‘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.’
Corpses rain down from the sky as punishment for the massacres of the last century. A teacher solves the behavioural problems of a young girl by installing a nest of black spiders in her brain cavity. A police chief and his trooper unravel the twisted suicide of an ex-mobster by rehydrating a raisin. Criminals in animal masks parade around Beerlight City. A volunteer test subject for experimental hallucinogens experiences the entire history of mankind in a sensory deprivation tank.
This collection of early stories displays a variety of ghastly objects removed from the surface of Steve Aylett’s brain, in which he tears down the walls of reality and lets all of the monsters out. Including the 9/11 story ‘Gigantic’ (first published in 1998), a unique take on The Bible Code (‘The Waffle Code’), a shrewd riff on police/press bugging, ‘The Met Are All For This’, and ‘Resenter’, the first of several ‘one particle of honesty destroys an entire city’ stories.
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Read an Excerpt
By Steve Aylett
Serif BooksCopyright © 2015 Steve Aylett
All rights reserved.
Strange aircraft arrived with the sky that morning, moving blood-slow. And Professor Skychum was forced from the limelight at the very instant his ranted warnings became most poignant. "They're already here!"
Skychum had once been so straight you could use him to aim down, an astrophysicist to the heart. No interest in politics — to him Marx and Rand were the same because he went by pant size. Then one afternoon he had a vision which he would not shut up about.
The millennium was the dull rage that year and nutters were in demand to punctuate the mock-emotional retrospectives filling the countdown weeks. The media considered that Skychum fit the bill — in fact they wanted him to wear one.
And the stuff he talked about. There were weaknesses in his presentation, as he insisted that the whole idea occurred to him upon seeing Scrappy Doo's head for the first time. "That dog is a mutant!" he gasped, leaning forward in such a way, and with so precise an appalled squint to the eyes, that he inadvertently pierced the constrictive walls of localized spacetime. A flare of interface static and he was seeing the whole deal like a lava-streamed landscape. He realized he was looking at the psychic holoshape of recent history, sickly and corrosive. Creeping green flows fed through darkness. These volatile glow trails hurt with incompletion. They converged upon a cess pit, a supersick build-up of denied guilt. This dumping ground was of such toxicity it had begun to implode, turning void-black at its core. Like a fractal, detail reflecting the whole. Skychum saw at once the entire design and the subatomic data. Zooming in, he found that a poison line leading from two locations nevertheless flowed from a single event — Pearl Harbor. One source was the Japanese government, the other was Roosevelt's order to ignore all warnings of the attack. The sick stream was made up of 4,575 minced human bodies. In a fast zoom-out this strand of history disappeared into the density of surrounding detail, which in turn resolved into a minor nerve in a spiral lost on the surface of a larger flow of glowing psychic pollution. A billion such trickles crept in every tendril of the hyperdense sludge migration, all rumbling toward this multidimensional landfill of dismissed abomination. And how he wished that were all.
Future attempts to reproduce his accidental etheric maneuver resulted in the spectacle of this old codger rocking back and forth with a look of appalled astonishment on his face, an idiosyncratic and media-friendly image which spliced easily into MTV along with those colorized clips of the goofing Einstein. And he had the kind of head propeller hats were invented for.
Skychum went wherever he'd be heard. No reputable journal would publish his paper On Your Own Doorstep: Hyperdimensional Placement of Denied Responsibility. One editor stated simply: "Anyone who talks about herding behavior's a no-no." Another stopped him in the street and sneered a series of instructions which were inaudible above the midtown traffic, then spat a foaming full-stop at the sidewalk. Chat shows, on the other hand, would play a spooky theremin fugue when he was introduced. First time was an eye-opener. "Fruitcake corner — this guy's got the Seventh Seal gaffa-taped to his ass and claims he'll scare up an apocalypse out of a clear blue sky. Come all the way here from New York City — Dr. Theo Skychum, welcome." Polite applause and already some sniggers. The host was on garrulous overload, headed for his end like a belly-laughing Wall of Death rider. How he'd got here was anybody's guess. "Doctor Skychum, you assert that come the millennium, extraterrestrials will monopolize the colonic irrigation industry — how do you support that?"
