Wednesday, 28 January 2015

That would drive me_



Chuck was driving. 

He was at the wheel of a vintage Bugatti: a convertible, with the top down. It was a warm evening, and the streets of the city were narrow, interesting, different. As he slowed to take a bend, a bevy of girls smiled at him: he must have really looked the business dressed in the tailored shirt he had bought that morning. He hadn’t been here long, and he was still getting used to the language: he spoke French, but it was a little rusty after so many years. J’adore Paris

How would he strike up a conversation? He mentally went through it: Je suis Chuck. No, nobody in France would have been called “Chuck”, and they would probably have trouble pronouncing it. Like the Professor did with “Verity”. 

La Verité. Forty-two hours of work a week, she had told him, here in the European Union, and the rest of the time to do with as he will: sunshine, fine food and wine, rest. It would be like a dream. Twenty-two hours of work a day, she had said, That would drive me

And then her sentence had abruptly come to a halt. Why? What had she been going to say, that had had such an effect on her? She had blushed so deeply, not just her face but her neck, her shoulders...practically her entire body. Then she had swiftly changed the subject. To food, as usual. Tout manger, rien dire... She must have been going to say something true, obviously, but something she did not want him to hear. Something secret, perhaps? No, Verity was a bit more careful than that. Except for that time when the Professor had got her talking, on a glass of wine before eating and after a long day’s travel. That was cruel of him. That would drive me_ then Verity had apologised: perhaps she had stopped short because it was something that might have hurt his feelings? What, though? 

Back to more practical matters: what if the smiling girls had wanted to talk to him. How would his name translate into French?...Aha: Je suis Charlie, that’s it. As he took the next corner, what should he see right in front of him but a poster, on one of those advertising-columns, the type that were just everywhere here, with a cartoon of a hand grasping a pen and the words: 

JE SUIS CHARLIE 

The terrorist attack two years ago: Charlie Hebdo. Hebdomadaire, from the Greek for seven: weekly. And the more he looked, the more of these there were: graffiti, newspaper headings, flags, posters in people’s windows...Je suis Charlie

I am...what had Verity said in her interrogation under narco-analysis? I am, la Verité: no need for the truth drug. That would drive me

The streets were emptying of cars as the night progressed. He found he was able to put his foot down on some of the longer straight stretches. Je suis Charlie. 

What if Verity were here with him? The car had no seat-belts: she would think of the fate of Princess Diana, right here in Paris. That would drive me

Perhaps one of the girls who had waved at him earlier? They might be less bothered by the risk.  Je suis Charlie...Where would he like to take her? He still had the second Rohypnol that he was supposed to have given Verity but didn’t because he wanted to keep it: you never know. But Verity had said that using Rohypnol for this sort of thing was cowardly. Lâche

That would drive me_  good grief. Nearly forty and never had a girlfriend. Never really had time. No wonder his country’s population figure was dropping like a stone. Verity referred to the USA as ‘The Evening Lands’; now he could understand why. Here in Paris there were plenty of young people. Je suis Charlie... 

cent- quarante kilomètres a l’heure... cent-soixante kilomètres a l’heure...Quai Voltaire...towards the Palais Bourbon where the road would swing to the left_ 

Je suis Charlie... that would drive me

            Je suis Charlie... that would drive me

                        Je suis Charlie... that would drive me

His heart was pounding in time... Je suis Charlie ...faster... That would drive me_  

Before he knew it he had lost control at the wheel. The car smashed sideways into the low wall and, without a seatbelt, he was catapulted over it and into the river. 

He woke up in his cot in the lab, bathed in a cold sweat. 

Verity: your goddamned puns

But she was telling the absolute truth about where those twenty two hours of work a day were driving him. 

Sleep-E-Z, the dream-suppressor that allowed a body to get by on 90 minutes of sleep a night, was banned in the European Union. He would have to come off it completely if he were to have any chance of living his dream.


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Elizabethan code

Mills was on his third Bourbon. 

The waitress came and replaced the candle at their table. Verity had finished her sorbet and was enjoying a coffee. 

