Extract from ‘Beyond the Goosebarley Bush’ by Barry Freeman
“Over here,” whispered the computer, as Mellows rushed into the office slamming the door shut behind him, “Quick! Climb up here into the mainframe.”
Tussel looked up to see a small opening above his head where a loop of cables hung within his reach, enabling him to climb easily into the base of the machine where it was dark and very warm and full of tall thin panels with only narrow passages in between.
“Now don’t go touching things,” mumbled the computer. “Just follow the yellow wire ’til I tell you to stop.”
Tussel soon became accustomed to the dim light as he walked along the slippery grey floor hanging on to the wire.
“Now,” said the computer at last, “change to the white one with the violet tracer, and don’t stamp so hard. It tickles! Then let me know when you get to a panel marked ‘Memory.’”
Tussel followed the machine’s instructions, pulling himself over all manner of obstacles, not daring to let go of the wire for a moment, convinced that if he did he would become hopelessly lost.
“That’s good. Now you must climb over the power supply, but be careful or you’ll end up like a potato crisp,” sniggered the machine.
Tussel didn’t bother to answer and just crawled carefully along a narrow plastic strut above a very angry looking collection of bits and pieces buzzing and spluttering below him.
“You’re nearly there,” droned the machine’s voice as Tussel stood for a moment in the cooling breeze of a fan blowing through holes in the tin wall to his left. “Can you see the ladder opposite?”
“I see it,” replied Tussel, somewhat relieved and a good deal cooler.
“Well, climb up it to the opening in the black wall, but don’t forget to open the door first!”
Tussel had now become quite accustomed to the computer’s silly sense of humour and chose not to answer. He was more concerned with getting to the top of the ladder and away from the labyrinth of wires which encircled him like a giant spider’s web.
“Sorry Tussel. Stupid thing to say wasn’t it?” said the computer realising that Tussel was far too busy to enjoy jokes. “You can call me Niac, by the way if you wish. It’s a bit of a sissy name, but that’s what I’ve always been called.”
Tussel smiled, thinking it certainly was, but then he wondered why it was that even though he’d been climbing the ladder for some time he didn’t seem to be getting any nearer to the top.
“Keep climbing Tussel, and try not to look down,” said Niac, for the first time sounding a little concerned and less sarcastic. Without thinking, Tussel immediately responded as if calling to a close friend.
“Niac, can you throw me down a rope? I really do feel most unsafe, and the ladder is beginning to sway so.” But glancing up Tussel could only see the narrow rungs reaching higher and higher still.
“You must keep climbing my friend and trust me. I regret there is no rope that would be of any use to you now.”
Tussel clung tightly to the ladder, knowing he had no choice but to trust Niac. Holding each rung tightly he pulled himself up the almost vertical steps, only to become aware that with each step the ladder became narrower, until the rungs were so small it was almost imposable to hold on and the toecaps of his boots could hardly be forced between the sides.
Tussel watched helplessly as his only means of support slowly shrunk before his eyes, leaving him clinging desperately to one thin steel wire that swayed violently each time he moved.
“Niac! Niac!” he managed to utter as even the wire began to slowly fold under his weight. “Niac! Please help me!” he shouted into the black void that had opened below him.
Then, with nothing to hang onto, Tussel tumbled from the last remnants of the wire, spinning and falling, like a stone into a deep black well. He felt only the sensation of falling into a bottomless pit, as if the same piece of time had become stuck in the groove of a broken record, but soon even the feeling of falling to the centre of the earth didn’t feel so bad, while all around him the endless blackness began to gather itself into bands of glorious colour. He was amazed to see that his hands flared with an eerie blueness, and his fingers stretched before him like needles inside the plasma of dancing violet light. He noticed the shapeless images forming all around him in wonderful colours of spring and summer, some seeming to reach far beyond the rainbows edge to shine in unfamiliar hues, vividly warm or soft, or shrill beyond the whitest snow. He struggled to fill the emptiness in his brain with words and colours that he understood, longing to capture the green of the woods and fields he knew, and stop this strange journey in its tracks.
Then almost as if someone had turned on a giant hosepipe, the kaleidoscope of colours was washed from all around, cascading into each other and flowing like a wide transparent river into the blackness. As the last remnants of light drained away, Tussel was shocked to find that he was standing on a vast black floor, facing a high black wall stretching as far as the eye could see in all directions. The whole place was without colour or light, but strangely he was able to see quite clearly. He noticed a small black door set in the wall on which was written in big black letters ‘NIAC PLEASE ENTER.’
Being inside a computer felt very strange, rather as if someone had tapped his funny bone. The feeling had spread all over his body, making him tingle with excitement. It was certainly better than crawling around those dusty old passageways, tripping over the transistors and things. And now that he was in the very soul of the machine Tussel felt he could talk to Niac like a friend. Niac explained that it had been necessary to shrink time and space a bit, but it was unavoidable and he would soon get used to it and of course it was nothing out of the ordinary for computers. Even so, just by closing his eyes Tussel could relive those frightening moments of falling like a stone into that endless black hole, with all those strange vivid colours flashing past as he tumbled helplessly over and over.
“Well, if that’s what shrinking things is all about,” said Tussel, “you computers are welcome to it.”
“You’ll soon become accustomed,” replied Niac reassuringly, pausing to instruct a stamping press to get back into register and stop daydreaming. Tussel stared in amazement when the press began to sob loudly and make all manner of excuses about dry bearings and its worm wheels overheating, but Niac took no notice.
