Robin Wyatt Dunn lives in a state of desperation engineered by late capitalism, within which his mind is a mere subset of a much larger hallucination wherein men are machines, machines are men, and the world and everything in it are mere dreams whose eddies and currents poets can channel briefly but cannot control. Perhaps it goes without saying that he lives in Los Angeles.
In the sleepy little town that is yourself, will you find regency for the thing you bear in your chest? Will you elect it king, in the sleepy little town that is yourself, that is you dreaming?
Come with me, and let us find a way to do so. For these avenues and these terraces demand your name, they demand your face, crying, crying in the night for you, you their quarry, for all kings are quarries, all kings are the property of their people.
And the people maintain their properties, as they maintain their houses, as they maintain their wives, as they maintain that it is a pretty face on a pretty door we see inside the town that sleeps, that is our own.
“Come out of the rain, Jack!” shouted Maximillian, with his eyes straining against the wind and the water.
And Jack made a sound with his mouth into the rain, louder than the rain, louder than the dawn of that morning, which had been very loud.
The sound Jack made was music, like music from inside a stone, the music that gravity makes, slipping out of its well, curling around the feet of the lucky, around the feet of the estuaries and the curling reefs of madness and wars that accrete around our sleepy little town, in the bosom of the bay, in the nexus of the state, in the heart of our history, damaged but still fine, a horrendous love affair, buried in our heart, Jack screams, he screams a music we have never heard, although we might give it words, for we are reading them--
I am no musician and so I must give it shape with these poor words, the sound Jack made was:
I am a small town and this is my history and I would have you know it for I am a small town and small towns demand that their history be known, inside the night we are our own but my small town is riven in its soul, riven in its soul by a strange knight who came so long ago we have forgotten all his names but we remember what he did. He slew our reason with his mind, he took our brainy capsule of experience and mashed it with his great hand and threw the waste that was our beating brain into the dirt and told us true that now we knew our soul (though it was riven) now we knew our melody, our melody that summons and surmises false and fatal worlds, fragrant fecund dreams of women and the moon, fasting monks and curling pews with serpent women in their wiggy whirls of doom and grace, and so we threw the sun into our eye! Such was the madness and the power of the knight that we threw the sun into our eye! We blew a storm onto our step and left it there, fermenting, torturing our souls!
Such was the sound Jack made, hurtling his music from his mouth, greater than the wind.
“Come in Jack!” cried Maximillian. And, after a time, Jack did.
* * *
I have come only recently, you understand. The words I use to speak of our town are not the right ones; the right ones cannot be used. The ones I use are imperfect. They do not mention anything other than what they are: they are only the roughest suggestions.
I encountered the knight soon after my arrival, when he was sitting in a chair outside the Moonraker Inn, an empty hotel.
“Traveler, ho,” he mumbled and I tipped my hat to him.
He gestured for me to join him, to sit in the chair near him and I did so, to be neighborly, to see if his face was really as scary as it looked from a distance.
It did look that scary but of course many more things as well; it was like a large orange moon, portending horrifying changes.
“I call you Traveler; but is that what you are?” he asked me.
“Well, my name is Robert,” I said, “and it’s true I’ve done my share of traveling. You look like a traveling man yourself.”
“I am a knight,” he said, “as you can see by my armor. What traveling I have done was most often necessary, though I’ve gone on quests. Quests are never necessary, you understand. They are something we do. They are something we think. Are you a thinking man?”
“Then listen to what I have to tell you. I wend. That is, in my movements through this world, I curve. You’re familiar with the term, wend?”
I admitted I had heard it.
“I cannot choose to do otherwise but wend, but I mention it because lately I have begun to understand that wending is not all I do; there is a grace behind my horrible actions. I fear I may, through the expiations I force upon my victims, be an agent of forgiveness and rebirth.”
I started to stand up then but the knight seized my arm, and I sat back down, not looking at him, but at the dimming sky.
“You look a traveling man and that is why I tell you this my fear, that my cruelties have been in the service of greater things, and I had thought that they were only my cruelties, part of my nature, but now I fear they are something more.”
“Is that so terrible?’ I asked. “That your evil deeds should have had some grace about them?”
“Yes,” he said, and his eyes blazed, and my heart quailed. The knight seemed a corpse but I knew he was alive; the fires in his eyes and in his chest gave off a palpable heat.
“I must go,” I said, and the knight mumbled, “yes, yes,” and I left him, sitting there, the old man, smoking his pipe.
* * *
I fear I cannot leave now; that the musics of this town, the musics that Jack expresses so many nights now, are inside my soul. I came for a retreat from the city. This town is not so many miles away, but in the feeling of its avenues and parks, it could be hundreds far, it is so silent in the nights here, except when it storms, and Jack sings. And in truth, if you listen to him long enough, that becomes a kind of silence too.
* * *
The community events here are good fun; we watch the government recordings of nuclear launches, grainy and incomplete but with marvelous soundtracks, some of them locally compiled, some carefully mastered by expert technicians in the capital. With each tipped warhead’s fiery thrust into the clouds, we cheer, watching the flickering screen, and toast each other’s health. It is the pleasure of small towns that good company seems as natural as water, and this town is no exception.
You should know too, of course, that the town’s recent history, before, during, and after our wars, plays a significant role in how we are now here. I cannot say whether the knight and his stories (both from his lips and Jack’s) are a product of these wartime experiences, or whether it is the other way around, that the knight and his journey here in the long ago time really did infect this town with some kind of madness that perhaps even brought about the wars, though of course this region, being a remote province, played only a minor part in our nation’s liberation, and the struggles that preceded it.
* * *
In the night sometimes I fear; sometimes I fear that the voice I hear crying in the night is not Jack’s. For Jack defends us, you see, like Scheherazade, his songs and their cruel mournful wisdom keep us here, I believe, like the snores of the red king. But if it is not the red king snoring, not Jack singing, not his tale, our tale, that he tells in his shrieks and moans into the winds and rains, if he is not our own personal Lear, like our own personal Jesus, written and loved and performed by our beautiful tortured souls, then who is he? Who can it be that I hear? For sometimes it does not sound like him at all, it sounds like the police. After me.
