Monday, April 9, 2018

Intermundia Airport (Chapter 4).



They walked unhurried through the woods in silence, the nameless man at the centre and the quarrelsome security guards at either side. The faces of Eddie and Giacomo were fixed on the path ahead, while that of the nameless man swivelled this way and that, as though his eyes, like darting, skittish squirrels, were eager to consume every morsel of the woodland scene. The peculiarly archetypal quality of his memories reached a new pitch of intensity, and walking through the rooted, restive languor of the trees, it was though he remembered all silence, all peace, every sustained mystic caesura in the ordeal of life's intensity, every loll between every crashing tide, every moment where the child's apprehension of a bounteous, enchanted world returned unbidden and eerie, a flash of memory that stirs a thousand scintillations in a darkened pool. 
 
There is an old book you saw when you were a child, he thought, that told the story of your life. The book is about two orphans, a boy and girl, who flee the witch's cave where they have been imprisoned, and embark on a journey on the Long and Winding Road. Along the Road, the boy and girl have many adventures, encountering strange characters like the Peacock of Plenty and the Sneaky Serpent. The Peacock tells them that if they follow the Road to it's termination, they will find a place called the Pasture of Plenty; there boys and girls lay down their heads in peace, and dream enchanted dreams. (The Serpent whispers sibilantly that the Pasture is nothing but a garden of stones.) Before they reach the Pasture, the witch catches up with the boy and girl, and puts them under an enchantment which separates them. The spell also causes them to forget forever their adventures on the Long and Winding Road, and their quest for the Pasture of Plenty. So when the boy and girl grow to adulthood, they meet by chance, and the girl remembers but the boy does not. And once more, now in old age, they meet again, and this time the boy remembers but the girl does not.....

As they drew nearer to Central Command, the great solitude of the wood slowly yielded its intimations of timeless quietude back to the frenetic activity of Intermundia Airport. Eddie nudged him, and pointed to their left: some distance away, another New Arrival was emerging out of a man-hole, accompanied by security guards. The further they went, the more this scene was repeated all around them. Once again, it was an exact facsimile of his own prior experience: the New Arrivals emerged from the darkness of the shaft and looked with awe at the scene around them, while the grinning security guards wiped their gleaming brows after the arduous climb. In Intermundia, it was as though a single sequence of events were infinitely repeated, and arranged spatially so that it kept encountering itself at different junctures of the sequence. 
 
The sun had fallen now in the sky, giving the trees and the people emerging from the underground a luminescence and vividness of presence that made the whole scene feel realer than reality, like a super-imposition of dreaming and wakefulness that annulled and transcended both states, a perceptual clarity out of time and equidistant to life and death. New Arrivals and guards approached them, on route back from Central Command. The guards smiled and nodded casually to Eddie and Giacomo; the New Arrivals, haunted by whatever they had learned from their case officers, avoided eye contact. 
 
The woodland began to thin out into clearings, and they entered the world of the technocrats. He noticed their houses first, built seamlessly into the rolling terrain of the wood. In this context, they were peculiarly spartan and geometrical. Square and rectangular walls of glass in shells of rough concrete, they revealed the whole of their multi-level domestic spaces to passers by, making them more like art installations than homes. The interior of the houses had refined the contrivances of living to an abstract functionality which nevertheless betrayed a kind of alien sensibility, as though the proportions and precise angles of their cold, grey furnishings were designed to appeal to a sensibility only tangentially related to that of the human. Their aesthetic adornments were peculiar and unsettling: the living room of one featured a large flat screen television, on which a fire blazed silently. Faces appeared intermittently in the fire, their expressions wide-eyed and apprehensive.

Most of the technocrats were at work, and in their absence maids and butlers were busy maintaining the homes in a kind of pristine order that gave them their air of idealized and abstracted sculpture. Here and there, however, he saw technocrats relaxing in their homes. Seated in white robes, their features as flawless and blank as the furnishings, they too seemed to have abstracted their existence into an idealized absence, so were they lost in a kind of mineral contemplation, like a species of middle-management mystic. In one house, however, a male technocrat was having intercourse with his maid. The maid, a pale, slender brunette, stood with her hands pinned against the glass while the technocrat thrust against her from behind in staccato bursts. The girl's eyes were wide and her cheeks ruddy and flushed, but the expression of the technocrat remained distant and disengaged, as though contemplating a mathematical problem. Regarding the scene as he passed, Eddie reddened and giggled like a school boy. Giacomo looked away with a sullen expression. 
 
Having passed through the residential section of the wood, they now entered a commercial district where the technocrats gathered in groups and took their lunches. The walls of the luncheon booths were cunningly embroidered with moss and hanging verdure, giving them the appearance of sylvan bowers from some quaint woodland romance. The waiters belonged to the same plebeian class as the security guards and servants. They served coffees whose rich aromas were infused with subtle, unaccountable spices, and mouth-watering, glazed savouries in vivid, variegated hues that ranged from fleshy, strawberry reds to cerulean and ultramarine blues. Seating had been arranged for the technocrats on the branches of nearby trees. With leaden trays balanced adroitly in their free hands, the waiters climbed up thick ropes which had been woven into the trunk of the trees, passing the beverages and delicacies across to the technocrats seated placidly on the boughs. 
 
Removed from their homes, where they had exhibited a peculiar, almost comatose languor, the technocrats were now more animated in the company of their colleagues. They spoke contently to one another, and the mingling of their sonorous, melodic voices was like a chorus of birds heralding the dawn in a bureaucratic effusion of measured joy. Despite their greater ease, all the technocrats wore that distant, inscrutable smile which he had noted on their colleagues back on the train. They instilled in him an intense mixture of emotions: an attraction towards their flawless and unattainable beauty, and a visceral resentment of their innate, impervious sense of superiority. The beauty and physical grace of each technocrat seemed more luminous and ravishing to the eye than the last, and yet there was something galling and even repulsive about the way in which they barely seemed to register the steady traffic of waiters, guards and New Arrivals that moved about them in a steady stream. It was as though every other class of human were like a species of semi-domesticated wild-life, which familiarity and a lack of perceived threat had long inured them to. 
 
When they had finished their lunches, some of the technocrats wandered over to a nearby newsagent to acquaint themselves with the latest stories. This, however, was a most unusual purveyor of current events. It appeared that the technocrats were too important a class to lower themselves to peruse mere ink and paper documents, and thus a group of about thirty journalists were dispatched to perform the “news” live. Hammocks had been hoisted between bushes and trees, and the recumbent, semi-conscious journalists whispered the contents of their errant, ranging imaginations, while a species of stenographer, patient and resilient of limb, held microphones to their mouths so that the technocrats didn't have to crane their necks to hear the latest events. It was a strange thing to witness as they passed: the deep, low voices of the journalists, collating in a random yet seemingly significant manner the ineffable images and inchoate or untranslatable yearnings of their chasm-separated dream-worlds, while the technocrats, for once divested of their sly grins, exchanged grave, meaningful looks, as though the hushed mental somnambulisms issuing through the microphones did indeed portend to public events that would soon subsume the world. 
 
After this disquieting scene, they entered a more densely wooded area, and began to climb a steepening slope. Almost imperceptibly, they had become a huge, silent throng, he and the other New Arrivals, with their accompanying security guards. He had a presentiment, almost like a specific memory for the first time, that they had reached the last leg of their journey. The sun had fallen behind them now, and the darkening woodland slope was divested of all its crisp, spring enchantment. In its insinuating shadow and abrupt chill, it had become wintry, poised and watchful, a nature not of sporting young, but of looming, predatory threat. The New Arrivals exchanged brief, intense glances to one another, expressions of composed kinship in an agony of uncertainty. He felt as though there was a sound, a low guttural chanting, that rose steadily as they neared Central Command. Then they reached the summit of the cliff, and its immense, sombre structure lay before them. 


