A Book About Falling
By Iain S. Thomas
Central Avenue Marketing Ltd. Copyright © 2012 Iain S. Thomas
All rights reserved.
Now Something incredibly sad.
What follows is what happens each time I fall. I do not know if these things really happen but this is what I believe happens. As your eyes move across these words, some sacred engine is coming back to life and I am beginning to fall again. Sometimes, it feels like floating.
If you do not mind, I will refer to myself as Jon, in the third person, as these things happen.
I understand that talking about Jon as "I" instead of "Jon" would perhaps make more sense, as I am the one telling you what's happening, not some omniscient voice somewhere up in the clouds. But one of my earliest memories is of my father, narrating the things I did as I ran around the house or played outside. Like a commentator for a football match, he would yell, "Jon goes up the swing and down the swing, look at him go! He's a champion!" or "Jon's eating his spaghetti like a master, ladies and gentlemen, let's see if he can finish in time or if we'll have another disaster like we did with the vegetables the other night!"
So talking about himself in the third person in his mind, where no one but you gets to go, gives Jon (still me) a certain degree of confidence. Or maybe it's just that old habits die hard. Anyway, this is now and in this now, this is what's happening to the remaining humans in the last city on Earth.
"A space station has recovered Eliot Philips, an astronaut who was spun out into space in a refueling accident and now, his body has returned after completing an orbit around the earth which has lasted more than thirty years."
The screen on the side of the giant black floating news zeppelin shows a picture of an old woman, presumably Philips' widow, identifying a young frozen corpse as she weeps tears she has been holding on to for far too long. The zeppelin hovers like a bumblebee over the city. Below the floating news screen, the white marble spires of the United Government building, the last great monument man has built, reach for the heavens, each one raised as if in a challenge to some unseen and unknown adversary. Jon turns to look at them, breaking the audio feed into his head from the news zeppelin and the sudden silence brings to an end his wandering day dream. He can make out the building's spires all the way on the other side of NewLand, past the mostly empty and unused ornate buildings, lecture rooms, theaters and gymnasiums that blossom strictly from each side of the intricate streets, even through the grimy windows of Emily's hodgepodge, trinket-filled apartment. Low-hanging old lights cast a strange glow over the room and are complemented by the flickering lights from one of the first teleporters ever made. The teleporter hums for a second, like it might spring back to life, but it doesn't. It's broken forever. The government has asked that Emily collect and keep old things, should the world ever need them again. Marble statues from Greece, stone slabs containing fossils from Africa and a rainbow coloured VW Beetle from the American 60's all live uneasily together. The government likes giving people responsibilities. Jon thinks that they believe it gives people a sense of purpose.
NewLand feels like an old attic, spilling over with old secrets. Like someone has taken the leftovers of the world and dumped them in one place. This place. The last living place. Through the window, Jon regards one impossibly perverse spire which has bits of the Eiffel Tower sticking out of it. It was rudely salvaged, and carelessly erected. Industrial teleporters — when they were still allowed — brought it here along with the Acropolis, the Statue of Liberty, and several other things that were considered "worth keeping." It acts as a reminder of what the human race was once capable. Now there are less than a few million people left on the planet. Black smoke rises out of stacks from the dark machines rumbling below the building, the only noise to be heard as figures move silently from building to building. The grey buildings are all closely piled together like set pieces in a play, short balconies hanging over doors, just a few steps from their neighbour across the road. Some people have painted their doors bright, festive colours but most are a simple, uniform grey. It is a terminally depressed world and yet the people drift past, each individual wearing an immovable grin. No, that's wrong. Some grinned. Some smiled. Some raised their eyebrows and smiled with their eyes, and no one said much. What's left to talk about? How happy you are? People live, die, and smile as they do each.
It's been nearly ten years since the world ended. Or it may as well have. Jon's a man in the twilight of his twenties now and his delicate frame holds his clothes as best it can.