The helicopters from the capital still fly over of course; scanning our brains. We grow accustomed to them, and the electricity they fire into our heads, as you might grow accustomed to a strange room in your house that never seems to get any air, no matter how you ventilate it or how many windows you open; you avoid the room but have a certain respect for it in its obstinacy.
I know they are talking about me and that is okay. It is the nature of small towns for newcomers to be remarked upon at great length; their actions parsed and weighed, their character estimated and charted, their face examined and their voice perused like a strange animal, sighted in the forest with your rifle.
* * *
The red barn outside my window is terrible at night when it can no longer be seen; when it looms, an unseen hay-filled presence. A girl sleeps there, all alone.
Last night I heard her outside my window, speaking to her Barbie dolls.
“This one is good and this one is bad, so kiss her,” the little girl was whispering, “this one was bad and she is no good and so we throw her,” and the little girl threw the doll, right at my window.
“Stop that,” I said, looking out at her.
“Come out here,” she said, dolls handing from her hands. I did.
“Look at that,” she said, once I had joined her in the grass outside. She pointed at the barn.
I heard flashes. Like a photographer’s chorus. I saw them too. Fireflies?
“Look at that,” the girl whispered, and there was a sound from the barn, like an old chimney, howling, like a man speaking in the sky, far away, on a bad radio.
“Would you like some hot chocolate?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said, and I made her some and we drank it in my kitchen.
“Why do you sleep in the barn?” I asked her. She had an old blanket curled around her head, like she was a tiny babushka.
She didn’t answer my question, only sipped her cocoa, watching me. I decided the question had been rude, and tried a different tack.
“Were you born in town?”
She shook her head.
“Nor I,” I said. “Have you lived here long?”
She shook her head.
“You know the knight?”
She looked at me.
“The knight who sits outside the empty hotel?”
“Who is he?” I asked.
“He’s a bad man,” she said, and she smiled. It was a frighteningly adult smile.
I do not know exactly why I did what I did then, but I leaned across the table towards the girl, and snatched the blanket off her head.
“Give that back,” she said. But she looked at me like she knew why I had done it.
“Do you want marshmallows in your cocoa?”
“Yes,” she said, and I went to the cabinet where I had kept them. She took her blanket back then, and wrapped it back around her head, watching me. I brought her a handful of marshmallows. She dripped a few into her cup and put the remainder inside her mouth, which she then filled with cocoa, and began to chew like a cow on her mouthful of sugar.
“Your parents are dead?”
She only looked at me, chewing.
“Tell me about your dolls,” I said. She chewed and chewed but the question had made her eyes light up. When she finally swallowed, she took one out of her pocket and put it on the table. It was a very badly used doll. One limb was melted; and its face was pock-marked and discolored. It wore a tattered white dress.
“This is Lucy,” said the girl. “She likes me. She lives in a house by the river. Where her father lives. Her father is nice to her, but she hates him anyway. Because Lucy is bad. Like me.”
“You’re not bad,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “I am,” looking at me with her wide almost-black eyes.
“What does the knight do?” I asked, but she began to cry, and I took her in my arms. She slept in my bed that night, curled against me like a baby.
In the morning she was gone.
* * *
I suspect now that the knight knows he is doomed; that there is some final summation to his long timeline now fast approaching. Some nights now he approaches Jack during the singings and shoutings in the storms, and gestures wildly, as though he would interrupt the tale, but he seems powerless. Whatever tale was begun must go forward now; the knight is even more a prisoner than me. I merely fled the police; he is fleeing reality.
* * *
I looked across the town for the girl, asking about her. One woman told me she had seen her down by the vegetable gardens, and so I went there at once. And in fact I saw her, though she was moving away from the gardens up the path on the hill that overlooks the town, wearing the same dress I had always seen her in, bright blue.
I ran up the hill after her.
“You again,” she said.
“Me again,” I agreed. “How are your dolls?”
“They’re okay,” she said.
“Tell me about the other one,” I said, huffing a little to keep up with her.
“Not right now,” she said. “Later.”
“Okay. What’s your name?”
“Lucifer,” she said.
“That’s not your name.”
“Yes. It is!”
“Okay, Lucifer, did you bring a flashlight? It’s going to get dark.”
“I don’t need a flashlight!”
I shut up and just walked with her, up to the top of the hill. We looked down on the lights of the town as it grew dark.
The storm was starting up again, huge dark clouds curling slow over us, like angry brothers.
“I brought an umbrella,” I said. And she stood next to me, underneath it, as it began to thunder, and we stood under an oak tree, watching the sky.
“It’s all going to end,” she said.
“Not everything,” I said. “Not everything.”
“Yes, everything. Everything!” And she started to cry, and I held her hand, as we heard Jack cry from below us, his voice filling all the air:
“Low in the belly the town knows it’s been bad, it knows it’s been sorry, that it was okay before but not okay after because the town whispers its fear into the night with my mouth with my bravery, with my dissolution, with my tears and with my earth, with my flesh it makes the name known, of sin, of hurt, of tales that grow inside when we’ve done wrong, of the gravity of the smile of the knight who came rivening our soul, our world is gone but I remember where we were when the knight came riding in, holding his head in his hand, chanting the names of our gods, of war, and of mountains, I remember who we were then and I defy it! I defy it!”
The lightning came fast then, striking the tree, and the girl cried out.
“I’m Lucy,” she said, and she howled her crying tears and I was glad, glad that she was finally a girl again.
* * *
I know now that I was mad when I came. The girl is young enough that she can teach me what I will need to know. What I can teach her, I can hardly imagine. But she seems to tolerate my company, and I sorely need her. I know that much.
When I came I believed that the missiles were our own doing. But now, now I believe otherwise. I am not even sure that we launched them. Lucy and I are returning to the capital. Just as soon as I can find her new shoes.