 
Central Command was composed of a dizzying array of concrete blocks, slate grey in colour but mottled here and there with sickly blotches of black and rusty copper brown. Cyclopean in scale, the blocks all took rigidly geometric forms, but were arranged in such a dizzyingly asymmetrical jumble as to give the whole structure the appearance of a constantly morphing, improvisatory puzzle, whose every new permutation only made its ultimate solution ever more intractable. A paradoxical kind of stability was attained only by falling water that came down in streams from various points at the apex of the building, mingling together in a concrete moat that surrounded the base. Central Command instilled a feeling of awe and almost cosmic disquiet in the nameless man for two reasons. The first lay in its immemorial air. Though clearly a product of abstract mathematical reasoning, it felt in some irrational but undeniable sense to predate all the surrounding landscape. It was older than the trees, older than the soil and the grass. It was as though the woodland had been fashioned upon its stark primordial base, a riotous plunge into the freedom or decadence of the organic and sentient. It was a uniquely frightening presentiment, he thought, to discover the hidden seat of an antediluvian bureaucracy. 
 
The second reason for his unease was the conviction that he had been here, and felt all these precise intimations, before. Having finally grown accustomed to his amnesiac condition, to the distant and impersonal nature of his memories, to suddenly encounter a recollection of something specific to his own prior experience was as uncanny and disorientating as the most profound déjà vu met by a normal constitution. As they drew down the hill, into the looming shadow of Central Command, he felt like a twig swept along in a stream, like a hapless dreamer unable to stir his distant, rigid body to motion. The vast, ageless building worked itself with renewed violence on his mental state. The inhuman chanting increased in its volume and duration; he felt as though it were a vibration emitted by the particular structure of the building, to which his nervous system operated as a tuning fork. He became nauseous and feint as they drew nearer, the sound conjuring to his imagination a vast being, ponderous, inimical and unmoored from all the frailties and compassion of time and space. Finally, they reached the moat's narrow bridge, and he found the clamour and sickness instantly annulled by contemplating the steady serenity of the stream. He leaned over the edge of the bridge, allowing his fraught nerves to merge with the unhurried whisper of the water. 
 
After he had been thus collecting himself for some time, Eddie nudged him gently, and they continued across the bridge. The central facade of Command was a large rectangular pane of tinted glass, through which the hillside and surrounding woodland were reflected. At the base of the pane there were four evenly spaced revolving doors. People streamed into the building through the two doors to the left, and back out through those at the right. As they neared their point of entry, he noted the expressions of the New Arrivals as they exited Central Command. Most were befuddled, nonplussed, haunted; some exhibited a kind of mordant fatalism, as though they had just been initiated into the punchline of an infinite cosmic farce. One chubby, sunburnt Caucasian, bearing all the appearances of an intoxicated tourist, emerged from the revolving door swivel-headed and goggle-eyed, laughing hysterically. Eddie and Giacomo then ushered the nameless man into the turning wing of the door, and they went within. 

In a sharp contrast to its austere and bureaucratic exterior, he found himself in a vast, high-ceilinged vestibule which was far more redolent of an antique mosque or temple. The walls were divided along their full length by horseshoe arches, the floors and walls decorated with a series of intricately beautiful mosaics. These mosaic patterns, like the equations of some ecstatic physicist, felt as though they embodied the ultimate abstract simplicity underlying all the world's variegated appearances. The colours of the lower sections were airy blues and yellows, gradually deepening to otherworldly twilight hues as the structure ascended to a domed ceiling, whose prismatic, honeycombed pattern resembled the visionary transports of the opium or hashish eater at the apex of his debauch. 

Though the vestibule itself embodied an atmosphere of pious tranquillity, the scene within was an unstinting babble and bustle of bodies going this direction and that. Those who had presently arrived formed queues at a series of arched alcoves on the wall adjacent to the entrance. The security guards were then greeted by technocratic secretaries seated at their desks in the alcoves. The secretaries administered tickets to them, and the guards escorted their Arrivals to specific alcoves along the left wall, wherein they disappeared through little doors and stairwells. This continuous traffic of people going into the alcoves progressed on the left side of the vestibule, whilst on the right the same volume were emerging from beneath the arches and making their way towards the exit doors. Betwixt all this ceaseless motion, a large pool of water lay serene and motionless, reflecting the prismatic honeycomb of the ceiling.

When they arrived at the desk, Eddie rooted around in his pockets, finally producing, after much scowling from Giacomo, a perfect golden orb which was about the size of a marble. The sight of the golden ball produced in the nameless man a sharp start, like an electrical shock. Eddie passed the golden orb to a secretary who promptly deposited it on a small weighing scale which stood atop a narrow, green-tinted ticket machine. The orb made a delicate chiming sound as it struck the pan, and the scale tilted very slightly. A ticket issued instantly from the machine, which the secretary passed to Eddie. An attendant took the orb from the pan and disappeared down a stairwell to the rear of the alcove. Eddie looked at the ticket and grinned. 



'You've got Renton', he said, 'he's a wonderful case officer, a very conscientious man.'
They made their way to the left wall, and crouched into a tiny alcove. Within the alcove, there was a smaller arch, obscured by a curtain. To the right of the curtain, a slender, feeble-looking old man with taut, dessicated brown skin sat in attendance. The old man smoked a cigarette and gazed listlessly at a cruciform board game arranged on a mat at his feet. Eddie handed him the ticket, and the old man placed it in his mouth, swirling it around his toothless jaws as though apprehensive of swallowing. Finally, the ticket passed down his gullet with a clicking sound, and he stood up and lifted the curtain for them, revealing the entrance to a spiral staircase. 'Show us your tongue, Jobim,' Giacomo said with a cruel grin as they passed through. The old man opened his mouth, and a pitch black tongue protruded from it. He leered at the nameless man with the callow spitefulness of a school girl. His face then re-composed itself, and he resumed his seat, cigarette and board game with a kind of mournful dignity. 'Jobim's diet is just the ticket!' Eddie said, causing the two guards to explode with laughter as the curtain fell back behind them. 

As they began their descent of the staircase, the nameless man noted that the walls were decorated with posters. In contrast to the abstract and often inscrutable images and slogans that adorned the terminal, these posters were more straight-forward and consistent in their message. Each one showed New Arrivals consulting with their case officers. The officers were invariably depicted as kindly, capable figures, and the whole scene suggested a reassuring visit to the village GP. The Arrivals, he divined from the posters, were grappling with a personal state of affairs referred to as their “Interim.” YOUR CASE OFFICERS ARE HERE, announced one, TO HELP YOU MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR INTERIM!
YOUR INTERIM SHOULD BE A RELAXING TIME, said another, LET YOUR CASE OFFICER PUT YOUR MIND AT EASE!
Others had a slightly more insistent tone: CO-OPERATE WITH YOUR CASE OFFICER, AND YOU'LL BE ON YOUR WAY IN NO TIME!
THE INTERIM IS SHORT – DON'T WASTE YOUR CASE OFFICER'S TIME – OR YOUR OWN!
At every circuit of the staircase, they passed another curtained entrance where more guards were emerging with their charges. He paused, leaning over the bannister to look down. The staircase wound its way in layers down to a darkened central point, and evenly spaced groups moved down the spiral like the hands of a fractured clock.
'Do we have far to go to get to Renton?' he asked.
'It's a ways yet,' Eddie said with a kindly expression. They continued their descent. 



