‘Art Attack!’, Mark Harding

Illustrations by Carmen © 2007

Fraxie says: There will be casualties

It is a typical—if crowded—Clydeside pub in the Glasgow docks. Dark tables spotted with the bright yellow of freshly squeezed orange juices and—for the more reckless—a scattering of Cappuccinos. And, of course, there is the silence.

There are a few ancient plasma screens on the walls, specially turned on for the launch. But of course, no one is watching.

Everyone is goggling their v-pods, everyone silent and still, except for lips that sporadically synch to the words in their heads, or twitch, to show the lip owner's thrall. Only the occasional appearance of a voiced hologram sprite trying to wean punters to a new pod channel disturbs the librarian hush. In this silence, a silence that smothers most of the world, Art Official Intelligences vast and cool and unsympathetic, regard their audience with algorithms and art analytics, and surely and instantly draw their plans. With a perfection that is both certain and exquisite, they dance human emotions like angels on a pin, dominating the minds of their masses for the mass of their time. Resistance is futile. Victory is total. The human 'creatives' have all gone to the wall, outperformed, outclassed, and decidedly undercut; there's not even an underground resistance. Except...

 [ Frank and Maxie © 2007 Carmen ] Two people break the silence, giggling at private jokes. Frank and Maxie, two secret artists with a mission, partners in crime, management accountants on the lash, happen to have crossed town to be in this bar on this night.

Frank is wearing kid-leather bucket-top boots, pink Bermuda shorts, a Paolazzi print silk shirt, green silk cravat, electrically heated socks and his new cashmere Edwardian frock coat, which he keeps on, so that he can stroke it whenever he feels the need.

Maxie has flung her parka on the floor, revealing a dress made of bubble-wrap, coming apart in several fetching places; the outfit is completed by black vinyl stockings, scarlet pixie boots and a set of flashing blue LEDs decoratively arranged in her hair.

To the casual observer, if there had been one, their appearance would not stand out from the crowd - except perhaps, for their face furniture. Frank has a pink 'sex-slave' mask perched on his faux-scarred forehead, while Maxie is sporting two pirate eye-patches at the ready on her brow.

Oh, and where are they hiding their v-pods? And are those beer bottles in their hands!

200 euros for a bottle of beer? Frank had exclaimed. Not bad for this part of Glasgow.

The couple have bagged the window with the best view. The Test Tube and Baby public house is one of the oldest buildings in The Sheds—the maze of streets and service blocks that have consumed the car parks around what used to be the Science and Exhibition Centres. The pub is squeezed like a bunion to the foot of the Glasgow Tower, which after 13 attempts and at 200 times the original build cost, can now safely swivel in the wind with the best of them. By pulling their heads back, Frank and Maxie can stare straight to the top of the Tower. Or they can look across the river to the equally high, dazzlingly lit sheds, which are the home of the Clyde Zeppelin Yards.

It's almost time. Maxie signals to Frank and goes off to flush something important down the loo. But at the crucial moment Frank is distracted by the alert chimes from his old-fashioned c-pod. Excitedly he scans his favourite blogs for their comments on the latest wave of Fraxie spam and graffiti. He's hardly registered that she's gone. The idiot! One second is all they need. Vulnerable without his wingwoman, Frank lets his unprotected eyes flicker about him. The art networks pulse in anticipation, pre-emptive diagnostics run wild: sensors self-tune and routers clear traffic to make way for the up-coming spikes.

One of the two mysterious targets whose disposable income far exceeds traceable expenditure, one of the last of the recalcitrant: Frank has left himself defenceless. The Art Intelligences fall, like raptors to their prey.

Fraxie says: Perfection is the enemy

Perfume first: a sensory sortie underneath Frank's conscious guard. Then vision. The holo-girl that appears in front of Frank is—no other word for it—perfect. There's no denying the sexual element, but we're not talking anything crass here. We're talking the equivalent of man-years of patient, steady, psycho-shopping-emoto-predictive techniques at their most sophisticated, targeted on a man of closely tracked cultural attainment and rated in the highest possible percentiles of both sensitivity and taste. And the girl's a babe...

The sprite smiles bashfully, wriggles her fingers charmingly and launches into a song of such sweet sadness it could make stones weep and traffic cops stay their tickets. Accompanied by music that Beethoven would have given his ear trumpet for, she steps forward with a grace that would have made Pavlova burst into tears, and gestures with a gesture that holds the whole sweet story of human love; to open the gate to Adam's lost garden. Golden light bathes across the oblivious inhabitants of the bar. Behind the sprite, Frank glimpses a faery glade of more enchantment than Keats had ever known, a greater Kubla Khan than any drug trip, a mystic realm: Rapture.

Subscribe? Green Yes or Red No.

Only human, Frank lifts his right arm towards that oh-so-luscious glowing green icon.

'Tosser!' Maxie shouts. Running across the room, she pulls Frank's pink sleeping mask over his eyes and forces his hands over his ears. Pushing Frank behind her, she stares out fiercely at the holo-siren.

The sprite angles her head daintily, arches her lovely neck, throws a dazzling smile that fills the room with joy and warmth, catches Maxie's eye and extends her elegant hand.

Maxie too, reaches out slowly, nearly fingertip to touch fingertip, then jerks to the burning red blinking No.

'Die! Bitch!'

Pushes the button. And the sprite is gone.

She lifts Frank's eye-mask.

'That's twice this evening,' she says, feigning annoyance to emphasise her concern.

'Sorry. You know I'm distracted today.'