The Sleepy Little Town that is Yourself
Of my adventures in the capital it is best for now to say nothing. My companion is safely ensconced in her studies there now, I trust, and that, at least, is something good to have come from our travails.
I have arrived in Greenlee and have taken up an apartment. Why, I cannot say. That is, I do not know.
Whatever the war did, or didn't do, (and I feel sure now there has been a war, though I doubt it involved nuclear exchange), I feel it also contributed to the mood of this place; sealed off, to a degree. Like my last posting.
I mean, where I was before.
I have problems with memory but they have been getting better. This record helps me too, to set things in my mind, how they occurred, and what I must now do.
* * *
It is beautiful here. It is aptly named, as Greenlee, for the hills above the village are so green they're almost Irish, and high enough they shield us from the ocean gales, ten miles distant.
I know the shore is still mined. But I can hear the sea; often that is enough.
There is a tunnel I discovered yesterday, halfway up to the highest hill, cut into the soil. Like a magician's den.
“What is that tunnel up there?” I asked Madame Traiteur, outside her shop on Main Street.
“There? I've no idea.” She glanced up at the hills.
“You've seen it?”
“Yes. Come in, have coffee with me.”
* * *
Dreams are terrible things, and so are tunnels. Perhaps they are related. In any case I have not gone inside. I suffer from claustrophobia and would likely collapse, trembling, before I made it more than a few feet inside.
* * *
The town is pretty enough, not as pretty as the hills above, but Greenlee is charming, with the quirky shops that you would expect, and the quirky people. One old man stares at me out of his bedroom window above the pharmacy every time I walk down the street. His eyes are haunted, but somehow kind. Rather like the town itself.
* * *
Madame Traiteur would tell me nothing of the tunnel and so I have enlisted one of the local boys as my investigator.
Boys are insatiably curious and little Jackson is the ideal candidate for this venture.
I have rigged him with an old miner's helmet, complete with candle and flint (which he knows how to strike), and attached a rope round his waist tied to an old pine outside the entrance.
“Are you ready?” I asked him.
He nodded, grinning, and I played the rope out slowly, as he walked within.
I must have fallen asleep, then, for I found myself lying against the tree and it was evening. The rope was slack.
I ran down into the village.
'The boy! Jackson! He's inside the tunnel!”
People looked at me curiously, but no one said a word.
I pounded on Madame Traiteur's door.
She stuck her face out, bathing cap over her coiffed skull.
“Are you aware of the hour?” she said.
“Madame, a boy. I sent him into the tunnel. A scientific expedition. He hasn't returned. Will you help?”
“Which boy?” she said.
“You'd better come inside.”
“No, Madame, the boy, he may be in danger. I suffer from nerves, I cannot follow where he has gone. Help me get someone's aide! Or perhaps you yourself . . .”
“Jackson will be fine,” she said. “Come inside.”
I did as she said.
* * *
“Why did you come here, Mr. Esori?”
“For the climate, Madame. It relaxes my nerves.”
“I’m a blunt woman, often enough. And so my question: are you wealthy, Mr. Esori?”
“I have a small inheritance. Very small. Likely it will be gone within the year. My occupation, such as it is, has been that of a travel writer, and an investigator of sorts.”
“No, nothing like that. In the capital I earned my daily bread for a while investigating claims for some of the well-to-do families there.”
“We know nothing of the capital here. But that tunnel is connected to it, you will find. It is why we avoid it.”
“The capital is almost two hundred miles away, Madame.”
“I know that. But distance isn't the same thing that it used to be. Why don't you go home, Mr. Esori? I'm sure you'll find Jackson will be all right in the morning.”
* * *
The boy avoids me now. The baleful stare of the old man above the pharmacy has grown colder.
I tried to ask the boy what had happened. He said nothing.
Even Madame Traiteur will say nothing more than the barest pleasantries to me these mornings, after I've had my croissant, and my tea.
I know I must go into the tunnel.
* * *
We are a broken people. This I have come to understand, over the last few years. The invasion, perhaps, is a likely explanation. But I do not believe there was one, the war, and the amnesia that followed, seems to me to have been an internecine conflict; a civil war. I feel that.
Our culture survives; but it is unlucky to speak of it.
I have tied the rope around myself. Onto the pine. I have taken a Xanax.
I have brought a bottle of whiskey to revive me from whatever I may find.
The tunnel is low, and I have to stoop as I enter.
* * *
It is a workshop.
* * *
There is a workman here; it is difficult to look at him, because of the arc gradients. And the phosphorous fires.
The noise is immense but somehow soothing; I see now how I could have fallen asleep. This lilt of music of iron, and fire . . .
My name means watcher, but I must be more than that now. I must take up arms.
Only a modest sidearm.
* * *
The workman has equipped me. Dear God.
* * *
I killed Madame Traiteur. The boy Jackson is with me. We are bound for the capital.
He holds my back atop our metal horse.
Why must I remember things?
I have seen the boy's ghost. More on that later.
* * *
The boy Jackson and I have entered an exurb of the capital, one I've not before visited, and I have taken up employment. Although I tried to find some schooling for Jackson, he insisted he wanted to help earn our daily bread, to finance the final leg of our journey. Like a coward I allowed him to; but I have been grateful for his silver.
Every mile closer to the capital by this route has steadily increasing tolls, and they are rising by the week. If we wait too long we will not be able to afford the journey and may have to hire a human smuggler. So perhaps Jackson is the wiser of us after all.
My own work is closer to the gumshoe variety than I would care to admit. I have been taking a lot of tram rides and snapping pictures of young ladies on certain gentlemen's arms. Depending on the young lady in question, the payment can be quite high.
As to the matter of banking, I secret our earnings beneath my bed, the same place I keep my sidearm. Jackson does not know how to work the lock I have bolted onto the floorboard and is smart enough to leave it alone in any case. Children are so trusting; it is why we love them. Perhaps I may even yet earn this faith he has in me.
