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art by Shot Hot Design

Trails

James Bloomer has a PhD in particle physics(he studied Tau Leptons at CERN) and has probably forgotten more physics than most people ever learn. He won the 2010 James White Award and the winning story was published in Interzone. He runs the blog Big Dumb Object and you can find him on Twitter @bigdumbobject.
Clarke stood on the dunes, watching the party coalesce on the beach. Over the horizon, and the grey swell of the ocean, lay Africa. Beyond their borders. Outside. Lands of suffering. A knot formed in his stomach just at the thought. He shifted his focus, tried to relax, and scanned the crowd for the familiar gait of his brother, longing to catch a glimpse of his face, but from a distance he couldn't quite resolve the features of the crowd. The wind blew hard off the sea, flicking his hair around his eyes and making the task more difficult. The exhibits, consumer products whose trails constituted art, stood on pedestals on the beach, the crowds floating between them.
"You've not really entered into the spirit of things, have you?"
"What?" Clarke turned to see a woman beside him, short red hair, mesmerizing green eyes and the clothes of a high-chic traveller.
"Your trail," said the woman, flashing a screen in front of Clarke. The screen glowed with a map of the EU, darkness beyond its borders, a red line highlighted Clarke's journey; a journey of directness, from England to Portugal, no meandering, no detours, just purpose.
The woman smiled. "I'm Anna."
Clarke nodded and smiled quickly, returning his gaze to the crowd.
"It would be polite to check out my trail, filter by last month."
"Pardon?" Clarke turned back to her, unable to suppress his annoyance. She tutted and flicked some buttons at the screen's edge, then pushed it back into Clarke's view. A red trail looped across the EU in the shape of a stylised daisy, its stem ending at their current position. Clarke raised his eyebrows in surprise. Anna laughed.
"You should see the trail for that tin of baked beans." She nodded towards the pedestals on the beach, and then looked him up and down with a frown.
"What's your name?"
"Clarke."
"First time at a trail-art party?"
"I'm not here for the party, I'm here to find my brother."
"Oh," said Anna, "well you'll never see him from up here."
Anna loped down the dune in long falling steps, her feet sinking into the soft, dry sand. When she reached the bottom, she turned back to face Clarke.
"Come on."
Clarke squinted at the faces in the crowd once more. Finally, he accepted her analysis and headed down the dune.
Drifting through the crowds Clarke watched the passing faces, hoping for a moment of recognition.
"Look at this one," said Anna. They stood next to a microwave meal on a pedestal; her screen showed its trail, a huge danger sign scrawled across Europe. "Twenty-three people have carried it."
"Huh," said Clarke, then quickly looked up again at the crowd washing past him.
"You're sure eager to find your brother."
Clarke nodded, "I haven't seen him for over a year."
The feedback whine of a retro megaphone cut through the chatter and the wind, causing the crowd to turn and face the solitary figure at the sea's edge.
"Time for journey's end," said the figure. The crowd cheered and converged on the pedestals, hoisting the products high into the air and carrying them towards the sea.
"Come on," said Anna, dragging Clarke towards the water.
"No way," said Clarke, "this is crazy."
"It's the end of the trail," shouted Anna.
Clarke slipped his hand out of Anna's and pulled away.
"No," said Clarke, but the crowd swarmed by and swept towards the water. He tried to fight a path back towards the dunes in vain, as the crush of bodies enveloped him. He stumbled, stepped into the water as he regained his balance, and then, before he knew it, he was waist deep in the sea. The pressure of the crowd ceased. They stood, bobbing up and down with glee as the waves rushed past.
Out ahead, in the sea, the products were lifted up: a tin of baked beans, a microwave meal, a book, an iPod and more; held aloft like sacrifices.
"Five!" cried the megaphone. "Four! Three! Two!" The crowd cheered, driven to a frenzy by the countdown. "One!"
The products were thrown, looping out high into the sky. Clarke felt a quick sharp stab of pain in his head and heard a buzz that flashed through his body. Then the grey sea swallowed up its offerings.
Clarke sat at the peak of a dune, drying in the breeze as he watched the party dissolve. He hadn't seen his brother. He pulled his screen out of his trouser pocket and flicked it to remove the excess water. The map was focused on his current position, the edge of the EU, one year ago. The trail in red was his brother's, blazing out into the sea and vanishing. Clarke sighed and flicked the time setting back to current, hoping for a miracle, hoping to spot his brother's trail amidst the departing crowd. He expected to see a streak of trails radiating away from the party and back into the mainland. Instead he saw nothing. No trails. He double-checked the screen. Shook it. Nothing.
"Damn thing's broken," said Clarke as Anna sat down beside him.
"Oh? How come?" She was wet from head to toe, her clothes clinging to her like a second skin.
"I can't see anyone else's trails."
"Of course," said Anna with a confused smile.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, we all got zapped, along with the products. Didn't you feel the EMP?"
"Sorry?" Clarke mumbled in shock, his head feeling woozy and thick.
"You didn't know?" said Anna.
"Tell me!"
"You're free Clarke. Trail-less. That's what these parties are all about. Art. Not just the products but us too. We journey our way here across Europe, to the edge of civilization, scrawling our final trail, and then it ends. Welcome to the invisible population of Europe."
"But how will we survive?"
"Adapt," said Anna. "Remember how we used to live. Before everything opened up automatically for us. Before we could watch our groceries being delivered on a map."
"You mean living like savages? You might as well leave the EU, live in Africa."
"No, Clarke, we can live here and have the best of both worlds: security, prosperity and freedom."
