Eavesdropping at Quoils

Les Sklaroff

"A free droplet of liquid naturally assumes a spherical shape, which has the minimum surface area for a given volume. The equivalence of measurement of energy per unit area to force per unit length can be proven by dimensional analysis."
Farras Grein

Gawl and Rambersack sprawled in their accustomed seats by the window, engaged in one of their protractedly serious linguistic discussions. On this occasion it concerned the possible distinction between ‘drip’ and ‘drop’. Sensitive as ever to nuances, Fucis Gawl felt that the respective vowel sounds had some bearing on the meaning. He brushed away a few crumbs and refilled their glasses from the complimentary carafe of iced water, carefully avoiding any spillage on the table.

“Wouldn’t you say that ‘drip’ suggests something light, or transient, while ‘drop’ is altogether more ponderous? The same principle applies to ‘chip’ and ‘chop’, or ‘flip’ and ‘flop’”.

Legger Rambersack considered this, shifting slightly to stare out at the colourful profusion of pert spring flowers which now graced the banks of the stream on the far side of the road opposite the eating-place which was their favourite haunt. He tried to think of other comparable pairs of words. ‘Grip’, ‘snip’ and ‘trip’ had no corresponding partner, although a separate case might be made for ‘snip’ and ‘snap’. ‘Dip’ and ‘dop’ were a borderline pair. ‘Ship’ and ‘shop’ failed to conform to the proposed rule. He wasn’t quite convinced.

“So you’re saying that a drip is somehow more delicate than a drop, or that it falls with less force?

“Well, think where would you find a drip,” said Fucis. “Taps, gutters, hat-brims, twigs, leaves… um, shop awnings, those old spiky umbrellas people used to have…” He paused, having run out of examples.

“Icicles,” offered Legger, remembering a severe winter from their childhood, and the slow thaw which followed.

“Exactly. And what do these all have in common, apart, obviously, from their water content?”

Legger frowned, causing a passer-by outside to quicken her step. Even in lugubrious repose his expression could be intimidating.

“I’ll tell you,” said Fucis, making a low horizontal sweep in the air with his right hand, fingers spread. “They’re relatively close to the ground. Drips don’t have far to fall, whereas…”

“Whereas,” Legger cut in, “…drops, raindrops, for example, have to fall all the way down from clouds. The lowest of which, by their very nature, are usually quite some way up. Twenty or thirty thousand feet…”

“Or more.”

“Yes, so, the force would be so much greater..”

“Hence the weightier word, ‘drop’. Although…” Having almost been persuaded by his own argument, Fucis spotted a snag.

“Although what?”


“What about it?”

“Pods, balloons, even kites. If they pass through low clouds, water-vapour would condense on their surface, trickle down, forming…?”

“A drip. Drips. Or would they be drops? They could be either. That complicates things.”

They tried to find a way round this difficulty. Legger idly invoked the possible drying effects of wind. Fucis, avoiding the complications of rain or condensation, proposed a scenario in which someone leaning back against the rail of a cruising pod gondola was wearing a backpack containing a leaking bottle of fruit juice. In that situation at what point did a drip become a drop, or were they, despite his instinctive doubts, identical? While they continued to ponder, they decided to order another of the savoury cheese delicacies for which Quoils was justly renowned.

It was hard to believe that only a few months earlier the whole area, indeed the entire town, was still afflicted by the inadvertent devastation caused by a well-intentioned experiment. Their poetry, which they took more seriously than anything else, more indeed than anyone else did, had naturally been affected by the events of the previous year. In the case of Fucis Gawl, having hyperactive biotaps on his home territory had caused his verse to slide down the spectrum of negativity from its customary gloom to undisguised morbidity:

Death stalks the land,
unmovingly and everywhere;
its unseen hand destroys, degrades
beneath the ground,
and in the air
deploys its deadly blades.
See, there! And there!
where anybody walks,
death stalks.

He had not been too sure about ‘unmovingly’, because although once rooted the damned things stayed in one place, they did have visibly moving parts. On balance, he felt justified in leaving it in. He was quite pleased with the deliberate ambiguity in the final line, where ‘stalks’ served both as a verb and a noun.

Legger Rambersack, never one inclined to hide his feelings, had left no ambiguity.

Biotaps? Biocraps!
Where’s all the energy
they’re meant to store?
They suck! They really suck!
They spread decay.
They’re rotten to the core.
Fuck them, I say.

It was a bitter irony that their principal designer, the bronze-haired man known to the public as Farras Grein, had intended his biotaps to benefit humanity by providing a non-polluting source of energy capture and storage. At the laboratory stage the autonomous units had been rigorously tested. Each one was a compact self-sustaining biochemical factory, an artificial analogue of a tree, its phototropic leaf-blades serving as highly efficient solar panels. Under laboratory conditions each unit had functioned faultlessly. What had not been anticipated was the change in behaviour which resulted from outdoor planting and the subsequent meshing of subsoil networks.