The exurb's name, according to the old maps, is Jerusalem, but I know this is a fanciful name. The locals call it Appletown, and this name serves as well as any, and it's true there a number of fragrant apple trees at the municipal district's center, arrayed about a fountain.
Last night I was very ashamed; the inevitable consequence of photographing romantic trysts came about, and one of the “suitors” I had snapped decided to pursue me across the city, with the immodest assistance of his family's personal helicopter, and I was forced to crouch beneath a pile of cardboard boxes in an alley next to a steam grate to hide my heat signature. The steam smelled awful, even worse than the boxes.
Eventually I was able to extricate myself; even this close to the capital fuel prices are exorbitant, especially for privately owned aerial vehicles. It was close to dawn. In the cardboard I had found a kitten, and I have given it to Jackson.
You should have seen the look on his face; you'd have thought he was five years old again. There is enough milk on our block to feed the animal, and it has cheered the both of us up.
By unspoken agreement we have not named the feline; we've both grown rather superstitious. I suppose, like an observant Jew, we shall have to name the cat when it is one year old. Then may be it known openly!
* * *
I do not ask what work the boy manages to find for himself; trusting to his moral instincts, and his growing street sense. I have advised, him, however, to make no long-term arrangements. He knew this, of course. Every day I see that the boy is smarter than I am, and I regret having made him what he is.
But we are bound for the capital. For now that is enough.
* * *
My last assignment. The maiden in question is on a jaunt here in Appletown, being photographed with her new product line, manservants in tow. I received a tip that a foreign businessman, Mr. Chu, has been “courting” her, and that they were to meet at Joe's, a local club.
I am not a cultured man by most estimates and so cannot claim to have much to compare my experience of the music that evening to, but still, I say it was glorious.
The jazz (for it was jazz, I believe) stormed through the brain, more than a drug, more than a religious experience; a kind of nature. Like wind. Or the sea. An angry, tightly-controlled sea.
The red and orange lights made the inevitable chiaroscuro faces seem heavenly, arrayed about the club, and I snuck into one of the alcoves to adjust my camera.
I know I must seem tawdry to you; a fallen animal. But the truth is what we are all fallen now. At least I realize it.
The maiden, whose name was Adaline, curled against the hairy bulk of Mr. Chu. He claims he is half-android, but I could see this was an affectation; most of his upgrades are simply cleverly painted onto his face.
I snapped my photograph.
I remember something. Though I don’t want to. I was there, inside a room. A control room. Military? The gold walls and the diamond windows, and the regalia of the man who stood next to me, talking.
Who am I?
If I could erase my memory I would do it. It is so weak in any case; why does it exist? What purpose does it serve, other than as a means of torture?
There was a ship. It teased the general, for that is what he was, I remember that now. It hovered over the land, some miles distant, watching the general in his perch.
“Salvation,” he had said, watching it move up and down, in the air.
* * *
I am at the airport. Jackson is with me. I have had new papers made. And I bought us both suits. There aren’t many planes left now of the commercial variety. But some media event brought about this opportunity; the last of its kind, cheaper than a train ticket. A swift 100 mile jaunt. Waste of fuel, really, but it will escort us over the political problems below, which is why everyone is so eager to board.
I had to bargain away almost my own skin to get us our tickets.
“Magister, are there video streams on the plane?”
“Yes, son. Don’t plug in too many.”
I fear now that I may have made too many compromises, agreed too readily to too many bad deals. No doubt I have. Yet some faith sustains me, that I do right, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
* * *
The boy is beautiful but so am I; I have come to fear beauty, and all that it may mean. I know the war is starting again, and that I am likely its agent. What can I do? I must rescue the girl, of course. But perhaps even this is unnecessary; she may be better off remaining at university. She can protest, and her professors will keep her safe.
What, then, have I come to do? The skyline is beautiful, and crumbling. My fellow passengers are overjoyed, in this brief respite, up in the clouds.
My sidearm was undetected by any of the military scanners.
* * *
Ludicrous as it sounds, I know, to some, I believe now that it was an alien visitation that has made our world what it is now. Their influence has led to a great many of my own travails, and the suffering of my fellow men. But I find I cannot hate them. Whoever they may be. I know my gun is their technology; and that likely the blacksmith who made it was one of them.
But they are careful, like I am. Their intentions seem not domination, but education. I am learning.
I am learning to be more like myself. To be more like Jack who howled into the rain, screaming his heart out at the clouds to declare that he was right, and they wrong, that he was alive, and proud.
* * *
“Will you fight for me?” I ask Jackson.
* * *
I see I have forgotten to tell you about the boy’s ghost. It is nothing so remarkable, now that some time has passed. I saw it in alleyway, in a warehouse district of Appletown. He was teething, and I could see that he was in some pain. I raised my sidearm, and fired. He ran.
Chapter 5 The Capital
Maximillian had a saying, in our own old town: “Every fight is a good one, if you win.” Of course, Max was a boxer, and so had the pugilist’s enthusiasm for the winner. The truth is, of course, we all love winners. Despite whatever instincts we have to the contrary, the victor invites our inevitable praise.
I know that I have come to win. As all come to the capital.
And yet, it was not so on my last visit; but then, I was only visiting then. Now, I have come to stay.
I am terrified out of my mind. But I smile at the boy, and lead him off the plane.
Dancers greet us in the jetway, their lithe bodies swirling about us and we are laughing, helplessly, Jackson more than any of us passengers, delirious at the sight of such beauty, their bright raiment and love for us.
I hold his hand and we make our way to the baggage claim. We have checked no luggage; it is here I am to meet my contact.
* * *
Four hours later I stand under the eaves of the fort, out of the rain. The harbor guns fire soundlessly.
Over the sky I watch the bomber pirouette in its training exercise, and I wipe the rainwater from my moustache.
The gate opens and an old woman examines my ID, squinting into my face, and I tip her a cigarette, into her flax-spun pocket.
