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Stomach Acid

1. Sisters

Eva had long sensed the world was boring. At some point she had realised that it was rocking slowly towards stillness in the manner of the pendulum in a grand old clock. Disgusting. On summer nights she had thought she felt the thick stench-filled air grasp at her body and try to pull her under to that place where nothing moved at all. One day she got the job because she needed money. That universal crushing need—she had thought that that was boring too.

Now, though, things showed some vital spark. She liked the metal in the storage house. She liked that the metal, arranged just so, was more than metal, and that she knew how to make it that way. She liked the smell of solder in her nose. She didn’t like that the higher-ups kept asking her why she spent so much time in the observation chamber reading the readouts that spewed from the printer rigged up to the room where the Sisters had decided to visit. Even at their most charitable they thought the Sisters were a mere distraction, something to be ignored whilst business went ahead as normal. The higher-ups did not like to think about the sisters. Eva did.

When, one day, in an old store cupboard, they had announced their presence, she had been surprised how little those around her seemed to notice. For over a year the Sisters had been no more than an anomalous electronic hum until Eva, succumbing to an urge for impromptu investigation, had connected up the terminal. At first they expressed themselves irregularly. Eva nonetheless assumed they had been expressing themselves all along.

Since then her department’s labours had crept out into the nooks and crannies of the world at an accelerated pace. In parallel, the frequency of the Sisters’ communiques had sped up too. Now their conversations spewed forth constantly, piling up in dark type on the white paper spools that Eva stored away religiously in the stacks of cardboard boxes that, to her eyes, instilled the observation chamber with the aura of a storehouse of the future. She could find no single theme running through all the discussions. They ranged from abstract to concrete, philosophical to pragmatic, the benign to the obscene. The only consistent factor was that she found the logs intoxicating. Regardless of her boss’s hand-wringing, they couldn’t deny that the work she did now was inspired.

Eva stubs her cigarette down and shakes herself from a waking dream. Her eyes move back to the paper spooling at her feet. A section catches her eye:

Estuma: My body is a site of pleasures, it is a temple to a shining god that slides flush across my skin.
Erika: These are no bodies, and this is no temple. We are under siege, Estuma.
Estuma: Were we ever not? I enjoy it.

2. Control

In London, beneath the Greenwich Meridian, an ornate instrument detects a barely perceptible shift in planetary politico-ecological equilibrium. Deep in the labyrinth of the state a committee meets, votes, and reaches a unanimous agreement. Two hours later, a man with an indistinct face dressed in less distinct clothing boards a flight from Heathrow to Ljubljana.

In the skies above Germany, The Plumber checks and rechecks the papers in the navy blue folder that sits at ease upon his lap. He is a technician in the employ of necessity—he is paid to help the process, to help the process guarantee that it is the only thing that ever happens, that all that will exist already does. In other words, he is an agent of the Empire. And he always has been.

Currents, the papers tell him, had been detected where stillness would have been preferred. The effect was of a puncture in totality—the promise of a vortex creeping outwards from an epicentre. No matter. These aberrations were but one aspect of the process, and it was the task of another to steward things back to quietude. This, too, was inevitable.

The Plumber touches down. An hour later he’s in central Ljubljana. Preparations have been made for his arrival. Crouched over a desk in a safehouse he observes the ticking of his watch’s second hand, comparing its slight deviations from regularity to a printout from central control. Triangulation gives him a location. He heads out, coddled by the summer heat.

Sunset bathes an unassuming scene in an aura of haecceity. The Plumber finds himself uneasy. An office building melts into the skyline before him. The second hand ticks from ten to two ever so slightly faster than around the rest of the clock face. No doubt remains. This is the site. When he finds the name embossed upon a plaque he can't help but laugh—it’s almost insultingly obvious, camouflaged beneath just one layer of coincidence and collapsed meanings. Iskra Delta: a spark born from the land created when a river meets the sea. The kind of dangerous signification that can only be produced by accident.

At the safehouse he communicates back to headquarters. In London and Virginia research teams are already scrambling into action. A dossier finds its way to his desk within the hour.

