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paul hassing
the mars tiles

While sitting on the toilet of my rented worker's cottage last Saturday night, I suddenly became aware of something that had been staring up at me for months. My floor tiles are not rectangles of slate. They are in fact textured photographic plates of the surface of Mars, coated with a protective epoxy resin. Although I find it more exciting to have images of Mars on my floor than common slate, I can't imagine that the arrangement is permanent. Further, I strongly feel that my new awareness has placed me in danger.
It was late and I was drunk. Seeking to prevent the toilet from spinning, I was rocking and trying to focus. My gaze eventually fell to the floor, where my disinhibition allowed me to penetrate the tiles' disguise. Heedless of time, I stared in wonder at spectacular canyons, towering cliffs, dry ocean beds, glacial fjords and massive craters. The detail was incredible - far superior to anything that's been shown on television. The planet's surface looked like a raw, early Earth. But that comparison falls way short of the truth. Mars is so much more rugged and... epic. It's maddening; the words don't exist to describe what I saw. How can they, until we've been there to invent them?
At first my discovery seemed like an accident. Then I recalled a prelude. I remembered my surprise upon viewing the cottage for the first time. It had just been renovated and I'd been impressed by the ancient, beautifully polished bedroom floorboards and the sheer indulgence of slate throughout the rest of the house. I remembered thinking, 'who lays slate in their lounge, kitchen, bathroom and toilet? Especially in a rental property.'
Then there was my criticism of the renovations after I had moved in. They had looked fantastic during the agent's tour, but fell apart under closer scrutiny. Doors had been taken off and re-hung awkwardly. Drips of paint and captive bristles marred surfaces. The floor boards were pitted and cracked and badly filled. Shabby work; except for the tiles. They had been immaculately laid. Compared to them, the rest of the renovations seemed desperately ham-handed, as if seeking to draw attention away from the perfect floor.
Finally, there was the time I dropped the anvil. I had picked it up at a garage sale, since it looked like the one in The Road Runner Show. Well, while hefting it though the house, I tripped. Fifty kilograms of hardened steel plummeted pointy-end first into the lounge room floor. I should say onto the lounge room floor, because the anvil not only failed to shatter the tiles, it didn't even dent their clear coating. It actually bounced twice before coming to rest on its side.
That my tiles are textured photographic plates of Mars makes sense of the foregoing phenomena. They have been hidden in my home. By the Americans. In a place the rest of the world will never think to look. Until it's safe to retrieve them.
Shortly after my discovery, I began to feel frightened.
I knew that the tiles had been laid immediately prior my tenancy. Had I been chosen to be their unwitting guardian? I thought back to my initial tour - the agent a petite and vivacious redhead, just my type. I had talked to her only briefly when she led me away from the meandering competition. In a low voice, she told me that she liked me and would put three ticks on my form. I later learned that I had beaten fifteen other applicants, even though I was unemployed. Had she selected me because I was stupid and the least likely to notice the plates? Or had she seen me as the one who, on recognising them, would best understand the importance of keeping the secret? When I summoned the courage to ring her this week, I was told she had been transferred to another agency. They wouldn't say where. Since then, I have received written notice of an inspection which wasn't due for another five months. They're coming tomorrow. I am afraid.
Yesterday I came home to find one of my rubbish bins smashed. The old security door I had propped up against my disused rear laneway entrance had fallen over. Yet the weather had been calm. I suspected a burglar, but found nothing missing.
It's now Friday night. Almost a week since my discovery. I've spent the last hour taking Polaroids of the tiles. None have come out properly, though all the lights are on. Only the shots taken near the edges of the floor bear any resemblance to their subject. The walls appear crystal clear, but there is only blackness where the tiles should be. I tried to chip a piece off one of them after I ran out of film, and nearly brained myself with my old mechanic's hammer. It bounced back at my face with more force than I had put into the blow. My telephone has rung three times. Each time I've picked it up, there has been silence. I put my answering machine on an hour ago and there hasn't been a call since. 'Skat', my cat, refuses to come inside.
I'm writing this because I feel too foolish to contact the police. Reading over the lines, I feel better, since it all sounds like crap. Dave, my best friend - my only friend - is coming over. We'll get pissed and I'll read him this and he'll laugh himself silly. The night is very quiet. A van has pulled up outside. I can see it through the gap in my curtains. It's a battered white Mitsubishi. Nothing threatening about that.
Ah, Dave's here. I can hear him running up my stone stairs. I've got to go.


They say I look good for thirty-five. I'm only thirty-one. Still, I know I've been here a while. I have scars on both arms from injections. I'm fatter now, too.
Dave came to see me today. He's still my best mate. I couldn't help myself - I had to ask him again what happened, even though it meant loss of privileges. They had him out of the booth before I'd even finished my sentence.
Poor Dave. He only ever gave away that one morsel when he first saw me here. He was very rattled and I was together enough to exploit that. I've never hurt a living creature in my life. If there's only one thing I know for sure, I never did anything to Skat. I saw the look in Dave's eyes though. He believes them. Whatever they told him. The Americans. So why does he keep coming to visit?
Maybe he feels guilty, about living in my old house. Apparently it's all open plan now. The owner gutted it after the fire, and to remove the bad vibes from Skat's guts I suppose. The floor's been carpeted. Whacko; it'll be warmer in Winter.
They let me read New Scientist in here, with the staples removed. The other month they ran a Mars special. I leafed through it until Mills snatched it from me to make hats. I didn't bother chasing him. I'd seen the pictures before.
I look forward to bath time. They let us lie for as long as we want. Until the water gets cold if we like. I enjoy floating and staring at the ceiling. Just the other day, I noticed patterns in the flaking paint above me. I thought I saw a huge blueprint. It covered the whole room. I have a theory, but the ceiling is too high for me to test it. I'm going to have to wait until one of the paint flakes falls off. This will be difficult, since I only have a bath every third day. So I've decided to map every flake. I'm going to start soon. That way, I'll be able to see if any are missing each time I come here. If I wait long enough and no paint flakes fall, I'll know that they're not really paint flakes. Then I'll find a way, somehow, to get up to that ceiling and find out what's really going on in this joint.

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