Inside the screens and keyboards are arranged carefully along the walls, and I bend over one to enter my logon information.
The force field at the other end of the alcove deactivates at my password and I pass through, as the old lady returns to her post, on the stool, lighting a cigarette.
These times try the soul, of course, but I suspect this is normal.
Perhaps that’s what souls are for; for trying.
We are an experiment.
I could not bear to visit Lucy right away and so came to the fort, as my contact had bid me. Jack is staying in a dormitory; he has enough money.
Is it just and moral to act, not knowing whom you serve? And is this any different from the tasks given to every man and woman?
The knight I encountered in the town where I met Lucy, in his hallucinations, believed himself master of his own fate, but I know better. For me, at least, in my obedience to these orders, orders I cannot even explain, I know that I will ultimately have more free will: I can decide, at the crucial instant, to thwart the will of my masters, and thus inflict more damage than I ever could have as an “independent.”
But all this is mere speculation. Something to keep my mind at ease. The fort is old and weathered; the rain is seeping through the wet stones.
I show my sidearm to the attendant in the lab, and he examines it with interest, test firing it against the target he has erected, smiling. He takes photographs and then returns it to me with a nod, and I return it to my pocket, simultaneously warmed and chilled by the feeling that it is coming home to me again. I’ve grown fond of it, and it of me.
I have been given more killing orders. Ones I intend to disobey.
* * *
I see now that part of the problem is this record itself. I had trusted that its soothing rhythms would be enough to disguise its essential dishonesty―not in the facts it relates but the manner of its relation―but now see that the holes are showing through.
It is not as though I can stop. But I can try to be more honest. The paradox of this attempt will be, I know, to introduce further gaps into this narrative―but that is how I experienced the events I am to relate. There is something else too: I know that this story is making my life happen. But let us not dwell on such matters.
How does one best disobey an order? By following it as closely as one is able, before swerving at the last minute. I checked my sidearm’s charge and descended into the basement of the fortress, via the elevator.
On emerging on the sub-seven level, the white laboratory regions dazed me for a moment, until I reached to my right and attached the goggles. Then I could make out the technician, at work on the Great Circuit on the table before her. A dozen years’ work or more.
My nation puts great faith in computing, something I have never entirely understood. Why compute when one can invent? But I know both are necessary.
I raised my sidearm to the technician’s head, and she ceased his work immediately, looking at me through her goggles.
“Don’t shoot,” she said.
I moved the gun a millimeter to the left and fired a charge over her skull, opening a black hole in the wall.
“Take off your goggles,” I said. She did as I said, squinting in the light. Her robot assistant remained motionless across the lab table; I knew he would have already signaled the police. As to whether his report would include my failure to murder the technician as ordered, I could not be certain.
“Shall I kill your slave?” I asked her, pointing at the robot. “It is reporting me.”
“Leave him, please. He is a good slave.”
I grinned at the metal beast, then strung the woman’s arm up behind her back and marched her back to the elevator.
The robot watched me with its sad, red eyes, as the doors closed. The woman tried to turn to look at my face but I held her firmly. We both watched the numbers as the lift ascended.
It was not long ago I discovered the artificial “enhancements” made to my body; I use the quotations because their effect is mainly to shorten my life span, with the side effect that I have heightened reflexes during times of intense stress. They are battle modifications.
A terrorist would merely use the woman as a human shield, but I am not that. Or if I am, I am a terrorist of the state-building variety. A freedom fighter, you might say, although I know the concept to be largely illusory. No, what I fight for is simply a change of masters, and I suspect it is always this way.
The gunplay was delirious and heady, and I watched from my third eye as my body tumbled and tumbled, killing the men with their guns in the foyer. The screams of the technician echoed inside my mind as I executed the guards, to end their intense pain. I knew that leaked video footage of my violence would soon make it onto government-sponsored media channels to justify martial law.
Violence is both a purifying and a corrupting act; it is a pharmakon in this way, poison and its cure. Like any drug, its efficacy fades with long use. I want to do as little killing as possible.
* * *
How long have I been on this planet? My memory is the truth; I believe this even now, but it is fading. My first memory is of the ship. And the woman.
But I can no longer remember her face.
I have made it into the tunnels and the old man is pushing me and the technician in a mine cart; I am half-asleep, some distant part of my awareness monitoring for movement and sound. I hold the technician; she curls tighter against my chest. If Jackson has succeeded, he will be in orbit by now. I pray that he has.
I am remembering. It hurts. I was a boy. I was in Jerusalem. Not Appletown. Jerusalem. Over those old stones. I am remembering. Memory is a city but it’s one I don’t want to visit.
Here I am. Alive.
I am going to visit Lucy. She will know what to do; I no longer do.
The tunnels lead beneath the university.
* * *
I hold the gun to the technician’s head; she is trembling.
“Don’t say a fuckin’ word,” I say, and I lead her up the steps, and wave goodbye to the old man, who waves in return.
The city is dark and the police helicopters are up overhead, but distant, like small moons.
The campus is quiet.
“Walk ahead of me,” I tell the woman, and give her a gentle push, and she starts walking, looking at me nervously over the shoulder, heading into the quadrangle, between the marble and the columns.
The tower leads up from the quadrangle, the dormitories, and I send her up the stairs and I follow.
The student guard is asleep at his post and we slip past him, into the halls.
I find her door, and knock.
The technician watches me with wide eyes, and I watch her back.
Lucy opens her door, her hair in curlers.
“David!” She reaches her arms out for a hug but catches herself when she sees the woman, and the glowing gun in my hand.
Her eyes turn dark, perhaps remembering what we went through before, before I got her into university.
She turns around and walks back inside her dorm room, and I gesture for the technician to go in. I follow, and close the door behind me.
“Can we stay here, Lucy?” I say.
“My roommate is gone so I guess you have to!” she says.
“This is . . . what’s your name?”
The technician clears her throat.
“Have a seat, Alice,” I say, “we might be here a while.”
