Monday, June 6, 2016
Eva Rosse staged three garbage avalanches at Fresh Kills on Staten Island. The first thundered down on a grove of trees that Ms. Rosse had planted in the garbage-slide’s path. The trees were crushed while cameras recorded the spectacle. The second garbage-slide, triggered by a dozen small dynamite charges, smashed a small, stick-built suburban home moved to the dump for the sole purpose of being destroyed. Video feed within the house documented the burial of the structure in the debris. These first two avalanches were named "Untitled 1" and "Untitled 2." The third garbage avalanche was called Lahar – it was more impressive: Ms. Rosse had permits to ignite the swiftly falling river of garbage and the flaming trash toppled spectacularly down the slope of the great funnel-shaped gorge that the artist had carved in the flat-topped ziggurat of waste. Flames spurted fitfully from the debris, sliding under the impetus of explosive charges. Two dozen witnesses enjoyed the spectacle from an observing platform floating like a raft on the sea of detritus. The fires were not readily extinguished. Some of the flames bored into the heart of the garbage plateau at Fresh Kills and they are said to be burning in hidden underground galleries unto this very day. Needless to say, the spectacle garnered Ms. Rosse a McArthur "Genius" grant.
Ms. Rosse’s next endeavor was called -1 / +1. This work involved waterfalls, specifically the destruction of one such land form (named -1) and, by recompense, the creation of a new, artificial waterfall – that is, +1. The net environmental burden, Ms. Rosse wrote in her grant proposal, was zero – that is, she wrote, "a number shaped like the globe, round and empty as drop of dew."
In order to implement - 1, Rosse traveled to Australia and inspected waterfalls in the coastal mountains in Queensland. Most of the falls were plunge variety, water sluiced down a high, narrow gorge to spray free of wrap-around cliffs comprising stony, fern-filled amphitheaters. The waterfalls were hidden in lush coastal mountains and, mostly, protected within national parks. Several smaller falls on private property owned by either timber concerns or railroad companies were unsuitable for Rosse’s project because relatively inaccessible – the falls were several kilometers away from roads in jagged country and, although, the artist could see the cascades above her, bright white horsetail plumes above the rainforest canopy, she couldn’t find any viable trail to access their brinks. A small block waterfall purling over a ledge in relatively flat country seemed a reasonable candidate for destruction – there was an old logging trail that crossed the stream a dozen meters from the precipice – but the property was entailed to dozen or more heirs and Rosse knew that it would impossible to solicit their approval to blast the waterfall out of its stream-bed: of course, one or more of the owners would protest. She turned her attention to a small fairy-cascade on the right-of-way of a railroad company. The waterfall was three kilometers from a village, accessible on an overgrown trail that could easily broadened for pickup trucks and heavy equipment. When she hiked to the brink, Rosse was uneasy – someone was watching her and she wondered if the local people had guessed her purpose in trekking to the cascade. Twigs snapped and unseen bodies moved rapidly through the brush and Ms. Rosse felt as if eyes were on her. As it happened, three dingos were tracking her, although she didn’t see them until she emerged from the forest on the side of the highway where her rental car was parked. The dingos were scrawny and had tattered fur and their eyes were a malevolent yellow. As she started her car, Ms. Rosse wondered whether the wild dogs had planned to attack and eat her. As it happened, the plunge pool beneath the waterfall was protected – in the wet cavity of stone, giant spear lilies were growing and those plants were so rare that their habitats were rigorously conserved.
Rosse flew from Australia to Iceland. The country along the Icelandic coast was very green and innumerable streams poured down from fields of ice and snow in the highlands. Impermeable lava dikes walled-off the narrow rift valleys from the glaciers and waterfalls throbbed and churned in basalt canyons. Rosse guessed that most of the falls were too powerful for her purposes and carried too great a volume of ice-cold water down to the slate-grey sea. Inspecting the brink of several falls, she nearly slipped and walking down a slope covered with flat frost-fractured slate tablets, her foot skidded out from under her and she rolled a dozen yards down the trail, twisting her ankle in the clatter of tumbling stones. The people in the pubs said that the waterfalls were protected by trolls and that these were sinister creatures capable of inflicting great harm on their adversaries. After four or five days inspecting Icelandic waterfalls, Rosse had come to fear and hate them – the terrain was too stony and the volume of water too great: the streams barreled down from the heights as if shot from a cannon. On her last day in the country, hurrying back to Rekyavik, Rosse drove her Landrover into a broad, shallow-looking stream pouring across the gravel road – she had forded a number of other streams in the vehicle and this one didn’t look any more treacherous than the others. But the current was more swift than she expected and, at one point, the water was deep enough to briefly float the Landrover and turn it sideways against a ridge of submerged gravel. The vehicle was trapped and Rosse with it, and, embarrassed, she had to call for assistance. Some men came from a nearby fishing village and, paddling up to her stranded vehicle in a orange rubbery dinghy, extracted her from the Landrover. The cost of towing her rented Landrover off the reef of gravel mid-stream cost a twentieth of her entire budget for - 1.
Leech Falls was the name of a small plunge cascade on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. Eva Rosse had lived in Minneapolis when she was little and she recalled vividly visiting the waterfalls along the fall line where rivers flowing down to the great cold lake cast them themselves over brown and black cliffs. She studied topographic maps, making lists of unnamed waterfalls not located on State Park or, other, public land. The unnamed falls were mostly locked in miniature gorges, flowing in stone slits so tight that the plunging water never saw the light of day – the cascades were hermetic, inaccessible, concealed in sheaths of wet stone so that you could hear the falling water, but not exactly see it. At first, Rosse didn’t inspect the waterfalls on private land that had names – she assumed that these were features of the landscape would be non-negotiable, off-limits with respect to her project which was, after all, the destruction of the falls – surely, it would be easier to procure permission to destroy an unnamed falls than one that had been christened. Accordingly, at first, she didn’t hike up to see Leech Falls, although the cascade was only a quarter of a mile from the cabin in the woods that Ms. Rosse occupied. One night, at a bar in the resort town down the road, a fishing guide told her that Leech Falls had been on the property of an eccentric hermit but that the man had recently died in a fire, apparently without heirs. The guide told Ms. Rosse that the hermit was very deaf because he had spent forty years living right beside the waterfall. This intrigued Rosse and she followed a rough four-wheel drive trail up the hillside to the cascade. A stream reddish with tannic acid tilted down from a wide-marsh cupped between two dark and shaggy hills. On a knoll overlooking the stream, Rosse found a burnt-out building and, then, a ravine filled with garbage, zigzagging down to parapet of low basalt cliffs. The stream slipped sideways along the brink of the cliffs, found a breach in the stone wall, and, then, dived down 18 feet to a round plunge pool that, in turn, boiled over into a three separate creeks segmented by boulder fields and running down through the forest to the big lake. The guide told her that there were many different kinds of leeches that lived in the marsh above the falls and that some of them carried infectious diseases. The flow of water over the edge of the cliff was impressive but not overwhelming and Ms. Rosse was interested to learn that the acreage, including the ruins of the hermit’s cabin and the falls, was administered by a bank’s trust department in Duluth.
As it happened, the Duluth bank had delegated management of the premises to an affiliated financial institution in Minneapolis. The hermit had died in a house-fire, apparently arising from a cooking error of some kind combined with high levels of alcohol intoxication. The only relatives were collateral and remote, people who lived somewhere in southern California. The trustee at the Bank was a friend of the arts and, indeed, had served on the Board of Directors of the Walker Art Center. He was sympathetic to Ms. Rosse’s project and said that he probably could procure the consent of the owners by default to the destruction of the waterfall. Surprisingly, the stream that cascaded over the cliff near the burnt ruins of the hermit’s cabin had never been registered as a fishing resource – the Department of Natural Resources had not stocked the stream with fish of any kind and, because the mouth of the river was inaccessible under a tumble-down heap of hematite-colored boulders, the watercourse was not significant with respect to the seasonal smelt-run. Accordingly, there was no regulatory impediment to modifying the river and its appurtenant gorges. Ms. Rosse ordered a survey of the elevations on the land, had the title brought up to date, and, then, negotiated some easements allowing her to improve the road to the head of the falls. The heirs in California, who had never seen the property, authorized her to destroy the waterfall on the basis of her payment to them of $15,000 split four ways. Curiously, the greatest concern of the California heirs was that Ms. Rosse issue to them enforceable indemnity and hold-harmless agreements – they were afraid that someone would be injured in the attempt to destroy the cascade and that they might be held liable for that misadventure.
After securing the site, Rosse scouted locations for the + 1 aspect of the project. In the autumn, she prepared designs for the waterfall that she intended to engineer in Pittsburgh. Rosse worked with a community liaison in the South Side Slopes neighborhood, an area of steep hillsides descending toward the Monongahela River. With the assistance of the Warhol Museum, Rosse negotiated a ten year lease of the abandoned baseball field located off Top of the Yard Way. The old field was built on a hilltop terrace overlooking the river valley and surrounded by 15 foot high cyclone fences with a splintered, storm-weathered backstop perched on the edge of the precipice. No one had used the baseball field for many years and city crews no longer maintained the place. Accordingly, it was not difficult to contract with the city for access to the old diamond and fields together with the cliff-like slope dropping down from the heights into the valley. The slope was tangled with small trees and exposed faces of crumbling sedimentary rock covered with a thick drizzle of green and red ivy. At the base of the four-hundred foot hill, an abandoned brewery with a ruinous red-brick tower huddled over a shadowy, fern-filled gorge – an artesian well had been cut into the hillside to exploit the natural springs beneath the bluff and the little canyon arched over with pedestrian bridges carried water down to a sandy bar shaped like an elbow in the Monongahela River. The ravine was derelict and, as the bricks and mortar of the hundred-year old brewery crumbled into the gorge, the debris was borne downstream toward the river in the wet hollow beneath arched masses of brush and trees.