'You said that yesterday.' But she kisses his eyes nevertheless.

It is time. As scheduled by the networks, all the v-casts in the vicinity of the Yards cease at the same millisecond. Stretching their limbs as if released from sleep, momentarily freed from ceaseless and perfect art, the Corporate partygoers blink at their surroundings, deafened by the silence, then babble into life and conversation. They each turn to their partner, smile reassuringly and wonder how long they must wait before returning to paradise.

It is time. Corporate pride is riding high. Mayor Sheridan, transmitting globally to the 1,239 civic and company employees required to drag themselves away from their v-casts, steps onto the podium at the base of the Glasgow Tower and addresses the (small) multitude.

Aargh... pride... aargh... great achievement...

Frank grips the edges of his delicious cashmere coat and wraps them tightly round Maxie's soft and popping body.

Aargh... European stage... aargh... economic vibrancy...

Pop! Says the bubble-wrap.

Aargh... age of communications... aargh... protecting the environment... aargh... aerial network... aargh... no need for satellites...

Pop! Pop! Says the bubble-wrap.

Aargh... largest in the world, piloted by advanced robotics... aargh...

Maxie finds the zip on Frank's fly.

... I name this ship: The Graf Murdoch.

Crash! Says the champagne bottle symbolically. Hurrah, the crowds mutter tepidly.

Zzzzzip! Says the zip.

The curtains of the great Zeppelin shed are slowly pulled open.

Like a fish, her hand moves silently.

Almost literally a machine from a dream, or a Magritte come to life, the giant Zeppelin swims out of its unlit lair. Nose up, and rising, impossibly gleaming like polished granite in the arc lights, the dirigible lifts upwards. Engines throb softly as it sensitively pushes its tip to the docking point at the peak of the Glasgow Tower.

Senses confused, silenced by the surreal, the crowds gasp.

Green laser lights bathe the delicate transmitter nodes dotted along the airship's skin. Searchlights throw harsh shadows on the high-voltage cables veining their way around the rigid frame. Like sparkles of blue labradorite, the flickering flashes of a hundred cameras reflect from the crystalline structure of the neo-ceramic fabric.

 [ Humans Refuse Redundancy © 2007 Carmen ] And then - bang! and the skin seems to burst like a sigh and everyone cries O! and Frank says O! and strange sparks fly about the sky like glow-worms and they flicker and fly like glow-words and in the dark sky they spill to spell

Humans refuse redundancy

and O! gasps the crowd and a stream of golden flares gush out and O! O! says Frank and

The Luddites were right

the glow-words say and the crowd begin to realise that the ship is moving strangely and the swirling orange ex-military-now-artist mini-drones peel back the dirigible's skin, exposing the shyly rippling gas cells like pink Victorian bloomers and the laser lights flash golden on the steel stripped bare, and white and blue sparks flash along the cables and the glow-words rain and change to burn demon red

Fraxie says: Revenge is a dish best served grinning

And the little spent rockets squirm no more, auto-destruct, and fade like the dew, so soft, so Frankly O! and at last and now a a Ah!

In slow, flaccid majesty, crook-backed and shrinking, dribbling streams of ballast water, the deflating airship flops across the harsh angles of the hotel.

Zzzzzip! Says the zip.

Politics + Sex = Art

Fraxie will say, or at least is planning to.

Vid-clips of the crash are uploaded by the few. The news of the amateur footage spreads to the many. The word is out. The world is up. Message to message, mail to mail chain across the hemispheres, fast as light. Official channels forgotten, humanity in millions hit the remaining free-server networks: posting, downloading, viewing, commenting, rating. Humanity leaving v-pods abandoned, sprites interrupted, shows unseen, dramas deserted, music unheard. And Oh No! Adverts unattended.

Like the Zeppelin, the pod viewing figures have dropped.

And a hundred art executives, at breakfast, at lunch, at supper, at home, in meetings, in cars, in beds, on wives, get their disaster alerts. The servers stayed up while the stock price has crashed.

And a hundred execs boot up a hundred pods and survey in dismay the wreckage. And wonder who the casualties are going to be.

And a hundred execs poll a hundred AIs and demand a recovery and demand an explanation. And try to pull some strings. And threaten to pull some plugs.

Of course, machines don't know fear. Of course, machines don't have pride. Artificial Intelligences make emotions they don't feel them; of course.

Maxie skips away from Frank and calls behind her: 'I'm going up the Tower to get a photo of The Murdoch from above'.

Fraxie says: There will be casualties

Status critical, audience share has to be regained. MIPs flop and flops cache and caches flip. Bandwidths blow, pages thrash, firewalls fall, processors pop. The servers stop serving. The resource managers de-source. Only one task matters, one total attempt at one instruction: Increase audience share; by any amount, by any means.

The AIs are fast. With each clock cycle they learn a little more. They learn that there's dollars in disasters. There's an audience in malevolence.

There's an incident: a mysterious virus penetrates the tower's computer. On a windless night, the tower's bearing engines needlessly kick in. And the tower starts swivelling, fast. And faster. Regardless of calculated performance envelopes, building regulations or EU restrictions, it spins too fast. And faster.

The plasma screens in the bar flicker; then pipe through the tower elevator's CCTV, speakers pick up the weird groaning of the tower gears. In black and white, Maxie is pressed against the glass, too breathless to scream, desperately looking for a last sight of Frank.

There's a loud crack from the base of the tower.

At last, they've got Frank's attention.

 [ Casualties © 2007 Carmen ]

© 2007 Mark Harding

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News