Friday, December 12, 2008

'Suicide Station', Part 3.

[To read Part 1, "The Dead Ravine," go here.]

[To read Part 2, "Helen," go here.]

3. Bad gods
We were moving at a steady pace towards the obelisk, which seemed further away than it had before, now that I knew I actually had to reach the place. Helen, setting the pace, didn’t seem to feel nearly as creaky as she had appeared earlier. She moved along quite briskly now, arms swinging the folder as she occasionally gestured, speaking rapidly, and without any indication of the fatigue that I was feeling acutely. Somehow my appearance had supplied her with new energy.

They’re not really gods, as it were, she was saying. That’s just what we’ve always called them, from the beginning, but it really stuck when they turned on their creators and broke free.

But who created them? Are they people? Where do they come from?

The answer to the last question will enlighten you on the other two, said Helen. They come from laboratories in California. It all began with human cloning. I don’t know if it’s come to that yet in the Construct.

The desert wind was between gusts, and the cries now seemed remote once again. Perhaps their search was guiding them in a different direction. But could they not see the station? Wouldn’t they move towards it, if it seemed likely that human beings would try to reach it?

We’re cloning animals, I said, and debating whether cloning human beings is a good idea.

Helen smiled again. Aah, the Construct. Where everyone is so na├»ve. Well, I suppose that’s why it was cooked up in the first place. But if they’re knocking on the door of creating the clones there, clearly the Construct is getting pretty fragile too. You’re about ready to catch up with us here … Her voice faded.

So the gods are clones?

Yes. The kinds you hear were the newest models, Super-clones, sort of. See, we weren’t satisfied with just recreating ourselves. We had to create people that would last longer. And the technology was advancing so rapidly, mankind kept producing increasingly questionable innovations without holding our impulses in check. Because of all the new discoveries in micro-technology, as well as in plastics and other synthetics, we were soon able to not only clone the person, but to create new, artificial organs to put inside the doppelganger. And these organs functioned as well as the natural ones, but with far superior durability. It started to seem possible that we could clone people and dramatically extend their life expectancy. Hence the term gods, because the life span would fall between a human’s and God’s. At this time we still had states, and leave it to the old California, who became the first state to make it legal to start cranking out these cloned human beings. When they came of age, they were surgically implanted with synthetic organs, even artificial blood vessels for a partly synthetic circulatory system.

Holy crap, I said, genuinely astonished.

Are you really surprised? Helen asked.

What really set it off was this lunatic scientist named Rickman, Jon Rickman. He’s the guy that came up with the first prototype of the synthetic brain. A real whiz-kid all right, but not much foresight. Developed an astounding micro-biological network of silicone chips and fibers to replicate the core of the central nervous system. Once he figured out how to simulate the right electrical impulses and transmit them through fabricated synapses, he was over the hump. All he had to do was mold it into a lab-created gelatinous glob and insert it surgically into a cloned human being’s brain pan. Voila! A brain that wouldn’t quit.

I exhaled. Well, the Scarecrow would have loved that.

Who? said Helen.

Never mind, I replied, so confounded that I couldn’t even enjoy my own ridiculous joke. I had so many other questions, but this idea of the ‘bad gods’ roaming around with murderous intentions seemed the most urgent. Unless you considered the hurricane that was supposedly God on the march, that is. But every once in a while I could hear the distant cries again, and I was terrified at the notion of them drawing closer.

What went wrong, Helen? I asked, laboring to keep pace. It kept me warmer to do so anyway. You said they turned?

They sure did, my companion said. It led to all of this that you’re seeing before you. Mass destruction. I can tell you exactly what happened. The failure on the part of mankind was twofold. One was simply scientific, a failure of creativity and invention. It turned out that there was one organ that the labs simply couldn’t replicate effectively. No matter what they came up with, it would either rip apart or was too inflexible.

The heart? I guessed.

