I’m ready. I have a digital SLR camera with a pair of backup memory cards slung around my neck, a spiral bound steno pad in my right cargo pant pocket with four ballpoint pens, another steno pad and a fresh set of pencil crayons in my left pocket, a digital audio recorder in hand, and a backup mini-cassette recorder in a belt pouch. My messenger bag contains assorted charged batteries, three colors of modeling clay in cans, a first aid kit, bottled water, energy bars, a watercolor set and brushes, and a recorder flute.
The convoy of vans and ambulances comes to a halt on the playa, a dream-landscape of utterly flat dry earth, and the ten of us tumble out into the dust cloud kicked up by the tires. What with one delay and another, we started late, and now the sun is setting. I can see about a dozen people walking in the red and purple haze. The Sparkers.
We spread out, following procedure from the Spark Dossier: document everything, even subjective impressions. Cameras click and whir, recorders run, pens scratch on pads.
A wild-haired, shirtless man, his face covered with what look like fingernail scratches, comes at me out of the dust cloud, spitting, “…benzene, tyrosine, carbon-carbon bond…” I’m caught by surprise, and he shoves me to the ground, my camera banging my chin.
I go limp. Postliminal Sparkers are rarely violent, but rarely doesn’t mean never. However, he just yanks the steno pad and the pencil crayons out of my pocket and turns away, tearing the package open and scrawling something on the pages. I get up and cautiously look over his shoulder as he furiously draws an organic chemistry diagram. I snap a few high-resolution pics, just in case he tears it to pieces or otherwise destroys it. When he seems to have stopped drawing, I move on to the next person.
A woman walks toward me, head thrown back, stripped down to her bra and panties, one breast hanging out. She’s talking, rambling: “…a stream in the woods once, cold, clear water ran through it, fast and strong, silent. I put my hand beneath the water, I can feel the current pressing on my hand, strong and direct and constant, a resonance beneath human hearing….” I hold the recorder near her mouth, getting as much of it as possible, and follow her across the playa. After a few minutes, the woman abruptly stops talking and looks around, confused, then embarrassed as she fixes her bra. I click off the recorder, hand her an energy bar and a bottle of water and move on.
Three Sparker men stand in a triangle, saying something like an abstract play or religious liturgy, in a language I don’t recognize. A dozen recorders surrounded them, getting it all on video.
A frail old man weeps as he tries to push the playa earth into a vague shape, but it always crumbles. I offer him the modelling clay and he eagerly accepts, pounding the clay into something like a cubist violin. I take snaps as he works.
How to have a Spark party: Get together with about forty people in one place. Make sure there are no non-participants within two kilometres or so; non-Sparkers interfere with the experience. Along with everybody else, sublingually ingest 1.2 to 1.8 milligrams of spark, or metapsiloalkali, per body mass kilogram. Wait about eight hours. Have the recorders move in and begin dual operations: clean up and recording.
There is a perennial debate as to whether Spark overclocked human creativity or created a telepathic gestalt or put people in contact with some alien intelligence, but there was no denying the results. The first major Spark party gave the world an HIV vaccine. The second, a prediction of the Singapore tsunami, accurate to the second, though nobody believed it until afterwards. The third, a formula for a room-temperature superconductor. After that, there were Sparks all over the world. People came from all over to participate, or just to support and document.
I stop next to Trish and swap memory cards for the SLR. We’d worked together before, documenting the Saskatoon Spark. “Good Spark,” she comments, holding up a drying water-color of some kind of alien landscape.
“Yeah,” I say, watching the Sparkers. “You ever take it?”
“Once, at the Yeosemite Spark,” she says. “I had the right set and setting, but I just sat there, thinking, “˜Gosh, birds are pretty.’ How about you?”
I remember the square of lemony-flavored paper under my tongue, then sobbing my eyes out, feeling like a dead thing on a dead world in a dead universe. I just want to go back to basecamp and start uploading everything to public archives.
“Well?” says Trish.
I don’t answer.
Somebody shouts, “Medic! We need a medic!”
Two guys bearing medical kits, oxygen bottles and a portable defib unit sprint past us. Trish and I follow a moment later, dodging through the Sparkers.
A recorder crouches over a figure lying face down. The paramedics pounce and gently turn the young man over. I snap a shot of his bloodied face, just before he starts convulsing. They pin him down and start cutting a tracheotomy.
Trish pushes my camera down. “People don’t need to see this. This is just what they’d use to make it a controlled substance.”
I shrug out of her grip. “Document everything,” I answer, and keep shooting.
Peter Tupper is a journalist and writer in Vancouver, British Columbia.