August 05, 2009

Locust Swarm of One

By Sigge S. Amdal © 2009

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We are slowly approaching our destination, the conditions are great for traveling, and unless we get some surprise weather we expect to arrive on time in about nine hours. Don’t hesitate to make the most of your trip; our staff is here to serve you."

Bright light stung his eyes like an impenetrable carpet of white needles. He winked to dull the eyeball itch, trying to carve out some detail in the white dark. Was it completely clear or clearly a blizzard, he wondered, as everything outside the windows just displayed the distinct sharpness of a void?

"Introspective scenery they've got here," said his travel mate. From what he could tell he was a former professor, presently a drunk.

"What do you see?"

There, there, take it easy. The trip is nearly over, you’ll get out of here, and all will be forgotten. He didn’t listen to the professor’s reply, pointless small talk. They were seated next to each other on the train, there was nothing else committing them to care. Why should he?

Locusts twitch their hind legs in a certain rhythm, and what was a puzzle to science until very recently, was that the sense-hairs on their legs are directly wired to a very secluded part of the central nervous system deep within, which has the sole function of clamping the brain – thus causing a swarm. For how do you explain that the individual locust suddenly changes colour, grows more robust physically, and gets a hell lot more aggressive?

Well, maybe he flipped? Maybe it was his time to go? Maybe it was there all along, just that one day coming into the office, seeing all the same dull and dead white office furniture and make-shift corkboard walls, he just snapped! Enough! No more!

But how do you explain that thousands of these individuals all snap at the same time?

The answer lied in the sensors in the hind legs. A specific interval brought forth by evolution’s long track of trial and error, survival and death; if enough sense-hairs on the hind leg are motioned at rate x during a period of time y, then in all probability the density of the population is growing, until critical mass - - and you have a swarm. Incidentally, under the right conditions, this means you can have a swarm of one.

The toilet smelled inhuman; it was a piercing synthetic smell of citrus coupled with what once was organic decomposition in motion. It burned his eyes. He looked into his face, swaying back and forth in front of the mirror. He shuttered. It smelled as if someone with a bad case of aggressive diarrhea had given birth to a lemon.

Her Lolita socks played idly on the pull-out stool at a forty five degree angle, as if they promised disclosure of everything underneath, so clean, white and pure. No wonder he wouldn’t resist. Why resist an invitation?! There are no threats from social law where there’s no social being present, and she was selling meat to hungry roadside vagabonds, is all.

The professor had left when he came back to the seat. Good.

He had taken the water bottles and the backpack with him. No surprises.

He sighed as he sat down, drawing nearer to his destination, and looked around at the empty seats. He imagined talking to the ghosts of all those who'd traveled here before him, sat in his seat, shat in the toilet. Working class people like him. The cry of a hungry baby, the small talk of peers, the menacing silent threats from a mustached conductor through a cloud of cigarette smoke; it was all around him. Endless futures with fading strings back to their births, soon on their way to oblivion, headed for the end of the line.

He didn't feel anything. He could just as well be asleep. Some medically induced comas are said to completely remove all sense of vivacity from the produce of somatic stimuli. Not living inside of as such, but alongside to, as watched from a central focal point only without proper grasp or independent footing. Like being part of a silent movie, robotica theatre, clap-clap-clap, someone shot the piano player but nobody noticed. The show must go on.

He willed his mind to wake him up, but yielded little result, not even a headache. If he was dreaming this vividly then who knows, maybe his will was just a passing image as well. All of the mirages were looping in the white neverending nothing outside the moving windows. He didn’t like the new trains at all. Except for launch and landing there was absolutely no sense of gravity but the one you’d expect in your living room, spinning & spinning all around the galaxy. No sense of kinetics, dynamics, working mechanics, no centrifugal force. He might as well be completely still, while the maglev pulled the rotation of the earth all around him. It made perfect sense.

He got up from the seat and decided to find the driver's carriage, at the very front. It could just as well be at the end of the train, but if they'd kept the original furniture they had probably kept the locomotive as well. As he headed for the front, he realized that he had no memory of entering the train, and nothing before that either. Who was he? Or who had he been? Why was this happening to him? Wasn’t death supposed to be a great nothing at all?

He focused his inner eye on the grey nothingness in the beginning of time, the beginning of his memories, of all that was. They had to be there somewhere. Else he didn’t exist. He may never have.

He willed the ghosts to existence yet again, the people around him, passengers who were as unreal as his lack of memory. They were his puppets, he imagined, but felt no victory. He might as well be somebody else's mirage, a puppet of a puppet. His heart beat faster. He realized that there was no telling how long he’d been on the train. Maybe they were all uniquely experiencing the same shared hallucination, with everybody else posing as ghosts to the other, never had-beens and complete unknowns. Maybe they were all in hell.

The girl was there still. The smell of citrus hooked into his eyeballs. He jammed the door shut and looked at the ghosts in the benches around him. "It’s out of order," he said, having to cough. His throat was dry. I’m losing my mind, he thought. That's it. What’s my name?

He couldn’t remember what had happened. Suddenly he got an urge to search out the back of the train, not the front. There could be a way out of here. Maybe he could jump off at a juncture when the train had to slow down. They could be at a stand still presently, losing precious time. He ran. Strangely, the blurred images of people moved out of his way as he made his escape down the carriage corridors. Was he doing this, or did they do it by own volition? Had he created something as real as himself? How could he know he was real? Could they will him away?

"There you are!"

The stern voice of the professor shot through the carriage. Did he know him?

"You've been away for three hours, where the hell have you been?!"

He mumbled something.

"Come on," said the professor, and continued further back. "Let’s find our seats."

They had seats. This was something that was supposed to be, then. Something decided.

A scurry of people let them through to their seats. They were talking loudly, agitated, searching for something or someone, with a mixture of fear and hostility in their voices.

The two of them sat down, and the professor handed him a water bottle. "Just drink it all down; you’re going to need a lot of H2O."

He picked up his reading, Nature magazine.

"What's all this about?"

The professor looked at him. "Huh. Seems like I found you at the nick of time."

"Who am I?"

He sighed. "Just drink the water. It'll all come back to you in a little while."

By chance, his eyes fell out the window, and all of sudden a weak hint of texture was visible in the white. He recognized a cloud, or perhaps it was a mountain. All the sounds were getting clearer too. They were loud and frantic. The people around him, getting closer.

A pathway was made through the crowd as two conductors with batons made their way towards them. His hands clutched the armrest until they were all white and his legs pressed against the seat in front of them.

"Are you all right?"

This wasn't a train at all.

The two flight attendants stopped at his seat. They looked serious.

"What's the trouble here?" asked the professor. They didn't reply.

"We're conducting a safety landing on an airstrip in ten minutes where the police are waiting for you, sir. In the meanwhile, please remain calm."

The way they held their batons indicated that calmness would be enforced, if necessary.

The professor turned to him instead. "What the hell is going on here?"

Everything was coming back.

"I'm... I'm so afraid of flying."

Sigge S. Amdal is a word wanker from Oslo, Norway.

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