Winter begins in October on the North Shore of Lake Superior. By December, the creek draining downhill to Leech Falls had frozen solid. Rosse’s contractors moved heavy equipment up to the brink of the frozen waterfall, a kind of chandelier suspended from the cliff with its innumerable pendants embedded in the dark ice of the plunge-pool. Explosive charges were used to excavate a pit upstream from the waterfall and, then, a ogee-shaped ditch was jack-hammered into the hard volcanic rock, running parallel to the cliff face. The new channel was lined with impermeable gravel and the diversionary canal was routed down and around the drop-off, cut into several steps to lead the water from above Leech Falls into the plunge-pool at its base. A thaw in mid-January tested the concept – the stream cracked and water rippled from the clog of ice blocking the river, trickling into the new basin upstream to the waterfall and, then, sliding sideways along the top of the cliff in a kind of aqueduct down to switchback into the plunge-pool. The river’s flow, although merely a few inches of water, followed the path as engineered, and, later, when the Spring thaw filled the creek bed with water, at full spate only a few inches overflowed the cascade’s brink – the rest of the water sped down the diversionary canal, rounded the curve and, then, toppled into the plunge pool. Leech Falls was gone, replaced by a sluice hacked into the cliff, a canal dropping down to the brimming round bowl of the plunge pool. The old brow of the waterfall was smooth, a deep groove eroded into the parapet of basalt where the cascade had once been.
While this work was underway in Minnesota, north of Duluth, Rosse’s crew knocked down the fences and backboard at the old ball field atop the overlooking south Pittsburgh. A series of gravel and packed earth ramps were built around a shallow basin excavated over the baseball diamond. All snow collected by city crews in South Side Slopes and its surrounding neighborhoods was hauled to basin and dumped there by the truckload. It was a snowy winter and the mound of compacted snow and ice soon grew higher than the ramps spiraling around the big white pyramid. On clear days, contractors brought gravel and dirt fill and raised the access ramps so that more snow could be heaped in the basin. At the same time, six men suspended in harnesses on the steep face of the hill below the basin cut into rock face, using dynamite to blast a shallow vertical groove in the incline. The groove re-contoured the hill side into a vertical, stone-lined shaft about eight feet wide and dropping 254 feet from the basin down into a bentonite-sealed impoundment reservoir on the slope above the ruins of the brewery. Several culvert-sized pipes were sunk in the fallen boulders and stony debris at the base of the hill and these conduits were angled down to bypass the brewery and disgorge into the ravine a little above the artesian well.
On the hilltop, the pyramid of compacted ice and snow, all removed from city streets and parking lots and sidewalks and piled in the basin dug into the old ballfield, was blanketed with a thick layer of saw-dust – this to insulate the glacier of ice and reduce its meltwater from a torrent to a brook slanting downward on a white apron of freshly poured concrete. The concrete apron ended above the groove incised in this hillside so that the water poured in a white, frothy free-fall 254 feet to splash into the teardrop-shaped impoundment reservoir. The City engineered a cul-de-sac near the base of the waterfall into a small parking lot and installed an 120 foot long asphalt trail up the slope to a viewing platform at the base of the cascade. The waterfall was named the Iron City Falls after a famous brand of beer once brewed in Pittsburgh. The snowpile feeding the waterfall was large enough to keep the cascade flowing until the end of August when the last of the ice-pack had melted.
So -1 +1 was completed. Films documenting the work required to destroy Leech Falls and create Iron City Falls were shown at the Guggenheim, both in New York City and Bilbao, as well as at the new Whitney and MOMA. The project, although criticized in some environmental circles, was generally hailed as a great triumph.
When the U.S. Geological Survey issued its next 7.5 minute (1:24,000 scale) topographic map of the North Shore terrain where Leech Falls had been located, the feature was no longer marked. Satellite images show the creek descending toward the great lake through a blurry flowage, then, making a dog-leg along a line of cliffs to ramp down into a wet forest on the edge of the coast. The river shows caramel-colored like whiskey or coca-cola flowing between black trees to the shuddering, foaming edge of the lake.
The City of Pittsburgh trucked snow and ice to the top of the artificial waterfall for six years. Calculations showed extra mileage and fuel expenses incurred in snow removal could be avoided if lowland (riverflats) depots were used to dump the snow and, so, the headwaters of the waterfall was no longer maintained. The first year that the snow was not packed above the falls, there were protests and, ultimately, the City plumbed the hilltop so that Iron City Falls could be turned on in May and operated at a steady flow through the end of October.
The Waterfall Bar, a successful franchise on the West Coast, has established an outpost in our city. The tavern graces the revitalized near north side, part of the vibrant neighborhood that has grown up around the Ballet eatery and the old Heights movie-house now converted to a stage by the Comet and Meteorite Theater company. Indeed, the bar occupies what appears to have once been a hardware emporium, a narrow commercial space tucked in between the Ballet and the Comet and Meteorite playhouse.
Featuring iced water from more than 80 waterfalls world-wide, the Bar is a cascade-water enthusiast’s dream. The wait-staff is knowledgeable about the waters both on-tap and available in flights on the tasting menu. Patrons are seated in hospitable mahogany booths at tables inset with flat-screen interactive computer display pads. The screens provide spectacular views of the sources of the water on sale – images of towering cataracts and roaring cascades, often filmed by drone cameras hovering so close to the spray that the lenses are dewy with water-droplets. Customers place drink-menu orders by tapping on the interactive screens. At the bar, Waterfall offers five waters on tap – Iguassu, Niagara, Victoria, Dettifoss, and Reichenbach. Behind the bar, the five waterfalls featured on tap are shown in a panorama of plunging, surging water. Menu waters are served in iced shot-glasses. Water collected from the falls featured in the menu is stored above the tavern’s tap room in second-floor flasks at exactly 33 degrees and poured torrent-style – this means that the water is sluiced from a fifteen-foot height through vertical channels chilled to 15 below zero. These sluice-ways provide aeration to the falling water and are arrayed in a luminous display within a walk-in cooler – the channel taps look like light-sabers from the Star Wars movies and, when they are engaged to drizzle drink-water into shots, the hollow water columns make an audible whooshing noise. The bar is the place on the near North side to see and be seen and the dark common room lit only by images of plunging white water has an uniquely romantic atmosphere. The only thing detracting from the experience is that the bar is loud with the sound of plunging and rushing waters – conversation may be difficult for some people.
Of course, more important than atmosphere is the quality of the water on offer to the bar’s patrons. Specimens of cascade water are gathered from both brink and base of the falls, mixed together to provide a liquid representative of the cascade, and, then, subjected purification by ionization processes – the purification is designed to remove potentially harmful contaminants from the fall water while not affecting the drink’s flavor. The water carried over the brink of a cascade or waterfall has a distinctive taste due to dissolved organic materials, sediments borne by the fast-moving stream, and minerals acquired in the rapids, gorges, and plunge-pools – this flavor is accentuated by the lightning-strike ozone characteristic of fall-water, a factor that intensifies the natural scent and taste of the water. The tap waters were uniformly excellent – Dettifoss is hard, metallic, with a slight flavor of salmon; Niagara is industrial, cold and precise, with hints of rubber and plastic-factory pollutants; Iguassu has a heavy, muddy flavor while Victoria seems almost herbal like a rich tea. Needless to say, Reichenbach is mint-flavored with an element of chocolate and has an enigmatic Alpine finish. Eight ounce servings on tap are priced at between five and seven dollars.
Flights of water curated from less well-known waterfalls are more expensive – eight to 15 dollars a shot depending on the remoteness and relative inaccessibility of the waterfall sampled. We ordered a flight of Queensland, Australia fall-waters, six specimens from Stoney Creek, Purlingbrook, Barron, Wallaman, Millaa Millaa, and Zilly. All of the Queensland fall waters had a distinctly fruity flavor with a fresh floral finish. Millaa Millaa, in particular, was strongly flavored with a slight vein of chili pepper coloring the mango-citrus infusion. We finished our taste-tour with shots of the famous Nachi Falls from the Kii peninsula in Honshu. As expected that fall-water had a crystalline taste, purely water and nothing else, that is, no taste at all, cleansing the palette and bringing an end to a perfect evening of waterfall tasting.
The Waterfall Bar is open every night from 5 to 11 except Monday. All major credit cards are accepted.
His mother was 34 when Irkson was born. But she was narrowing the gap between their ages. First, 32 years separated his birth from her claimed age. She had gained on him during Irkson’s ninth and tenth years – a desertion for which he had never forgiven him. Then, later, she reduced the gap again – this time to 28 years. Emilia was about to elect Vacay again – how long this time? Ten years away from the world? Twenty?
Her Adieux party was scheduled for 1500. If he arrived late, Emilia would fret, or, at least, pretend to fret, and accuse him of being a bad son for having made her worry. So Irkson decided it was best to arrive on time, be on display for an hour or so, and, then, depart before things became too maudlin. He was scheduled for departure himself later in that month – of course, several weeks after Emilia was safely in hibernation. Although, Irkson would also be cryogenically prepared and entombed for the duration of the probe’s travel time, Emilia, of course, had spared herself those concerns. That was her way – she seized the weapon from him, brandished it so that it would be devalued, and, then, cast herself aside. If she was escaping, now, for the third time – all in accord with regulation and statue requiring each taxpayer to spend no less than 30 years on Vacay so as to ease population pressure – he was also making himself unavailable, depriving his son of his presence and, otherwise, absconding, although, of course, in name of duty. Both mother and son making themselves scarce – so: like mother, like son.