* * *
I came to the capital to know, before. Before, I didn’t know, and then I came, with little Lucy, who’s now bigger Lucy, and when I came I knew then. I’ve wanted to forget it a lot since but I cannot. Not enough.
I will do it. I will bring my vengeance here; but it is a small thing, in the end. An appropriate gesture, for a passing season in the annals of Man. A little bomb to start a civilization; a Small Bang.
She was so strong. That’s why I picked her. So strong. Like a knife. An ocean.
“I have a friend. Jackson. He’s your age. He’s on one of the ships, in orbit, right now.”
“Why did you send him there?” Lucy asks me.
The technician, Alice, watches us, her hands curled around her knees.
“Because he’s going to launch their cannons right at us.”
“When?” Lucy asks.
“What do we do?”
The technician opens her mouth to speak, looks at the dorm room door. Closes her mouth. Looks out the window. The helicopters are getting closer.
“I’m sorry, Lucy,” I say. “I’m sorry for everything.”
“It’s not all bad,” she says. “I got to take some cool classes.”
“Did you paint?” I ask her.
“Yeah, I did,” she says.
She’s like a movie star, looking out the window, in the lights of the night, seeing this doom approaching.
“I’m sorry,” I say again and her face curls, but she doesn’t cry, she gets up to the sink and fills it with water, and sips it.
“I knew Lucy before,” I tell Alice. “When she was a little girl.”
“I’m still a little girl,” Lucy says.
“Tell me about the computer,” I say to Alice.
“Or you’ll kill me?” she says.
“Maybe,” I say.
“You’re not going to kill her, David?” says Lucy, coming to stand behind me.
I watch Alice’s face watching me, watching Lucy.
“I will if she doesn’t tell me everything she knows.” I look at her real hard, with my wide eyes, to make her believe it.
She trembles a little.
“I know it affects time,” she says. “But I didn’t know how much. I age more slowly, did you know that? When I’m near it. I don’t like to be away . . .”
“You’re never going to be near it again. Its calculations will go on, though. Right now, it’s calculating trajectories. Seeing if the old defense systems will be enough to blow the ship out of orbit. And who knows what else it’s doing. It’s going to be a good friend to this city. A real fucking spooky friend, that computer. But first we’ve got to win us a war. A real fast, dirty war, what do you say to that, huh?”
“What?” says Alice.
“I say, what do you say to a nice clean dirty war, just kill some of the bigwigs and turn this city over to the people, let them decide. What to do about our visitors. What to do about the future of this country.”
“You’re an insane person,” she says.
“So are you, honey. You helped build a computer that could aid one o the most evil dictators in history. It could lengthen his lifespan by 20, 30 years, who knows how long? But you know all that now. My question for you is, are you willing to stop it?”
She looks at me with wide eyes, the innocent.
“Okay,” she says.
Why did she agree? I don’t know. But it made a kind of sense. Build something up, and then tear it down; and she was a technician. Technicians follow orders.
The Middle Ages are coming to an end.
* * *
A fire glimmers in the sky outside Lucy’s window.
And with it, I am come awake. All that I have been and that all will be is seared atop my memory like scars torn into flesh, and this sky, and all it seems, fills me with horror and regret.
In the fire in the sky I can see coming I divine a message for us all; not the end but the truer beginning of all our purposes and methods, a philosophy suited to these times and, indeed, to my own habits.
For I have grown alone, and in my aloneness I have foresworn logic and reason for too long, preferring instead the ordinary and the pleasing, and the pleasing ordinary is madness.
Outside the window the fire in the sky is spreading; like a new sun.
“Look,” I say, and the women look, and the technician screams but Lucy only looks, her mouth open; it is why I love her. She can handle anything.
“We must go,” I say. “Back into the tunnels.”
The voices hover above in the sky; I can feel the heat in my cheeks and I curl my trenchcoat over the women as we descend the tower stairs and then the tunnel’s, into the dark.
“Why is the sky talking!” exclaims the technician.
“It’s revolution,” I tell her. “Those are aliens.”
“I knew they were there but I didn’t want to see them!”
“Shut your mouth and walk ahead of us. The old man won’t know we’ve returned for some minutes.”
I push her ahead, down the tunnel to the right; the candle I’ve given her casts crazy shadows.
Behind her I hold Lucy’s hand. I realize that I love her.
“How long was I away?” I ask her.
“How long has Jackson been in orbit?” she asks, her eyes careful and urgent.
“What was his altitude when he ejected?”
“Ten thousand kilometers.”
“He’ll be re-entering soon.”
“What will we do?”
“We’ll fight, Lucy.”
Up ahead the technician is trying to run; her footsteps echo hugely and I run after her, Lucy behind me.
“You can’t get away!” shouts Lucy after her. But maybe she can. She’s a fast runner. And I’m getting winded. Too many nights spent in smoky nightclubs with my cameras.
“How long was I away, Lucy,” I ask, panting.
It is a very large gap, then. I can only account for eighteen months.
I take out my gun then and aim at the fleeing woman; but Lucy grabs my arm, and the woman disappears around a curve, up ahead.
“We need her alive,” Lucy says.
I kiss her. She kisses me back, and then runs ahead, after the technician.
“Come on” she shouts after me.
* * *
This is a dishonest narrative; but it is as honest as I can make it. In the event our customs survive annihilation and the long low goodbye I know to be coming (in the form of the aliens’ population intrusion), then I must trust to your imagination to render these events in terms comprehensible to you; but I suppose this is always the case. Trust me, then. For when I lie, believe that I do it for your sake. This may even be the case.
I am a traveler. I know that now. I have been far. Trust me when I tell you that you do not want to see most of the places I have seen. There is great evil in the world; any philosopher who claims this evil is the exclusive property of men, or merely a property of moral ambiguity, have never suffered the tortures I have. I wish them well with their philosophy; I have my own.
In a way, it is a philosophy of ignorance. For behind Heisenberg is Hawking, and I am a Hawk―
(I wear a hood)
I am bound into the dark, after my woman. (Is she mine?)