Amid audience hilarity Skychum stammered that that wasn't his theory at all. The gravity of his demeanor made it all the more of a crack-up. Then the host erupted into a bongo frenzy, hammering away at two toy flying saucers. Skychum was baffled.
He found that some guests were regulars who rolled off the charmed banter with ease.
"Well see here Ray, this life story of yours appears to have been carved from a potato."
"I know, Bill, but that's the way I like it."
"You said you had a little exclusive for us tonight, what's that about?"
"Credit it or not, Bill, I'm an otter."
"Thought so, Ray."
It blew by on an ill, hysterical wind and Skychum couldn't get with the program. He'd start in with some light-hearted quip about bug-eyed men and end up bellowing "Idiots! Discarding your own foundation! Oppression evolves like everything else!"
Even on serious shows he was systematically misunderstood. The current affairs show The Unpalatable Truth was expressing hour-long surprise at the existence of anti-government survivalists. This was the eighty-seventh time they'd done this and Skychum's exasperated and finally sobbing repetition of the phrase "even a child knows" was interpreted as an attempt to steal everyone's faint thunder. And when his tear-rashed face filled the screen, blurring in and out as he asked, "Does the obvious have a reachable bottom?" he was condemned for making a mockery of media debate. A televangelist accused him of "godless snoopery of the upper grief" and, when Skychum told him to simmer down, cursed him with some vague future aggravation. The whole thing was a dismal mess, smeared beyond salvation.
Skychum's vision receded as though abashed.
There was no shortage of replacements. One guy insisted the millennium bug meant virtual sex dolls would give users the brush-off for being over a hundred years old and broke. Another claimed he spoke regularly to the ghost of Abe Lincoln. "My communications with this lisping blowhead yield no wisdom at all," he said. "But I'm happy." Then he sneezed like a cropduster, festooning the host with phlegm.
The commentators deemed radical were those going only so far as to question what was being celebrated. Skychum himself found he wanted to walk away. But even he had to admit the turn was a big deal, humanity having survived so long and learnt so little — there was a defiant feeling of rebellion about it that put a scampish grin on everyone's face. For once people were bound with a genuine sense of kick-ass accomplishment and self-congratulatory cool. Skychum began at last to wish he was among them. But just as he felt his revelation slipping away, it would seem to him that the mischievous glint in people's eyes were redshifted to the power of the Earth itself if viewed from a civilized planet. And his brush with perspective would return with the intensity of a fever dream.
Floating through psychic contamination above a billion converging vitriol channels, toward that massive rumbling cataract of discarded corruption.
Drawing near, Skychum had seen that ranged around the cauldroning pit, like steel nuts around a wheel hub, were tiny glinting objects. They were hung perfectly motionless at the rim of the slow vortex. These sentinels gave him the heebie-jeebies, but he zoomed in on the detail. There against the god-high waterfall of volatility. Spaceships.
Ludicrous. There they were.
"If we dealt honestly, maturely with our horrors," he told the purple-haired clown hosting a public access slot, "instead of evading, rejecting and forgetting, the energy of these events would be naturally re-absorbed. But as it is we have treated it as we treat our nuclear waste — and where we have dumped it, it is not wanted. The most recent waste will be the first to return."
"Last in, first out eh," said the clown somberly.
"Precisely," said Skychum.
"Well, I wish I could help you," stated the clown with offhand sincerity. "But I'm just a clown."
This is what he was reduced to. Had any of it happened? Was he mad?