“You know”, said Mills, “I wasn’t quite telling you the whole story when I said that Queen Elizabeth was merely hoping that somebody would preserve the English Method”

“Oh?”

“She, shall we say, made arrangements. She had an encryption expert to hand, remember? John Dee. Plus of course the ring of spies everybody learns about at school: all experts in creating texts with concealed messages. Now, learning the Method, it’s like learning to play Chess. There are the basics, and then, well, the finer points. Stratagems. Tactics. Subtleties. You’d need an awful lot of text if you wanted to conceal that little lot. And yet, you’d also need it to be available to the entire nation. So, where d’you think she stashed it?”

“Erm, in the laws they passed?”

“Good first guess, but no. Those stayed in London. You’d want it in something that everybody would be able to get hold of. Something that spread around the whole country. Diffused. Became part of the place. And, frankly, something a bit easier to read and remember than laws”

“Songs? Madrigals and things? They were often used to convey news_” 

“Getting warmer. Now: your mum’s maiden name_”

“You’re joking, right?”

“What better place to hide a complex set of instructions than in the thirty-seven most famous plays in the English language? Clever, eh?”

The more Verity thought about it, the more impressed she was with the idea: plays, especially if written to a rhythm, would never be subject to copying errors or other changes with time: like a digital signal, their words would always be retrievable in the event of accidental change. And as if that weren’t enough, there would always be a body of actors each of whom would know parts of them by heart: enough so that they could be reconstructed in the event of anything short of the country’s total annihilation. 

There were only two problems.

“When I was asking the Professor everything, I, er, wasn’t exactly using iambic pentameters, though, was I?”

“Well, no. That rhythm, it’s like the carrier frequency on a radio broadcast. The actual information is combined onto it. The rhythm makes it easy to remember: easy to carry. The information itself, it’s not in iambic pentameters. It’s, the rest” 

Verity thought this was just brilliant. 

“And finally, I hardly know the plays. I don’t think I could even name them all_”

“Mills, why the mischievous grin?” 

“Count the syllables of those last two sentences, lass” 

Verity counted them through. 

“There’s resonance. Isn’t there?” 

“This is fascinating and I wish I could ask you more, but...who’re they?” 

Several figures in uniform had just come in and looked as if they were casing the joint. 

“Bugger. My accent. Sorry, Mills. I should have left the talking to you: I bet you can do anybody’s convincingly, can’t you?” 

“Aye lass. Now, we have to move sharpish. Grab your bag and, I’m sorry but, my pulse, quick. We’ll not travel long: I know a place we can safely stay the night”

Monday, 26 January 2015

Strictly legal




“I’d...rather sit next to you, if you don’t mind, than sit facing you across the table...”

They took their seats, in one of the darker corners of the restaurant. A candle lit the table. 

“May I ask why?”

“The professor...got me to say too much. Facing me. He, stared at me. It’s...done something. It’s difficult, I sort of can’t trust. And the worst thing of all is that I know it was my own stupid fault. Telling all that stuff, to someone I didn’t know...” 

“But you thought you did know him, didn’t you? You believed him to be Professor Milgram, about whom you had read so much, and whom you admire. Now I know that the real Milgram was no angel, but I do not believe he would have done such a thing to you, a foreign guest. Were you an academic rival, and a threat, that might have been a different matter. Anyway, it’s good that we can both see across the room: you never know_” 

“Yes. I suppose, not everyone’s going to be happy that I’ve done a bunk. From the sodding Pentagon. Of all places. That's why I wanted a bargain. Graceful way out; leave them with a something” 

“You may find it difficult to choose what to eat, lass. This is often the case with people who have been denied their liberty. Would you like me to help? I can use a strand of your hair, and that candle flame. The flame’s colours will tell me what minerals you need” 

Verity smiled. “Be my guest. And I promise not to laugh this time” 

Her hair was still very short after her decision following the Rathlin business. Mills had to hold the strand using the sugar-tongs. 

“You are short of...everything, lass. This is the profile of a famine victim.  And yet, you do not appear to have lost weight. Do you know_” 

“It was a drink: soya. And they had to give me a special enzyme or else I couldn’t digest it. I kept throwing up. Uh, sorry...” 

