By ANDREW DARLINGTON
It starts with the dead frog. Up-and-overing the garage door, and it’s sitting there looking at him, Mercer Fenwick. It’s been a super-hot weekend. It must have got itself trapped in there, and baked… just slowly dehydrated. So it’s sitting there, as if mummified.
Then a fall-pipe is leaking beneath the sink, pulsing scummy water out across the kitchen floor. Time is tight, he’s hunting sealant as a temporary heal. Marilyn’s flustering around in exaggerated panic, ‘Mercer, Mercer, do something’. He’s fascinated by failure, it runs in the family. This is shaping up to be a great day. She’s found the plumber’s receipt from the previous catastrophe. He slumps down on the bottom stair, fingers messy with gunk and makes the call. A recorded voice. The line’s disconnected or the business has imploded. Fingers walking yellow pages. This time there’s a lazy drawl, yes… he can come, an hour, maybe two…
At last, hurry-stumbling the escalator into the tube underworld, there’s no free newspaper. I mean, the day’s just going totally to crap. A bored-stupid ride forced to see tuned-out fellow travelers wired into various devices, sat across from a troll direct from that Gollum movie. Until, emerging into the city, there’s an old-fashioned newsvendor stood on the corner of Slough Street. You got to look twice, but yes, the hunched-up guy in the flat hat is hawking broadsheet copies of the ‘Springville Morning Herald’ on the street, just like they used to do. Ignored by the crowd bustling by. So, why not… Mercer’s deprived of mindless celebrity goss, reality-TV updates, terrorist suspects, pervert priests and political gaffes as Nada Noone defends his incumbency in the ongoing gubernatorial election. Fumbling for small-change, but it doesn’t seem necessary. Maybe it’s another freebie launch?
The ‘Springville Morning Herald’ feels odd to the touch. But turning back momentarily, the vendor is gone. Or moved his pitch somewhere around the corner. Thinking about the frog. What a grotesque way to die. Heat-levels sizzling away its groggy moistness into crisp flakes. Air heat-shimmering. Leaving it a frail paper-thin replica. And scummy water seeping across the kitchen floor. Water deprivation, and an unwanted excess of same. No balance. Life out of kilter, dropping into free fall.
Coffee cures most ills. It’s only later, between calls, that attention drifts back to the newspaper. And it’s odd, coarse newsprint paper, black-and-white photos made up of visible half-tone dot-patterns. Ads for fridges and old-fashioned TVs. Products he’s never heard of. Flicking back to the masthead and yes, the date is 9 July 1947. Why is the vendor shoving mock-up papers over sixty years old? But the paper is not faded or yellowed, it’s crisp and new. Is this a promotion for a new film or TV download box-set series? Or a hidden-camera scam to test reactions… in which case – no cameras here!
Words bounce around the big wide pages. Christian Dior designs on the fashion spread. Ex-king Carol II of Romania marries Mme Magda Lupescu in exile in Rio de Janeiro. The disputed partition of India as the British withdraw, ‘Birth Of Two New Free Dominions’. ‘No Details As RAAF Captures Flying Disk On Ranch In Roswell Region.’ Who wants yesterday’s papers…? Shrug.
It’s only later, traveling out back to the burbs that the paper gets even closer scrutiny, if only to avoid being forced to see tuned-out fellow travelers. And there, page three, there’s a report of local elections. The new governor is Nada Noone… wait. Ideas come in a slow pulse. Turn back, there’s a photo. A blurry indistinct shot of a man in an overcoat and slouch hat shaking hands and smiling. He’s the new governor. The same man as the current incumbent. But of course, I can’t be. Must be a father-son continuity, or even a grandfather dynasty of governors? No need to even get your butt up off the seat about it. Mercer doesn’t understand this damn thing, but it’s just one more small nagging irritation in life. Like leaking fall-pipes. And most of his interior conversations are like this, as sharp and perceptive as an extinction-level asteroid.
He phones home ahead. Wasn’t there a 1970s porn video…? The lonely housewife, the hunky plumber with the big moustache. Or was that SuperMario on the gamebox. Marilyn’s between positions, since she was freed up by local bank closures, everyone banks online now don’t they? So she’s temporarily there for the plumber when he calls to fix the kitchen leak. And all those small irritations have resolved themselves as the day progresses.
And as evening sets in, and the TV drones mindlessly, there’s no need to even leave the house. Every small-town used to have its local newspaper. There are archives of the ‘Springville Morning Herald’ online. It’s possible to flick back through decades. But not as far as 9 July 1947. So, do a search for Nada Noone, and there’s a wiki biog and some policy statements. Re-election, but no indication of how many re-elections he’s fought. Surely there’s some maximum tenure limitation? Think this through. ‘Nada’ is Spanish for ‘nothing’. Noone could also be written no-one!
You have to be smart to be complicated. We can’t tell the future. Maybe we can’t tell the past any more either? Failure runs in the family. By now Mercer Fenwick is in a hypersensitive state where his whole body seems to be covered with exposed, frayed nerve-endings, with his mind whirling in a spiral of nothingness where no coherent thought will stick in place for longer than a few seconds at a time. This is stupid. It doesn’t matter. But it’s irritating.
