Carlos Perona is a thirty-one year old Spaniard living in Luxembourg. He works in consultancy and has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behaviour. To date he has published a poem titled "Europe's Son" with the Society of Classical Poets, short stories titled "Enkidu" and "Oats and Ashes" with the Scarlet Leaf Review, as well as publishing on the Piccioletta Barca website.
The autumnal conspiracy had begun. Early loyalist pockets took stock in laminas of gold. These the wind shared widely like folded notes to carry the season’s news. The law of fall floated down, edict by edict, in precious leafy wine and coral. Days passed and ever the eve drew nearer. Small stone mausoleums noticed for the first time in a year webbed together by encircling black gates, stones punctuated by pumpkin and squash patches. Youngsters looked to the meeting of a phosphorescent aura with a red descending dusk. In the distance, quaint Victorian columns invited front porch conversation in what would soon be silent but for the invoking of treats and threatening tricks of the season’s splendor. It is the aegis of bubbling broths and bumped skin on vegetable, moles on witches and toads, life frothing out mutants to dance and dare at deathly winter.
Everyone was off work but me. I had been called in that night. At least parking was easy. “Ah, you got here quick. Good lad. Seems there’s been some shenanigans at the 100UG mark.” “100 Units of Congealment? Isn’t that the nightmare belt?” “That’s right.” While we waited for my ship to charge, the commander rehearsed a history lesson, per his wont.
About a century ago scientists determined the human psyche is a pollutant more prolific than industrial age furnaces, expelling fancies, ideas, visions as a subtle substance that congeals at remote heights. Subsequently, the mind draws down those ready-made images. That’s how we, as individuals, can visualize complex symbolic geographies, abstract thoughts, etc. “Our heuristics reify above us,” as the commander put it: “The earth is surrounded by a kind of invisible skin of imagination, the imagination field, dotted with pores, tiny vortices, each one caused by a human mind drawing it down.” And that’s where the nightmare belt comes in. That I already knew about, thanks to the City Ordinance Field Agent Manual:
“The human organism consists of no unitary consciousness, but generates the illusion of unity in order to index its multiple, often conflicting, impulses. Of the stratospheric thought-forms produced by human minds, the most prominent and consistent is its own idea about itself – its ego. The result is that, at a certain height, the imagination field is host to anthropomorphic forms, or Visions of Self (Self for short).
It has been determined that Self is overwhelmingly responsible for anti-social behavior at the individual level, and sectarian behavior at the group level (when many Self converge or form a pattern). Therefore, the government-engineered nightmare belt, a complex of images collected from the aversions of citizens, provides negative reinforcement, being placed below the height at which Self occurs. When we exercise the imagination such as to draw on too high a region of the imagination field, approaching Self, we encounter the nightmare belt, promoting our return to safer thoughts.”
My job is to patch up the nightmare belt when, for whatever reason – wear and tear, solar flares, some persistent dreamer – there’s a breach. The commander leaned in, “Listen, this isn’t run of the mill. That’s why I called you. You’ve been around long enough to suspect. We need you to do things right, not just by the letter, but right.” He held my arm for the moment it took his unutterable point to sink in.
I knew what he meant. The Manual teaches us that “a thought-form sufficiently congealed as to exhibit a clear pattern of consistent action…”
(which begins to be the case just above the cruising altitude of a long-distance carrier)
“…will seem to be engaging in conscious behavior when hijacked by the electrical impulses of stratospheric radiation. This illusory impression occurs because the vessel receiving these impulses is internally coherent such that, when made to move, it will follow a few clearly structured arrangements. The principle is exactly that of a leg appearing to kick when its reflexes are checked by a doctor tapping the soft of the knee.”
However, even just a few years on the job had left the distinct impression that what the Manual defined as “thought-forms” were not merely innocuously dangerous, unintentionally threatening. This was especially true for the highest forms we interacted with, albeit rarely. The Self. Most folks on the job for long enough had seen Self act in ways they couldn’t explain. The commander’s point was just that I shouldn’t assume predictability. Be careful.
As I fired up the engines, I considered how my only source of loyalty to the job – my commander – had just severed itself. Sure, I didn’t fully believe official explanations, but he at least pretended to, and this allowed me a kind of vicarious belief. Gone. Maybe, if I graduated to a command position myself, I would again have faith-by-proxy through some young recruit. But this thought made me slightly sick. It didn’t feel right. I imagined being tied to my commander, tying cadets to me, like nerves in the city’s body.
