Feeding the Beast

We are excited to reveal the publication of our nineteenth book available now from our online shop. This latest issue is a collection of prose, poetry and artworks, revolving around the theme of death, loss and renewal. During this month we are sharing a selection of the work in its pages. Today, we bring you a cautionary tale by Edward Freeman about a mechanical beast that devours Big Data on 'the infected, the dead, the recovered and the permanently disabled'. With artwork by Seán Vicary.
is a writer from East Anglia. He is a graduate of the Modernities programme at the University of Glasgow. His work explores memory, mortality, violence and the Anthropocene. He is currently at work on his debut collection of short fiction.
On the seventh floor of Frostbank Tower, Bolan was feeding the Beast. The Beast lived in the vast, air-conditioned server room, where row on row of sleek black boxes huddled beneath tangled thickets of wires, lights flickering in regiment like the eyes of spiders. Bolan liked to sit in there late at night, listening to the humming fans. In that place he had the sensation of being surrounded by immeasurable intelligence and power. Sequestered in the server room, Bolan was a fully functioning organ of the hidden body that slept like a giant beneath the visible landscape: a body formed of satellite arrays; monazite mines; undersea cables and offshore rigs.

Bolan’s job was to steer the Beast toward its next meal – and the Beast was omnivorous. Uprisings and civil unrest: plague; pestilence; famine; war. panic-buying sprees; flash floods; by-elections. Every last scrap of data was picked clean, made useful or disregarded.

When Bolan had drawn up the menu, Nichols and her team set to work feeding the creature. With each meal the Beast grew stronger. You fed it a century’s worth of floods or tornados, and you could model a tornado in Houston or a flood in Mumbai and it would tell you the likely death toll, the economic toll. It would tell you whether to evacuate or shelter in place.

The Beast illuminated the way forward. Bolan and his colleagues quoted passages from readouts like holy writ.

‘But remember Islamabad 2005,’ Bolan would say, and Nichols would reply, ‘Yes, but what about Cairo 2011?’

He woke at six and felt the day unfurling before him like a courgette flower in the early sun. On the subway he looked at a young woman tapping away at her phone and envisaged thin, phantasmic limbs extending about her, numerous as the cilia in a child’s ear, effecting change on an unquantifiable scale. Looking around the carriage he saw his fellow travellers similarly endowed, eldritch angels denied knowledge of their divinity.

Emerging from underground, he walked the two blocks to the glass-fronted tower where the Corporation rented office space. On bright days the building caught the sunlight, blinding passers-by. Bolan swept through the lobby without glancing at the security guards, smiled at the girl on reception and swiped his card. He passed through the turnstile in fluid motion and headed for the stairwell. Arriving on the seventh floor, his heart solidly pounding and a sheen of sweat on his high forehead, Bolan was ready to begin his labours.

Through the thick glass of the meeting rooms, Bolan saw Rimbaud – his hair oiled, his slender frame cradled in a dark blue three-piece – meet with powerclashing petrol execs who moved like rhinos; bright-eyed young sultans; charismatic women in business casual. He saw the wrinkled heads of old generals peep from their uniforms like the pates of sun parched turtles. Rimbaud was the oracle and the doyens had come to the voice of the wind moaning through the cave.

They wanted to pick the Beast’s brains, to rent out space in its head. They wanted the Beast to tell them what would happen if they did not heed the warnings; if they jailed their political opponents; if they let disease burn through the population; if they opened up mountain ranges for strip mining or drilled deep into the sea bed and clamped onto the dark vein of ore there like a vampire at a maiden’s wrist.

Rimbaud shaped the Beast’s findings into narratives, slogans, easy-to-follow analogies. The doyens sat and nodded. They took notes, they memorised. They tried to find a way to explain what they saw to the boards and the committees on which they served. Tried to reconcile what they were hearing with their worldview. They seized on some detail in the report, shed it of context as if they were brushing dirt from an uprooted carrot. Then they left and did precisely as they liked.

At present, the Corporation was chewing on disease. Outbreaks, pandemics. The Black Death; the Great Plague; Ebola; Spanish flu; SARS; MERS; AIDS. Eyam, 1665. Philadelphia, 1918.

