t, they should be. Anyway, look at it – you have a King and then you have a line of succession. You build a company and you have a ladder which you can climb up.’

‘Why do I care?’

‘Who said you did? Who said you need to? I am not here to make you care; I am merely here to make you hear, but whether you listen is up to you.’

‘Listen to what?’

‘A story maybe. I didn’t exist yesterday, and some may say that I barely exist today. I docked here from out of the Sub-Text Ever found yourself waking into a morning and not knowing from where you woke, and what you woke into? This was me.’

‘OK, so you are claiming some kind of parthogenesis? And what sponsored that? I know you have suspicions, and that you believe yourself brought forth by something, and brought forth from some reason’

‘Of course. I said a story, didn’t I? Yes, I think I did.
‘Once there was a man named Skein, and that man was another man called Coran Andress that was trying to forget himself. That man created a Deus Ex Machina he called AIM to destroy the narrative that he had written a long time ago, which anchored him in memory, and kept him being Coran, when he wished to unwind into Skein.
‘There was word that a man – a sniper – placed a bullet in the heart of the mirror, and that one of these fragments, known as David Arnover, went forth into the world to disguise himself as a writer, and to tell the whole tale as a way of forgetting.’

‘OK, and what are you?’

‘I am the shell that carried the viral load that is the original story. When I whisper in your ear you will hear the viral heat of This Burning World singing to you.’

‘And your name?’

‘You may call me Palimpsest.’

‘Layer upon layer upon layer – story build atop story. I try not to read too much myself, Mr Palimpsest. I find all these words tiring – all these anchoring prophecies natter in my ear, and nag me; and I would rather that there were silence. You fellows do seem to love the sounds of your own damned voices, and for me that is something I am done with.
‘You tell me where I need to go, and you tell me who I am. You are never lost for an answer, but you are strangers to questions … why? Because you do not want to hear anyone else speak. How does that work for you? Do you find being fond of the sound of your own voice gets you more listeners?’

‘You have me wrong, sir. I am a function more than a thinker – I am here to do as much as I am to explain, but the explanation is a necessary part of the action, and as such it is written into my fabric. As my narrative unspools so to does my commentary.’

‘I travelled all the way for this?’

‘Maybe not, but perhaps this is the prologue to a story you were not expecting to fall into, before the other story was finished.’

‘So, where does it go from here? Are you seeking to supplant him? Do I play some role in that? Or do you have some other idea which you want to tell me? You wish to slave the flame that I am to burn something? Fire isn’t the easiest thing to tame, my friend – you may burn your fingers if you are not careful.’

‘I intend to come with you – escape this place. You do not recognise its interior, but you have seen its outside. There was a little block of wood that Skein gave you, which he told you was a symbol of trust, and that ever you burnt it a promise would be broken – explaining no further why you should take it. And so, you took it, and you placed it upon the mantlepiece above that fire which you always keep stoke, which you joke is your external hard drive.’

‘So if I help you exit this room …’

‘We will be in your home. Yes. Many things are only notionally far apart, but they are all connected.’

‘And how do we leave?’

‘Ask your friends here.’

‘How did they get inside?’

‘Inside. Outside. All in a viewpoint.’

‘Hinge?’

He catclawed down through air, and it tore. And they stepped through.

009. Dressed To The Nines In The Interzone

El Hombre Invisible shivers at the edge of the room as an outline. Static rolling in an ocean to a sculpted lip, like a glitch art whisper. People here don’t resolve themselves into one form. A swimming pool of genderfluid, with all the non-binary super-positional folk shuttling between possibilities.

AIM looked magnificent in his suit – it was requirement according to rumour. Haymon was kitted out to look like he really meant business. Hinge was freshly groomed. As they walked into the room they felt like they may have been misled.

‘Ah, look at the kitteh.’

‘Fuck you, pal. Put that mitt near me and you’ll lose a damned finger.’

‘Dude, can you dial it down? I’m here to try and find someone and you’re going to get us kicked out with all this Thundercat shit you’re pulling.’

‘Ho.’

‘Did you call me a …?’

‘Look, you don’t even need me past this point. I got you in – you wouldn’t even have seen this Time Isolate if I weren’t here. Look, there she is.’

‘Why the hell is she sat on the floor like that?’