In the tubes, Irkson set his peripheral on the destination, stroking the station icon for the end of the line. The PM was crowded but his peripheral guided him unerringly so that he stepped from plank to plank according to the instinct that the system implanted in him – now the fast lane, with the adverts streaking by too quick to read, the vocoder whispers a babble as he skimmed forward, then, the deceleration lanes, the slipstream between moving pathways, each step to right or left managed by his peripheral in handshake with the PM’s guidance coordinates. Sometimes, the tubes lifted him above the ground and he saw that the day was sunny, bright, pillars of towers shredding the light and scattering down into the green, sleek canyons of the streets – then, the planks dived and streamed through the underground, people robotically shifting lanes by side-step or side-skip as their peripherals required – stations to his left, some of them crammed with life and color and music, others vacant, except, perhaps, for a busker or a beggar come in out of the day to shelter in the tubes, and, at last, the Vacay decks, last stop in more ways than one, plank ramping up to the balconies over the sea where the Adieux parties were underway, the PM conveyor under his feet now surprisingly slow after all the speed before, moving at a speed slower than a run, than slower than a trot, and, with a sinking feeling in his heart and belly, now slower, Mr. Irkson, than a walk and, at last, full stop at the elevator banks to the Vacay pods, several screens scrolling digits to welcome vacationers to their final destination for a few years or a few decades, as the case might me, the list of Adieux ceremonies underway running snakelike as a feed beneath the numerical display, an amenity that was unnecessary to Irkson since he was percipient through his peripheral as to the facility’s public data stream, a perception that blinked on just as he disconnected from the PM’s guidance system.
The building leaned over the sea and its facade was broken into five-thousand enclosed balconies, some larger, some smaller, like a cabinet with a vast number of sliding drawers many of them fully extended, others not so much – indeed, the Vacay center’s bon voyage elevation featured glass-sheathed rooms that advanced and withdrew mechanically, some extending, some motionless, some retracting, a spectacle that could not be seen except from a vantage on one of those balconies, the place where Emilia was celebrating her adieux. To Irkson, the sporadic protrusion and withdrawal of the balconies had a loathsome aspect: it was as if the building were suffused with a creeping, irregular motion. But this went ignored by most of the guests, a dozen or so people, arranged as if in floral display around the guest of honor, the woman of the hour, Emilia. His mother wore a pink party dress and earrings projecting a faint scintillation that, if closely observed, consisted of important moments in her life including some of Irkson’s birthdays and, of course, the Caesarean that had first exposed him to the day. People spoke in hushed voices as if at a religious ceremony or a funeral. Through the great windows tilted over the sea, Irkson saw the floating casinos and the brothel barges and, then, beyond those vessels the vast white scoops of the desalinization plants. The city swept away from their vantage on both sides of the balcony and its towers seemed to lean over the sea and the sunlit breakers writhing below. People liked the prospect of edges, of looking across a threshold from one place into another, and that was what the adieux chambers offered – the glimpse of a far horizon not all mangled with human habitation.
Irkson’s mother’s hand was surprisingly cool and soft. She gazed into his eyes and told him how much she would miss him. The aura of regret bathing her words unsettled Irkson because he knew that his mother’s acting was so accomplished that she believed it herself. She embraced him, contracting herself into some small and waif-like. The air smelled of perfume: frangipani and mangoes. The government agent in the corner of the balcony seemed locked into a peripheral that distracted him away from this symposium where the people lounged on their sides in the air-bed recliners and music whispered in the fragrant air and trays of hors-d’ouevres and liqueurs circulated self-propelled to hover between the groups of visitors. Irkson saw several of his mother’s lovers – two of them, at least, trying not to seem to enthused about Emilia’s imminent hibernation. The men were both well-appointed and vapid-looking, their features so well-regulated and their expressions so bland that they seemed to be almost nonexistent, mere ciphers standing among the others adorning the room.
After he admitted that he loved her, Irkson murmured to his mother: "How long will it be?" The other guests bowed slightly and withdrew into other conversations. A balcony nearby, next to their window withdrew into the glass curtain wall.
"So how long?" he asked again.
"I don’t know this time," she said.
"What are you escaping?" He asked.
"Aren’t you underway yourself in a month?"
"That’s population expansion exploration," Irkson told her.
"But it’s cryogenic hibernation for the duration of the transit, then, who knows?" Her smile was suspiciously soft.
"It’s a mission," Irkson said.
"And this isn’t?"
"I don’t want to be drawn into an argument with you," Irkson said.
"You have never forgiven me for the Vacay when you were a little boy?"
"There’s nothing to say about that."
"I was overwhelmed. You know that. I was just overwhelmed."
"It was overwhelming to me too," Irkson said. "For you to go away like that."
"This time, I’m not going to set the term," she said. "You can set the term. Or turn me into a Sleeping Beauty, not to be awakened except with a kiss."
"It’s your life," Irkson said.
"Well, how long should I slumber?" she asked.
Irkson shrugged. He turned and nodded to Emilia’s two lovers who were watching him nervously from the opposite side of the balcony.
"Let them decide," he said to Emilia.
"Oh, them," she said. "I’m taking Vacay to get away from them. They’re not going to set my schedule."
But, as she spoke, the two men approached, silently stepping between the hovering hors d’ouevre and drink caterers. Each of them took her by the hand, one man holding each of her fragile-seeming white wrists. An IV port was already incised into her left arm, a little mechanical gateway that blinked with its LED monitor light. She opened to them, inflating herself, it seemed, as if in defiance of the retreat that she was about to accomplish.
The idea was that the sun would set over the sea, the big red thing dropping behind the desalinization scoops and, then, the city would be ignited as a thing of immense, pale blue and green phosphorescence and, in that spectacle of light, the vacationer would be extracted from consciousness and deposited in her biophagus. Irkson looked at the sun and measured its angle above the sea and determined that he could stay for another thirty minutes, no more, before things became dire on that deck and tears would be shed and fond farewells exchanged in that dying of the light.
Both men were bent toward Emilia and each whispering in an opposite ear. Was one central and one peripheral? Or were they both peripheral? Did they change places. Emilia’s eyes fogged with moisture. She called to her best friend and that woman came to her side and, then, the two lovers backed away from her, moving like courtiers who were afraid to turn their shoulders to their queen. The best friend called other friends and they formed a circle so tightly enclosing the enthroned woman that she could not be seen. The light was already dimming. Or was that just an atmospheric, something managed by changing the crystal structure in the glass enclosure to reverse polarize the light?
Irkson circulated among friends and family. At last, he stood on the edges of the gathering, next to the bored government official monitoring Emilia’s departure.
"How many of these do you see a day?" Irkson asked the man.
The man looked irritated and, then, remote. From the vacancy in his gaze, Irkson presumed that the official was searching in his peripherals for a voice- or face-recognition file. Whether he made the identification was uncertain.
"Between eight and twelve," the man said.
"It must be depressing," Irkson said.
"No, not really," the official said, "we need everyone to do their duty. Otherwise, none of this is sustainable."
Irkson knew that it was the official’s task to verify genomically the identity of the person taking Vacay, manage the suspension of civil and legal rights, and confirm the depth of the hibernation, sealing the biophagus and, further, making sure that appropriate revival alarms were set. He had earlier managed the fingerprint genome and the rights suspension forms were on the digital tablet that he carried.
"Actually," the official said, "it makes you tired yourself. You want to sleep."
"I suppose," Irkson said.
Irkson braced himself, stiffening his spine, and, then, brushed through the people around his mother, murmuring apologies in a low voice.
"I can’t tolerate goodbyes," Irkson said to her. She looked up at him from the recliner. Her peripherals were already disconnected and, so, her eyes were wide and clear and she gazed at him with a singularity of focus that made him uneasy. Why did people always seem so vibrant just on the frontier of being extinguished? Someone should rescue her, drag her away from the dark cavern to which she was inclining, bring her forth into the light . The emotion was an artifact of his childhood, but, powerful enough to make him gasp a little nonetheless.
The outside corridors were cooler, not irradiated with the setting sun, and he moved through the structure to the terraces on the building’s other side, the rehab and PT wing that faced inland away from the sea. People who had just emerged from Vacay were suspended in the center of mechanical carapaces that simulated the motion of their limbs and provide transcutaneous electro-activation of dormant muscles and nerves. A couple of women sat in wheel chairs on the terrace, looking away to the villages and shanty-cities of the non-tax payers ascending the mountains overlooking the metropolis. People who had just emerged from their Vacay looked stunned, as if they had been clubbed over the head, and their eyes were dull and indifferent with concussion. Robo-therapists slipped between the people implementing doctor’s orders – tapping an IV or bathing a face or joint in a cortico-steroid mist and the air, although heavily scented, smelled, nonetheless, from the remnants of their hibernation – urinary tract infections and abscesses where pressure sores had formed in spite of the body-shifting mechanisms in the biophagus pods, a stench faintly perceptible to him like the dry-mouth smell of someone just awakened after a long night’s sleep.
A robo-therapist visaged as a Labrador retriever led the people retrieved from their sleep in song. High voices, granular from disused vocal chords, hymned together. The sun was setting and the Tesla devices made the mountain slopes swarm with arcs of artificial lightning, beaming energy to heights that seemed almost inaccessible, the summits of the highest mountain crowned with tenements of the very poor, poured concrete and tin gleaming in the last light like snowfields. These glaciers were mobs of men and women and children, the unregulated masses stacked atop one another in hordes that slipped and slid down the slopes when it rained, avalanches of people and debris in a perpetual slow-motion collapse, smoke rising from obscure battlefields where the warlords were contesting dominion over the squatter encampments, the border systems with their chill emerald-laser extermination zones zigzagging across the lower escarpment and, even, driving the frontier up the hill in corridors stabbing into belly of the favellas like a pitchfork.