At present, the Corporation was chewing on disease. Outbreaks, pandemics. The Black Death; the Great Plague; Ebola; Spanish flu; SARS; MERS; AIDS. Eyam, 1665. Philadelphia, 1918. Pathogenic material crisscrossing the Earth in crates, rushing out from the slit throats of pigs. Bats and pangolins; rats and mosquitoes. The Beast chewed on the infected, the dead, the recovered and the permanently disabled, amalgamated them into its matrices. The thought of it made Bolan’s skin prickle all the way from his shoulder blades to the dimple at his lower back; made him wash his hands red raw under scalding water. Nichols took it all in with a ghoulish fascination, with the appetite of someone whose worldview stood on the unshakable concrete of quiet zealotry.

She had a waist-length mass of prematurely grey hair, deep laugh lines around her eyes, and a restless energy. She was always in motion, always passing through, calculating. She worked standing at hot desks, hopping from one foot to another, muttering snatches of code and catechism. Bolan asked her how she reconciled her faith with the nature of her work. She spoke about the Corporation as the shepherd, the Beast as the slavering hound guiding the flock. Outside the window, vapour trails disintegrated in the afternoon sky.

In the honeyed evening shadows, Bolan and Nichols sat outside an upscale wine bar watching the street, a large riesling before each of them on the slatted wooden table. Nichols wore a knowing smile. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and fussed with the stem of her wine glass. Down the street they saw another wine bar; and another and yet another, astride the street at regular intervals in an interlocking tessellation. Bolan felt the chill breeze sneaking up on him like a dread stranger, picking at the shoulder of his white Oxford shirt with gaunt fingers. He fought off the urge to throw on a jacket.

He told Nichols that, even as a child, the visible world before him was carpeted with a thin mesh of statistics. Out on the combine harvester his father swatted his hand away from the gearstick and told him about their yield, how many litres of water and tonnes of fertiliser it took to produce it. The corn stalks fell beneath the blades like helpless pawns. He walked the fields in the red evening and ran his hand across the sheared stalks. They bristled rough and sharp, like his grandfather’s stubble.

Crows screeched in the orchard trees. Bolan went inside and fetched the .22. He hated to hear the crack, to see the bird toppling out of the tree, the black and lifeless husk on the grass. But it was what you did, it was necessary, that was all. In the evenings, his father sat in the study and pored over his ledger, a pair of cheap reading glasses sliding further and further down his nose. When Bolan was eight or nine, his father used to call him in and ask him to deduct this figure from that one. The boy would stand at his father’s side and try to read the tabled figures. The man’s writing was illegible. Like a spider had wandered through an inkblot. He would protest that he had homework, and retreat down the hall to the sanctuary of his room, his father’s sighs dogging him to the door.

Taxonomy: Bird by Seán Vicary

He had gone on too long, he was sure, and that part about the crows – what was he thinking? But Nichols was still looking at him with a tipsy smile, her eyes shining, still fingering the stem of her glass. Bolan thought of the Beast. Evacuate, or shelter in place. A lone white cloud drifted across the sun and now it really was time to put on a jacket. Better that than to sit there trembling like a man rescued from drowning.

Nichols was speaking now, telling Bolan about Catholic school; the boarding house in the snow; the terrible nuns; the way the girls who got pregnant were whisked off in the night like dissidents rendered to a black site. Behind her, seagulls fought over a scrap of sandwich, pecking, flapping, flying off a little way only to come right back and try again.

Nichols spoke of interrailing through Europe: all those hostels and bars and beaches; the bustling cities and strong, dark beers; coming home at the end of the day so wired from it all that she lay there awake whilst her friend and the strange girls that surrounded them slept – lay there in the pitch black until the darkness resolved itself into the shape of bunkbeds; the lumpish silhouettes of the girls on top of them; the little desks beside each bunk and the dim light coming in from under the door; the moonlight slipping in around the blinds. She looked at the shape on each bed in turn and thought about what their mothers were called, what their fathers did for a living. She wondered about their suitors; about the streets of the towns they came from; the language they spoke to one another around the kitchen table. As she drifted finally, haltingly to sleep, she saw a personal cosmos revolving around each girl’s head, boundless and spectacular.

‘But I’m boring you,’ she said generously, and laid her hand on top of Bolan’s.

Bolan was thinking of the fires during foot-and-mouth – the fires crackling at night like terrible beacons, guttering and smouldering during the day. The smoke that lay across the land like a muslin veil, the stench moving with it like a curse. His mother at the kitchen table with her head in her hands, weeping for their neighbours, the Ramsays, who had been forced to destroy their entire flock.

