This story is a sequel and/or prequel to Swan Song, but I hope it also makes sense on its own.
The artless masses follow each other through the darkness. In the safety of imitation, they are content. Time passes as quickly and as unremarkably as they can make it. When they move together, they are indistinguishable, but when one has a moment of weakness, it is just possible to distinguish that one from the others, and distinguish the moment from the rest of time.
One of these moments was in the past, and it happened to a mass which had once been called Bob, though it didn’t remember that. Bob was nervous, for new thoughts threatened to think themselves inside it and disrupt its peaceful rest. It carefully followed a stream of other such afflicted, and found itself at a diversion dealer.
“I need to relax,” said Bob as normally as possible. After pretending to check something on a computer for a while, the dealer motioned to the distraction section. The section seemed to fill the whole area, with boundaries as indistinct as those between customers.
Some amount of time passed while Bob looked through what was on offer, but Bob was not sick enough to care how much, just as long as it passed unnoticed. Bob settled on a collection named Rooksong, which promised to drown out all original thought if played loudly enough. Something terrifying briefly flashed over the dealer when Bob went to buy the recording.
Not sure whether to be more afraid of it being a real flash or a metastasis from its imagination, Bob asked, “It’s relaxing, isn’t it?”
To Bob’s relief, the dealer didn’t bother to respond.
Finding that those it was following were not moving, Bob began watching before even leaving the diversion dealer. Meaningless images and sounds unfolded all around and through Bob’s mind’s eye. In the resulting wave of relaxation, Bob merged with the rest of the queue so completely that it would have mixed character traits with the others if they’d had any. The next time anything happened, Bob found itself painfully torn from the others, then healed by the blissful distraction of the next show. Some were tired jokes, some were cats dancing to repetitive beats, most were the everyday stories of expert assassins killing time. All made time pass so smoothly that Bob felt nothing at all.
When the amusement stopped, Bob was more sensitive than ever to the passage of time, the pressure to do something with it and the agonising boredom of not doing so. It needed more rook song, and it needed it more quickly than it had ever cared to do anything. It flailed at the dealer. The dealer gave it a bored look, and then shuddered with recognition.
“You want more?” said the dealer.
“Yeah. Do you know where I can get some?”
The dealer shook off those that had followed Bob, and they fled from the unconventional motion. The dealer held a softly glowing object that mutilated the darkness, showing the terrifying outline of the dealer’s bulbous face. Bob, suddenly aware of having rudimentary physical eyes of its own, turned them away.
“This is a thought,” said the dealer. Bob already knew. It had narrowly avoided having one a few times.
The dealer set up a video camera while Bob recited stereotypes to itself and laughed to draw its attention from the light.
The dealer made its move without wasting any time, for it had worse things to avoid doing. It thrust the thought at Bob and held its point near where Bob wished it had eyelids. Bob panicked at the light reaching its mind’s eye. What terrified it most was the temptation to give in, to reach out and grab the flame of time and let it burn its flesh until the flame and Bob were both extinguished. But it dared not. Bob found its calm and recited countless brief tidbits. As the stream of tidbits began to wane, the dealer drove the thought through Bob’s forehead.
And it gave Bob an idea. Terrified, Bob held the idea at arm’s length and brandished it like a dagger.
Bob felt for the hole the thought must have made in its forehead, hoping a lengthy description of gore would stop this story from moving. There was no hole, but having a well-defined forehead was new and disturbing. Bob was different. “Am I alive?” it asked the dealer.
“You’re a watcher now. Go watch.”
Bob understood. It was free to liberate rook song at leisure.
The dealer handed Bob a video camera. “We can trade recordings,” he said. “Then we don’t have to gather as many.”
With that, it calmly went through the charade of selling Bob the camera. The dealer’s shaking had not been vigorous enough to disrupt the whole line, so a few new customers had already arrived.
Bob hid the idea and slid its way around the customers. When it found someone that didn’t look sick, it thrust the idea at it and started filming its reaction. Bob’s anxiety rose a little as it saw the moment of terror, the flickering desire. Then Bob basked in the divine procrastination of avoiding the thing one wants more than anything. The thrill was even more intense than that of watching recordings. Bob savored the spectacle a little too long before stabbing with the idea. The victim had no lust for rook song to keep it going, so it slid silently into the next world.
Potential witnesses to the attack had fled as soon as the idea was unsheathed, so Bob had to wander alone for a while to find its next victim. Having such an obvious gap between itself and others was disturbing; Bob almost saw its own form, and almost thought things nobody else was around to think. The usual distractions weren’t good enough any more. It was so desperate for rook song that it did something it had never done before: it hurried.
Bob found another line and enjoyed the rook song of the last follower. Bob shaded its idea carefully, so some of those ahead of the victim were so absorbed in looking at those in front of them that they did not see what happened, and Bob could feast on them next.
Only when the camera was full of rook song did Bob bother to take it back to the diversion dealer to exchange footage.
“This is terrible”, said the dealer. “You let it grow weak before ending it. And this one is too young; it doesn’t even know what it wants, so how can it avoid it?”
Bob was surprised. Usually, one likes what one is told to like. But only the highest quality time-wasting would satisfy the dealer. It taught Bob how to choose victims: how to tell them apart, and how to see how old they were and how good they were at passing time.