Irkson always wondered whether it would be different when he returned from an exploration expedition. Would the slums of non-tax-payers rise up in revenge on the City? Would the sheer crush of the unregulated population beyond the border system overwhelm the frontier and flood the City with non-taxpayers, people not compelled into Vacay, idle and feral breeders who might have two or three or even more children? Everything wavered at the tipping point. It was said the closer that you lived to the border system with its noon-time glare and its blizzards of animate razor-wire, steel-grey vortices of fence that rolled back and forth in the ceaseless pursuit of bio-markers, the closer you came to this edge, the more the air smelled of something that could only described as death.
According to the adverts, the bold explorers on the Dulcolax traveled "beyond the stars" in search of fresh worlds suitable for human habitation. It is not clear what it means to travel "beyond the stars" since the region where the probe was orbiting BluGre37 was inordinately brilliant with stellar objects, including a nearby red-orange and acetylene blue binary rotating like the light atop on an old police vehicle or the beam of an ancient lighthouse on rock-girt coast. Big Pharma had naming rights to all of the probe vessels and Dulcolax was a proprietary title given a hallucinogenic laxative that showed great potential in a number of upscale markets.
Irkson, as director of HR and part of the management team, was one of the first aroused when the Dulcolax split the wormhole and spurted out of hyperspace into a orbit around BluGre37, an apsidral precession averaging about 80,000 km from the planet. It was a pretty thing, the globe shimmering with weather, seas and bone-colored continents turning beneath an awning of striated rings. The rings tilted upward in the planet’s magnetosphere, alternately catching flares of light from the binary or tinted by the silvery radiance of the system’s sun, a wan small star that shepherded a flock of tiny rocky planetoids whirling around its circumference. The spectacle was charming and strangely intimate – the relationship between BluGre37 and its rings seemed vaguely familiar, even, maternal and, during the first week of his recuperation from confinement in his Biophagus, Irkson hung sedated in a traction web, therapy-machines stretching his limbs and working his joints while transcutaneous solvents ate away the ligatures and contractures, his eyes fixed on the planet and the storms parading there like armies with banners, lightning strikes crawling across the face of the world, and those strange rings jauntily tipped upward like a hat raised in a greeting.
Since explorers must be prepared for vigorous activity, the other crew members had been flayed around their crucial joints to prevent contractures, moving parts affixed to Range-of-Motion flexors and extensors by way of skeletal traction. After Irkson had regained his ability to walk on his own, he toured the wards of the probe where his employees were still soporific, eyes closed as the ROM machines tugged and twisted and contorted their limbs, exposed muscle tissue glistening like fresh-cut meat in a slaughterhouse – it was an alarming sight, something not displayed in any the adverts touting the adventures of the Dulcolax to earth-consumers. Irkson had no medical training and, so, he was always startled to see the crew-members rotated onto their bellies so that the vast, gory expanses of their gluteus maximus muscles were exposed, tendon and sinew shining and infused with blood as well as the great red wings of the paraspinal muscles supporting the neck and architecture of the upper-spine and shoulders. Hyperspace attrition was generally 15%, and a half-dozen crew members were found mummified in their pods or, due to postural misalignment, shredded by the attendant machines charged with daily rotating and repositioning them. The corpses were ejected, silver cocoons making ever-elongating sling-shot orbits around the Dulcolax until they escaped the vessel’s gravitational field to spin forever around BluGre37. Inside the space-ship, revived crew-members were wheeled to debridement tanks where leeches removed necrotic tissue so that auto-grafting could be implemented. All personnel were to be fully ambulatory within three sol-weeks of their restoration to consciousness. The air was infused was antibiotics in a perfumed and sickly-smelling mist. It made Irkson nauseous, but was something that had to be endured pending surface expeditions to the planet.
Preliminary data scans of BluGre37 showed that the world was morphologically similar to Earth. It’s climate and eco-systems were homologous. Although scouting sensors detected copious flora and fauna, there was no active intelligent or self-aware sentient life. Ruinous structures on a vast scale were imaged, but those sites were abandoned and, in most cases, buried under biosphere deposits, encrypted beneath soil and vegetation. Signals from the largest island in an archipelago near the planet’s equator ambiguously suggested some kind of settlement, possibly inhabited, but the data-signatures of organized intelligent life were otherwise absent.
"This begs the question," Irkson said to Donut, his adjutant. "It’s an Eden, a green paradise. So why aren’t there any indigenous inhabitants?"
"No Indians of any kind?"
"So far it doesn’t look like it," Irkson said.
"A new Earth," Donut said. "We’ll be as famous as Columbus."
"There’s room for a billion, maybe more," Irkson said. "And without any cleansing."
"Too bad that Pharma has the naming rights," Donut said.
"Well, before anyone starts gloating," Irkson replied, "we had better survey the place. Maybe, there’s more than meets the eye. You have to wonder why there are no Indians."
"But there were once."
"It seems so."
"War. That’s the answer," Donut said. "They wiped themselves out or wrecked the climate or destroyed their ecosystems."
"Maybe," Irkson said.
A scout-probe was dropped down to assay the planetary rings. From the Dulcolax, the rings
looked like a ramped race-track, tilted upward over the cloud-swarmed surface of BluGre37, a pathway through space that looked sufficiently solid to support the boots of an interplanetary hiker. At the extremities of the curve, the rings faded into colors cast by the rotating binary or the wan, yellow sun glowing like a lantern in a cavern at the center of the system. A black gap separated the glowing outer ring from a somewhat dimmer, but more intensely colored inner annulus. Various parts of the arc seemed more or less dense, although the concentric gap between the rings appeared as a constant shadow, possibly an opening in the ring-disk plowed by a shadowy, and, therefore, invisible moonlet.
Monitors showed the rings seeming to flatten into a laminar surface as the probe approached. The outer ring atomized into a field of debris, glinting sullenly in the light and spraying in a stream from the right of the image to the left. Molecular oxygen mingled with carbon dioxide and ice particles hazed the space between the jagged shards flowing across the screen.
The outer ring was made of metallic substances similar to tin, steel, lead, zinc, and bauxite.
"It’s as if a billion cans were crushed and shot into space," Donut said.
The scout probe skirted the edge of the whirling debris field, dropping beneath the ring so that it hung overhead like a pale, shimmering ceiling. The inner ring was the same as the outer annulus, a cloud of shattered metal shards, three to six cm. in dimension, shooting across the monitor in a thin brothlike plasma of oxygen, water and carbon-dioxide.
The black ribbon between the two rings was not a space or empty gap. Instead, the ribbon was another ring, this comprised of tiny soot-like black particles, a 5 meter-wide annular cloud of ash separating the halos of metal debris. The probe gingerly approached the black ash-ring and assayed the cinders jetting past,
Donut said: "It’s organic."
"Organic?" Irkson asked.
Donut rubbed his eyes to simulate disbelief and, then, massaged his forehead and brows as if his head hurt.
"Genetic material," Donut said.
"Not anymore," Donut replied.
The spectral assay displayed various carbon compounds with replicant DNA strands.
"What the hell?" Irkson exclaimed.
"Corpse-particles. It’s a burial ground."
The scout withdrew from the sepulchral black ring of corpse material. The rings rotated in the perspective of the scout’s ocular sensors and the arch of the ring billowed up toward the probe’s belly, appearing as two sleek metallic fins supporting a central crepe of rippling black ash.
Irkson said: "The metal must be from the corpse containers, shot up here where they collide or fall apart under the impact of micro-meteorites. This exposes the organic material which degrades in the solar wind and the vacuum to this cloud of organic dust."
The probe was climbing toward the lower hatch of Dulcolax. Donut shut off the visual display.
"Do we have the density of the corpse-ash cloud?" Irkson asked.
"It’s here," Donut said, pointing to a figure on the assay screen.
Irkson slid his mind sideways into this peripheral, fished for the computations, and, then, flashed them forebrain.
"I don’t know that it’s a mortuary practice," Irkson said. "We have to consider another alternative."
"What is that?"
"There’s too much organic matter in the death ring," Irkson said. "And it’s all, more or less, equally degraded. If we were looking at a course of space-burials, the organic matter would show a variety of levels of decomposition and degradation. I think we can calculate how long this stuff has been in orbit."
Donut said the he would try to access those algorithms peripherally.
"We’ll find that the deposit is all about the same age," Irkson said. "I’m convinced of that. It has to be to have coalesced into a single ring."
"The rings were formed during a single catastrophic attempt to evacuate the planet," Irkson said. "The entire population tried to flee for some reason. There was a threat."
"What kind of a threat?" Donut asked.
"I don’t know," Irkson said. "But something horrific enough to cause the whole population to cram themselves into tin cans and, then, be shot into space."
"Where were they going?"
"Nowhere. They must have known that the capsules or space-barges or whatever they were riding would break up as soon as they reached the magnetosphere. This must have been obvious to them. The alloys of the metal are inadequate for interplanetary travel."
"So why would they do this?" Donut asked.
"Because the alternative was too terrible for them to imagine. Apparently, the entire population felt that they would be better off dying in outer space than staying on BluGre37."
Donut looked down at pale metallic rainbow of the rings stretching out voluptuously over the gem-like planet.
"So, maybe, it’s not as nice down there as it looks," Donut said.
"This was an evacuation," Irkson said. He gestured at the soot ring cradled in the arch of shredded metal. "Something turned everyone on the planet into a refugee. Apparently, the population preferred outer space to their own planet even though they must have known that their tin cans were just low-tech death traps."
Donut gestured at the rings: "It’s a broken Ark."
"Noah’s ark," Donut said.
