Earlier this year we commissioned three writers, poets Sophie Collins and Momtaza Mehri and novelist Ned Beauman, to produce works in response to Hayward Gallery’s exhibition of the artist Lee Bul. Initially read to an audience at a special event in the gallery, we are now delighted to showcase them online. Here we present the second of the commissioned works, Ned Beauman’s untitled short story.
Ned Beauman was born in London in 1985. He is the author of four novels, most recently Madness Is Better Than Defeat, published by Sceptre. In 2013, he was included on Granta's list of the 20 Best Young British Novelists, and his work has been translated into more than ten languages.
a response to an exhibition of the work of Lee Bul
Brunhilda told me on the telephone that two research assistants had locked themselves in the polycrystals laboratory and were refusing to come out. After hurrying there I found her standing outside with Dr. Konstanz. 'We've been speaking to them over the intercom,' Brunhilda told me. 'They say it's a protest.' When she told me the names of the research assistants, the whole thing became a bit less surprising. In our weekly community forums, both Gert and Rolf were notorious for delivering long, filibuster-ish speeches about the founding values of Moon Colony Gropius and how we were apparently straying from them.
I looked at Dr. Konstanz and he threw up his hands. 'I promise you I had no idea they were planning any such nonsense,' he said, and I believed him.
I pressed the intercom button. 'This is Colony Administrator Weissenhof,' I said. 'What is the meaning of all this?'
'We have locked ourselves in the laboratory,' Gert replied.
'Yes, I am already aware of that,' I said. 'Why?'
'We demand that the recent decision to undermine the laboratory and its work be reversed. Until then we will not come out.'
The decision he was referring to was for the polycrystals laboratory to be reduced in size by three fifths so that a dedicated abortion clinic could be built in the space it used to occupy. This initiative had been spearheaded by Brunhilda, who now stood glaring at the intercom with fathomless contempt. Work on the abortion clinic was due to begin the following morning. 'This laboratory does not belong to you,' I said. 'If you won't let us in we will simply cut through the door.'
'You will have blood on your hands,' Gert said.
'What does he mean?' I asked Brunhilda. 'Do you have hostages?' I said through the intercom.
'We are each other's hostages,' Rolf said. 'Gert is my hostage and I am Gert's hostage. It is reciprocal. If you attempt to suppress this legitimate democratic protest, one of us will kill the other.'
'How will you decide who dies?' I said.
'We have an electric hacksaw,' he said. 'We pass it back and forth once an hour on the hour. Whoever happens to be in possession of the hacksaw at the moment of crisis will be considered the hostage-taker.'
I made a gesture of exasperation to Brunhilda. 'We could just vent the air from the laboratory,' she said.
'Then they would both suffocate and die,' I said.
She looked at me levelly. 'Yes,' she said.
I didn't know quite how seriously to take any of these people, but I knew that I couldn't have citizens of the colony killing each other, especially in a way that would make it look as if I was partly responsible. 'You are both surely aware,' I said to the intercom, 'that in a few years, when we have finished construction on Sector D, we will have all the space we need for a polycrystals laboratory twice this size.'
'We are doing vital work,' Gert said. 'Any delay will jeopardise the future of this colony. We cannot afford to wait for five years, ten years, so that a certain constituency can have this luxury. What's next, a... a bunion clinic?'
Brunhilda looked as if she was about to rip the intercom off the wall and crush it in her fist.
That the polycrystals laboratory was doing vital work was arguable at best. At present, when we needed to repair or replace the cybernetic augmentations our scandium miners wore to help with their work, we had to rely on expensive imports of polymers from Earth. The hope was that one day we might be able to substitute these polymers with artificial mother-of-pearl, a wondrous material that Dr. Konstanz was attempting to grow using bacterial nanoassemblers. But even Dr. Konstanz admitted that his experiments had a long way to go before we would be admiring the beauty of this nacreous armour under the starlight.
'Moon Colony Gropius is still young,' I said to Gert, 'and we cannot have everything at once.'
'Precisely,' he replied.
'I mean that we must balance different interests...' I couldn't believe that I was about to rehash an argument that had dominated our community forums for several exhausting weeks before Brunhilda finally won out, but nevertheless I pressed on. 'We must balance different interests, and, Gert, you are always talking about the founding values of Moon Colony Gropius – well, one of those founding values is free love for all those who choose to reject the old bourgeois strictures, and considering that, don't you think it is common sense to have certain facilities available?'
'You seem to believe we should send our workers to the scandium mines with worn-out equipment just so the free lovers can cavort without a care,' Gert said. I suspected that Gert might have been more sympathetic to free love if free love had been more sympathetic to him. But these two were not invited to many soirées of that kind. Indeed, during one speech at a community forum, Rolf argued that to bar any given individual from an orgy was discriminatory. Disturbingly, that had been one of his most popular speeches.
We argued in circles for a few minutes longer, and then I gave up. 'Do you have anything to eat in there?' I said.
'Why are you asking if they have anything to eat?' Brunhilda hissed at me. 'They don't deserve anything to eat. We should let them starve.'
'We do have some provisions,' Rolf said through the intercom, 'but if our demands are not taken seriously we plan to begin a hunger strike.'
