Well, I was running low on ideas, so I figured the solution was to get high. Not on drugs (I don't know a dealer who operates near this computer lab, and in any case, LSD only brings on crazy paranoid fantasies, hardly what's required for a Fragments piece) but in an elevator. (Speakers of genuine English call it a "lift", but I'm helping out you Americans here.)
No music - well, that kind of sucked, since there was almost bound to be something commentable there. But most of the comments would've had four letters, and I guess you don't expect elevator music in a serious building devoted to research, anyhow.
I punched the button for floor 2, where I actually wanted to go, and then thought: what's on 1? So just out of interest, I hit that one too. The lift doors opened - onto a closed gate.
A lift access to a closed gate? Wonderful. There was a sign on the gate: "Do not alight here. Gate closed."
What - really? Gate closed? Why would anybody put a sign on the closed gate telling you not to get off the lift (there isn't room to get off the lift because there's a gate in the way) and that the gate is closed, both of which are perfectly obvious?
More to the point, why is there this closed gate? What's so secret about this area of the building?
It had to be a devious trick. A ploy. For those in the know, that sign means the exact opposite - "this is where you get off for the secret meeting".
Clearly, this being Cambridge University and a notorious breeding ground for spies of several different powers, international espionage was involved. Young men would leave their flashy sports cars in a nearby car-park and make their way to this building, where they would take the lift to floor 1 - negotiating the secret entrance in the gate - and deposit the results of their covert missions. Deals would be signed, money would change hands, fates would be sealed.
Stopping bullets isn't my favourite pastime, so I meekly obeyed the sign and headed for the next floor. Just one thing occured to me, though; if I was going to be careful what I did around floor 1, I sure as hell wasn't going to send the lift to level 007.
It was late at night (or maybe early in the morning) and I guess being near Hallowe'en didn't help either. But even taking that into consideration, I was still kind of freaked out by the mist over the common.
Mist? In the middle of a cold, damp October night, that might not seem so surprising, and you're right. But this mist was only over the small piece of common land that I need to cross on my way home. Not in the streets, or the other green space (a park) I'd passed.
Still, maybe that wasn't a big deal either. Except for one thing - the mist only went up to about 1.5 metres above the ground. In the light of the single streetlamp in the centre (placed to light the footpath across the common), the boundary between mist and air was clear. It was as if the mist were a liquid, sloshed over this one particular green-space until it was filled to a given level... but even that didn't work, because the ground here is totally flat, and any liquid would soon have flowed away in all directions onto the roads and the land around.
So what could it be? And why? I thought about it a few seconds before starting out on the footpath - after all, there was no point taking unnecessary risks.
Some kind of secret government experiment? A new kind of poison gas, specially designed to "hover" in place above the location it was assigned? Well, that seemed like the most reasonable explanation, but if that was the case, hopefully they were testing it with a non-toxic version, rather than surveying the percentage of passers-by that dropped dead.
Still didn't sound that likely. I'm not paranoid, so I don't really think the government tests their secret weapons on random civilians. They probably do that kind of testing on ethnic minorities and Irish people.
Hrm... then perhaps a mutated organism, a result of some nuclear-radiation research carried out here at Cambridge university? A tiny bacteria that was too small to see, but replicated so fast that the air over that common was thick with it. It couldn't get above a certain height because it needed the residual ground warmth and damp, and the streetlamp in the centre of the common was providing it with energy. Yep, that all made sense: it had to be the answer.
So I walked across the common on the footpath, feeling a slight extra chill to the air as the bacteria-mist cooled me down. One thing occured to me, as I was half-way across and there was no time to turn back; the way I'd worked it out, this piece of land provided everything the bacteria needed.
Except a carrier.
It's the morning after that worrying trip. I've got a cold. And there's mist over Cambridge.
"Appointments available now," it said, and I checked the small print, "when available."
Appointments are available when they're available? Makes sense. I could put up that sign and it would be true. Hell, they could launch it to Saturn with the space probe and any passing bug-eyed monster wouldn't be able to sue for lack of an optician.
Just a coincidence, right? One screwy sign doesn't even make a "Fragments" piece, let alone a verified story. That's what I thought, too, so I ignored it and hurried to make sure I wasn't late for the safety course I was going to.
I got there okay, found a seat in the crowded lecture theatre, and sat in it. Hundreds - maybe thousands - of bored graduate students waited for the proceedings to begin. I spent the time wondering why the hell I had to be there; I'm doing a computing-related course where Word's "don't run with scissors" is the most serious safety advice needed.
A couple of dull-but-brief introductory speeches later, and one more was due. The guy in charge flicked on his radio mic and said, "I'd like to introduce the president of the graduate union, Mr. Omar Sadat. He's the president of the graduate union."
I blinked. Huh? The president of the graduate union is the president of the graduate union? No shit!
Then it hit me.
As a society, we're supposed to be entering the Information Age. (Since you're reading this, you probably got there already.) But what if, as the day's evidence suggested, we're actually heading for the Zero Information Age? When the entire use of language is so constrained by lawyers - and maybe something more - that we can't actually say anything, and every sentence must be all-words, no-content.