At the bottom, they passed swifty through a circular chamber, and entered a vast cavern which they traversed along an elevated footbridge. The first thing that captured the nameless man's attention in the cavern was an eerie and ambient wash of sounds. The predominant texture was a thrilling, melodious rush of tones, a steady rise and fall of glissandos, as though from a great forest of chime trees, glockenspiel and timpani. He became lost in that sound for a time; it stirred in him a sequence of intense, contrary emotions which were so absorbing that he first forgot where he was, and after that each proceeding emotional totality which the sequence moved through. He felt, by turns, the deep placidity of a warm, drowsy infant, the ravenous, instinctive appetite of a beast, the intellectual transports of a scholar and the wordless ecstasies of a sage, the loneliness of old age and abandonment, the omniscience of a god and the blank, mindless patience of a spider, and on and on, until he came to again. Now he noted that the chiming sounds were underscored by hissing, crackling waves of electromagnetic static. This background white noise was punctuated by fragments of old big band music: ballads, waltzes and foxtrots that must once had accompanied great swellings of the heart and the loins, and great sinkings of the soul into jealous rancour and self-pity, and great forgettings of all things but single moments cleaved out of time's passage and life's care, moments in the bloom of youth that might be recalled later in the ineluctable return of time's passage and life's care, steady and stately itself as a dance; but now the music recalled only a general idea of memory and the past; like old skin, shed, anonymous and unwanted, it faded in and out, dust stirred and dispersed in the poised, unremembering air.

'Where are those sounds coming from?' he asked Eddie. 

'This is where the traffic controllers work', Eddie replied giddily, 'have a look for yourself.' The nameless man leaned over the railings and looked down. It was a significant drop, and the lateral extent of the cavern was difficult to fathom. The scene below was the most staggering example he had yet encountered of Intermundia's perpetual industriousness. The offices of the traffic controllers formed a vast geometric maze, broken into cubes and traversed by pathways. There was about twenty four individual cubical desks in each cube. A plinth was raised at the four corners of every cube, and on each plinth stood a large weighting scale, decorated with heraldic symbols. Controllers worked at their desks and walked to and fro along the pathways with poised, stringent expressions and motions. 
Every controller had at their desks an antiquated television and radio set. Each row of desks had a wax cylinder phonograph, and the mournful fragments of ballroom music issued periodically from those machines. The controllers monitored the flickering, jittery monochrome images on the television screens, occasionally adjusting the tuning and volume. At intervals, the images on the screens faded into static, then blackness, and finally a crystal clear image of a face, frozen and vulnerable, emerged. The controller regarded the solemn, anxious face on the screen for a moment, before switching off the set. Next, they reached over to a bureau drawer behind the set, and extracted a little golden orb, identical to the one Eddie had presented to the secretary. The controller rose and deposited the golden orb in the pan of one or other of the scales, before resuming their desk and commencing to study a fresh series of transmissions on the television. 

At other times, responding to a particularly harsh burst of static from the radios, the controller went to the scales to retrieve an orb from the pan, which they then returned to its drawer in the bureau. This activity went on at such a dizzying pace that at all times, and at every individual balance, there was always one orb being deposited and another extracted, such that a kind of equilibrium was maintained in both the volume of orbs and the angle of the lever; and the nameless man noted with a deep start that the chiming, melodious sound which had so ravished and befuddled his senses derived solely from the constant activity and slight perturbation of the weighting scales, which most have been almost innumerable, and the meticulously choreographed motions of the controllers who maintained them. Just as the constant sound of the orbs striking the scales created a kind of music, so the movements of the controllers through the maze of their cubicles suggested the unconscious geometries of ant and honey bee colonies. 

The nameless man turned to Eddie and Giacomo.
'What is this place?' he asked.

Eddie looked slightly abashed. 'Central Command is where they control all the traffic going in and out of Intermundia Airport. But I don't really know what it's about, or how it works. Wherever I get somebody to explain it, my brain goes soft, and start to remember old nursery rhymes my mother used to sing to me.' Having thus spoken, his eyes became vacant and dazed, and he turned away. 'They don't pay us enough to care,' Giacomo added, and they continued along the footbridge. 

The rest of the journey to Renton's office was uneventful. After exiting the cavern, they climbed another stairwell, and emerged onto a large, open-air concourse which resembled a pedestrianized city street. The central walkway was lined by trees and broken up by a succession of fountains. At either side, the offices of the case officers were stacked one atop the other in imposing blocks of concrete, with stairwells positioned at the side of each block to provide access from the street. New Arrivals were ascending and descending the stairwells, but the windows of the offices were shuttered, with only vague silhouetted motions to suggest the activity within. Above the mottled concrete walls, airplanes swam in dizzying multitude across a narrow strip of darkening sky like drunken constellations.

Down below, the cool night air and soft, persistent rushing sound of the fountains engendered a peculiar air of languor and gaiety. Bistros and bars operated from the ground level of the office blocks, and the nameless man studied the patrons seated at their terraces as they passed. They were Arrivals, he thought, but certainly not new to Intermundia. All the characteristic terror and disorientation was absent from their bearing, and they appeared instead as creatures of an almost mystical sloth and detachment. A species of jaded flaneur to this strange, busy world, they sat like infants swaddled in the sleepy warmth of an unimaginable surfeit of time, unhurriedly raising soup spoons or cigarettes to carelessly open mouths as they watched the traffic of the street flow by. Groups of security guards, temporarily divested of their charges, gathered around the fountains to drink glasses of beer and engage in boisterous tomfoolery. The fountains themselves stirred in the nameless man another swoon of recollection, a sense not quite of memory but something that would be repeated endlessly: a vow, a loss, a forgetting, and a quest. 

When he came to again, Eddie and Giacomo had stopped in their tracks, and both regarded him with an almost paternal expression of sorrow. 'Well, here we are,' Giacomo said softly, and he pointed to an office block. 'The fifth floor,' Eddie added, patting his shoulders, 'we'll be over there at the fountain when you get out.' The security guards gave him a final look of encouragement, and then they trotted off in the direction of a bar. He was alone for the first time since they had accosted him back in the terminal. 

His was unable to move at first, so he closed his eyes and listened to the sounds: the waters gathering and swirling around their basins, the raucous laugher of the guards, footfalls going back and forth, the engines of the planes high above in the night sky. He tried to remember what his face looked like. When nothing came, he felt a surge of courage, detachment and pristine immediacy. He made his way to the stairwell, and climbed to the fifth floor. Nobody met him on the way down. Renton stood at his office door awaiting the nameless man. He was a tall, slender man in his middle years, with the appearance of an educated and humane British civil servant. He wore a dark navy two-piece suit and thick horn-rimmed reading glasses. His hair, receding slightly at the temples, was straight, longish, silver grey and combed back in an elegant manner. His features were handsome and tinged with an urbane, ironical humour. He took the nameless man's hand and shook it vigorously. 

'It's very good to see you again,' he said.
'We've met before?'
The ironic mirth of Renton's smile deepened.
'Oh yes, many, many times.' 



Continued shortly.  (Artwork by George Tooker and  Remedios Varo).






Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Intermundia Airport (Chapter 3).



Chapters 1 and 2.

They were sitting on a bench in a large plaza adjacent to the platforms.
'Did you work out the route last night?' Giacomo asked Eddie. Eddie looked sheepish. 'I thought it was your turn.' Giacomo growled. 'Every time, every single time!' They took out notepads and started scribbling furiously, their eyes darting from the platform sign to the route display. He looked at the platform sign and noticed something peculiar: the number seemed to be changing at a regular interval.
'What's going on?' he asked.