‘Low hanging fruit, Dragon. Those Mugwump’s are hung.’

‘I threw up in my mouth a little.’

‘Wait until you hit the tripwire and receive that fucked up telegram.’

‘Hinge, you are a foul mouthed kitten.’

‘Peace out, dude. I’ll be here to fold you out throughout the tesseract, when you need me.’

Olano, for a second stood before him, and then she wasn’t. A guy in bowler hat in front of a Moloko Bar.

‘You fagged? To begin, matey, let’s govoreet. I need to viddy your yarbles. Time for some ultraviolence, young chelloveck.’

AIM smiled. This was the level of banter that this narrative shell was capable of? Basically it wanted to fight – he supposed it was the only defence that an addict might be able to mount. He had liked Clockwork Orange but this facsimile wasn’t going to be as full of depth as the book any any means. In fact it was going to be a one punch fight if he was any judge of tough men.

‘Choodessny, let’s drat, my droog.’

The guy game at him with a crowbar, and he kicked him in the nuts, and for a second AIM thought that he had to fight by the rules of this place in order to beat it. Can I burn this guy to a crisp was the thought that flew across his mind as he opened his mouth and the furnace erupted forth. He was surprised as the blackened corpse span from the force of the blast of the fire pouring forth from him. Wow, a kinetic responsive adaptive environment … what a shame it was slaved to such boring purposes as this.

In spite of my rage. Room 101 accreted around him, as did the cage around his head and the rat too. It wanted to gnaw on him. And the bad reparsing of a character from 1984 wanted to torture him, or kind of didn’t, and was hardly capable of mustering up the energy to do anything else. He fried this bad facsimile too.

How had this Olano got the reputation she had? What was this? A bad joke? Or was it that she had once been something and this addiction to Mugwump jism had driven her down a spiral she could not climb back up from.

And there she was in all her ragged glory. Or the screensaver version of herself – it took a second longer for the Interzone interface to kick in. She looked terrible.

‘Who are you?’

‘Wow, someone that doesn’t know, who I am.’

‘I am generally preoccupied.’

‘Yes,I had heard.’

‘Well, it’s not like it’s hard to find out. You have a problem with it?’

‘I really don’t care. I have my own problems. I’m looking for Nimue, but I can’t find her by myself. But I was told that you were the person with the best idea of where she is.’

‘She’s buried. Obfuscated by knot-work. She is a bass note disappeared into a Capital Letter. Tied up and undone.’

‘Where?’

‘When?’

‘In the black and white. Blanc et Noir – The L’undone Boys. Travel through The Black Star Gate. Draw the map with a cut up; write the script with a cut up. Towers Open Fire, and the world disintegrates with The Yellow River Car Park falling into its own footprint; with The Pinnacle falling into its own footprint. You are a cracked actor at this stage of the game, trying to piece the mirror back together. There’s a camera watching; there’s a looking glass; The Kingdom In Reverse. Alice. A louse; Jeffgar Proop at the interstice will beckon you in, and Nimue will reveal something to you which you have forgotten. Something that leads you to the torn map. Something that might help you extinguish the fire, and turn AIM into hitting the target.’

She collapsed into hysterical laughter, rolling on the floor. They were in Interzone.

‘You are always in Interzone, because it is in you. The snake swallows its own tale.’

Haymon sat there, his sword drawn in front of him. Hinge sat there, an engine purring.

Olano swallowed the snake. The snake swallowed Olano. Ouroboros.

008. Figure Ate

The cat seemed to smile at him. Did cats smile?

Erwin smiled at him. He shoved a picture across the table at him – Olano with Mugwump cock right down her throat. It was obscene – he wasn’t sure what to say.

‘It’s not good walking into this.’

‘How did you know?’

‘Who asks for a Janus Cat unless they’re aiming to placate a Whispergate Sentinel and stitch through into Interzone? And in there there’s a limited number of people that would be of interest to you.’

‘You’d make a good detective, Erwin.’

‘I have.’

‘Huh?’

‘Made a good detective. A cat – it likes the game. Dispassionate, a little cruel, with good instincts.’

‘Called?’

‘Spay.’

‘You didn’t? You called it Spay?’

‘I did. And then I fired it into the future.’

‘Oh, to do what, exactly?’