The waitress came over. 

Verity chose quickly: “Fish chowder and, surf-and-turf please” 

“Fries or salad?” 

“Salad, please” 

“How d’ya like it?” 

Verity was stumped. 

“Rare, please” said Mills 

“Thanks. And 7-up, please” 

“How ‘bout you, sir?” 

“Just a bourbon, thank you” 

“Mills...now it’s quiet, and we’ve got the chance to talk, may I ask you something?” 

“You’ve no questions owed, lass” 

“This isn’t really one of our questions. It’s, kind-of, General Knowledge. Except that I don’t know it: that’s why I’m asking.  They kept going on about something called the English Method. Military types visited me. They were sure I’d know it. Just because I’m English. And...I just don’t. Some kind of...interrogation, thing. Can you shed any light on it?” 

“Aye, lass that I can. The English Method, that’s what rendered all the, technology, shall we call it, in ‘not your favourite venue’, obsolete. Queen Elizabeth the first wanted to abolish the lot of it. Not only did it disgust her, but more practically, it just didn’t deliver. I mean, you’d say anything, wouldn’t you, to stop the pain_” 

“Please don’t_” 

“Come on, lass: ‘Not afraid of the answers’, remember? Anyway, that’s the worst bit over with. She had an advisor at one time, a chap called John Dee. Ever heard of him?” 

“The Astrologer and Alchemist type?” 

“He was into everything. And Queen Elizabeth, she was like you: wanted to know all about all of it. She spent a lot of time studying with him: maps, stars, codes, theology, minds, the lot. And, you know, during Queen Mary’s reign, before this, Dee temporarily became a Catholic. Very practical if you ask me: kept his job as an inquisitor.” 

Verity’s face fell at the final word. 

“And his head, of course. But the conversion process taught him something. It wasn’t done by force. What happened, if you were a high-up and they had the time, was an invitation to dine with some Bishops or wot-not, and an evening’s chat about the finer points of theology. The inquisitor’s job was to sort of facilitate. Sometimes this went on for a week. After which, you were offered the chance to, in this case, come to Mass with them. The other way ‘round, it would have been to recant it all and say some vows. Dee went through both. It struck him, how much more effective this process was than the use of force. 

"And once in Court, he took this idea to the Queen. Together they developed the Method. It relies upon the process of conversion, or of answering the questions, whichever it may be, being made pleasurable. There has to be a resonance. The, er, people asking the questions” Mills didn’t want to use any harsher words at this point, “had to somehow show they cared, but also that they were in control. Do you know the quickest way of doing that?”

“No idea. I’m not very good with that sort of thing. Actually, I’m clueless” 

Mills lowered his voice, and asked very softly, “What do I do, lass, when I ask something of you?” 

“I’ve...I’ve no idea, Mills...” Verity began to feel apprehensive.  “You...burned my hands...” 

“Oh, Verity lass, no. Is that how you think of me?” 

“No...you...rescued me. But the time in the lab... no daylight, next-to-no sleep, no dreams, no idea of time, no proper food, no fresh air or exercise, not knowing what was happening anywhere...it’s doing my head in. I can’t think straight. I can’t remember what you_” 

Mills stole his hand around her left wrist: her pulse was even more eccentric than usual. 

“Ah...that” 

The soup arrived. Verity set to with gusto. “Mmmm...” and promptly put one hand to her face and, with the phrase that she had become so used to using, “I’ll be alright in a minute...really...” ran off to a door at the back of the room. Mills didn’t quite know what to do. When the waitress came, he put his hand across the bowl. 

Verity re-appeared, looking a lot more compos mentis. And promptly picked up her spoon and finished the soup as if nothing had happened. 

“You’d have made a good Roman, lass” 

She carried on asking about the English Method, again as if nothing had happened. 

“But, if it works so well, why didn’t it catch on? Why isn’t everybody using it?” 

“It sounded too soft. Elizabeth was a woman ahead of her time. And it’d have put all the torture technicians out of a job. They were a powerful lobby. So they made certain it all got hushed up. And of course James was born in Edinburgh. Elizabeth had to choose: peace between the two countries, or preserve the Method. Tough choice. She chose peace, hoping, I suppose, that somebody would preserve, and eventually revive, the Method.” 