“Hurry up, old man!”
I abandon my cloak, as too heavy, something I regretted dearly in the week to come.
It splashes into the water. Moments later, the old man arrives, growling on his motorcycle, his flashbulb lamp pouring crazy white light onto my face and the tunnel walls.
His smile is like a sun; I climb on, Lucy sandwiched between us.
He growls along with his engine as we descend deeper into the tunnels beneath the capital.
“Jackson is re-entering,” I shout over the motorcycle. We all heard the sonic boom; even through five hundred feet of earth.
Time is a strange rat; its nose quivers, and I seek it, the mystery of time, of all that is has been to us, and all that it will soon be, not a dimension but a door; time is a door and I wear a key around my neck.
If Time is a father; who is the mother?
Perhaps I am going to meet her.
The computer the technician aided in building did more than expand the human sense of “now” into directions unseen, it has derailed Time from the track wherein we’d grown accustomed to it, and it swirls like a plasmatic spark between electric coils, hungry for more; for life.
How I know this is unclear to me; but I do know it.
And underneath this knowledge; more sure than any fact, or any pattern, is this terrible will, to continue.
“We’re going to meet some aliens,” I shout into the old man’s ear, and he turns face and grins at me, a maniac; I can see he knows much more than me. I close my eyes, and enjoy the wind over my skin, and Lucy’s body pressed against my chest.
* * *
Inside my mind the woman haunts me; the one I met after I saw the ship. I suppose now that she was an alien, but I did not think so at the time; I found her intoxicating.
“Do you still have your shoes, Lucy?” I asked her, holding her, listening to her body as I held her atop the motorcycle.
She is crying.
We’re approaching the rendezvous point.
* * *
The woman was by the ship; I was very close to it. To her. Her eyes danced over my own; over the sky. I had never felt anything like it; I was never to feel anything like it again.
It was urgent and aflame, but also cold, and hard; timeless. I know that the aliens exist largely outside of time but it seemed to me then that her need for me was even more urgent than mine for her; that I was everything that she needed.
Have you ever noticed these patterns one encounters in one’s life, that double back on themselves, justifying as though with a literary device, the forthcoming sequence of events one encounters again and again, day after day, into a wilderness in your life, a system and a world of new experiences, deeply ordered but largely imperceptible, where the confusion you are stuck within insists that each partial revelation has been prefigured, and so it is, it has been prefigured, and I discovered then in that dark-haired woman’s arms the secret of why this is―
A secret which I have of course forgotten. Or which I can no longer translate.
I turned to look at the General; he stayed, as though mesmerized, under the shelter of his fortress.
I flew away into the sky, never to return.
The I who speak to you know am not that man who went away. I can remember him, but he and I are as different as the sun and moon. The man I was was a sun, hot and burning in darkness, and now I am a moon, dead, and filled with a dull white longing, as I twist through darkness, escaping the Earth, slowly, deeper, forever.
What is this life that I am transformed beyond recognition only to bear the same shape? Are shapes so meaningless?
I must not tell you too much of my time with that dark woman; I have a purpose and I aim to keep to it.
Her eyes were inhuman. Grey, and black. Perhaps five thousand years old.
Perhaps I love her. But not as I love Lucy. I suppose I loved the alien as one loves God.
* * *
The parachute has opened; with the old man’s binoculars I can spy Jackson plummeting back to our dear old dying Earth.
We huddle under the lip of the cavern on the capital’s northern escarpment. Below the black ocean trembles fitfully; the helicopters are coming after us.
I lose sight of the parachute as Jackson hooks around behind a low peak; the old man guns his engine again.
We are headed into the mountains. Where it is too high for helicopters to fly.
The dark sun cut into the night sky above has slipped in on itself; it resembles more an angry sore now than a burning orb. A glowing red scar from another dimension.
“How much fuel is left in this?” I shout into the old man’s ear.
“An hour,” he says, still grinning.
Lucy has stopped crying but the tears stain her cheeks; I want to kiss them off. But I do nothing. I watch the sky. I listen to the wind against my face. Already I regret the careless jettisoning of my cloak.
I hold Lucy tighter and I howl into the dark ahead; the old man howls with me.
In the time that this reaches you; do you think that they are there, already?
They are. They are waiting. The only question is: do you want to see them?
They come by tunnels, you see, and when they arrive, they hover under its lip, peering into your worlds, asking themselves the question: are we welcome?
I have fallen asleep; I can no longer hear the coyotes. The night is wide, and alive. Over the shoulder of the hill I can see Lucy disappear, her pony tail waiving against the dark blue sky.
What have I done?
* * *
In the beginning it was easy to remember: who I was. What I intended to do. Maybe not the reasons why, but some of their logic.
My logic is new to me now; it is shared. Is that what logic is?
I stand and shake off the grass and walk after her; the old man is nowhere to be seen. Nor any helicopters. It is quiet, and I’m cold.
The land is fruitful but barren too, the twisted pines shameful and heavenly in this light. I imagine heaven is a shameful place. These blues; they make love to me. But I am a sentimental man.
At the edge of the hill there is a path. I follow Lucy’s footsteps, down, towards the sea.
It has begun to snow. Dawn will come, in perhaps two hours.
What is it about light that comes over us, over me, this reckoning, absolution, forgetting. All the tokens of my thoughts, memories, years, unredeemable, silhouetted in the mountain skies and my crunched steps in the dust―
A crow is following me, a hundred feet above my shoulders.
I walk faster, and the crow follows.
* * *
Why is it we feared aliens for so long? And when we did not fear them, we believed them to be gods, divine deliverers―why?
The aliens are no stranger than this crow, in the end, though they have more technology, and are a bit larger.
The startlement of seeing a crow for the first time is no stranger, I think, than first seeing one of our Visitors.
But perhaps I am unnaturally used to them by now.
I am shivering in the cold, there is snow in my hair but I dare not wipe it off; I need my hands. I have to preserve their warmth.