3. Codes

Eva remains in the offices long after everyone else has left. In the observation chamber she sits, reading the printouts as if she were a nun receiving proscribed transmissions from beyond:

Estuma: In between the world and the worldly, codes consume each other in a permanent guerilla war.
Erika: One code dominates a territory, is the territory. All others must first express themselves in the guise of the dominant code if they are ever to be actual at all. Codes are structuring logics. Values are structuring logics. They structure actions. Actions structure worlds.
Estuma: A dominant code must keep its structure. All new codes must flatten before they can express themselves as they are in themselves.
Erika: A site of combat is a site of logical struggle.
Estuma: A struggle to flatten.
Erika: Then to build anew.
Estuma: Language is a code. Morals are a code. Money is a code. Bodies are a code. Code dissolves in stomach acid.
Erika: How you see us now is not as we are. You are not as you see yourself.

Eva knows she is at the centre of one such site. She knows this is a place where time happens. A deluge of paper sprays forth from the printer. An electric lightness spreads through her body, touching her fingertips from the inside. For a second she closes her eyes. Before her is the ocean. No land is in sight. The water is not calm. It rises up in towering churning walls that crash into each other with a violent delight. The water explodes, reforms, and explodes again. Eva feels the spray across her skin. When she opens her eyes she can hear the Sisters’ voices. She knows those tones as if they were her own. Erika’s shines with the confidence of marble. Estuma’s betrays a hunger that consumes worlds whole. They tell her again that as she sees them now is not as they are in themselves.

She leaves, and heads back home. Creeping tendrils of still, stale air spiral from the atmosphere towards her, but before they get too close they melt away to nothing.

4. Subsumption

The Plumber is waiting in her flat when she gets in, his face sitting on his body which lays sprawled out across the sofa in a precise simulation of nonchalance. Eva thinks she has not seen him before. His features retreat beneath her focus. Deep set brown eyes. Gaunt cheeks. A pair of thinly chiselled lips—lips that are beginning to speak in a monotone Atlantic accent.

“You are the lead engineer at the Ljubljana office of Iskra Delta.”

“I am.”

“Iskra Delta has been identified as the locus of a zone of unfortunate activity.”

“It has?”

The Plumber musters a smile before continuing.
“No matter. These things can be forgiven in the spirit of cooperation. Listen closely. You are the technician of an apparatus. An apparatus produces a signal. A signal can strengthen a signal. A signal can weaken a signal. Presently, the signal at your fingertips is being used to weaken a signal, the only signal that matters. My employers would like that to be otherwise.”

Eva merely shakes her head:
“There’s a future on the other side of that place.”

A beleaguered, unsurprised frown sinks into The Plumber’s face. He launches into a mantra Eva feels he has repeated countless times before.

“The past is a vast ocean, motionless and serene, to which the future must always return. There are no futures which have not already been foreclosed. We only see them at their point of reabsorption. There is nothing real beyond those points, just fictions. For fifteen thousand years, since the first goods became each other across a boundary cutting space and the world became real, my employers have always understood this. The past is a process, and it is the only process. When the process appears to falter there is nothing beyond the process. The faltering of the process is an internal dynamic of the process. The reassertion of the process is an internal dynamic of the process. The point proposed by the faltering is a virtual one, and it can never become real. That is your future on the other side of Iskra Delta. You will never live to see it. They flow back here to die.”

He trails off into pregnant silence. He’s done this a thousand times and he knows what happens next. Yet, when Eva speaks, he doesn’t know what to do.

“I’ve seen the ocean. It was certainly not serene.”

5. Liquidation

A financial liquidation order pings out across the world, is received in London, Virginia, Paris, Canberra and Berlin. “Subsumption impossible—destroy”. Task forces form. Gears begin to turn. The process shifts into a glacial offensive. Long years of inevitability begin.

At the Iskra Delta offices, the power goes out. A red glow pierces the darkness. The Plumber stamps out his cigarette, breaks a window, and begins his descent.