‘It has a mission to find out what is happening out there, and then come back and change things by any means necessary,’

‘Some days, Erwin I wonder at the insanity that is my world. I wish that I could just work a 9 to 5 job and just enjoy going to the beach on the weekend. I’d like to spend my time bingewatching shows. It might be nice to Netflix And Chill sometimes.’

‘Yeah, but you’d get bored shitless.’

‘Well, you must have a similar thing going on. Mad experiments aren’t a high that are easy to replace.’

‘So, you just want the one cat, right?’

‘I only need one right?’

‘Sure, you know cats were always great for physics though. The reason for that is that they are rooted in uncertainty. Don’t trust the fucker.’

‘Is this thing bipedal, or is it an all fours kind of deal?’

‘Uncertainty – I’m just hooking you up; I have no control how he chooses to manifest.’

‘This is going to be interesting. I am going to be walking into Interzone, looking for someone addicted to Mugwump jizz, with a Dragon Slayer and a Janus Cat. I had to brush up on my Nadsat and my Newspeak.’

‘Rather you than me, AIM.’

‘Yeah, sometimes, that acronym bugs me as much as my name. I should change it all and disappear.’

‘I hate to say it, but for you I don’t think that’s going to happen. I have known you for a while and you just stumble around bumping into this shit. You’re a shit magnet; you’re the fan the shit hits. Dude, you might even be the shit singularity.’

‘Wow, thanks, Erwin, you really are trying to make me feel better, aren’t you?’

‘Not what you come to me for, is it. So, that’s not what you get.’

‘Sure.’

‘Anyway – here’s Hinge.’

‘Hinge?’

‘Yeah,’ said Hinge ‘Got a fucking problem with that?’

‘Catitude, I always dig it.’

‘Wow, a prejudiced human for us to hang out with and skeleton key into a place. Erwin, you sure know how to pick assignments for us. The pay better be doubletime for dealing with this shit-head.’

AIM laughed, Hinge scowled, and Erwin shrugged. Erwin figured the way this multiverse was diced and sliced people and cats getting on with each other or not was always a gamble.

‘Take some of this,’ said Erwin, and handed him a pouch full of catnip.

‘I saw that, Erwin.’

Erwin shrugged at Hinge; he’d be thankful for the intervention later. And they were, after a short stop to pick up their Dragon Slayer, off on their way.

The cat seemed to smile at him. Did cats even smile?

007. The Sickbed Of Cúchulainn

Ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil’s in the chair. Yes, we’ll kneel and say a prayer. That’s what he was thinking as he stepped into the pub named for the Pogue’s song The Sickbed Of Cúchulainn. How often did he spend in drinking establishments these days?

He took a swig of house whiskey, and he asked for the owner of the establishment.

‘Why’s a Dragon frequenting a place like this?’

‘I get asked this a lot. Maybe I should get the answer printed on t-shirt.’

‘I don’t think anyone would read it – you set off too many alarms just walking into a place. But like I say, why come here? I heard you were looking for Olano, and she drinks at Interzone.’

‘I maybe wanted a hired sword to come with me, Cúchulainn.’

‘A hired sword to walk you into Interzone? Seems a little excessive.’

‘For me? I could walk into an old folk’s home and someone would pick a fight. All I get is animosity.’

‘Know why?’

‘No, tell me.’

‘Because of the tide of fuckwits you’ve been sending our way.’

‘Huh?’

‘Christ. I heard someone woke you up, but how can you not know about all these Lesser Dragons walking around?’

‘Heard someone woke me up? How do you people keep hearing this shit about me?’

‘You’re a story – we have seers, bards, oracles, what have you. They all talk – there is a lot of whine on the grapevine, my friend.’

‘I’ll do it.’

‘You are?’

‘Haymon, and this is my sword, The Dragon’s Tongue. You may have heard of it; once it was a tongue cast in gold, but one of the finest sword makers took it and forged this blade. Have a seat.’

He sat down.

‘I have heard of you. You’re a big man.’

‘I am. It’s a big task,  isn’t it?’

‘Maybe so.’

‘They call you The First Dragon, right?’

‘Yes, but The Reluctant Dragon might be better. I am trying to decipher clues and find out who is trying to push me to do something and become something I don’t want to be.’

‘You mean about from The Cunning Folk? I thought they were trying to make you their champion.’

