Nick Barlay


It was not the first time a body had turned up in a canal. A floater. Body of a male. Young. Twenties. No signs of assault. No signs of external injury. Obviously, there was the story of how he lost his clothes. Most of them. Underpants still on. Country flag imprint. The first clue as to the man’s origins. Alcohol in his blood and water in his lungs pointed to the cause of death. More, they suggested a sequence of events. Young tourist. Big night out. Drinks a skinful. Staggers bedward. Falls in canal. Drowns in canal. He drinks, staggers, falls, drowns. One plus one plus one plus one equals four.

But those kind of sums were outmoded. The investigating officer knew that. She knew a lot. Some in the department said she knew the city like the back of her hand; others said that you only had to look at her to know the city. Last of a kind, they said. Old worlder. Salt of the earth and sea. Soon to be phased out. Soon to be recycled. They said the new light-sensitive uniform didn’t suit her complexion anyway. The lines of her face were labyrinthine, complex, crossed with the now discredited emotions of anger, love, pain, joy in simultaneous and subtle gradations.

What she knew for sure was that in the self-conscious city, Infinitycity, which looked at itself and analysed itself continuously, which generated an infinite data stream, a stream of consciousness like a light always on, outmoded sums meant nothing. They certainly meant less than water running off a hoisted corpse’s fingers. There were no ‘ones’ to add any more. This was a new age, so the papers said. This was Infinitycity, where fractions ruled, where kilobytes swarmed, where islands of information spread out to the edgeless horizon, each a city within a city, each a living dot of data on an infinite loop: ∞. On the bank of L-gracht an officer’s torch skipped across a dead tourist’s face.

The investigating officer glimpsed the peaks and troughs of her own face in the black water. Miles to the west she could see the lights of the North Sea Highway. It connected the arcing lights of scores of eco-burbs, teeming satellites or ‘token zones’ of Infinitycity stretching to an optical zero. This was the new age and it was a total pain. Death in the new age meant one thing: Retrospective Assembly. A new technology had given people a new desire for a communal spiritual currency to replace religions and belief-systems to the advantage of all taxpayers.

That’s how Retrospective Assembly, no more than a trick of data-sculpting, had become a human right. The dead had the constitutional right, retrospectively, posthumously, to have their life ‘assembled’, recorded, in a positive light. The form of the record: a diary. The style of the diary: the style in which the deceased would have written it. The method: a simple brain scan; a series of electro-philosophical triggers, memory scenarios and psycho-emotional prompts; data analysis; data collating; syntactical arrangement; stylistic embellishment; a language of choice; city issue grey vellum-plastic publication as standard, including an electronic version. Maximum file size 0.5Mb, a figure arrived at after much public debate but acknowledged by most to be adequate for the narrative of the average life. Total assembly time: approximately ten seconds depending on brain age.

Super-efficiently egalitarian, people would thus be recorded for posterity, forever, in their own unique voice, nurturing urban diversity, assuring an afterlife, and providing a significant memento for surviving relatives. The narratives of the citizens of Infinitycity were stored deep underground in a special public vault excavated beneath the Museum of the Present (formerly the History Museum). People had traded rights in life for rights in death, life for immortality. Ultimately, citizens had gained the right to an afterlife. Foreigners even came to die in Infinitycity. The admission procedure was complex: first, a lengthy questionnaire needed to be completed, with graded questions ranging from What is Infinitycity? to Why choose immortality?; second, if the grade was adequate, there were hefty fees and taxes to look forward to, payable up front. In Infinitycity there was no credit. Even so, the waiting list was infinite.

For investigating officers, these big ideas added up, like the best of old sums, to a long night’s work. Why? Because they were tasked with reading all the diaries for extreme elements which were then censored. The citizens of Infinitycity were neither one thing nor another. They were in between. They were cyclists and recyclists most likely working for Infinitycity’s biggest employers, the recycling companies. In the world of social repurposing and domestic reassignment, things never ran out and nor did the people.

But if citizens lived on, so did their crimes. Any ‘live’ crime that crept into a Retrospective Assembly needed to be investigated and deleted. Sure, Crime-Scan software was in the pipeline. The investigating officers would soon be cut out, recycled, their uniforms repurposed, their life data scrambled and sold as souvenirs to tourists. Meanwhile, the system was in transition, in flux. In short, the investigating officer knew she would be reading the diary of a drunk tourist. Like other diaries she had had to read, this one would most likely contain nothing extreme, just RA’s systemic cycling and recycling of predictable mixtures: self-cancelling stupidity or cleverness, half-regrets, dull sexual encounters, jokes that only the originator found funny, ambiguous achievements, confessions way past their sell-by date and, of course, terrible poetry.

