Economy class is dreary, but unfortunately people better connected than I am – including my dear friend Ponce – had scooped up the business and first class tickets to Denver. However, my time waiting to board with the proles was made tolerable by a troupe of attractive yoga teachers who were traveling to the Sillynanda Ashram, near Denver.
I have a theory that personalities can be read as much from your ass as from your face, which is the kind of thing you think about when looking at one dozen of our species’ hottest bums. I mentioned my hypothesis to my travel companion Fromme; he thought it merited further investigation. We quickly fell into a game, finding repressed anger in one yogini’s tush, and sun-shiny happiness in another. The game ended awkwardly when Fromme identified one perky bum as belonging to the type of woman he’d like to cuddle with. It belonged to a slender male who was so flexible he could do the splits.
We boarded moments later. Fromme took his seat with a group of neo-cons and tax-pledgers at the front of economy class; my seat was in the back.
The woman who sat beside me was a yogini. Her face was oval; her breasts were pressed flat by her sports bra; and her bones were so fine that if she had not been muscular I would have described her as slender. Despite her dolphin shaped slippers and bunny-print shawl, she was not what I would call cute, though with her blemishless skin, lustrous hair and graceful motions she was a thousand different types of beautiful.
I struck up a conversation the moment she first glanced at me. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Fallopia” she replied matter-of-factly. She noticed the quizzical expression on my face and then elaborated on her strange name, “Fallopia was the dryad who had gymnastic sex with Zeus. The one with the enchanted garters. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of her. There’s a movie. Brad Pitt plays Zeus.”
“I see”, I replied carefully. Although I am at all times interested in the topic of lingerie-clad wood nymphs, my knowledge of Greek mythology is a bit thin. After due consideration I asked, “Who plays you?”
“Its funny, I don’t know who plays Fallopia. Natalie Portman or perhaps Jennifer Lawrence? I’ve never seen it myself. As she spoke, Fallopia casually played with the fringe of the shawl she had wrapped over her shoulders. She was comfortable with her beauty, not ruled by it.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“James Schuyler Hamilton Shively the Third, but just call me Shively.”
Fallopia nodded at a campaign button I had attached to my lapel. “That Goldwater button is very ironic. I like it.”
I’m pretty bad with irony, so I hesitated before replying, “My father ran Goldwater’s ground campaign in Connecticut.”
She arched an eyebrow.
I interpreted the raised eyebrow as a question, so clarified, “Dad pulled out the vote on election day. That’s what I mean by ‘running a ground campaign’”.
“I see”, she replied neutrally. “Would you vote for Goldwater if he ran today?”. The tone of her voice unsettled me. It was the same one my mother uses when asking me questions like whether torching and tossing a picnic bench off a bridge with the lads is a mature thing to do. I was too pumped up to reflect, so replied to her question immediately.
“I think America has moved on since Goldwater’s time.”
She smiled with relief.
At that point I should have dropped Goldwater altogether and complimented her dolphin slippers. Instead I said, “Things that in 1964 seemed radical, in 2006 seem normal. Like gutting social security.”
“What teams do you follow?” I hastily continued. “I bet you’re a baseball fan, at least a little bit.”
Fallopia replied, “I think I’ll get back to my book.” She rolled to her left and began to read.
After being briefly distracted by an animated cartoon telling me not to smoke it occurred to me full-on how badly I had just struck out with dear Fallopia. Over and over again I thought, “I should have said Goldwater’s ideas are old fashioned.” It too often comes down to that doesn’t it? You don’t have the where-with-all to lie and your entire life changes for the worse.
I brooded until the movie ended. The lights in the cabin darkened. When I reached to turn off Fallopia’s reading light – she had fallen asleep – I noticed that the shawl she was wearing had fallen down to her shoulders, exposing her throat to the cold, dry column of air streaming from the vent above her head. I was reluctant to close off any source of oxygen given the turgid, fart-laden atmosphere, so considered how I could raise her shawl without disturbing her. A more experienced clothing adjuster would have done the deed faster. Despite the risk of delay, I pulled the shawl up slowly, my eyes transfixed by how its red and blue bunny prints offset Fallopia’s fair skin. When I had raised the shawl to the base of her long neck, I surrendered it to her. She covered her neck herself, though in a dream.
I looked away with difficulty; I could not stop my mind from looking back.
Although most of the lights were out the cabin glowed with a faint, warm light. I say light, in the singular, but there was a range of colors. Everyone glowed with some color, except for a handful of people who glowed black.
I awoke sometime later. The dull cabin light made it seem like I had been transported to a different world; the cartoon Martians blowing up New York on the screen in front of me suggested otherwise. To my right, Fallopia was still asleep. I looked at her briefly, but intently, trying to take a snapshot of this experience with all of my senses. These would be my last minutes with her ever.
I fell asleep again.
When I awoke I was looking into Fallopia’s eyes. She gave me a friendly smile, sat up, closed the air vent, turned to me and said in a very proper voice, “Shively, please forgive me for being so brusque with you earlier. No modern person could ever support Barry Goldwater’s policies. Excuse me for presuming.” She clasped my right hand in both of hers, “I’m sorry that your father supported Goldwater. It must have been rough growing up in that kind of environment.” Fallopia heaved a sigh of relief as she sat back in her seat, her duty to Compassion done.
My hand went to my lapel. I unfastened the Goldwater ’64 button and said, “I better take this off. I don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea.”
She smiled. I smiled back.
We landed moments later. Fallopia was whisked away by her group before I had a chance to say goodbye. I said goodbye anyway.
In 2011 pernicious numbers hit the news when a graduate student studying financial manipulation discovered that pernicious numbers were used by Cornelius Vanderbilt to take control of the Hudson River Railroad, in 1864, fully 60 years before their first recorded use, by the Colorado National Guard, to calculate the munitions required to end the Ludlow Strike.
Pernicious numbers are those numbers that may have a different value than represented. They can be difficult to understand for those of us who expect one to equal one, or for commercial scales to be properly calibrated.
Studies have found that certain people have a remarkable aptitude for pernicious mathematics, including virtually every CEO who has successfully been cleared of financial fraud charges on appeal. Former Florida Governor Rick Scott is said to be able to factor a balance sheet into its pernicious and non-pernicious components in minutes; while gangster Myer Lansky once spontaneously presented twelve formally consistent answers to the question, “What are my odds on that crap table?”, using only pernicious numbers and elementary arithmetic.
Pernicious numbers are used extensively in accounting, ballistics and forensics. They often appear in pairs, for example in double entry book-keeping and at dinner parties.
Infographic: J.P. Morgan used knowledge and power to manipulate 20th century financial markets in much the same way that banking transnationals do today.
It is important to note that although vexing numbers sometimes lead to trouble, pernicious ones always do.
The protagonist goes home. On her journey she dances with the moon. She gets home, goes to sleep and the piece ends exactly where it began (with a heart beat? bird sounds?)
Dance scene, ends with Twister, in which audience members can dance with projected images of themselves (provided they participated in the stunt to scan their images before hand).
Protagonist leaves work and goes out to club. The pivot point in this scene is when dancers, with graffiti stenciled on their backs emerge from a projected backdrop.
This scene is for pacing and may be removed. The protagonist looses her engagement in work and begins to think about the evening ahead.
The main projection for work is a series of cubes that have been stacked on top of each other to create spaces (offices) and a sense of depth.
The protagonist commutes to work. Her route is through the area south-east of Canal and Broadway to City Hall. The set involves multiple projection surfaces, some static, some dynamic. The staging goal is to have most of the sets be video projections.
Scene begins with the sounds of dawn, but in darkness. This is followed by the sound of the dancer’s heartbeat as she wakes up. Once she’s out of bed, the sound-scape is entirely made up of sampled/found sounds from a kitchen – dishwashers, coffee machines, cutlery etc The piece is rhythmic, though not necessarily melodic. The dancer slowly gets caught up in the beats.
“D’ya think that’s hell?” Elmore Young waved his slightly shaky right hand at the flaming pit in the hay field beside us. We had been comparing our visions of damnation. In the pit, he saw his cultural enemies: liberals, progressives, feminists. In the smoldering brimstone I saw my violent uncle squirming in agony, surrounded by the laughing faces of those he’d made suffer, each holding a glass of Irish whiskey he could not reach.
“No. Its not hell.” I replied. “Its some kind of projection. That’s why nothing is catching on fire even though the pit is burning so hot.” With my left hand I traced a line through the ring of soldiers who surrounded Moab Haysan’s World Famous Brimstone Pit. From our perspective it looked like they were engulfed in flames, but they were not.
Elmore would have none of it. “No way. I think that there is hell. Or at least a gateway to hell. It makes sense if you think ’bout it, hell being beside us. How many people y’know who are the devil’s right hand? You stand in a crowded place like an elevator or a rodeo and there’s at least one a’ Satan’s minions rubbing yer elbows.”
He took a swig of his soda, spat a wad of chewing tobacco out at my feet for emphasis and said, “But seeing hell right there don’t scare me none. Because think of what it means. If hell is by my left hand maybe heaven is by my right hand. Hah! Imagine being able to see paradise before you die. And we just might. After all, this is a time of miracles.”
He turned away from the pit, to face me. The burning rock behind his back turned him in to a limned shadow. He said, “You aren’t a member of the James clan are ya?”
“I think its the federal government doing this, not God. Its an experiment they’ve screwed up, and now they’re making the best of it by creating another experiment. On us.” I dodged the old man’s question because I didn’t want to get involved in the local feud. As it turns out I am related to the the James clan on my mother’s side, and to their blood enemies, the Young clan on my father’s side. Elmore looked just like how my uncle Clay would have at sixty, if he hadn’t been crushed by a backhoe.
Elmore didn’t exactly take my bait to air his favorite conspiracy theory, but the dodge worked. He said, “If its the gubberment” – his gums blunted his pronunciation – “If its the gubberment, how come our visions are specific? Only God can read my mind.”
I quietly replied, “Somehow something is triggering our visions. Maybe its electromagnetism. Maybe its drugs in the water. Or something the farmers’ have sprayed.”
This got him riled, “You better stop talking like a James, replacing Christianity with conspiracies. All-Dudes is a Christian town.”
I took a long, calming breath and dodged bigger, “My money’s on Jed in the Tractor Race.”
His laugh was uncomfortably close to a death rattle. “Bad choice but you picked the right team. Watch out for Jed’s niece. My money is on her.”
Elmore Young leaned close and said conspiratorially, “How you know so much about ’round here?”
“It only took ’bout fifteen minutes of listening at Garth’s.” Garth is the proprietor of a shotgun shack situated just over the county line. He sells unbranded cigarettes and legal booze. All-Dudes is a dry county, and has been since the Young’s first settled it in 1845 on their way out west.
“How d’you know it was fifteen minutes, not twelve or twenty. Why so exact? You counting? Like a spy?”
“I measure my time in cigarettes. I smoked three. In a row.”
“You smoke. Good. Not enough people smoke no more. Can you spare one? Or two?”
I gave him the rest of my pack, and a light. This distracted him long enough for me to be saved from further inquisition by the appearance of the Young clan’s two ringers in this weekend’s tractor race, Jedid and Eloise Young. Although the number on his back, a large black 108 printed in a Gothic face, suggested something related to competitive sports, the rest of Jedid’s outfit – jeans, t-shirt and dirty beige work boots – was more suitable for cleaning a barn. His niece, the reputed ringer Eloise, was dressed in her idea of racing gear, which she had borrowed from the racing star Danica Patrick, though she’d thrown in a few suburban touches, including bright yellow sneakers, a tight-fitting Lycra body suit, and a bat-belt of water bottles and cellphones. She was pretty in that way featureless, blemishless women can be.
Intake to Chapter II – Absolution makes me sin. If I’d been born a Protestant I’d have been a much different person. Would never have wound up here in All Dudes, in the middle of some decades old feud between the decendants of the James gang and Brigham Young.
The protagonist is a convicted murderer who is condemned to relive his murder with a conscience. The victim(s) of his crime are unknown to the reader until the end, which is the primary source of dramatic tension in the novel/play. I have a hunch it will work best as a screenplay.
I knew that I was bad when I started inquiring about the different levels of hell and what they meant in catechism class.
Current master is in media\words\creative-writing bitbucket, which should be synced with brianmacmillan.com.
A summary of research I conducted with Julian Wills at NYU using my public goods game.
The Bay of Fundy was as clear as a cup of tap water. The water was so pure that when the sun was directly overhead, as it was now, you could see the ocean floor. Chandra floated to the surface and lay on her back staring at the sky through filtered eye-glasses. Even though it was midday, on the horizon she could see the outline of the rising moon. Soon the gravity of the sun and the moon would combine into one of the most powerful forces on Earth.
Chandra dove down into the ocean. Initially all that she could see was a bloom of moon jellies, which after a moment parted to reveal a tube-like creature that glowed with a faint, phosphorescent light. At first she thought that the creature was a typical scyphozoan, perhaps 2 or 3 metres long. The giant jellyfish floated in the perspectiveless sea toward her. Her scanner identified it as Scyphozoan Giganticus, one of the newest and largest inhabitants of the North Atlantic. The creature was shaped like a 30 meter wide diaphanous bell, its tubular body not unlike that of a squid. The cilia which lined its perimeter glowed red, yellow and blue neon. She could see through its translucent body, save for where there were thick, pulsing objects that looked like organs. There was a dark cloud in the middle of the creature, probably a meal of krill or zooplankton.
The jellyfish flailed pathetically. It was surrounded by a halo of detritus including the skeletons of running shoes, plastic toys and fish. As she swam closer, with the intention of freeing it, she noticed that it had been trapped in an ancient drift net. She proceeded carefully. Even though she was protected by a suit that would allow her to walk safely on Jupiter, she knew that the giant invertebrate could nevertheless kill her if she got ensnared in its tentacles. After much careful effort, she cut the jellyfish free. It disappeared in a moment.
Chandra returned to the surface of the Bay and again inspected the positions of the sun and the moon. They were almost aligned. The ocean started to tremble; she could feel its energy in her soul. “This is the point where natural biology intersects with religion”, she thought. Though mankind had fled from its wounded home planet centuries ago, every culture from the Earth Diaspora had moon and sun and water cults. You could find vestiges of these cults on planets without moons, in deep space orbitals with no oceans and on mining colonies with cold, distant suns. The myths remained strong because their roots were so miraculous.
For one moment all was still then the tide turned and the ocean began to race to the sun and the moon. Chandra gave in to its force, and was propelled along the length of the northern arm of the Bay. The cove where Chandra beached was littered with invertebrates, twigs and kelp. She had a few minutes to explore before she needed to leave for England, so she decided to walk along the very narrow strip of land that was not now under water. She crawled over a fallen tree and around a bend into an inlet that had a large wide beach. In the middle she saw a giant jellyfish. As she watched, the creature slowly pulled itself into the ocean. Its main weight, its head, was oriented at a small angle to the sea; its tentacles were weak and had difficulty finding purchase. The creature was blasted by a huge wave and then pushed farther back onto the shore. It struggled again and then went flaccid. Chandra was amazed that it had not yet suffocated. After a brief respite the jelly pulled itself up. To her surprise it began to move toward her and away from the sea. The jellyfish paused when it got to within a dozen meters of her; it sent several long tentacles in her direction, as if it was inspecting her. The next wave swept the giant creature away.
After a moment’s reflection on her encounter with this new, apparently intelligent species, Chandra reluctantly summoned her aircraft: there was a storm off approaching the English Channel, which she had to hurry to avoid. Her craft instantly dropped out of the clouds; it looked like a metal bug as it skimmed across the Bay toward her.
While she returned to Dover, Chandra wondered what would happen next. Her uncle had secured permission for her to study the nepean spring tide in the Bay of Fundy, which she had just done. Would his favor be accompanied by some form of imposition? On this count, his record was mixed. Some of her uncle’s gifts, like his payment of her tuition for post-graduate studies, were deeply appreciated. But others far less so. Chandra remembered receiving a lone parakeet from him once. The gift was inappropriate not just because of its obscene cost but also because she was a person opposed to captivity for any animal. The parakeet had vexed her for weeks until finally, at great cost and risk to her reputation, she found a way have it returned to an environment where it could live and breed in freedom.
Worse than his inappropriate gifts, were the ones that had strings attached to them. Her uncle was rich, so his demands were always for abstract things that he could not directly purchase, like impositions on her time and reputation. Though awkward, she typically would accede to his least offensive requests. For the most part it was wasted time, but she acted without complaint, because of her gratitude for his assistance with her education.
As she thought about her uncle’s motivation in allowing her visit to the Bay of Fundy, she looked out of the window. Her craft was flying over the Grand Banks now. To her surprise she saw a vast construction site where she had expected to see nothing but ocean. Her craft was traveling rapidly, so the site disappeared after only a few minutes; she examined it on her scanner for several more. Between the enigmas of her uncle’s motivations and the construction site on the Grand Banks her mind was kept busy while her craft scudded across the north Atlantic. She landed on the Channel side of her uncle’s property, one kilometer from his main residence. Though the epicenter of the storm was on the other side of the Channel the wind was blowing with considerable force. She still wore her diving suit, so was perturbed neither by wind nor water. She made an attendant take her belongings to her uncle’s home and walked toward the cliffs. A second attendant followed her at a respectful distance.
The landscape was flat and gray. The dominant vegetation was tundra, spotted with low lying ferns and heather. At the edge of the cliffs she encountered a large strip of tape that was placed in a semi circle around the stairway to the beach. On the tape was written the words “Caution: Industrial Zone” in large, iridescent block letters. To Chandra the tape was informational and not a barrier; she ducked under it and walked toward the edge of the cliffs. She knew this section of the property very well; she had played here as a child. Her current path led to a secret stairway that had been carved into the cliffs long ago. She walked to the stairway, with the intention of going down to the beach. When she reached the top of the stairs, she saw that the beach was lined with large machines that had scoops with teeth so sharp that they looked like the mouths of predator dinosaurs. The machines were attended by whisper thin robots which walked calmly through the raging wind as if it did not blow.
“Mining on Earth!” Chandra thought. She was so amazed that it took her a moment to comprehend the entreaty of the house attendant that had followed her: “Madame, it is far too dangerous to be out here right now.” The machine’s statement was punctuated by a strong gust of wind.
The attendant repeated its point, “Madame, we must hurry! The hurricane is upon us.”
There was no outlasting an insistent machine so she turned her back to the Channel and walked back to her uncle’s home. She paused to compose herself at the entrance. A little brass nameplate graced the door. The words on it read “Satish Dekas, Councillor at Law” Seeing her uncle’s first name, Satish, made her smile; the family’s nickname for him had always been Surya, the sun to Chandra, the moon.
She was asked to wait in the house’s interior courtyard; it was full of trees and flowering plants. Tables were sparsely distributed throughout the courtyard, each situated in the middle of a copse of trees. She could see hummingbirds and bees. What struck her most in the midst of this abundance was the humidity. There was no humidity on the orbital where she lived.
In the middle of the courtyard there was an aquarium which contained a snapshot of what had once been the Carysfort reef off of Florida, including tiny dolphins and tuna. She chose a table on the perimeter of atrium as far away from the aquarium as she could. That her uncle had achieved an amazing feat by miniaturizing an entire eco-system was undeniable. But to her it was a dastardly miracle that mocked one of the greatest tragedies of Earth history, the destruction of the coral reefs.
Chandra had not been sitting for more than three breaths, when her uncle greeted her with a barrage of questions, “How was your trip? Do you have pictures?” He smiled as he spoke. His friendly curiosity was an aspect of him that she loved. As he spoke he gently prodded her from where she sat and escorted her to a table immediately beside the aquarium. She could find no way to politely resist him.
They spent the next few minutes reviewing the recordings from her trip. To Chandra’s surprise Surya spent most of his time examining her scans; and had more questions about the acidity of the water than about the strange creatures that she had encountered. He did pay close attention to the video of the beached giant jellyfish. “Earth is so alien”, he said.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Chandra, when you see these monstrous invertebrates don’t you feel that this isn’t our planet anymore.”
“Uncle Surya, Earth was never our planet.”
He caught his breath and then changed the subject. “Do you have any other trips planned?”
“I’ve been trying to get permission to visit Shantung. The tides there are almost as powerful as those at the Bay of Fundy.”
“Why don’t you come with me to Florida while you wait? I’m doing some work on the Carysfort reef that you might be interested in.”
“Uncle, there’s no reef there. The Caribbean is just a desert.”
Instead of replying he simply glanced at the aquarium.
“You’re trying to recreate the reef aren’t you?” Chandra was quite angry. Surya tried to keep his expression featureless, but for an instant a supremely self-satisfied look fleeted across his face.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”, she asked coldly.
“Chandra, that is a ridiculous question. I still haven’t told you anything. You know how I operate. When I’m making a deal, even a charitable one like this, no one except those who have a need to know are given details.” He reached out and affectionately clasped her hands in his, “You’re the first person to whom I will tell all once my project goes live.”
For a moment she dared to dream that perhaps her uncle had stumbled upon a miraculous technology that only caused good and not bad. With this technology he would rebuild the desert oceans while leaving the life that had just evolved in them alone. It was an impossible fantasy. She tore her hands out of his and said accusingly, “What you propose will affect every ocean. How do you know that your tinkering won’t kill what little life is left in the seas?”
“Chandra, the specifications for my work have been studied for nearly 100 years. Or a million years if you include the computer models. No whales or tuna are going to be affected. In fact, they will thrive under my plan.”
“Why must you do anything? Why can’t you let the Earth heal itself?”
“Because that could take ten thousand years.” He smiled broadly, but that did not break the ice that had formed in the chilly space that separated them. “Chandra, please humor me. I am a good man. Let me show off my legacy to you before you leave. It would mean so much …”
Surya’s attempt at reconciliation failed, but she was ensnared by her curiosity. She had guessed some of his plan’s key details: the construction site at the Grand Banks was a heat pump to start the Gulf Stream; the mining at Dover was to provide a source of calcium for reefs; the tiny creatures that she saw in his aquarium would doubtless grow to full size when released into the ocean. Perhaps she could find a weak link in this scheme, and in a subtle way sabotage it. Despite being compelled by this fantasy, her answer to his offer was non-committal: “I’m really tired. Let’s talk about this after I’ve had some rest.”
She did not rest.
She spent the evening fantasizing about reprogramming a battalion of slight, industrial robots to dismantle all of her uncle’s mega-projects. She knew that dismantling even one project would be daunting; but she also knew that robots were persistent and if convinced of the morality of a path would follow it to its conclusion.
The next morning she agreed to visit her uncle’s triumph in the Caribbean. Surya had assumed she would accept his offer, so she did not even need to pack before they left. Everything had been arranged.
As they walked towards the landing field her uncle was in an ebullient mood. They passed the limestone mine by the tape barrier near the top of the cliffs. “Uncle, why are you mining these cliffs? Is it for Carysfort?”
“Sort of.” He smiled sheepishly.
“How are you getting this limestone there?”
He didn’t answer but she already knew the answer to her question. “That’s what the heat pump you are building off of the Grand Banks is for, isn’t it?”
She knew that her guess was correct when he said, “Chandra, I always forget how much smarter you are than me.”
Again she asked, “Uncle, why can’t you leave the Earth alone?” They lapsed into silence when he did not reply.
Surya chose a seat near the front of their craft, while she settled into a seat near the back. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts: flying made her introspective.
She had always thought that flight and sailing were among mankind’s most significant inventions. Man was a creature of land, and with flight he conquered the air and with sailing, water. Thinking we controlled the elements, we vanquished the Earth she thought.
Her reverie was interrupted by her uncle’s leering smile. “Chandra check out the news. Any channel.” His good humor made her cringe, but she did turn on her monitor. The news commentator startled her out of her chair. “Yellow fin tuna have been discovered just west of Gibraltar, swimming in an unusually warm water currents.”
“The heat pump must already be working” she thought. She turned to her uncle and asked, “Is it sustainable?” She expected another one of his businessman dodges in reply.
“The pump. Once you’ve got the temperature differentials working will the Gulf Stream propel itself?”
“The heat pump is like a pace maker. Once the Stream is working we expect to need to use it only sometimes.”