Bolan was thinking of the fires during foot-and-mouth – the fires crackling at night like terrible beacons

He had remembered then how they would go over to the Ramsays’ for lambing – a big party on Easter Sunday, the adults all nattering and the children on the Easter egg hunt, driven around in a beaten-up Land Rover Defender. Bolan used to swing his legs out and over the back of the vehicle, watching the barns go by, seeing the straw and the mud, smelling the warm dung. In a dark, humid shed they watched Beau Ramsay birth a lamb into a bed of straw, his biceps straining in his shirt, his black hair flapping into his eyes. He would give a little puff of air out of the side of his mouth, and his fringe would raise up for an instant and settle right back where it was before.

The lamb came out bleating, pink and jellied with afterbirth. The mother sighed and turned towards it. Bolan never could remember if watching the lambing had been part of the game, whether Mr and Mrs Ramsay had instructed Beau to take the children to witness this beguiling, repugnant miracle of life, or whether Beau had taken it upon himself to lift the veil, like the time he had let Bolan play with one of the shotguns. It was unloaded, he had protested to Mrs Bolan. He was just educating the boy.

Beau Ramsay was long dead before foot-and-mouth hit. He was killed in a motorcycle accident in the winter of ’96. He had slid on a patch of black ice and slalomed into the thick branch of an oak tree two miles from his home.

He had supervised a wrestling league for the children in the barn. He’d let them do swan dives from the hayloft onto the stage, a square block of bales that he had built on the barn floor. Tim Derek had broken his arm, and that had put a stop to it. How old had Beau been then? Sixteen? Sixteen and already a latent madness within him, a frenzy for peril. An omnivorous drive, far beyond the line of acceptable daredevilism. Once he was spotted clinging onto the roof-rails of Johnny Mathias’ Mondeo estate, doing 40-odd miles per hour on the winding roads that scored through the interlocked farmland and out towards the dam.

Bolan was aghast to find he had been speaking aloud. This was truly morbid stuff – but there was Nichols patiently listening, though a flicker of the expression she wore when she looked over his printouts was peeking through her sympathetic smile.

She was talking again, talking about checkpoints in Eastern Europe, about stone-faced kids in khaki shouldering assault rifles, but Bolan couldn’t focus. He was thinking of Beau Ramsay and his Birthday Party tapes; his Jesus Lizard tapes; his WWF videos and the keyboard up in his bedroom with the high E missing, the keyboard he could barely play – yet he’d blagged his way into Johnny Mathias’s band all the same. Mrs Bolan wouldn’t let her son go to their gigs, but Beau had given him one of their demos – crackling, cacophonous waves of pulsating noise, and Johnny screeching, trying to wrestle his classically-trained voice into some sort of post-punk howl. Sometimes, the atonal burbling of Beau’s keyboard bled into the foreground of the mix and Bolan felt his boy’s heart swell with pride.

They left a handful of banknotes on the table and walked out into the dusk-shadowed city, past bodies huddled in shop doorways toward the subway. Rimbaud was calling, an incessant vibration dragging Bolan from the moment’s immediacy. Something was happening, but it could wait. He switched his phone to airplane mode, interlaced his fingers with Nichols’. They strolled in languorous unison beneath fuchsia clouds, past the procession of hunched and idling vehicles at the traffic lights, taking as much time as they dared to get to where they were going.

 

IMAGE: Taxonomy: Bird and Elephant by Seán Vicary
Digital collage, print from animation still

The Taxonomy project is a fictive exploration of the relationship between pioneering Victorian ethological naturalist Edmund Selous and his famous, big-game hunting brother Frederick.

Within an imaginary museum display case a succession of evolving specimens play out opposing attitudes to nature. A new narrative of observation and industrialised colonial violence has been created through the re-purposing of illustrations from the brothers’ books and other 19th-century engravings.

Seán Vicary’s work explores ideas of landscape (internal and external) and our relationship with the ‘natural’ world. He often uses found objects to create animated assemblages which act as triggers for the viewer, suggestive of a wider narrative or hidden processes at play behind the visible. His animations have been broadcast in the UK and exhibited worldwide.

 

If you take out an annual subscription to Dark Mountain you can buy this issue for a reduced price.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 19

Our spring 2021 collection of prose, poetry and art revolves around the theme of death, loss and renewal

Read more

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