I sighed. 'When will you begin a hunger strike?' I asked.
'When we run out of food,' Rolf said.
Despite Brunhilda's protests, I decided to just leave them to it. By the next morning, I reasoned, they would realise that they had already got all the attention they were ever going to get, and they would go home to their habitation units, telling themselves they'd won a moral victory.
But I was wrong. They didn't give up. For the next several days, I was consumed night and day with an unrelated political crisis: the American government was threatening to sanction any state who sold scandium to the People's Republic of India, including all extraterrestrial and subaquatic communities. When I was finally able to return to the polycrystals laboratory to find out what was going on, not only were Gert and Rolf still in there, but half a dozen more men had set up camp outside the door, blocking the corridor and refusing to let anybody pass.
Their ringleader was a man called Wenzel. Unlike the strident research assistants inside, I had never seen Wenzel speak at a community forum, and indeed he looked at his shoes while he was in conversation with me. 'We are here to support the protest,' he said.
It was dispiriting to see that Gert and Rolf's fundamentally absurd venture had attracted a following. 'Oh, so you too are deeply invested in the production of artificial mother-of-pearl?' I asked.
'The artificial mother-of-pearl is not the point,' he replied, delivering these (clearly well-rehearsed) phrases in a toneless mumble. 'Moon Colony Gropius is a utopia of science and art. With every betrayal of that mission we become more like the irrational cities we left behind on Earth. If the proposed facility had been necessary to the colony's functioning it would have been included in the original plans.'
I wondered how much he knew about our late founder, Walter Gropius' most famous pupil. I had met him only once. He was a cold, rigid, hypochondriacal man who had hated flowers for their gaudy colours. From that mind came the original plans for our colony. I thought it best to remember that.
At that moment I became aware of a clanking noise from further down the corridor. Everybody turned to look. And then Brunhilda, dressed in a scandium miner's prosthetics, came galloping around the corner, howling a war cry and waving a cybernetic digging claw in the air. All the men around me scattered and she gave chase.
A few minutes later she came back. 'I followed them as far as Sector B,' she said. 'Wenzel urinated on himself. They won't be back.'
'To resort to such measures is quite unacceptable, Brunhilda,' I said, and she smiled at me.
'I refuse to wait any longer,' she said. 'Their so-called protest is a festering wound. It's causing contagion in the colony. I'm just going to smash down this door.'
I thought of overruling her, but the truth was I had never found Rolf's threats of violence credible, and I was eager for this situation to be over. 'Let's give them one last chance,' I said. I pressed the intercom button. 'Hello, are you there?' I said.
But before I could get any further, the door slid open to reveal Gert. I hadn't even made my ultimatum. Then I saw that Gert was hunched and pallid. And the next thing he said was, 'We need help.'
When I went inside, I found Rolf lying unconscious on the floor. His belly was strangely distended. Gert explained to me that after three days they had run out of provisions. The ensuing hunger strike had lasted for only about half a day before they resorted to heating up the protein medium in which Dr. Konstanz cultured his bacterial nanoassemblers and drinking it like broth. But soon afterwards they had both begun to suffer from terrible stomach cramps.
I had them taken to the medical clinic. By the time the scans came back, Gert, too, had fallen unconscious, and Rolf's skin had taken on a quite extraordinary iridescent sheen. 'What appears to be happening,' the doctor said, 'is that they have pearls growing inside their stomachs. Each pearl is already the size of a grapefruit. And the crystallization seems to be spreading outwards through the body.' Unsurprisingly, he had no prior experience of any such condition, and he wasn't sure how the pearls could be removed surgically without disembowelling the patients.
A few hours later, Gert regained consciousness for just long enough to have his predicament explained to him.
'You must get it out of me,' he said.
'I'm sorry, but we can't,' I told him.
He grimaced. 'I know what you're thinking,' he said weakly, 'and yes, I recognise the irony, but I refuse to accept it as meaningful.'
Afterwards he lapsed back into his coma, and by the following morning he and Rolf were both pearlized from head to toe. Their bodies lay lustrous and brittle under the sheets. Dr. Konstanz, of course, was fascinated. This was by far the largest batch of mother-of-pearl his nanoassemblers had ever succeeded in producing. Earlier, he had seemed quite stoical about the loss of most of his laboratory – partly, I surmised, because it took some of the pressure off his work by giving him an excuse for delays – but now for the first time he seemed truly regretful that he might not have the space to pursue this new avenue of enquiry.
As work on the abortion clinic finally began, the bodies were buried in the graveyard behind Sector A, where you had to put on a spacesuit to visit your loved ones. But that same night, when no one was watching, they were both dug up. For a short while I suspected Brunhilda, but really I knew that even she would never have gone so far as to desecrate a corpse out of spite.
And then, a few days later, just as mysteriously, the two bodies appeared outside the windows of Sector B's canteen, propped up there like marble statues of revolutionary heroes in a city plaza. I can't prove that Wenzel was responsible, but he did have a smug expression all week.
I assumed Brunhilda would be furious, but I was wrong. 'No, let them have their monument,' she said. 'I'm sure they would have liked their story to be remembered forever. And honestly,' she added, giggling, 'so would I.'