The news saddened her because it limited the scope of her activity. Disabling the heat pump off of Newfoundland would, if anything, make the Atlantic more variable, which in turn would threaten more life. She cursed her uncle and all those like him that forced her to act and made it so difficult for her to do so.
Chandra turned her back to her uncle, effectively ending their discussion. There was no point in trying to reason with him. The virtue of leaving things alone was something that he would never understand. For the remainder of the trip she did nothing but watch the sparkling blue ocean pass under the wings of her speeding vehicle.
They landed at Key Largo then took a boat to the inlet where the ancient Carysfort lighthouse was located. The inlet had become a construction site: its far end was lined with piles of soil. The rest of the beach was covered with metal containers. Here and there she could see robots crouched over assembling devices that she could not identify. The machines’ activities were overseen by a dozen people.
There was lots of motion. Most activity was focused on the pier, where 2 flat bottom boats were docked. One was covered with metal containers, the other with piles of a gelatinous material that she could not identify.
Out of politeness she asked for permission to go swimming. She entered the Caribbean beside the aged lighthouse. After just a moment in the water, it was as if the construction site did not exist at all. The rocky ocean floor was covered in a faint white shawl, which was a reminder that once this region had been a vast coral reef teeming with more life than had yet been found anywhere else in the galaxy.
Chandra swam further out toward where the reef used to be. Her path was clearly marked by signs of human intervention. The dusty calcium layer on the ocean floor gave way to regularly placed mounds of material that were battened down by baskets made of stones and wire. She swam next to one of the mounds to inspect it more closely. The material was highly alkaline. The mounds themselves were slightly elevated above the ocean floor. She dove deeper to inspect the gap between the ocean floor and the mounds. The water heated by several degrees as she approached. Periodically jets of water were sprayed out from the bottom of the mounds. She analyzed a sample from the water spray. It was full of protein. Though the protein resembled the organic detritus that blanketed the ocean here prior to industrialization the regularity of the molecular structure suggested that the material had been manufactured. The mounds were apparently some form of device to help with the reconstruction of this eco-system.
While she swam along the proto-reef a jellyfish swam into view. It looked very much like the giant one that she had seen in the Bay, but was about half the mass and glowed faintly red. She swam to within 20 meters of the animal then held her space. Suddenly the jelly launched in her direction. Startled, she swam backwards for several meters. The jelly overtook her in a second. It circled around her twice and then stopped a safe distance away from her. Though there were no eyes in its head, she felt it looking at her. The jellyfish’s inspection ended abruptly when a pod of dolphins crested the limestone mound behind her. The pod swam directly toward the jellyfish. The jellyfish raced away and the dolphins immediately dropped their pursuit. It was obvious that they were not trying to catch the jellyfish; but rather were trying to scare it away from their food source. Suddenly the jelly dashed over the top of the limestone mound and snared a baby dolphin in its tentacles. The jellyfish disappeared with its victim before the pod had time to realize what had happened.
She swam to the ocean floor in order to inspect the hot air vents, with the intention of trying to find a way to disable them. The vent that she chose to inspect was surrounded by a miniature school of sharks that was feeding off of the protein that it was expelling.
A long, thin boat stopped in the space above her, its shadow cutting off some, but not all, of the sunlight. Packages were being dumped into the ocean. She caught one in a net and cautiously examined it. It was a sunfish encased in a buoyant, translucent substance that she did not recognize. While she was examining the sunfish several blooms of different types of jellyfish appeared around her. They inspected the packages and then began to tear them open. Some fish swam free. Others were ingested by the jellies. Then the sea darkened again. The ocean above the feeding frenzy turned milky. At the moment the downward falling milky water contacted the jellies they recoiled as if in pain. In an instant all of the jellies were gone. The remaining translucent packages dissolved and a host of creatures from the old Carysfort ecosystem emerged. She swam up to one school of miniature tuna to investigate. They were eating the packages they had been encased in, which seemed to be made of some form of engineered plankton. She looked at her scanner: the water had become significantly more alkaline.
A group of moon jellies hovered at the edge of the milky sea. In the middle of the group Chandra saw a much larger invertebrate. She swam toward the bloom, to investigate. The creature’s movements seemed wrong, somehow. They were more listless than the other invertebrates that she had swum with. She moved still closer and realized why: the jellies were dead. She thought to herself, bitterly, “We are recreating this habitat with the techniques of a god and the sensibility of an animal.”
Chandra swam around the jellyfish corpses taking detailed scans for her records.
Once her scan of the jellyfish corpses was complete she drifted back to the vents on the sea floor. If she wanted to undermine this project she could do worse than to begin here.
As she went to work destroying the vent, a pod of miniature dolphins appeared. They were attracted by curiosity about her. When they noticed the vent they immediately swam down to it and began to feed. The genetically engineered creatures appalled her. Her uncle was recreating nothing at all: these weren’t the creatures that thrived here before the oceans had become acidic. These were constructions. Yet, to her scans the genetically modified dolphins were indistinguishable from those created by nature.
The presence of these dolphins, like the presence of any other life form, challenged her actions. If she destroyed this vent she was threatening these creatures just as much as leaving it alone threatened the jellyfish. Her uncle had forced her to act and made it impossible for her to do so. She put away her tools and left the damaged but still functioning vent to its fate.
She returned to the shore just north of the Carysfort lighthouse in the late afternoon. There was far less activity than when she had left. The industrial robots had packed themselves away and what few humans remained were quietly preparing to leave.
When she emerged from the water she was greeted by three security robots. Her travel visa had been revoked. Though Satish did not say farewell to her in person, he did let her borrow one of his more versatile vehicles for her flight to the Lagrange Spaceport. She wished to inspect the Gulf Stream on her way into space, so her uncle’s parting gift was appreciated. While waiting for her clearance to leave the atmosphere, her vehicle floated over the Atlantic Ocean. She read the news. The top story was about a bloom of giant jellyfish which had washed up onto the Carolinas. Over 100 kilometers of beach were affected. Many scientists insisted that this was a sign that the Atlantic Ocean was returning to health.
As her craft flew east over the Gulf Stream she noticed a huge, brown smear of water that stretched across the horizon, from her uncle’s mine in Dover to the Caribbean. As her vehicle moved over the Azores she noticed another smear moving exactly perpendicular to the calcium laced Gulf Stream: a tremendous bloom of jellies was swimming into the Atlantic Ocean’s acidic depths. She widened the scope of her analysis and saw one more bloom also moving toward the mid-Atlantic. As she watched the blooms merged together. “Perhaps they will survive after all”, she thought. Chandra’s eyes were glued to her monitor as her ship left the atmosphere and entered space; still she could see the bloom of jellies.
“You own your own brain!? I had no idea.” Without thinking, I touched the cerebral implant at the base of my skull. It was a cheap, server-based model and like the brains of 99% of Americans, it was rented. The advertisement finished with the famous tag-line, “My love, I love your iDentity.”
Alhough the actors in the ad were fake, their message was all too real: I knew that because I did not own an expensive personal brain, no trophy woman or man would give me a second glance. But how could regular people afford to own their own brains? Wages had not increased in a century, yet the cost of food, rent and energy just kept rising.
There was a crash of lightening from the storm that was approaching from the north-east. I looked out the window of my car. Even though it had started to rain, the traffic on Interstate 80 seemed unaffected. If my car drove well, it would take at least another 20 minutes to get to the George Washington Bridge and after that another 30 minutes to get to my home in Inwood, at the northern tip of Manhattan. It was just after five. I had plenty of time, the polls closed at eight.
I am normally not one for politics because most of the time it doesn’t matter who the big companies tell what to do. But to be fair to myself, I pay attention a little bit, because if there’s a candidate I’d like to have a drink with, y’know someone I resonate with, I’ll vote for him – or her. I’m sure you know what I mean.
I was paying a little more attention to this election because of Proposition 10. You probably know about it – the ballot initiative to allow businesses to force their workers to wear electronic brains. It is a big question, whether we should all have brains. Some people think that it is the biggest question ever, in terms of what humans are and where we’re headed. And here it was election day and I didn’t know how I was going to vote.
… end of excerpt …
While my car drove I surfed the Net, to get informed, or it at to try. So far the only thing that had informed me was an ad about how do get a discount on Zantrax, which was good news even if cheap meds have nothing to do with my vote. You see, I have Inchoate Acquisitive Disorder, and will bankrupt myself shopping if I’m not properly medicated. That’s hard to do what with the price of everything always going up.
Today it seemed like the goal of news was to avoid scratching the surface of reality. Even the NJ Governor’s controversial decision to turn the city of Camden into a correctional facility provoked only the shallowest debate. Not that I could dig deeper, but I depend on the news for my opinions, so I want them to be the best.
But shallow is better than nothing, so I stuck around because I knew the show would get around to my issues, Prop 10. And sure enough it did. The woman host, a slight, pretty simulacrum, got the ball rolling with a question about the Cognition Gap. The Cognition Gap is how conservatives argue that all American workers should have brains.
I don’t remember how the round headed guest with thinning hair answered, all I remember is thinking that the simulacrum’s breasts must represent a large fraction of her body weight, given how slender she was. I even thought about how silly it was to think about simulacra in sexual terms at all. But her question must have been tough because the round headed man’s face grew red as he answered it. I don’t remember what he said, but I’ll tell you it made sense. I know because of the ping of clarity his words gave me. If you own or rent a brain you probably know what I mean.
My news show only had one speaker in favor of Prop 10, not one against. Even though I liked the speaker, I wanted to hear another point of view. When the show cut to ads I made my car change the channel to Pacifica. That always took some effort, because the data feed from progressive stations to my brain was always choppy, probably because progressives can’t afford good bandwidth.
The host was Amy Goodman, who is the only female simulacrum news host I can name who isn’t slender and pretty. They say that’s because she was once real. Her guest was a thought artist. I still don’t know what that is and I watched the whole show. He had very strong opinions about Prop 10, his face when white when he voice them.
The artist talked a lot about what he called the Phenomenological Web. That’s an academic way of saying how the physical world is becoming indistinguishable from the Net. Not surprisingly, the artist hated bio-glasses and even plug-in translators. Which seems like banning fun and usefulness at the same time, but I sort of understood what he meant. But only sort of. You know how when some people speak clearly you hear a ping – I mean metaphorically, like I explained before. Well there were no pings with the thought artist. His words confused me. On reflection that’s part of what I liked. I don’t get confused so often, since I upgraded my brain to a Shuffle.
Amy ended her interview with a signature question, “What is your advice for our viewers?”
My hand, unconsciously went to touch the power switch on my iDentity Shuffle. I touched the power switch but did not press. Of course not. Why would I turn off my brain? I wanted to make sure the power switch was still there, just in case.
As I removed my hand from my brain’s power switch, my Net monitor went blank and my car shuddered to a halt. My iDentity reported a cluster of distress signals as all of my personal electronic devices fell into a pile on my feet. Then it went silent.
There was no electronic noise in my brain.
And a blank space where all the facts usually are.
I knew the facts would still be there once I was plugged in again. But for now I was on my own.
What should I do next? I hadn’t thought about it before but server brains aren’t just about facts. They make suggestions, too. Like the best way to walk to Inwood from Fort Lee. For the first time in a decade the thought of a route didn’t result in a map appearing on my eye-glasses; my meat brain was a seldom used backup. I had crossed the George Washington Bridge on foot a dozen times, but barely remembered how to do it. After a minute I did. The memories were in there alright, but because they had not been retrieved very much, it took time to find them. It was slow, too. You get spoiled by the access times of the new brains.
I made a map in my head about the route I was going to take home – over the bridge to Broadway, and then north 10 blocks to Hillside Ave. Details calm me down. I needed to calm down because it was crazy all around me. Did I mention that the toll Plaza was full of dead cars. And people. Not dead people, just confused people who didn’t know what to do now they were disconnected.
I know New York is full of people and Lord knows I know crowds: The 1 train is my train, and its always full. So you’d think no crowd would bother me. But when you’re plugged in you don’t notice people so much and when you’re unplugged you notice them more. And not just as lumps taking up space. You notice them with all your senses, hearing and smell and even touch, if you get too close.
I didn’t want to get too close to anyone, not even someone who could help me. So even though there was a group of people trying to tether a personal brain to their satellite phone, I stood back. Not because what they were doing was a waste of time, even though it was. I didn’t want to go near those people because I didn’t want to be near anyone.
Or anything, for that matter. Thank God my car can take car of itself.
There were too many people on the pedestrian walkway to Manhattan so I looked around and found a service catwalk. It was
for workers only, but I figured given the current emergency the rules could be bent. The catwalk was a find, not just because there were no people on it, but also because it was above the pedestrians. I could watch everyone while I walked. That made me feel safe.
And what a view.
The west coast of the Hudson River was shadowy because it was evening. The breaks that protect the Hudson River from surges – you know, those giant, rusty tubes they added a few years back – were red-brown because they were tall enough to catch the setting sun. I’d forgotten that red-brown was a color. I think I’ve been in my head too much, lately.
The best part of my walk over the bridge was the cormorants. They were resting on the roof of the tiny, red lighthouse, the one that pokes up from the Hudson River immediately beside the eastern shore. I’d never seen a flock of birds from above. Its different from that perspective because you get a sense that up is a place you have to fly to. From the ground birds are already up so you don’t think so much about how they got there.
The salty ocean breeze calmed me down. Manhattan is an island on the Atlantic Ocean, you know. That’s another thing I’d forgotten and remembered. Or never knew. By know I mean understand, not just the way you know a piece of data that’s in a database glued to your head.
When the breeze had blown away enough of my nervousness I got some space in my head to think. I thought about why I was nervous at all. Most of the time I’m quite sedate.
I was startled by the smell of ozone.
How could a smell startle me? It was because now that I was unplugged my sensations were more intense. You’d know that if you read the instruction manual on your brain; brains filter data to help you think, in the same way sunglasses polarize light to help you see.
I remembered that I was wearing bio-sunglasses. I removed them. It was brighter outside than I realized. It was over two hours before the polls closed at sunset. I wasn’t in that much of a rush. I decided to drop by a local bar for a pint and a burger.
On a typical day I would have avoided Broadway because of my medical condition. But today Incohoate Acquisitive Disorder didn’t seem like a problem so I took a commercial route, in order to save time. There were no issues, with me, I mean, because the traffic was totally messed up. It was all a coordination problem – lots of different Net nodes were back up, but were struggling to re-sync. A classic machine, problem. Nothing much for humans to do. Which explained why my local bar was so crowded.
The first thing I noticed when I entered was all the smells – beer, burgers, and a lot of cologne. The smells overpowered me, not because they were gross or cloying, but because they were so much more intense than my usual perceptions.
And soothing. Which was a good thing because the crowd made me buggy.]
I ordered a burger and beer and took a seat in the corner. While I waited, I took out a napkin and a pen. I drew a line down the middle of the napkin. The left column I gave the heading Yes, the right No.
It was time to decide about how I would vote on Prop 10.
In one way, brains were no big deal. I had one myself, so obviously I did not mind them.
In fact, to a certain extent I was more curious about what quality brain the big companies were talking about making their employees use. It would be a shame if workers were forced to have stupid, cheap brains, and ironic if they were made in China.
That wouldn’t happen. The big companies get volume discounts. They’ll buy nice brains.
Check mark for the Yes side.
The Yes case seemed so clear. The No case less so. All it did was stir up a mess of emotions within me.
I was sitting on a stool at the edge between the bar and a curved mirror. It was one of those old tavern mirrors that have little copper smeared lines visible like glass wrinkles.
A movement reflected on the mirror and caught my eye. I turned toward the mirror. I looked different than I had when I dressed myself for work this morning. … It wasn’t that there were pale purple half circles under my eyes, or that my short hair was skewed and spiky. I was different. The skin at the side of my face had begun to sag – not to any great extent, but enough to let me know I could have jowls. There was a small brown spot, in the smile lines near my right eye. And 100 other details I didn’t remember from this morning.
I turned my head slightly, so that it was nearly parallel to the mirror and then looked at where the iDentity connected to my real brain via my cochlear bone, just below my right ear. Even though it was disconnected from the Net, I pressed the off switch. My image did not change. That’s what I looked like when my brain was turned off.
My mind was made up, but I know myself and how I forget the decisions I’ve made and why. So I laid my decision-napkin flat on the table, carefully circled the No heading, and then folded it in half and put it into my breast pocket. I was careful, as if the napkin was my franchise.
I caught a reflection of myself in the mirror and quickly looked away. I paid my bill and prepared to leave.
Before I left I went to the back of the bar to the rest room, to clean up after lunch. There was a lineup. The hallway we were standing in was beside the security center for the building. I could see vid feeds for the entire building, including the hallway I was standing in. I looked for myself in the video of the line, and found myself. Actually, I didn’t see myself, exactly. Not the self I’d just been looking at in the bar mirror. I saw the iDentity version of me. The one I’d seen in the mirror when I’d shaved this morning. This unsettled me. I touched the napkin on which I’d written my voting intention, for solace.
The moment I squeezed passed the crowd outside the restrooms, I raced out of the bar onto Broadway. There were three ways to get home from where I was. I choose the route that curved along the side of Fort George Hill. I felt comfortable going that way, with the granite and tree hillside to my right. A feral cat disturbed a flock of morning doves. I stopped transfixed to watch, listen, smell as the birds flew up into the sky.
The twenty-one story rectangular concrete building I live in sits on the side of Fort George Hill, and so is rarely flooded even when there are ten foot surges. That’s its big selling point, aside from how good the superintendent is about cleaning up the litter that gets blown into thin band of garden and asphalt that passes for the building’s playground. A long line of people stood outside the service entrance, which led to the polling station. I wasn’t surprised. With so many people unplugged of course voting was delayed.
Voting was really delayed as it turned out. I was still in line thirty minutes later when the lights flickered and everyone sighed, afraid that the entire electrical grid, and not just the Net, was failing. But the flicker was from the Net coming back up. I knew because the hum of electronic noise in my head and how all the colors and sounds became muted. And the flashing red icon disappeared from my glasses.
I thought I’d turned off my iDentity yet it was now back online.
Why would I want to be unplugged from the Net? I wondered
Who won last year’s Superbowl? I got the answer in an instant.
It was good to be back online.
Voting did not speed up after our server-based brains reconnected to the Net. It took a full hour to get to the front of
the line but I wasn’t fussed. I felt calm. Calmer than I’d felt in I don’t remember how long. I’d forgotten how comforting a fully operational brain can be.
I thought about this afternoon’s adventures, and realized that I didn’t remember much of anything at all. Funny how you can get so much in the moment, and then realize that the last moment you remember was 8 hours ago. I was like that now. I’d nearly forgotten my walk from over the George Washington Bridge, and whatever I did for lunch. But like I said, I didn’t care.
I finally got near the front of the line, but then the line stalled. I looked around and caught a reflection of myself in a
security mirror. The mirror was curved, so my face looked silly. That didn’t worry me because my skin was looking good.
I spent the next few moments thinking about the many merits of a skin cream I’d recently bought.
I was handed my ballot. I just stared at it for a moment – I had forgotten why I was in line at all, that’s how
deeply I’d been thinking about the cream.
A woman with a badge that sad, “Polling clerk” scanned by Social Security Number straight off my iDentity and pushed me half-way into a voting booth. That’s when I got it figured out. At least sort of. My arms and legs felt like they weren’t part of me. Or maybe my brain felt separated from everything else. Its kind of the same thing.
I was in what my shrink calls a fugue state. That’s when I forget my intentions and even who I am.
I took a step back from the booth, placed my knapsack on the floor and pulled out the napkin on which I had written my voting decision. I could see the words No to Prop 10 boldly circled and underlined at the top.
Vote No to Proposition 10. That’s what I would do. Great.
I stepped forward to the voting machine and quickly tried to vote my intention. The gambit failed: when my right forefinger approached the No button, some outside force took over my hand and jerked it away toward Yes
I tried to vote Yes again and failed.
This made me angry, which is not good because anger triggers IAD. I could afford to vote Yes or No but not both. What I mean is my vote had become a shopping decision. That’s what the Acquisitive is in IAD, which I had bad.]
I started to hallucinate.
The Yes button turned into an image of a tiny porcelain doll. The doll wore leather overalls cut-off above the knees, a sporty green alpine hat and had painted, blonde-brown hair. I could think of nothing else but buying the doll. You could do that with a Yes vote. That’s what my brain told me.
What happened to the No button? I couldn’t see it anywhere. Oh well. I shrugged. Who cares? I’m going for the doll. I’ll just read the slip of paper here …
Vote No. I saw it clearly written on what I knew was a reminder note. The words made no sense. What could I buy with No?
Fugue state. I must be having an attack of IAD. I had to stop thinking of my vote as a product. I had to think of it as something else. As ..
“Mr. Are you alright?” It was the poll clerk wondering why I hadn’t done whatever it was I was here to do. She helpfully said, Have you voted? I told her that I was having a problem with my iDentity and that was delaying things. She helpfully suggested I turn it off and vote without it. I could always get it fixed tomorrow.
Good plan, I thought dully.
The poll clerk whispered, “You have to turn it off before you think about doing it. Otherwise you iDentity intercepts the thought and it doesn’t …”
I turned my iDentity off before I thought about it. I tore out its battery just to make sure. I was a little rough with the battery, and broke my skin. My glasses flashed a red warning light as I did so, and my collar was stained with my blood.
But I was unplugged.
I voted No.
The bleeding at the nape of my neck provoked a few askance glances but no comment when I left the polling station and took the elevator to my floor. For the next few days I felt profoundly alone as I sat unplugged in my apartment. At first I kept my sensations to a minimum. Gradually I turned the lights back on, uncovered my mirrors and plugged in my machines. It took me a week to get up enough courage to read the news. I connected to the Net manually. I felt a fear that bordered on terror when I did. Although the vote was close, Proposition 10 was defeated.
A gentleman and his young wife entered the boutique, which overlooked the Canyon. The store was unexpectedly opulent given that it was the last stop on the Santa Fe railroad, and therefore at one of the remotest corners of the United States of America. The gentleman was dressed like a Roughrider, with loose khaki pants, long, laced leather boots, a leather jacket and kid gloves. He carried a wide brimmed hat under his arm. His eyes were yellow, his black hair thinning and streaked with gray. He had a delicate frame: his head was long and narrow, as were his limbs, fingers and nose. He was gaunt, his skin was stretched and translucent white, as if no longer able to absorb sunlight. His leather boots made firm, sharp sounds as he walked, but he was unsteady on his feet. He used a thin ebony cane as a prop when he made the small effort of ascending the three wooden stairs at the entrance to the shop.
While the man looked like he had been aged by disease, his wife, because of her rude health and light disposition, looked younger than her twenty-five years, almost adolescent, except for the assurance with which she deported herself. She wore a white calico dress. Her dirty blond hair was covered by a muslin shawl decorated with images of blue violets; she wore white sandals on her feet. She could have been headed for a summer garden party except for the large knapsack slung over her left shoulder. It was of a type favored by railway workers because of its sturdy, coarse leather, and its fringe of iron hoops. A pair of leather riding boots, an array of tools, and a parasol were attached to the hoops, and then secured against to the knapsack with cracked leather straps.
The Lord hobbled over to a glass and mahogany-wood display case, in which the store showcased its more valuable goods, while the Lady selected an assortment of items from the wooden shelves that lined the walls of the shop, and then headed through a pair of saloon doors to a fitting room; a hopeful sales clerk followed closely behind her.
While the gentleman idly browsed the store’s collection of knives, guns and accessories, the store manager sidled up beside him. The manager was dressed in an English style: light gray woolen trousers held up by suspenders that curved around the outside of his rounded belly, and a fine white cotton shirt on which was printed blue pin-stripes. He was a large, lumpy man, so the stripes made him look like a topographical map. His vest was of a slightly darker gray than his trousers. The outfit was completed by a short jacket that hung over the edge of the chair beside the cash register.
The store manager knew better than to make a sales pitch to his high-born customer, so instead took out a cigar and started to idly chew on it while hovering a barely polite distance away.
“Would you like a light?” The gentleman removed small, ornate silver lighter from his trouser pocket and vaguely waved it in the direction of the shopkeeper.