Eddie looked up from his notepad. 'The system is....a little complicated. The number of the platform changes every twenty seconds. So, platform 1 changes to platform 2, and so on, and the whole system of stops moves like a wave, back and forth throughout the day. Now, the problem is that the number of the trains also change, every thirty seconds. So the train you get on will be a completely different train, with different stops, by the time you get to your destination.'
'And your destination will have a completely different name by the time you get there,' Giacomo interjected.
'So you have to run two different sets of calculations, to insure that the train you get on will stop at the platform that your destination has become by the time you get there.'
They returned to their scribbling and bickering.

'Platform 4b will be platform 2b at 4.15p.m., right?' Eddie was saying. 'If we take the 25C train at 4.15, we should get to Central Command at 6.30. So at 6.30, the 25C will be the 48A, and Central Command will be Terminal 123B, right? Does the 48A stop at 123B?' 

Who could have composed such a tortuously bewildering and perverse method of organising rail schedules? And to what end? It made him nauseous just to look at the security guards with their furrowed brows, poring over endlessly revised diagrams that floated in a sea of scribbled computation. Was this how Intermundia Airport controlled its workers? By insulating them from the rest of world, and brow-beating them with a system of absurdities that made the simplest thing an ordeal? Did they really pass their entire existences here, in this hub of ceaseless motion, still points fixed in a sea of transience? He felt almost sorry for them, if that were the case. They seemed like rodents, or some other poor beasts, that eked out their living on the interstices of a teeming motorway. No scavenging rat or fox could comprehend the meaning of cars and trucks, or fathom who had built them and what function they served. Yet the system of the motorway enclosed their entire being, imprinting itself in the seat of their instincts and reflexes. They lived off the scraps of this system, which never ceased its motion, and was as inscrutable to them as nature is to us. 

'We've got it!' Eddie said with a bright smile. 'And a few minutes to spare as well. Are you hungry?' He went off to a little kiosk to buy coffee, pastries and a newspaper. The Moroccan in the kiosk seemed to know him well. They made jokes about their wives, and the general dissatisfactions of existence. 'Yesterday it finally happened,' the Moroccan said, 'I am fatter than my wife. That was the only thing I ever had over her!' Giocomo passed the time by glancing at women with a lazy, non-committal gleam of lust. He had trained his facial muscles to hover on the periphery of a smile that never quite appeared, a sly apparition haunting his eyes and the edge of his mouth. 

Eddie came back with breakfast. He refused a pastry but excepted a Styrofoam cup of coffee. The cup was branded with an image of two crudely anthropomorphized coffee beans, a male and female. The male, with large, bulging eyeballs, was accosting the female: “I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU”, he was saying. 'We better get moving,' Giacomo announced, and they took off briskly through the plaza, weaving around its maze of stalls, kiosks and terraces. The people who staffed the kiosks were from all over the world: Europeans, Asians, Africans, South Americans. The majority, he noted, carried out their work with quiet, disengaged patience, and seemed to glance at intervals to the left of their peripheral vision, as though something hidden were progressing behind the ordinariness of their lives, and the routinised bustle of the station. 



As they got closer to the platforms, the roar of the trains drowned out every other sound, and the whole scene assumed a distant quality, as though it were underwater. The vendors and their costumers communicated adroitly with hand signals. He had gulped back his coffee greedily, and the caffeine and sugar hit him in a sudden, ecstatic rush. For the briefest instant, he felt rapturously happy and alive. In that moment, the lack of a past was a blessing that rooted him firmly in the present instant like a virgin seed. Similarly, the absurdity of his situation felt like a kind of liberation: in a world without reason, he was free to exist fully in each instant, without hopes or expectations of any kind, only the neutral purity of his sensations. The world was alive with the power, the speed and the sound of the trains, hurtling off in unimaginable directions.

That wondrous sensation evaporated in a flash, leaving him only with a image: he saw himself, lead by Eddie and Giacomo through the crowd, suddenly become incandescent, as though some ray of the sun had pierced through the vast fortress of steel and concrete overhead, and turned his body into a brief avatar of the stellar heavens. Then he was returned to the jittery awareness of a living nightmare. Eddie motioned towards a train. Sleek, gunmetal grey, the design of its front carriage resembled the snout of a bloodhound or shark, some metallic predator that strained against the brief stasis imposed by the stop. They embarked, and the doors snapped after them as though to nip at their heels.

They took their seats at a table. In contrast to the train's gleaming and vigorous outer shell, the interior reminded him of the mournful decrepitude of the Intermundia Overnight. The materials of the seating, the fabric and designs of the carpet and cushions all shared that sad quality of a thing which had never been new, a place prematurely soiled by cigarette smoke and the intestinal anxiety of endless bad dinners and portentous appointments. It had the ambience of a hospital cafeteria, of the blanched aesthetics of a failed bureaucratic regime whose utopian dreams lingered on only as an ancestral spirit that whispered hollowly in the bite of the wind. He was lost for a moment in a reverie of such a world: a wintry city of concrete geometry and faded furniture, where the people had, over generations of perpetual paranoid vigilance, evolved into silent, industrious and inscrutable masks, working and eating and bearing their children like automatons. Inside each of them there must have been fugitive dreams and fantasies, imaginative worlds vast and discontinuous as their public lives were solid and circumscribed, luxurious desires that far outstripped the cold formalism of their marriages, heresies, hymns and obscenities sung beneath the affectless composure of their visible lives. And yet none could ever know for sure if they alone possessed these riotous inner kingdoms, and all others were precisely as they appeared on the outside, such were they all subject to the perpetual fear of a vigilant bureaucracy which might, for all they knew, have ceased to exist many generations ago, for there was no outwardly discernible difference between the total success of the regime, and its complete absence.

Eddie looked relived. 'Well, we're on the right train anyway, look - ' he said, pointing in the direction of a table towards the rear of the carriage. The table seated four individuals – two men and two women – who were clearly distinguishable from the rest of the crowd by virtue of their dress and bearing. The women and one of the men were Caucasian, with the fourth having an African appearance. They were all tall and lean, with beautifully symmetrical features and a kind of coltish quality that suggested superior breeding. They wore sober, finely tailored business clothes, the women with blouses of a lustrous, delicate silk, and the men with crisp suits that looked fresh from the rack. The group weren't speaking, and the two that faced him had lazy, slight grins fixed on their faces, as though savouring a private joke.

There was something unnerving about this group which was difficult to pin-point. As he watched, it occurred to him that they didn't seem to make the slightest movement – they were as still as a photograph against the rushing terrain of the window. It was as though they had fallen asleep with their eyes open and alert. Their detached, patrician bearing suggested beings who inhabited their bodies with the evanescent casualness of tourists.
'They're technocrats,' Eddie explained, 'on their way to Central, no doubt.'
'Are they case officers?' he asked.
'No, the case officers tend to be a little older. I would imagine that they are traffic controllers, or some lower functionaries of the technocrat class.'

He was thinking again that it was surely all a dream. It didn't feel like a dream, but was that not after all the nature of dreams? It was supremely comforting to entertain the fantasy that he would soon be waking up in his own bed, luxuriating in that keen sense of relief that often comes in the wake of a disagreeable dream. Would he be married? Rich or poor? Happy or miserable? Perhaps in his real life he knew Eddie and Giacomo, or some or other of the technocrats, in an altered guise. It was almost blissful, for a moment, to imagine the whole situation vanish abruptly like a swollen soap bubble, and become no more than a fragmentary riddle he would carry around for a day or so.