‘The rate of nutrient ingestion was substantially accelerated,’ stated a later independent report, ‘….. the units exhibiting an increasing propensity to attract, immobilise and draw sustenance from organisms with a body temperature above that of the surrounding soil.’

After the initial seeding, Grein and his companion Sarsel had amused themselves by disguising their appearance in order to travel openly in public. Sarsel was among the few who knew this dedicated man as Pion Octyl diMotz, founder of Quicksilver. It was on their third visit to assess progress that he became convinced that the biotaps were behaving abnormally, and at once realised the gravity of the risk to the local ecology. At that moment he decided to abandon the masquerade, leaving at the site accessories such as his visor and the metallic wig that was an exaggerated parody of his own natural hair.

The introduction of the biotaps had been a clandestine operation, but as soon as he had become aware that the experiment had not only failed, but had had such ghastly consequences, the reclusive man whom people knew as Farras Grein had accepted full responsibility. He had made a public statement to the press and broadcast media, briefly explaining his motivation, his long-nurtured hopes, and the bitter disappointment he and his development team shared with all those who had been affected. He promised to do whatever he could to heal the damage.

While the local council deliberated, Grein had unhesitatingly stepped in with an offer to provide and supervise, free of charge and for as long as required, a team of personnel from his biotap labs, together with any necessary protective gear and excavating equipment. He also offered to cover the cost of restoration and landscaping. In a rare instance of a swift collective decision, the council agreed to this, well aware that they themselves lacked the technical expertise to deal with the decontamination, and not averse to conserving their own precious funds for other less demanding projects.

Many locals were unimpressed, resentful and unconvinced. Most had never heard of Farras Grein. Even those who had, perhaps vaguely aware of his supposed wealth, would not have known his real name, and were unlikely to have any appreciation of his scientific credentials or of his integrity. Opinions began to change as the renovation project progressed, and some more assiduous journalists reported that ‘Farras Grein’ himself had taken responsibility for funding and organizing the entire restoration project.

Biotaps were designed to be tenacious, to withstand temperature fluctuations, and exposure to extreme weather conditions. Algorithms ensured they could learn and employ further protective measures. Taking no chances, Grein had arranged to equip his clean-up squad with anti-hazard suits developed by the Advanced Fabrics labs in Snoak; a costly but necessary precaution.

Grein cautiously tested the array of defensive mechanisms using robotic probes. His squad found that the task of removing an established biotap was like trying to defuse a booby-trapped bomb, with the additional complication that each one was not only sensitive to interference, but its evolved defensive strategies were instantly shared with all other units. Leaf-blades acquired scalpel-sharp edges, deformed into blinding mirrors. Wiry tendrils uncoiled reflexively, flicking out thin glutinous streamers of formic acid. The central stems resisted being grasped, exuding slick lubricants or armouring themselves with barbed sheaths.

It had not occurred to Grein to incorporate an ‘off’ switch into his biotaps, an omission he sorely regretted as he surveyed the devastated townscape of Smatparrox. Wherever there had been a flower bed, an earth bank, a private garden or a patch of waste ground, the flashing blades of biotaps had replaced any existing flora, many of their hard bright stems surrounded by shards of bone, stray feathers and clumps of fur. While a biotap was still active, Grein concluded that any attempt to extract it using conventional implements would be futile. He reserved the option of using explosives as a last resort, and looked for less drastic alternatives.

Fast-setting concrete was a possibility, but he was concerned about the sheer scale of application and subsequent removal, if only in terms of the physical labour required. After consultation with his support staff they launched a two-pronged attack using liquid nitrogen to shut down any ongoing processes, followed by a polyurethane foam sealant to make extraction more manageable. It was a painstaking procedure, each deactivation needing to be checked repeatedly before an individual biotap could at last be mechanically extracted.

The remaning problem was the disposal of the root system, programmed to send its capillary filaments in search of essential minerals, forming further nodes from which new biotaps had emerged. They had to be sure that any residual commands trapped within the dense expanded network were totally expunged. Grein and his team ensured that the entire area was systematically evacuated, summoned a fleet of powerful mobile generators, fired a series of simultaneous high voltage bursts through heavily insulated cables into the subsoil at every biotap nexus. Smoke and steam leaked from the superheated ground in every direction.

Further weeks passed before the ground was deemed safe enough for the inert topsoil to be removed. A chain of freight transporters conveyed it to Platport, from where it began a three-month voyage to an isolated volcanic island.

Cendrel Pirch had been munching her way through breakfast, trying to recapture a fading dream involving a brightly-coloured bird and a pair of lost sunglasses, when her e-screen buzzed. She reached out automatically and thumbed it on. An unfamiliar voice said, “Good morning, Miss Pirch. I hope I’m not disturbing you.” It was a pleasant enough voice, in which she thought she could detect a distinct edge of weariness. Nudging her e-screen closer, she peered at the face: high forehead, deep-set eyes, sensitive mouth, a growth of stubble suggesting he had not had time to use a depilatory. The leonine mane of reddish-gold hair had a metallic glint. She did not know him, but she had definitely heard of someone who fitted his description.

What he said next caused her to wonder whether she was still asleep.