“I’m not really a smoker. But now that you offer a light, I think I will have a smoke. If you don’t mind, that is.”
The gentlemen indicated his agreement by removing a cloisonné cigarette case from his breast pocket, from which he extracted and quickly lit a cigarette. He offered the lighter and the cigarette case to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper tried not to let his eyes linger indelicately on the ruby and emerald pattern that adorned the case. When he averted his eyes he noticed the dried scabs that lined the gentleman’s hands. Having no where else to avert his eyes, the shopkeeper looked directly at the gentleman as he spoke, “I’ll smoke this.” He indicated his cigar, while gingerly taking the lighter from the gentleman’s hands. “I’m celebrating. I just received a telegram indicating that my brother now has an heir.”
“Congratulations. Is this his first child?”, the shopkeeper asked.
“No, third. But the first two were daughters.”
“I’m envious. I have no heir myself, although I do have one daughter.”
“If I may risk being forward, sir, I think that with a wife as young and healthy as yours you should have no …”
“I’m not getting any younger” the Lord snapped. The shopkeeper watched in silence as the gentleman unconsciously traced his right forefinger along the line of scabs on his left wrist.
“Are you in Arizona only to view the Grand Canyon or is this a side trip from some more important business?” the shopkeeper asked.
The gentleman replied. “I am an investor.”
“In the Jerome mine, perhaps?”
A female voice spoke to their backs. “It is my father and I who are the investors.” The Lady had returned from the fitting room. She was now dressed in brown riding boots, jodhpurs and a light, white, collarless cotton top of a style popular in the Raj. The only item remaining from her earlier outfit was the muslin shawl, which was draped around her shoulders. The sales clerk stood a respectful distance behind her, with a chiffon dress that looked like a bouquet of wilted flowers in her arms.
The gentleman replied in a testy voice. “Jeanette, I am head of our household. Your interest in the mine is my family’s property.”
“Yes, dear heart. But I control the trust.”
The gentleman snapped, “When we pass away, your interest in the mine will become the property of our heir.” His anger made his yellow skin turn red.
The Lady averted her eyes. At first the shopkeeper thought she did so in submission, but then realized she was looking at the blood seeping out one of her husband’s torn scabs. When he noticed at what his wife was looking, the gentleman made a show of putting on his black kid gloves. He tugged each glove once and then turned to the store keeper. “I’m off to inspect our mounts. Please take care of my wife’s every need. Charge whatever she buys to my room.” The effect of his brusque exit was marred when his cane got stuck in a crack in the plank by the door, and he stumbled.
The Lady lingered after her husband’s departure, to ask the storekeeper detailed questions about the poisonous snakes and insects that she should be wary of on her upcoming hike. At the shopkeeper’s suggestion she purchased a small, sharp knife, which she strapped to the inseam of her right leg. She did not haggle over its premium price, and left an extravagant tip for good service. She exited the store in half a dozen sharp, precise steps, but paused when she got to the veranda to look north, over the Canyon. It was dusk; the sky was terraced by bands of clouds. The Canyon walls were similarly paneled. Although the earth was darker than the sky, both were interlaced with shrinking purple shadows and lengthening bands of colored light. On a near horizon two condors floated on updrafts, while in the distance an eagle swooped down on its prey.
The dining hall at the El Tovar hotel was crowded with visitors from Phoenix, many of whom were here not to commemorate the completion of the railway, but rather to see the renowned people who had come here to do so. They were particularly interested in the New York Lady and her noble English husband. The room buzzed when the maître d’hôtel greeted them at the entrance to the restaurant.
Before the nobles could be seated, a crowd of bourgeois notables, doctors, lawyers and mining contractors, coalesced into an impromptu receiving line. 20 minutes of introductions followed. Lord Churchill was gracious, but did not extend even one calling card, although he promised to call on a middle-school principal from Phoenix who claimed to have excavated a treasure of Navajo artifacts from a gravel pit just east of Flagstaff. Lady Churchill annoyed her husband by answering all of the many questions she was asked.
Eventually the greetings ended. The couple sat down at a table with a view of the Canyon. It was dark, and despite the electric light in the restaurant, the sky was black and speckled with stars. The couple did not talk. The Lady nursed a glass of wine; her husband drank whiskey and soda while he smoked a cigar. He affected the manner of someone who was pensive, but his gaze was unfocused; she saw that his illness was making him weak and listless.
After the Lord poured his third drink he spoke. “Jeanette, why did you publicly discuss our affairs in front of that shopkeeper?”
Jeannette Churchill looked out over the Canyon while she answered, “If I remember correctly, it was you who first mentioned Daddy’s mine.” Her words were spoken without affect.
“Never talk that way in front of commoners.”
“I’m glad we’ve cleared that up”. The Lady turned to her husband, narrowed her eyes, and then reached for his cigarette case. He scowled while she removed and lit a cigarette. She averted his scowl and instead stared at the scabs on his hands.
They slept in separate rooms, which provoked little comment. Although the Lady was reputed to have frontier manners, the Lord was known to be civilized.
Although the El Tovar hotel had been open for several months, most of the tourists to the Grand Canyon still stayed at the tent camp clustered around the railway station near the head of the Horse Thief trail. The tents were of a military style: squat, rectangular, with peaked tops, and were just big enough to hold 4 cots. The gear was the same as what American soldiers had just used to defeat the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines.
It was late in the season so the camp was empty except for two tents, which were populated by an extended family who were just waking up. A young girl dressed in a flowered dress made of fine but dusty cotton was sitting on a stump while her sister, who was dressed in a thick dark gray woolen dress of a style favored by teachers and maids, was curling her hair with an iron she had heated in the pine-log fire. The girls’ brothers were playing tag, or perhaps fighting, in and out of the shadows cast by the low-slung sun. The sky was cloudless. Venus was visible just above the horizon; Mars could be seen glowing faintly red above it. In the foreground vultures floated on a morning thermal.
The Lord looked at the dusty family with the sour expression, as he skirted around their camp and proceeded to his appointment at the trail-head. The Lady appeared several minutes later. She intentionally walked close to the tents, curious to learn more about this family.
“Yer Jenny Jerome, ain’t ya?” the younger girl in rough clothing asked boldly.
“She means to say you are Lady Jennifer Churchill ne Jerome” the elder, tidly dressed sister corrected.
“I am indeed. And you are?
The younger girl answered the Lady’s questions, as if it were she who had been asked. “Penelope Jones, you can call me Penny and this is my sister Victoria.” After a brief curtsy the girl then informed Lady Churchill that her family had made it all the way to the Indian Village in a two day hike, but had turned back, instead of doing a loop, to avoid paying Mr. Cameron any more fees for the use of his trail. “Mr. Cameron even charges to use the loo”, she noted disapprovingly. Victoria cut in and said soberly, “Bring lots of water. People die here. Every week. Every week”, she repeated. “The midday heat is wicked.”
The Lady graciously thanked the girls for their assistance and bade them fare well.
The trail-head lay just beyond the small wooden building that passed for a railway station. When the Lady reached it, she saw that her husband was at the first switchback, 100 yards into the Canyon, where he was conversing with two guides. With great difficulty she steered her stubborn mule onto the trail and carefully began her descent.
While still out of earshot of her husband she stopped her mule and looked out over the Canyon. The scene reminded her of a Sunday school class she had attended as a child, where she had been told that if she wanted to find an example of God’s glory she need look no further than a sunrise. She was not one to embrace religion because of words, but that advice she had never forgotten.
“Miss.” A small voice broke her reverie. The Lady looked down. Penelope had followed her. The child’s hair was now puffed-up into tight, dirty blond curls, and her calf-high black leather boots were tightly laced, and polished.
“Madame. Do you want to know a secret. I learned it from an Indian man.”
The Lady nodded and smiled, but the girl took no notice. She did not need affirmation to continue.
“Mother told me not to talk to Indians but my eldest brother said they know magic, and he’s been to war, so when my mother was fighting with Mr. Cameron about his fees I did. Talk to an Indian, I mean. He had a feather cap and wore nothing but moccasins and a small cloth around his privates. He told me that sage brush has the power to clean things, not like vinegar and water does, but like the way the wind blows dust away. I gave him my charm bracelet and in return he gave me this and told me to burn it. Please have it. Mother said I can’t take it home.”
“My goodness, that sage is on fire!” The Lady shied away from the smoking herbal bouquet the child had just handed her, but continued to clasp the girl’s hand.
“Please take it”, the girl implored. “It has to be a present or the Indian gods will frown.” The child pushed the sage into the Lady’s hand. It’s smoke disturbed the mule so the Lady moved downwind, the smoking bouquet firmly clasped in her gloved right hand.
The child spoke, “Now wave it. The cleaning magic is in the smoke.”
The Lady solemnly waved the sage in the air before her eyes, like a Catholic priest with a censer. The heavy smoke fell down into the shadowy, cool area along the edge of the trail where her husband was talking. Eventually it merged with the swirling smoke from his cigarette, until a slight gust of wind dispersed it. The Lady turned turned to the girl, “Thank you very much. My family could use some healing magic right now. Let me pay you …”
“… oh no! The shaman was clear about how you can’t take money for magic. That would corrupt it.”
“But you traded with him?”
The girl nodded her head vigorously.
“Can we trade for something?”
“Sure. How about that button?”
The Lady’s satchel was adorned with a button she had been given during President Roosevelt’s campaign for Governor of New York. She had forgotten she had it. “Absolutely.” The Lady unpinned and handed the button to the child.
“Penelope! Come here right now!”
“Bye!” The girl curtsied and then ran back to her mother.
When the sage had burned down to its handle of sticks, the Lady dropped the bundle onto the ground and ground its remains into ashes with the heel of her riding boot. She resumed the descent toward her husband and their two guides, leading her mount by a rein made of frayed rope. Although the sun was shining hotly, the trail was cool because it was still in shadow. She followed the faint smell of sage to her husband.
The sun was now high enough that the features of the two men with whom her husband was talking could be seen. She knew that the European was their Québècois guide, the famous hermit who lived in a cave in the Canyon. She was surprised to find him accompanied by a native. The hermit was dressed in denim overalls and a threadbare flannel shirt. He was not so much unshaven, as crudely shaven, with the slightest distinction between long white grizzled beard and coarse skin . His skin was dark from the sun. His head, like that of the Lord, was shaded by a Roughrider hat, although his hat did not have an ornamental string bow attached to its rim.
The Hopi man was a young adult, or perhaps an old looking child. His muscles were tough but wiry. The result was that he looked both athletic and malnourished. His head was adorned with a simple, lightly feathered headdress that had been dyed, or perhaps stained, the same dusty maroon red of the Hakatai shale that lined the walls of the Canyon1. His gnarled, unwashed black hair hung straight down to below his shoulders, but was parted in the center so as not to cover his face. Two strands were tied back with a leather cord. Around his neck he wore a half dozen strings of yellow and cyan colored beads. A palm-sized copper talisman was attached to one strand of beads; it looked like a cross between an ankh and a miniature horseshoe. The snake image that had been tattooed around his upper arm indicated his clan. The necklaces and headdress suggested that he was a shaman or snake dancer. A leather sash held up the woolen cloth wrapped around his mid-section. The cloth was reminiscent of a kilt, rather than the loincloth worn by the Navajo; it had been bleached white, and had a stylized image of a sidewinder snake embroidered onto it with coarse yellow, green and red thread; a second band of black was embroidered along its lower fringe. The native’s boots, which looked like they were made of deer or elk leather, came to mid-calf and were fringed. He had red and blue colored strips of fabric tied just above his knees.
The men were dismounted. The Lord’s mule blocked the trail and from the Lady’s perspective was bleached white by the glare of the sun. The two guides’ mules were standing fully in the shade, passively eating from the feedbags attached to their necks. These mules were piled high with camping gear and water skins, leaving no room for a saddle. The guides, apparently intended to walk. The Lady stopped between her husband and the guides, at the point where the sun met permanent shadow, beside the canyon wall. She stood fully in the sun, she nudged her mule into the shade.
There was a moment of silence while her husband took one last drag on the cigarette he was smoking, and then ground it into the earth with the heel of his dusty brown hob-nailed boot. When the Lord finally made the introductions he address the Hermit, “Louis Boucher, this is my wife Jeanette.” He nodded towards his wife and said, “Mr. Boucher will be our guide.”
The Lady held out her gloved right had, which to her surprise the man shook rather than kissed. As he did so, she said, “L’ermite?”
“Bien sûr” the man replied.
“Une plaisure de faire vôtre connaissance.”
The Lord scowled. His French was poor. The Lady was impressed that the Hermit presented himself so well. Most prospectors were quite coarse.
The Lady nodded toward the Hopi guide and asked the Hermit, in French, “comment il s’appelle?”
“Pachu’a”, he replied.
The native nodded his head and smiled.
The Lady turned to face the native directly, and said while curtsying ever so slightly, “Um waynuma”2.
The native’s smile broadened. His teeth were stained yellow from tobacco, one of his front teeth was black. He replied, “Um-pi-tuh”.
The woman looked sideways at her husband. His scowl had been replaced with the terse smile he used when he was annoyed by other people’s successes.
“Do you know many American Indian languages?”, the Hermit asked the Lady.
“Not even one, although my grandmother claims her grandmother was a Potawatomi woman.”
The Lord broke up the discussion by reaching out and grabbing the rein of his wife’s mule and tugging the beast onto the path and in to the sun. The Lady, with a short, sharp motion, yanked the rein out of her husband’s hand. The scowl returned to his face. He tersely said, “It’s time to go.” As he spoke, the Lord awkwardly mounted his mule. His left leg buckled on his first attempt, but after a brief struggle he succeeded on the second. He began the descent without a backwards glance. His wife followed: although she had mounted her mule before her husband, she let him go first. The guides followed on foot, leading their mounts with thin black leather reins.
The path into the Canyon was steep, ill-defined and surprisingly cold because the part of the trail they were on was still sheltered from the rising sun. That was not a bad thing. The cloudless and deep blue sky promised a wickedly hot day.
They rode together in silence. Eventually the Lord addressed his Lady. “Do you think Miss Astor will marry the Duke?” He spoke over his left shoulder to his wife, who rode just behind him.
“What?” Her husband’s Fifth Avenue gossip was out of context, so it took a moment for the Lady to realize what he had just said. She replied before he could repeat himself. “Let me return the question to you, dear. Do you think it will be a good marriage?” The path narrowed as they approached a switchback. To their right was a small, steep gully, to their left the canyon wall. The Lady maneuvered her mule so that she rode directly behind her husband. He had taken off his hat and was rubbing his profusely sweating face with the dark red, cowboy-style neck scarf that he had tied to his sun-burnt neck. As he turned the corner of the switchback, a stone was dislodged by the foot of his mule. It fell into the gully, causing a small slide of gravel that looked like red steam.
When the path widened again, the Lord said “It is a good match. She is very rich. And he is noble.” He spoke toward the Canyon. As a result his words echoed faintly.
“She may be rich. But I understand that he is a philanderer”, his wife replied.
The Lord guffawed and then quickly composed himself, “That is to be expected of a man of that station.”
The Lady stopped her mule, and shouted to her husband’s back, her face white from rage, “Are you a man of that station?” The Lord kicked his mule to make it pick up its pace, but did not reply. Pachu’a cut into the space between the Churchills. The Lady fell back until she was abreast the Hermit.
When the Lady finally regained her composure she said sub voce, “Pardon me, Mr. Boucher.”
He replied that her heated words with her husband had not offended him. Although he spoke in French, he made a point of speaking quietly, and directly toward the Lady so her husband could not hear that they were conversing at all.
“Do let us talk about something more pleasant”, she replied. There was another moment of silence while she thought of what that might be, then she said, “Is there a theme for this trek, or a lesson that you like to impart to visitors? Or perhaps a gimmick?”
The Hermit thought for a moment and then replied, “No, but when asked I always reply that this loop is a complete adventure, beginning and ending with a sunrise. What that adventure will be, however, I can not predict.”
The Lady nodded. “That reminds me of an aphorism of my grandfather’s, ‘You can have everything in a day.’”
“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones.”
His words startled a flock of birds that had been hiding in the shadows below them.
The Lady nudged her mule past her husband. The Hermit followed on her right, beside the edge of the path. The Lord lingered for a minute more before he continued. Pachu’a passively kept his mule several paces back; the Hopi followed the Lord when he began riding again.
“What was that about?”, the Hermit asked the Lady, while nodding toward her husband. They were far enough ahead of him that their conversation was private.
She replied, “He was quoting Ezekiel. He did the same thing when we visited Mount Sinai. He thinks that he can achieve penance for his misdeeds through bible study and prayer.”
“I see. What about you? Do you try to elicit favors from God? Or ask Him to forgive your sins?”
“The last time I prayed, I asked God to strike my Sunday school teacher dead with a lightening bolt. But to answer your question, no I do not ask favors of God, it is bad religion as well as bad policy. Not that I couldn’t use one or two favors, myself.”
The Hermit replied in a quiet voice, “If I understand your situation correctly, it would require just one favor for your fortune to be perfect.” He glanced at the Lord, who was once again rubbing his pallid, sweaty face.
“Indeed.” She smiled ruefully. “But enough of such talk. Tell me a story. Tell me a story about here.”
The Hermit smiled as he replied, “My pleasure, Madame. This place is called Sipápuni3 by the Hopi, which means the Place of Emergence … ”
The sun was high in the sky. The air was now burning hot except in pockets in the narrow strips of permanent shadow that clung to the canyon walls, and in the sparse shade provided by the Yucca trees. Lord Churchill had once again covered his head with his Roughrider hat, and covered his neck and lower face with his cowboy kerchief.
They entered the valley after several more switchbacks. The canyon wall was to their right and the Colorado River to their left. As they rode, the area on the right side of their path gradually rose to form a wall and then narrowed into a channel through rock, like a wedge: above them the canyon was wider. To their left, a steep embankment led down to the water.
Eventually the wall to their right completely blocked their path and they needed to ford the river. It was the last day of September, after a dry summer, so the river was very shallow. The mules lived up to their sure-footed reputation by making the descent down the now rocky embankment with no incident. As they forded the little stream they caught a glimpse of a brown rattlesnake hiding in the shade of a rock.
On the other side of the river they encountered a small group of natives who were resting in a cool dark outcropping of rock. The natives were elaborately decorated. One had white dots painted on his legs and wore a hat with two white horns. The effect was both comical and sinister. The man beside him was painted in two colors of red. A third, on whose back was tattooed a black spider, sat with a large diamond-headed sidewinder rattlesnake in his lap. The fourth man stood apart from his companions. He had no markings on him whatsoever. This last man noticed the travelers first. He calmly rose, approached the Hermit and asked, “Where are you going, Looie?”
The Hermit stopped; the party followed suit. He replied. “We’re going as far as Cameron’s trail, and then returning to the South Rim via the Village. What about you?”
“We are on our way to Ovapai to fight with Tawákwaptiwa and his brothers. We are going your way. Let us walk together.”
While the Hermit and the native conversed about the causes of the dispute, the Lord moved protectively beside his wife. He pulled back his jacket, revealing his Remington revolver. He fiddled with the rifle strapped to the back of his mount, but did not remove it. His show of force was wasted, for the warriors were watching the Hermit. Boucher signaled for the natives to join him. They rose and began to collect their scant belongings into fatigued leather pouches.
The Hermit edged his mule toward the path. Pachu’a followed closely behind. The Lord and the Lady brought up the rear, still mounted on their mules, she with her hand near the bowie knife she had strapped to her right calf, his hand rested on the pearl handle of his revolver.
The Lady made a motion to pull ahead of her husband. When she did, her husband said, in a loud whisper,“Jenny, ride with me. I want to tell you something, in private.” She dutifully fell back, expecting a lecture about how she needed to be wary of natives.
The Lord rubbed his face with his red kerchief, while steering his mule with his legs. He retied the damp kerchief, and then began to speak, tentatively, “I decided to embark on this adventure because I hoped that the dry climate would help to cure my … condition. I think that my plan has worked. I am feeling better than I have all year …” He scratched a dried scab on his left hand with his right. “I was thinking that tonight would be a good night for us to conceive an heir.”
“We already have a daughter.”
“You know what I mean.” When she did not reply, he spoke again, “A male heir.”
Lady Churchill snapped, “I think that it would be best to conceive our next child when you are fully recovered.” She glowered at her husband for an instant, and then kicked her legs into the side of her mount. Her mule sluggishly picked up its pace until she was once again beside the Hermit. Pachu’a fell back until he was abreast the Lord, who was moving forward very slowly. The native warriors walked in between.
The Hermit pulled abreast of the Lady and said, in a whisper, “There is one person between you and a perfect fortune; that same person promises you a life of misery.”
The Lady smiled tersely as she replied, “Let’s not dwell on my domestic problems, Monsieur Boucher. Most women have much more serious problems than an unfaithful husband. For example poverty. I am rich and resourceful. I can cope.” She nudged her mule and pulled away from the smiling Hermit.
The natives began a low chant that was almost a hum. It was strange music to walk by because it was reminiscent of the irregular sounds of the canyon, and did not match their walking rhythm, which was slow and steady, except when rough, rocky terrain obstructed them.
A rattle snake hissed. The travelers all stopped moving and the Hopi stopped chanting.
The Lady scanned the path in front of her until she spotted the dust-colored snake, partially covered in the shadow cast by a wedge of sedimentary rock. It was not within striking distance. She was still, afraid more of her mount throwing her out of fear than the snake.
The Hopi encircled the snake. Its back was a lattice of white diamond scales set against a background of dusty gray-green. It had been lying on the ground in a stretched S shape but had now tightly coiled itself and raised its head. It moved its head in a semi-circle, sticking its tongue out to sense the air.
Pachu’a carefully moved behind the snake. Once in position, he crawled toward it very slowly. When he was one arm’s length away, his hands darted out, the left grabbing the snake’s throat, the right its tail. He slowly stood up from his crouch, still holding the snake. His thigh muscles strained from the effort of rising slowly. He turned to face his companions.
Pachu’a showed the snake to each native in turn. Although their faces’ remained solemn the Lady sensed that Pachu’a was showing off.
When Pachu’a had completed his circuit he gestured for the group to continue. Once they had disappeared around the first bend he returned the snake to the spot where he found it, found his mule (it had tried to hide itself in the scant shadow of a Yucca tree) and relentlessly prodded his mule in an attempt to catch up with the group.
After an hour, the natives headed off on a diagonal path, along an off-track shortcut that approached the Havapai village from the back. The Lord’s group continued along the south bank of the Colorado River. The trail was flat and exposed; the dry air searingly hot.
The canyon narrowed again. They reached a choke point where a spur of rock enclosed on the path. They spotted a shadow under the tree. As they got near they saw that the shadow was an old man.
The tops of the old man’s limbs, fingers and toes were lined with dots of white paint that made him look like a skeleton. He was covered in a filthy blanket that was decorated in white diamond shapes, like the skin of the rattlesnake they had just encountered; a horned felt hat hung from his neck by a coarsely woven cord.
The Hermit signaled for the group to pause. He nodded toward Pachu’a, who proceeded purposefully forward. Pachu’a greeted the old man in Hopi, and then reached into a pouch tied to his waist and pull out a small handful of cactus flowers which he presented to the old man, who cupped his hands in order to receive the flowers, and then placed them in a battered tin bowl near his feet.
“What did Pachu’a say?”, the Lady asked the Hermit in a quiet voice.
“Greetings Másaw. Please let us use this land. We will respect it.” As the Hermit spoke, a tiny pink striped snake emerged from the rock enclosure in which the old man sat. Pachu’a quickly picked it up, the same way he had done with the rattlesnake. He presented it to the old man who laughed, clapped his hands, and then bowed to the snake but did not take it.
Pachu’a knelt to the ground and released the snake. It quickly slithered under the rocks to the right of the old man.
The old man spoke once again, with a cracked, dry voice; the Hermit translated for the couple, “You may use this land. But do not forget that you are here to fulfill the Plan of Creation.”
Pachu’a bowed from his neck, and then stepped back into the group. The Churchills, not certain how to respond, bowed and curtsied.