The sea looks freezing; I am almost down to it. I have lost Lucy’s footsteps.
Dawn is come but it is even colder now than it was when I awoke.
Some spell has been put on me; I am unnaturally calm. It isn’t only the cold. The beauty of this place.
I may die here.
And Jackson; what happened to him?
Involuntarily, I cry his name aloud: “Jackson!” My voice is swallowed by the surf.
I think I can hear her running, over the sea stones.
I am dreaming, I know, but that is only what they want me to believe. Logic . . . logic . . .
I pursue her; I follow the sound, east. Towards the sun, under the cliffs. The tide is rising.
What was it the woman told me? So long ago now. She told me something. Why do I want to remember it?
I’m so cold. I could lie down here, on the stones . . . and let the warm sea swallow me . . .
It is snowing harder.
I can still hear her footsteps, echoing off the cliffs.
* * *
I can see now my mistake; I wanted to pretend so badly. Pretend that we could return to who we were. Return to the people we had been; the man I had been. Perhaps even the boy―but no, not that. Just the simple small town I had imagined would be my home when I was old enough, when I had earned it. But these places no longer exist; at least, I have not found one. Perhaps they never did, and they are solely the stuff of dreams. Beautiful chimeras, like paradise.
The army man takes me inside his cave; I would have died. It’s so cold. He lies with me, naked, inside the sleeping bag. That’s what you do with hypothermia victims; I know that. I can barely move.
Outside the stars are so far and so near, like my heart. A blackness overtakes me and I am dreaming, now for real.
In my dream the angels take me into the sky. And I can see the stars at last. Liquid suns.
I’m shivering; coughing.
“Rest,” he says, his voice like wheat.
When I die, when I die, will I be free then? Or will this thing follow me then, too? This urgency in me. This need.
I’m drinking tea; he gives it to me in a metal cup.
“You’re from the city,” I say to him. He nods.
“Better that you don’t talk,” he says. “I brought you a coat. For when you’re better.”
When I came to the town. When I met Lucy. Who was I? Who was I, then? And why have I forgotten! To me this is much more important than the question of who I serve, or what is to happen. The only more important questions is, where is Lucy? And Jackson. My children.
They are my children. The only children that I will ever have. And I have lost them.
When I go back, to the capital, I will be a king. These lies we’re telling; I want them over, and done with. So the aliens are among us, so what? There are worse things to worry about.
“Will you fight for me?” I ask the army man.
“Yes, Magister,” he says. I smile. How do I command this loyalty?
I am crying.
Return to the Capital
There is something I did not tell you about my dream. In it I was given a secret. An ocean secret. The brine that is our blood is melancholy; it longs for futures which we prevent. The many bloody stories of human sacrifice can be interpreted as expressions of this longing, of blood for the larger sea.
The secret I was given was a feeling about the future, and our city. Our city is floating; moving towards this ocean future. What does this mean? I will have to think on it.
The army man’s name is Chalk. We are walking south, through the snow-covered hills. We pass a burning helicopter carcass and Chalk locates the satellite transmitter within it and crushes it under his boot.
It will be night when we reach the gates.
Overhead, I can see the crow; still following.
Will I be able to take the city without firing a single shot? My sidearm is hungry, I know.
It is paradise, now, for me. Paradise only means garden; any garden. Like a city, formed around a river, or a well. Its walls no tighter than the walls inside our skins; suspicious, and loving.
I chose a city long ago and this is mine. If I claim it, I will not be the first or last man to do so. But if I can make it an aspect of my will; if I can reach into the sky . . .
But this has already been accomplished. We have reached; and they are come. Their red gate flutters in the night sky above us.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I say to Chalk.
“The aliens hold the city already, Magister. It’s why there are no helicopters.”
“Then we will arrive to the company of friends.”
Their red faces, the aliens, are dying moons. They hover over the city gates, their limbs poised on the metal and stone, their huge eyes so sad. They moan into the sky; it is a funeral procession.
There are many bodies in the streets. Both human and alien. Chalk and I cover our noses with our cloaks.
I follow the aliens into the city center.
I feel so calm.
“Chalk, will you find Jackson, and Lucy? Please!”
“I will, Robert.”
“I love you.”
My feet are tired. One of the aliens turns to look at me. Its face filled with crags; it is the widow, I see now. It has cut its face, in mourning. I smile at it, and touch its skin.
“King,” it says.
“Brother,” I say.
“My self is dead.”
“Which self is that, Brother?”
“My second self. He died today.”
“Will you permit me to mourn with you?”
“The signs came over us so sudden, you know. The Councilors, they fought against your appointment. I don’t know. I ask myself, what’s the point? Do you know?”
“I am a dead man.”
“And you are alive.”
They put the crown on my head and begin to carry the corpses towards the incinerators. The citizens lean against their dormitory alcoves, or slump against walls, exhausted. Some weep but most seem half asleep.
I will be a sleepy king for a sleepy city; this is my promise to you. In our dreams, we will think of you.
* * *
Often I have thought, am I this man whop wears a name, and a word? Am I the reason for my internment on this fortress earth, and this world of my life? What is a reason? Is it something that is necessary, or only something that’s desired?
I desire my daughter, Lucy, though she is not a child of my flesh. What is the reason in it? And how can I know?
I had thought to take to the barrens with the coils and lacerate my flesh to become holy, but Chalk came to me instead, and we made love in my bedroom.
This sleepiness, it is a shield; I know that. I am only a caretaker.
The terrible thing is, I hardly have to do anything. Any doubt or worry I have has been removed, because our shared decisions are now bearing their fruit. This shelter is strong enough for all our worry.
Lucy is to marry; she has sent for her relatives who yet survive, back in our town.
I have been deciding on the bunting for the avenues for her parade.
* * *
The crow follows me at night; I worship it. It is my deity. In the nominative case, deitatum, divine nature. So this is what the crow is.
The sun grows further away. Our planet is being moved. The engines of the Visitors will keep us warm, on the journey.