“I’m Farras Grein, and I am in urgent need of your help.”

Cendrel laughed. He was obviously a hired actor.

“No, you’re not,” she said, rapidly trying to think which of her friends might be silly enough to attempt such a hoax, and why. Surely not Tebbi! Strag, perhaps? No, he had outgrown such pranks. And Ruckers and Sawly were still roaming about abroad.

“Miss Pirch, I assure you that I am Farras Grein, and I apologise for the informality, but we’re rather pressed for time, and I would like to present you with an unusual opportunity. Let me show you. Please keep watching.”

His face vanished, and the view panned to an outdoor perspective: a bleak, cratered urban landscape, looking like historical vids of war-zones, although she noticed that no buildings appeared to be damaged. She could see an intact town hall and other nearby municipal offices which looked vaguely familiar. Clusters of people in protective suits, some wielding probes or other devices, were examining the ground.

“Isn’t that…”

“This is the centre of Smatparrox, Miss Pirch.”

The man, whose identity had suddenly become more convincing, reappeared on the screen, looking genuinely pained.

“It was my birthplace, my childhood home. I tried to give it the benefit of years of energy research, but instead, unwittingly, I gave rise to a catastrophe. I am trying to make amends. All the biotaps and their underground interconnections have been removed, and now the place desperately needs someone with your skills and vision to restore it to health. I know something of your background, and I have been impressed by the landscaping you have created in Snoak and elsewhere.”

Cendrel was thoroughly awake now. She bit her lip, feeling stupid for having harboured doubts.

“Mr Grein. Yes. Look, I’m so sorry. I couldn’t help thinking that one of my friends had…” She shook her head. “I can’t imagine how you must feel, but I’m really surprised and flattered that you think I could contribute. So, we’re talking about the area around the town centre?”

“We are talking about the entire town, Miss Pirch. If you were to accept this commission, you would have carte blanche with respect to materials – topsoil, sand, compost, fertilisers, whatever. And of course the choice of what to plant, and where, subject to the approval of the local council, which I am sure would be forthcoming. Money would not be a problem. Any equipment you need can be provided. If you require specialists, horticultural or otherwise, they can and will be found. Local people are anxious to be involved, and I think it is essential that they should be, for the sake of the community, but they will require guidance, and an overall plan. You’ll need time to think about this, perhaps discuss possible arrangements for a leave of absence from your work in Garrible Park. I’ll understand if you’re really not interested, or have too many commitments, but we are looking for a landscape designer such as yourself, with flair and vision.”

It did not take her long to make her decision.

Now the biotaps had gone, and Smatparrox had been transformed. The northern end of the new municipal gardens was bounded by stepped terraces from which trailing plants cascaded down to the foam of blossoms which crowned a crescent of fruit saplings.

Throughout the town the devastated topsoil had been replaced with an organically healthy, well-drained and nutrient-rich layer of loam, nourishing not only the new areas of lawn, both public and private, but also the thousands of carefully-selected plants and shrubs which now delighted the senses of locals and visitors alike.

Cendrel had enlisted the help of specialist hydraulic engineers to convert a chain of scorched craters into a linked series of ponds, fed by a tributary of the Stirrow. Friends in the Ecological Protection League had offered advice on sourcing appropriate aquatic flora and fauna. The resulting ponds became places of interest for many of the local schoolchildren, and convenient study topics for some of their more enthusiastic teachers.

Among her other innovations were the branching walkways providing safe access between the various civic facilities. The longer walkways, bordered of course with an eclectic profusion of botanical varieties, harboured sheltered rest areas, which before long became popular spots for trysts and picnics. Busking musicians were tolerated, but a local bye-law prohibited itinerant food and drink vendors from plying their wares.

At Quoils the two poets were still exploring the tricky byways of their craft, oblivious as ever to the comings and going of other customers. They had eventually agreed that for all practical purposes the distinction between a drip and a drop remained (so to speak) fluid, and that the use of the diminutive ‘droplet’, while having a certain euphony, did not necessarily refer to a yet smaller discrete quantity of liquid. This led them to another metaphorical thicket; namely, the precise description of falling water in states between a drip (or drop) and a dribble, and what degrees of flow separated a dribble from a trickle, and how to describe intermediate conditions between a trickle and a gush, and whether a splash defined an event irrespective of volume.

“What about viscosity?” Fucis Gawl demanded abruptly.

Legger dragged his unfocused gaze away from the window.


“Not water, but engine oil, treacle, tar, molten glass… Different consistencies, different kinds of drip. Tacky, glutinous!”

“Blobs!” cried Legger, with renewed enthusiasm. “Globs. Gobbets!

“Not splash, but splat!

They grinned at each other, sharing the elation of discovery. These were the first cautious steps into new territory. While they had been exchanging ideas Quoils had somehow filled with diners; mostly local residents accustomed to seeing these two indolent aesthetes in their preposterous capes and broad-brimmed hats. Little did those people know they were in the presence of pioneers.

© Les Sklaroff 2018 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 11:09 Wed 14 Feb 2018
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