[The Hermit approached the old man, clasped his right hand for a moment. He then removed a paper bag from his satchel and handed it to the old man, who did not open the bag to inspect the present, but he did smile gratefully.]
They continued along the path, with everyone on foot and in single file: the path had narrowed to the width of one mule. The valley edge now encroached on the river to such an extent that there was no longer an embankment; a half-arch of rock towered over the path.
The old man joined them. He walked in front, as if he were now their guide.
The Lady drew abreast of Boucher and asked, “Can I talk to him?” She nodded toward Másaw. “Will you translate?”
They quickened their place slightly until they were beside the old shaman. Boucher spoke first. The old man responded with a toothless smile and nodded. Boucher turned to the Lady and invited her to begin her interrogation. Her first question was, “Are you a shaman?” The Hopi man smiled and shrugged.
“Yes”, the Hermit replied.
“Do the Hopi believe in God?”
The old man spat out a couple of syllables. The Hermit translated, “Not in the way you mean.”
“But you have gods?”
“There are spirits, life-force in everything. Some are more powerful than others.”
“Is there a prime spirit, like Jupiter, in the Hopi religion?”
The Hermit answered her question directly, rather than referring it to the old shaman, “Yes. The principal Hopi god is named Tawa. He is the sun god. But unlike Jupiter he prefers not to get involved in the affairs of men.” Boucher then translated the conversation to the old shaman, who indicated his agreement by nodding his head.
“Are there other important deities?” the Lady asked.
Boucher translated Másaw’s reply , “Spider Woman. In many ways she is a more a influential being than Tawa. I think of her as fate.”
“I see.” The Lady nodded her head and then asked, “Mr. Boucher, what is the significance of those cactus flowers you gave Másaw?”
“I gave him Peyote. It is used in religious ceremonies.”
The Lord, who was now leading the troop, stopped his horse and turned around. The entire group stopped behind him. He said, “You have peyote? We will talk about this at our next stop.” He wheeled his horse around and continued the trek.
It was now late afternoon. Although it was still bright outside, the sun was low enough in the sky that its light did not shine where they were walking. Their path was increasingly covered in shadow.
They followed the trail around a bend. The path widened considerably, while still remaining under the shadow of the valley wall. The Hermit walked his mule to an outcropping on the inner side of the path, and tied its rein to it. He then turned to the group and said, “We’ll camp here.”
Pachu’a unpacked the kindling the Hermit had packed for their camp fire, which he quickly started. Minutes before they had been fatigued by the heat, but the air in the cave was cool, dry and still. They sat around the fire, in a broad circle which calmly burned. There was no wind to stir the air.
They ate dried beef and drank water for dinner. When they were done, the Lord abruptly rose and addressed the river, “Mr. Boucher, I’d like to converse with you in private.” The Hermit nodded. The two men walked away from the camp to a place where the path was exposed to sunlight. It was far brighter outside the shadow cast by the overhanging rock, but quickly getting darker. They spoke briefly then the Lord returned to the camp fire, a chesire-cat grin on his face, while the Hermit smoked a cigarette just outside the light of the fire. When Boucher returned to the group the Lord said, “Jenny. Come here now.” His wife dutifully rose and followed him to the edge of the campfire, on the side opposite to the Hermit. The Lord made a show of having a private conversation, even though their voices were still audible to Másaw and Pachu’a because of the echoing acoustics of the half-cave.
“Jenny. I have spoken with Mr. Boucher about that new man, Másaw. It seems he is a shaman. If we wish, we can engage in a religious ceremony tonight. It will be like the ayahuasca ceremony in Peru, except with snakes and not condors. Are you interested?”
“Very good.” The Lord eagerly rubbed his scabrous hands together.
Pachu’a began to grind the peyote flowers, which looked like hand-made buttons, into powder. He then added water to the powder, which created a paste. When the paste was fluid enough to drink he poured it into a series of small clay bowls. Másaw sat beside Pachu’a, periodically giving him instructions.
The sun had long since set. The sky was so full of stars that the heavens looked like a web. Another web of shadows danced around the fire. The edges of the canyon, which in daytime were in permanent shadow, were now black as pitch.
“Drink this”. Pachu’a handed the Lord one of the clay bowls. It was full to the brim with the cactus flower paste.
The Lord took it and drank deeply. He handed the bowl to his wife. The Lady had a small sip, began to hand the bowl to Louis Boucher, had second thoughts and took a second small sip. When the bowl was handed to the Hermit, he immediately gave it to Másaw, who drained what remained in one long draught. They repeated the ceremony; on the second pass Boucher did have one small sip from the bowl. Moments after the peyote was finished, the Lord began to cough, as if he were choking. His palsied hands struggled with his waist coat; eventually he produced a silver flask of whiskey, which his shaking hands struggled to open. He drank until the flask was empty. When done, he paused. Then he coughed furiously until he had no energy to cough at all. He sat for a few, long, moments with his bent head held up by his hands. His long, thin hair fell forward, over his face.
While the Lord vomited onto his dusty Roughrider boots, the Hermit handed the Lady a skin full of water, from which she drank. In the middle of her draught she became so nauseous that she sat bent over her legs, with her arms cupped over her head for several minutes, and retched.
An unseen hand helped her re-find her equilibrium. When she looked up again, she saw that her husband had also composed himself. Her nausea had passed; she felt fine.
She noticed that her senses were sharper than normal, and more sensitive. Even though it was night, in the dim starlight she felt overwhelmed by sensations: sounds, lights, smells. The slopes of the canyon rose solemnly all around her. She could faintly hear the babble of the Colorado River. The more she listened the more it sounded like a cacaphony of voices talking to her.
The air was full of vibrations.
A visitor emerged from a web of shadows in the darkest part of the campground, the area of permanent shadow.
The Lady asked, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” She whispered her questions. For some reason she did not want the others to hear. They hadn’t noticed the apparition. He replied, “I am Sotuknang. I bring you a message.” He was old, his skin was dry and gaunt but his body had a sinewy strength. His long, thick black hair was tied into strands by beads.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Look at the shadows.”
She looked to where he pointed, at the shadows cast by the campfire on the walls of the cave. She fell into a trance while looking at them, as if ensnared in a web.
The shadows began to organize themselves into a story. She saw a flood wash away the world. Then the water shadows drained away and the ground opened up. From the dark deep hole the shadows of people emerged and spread out into the night. Many lingered around the campfire; a shadowy crowd that mingled with the flames.
The scene changed again. The dark shadows where the stranger had once been standing resolved into the face of a very old woman. Her eyes were shut. Her sockets were like pits lined with wrinkles. Her hair was a web of dark brown roots that merged with the flickering shadows. The woman sat cross legged on the ground. Her eyes remained closed but she was looking at everyone and everything. She reached her hands out to the Lady, palms facing up. Jenny rose, moved to beside the old woman, knelt down and grasped them.
“What do you want?” Spider Woman asked.
The Lady knew what she wanted most, though she kept that desire locked in the shadowy recesses of her mind.
Behind her someone fell to the ground with a thump.
Lady Churchill did not immediately turn around even though there was a commotion behind her. She continued to stare at the web of hair and wrinkles and shadows. The web grew darker and blacker until Spider Woman disappeared into blackness.
When Jenny finally turned around to look at her prostrate husband she knew immediately that he was dead. He had hit his jaw on a rock when he fell, the force of impact had broken his neck. His hips, which had followed his body to the ground, were twisted awkwardly so that his legs were skewed. She had dreamed of this moment in her mind’s eye every day since she had discovered her husband’s syphilis. In her mind’s eye the scene of her release was always a funeral home or hospice, and she always imagined feeling relief mixed with joy and expectation at her husband’s death, but now she felt nothing.
She let the shadows smother her senses and wrap her in sleep.
When she remembered her husband she lay still for a moment wondering how accurate her memory was. She lay on her back and looked up at the bright morning sky, but with closed eyes. She asked the Hermit, “Est-il mort?”
“Oui. Your husband is still dead”, the Hermit replied.
She opened her eyes. The rock face was above her, but its shadows were thin. Outside she could see daylight creeping along the top of the cliff. She heard Pachu’a making coffee.
“Dead!”, she shouted. The word echoed like a chime against the canyon walls.
Jenny pulled herself up and took a seat on a rock by the camp fire. The Hermit offered her a mug of coffee and sat down beside her. She said, “Who was that man?”
The Hermit replied, “You mean Másaw? He’s a Hopi shaman …”
“No. The man last night who was dressed like a Hopi warrior.”
“There was no other man.”
“I see. And there was no woman with hair like a web of roots?”
“Peyote makes you see things that aren’t there.”
“How did my husband die?”
“He had a heart attack and then broke his neck when he fell. If I may be so bold …”
“I think that it would be better if you returned alone. The Lord’s death could make trouble for us.”
“Of course. And please do not worry. I will take care of everything. How far is it to Cameron’s trail?”
“Less than one mile straight along this path.”
“Can you secure my husband to my mule before you leave?”
“It has already been done.”
“Its going to be an interesting day today, isn’t it”, the Hermit said after he strapped the last of the camping gear to his mule.
“I agree” Jenny replied. “There is a whole universe of possibilities awaiting me …”
Gas escaped from the corpse.
“You’d best hurry. Bon chance, Madame”. The Hermit and his companion were gone in moments.
Jenny Churchill grabbed the reins of the two mules and began the short walk to Cameron’s trail. As she walked, she thought, “Cameron will certainly earn his fee today, dealing with my late husband. He probably charges his dead clients double.”
She laughed. Yesterday she could have left her deceased husband’s body for the vultures, but today rancor was a burden. She didn’t need burdens. Or favors. Not even hope.
She pulled down the brim of her hat and then stepped out of the shadows into the light of the indifferent sun.
“The Doctor returned last night”. Harriet fluffed her mother’s pillow, carefully pulled back one corner of the duvet cover, and then helped her mother up from her wheelchair onto her bed. The transfer was an effort for both women, so it was a moment before their conversation continued.
Mother spoke next, ”I’m so glad he got back safely. I don’t know why he goes on those dangerous voyages when his daughter is still a child.”
”He’s the Anderson’s top scientist. I imagine he has to do what he’s told.”
He didn’t have to leave his daughter in the care of that brute he has for a brother-in-law.
“Jimmy is a brute, but Katherine takes good care of Caitlin.”
“Dutiful wife and sister.” Harriet spoke with contempt.
Thus far the conversation was to type: Harriet and her mother’s opinions about Doctor Hofstaedter and his family had not changed for years.
”What did the Doctor say when he saw Daniel in that awful cell; or was he too tired to notice? You know how tired people can be so good at not noticing.”
“He was plenty tired when he arrived. He looked terrible, like he hadn’t slept in months. But he noticed Daniel, alright.”
The conversation paused for a minute while Harriet’s elderly mother propped herself up, so that she was more comfortable. When she was done, Mother eagerly asked, “What happened?”
Harriet replied, ”The moment the Doctor saw Daniel in his cell he just stopped. His whole entourage stopped, the porters, his man, Caitlin.”
”His daughter was there?”
“Of course she was there. She hasn’t seen her father in well over a year! You couldn’t separate them.”
“She’s a sweetheart, isn’t she?”
” I sometimes fear that her heart is too good for this world.”
”She’s going to have to lose some innocence; the world’s certainly not going to get more virtuous on her account.
“She already has. Remember how she looked when her Uncle took the money she was going to use to bribe the auditor.”
Mom nodded in agreement then asked, “So what did the Doctor do?”
“For a long moment he didn’t move. I didn’t even see him breathe. It was like he was trying to find the energy to do anything at all. But when he moved again, he moved quickly. First he whispered something to his man, who disappeared up the stairs with the porters in tow. Then he told his daughter to go to bed. After that he turned around and marched out the door.”
“What did Caitlin do?
”She followed her father, of course. She’s like her father very determined once she’s chosen a path.”
“It took almost an hour for the Doctor to return but I didn’t notice the time because the foyer was filling up with people. Every time someone new arrived I had to tell them the story all over again.”
“What about Mrs. Ellison?”
“She was standing on the edge of the foyer. Bruno was with her, of course.”
Mother nodded as she pictured the scene in her head. After a sip of water, Harriet resumed her story.The Doctor returned with his daughter and a blacksmith. By this time his eyes were dark red and his hands were so unsteady that Caitlin had to open the door for him.
“Had he been drinking?”
“The Doctor never drinks!”
“Habits change, daughter. Tell me more about Mrs. Ellison.”
“Be patient, Mother. I’ll tell you about Mrs. Ellison when it matters.”
Harriet straightened her skirt, and then continued, “The Doctor walked straight to the cell, past Bruno, Mrs. Ellison, everyone, as if we didn’t exist.”
”Harriet, I’ve known Doctor Hofstaedter since he was a child. Be certain he knew everyone’s location and rank.”
Harriet ignored her mother’s comment and continued. She said, “The Doctor stopped one step before the cell. He turned to face Bruno, his hand on the hilt of his saber, ready to draw. The locksmith and Caitlin were behind his back. The locksmith fired up a gas torch. He could have picked the lock, but the Doctor had ordered him to break the gate into pieces.”
Mother laughed and clapped. “What wonderful news! Why that’s the best news.” She quickly became serious. ”Harriet, if your father had lived, this whole episode with Daniel would never have happened. You know that.”
Harriet nodded her head obligingly. She didn’t know that, but liked to share her mother’s dreams about what might have been.
Mother asked, ”What happened to Daniel?”
When the gate to his cell was destroyed Daniel immediately ran out and cowered behind the Doctor. Bruno tried to intervene, but when the Doctor drew his sword , he thought better of it and backed off toward the door.”
“What about Mrs. Ellison?”
“She was screaming that Daniel’s imprisonment was legal, that he was a hoarder, and that his imprisonment was a mercy because he should have been hanged for what he did.”
“Such a fight, in such a small space.”
“It was like a stage at a theatre. Everyone but the main actors had run up to the mezzanine or out into the street to watch from a safe distance.”
”Did Bruno attack the Doctor?”
“Bruno was carrying a large wrench in his right hand – the one he uses with the boiler. You could see him trying to decide whether to attack the Doctor, and mark my words he was going to, when the door was pushed open by the Doctor’s man, who had arrived with two tough looking friends. I don’t trust that man, but I understand now why the Doctor retains his services.”
Mother nodded and Harriet continued speaking, ”The Doctor stepped toward the entrance to join his people. Caitlin and Daniel were one step behind. They formed a line at the door. The Doctor was in the center. His daughter was on his left side, in front of the stained glass window. The Doctor’s man and his ruffian friends were by the entrance to the mud room.”
“Where was Daniel?”
“While they were gathering at the door, Daniel slipped out and ran away. He didn’t even have shoes on.”
“What happened next?
“It was the Doctor’s show. Even though he was so weary he could barely stand”. He said in a public voice, ‘Why was Daniel imprisoned?’ It was like the beginning of an ancient Greek trial.”
“How do you know that?”
“Alright, so tell me about Mrs. Ellison.”
“Mrs. Ellison was standing at the foot of the stairs under our License. She said, ‘Its like I’ve been saying, the prisoner is a hoarder. There’s a war on right now, and he had a sack of rice he wasn’t sharing. There was a fair trial and he was convicted. We should have executed him.'”
“What did the Doctor say to that?” Mother asked.
“He ignored Mrs. Ellison. Instead drew his sabre and pointed it at Bruno and asked in his most proper voice, ‘Who is this man?’ Bruno stepped into the middle of the foyer, two paces from the Doctor. He bowed and said, ‘Bruno Constantinus, at your service’.”
Bruno can be polite? Mother asked caustically.
”He brandished his wrench before he bowed”, her daughter replied.
“Didn’t the Doctor’s man do anything?
“He moved to block Bruno but the Doctor signaled for him to back off. But let me finish! After Bruno introduced himself, he walked right up to the Doctor and said very politely, Mister, you are upsetting the Lady.”
”Lady…!”, Mother laugh while she slapped her knee.
Harriet nodded, ”You’re of the same mind as the Doctor. He took two steps sideways – toward the entrance and away from his people – and shouted so loudly he could be heard across the street, ‘This man is calling Mrs. Ellison a Lady! Hah! There is nothing noble about that woman!'”
”The Doctor was making room for his sabre, wasn’t he?” Mother asked.
Harriet nodded. “Then Bruno did something very stupid.”
“The poignard? Mother hazarded, with a worried tone in her voice.
Harriet nodded, ”Bruno pulled back his cloak to reveal that rusty knife he calls an heirloom.”
Mother used her pillows to raise herself half way out of her bed, “Oh no. Bruno didn’t … ?”
“The instant Bruno placed a hand on the knife the Doctor killed him with one cut through the heart.”
“In front of Caitlin! Poor child. Is she alright?”
“I don’t think so know, but she can’t be. As Bruno collapsed she smiled that flat terse smile of hers.”
“Her secret smile. What about Mrs. Ellison?
“When Bruno died Mrs. Ellison went crazy. She started shouting at the Doctor, and pounding her fists against his chest. She went on about food shortages and how dangerous hoarders are, and how letting one person get away with crime encourages everyone to try.”
“What did the Doctor do?”
“He didn’t do anything, he just studied Mrs. Ellison, like she was a specimen.”
Harriet continued, “Guess what happened next? Two policemen showed up!”
Mother was so thrilled the story had another chapter she slapped her palsied knee again. Her daughter continued, “The Doctor was the person with the highest rank at the scene of the crime, so of course he explained to the officers why there was a corpse. The police accepted the Doctor’s claim that he had killed Bruno in self-defense. One policeman actually ticketed Bruno for possessing an illegal weapon. He said, ‘That’s what happens when commoners wear swords.'”
The policeman’s comment fired Mother up. She said, “That cop is an ass. Bruno was just too stupid for his weapon.”
Harriet smiled at her Mother but her narrative did not miss a beat, “You won’t believe what happened next. Two more policemen entered with Daniel, handcuffed, between them.
”What did Mrs. Ellison do? She she try to show them the court records?”
“She wanted to say something. She stood right behind the Doctor, muttering to herself like she was practicing her lines.”
“But she didn’t?”
”No. The Doctor didn’t give her a chance. He was very civil. He invited all four policemen to warm themselves by the coal heater, and sent his man upstairs for drinks. The newly arrived policemen said that they were here because they had found Daniel, without any shoes, at the carriage depot. Because he had been branded with this address, they suspected he was a felon or escaped slave.”
“As his man handed the policemen drinks, the Doctor informed them that Daniel had been a prisoner here but new evidence had come to light, and he was now free.” Harriet imitated the Doctor’s formal style of speech as she recounted his words. ”He gave the officers extravagant gratuities and asked them to please ensure Daniel got shoes, a change of clothes and a coach ticket to Anchorage. The Doctor asked for their names and ranks to ensure compliance. As the policemen left, the Doctor shouted after them in a loud, hearty voice, ‘Officers, I will commend you to the Anderson.'”
”That’s so like the Doctor”, Mother said drily.
Harriet continued, “As soon as the policemen were gone the Doctor shooed everyone out of the foyer promising that everything would be set in order at the next board meeting. He had his people take care of Bruno. They did a good job. There’s no sign of blood at all.”
”That’s quite a story, Harriet. Did it really happen or is that pitiful man still imprisoned under the stairs?”
”Daniel’s free Mother. He’s at his parent’s house in Anchorage.”
Mother reached over to clasp her daughter’s hands in hers. ”Harriet, I fear that my generation has let you down: we’re leaving you a world far worse than the one we inherited. Just like our parents and grandparents did.”
”Nonsense Mother. The Doctor is back. All it takes is a few good people to turn everything around.”
”Harriet, there are never enough good people.”
Our boat, the Yéil, a seven mast, 250 foot schooner, skirted around the ruins of the US Bank Tower and sailed into Los Angeles Bay. The Bay is a narrow but long stretch of water between Long Beach Island to the west and what is left of southern California to the east. We were traveling to a village of perhaps 5,000 souls, where the natives lived – if the hyperbolic words of our scouts could be trusted – amidst a treasure of ruins. Our progress through the Bay was slow because we continuously had to stop to take soundings. The Captain cursed the fools who had made his inaccurate charts, but to me his anger seemed self-indulgent. The collapse of Los Angeles into the Pacific Ocean is a work in progress: better to curse the Earth for moving.
As we neared our destination, we were greeted by a ramshackle flotilla of rafts made of tires and scavenged pieces of plastic. The thin metal masts on these contraptions were fashioned into crude S shapes that looked like dollar signs. We dropped anchor in a sheltered lagoon perhaps three hundred metres from the edge of the village, which was situated in the deepest part of the bowl formed by the bay. The tire-rafts were too light- weight relative to the wind, tide and the waves to maintain a fixed position, so instead bobbed in a slow rotation around us.
The Yéil was oriented to the south-west. Long Beach Island was directly in front of us. The island at most points was little more than a sandbar. On its northern tip, which I now faced, it was far more substantial because a web of ruined expressways had trapped enough sand and seaweed to sustain agriculture. The natives grew several types of fruit including mangoes, pineapples and oranges. The crops had to be genetically modified because the combination of intense summer temperatures, salt-saturated winds and contamination from ruins made the environment inhospitable to most flora: only tough plants grew naturally, particularly bay hops, scrubby pine trees and sawgrass. Our estimate of the island’s total population – 20,000 – was far higher than seemed sustainable.
A dinghy, which I was surprised to see powered by a 2 horse power engine, pushed through the rafts and pulled up along side us. It had two inhabitants, a fair-skinned, lanky young man with knotted blond hair, and a much darker skinned woman with henna-red hair and freckles. The man was shirtless, save for a strip of cloth he tied neatly around his neck, and draped down his chest. He wore finely woven blue pants, which were held up by red, white and blue striped suspenders. The woman was partially covered by a ragged dress, which was also made of red, white and blue material. Her hair was tied into neat braids to which were fastened small coins; she had currency tattoos all over her body.
We threw a rope ladder over the side of the boat. I gestured for the man and woman to come aboard. They declined. Rhonda, our staff anthropologist, mimed that we were interested in visiting the village. The natives did not immediately reply. Instead, the man turned off his boat’s engine, rose, placed his thumbs into his suspenders – no mean feat in a dinghy – and addressed us. He spoke in unaccented Television English. “I see that you are from Alaska.” He nodded toward the image of the raven painted onto the bow of our ship. “You’ve come a long way. Catch.” He threw each of us a fruit. Rhonda caught her orange, I caught my lemon on a rebound, and the Captain – a bluff, unsteady man – had to retrieve his avocado from a pile of rope. The native spokesman frowned pensively as he sat down. Before he had a chance to interpret the dropped avocado as some form of bad omen, our anthropologist said, “My name is Rhonda. May we stay here for a few days? We would like to purchase – or trade for – provisions. We have many things that will interest you.”
Again the native spokesman stood up. As he did so his small boat was buffeted by the wake made by our nearly stationary, but large ship. He managed to remain balanced. “Nice to meet you Rhonda. My name is Cody. I am the PIMCO.” He spoke his title in a loud, strong voice that carried far out into the bay. He then gestured toward his female companion.
“This is Luck.”
After we returned their greetings, Cody resumed speaking, “You are welcome to stay until the anniversary of Default Tuesday, which you must know is in two days. We have fresh water, and plenty of avocados, tomatoes and citrus fruit.” A small wave knocked his boat; he hastily sat down.
At the request of Doctor Hofstaedter, the aloof, aristocratic man who represented our Patrons’ interests on this expedition, Rhonda and I made first contact. We were assigned this dangerous task ostensibly because scientists are better at establishing trust than soldiers.
Our transportation, a motorized rubber boat called a Zodiac, was lowered into the water by a hoist. Rhonda and I descended separately using a rope ladder. The Pacific Ocean was choppy enough that entering the boat was awkward, but we were unencumbered so did so with no incident.
If the wind had been favourable we would have rigged a sail, but it was not. We turned on the engine and headed across the lagoon toward a spit of land on the north-east side of the native village. The flotilla of tires haphazardly followed us. About 200 metres inland from the spit I could see the ruins of an office building poking out of the ground. According to my charts, it had once been twenty stories high; now ten of those stories were buried. A symmetrical, relatively intact, second tower was beside it, to the south. Although the intact tower was also skewed and buried, to my amazement, its electric lights still worked.
