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Toxicology

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Introduction

This collection of early stories displays a variety of ghastly objects I removed from the surface of my brain, including the 9/11 story 'Gigantic' (first published in 1998), my take on The Bible Code ('The Waffle Code') and 'Resenter', the first of several 'one particle of honesty destroys an entire city' stories I've produced over the years – a feelgood fantasy for me. I've stated that school is a thing to spend the rest of your life recovering from, and its toxic incoherence is portrayed in 'Infestation,' my first published story. 'Repeater,' a period piece on early rave culture, contains a fairly good prophecy of the twenty-zeroes and beyond: 'Denial. Vacuum competes with vacuum. Laws outlaw the harmless to make the effective inconceivable. Scholarly incomprehension. No questions asked. Banality given the terms and prestige of science. Ignorance worn like a heraldic crest. Mediocrity loudly rewarded. Misery by installments. Hypocrisy too extreme to process. Maintenance of a feeble public imagination. Lavish access to useless data. Fashion as misdirection. Social meltdown in a cascade pattern, consumed by a drought of significance.' There's also a riff on the recent police/press bugging revelations, 'The Met Are All For This' (first published 1997).

The smattering of Beerlight stories are from various points throughout that city's history. The collateral and mis-directed aggression story 'Shifa', named after the Al Shifa aspirin factory, would fit well into the days of The Crime Studio. 'The Siri Gun' is set after the events of Atom but before those of Slaughtermatic, and we see it referred to in Novahead.

There are some experiments that I only got to work later (making the precise seem random), others I stuck with regardless (dialogue so stylized it would get you killed within seconds on the street) and yet others I never got to work (making stupid characters interesting).

Smithereens are hard to aggregate. Penguins can slide on their bellies but the humour is wasted on those stiff-billed bastards – yet put a paper hat on an owl and it's you who feels like a fool. I hope you find something here that you like.

Steve Aylett, 2011

Copyright © Steve Aylett, 2007

 

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Jawbreaker

Terry Tantamount lived like a kitten struggling up stairs. He never had the faintest idea of the right thing to say in any given situation. And it seemed there was a very specific right and wrong to this.

“Have I put on weight?”

“Yeah, thank god.”

At a dinner party once he held two lobsters facing each other and puppeted a conversation – even here he didn't parp the appropriate exchange. People flinched with embarrassment. Sometimes he saw them trying to cover for him but mostly he just saw disappointment, scorn, anger – even disgust.

“Don't tell me you've been asleep all this time.”

“Okay.”

Sometimes the desired answer was clued in the question but it seemed such an absurd shell game – did people think so little of themselves they wanted to be lied to?

“Hey babe, if I didn't know better I'd say you were jealous.”

“Sure I am, honey.”

In childhood these misfires had the immediacy of a poptart burn but as time lagged it became a dull bruise pummeled over and over. He learned that “How are you?” wasn't a question, and other basics. But he didn't understand it and could no more than dip his beak. How to proceed? Grow a pelt of dignity? Feign indifference? It was torment without thunder.

“Republican or democrat?”

“Are those my options?”

Terry's fanciful notions of honesty and sense made him as popular as a burning tire. When questioned directly about their sources, people displayed such absolute resolve to dodge the issue, Terry usually took pity and relented. If backed into a corner they became hostile or at the very least emphatically dishonest prior to hasty retreat. It seemed they were doing yeoman's work in someone else's notions.

“Guess what I've got.”

“A deadly hidden agenda?”

At first he thought his girlfriend Yanda could teach him the cues in this baggy pants farce. But she seemed evasive, even ashamed. “Nobody asks questions like that,” she said. But Terry did exist. He had no choice but to assume she didn't mean it. That way lay madness. Every dawn he said a plain noble prayer for communication.

“What about them Yankees?”

“Yeah, what about 'em?”

But facts are found where temptation is brightest. Terry had noticed Yanda always got a lot of mail—one package minimum. The one time she didn't, she seemed at a loss. She even yelled at him in the middle of a discussion, “What am I meant to say to that?” It was the only time she didn't know her own dialogue.

The idea entered his head like a fox bellying under a fence. When Yanda was out a couple days later, he searched the house. Under the bed was a postal packet containing a thin script. Lead treasure.

“Have I put on weight?”

“Of course not.”

“Don't tell me you've been asleep all this time.”

“Of course not.”

“Hey babe, if I didn't know better I'd say you were jealous.”

“Of course not.”

“Republican or democrat?”

“Democrat.”

“Guess what I've got.”

“Oh great—I love that game.”

“What about them Yankees?”

“Yeah, fourth and three play on their thirty yard line with only forty seconds to go.”

The script included every correct response for the day's exchanges between Yanda and himself. That evening he batted them back at Yanda and her face lit up. At first Terry loved seeing her believe this was him, but quickly became disgusted by her delight. Didn't she value the genuine article at all? And this stuff was so drab, so uninspired. It took an effort for him not to add splashes of color. But he knew that upset people.

He traced the mail source to a complex in the city. He'd hoped this at least would be interesting—a Mount Weather-style bunker or Pinay cabal. But it was an unmanned factory emitting no light. The same beige streams of dialogue were continually recycled under grey stacks, the blind produce of identical codes, bound and labeled for delivery. There was neither sentience nor malevolence in this automation. Energy was neither created nor destroyed in writ so poor.

Examining the records, Terry learned that his own scripts were being delivered in error to a Telly Tantamount right in his town. He dropped by the guy's house and was greeted at the door by a crazed, seething wreck, a jumpy cadaver with deodorant balls for eyes.

“Told ya I don't want any!” shrieked the guy, terrified. Terry's heart went out to him.

“Telly? I know what you've been going through. Nothing connects? You've been getting scripts meant for me, man. Admin goof.”

The man stared. “I ... I don't know what to say.” And Terry saw the relief flood him, pushing tears from his face.

Reading over some of the old scripts the man had given him, Terry ambled home. He was supposed to have said this stuff? It was insipid—false and impoverished. No wonder people were ashamed to admit they accepted it above their own spirit. He'd long suspected that if he ever discovered the nature of the game he would find it too dumb and unrewarding to play anyway. To be so hen-hearted? To live his life as stock footage? To guard forever against divergence into originality? To what end? And what would be left to him? By comparison his life of stress and concern thus far seemed a funky adventure.

And wasn't he the lucky one. He felt an easy freedom, his limbs hanging light in his joints, while at the same time his heart bled with compassion for the folk he passed. Here he'd been suffering and all these were here too, without the born spark even to fight or tell it.

“Was it busy out?”

“Yanda,” he said, sitting down heavily and dropping the scripts aside. “Listen. I'm not really in any hurry to be illuminated. Heaven doesn't tolerate cunning or wit. This grub in the head's an inconvenience, I realize that, and I should probably say I'm sorry, though that's just a guess on my part. But I want you to know. Despite your sentences being a barricade to truth. Despite your approval existing only for trifles. Despite your gargantuan efforts to bury yourself, deny your mind and cremate your courage. Despite your attempt to remove all distinguishing marks – I see you. You're an angel, babe. Mad, soft around the edges, scared, and trying your damnedest with what you have. I love you down to the deepest atom. What do you say to that?”

Copyright © Steve Aylett, 2007

 
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