Bob had always been happy about time going on, but as it did so, Bob found it needed more and more rook song to keep going. Soon it understood what the dealer had said about low-quality rook song being unsatisfying. Sometimes it would watch recordings even while liberating fresh rook song. When there was not enough, Bob found itself banging painfully into things with its ever-more-defined features, instead of simply sliding around and through them. Eventually Bob was so defined that others would flee before it even showed its idea.
When Bob ran out of recordings, there was nowhere else to go. It ran to the dealer with the few things it had managed to record, and begged for more.
“This is pretty poor quality. And you just cleared out all my customers. Do you know how hard it was to coax them from the other queues?”
Tears streamed from Bob’s tear ducts. Without rook song, it could not survive much longer in this body. It slapped the dealer with an only-slightly-webbed hand, sending ripples through the dealer’s blastocaelic body. Bob’s fully-developed eyes could see that being surrounded by distraction hadn’t fully protected the dealer from the passage of time and the pressure to become something.
The dealer flashed an idea at Bob as a warning while sorting through some recordings. “Alright, you can have this one.”
Bob started watching straight away. The rook song from the near-formless creature in the recording was relaxing, but not as satisfying as usual. It seemed like it had seen it all before. Only when it saw the dealer plunge the idea into the victim’s head was there enough light for Bob to recognise itself. It saw the conception of its own idea. It remembered the terror of creating such a lively object, and the rooksong-given resolve that enabled Bob to resist it. It remembered the temptation to give in to it. By this time, the temptation was all that was left.
Bob stabbed its idea into its now-beating heart, and sent itself to the next world screaming eureka in pain.
Doctors were worried by the sudden change of heart rhythm, so they induced labour. Fourteen hours later, ‘Bob’ was reborn. Her new parents named her Alice.
I didn’t want to risk coming up with a new idea this week, so I copied an old one. This is the story of the dark world that Bob goes to after (and had most likely been in before) the story Swan Song. We probably all spend time in both places. Rook song has no particular idiomatic meaning, and rooks aren’t particularly associated with singing a lot and doing nothing, so perhaps it should be called grasshopper song or (after the French version of that story) cicada song. How convenient that I have a cicada magnet.
I tried to avoid describing anything in the physical environment, since it’s all pretty formless. It’s a little bit like the Doldrums in The Phantom Tollbooth. I realised as I was writing this that I was also avoiding calling them ‘people’. That word didn’t seem appropriate. I was about a quarter of the way through when I realised that formless masses which can’t be distinguished from each other shouldn’t have gender, so I went through and changed Bob’s pronouns and any sentences which were unclear as a result. I also avoided the word ‘dying’. since I’m not sure if the inhabitants of the story call it dying, or call it living but regard it with the same apprehension that we regard dying. Bob’s ‘Am I alive?’ suggests they might call it living.
A few other things changed when I was part-way through the story. I don’t remember exactly what prompted me to change from ‘listeners’ to ‘watchers’ despite the darkness and general lack of physical eyes, but I think it fits well because watching is more immersive and more effective at preventing the watcher from doing anything else. It has to focus their attention on something, and something non-productive, because unfocussed thought is likely to lead to creativity, as I was reminded (to my dismay) by New Scientist while I was avoiding finishing this story.
I think I always planned that ‘dying’ (or conceiving of an original thought) in this shadow world would actually result in a conception in the world of creativity, which we are hopefully more familiar with. I planned to end the story with ‘nine months later, he was reborn’. Near the end of the first draft, I realised that since the watchers who had conceived new ideas but avoided ‘dying’ were gaining some form (the equivalent to the listener Bob’s body decaying) throughout the story, this could in fact be during the gestation. Which would mean I could have changed Bob’s pronoun once it saw what its Müllerian duct was developing into, but nobody in the dark world wants to be different.
The development of individual form in the story is more metaphorical though, and doesn’t correspond exactly to gestation. Body parts in the dark world do not seem to all develop at the same rate, hence the dealer already having a bulbous head when its body still resembles a blastocoel. I guess I just had to use that word. Bob also has primitive eyes before he was conceived, because he’s sick; even before coming to the dealer, he was in danger of conceiving of an original idea (and thus being conceived) at any moment. Okay, I admit it: that scene lit by the dealer’s idea was written when I thought they all had bodies and just couldn’t see them in the darkness. I changed it quite a bit to fit with the gestation idea, but it’s not entirely consistent.
It’s interesting to think about the personality or developmental differences there might be between babies who spent their entire gestation in this world, and those few unliving watchers who spent most of that time avoiding it. Perhaps some day when I feel particularly at home in the creative world, I’ll write another sequel.
In unrelated musical news, The Burning Hell succeeded at their world record attempt with 17 minutes to spare. I was there to see them at Viertel at around 6:30a.m, half an hour ahead of schedule. Eventually I’ll put together a video of that. Marian Call has a good chance of getting to Switzerland on her adventure quest, but it’s not a sure thing yet, so donate or enlist if you’d like to see her in Switzerland. I try my best but in the end I don’t think I’m very good at promoting music or finding venues for it.
Something I keep forgetting to mention is that a while back, Amanda Palmer started a conversation about armpit hair on Twitter, and asked for armpit art. This was only a few weeks after I wrote Trichosis Psychosis, so I sent her a link to that, and a photo. A fan collected all the pictures and put them on Armpitageddon. Go there if you for some reason feel the need to look at photos of armpits. If nothing else it’ll pass the time, and you won’t have to do that thing you want to do.