Sunday, 24 April 2011

Peaceful Coexistence

A short story I wrote for an SFX fiction competition:

* * *

The Thames river police launch came to a dead halt exactly halfway between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges. An older officer steadied the hand of the woman from the Ministry as she rose from her seat and squinted out across the choppy waters.

“Oh, it’s there alright, ma’am,” he rasped reassuringly, “Not that we can see it right now. Nobody’s been able to see Temple Bridge with the naked eye since 1968.

The woman from the Ministry managed to crane her head round to regard the grizzled copper without toppling over. She kept her voice professional, as if she did this sort of thing every day.

“I have read the subject’s file, Sergeant.” And with that she drew a slim leather spectacle case from her handbag, bearing the embossed initials WSC. She slipped on a pair of nondescript old-fashioned half-moon glasses, and gazed about the twilit river before her.

“As you can see, we in the Ministry are perfectly well-equipped to deal with the unnormal, on land, sea or– ah!”

She stepped back instinctively at the sudden appearance of the massive stone structure that now spanned the Thames directly aft of the boat. Temple Bridge, dark, solid and brooding, loomed before them. A sturdy flight of steps spiralled up from the nearest piling and climbed to the parapet high above them. As she whipped her neatly bobbed hair back and forth, she could see the bridge stretching toward, but not quite reaching, both banks, as if whatever power in the spectacles granted her this vision didn’t  extend that far. Either that, or the bridge itself really did just fade out at either end, as if the architect had built it from the middle out, and then got bored.

“No need to panic love,” chuckled the sergeant, as he steadied her . “Bit of a shock the first time, innit? I remember when the Chief Constable sent me out to see ’im the first time. Oh, it must’ve been ’75, ’76… blimin’ hot, I know that. Anyway, there I was, stood like a lemon with old Winny’s specs on when-”

She broke in, reluctant to endure another of the old relic’s interminable been-there-done-that yarns.

“Thank you, Sergeant, I was just… unprepared for the sudden materialisation. Now, if you will just bring us closer to those steps?”

* * *

The stairs led her high up over the river, affording a marvellous view of London at dusk. Or it would have done, if the city hadn’t taken on a curiously indistinct look, as if somebody had replaced it with a moving impressionist painting. The twinkling of bus headlights and the sodium yellow of the Embankment streetlamps blurred and washed out, the skyline beyond getting extremely sketchy. Even the police boat rocking below her now had a cartoonish quality, the sergeant looking somewhat Lowriesque. Only the bridge on which she stood, a structure which did not officially exist, stood in sharp and thankfully solid reality.

She glanced down at herself and was relieved to see her sensible suit and extravagant heels were still visible. Regaining her composure, she turned away from the steps and marched purposefully over scrubbed cobblestones to the impressive Edwardian house that stood across from her in the very centre of the span – Number One, Temple Bridge Road, WC3.

Standing in the warm illumination of two gas lamps, she smoothed her hair, straightened her jacket and knocked confidently on the sturdy teak door twice, the very picture of governmental professionalism. Within a heartbeat, the door clicked and swung open to reveal the master of the house.

“Mr Kismet? Mr Adam Kismet?” The woman from the Ministry had adopted a bland, officious expression much practiced by traffic police. The man looking down at her was perhaps 40, well-built with neatly trimmed blond hair and wearing a purple Nehru jacket and a large leaden medallion of unusual design. He smiled at her politely through amber-tinted John Lennon glasses.

“Ah, you must be Ms Pargeter. Welcome to Temple Bridge.”

“You were expecting me?” Her immaculate-shaped eyebrows raised slightly in surprise. The Ministry preferred not to forewarn those it had cause to visit, thus avoiding any possibility of ‘prepared answers’.

The man tilted his head a fraction, his long nose and old-fashioned bowl haircut lending him the appearance of a sturdier version of Peter Tork from the Monkees.

“Madam, my wards are tuned to detect the beating of the brazen heart of Big Ben and the granite breath of the leonis trafalgaris. Believe me when I say that your approach was no surprise.”

He delivered this all without a trace of pomposity, though that was evidently lost on Ms Pargeter from the Ministry, who bristled with indignation.