Donut and Irkson were skull to skull, identical spider transducers squatting on their craniums. The transducers were opening their ESP portals and establishing resonant frequencies. Both men sat in a bay bumped-out from the belly of the Dulcolax. Their vessel’s orbit cast the rings of BluGre37 in differing perspectives, an elegant shifting geometry that delighted the eye.
"Are you focusing on the spiral-shaped sea-storm midway in the gulf?" Irkson asked.
Irkson said: "Southern hemisphere near the planet’s horizon on the left."
"Correct," Donut said.
He twisted his head a little.
"Try not to turn your head perceptibly," Irkson said. "I don’t want to read cues from your posture or the inclination of your head."
"Okay," Donut said.
"I’m picking up focus on the binary as it rises over the horizon on the right."
"That’s right," Donut said.
"Now, the pattern of stars, above the sphere, shaped like a pitchfork with...maybe...a couple of remote binaries also," Irkson said.
"So you’ve got me loud and clear?" Donut asked.
"I think so." Irkson said. He paused: "Now, you’re watching my reflection in the glass, down below the planet."
"Inadvertently," Donut said.
"Do I really look that old and haggard to you?"
"Nah," Donut said. "Fresh as a daisy in the dew."
The ombudsman appeared, first as a reflection in the concave bulb of crystal through which they were looking, then, between them. He was shirtless and the auto-grafts on his shoulders and at his wrist and elbow joints looked pink and smooth as the skin on a baby. He carried a pad with display screen.
"I have the neural-legal consents," the ombudsman said.
"I’ll sign," Donut said.
"You have to read first," the ombudsman said.
Donut looked at the document displayed on the screen, signed, then, verified his signature with a thumbprint assay.
"You’re consenting to first and second order percipient intrusion?" the ombudsman asked.
"I am," Donut replied.
"First order is direct sensory impressions. Second order perceptions are interpretations of the impressions as to speed, direction, acceleration, distance, change..." the man with display pad said.
"Do I get emotional reactions?" Irkson asked. "Not that I want them but –"
"What emotions?" Donut asked.
"No, that would be unduly intrusive," the ombudsman said. "People are afraid of different things, they have different desires, different reactions to perceptions. It’s too intimate. Donut isn’t consenting to transmit that kind of data into your peripheral."
"That’s what I expected," Irkson said. "I’ll sign the consent."
The legal ombudsman handed him the tablet so that he could execute his agreement to receive transmission of first and second order perceptions from Donut.
The ombudsman said: "Signed, sealed, and delivered. You may kiss the bride."
"What bride?" Irkson said.
The Skull Surgeon appeared, his torso also bare and pleated with auto-grafts. He pried the spiders off the two men’s heads, asking them whether the portals had been properly opened.
"I’ve got him in my peripheral," Irkson said.
"I’m his percipient-surrogate," Donut added.
The Skull Surgeon and the ombudsman waddled away, moving gingerly on limbs a little untried and wobbly.
"For a moment," Donut said. "I had a little backwash. Something with leathery wings, a brown face crumpled like a fallen leaf, tiny teeth.
"A bat," Irkson said. "I was thinking about a bat."
"What’s the association?"
Irkson paused. The motion of the Dulcolax spread out the rings beneath them like swaths of pale, intricate lace.
"We’re working on limited brain-power up here. The ship’s not as intelligent as the systems earth-side and, sometimes, you get weird input in your peripheral. I was running a search and encountered something called ‘Colony Collapse Syndrome: Pseudogymnoasacus Destructans and Little Brown Bats’ – that’s what sloshed-over."
"It was old stuff. There once was a fungus that caused something called ‘White Nose Disease’ in bats. The fungus spread by contact, a dangerous vector when you consider that bats live together in colonies, thousands of them pressed together in their roosts to make a kind of living tapestry. Apparently, the fungus created lesions, attacking the bats’ mucous membranes and, ultimately, infecting their lungs. In some cases, the fungus triggered arousal in hibernating bat colonies, waking them up when they were supposed to be sleeping."
Donut looked through the corpse-rings to the planet. Where the sun was rising, golden fog clung to the ragged sea coasts. Some wrinkled mountains cupped green lakes and snowfields at higher elevations.
"A couple thousand bats were roosting in an abandoned mine-shaft somewhere in Canada. The disease infected the colony and aroused the bats and people in the village near the mine saw them one morning, a black cloud rising out of the earth like smoke. At first, they thought that something had exploded in the old mine – there had been underground blasts that killed miners before the shafts were shut-down. But it was silent and there was no rumbling in the earth, just a plume of black smoke rising from the mine-shaft, fraying apart in the icy wind, and vanishing. It was the bats. Some sort of panic had driven them en masse from the shaft, an impulse that drove the colony out into sub-zero weather – it was cold, very cold, and the bats had been living on their body fat during their disrupted hibernation and, when propelled out into the winter, they flew upward rising to the level of the tallest trees and, then, plummeted to the earth, fluttering down like falling leaves, all of them frozen to death. The villagers found them blanketing the drifts of snow a quarter-mile from the mine-shaft. It was a sunny day, cloudless and, therefore, terribly cold since there was nothing to trap the heat near the earth and the reflection of the sun on the ice-fields radiated upward into outer space and, the author of the article supposed, that the bats were delusional, afflicted by some kind of panic that drove them to rise from their roosting beds and ascend the mine-shaft toward the deadly light and cold and, then, emerge, into the radiance where the chill killed them immediately. The author speculated that the dying bats had crashed into the snow in a great cloud of high-pitched shrieks pitched ahead of them as echolocation, a high-frequency scream that no human ears could hear."
Donut shrugged. "I’m not looking forward to going down there."
"There’s room for a billion, more than billion, maybe five billion comfortably down there," Irkson said.
"That’s how it looks from up here," Donut said.
BluGre37's upper atmosphere was turbulent. Fast-flowing wind-rivers beset the manned probe and it wobbled, then, rolled end-over-end. The jet streams were hidden in clear air at various altitudes, unpredictably changing direction. Irkson saw the horizon spin and, then, tilt away to the side, as the air currents battered the probe. It made him a little nauseated and so he switched-off. The audio feed to his peripheral was unpleasant – the sound of the explorers retching and vomiting. Donut cursed and, then, the bottom fell out, a jack-hammer of heavy, cold air smashing the probe down through the clouds to a hard landing that jangled the men’s spinal cords and left them breathless.
Earlier assays had shown the air on BluGre37 to be breathable, but the crew detached their respirators cautiously – even, air perfectly fine for respiration can contain organic contaminants, dangerously bad odors, or sinister hallucinogenic pollutants. Standing outside the probe, Donut unlatched his helmet, knocked it back onto his shoulders, and, let out a kind of barking yawp.
"It’s oooooo-kaaaaay," he cried.
Rough ride and rough landing, Irkson thought.
A kind of astigmatism, an uncertainty of focus, afflicted Irkson’s reception of Donut’s perceptions. Maybe, it was residual dizziness from chaotic descent. Donut looked up and observed the pale tilted ladders of the planet’s rings extended across the meridian. It was beautiful and he gasped.
There was no landscape, merely wet-looking leaves and thorns pressed all around. Irkson could see drops of dew speared by the thorns. Mist blocked open avenues between the matted trees.
Donut tilted his head down. Irkson saw that the terrain underfoot was soggy. Donut’s boots plunged knee-deep in the algal green stew. When he lifted his legs, gaping holes appeared in the ground, dark pits that swarmed with finger-length worms oozing into the footprints. The sight repelled Irkson and he wished that Donut would look in a different direction.
To distract him, Irkson signaled: "How is the air?"
"You can breathe it," Donut responded. "Just barely."
The crush of vegetation spilling over low mounds compressed space. Irkson could not see a horizon. In some areas, the sky was shrouded in cream-colored mists that seemed to be leaking upward from the earth. There were no flying creatures and the coil of thorns and leaves didn’t conceal anything creeping or crawling in the plants. When Donut pressed his gloved hand against the spongy curtains of grey-green growth, the plant-mass yielded only a little and none of the leaves were dislodged – indeed, the green, petal-shaped leaves seemed soldered in place, immobile, without any coil of heliotropism.
Donut looked over his shoulder: the footprints behind him were swarming with subterranean life brought for an instant into the light. Many-legged things wriggled downward, seeking the darkness, creatures that seemed to be built backward and upside down, larval-looking soil-crabs and heart-shaped fist-sized grubs the color of cheese.
"There’s no bottom underfoot," Donut signaled. "It doesn’t really have a surface so there’s no real above-ground or below-ground – it just gets denser the deeper you probe, the web gets tighter."
"Is it dangerous to walk," Irkson signaled.
"I don’t know. It defends if there are cavities below, abscesses."
Donut stood on the edge of a shallow trench between two mounds shrouded under enormous masses of baroque, unfurled vegetation. At its center, the trench pulsated with the pressure of living creatures buried under the dense, soggy green carpet.
"The zoa is all underground," Donut said. "See how the living things are burrowing and coming apart and coming together."
One of the other men stood hip-deep in the throbbing green, a look of horror and revulsion on his face. Where his legs were sunk in the growth covering the ground, blind worms boiled out of his footprints impressed in the green.
"Some kind of putrid marsh," Donut said.
"You must be quoting," Irkson responded.
"I don’t know," Donut replied.
"I ran a word-search," Irkson said. "Percy Shelley in ‘Alastor’..."
"Very fancy," Donut said. "But I never read it."
"What do you see that would drive people into a death orbit?"
"Nothing," Donut said. "But this is all secondary to whatever devastated this place."
They retraced their steps, plunging uncertainly deep into the soggy swamp underfoot. At the probe, a couple of men in haz-mat suits were girdling the silver projectile with hover-belts. The probe rested in a caldera blasted out of the vegetation, tilted down toward cellar-like voids in the swamp where hydra-shaped creatures extended slimy tentacles downward writhing away from the light.
