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Will was making good progress. Another few days and he might
make it to ground level without breaking his neck. There was an
art in moving over the slippery slimy surface without tumbling
into a tremendous prat-fall and landing on a selection of
hard-edged plastic implements. It was a skill that Will had
taken quite a while, and several knocks, to master. The key
to survival was concentration; it was because his mind was
absorbed on the way ahead that he did not see the eyes or
get a warning.
The eyes would have been difficult to see even if he had been
looking for them. They were held aloft on thin stalks just above the
plastic, having risen from under the surface with greased silence and
instantly adapted themselves to their surroundings. They looked more
like weird plants with two large attentive berries than ocular
sensory apparatus. But they were eyes, the way they followed the
halting human's every move revealed that. For a brief moment, Will
was surrounded by an eager captive audience, then, like so many shark
fins, they vanished for the attack.
Will did not bother to glance down when something brushed his
leg; he put the contact down to a piece of plastic blown by the non-
existent wind. A split second later, there was another contact; then
another, then another and by the time he did look down, it was too
late. He hardly got a split second to register the rainbow-hued
stalks that held him captive, as they grew and multiplied, casting
through the air with whiplash swiftness, circling his arms, his
chest, with a touch almost sensual in softness, yet vice-like in its
grasp. In the instant that it took to restrain him, Will barely had
time to command his muscles to resist. He felt the blind panic
rising, and opened his mouth to scream. Then the stalks pulled with
shocking abruptness and Will vanished below the plastic surface.
Oblivious to their visitor's plight, the garbage mountains went about
the long business of decomposing as they always did, with stately
It was incredibly soothing, the gentle rocking motion, like
being held or cradled in someone's arms, a lover's or close friends
perhaps. For a moment, Will almost forgot his feelings of panic and
terror, as he was dragged into the bowels of the plastic mound. Not
for the first time recently, he regretted opening his eyes.
He was in a huge tunnel, hollowed out of a rubbish mound.
There was plenty of light, thanks to torches that struggled valiantly
in the reeking air and the scene that they illuminated was like
something out of a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare. On the left side of
the tunnel, as far as the eye could see, a column of curious
creatures were moving slowly, as if queuing with infinite patience
for some major event. Like supplicants, each of the odd lifeforms
held a little offering, some item shaped in plastic, metal, or
fibres. To the right of the tunnel, a steady parade of the creatures
bounced rapidly past, empty "handed", going in the other direction.
The strangest, almost scary, thing about the whole inexplicable
performance was its silence. The only sound that could be heard was
the smoky spluttering of the torches and the soft rubbing sound of
the colourful alien bodies.
Will mentally corrected himself; he was the alien, they were
the locals. He decided to study them in detail, partly because he
had nothing better to do and partly because he felt that it was
important to get to know his hosts. It was easy to get a close-up
look. There were four of them carrying his tightly bound body. He
could not escape feeling like an over-wrapped birthday present. They
most closely resembled some sort of earth insect. Large pod-like
bodies supported by rows of spindly appendages, some of which held
the human effortlessly aloft. At the rear of the bodies, two huge
great legs, useful possibly for bounding over the rubbish mounds and
also for pushing a path through the debris. This impression of their
adaptation for burrowing was borne out by a pair of well developed,
scoop-like claws on the front of the body. The head, or at least, the
smooth round lump at the top of the body was almost featureless. Will
felt that the lack of a nose was a sensible evolutionary design
choice, and at the very top, long prehensile eyeball stalks sprouted
with orbs that were large and rounded like crystal balls. Inside
these eyes, colours shimmered and shifted in a way that recalled
memories of a childhood kaleidoscope. Their bodies, too, were ever-
changing in colour, moving and flowing with flashes of tint, and as
they passed along the tunnel, sometimes the bodies would copy to
perfection the pigmentation of some decaying object set in the wall,
the excellence of this blending process seeming to render the
creature bodies momentarily invisible.