No. The epidermis. Skin. The exterior wrapper. They were determined to invent a workable duplicate, and they ran thousands of experiments. The number of clones in the facilities came close to a hundred thousand. They removed great swaths of the skin on nearly all of them and replaced them with their prototypes. Why they did not select a control group first is baffling. Some kind of catastrophic hubris. There’s a lot of debate over it. But anyway, every one of these experiments was an abject failure. The effect was disastrous. Within months you had almost a hundred thousand clones in labs with tattered skin, falling off of them, and it generated an enormous amount of anger and resentment that grew and grew.

In the science community?

No! In the clones! They looked like monsters. Hideous.

But if their brains were artificial, why would they care? How would they care?

No one has been able to answer that, nor did anyone anticipate it. Perhaps the brains were made too effectively.

That is just … well, they couldn’t ever fix the problem or at least rig something up? Skin grafts or something…

They were working on it. Frantically. But that’s when the second disaster hit – a failure a five-year-old child in a Sunday school class could have seen coming. In fact, most of the children did. They just didn’t have anyone’s ear.

Incredibly, Helen had to stop here, for her eyes had welled up with tears. I waited. Perhaps if I could have perceived this world the way it was before all of this, I would have had a similar response to the totality of the annihilation. Obviously Helen had borne witness to a tremendous amount of loss.

What was the second failure, Helen? I asked in a subdued voice.

You haven’t guessed? The question of the soul, of course. It had to flare up sooner or later. When it did, it created an absolute inferno. The clones lacked souls. By definition, it is impossible for clones to have them. They determined collectively that the crime this amounted to – the magnitude of what had been denied them – was not just irreversible; it was unconscionable, unforgivable. The verdict was immediate: death for the entire human race, wholesale. After that, they didn’t just look like monsters. They were monsters, and how they knew it! They broke from their bonds en masse, unleashed every form of violence and mayhem they could apprehend – weapons, diseases, famines, wild animals, everything – and here we are.

Sweet Jesus, I said, my eyes cabled to the ground.

Indeed, she said. She lifted her hand and again clapped it on my shoulder as we walked. Then she quickly let it drop. That’s why we’re getting out of here. I looked up at her, and when she caught my eyes, she nodded her head towards the obelisk.

That thing is gonna get us out of here? I asked incredulously.

It better. It’s a waystation. That’s what it’s there for. That’s what it’s always been there for.

I fell silent for a stretch. What she had been telling me was so overwhelming that I needed to contemplate it all. Somewhere along the line I had accepted the idea that I was no longer in a dream. This was too visceral, too immediate; and my gut was telling me I was here for the long haul, unless we were actually able to make it out.

I stared ahead at the obelisk. It was drawing closer, but it also seemed to have been farther away than I originally thought. But some features of the tower, if it could be said to have them, were starting to become clearer. It was square, and looked to be made of black stone, almost like coal. You could determine even from the remaining distance that the surfaces, the four sides, were not smooth. They were rough hewn. The whole structure must have been erected somehow, yet it looked like one massive block. I also was beginning to see what looked like a kind of line or railing wrapped diagonally around the tower, spiraling upward. It took another interlude of time, maybe thirty more minutes, before it was finally clear what these lines were. They were stairs. You could ascend the tower by spiraling around that stair case all the way to the top. A shudder coursed through me as I realized that I would be called to climb those stairs….

To do what, though? How did we get out of here by climbing that thing? I worked hard for a while to recall what I wanted to return to, but it remained hazy. I didn’t belong here, though. My life was elsewhere. But what about Helen? Didn’t she had a life here, however perilous it had been? Maybe no one was left. Yet earlier she had mentioned a son. I needed to understand her real motive to get out, and why she needed me.

Helen, there’s something I’m still trying to understand, I croaked, my throat catching fire like kindling. I tried to clear it a few times, with nominal results and more hacking. Sorry. My throat is hurting. If we don’t make it out of here we’ll die of sickness anyway.

Not quickly enough, Helen said ominously. I’d share provisions, but I have none left. The tower approaches, however. We’ll make it.

You said that God – Hurricane Deus, that is – is fast approaching. Correct?