The idea occupied my mind while I made the ascent. The horizon was immense. I suppose it’s always the same size, but it seems to grow up there. If you let the ship gain altitude and don’t think too much about it, it looks as though it’s the ground below that’s falling fast. Then, I reached the breach. The nightmare belt itself is like a false bottom in a box hiding a secret compartment, but it gives the illusion of depth. You can get right up close to it and it still resembles empty space. People need to feel as though there is a vast sky above them to stop from getting claustrophobic, even in dreams. Yet it was once the citizenry’s fears had been gathered and woven together by government engineers that this image of an infinite chasm overhead was produced. Seems on some level we fear not having space to expand, even if we never plan to venture into it, but we also fear the expansion, indeed, the sum of our fears is an infinite abyss. It’s a sort of double gambit: don’t worry, you have room, and worry, there’s too much room, shrink back to safety. Because emptiness is never really empty. We fill it with monsters. It’s a seething infinity, a hungry omnipotence, irresistibly extracting us into itself, pouring our every intimate interior into its own, unbounded. Infinite space is a threat. The more we look at it the more it shows us the fragility of our finite self, a self made of scraps. A god-as-entropy whose judgement lays bare our incoherence, our guilt and inadequacy, our heap of inner contradictions, whose immensity justifies our undoing. Indeed, were we ever anything other? A momentary flash of clashing impulses in the eternal history of nothing?
It was not a dissimilar feeling from that which I had experienced just a few moments ago, many leagues beneath, on account of my commander’s revelation. I realized now that his words had caused me a physical sensation. Vertigo. I was untethered from the official story. Not just the government’s official story, but my official story. Not what I believed deep-down. Who know what any of us believe deep-down. Is there even anything down there? But my official belief – the thoughts I routinely came back to – couldn’t justify itself anymore. The faith and function that had hitherto guided were unstuck. That same vertigo now loomed at me in the nightmare belt. And yet this was not new. I now knew I had been here in dreams. Like everyone else down there, I must have come right up to this edge, felt this vertigo, retreated back to the official story. Retreated, even in dreams.
But I was awake this time. This time the illusion was broken. I did not need the ship’s sensors to tell me I was at the belt, for I could see a gap in it. A shinning, beatific break in the sky. The ripped veil of abyss. And instead of incomprehensible nothingness, something more terrifying gazed into me from beyond, something more impossible: my own face.
That portion of sky, of broken nightmare, was mine. The energy of those higher altitudes congealed into me. I saw it. But I felt that it had always been up there, waiting to reveal my image. Maybe it had always been in me, deep-down. Waiting to take shape, to make a body for itself, only needing a small opening, a crack in my fear.
An hour later I was crawling out from the crashed ship. Bloody, ashen. “Ah, good lad!” It was the commander. I was on a hospital bed, “Are you alright? Well, they’ll take good care of you...tell me: did you handle things?” I didn’t answer. Turning from hanging pouches and beeping screens with biometric readings to the window, I thought I could see the luminescence of that which had faced me. Faint, impending.
It had attacked the ship, and yet, and yet…it looked kindly. That’s not entirely true. First, I saw it looking kindly down at me, then it attacked. Again, not quite true. First, I asked it to, then it attacked. It was beautiful. Too much to lock us away from. I decided I would not cauterize the breach, but I knew I would need an excuse as to why I had foregone the mission. I asked for its help with a thought, a petition.
I now searched for fear. I scanned for a trace of the old vertigo. I knew that faith in the Manual was impossible, that the nightmare belt that protected the city was broken, but I wasn’t afraid. I was peaceful. Maybe, like me, the city didn’t need to be afraid to survive.
They were coming. The multitude Self. They would push the nightmare belt down to reach us from beyond its barrier. Halloween was something else that year.
I was injured, feverish, probably still on morphine, but after being discharged from the hospital I saw it clear as day. A horrible carnival, the very forms of the nightmare belt. The inchoate impulses it shows us to show us our incoherence, to show us we lack a self. Desperate vile things we hold to, to feel stable. The many ways we fail our will, the many ways we contradict our conscience. Sinewy ropes, hostile linkages of nervous ligament holding society together, each node both victim and aggressor fashioning the connective tissue of a vast organic malice. The very reified appearance of the citizens’ selfish desire for each other, relationships of resentment and compulsion that held them together, always rigidly and at a distance. A bond to separate. This was the nightmare belt! Our mutilation, our hunger for each other, resentment against each other. The connections would always become tense and brittle and snap back, their severed backlash bodying forth a gremlin-like appearance. New creatures, a host of playful, poetic punishers falling back upon their progenitors, the citizens, bloodlessly ripping the heads off the heartless, the legs off the cowardly. Here the ludic eschaton! Totemic presences! That Halloween was something else, alright.
The city had fallen, a city caked in fear. To them who saw it off, a vision of Self.