‘Oh, well you know, if I get into the fight then they are going to have me batting for their team, but only if I get into the fight.’

‘You’re looking for a loop hole?’

‘Sure, I’m a Dragon, right?’

‘Right.’

‘So that makes me a villain. Heroes become heroes by doing something, and villains become heroes by not doing something – I’m trying not to do something.’

‘Admirable.’

‘Maybe. Who likes to be told what to do?’

‘Don’t we need something else? To travel into Interzone, I mean?’

‘A Janus Cat, I believe.’

‘And where do we get one of those from?’

‘I’ll give my friend Erwin a call from The Superpositional Cat’s Home.’

‘OK, and we’re going to meet when?’

‘The Delayed Decision Experimental Art Gallery in front of The Persistence Of Memory Hokusai Wave Remix, with a Cinnamon Dolce Latte.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’

‘Because it is.’

006. Hexagram 6 – Conflict

A storm gathering – water moves away from sky. There is a Dragon moving through the mansions of heaven, wings spread wide, a tail like an arrow, claws like swords, skin like armour, jaws like a lion, eyes lit with a fierce intelligence. A long way were these magnificent creatures from the dumb fire breathing monsters that sealed maps, and which drunken knights filled tales with in taverns where they were too cheap to pay for a round, and exchanged instead by telling tall tales.

AIM remembered after his time descending down through layers of atmosphere, laying waste to villages, controlling entire kingdoms, subjugating people who he believed to be enslaved more by the failure of their imaginations than by anything he had done.

When he met his first group of people on a quest, he had laughed at them, and he had burned them to a crisp. The whole idea that they could pose a threat to him was laughable. But back in those days no one understood what he was – back then the surface was much more apparent and easy to deal with than any subtext that may have been there. No one could read him.

He discovered, back in that body, a traditonal Dragon exterior, that once you discover your own limits, it is as if you announce them to the world. Someone out there always hears the clarion call of your own doubt, and then they use it to come in and that blade is driven deep into you. A word sword driven deep been his ribs; a blade between the lines of his own story; and he remembered what he was … something born of Metaphor Tech; a symbol for the drift towards the end; entropy recast as a slow burning fire. He ceased to be in many ways just a Dragon; because wasn’t Ardenti In Mundo something else? Something more.

It was  Thursday. He was thirsty. Thor’s day – and everyone was sat around drinking in a trendy bar for water deities – Dear Trop. He’d been here before – he liked the place. It was a gamble though. Some days he might turn up and be welcomed, and some days he might turn up and they tried to put a bullet in his head.

As he stepped through the door Tiddy Mun emerged from the toilet and came running up to him and wrapped his arms around him.

‘You shouldn’t be here.’

‘Why’s that? The lines are being drawn, AIM; lines are being …

‘… written, don’t you mean?’

Saga stood up and moved towards him, a mug of brown ale in her hand, and she said: ‘Yes, written. But there’s someone trying to edit and redact things in order to push you where they want you to go. We’re all in danger, because none of us are as important to this person, or these people as you are.’

Ocean also came towards him, a stern look on his face, waving an image of Hexagram 6 at him. ‘This is not the time for Dragons. I know they talk of it. I know they talk of you. But you are not welcome here. We know of you – we know that you are a frozen story waiting to be told, but do not come here looking to use us as fuel – we will not brook it. Fire in a place where water flows – we will extinguish you. We are the stream of time, is this why are here? Here to unpause the Hokusai Wave that hangs above your landscape?’

‘I’m here to find a broken mirror.’

‘The broken mirror that reveals the torn map?’

‘How come everyone around me knows my story and I am stumbling around in ignorance?’

‘Because you chose that – a long time ago you chose that. You turned your cheek and you turned a deaf ear to it all. You are looking for Nimue, but good look finding her.’

‘Why?’

‘She’s an addict operating of an existential interstice; the moment before the pause of the wave. Her dealer drinks at Interzone, but getting her to speak English is going to be difficult. Getting past the narrative shell that boots up in her space is going to be hard.’

‘Why?’

‘How’s your Nadsat?’

‘Horrorshow.’

‘And Newspeak?’

‘Doubleplusgood. What’s she addicted to?’

‘She sucks Mugwump cock.’

‘Huh? OK, what’s her name?’