But the investigating officer, whose wrinkles crossed and hatched and crossed again her archipelago of freckles, was wrong. For what she encountered in the RA of this apparently drowned young tourist’s life bucked the trend, stood out of the crowd like the old worlders who still called the Museum of Acquiescence the Resistance Museum. The RA was, in the jargon of anyone familiar with jargon, non-standard. If publicised, questions would be raised about the credibility of the system, its validity. Citizens would be stirred up. The crime rate would soar. People would return to their old ways, wanting everything now, using it, wasting it, fucking things up, dropping dead, instead of living forever, instead of.


Dawn came first on K-straat in the City of Early Risers on the western arc of Infinitycity. It remained suspended there for two hours. On N-straat, the main street of the City of Self-Cleansing, it rained hard at ten-minute intervals. The officer’s coded uniform allowed passage from one token zone to the next. Of course there was a glimmering of a black market in zone tokens but it was petty stuff compared to a non-standard RA. The investigating officer crossed into the City of Lux. The bar near L-plein had the brightest sunshine between 3am and 5am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Of course it didn’t always work. Microclimates glitched more often than computers. There were rumours of gaps in Infinitycity’s climate zones, bubbles of emptiness between cellular worlds that were visible when climatic conditions were right, when the humidity was up and the temperature down or vice versa or whenever cumulo-nimbus clouds gathered. These were only rumours but the first sunshine theft had occurred only weeks before, suggesting there was more to the rumours.

She ordered a saline drip which she attached to her arm. Then she sat in the blinking sun and tried to read between the lines. As it turned out, she actually tried to read between the line, for there was only one, shocking, alone as his body, that represented the dead man’s life, the sum total of his existence:
I am the drowned sailor.

The Retrospective Assembly consisted of five words, a fraction of a kilobyte, five words like survivors clinging to the safety of a remote sentence in the middle of infinity. The investigating officer ran through the possible meanings of this solitary line. Each deepened her anxiety. The line read like a confession, which might have been in keeping with a diary, only it seemed to be an answer to a question that hadn’t been asked, like an old world criminal under interrogation who denied something he hadn’t been accused of. It also had the implication of having been written post-mortem, a voice from beyond, the brain still talking after the heart had stopped. Then it seemed to refer to other drowned sailors, by virtue of the definite article. The sailor: the one who had been sought, whose body had been lost at sea, perhaps found, never identified, now risen, water dripping from its fingers.

Then her mind turned to psychics, to the help they had given the department in the old days. For years the city had encouraged psychic development in its citizens to foster an understanding of things greater than themselves, to help them optimise the city’s future. They tended to live in the City of Foresight, an encircling development scattered around the outer ring to concentrate occult energies. But the City of Foresight had been an expensive failure: too much foresight made the citizens of Infinitycity anxious. They became terminally indecisive or else they tried to meddle in other people’s lives because they thought they knew better. So the city, using microwaves, eradicated psychic ability within a few months. They also eradicated artistic tendencies which, most taxpayers agreed, had been an unnecessary burden on the city economy.

One psychic had been a rotund man who lived near the outer ring. He talked too fast and often had unforeseeable accidents. But he had an ear for sea shanties, a nose for the truth and an eye for tarot. When he looked out of his window, he saw the future like a cityscape, complete with landmarks. When he had looked at her he had noticed the lines and freckles of her face and he had read them like a tourist would read a city map. He’d asked her to pull a card from his deck of tarot cards. She pulled the Drowned Phoenician Sailor. He had explained the meaning of the card, replaced in later tarot by the Hanged Man. Both cards pointed not to death but to suspension, to suspended animation, inversion, a place or a space between worlds. He’d told her how Odin inverted himself upon the tree of life to intuit the runes. A corpse hoisted out of a canal. Upside down. Water running off its fingers into the L-gracht. Black water without depth.

What did this mean? The single line invited interpretation, provoked reaction, the last thing a Retrospective Assembly was meant to do. RA was about closure. It represented the end of the city’s contract with its citizens in the guise of immortality. It was a myth in which a truth and a lie cohabited. Anything too specific, too extreme, would expose it. A crime was already too specific. But a resurrected sailor was clearly an urban menace.