“So, somehow it survived the ages, in secret and unused, but we all instinctively know it, people who are English?” 

“That’s what the Evening Landers believe. I think they’re sore because they lost it, with their Independence. They want it back. They think you owe it them.” 

“Does it still work?” 

“It works even today because, as someone at Cambridge only last year definitively proved, everyone in modern society is living under stress. Telling the truth relieves stress, therefore telling the truth feels pleasurable. You yourself are a fundamentally happy person, are you not, because you never feel the urge to lie” 

Verity thought it was more the case that she was lucky never to have to lie. 

“Verity, I have used it, well, part of it, on you” 

Really?” 

“Yes. Sorry to have to mention it again but, the Iron Maiden. Did you get hurt at all that night? No. But, were you scared almost witless? Yes. All I did was talk: talk softly, with particular rhythms, particular cadences. And have your pulse. I gave you to trust me: in this case, to trust that I would really use the ruddy thing on you. I hadn’t the slightest intention of letting it anywhere near you. You do know that, don’t you? Anyroad, that is the better-known, more basic part of the English Method: it can be used for unpleasant purposes. It has taken me decades to learn simply that part.” 

“Oh” 

“And I have had the privilege, earlier today, of watching you use the least well-known, most subtle parts of the Method, to great effect. On the Professor, no less.” 

Verity was gobsmacked 

“My appearance put him in a state of fear, your gentleness asking the questions soothed that fear. Again, it’s a matter of tones, rhythm, cadences. When you listen to your music, some of it moves you deeply, doesn’t it? And some of it, simply leaves you cold. With, questioning_” 

Why has Verity suddenly become so sensitive to this subject, I wonder? 

“...it’s exactly the same. Did you not used to sing to your children to soothe them? Plus, you had your hand on his pulse because you had first asked about his heart: you were looking for a resonance. Genius” 

The steak arrived. Talking was suddenly passé. 

“You’ve still got that little card, haven’t you?” 

She nodded, indicating the front of her dress. “You know”, she said, “it’s probably got the previous stuff on it as well. I noticed that it had been edited: edited to make me sound...make me...” 

“I understand, lass” 

“It’s obviously got a lot more, as my son would put it, functionality, than simply recording and replaying one set of data. Hey, I bet it’s got loads of stuff on it...” 

“Verity, there is a black strand in your thoughts” 

“Rubbish. Just curiosity, Mills” 

She finished her steak and mussels. 

“What’ve they got for dessert?” 

“Black Forest Gateau?” 

“Nah, I’d rather have a lemon sorbet, thanks”

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Escape from the Pentagon




Verity and Chuck sat for a while in silence in the lab, appreciating the tangy energy of the glucose sweets. 

“You’ll soon be home, won’t you?” 

“Yes...” Verity couldn’t put her feelings into words: there weren’t the words. The garden. Her wine. Her Party. A full English with her family... 

Mills came in. 

“Where’s the Professor?” 

“Let’s just say that he and I, we’ve had a little talk. He is, thinking something over” 

“Mills”, said Verity accusingly, “What have you done with him?” 

“Never you mind, lass” 

Mills continued, “Chuck, we’ll go through to the other laboratory if you don’t mind. And, I’ll say goodbye now” They shook hands. “You can get your cot out and have a nice long kip: the Professor will be gone for several hours” 

Mills conducted Verity through to her lab, closed the door and asked her to make sure all the sound was off. They watched through the window as Chuck got out his cot and lay gratefully down on it, having given himself his Sleep-E-Z shot first. Charity was still gone. They were alone. 

“Now then. First of all the pleasant part: I would like you to tell me of any place, not too far from where we are now, that you would like to go to immediately” 

Verity looked puzzled 

“I shall explain, lass. Getting away from this building, from the Pentagon, is no simple matter. The doors require passes. There are guards: all mind-readers, who will immediately understand your intentions, and indeed the fact that you are a foreigner. I can diffuse through the walls: you are mortal, and very obviously cannot. I can diffuse into the air outside the building: you are a solid object and will be homed in upon by the flying devices they have here for shooting down hostile, er, flying devices. Do you understand?” 