"You see, everything lives underground," Donut signaled.
He tipped his head so that Irkson could see with his eyes into the gloomy recesses below, dark cells with their walls tapestried with colonies of blind shrimp-like creatures and scuttling earth crabs.
"Carceri," Donut said. "The Carceri."
"Now, who’s being fancy?" Irkson signaled.
"You can’t get the full sense of this," Donut said. "Everything is tilted down to go under the surface. There’s nothing in the sky."
He flipped his head upward. The greater light blazed against the mist and the lesser lifted the green gloom from the ground and cast it skyward and, in the fragmentary blue, Irkson saw through Donut’s eyes the pale scaffolding of the death rings. Donut’s lenses polarized things differently than Irkson’s eyes and, so, for a moment, things cast a faint halo or stood aside from themselves in a faint astigmatic glory.
The men clambered into the probe, now sky-hooked and hanging chest-high over the foam of vegetation.
"It’s exhausting," Donut said. He said that he was going to nap and that he hoped not to dream.
"Some privacy?" Donut asked.
Irkson went elsewhere in his peripheral. He was tired also, all of Donut’s phantom muscles ached around him.
The womb of the sleep-pod amplified Irkson’s heartbeat and refreshed him with cool vapors. The moisture in the air was like a glimpse of the moon hanging like night’s distillate in a blue sky.
Brick by brick and panel by panel, Irkson built his imaginary wall. The wall was tall and topped by turrets and as impermeable as the parapets protecting the city from the favelas on the mountains. He imagined a moat and put crocodile-like reptiles in its turbid waters and, then, with the edges of his mind secured (so he thought) against his peripheral, Irkson fell asleep.
He dreamed that he was on a planet where the gravitational field was reversed or where the intra-nuclear weak forces had been amplified. Everything had to secured to the surface of the planet or it would fly into outer space: a huge salvage yard stacked with damaged vehicles, crushed modular housing, and planetary probes that yearned to rise into the sky. Someone had cut Irkson’s harness and he rose upward. Above him, his mother’s torso and face floated skyward like a balloon. She was ahead him as they both fell upward into the abyss of the sky. Then, the light snapped back and forth like an epileptiform seizure and the darkness of outer space writhed with unpleasant many-headed worms.
Irkson woke, gasping a little at the dream’s vividness. He sat upright and saw his face, a bit haggard and remote, reflected in the plastic shell of over his sleep-pod. The Dulcolax hummed like a nursemaid performing her chores.
He accessed his peripheral and patched into Donut.
"I’m here," he signaled.
"A little crusty," Donut said. "Bad night?"
"Bad night," Irkson confirmed. "I had one of those zero-G dreams. It’s odd because the centrifugal field on the ship is operating."
Donut said that he was lucky that he wasn’t down below, on the surface of BluGre37.
"The place doesn’t ever really grow dark," Donut said. "It goes into twilight and the rings light up the place. From down here, it’s like looking at the stars through the bars of a cage."
He said: "Then, you get cloud activity but it’s all backward. There’s an updraft and the moisture in the swamps spills upward – the rain falls in the wrong direction and, since it’s all lit with bioluminescence, you get columns of light, bluish light falling with the rain upward. Then, there are clouds whirling around overhead, all of them lit from within by the blue slime, and ionization, lots of earth to sky and sky to earth ionization, then, it rains downward for an hour or so, however long the downdraft continues, then, up again – the water and blue mist ascending on elevators of updrafts. Back and forth, like a ping pong game."
"That explains my dream," Irkson said. "You were leaking a little through my peripheral."
"Not my fault," Donut said. "You were the one who was leaking. Must have had a breach in your wall."
"I suppose," Irkson said.
"We don’t want to go out today," Donut said.
"Everything seems wrong here," Donut replied. "It’s unbelievably oppressive."
"I’d like to see that rain show," Irskson said.
"No, you wouldn’t," Donut said. "It’s loathsome, repellent."
"You have to go out," Irkson said.
"Easy for you to say," Donut replied. "It’s a green hell. You’re wading hip-deep in the muck and the muck is all squirming and alive."
"It’s a devastated ecosystem," Irkson said. "Everything driven either into orbit or down into the slime."
"I don’t know what happened here," Donut said.
"That’s what you need to discover."
"There’s not one stone, not one brick set atop another brick – it’s all gone radically lateral," Donut said.
Irkson saw that Donut was strapping himself into a Haz-Mat suit. Other crew-members registered faintly, a face or an arm or elbow flickering into his consciousness now and then.
"I’m shutting down the overt," Irkson said. The mental equivalent of a shrug coursed through the signal.
They went outside. The swamp was belching methane and morning ionization retained by the earth and low-slung clouds ignited some of the gas and caused orange fireballs to roll in a leisurely way through the wet, congested hummocks of the marshland. There was too much liquid for anything to burn and so the globes of fire moved from place to place without making much of a mark, a herd of fiery cows munching on the heaps of vegetal matter. The burning methane clouds bellowed like elephants, a thick, phlegm-congested roar, and, as they approached, the explorers simply stepped aside so that burn-monsters could continue on their course, singeing the matted grey-green thorn brush.
In places, the subsurface zoetic pressure caused living things to spurt from vulvar-shaped fissures in the soil. Apparently, buried structures impeded the migrations of the worms and the many-legged arachniform ground-mites, the gristly larval grubs and the colonies of tardigrade-like creatures, mole-shaped animals the color of chicken-fat that secreted a bluish phosphorene. Where the plasma of sub-grade living creatures sloshed against the underground dikes, the earth split and slimy geysers erupted from crescent furrows in the marsh – flocks of earth-crabs stood around the openings mechanically shearing apart the various living things that rose from the deep.
"There must be an apex predator somewhere underground," Irkson signaled.
"That’s what we’re afraid of," Donut replied.
Boils sometimes rose on the surface of the marsh, places where the vegetation was heaved upward and apart.
"Maybe that is the predator," Donut said, tilting his head so that Irkson could use his eyes to focus on the three-foot pimple thrust up through the green muck. The boil-like lesion pulsed slightly.
"Stay away from it," Irkson said.
"You don’t need to tell me that."
By the third day, Donut’s nightmares were so persistent and cyclonic that they began to smash down the psych-wall that Irkson erected each evening before falling asleep. There was nothing for Irkson to stand behind – he felt as if he were alone at the center of a great barren prairie with the storm from Donut’s mind pouring over him like a wind.
"This isn’t tenable," Irkson said.
"How do you think I feel?" Donuts said.
"You’re scalding the inside of my head," Irkson told him.
A couple of Donut’s men were either dead or incapacitated. Irkson couldn’t get Donut to think about them and, so, he didn’t know had occurred.
"I’ll make a full report if I return," Donut said.
An unmanned bio-assay recorded a signal suggesting more complex life, possibly sentient, on an archipelago antipodal from the continental swamp where Donut had landed.
"Check that out and, then, go orbital to link up with us," Irkson told him. He gave Donut the coordinates and, then, tried to imagine-out his peripheral. But the spiritual exercise didn’t work and the wall collapsed inward under the pressure of rotting vegetation and white larval grubs.
"You’ve infested my mind," Irkson told Donut.
The shallow sea near the coast was muddy with silt. Stilt-trees stood on root-scaffolding in groves extending far out into the bays and coves. As the water deepened, the trees became smaller and more forlorn and, at last, only a few of them remained below the probe as fragile-looking as mosquitos injecting their proboscides into the flesh of the ocean. The filth draining from the endless, undulating forests diluted, at last, and the sea reflected the pale, tormented sky, its greater and lesser lights and unexpected sunsets. The waters were turbulent with all manner of life. As the probe skimmed the waters, sea monsters rose up to brandish their fangs at the vessel and so Donut ordered that the capsule cruise at a higher elevation. From 2500 meters above the water, the men could see the surface waters teeming with schools of iridescent creatures, vast behemoths moving among the brightly colored currents of living things. Unlike the continents, the sea seemed alert with vertebral life, although nothing broke the surface of the water except the monsters rising to challenge their progress over the waves and, then, vanish again in an instant – fantastical, livid apparitions that seemed too improbable to exist once they had descended again beneath the placid, rippling waves. There were no birds or their equivalents.
BluGre37 was more water than land and its oceans were serene. The life dimly shadowed beneath the waves faded into the blue and green and purplish water as the capsule rose to hover in the silent heights over the archipelago – from a couple miles above the ocean, the surface of the sea was criss-crossed with pale lanes refracting the light from the greater and lesser suns in a way different from the inert-looking adjacent waters: currents were inscribing pathways in the ocean scuffed among the ceaselessly crawling waves, streaks that intersected at a pentagram-shaped atoll. Low, sandy knolls protruded from the water, rimmed with emerald vegetation. Linear brown causeways, apparently knit together from twigs and branches, extended across the upland moors on the islands. Where the causeways intersected, there were circular nodes, round structures enclosing plazas strewn with pale sand.
Donut kept the probe hovering high enough above the atoll that any eyes turned skyward would have seen the vessel only as an indefinite speck above the faint, striated clouds of the upper air.
"We don’t want to scare the natives," Donut signaled to Irkson.
"See what’s happening before you intervene," Irkson replied.
A dozen nano-probes were sent pelting downward, echo-locating places to land where they could bury themselves like crabs in the sand, extending fragile antennae-like sensors above the surface of their hiding places.
