The drones came and circled, glided off. Never less than three in view; never more than ten. The border was a showpiece for the strategy of Mutually Assured Detection, and I did my bit to count and verify and uphold the treaty’s red tape.

Rain came with the dusk, and when my touchscreen chimed the official end of daylight, I retreated to my hut. While I waited for my self-heating supper to cool, I watched the light wash over the hut, the glass block walls and ceiling filtering a hazy glow over my bedroll, the binder of daily code settings, and my little supper.

I was just realizing that the walls had been midnight dark for at least ten minutes when a voice broke in. “Panopitico employees! In today’s realtime bidding, we have lost the north-central border region contract. Please proceed immediately to an approved exit trail. Panoptico…”

Before it finished repeating, I’d dropped my spork, grabbed my personal effects pack, and was running down the trail. One of the drones had been assigned to my trail; its spotlight would have been helpful, but apparently we’d already been cut off from the premium GPS, so the creosote bushes and rocks about fifteen feet to my left were daylight bright rather than the ones I ran through and tripped over.

When I got to the collection point, four other watchers were waiting, nursing their own bruises and cuts. I stood in the cold, tried not to think about where I’d be assigned next, and how maybe it was time to move to something more steady like drone maintenance, or leave the company completely, like my friends back home were always telling me. Not much time to fret or think, though, since one of the drones soon hovered over in speakermode: “Panoptico employees! We have completed a merger with SeeAndBeSeen LLC, and acquired all their contracts, including the NCBR. Your previous assignments are reinstated.”

I trudged back up the mountain. Halfway, though, I had a change of heart—I’d done this long enough, given Panoptico enough years of sunburn and lonely boredom. Time for a change.

Five steps down the path, my touchpad chimed. I don’t know how they got the cameras there, but there was no question of what they’d captured, or who.

I turned around and resumed my uphill climb, hoping nothing had gotten at what remained of my supper.

March 26, 2010 will mark the Daily Cabal’s third anniversary of posting brand new, very short, often wildly speculative fiction every single weekday, come Hell or high water, with about 800 stories posted to date. And we’re going to celebrate!

But we have no idea how, so there’s a contest.

THE CHALLENGE: We invite all Daily Cabal readers, supporters, wanderers, stumble-uponers, nay-sayers, and enemies to comment here with ideas for how we Cabalists can best express our elation at having survived another year. Some kind of flash fiction writing would probably be involved, but apart from that it’s all open to whatever you can imagine. Give us a writing challenge, a theme, a restriction, a process, a warning, a command …

THE PRIZE: The person who submits the winning idea will be respectfully Tuckerized (inserted into the story) in multiple Daily Cabal posts according to any personal details that person is willing to divulge, whether those details are true or fanciful, clear or ambiguous.

THE DEADLINE: Put your ideas in the comments to this post by the end of the day Sunday, March 14th. To add a comment, click where it says “No comments” or “1 comment” etc. below.

Thanks to Luc for putting this announcement together!

Fang Chin put down his palette and brush, rose slowly from his stool, knees cracking, and peeked around his canvas at the UFO that had just landed nine meters from where he stood, in the center of the Dafen Art Village on the outskirts of Shenzhen. The saucer was a blackish color, carbon possibly, or charcoal, but Chin could not tell for sure, as he felt slightly nauseated upon looking at it and had to turn away. It was roughly the size of his artist’s shed, vaguely disc-shaped, and it pulsed with a frequency so low that his bones vibrated.

The Village itself was in chaos, artist workers and framers and pigment mixers running in all directions, clambering over each other to escape the presence of this thing that could not be, paintings forgotten, oil reproductions of Van Gogh and Vermeer and Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec and hundreds of others, scattered, slashed, ruined in haste and fear.

But Fang Chin did not run. One of the few artists in the Village to paint “originals,” his imitations of the masters stylized, skewed beyond mere mimicry, featuring in the top right corner of each piece a small representation of the UFO that pulsed before him right now, his trademark, his “signature,” impossibly come to life.

Without transition, two amorphous blobs of the same nauseating color as the saucer stood before him, roughly his height, undulating hypnotically, and said, in perfect Mandarin, “Artist-Prescient Fang Chin?”

Chin cleared his throat, licked his lips, and said, “Yes. That’s me.”

“At last!” The blobs undulated faster, more cheerfully. Chin could not tell if the synchronized voices were spoken or just in his head. “Long have we searched the Multiverse for you, such a rare prescence, located only here and in our home univ, so highly improbable your existence.”

“Ah, okay. Thank you.”

“Today we bestow upon you a mighty honor! You and your work are to be immortalized by our collective, absorbed into our cultural consciousness and forever revered as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Will you accept?”

Immortality was of course any artist’s dream. To be placed amongst the highest echelons of creative visual endeavor, to join with those who had inspired him and given his life meaning, to be known beyond the small galleries in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, his name on the lips of everyone in China, Asia, the world. His fingers and toes tingled.

“Yes, I accept.”

And without a word, the two amorphous blobs flowed over Fang Chin, covering him from head to toe, rippling with rhythmic consummation, and devoured him utterly. His DNA mingled with theirs, transmitting experience and epiphany, and the two blobs uttered a cry of delight. Then they re-merged with their saucer, lifted up into the sky, and were never heard from again.

Creative Commons License

This piece is just one in a 23-part linked narrative called Fragile, which will take a liberal interpretation of the song titles (but not the lyrics) of the masterful Nine Inch Nails double-album The Fragile. To read the other chapters in this series, click on the category “Fragile” below.

1.  When the woman in the red coat offers you bread, accept.

2.  When trying to outrun a monster, consider turning to ask it what it wants. Often this is a simple item such as a clean handkerchief, a pomander, or even an answer to a question, like, for example, “Why am I chasing you?” The author, once chased by a giant crab, discovered upon inquiry that it was feeling quite sorry for itself, as no one had given it a present for its birthday.

3.  Always listen to animals bearing messages, especially those in loud waistcoats.

4.  Just about any person, creature, vegetable, item of furniture, or machine can represent your father or mother, particularly if you got landed with an obnoxious or useless specimen of parenthood; the important thing is take a firm line with your subconscious and not allow any “therapy dreams” to become boring.

5.  If you haven’t flown in your dreams, you are missing quite a treat; ask someone for lessons. Trustworthy teachers: dragons of proven character; women who live in caves full of candles; and, provided their hearts are visible and whole, people who are already flying.

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