"But... We won't be able to..." Clarke paused as realization rose through him like dawn, slowly and gloriously. "My brother was here a year ago. His trail stopped there in the sea."
"Just like ours," said Anna smiling.
"That means he's probably still alive?"
"Yes."
Tears rolled down Clarke's face.
"I'm going to the authorities," said Clarke, "to tell them that somebody zapped my trail transmitter."
"Are you crazy?" said Anna. "They'll just throw you into one of the camps."
"No, surely they'll just reinstate it. They want us to have trails."
"Yeah, right. They'll treat you as an illegal immigrant. Lock you up in a holding camp, and never let you go, under the pretence of awaiting deportation."
"But--"
"And then, who knows what."
"But I need my trail," said Clarke.
"You don't," said Anna, "you can learn to live outside of the system."
"I don't want to!" shouted Clarke. "I don't care about your stupid art and ideals. I just want to find my brother. And now, without my trail, without net access, without access to transport... I'll never do it."
Anna frowned, then hugged Clarke. He let her, feeling, for a moment, safe. Then he pulled away and stared at his screen, flicking slowly through the last few months of his brother's trail. The trail wound across the EU, it appeared too methodical to be random and yet Clarke couldn't interpret any symbols.
"Change the time frame," said Anna, peering over at the screen. "Try weekly."
The jumble of red lines suddenly thinned and resolved to a clear circle.
"And the next week," said Anna.
"It's a U and the week after is a T. Out. And then an arrow pointing here."
"Nice," said Anna nodding appreciatively. "Great last trail. Out indeed. Out and free."
"You think?" said Clarke puzzled. Something nagged at him, something at the edge of his mind. Something that was disturbed by the thudding of a helicopter and the wail of a siren. Anna and Clarke stood to watch the helicopter pass over them. As they turned away from the sea they saw soldiers emerge from the pine forest that grew up to the dunes like a blanket. The soldiers were difficult to see, their camouflage causing Clarke's eyes to slip off. The effect was as if the forest was closing in on them.
"Oh no," said Anna.
Clarke began to edge backwards towards the sea, searching for a way past the advancing horde.
"It can't be for us," said Clarke.
"It's the party," said Anna, her voice panicked. "They've noticed all of our trails turning off. We should have left quicker. Shit. Why did I stay with you?"
"They wouldn't do all this."
"Wanna bet?" They'll do anything to prevent trail-less, untraceable citizens."
"Stop panicking," said Clarke."
"We should be panicking. I don't want my freedom taken from me."
Another helicopter swooped past them, black and angular like an ancient aerial monster. Clarke watched it, waiting for the instructions, but there was nothing except the noise of the rotors. Further down the beach, soldiers overwhelmed another straggler from the party. They pulled him away with minimum effort, not even bothering to speak, treating the person like another piece of flotsam washed up on the beach.
Anna cried, sobs wracking her body. "I just wanted to live free, in the EU."
Clarke felt calm. He turned to face the sea, searching for Africa. He glanced down at his screen.
"Out," said Clarke. He glanced back at the soldiers; there was no way past them. "Out of the EU." He grabbed Anna's hand and pulled her towards the sea. "We have to swim. To Africa. That's where my brother went."
"No," said Anna, "you're crazy. How will we survive in Africa? Live off the dust? Join a militia? Live like an animal?"
"You can't wait here to be arrested," said Clarke, "and imprisoned, maybe forever. Let's get out on our own terms."
Anna pulled away and sank to her knees on the sand. Clarke paused for a moment and then he sprinted into the water, wading out until the waves were washing up to his waist. A loud wail caused him to look back to the beach. Soldiers dragged Anna away as she kicked and cried. Clarke felt a sharp jolt of guilt and lurched for a moment towards her. The he let the guilt fade, as he saw a line of soldiers across the beach. He thought of his brother. He dived into the sea and swam.
Clarke woke in a clean, white room, lit by sunlight pouring through the large window, his last memory being dragged out of the sea and into a small boat. He rolled off the bed gingerly, expecting his muscles to ache, but he felt fine, refreshed and full of energy. He walked out of the room into a walled courtyard overflowing with exotic plants. Then out onto a bustling street. The buildings seemed to grow out of the ground and wind their way into the sky. Happy faces drifted past, nodding their heads in a hello or shaking his hand in a welcome. A girl gave him a melon to eat, her smile infectious. She laughed at Clarke's confused expression.
He followed the street to its end, a park that overlooked the sea. The grass of the park was green and lush, large palm trees dotted throughout the lawn provided shade. And there, standing in a crowd, talking, his brother. He saw Clarke and sprinted towards him, enveloping him in a huge hug.
"You're awake," said Luke.
"I can't believe it's you," said Clarke. "I've been so worried. I thought that you were dead." Clarke began to cry.
"Hey, it's okay," said Luke, holding Clarke tight. "You made it. You're free."
"I don't understand," said Clarke.
"They lied to us," said Luke. "Look around. This is Africa." Luke waved his arms towards the city.
Instinctively Clarke reached for his screen to check his trail and the trails of those around him. Then he realized that he didn't have his screen with him. And he no longer had a trail. And he smiled, and hugged his brother.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011


It's almost natural that most people now carry around a GPS device in the shape of their phone and we've probably only scratched the surface of what it could be used for. I haven't seen any GPS art yet, but wouldn't be surprised to find out it exists. The worry is that the GPS tracking will invade our privacy, used to track us and control us. Combine that with the EU shutting its doors in isolationist reactionism and the result could be pretty horrible. Hopefully we won't end up with that situation.

- James Bloomer

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