The queuing seemed to be endless and after a while, he became
more used to his captors, noting that there seemed to be two tiny
rectangles on each shoulder that did not change hue, but that varied
in colour from creature to creature. He was puzzled by their
function for a while, until he thought of old uniforms and of
epaulettes. Whatever else these "palettes'", as he christened them,
because of their ability to mix colours, were, they were obviously
highly organised. This organisation was not just restricted to what
Will presumed were their outfits. There were direction signs
everywhere, on the walls on the ceiling on the floors. It took a
while to sink in that he could actually read them. Unaware of
Merlyn's linguistic spell, Will egotistically put this down to some
form of rapid and highly-developed customising of the environment for
his benefit. Although the signs and directional arrows did not seem
to make much sense, they all seemed to do with time, varying wildly
in duration, from three hours, to three months to three hundred
This obsession with time was appropriate, as it did seem it
might take three hundred years for the line to move. Will found
himself wishing that his spell of unconsciousness had lasted longer.
At least then he would not have to deal with the tedium. His initial
panic had subsided, at least he decided, they were not going to eat
him. They did not seem to have mouths. No mouths might mean no
munching of his choicer extremities but it also seemed to mean no
speech. Will was unused to quiet, his culture had resonated to the
ceaseless hummings and scoldings of advanced machinery. His few
attempts at conversation had got him nowhere. The only response to
his many variations on a theme of: "Where are we?", "Who are you?"
and "Where are you taking me?" had earned him nothing more rewarding
then a curt tap from a spindly insect-like stalk and a possible
warning glance of technicolor brilliance from the rainbow centred
eyes. After a while, Will even gave up asking about the fate of his
colleagues. He started to talk, or rather recite, to disseminate
some of his culture to his hosts, trusting that they possessed some
sort of hearing apparatus about their bodies, as he assumed an
affected hammy accent.
'My lords, ladies and gentlemen - I presume that you have
different genders. As a small thank you for your charming
hospitality I would like to present some items from my own culture
for the education and entertainment of this distinguished company.
I will now relate, from memory, the complete works of the noted Earth
dramatist and all round literary icon, Mister Entertainment himself,
the bard of Avon; William Shakespeare. I must admit that I've heard
of a captive audience, but never a captive actor. Be that as it may,
please rub your stalks together for my first piece, a delightful
light-hearted little work entitled "Macbeth" or "Don't buy any long-
playing records if you're king.'
Like a COMS generator, once started Will was hard to stop. He
went on and on and on. By the time he had finished Macbeth, Hamlet
and A Midsummer Night's Dream, complete with whatever lame-brained
extra material or observations that he had deemed appropriate, his
voice had hushed into a croak. This did not matter as none of the
"palettes" seemed to have paid the slightest attention to a word he
had said, however stylised. Will yearned to hear a sound, a voice,
even Sulphur at his most caustic would have been welcome.
When he did hear a someone or something speaking distantly, his
Bard-dulled brain at first rejected the voice as wish-fulfilment, but
as they moved nearer to wherever they were going, the voice, or
voices, as Will realised them to be, got louder. Somebody seemed to
be taking inventory, asking curt questions in a sharp monotone. The
same questions again and again, and receiving replies that were both
humble and to the point. After finishing its interrogation it would
issue an instruction. Then shortly after, another empty handed
"palette" would appear to be running away, perhaps on some vital
errand. Strapped and trapped as he was, Will could do nothing but
wait as the voice drew nearer, trying to ignore his clamouring
curiosity, curiosity that had acquired a loud-hailer by the time he
saw the arch of a doorway up ahead, and that was screaming itself
hoarse with expectation as he was lifted across the threshold. Will
had prepared himself for something strange but whatever wild vision
he had expected, it had not been this.
It was as if someone had decided to build the Coliseum
underground, with all manner of slowly rotting debris as the building
material of choice. The circular cavern was huge, on all sides were
doors, and stretching through each doorway was a line of the
creatures, each carrying a burden, each patiently waiting their turn.
All over the walls were small hatches, each labelled with a printed
figure denoting a period of months, years or decades. In strict
rotation, a palette would step forward from one converging line at a
time, one after the other they would complete their business and then
leave empty-clawed and what a curious business it was. In the centre
of the converging lines was a much battered, huge old lectern, next
to the lectern, a high stool, on which was balanced one of the
creatures; a creature with enough individual features to separate it
from its fellows. .