Tomorrow, no dead frogs. No kitchen disasters. A freebie tabloid at the head of the tube escalators. No newsvendor on the corner of Slough Street. Almost disappointing. At lunch-break he heads for Central Library. No, there are no filed back-issues, but there was once a news-microfisch project where issues had been scanned in. The librarian seems vague, and has to consult her superior. Yes, the microfisch is still there. She leads the way into an annexe where the viewer is stored. But it, too, does not extend back far enough. Except for an indexing system of extracted items. A search for Carol II of Romania turns up no results. Nada Noone turns up no results. ‘Roswell’ is positive. He scrolls through to the relevant pages, and yes, it’s there. The same issue. Except page three carries a story about an auto accident resulting in the hospitalization of the driver and minor injuries to his wife. The feature fills exactly the column spaces as the Nada Noone story. Which is genuine? Blowing up the image there’s a thin mismatch line, barely perceptible without the closest scrutiny. But the texture-whiteness of the paper is not the same, the auto accident feature has been superimposed onto the fisch at some later date.
Roswell was aliens. Everyone knows that UFO Area 51 myth. Were the incidents connected? Have some details been systematically falsified. And if Noone, who else?
It’s a full week later that, emerging from the subway, there’s the old-fashioned newsvendor standing on the corner of Slough Street. A scuffed hobo-figure ignored by the crowd bustling by, but yes, the hunched-up man in the flat hat is there hawking broadsheets, just like he was the last time. You got to look twice, Mercer Fenwick, just to make sure. Then sidle across, never once losing sight of the man.
‘It’s hot out here. You look like you could do with a coffee?’
He looks up. ‘Would that be wise? You really think so?’
He indicates a ‘Café Vie’ diner franchise across the road. The vendor shrugs. Once inside Mercer orders a white Americano – and a mineral water as an afterthought, then they retire to an alcove.
‘Tell me about Nada Noone. I don’t understand how he can be continuously in office for fifty years.’
The vendor opens his mouth. Then closes it. He’s not as old as Mercer had at first supposed, late twenties, no more. But the bumps of tension along his jaw, the attentive expression and the sweaty highlights developing around his forehead and mouth provide clear indication of deviousness. But then again, he’s seen High Court Judges with the weaselly faces of pickpockets.
The vendor looks around, to left and right, then leans forward, elbows on the tabletop. ‘They control perception. You’ve worked it out that far? They got a base on Iapetus, moon of Saturn, from where they replace prominent humans with positronic simulacra.’
‘You’re telling me that Noone is a robot?’
‘Of course that’s not true’ he picks up a pizza-knife from the table-stand. ‘If they control your perception why choose a frigid distant moon like Iapetus. Why not a Pacific island, a remote desert valley… or right here, in plain sight in the city?’
Mercer fights the impulse to get up and go, and sips the mineral water instead. ‘Why would they do that?’
‘It’s a nice planet, but open to abuse. Left to your natural inclinations there’d be nuclear war or worse, rendering the property worthless.’ He saws the knife-blade playfully across his splayed fingers.
‘So you save us from Cold War? Thanks for that.’
The knife goes in, a see-saw motion. The index finger severs bloodlessly between the knuckle and first joint. In crawling horror Mercer watches the vendor pick up the amputated digit with his remaining fingers, extends it across the table, and drops it effortlessly into the mineral water. Transfixed he watches the finger re-growing, a pale pink cylinder extends from the stub, a knuckle and nail forming, patterning in new fingerprints. He looks down into the glass, there’s a small curled tendril, a flexing tentacle floating in a hiss of aerated bubbles.
‘Drink me, go on. Unlike you, our brain-matter is not concentrated, but evenly distributed through the DNA in all cellular tissue.’
Mercer lifts the glass. No… revulsion hits him low in the gut, he can’t do it. It’s disgusting. Then he gulps it in one massive swallow. It hits his tongue, squirming and spasming, coiling and uncoiling up across the roof of his mouth, suckers sinking into the soft tissue of his palette. Inoculations drilling up in needles of ice. An urge to projectile vomit, smashed back, then forward across the table. Vile shocks rip in dizzy waves, canting him over into darkness. Black. Black. Black. Black stars spinning in white space. Slow nebulae swimming in silver tides. Acid skies scratched open by black meteors. A cacophony of cracked voices, hair burning with phosphor. He’s precipitated into Hieronymus Bosch landscapes convulsing in gravity-waves of obscene tortures. Narcotic tides of spewing filth, a monstrous war of infinite factions across time, tentacular limbs threshing across dimensions, slithering through layers of extinguished reality...
The multi-story overlooks the pedestrian precinct. The high-velocity rifle hunched into his shoulder. The alien voice speaking in his head. The ripple still embedded into the roof of his mouth, pulsing its drip of truths. Directing him to seek out the correct weaponry. To rehearse and perfect what he must do. The telescopic crosshairs swim into focus. A circle of drones hover above. Figures move across the public space far below, from city hall towards the waiting stretch limo. Flanked by blue-toothed outriders with mirror shades. A familiar figure strides between them. Await the moment, then squeeze the trigger, slow and easy. The recoil smashes back into his shoulder…
Nada Noone malfunctions as the projectile smashes away the outer casing of its head. Circuits and component-spirals spray, in a silicon and Perspex shrapnel. He glitches, twitches, freezes, and collapses. Flopping down like something deflated. Reality lurches around them, in roaring bursts. Quivers of energy shimmering outwards… each distortion blinks, eclipsing glimpses of the grotesque transfigurations taking place.
The first drone laser-pinpoints Mercer Fenwick in his last moments of freedom.
Twenty years later, emerging into the city, Harvey’s tablet is down. No data-feed updates on the ongoing gubernatorial election. But there’s an old-fashioned newsvendor standing on the corner of Slough Street. He has to look twice, but yes, the hunched-up hobo-figure in the flat hat is hawking broadsheets on the street, just like they used to do. Ignored by the crowd bustling by. So, why not…
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Thursday, April 27, 2017
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