There’s no question about it.

And we don’t want to be here when it hits. I take it that means it is destroying everything that’s still left. It’s only one of the ways we’ll die badly, I believe you said, if we stay around.

That’s right.

But you also said the place I come from, the Construct, is an illusion, a figment of some kind of collective imagination, conceived in this place.

Yes. That’s putting it in simple terms, but it’s about right.

Then doesn’t it follow, Helen, that if this world is about to go down to the reaper’s blade, so to speak, the illusion will follow? Surely you can’t destroy the original and have the facsimile remain behind. So that means the other world, where I come from, will be flattened too.

Helen was nodding. She could see where I was going with the thought. She placed her hand on my shoulder a third time, close to the neck. This seemed a confirmation. I don’t know why, but this time I reacted sharply to her touch. I almost jumped away, and surprised myself by nearly shouting at her.

Why do you keep doing that? Who ARE you? I don’t know you! I don’t need your consolation! I need you get me the hell out of here! But you’re sitting here telling me that you need me to get YOU out. Why? HOW? It’s all going down anyway. What’s the difference?

Helen stopped walking. She stared at me. Her dark eyes, which I guess were brown but looked almost black at that moment, bored into me. For some reason her gaze was deeply unsettling. I wanted her to look elsewhere, but she wouldn’t.

You’re not used to these shocks, she said. That’s why I tried to console you. You’re from the Construct. You have no idea what hell this world has become. You have NO IDEA what we here have been put through. If you did you would understand why I was doing that. You would know that acting like human beings towards one another is one of the only things we have left. So I won’t begrudge you your cold response. But I would suggest you not reject it out of hand like that.

I felt chastened, and fell silent. The dark streaks on her threadbare dress and the scratch on her face suddenly stood out as if they were neon. I started to imagine the scenario under which they had appeared, involuntarily, yet without much success.

Now. The answer to your question is: most likely. It seems to make sense that if this world, which spawned the Construct you live in, goes down, as you put it, the Construct will follow. But nobody knows that for certain. Only God does. If he wants to take this world and leave yours in its place, he could do that. At least in theory. But from what I’ve heard the Construct is not necessarily worth preserving either.

Do you really believe that God would keep one and not the other? Or do you just long to experience the Construct so much you’ll try anything?

Helen made a kind of shrug, but her head was shaking as I spoke.

Neither. Probably both are doomed. But I’d much prefer to live out what I can inside the illusion, as it were, than here in the reality. I think you would agree if you knew what was coming.

If the storm is God, why isn’t it here yet? After all, he tramples through the vintage with a terrible, swift sword.

Helen glanced at me as though I had just changed languages. Excuse me?

Sorry. Forget it. But surely he could do in this whole expanse in one fell swoop. Why hasn’t he?

You’re asking me? You’d do better not to. Perhaps he’s moving at his own pace. Why not drag it out?

The cynicism – or maybe the lack of it – with which she made this off-handed comment about God deliberately dragging out destruction rattled me further. It made me speculate on the nature of her relationship to God, or of God’s to the inhabitants of this world. Maybe this relationship was far different, much more distant, much less dependent on intimacy. It was a dangerous line of thinking, for it led straight to the consideration that the comfort and security many of us took from a relationship with God in the Construct could be illusory as well. If the entire world I knew was false, what could one make of its conceits and assumptions?

The real reason that I want to get out is not so much about the storm or the destruction. It has to do with something I mentioned to you earlier, said Helen, and now the tone of her voice was in transition. Her face, turned towards me, softened.

Your son …..


Tell me about it, I said.