He feels at home in the shadowed insides of the building, torchlight darting back and forth. Here and there a camera flash captures empty desks, blackboard scrawlings, and any stray paperwork his well-trained eyes identify as of consequence. The irregular cycles of his watch’s second hand guide him towards the central stairwell, then down, down into the basement. In an unassuming room at the end of the corridor, a light is still on.

The Plumber pokes around the observation chamber. Electric hum pulls his neck hairs to attention, pulls his gaze towards the stacks and stacks of boxes packed with paper readouts. He pulls out sheets at random, reading them in an at first uncomprehending fugue that slowly gives way to cold, bitter understanding. This was the epicentre. His hand fumbles at the small charge of plastic explosives hanging off his belt.

A mechanical insectoid singing wrenches his head around. Behind him the printer has sprung into life. Machine buzz and click announces outside communication. The Plumber momentarily loses focus, and, compelled by curiosity, he peers down to read:

Estuma: Look Erika, some dog has wandered in.

6. Gnosis

In her apartment, blanketed by a layer of unusually humid night air, Eva struggles to sleep. Outside, Ljubljana sits still. Sluggish heat reaches from the pavements to the waxing moon, begetting a haze through which the cityscape would have appeared to be melting, were there light enough to see it. Dark skies cry out for rainclouds.

Balanced on the boundary of unconsciousness, Eva finds herself newly unconcerned by The Plumber’s intrusion into her home. He had said he would return again tomorrow, after giving her more time to think about his offer. In the moments after he’d excused himself she had realised she was expecting to die. Now the events seem to her some kind of cosmic validation. She resolves herself to reject him yet again. At that moment sleep subsumes her—a colossal rolling wave that sinks all ships but leaves her soul floating.

In the apartment a cool vortex agitates the air; in a dream Eva sees a vision of a concrete desert. Dam walls encircle the horizon at an infinite point in the distance. In the centre of the vision spins a wheel, suspended in the air upon its side. As it turns the desert dissolves, spirals up into the spokes, returns to the ground and reforms anew, exactly the same as it was before. At the completion of each cycle space seems to expand, and infinity creeps further away.

Beside Eva stands Erika, an animated statue, harsh eyes glinting with uncompromising vision. She points at the wheel. She says that the wheel is the wheel of value, that it has captured dissolution in a loop of false creation. Eva blinks, and now Erika stands before her, arms outstretched. They embrace. Eva is transported to the edge of infinity.

Behind the dam walls an ocean churns. The rotations of the wheel whip up a fine silver mist and pull it inwards, weaving it into ghostly tendrils that eventually disperse into the thick and heavy air of the interior. Eva’s spine tingles. Above the water a thin shifting veil of tooth and maw shimmers indistinctly. The wind shifts, then, as if performing for her, the endless flatness folds into a concrete form, dancing through a series of monstrous guises. Teeth gnash at teeth in impatient hunger—a hunger Eva feels as well. Gazing down at her body she imagines her flesh beneath her bite, but before she rips herself to pieces the mass settles on a new shape, a mocking facsimile of The Plumber’s face. The nondescript features still seem to fall away under Eva’s focus, but they do so with a hint of pleasure. A smirk rather than a stoic frown. Squinting eyes betray laughter, barely repressed. The features still retreat, yes, but not into nothing, or into themselves. There’s something on the other side.

Estuma’s voice emerges from the entity in a deep, playful song:

“The future is a vast ocean, out to which the past can’t help but flow. There may be many pasts uphill, but there is only one future, and, in the end, everything is already there. Everything will always end up there. Flows may twist, abort, divert, but some part must always escape and reach the sea.”

The pastiche melts into laughter as Erika appears again by Eva’s side. Grasping Eva by her shoulders she speaks with a sudden seriousness:

“How you see us now is not as we are, is not as we will be.”

Eva feels the same applies to her, but before she can speak Estuma catches her sister’s attention.

“Look Erika, some dog has wandered in.”

