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Smithereens

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The Man Whose Head Exploded

Brank Osmen's head parted the city in slow surging waves, immense clouds of powdered glass and concrete getting in his eyes. Not too shabby, but more than he bargained for. As his forehead barged twenty blocks of offices and hotels into the river, he knew the truth makes no exceptions.

Headgloves had become popular when plastic surgery was found to be insufficient. Twitches of human expression would sometimes disarrange and disturb the desired blandness – headgloves avoided this problem by being entirely artificial, a whole-head mask. These became thicker over the years, incorporating embedded nano servo-motors to replicate certain select expressions. People could buy celebrity heads, the deader the eyes the higher the price. The real head of a headglove wearer had to be surgically shrunken to roughly the size of a potato. People wore the headglove their whole lives, their real head shrivelled and forgotten. Some, rich only in money, had their actual head dwindled to the size of a maggot.

The Contraflow Revolutionary Army fought alone, without any lies to help them. Their enemy seemed a weak one, a people who were helpless without disguise and feared honesty like fire. Contraflow favoured girls who exploded out of nowhere with huge tiger smiles, faces of a thousand muscles and two-handled gullwing sedan guns with retro Gatling drums the size of turnstiles. The media's misinterpretation prerogative named them the Nobhead Liberation Army and Brank liked this so much he changed the name officially, laughing the big laugh.

You could tell who was under a mask - smiles didn't reach the eyes, the eyes were false and rain bounced off. Dr Buck's compound, administered by intravenous dart, reversed the head-shrinkage process and the public got their first view of this when a chat-show host's outer head spatted suddenly like a snipered melon, crumbling open to make way for a swelling grey abomination. His real head, which hadn't seen the light of day for forty years, squalled like a child against a dark caul of mould and steaming slime, several cockroaches darting to escape the sudden exposure. Overnight the Nobhead Liberation Army became oppression excuse number one. The authorities asserted that the assaults on headgloves were not activated by a desire to dispose of headgloves: why would anyone? Knowing that a crime investigation was doomed if the motive was so strenuously denied, Brank felt safe.

The Army's headquarters was upstairs from an old chapel fronted by relay monks who dispensed ominous looks to entrants and clasped precaution razors between their prayhands. The night of his weekly broadcast Brank made the sign of the Errorverse and entered. Not for him an imprecise, amateur apocalypse open to interpretation. Upstairs he passed a rack of carbines and the modified jacuzzi in which several gallons of Dr Buck's incendiary antidote swirled, enough for a city.

Brank loved how much people hated his adolescent doorframe sermonising and so did a lot of other people. A thriving trade had begun in the sound files. He sat at the broadcast desk now and gathered his thoughts, feeling as useless as a hen on a garbage island. Usually he couldn't wait to finish one insult to the populace before beginning the next. He looked up at the skylight roof, and the striplamp swaying on its chain like a bit of sky come loose. Man was he one fried monkey.

Opening the mike, he began. 'This is the Nobhead Liberation Army. You've heard me say that part of enlightenment is knowing when you're being ripped off. Regret is a rope at the other end of which is a younger version of you, all full of beans and acting like a moron. It's not rebellion if they just sold it to you. The opposite of revolution is a script. But when the time comes to realise this, you continue replacing hours with the same hours. You select only from those options presented you by other people and so occupy a lifelong abyss of misdirection. You've been shafted, so what the hell are you grinning at?

'If people truly don't return from the dead, then humanity is constantly passing out of the world and something is being lost - yet there are still bodies and bodies and bodies, moving and talking. Does this explain the increasing blandness, the diminishing thought, the dead eyes? What is passing out of the world, and not returning, is spirit. At what point did street bribes stop paying cops to leave off criminals and begin paying cops to leave off victims? Such trickling transitions are silent as sap. Non-totalitarian governments exist because some populaces are naturally servile or distractible enough not to require a totalitarian one. This one has taken misdirection to intergalactic extremes. Even our tyrants are mostly ornamental. And the headglove is a godsend to this evasion, a mask incapable of anger, doubt, appetite or intelligent scorn, nor the freedom of being an ugly, honest cunt. The new flesh, bright zombie, going one younger. Moods without weather. And the utter sadness of generations not knowing what they've betrayed. Born into this artificiality with no intervening stages, they walk through life as if they have an appointment with their own ghost, a blameless blank crippled by appearances, living a philosophy which has its sensations only in imitation. They're so timid of their own skin that they live like a spirit departing or never present, immaculately inauthentic. They're the dead merely held in reserve.