A matter of days before the ball dropped in Times Square and Skychum was holed up alone, blinds drawn, bottles empty. He lay on his back, dwarfed by indifference. So much for kicking the hive. The authorities hadn't even bothered to demonize him. It was clear he'd had a florid breakdown, taking it to heart and the public. Could he leave, start a clean life? Everything was strange, undead and dented. He saw again, ghosting across his ceiling, a hundred thousand Guatemalan civilians murdered by US-backed troops. He'd confirmed this afterwards, but how could he have known it before the vision? He only watched CNN. In a strong convulsion of logic, Skychum sat up.
At that moment, the phone rang. A TV guy accusing him of dereliction of banality — laughing that he had a chance to redeem himself and trumpet some bull for the masses. Skychum agreed, too inspired to protest. It was called The Crackpot Arena and it gathered the cream of the foil hat crowd to shoot the rarefied breeze in the hours leading up to the turn. This interlocking perdition of pan-moronic pundits and macabre gripers was helped and hindered by forgotten medication and the pencil-breaking perfectionism of the director. One nutter would be crowned King of the Freaks at the top hour. The criteria were extremity and zero shame at the lectern. Be ridiculed or dubbed the royal target of ridicule — Skychum marvelled at the custom joinery of this conceit. And he was probably in with a chance. In the bizarre stakes, what could be more improbable than justice?
The host's eyes were like raisins and existed to generously blockade his brainlobes. As each guest surfaced from the cracker-barrel he fielded them with a patronizing show of interest.
A man holding a twig spoke of the turn. "All I can reveal," he said, meting out his words like a bait trail, "is that it will be discouraging. And very, very costly."
"For me?" asked the host, and the audience roared.
"For me," said the man, and they were in the aisles.
"Make a habit of monkey antics," declared another guest. "Pleasure employs muscles of enlightenment." Then he led in a screaming chimp, assured everyone its name was Ramone, pushed it down a slide and said, "There you go." Skychum told him he was playing a dangerous game.
A sag-eyed old man pronounced his judgment. "The dawn of the beard was the dawn of modern civilization."
"In what way."
"In that time spent growing a beard is time wasted. Now curb this strange melancholy — let us burn our legs with these matches and shout loud."
"I ... I'm sorry ... what ..."
And the codger was dancing a strange jig on the table, cackling from a dry throat.
"One conk on the head and he'll stop dancing," whispered someone behind the cameras.
Another suspect was the ringmaster of the Lobster Circus, who lashed at a wagon-ring of these unresponsive creatures as though at the advancing spawn of the devil. "The time will come," he announced, "when these mothers will be silent." And at that he laid the whip into a lobster positioned side-on to him, breaking it in half.
A little girl read a poem:
behind answers are hoverflies
but they will do anything
One guy made the stone-faced assertion that belching was an actual language. Another displayed a fossilized eightball of mammoth dung and said it was "simply biding its time." Another stated merely that he had within his chest a "flaming heart" and expected this to settle or negate all other concerns.
Then it was straight in with Skychum, known to the host as a heavy-hitter among those who rolled up with their lies at a moment's notice. The host's face was an emulsioned wall as he listened to the older man describe some grandiose reckoning. "Nobody's free until everyone is, right?" was the standard he reached for in reply.
"Until someone is."
"Airless Martians still gasping in a town of smashed geodesics," he stated, and gave no clue as to his question. After wringing the laughs out of Skychum's perplexed silence, he continued. "These Martians — what do they have against us?"
"Not Martians — metaversal beings in a hyperspace we are using as a skeleton cupboard. Horror past its sell-by date is dismissed with the claim that a lesson is learnt, and the sell-by interval is shortening to minutes."
"I don't understand," said the host with a kind of defiance.
"The media believe in resolution at all costs, and this is only human." Once again Skychum's sepulchral style was doing the trick — there was a lot of sniggering as he scowled like a chef. "Dismissal's easier than learning."
"So you're calling down this evangelical carnage."
