Prose Header


by Philip Armstrong

Part 2 and Part 3
appear in this issue.
part 1 of 3

Through the rumbling guts of the commercial district the railcar turns and accelerates. This is Loki’s first time on the cityrail, the transport system reserved for Luxor’s managerial elite. His body lurches in anxious exhilaration as the car jolts around corners. He watches as it overtakes the overcrowded public camellos, and as shop fronts and markets, warehouses, crowded pavements, monuments and flights of pigeons loom up and fall behind.

Then the car climbs a track fixed to the edges of the tower blocks. Faces in office windows flick past, until the car slips between two buildings and Loki finds himself looking over rooftops on the other side, across smaller towers to the cloudy horizon, and then down to the streets, which from this height look like gutters clogged with debris.

Then the world swings upward and the street approaches at speed. A moment later all he can see is his own hollow-cheeked face looking back at him out of the darkness. The car is speeding through the network of underground lines. Behind his reflection he watches the Pharmakon security guards, one impassive behind his dark glasses, the other rubbing a fingertip against a patch of eczema on his cheekbone and staring into space.

Loki flinches as the car jolts into daylight and a rain splatters against the glass. The densely-packed towers have given way to the architecture of Old Luxor. And in the distance, amidst the ancient colonnades and domes, a triangle of light points to the clouds. The car follows a wide curve to the right before rushing straight towards this radiant pyramid. It crosses the river on a suspension bridge transparent as glass and enters the building.

Slowing sharply, the railcar emerges into a central atrium. Here, incongruously, it is surrounded by shimmering rainforest. Loki emerges, his heart pounding in his ears. He is about to meet Director Monboddo, CEO of Pharmakon Life Incorporated, Luxor city’s pre-eminent scientific corporation, who is considering him for a scientific position here. He knows this is the chance of a lifetime.

The guards take Loki through a series of security checks and into a glass elevator. As the doors open and the occupants of the lift unpack themselves, Loki sees the face of the Director appear above uniformed figures surrounding her.

The long, angular frame of Eugenia Monboddo is clothed in the dark green trousers and tunic of all Pharmakon employees, above which her long neck and the curve of her face are smooth and inflexible as stone. Her bright eyes are expressionless. Introducing herself to Loki — unnecessarily — she inclines her head slightly, then bends it sideways to usher him into one of the chairs ranged around a large conference table. Meanwhile the security men wedge themselves into the elevator in response to her barely uttered dismissal.

Taking a chair across a corner of the table from Loki, Monboddo bestows upon him a medium-grade smile. “Welcome to the Pharmakon, Mr Eastwood.”

For the next hour, Loki does his best to appear intelligent while Monboddo emits inspiration like a mist. She speaks of the Mission of the Pharmakon, of the Responsibilities of Science, of History and Development and Global Community. At first Loki feels exhilarated, but this feeling starts to give way to a kind of nervous exhaustion, so he is relieved when at last, in response to a summons he didn’t even notice, a man in a green lab coat enters from the lift to take him on a tour of the main floor.

“This is Doctor Moss, Assistant Head of Breeding. I’ve asked him to take the time to show you around, to show you the kind of projects I want you to familiarize yourself with. And start to meet some of the other staff here. As I’m sure they will tell you, Loki, I am not an autocrat. I believe in finding the best people and giving them the freedom and support to enable them to make the future as they see fit.”

Monboddo keeps talking as she leads them to the lift doors. Then she says briskly, “Congratulations, Loki. We are glad to have you here. I look forward to seeing you again very soon.” Loki manages one more smile and a nod as she grips his hand briefly. Then the lift doors sweep shut and he and his guide descend to the ground floor.

They emerge into a semi-cylindrical perspex tunnel which runs the length of the building. As they make their way along it they pass through a series of sealed compartments, each with its own ecosystem approximating the flora and climate of one of Luxor’s colonies. Moss, who proves to be a suitable antidote to his superior, being a man devoid of charisma — indeed of any trace of personality — describes the projects being undertaken in each case.

“The highlands of Sylvaguay have been so severely deforested by colonists expanding their farmlands that various species of birdlife — most famously the Sanguine Macaw, but also a number of smaller species — are close to extinction. We have exactly replicated their habitat here, and as a result our breeding program has doubled the number of birds in captivity in the last two years.” Loki peers upwards, following Moss’s pointing finger, catching a flash of blood-red in the foliage overhead.

The tropical-grade air of the compartment sweats onto its walls, rendering them opaque, but the view from the tunnel is kept clear by small valves along its external curve, which emit regular squirts of warm water to wash the condensation away. Pressed here and there along the perspex are the bodies of enormous leeches, attracted by the moisture and maybe, Loki guesses queasily, by the movement and body heat of those on the other side.

His guide is still talking. “The enclosure also contains populations of small mammals and marsupials native to Sylvaguay. We’ve found that the more we can replicate an entire ecosystem, the better the breeding programs go. Of course we leave out the larger predators.”

The tunnel passes through a partition, transporting them to a starkly different simulacrum of another imperial terrain. From his time spent in the natural history section of his college library, frantically preparing for this day, Loki is able to recognize the arid topography of Sunburst Atoll, represented by an expanse of rock covered in lichen and a few scrubby bushes.

Also, to his delight, perched motionless amid the stones, their necks drooping almost to the ground, he sees two of the last dozen remaining Graphic Tortoises — which the moment they hatch, by some process that has so far proven inexplicable to science, carry markings on their shells that correspond to letters in a variety of human alphabets. Curiously these letters are always grouped into words or phrases that actually exist in some language, somewhere on the planet.

One of the pair in front of Loki is inscribed with the words rampage, tome and chitlings, while the gnomic face of the other peers from beneath a shell scrawled — Moss informs him — with obscenities from four different sub-Antarctic tongues, and the title of the supreme deity of Nova Albion.