This "palette" was twice as large as any other Will had seen,
The rounded "head" was not smooth but covered in a tangled mass of
erect wispy white tendrils. The epaulettes on the shoulder were
connected to some long flowing black fabric which gave the creature
the slight appearance of a Victorian undertaker. This connection
with the distance past of Earth was enhanced by the vastness of the
ledger which lay open on the lectern, the super-sized pot of what
appeared to be ink by his side, and the number of unwieldy-looking
quill pens which it held adroitly in its spindly stalks, writing
furiously, pausing only to dip one of at least half-a-dozen
hardworking nibs into the ink bottle with a balletic flowing
The whole cavern seemed to mirror this ceaseless activity. All
around the dome above them, "palettes" laboured, perched precariously
on ladders, constantly changing the ingredients that made up the
ceiling far above. Removing items of rubbish, replacing them or
adding new pieces. Occasionally some scrap of debris would float or
plummet from the ceiling to the floor and be swiftly rescued by one
of the many creatures not in line, that seemed to be scuttling about
on other errands, and immediately returned to the ceiling.
All was done at great speed. A creature in one of the queues
would move forward to the lectern, holding up the object that was
being carried. The "palette" at the lectern asked quick, no nonsense
questions: "Object? Age? Etc." Its voice amplified resoundingly by
the acoustics of the hall, whilst, all the time writing furiously in
the ledger. When this transaction was over, this head "palette"
would signal, waving a quill and one of the many creatures rushing
about the hall would take charge of the burden, disposing of it by
placing it in one of many labelled hatchways.
Will realised that perhaps he was destined for a place in one
of these hatches; it was dispiriting, and somewhat insulting, to face
the fact that these creatures considered him to be no more than an
item of junk. He tried not to think about it, concentrating on what
he would say when he was held before the lectern and the black-
cloaked creature. After a while he realised with vague nausea, just
where the creature's voice was coming from. A wide, narrow row of
needle like fangs opened and closed in the creature's pod-shaped
belly and sound came out. Will finally got a chance to observe this
spiteful mew as he was carried to the lectern.
One of Will's captors opened its stomach to reply.
'A being. Age?'
'I'm twenty-five,' Will offered politely.
'Impossible! Age of deterioration?'
'I'm not as far gone as that.' The indignant Will, much to his
disgust, found further protests impossible. One of the creatures
placed a leathery stalk in his mouth.
'Age of deterioration?' The head creature repeated with what
sounded like anger in its voice.
'Depends on soil. No more than twenty years.'
'Twenty years. Next!'
Will knew that unless he wanted to find out what was on the other
side of the hatch for the next couple of decades, he had to do
something, however unpleasant. With this pressing thought in mind,
he took the only course open to him. Turning his bound body with as
wild a motion as he could manage, Will bit down hard on the offending
stalk in his gullet. He felt a horror that exceeded anything he had
experienced, as the stalk broke sending a choking flood of cold
bitter liquid into his protesting throat. As he struggled to spit out
the remains of the "palette" appendage, to overcome the retching and
loathing that now took control of his body, the maimed creature let
go of him, its stomach wide now, screaming in agony, spraying its
fellows with its dark yellow blood. For a second, all discipline in
the immediate vicinity evaporated. Will was dropped to the floor as,
with the exception of the "clerk" behind the lectern, all the
creatures nearest the maimed "palette" fell upon their wounded
colleague, their stomach/mouths, those rows of terrifying teeth,
fully visible now as they sank in a frenzy into the flesh of the
injured one. In a moment, nothing was left. Not the stalk that Will
had spat out, not even the epaulettes.
'I suppose it saves on the funeral expenses.' Will managed to
croak with a glib morbid humour that he did not feel. Inside, he
felt desolation and horror. He had been responsible for a death.
The creatures resumed their places in an orderly fashion as if
nothing had happened. Will could hear the 'clerk' resume its
questions. Four of the hatch fillers now advanced on him. Will
reacted almost without thinking.
'Sod off, Bug-brains!' he shouted in a voice charged with
unaccustomed anger and vigour.