Initial data showed a landscape empty except for rickety, collapsing funnels made from branches and boughs woven together. The funnels extended from the dense vegetation gathered at the atoll shores uphill, over the sand and wind-scoured moors. The tunnel-like paths opened into round amphitheaters also knit from twigs and thatched with grass. Everything was in a state of decay, the funnel-paths breached in places by storms and the thatch shingling the amphitheaters collapsing. In the walls of the twig and thicket amphitheaters, there were cells, habitations apparently but long deserted. At the center of the island, someone had made a beehive-shaped hut corbeled from flat, slab-like stones. The hut was surrounded by a complex, concentric maze of slender trails, all hidden from the sky under ramadas of thatched twigs. One of the narrow pathways burrowed through the artificial hedge of woven branches and sticks down to the sea. A shelf of wave-gouged and slippery rock, complex with tidal pools all fringed with anemone-like creatures and round, fruit-like water plants, extended down to the sea. The terrace was covered with low monuments: cairns supported drift-wood poles that formed a grid among the tidal pools. A fence-like row of poles were embedded in the shallow lagoon stretching four-hundred meters to the next island – between the poles were hung rotting nets. The poles and ruinous nets led onto the adjacent island where its tidal pools reflected the sky between a grid of knee-high cairns propping up poles similar to that on the other island.
The second island was also deserted. Its narrow trails enclosed in rickety walls of woven branches and boughs also led to a concentric maze and another dome-shaped hut made from stone-slabs. Another pathway across the pale green and blue lagoon, more driftwood stanchions supporting decaying nets, led to the third island. The people, if you could call them that, were on the third island.
The sensors counted a population of about 1500 sexually trimorphic beings. About a quarter of the population was comprised of tall, almost black creatures. These individuals were complemented by squat, barrel-chested specimens showing features possibly adaptive to deep dives in the waters around the islands – this group comprised another quarter of those inhabiting the pentagram-shaped atoll. Their cohort were delicate, wraith-like creatures with long and immensely expressive fingers and toes. All of the anthropoids on the island walked upright and communicated among themselves by pressing their breasts together and stroking one another’s shoulders and upper arms. Each individual, even the most immature among them, wore across forehead and brow a sort of leathery belt, decorated with encrusted sea-shells and so tightly girdling the entire head that the skull seemed to be deformed around that ligature. The belt covered the place where the beings ought to have had eyes and, also, flattened their vestigial ears concealing any penetrations into the skull that might otherwise have existed. Some of the people wore shrouds and cloaks of sand. Others girded their loins with caked mud. But most of them were naked, shiny and moist as if newly arisen from the surf.
"They are all blind and deaf and mute," Donut reported. The tiny sensors embedded in the sand, showed the creatures squatting in their wicker cells in the amphitheaters where their funnel-like trails intersected. They sat and slept with their long fingers interlocked with one another. Sometimes, they moved in processions, each touching the next, proceeding rapidly through the tunnel trails to other places on the island, rhythmic wriggling synchronized walk that made the group of people look like a centipede. They formed conclaves of six or eight or ten individuals, all embracing – it was impossible to determine if they were engaged in some kind of sex or communicating in a sort of elevated bodily rhetoric, gesturing forth their epic poems and philosophies and scriptures – perhaps, sex and rhetoric were somehow combined in them.
After several days observation, hovering two miles above the atoll, Donut said that he would descend to them and see what he could learn.
"Be careful," Irkson told him.
Something interfered with the signal and, when Irkson accessed his peripheral downlink, invasive presences darkened his reception. The atoll landscape was horizontal, a fringe of vegetation nodding sleepily over a shallow lagoon. Most of the image was a blurred impression. The pointillist flicker made Irkson’s head ache. The stakes in the lagoon, however, and the ditch-like path entrapped in the woven thorn hedges had a sculptural, tactile quality – the tangle of branches bulged against his perceptual apparatus and the squat, blister-shaped hive was so hard and dense that Irkson gasped when the hut hove into view: it was as if the structure were heaped on his chest and crushing the breath out of him and his fingers and the palms of his hands burned as if they had been dipped in boiling water. One of the colonists hove into Irkson’s peripheral, a figure that seemed giant because it appeared within an unscrolling dimension that showed back and front as well as inside and outside simultaneously, a cubist display warping itself into the edge of Irkson’s consciousness, a finger, as it were stuck, into the eye of the mind.
"I’m getting interference," Irkson communicated electromagnetically.
"There’s a psi-effect," Donuts said. "They’re getting into my peripheral. I don’t know how to exclude it."
Irkson told him to take care. He busied himself with ship-routine, exercised in the gymnasium, and, then, entered the zero-g core to swim. Clotted-together by surface tension several pool-lengths of water hung overhead like cloud of glistening quicksilver. Irkson inserted half his body into the hovering mass of water. He rotated so that only his head extruded from huge ovoid droplet and, then, worked his muscles against the resistance, dog-paddling back and forth. After fifteen minutes, he emerged from the water, sheaths of it clinging to him like lead-colored armor.
The part of his peripheral permeable to Donut’s perceptions was inaccessible. Probably, Donut was asleep. Irkson went into the galley and sat alone to eat. The ventilators hummed and other crew members were laughing together, some of them flirting, others teasing. BluGre37 bulged as if pregnant, a vast spherical globe waddling through the darkness. Irkson again aimed at his peripheral but it remained empty – a data link with tendrils extended into an abyss. Everything in the forepart of his mind seemed shallow now, two-dimensional, figures and concepts lacking in any kind of depth.
In his cabin, Irkson adjusted his chair so that he could recline while keeping his eye on the planet hanging like a huge convex tapestry beyond the porthole. The planet’s presence below their orbit troubled him. He felt a vague sense of menace – it was as if he had to keep the planet within his field of vision or it might mount an ambush against him. Was this a place to colonize? A new blue and green homeland for the billions crowded together on the home planet?
A few impressions reached him. Perhaps, Donut was dreaming and his filters had collapsed. A humanoid baby – no two humanoid infants – were being eaten by fiddler crabs. The sky had no color – it was an abstract notional sky. Naked figures were swimming in a shallow lagoon, dark heads raised above the planes of smooth fluid. Then, waves like moving walls extended outward, a ceaseless agitation in the medium. Swimmers were going that way, breasting waves that battered them Some went under, another paddled in a circle that slowly collapsed in on itself. He thought of himself wearing the blob of water like a great amoeba-shaped appendage to his body – he was swimming in zero-g with neither ascent nor descent, no force tugging in any direction – constellations of water swarmed near him like pale, silvery balloons. An oblong effigy with immense staring eyes was drawn across a wind-swept headland by a straining, many-legged mob. The effigy’s eyes widened into toothless mouths crying that it was time to hide, time to go underground or beneath the squalls of the sea. The disturbance was coming.
Donut signaled that it was enough. – I am returning, he said. Irkson was half-asleep and the melancholy of the void filled him marrow-deep with loneliness.
The planet underneath him wore a blue veil and its continents oozing into the sea through poisoned swamps had the soft profile of a woman. The planet was a Madonna, a Virgin like those that Irkson had seen in ancient images – patterns impinging on his eyes suddenly coalesced into nose and ears and eyes, a woman staring up at him through the atmosphere of the planet, her lips slightly parted in an enigmatic smile. She was huge, yet delicate, the mother of all things and the rings surrounding her were like a great crown, a diadem with clusters of gems spinning around the Madonna’s head and cheeks and cream-colored glaciers comprising her hair. The rings of shattered space-junk, the black ellipses of corpse dust, the great circular pathways glittered around the Queen of Heaven like an immense golden halo.
A part of the halo scaled away from the brim of pale greenish-yellow light reflecting from the rings and rose lazily toward him. It was the manned probe returning like a prodigal son to the Dulcolax.
The surface probe had dilapidated Donut. His cheeks were hollow and starvation had enlarged his eyes and made them unpleasantly protuberant. His arms and legs were scuffed and skinned and the deeper lacerations in his flesh were haloed by reddish purple infection. His skin smelled of seaweed and mildew. The other survivors from the probe had suffered injuries to their eyes and middle ears and their mental health was reported to be questionable. Irkson had a phobia about injury to the eyes and, so, he declined an opportunity to interview the other two men, delegating one of the nurses to take their report.
The Skull Surgeon disentangled Donut from Irkson.
"Now that’s fixed," Irkson said. Donut’s body hung limply from his skeleton. For a moment, he seemed weightless, although the g-field was operating, about to blow away.
Irkson’s perception brightened. Access to Donut’s sensorium had been like an evil spirit haunting him, a form of predestined doom. The big blue planet with its girdle of corpses and smashed metal seemed to recede below him even though the Dulcolax had not altered its orbit. The corridors of the ship were better lit for him and the shadows withdrew a little and the stars began to twinkle again.
Donut’s voice fought its way through his immobile face. His haggard features were like a mask and his lips didn’t move as he spoke.
An island population, Donut explained, must limit its growth. One of three infants born on the island were placed among the tidal pools to attract the crabs. The discarded babies were eaten by the crabs. Then, the blind and mute tribe on the island devoured the crabs, bluish soft-shelled creatures that they ate raw. Everything that sustained the tribe came from the sea and was delivered to the islanders by the slick shelf of sea-gouged rock cupping the many tidal pools.
Only one island of the five comprising the atoll was occupied at a time. Every three generations, the people migrated through the lagoons, clinging to the nets strung between the driftwood monuments marking the passage between the islands. Different family groups occupied the various circular shelters where the entrenched trails in their brown fog of woven sticks and twigs intersected. In the center of each island, corbeled stone was built-up to make a dark hive-shaped hut. The hut contained the tribe’s seer – that is, literally one with eyes and ears that could see the island and the endless prairie of ocean and the curiously shaped, animate clouds thronging the sky. The seer was abraded into a limbless oval to keep him from fleeing in hopeless panic into the blood-warm waters of the lagoons or to prevent him from drowning himself in the chill green and grey waves of the sea. The people consulted the seer daily and dragged him around the island in a crude wheelbarrrow with wheels untrue so that the armless and legless figure, an elongated torso amputated to be smooth as an egg, bobbed up and down. The seer was a prophet and, of course, entirely insane – his pronouncements, uttered in a form of sign language, were memorized so that they could be recited to each new generation.