“Not many of these left,” says the Pharmakon scientist offhandedly, “since the ships’ crews started visiting the Atoll and found they could take a few on board, let them wander round the deck till they fancied a fresh change from their stored meats. Very tender, tasty flesh, they say,” he adds, and then contributes a rare opinion. “Not that you’d think so to look at them.”

He leads Loki on to the next enclosure. “Now this is a project in which Director Monboddo takes a personal interest,” he begins. Following his gaze, across an area of grassland to a grove of trees in the far corner, Loki can make out a small group of animals, adults as well as their young, grooming each other’s pale fur.

“These are White Apes from the Brutus Isles, a species completely unknown until two decades ago when our zoologists visited and collected these specimens.” Even Moss cannot exclude from his voice a trace of pride at this accomplishment. “As you can see they’ve bred already. In fact very little seems to disturb their mating frequency. And since there’s been very little imperial impact on the Isles — the climate is too uncongenial for most colonists — we’re really not sure why this species is so close to extinction. We suspect there may be high levels of intra-specific lethal aggression.”

Monboddo’s prize simians look rather moth-eaten to Loki. Their fur grows in patches, exposing large patches of grey-pink skin. They move awkwardly. They seem dejected. Moss knocks on the tunnel wall but there is little reaction, except for one scrawny adolescent that turns to watch them through its round, water-colored eyes. Meanwhile the others keep up a low-pitched chatter; a sibilant, ruminant mumble, somewhere between snarling and hissing.

Obscurely dismayed by these beasts, Loki waits for his host to lead him elsewhere. But he appears lost in contemplation of the apes. Loki waits. Eventually the Assistant Head of Breeding speaks again, and Loki listens politely.

“At the moment we are concentrating on their courtship and mating rituals. Relieved of the need to hunt or forage for their food, they devote most of their time and effort to the opposite sex: the females seductively, the males aggressively.”

Loki becomes aware of a pair of apes that had been grooming each other, are now paying a good deal of attention to each other’s unmistakably male genitals. “Um, what about those two?” he says gingerly, pointing.

His companion glances at the pair casually. “That’s the kind of anomalous behaviour that can be very confusing for an inexperienced researcher. Fortunately our first year’s internship offers a very thorough grounding in statistics and the other methodologies we use to sort normative data from outliers.”

As they walk on in silence the light begins to shimmer and the tunnel emerges underwater. From their cylindrical bubble, which runs now between submerged sand hills and beds of coral, Loki and Moss look out onto an orgy of kelp, heaving its fleshy limbs. A shoal of fish passes like a brainwave, turning inside out in a single movement.

With surprise, Loki sees what he has taken to be a patch of sand gather itself up and flush to a pale pink, dissolving into a sinuous tangle before slipping away in and settling in a remote part of the aquarium.

“The Bright Octopus,” intones his companion, “has the most exaggerated capacity for chromatic transformation of any known animal in the sea or out of it. Our marine people are working very hard to figure out how to regulate it. The different colors seem to indicate emotional states. So far they’ve identified a white blush with pleasure, blue with excitement, red with curiosity. Anger seems to produce a kind of pale pastel green, oddly enough.”

Loki feels the need to ask an astute question “How about fear?” he ventures. “What’s the color for fear?”

Moss frowns slightly, as though puzzled. “Well obviously,” he replies, “the response to danger is to emulate the color of the surroundings, for camouflage.” Then he adds offhandedly: “Actually, the most recent studies suggest the possibility that the animal doesn’t register its own responses at all, but that it reacts to the emotional effusions produced by the sentient beings around it.”

Loki turns to Moss in astonishment. “It does what?”

“Yes, remarkable when you think of the possible applications,” says the other man absently. “The Marine Division has already registered expressions of interest from a range of parties who could make use of an organic mechanism able to register emotional states chromatically. LingoTech wants to know if it could be used in cross-cultural translation. SecuriForce are keen to acquire a breeding colony for use in interviews, interrogations, testimony of witnesses in court and so on.”

Moss suddenly seems to remember who he is talking to and turns abruptly to Loki. “Of course this is all strictly confidential. Development is at a very early stage.” Loki nods emphatically, and the other man, apparently satisfied, leads the way onward. Loki casts a final glance in the direction of the octopus, but it is invisible amidst the sand.

The afternoon wears on. Moss shows him the Alimbec Cranes, whose habit of regurgitating semi-digested material along their two-yard throats makes them invaluable as experimental processors of a new organic Pharmakon sealant. The whole of the next enclosure has been reduced to a litter of torn up rubber, wood and plastic by its inmates, two bottle-green Snow Parrots from Ultima Thule. “Fourth time this week,” says Moss irritably.

Over the next several years, Loki works his way up the Pharmakon food chain. He does so rapidly, because he is genuinely fascinated by the specimens in his care and thus quick to learn about them, and because he is adept at flattering his superiors — but also because he picks up the vatic management lingo around him.

At the Pharmakon, more than anything, being taken seriously depends upon using the right power-phrases, and striking the right tone. For this, Loki finds he has a good ear. Before long, and without any conscious irony, he can express his devotion to the Pharmakon’s mission in the world, to the expanding circle of scientific enlightenment, to the rising tide of knowledge.

Within three years, he heads his own research division. Within five, he is included in regular meetings with Eugenia Monboddo herself. And eight months later, she has agreed to sponsor a natural-historical expedition to the antipodes, to the islands of Gondwana — which Loki will lead.

The expedition is a highly speculative one. Loki is to prove himself by locating, observing and if possible capturing specimens of a creature so rare that few in the Pharmakon even believe it exists.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Philip Armstrong

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