Echoes bounded around the cavern dislodging debris all over the
place. For a moment it was snowing paper and small objects, a
ticker-tape parade in the underworld, in hell. Then something
happened that had not happened in the history of the "palettes".
With its tangled head vibrating with impatience, the 'clerk' laid
down its quills for a moment.
'What is the problem?'
'The alien being.' The four helpers answered in unison.
'ALIVE!' The "clerk" boomed, bringing down another shower of
litter upon their heads. For a moment there was an uncomfortable
pause. Will allowed himself a split-second of hope. Then the
'Well, kill it then.'
Will thought fast as the four approached. He needed to. This
time their mouths were wide open. Will had never seen a stomach with
a tongue before, now he saw four up close, and they were drooling.
With almost sobbing gratitude, he felt words tumble into his brain
and his mouth.
'If anyone comes near me. I'll bite 'em.'
It seemed to have the desired affect. Four ravening bellies
shut tightly with a snap.
This was going to go down as a momentous, inconceivable day in
the history of this culture. For the second time, the clerk stopped
'I demand my right to a trial, to a lawyer?'
'What's a lawyer?'
'I demand my right to information then.'
'If I give you this information, will you stop interrupting
things and die without fuss? We do work closely to a schedule you
'Never mind your bogging schedule. Why do you want to kill
The creature was a pragmatist. It had not won promotion after
promotion in its long and illustrious career, without learning how to
adapt. In the interests of getting this troublesome irritation out of
the way, it dropped the rasping curt quality of its stomach's vocal
tone for a sound that was almost paternal,
'Look around you. What do you see?'
We are the Estapoppi. We exist to study the deterioration of
matter.' He indicated a small white shape in a nearby creature's
stalks. 'That soiled disposable nappy for instance. We estimate that
it will take 500 years for it to fully biodegrade. We think it's a
beautiful thing to watch decay. We will study this nappy closely,
observe it and its contents processes of disintegration, make notes,
draw up our findings and suggestions, all based on our testing
'Somebody has to. Long, long ago we were without purpose,
absorbed in self-interest and war. It was decided then that the only
way to save ourselves was to create a reason for our existence.'
'So watching rubbish rot is your goal in life is it?' Will felt
twice as incredulous as he sarcastically sounded.
'Yes. Call it idiosyncrasy, or perversion, but we like decaying
'What use is it?'
'Use! It's of crucial use. We have heard from beings such as
yourself of other worlds scattered beyond our own and we estimate
that there are only a finite number of planets. However, the scope
for the growth of population is infinite. Each being that lives
leaves waste material, material that becomes harder to dispose of
each year, causing increasing damage to the Universal ecology.
Eventually, cultures will have to work more and more, on getting rid
of the litter left by their ancestors. More and more of the
interplanetary economy will depend on efficient waste disposal. The
entire Cosmos will be in danger of being buried by waste. When that
happens, we will offer to come to the rescue. Based on millions of
years of study and research, we will have the most efficient garbage
disposal system in creation. We will, for a reasonable price, offer
to get rid of the waste problem.'
'We are a highly specialised service. Complete domination of
the Universe seems reasonable.'
'For picking up litter!'
'Think of the research. Think of the hours we have spent on
this. We had to develop a machine that transports items of interest
from all over the Galaxy. Everything from scrap-metal to socks from
laundry baskets come here. It was a colossal engineering feat. It
was also very expensive. We need some form of payment for our
'So you bring rubbish from everywhere. You're telling me that
after all I've been through to get here, to pursue some adventure and
excitement, after all that's happened, I've ended up in the universe's
main garbage dump?'
There was only one word to sum up the way that Will felt and he
used it with bitter emphasis:
'Are you upset?'
'No, of course not. Why should I be upset? EVERYONE'S life is
'We could kill you now if you're depressed.
'Depressed! I'm suicid...' Aware of an untensioning of stomach
muscles around him, Will just managed to catch himself in time.
'Why go to all the trouble? Why not just build ships and
invade other planets.'
'We don't want to hurt anybody.'
'You want to kill me.'