The investigating officer put her head back to catch the last six minutes of sunshine but she was interrupted by a data alert from the department. It requested her to ‘prioritise the rectification of the incident’. People were already nervous. Delicately engineered eco-systems did not support ‘incidents’ just like they did not support free thinking. Waste is not an option, as agents from the City of Enforcement, a series of brutalist concrete bunkers spread throughout Infinitycity, used to say. New data followed. It seemed the man’s trousers had been found by a traffic light near the brewery. It seemed a credit card found in one of the pockets was in the name of ‘Selkirk’. It should have been easy to fix the identity of the deceased. But the card was an antique from a pre-biochip banking age. ‘Selkirks’ had been traced but none had claimed genetic connection to the deceased. So it seemed that ‘Selkirk’ was not Selkirk. He was not missing. Nor, by that logic, was the dead man even dead. He was the drowned sailor, whatever that meant.

As for the remainder of his clothes, his T-shirt (iTM) was found with one of his shoes; the other shoe was found close to the canal in which he drowned. Separation of clothes and body suggested a murderer’s attempt to hide a crime. But it seemed that ‘Selkirk’ himself was responsible for his clothes. These had been linked to the deceased by a variety of tracking devices which revealed chronological segments of what must have been ‘Selkirk’s’ last minutes.

He was shown emerging from the coffee house on the corner of V-straat and J-straat in the City of Heavens. The streets looked down over the former port, now dry and undergoing reassignment. Why had he come here? A closer shot showed that he was possibly laughing or grinning or grimacing, teeth bared, face blurred. Then he removed his trousers. The manner in which he did so seemed strange. He had torn them off, pulled, yanked them, expending far more energy than necessary and thus in clear violation of city waste regulations. He was also emoting without due cause, another waste violation. It seemed that one of his shoes remained on, while the other was cast aside with the T-shirt. Tracking cameras later recorded the other shoe and the T-shirt heading north in the possession of a cyclist who would obviously recycle them.

The sun switched to the south. The investigating officer acknowledged the data alert, then headed for the darkness of the City of Heavens. There was work to do. There was an ‘incident’ to rectify.


The corner of V-straat and J-straat was at the highest point of the City of Heavens, some 250 metres above the old sea level. It was also its semi-derelict heart. Here light had been banned and clouds diverted to create a permanent pristine night in which the bowl of the heavens was always visible overhead. It was a way of preserving the pure night, free from light pollution, for future generations. The area was popular with service workers, who lived virtually rent-free in cellular life-units that they could pack up and take with them to their next job. It was also a hit with astronomers, who sat on rooftops wincing into their telescopes, and with redundant sailors, who went downstairs to the coffee house to recount navigational fantasies or to complain about the emergent City of Recycled Sea, which was to replace the port. At ground level, the City of Heavens welcomed nobody.

Steps leading to the basement coffee house stank of ancient urine. The investigating officer knew that the owner encouraged this smell to deter undesirables such as foreign tourists. Windows, bricked up in accordance with regulations, revealed nothing. No light was allowed to leak. Light inspectors enforced the darkness with heavy fines. A vitamin complex was added to the water supply to counteract the absence of daylight. Of course, people could live in another of Infinitycity’s cities if they accumulated the zone tokens. But regeneration was promised and the tax breaks for staying put were considerable.

The officer pushed open the steel door, a former city authority’s attempt to seal a condemned property. A dozen figures, regulars, were clumped together in the central fluoro-booth like a suicide pact. They were the once oily now flaking men and women of the old world, the dregs of Infinitycity who refused to die and refused to live. Their bones were brittle from night, their eyesight enfeebled. In Infinitycity everyone was equal except them. They sipped fruit-flavoured soda through straws immersed in a communal bucket. Their genetic predisposition to alcoholism had been removed in a city-wide health initiative. It had been replaced with an addiction to artificially sweetened soft drinks. As the officer approached, their backs turned, and their lips closed over straws. Their hostility towards investigating officers had not been modified. It was calculated to be more cost-effective to restrict the supply of soft drinks solely to the City of Heavens, microchip all the dregs, then wait for them to die of natural causes.

But the investigating officer was of the old world too. Her face said so. Its complexity was old world complexity. She remembered things from before, like people with artistic tendencies, like psychics who saw beyond the city limits, like sailors who could describe the belly of a whale, like alcoholics who broke each other’s hearts and committed suicide. Why had ‘Selkirk’ come here? Clearly because he thought he was coming home, returning from a voyage, bringing a piece of a foreign land, a souvenir, something not of Infinitycity, like a foreign object, like a message, five words for his comrades, sitting in a morbid clump, treading water in an infinity pool, neither dead nor alive.

The investigating officer did not like herself for what she did next. Her experience told her it was necessary, her experience, like a thing she carried with her, a piece of baggage that grew in weight with each passing moment, that had shaped her face, routed its lines, effaced its ignorance in a slow curve tending towards absolute wisdom. But of course experience was being phased out as an inefficient method of data acquisition. Mindless idealism offered immediate solutions, was more eco-friendly and completely bio-degradable. She knew her experience was just enough to make things happen her way, exactly the way Infinitycity wanted.

