Friday, 6 October 2017

The Catastrophe Trials (1991)

One of my earliest surviving tales, I wrote this in one quick session at the end of December 1991 and it inaugurated a series of adventures featuring Titian Grundy, the absurdist Prefect of Police in a futuristic society located on the Isle of Chrome. This linked series formed a novella called 'The Long Chin of the Law' that was published as one of the three linked sections of my book Nowhere Near Milkwood in 2002. There are other tales set on the Isle of Chrome and perhaps one day I will write more stories about Titian Grundy himself. But this was the very first.

In the old days, of course, murderers were often locked away in dungeons while hurricanes and earthquakes went free. And let there be no doubt that they took full advantage of their freedom. They rushed and shook, shattered and toppled whenever it suited them. They had no conscience.
The first Natural Disaster we arrested was the volcano that erupted on the outskirts of our City when the President was making his inaugural speech. Without stopping to retrieve his hat and coat, he raced to the scene with many attendants and ministers. He did not hesitate to show his concern on camera. The ash had engulfed one of the richer suburbs, the President’s majority.
There was a hung Parliament then, an economic crisis followed as share prices fell sharply. The President took to drink and gambling. Women were a mystery to him. His nose was too large. Before he had completely destroyed his liver, we decided to take action.
The trial was swift. Our Judges proclaimed the volcano guilty with due solemnity and sentenced it to life imprisonment. They stood on the volcanic glass and hammered off pieces as souvenirs. We solved the problem or removing the remainder to a place of security by constructing the prison around it. We used iron bricks. We threw away the key.
To be perfectly honest, the idea was not entirely my own. I knew a poet once who suggested it. She had long hair and a winsome smile. I loved her, but I could never give her any credit, not even of the financial sort, and thus it was I, Titian Grundy, Prefect of Police, who became the renowned and much-loved one.
There followed a period of prosperity then, hope, luxury even. There was a Golden Age of sorts. We expected a Platinum one to be just around the next corner.
The blue Tsunami rolled in from the east, towering so (I gesture here with upraised eyes) that we could not see the noontime sun. It bore an island with it, one of the outlying Aracknids wrenched free from the Continental Shelf, palm-trees and huts and village life all still intact upon the rich soil, although the latter considerably disrupted, and it crashed down on our wharves with the force of the Cosmic Serpent’s own heartbeat. Our crystal piers became shards, glistening on the green waters of the harbour, a hazard to shipping for many years to come. Very pretty they looked too, those shards, more pretty even than the original structures, though that is missing the point.
We had greater difficulties with this one. After all, the guilty party had melted away into the greater ocean again. We had nothing to point the finger at any more. But we were not foiled so easily. We employed mathematicians to calculate the probable volume of water involved and we pumped this amount directly out of the sea. We were not above punishing innocent liquid if necessary, yet we felt sure that at least some of the molecules we had acquired had been responsible.
We took longer over this trial. We stored the water in a large outdoor tank and adjourned often, fishing or boating on the accused, thus forcing some Community Service out of it while we waited for the verdict. Naturally, the Defence Lawyer was outraged. He was also frustrated. We cut his wages, handpicked the Jury ourselves and let them make the correct decision. We tortured our captive with red-hot pokers.
During these revolutionary changes in the legal system, I never failed to miss my poet. I tried to behave like an ordinary man: I visited the President and played croquet on his lawns. I married a beekeeper and asked my poet to become my mistress. She turned me down, however, having had enough of such romantic entanglements. She adopted a cat and took in lodgers instead.
You know the way I feel about my work. I have had doubts, but they have been few. I do not believe that I must justify my actions. I have posed nude, grown a fiery beard and learnt to juggle. I envy the arty set, I suppose. I can no longer walk into a student pub without being jeered at. I love my poet more than ever. I have not yet forgotten her name.
I write this report as a story for good reasons. Last summer, a particularly vindictive tornado escaped from its reinforced bottle and wrecked my office. All my papers were shredded. My filing-cabinets were peeled back and my secretaries stamped through the floorboards. I was left without a single record of my achievements. That is why I must circulate this one more carefully. Perhaps it might even find its way into the pages of a fiction magazine.
These tornadoes, incidentally, were my first real mistake. We collected them in barrels at first, but these were easily burst. We tried jars before bottles. Our bottles were made out of stainless steel. We had to wait until the tornado began to die and shrink to the correct size before pouncing. This did not seem to deter others: they saw how much damage they could do before they were apprehended. They began to come in pairs.
The mistake I made was as follows: I issued instructions to bottle tornadoes before they had formed. We collected them before they had committed any crimes, and forged the documentation. The scheme seemed to work quite well. The number of arrests increased dramatically. I was awarded a bonus.
And then one day, I received a telegram from the pressure group Amnesty Interstellar. They had been making the rounds of the prisons. One of the developing tornadoes I had arrested had turned out not to be a tornado at all, but a dust-devil. I was disgraced. I had to resign and move into politics.
The President and I became firm friends. We both complained about the World, about life, about women mostly. I drank espresso and smoked fat cigars. The President wrote pamphlets and picked his nose, which were both tasks that could take all day. My captive tornadoes were released. An independent body was set up to monitor Police procedures. My statue in the plaza was defaced.
I am no longer handsome, but my poet is still beautiful. She now works as a Careers Officer. There is a man who wants to marry her. He takes her to restaurants in a solar-powered glider. I know: I have seen them. I will follow them one day in my hot-air balloon. I have kidnapped her cat.
The President keeps a typhoon in his cellar. A man I know at the prison smuggled it out to us. In the evenings, the President, the cat and myself, creep down the winding stairs and peep cautiously at it. We are careful not to open the door too wide, in case it escapes. We feed it model towns which it devours with great avidity.
The World is going soft. We will soon return to the old days, when (as I said before) murderers were often locked away in dungeons while hurricanes and earthquakes went free. Sentences are being reduced everywhere.
I hear that even the volcano on the outskirts of the City is due up for parole next year.