The creatures living on the island practiced swimming in the lagoons. They paddled back and forth in the warm azure water. Sometimes, they engaged in swimming competitions. Mothers swam in the water with their eyeless, deaf children clinging to their shoulders. No one was old or sick in the archipelago – when people reached a certain age, they bid farewell to their friends and families and, then, swam away from the atoll. "I suppose it is another form of population control," Donut said. When the swimmers set forth, monsters came from the deep to drag them down. Others were spared but because they were blind, Donut said, that he saw them swim in circles beyond the spray and the roar of the surf, ever-tightening loops until, at last, they were exhausted and sank beneath the waves.
"The worst thing, for me," Donut said, "is that the children are born with eyes and ears. Their parents bind taut ribbons of braided cord-like rope around their skulls – the babies’ eyes are pinned open so that the skull-ligature will rub away their corneas and pupils and, in fact, scratch out the retinal tissue from their eye-sockets. The midwives use thorns to pierce the children’s inner ears to deprive them of hearing and the ligature is tightened like a garrot around the skull so that it cuts into the bone at both eye-sockets and ear-holes. As the child grows, the ligature is decorated with sea-shells and smooth pebbles to create an orbital ring running so tightly around the head that it is, in effect, part of the person’s features – in fact, a way by which the islanders distinguish among themselves, a part of each islander’s identity."
"Why do they mutilate the themselves in that way?" Irkson asked.
"The same reason everyone else left the planet in a hand-made aluminum and tin cans," Donut said.
"What is that?"
"I can’t say."
Donut said that on the last day, the Seer began to shriek and the people went into their thorn cells and prostrated themselves mouth down on the ground and, then, a foul-smelling wind came up and cut lanes through the ocean, a weary howling kind of wind that smelled of the continents and the rot of the endless jungles and, then ...
Donut said: "the sea was strange. The sea was strange and the sky was strange also."
"What do you mean?"
"I can’t say," Donut turned his head to look Irkson. He made a mournful motion with his mouth – it was as if the universe did not contain enough sleep to rest him. Irkson saw a corona of insect bites on Donut’s forehead and his legs were bare.
"I feel as if something is living under my knee-caps," Donut said.
Perhaps, this was true. When the Dulcolax ripped its way back to Earth and, then, emerged into planetary orbit, lunging through space-time like a porpoise playfully leaping from the sea, Irkson arose from his pod, initiated an IV of amphetamine and adrenaline, donned an armature to force his paralyzed limbs to flex and stretch, and, then, hurried to the biophagus where Donut was resting. When the pod was opened, there was no sign of Donut – instead, the casket was full of fungal growths, foul-smelling with the stagnant swamp water of a remote planet, segmented worms with many legs, and hydra-headed tendrils that whistled and shrieked when Irkson had the pod incinerated.
She had changed her name: Emilia was now Xkatrina – "more festive," she told Irkson. But, in his absence, she had come down in the world. Her status had lessened and this Adieux party was smaller, "intimate" as she described it, without catered hors d’oeuvres or drinks, a bring-your-own bottle affair. The balconies extruded over the ocean according to the number of guests expected and Xkratina’s farewell-chamber barely made a ledge in the undulating glass curtain wall. The time of day was less propitious as well – not sunset, the time for bidding adieux most favored, but mid-morning, with the light bright and clinical and not in the least romantic, brightness streaming down uniformly to reduce the sea to a slate-grey field without scintillation and writhing at its edges with white and green breakers. The favelas on the coastal mountains were burning this morning and plumes of smokes striped the sky – the non-tax-payers had risen in one of their doomed, periodic revolts and there was war in the hills above the city. A fleet of carbon-retrieval drones scoured the sky, vacuuming at the edge of the more dense banners of smoke. Terrorists had attacked several of the desalinization scoops and another column of smoke was rising from one of those white half-shells now half-capsized and burning in the water.
In society, everything is hierarchy, comparison, distinctions observed, made, and followed as an iron law. Irkson looked around him and drew those distinctions and, then, thought that he preferred the emptiness of outer space to this place and this city. The Adieux gathering in the salon next to the space allotted for Xkatrina’s farewell was lavish – the balcony extended as a long steel and glass peninsula far out over the sea and a string quartet was playing something that was alternately vehement and soothing while over-served guests staggered around the corridors, rendered sentimental by mood-inducers, tears streaming down their cheeks. The air in the neighboring salon was perfumed hyacinth, strawberry, and frangipani. Some of those fragrances leaked into Xkatrina’s balcony – her budget allowed only jasmine-flavored air and the odor was strong and medicinal as if designed to disguise some other unpleasant odor. From time to time, the government demographics rep providing surveillance on Xkatrina’s proposed Vacay (a slender, weasel-faced man charged with the responsibility of verifying the vacationer’s genome for identity and, then, sealing her biophagus for the requisite period of time) was missing from his post. Because the hors d’oeuvres and mood-enhancers were better at the party next door, Irkson noticed that the man slipped away from time to time, after each absence returning a little more giddy and unstable on his feet. The demographics rep supervising the leave-taking in the palatial salon nearby was a slender woman with attractive features and Irkson noticed that the rep from his mother’s Adieux seemed to be flirting with that woman, although he thought the female government official showed overt disdain for the man. He winced a little when, searching for the rest rooms, he saw the two of them together. Someone told him that that next-door Adieux involved an important advertising executive, or, perhaps, that woman’s husband, and that the party had been underway for more than two days, entertaining a steady stream of the wealthy and the famous, and that the actual leave-taking was not scheduled for another seven hours – of course, a sunset departure scheduled for that well-to-do vacationer not bon voyage in the hard and indifferent light of midday.
Irkson’s mother was now about eight years junior to him in biological age. As he grew older and she younger, Xkatrina previously known as Emilia seemed to wither and shrink. She sat on the edge of her life-support casket, among bouquets of hydroponically grown chrysanthemums and marigolds, and she was pale, fragile, wounded by life with great sad eyes drooping under the scarred white wrists that she slid across her forehead with a graceful, neurasthenic gesture. A few female friends adorned the edges of the room, women with sharp faces and sharp eyes that seemed to be searching for something. Irkson noticed that his mother’s forearm was decorated with several tattoos that were new to him. She smiled at him sweetly and extended her arms and said that he should hold her before she entered into her long darkness. There were no lovers present, no ex-lovers either. The women stationed around the room had an air of grievance and, when they looked in Irkson’s direction, he felt their hostility.
During his absence, Xkatrina had fallen in love with a guest-worker from beyond the fence, a non-tax-payer. Predictably, chaos had resulted. People whispered that Xkatrina had spent a few months on the other side of the wall. The man had absconded or died accidentally or been entrapped by the government, arrested, and exiled into hibernation – it depended upon the story that you believed – and poor Xkatrina, whose only offense was that she had loved not wisely but too well was now alone once more, seduced and abandoned, no recourse remaining but to take
Vacay for another decade and hope that, when she revived, the scandal had been forgotten. When words about this were spoken, usually in a low undertone, one of the sentinel women objected, hissing that silence on that subject was the better course.
Someone arrived with a cake in a flat tray. A few helium balloons listlessly bumped together near the ceiling. The bombed desalinization scoop leaked smoke skyward to where the drones were carbon-harvesting, vacuuming the heavens. Irkson’s peripheral was edgy with reports of suicide bombings, security breaches, strange hacks into cloud-nets that inserted ideas of angels and vast mathematical gods into people’s imaginations – large faceless idols loomed over the teeming lowlands of data that made a halo around him. Public Service Announcements warned that elements of the peripheral on this specific day were corrupt and that much of the news stream, all livid with apocalyptic events, was fraudulent, an effort at Psi-Terrorism that all right-minded people should reject. The Tesla devices had been rotated into offensive war-fighting mode and bursts of lightning had turned the ramshackle eyries of the mountaintop favelas into torches and some of the smoke spiraling upward took uncanny forms – four horsemen, it seemed, churning across the sky and casting their shadows upon the face of the deep.
Irkson focused inward, muting the prophetic fury raging in his peripheral. He put his arms around his mother’s frail shoulders.
"You’re my father now," Xkatrina told him. "You’re the parent and I’m the child."
She whispered in his ear: "Now, I’m your little girl. Next time, I see you, you’ll be my grandpa."
Irkson shrugged. The women at the edges of the room glared at him as if to protect Xkatrina from the arms that he had wrapped around her. Someone said that she was very brave, that she was very brave indeed and that she had ventured things not dared by most tax-payers.
"Mother and son," a woman raised a toast. "To both of them -- brave explorers!"
From the next salon, an agitation of strings announced the scherzo of Haydn quartet.
His mother whispered to him again. Her voice was soft and girlish: "I know I’ve been toxic to all those that loved me," she said. "No one ever profited by my presence. So that’s why I’m going away now."
Irkson thought he should reply but thought better of it. This was his mother’s moment. The spotlight was on her.
"When I return," she said, "I’ll still be young but my son will be an old man."
"I suppose," Irkson said.
"He’s searched all over the galaxy," Xkatrina said. "But there’s no place like home."
Irkson embraced her again, careful not to displace the IV-ports and LED monitors starring her Chih intersections. There was polite applause.
"There is no place like home," Irkson said, raising a toast.
It was cheap champagne, too sugary and frothy like soda-pop.
Xkatrina stroked her brow and asked for forgiveness and, then, she reclined gracefully in her casket of plexi-glass and steel.