The train passed through a monotonous expanse of concrete tunnel illuminated by large yellow and orange sodium lamps. Occasionally, they passed an embankment where crews of workers toiled on construction sites, welding large iron girders and wheeling concrete blocks about. After longer intervals, they arrived at various stops, and the personnel of the carriage morphed rapidly, with the exception of the technocrats, who remained poised in their seats with their strange half-smiles. Each of the stops had its own distinct architectural style, as though belonging to a different country or temporal period. The passage of time and distance became difficult to gauge. He felt that they were going deeper underground.

'How long have you guys been working together?' he asked, to break the silence.
'Well,' Eddie replied, 'that's a difficult one to answer. How long is a piece of string?'
This seemed to set Giacomo off again.
'I hate that one!,' he growled.
'What one?'
'That expression “How long is a piece of string.”'
'What's wrong with it?'
'Well, show me the piece of string!'
'What?'
'Show me the piece of string, and I'll tell you how long it is.'
'That's not the point. There is no piece of string.'
'Then why ask how long it is?'
'It's a figure of speech. It's not a specific piece of string, it's a notional piece of string. It's any piece of string. How long is any piece of string? Who knows?'
They were both getting red-faced.
'There is no such thing as any piece of string, there are only specific pieces of string. And if there is a specific piece of string, it can be measured. It's the easiest thing in the world to measure.'
Eddie looked away from Giacomo with resignation:
'You want to know how long we've been working together? An eternity. That's how long we've been working together. An eternity!'
Giacomo shrugged. Eddie, perhaps aware that he was becoming weary of their endless bickering, passed him the newspaper. 'You can read this if you like,' he said, 'to pass the time. It's always good to stay informed.”


The paper was called the Intermundia Chronicle. The masthead featured an image of an airplane ascending diagonally in a circle, and the slogan: “BEASTS ASK FOR MERE FOOD AND SHELTER; MEN ASK “WHAT NEWS?” In lieu of a date, the paper was simply designated TODAY'S EDITION. He read the lead article:


Mankind's Moment of Triumph Turns to Eerie Tragedy: Returning Astronauts Replaced by Lifeless Mannequins.

Drake Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, Florida – We all watched in awe and suspense as the American astronauts Mike Summers and Budd 'Slingshot' McGinty became the first men to walk on the surface of the moon. On the day that the world was due to welcome back the heroic Mithras 5 crew – Summers, McGinty and Command Module pilot Frank Logan – the assembled world press discovered only grief, confusion and macabre horror. We knew that 3 days ago (July 23) the command module Mercury splashed down near the Utirik Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, where it was met by the recovery vessel USS Philadelphia.

Then came the silence – and the rumours. For two successive days, the press men who had gathered on Florida's Space Coast were kept in the dark about the circumstances of the Mercury's re-entry and splashdown. During today's sombre press conference, chaired by USAF General Tyrone McClinton and Mithras 5 CAPCOM Duke Toynbee, the world finally learned the truth.

As journalists assembled in the Drake auditorium, audible gasps were heard. The seats reserved for the heroic astronauts were occupied by an eerie trio of store-front mannequins. General McClinton explained that Mission Control had lost radio contact with the Mercury Module some 14 minutes before the scheduled splashdown. “We weren't too alarmed, and felt that things would go according to plan without further communication at that point,” Toynbee added. However, when divers from the Philadelphia investigated the floating capsule in the early hours of July 23rd, they noted that Summers, McGinty and Logan had been replaced by the mannequins present at the conference. According to McClinton: “The men who made this grim discovery are still in a distraught condition. Whether or not they will return to active duty, it is unlikely that they will ever be able to pass a department store without experiencing extreme distress.”

Next, Florida state pathologist and noted ethnomusicologist Lonnie Vargas spoke briefly about his examination of the mannequins carried out with the assistance of a Sears and Roebuck window dresser. “The figurines themselves are quite unremarkable. They are constructed of a terrestrial wax and plaster composite which is standard for the industry. As you can see, no attempt has been made to mimic the actual appearances of Summers, McGinty and Logan. Rather, they have the unnerving, doll-like quality common to the mannequin – I would call it the suggestion of a distant, anaesthetized happiness. In lieu of genitals, they have the smooth, rounded protuberance common to the dummy.”

Investigation of the phenomenon is advancing on two principal lines of enquiry: scientific explanation, or possible sabotage by the Russian Comrades. Toynbee explained: “At the present time, we know of no conceivable naturalistic mechanism as to how the flight to the moon and subsequent re-entry might cause the transformation of living human tissue into plaster-based lifeless simulacra.General McClinton suggested that the uncanny mystery bore the imprimatur of the Kremlin: “This is precisely the kind of transformation the Comrades would gladly enforce on the entire planet – turning free men into standardized dummies!” He added, however, that there was at present no plausible scenario for how the Comrades could have made the switch in the available timeline.

The mannequins were dressed in checkered wool flannel shirts and half wool cashmere slacks, a sneak preview of the Sears and Roebuck autumn catalogue. Pipes had been provided to complete the rugged, rustic look. Despite the intensely sombre and portentous nature of the occasion, all agreed that the ensembles were quite becoming. General McClinton praised the versatility of the new line, noting that “everybody would feel comfortable in these, from college Johnny to retiree Joe!”
Puzzled by how such a blatant flight of fancy could be presented as an item of factual journalism, he scanned some of the other headlines:

Department of Health Warning: Physical Acts of Intimacy May Be Catalyst for Invasion of Little People – Home Office: “First they take Your Identity – Eventually they will Bury You” - Conservative MP: “The Little People are Inculcating the Ethos of the Welfare State in Every Home.”