By the time she had finished thinking these things, one of the dregs was clutching his right buttock where a needle had punctured his skin. The other dregs had scattered into the perma-night. He stank of rancid fruit piss and, beyond that, was a background odour of water, sea water, canal water. At times like this she felt the whole city teeter on its non-existent edge. The dreg cried, told mummy he loved her, sucked his thumb, promised he would never lie again: the typical sequence of symptoms associated with the amniotic serum. Then she held his head in her arms, reminded him in soft maternal tones that silence was not an option. She asked him several questions about ‘Selkirk’ and he began to babble, dribble, his words staggering at her out of the dark, tripping over themselves as if drunk. Then by turns he was sentimental, tragic, infantile, self-pitying, finally self-important, a witless child-king passing on secrets in some forgotten oral tradition, recycling an ancient story, ‘Selkirk’s’ story, as if his own. When the infant-dreg finished, his finger reached out to touch the investigating officer’s nipple but she put his straw back in his mouth.

What had she heard? In the darkness the lines of her face were unclear. Was she laughing? Scared? It seemed the darkness was overpowering her. She felt herself choking. Or was she grinning? She looked around. She emerged from the coffee house. Or was she seen emerging on a tracking device?


She wasn’t sure how she had got to the edge only that she had travelled to get there, crossed bridges, turned corners, chosen routes along canals that she knew by smell. Smell? Hadn’t she been brought here, to the edge, as a child? Hadn’t she been taught the smell of each canal? ‘Selkirk’ hadn’t known how he’d got there either. It seemed that one perma-night ‘Selkirk’ had simply appeared, a young adventurer with a long past, a stranger yet familiar, a blood relative who resembled no one. They recognised on him, on his clothes, the smell of the sea. Then they recognised the story he told, its type, with the teller’s expansive hand-gestures depicting fish bigger than imagination, with the teller’s eyes sometimes focussed on a point so distant as to prove its nautical truth: only sailors saw to the edge. They even recognised the details of his story, which were reordered, repositioned within the story or emphasised or understated like so many narrative spare parts stuck together for effect, for a new purpose, recycled for reuse, for the re-entertainment of people once entertained by the very same story, the very same details, only in a different order, with a new perspective, recycled for reuse, like so many narrative spare parts, reordered and so on, reused and so on, and on and on. And at last the investigating officer began to realise that the dreg had spoken ‘Selkirk’s’ Retrospective Assembly. He had told ‘Selkirk’s’ story in ‘Selkirk’s’ words which meant that ‘Selkirk’ himself had made up his own RA, as if out of his own head, as if out of the blue, as if imagined.

‘Selkirk’ had reached the edge by imagining himself there. He had imagined crossing the canals and bridges and ringroads and junctions and, more than that, he had imagined himself crossing non-existent bridges and junctions and canals, the conceptual ones, the proposed ones, the planned ones, the desired ones, the ones that could be or would be but had yet to be. ‘Selkirk’ was not marooned. He had marooned himself, on a remote island, an island remote not from land but from common knowledge. He had imagined a place for himself, then imagined himself in that place, his perfect place, his envisaged city, and the investigating officer knew that this was the place she wanted to be, in her own imagined city. They were going to phase her out, to recycle her. But here she was, at the edge of the city, beyond the outer ring, defying them. She had retraced the drowned sailor and, like him, she had ready-reckoned the stars and second-guessed the constellations. She had crossed the cities within cities. It took her years or it took her ten seconds, the time of her future Retrospective Assembly. That’s how the drowned sailor had slipped from sight between microclimates, between cycles of recycling, by imagining himself drowned, marooned, in an imagined place, an island of his own making. He had cast off his clothes and here she was, at the edge, doing the same, as naked as a drowned sailor, her uniform scattered across conceptual junctions and imagined bridges.

Her face was a map of the infinitely freckled islands, islands that stretched to the edgeless edge of an infinity pool, to the horizon beyond the horizon. The city was a sealed bubble of connectivity in which clouds stood still, time fluttered, a sun shone, lives flashed over and over and over. She wondered what words she would write for herself, what her 0.5Mb file would contain. But she was certain they would never recycle her.

Then she gently placed her face in the black water of L-gracht. Inverted, she saw beneath the surface for the first time. Discredited emotions coursed through her. She was neither leaving nor staying. She would imagine her own place, in her own way. The trick was simply to imagine, and Infinitycity would glitch forever.