'That's just business. Surely you want to help with a litter-
free future for the universe.'
'Of course I do. Let me live and I'll promise to always use a
bottle bank in future. Isn't your plan for domination the long way
of going about things?'
'It's good for a culture to have a long-term ambition. We all
do our jobs, help locate research material, help the future of
society. There is no war, no crime, we are all fulfilled and happy.'
Will shook his head in disbelief. 'I can see it now. Come to
Spoggle, land of the laughing litterbugs.'
'We are only a small part of "Spoggle" as you call it, but we
flatter ourselves, the most useful part. Think of the alternative,
we could take over the universe your way, with ships. Lots of us
would get hurt and in the end there would be no point.'
'You'd rule the universe.'
'But we wouldn't be happy, content. The universe's waste
problem would grow and grow and we wouldn't be there to stop it.
Everybody in existence would die just because we concentrated on
selfish short-term gains.'
'It'll take forever.'
'We need as much time as we can get. The decay of some of these
new plastics takes forever. Talking of time, yours is up. Take him
Will was still confused, ''Why must I die?'
'You don't think you're biodegradable whilst you're alive, do
you? If you're going to decay properly, I'm afraid we have to kill
you. Why else do you think the transporter brought you here?'
Interview session over. The "clerk" picked up its quills,
motioning to the Estapoppi with the nappy to come forward. There was
nothing Will could do. There were just too many stalks all at once,
none of which came near his mouth. Whimpering gently to himself, he
was lifted up. Nearby, a stomach opened widely, expectantly. So
after all, this was going to be the end. Bit off in his prime. As
they moved his head into the foully gurgling stomach, toward those
rows of expectant razor-sharp teeth, Will could not think of any
profound last words. He was too upset. He was inches away from the
Estapoppi's tongue and it was not pleasant. In the split second as the
creature's stomach muscles started to clench, the evil mouth to
close, he found himself betting, irrelevantly, that the creatures
never flossed their gums, or were they intestines? Was it possible
to floss intestines?
'He talks about transporters. I don't know about transporters.
I wish I'd never heard of the bloody MADID.'
'STOP!!!' The "clerks" voice suddenly screamed.
Twenty thousand Estapoppi in the room jumped at once. The one
about to eat Will's head, snapped its jaws shut in surprise.
Fortunately for the human, the instinctive reactions of his carriers
were just that little bit faster. He was dazed but he was alive.
Suddenly, the mood of the room had changed. The unthinkable had
happened. The "clerk" with a bounce of those powerful rear legs, had
overleaped the lectern.
'How many times,' he said, in a voice that caused several
ladders on the far side of the cavern to fall over and at least one
of the far doorways to collapse. 'How many times must I tell you? In
memos, in person? It is the most important thing to remember, is it
not? Always ask a new arrival before you process them - WHAT?'
You could almost see the twenty thousand Estapoppi mentally
think WHOOPS!, before they answered in a deafening chorus.
'HAVE THEY HEARD OF THE MADID?'
Two more of the fragile rubbish doorways collapsed.
'Because, if they have heard of the MADID? the clerk prompted.
'WE HAVE TO DIRECT THEN TO THE SIGNS AND LEAVE THEM ALONE.'
By this time, even the creatures struggling to repair the
damage caused by the noise had given up in momentary disgust, those
that is, who had survived their fall from the ladders.
'I'm terrible sorry about this.' The clerk said to Will in a
sweetly charming voice. 'You can't get the staff.' The tone he used
on his assistants was far less polite. 'RELEASE HIM AND TAKE HIM WITH
ALL SPEED TO THE SIGNS.'
Extremely bemused, the newly unfettered Will was
carried away at a breakneck pace toward the exit, he distantly
heard the last of the clerk's fulsome apologetic farewell.
'.... And, it's been a pleasure to meet you.'
Strangely, Will did not feel able to reciprocate. "CRETINS!"
was the last work he heard as the "clerk" turned on his followers.
Will nodded. Now that was an opinion that he could agree with. He
had heard of being in the dumps, but this was ridiculous. Still it
was comforting to note, that as a seeker after the MADID, he was
something of a celebrity.
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