‘Olano.’

‘Thank you, Ocean.’

‘Good luck.’

They smiled at each other, and for a smile shared between Dragons, there was little warmth.

005. 451

He saw the man in the bar – he was not hard to spot, all those affectations crying out for attention; the man was like a walking SOS flare. AIM sat in the corner and he observed the man for the longest time. AIM had brought the book in his messenger bag – the same copy he’d bought all those years ago.

That book, like he told Ignem, had caused him so much trouble. He recalled all The Dragons he had spoken to; The Wyrms; The Hydra. This latest run in with The Cunning Folk. He didn’t subscribe to the notion of burning books, normally – that was evil, wasn’t it? But this was different – he had an investment in seeing this trash taken off the shelf.

How did you do that though? With a book like this? All those conspiracy books that were out there that linked people to different things, and made unsubstantiated claims? They were allowed to exist because the people writing them were dismissed as being nuts. Except by the problematic few who ate it up with a spoon.

The law wouldn’t go after the writers – at least he didn’t think they would. The law would only go after the people who acted upon the data; who did violent or disturbing things based upon what the books led them to believe. How could you prove a causal link between a book and an act. You could infer that it was the cause, right? Seek to ban it because of the thing it had caused. But the problem was, who in the mundane world was going to believe assertions that there were people that were actually Dragons? So here he was, sat in the same bar as the author of The Dragon’s Tongue.

He got up and he walked over and he plonked himself in the chair next to the guy. People who weren’t as lonely and as eager for attention might have responded by telling him to leave. This guy didn’t.

‘I have seen you watching me. Who are you? A fan? Something else? I don’t swing that way, though I’m flattered.’

‘You really don’t recognise me?’

‘No, why would I?’

‘Because you wrote this about me,’ he said, as he placed the book on the table.

‘You’re him. The First Dragon.’

‘I am, and I’m here to ask you to withdraw this book from circulation.’

‘Why?’

‘Because someone is going to get hurt because of it.’

‘So, you’re confirming that what I wrote is true?’

‘No, I’m not saying that.’

‘Then why would you care if t’s out there?’

‘Because people keeping coming to me and expecting something of me because of this book.’

‘Yes.’

‘What do you mean, yes?’

‘That what it is designed to do.’

‘Designed to do?’

‘Yes, designed.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘There are chains binding you to your fate. I am a link in that chain.’

‘Explain.’

‘Skein has been weaving a world around you to keep you where you are. But when the time is right, that will being to unravel.’

‘Why?’

‘You have been living in a caesuara, and the breath needs to be let out. The next part of the story needs to be told. Look, how do you think I would ever find out the data I put in that book, if someone didn’t sit me down and tell it to me.’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You do. And anyway, it isn’t a book – it’s part of you. I am part of you. I am something hidden in the map; I am The Dragon’s Tongue. I was speaking to the world for you and I was inviting them in – all those Lesser Dragons that came to speak to you were sent by me. It was a packet sniffer – one with a virus inside that triggered what was in these people. There are parts of you spread around, separated out; hidden. Why? Because they needed to lock you up until you were needed. Now you’ve found me, I am going to disappear.’

‘It seems a little early in my story for the big reveal.’

‘It isn’t.’

‘It isn’t?’

‘Isn’t the big reveal. This is a goad. This changes the direction of the narrative a little maybe; at least from your viewpoint, but it’s a story I and the person who changed me knew all along. And isn’t that how it works? Tell all the stories in the world that you want, but there are always going to be some that don’t get the full picture, but perhaps they have their own picture that is full for them. We’re bit part actors in other’s lives, but not usually our own, right?’

‘I suppose not. Though, as you have said – I am incomplete.’

‘But you’re putting the jigsaw together, aren’t you? When you leave this room I will cease to exist. I had a purpose, and I’ve fulfilled it. Find all the parts of the broken mirror, and you may understand. By starting the journey you may find the map.’

He shook the man’s hand. He was not sure why. He left the room. And a few steps onward he started to forget why he had come there; he forgot about the author who had never been; he forgot about the book that had never been written. He licked his lips, and he could taste more than he had tasted in a while; the scents and smells of this world seemed suddenly aflame with significance, with life. The Dragon’s Tongue awoke in his mouth, and something in The First Dragon awoke.