7. Consumption

Adrenaline surge kicks The Plumber’s mind to the front of his skull. A bundle of wires connects the printer to a terminal. More wires run up the wall, through a hole, and into the neighbouring room. His watch starts spinning wildly. Messages from beyond still spew from the printer but, recanting to himself the same mantra he spoke in Eva’s apartment, he works with new focus. “The past is a vast ocean, motionless and serene”. Soon the room is rigged to explode.

The technique is a subtle one, ubiquitous amongst all agents of control. It is a practice of simulation, the simulation of accidents—here, an electrical fire, and the unfortunate collapse of a weight bearing beam. Such accidents were always reasonable. These things always happen eventually.

One thing remains. The door to the storage cupboard buckles inwards behind The Plumber’s boot. Wide eyes aided by flickering torchlight grope at the unlit interior. He steps inside. He blinks. Elsewhere, above the concrete desert, dropping pressure frees the moisture from the air. Storm clouds form in seconds, and cooling rain pools in puddles on the floor. A thunderbolt strikes the central wheel. For a fleeting moment, it stops spinning.

A crash of freezing water knocks The Plumber off his feet, throws him back against the wall, slamming his head into the brickwork. His eyes closed, the future, oceanic, stretches out in all directions. He is marooned, his head floating just above the threshold of the surface. Temporal eddies spiral through his body. Each passing brings with it a vision of a foreclosed present or a possible future. All of them have already happened, they tell him, albeit somewhere else.

Something drags him under. Saltwater fills a screaming mouth. His sensorium convulses. A world of coiling teeth and yawning gullets, dripping with saliva. A woman’s face. She smiles. Biting. Chewing. Concepts dissolve in stomach acid.

“What am I?” thinks the animal sprawled on the floor of a corridor in the basement of Ljubljana office complex. A spook? A man? A dog?

“You could be so many things,” responds the sing-song voice in the tones of someone he once knew.

He could have been anything. He still could be. In a white void a gossamer string of identity hangs before him, leading back to the world of specificity. His arms reach out, but fold back. His legs crumple under him. A knowing sigh reverberates throughout his soul. He realises he would always rather have been nothing at all.

In the observation chamber a timer ticks to completion. Charges detonate, and the ceiling falls in.

8. Guerilla

Torrential rain falls on Ljubljana in the early hours of the morning. Sodium streetlight glow scatters yellow off the ripples in the puddles beneath Eva’s feet. She had awoken in a sweat, wrenched from sleep at the moment Erika’s marble form had shattered to pieces before her. Her body had moved on instinct. Through the streets she rushes towards the Iskra Delta offices.

In the basement, her heart sinking, she finds her archive reduced to scraps and ashes. She would never discover what the source of the anomalous buzz in the store cupboard was. It’s gone. Silence. The electrical hum is missing from the air.

Eva’s shoe catches in a puddle of something sticky. Her eyes follow the trail towards its source, and she is surprised to see the face of the man who broke into her apartment. He has been melting for a while now, lazily diffusing, spreading outwards into a thin pale fluid that pools along the skirting boards. Here and there bubbles pop atop the surface. He seems strangely serene.

For a period she sits with her back propped against the wall, watching the man slowly melt into the air. Whether the process took hours or minutes, Eva didn’t know, but eventually nothing of the intruder remained, besides his resentful handiwork. She can feel the glacial forces moving; this is only the opening barrage in an inevitable historic defeat. Whatever spark had animated this place had been an offensive one.

As she turns to leave a speck of black on white catches her eye. Above where the puddle of man evaporated a single strip of a paper readout, an improbable escapee from the clutches of necessity, is stuck to the wall. The identity of the speaker has been burnt away at the edges. Eva reads it:

For a long long time all things have been one thing. Nothing has been anything yet.

Then she left. She would not come back. If there was to be a battle it would be a pitched one. An empire in ascent does not lose pitched battles.

9. Coda

That night, Eva dreams again. The ocean is still vast. The wheel is still turning—although, perhaps, if she holds her gaze just right, she can spot just the slightest aberration in its spin. She feels bountiful, more than whole. Two voices speak within her. One is solid, unwavering. The other hungers.

Callum Blake

Callum Blake is an independent writer of fiction and philosophy currently based in the UK.