Monday, January 31, 2011

Red, Part Ten - illusory walls inverted

Even now, when Red makes it so easy to build them, we are obsessed with high places. A child's game is to build a thin skyscraper 300 meters high, then knock it down from a safe distance. I did it myself, the narrow lattice of crimson stakes swaying in the wind, then the controlled explosions at the base. It fell away from me, as planned, and I ran towards the toppling spire through the dust cloud, the gentle rumble of collapsing Red all around me.

Some structures are meant to last, however. They have a purpose other than to fall. The East Atlantic Government Structure next to the old Houses of Parliament is one. The Front Observation Tower is another.

Joe took me up there when the weather cleared, muttering something meeting the neighbors.

The structure itself was around 400 meters high, a larger and more stable  version of my sacrificial tower. It was shaped like an air traffic control tower, a long stem with a flared control room at the top.

We exited the elevator into a startlingly large space, filled with observation tools and a great deal of much stranger equipment. There were bowls and cups on every flat surface, their contents in varying stages of decomposition.

There is no science except for the study of Red. There is no art except for that which deals with Red or that which denies it.

By that standard Jenkins, in his huge tower right be the edge of the front, is both the last scientist and the last artist.

She observes the front with the care of an ornithologist and makes hypotheses with the ease of an artist. She devises experiments to test those hypotheses with his engines of vast destruction at one scale or the tiniest of atomic shifters at the other. She takes the results of these experiments and feeds them back into the jigsaw of data, adding a single piece here, removing two there.

She would be the first to admit that she has failed in his task of understanding the front. It's simply not the kind of place that can be understood from a distance.

They left me alone for a few minutes to look out of one of the huge window. I saw an ocean of gently rippling mud. It was the colour of cigarette ash, each ripple topped by a wavering line of pure black. After a minute or so I saw, superimposed on the great ripples, zig-zag patterns that at first, by some optical illusion, stood out above the mud. Thick walls made of blurred strata of the stuff. Then my eye caught on, the illusory walls inverted and I realised that I was looking at a network of trenches. They meandered across the battlefield, mostly hugging the near side but some reaching out for what looked like kilometers.

"Frightening sight isn't it?" came a voice next to me. The owner of the voice, who surely must have been the woman responsible for the unholy mess in the observation room, was petite and immaculately turned out. She wore a pale pink summer dress with deep brown hair pulled back in a pony tail. She looked about twelve years old and was the toughest, least likely to take bullshit person I have ever known.

"It's hard to get a sense of scale up here. Those trenches that go the furthest out reach about 4000 kilometers. The whole battlefield is currently about 100,000 kilometers across. Perfect demonstration of the world being near or actually flat out here.

"So you're the murderous son-of-a-bitch that they've sent out this time? Don't expect any help from me. That Yelena was my friend."

She glared at me with eyes far too old and tired for someone so apparently young.

"What the hell. You're going to die anyway. Use these." She handed me a large pair of stabilised binoculars.

"Look at that smudge on the horizon."

I raised the binoculars to my eyes, corrected the focus and look where she indicated. The smudge suddenly resolved into a tall tower, seemingly made out  of planks of dry red. As it swayed in the wind I saw a flash from the very top. Someone was watching us from across the mud soup.

"See a flash from another pair of glasses? There's usually someone up there. The tower marks the far edge of no-mans-land. Today it's about 150,000 kilometers away. Sometime it's as far as a light year. The tower is always visible though, as though it can change height."

"The thing is made out of Red. Anything is possible with that stuff."

"Perhaps." She grimaced and looked about to spit. "Appeals to the ineffable nature of Red won't help you down there however."

I looked through the binoculars again. There was no sign of movement down there. Of course, if what Jenkins had told me about the distances I was seeing were correct I'd never see something as small as a  puppet.

"The war started 96 years ago. Since then we have lost 127 kilometers and, despite our  vast advantage in numbers, we lose more all the time. They are better trained, better equipped and better lead. That's where you come in of course. Nothing larger or more sophisticated that a kilo of TNT works down there. Mercifully that applies to the other side as well. All fighting is short range, sometimes with bayonets.."

"Who are we fighting?"

"Look at this." She pointed at a screen with a blurred image on it. "long baseline interferometry. Got a whole bunch of hooked up telescopes along the front line."

She typed something on the computer keyboard and the image leaped into clarity. It was the top of the opposing tower and the figure on top, binoculars dangling from its hand, was a puppet.
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