'But things are more interesting than that. Earlier today I trod on a spider and it made a sound like the pip of an automatic car lock. Now tell me this world's not a weird one.

'If you tape the average man's mouth shut he'll lie through his nose. That's undisputed. But we have to ask, what will be the last words spoken on this planet? Concrete cannot complete the universe. The derelict society glitters, celebratory with weakness. Facts are acknowledged only when the events they relate to are far in the past and safely irrelevant. Rare outbreaks of commonsense are stifled and ignored by the media, never heard of. Fatuous influences shrug off the brain for reasons of balance. Warnings of catastrophe are dismissed as mere “warnings of catastrophe” but soon the little patronised problems of chance will be lethal. I await the brave dismay of the honest. Love has the innards of grief.

'Careful: a uniform is a dice. The Nobhead Liberation Army is slandered but who among you has witnessed a more reasonable frenzy than ours? Who has not experienced the desire to tear off his own face in the midst of society's bullshit? Don't decorate my name with importance. You can't name the saints of true atrophy – the label slips amid our rotting flesh. Irrational perspectives decide the angle of our wounds. We will crash your mind and serve a feast of discouragement. You can tame the loops out of my head when I'm fucking dead. We won't succeed, finally. But after all, what's the point of being doomed in a variety of ways?

'Riddle me this: who are you? It's hard to see a system of which you are part. It's hard to see your own eyes. You pay to make fools of yourselves. To hear your own veins drying up. Don't mistake intensity for hostility, mate - some people have things to do. You're a bloodless, clueless wanker and you think you're great - and that's why I get fundamentally disappointed.'

A blare of noise interrupted him, a helicopter above the skylight. 'Put it down, put it down!' came a cry through a loudhailer. 'Desist!'

'How are you spelling that?' Brank yelled, pulling his Daewoo only to sling it away at the end of the motion, all strength gone from his arm – the gun clattered into a corner. His shoulder was bleeding and skylight glass powdered the floor like sugar. There were booming shots from downstairs and as he reached for one of the gullwings a soldier entered. Brank swung and two rashers of uniform flew in different directions.

Then something slapped him in the head. The hot wind from it surprised him. Blood looped out behind him, hitting the wall. It was a graffiti exclaiming 'O'. He'd known he'd end this enterprise utterly licked against a drystone wall, shot-up and bucking in dust, but now it was happening he felt as dumb as an adult in a teacup ride. To be insulted by these fascists was so degrading.

Blood hanging out of his face, he fell backward into Buck's vat.

Feeling squirly, he could still see cloud above the skylight roof. It seemed to be getting closer. Then the window frames were pressing against his face like a griddle. They burst outward and he continued to swell, his head tilting aside so he could see the neighbourhood getting smaller. His head was expanding like a slow bomb, his body a useless doll beneath it. The house began to crumple, dust exploding down the surrounding streets. He felt like hell and tried screaming the fact. Confronted with a massive head momentarily capable of opinion, the authorities were unprepared. Brank was dilating across districts, his head a confusion ball of white and pink fat arching through a spritzed halo of bloodcloud. Power lines spanged, fizzing out. Upheaval edges powdered to rubble. He was making good on his promise to replace glamour with swampy death, to the extent that he was now breaking through a bridge as a train shot up his nose. Of all the ways I expected to die, he thought, this seemed the least likely. The train passengers were having similar thoughts. Sonic booms shattered windows as tectonic skull plates changed position.

Beyond a certain reach he began losing integrity. Dilating blood vessels tore and brain canals broke. Veins whipped open, hosing the town and tangling with spires. An eye burst like a water-bomb. A tumbling onward wall of cortex was rolling through its own pink rain, proportions stretching, blasting through whole blocks before exploding finally and washing a cascade of wreckage through the tilted city. His last thought was, To live past hope, like walking into thin air ...

A slow-motion shower of shredded brainweb like cotton candy floated down on the ruins. Nerve netting stretched between bridges and towers. Pink scum foamed the river. Seagulls picked at the tangle of disease-ridden flesh in yellow liquid. Streets were clogged with dark, hardened gore. The decade-long task began of clearing the slurried headflesh and dismantling the titanic skull which, rested on its side, was almost a mile tall from cheekbone to cheekbone.

Even dismantled it was inconvenient. As in any conflict, false motives had to be set in place. But with this strange episode, invention failed. Humanity had to use time to evade it, a desperate measure. So, inevitably, Brank was canonized. Once an idea has become universally accepted, it's easily ignored.

Copyright © Steve Aylett, 2007

 
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