Smolehive’s Anakalyptoscope

Les Sklaroff

If it looks real and feels real, do you think it matters if it's real? -- Daniel Nayeri

It was one of Snoak City's quieter attractions.

It might have been the effect of its comparative isolation, or the sparse external lighting, but the building, despite its unusual solidity, gave the appearance of being drab and possibly in need of repair. It was difficult to know exactly what needed to be fixed. The curving walls were of rough grey local stone, with patches of moss where it was less weathered. The turreted roof was slated, and fitted with guttering and downpipes in a style long out of fashion, but evidently still serviceable. A helical series of recessed shuttered squares wound around its circumference, reaching almost to the roof. These could have been ventilation ducts, for there were no glazed windows. At ground level on the western side, a shallow alcove housed a black painted door, inset with a sturdy grille, and decorated with ornamental brass studs in the form of small turtles. Above the door was affixed a dusty sign, hand-lettered in gilt, cobwebbed at the corners, stating: SMOLEHIVE'S ANAKALYPTOSCOPE. Admission Free

In truth, visitors were few, even at the height of the tourist season. This was partly due to the fact that the beturtled door was, more often than not, kept locked. There were opening days, but these varied, and were never advertised. At hours of his own choosing an elderly caretaker would arrive on foot bearing a bunch of keys and a heavy bag from which, according to one report, a fruit of some kind had once accidentally fallen. Or it could have been a potato. Once open, the door revealed a flight of stairs with stout handrails on either side, leading up to the viewing chamber. A brightly chalked arrow on the inner wall at the height of an average buttock helpfully pointed the way. This may have been intended to favour those of small stature, or had perhaps been inscribed by a child (possibly under supervision, for it was carefully drawn), or a dwarf confident in his or her semiotic skills.

The caretaker (Smolehive himself, perhaps) had not bothered to attach a sign that declared the establishment open or closed. His reasoning, one assumes, is that once the door was unlocked, and the meticulous arrow visible, such a declaration would have been redundant. The open door was an invitation, and the infrequency of this occurrence a positive incentive to interested passers by, should they chance to notice it. Among other reasons why it was largely ignored, was that the building was some way off the beaten track, being situated near the eastern edge of Whissit Fields, separated by a marshy bend of the Stirrow from the glassworks further upstream, and half hidden by a high wall from the outlying workshops surrounding the octagonal complex of Central.

For the select few who happened to arrive after the door had been opened, a further problem immediately presented itself. It was usually expressed in the form of stares, which ranged from the totally blank to the deeply quizzical. Take, for example, the five wandering tourists who had been trying to locate the brewery, idly pursuing the unmistakable odour of fermenting hops. Their casual flamboyance and exaggerated laughter suggested that they were students, probably from Platport or Meheric. From where they had paused near the open doorway, the brewery was still a good half-hour’s wander to the north west. The phalanx of brass turtles had swung back. One of the visitors pointed to the quaint calligraphy. Another spotted the imperative arrow. A brief discussion followed, involving a quintuple exchange of shrugs. It was probably the free admission that proved persuasive. They ventured in.

The stairs led anticlockwise around a wide central column, in which semi-opaque, sightly convex discs of glass, the size of saucers, had been set at regular intervals, like blind portholes. Curiously, they appeared to be lit from within by natural daylight, and allowed sufficient illumination for the climb up into the viewing chamber. Here, within a round wooden enclosure, Smolehive (if it was he) sat hunched in a comfortable high-backed pivoted chair, his attention fixed on an angled panel of polished wood furbished with a constellation of calibrated dials, each with its neatly hand-written label set in a brass bracket. He wore what appeared to be earmuffs, and made no obvious acknowledgement of his visitors..

Like the stair column, the wall was inset with framed frosted glass discs, but these were as big as dinner plates, and formed a continuous row, like a gallery of portraits. As the caretaker made small adjustments to his dials, these ‘windows’ began to fill with images of Snoak City. This in itself was not especially remarkable. Everyone had e-screens, and reconnaissance pods had been in use for years, both commercially and for security purposes. But there was a quality about these silent images that distinguished them from the norm. Clarity, depth of colour, detail – all of these, and an extra indefinable dimension that seemed to heighten their reality.

The five students progressed slowly round the room, absorbed by the shifting panoramic view….

A hypnotic shimmer of light, the focus gradually withdrawing to reveal the wind-rippled surface of the reservoir, and beside it the burnished pipes and tanks of the Frusk water-purification plant. Uniformed engineers can be seen intent on their maintenance duties. Among neatly-tended shrubs two executives wearing orange security passes appear to be arguing. One is visibly agitated, and seems to be anxious to leave. The other points above his head to where an intercity airship is lifting eastward into a cloudless sky.

The next panel retraces its trajectory back to the airport, where a line of passengers can be seen embarking on a privately-chartered vessel; all well-dressed, unsmiling, pensive, some clutching slim document cases. Most likely a team of cartographers reluctantly bound for Smatparrox. It is rumoured that capricious illicit landscaping has been taking place there on an unprecedented scale, financed by someone with enormous wealth. All that is publicly known about this so far unidentified figure is that he or she is said to have metallic hair. The vessel's bright bulbous flank quivers as the tethers are released, reflecting the threading paths of busy vehicles amid clusters of activity on the ground as the pilot steers high over the old motorway in the direction of Ratman's Fork, the subject of the next image.