Something more? Sure. The ridiculous encroach of lawyers on everyday life, meaning that each statement has to be hedged about with conditions to consider every theoretically-possible eventuality, explained the eye-test sign. But not the second event. And who's paying for the lawyers anyway?
A conspiracy. That's the only answer. Signed-up or paid-up members - like the university safety advisor - spread the germs, the non-ideas, the antimemes of the zero-information concept. Like an infectious disease, the ZIA mindset filters through breakfast-radio DJs and tabloid newspapers and all those crappy website-creators. (You didn't really think people made those pages about their baby kids and their cars because they thought others wanted to know? Of course not. They're zealous cultists, intentionally spreading the zero-information mantra.)
Why would anybody do this? Well, haven't you noticed the Luddites seem strangely quiet recently? Apart from the usual religious-right nutcases, hardly anybody has been publicly questioning technology or its uses. But if you ask most people, they're very negative about computers and the "intelligent" media. Why the silence?
A secret mass campaign of the type I've suggested seems inevitable to fill this apparent gap. By filling the media (new and old) and the world in general with zero-information text, they render it and us useless. Within a decade or so, we won't be able to communicate ideas more complex than "Pass the salt" and "I'm going to plough the field out back"; precisely the world they're aiming for.
I'm beginning a personal crusade, and I need your support so we can speak out for the right to information transfer now, before it's too late.
Want to find out more about the campaign? An informative, fact-packed booklet is available now. When available.
Around the public buildings in Durham, I've recently seen posters with the message "Bogus callers could snatch your baby".
Well, yeah, but unfortunately the chances are they'll leave the snivelling little brat, and just go for the cash in the kitchen drawer. Unless I underestimated the intelligence of your average meter-reader impersonator.
Or... maybe there is a real reason for this advertising campaign of the council's. Maybe there really is some sort of resale value for babies, even though they do (sometimes literally) suck.
How about a satanic cult that eats babies? Nah - too obvious. Anyway, I was just reading a Satanist web page that explains how they don't eat babies. (Or worship Satan. Well, it's a religion, nobody said it had to make sense.)
I've got it! You know all those jokes about how the two-year-old has to program the VCR for its parents? Well, that's what's going on! It's a special nefarious plan - all these babies are being trained from a few months old to provide a crack VCR programming team that'll work door-to-door, making a few quid from all those old grannies who'll otherwise miss Coronation Street.
And you know what the really clever part is? Once they've got this little niche market, the way is open for bogus callers - people who pretend to be VCR programmers, but are really going to steal your baby.
Since Fragments is supposed to be about incomplete happenings, which I can then predict the answer to, I decided to do this week's about jokes. Jokes without the punchlines, of course.
So I badgered people a bit so they'd tell me some half-jokes; a pretty half-assed idea, but since this is a half-baked website I'm halfway satisfied with it. You can't accuse me of doing things by halves...
"Did you hear about the Polish woman?"
Why, sure. I hear about lots of Polish women. You see, I'm subcontracted to evil corporate giant Nestlé (murderers of children etc. etc., I forget the exact details). I handle their PR, as you've probably already realised...
Anyway, you're wondering what Nestlé has to do with Polish women? Well, where do you think Nestlé Polo mints come from? That's right, they're hand-made by Polish homeworkers (mostly women) who bake and smooth each individual mint using traditional processes. Every week the horse-and-cart comes around their houses to collect the sweets produced, taking them to a packing factory where they are wrapped and then shipped to numerous foreign destinations. (After the holes are taken out of them, of course.)
In fact, the word "Polo" is Polish for "small sweet with hole in". Poland is Polish for "land of small sweets with holes in", because until the overthrow of communism the only Polish export was Polos.
And the punchline to the joke? I have no idea.
"Why did the perverted chicken cross the road?"
Now, this is a pretty tough one. (Though that depends how it's cooked, maybe...) Basically, though, I hate chicken jokes. They're rarely funny and are overused almost as much as lightbulb jokes. What's more, as farm animals go, chickens are pretty boring. There isn't even a mad chicken disease, for god's sake.
"A horse walks into a bar. The bartender asks..."
What's he doing asking questions? Never look a gift horse in the mouth, I say. (And I'm not the only one, because there are plenty of imbeciles who can't comment on anything without spouting a flawed and ancient proverb. It's the pot calling the kettle black but it takes one to know one, that's what I say, and in any case there's no smoke without fire.)
Where was I? Oh yeah. Horses. And bars. I don't actually know anything much about either, so this would be a good place to stop.
And so I come to the end of another column, having revealed my ignorance of several areas including horses, bars, humour, and writing style. By my standards I think that counts as a success.
Just one warning: don't try this at home. If you make a habit of telling half-jokes - without the punchlines - you'll likely end up at least half-dead.
Thanks to Anduwaithe and EquusDeus for the jokes.