Our craft was faster than any of the native ones, including Cody’s dinghy so we had to cut our engines to avoid beaching before our hosts. We landed just behind Luck and Cody, beside a highway on-ramp the natives used as a dock. The ruined north tower was directly in front of us. To our left, perhaps 100 metres down the beach, was a large collection of lean-tos built in the lee of the partially intact south tower. This was the island’s main population center.
Rather than mooring our Zodiac, which ran the risk of occupying someone’s parking space, we dragged it a short distance onto a desolate section of beach. The natives made no effort to assist us, but when we were done Cody gestured for us to follow him toward a large fire pit situated at the edge of the village.
The natives were dressed in scavenged beach-ware. Most men wore shiny shorts, no shirt, and sandals made of automobile tires. Their hair was roughly cut, when cut at all, and almost always tied back with electrical cables. Some cables still had plugs attached. The women for the most part wore only bikini bottoms, although some wore smocks made of re-purposed materials; a few wore nothing at all. All of the natives were lean; none looked malnourished. In fact, I was struck by how healthy they were. Even the most wealthy Alaskan has some form of blemish – perhaps a chipped tooth, pock mark or callous. With the notable exception of tattoos and ritual marks, I could not see even one blemish or scar on any of the hundreds of natives who gathered around us.
Rhonda, noticing this as well, whispered to me, “They’re all genetically engineered.”
I nodded. It was a plausible hypothesis. Although there are few genetically modified people in the Republic of Alaska, there are many in California and the Oregon Territories.
Cody gestured for us to sit on a piece of driftwood, which we did. Luck sat to our right, on a large, padded office chair. She made a point of being oblivious to our presence. Rhonda began to speak, but Cody gestured for her to be quiet. We sat cross-legged, resting the palms of our hands on our knees.
After several slow minutes Cody leaned over to me and whispered, “San Bernardino County is beside your right shoulder. That is very unlucky. You should face it directly.” He indicated that I should shift my torso 45 degrees clockwise, so that I was facing due east.
The setting sun shone so brightly the Sierra Nevada mountains looked like burning gold. In the foreground, the tips of sky-scrapers poked out of the water like lesser mountains. They too looked like they were burning, but with the kind of fire created by sparks of light. On the beach, directly in front of me, the natives had constructed a sculpture out of rubble and rebar that echoed the shape of the sinking metropolis.
As the sun set several natives appeared with firewood and kindling. A woman stepped out of the crowd. She carried a small, carved box in which lay a metal canister with a spout. After making a ritual gesture, she removed the canister and poured fuel onto the kindling. Her attendant used a square silver lighter from a sequined pouch to light a fire.
Rhonda choose this moment to attempt to speak again. She addressed Cody, but pitched her voice so that those nearby could hear, “We have a gift for you.” As Rhonda said this she removed a zippered purse from her satchel, which she opened and displayed to our hosts. The purse was stuffed with hyperinflation dollars. She deposited them in the sand half-way between Luck and Cody.
Luck picked up the gift. She carefully closed and re-opened the zipper on the purse, as if zippers had powerful juju. She then handed the purse to Cody, who opened it and removed a wad of ancient currency “They are all singles”, he cooed. Our scouts had told us that the natives valued US one dollar bills because the Hyperinflation had made them rare. When Cody had finished examining the gift he passed it to Luck, who gave it to an attendant.
We waited for a response. If Cody or Luck gave us a gift in return, that would indicate a sense of equality between us. If they didn’t, they thought of our gift as tribute, and us as inferiors.
They gave us nothing. Instead, Luck leaned forward so that her face was only a couple of centimetres away from Cody. She spoke so that everyone nearby could hear, “It is time to play the market. Let us find out whose side they are on, yours or mine.” As if her words weren’t sinister enough, when she spoke the crowd rearranged itself into two distinct camps, one behind Cody, the other behind Luck. Cody’s people wore medallions shaped like dollar signs around their throats, while Luck’s team was adorned with currency tattoos and coins.
“I’m on it”, Cody replied with gravitas. He removed a handful of red and green dice from a plastic pouch that was lying in the sand near his feet. With a small, sharp gesture that engaged only his left forearm, he threw them onto the beach. He dropped onto his knees, leaned forward, and used his right forefinger to trace a line in the sand that connected the dice. The line pointed upward to the right.
While I waited for Cody’s verdict, I looked at Rhonda to see if she thought we should make a run for it. She avoided my gaze, which was an answer to my question: she was staying. I was poised to flee.
Cody spoke, “Mr. Market is happy today.”
Luck stormed away without a word.
Rhonda struck up a conversation with Cody. I could not hear what they were saying, but thought it best not to intrude. I scanned the village for Luck. I spotted her in the middle of a crowd of large, young men who were sorting through a heap of metal on the eastern edge of the village. Periodically one of them would examine a piece of rebar, checking its weight and balance, as if choosing a weapon. Beyond Luck’s group – toward the dock – three women with long grey hair hovered over a cooking pot. They looked like they were brewing a potion. The witches were but a few metres from our Zodiacs – there were now two. The boats were guarded by a pair of Alaskan marines.
It was now dark, and I need light to explore, so I saw no reason to stay. I signaled my intention to return to the Yéil. Rhonda acknowledged me with a wave of a hand – she was preoccupied by her conversation with Cody.
I departed in one of the Zodiacs. Both marines stayed behind. When I reached the Yéil I went straight to bed. I fell asleep in an instant.
The only people awake when I arose early the next morning – aside from the watch – were two divers whose job it was to assess the salvage potential of the sunken metropolis. I checked in on Rhonda; she had not returned.
I was anxious to get an early start because I knew my scope of activity would be sharply curtailed the moment the economic assessment was done. Whether any part of this site would be protected from our miners depended on what I could discover during the next few hours.
Although I was in a rush, I used sail power to get to shore because the wind was with me. I landed just south of where I had done so yesterday, perhaps 100 metres closer to the village. With the exception of a border collie and a lone woman practicing yoga, the beach was empty. The dog, surprisingly healthy looking considering the local living conditions, decided that I was the most interesting thing happening this morning, so chose to accompany me. I wondered if the mutt’s genes had been engineered.
My goal was to investigate the mostly intact south tower. I intended to approach it indirectly, via the ruined north tower, because I did not want to be seen entering it.
I walked north-east along the beach toward the land spit that abutted into the bay. At the point where the spit intersected my path I encountered a group of native fishermen who were preparing for a dive. Their gear, snorkels, flippers and diving suits, was mostly made of old, brittle plastic. One man wore a rusty metal tank on his back that once contained compressed oxygen but was now empty. The fishermen casually greeted me in well-spoken English, but were preoccupied with their work, so otherwise ignored me.
On the other side of the spit I discovered a long hill, or more accurately a kelp-covered wave of asphalt, that originated in the ruined north tower, cut across the beach and went out into the bay. The hill was porous. When the light from the sun was right I could see collapsed bits of highway, half-buried under the silt and kelp.
I carefully climbed up the asphalt wave. I followed its crest for a dozen steps – toward the ruined tower – and then slid into a ravine, unobserved – except for the dog, who still followed me. The ravine was also part of an abandoned highway. I followed it straight to the north tower.
The tower was beyond ruined: all of its windows had long since broken, creating a glittering beach of glass and concrete dust at its base. All that was left was a 10 metre skeleton of rebar and steel beams.
When I passed through some form of security gate, perhaps 20 metres away from the building, a line of green arrows embedded in the roadway became illuminated. The arrows led directly to a large, rectangular metal door at the base of the tower. When I reached the door, I saw that it guarded an entrance. Although the part of the building above the ground was ruined, the below ground portion had been somewhat repaired after the Hayward Quake. The door could not be opened from the outside. However, there was a small service door beside it. I entered the building the way people must have 200 years ago, by pressing a green button. This triggered a buzzing sound, and caused the service door to open inward. Because of a difference in air pressure between the inside and outside, a current of air urged me inward. I entered. My dog companion did not follow.
The space was illuminated by green parking signs, most of which still worked. I was on an asphalt road at the top of a small hill, which I quickly walked down. When I reached the bottom of the hill the road curved to the right and entered one of the odder examples of repurposing I have ever encountered: a parking lot created out of an auditorium, on the eleventh floor of a buried building. The parking lot itself was small – there were spaces for 20 cars, half of which were filled. The cars were all parked on what had once been the auditorium’s wooden stage, although one row of parking had been cut into the clam-shell seating that formed a semi-circle around the stage.
At the edge of the orchestra pit, which was at the base of the stage, I saw a red exit sign, which hung over a pair of wide doors . When I reached the exit, I saw that it opened onto a tunnel to my ultimate destination, the south tower.
The walls of the tunnel were lined with pale blue ceramic tiling and were lit by full-spectrum automatic lights, which suggested late Digital Age technology. On the walls of the tunnel there were safety instructions stenciled in a radiant paint that you could only view from certain angles. That paint was possibly the most advanced technology I’ve ever seen.
The tunnel ended at a circular glass door. When I passed through it into south tower, the entire atrium lit up. It was like the building itself was greeting me.
Although the atrium was intact – no windows were broken, a tile mosaic on the north wall was flawless, and the marble floor was brightly polished – it was an odd sort of intact because everything was slightly skewed: the main structure of the building – indeed the entire landscape – tilted north-west. Rows of offices lined the wall to my right. There was a bank of elevators in the center, and a large entrance to my left through which I could see hovels.
I approached the elevators, and pressed the up button. Despite my boundless curiosity about every aspect of this amazing building I did not hesitate about my destination, which was the top floor. The rich and powerful like to be higher than every one else, so this building’s treasures were likely concentrated there. I watched mesmerized as a flashing display above the elevator bank counted down from 21. When the number hit 11 a bell chimed; the door in front of me opened and I entered. I pressed 21 on the control panel; the doors closed. I expected to be whisked away. The ride was so smooth it took me a moment to realize that I was moving at all.
The elevator doors opened onto what had once been a reception area. Illumination once again accompanied my entrance. To my right I saw a desk, behind which was a hand painted sign that said “City of New Los Angeles”. The sign was propped up by the skeletons of two office chairs. On the wall behind the sign I could see the faded letters P, M and O.
I walked past the guard desk, through a pair of unbroken glass doors, into the inner offices. I scattered a small fortune in metal cans, as I did so.
The space before me had once been divided into cubes by cloth-bound moveable walls. The cloth on these walls had long since rotted away, revealing yellowed plastic frames. Many cubes still had desks, chairs and office machines. That none of this had been scavenged made me suspect the natives considered this a special, possibly sacred space.
Behind the cubes, along the wall immediately in front of me, was a line of offices. The walls and doors of these offices were decorated in ornamental plastic to make them look wooden. My attention was drawn to a large corner office to my left. It stood out because of the votive candles at its base and the $ symbol that had been etched into its plastic maple-wood door.
I tried to open the door, but it was locked.
I had a portable acetylene torch with me, which I used to destroy the lock. When I entered the office, the burnt handle fell off into my hands.
The office was undecorated except for a desk against the left hand wall, and a bank of filing cabinets on the right. The filing cabinets were locked, but the desk was not. I opened a drawer. It was full of paper documents. I picked up the one on top. It was an excerpt from a hand-written diary, which I read,
After the helicopters left we forced our way into the north tower. It was empty, except for one computer engineer. He was having trouble backing up his system, and had unwittingly missed the last chopper. Although I tried to stop it, he was killed. I know nothing about him except that with his death another bit of knowledge is gone.
The chime of an elevator bell startled me
I crawled out of the office, and hide behind a nearby row of dividers. There was a security mirror on the ceiling above me, which allowed me to view most of what happened next.
I watched Cody’s reflection as he exited the elevator and walked over to the office I had just explored. He was dressed simply, in tire sandals and shiny blue shorts. A large $ medallion hung from his neck. I lost sight of him as he entered the office itself, but I could hear him open drawers and shuffle papers. After a moment he exited the office, and walked resolutely toward the elevators. There was a chime, and the sound of an elevator door opening, then closing.
The moment elevator door closed I rushed to the office, swept every loose piece of paper into my satchel, and ran towards the fire exit on the north-east corner of the building. I descended to the eleventh floor, where I was pleased to discover an exit into the courtyard between the north and south towers.
Because this was likely my last chance to explore unhindered, I decided to return to the Yéil via a round-about route that took me initially north and west – away from both the native village and my ship.
At the western edge of the courtyard I discovered a path that wended toward the northern tip of the island. From a distance, the path seemed like it was a smoothly paved relic from the Digital Age, but on closer inspection I saw that it was a more recent construction made of salvaged pieces of concrete and asphalt. In the distance I could see the ruin of the US Bank Tower, hovering over the northern tip of the island.
After I had walked north for perhaps one kilometre I stumbled upon the entrance to an untended garden. It was surrounded by a fence made of long, grey pieces of wood. Where the fence intersected the path there was a gate on which hung the sign, “City of New Los Angeles Sustainable Garden and Waterworks.” I entered through the space between a gatepost and the fence.
As I walked through the orchard, along a path that followed a slight upward incline, I realized that the garden was tended, but by machines, not humans: there were signs of automated controls everywhere, including monitoring devices, and a still functioning irrigation system.
Thirty minutes of slow walking later the garden gave way to an open area, in the center of which was a huge, flat building with long, narrow windows. There was a functioning engine on the western side of the building, which was attached to a pump. Beyond the pump was a semi-circular channel that sloped at an angle into the Pacific Ocean. The building – a desalination plant – was powered by a large, flat field of solar collectors which wrapped around its northern and eastern edges.
I walked around the perimeter of the building. From a distance it appeared intact. Up close I saw that it had been repeatedly vandalized. The vandalism reminded me of another great archeological site I had learned about in school: the ruins of Persepolis. The Persian capital city, reputedly the most beautiful in the ancient world, was destroyed by Alexander the Great. I remember asking a teacher why Alexander had done so and got an uncertain answer to my question: perhaps he was drunk, perhaps his soldiers needed to be paid with loot, perhaps he simply wanted to demonstrate his power.
The midday sun was burning my skin, so I decided to sit in the scented shade of a hedge row of blooming hibiscus bushes. My mind became quiet; for once in my life I forgot about violence and decay. I sat for I do not know how long listening to the sound of birds and wind, and the flow of water through sluices. The machinery itself was silent. Silent machines. That’s what you’d expect in Eden.
I removed my purloined documents from my satchel. The first folder that I opened contained correspondence between the Illinois National Bank and a woman named Miriam Livingston. The cover letter read,
I am pleased that our September wheat call options were in the money. I am writing to make arrangements for the delivery of the wheat to our warehouse at City Pier 3, 222 Ocean Drive, New Los Angeles.
I have enclosed a map, including the latest soundings from Los Angeles Bay. Needless to say, the geography of the region has altered dramatically in the past year.
Please excuse my use of snail-mail, but as you probably know the entire west coast telecommunication system is still down.
Chief Financial Officer, City of New Los Angeles
Attached to the letter was a reply from an organization called Abacus Legal Services. The logo at the top of the letter depicted a blindfolded woman taking a gold colored coin from a scale she held at eye level with her left hand. The address below the logo was Lakeshore Drive in Chicago.
I’m writing on behalf of Dean Wright at Illinois National. I’d like to begin by congratulating the City on its recent, very successful, hedges. Your wheat call options, in particular, were dramatically in the money.
As far as the delivery of the wheat is concerned, I am surprised a sophisticated investor such as yourself did not realize there was no delivery provision in this particular contract (please see Section XXIX of the master trade agreement).
I recommend you take your profits and purchase what you need on the open market. Most financial analysts anticipate that the price of wheat will continue appreciating for the foreseeable future, so act quickly.
We look forward to doing business with the City again.
At the bottom of the letter, in embossed type, were the proud words, “Delivering the world to our clients”.
The next entry read,
I skimmed through the chronicle of Miriam’s attempts to avert the complete collapse of the City’s infrastructure. I read the last entry, which was written nearly two decades after the Quake,
I intend to kill myself with tranquilizers on the anniversary of the Hayward Quake.
I just re-read what I wrote: what terrible final words. I’m lucky and I know it. I lived most of my life at the peak of the Digital Age, and what a peak it was. I don’t know whether you surf, but if you do it was like catching the biggest wave.
Even now, its not all bad. We’ve created a Garden of Eden in our Sustainable Garden. I’m looking at it now. The idea was to expand it until it was the size of the earth, but we figured out how to make one too late. No. We got around to making our Eden too late. We knew what needed to be done last century. Some people think we’ve always known.
But back to my garden. That’s where I’m going to kill myself and why not? Its my reminder that despite our hubris we can still find glory.
I don’t know whether you’re reading God, but this time we almost rivaled you. Better watch your back – if we don’t become extinct first, next time we may go all the way.
We should have gone all the way this time.
Instead we collapsed one step before the finish line.
There were several more sentences that had been written, edited and crossed out.
I heard someone approach. I folded myself into the bushes, hoping that my khaki clothes would camouflage me.
The visitor was a marine from the Yéil. She entered from the east, through a gate that once was used by trucks servicing the desalination plant. Behind the entrance I could see the shell of an on-ramp to Highway 110.
The marine withdrew a map from her satchel. She rotated the map several times, apparently trying to align it with what she saw before her. When she had done so, she scanned the compound, pausing periodically to refer back to points on the map, as if taking inventory. When her scan was completed to her satisfaction she folded the map, and returned it to her satchel.
I stood up and took two steps forward. When the marine heard me, she quickly turned, gun in hand. She caught herself when she recognized me. “Good afternoon, Doctor”, she said. She was a stocky, dark-haired Corporal named Karana.
“Good afternoon”, I replied.
I thought it best to question what she was doing before she did the same to me. “Where did you come from? Have you been exploring?”
“What are you doing here?” she replied brusquely.
I said, “Doctor Hofstaedter suggested I find the source of the natives’ fresh water. I’ve found it, so I’m done here. I’m going back to the ship”.
“Good. I’ll walk with you. Let’s go straight to the east coast. I’d rather avoid the village.”
The desalination plant was situated at the crest of a small ridge, so our path took us through a field that sloped down toward Los Angeles Bay. The field – sparsely covered by sedge and flowering herbs – was no longer part of the island’s irrigation system although, judging from the broken control mechanisms we encountered, it once had been. After perhaps two hundred metres the slope flattened; we found ourselves walking through the ruins of a long, flat commercial mall. When we reached the coast the ruins gave way to an automatically maintained orchard. The border of the orchard was demarcated by a row of bougainvillaea, and a bleached wooden fence. We entered through an arched trellis crowned with roses, and then walked south along an ancient stone path. The bay was immediately to our left.
After a few minutes the path opened up into a circular area that, judging from the rusted remains of a see-saw and monkey-bars, must once have been a children’s playground. We paused to inspect a waist-high stone edifice.
“These used to be everywhere”, I remarked.
“What do you mean?” Karana replied.
“Water fountains.” I pressed a metal lever near the crown of the device and a 10 centimetre spray of water emerged. The water initially startled Karana. Once she composed herself, she stepped forward to try the device.
“Where do you pay?” she asked.
“The water is – was – free.”
“Even slaves drink here?”
“I don’t know about now, but there were no slaves when it was first made.”
When I tell Alaskans about water fountains most find them fabulous. Perhaps Karana felt like she was in a fable, watching such a valuable resource be so casually dispensed, but if so she showed no signs. I wondered what she was thinking. Was she recalling one of the water usage lessons we all memorized in middle-school? Possibly her thoughts were personal. Was she was wishing that the Republic had free water she could afford to have two children?
I continued to speak, not so much to converse as to voice my thoughts. “Many historians think that free water might have been the key to American democracy.”
I didn’t expect Karana to respond, but she did. “Yeah. Could be. I could never explain America any other way. I mean back then people used to cross their Betters all the time, didn’t they? Totally chaotic. Maybe back then Patrons used water to keep their Clients in line. You know, like the Romans did with bread.”
I was still trying to formulate a response to this statement when Karana stiffened. She muttered something under her breath.
“What did you say?” I asked. I thought my voice was normally pitched, but it sounded loud in the suddenly quiet space.
Karana raised her voice, but continued to whisper, “There’s some men behind those trees. Maybe five.” She nodded toward the eastern edge of the playground. A second gang of six men now blocked the path to the south. I looked up just as a net enveloped me. Karana fired one errant shot before she too was taken down.
Someone sprayed me with a harsh substance that made my eyes and throat burn. I passed out.
I awoke in an office that had been turned into a prison cell. Karana was in the office-cell beside mine. I could see her through a slightly transparent plastic divider. We were both attached to metal beds by electrical cables wrapped around our ankles. Our mattresses were made from vinyl chair covers held together by thread made from carpet fiber. Our blankets, likewise, were made of crudely sewn patches of cloth. The area outside of our office-cells – the atrium of the south tower – was guarded by two large men with $ medallions around their necks, who were armed with sharpened pieces of rebar. The guards sat passively in half-rotted office chairs.
I called out to Karana; she did not answer.
I looked toward the sound. Luck had just entered through the main doors, accompanied by an entourage of women. She passed by without acknowledging me, and went straight to where Karana lay. Her entourage followed.
Luck moved to the head of Karana’s bed. She carefully gathered Karana’s hair into a bowl of soapy water that one of her attendants was holding. The touch of water on her skin caused Karana to stir slightly. One of Luck’s entourage forced Karana’s mouth open, while another poured a milky liquid into it. Karana struggled feebly, but was too woozy; she eventually slumped back onto her bed, asleep. Luck finished washing Karana’s hair, and then spent the better part of an hour braiding it. She inserted coins into the braids, which made Karana glitter dully when she shook her head.
When Luck was done with Karana’s hair, she reverentially withdrew with her entourage. They whooshed as they exited the building.
I was still watching the entrance when a half-dozen tall, young men dressed in shiny blue shorts and dirty sneakers entered. They arranged themselves in a militaristic, though not quite military, formation in the middle of the atrium. Once in position, one of them whistled. A group of people were pushed through the rotating door into the office-cells opposite mine. The majority of the prisoners were old, although only a couple were obviously near death. The rest had injuries, such as missing limbs or digits. One baby – into whose mouth a cloth had been stuffed – had a hair lip.
Although most of the prisoners were either old or damaged, there were two exceptions: a teenage girl with scared green eyes, and a younger boy with scraggly blond hair and a subdued manner. The girl held the boy as if he were a teddy bear. I assumed they were siblings, perhaps orphans.
I fell asleep.
When I awoke Cody was standing beside me. He wore the same necktie and pants that he had been wearing earlier but he now also wore a dirty white jacket with thin black stripes. The jacket had a fringe made of dried human fingers. Cody took a seat near the head of my bed. With some difficulty, I sat up beside him, taking care not to touch his grisly fringe. One guard stood at the entrance to the cell, watching us with a blank, passive face. I noticed that his pupils were dilated.
Cody spoke, “Look at this.” To my surprise he withdrew an ancient communication device from a small plastic pouch hanging by a string from his waist. Like most Digital Age technology it looked functional rather than flashy. He proudly showed it to me. I thought he was offering it to me to look at, but he pulled it away as I moved to take it.
“Be careful with your price signals”, he said sharply.
“I thought you wanted me to take it. I’m very sorry.” I tried to sound contrite, but my parched throat could only croak. He signaled for some water, which I gratefully drank.
Cody spoke, “I was offering the Black Berry to you to look at. It will never be yours.” He handed the object to me again, in slow-motion. I accepted it with a show of reverence. The device was made of hard, dark plastic. When folded it fit into the palm of my hand; when unfolded it was the size of a small book. I turned it over. Its backside was a solar panel.
“Watch.” With a mischievous smile Cody leaned over me and pushed a button. To my amazement the Black Berry turned on.
The opening screen displayed the message, “Welcome Mr. el-Erian”. The message faded and was replaced by two runes: one with the caption email; and a second with the caption news.
Without thinking, I pressed the news rune. The screen immediately altered to look like a tiny, two column broadsheet, complete with photographic illustrations.