'But this is nonsense,' he finally blurted, pushing the newspaper away.
Giacomo sneered. 'Sorry, Einstein.'
Eddie seemed upset. 'The Chronicle has a superb reputation, I can assure you.'
'This paper has a reputation - '
'Yes, yes, the Chronicle is really above reproach. Their diligence is outstanding.'
'Their diligence - '
'I wouldn't mislead you, sir. They have excellent fact checkers, really tireless.'
'Fact checkers?'
'Absolutely. If they discover that any factual content has crept into a story, sir, they immediately issue a retraction. That happens very, very rarely – but whenever it does, I can assure you, the offending content is retracted immediately.'
'But – newspapers are supposed to be factual!'
Eddie and Giacomo regarded him as though he were drunk.
'Where did you get that idea from?'
'Well – I don't know – I can't remember – you mean that they're pure fantasy?'
'What else would they be?'
'But – don't people want to know what's happening - what's going on around them?'
Eddie look at him incredulously, and then sighed: 'Well, why would they want to? Nothing happens here, nothing at all really. People arrive, and then they go away' – he moved his hand from side to side – 'arrive, then away. What kind of news would that be? It would be the same paper, every single edition: “Yesterday, Some People Arrived in Intermundia Airport, and Some Others Departed from It.” Not very simulating news, is it? Not very edifying work, either for the journalist or the reader. But delusions and flights of fantasy – well, sir, they need not be so static and predictable.'
A look of mournful longing came over Eddie's face as he continued:
'Well, for most people, I suppose they would. They say, sir, that the average chimpanzee who is taken from the wilderness to the zoo soon forgets the forest, and dreams only of the bars of his cage. And that's the way it is for most of us. But the journalist is an exceptional creature – he has somehow cultivated the temperature of his imagination, so that it is a hothouse where strange, luxuriant things blossom.'
Giacomo nodded at Eddie with a look of sardonic cruelty:
'He wanted to be a journalist when he was younger!'
'I did – I still do. But – oh, it's too late now. Too late. I wouldn't even get a job as a stenographer in one of the papers now. But what a life – what a wonderful life! The journalist doesn't sleep much at night. What does he do? Well, I imagine he wanders about, talking to the people who work the night-shift, looking at the planes in the night sky, having adventures in a world that the rest of us don't see. The journalist, you see, must be awake and active while most of us are dreaming. This allows him to dream while while the rest of us toil away in the workaday world. The busy news office is a work environment like no other. It is make up of rows of hammocks, which serve as the journalists' desks. And when the reporter clocks in to work in the morning, he lays himself out on his hammock. It is considered professional to wear pyjamas or perhaps a dressing gown, but the occasional maverick arrives to work fully clothed. There are hookahs positioned by the hammocks, and some of the journalists consume narcotics to insure a greater accuracy in their work. Imagine it! Everywhere else, there is noise and bustle and busyness. But in the newspaper office, a blissful silence, a languor, a porous, dreamy atmosphere, plumes of smoke swirling into evanescent patterns above the recumbent workers, the Sandman lulling softly to sleep those strenuous, invisible weavers who knit our thoughts together into rational and coherent sentences. The journalist, you see, in order to file his stories, must drift into a trance-like state, neither fully conscious or asleep. A place between the two states – an airport, if you like, which is not really one country or another, where the point of departure and the destination are blurred together. And when he becomes thus inspired, the journalist begins to speak in a low whisper. Crouched at a little desk beneath the hammock, his head aslant so that his ear is close to the whispering mouth, the stenographer records each journalist's dream, editing factual and biographical material out as he goes. What a strange place – a gaggle of hushed voices, distant and unfamiliar, and keys clacking to catch them in ink before they vanish forever – the place where the daily news is made!'
Eddie had an awestruck, faraway expression as he contemplated the life of the journalist. Giacomo continued to goad him:
'But you tried, didn't you? You tried to be a journalist - '
'Oh, shut up Giacomo - '
'But when you lay down on the hammock, and drifted off into your trance - '
'SHUT UP!'
'The only news stories you could come up were events from your own life - '
In low voice: 'Only the bars of my cage...'
'Trivial little episodes – broken hearts and roast dinners - '
'Only the bars.....'
' - that the stenographers instantly edited away into nothing.'
The pair fell silent, Giacomo apparently satisfied at having humiliated Eddie. Nothing happened for a long time, and he felt an unbearable tension, as though one of them would soon have to become hysterical or violent. Then Eddie's face brightened.
'I think we're here at long last!' he said.

The train was stopping. Eddie and Giacomo got up briskly from their seats and headed in the direction of the doors. He followed then reluctantly, becoming aware that his nerves were mounting again now that the journey was completed. Stepping out on the platform was the most awesome shock he had yet experienced in Intermundia Airport. The station was a vast cyclopean enclosure, more redolent of an ancient temple or mausoleum than a train stop. The structure's brooding air of antiquity and scale, so incongruently juxtaposed with the poised, illuminated train, took his breathe away. He had that quiet, eerie perturbation of soul that a person experiences when they cast a rock into a dim abyss, and only a prolonged silence follows. The technocrats glided away, the clack of the women's heels echoing through the vast space like tumbling pebbles. Then the train took off again, departing into a tunnel so small and dim that it seemed to simply pass through the stone wall. Its sound died away slowly and a profound silence filled the cavern, like a vigilant animal resuming its habitual watchfulness having just swallowed the last morsel of a meal. 

Eddie and Giacomo remained immobile, leaving him a moment to take in his surroundings. The outer walls were constructed with huge, misshapen limestone boulders, fitted together in a haphazard fashion which made him recall – for some obscure reason – Eddie's earlier discussion of a putative asymmetry in the human mouth which implied senility or malice on the part of the creator. Nearer the tracks, a series of pillars, terminating in cornices at the roof of the cavern, suggested a later, more sophisticated addition. The pillars were carved with abstract decorative figures of a sensibility so obscure that it felt almost impious to contemplate them in the harsh light of the orange sodium lamps.
Finally, Eddie nudged him gently.
'Your case officer is over there.'
He turned and followed Eddie's pointing finger. High up above the tunnels where the train had just departed, a massive, brooding face was carved into the limestone where the wall met the roof of the cavern. Indistinct in terms both of race and sex, the features were austere and expressionless with the exception of the eyes, which were fixed with fierce concentration on the platform floor. It was, he thought, the perfect epitome of a primitive ruler of infinite power and eternal, implacable judgement, a ruler whose silence and immobility contained the clap and the rent of thunder. He became conscious of Eddie and Giacomo's bodies shaking behind him. Turning, he found that they were laughing silently.

'Sorry,' Eddie said, red-faced, 'sorry – I can never resist that one. Parts of this underground are very old. Who knows who that fella is up yonder? He wouldn't make much of a case officer though.'
Giacomo was sniggering. 'We're going this way,' Eddie said, having composed himself, and they made off away from the platform. As they neared the far wall, he noticed that there was a single kiosk in the gloom. The kiosk sold pretzels, pastries, coffee and newspapers. A wizened, heavily made-up woman with a sullen expression sat inside smoking a cigarette. A good half of the cigarette was untipped ash that seemed always on the point of falling away. 

'Busy today Maria?' Eddie enquired as they passed. The woman in the kiosk extracted the cigarette from the side of her mouth in a distasteful manner, as though it were a thermometer. She grunted, rolled her eyes slightly, and returned the cigarette. Her bulging eyes and rhythmic inhalations reminded him of a fish in a tank.

'She's one of those women who can smoke an entire cigarette without tipping it once,' Eddie said, 'it's a skill that the older generation have. I used to watch my grandmother doing it.'
'I had an uncle,' Giacomo interjected, 'who could smoke an entire cigarette without exhaling any smoke! I was fascinated by this as a child, and I asked my father where the smoke went. He told me that my uncle farted all the smoke out of his asshole like a chimney before he went to bed. To this day, I still want to know where all that smoke went!'

They reached the far wall. The lichen-mottled stone had been excavated, and a modern structure built into the wall. Eddie opened the glass door, and they entered what appeared to be an abandoned work station of some kind. It was a dingy complex that branched off into offices, store-rooms and a canteen where a fluorescent lamp flickered and buzzed. Tools, hard-hats, Styrofoam cups and old newspapers were scattered on the floor, and a thick smell of kerosene and disinfectant hung in the hair. 

'This place,' Giacomo said sourly. They walked through dimly lit corridors for what seemed like an age. Occasionally, they encountered other security guards escorting New Arrivals back through the complex from Central Command. The New Arrivals had haunted, perplexed expressions, and appeared dissociated from their surroundings. He was troubled by the awareness that this situation would be reversed in a short time – he would be returning, and encountering others on-route. Finally, they arrived in the main electrical distribution room, and Eddie typed a code into a steel door behind a row of switchboards. He was smiling. 'I hope you're ready for some exercise.' The three men entered a narrow, dark metallic shaft. Giacomo shone a pen-sized torch, revealing a steel ladder fixed to the wall. 'We have to climb,' Eddie said, 'I'll go first, and you can go in the middle. That way, if you fall, Giacomo's thick skull should cushion you.' Giacomo grunted.

He looked up, but it was impossible to determine the extent of the shaft in the darkness. 'Is it high?' he whispered. 'It's not too bad', Eddie said, 'just take it one step at a time.' Eddie started climbing, and when his feet were a few rungs above his head, Giacomo nudged him to begin. He felt strangely powerless and fixed his hands on the railing. Soon all three were ascending the ladder at a deliberate pace. The darkness of the shaft became nearly complete, and he orientated himself by means of Eddie's heavy panting above, and the sound of Giacomo's feet below. His arms became fatigued, but whenever his pace slackened, Giacomo's head butted brusquely against his feet. His hands were slick with perspiration. He wanted to tell them to stop, to turn back, but his mouth was dry, and he seemed to have lost all volition in the arduousness of the climb. 