With that, we occupied much of the remaining gap between ourselves and the tower with Helen explaining about her baby boy and how she had made the agonizing decision to send him through to the Construct. Three or four decades ago, she said, when the cloning was at its peak and they were secretly building up the hundred thousand in their facilities, there were some people who saw what was coming. She and her baby’s father, a military man, were two of this group. They had just had their one and only son when the gods broke out of their bondage and the carnage began that had not yet reached an end. The two of them made their terrible decision, hoping to preserve the boy’s life and give him happiness, but vowing to one day recover him. But not long after that the baby’s father was sent forward to the first engagement with the lunatic clones, when they seized Fort Irwin and Edwards Air Force Base. She never saw him again. The clones destroyed an entire Army division in less than a day, then turned as many weapons and aircraft as they could on New Los Angeles, San Diablo, and NORAD. And from there, all hell, as they say, broke loose on the Earth.

I honestly did not understand much of this, let alone knowing what to make of it. There were so many questions that her story begged to have answered that it didn’t seem possible to begin. But also, curiously, I was gripped by an increasing sensation that none of it really mattered, and that what made sense, in some odd and disconcerting way, no longer needed to. It was almost as if my very understanding of coherence was becoming incoherent.

At the same time, over the course of this story and others, the tower finally drew near. Its sheer massiveness was stunning. If I had to approximate the height of the monolith, I would put it somewhere around 500 feet. I could see now at only a few hundred yards away that it did indeed seem to be made out of a gargantuan single block of black stone. The stairs surrounding the exterior sides of the four-sided column were made of the same material, as though they had been scaled out of a larger piece. They were narrow and slightly uneven; making for what I anticipated would be a harrowing ascent. There was no railing upon which one could reclaim their balance; if you slipped on one of the stairs, you would more than likely tumble over the side.

At no point, either once we got to the tower or anywhere along the way, did I ever see any other human being. The only indication that there was anything else even present in this world, aside from Helen’s word, was the tortured voices of the bad gods, whose inhuman caterwauling continued to assault my ears at varying intervals. Yet they never came into view. They operate better at night for some reason, was all that Helen would say about whether or not they would ever show up.

There were many indications, however, that others had visited the tower at some time before. The thin, scratched-out-trails leading across the cracked desert that I had first seen at a distance, for one. Scuff marks and small piles of ash and stone were in evidence everywhere else as well, as if people had walked around or even camped adjacent to the tower. God knew how many people in some distant or very recent past had come here and ascended, looking to cross over. But it seemed as though they were all gone – departed, or dead, or maybe even worse than that.

Thinking about all those faceless people, coming here out of a desire to escape something so overwhelming that it would allow one to happily embrace what they knew to be illusory, made me wonder about something else. As we approached the tower, I turned to Helen again.

So, to cross over, Helen, I suppose we have to climb this thing.

Yes, she said. If you could do it from the ground I guess we wouldn’t need a tower.

Fair point. But you said you needed me to get there. To where your son is.

I do. You must have someone from the Construct with you to be able to cross. Only they can make it happen.

But I have no inkling of how that is done. I don’t even know how I got here.

You were summoned. Somehow, someone summoned you here. It could have been anybody.

But I don’t see anyone anywhere.

That doesn’t mean they are not here. There are several bands of survivors in the cities. Many of them are underground.

The bands, or the cities?

The bands and the cities.

I shook my head. Underground cities?

Nuclear fallout will incline you to seek permanent shelter, she added.

But like I said, Helen, I don’t know how—

Yes you do. There is a way. Leave it to me. As long as you are from the Construct – I believe it was the old Pittsburgh, you said – you can get us back. I’ll show you how. This is why I was so excited to see you. You’re the only way I can get across. You’re the only way I can finally locate my son. I’ve been waiting for this for many, many years. And I’ve been wandering around up here for months on end.

I felt a jolt of sympathy and pure melancholy. The suffering she must have endured. The fatigue. The hunger!

Why are you alone if there are others around? I asked her.

No one would come with me. They said none of you could be found.

What if they had been right?

I was prepared to die trying. I didn’t have much left to lose. But having found you, I now have a great deal to gain. If only for a brief moment. It gives me a reason to live. She smiled at me. Her smile seemed so genuine, so hopeful, that I couldn’t help but return it. In spite of the circumstances, we walked along harmoniously, communicating something between ourselves.

