It was the year love came to town. But it wasn't the town I lived in and it wasn't the kind of love I like. It was whip-cracking sadomasochism with a side order of bestiality.
I was glad I was in a different town.
Perched high on my second-hand bicycle I rattled over cobbles. If you recycle a bicycle you must have already cycled it once. As indicated by its name, a bicycle is exactly two cycles, so the addition of that one extra cycle must make it a tricycle.
Stands to reason. But mine wasn't.
I was on my way to work, to the underwear shop owned by Fortinbras, my boss and uncle, and I was so late I was actually early for the following shift. He would be confused.
Robots in underwear, publicity officers for secret societies, perfectly superimposed conjoined twins who looked no different from one normal person, rushed past on the pavements thanks to my velocity. The horn of my bicycle honked at them.
None waved back, or even forward.
Too busy, too focussed. Vast polyhedra swung on cables from cranes, knocking towers into craters. The urban zone was at war. We hadn't been bombed yet but reconstruction was taking place anyway. The process had already gone wrong. Nobody knew who operated the cranes or why they played skittles with our buildings.
On the elevated walkways metal horses snorted.
Down below in tiny squares, enemy soldiers in armour bowed politely, shook hands, slurped mugs of tea together at the tables of pavement cafés. It was a Civil War, highly so, but the conversations were horribly forced and I disliked overhearing them.
"He keeps fishing for compliments - with dynamite!"
"The last papal bull has become rather too controversial - the Vatican released the Minotaur by mistake!"
"Of the lost continents Atlantis remains the most unfashionable - but it made quite a splash in its day!"
And similar sentiments, sadly suspired.
So I upward rolled my eyes in gratitude as a glider swooped overhead and a ray of sunshine pierced this sentence. Man flying a diamond of blue sky on a string like a kite, crossing our city on a bicycle like mine to keep the pilot out of the clouds. Admirable skill. Portable blue sky, one of the best inventions of recent years.
With the recent removal of Tuesday from the calendar, nothing stood as a buffer between Monday and Wednesday. The inevitable collision was repeated every week. Only gliders benefited, riding the shockwaves for as long as they pleased. Engines had become obsolete up there, more obsolete than hearts down here…
"Stunray!" came a howl of recognition.
I braked my bicycle but did not dismount, even though Olga threw her arms around my neck and tried to drag me off the saddle. With compound interest I returned her kisses.
"Will you fly a patch of sky for me one day, darling?"
"Yes, Olga, when I'm rich."
"When might that be so, Stunray?"
"After the war, Olga dearest, when I'm free to start my own business. I'll make a fortune renting unfriendly loners to crowds. Then I'll fill the entire atmosphere with skies."
"Stunray Winebomb, you are a liar!"
I pinched her cheek, or she pinched mine, and I pedalled off, casting a glance back over my left shoulder. Olga was a former model at the shop that Fortinbras owned but she had lost her job when the bottom fell out of the knickers market. Humans had spontaneously ceased using underwear, but all was not lost, for robots had unexpectedly and profitably filled the gap. They were our only customers now. They tipped hydraulically and actively welcomed overcharging.
Fortinbras didn't plan to sell underwear forever. He was a sleepwalker in his spare time, specialising in undoing the things at night he had done in the day. Bad people on the verge of getting caught kept hiring him to sleep in their houses and undo their things too. With the income derived from this second career, he dreamed of paying for an operation to remove the part of his brain that stopped him sleeping peacefully. He dreamed of finally being able to dream in peace. Recursion amuses me highly, so I was always giggling at his ambition.
I reached his shop, nosed my bicycle through the door. A hidden bell tinkled. It was dark and musty inside, too dim to read the books dangling from the ceiling on cords. Nobody knows why they are there. Fortinbras looked up with a simple grunt.
"You again! It's always you!"
"That's because you employ me, only me," I replied.
"Always you, again and again!"
I sighed. Nietzsche's idea of Eternal Recurrence just won't go away. It keeps coming back. "So what?"
"I have an idea!" he announced.
Ideas no longer symbolically appear as incandescent lightbulbs above the heads of men and women, but as those new energy-saving bulbs that take longer to warm up. Inspiration has become slower and cheaper as a result, which is both good and bad.
I opened a book and read by this soft glow.
"In olden days," I quoted aloud, "people often bawled that Time Flies! But they don't talk like that now. Why? Because of the excessive carbon footprint entailed by such a mode of transport. Time now prefers to go by boat or train, sometimes to walk."
"Poppycock! No modern aerofoil utilises an engine!"
I snapped the cord and dashed the book to the ground. In response to this, Fortinbras wagged his thickish tongue like a pendulum, while hands that weren't his or mine dawdled on the face of the clock. The hour hand was original but the minute hand had been purchased second-hand. As for the third hand, the one that quickly counts seconds, it was even less new. One second-hand hand and many third-hand seconds. I studied a different book but silently, like a literate eel.
"Don't you want to hear it?" he grumbled.
In the past, before electricity, great ideas must have been represented by candles, oil lamps and flaming torches above the heads of the people who suddenly had them. So why don't we have atomic glows now, only these inadequate energy-saving bulbs? How unfair! Something to do with the war, possibly. The door opened again, the bell tinkled and a customer walked in. Serious, not a browser.
He grated harshly, "One copper corset, two zinc garters, three pairs of nickel knickers and four tin bras."
"You called me by name?" gasped Fortinbras.
But I was closer to the customer and served him what he asked for. In robot society the males wear the lingerie, I never ask why. He was one of those stubborn chatterbots who still use triodes to amplify small talk. My hands shook as I made a parcel of his purchases, beribboned it with fuse wire. I was bored and blistered.