My heart nearly stopped: it appeared that the Black Berry was accessing the Internet. One of the challenges archeologists face while trying to investigate the technologies of the Digital Age is the interdependence of them all: typically one artifact can fully function only when many others are operational. With our limited resources and knowledge – and with so many things destroyed by natural disasters and war – we can only reconstruct parts of these networks. The Internet is the most extreme example of this. My expeditions have found thousands of personal computing devices, and each, a lonely monad, tells us so little because we are incapable of connecting them together.
The display on the Black Berry was divided into two columns. The column on the left-hand side was taken up by a small box with a right-pointing equilateral triangle in the middle. The right hand column contained a list of blue headlines. The date, which I could faintly see above the first headline, was from exactly two centuries ago: Default Tuesday. The infamy of the date mitigated my disappointment at discovering that this device was showing me a snap-shot of one day’s news, and was not connected to a network after all.
I touched the arrow. For the next 10 seconds there was an advertisement for a golf tournament. This was followed by a conversation between two men in suits, a taller, thinner one with blond hair, and a stockier man with darker hair that was parted in the middle. The two men were talking about how T-Bills had just been given a haircut. Although I recognized most of the words they spoke, many were used in ways that were mystifying to me. For example, the word “market” was used repeatedly, but in a broader sense than it is used today. For me, a market is a place where farmers sell produce. The men in this video used the word as if it were a substitute for all forms of economic activity, including mining, education and manufacturing. Phrases like, “The apocalyptic collapse of the bond market” suggested a religious aspect to the word.1
The specific meaning of the story was equally obscure. I deduced from the conversation that a T-Bill was some form of promissory note issued by the United States federal government, but I could not understand how a T-bill could have a haircut, nor why the blond commentator was so insistent that a 25% haircut was somehow insufficient and should have been “more along the lines of 50%”. It was as if he welcomed more of something that he thought was bad. He did so because of the “moral hazard” posed by small haircuts, which reinforced my feeling that there was a religious aspect to this story. I was excited: The Crash has always been attributed to political, economic and ecological factors. Religion is never mentioned. This was a big story.
The video faded to grey; the right-pointing arrow reappeared. I was silent, intently trying to understand the religious aspect of Default Tuesday and the Hayward Quake. The two commentators appeared to be proponents of two different sects, one which advocated stern practices and one which preached tolerance. It was possible that a religious schism contributed to the Collapse. Perhaps these two sects couldn’t agree on courses of action, even in the face of disaster, and as a result broken infrastructure was never repaired and the Digital Age ended.
Cody broke my revery, “Read a story to me.” he commanded.
“Certainly” I replied.
I moved my index figure over the list of blue headlines in the right-hand column of the main page.
- Was Malthus an optimist?
- Roubini predicts bull market
- Rebalancing your portfolio without Treasuries
- CFPB files suit against the Treasury
- Rogue seismologist predicts massive quake
- Fed Chief Shot
I clicked on the headline, CFPB files suit against the Treasury. The following story appeared,
“Excellent choice.” Cody said. “A very important text.”
I waited for Cody to say more. He gestured impatiently for me to continue.
“You can see how Regulators and Inflators are the enemies of Mr. Market”, Cody said gravely. I said nothing.
“Do you understand me?” Cody pressed.
I hesitatingly replied, “I don’t know. Its all about money. But I don’t understand half of what it means.”
I paused, wondering what I did understand. I said, “I am familiar with the assassination of the head of the Federal Reserve. It happened on Default Tuesday, just hours before the Hayward Quake.”
Cody leaned toward me so that his lips were near my ear. He said in a soft voice,“What do you know about the Ben’s death? That is one of our mysteries.” He paused, stood up, and then clapped his hands together, “Of course. You are the Ben!”
“No. You are mistaken …” I protested.
Cody grabbed the Black Berry. “Don’t try to regulate me!” he shouted with a staged furor. “You cannot tell Mr. Market what to do. One day he is up. The next day he is down. But every day he is chaos!” He exited the building with a whoosh.
Although Cody’s words suggested intense anger, his manner was ritualistic: I had unwittingly become an actor in this savage’s passion play.
I awoke to the sound of drums
A dancer flew into the building. She, like all of the natives, was lean and tall. Her body was covered in henna tattoos of currency symbols; her lip was pierced with a $ shaped stud, and her dreadlocks were full of coins. She was followed into the atrium by a small rhythm orchestra, whose members were banging noisily on instruments made from found metal objects. The tattooed woman was dancing in an African style, alternately stamping her left and right foot. Her arms were bent; she shook her hands beside her head. Her right hand was missing a finger.
While the tattooed woman danced, the guards began to remove the prisoners. The baby went first. The cloth that had plugged his mouth when he had been brought in had been removed, but the infant was quiet. He was so still I assumed he was drugged or deathly ill. The children went next, followed by the adults, and the rhythm orchestra. The tattooed dancer went last.
Two guards came into our office-cells, a man who attended to me and a woman who attended to Karana. They cut our bonds with pieces of sharpened rebar, and then herded us through the revolving doors. My head was throbbing, and I was unsteady on my feet. I looked over to Karana. She was in far worse condition than I was. Her skin was tinged green; she had to be supported by her guard.
When we exited the building we found that we were on a stage, which was defined by a ring of torches. Luck and Cody were to our right, seated on office-chair thrones. They faced a large crowd. The prisoners were sitting on a long driftwood log between us and Luck. We were pushed onto the sand beside them. As I struggled to sit up, I saw that the full moon was watching us from the eastern sky.
Cody stood up. In his left hand he held the Black Berry, in his right he held a golf-club. He was wearing baggy surf pants made of shiny red material, a golf shirt, and the finger-fringed jacket I’d seen earlier. After a moment, the noise of the dancers, drummers and crowd faded into silence. He addressed the crowd with a loud voice, “Today is the 200th anniversary of Default Tuesday. Since that day we have been children lost in the wilderness, wondering what madness has Inverted the Yield Curve. Let us make the Sign of the Crash.” As he spoke, Cody drew a diagonal line with his left hand that started at his right shoulder and ended at his left thigh.
“Dow 14,000 Dow 100” the crowd chanted.
Cody replied, “Neither bonds nor equities” and then sat down. Luck stood up. She cleared her voice and said. “We will begin with the options.” As she spoke, the sibling prisoners were led forward by a female guard. The girl had a dazed expression on her face; the boy’s face was streaked with tears. The boy tightly squeezed the sister’s hand.
Luck said, “Is there a call for these orphan children? Because they are brother and sister they must be optioned together.”
A gaunt man with leathery skin and grey hair stepped into the torchlight in front of Luck, “I would like to buy a call option.”
“So would I.” A much younger man with dirty blond hair stepped forward.
The gaunt man looked aghast when the younger man spoke: he fell to his knees in the sand in front of Luck and said, pointing at the younger, fitter man, “Please cancel his bid. I am 41 years old and do not have a wife. This man has the rest of his life to breed. My time is running short. Please.” The second bidder watched the old man with a bemused look on his face.
Luck scowled as she said, “I deny your petition.” The older man began to protest, but thought better of it. He withdrew several metres, still prostrate, before he stood up.
Luck turned her back on the two bidders and addressed the crowd. “This is a zero sum trade. It must be cleared through arms.” As Luck spoke these words a man pulling a child’s wagon emerged from the crowd. He was wearing nothing but shiny blue athletic shorts; he had a collar around his neck that was connected to the handle of the wagon by a cord fashioned from carpet fibre. The rickety wagon, once painted fire-engine red, was now spotted by rust. Metal shards were piled on wagon; several toppled off as it was dragged through the sand. The wagon-puller went first to the older man, who chose a rusty metre-long piece of rebar for his weapon. The younger man chose a rust-free weapon that was short and thick.
The wagon man traced a fighting circle in the sand. When the circle was complete Luck shouted, “Begin.”
The older man concentrated on avoiding the swings of his larger, stronger foe, frequently moving to the edge of the fighting circle. When he stepped out of the circle he was roughly pushed back into it by the crowd. He had no strategy but to avoid being hit, and appeared to be motivated by nothing more than fear. Eventually the younger man landed a solid blow onto the older man’s right calf. The blow broke the skin.
The older man left a trail of blood as he crawled through the sand. The younger man calmly stalked him, as if waiting for an aesthetically pleasing moment to end the fight.
Someone in the crowd flung a piece of chipped concrete at the younger man. It struck him in the cheek but didn’t injure him. The blow nevertheless proved fatal: the distraction provided an opening the older man seized. He painfully, but quickly, raised himself part way up, and then with all of his force, he swung his weapon at the young man’s neck. The young man died the moment the blow landed.
The victor, his face crazed with pain, hobbled over to where his prize, the girl, and her brother sat. He used his weapon as a cane so was hunched over, like a crippled dwarf. He grabbed the girl by her right wrist and dragged her away into the crowd. The girl tried to hold on to the hand of her brother, but failed. The young boy tripped along after her, crying uncontrollably.
In the distance an engine back-fired.
Luck raised her arms beside her ears and waved her hands at the agitated crowd, while shouting, “Extras!” As she did so the drummers began to play with an insistent but irregular beat.
The prisoners were chided to their feet by the guards. One man, quivering with fear, did not rise until he had been struck several times by a sock stuffed with stones. The prisoners’ faces expressed emotions ranging from equanimity to terror.
The wagon man emerged from the crowd. This time his load was a large wicker basket that contained old plastic water bottles filled to the brim with a murky liquid. He dragged his wagon over to where the prisoners stood. A half dozen guards simultaneously approached the prisoners from behind. The crowd began to chant the mantra, “One day it is up, one days it is down, every day it is chaos” in time to the drums.
The wagon man approached the baby with the hair-lip first. A guard grabbed a bottle from the wagon, unsealed it, indelicately forced open the child’s mouth and poured liquid into it. The child sputtered and protested feebly. The guards moved down the line, offering drinks to each of the prisoners. Some hesitated before drinking; others simply closed their eyes and gulped. One man had to be forced to drink. The liquid was clearly bitter: several prisoners vomited and had to drink a second time. After drinking, each made the Sign of the Crash, and then took a seat on the driftwood log. They began to shake violently.
After ten minutes all of the prisoners had fallen over dead, save for one scrawny old man who – although he shook uncontrollably – had not received a fatal dose. Cody nodded to two guards, one of whom grabbed the old man’s hair and pinned him against his left knee. The second guard slit his throat with a knife fashioned out of a fractured copper pipe.
A crew of young boys collected the corpses and roughly dragged them to the beach. The corpses splashed as they were dumped into the Bay.
Luck shouted, “Bring the Regulator and the Inflator.”
Karana and I were hustled forward. Karana was so limp she had to be supported by two guards. Her shirt was flecked with vomit. I too felt nauseous but resisted offers of assistance. We were roughly pushed to the ground in front of Cody and Luck.
Luck handed Cody a leather pouch from which he removed a handful of red and green plastic dice. Cody threw the dice onto the ground in front of our prostrate bodies. He made a show of inspecting the dice. Still crouching, with a severe expression on his face, he traversed the perimeter of the torch-lit stage while waving his hands beside his ears. When he had completed his circuit he stood straight. He said in a loud voice, “Mr. Market is very angry.”
Luck spoke with a loud voice, “Begin with the Elizabeth.”
While Cody had been playing the market a metal gurney had been rolled – or more accurately, pushed – across the sand into the space in front of Luck. Two guards put Karana onto it. She was limp and sweating profusely. I was nauseous with fear; my saliva was so acidic I had begun to gag.
Cody raised both his Black Berry and his golf-club sceptre to the sky. He held the pose for a dramatic moment, and then handed his symbols of office to a retainer. In return he was given a tiny plastic box from which he removed a saw-toothed knife. He approached Karana.
I thought I heard a muffled cry from the direction of the dock. I could not be certain because the drummers began to play again. The tattooed dancer resumed her spirit-hands dance.
Cody ritualistic voice boomed, “Bear witness to what happens to those who would Regulate.” He placed Karana’s right hand in his. With one quick, sharp gesture he cut off her ring finger.
Karana’s screams were muffled by the t-shirt in her mouth. Then she was still. I assumed she had fainted and not died, but was by no means certain.
Cody solemnly picked up Karana’s bloody finger. He displayed it to the crowd like it was a trophy.
Luck shouted, “Rehypothecate the Ben!” In her right hand she brandished a stick of bleached drift-wood studded with nails, and decorated with strands of bright cloth. I stopped breathing.2
There was a loud crack. Luck collapsed. I heard another four cracks. The men who had been guarding Karana and me crumpled. A final gun shot grazed Cody’s shoulder and knocked him to the ground. The crowd dispersed in a chaotic stampede. It took several moments for my fear-wracked brain to register that a rescue party had finally arrived. I tried to stand up but was so disoriented and weak that I toppled to the ground. A marine rushed to my side. He threw his thick arm around me and began to drag me along the beach toward the dock.
“The Black Berry. The Black Berry.” My rescuer looked at me quizzically. Rhonda – who had accompanied the rescue party said, “He’s talking about the plastic device near that man’s right hand.” She pointed. “It’s incredibly valuable.” My rescuer, a Sergeant, hesitated: although Rhonda was not in his chain of command, she was the granddaughter of our Patron. Rhonda repeated her words as a command. Two marines fired at the ground in front of the scattering crowd while the Sergeant moved resolutely toward Cody.
When the Sergeant got to where Cody lay, he raised a pistol to shoot him a second time. Rhonda shouted with a tone of hysteria in her voice. “Don’t shoot! Bring him with you. We need prisoners.”
The soldier’s arm swerved, but he fired anyway. Cody twitched as a bullet punctured his right foot. The soldier picked up the Black Berry, carefully placed it into his satchel, and returned to my side. He signaled for the two Privates to pick up Cody’s limp body.
My vision was distorted; I had lost my sense of balance. Fortunately, my escort was strong enough to propel me forward despite myself. I made it all the way to the dock, where I tripped and fell face first onto the beach, immediately in front of where my rescue boat bobbed in the water. My marine escort swore colourfully while he tossed me into a Zodiac. I looked at Karana. She was vomiting over the edge of the other Zodiac.
The moment our boats pulled away from the beach a group of male villagers rushed to the dock. One native tried to get into a launch but was shot repeatedly; this caused the rest of the natives to pull back. The recoil from the guns rocked our boats.
Our Zodiacs curved around the on-ramp spit, and then sped into the bay. The desalination plant and gardens were now directly west of us, on our left. I heard a loud noise. I reached for a pair of binoculars that lay on a discarded pile of gear near my head. I raised them, with shaking hands, to my eyes. The desalination plant was on fire. It was surrounded by a crowd of natives. I began to curse violently. This made my rescuer quite angry. He shouted at me, “Shut the fuck up. We didn’t destroy the water factory. We just blew up some switches so those clowns can’t use it any more. We’ll loot it later.”
The air was full of popping sounds, which suddenly grew much louder. There was an explosion that I heard as a deep rumble and saw as a flash of light. The native surge around the desalination plant ebbed in the instant following the explosion, but the press of bodies was too great. The natives surged forward again. They began to pile on top of each other, desperately trying to get enough height to smother the now raging fire from above. Limned by the fire, and from a distance, they looked like a river of soldier ants flowing over dead prey, except they were far more disorganized than ants. The hapless souls didn’t even have buckets that worked.
As I watched clouds of smoke engulf the desalination plant, I wanted to shout at the marines, “It looks like we’ve forgotten how to blow up switches, doesn’t it? Big surprise. We’ve forgotten how to do all sorts of things. We can’t make photovoltaic cells, we can’t make integrated circuits, we can barely make elevators!” I wanted to say this but I had lost the strength to fume. Instead, I rested my tired head on a pile of cables so that I didn’t strain myself while I watched Eden burn.
The story begins when a ship called the Yéil arrives at Los Angeles, two centuries after California was destroyed (mostly flooded) as a result of the Hayward Quake. The name of the ship (Yéil ) is a reference to the trickster, Raven, who in Tlingit mythology is credited with (among other things) stealing the moon on behalf of mankind. Disruption is an important narrative device in all of the stories.
Long Beach Island was created when the Hayward Quake – and its numerous aftershocks – caused much of the western coast of North America to flood. The “Island” is what remains of the southern suburbs of Los Angeles. It is comprised of what is now the area west of highway 405 (the San Diego Expressway), including land currently under the Pacific Ocean. Its northern tip is the area between Highways 110 and 405, just south of downtown Los Angeles. Downtown Los Angeles is completely under water.
The set for the story is the shanty town that has grown up around the old Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO) headquarters, in Newport Beach. In the story, the ruins PIMCO headquarters is slightly closer to downtown Los Angeles than it is today.
I chose the PIMCO headquarters as the set for this story’s parody of financial shamanism because at the time of writing PIMCO had more bond assets under administration – $1.8 trillion in May 2012 – than any other company, and is the largest financial firm on the west coast of the USA. Mohamed el-Erian, the person whose personal communication device is featured in the story, is one of the two CEOs of the firm (along with Bill Gross).
The idea behind the parody is that when the Collapse happens, trade decays and, as a result, communities have to draw upon local resources in order to survive. The natives who live on Long Beach Island have few skills to help them survive – knowledge about bond and equity trading has become practically useless, and quite meaningless in a world without global financial markets. Over time this “knowledge”, because of its association with the lost wealth of the early 21st Century, gets turned into the magical language of the local religion. All this is to parody our current deification of free market economics.
The Sustainable Garden – aka Eden – was built during the Collapse. This is one of my favorite historical themes, that even in dark ages technology develops.
Although Tulip’s career as an entertainer may have fallen on tough times her bank account – judging from the opulence of her Mont-Royal nest – had not. She lived in a three story brick scamper-up that had it all, including stalking grounds, an aviary, and rat warren.
I was pleased to see that Tulip’s nest did not look like a crime scene at all. There was no bright yellow tape, no crowds of reporters. Since the forensics team left, there was barely a police presence at all – just one fierce looking Rottweiler, whose primary job was to keep news hounds and curious cats away.
The murder had occurred in the indoor stalking grounds, where Tulip – and her many guests – would hunt small animals for snacks and sport. A chalk mark outlined the position of Tulip’s body. She had died in a fetal position. In the midst of her oversize furniture the chalk outline looked small, like that of a kitten. This made me think of my own litter of pups back home in Willowdale.1
We both began to sniff.
I was investigating an area of floor unexpectedly rich in smells when I had the good fortune to discover a cleverly disguised trapdoor, which opened to reveal a cement box nest – the kind you found in every fashionable cat’s house during the 1970s. The floor of the nest was covered by a velvet pillow, on which there was an imprint of the ear of a dog.
In the middle of the pillow was a card with an inscription written in gold. It read, “Tulip, here is a symbol of how my entire pack will protect you.”
I sniffed. “Look here” I said, pointing my muzzle toward a tiny hair on the card. “A piece of a mouse’s tail.”
Mittens was beside me in an instant. He ignored the mouse tail, but sniffed the card thoroughly, and then said, “Barks, I smell a rat.”
Which was a point I fastidiously put in the Cat Detectives column. A bit of mouse at a crime scene was the antithesis of evidence. Mice always get to a crime scene first, and are almost never perps. Ratus ratus was another matter, entirely.
“Do you recognize this rat?” I asked.
Mittens never answered my question. At that moment a gust of wind triggered our next discovery – a card floated out of an open book onto the floor. Mittens carefully picked up the card by the edges. On it several sentences had been written by a bold cat’s paw. It was a copy of a letter Tulip had sent to her litter-mate and twin, Euphemia.
Mittens’ read in a slightly high-pitched, theatrical voice,
Dearest sister Euphemia,
Today I couldn’t stand one more second of Trouble’s damned feral inscrutability. I asked him what he was really thinking. He told me, in a flat voice – no affect at all, not even a purr – that he hates La Belle Dam but he can’t help himself. “Do you mean me?” I implored him. “You know what I mean” he said as he leaped out of the fire escape. I haven’t seen him since. I don’t know what I’d do without him. But I’m loosing him. I can tell from his scent, and unfocussed ears. I’m loosing him.
What can I do?
xx oo Tulip
Mittens’ concluded his oratory with a little bow.
“Are there other notes?” I asked.
“There are lots of notes down at the station. Tulip was quite a writer. But do you mean, was there anything incriminating? Non. Only this. Mais cela, c’est très intéressante, n’est-ce pas?”2
“It is interesting indeed”, I replied. “Let us inspect the book the note fell out of.” I hopped over to the small leather bound volume. It opened to a poem called La Belle Chat Sans Merci.3
I scanned the first few stanzas, and stopped at the fourth. In the left margin the words “Tulip” and “La Belle Chat” were written with a kittenish paw.
I flipped to the first page of the book where I found the following dedication, “To my cat-bitch twin sister on my birthday.
We have stereotypes about the love litter-mates and twins have for each other. Like many generalizations, the stereotype is both true and false simultaneously. I could see in the note Tulip had written Euphemia that the two sisters had a deep, abiding bond. They must have shared all of their experiences with each other. But it took scant effort to imagine that love erupting into a most vicious cat-fight.
I showed Mittens the book. He read the dedication and said, “We have another suspect.”
“Indeed”, I replied.
Our investigation began at the morgue, which was a nondescript block of glass and steel on rue Parthenais, four blocks west of the St. Lawrence River. We entered via a trap door on the east side of the building.
Mittens refused to inspect Tulip’s body in the presence of the coroner – who was a fastidious, copper-haired Spaniel named Sniffy – so we entered the small, grey operating theatre unescorted. We found the infamous feline beauty’s body laid out on a gurney. Although Tulip rested on metal, not marble, if you let imagination rule you, you could see her as a statue of Juliet in a final, tragic repose.
The first thing I noticed was her ears: they had been clipped to look like those of a lioness. Although I am a dog, or perhaps because I am one, my unthinking response to this was, “here lies a predator.” The effect created by Tulip’s wild ears was enhanced by the leopard spots tattooed onto her pearl white fur.
Mittens spoke to me with a plaintive voice, “Elle est très belle. Non, elle est trop belle”1 He groomed his whiskers with his bright, white polydactyl paws, and then continued. “If she were not so beautiful none of this would happened hien? There would be no story for the press, you wouldn’t be here, she would still be alive. We are driven to crazy, violent acts because of beauty. We are driven …”
I agreed with one aspect of what Mittens had just said. Although the case appeared complicated, it was likely that the murderer had a prosaic motive, like jealous rage. Nevertheless, I took issue with Mittens’ implication that motives only came from the instinctual side of the psyche. For me, Domestication is more than just a lid on the id. It has its own set of motivations, some of which can overpower our elemental drives. Perhaps Tulip’s murderer was compelled by lust or rage. Perhaps the murderer had a more subtle motive.
We began our investigation by sniffing the corpse. The dominant smell was a mixture of formaldehyde and disinfectant, but beneath that I found a more diverse layer of odours: feline, canine, and much to my surprise, pantherine. This latter mystery was solved by Mittens, who said, “She was wearing leopard-musk perfume when she died.” The Cat Detective shrugged, “It is all too much. C’est trop. Trop.”2
“Let us examine her wounds” I said, wanting to move our analysis along. Although I am not squeamish I don’t like autopsies because they are so raw: everything is stripped away by death – our hopes, our pretensions, our very spirit.
Tulip lay on her right side in a fetal position. Mittens lightly hopped onto the gurney and rolled her onto her back so that we could inspect the wounds on her stomach and neck. “Tabernacle” the cat said sub voce. Tulip’s fur was tufted by clotted blood; her stomach was lacerated in two places, and the interior of her throat had been exposed by one savage bite.
“Do you see these paw marks?” Mittens said, pointing first at the large cuts on her belly, and then at the mess around her throat.
“Dog” I replied without hesitation.
“Indeed. Can you recognize the breed?”
“Judging from the size, depth and angle I’d guess a large, muscular breed, perhaps a Shepherd or Rottweiler. I cannot tell from the scent, which is odd. You’d think there would be a molecule of smell in such a wound. There isn’t. All I smell is formaldehyde.”
“Do you notice anything odd about these paw marks, I mean aside from the fact they have no scent?”
I looked at the marks again. “Yes, I do notice something very odd. The wounds on the belly are from a left rear paw. I can’t tell about the throat.”
“A rear paw. Indeed! How do you know that?”