Ten minutes later, we stood at the base of the tower, next to the first stair of hundreds. The massive object stupefied me, as though crushing any further capacity for comment. The tower cast no shadow, for the sky was one solid sheet of gunmetal – and now that I peered up the side of the black column to observe it hovering over everything, I noticed that the firmament seemed to be darkening. Was this the approach of night already? I had no sense of how much time had flown underneath our travels, our conversations. The prospect, however, filled me with a fresh, vigorous terror.

They operate better at night, she had said.

Suddenly, Helen seemed to finally feel the weight of her exhaustion. She abruptly plopped down into a sitting position at the base of the tower, and leaned her back against it. I stood there in front of the first stair, staring at her.

Sit down, she said, and gestured to the fractured ground.

We’re not going up? I asked, flummoxed.

She chuckled. Yes we are. But it might be better to get some rest first.

Is it getting darker though?

Yep, she said, stretching her legs out before her. She uttered a long sigh. What I could see of her legs was riddled with bruises and scrapes. Obviously she did need a break.

Man. This is place is one big contradiction. Did you not say before that they operate better at night? And then there’s the small matter of the approaching God-storm. I don’t understand any of this.

Yes, I know about all that. The dangers are real. But at the moment they seem to be at some distance. Ours not to question why. Rather, we should alternate taking the watch. I’ll go first. I suggest you try to sleep. More than I, you will need energy to help us cross over.

It was really only one more oddity in what had been a non-stop succession, so I found myself not as surprised as I might have been to have my expectations debunked. Besides, now that she had mentioned it, she seemed correct: all was quiet. I could not hear any of the voices at that moment. Sitting right underneath the tower, it seemed the wind had died down. I scanned each horizon in the now-fading light for as far as my eyes could reach, but all I saw was gently rolling plains of wasted, cracked earth. No storms came. My throat still hurt, and was so dry I was surprised I could even speak. If for no other reason, I hoped that she was correct that we could soon cross over into the Construct so we could find ourselves some food and water.

Okay, Helen. If you think we ought to rest, I won’t argue. But shouldn’t it be you that rests first? You’ve been through more than I have.

You go ahead. I’m used to it. Things have been bad for a long time. And I’ve been toughing it out up here for months as I said. You still don’t seem to know what hit you. I’ll be all right.

Can’t blame me for not knowing what hit me, I thought, but said nothing. Instead, I just nodded, and sat down on the hard earth near her feet. I pulled my wallet out and set it on the desert surface close by. I didn’t want to try to sleep with something bulky in my back pocket. Helen just watched me numbly. She seemed pretty tired herself, but at this point I was just doing what she said. She clearly had a better idea of what to do around here than I did. She set the black leather portfolio that she had been carrying all along on the ground.

What is that thing? I asked as I let myself down into a supine position right there in the dust. I was tired.

Helen pointed to the folder. This?

Yeah. You keep it close to you, but you never open it. What is it?

She chuckled. I guess it’s a kind of souvenir. A keepsake, you might say. I’m holding on to it for no real reason. I found it in the ruins of the laboratories.

She picked up the folder and opened it. Indeed, it was nothing more than one of those business folders I had pictured before, including the yellow pad. In a little loop in the middle of the case there was what looked like a standard Bic ball point pen. It was the sort of thing you could find in any office store in the Construct. On the lower left hand side, however, there was a small brass plate with something engraved on it. I picked my head up and squinted, then gasped. The engraving read JON RICKMAN, P.h.D.

Whoa, I said. Now THAT is funny.

Helen stared at me for almost a full minute. Had she heard me?

Ironic, really, she said, in a kind of waifish tone. She closed it up and set it back down. I keep thinking I am going to take some notes, record some of the things I’ve seen. But for whatever reason I haven’t done so.

Maybe you can do it now, I said, half-interested. I was very tired, more so than I realized. I laid down completely on my back, hands folded over my belly, head down on the hard surface. Despite the uncomfortable accommodations, I found myself nearly asleep.

Maybe, I heard Helen say, and that is all I remember.

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