“Well then Mr Kismet, perhaps you also know the purpose of my visit? I shouldn’t wish to waste your no-doubt valuable time.” She fished around once more in her handbag, this time producing a small envelope marked ‘Ministry of Unnormal Affairs: FAO Kismet, Adam’.

“I confess that the Divining Winds of Arim-Za did not confide your intent to me, Madam; I assume that Her Majesty’s government has need of my occult abilities once more?” He took the envelope from her manicured hand and smoothly slit it open with a silvered paperknife that flickered into his hand from nowhere.

Ms Pargeter allowed herself the merest hint of a superior smile.

“It has been quite some time since I was last called upon by a Prime Minister,” he continued. “The last occasion was to repel an incursion of the Shadow Taxis of Londinium Obscura- By the Five Gates, what madness is this?”

Kismet thrust the official letter toward the woman from the Ministry.

“Sir, this restraining order states quite plainly that as of this date, Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland requires that you, Adam Kismet, the so-called ‘Lord Mage of London’, cease immediately your unlicensed, inflammatory and aggressive activities towards the unnormal citizens of this country.”

“In plain English, if you please?”

“Mr Kismet, it has come to our attention that you have repeatedly perpetrated acts of occult oppression upon legitimate British residents, newly arrived from the intra-planar territories of Dimension Tau, the Shimmering Worlds, and of course the Doompits of Ulak.”

Adam let out a short incredulous bark.

“The Doompits of Ulak? You’ve let the Ulaki through? Are you insane?”

* * *

Within the comfortably familiar surroundings of his study, Adam Kismet had regained some of his characteristic composure. He had settled down into a deep high-backed armchair finished in an odd blue leather, and was sipping from a steaming porcelain cup, which gave off elusive wisps of some exotic oriental herbs. He sighed, removed his amber glasses, and attempted to fix his unwelcome guest with the sort of steely enigmatic gaze that had halted the ascension of Bonaparte’s Armee du Mort at the Thames Flood Barrier by sheer force of will.

Ms Pargeter seemed frustratingly impervious to his practiced posture, and continued her lecture with the almost bored, tone of a railway ticket inspector delivering a fine.

“Attitudes change, Mr Kismet. Your aggressive approach to Ulaki affairs is out of step with modern British attitudes. Were you aware that we have a sizeable Ulakian community living right here in London? And other communities across the country in Foulswood, Little Hobscombe and Crowley Edge? These beings are no longer faceless, nameless targets for your indiscriminate spell-practice on the other side of the world-”

“Not this world at all, actually...”

“Be that as it may, Mr Kismet, the United Kingdom has ceased to be the cosy 1960s all-human enclave of your youth, and we must now embrace the challenges of a multi-cultural, pan-dimensional Britain for the 21st century. Diversity, Mr Kismet, Diversity.”

Adam could hear the capital letters in her voice.

“Are you seriously telling me that there are cultists of Ulak living in the open, right here? Has the government gone mad?”
Adam instinctively reached for a tennis-ball sized stone, apparently carved from jade. It seemed to glow from its core and soften in his grip, slowly enlongating.

Ms Pargeter looked sharply at the stone and then up at Adam’s face once more. She breathed out through her nostrils, flaring them ever so slightly. “You see, that is exactly the sort of behaviour that is threatening a greater understanding between existing communities and our new citizens. The Ulakians are not ‘cultists’ as you term them – and frankly I find that term somewhat abusive – but members of a legitimate religion, who should be free to practice their beliefs without the threat of being branded-”

“Demon-worshipping lunatics?” Adam interjected, his patience wearing thin.

“Mr Kismet, Ulak the Uncanny, He Of The Fiery Countenance, is a recognised Belief Object of the Ulakian people, not a ‘demon’. Likewise, whilst I am in the process of re-educating your outmoded language, their licensed centres of worship may no longer be referred to as ‘Shrieking Churches’, ‘Obsidian Occularia of Ichor’ or indeed ‘The Pain Factories of Ulak’. Continued use of these and other inflammatory, anti-planar terms is tantamount to a Hate Crime, Mr Kismet.”