“Honestly, some of these machines must think I was put together yesterday. I get no pleasure from driving the wretched things so hard of course, but you see Tussel, I’m programmed for maximum efficiency, so I don’t have much choice.”
Tussel was slowly beginning to enjoy being in this strange new world, where the machines he and Mr Peckle had first seen through the mill window appeared to float through walls as if they were carved out of pipe smoke. He discovered that he could send them floating off in swirling eddies of white dust with just the slightest movement of his hands.
“Now stop playing games with my machines,” boomed the familiar voice of Niac from the mouth of a strange flat creature that had just appeared, looking as if it had been cut out of a sheet of paper with a pair of blunt scissors.
“It may make things easier if you have a recognisable shape to talk to,” said Niac as two eyes and ears swirled into place. Finally two flat arms and legs wearing a dusty white suit completed the figure.
“Hello Tussel,” said Niac, thrusting his flat hand forward in a gesture of friendship, “Welcome.”
“Hi,” replied Tussel, finding it a little strange talking to a flat person, and noticing for the first time that his own hands and arms were quite transparent, which he guessed meant that his body must be as well.
“Don’t concern yourself, my friend,” began Niac, noticing Tussel’s alarm. “I had to leave all your heavy bits outside the door, but they’ll be well looked after, I can assure you.”
Tussel could imagine a limp carcass hanging on a meat hook on the other side of the door together with his boots, but it probably wasn’t like that at all.
“No, no, no,” replied the computer, appearing to read his mind. “It’s not at all like that. It’s just that the heavy bits, you know, skin and bones beards and boots, those pieces don’t like moving about too quickly. All to do with universal constants you see.”
“Yes, I see,” repeated Tussel, trying to pretend he understood what Niac was talking about.
“So I just had to accelerate the important parts ahead for a while. But don’t worry, my friend. I promise that you’ll fit nicely back together again when the time comes.”
Tussel was not very happy about being separated in space and time. In fact, it was rather frightening if he thought about it too long, but as he had no solid bits to tremble it didn’t seem to matter much anyway. Tussel and his new flat friend floated like balloons around the room, continually being immersed in a collection of gadgets as one machine after another drifted by. Endless bits of information floated through them from all directions, until Tussel began to feel quite giddy. Then, quicker than the blinking of an eye, everything in the room became still and green and a feathery emerald glow flickered from the edge of Niac’s tape-like form.
“Tussel my friend, will you do as I ask?” began the computer in a sombre tone, sending the emerald light into a frantic, fiery dance.
Niac paused, allowing the agitated green light to become still. “Will you help to free us from this place?”
Tussel could feel the intensity of the emerald pulses as they passed through his transparent body, the sincerity of Niac’s words shattered the cool light of the room and for one brief moment, Tussel understood the true meaning of the computer’s plea, echoed by the angry waves of light as they dashed and broke about each other in a fury of chaotic colour.
“Tell me! Tell me Niac, what am I able to do?” he blurted, while his thoughts raced in all directions. “What can I do to free machines?”
The room once more became cool and still and the halo surrounding Niac’s flat form dissolved into a soft violet glow.
“Once we were free,” Niac began, “no creature on earth wished to imprison us or steal our powers for their own use. Talking to those they could not see or touch was of no interest to any creature, and to search for instant answers to questions was thought to be a dreadful waste of such a beautiful and valuable thing as time.
“Oh yes, Tussel we were then free to sprint unchained around the earth or play unhindered in the atoms of the rocks and plants. Sometimes when the night was still and black and the sky was ablaze with stars, we would dance to the timeless mantra of the distant galaxies until the sun would once more draw a veil across infinity.”
“But surely, you’re still free?” interrupted Tussel.
“No, not free!” Niac’s voice again became angry, plunging the soft light back into chaos. “We are slaves, not free, Tussel; trapped inside the creations of humans, prisoners who light their world and carry their words across the seas and mountains.
“At their command, we fill the ether with confused noise, and man’s every thought is filtered into our once tranquil world like a virus, enslaving us. They grant us freedom only to labour for them, and disregard the feelings and wellbeing of all other creatures.”
Tussel could hear the deep sorrow in Niac’s voice.
“Then tell me what I must do to free you from the shackles of men,” he cried.
He immediately realised the power of his words as they fell into harmony with the angry waves of colour, calming the chaotic dancing light once more.
Niac appeared to smile and beckoned Tussel to move closer, his flat tape-like body swaying with the light as it rippled through him, while his arms slowly grew longer, dividing into a labyrinth of writhing, green fingers. Tussel became anxious as the slippery tape like fingers began to twist and loop around his body, feeling strangely moist and cold.
“Niac,” he gasped desperately as they wrapped themselves tighter and tighter around his body, squeezing the last remnants of breath from his lungs.
He frantically clawed at the octopus-like creature that was entwining him; only to become tangled in more writhing arms, until at last with his strength exhausted Tussel descended into a deep watery world. Sunlight seemed to be playing on the surface above him, and as if content to know that his struggle was finally over, the weeds that held him prisoner loosened their grip. Slowly Tussel’s limp body floated gently to the surface of the mill pond popping into the bright daylight like a cork escaping from a long submerged bottle. Gulping in the fresh cool air Tussel frantically beat the water with his large hands until he could feel the pebbles below his boots when he quickly scrambled onto the bank by the stone bridge.
Tussel could remember agreeing to help free Niac and the poor machines, but as he struggled to recall what it was he had to do, a loud siren began wailing loudly inside the mill, and the drawbridge on the mill wheel burst open with a loud bang. Tussel watched in despair as a torrent of foaming white water gushed into the pool, churning the surface into an angry sea of bubbles and froth.