'We should sing a song,' Eddie said above, 'Giacomo, would you like to sing a few bars of something?' Giacomo grunted. 'Well, I suppose I better sing one.' They continued climbing. Eddie started to sing a lullaby in a strange, affected lilt which was completely unlike his speaking voice:

Train whistle blowin',
Makes a sleepy noise,
Underneath their blankets
Go all the girls and boys.

Rockin', rollin', ridin',
Out along the bay,
All bound for Morningtown
Many miles away.

Eddie paused, and his breaths came in thick, wheezing gasps. 'Come on gang, join in', he said finally, and continued:

Driver at the engine,
Fireman rings a bell,
Sandman swings the lantern
To show that all is well.

Giacomo joined in the second chorus, and the combination of their discordant and poorly synchronized voices was eerie and terrifying:

Rockin', rollin', ridin',
Out along the bay,
All bound for Morningtown,
Many miles away.

He was getting more exhausted and faint-headed, and his mind entertained grimly elaborate conceits. Perhaps the stern stone visage had really been his case officer after all. Perhaps it had, in that instant, judged him for sins that he would never remember, and consigned him to this punishment: to climb the darkened shaft for all eternity, trapped between two madmen, perpetually on the brink of total exhaustion. Above, Eddie continued to sing:

Somewhere there is sunshine,
Somewhere there is day,
Somewhere there is Morningtown,
Many miles away.

After another bout of choked spluttering, Eddie stopped climbing. 'Slow down a bit there!', he shouted. He struggled for a moment with a latch, then lifted himself up. There was a heavy clang, and then white daylight coursed through the shaft, like water through a sluice. With the light came brisk, revivifying fresh air, and a gentle sound that stirred something in his memories. Eddie had clambered out of the shaft, and he followed with a sudden burst of energy, lifting himself over the edge of a steel trap-door, and rolling over soft ground to lie on his back. 

He was looking up at the blue sky through a dense canopy of coiling branches and fluttering leaves. They were in a forest. His senses were ravished by this first encounter with nature since arriving in Intermundia. He inhaled deeply the scent of soil, grass and bark. He knew them so intimately that they were like a childhood memory, or the memory of childhood itself, come back to him. He stood up, and his eyes delighted in the colours and forms of the forest, so vivid and alive after his journey through the steel and concrete landscape of the terminals, runways and underground.
Giacomo was emerging nonchalantly from the shaft. Eddie sat against a tree stump, wiping sweat from his brow and smiling boyishly. 'It's easier going back down,' he said. 




 "Morningtown Ride", lyrics by Malvina Reynolds.  Continued shortly.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Intermundia Airport (Chapter 2).


Chapter 1 here

 
Back inside the terminal, he knew his next move would have to be to find a bathroom and take a proper look at his features. He lacked a mental image of his face, and this blank space where his thoughts were lodged unnerved him so much that he was reluctant even to touch it. But he had to look – if anything at all could jog his memory, it was surely his face.

Nothing, it turned out, was easily found in the peculiar geometry of the terminal. The persistent curvature of its design made him feel like an infant orbiting a new kind of womb which had been designed by mathematicians and sculptors. All its lines were curvilinear, and all its structures nestled neatly into the whole in a manner which suggested an aesthetic abstraction of the beehive or wasp's nest. Here and there, long corridors branched off from the main building. Their carpets were a rich, fleshy red, and the smooth, white arch of the ceilings gave the whole the appearance of a whale or shark's famished gullet, through which the people moved like snacks fleeing the digestive track.

Finally, in the atrium of one of these corridors, he found a bathroom. The bathroom was long and narrow, and smelled of a citrus disinfectant. The people at the basins all seemed to pause in their ablutions, and regard their reflections with a melancholy warmth, as though the images in the mirror were people to whom they were bidding a fond farewell, after long, tumultuous shared adventures. A jaunty, repetitious melody was piped into the bathroom, but he found that there was a peculiar sense of irresolution or absence in the culmination of the figure, such that the melody created in his mind the looping image of a beautiful face slowly brighten to a wide smile, only at the last to reveal a toothless and cankerous mouth.

Having paused for some time at the cubicles, he edged nervously to one of the wash-hand basins, and regarded his appearance in the mirror. He was, he guessed, about thirty-five. He had brown curly hair, short and untidy, and large blue eyes which he thought were the colour of a declining evening sky, reflected in cold water. Besides the slightly piercing quality of the eyes, his appearance struck him as unremarkable. He was pale and slender, with the look of one of those introverts who strike most people as passive and emotionally neutral, an impression owing not to a lack of passion but rather a certain waxen, inexpressive quality about the physicality. He knew that type of person vaguely in his own memories: the type who smiled detachedly and kept their own counsel, having seemingly resolved that life was a boisterous party at which they knew nobody.

It was not mere disappointment in his looks, however, which troubled him so sorely. It was that his reflection stirred neither the slightest memory, nor inspired in him any discernible emotion whatever. He knew that the reflection in the mirror was his own, that the appearance which returned his searching looks was in some vital sense himself, only by a logical necessity of spatial correlation. Beyond that, his physical body was a stranger to him, and looking at his face elicited no greater connection than that of a passer-by on a busy street. Had his reflection abruptly turned its back, and proceeded towards the door of the bathroom, it would have had engendered no great shock of dissociation.

This estrangement from his body filled him with a sorrow which felt unprecedented to his dim recollections. They had taken everything from him – his entire past, and any connection to his physical selfhood, was utterly lost. All that he had to hold onto were his present stream of thoughts, knotted as they were in the unravelling of a pervasive nightmare logic. In the mirror, his body was convulsing slightly, and tears streamed down its face. An elderly Japanese man, dressed in a funereal suit, patted his shoulder gently – that gesture again. He turned and glared at him.



He made his way up to to one of the elevated footbridges that spanned the perimeter of the terminal. Observing the scene from this particular vantage point, it was clear that the crowd broke down into two separate groups. There was a smaller minority of people like himself whom he called “New Arrivals.” The New Arrivals all exhibited varying symptoms of extreme disorientation and anxiety. He had to assume that they were all in the same position – that their memories had been wiped and they had no idea where they were. The second group he called the “Departees” and the “Comforters.” The Departees had come to be at peace with the circumstances of their abduction and were now leaving Intermundia Airport – back to their old lives? They all had that peculiar, almost mystic placidity which they tried to impart on the New Arrivals, by way of reassuring glances and that insufferable petting.

Clearly, there was some kind of process at work whereby frightened New Arrivals were gradually transformed into contented Departees. Their minds were first wiped clean, and then remade so as to completely acquiesce to the process whereby their identities had been stolen, and remoulded as self-effacing model citizens. Perhaps Intermundia Airport was a kind of re-education camp were everyday people were indoctrinated, and then sent back into the world as the hidden operatives of an ideology or agenda so vast and esoteric that their activities went everywhere unnoticed. Whatever the case, he had now at least acquired a goal and a purpose: to resist this process with every fibre of his being. They had made him forget everything, and that fact alone he would not forget. To have found a goal and a provisional plan, even one composed entirely of rage and opposition, brought on a mild cessation of his churning nerves. A fire which had blazed in his nervous system cooled to to a more patient simmer.