“I think so” 

“The only way of getting you out of here is to turn you into pure fear, like me. It will not feel pleasant for you” 

Verity reached for the travel sweets and took one. 

“Good idea lass. What it will feel like for you, I am guessing here, is the state of mind in which you found yourself, in front of the Iron Maiden. Do you remember that?” 

Verity blanched 

“I see you do. Now, how do I read your thoughts, Verity?” 

“When I am in fear, you just read them” 

“And when you are calm. What do I do?” 

“You, feel my pulse, don’t you?” 

“Aye. Now, has it ever occurred to you that I, too, have a pulse?” 

“I’d never thought to ask. It seemed a bit, kind of personal” 

“My pulse, like yours, conveys thoughts_” 

“But I’ve been inside your mind-palace. It was cold, and_” she stopped a while, “but, it wasn’t exactly terrifying for me” 

“Let me use an example, from the field you used to study. Actually, fields, yes. There are static fields, are there not, and there are the dynamics: the waves and what have you, yes?” 

Verity thought back to her time as a researcher: electromagnetics. She had never found it easy, but she loved it nonetheless. She had always wished that she could have seen the fields and waves: it might even have made the maths a bit easier. 

“Well, what you walked through in my mind palace, that’s the statics: the things that are always there. The waves, my dynamic thoughts, come and go. It is this dynamic field that is reflected in my pulse. And in yours” 

He bared one of his wrists, and gently took her left hand

“Now, a little practice session. Five seconds. I suggest you try and summon some of the things you learned in the Orient: it was calming for you, doing Taiji in that park, no?” 

“Yes. I shall try” 

“Ready?” 

Verity’s mind blanked out in pure terror for five seconds 

“Hmm. I wish we had more time to work on this, Verity. Perhaps it would help if you told me where you would like this, form of transport, to take you?” 

“Yes! The nearest branch of Legal Seafoods! I could murder some proper food...” 

Verity felt her mouth water 

“Very well. Ten seconds. Try thinking about that. It might give you strength” 

Verity found herself unable to think about food 

“Ah, I can see why that is not going to work: your mortal’s Adrenaline. It suppresses the desire for food” 

Verity took another travel sweet 

“Temporarily, yes it does”, she said. 

“What about if I just think about the Iron Maiden? I know it sounds batty. But I escaped unscathed, didn’t I? I could try and remember that: that the feeling will not last for long and will soon be over. That is how I got through Labour. That is what keeps me from poisoning myself when I get migraine: the knowledge that it will come to an end” 

“Very well. We shall try that. We shall persist until we find something that works. Fifteen seconds?” 

“OK...” 

No...please...no...not that... 

“That was better. At least there were words, not just terror” 

“How long will it take us? To get to Legal Seafoods?” 

“About five minutes, that is all” 

Three hundred seconds... 

“Now. Your belongings. There are your necklaces and rings_” 

She put them all back on 

“There are your Russian boots” 

She slipped off the indoor shoes and put on her boots 

“Anything of yours in any of the other rooms?” 

“No”. She took down her coat and put it on, and picked up her rucksack. 

“My travel sweets...” 

“I have several tins” 

“Then, I shall take this one next door and leave it for Chuck. He seemed to like them” 

She took it through. Chuck was fast asleep. As she slipped it under his pillow, she noticed that the syringe of Sleep-E-Z was not quite empty. Well that’s interesting

Au revoir. Bonnes rêves” 

She came back through. 

“And that is all you brought here?” 

“Yes. I like to travel light. What time is it out there, by the way?” 

As if there were no time in here... 

“It is the best time: just before six in the evening. We shall have cover of darkness, but also time to eat. Then we shall find somewhere to sit out the night, and we shall leave the Evening Lands just before dawn. For the journey across the Atlantic, you need not_” 

“Thank god for that! Yes I understand” 

And now I can enjoy five whole minutes of Verity’s beautiful, white fear...fear without object, pure like my own...make the most of it, lad...