"I'm not —"
"In simple terms, for the layman" — the eyebrows of irony flipped to such a blur they vanished — "how could all these bodies be floating out in 'hyper' space?"
"Every form which has contained life has its equivalent echo in the super-etheric — if forced back into the physical, these etheric echoes will assume physical shape."
"Woh!" shouted the host, delighted, and the audience exploded with applause — this was exactly the kind of wacko bullshit they'd come to hear. "And why should they arrive at this particular time?"
"They have become synchronized to our culture, those who took on the task — it is appropriate, poetic!"
The audience whooped, flushed with the nut's sincerity.
"The great thing about being ignored is that you can speak the truth with impunity."
"But I call you a fraud, Dr Skychum. These verbal manipulations cause a hairline agony in the honest man. Expressions of the grave should rival the public? I don't think so. Where's the light and shade?"
Skychum leant forward, shaking with emotion. "You slur me for one who is bitter and raging at the world. But you mustn't kick a man when he's down, and so I regard the world." Then Ramone the chimp sprang on to his head, shrieking and flailing.
"Dr Skychum," said the host. "If you're right, I'm a monkey."
The ringmaster of the Lobster Circus was declared the winner. The man with the flaming heart died of a coronary and the man with the dung fossil threw it into the audience and stormed off. A throne shaped like the halfshells of a giant nut was set up for the crowning ceremony. Skychum felt light, relieved. He had acquitted himself with honor. He enjoyed the jelly and ice cream feast set up for the contestants backstage. Even the chimp's food-flinging antics made him smile. He approached the winner with goodwill. "Congratulations, sir. Those lobsters of yours are a brutal threat to mankind."
The winner looked mournfully up at him. "I love them," he whispered, and was swept away backwards by the make-up crew.
At the moment of the turn, Skychum left the studio building by a side entrance, hands deep in his coat pockets. Under a slouch hat which obscured his sky, he moved off down a narrow street roofed completely by the landscape of a spacecraft's undercarriage.
During the last hour, as dullards were press-ganged onto ferris wheels and true celebrants arrested in amplified streets, hundreds of multidimensional ships had hoved near, denial-allow shields up. Uncloaking, they had appeared in the upper atmosphere like new moons. Now they moved into position over every capital city in the world, impossible to evade. Fifteen miles wide, these immense overshadow machines rumbled across the sky like a coffin lid drawing slowly shut. New York was being blotted out by a floating city whose petalled geometry was only suggested by sections visible above the canyon streets. Grey hieroglyphics on the underside were actually spires, bulkheads and structures of skyscraping size. Its central eye, a mile-wide concavity deep in shadow, settled over uptown as the hovering landscape thundered to a stop and others took up position over London, Beijing, Berlin, Nairobi, Los Angeles, Kabul, Paris, Zurich, Baghdad, Moscow, Tokyo and every other conurbation with cause to be a little edgy.
One nestled low over the White House like an inverted cathedral. In the early light they were silent, unchanging fixtures. Solid and subject to the sun.
The President, hair like a dirty iceberg, slapped on a middling smile and talked about caution and opportunity. Everywhere nerves were clouded around with awe and high suspension. Traffic stopped. Fanatics partied. The old man's name was remembered if not his line — a woman held a sign aloft saying I'M A SKY CHUM. Cities waited under dumb, heavy air.
Over the White House, a screeching noise erupted. The central eye of the ship was opening. Striations like silver insect wings cracked, massive steel doors grinding downward.
The same was happening throughout the world, a silver flower opening down over Parliament, Whitehall and the dead Thames; over the Reichstag building, the World Bank, the Beijing Politburo.
The DC saucer eye was open, the bellow of its mechanism echoing away. Onlookers craned to see up inside.
For the space of two heartbeats, everything stopped. Then a tiny tear dropped out of the eye, splashing on the White House roof.
Excerpted from Toxicology by Steve Aylett. Copyright © 2015 Steve Aylett. Excerpted by permission of Serif Books.
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