He then felt yet another pat on his shoulder, this time with a considerably less friendly import. Turning from the railing, he found that he was accosted by two security guards. The guards were an odd couple indeed. One was middle-aged, small and paunchy; the other youthful, tall and lean. The middle-aged guard was balding, with grey, wet-looking hair. The sides had been scrupulously combed back, and the remainder on top formed a near perfect rectangular peak at the dead-centre of his forehead. His face, closely-shaven and filmed with perspiration, was plump, boyish, frog-like and endearing. He had the air of a perpetually harried yet good-humoured uncle.

The younger man had a shaved head, tanned complexion and handsome Latin features. He looked sleepy and arrogant. They stood facing him for a moment, the older shifting nervously, the younger man's body immobile, his eyelids flickering as though he was falling asleep.
'Hello, sir', the older one finally began, 'if you'll excuse me, sir. My name is Eddie. This is my colleague Giacomo. Your case officer, sir, would like to see you now, and it is our privilege to accompany you to his office.'
'What if I don't want to go?'
Giacomo edged closer to him, his manner more languorous than insistent.
'You'll see your case officer,' he said, 'one way or another. Don't want to go now is fine with us. We get to take an hour off. You wanna make life difficult for yourself, and easier for us, you're welcome to.'
Eddie cast a reproachful glance at Giacomo.
'What my colleague means to say is that you can see your case officer any time you please! There's no obligation, none whatever. It's up to you! The thing is, though, it's really better – better for you – if you see him sooner rather than later. It's like – like the dentist! Nobody really wants to go to the dentist. They put if off! And the rotten tooth, the pain, you see, it just gets worse. So eventually they have to go. And then – just a little prick, a bit of yank, and all the pain is gone! And then they're kicking themselves, saying “I should have to the dentist ages ago!”'
'I don't have a toothache.'
Giacomo seemed to approve of this remark. He looked at Eddie with a smirk.
'You see? He doesn't have a toothache. Why would he want to go to a dentist?'
'That's not the point. I didn't say he should go to a dentist, I was simply drawing an analogy - '
'You and your analogies, you're just confusing the issue! The man is disorientated, he needs to get his bearings, and you're telling him he has a rotten tooth, he needs to go to the dentist - '
Eddie turned away from Giacomo, and looked at him imploringly.
'You see what he's trying to do? He doesn't want you to go! He just wants to take an hour off. I'm only trying to give you good advice! I have your feelings at heart. He just wants to have a drink.'
Eddie and Giacomo continued to bicker in this farcical manner, eventually wearing his patience to the point where he submitted to attend the interview. Eddie beamed. Giacomo shrugged and gave a little yawn. They sauntered off briskly and he followed them down the steps. They seemed to forget about him instantly, becoming absorbed in their own conversation.
'Did you know,' Eddie was saying, 'that dentists have the highest rate of suicide among all the professions?'
Giacomo shrugged.
'They do. Its a very strange thing, if you think about about it. I mean, it's a respectable middle-class profession, well-paid, secure, steady. Not as respected as the doctor, but less pressure! The dentist never has to tell anybody they've got a month to live, or that they'll never walk again. So why do they do it?'
Eddie glared at him.
'Do what?'
'Kill themselves!'
'All the bad breath seeps into their brains?'
'You make a joke out of everything, but it's an interesting conundrum. I have a theory about the whole thing. There is something, I suspect, in the mouth, that only dentists see. Think about it, how often do you actually look into the inside of your mouth? Nobody does! It's like this undiscovered country, you know, that we carry around inside our faces, this landscape of pink flesh and naked bone and rotting chunks of grizzle and the calcified residuum of an endless stream of words, a lifetime of words that flow profusely out like bile but never really say anything at all. And nobody looks into this world for any sustained length of time, nobody except the dentist. But he looks! Day in and day out, he wrestles with the ungovernable tongue and probes the private parts of a thousand faces, until humanity becomes in his dreams a single gaping mouth! What does he see in there?'

They were passing the bench where he had woken up. The old woman was awake now, sitting up and shaking with a piteous expression of terror on her face. Two other New Arrivals, a man and woman, sat either side. The woman cradled the older woman in her arms like a child, and whispered close to her ear. The man looked like he had suppressed his fear in deference to the older woman's worse plight, but his eyes, wide and bird-like, darted frantically. Both looked at him suspiciously as he passed with Eddie and Giacomo. It occurred to him that he must already look more acclimatized to Intermundia Airport, a change in his appearance perhaps brought about by his first concession to the security guards.

Giacomo regarded Eddie with a look half indulgent and half exasperated.
'Do you say this shit to your wife?'
'No, no, of course not. She's a wise woman in her own way, but not intellectual. She likes her creature comforts, and no noise or stress. That's wiser than most women, I can tell you. But this stuff would be far too deep for her. I only share this stuff with you, Giacomo, because I sense that there are deep, deep currents hidden beneath your boorish veneer.'
'Nope, no currents here. Please don't.'
They turned into one of the corridors that branched off from the main terminal. The corridor was empty, and its peculiar acoustics seemed to amplify the absurd conversation of the security guards.
'There are currents, yes, I can tell. You are a thoughtful man. Now – where was I? Yes, what is it that the dentists see? It seems to me that there could be something in the mouth – some hideous asymmetry – that points to a greater truth about the human condition. Perhaps the mark – the scrawled initials – of a cruel or senile creator. And the dentist, by virtue of the nature of his profession, is forced to face this mortally dispiriting truth every day of his professional life, along with a rouge's gallery of misshapen and rotten molars, swimming in a dank miasma of the halitosis. It drives him to despair, you see. He begins to question the whole premise of his profession – that one should fix that which was designed, after all, only to give pain and yield to decay.'
Giacomo snorted.
'Your brain is a hideous asymmetry.'
'Did I ever tell you my theory about why plumbers and pipe-layers tend to be extremely fertile?'
'Please don't.'

They paused at a stairwell. Eddie turned to him. “We're going out to the Central Command Complex, so we have to get a train.” They proceeded down the first of several stairwells. A crowd started to mill around them again, like a tumbling stream. He glanced at the posters on the wall while they descended. They were advertisements composed of a mishmash of religious, historical and commercial iconography. A jolly, rotund Oriental sage demonstrated the virtues of a water-resistant wrist watch. A benevolent, bearded youth enjoyed a carbonated beverage after he had been scourged by a group of soldiers. A collapsing tower emphasized the importance of comprehensive life insurance. Others suggested political and militaristic themes: mobilization of war efforts and nationalistic projects, fomentation of xenophobic panics, evocations of the transcendent power of vast crowds, or a single, abstracted fist clenched in the manic idolatry of an idea. Some of the posters were more abstract or elusive in intention. “TODAY IS TOMORROW'S YESTERDAY” announced one, over an image of a family of skeletons enjoying a summer picnic.

Finally, they arrived at the concourse of a vast underground rail network. As they descended a stately granite staircase, his senses were once again overwhelmed by the scope and bustle of Intermundia Airport. There were five separate train tracks, linked by a system of overpasses. People ascended to the footbridges on escalators, and were then carried smoothly across on mobile walkways, giving the overpasses the appearance of relentless conveyor belts. The tracks moved to a similarly breakneck pace: it seemed as though there was always a train either departing or arriving at each track, producing a vertiginous feeling of panic like that of the old variety show gimmick of spinning plates. He noticed with a kind of sickening jolt that a huge percentage of the crowd was made up of New Arrivals accompanied by one or two security guards. They were hundreds, perhaps thousands of these groups in the underground.

He was momentarily stunned. 'Are all those...?'
Eddie nodded, grinning with fond awe. 'Yes, all new-comers, just like yourself. It never stops. The turn-over is amazing.'
Giacomo regarded him smugly.
'Not so special now, eh?' 

Continued shortly.