“From the shape of the wound. Dogs never move exactly forward, they always lead slightly from one side, which results in characteristic differences between paws. This mark is one that would be made by the back left paw of a right leading dog. I am one such dog myself.”
[I sat down and raised my paw for him to inspect; he saw how the my paws and claws had been slightly deformed by my orientation.]
“Could the paw that created these cuts have been not attached to an actual dog’s leg?” Mittens wondered.
I looked at Tulip’s wounds one more time. “Mittens, I think you’re right. These gashes move from bottom right to upper left – against the paw’s orientation. It would be impossibly awkward for a righting-leading dog to do this.”
“What can we learn from the wound on her neck?” Mittens hopped onto a small space beside Tulip’s right ear. From there he inspected her severed carotid artery. He sniffed then said, “This was an indelicate death.” His voice was more fastidious than sympathetic.
“Regardez!” Mittens lowered himself so that his nose almost touched the corpse. “There are fang marks on her neck. Tulip was bitten before her throat was slashed.” After a moment, he pulled his whiskers back, raised his head and said, “Cat”.
I took a corroborating sniff. “Mittens, can you identify the animal who did this?”, I asked.
He replied, “I will be able to, when I meet him. But that is of little account. I am certain these fang marks were made by Trouble, Tulip’s tom-friend. It looks like a love bite but …”, Mittens shrugged.
Our examination left us where we were when we started, in the sense that the prime suspects were unchanged: Tulip was probably killed by either Bull, her ex-mate or Trouble, her current mate. Bull had the miscegenation and criminal history angles; Trouble was feral.
The evidence suggested that Tulip was murdered by clawed blunt instrument which made me suspect Bull more than Trouble. That’s because of the way cats approach violence. An old folk tale, which dams tell to their kittens illustrates my point. The tale is about a mythical kingdom called The Land of Cats, which tradition locates in western China, just north of Shangra-la. The ancient Chinese kingdom of Dian was the The Land of Cats’s neighbour to the west. At the time of the story Dian was ruled by a particularly ambitious monkey king. The tale begins with the monkey king asking his Chief Minister, “Why is The Land of Cats not part of my kingdom? Tell me about this country’s army. Do they have archers? Do they have trebuchets? Do they have cavalry? When he was told that The Land of Cats had none of these things, the foolish primate king ordered an army to be dispatched at once to conquer it. When this great, well-equipped army arrived at a narrow pass on the road outside the cats’ capital city, the entire adult population of The Land of Cats attacked with claws unsheathed and teeth bared. The Dian army was destroyed in one morning. The moral cats draw from this tale is that they do not need weapons because they are borne armed.
It was highly unlikely that a feral feline like Trouble would use a weapon other than his own claws or teeth.
As we exited, I glanced one last time at the corpse of Tulip, the erstwhile lioness. I was reminded of a game I used to play as a pup. It was based on a rhyme:
Who does the mouse fear?
The mouse fears the cat!
Who does the cat fear?
The cat fears the dog!
Who does the dog fear?
The dog fears the lion!
Who does the lion fear?
This last phrase was a cue for whoever was it to leap out of hiding and try to tag another pup while shouting, “The lion fears me!”.
Mittens must have heard me muttering the rhyme under my breath, for his next words were, “Indeed Barks, who does the lioness fear? Her lover? Her ex-lover? Another lioness? Herself?”
We were met at the exit to the morgue by an administrative assistant, who presented Mittens with the coroner’s report. Mittens accepted it with a merci and a little bow. He tucked the report into the satchel he wore slung across his chest. Before I could pose even one question, I found myself nudged towards the exit by the Cat Detective’s muzzle.
Mittens said, “Barks, now we must go to Tulip’s apartment. Let us make haste my friend.”
Mittens put down his leather-bound edition of Domestication and its Malcontents1 without making a sound. He then carefully took out a bag of catnip from a velvet lined mahogany box, arranged a pinch of it into two even lines, and picked up an enameled bamboo tube. He carefully inhaled each line of catnip through the tube. When done, the Cat Detective brushed away non-existent bits of catnip from his meticulously waxed whiskers, licked his bright, white forepaws and said, “Instinct.”
I make a rule of ignoring Mittens’ pronouncements, which of course deters him not one bit. The feline continued, “Barks, when a cat or dog becomes domesticated …”
“One does not become domesticated”, I replied. “One is born domesticated and then may become feral, but never the reverse; no wild creature ever becomes completely domesticated.”
“Agreed” Mittens said without confirming my point at all. He meticulously prepared two more lines of catnip. “Inspector Barks”, he said, “let me rephrase my thought as a question: what happens to the instincts of the Domesticated? Are they dulled? Do they go away? Are they present but repressed?” He punctuated his words by inhaling yet another line of catnip.
“What does this have to do with the Mont-Royal murder?”, I asked with a brusque voice. “I return to Toronto in two days. I only have so much time.”
Mittens purred, “I’m not certain that the Mont-Royal murder is about instinct per se. But it is about elemental motives: lust, obsession, violence. Some people consider these the traits of wild animals. I’m not so certain. The Domesticated have compulsions too, hien?” With these words he sprang from his chair and circumnavigated the room. As he did so, he methodically marked each piece of furniture with his right cheek.
I realize that I have begun my story in the middle of a conversation, but if you think about it all stories occur in the middle of something; there is always a back story, a context and allusions to the future. But that is no excuse for a lack of manners: I have not even introduced myself. My name is Doctor Inspector Patches Barks. I am the eldest child of a Collie mother and a Shepherd father. My father, Patches Senior, went feral when I was three, which is a story that I don’t want to go into except to say that the struggles of my single-parent mother motivated me to be self-supporting at an early age. I spent long hours as a puppy studying biology and chemistry, was admitted into the Royal Military College before I could vote, and graduated as a medical officer four dog-years later. My first tour of duty was at a military hospital in Kandahar.
Afghanistan is a terrible place for dogs.
Although most of my colleagues were content to treat the Kandahar hospital as a kind of fortress (or prison), Canadian soldiers were allowed to visit the town. Every time I did so, I’d come upon the ragged corpse of at least one poor mutt who had been beaten to death, and then left to rot in the streets because some of those who wish to rule that benighted city think dogs are unclean.
The locals gave me wide berth when I buried the murdered canines: they knew I was both upset and well-armed. They must have watched me closely. One day a nefarious creature – I believe it was a Siamese Taliban – planted an IED2 in the mauled corpse of a Rottweiler. In the subsequent explosion of shrapnel I lost two claws and a chunk of my right hind leg. I was less useful to the army after the injury, but was not discharged. After my tour ended I settled in Toronto, which my mate insists is because I need to live in a city ruled by dogs.
I gave up the practice of medicine. Against my mother’s objection that policing is for hound dogs I set out to become a detective in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I progressed quickly from Cadet to Detective Sergeant, and immediately leveraged my forensic knowledge to become an Inspector.
Although it is impolitic for a police officer to talk politics, I can say, without being political at all, that I am a dog’s dog. So despite my lack of political acumen, my career has benefited greatly from the political success of the Canine Party. When they formed a majority government last May this caused my employment prospects to improve to the point of regret, for I finally became so senior I could not avoid becoming embroiled in the politics of dogs and cats. That was why I was now assigned to Montréal to work with this vain, plump catnip addict named Mittens.
On the surface the Mont-Royal murder appeared complicated. The victim, a cat named Tulip, was one of the most famous media personalities in Québéc, but her career had been in decline since she had dated Bull, the reputed leader of a dock workers gang. It was not that she dated a gangster, but rather that she dated a dog that so offended feline Québéc. Tulip had dumped Bull long ago for a Latino rock star named Trouble, but it was rumoured that her ties to the dock workers’ gang had increased even as her career declined. That would not be of too much concern except that Montréal was now into the sixth week of a rancorous strike in which images of Westmount dogs battling cat workers featured prominently.3
Tulip’s murder could start an inter-species riot.
O what can ail thee, cat-with-claws,
Alone and darkly stalking?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing
O what can ail thee, cat-with-claws.
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose.
Fast withereth too.
I met a feline in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
If there were one class of numbers responsible for students giving up on the mathematics discipline entirely, it would be the imponderables.
Perplexing numbers are the most benign form of imponderable. They are numbers that are answers to questions you should know the answer to, but don’t, for example why is the sky blue or is tinsel bio-degradeable?
The largest class of imponderables is the vexing numbers. Vexing numbers are different from perplexing ones in that they appear in questions that have to be answered, like “To what do the numbers on this court order refer?” Or all exam questions.
Although some impenetrable numbers are vexing, they are usually considered as a separate class because most refer to obscure things, like port settings on your younger brother’s web server. A debate rages as to whether impenetrability is a characteristic of the observer (aka the dense mind hypothesis) or the number itself.
Lackadaisical numbers, expressions and functions have an actual value that is always less than its potential value, or as computer scientist Professor Andrew Winthrop puts it, “a lackadaisical is an identity that is less than itself.” Lackadaisicals include probabilities that produce results with a margin of error greater than fifty percent; any result one or more orders of magnitude smaller than its significant digit; and all distributions based on non-random samples. Some psychologists claim they are useful in enumerating false modesty and hyperbole. In mathematics they are used extensively in political polling, pharmaceutical testing, punditry and last- minute master’s thesis surveys. They are also used in pharmacology to miscalculate doses, and by weight-watchers everywhere to count calories.
Aliénor looked out over the valley of the River Ithil. The river flowed south-east, to her right, through a knot of blue hills, beyond which it joined the turbulent Andwin, and emptied into the Loire near Angers. The flood plain was a field of wheat which stretched to both horizons; the River’s banks were vineyards dotted with villeins paying their labor duty. Immediately around her, throughout the Château lawns, other peasants were working under the direction of a dozen journeymen to construct stages and tents for next Sunday’s wedding. Normally on such beautiful days the villeins were lethargic. But it had been a long winter and most were happy to be moving in the sun, even if today only their Lady profited from their labor.
A cloud of dust appeared on the south-east side of the plain, above the Toulouse road. Aliénor had been waiting for this: the Bactrian had arrived. She signaled for her Marshall to mobilize the Home Guard.
The flood plain of the Ithil is famously wide where it joins the Andwin, so it took the better part of the morning for the cloud of dust to resolve into a cohort of knights, divided into three companies riding under three banners/guidons: the ladder of Gideon, the lion of Shem, and the white bull of Seleceus Nicator. They all rode under the banner of Bactria, a flaming golden ring set against a field of sky blue. The knights were followed by a wake of pack animals, wagons, retainers and a rear-guard of mounted archers.
The troop disappeared into the Arden glade, a hunting forest which followed the River from the ruins of Os’ Gilieth to the Bridge of Cuts. When they re-emerged they marched in single file, leading their horses by thin metallic reins. They were followed by a flock of madly cawing black birds of a type not found in the Duchy of Mortain. The birds wheeled as if possessed, their screeches harshly dissonant in the calm afternoon air. Even if she had not understood the birds’ language, Although Aliénor did not understand the speech of birds, she easily deduced meaning from the terror in their cries. They were warning the world of the approach of a great evil.
The Bridge of Cuts was guarded by a cylindrical brick tower defended by ten archers. The cohort stopped marching in front of it, but did not relax their guard, nor begin to raise a camp. The Bactrian leader, accompanied by twelve knights in light armor, six men and six women, approached the closed barred metal gate, which controlled access to the bridge. The portcullis was raised with the sound of metal on metal before the Bactrian leader had a chance to even greet the gatekeepers: the Lady had already given instructions for them to be let through although she knew that even this small party of warriors could overwhelm her Home Guard.
The Chamberlain, Gui de Ruisseau, who took his seat at Aliénor’s right hand, leaned over and said in a quiet but insistent voice, “Disarm them.” He gave his advice like an order, as he always did with women. The Lady Ithilaen looked at him in disbelief. He was a florid, fat knight. Despite the weather, he wore a heavy crimson velvet cape, lined with ermine and trimmed with a sable collar. She looked for signs of deceit, but he was not hiding anything. The fool, she thought. He has no idea that they are haffen-ælf. She said formally, ” Good sir knight please take notice of what proud warriors they are. They will not let us disarm them. Regardless, I am certain they mean me no harm, so why the bother? Kindly escort their leader and his entourage onto the verge. The rest of our visitors can camp by the glade.”
“What do you mean entourage?” The Chamberlain might have been dull and stupid, but at least he was precise.
The Lady turned to face the Riders, “That man”, she nodded at a lank Amharite, who rode under a the lion’s-head banner. The lion’s mane was styled to suggest sun-rays; its golden color offset prominently against a field of red. “And those two”. She indicated the leaders of the other two companies: an olive-skinned, sinewy woman who only wore leather armor; and a tall, wan albino with snow white hair and red eyes who was dressed in brightly polished mithraël armour. The woman’s sigil was a ladder on a field of grey; the man’s a white bull on violet.
The Chamberlain said “Very good”, bowed slightly and withdrew to implement her will. Her commands were always very good to the Chamberlain. He was Duke John’s man so his job was to spy and undermine and redirect, but never directly to oppose. He shuffled over to the Captain of the Home Guard, a pious yet violent Christian named Constantine, who followed the fanatic Durand. Two pages, twins from the de Blois family, attended him. After a few words with de Ruisseau, the Captain and his attendants wheeled their horses and cantered over to the Bactrian leader and his three lieutenants.
The Chamberlain turned his attention to the Home Guard, which had gathered on the Château side of the verge. He ordered one company of archers, and a second of foot-soldiers to take a position on the east side of the lawn, within range of the visitors. The rest of his foot-soldiers he ordered to cordon off the manicured lawn from a rapidly growing crowd of on-lookers. Aliénor was proud that her soldiers looked sharp in their green, black and white uniforms. Their pomp and discipline distracted her for but a moment. She feared this meeting with the Bactrian leader. No, she corrected herself. The fear wasn’t hers. He brought it with him.
The Bactrian leader stepped onto the verge. He had a groomed beard, and mithraël gray eyes. The moment he did she heard a voice in her head,
The children of Ailronde and Galadraël are pleased to meet you, Arwen’s youngest.
Who are you, Knight?, the Lady replied.
I am Dmitrius son of Heliocles, last King of the Bactrians.
Welcome cousin. Who accompanies you?
The second ælf thought, I am Jothamela daughter – and youngest child – of Gideon. This haffen-ælf stood beside a steed which had a copper-red pelt and markings shaped like flames. She was short for a haffen-ælf but as tall as any member of Aliénor’s Home Guard. She had olive skin, dark brown eyes and straight jet black hair. Although fine boned she had pronounced muscles, which were taut because of the force she was exerting to control her anxious mount. Jothamela’s aura was an unsteady mixture of purple and crimson, exactly like that of her own niece. Aliénor sensed that some kind of magic had attached itself to her; Aliénor wondered if Jothamela had the ability to wield it.
The third ælf now introduced himself. He had short curly white hair, maroon-red eyes and skin so fair he became nearly invisible in the glare of direct sunlight. His mount, untethered and unsaddled, was mottled white and black. He thought, I am Hephestion, child of Ailronde. I conquered the world with Alexander and briefly bore his Bane. Hephestion accompanied his introduction with the same serene, slight smile Aliénor used when she wanted to disguise her thoughts. He nodded his head ever so slightly but did not bow.
As the three haffen-ælf introduced themselves, the companies they led spread out along the hedgerow that marked the boundary between the Château grounds and the dusty market square in front of the Bridge of Cuts. Like their leaders, they were all tall, lank, muscular and alert, varying not so much in their manner and dress as in the color of their hair, skin and eyes. Most wore light, polished mithraël armor, which sparkled red and gold in the afternoon sunlight, although many were dressed like Jopthamela in leather and light mail. Despite looking like they had fought in dozens of battles, or more accurately like people who had never known peace, none of the knights had visible scars; and all had soft, blemishless skin.
The Chamberlain, who was once again hovering by the Lady’s right hand, rose solemnly, floated across the lawn toward Dmitrius, his swift small steps hidden by his cloak’s fur trim. As he did so, the crossbowmen cocked their weapons.
The Bactrian walked slowly and silently onto the lawn, and stopped directly in front of the Chamberlain. The crowd of villeins and craftsmen was barely held back by knocks from the cudgels wielded by the Lady’s foot-soldiers. The soldiers were dressed in leather jerkins on which were painted images of a white cat with green eyes, the sigil of House Arwen. The crowd’s chatter was incessant, insistent, but not loud.
A spring on an Ithilæn archer’s crossbow broke with a loud, metallic twang, causing a bolt to fly askew toward the foreign knights. One of them, an extraordinarily tall, fine-boned woman from the Amharite company flung a grappler at the arrow, knocking it to the ground. The Lady Ithilæn shouted, “Lower your bows”. Her archers obeyed, though many looked to the Chamberlain for a countermanding order before they did so.
The Chamberlain retained his poise but was shaken. While he considered what to do next the Lady gathered her linen skirts and rose with the earnest assistance of two attendants, a slender, nervous niece of Burgundy and a vain, forgettable maid of France. The Lady, who was now beside the Chamberlain, spoke in a loud voice to both the Bactrians and her people, “Welcome stranger. My name is Aliénor , the Lady Ithilæn. My liege Lord is Duke John of Mortain. I am cousin of two kings, Philip Augustus of France and Richard of England. This man” she nodded to the Chamberlain, “is Gui de Ruisseau. He is my Chamberlain, though is sworn to my lord Duke John not to me. And this man”, she motioned to the scarred, gaunt soldier to her left, “is Sir Alain de Caen, my Marshall”.
Dmitrius bowed to the Lady and her men. The Chamberlain acknowledged the bow with a slight nod of his head, the Marshall’s bow was deeper and more respectful; Aliénor responded to Dmitrius with a shallow curtsy.
To the surprise of all, the Bactrian knight turned his back to the Lady and addressed her people in Frankish. The crowd, despite the vigilance of the Lady’s Home Guard, had now pushed onto the verge, so many were within arms length of him and reached out to touch him, as if he were a saint. He said in a loud voice, “My name is Dmitrius Eucratides, son of Heliocles of House Euthydemus. I am also called Aniketos. I am a great hero.” The Chamberlain scoffed quietly to himself as the Bactrian spoke these grand words, but the crowd murmured with excited awe. The Marshall stepped forward to hear better.
Dmitrius walked along the front of the crowd, graceful and lithe despite his armor. As he strode, he removed two trophies from his belt, which he displayed to the crowd, and then presented to Aliénor with a flourish: a sword and a bloodied bag. Though the spring afternoon was clear and fair, and the air clean and warm there was a force that surrounded the knight, an evil hum that beat the air around him.
Aliénor was deafened by a blast of unheard noise and blinded by a vision of flames and brimstone. The Marshall, who stood to her left, caught her when she swooned. The harsh grip of his thick right hand sent a jolt of pain up her arm and brought her back to her senses. He eyed her quizzically. “Thank you” Aliénor whispered breathlessly. She anxiously surveyed the scene while she steadied herself. No one else had noticed her swoon. All eyes were fixed on the Bactrian hero, who had removed a desiccated head from the filthy leather bag attached to his waist. It was still wearing an iron crown, which was studded with tiny blue diamonds which sparkled like the Ithil in the bright afternoon light. There was one giant blue sapphire above the brow, a tribute to the Sky God, above which was placed a thin gold crescent.
A craven force reached out to her and implored. Take me. Kill the Bactrian and take me. Do you see me? I am hanging from his neck. Take me. I will give you whatever you desire!
Aliénor looked at the neck of the Bactrian Knight and noticed a tiny gold ring attached to a thin necklace made of beaten mithraël.
Take me. Kill him.
While Aliénor resisted the Ring’s temptation, the Bactrian leader shouted, “Behold the head of the Tyrant, whom I killed to save Christendom.”
The crowd, in unreflective obedience to authority knelt as Dmitrius paraded the grotesque trophy in front of them. Even though the head had been severed several years previously it was still animated. Its teeth chattered and it constantly strived toward the Ring of Power hanging from Dmitrius’ neck. When the peasants saw the chattering head, they fell back in terror, anxiously making the sign of the cross and averting their eyes, while monks and priests urgently pressed to the front of the crowd with raised crosses.
Put the head away.
Dmitrius acknowledged the Lady’s thought, and returned the chattering head to its leather bag, which he carefully re-attached to his belt, still moving. Even in death the Tyrant was in thrall to the Ring.
Dmitrius picked up the trophy sword and turned to face the Lady. The Chamberlain tried to speak, but the Bactrian spoke loudly and drowned him out. He shouted, “Aliénor of Ithilæn, I and my men have come to pledge fealty to you!”
With effort, Aliénor ignored the Ring and assessed the Bactrian forces: one cohort of knights and two of archers, enough troops to secure her County against all but the greatest Lords, perhaps even Duke John and his brother King Richard. She let her eyes settle on their leader, the fallen king. She did not have to be a seer to see in him a future of loyalty, passion, temptation and danger. Despite herself, she smiled. At this, the Chamberlain, who had been fuming beside her said, “Lady, these men belong to Duke John, not to you.” He had to pitch his voice quietly so the crowd could not hear him. This provided Lady Ithilæn with an excuse to not hear him. She turned her attention to the Bactrian leader and said as loudly as she could,
“So be it Dmitrius Euthydemus! Swear allegiance and I will give you land and you will serve me!”
Dmitrius bent his knee and handed the Lady Ithilæn his sword. As he did so, the rest of the knights dismounted and all mimicked their lord’s action, generating only a light clatter as they bent one knee to the ground.
Eleanor looked at the crowd of pushing onto the verge. The villeins and townsfolk became silent under her gaze.
Dmitrius spoke his vow in a quiet but deep voice that could be heard across Château grounds and to the far side of the Ithil. He said,
“I pledge to become your liege-man, bearing to you against all that love, move or die, defending you in matters of life and limb, and eschewing earthly honor in favor of all that promotes light and fights darkness. Never will I, nor my people, bear arms for anyone against you.”
Aliénor picked up the sword by its pommel, which was adorned with a stone carving of a sapling silver birch tree. She looked from the sword to the Bactrian, tapped him lightly on either shoulder, and then spoke, “We will it and we grant it. Be it so!” She turned her back to her knights and faced her people, to whom she said in Frankish, “Fehu-ôd Os Gilieth”. The Bactrian’s fief would be the cursed abandoned town of Os Gilieth, at the edge of Old Ithilæn.
Aliénor gestured for the Bactrian knight to rise. As he did so the crowd erupted in cheers. The Chamberlain looked troubled and ill. The Marshall was solemn, though quietly pleased by the doubling of his Lady’s, and therefore his own, military power.
The Lady moved so close to Dmitrius that they nearly touched. She could feel his body’s heat. She said while handing him his trophy sword, “Take this. I have no need for it.” Dmitrius stopped her with an upraised hand and said solemnly. “I insist.” He placed his mailed hands around hers and pushed the sword into her bosom.
As he did so, the sword spoke to her. I am glad you have accepted me, Aliénor daughter of Arwen. I will serve you well.
What is your name, sword?
A Greek name? Surely you are more ancient than the Greeks?
I have fought against evil since before the Age of Heroes.
But you are a trophy taken from the dead hands of the Tyrant.
I have also been captured by evil in three Ages. That is why I am glad to serve you. You are good.
I do not need you, sword. I have soldiers.
You will need me, and I will protect you.
How is it that a weapon can predict the future?
I can predict the future because I am a weapon. There will be war. There always is.
If you were a hammer would you predict nails?
I only make predictions about human nature, not my own.
The Lady handed the sword to a nearby attendant, a maiden of Hainault named Celeste Innocente, who was dressed in an expensive velvet dress, trimmed with Flemish lace. The young woman reluctantly let the edge of Eleanor’s gown fall to the ground in order to receive it. Eleanor, when she turned her back to her attendant, noticed Sir Gui looking at the sword covetously.
Celeste Innocente said, “Shall I place this sword with your heirlooms or in the armory, mi’lady?”
“Place it in my chambers, on the table by my bed. The one made of oak wood.”
The young woman curtsied and left.
Aliénor turned to face the Riders, who lined the far shore of the Ithil, and addressed them with her thoughts, Welcome cousins.
