Thursday, October 18, 2007

WRAITH SHIPS III: THE SECRET OF THE TERRORIST TRAINING CAMPS

If you've had a taste of glory - I mean, real glory, victory parade glory - then it's addictive. Instantly and forever. Just that one sweet taste.
You get into your hotel suite and it's huge, with an enormous vase of fresh cut flowers on the genuine antique table and with a bottle of the best possible sparkling white in a bucket of ice by the flowers.
And when you get to the bedroom you find Miss Flower Festival naked in you bed, and she smiles at you as you turn back the covers to inspect this trophy.
You weren't expecting this, so, seeing that you look slightly disconcerted, she asks, very politely, if perhaps you would prefer your brother. If you would, well, he's just upstairs in a matching suite, oiled, perfumed, lubricated and ready to begin. Just say the word and he'll be right down. Or, if you prefer, he can come down here.
That was the memory I had in mind when I had my meeting with Colonel Cuthbert. Not a fantasy, but a fact. A real memory. Something that actually happened.
One taste and you are addicted.
If we lived in an age of warlords, I would want to be first warlord then emperor. In the absence of such opportunity, celebrity is not a bad substitute.
In the downfall of the Save Our Snails mob, in the police sweep which had brought them into the orbit of the state, I saw my opportunity. If unleashed upon them then I, with my ten years of experience and my fearsome reputation, would crack their secrets out of them and get at what they had been doing.
Rumors were surfacing. Electronic equipement carried into the mountains. Odd, bulky packages being carried over difficult terrain along trails usually seldom or never frequented. In an age of terror, this stank of organized murder in the offing.
So my meeting with Colonel Cuthbert was important. But went badly. he did not like me, and I did not like him, either. And I think our mutual dislike was all too apparent.
Even so, he approved of the report that I had written on my client, a classic piece of ratutil - that is to say, of rational utilitarianism. It boiled down to this: he is old, he is senile, he remembers nothing and the chances of him ever surfacing useful data are precisely zero. We expend resources on him with no possibility of reward. It is time for him to be surceased. Grant me the permission and I will do the job myself, no executioner's fee required.
It was that final point, perhaps, which decided the colonel in my favor. Much to my surprise, he signed the surcease papers permitting me to liquidate my client.
For a moment, it seemed that the path to the gateway of my celebrity dream was clear and lit. But then the situation went horribly pearshaped.
Our bottom-feeding tabloid, Pravda, had scored a journalistic coup by cracking the secret of the terrorist training camps.
Pravda had done this by the simple expedient of sending journalists out to the huts and survival shelters in the Traken Mountains, the place where the Save Our Snails mob were said to have been doing mysterious training involving oddly-shaped pieces of equipment and portable electronic gear, and harvesting personal details from the log books.
The log books are mainatined in huts and shelters by DOC, the Department of Conservation, which has "Safety first" as its motto for the mountains.
Here on planet Sentosa, we all think of ourselves as survivalists. We are, after all, all members of the same congregation, all adherents of the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ Survivalist, Christ being the Ultimate Survivor. (Yes, he was crucified, we know that, but he survives because we embody him. We, then, are his immortality.)
But, while our self-image is that of the rugged and independent outdoor expert, the truth is that we are effete city dwellers who have very little hope of surviving once we get very far from the nearest electrical outlet. So, to optimize the chances of recovering either lost hikers (or "trampers," to use the Sendosan word) or, failing that, their bodies, DOC makes it a rule that hikers (in Sendosan, "trampers") should record in the log books (a) their names, (b) their contact details and (c) their intended route.
DOC is hated by most trampers because it ruthlessly enforces the pay-five-dollars-a-night rule. Way back when, you could sleep in the huts and shelters for free, because they were built on public land with donated money and volunteer labor. But then Planetary expropriated the whole lot, and DOC was charged with the mission of setting up a toll booth on the network of mountain trails once known as Freedom's Highway, hallowed ground on account of their role in the bitter guerilla campaigns of the Long War.
Such was the resentment at Planetary's high-handed arrogance that, for the first twenty years of the five-dollar system, it was commonplace for DOC officers to be gunned down and left for dead on distant trails. But those times are gone, and now most trampers toe the line and, obediently, fill out the safety-first log books.
By contacting people who had been in the area, Pravda was able to surface eyeball testimony backed up by digital photographs and home-made video, and, when the truth of the "military training" came out, the supposed terrorist emergency disintegrated into utter farce. And, with it, my dreams of glory.
What the SOS guys had been doing in the mountains was an extremely eccentric sport called "extreme ironing." This requires oddly-shaped packages, weird equipment which is anomalous in a hiking situation, and electronic equipment, the said electronic impedimenta being in the form of a portable steam iron.
The sport, if you can call it that, involves trekking into the mountains and taking along with you (a) a small ironing board, (b) a steam iron which can function as such once it no longer has access to a mains electricity outlet and (c) something to iron.
You iron in extreme conditions and in extreme terrain, braving snow, ice, frost, fog, hail, lightning storms and, in the Plektorite season, descending meteorites.
For the second time in my life, my dreams have been shattered by the Save Our Snails mob, sneaking the whiff of victory in front of my nose then snatching it away again.
So what is left?
Only tottering old Captain Slocum, whose death permit I have in my possession, safe for the moment in my biometric safe. And he, perhaps, is my one last shot at glory. It is, I think, almost impossible, but, even so, I will give it a try. I will attempt the impossible and seek from him the secret of the Wraith Ships.
If I can succeed, and can summon the ships themselves from out of the depths of time and space where they have been lost for so many centuries, then I will be not just a celebrity but a World Historical Figure, which, if you play it right, means, I think, top-quality hotel suites and happy girls forever.
Well, roll on tomorrow!

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