Here we look down on grey smoke, whirling sparks carried on gusts. A ramshackle heap of splintered wood, some with old paint visibly bubbling as it burns. Charred débris glows among the blown ashes: springs, door-handles, wire mesh, a half-consumed book. The image briefly magnifies, showing crisped blackened pages with glimmering edges, precise columns of neat handwriting flickering with a coppery sheen before disintegrating. The pile judders as something large and heavy is thrown on. The focus pulls back. Grinning urchins caper around the fire, created on waste ground among the abandoned warehouses. Several wield poking sticks – tubular metal poles which experience has taught them to insulate at the holding end with swathes of cloth. A girl, face grimy with soot, is attempting with intense concentration to toast a bun speared on a twig. There are no adults to be seen.

The next scene pans swiftly past Sparrink's Yard, haunt of tinkerers and thrifty handymen, back across Praspafole Stadium, empty apart from the Quicksilver service crew removing detritus left by spectators. We are plunged into a glittery arcade. It has to be Yarp Street. Glass cabinets blaze with polished minerals, tasteful arrangements of semi-precious stones, sculpted metal objects standing on plinths; tortuous quasi-human figures expressing angst or hinting at desire. Discreet price-tags confirm that they are intended for an exclusive clientèle. A brightly-lit interior reveals a profusion of exotic tie-dyed silk scarves, pinned and draped gracefully in simulation of a waterfall. A hand reaches in to lift one of these, slim fingers freighted with rings.

An eye. Reddish-brown iris, with a small black pupil. Around it a thin, slightly puckered ring of pastel blue, softening to pale grey as the view slowly recedes to disclose a roosting collared-dove in dense foliage. It is seen through the rainbow haze above the fountain at Sparagulan College, so must be at the northern end of Garrible Park, an area favoured by those with a taste for secluded private properties, and the means to acquire and maintain them. In the foreground are the mullioned windows of one of the college towers. The carved stonework shows signs of erosion.

Here are glimpses of a street market, partly obscured by coloured awnings. Fresh produce, hand-crafted goods, bright bouquets. Small children strapped in trundlers blink at the moving forest of legs, while a small crowd stands watching a bouncing hat. Under it is a young street musician, sitting on a wooden box on the sides of which he is drumming with his hands, eyes squeezed shut. Beside him a young woman with cropped blonde hair is playing a tall instrument with great dexterity and obvious enjoyment. One foot, neatly shod in soft green leather with silver laces, taps the ground in soundless syncopation.

We are now near the city’s southern edge, over the bridge near Thrissop Hill, and a procession of SunCell MonoPods, like a string of bright beads, heads south to compete at the Gat Whane circuit. This season’s colour is predominantly a vibrant blue, though the fad for spotty blooms in mimicry of an irritated squid has not quite died away. One renegade is a defiant matt black (except for the transparent forward segment), either hinting at hidden power, or a misguided attempt to remain inconspicuous, since each SCMP has its tail fin emblazoned with the owner’s identifying emblem, in this instance a kind of bent trident. Under closer scrutiny this turns out to be the three toes of a sloth, so the driver may be making an ironic statement.

Scuttling across a tree-lined road, yet another escaped pangolin. In its eager but so far thwarted search for an ant colony it finds temporary shelter under a hedge which borders the grounds of Greeming & Trulph (Accessories). ‘Conservation gone mad!’ the Quanderpyre press would later comment, under the headline ‘Menace of the Scaly Invaders’.

The view sweeps across rooftops, intersections, orchards, farms, lingers briefly at the flat, restless horizon, then pulls back across the marina to witness a man emerging without luggage from the covered walkway of a private flotel. He wears an unseasonably long dark coat. A nimbus of bronze hair obscures his features. He pauses at the roadside, briefly lifting a gloved hand to his face. The passenger door of a waiting vehicle, a bluish-grey Dap Pulsar, slides open. As he climbs in with practiced ease we see the glint of a tinted visor. The driver’s face is not visible, but the gold bracelet on her wrist is finely crafted in the form of entwined snakes. The vehicle moves smoothly towards the Southern Underpass.

An impossible view, surely! There is no snow-covered mountain within a day’s flight from Snoak City. It must be a clever model. The textures are very convincing, as is the lighting, which brings out the contrast of starkly black and bruise-coloured shadows against blue-white snow. Even the impression of distant wind-blown drifts is realistic. One might almost imagine the coloured specks strung along that oblique ridge to be miniature mountaineers. The modeller has somehow contrived to produce the effect of clouds shredding around the summit. You would swear that those specks have subtly changed their position. It is as well that the whole thing is artificial, for above them that descending puff seems to be accreting, and now erases them from view as it shudders noiselessly down to the tree-line.

A series of clicks at the control panel coincides with these scenes flicking off in succession, provoking involuntary yelps of disappointment from the students. Smolehive (if it is he) inclines his head gravely as they respectfully move past him on their way to the stairs, idle thoughts of the brewery long since evaporated. As they leave he permits himself a smile, reaches into his bag and using both hands extracts something dark, smooth but knurled, slightly pitted. A meteorite? A cherished product of taxidermy? Perhaps a fruit of some kind. Or it could be a potato.

© L. J. Sklaroff 2013 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 15:46 Mon 02 Sep 2013
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