The haffen-ælves raised their swords and cheered. The crowd joined in. In the racket few noticed the approach of Duke John along the Normandy Road. His small, ragged army had been fighting the Capetians near Alençon. Aliénor noticed, but her focus never strayed for more than one moment from the Ring of Power hanging from the neck of Dmitrius Euthydemus, the fallen King of Bactria.
The subway ride downtown is as much of a circus as usual. This morning’s entertainment involves a slightly nasty competition between a busker who is singing Motown classics for tips and a gospel singer whose soulful performance is an unpaid advertisement for her church in Astoria. Fortunately, the hostilities are limited to looks and not deeds so I easily remain detached.
The jostle caused by the train leaving City Hall station allows me to read a headline over a nearby shoulder: US adds $3 trillion to economy, year to date. I think, “One entire Canada and one quarter to go”. Unbelievable. The companion story laments traffic congestion in the Tri-state area.
Our train screeches into Fulton St. station and I exit along with half of the commuters in my car. The rest will get out at Wall Street, the next stop. At the exit turnstiles, the passengers from my overcrowded train mix with passengers from 10 others, the locals maneuvering for minor positional advantages in order to exit as fast as possible. I lose this round of turnstile arbitrage to a large black woman and her wide-eyed child, which is just as well because the child looks like he is about to die from fright.
Once out of the subway I figure I’ll easily see the World Trade Center. I can’t. All that I see is a cluster of grungy, though ornate, retail buildings on Dey Street. I catch a headline from CNN news, on a television in a bar window: record volumes result in record highs on both NASDAQ and NYSE. I follow a swollen stream of people west across Broadway, and then the Twin Towers swing into view. They are huge, more so in contrast with the small, beat-up walk-ups around me. The crowd pushes me westward past Century 21 and across Church St. I flow through the WTC plaza, the book store Borders is on my right and a silver and gold sculpture of a meteorite on my left. I enter the North Tower through an anonymous, though impressively arched alcove. I take the escalator down into the shopping concourse where security is located. The concourse is a clone of every rich mall in America, with striking exceptions. In the heart of the main promenade there is a bank of escalators to the Port Authority trains up which cascades an endless, well-dressed stream of commuters from New Jersey. More people than I’ve ever seen before, and they keep coming.
The lineup at security is long. As I wait I watch the goings-on in a shoe store right beside me. Although the store is microscopic – perhaps 5 metres wide – the sales people are wearing head-mounted microphones: two people standing side by side with outstretched arms can touch facing wall. There is no apparent business reason for the headsets, so I imagine that they have a vanity purpose, perhaps a direct connection with the store’s owner. I imagine one sales-model reporting “Honey, we just sold one pair of shoes and a handbag in New York. You can buy a ranch now.”
Security is the tightest I’ve experienced outside of Germany, and just as efficient. Before I know it I’ve got a temporary photo id and am on an express interior elevator to the 38th floor. There is no reception. Of course. Information Technology never has admins. Except the CIOs. My photo-id doesn’t work on the scanners near the frosted doors so I sneak into the offices behind some soon-to-be co-workers.
I’m intercepted by Debbie from Human Resources, who is primly, yet sexily dressed in a pin-striped blue blazer, skirt and white stockings. We’re both exactly on time.
She’s too efficient to introduce herself. She curtly says, “Now that you’ve passed your drug test…”
“I studied hard.”
“… all you have to do is sign some papers. Here’s your contract.” She manages to be both brusque and desultory when she adds, “Welcome to the team”. Up until this moment I thought I’d just scored by landing this job, but her manner makes me feel like a loser, which I guess on one level I am because I’m a software developer not a banker. Nevertheless, I move to shake her hand, which I understand is appropriate when being welcomed to a team. She puts a letter into my proffered hand, on which I can see my three sentence long contract.
The contract is typewritten which disturbs me given my career goal of working with cutting edge technology, so I scan Debbie quickly looking for evidence of contemporary technology. I notice the tip of a cellphone peaking up out of the rim of her breast pocket, and, to my surprise a pager nestled beside it. It had never occurred to me that a mid-level HR employee would need a pager. Is there ever that kind of urgency to hire … or fire, I wonder? The sinister thought lingers while I read what I’m about to sign.
Brothers International Enterprises (BIE) agrees to hire Patrick Coffey for $115,000 per year (US dollars); BIE may supplement Mr. Coffey’s salary with a bonus. For 1999, this bonus is guaranteed to be at least $25,000. Either party to this agreement can terminate it at any time, with no cause.
The last line makes me think of Debbie’s pager.
I pretend to read the dozens of pages of Compliance documents that are attached to the contract. I know what they say, “BIE owns everything that I do. If I fuck up they’ll fire me and don’t talk about business with anyone outside the firm.” I sign the last page with a flippant wave of my hand. With that, we’re done. I set out to find the so-called ‘fishbowl’, where I’ve been told my new office is located.
I follow the smell of stale farts and acidic coffee to a beverage station where I figure I can get both a coffee and directions. The lighting makes most people look sickly though the WASPS, with fair hair and skin, do look striking. It makes sense given that this is their habitat. I impatiently wait in line as an overweight blond-haired man in a blue pinstripe suit with red braces fills a one litre Dunkin’ Donuts coffee mug with French Roast made on the espresso setting, to which he then methodically adds 5 packets of sugar. My powers of detection identify him as one of the contributors to the office’s methane problem.
As I prepare my own mug of strong coffee, I ask litre-of-espresso-man for directions to the fishbowl. He smiles knowingly (let-us-say-a-prayer for those less fortunate than us) then points north. I know its north because I can see Tribeca through the distant windows.
Although the gray, black and white décor is forgettable, the view outside the 15 foot high windows is terrific, though depressing. Metro News is right: today traffic congestion is general in the tri-state area. As I approach the northern windows I can see cars flow ever so slowly along highway 278 in Brooklyn and a mirror image of the BQE traffic jam on the FDR. The Brooklyn Bridge, joining the two highways, looks like a still-life. On the west side I see cars crawling north along the Hudson in a slow-down that probably stretches to the Tappan See Bridge. In the far west I imagine that I can see the Meadowlands through a fog of roads, smog and airplanes.
The fishbowl is a seven metre square glass-enclosed room on the first isle beside the north windows. It makes no sense architecturally, but is enclosed for security reasons: inside there are direct telecommunications connections to a dozen different exchanges on four continents, as well as to our trading floor on the 37th floor, and our Wall Street neighbors. The security concern is more that someone will trip and unplug a key computer in the middle of a batch, than hack something with a stolen password.
I enter noticed but not commented on.
“What’s going on?” The question comes from Ashulm, my new boss, who I have inadvertently pushed behind a stack of servers as I entered. In the half-shadows he looks like a stick drawing of a mean man: he has a spiky military haircut, horned-rimmed eyebrows and is wearing an expensive 30’s style suit that hangs poorly on his angular frame. His shoulders are elevated almost to the level of his chin, and rise and fall as he speaks.
The angles slide from Ashulm’s frame to the man beside him, Janus, whom I recognize from the second interview. Janus is shaped like a linebacker, so he is built of right angles, in contrast to those of Ashulm’s which are acute. Janus too is dressed in Brook’s Brothers retro, though he makes a better Gatsby than Ashulm. (Ashulm makes me think of Warren Harding.)
The angles theme ends abruptly on the curvaceous torso of Opia, whom I met in the first interview. Though dressed in the same blue pin-striped uniform as Debbie, she manages to look both sexier and more austere. At least from behind. She is standing in front of a mainframe terminal, with her back to me. Beside her on a metal rack, within easy reach of her right hand, is a nest of branded accessories including a purse and silk scarf. She abruptly turns around to greet me, which stirs the air up enough that I can smell her perfume. Opium. We lightly shake hands; I vaguely bow. She responds by vaguely curtsying, and then turns back to her work.
My eyes continue to linger on Opia for several moments more. Fortunately my aural cache is still working. Despite a several second processing delay I realize that Ashulm is snarling at me. I blink stupidly then I recall: he’s just asked me what I know about nonsense.
In my book, two consecutive stupid blinks is more than sufficient for any encounter with a boss, but Ashulm’s comment mystifies me so I throw in a couple of stunned flutters for good measure. My savior is Lance, from interviews one, two and three, who prompts me with a peace sign while lip-syncing the word “virus”. Lance is the most comfortable looking man I have ever met. He doesn’t give the impression of someone who is comfortable because he has found his habitat, so much as someone who could be comfortable almost anywhere because he knows how to make places his own. Which he has indeed done in the fishbowl, if the surround-sound speaker system quietly playing Dark Side of the Moon is any indication.
I address Ashulm, “I’ve heard about it. The Nonsense Virus, it scrambles data, but keeps the check sums intact. Nothing is ever added or subtracted. Most of the time its damage isn’t visible to error handlers at all.
“How many trades could be affected and how many do you think are?”, I ask.
“1 million and less than 1 percent.”
Ashulm’s snarly voice is less carnivorous now that we have defined our problem, “Those damaged trades are your 10,000 needles, but check the entire haystack, every trade, not one faulty trade can go out. Our entire reputation is riding on this.”
“Achilles, restore Fixed Income from last night’s backup so we can do regression tests. Patrick you help him. Figure out the precise moment this thing hit. That’ll stop us from doing extra work.” I turn to face Achilles. We haven’t been introduced this morning because I already sort of know him. He marshaled me through the hiring process and is image he is my ally. We’re both dressed like we’re about to go clubbing in Soho – with narrow modish wool dress pants, pin striped shirts, stylish black jackets and identical Kenneth Cole shoes.
Comic book logic tells me one of us must be the evil twin, but I’ll be damned if I know whether its him or me.
I pull up a seat along the metal workbench where Achilles is assembling a server. The counter is strewn with parts, tools and screws. He’s taken off his jacket, which reveals a gorgeous, expensive shirt and cuff-links made of silver and studded with tiny diamonds. As I sit Opia crosses between Ashulm – who is exiting – and me. Strangely, her shadow seems to illuminate him rather than casting him further into darkness. I notice his red eyes, and the band of gray, mottled skin which encircles them. He’s not going home to sleep, though he needs it. Ashulm affectionately pats Opia on the back and opens the door. I notice that the tension in his neck and upper back has raised his shoulders up to his ears. He hrrmphs and then – as if he has just come to a decision – stops and turns to face us, the left side of his face in the shadow of the door, the right illuminated by blue light.
“Gang, don’t think for a moment this is a trivial problem. It is not. Nonsense – and all of these other viruses – are an existential threat to order; they’re anarchy and they’ve got to stop.” Without another work he strides away. What strikes me about his exit is that he ended on a point of philosophy. If I’d given the pep talk I would have emphasized that our reputation was on the line; I’d never have turned this into a Manichaean battle between order and anarchy. Maybe after a life-time here I will.
34 hours later, blank eyed and barely able to move I slog along Dey St. to the Fulton St. subway station. Just west of Broadway I pass by a car that has fallen halfway into a hole in the pavement, out of which is hissing a cloud of steam. A couple of city workers are hanging around the orange pylons surrounding the scene, pointing at it and laughing. What else is there to do? The hole has been punched into what is probably the gnarliest piece of transit in this city of fucked up infrastructure: it goes down past the ACE, NR, JMZ, 2/3 and 4/5 subway lines, doubtless intersecting with one or two levels of hell on the way. Someone else’s infrastructure problem. I still have enough energy to smile, but hesitate to look in case I’m too tired to start walking again.
I stumble upon a rat who has misjudged his scurry path and rebounded from my shoe into the hole I just passed. I’m surprised to realize that I’m more curious about where the rat just scurried to than revolted that it just bumped in to my foot. The workers are looking the other way so I walk through the security pylons and peer into the hole, looking for the rat. At first I don’t see it, then I spot a dozen proxies or more, depending on whether the clusters of white lights I see everywhere are eyes or reflections, peeking out through a mesh of structures down to where I know there is bedrock. A city of rats built on granite.
All the dingy shops at the subway entrance are closed and Fulton St. station is deserted except for a homeless woman who is fastidiously applying makeup, and a twitchy black man with gray, curly hair who I assume is her boyfriend. My metro-card is empty, there is no attendant and the card machines are broken. I just don’t have the energy for this. Fuck fuck fuck. Twitchy man approaches. “I’ll sell ya ride.”
$1.50 for one ride. Exactly what it would cost me to buy a token. I give him $2.00 and let him keep the change he claims not to have. He scans me in. Good trade.
The subway ride is mercifully, though terrifying fast. I exit through the main hall at Grand Central and take my glorious end-of-day walk home down Lexington, past the Chrysler building on my left and the Chanin building on my right. Lex turns residential at 41st St. Two blocks of brownstones later and I’m home.
Crazy Dewey is sitting on the stoop eating an ice cream crêpe that my roommate Earl has doubtless just given to him. He is tapping out a complex beat, as usual. “Hey Dewey”, I say. “Hey” he replies. I wonder if he even recognizes me. I nod as I walk up the stairs and open the door. The main entrance way is full of marijuana smoke. Earl-Jay and Gina are in good spirits, methodically preparing a tremendous meal of grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches with made-from-scratch ice cream crêpes for desert. The cooks are huddled around the stove with their backs to me.
I hear muffled sounds from Troy’s room – he’s probably fucking his boyfriend Angel. I discretely enter the kitchen, open my nightcap beer and exit through the living room to my bedroom with the sound of “Want some bacon?” trailing behind me.
“Naw. I’m beat. ‘Night.”
I don’t turn on the light. Still mostly clothed, I do a face plant onto my bed. My shoes fall off my feet onto the floor. I close my eyes. They pop open. I desperately try to catch some sleep. Even though my mind is moving at a million miles an hour I don’t succeed until moments before dawn.
First para js
To do: in addition to copying the story I need to create a link to the animation.
“Daddy, what are you doing?” Jennifer lightly crawled over her father’s lap and then sat down.
“Counting out your inheritance, sweet pea.”
Jennifer looked down at the dirty coins that cluttered her father’s mahogany-stained desk ”Gimme a break. I hope that you can do better than that.”
“Of course I can. This will be one of many things I hope you to remember me by.”
David leaned over his desk and began to organize his coins into tiny piles, by value, size and year. Piles of commemorative coins were scattered around the perimeter. He slowly, rhythmically tapped his foot, and bounced his slender daughter on his knee as he sorted the old coins, their clinking sounds resonating merrily together. He buried himself more deeply into his idle work, transported for a moment from his tiring life by a feeling of simple whimsy. There was a song in his head.
“Dad!” Jessica shouted angrily “Andrew is stealing my doll.” The happy feeling passed in a moment as the duties of parenthood returned.
“I am not. I had it first.”
“Calm down”, Dad interjected, trying perhaps too hard to project a voice of reason. “You must learn to share your …”
“Give it back”
“No its …”
“Who wants to jump on the couch? “
“I do”, the children chimed in chorus, their fight ending abruptly.
Reason never wins, he thought, his irritation passing as quickly as their anger. “Come along dear children”. He stooped ever so slightly to grab their hands and together they walked downstairs to the TV room.
“Andrew, help me put the cushions on the floor” shouted excited Jennifer, breaking away from her father and rushing forward in excitement.
“We must be careful not to put them too far away from the couch so we don’t hurt ourselves.”
Dad stood back to watch their model behaviour, amused by how his rules were embraced when they corresponded with his children’s wants and needs.
“That’s my half and that’s your half.”
“I’m climbing up the back of the couch.”
“Daddy, look at me! Me!” Jennifer jumped up and down, giggling raucously.
“Do you think you can jump up to my hands?” Dad put his hands 1 metre above his daughters’ heads.
The two children bounced against their father’s outstretched hand, causing his arms to rise and fall.
“I can land on my bum”, Jennifer shouted suddenly and pulled her legs out from under herself and bounced several times.
“Watch out”, her startled father nearly shouted. “You know your mother wouldn’t want you to do that. You could hurt yourself.”
Meanwhile upstairs Daniel raced through this week’s sci-fi favourite, for once not disturbed by his riotous sisters. Page 48: the witch was testing Paul. If he flinched he would die.
“What was that noise?”, Daniel looked up from his book.
Page 49: Paul is on the verge of death! He must not flinch: the witch is pitiless…
“What was that wheezing noise?” Sigh. “Better go check.”
He found his mother lying flat on her back, staring at the ceiling with blank eyes. Her breath was shallow and constrained as if she were breathing solely out of her throat with no support from stomach, lungs or diaphragm. Her chest rose shallowly and fell. Otherwise, she did not move.
Daniel stood stunned for a moment while he made the transition from a fictional death to his dying mother.
He walked quickly to the top of the stairs. Before he could utter a word the bouncing game stopped.
Dad looked up. “Is something wrong?”
Daniel nodded and looked toward the kitchen. His father raced up the stairs. The daughters followed closely behind. They rushed in to the kitchen and then slowly encircled Mom’s prostrate body.
Eleanor stood for a moment trying to work out her next moves. Her girl scout training took over: she kneeled beside Mom and began a futile attempt to revive her. Mom’s body was very limp, and inflated not one millimetre more than Eleanor’s exhales allowed.
Daniel said to no one in particular, “I’ll call an ambulance.”
Dad protectively attempted to shepherd the little girls. ‘Come along, children. Let us leave Eleanor with mother. Let’s go in to the den to pray.”
They all moved to the adjoining room, cleared away a teak coffee table, then kneeled in a circle. Dad began to pray. The girls wriggled distractedly and kept glancing over their shoulders to where Eleanor was trying to help Mom.
Daniel returned from the kitchen and stood mute in the doorway between the living room and den, looking alternatively at the inaction of his father and the futile action of his sister. Eventually he squatted beside his sister, waiting for her to ask for assistance, unable to think of anything that he could do to help.
Unexpectedly, firemen arrived instead of ambulance workers, their truck with a light on but no siren. Three years ago the scene would have been the definition of excitement, now it was a very disconcerting reminder of a reality that he had only just begun to know.
The family backed away from the medical workers and regrouped in the den. No work was spoken but they acted in concert, the little ones avidly – but mutely – following their elders for clues.
“Daddy, is Mom going to be alright?”
“Certainly, pumpkin. You can count on it.”
‘Mr. McKinnon. Could you come here please.’ Dad joined a fireman in the kitchen.
After their father got out of earshot Daniel turned to his sisters and said, “That’s bullshit. Did you see the gear those guys used on her? Did you see how waxy she looked? I love mom. I’m going to miss her.”
Daniel and the girls sat down together on the couch, the children wriggling slightly as they tried to get further under the protective arms of their elder brother. He held them tightly, trying to calm his own fear. Reactions varied among the children. Anna, the youngest, looked blankly at her two siblings and then across the hall towards her father trying to assess the situation from reactions. Daniel stood mute and slightly stunned wavering between his fears and a desire to retain control. For Grace, amorphous child hood fears of loss and rejection, reinforced by dozens of nightmares, suddenly crystallized in one focused feeling of panic. She was so upset that she trembled.
Eleanor stood with her back to the group, watching the firemen raise Mom onto a stretcher then bring her outside to where she was bathed in red light then the blue light of the approaching ambulance.
“Everyone hold hands and get down on your knees and pray.” The three youngest looked at each other blankly while Eleanor moved to her knees so quickly that she brought Dad down with her.
Eleanor looked out the window onto the patio. The black sky was tinted blue by the pre-glow of the sun. She glanced at the clock. 6 am. “Dad, its almost morning. Shouldn’t you call the office?”
Dad didn’t notice. He was still on his knees continuing to pray. Everyone else slowly got up. Eleanor rose last, crossed herself devotedly and went to the kitchen. The children could hear her pick up the phone and dial.
“Hi, this is David McKinnon’s daughter, Eleanor. Our Mom just had a stroke. Dad won’t be coming into work for a few days.”
“Daddy’s working at home this week!” Grace’s face lit up.
Grace fell silent in an instant then began to cry.
“C’mon Jenn. Be nice to Grace. She’s young. She doesn’t understand.”
“I don’t understand.”
Eleanor finished the call, Daniel moved into Den and placed his hands on the heads of Jennifer and Grace. They all stood silently, having run out of ideas as to what their next moves should be.
Dad finally broke the impasse. “Get your coats children, we’re going to the hospital.”
“I don’t want to go!”
“I know that you’re really tired, sweet pea, but we have to join Mom at the hospital. She wants it this way.”
“How do you know? Did she talk to you?”
“I know pumpkin. Run along. Get your coat.”
The family piled into the family’s country-squire station wagon. The usual fights over windows ensued. When the dust settled Eleanor was in Mom’s spot in the front seat, Daniel was alone in the back and Jennifer and Grace had enacted an uneasy truce in the middle seat.
“I think that I should drive, Dad.”
“No. Let me drive Eleanor.”
“No, I really think…”
“Eleanor please. I need this. To take my mind off…”
Eleanor retreated into large folds of the front seat and was silent.
Dad thankfully choose to take the longer, slower route to the hospital. Which was fortunate because he ran right through a stop sign at the intersection of McNichol and Clansman, and slammed on the breaks half way through running the red light at Leslie St.
“Just turn left Dad. Take it easy. Turn left then drive straight for 2 miles. Please watch the traffic lights.”
As the family drove down Leslie Street Eleanor fingered her onyx rosary, while the rest of them looked out of the car window, blankly staring at the dawn.
When a hospital is described to you in the story of your birth it seems like a magical place. It’s where you first happened, ground zero. The first actual visit was doubly bleak for occurring during a time of dying. They went to Toronto General. It was as if they were visiting one of the more benign levels of hell: a clean but poorly lit maze with random corridors branching off in unlikely directions. The light was deathly blue.
For the first two hours all they did was wait in a cheerless room with thin gray carpeting and an odd assortment of romance and action books. Bleak, boring.
Then a nurse appeared out of nowhere. “Mr. McKinnon, you can come in now. Will your children be coming in with you?”
Dad didn’t have the energy to enforce a decision on his children so he simply rose and followed the nurse and they walked in with him. Grace started to talk once but Eleanor severely cut her off and after that she was silent though her brown eyes were big.
Mom was attached to intravenous devices and strange plastic machines that helped her breathe and digest. Her face was blue and her breathing was thin.
“Let’s say a rosary together.” Hands clasped, heads down we mumbled through a dozen Hail Mary’s. Mom made a rattling sound with her throat. We all stopped at once to look, except for Dad, who took a moment to notice. Then her wheezing stopped. The nurse closed her eyes with a gentle latex touch then turned Mom’s palms to face upward.
Silence. “How old is Mom?”
“She was 47”.
The family stood mutely around her dead body. Minutes passed in silence and then we each left. Once everyone was in the hallway. Dad silently returned to the hospital room to say his final farewell. Eleanor marshalled the rest of us towards the waiting room.
Grace suddenly fell down “My shoe doesn’t work.”
“That’s stupid. Shoes don’t break.”
“I can’t stand up. My right shoe DOESN’T WORK!”
“Let me look at it.” Eleanor approached Grace, as the eldest woman preparing to take on some of Mom’s roles. Grace recoiled and reached both arms towards Daniel who lifted her up and carried over to the couch. Everyone sat down again and was silent while Daniel comforted Grace and retied her shoe laces.
“Dad, when are you going to be 47?”
“Not now, Gracie. I’m busy.”
“He’s 46 now! You know that idiot.”
“Is 46 less than 47?”
“Yes. Can’t you count?”
“Give her a break! She’s just little.”
“Dad, when you die can I go with you?”
“Not now, Grace. I’m busy.”
Grace crawled on to his lap. “Dad, what are you doing?”
“I’m sorting coins, sweat pea.”
“Why are you sorting coins?”
“I’m picking up where I left off. The last thing that I did before Mom left us was organize the family coin collection. Now I’m finishing my job. That’s what we’ve all got to do now, pumpkin. Pick up where we left off and finish our jobs”. He returned to his work.
Clink, clink. Dirty pennies were quietly counted, stacked, then put away. Dad put the last penny down and stared blankly at the table in front of him. Once there was a song in his head. Over the past week it had turned into a rhythm and now it had flattened into a repetitive beat. Blood flowing through the heart in pulses. Day preceding then following night. You could count the days.
Draft March 2005