“Hate crime? My dear woman, have you actually met any of those frothing fanatics in the decaying flesh? They wear slippers made from flayed gypsy children and wield daggers gnawed from the still living thighbones of Buddhist monks. Eight years ago this midsummer they almost managed to open the Eye of Balor inside the Millennium Dome – thousands of Londoners would have suffered terrible shrivelling deaths if I hadn’t stopped them!”

The jade stone in Adam’s grip had now become a short rod of the same material. One end had assumed the shape of a small fox’s head, the eyes of which flashed menacingly at the woman from the Ministry.

She sighed, barely restraining a professorial tut-tut.

“You really are terribly out of touch, Mr Kismet. That was the old regime of extreme radical Ulakists, who were swept from power by the peace-loving majority Ulakians, empowered by a trans-dimensional programme of political reforms. The disenfranchised Ulakian people reached out to us in their time of need – how could we refuse them the aid and support to which all sentient beings are entitled?”

“Reforms? The Ulaki don’t reform. What do you think they are? A democratic republic with elections and independent enquiries? They’re the Progeny of Ulak – Ulak the Uncanny. He is the Cardinal of Agony, the Organist of Forbidden Arias, the Broodfather of one million Bilespawn! His followers have no free will, save that of their infernal master. He drinks the blackened wine of their bitter souls, woman! What do you think happened, they all got together one day, decided that they’d had enough of chanting ‘Rise Rise O Dread One’ up to their orifices in lakes of human blood and thought they’d jolly well better complain to ‘OfGod’?”

“Sarcasm does not become you, Mr Kismet. While you have been away, no doubt furthering your own imperialistic crusade against the indigenous inhabitants of some innocent unnormal culture-”

(“I was half a mile beneath Mornington Crescent, halting the Enwakenment of Tubilex the Undergod actually…” Adam muttered).

“- Her Majesty’s Government have opened up a series of dialogues with representatives of the Free Ulakian People, and built a broad spectrum consensus aimed at activating a greater understanding between our two cultures, and ultimately seeking a new era of peaceful coexistence.”

Adam stared blankly at her. He had mastered numerous alien tongues over the years, including the curiously fluting patois of the Bog-Dwellers of Right Anglia, but the woman’s descent into undiluted bureau-speak had left him behind. He tapped the jade fox-head rod lightly on the arm of his leather chair, raising a brief sparkle of glittering motes.

“So, let me understand you – whilst I’ve been defending our country against countless devil cults, unliving invasions, and tentacular outer gods, you’ve been inviting them to Number 10 for tea and crumpets? Have you any idea what you’re dealing with here, Ms Pargeter? They’re evil, with a capitalised, blood red E. The only reason the people of Britain can still sit in front of the television every Saturday night and vote for their favourite opera-singing estate agent, is because a few lone souls have chosen to stand against the screaming, frothing tide of madness that laps against the shores of our society. If it wasn’t for the likes of me, you and your entire ministry would be currently stripped naked, bent over double and being used as mongoloid candlesticks for Gris-Gris the Drooling One! Let me say this one more time – the Ulaki are evil. No matter what they say, no matter how many ‘cultural exchanges’ or coffee mornings at the local forbidden moor you arrange, they will not change. They are the eyes, ears and pseudopods of a cosmic force so ancient, so alien in conceit, that to even attempt to consider them in human terms is like a, a meringue tart trying to relate to a vacuum cleaner.”

Adam sat back, momentarily drained. He had not spoken so forcefully, so passionately, since his defence of the unfortunate villagers of Lower Cromton during the Witch-Trials of Matthew Hopkins the IV in the 1970s. The foxhead rod had begun to lose some of its sharp outlines, as if melting back to its former spherical form.

“Well,” began Ms Pargeter, with an air of annoyance, “I can see that this is going to take some time.” She snapped open her handbag and made a few notes on a printed form, before checking her Blackberry tm for messages. “Your personal views on the matter have been duly noted, but kindly consider this to be official notice that should you be seen or caught on camera within 100 metres of any Ulakian place of worship or business-”

“Lords of the Enigma - business? Don’t tell me – they’ve opened up a chain of specialist ‘leather goods’ shops?”

