Out of Oppression Emerges a Unified People
When I awake, there is a shining floor far below. I am suspended over a distant sea of concrete. I lurch and a tide of queasy fever sweeps through me.
A crane lifts a person up to my level. He is naked and unmoving, face down in a slanted, standing position. A tiny penis waggles in the air. The figure soars upwards past me. I try to turn my head to follow his progress. Nothing happens. My muscles don’t work.
I see part of a metal staircase below me. Underneath that, there is a sort of wall curving inwards. It seems to be made of irregular planks. I realise the significance of the shape of the planks. They’re all people.
A stinging in the left side of my head makes me cry out. An earnest, black-clad woman appears. She says, “Test.”
“What’s that mean?” I say.
“Good,” she says, not changing her expression. She looks down at something in her hand.
“What’s going on? What’s this?” I raise an arm to indicate the enormity of whatever I am part of. My muscles work now. “Who are you?”
“Hmm?” She does something and I feel a twitch in my mind. “I’m an Artendant. I work out the choreography.”
I try to ask what she means but I can’t think of any words. I say, “ah… ahh… what, what…”
She twists her lips efficiently. “Good. You’ll be required to interact with the Articipants when they speak to you. Sometimes you won’t be able to talk.” She looks down again and I feel another sting. “Avoid criticising the United Republic of Samaal.” The Artendant moves to one side and reaches up to the person next to me.
“Wait! What’s going on?” I say. She hears, “aio oh i o.”
Her face jerks back into my field of view. She looks annoyed. She pokes a small instrument at me.
“O a?” I ask. She presses a button. Something folds in my head.
Now I can make no sound at all.
I looked down from the bridge of the TeraTanker X. Three fast boats fanned out around our ship. They looked like bees attacking a buffalo. People said this stretch of water would be safer after Yemen became the 65th state of the USA. Even Samaal had hired an ex-US President for ceremonial purposes. I noticed that one of the pirate boats was flying a new-look Stars and Stripes. I leaned against the rail to watch the fun.
Our defence station crawled with men, an ants’ nest defended with a complex strategy. The men shouted and heaved giant hoses. One man bestrode an immense brass stopcock. A jet of high-pressure water shot out at the nearest pirate boat. The boat dropped back.
Our immense tanker continued down the coast of Africa, unstoppable – a planet in its pre-programmed orbit. The pirate boats buzzed aimlessly out of range of the hoses. There was a shouted order and the white arc drooped and dripped. Nothing happened for about half an hour.
Without any particular sign, one boat began to approach. A man in the bow lifted his arm. He seemed to be staring beyond our tanker. He brought the hand down decisively.
A screaming force beat me back. It was a power, a sonic club buffeting me against the steel of the ship. My eyes squeezed sphincter-tight. I felt metal against the back of my head and opened my eyes for a defensive impression before squashing them shut. There was a helicopter above me. The overwhelming noise still tore through my brain.
There was a change in the air. I could feel particles in my nostrils. The screaming stopped. I could hear the chopper blades now, far off in a muffled dimension. I opened my eyes. The air was a writhing yellow. An alien face poked into reality. Black with a central grille. Pipes.
I open my eyes. The sweeping yawn of emptiness wrings my stomach. The Artendants march up and down the steel helix, their energy infecting us with futile restlessness. They rub, they polish; they clean us as they do the metal. I try to protest but come out with a slobbering uuoaah. The Artendants wipe me like municipal employees would swab a pissoir. They finish and leave me to float above the preparations.
A woman glides up the staircase, pointing a remote at each of us. I go from being able to say vowel sounds, my default setting, to enforced silence. The floor below is dark with Articipants, talking and gesturing and pointing their imagers at each other.
The hall goes dim. A spotlit lectern commands attention. The chatter subsides. A man walks to the microphone. The applause is adulatory.
A familiar voice coils from below, one used to being heard. “This is a great day for… uh, art and a great day for the United Republic of Samaal.” The voice is comforting, like worn-out slippers, something that never worked very well but has been part of life for as long as most people could remember. “Ah have been impressed by my new nation’s commitment to ending equality in the world by redistributing resources…”
There is a smattering of polite laughter.
The voice continues. “There are those who will say that the message of this great artwork is ambiguous just as they will say that the ambitions of the great nation of Samaal are ambiguous. Ah say that if art is not ambiguous, we can never know its exact meaning…”
I am apparently in an installation that announces Samaal’s pre-eminence in the worlds of art and finance. Piracy is a reasoned strategy for wealth distribution – a kind of random tax. Obligatory participation in one of the United Republic’s prominent art projects is part of that strategy.
The spiral staircase clangs. More art lovers. Articipants. This is a nice old couple. He’s wearing a beret. She has aerodynamic spectacles.
“Hello.” She cranes upward to peer at my face. She is panting. Her breath smells antiseptic. I don’t answer. That part of my brain is not available.
“You people are amazing.” She smiles like a missionary bestowing a wafer on an ex-cannibal. “I envy you your commitment.”
I make a noise by forcing air between my tongue and palate.
“Ooh!” My patroniser steps back. She turns to the Artendant, present for Wellbeing reasons. “I so adore the interactive nature of this piece. What’s it called?”
“Out of Oppression Emerges a Unified People.” The Artendant shows teeth. “We have at least one representative of every country that has impeded the cultural development of the United Republic of Samaal.”
She simpers and turns to her companion. “I’m so glad we came, Ernesto. Isn’t this exciting?”
Ernesto is still bent over, catching his breath from the ascent. He straightens for a moment and catches my eye, making an expression of comic solidarity. I wonder what we have to be solid about. The little party ascends to the next level of the installation.
“I so wish that I could give my life to art,” the bespectacled art monkey emotes. “Did you ever see anyone so fulfilled?”
As time has passed, the starers clanking up the spiral staircase have become better dressed, less likely to refer to guides, more likely to express an opinion, less likely to make sense.
Another couple appears. The woman stands back and peers at me through pince-nez that she doesn’t need.
“And how long have you worked here?”
“The passage of time has become irrelevant,” I say. For a change, it comes out as I thought it.
“Deep,” she says, turning away.
Her swain glares at me. “The other one just made noises.”
“Come on, dear. It’s a gimmick.”
“All art is gimmickry,” I say.
“What?” he says.
I feel the switch in my head.
“Aw ar i i i ee,” I say.
He turns away.
“They’re taking the piss,” he says.
I feel a sliding sensation in one of my thighs. A voice from beneath me snaps out, “You hurry with that one.” A crane swings past. A rope drops across my face.
The man moving my legs around answers, “I’m hurrying.”
“How long you be?”
“Long as I be.” I feel the sliding in the other leg.
I get the sense of unfolding in my brain. “What are you doing?” I say.
“Getting you outta here.” The rope wraps around my torso.
“Why? Am I…?” I can’t get the word free out. The rope tightens.
The man sniggers. “You been sold.” He pulls experimentally on the rope.
The voice from below calls, “Ready?”
“Sold?” I can’t think of anything meaningful to ask. “Who to?”
“The Googenhahm Mooseum.” He puts on a posh accent to pronounce the name. “You on the way to Abu Dhabi. You a big success, man. Ready.”
I swing out over the gleaming floor.