"One day they say that bullshit or inaccuracy or vitamins are good for you, the next day they say the opposite!"
"I quite agree with you. Terrible, isn't it?"
"I met a man in an overgrown park yesterday. He had taken to living in the trees, a pointless hybrid between the primitive and urban. A lateral throwback. Registered Trademark of the Apes, he called himself, but my nickname for him was Fruitface."
"Really? How intriguing."
"When I went to Paris, the Eiffel Tower told me not just one riveting tale but thousands of them, the tale of each of its rivets. All had the same plot, which held together well."
"I bet you were delighted by that honour."
"The street next to the one where I currently live underwent a strange experience last month when a couple began arguing in the end house. So much noise did they generate that the occupants of the next house along began bawling for them to shut up. But this new noise annoyed the couple in the next house and they began shouting too, which annoyed the people in the fourth house, and so on, until all the occupants of every house were yelling. Guess what came next!"
"Kindly tell me, shiny sir," I almost shrieked.
"Well, the entire terrace now had the semblance of a living being and regarded from a distance the street resembled a caterpillar-type creature. Each house was a fully active segment bursting with energy. Needless to say a passing alien spaceship was fooled and added the entire street to its cosmic collection of exotic fauna."
He finally went away and I scuttled to the darkest corner where it was safest to crouch. Solitude at last. Here I daydreamed about the business I planned soon to start, the one I mentioned to Olga. There was a shortage of good quality loners in society but people lived in general ignorance of that fact. I had spotted an unknown need, a need I intended to exploit with isolationists and misanthropes.
Fortinbras also has a reputation for being a loner but it's a reputation I devised for him and he doesn't believe it. For the purposes of activating a comparison, he once made a pilgrimage to the loneliest man in existence and asked him to rate his own loneliness.
"I'm certainly not the most unsociable person I know - because I don't know anyone," that man declared.
Useless to argue with such logic…
Interrupting my memory, Fortinbras suddenly said, "Let me return to telling you about my idea. Take a look at that curious device. It came into my possession yesterday. I discovered it on the summit of a heap of trash in a back alley and I dragged it here, wound it up, set it running. What is it doing, you ask? Weaving young claimants to estates. From wool. That's my answer to your question!"
I blinked. "I don't understand. What is it?"
"An heirloom - a loom for cheaply and efficiently making new heirs! Have you never seen one before? Heirs of the future stick in the throat of the moment. I will keep it for the duration of my lifespan, but when I die you probably won't inherit it."
"Whom will you pass it down to?"
"One of the heirs woven by its own aptitude! I envision a multitude of cloth men loose in society, competing with robots for positions of prime importance and for underwear."
"Take cover, Fortinbras!" I bawled.
The window broke as a spherical hissing object was hurled through the glass. Another antique. The basque separatists were evidently still active despite the clanking efforts of the steam-driven tyrant, Muscle Leany, to crush all terrorists. The separatists wanted basques to be sold in shops by themselves, well away from corsets, garters, pantyhose. The bomb didn't explode. It was a dud, as so many are. The remainder of the morning was boring. I did my duty, was obedient and attentive, but watched the clock from the edge of my eye. Meeting Olga for lunch. When lunchtime came I rushed blindly into the street.
And collided with the blue-sky courier, knocking him off his bicycle. The string slipped from his fingers, his kite flapped away erratically, the glider wasn't able to keep up and became enveloped in grey cloud, shook violently with the turbulence, lost control and plummeted down on the far side of the redrawn horizon. I hoped the impact wouldn't be regarded as the start of a new external war.
But it would, of course. Robots in stockings and suspenders marched past. A vicar in a tutu would have been a relief. One bloody front is never enough, nor even two. Robots versus cloth men. I shivered to imagine the outcome. The cyclist groaned.
"An accident. Was destiny to blame?" I cried.
"We'll never know!" he replied.
I frowned. If things are too difficult to know, how can we ever know that we'll never know them? Maybe we won't, but maybe we will. Fully Groan Adults, that's what we were at that exact time, sharing an enigma, me with my bones intact, him without. But our foes were already waiting for an excuse, had assembled on the urban outskirts several hours earlier. The glider crash was the signal.
Squeaking of rusty chains, rattle of gears.
The velocipede vanguard…
Men on bicycles were invading our city. They came from the direction of the town that love had gone to visit and they trailed diamond sheets of sky behind them, but not on strings. No, they trailed them on the knotted tips of long unfurled bullwhips.
And these kites weren't blue. They were red.
Patches of sunset burning the clouds, whipped panes of heaven made to bleed by perverted desire. Inside the artificial fragments of sky jabbed wings of gliders, hundreds of them, steered by bestial figures. Shrunken giants, massive midgets, mermaids with the lower halves of girls, cyclops twins with double vision each, centaurs with the bodies of men and other contradictory monstrosities.
Perfectly paradoxical pilots, shockwave assisted.
Olga came running, frantic…
The future is never now. The future is already over. I knew what I had to do. I hurried back to the shop, rummaged for the balls of string used to hang new books from the ceiling. Then I measured long lengths, snipped with scissors, gathered underpants from the shelves, went back out. Fly a pair of underpants on unrolled book string, pedal faster and faster. Many pairs, many rolls. My agenda.
Look at me, Olga! Every glider that enters will be smothered, have its nose rubbed in it, anything, come and see. I promised to fly a shard of sky for you. I have exceeded that. One thousand underpants, a thousand kites, one for each mutant enemy flier.
Hurry past the future, all men, women, machines!
Present company excluded…
A slightly different version of this story previously appeared in The Just Not So Stories, The Exaggerated Press, 2013