“Well, yes they have, as a matter of fact, not to mention butchers and abattoirs.” There was not the faintest wisp of irony in her response. “The Ulakian people fill a vital skills-gap in the British workforce.” She positively beamed with the fervour of someone who knows they’re doing A Good Thing. “But, to continue with the substance of the restraining order - should you approach any such Ulakian locale, you will be in direct violation of the Dignity of Intrasentient Residents Act of 2008, which carries not only a substantial fine, but also mandatory community service. Though I suspect six weeks on litter duty at the Anglo-Ulakian skateboard park and sloughing clinic in Croydon might force you to confront your prejudices.”

Adam raised a weary eyebrow, eager to conclude this encounter. He placed the now-dull jade stone back in a pocket and started to mentally recite the Mantra of the Restful Glade.

The ubiquitous Blackberry tm beeped a reminder at Ms Pargeter and she tutted loudly.

“Dear me, is that the time already? I really must dash. As you may be aware, tonight is the grand opening of the new Ulakian Outreach Centre in Hackney marshes, and I simply must collect my ceremonial gown first.”

With a flick of Adam’s fingers, the study door flew open expectantly.

* * *

Ms Pargeter’s heels clicked sharply along the polished wooden hallway back to the front door of Number 1 Temple Bridge, whilst Adam’s soft Indian slippers padded gently beside her.

“Please, remember that the order came into effect as of today, so I cannot stress enough the importance of your not interfering in tonight’s programme of events. I’m told that the Festival of A Thousand Sights is one of the most sacred dates in the Ulakian calendar, and one to which we are honoured to have been invited.”

“Strange, I’ve never heard of it before – might I see your invitation, madam?” She passed Adam a small vellum scroll, which he read intently while she continued her monologue.

“As I say, this is a very high profile Awareness Raising opportunity, Mr Kismet, The Deputy PM, the mayor, even a couple of royals will be attending. Not to mention quite a few representatives from the local community – schoolchildren, vicars, imams, rabbis and so forth. So the very last thing we need is you appearing in a puff of smoke during the main course and throwing Ochre Bolts of Banishment left, right and centre. Do I make myself clear?”

Adam’s eyes flicked up from the scroll, a curious expression on his shadowed face. “This… ceremonial gown of yours, what does it look like?” She looked as if she were about to take offence at the question, but Kismet’s leaden medallion seemed to draw her gaze, and when she spoke again, the woman from the Ministry did so without a trace of ego or artifice.

“Why, it’s a traditional Ulakian ‘crimson robe of friendship’. Apparently the colour represents the warmth of the community; the stomach left bare to embody trust. All the guests will be wearing them.”

Adam frowned and touched the medallion, releasing Ms Pargeter from the Telling. He opened the front door of the mansion for her, and then placed a long fingered hand upon her shoulder; an almost protective gesture.

“Did you know the Ulaki language is notoriously ambiguous, Ms Pargeter? A single word can have many different meanings, making accurate translations something of a labyrinth. The Ulaki noun szath’nach for example, can mean not only ‘festival’, but also ‘feast’, and qa’zirr translates both as ‘vision’ and ‘eyeball’.” He looked at her meaningfully, but she had already turned and begun clacking across the bridge to the stone stairs.

“Laudable though it is for you to start displaying a genuine interest in Ulakian culture at this late stage, I’m afraid there’s no way we could rescind the Ministry’s order in time to procure you an invitation for tonight, Mr Kismet.” She began to descend the steps down to the police launch. Adam walked to the bridge wall and stared down sadly at her as she took on a somewhat insubstantial quality.

“Goodbye, Ms Pargeter. May the Seven Golden Sages watch over you.” He spun his fingers in an eldritch spiral and two small objects unfurled out of the air. One a carefully folded letter bearing the arms of Her Majesty’s government, the other a small vellum scroll of rather more exotic origin. He plucked them from the evening air and stared at them both for several minutes, his brow furrowed. At length, he sighed, tossed one over the low wall into the Thames below, and disappeared in a puff of smoke.


Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed this at some point in the past, it's most excellent.

Mitchell Adcow said...

I knew I'd enjoy this when I reached the word "twilit"! I wasn't disappointed

The Chocolate Ocelot said...

Thanks chaps :)

To follow the adventures of a somewhat younger Adam Kismet and his associates, check out the brand new 7TV game:

Here endeth the plug.