Outside, across the road from him, a little blonde girl in a pink dress runs down the pavement outside into her father's sweat-soaked arms. The father shoots wildly with a stolen pistol at the police teleporting in, who are yelling at him to stop. As she grips his neck with her tiny arms and holds tight, a single shot fired from a young sergeant hits the father in the shoulder, sending a spray of blood into the air, just missing his daughter's head. His blue eyes go red and his face grimaces in pain, but still he instinctively whips his body in front of her, his only daughter, and they fall backwards into the bright blue light behind them; a light coming from the stolen government teleporter the man, apparently, has illegally modified. And then silence for a second. Then a little blonde girl in a pink dress suddenly appears outside and runs down the pavement outside into her father's arms, who's shot in the shoulder, again. They have looped like this, for years. They're just ghosts. The theory is that the man's illegal modifications caused this infinite loop but no one really seems to know what causes the teleporters to loop, just that they do. And now humankind must deal with chronological waste sites, where teleporters have terminally jammed. It must watch the same thing, again and again.
There are thousands of these waste sites and these ghosts are the reason that access to technology has been extremely limited. Jon stops watching. He's been absent-mindedly playing with his father's brass pocket watch, turning it over and over in his hands, feeling the engraving with his fingers: You will become whatever you want to become. He returns it to his inside jacket pocket, where it's close to his heart. The view of this particular ghost, this endless loop of a quite famous bank robber trying to rescue or kidnap his daughter — depending on who you speak to or what newspaper you read; there are only two newspapers that are still published for the remaining populace, and they still disagree with each other — once drove the property prices sky-high amongst the last humans.
But now, this place, like the little girl outside, is just another ghost.
If teleportation were still allowed, at least the food from the one remaining commercial airline wouldn't be wasted. It could simply be teleported off the plane, onto the table of any starving person. There were once plenty of starving people, all over the world. But not now. Back then, everyone wanted to work in New York, have lunch in Paris and pay rent in rural India. But no one figured on the ghosts. People got caught in endless loops when the machines malfunctioned or were modified or were used on Sundays. The excuses were numerous but it soon became clear that the technology just wasn't stable. At first, the looping ghosts were shrouded with tarpaulins, wherever and however it was happening, surrounded by police tape but people seemed to care less and less and many found some kind of fascination in watching moments and people repeat themselves endlessly. The people in them never know. For them, it is always now.
Jon is full of these things, feelings and thoughts, not just in his heart but in his head. The first thing taken out in the war that followed The End, the common name for the day it all went to shit, the great reckoning of mankind, was the Statue of Liberty. If you squint you can see the remaining bits: a spike from her crown, an eyebrow, a hand with a torch. Apparently, you can still see the book she once held, if you get close enough. Bombers dropped a billion tons of hate and fire on it. Jon should know, he used to fly one of those bombers. They were told that they were destroying an enemy but he can't remember the details. No one was allowed to remember the details. Now, even without the memories and with so few things left, the war was clearly about resources. The remains of the earth. Mankind has been reduced to a scavenging dog and its ribs are showing. Besides the algae farms far outside of NewLand, there's barely a patch of land left on the planet that can grow even the stubbornest weed.
He turns his head and looks past the remains of the Eiffel Tower, to get a better look at Lady Liberty's crown of thorns. This is another thing he keeps inside himself, this piece of knowledge about the bombings, the things that cause ruins and remains and survivors. It is a thing that makes him clench his jaw. He knows they take the families of "enemy" aviators and strap them, alive, to the sides of their aircraft in glass coffins. Military airfields are often filled with screams before takeoff, as young girls and boys, wives, mothers and fathers are lead towards the aircraft to be strapped in. And so all pilots know that when they shoot at the enemy, there's a chance that they're killing their own, or a friend's family.
And while the pilots weep as they fight, neither side's generals allow themselves to care. This is/was/could be war, after all. Thousands lived. More died. There doesn't seem to be much enemy left. Or anyone really.
Jon carries on looking out the dirty window and stretches his long fingers out and back in again and again like he's squeezing an invisible ball. His fingers miss playing with the pocket watch but that habit irritates him. Faint memories of what once happened crash through his mind. Different memories do the same in the street, through the weak, tenuous fabric of now, riddled with holes from billions of people jumping back and forth from place to place, shadows and glimmers, caught in loops forever.
Jon tells his head to shut up and he picks up a tiny rust-red vial off the Venetian-carved antique table. He examines the lime-green writing on it before holding it above his mouth. He can't read the word properly but he thinks it starts with an "S." Exactly three drops land on his tongue and he counts them off carefully as they fall.
Lacrymatory: Lat. lacrima - a tear. A bottle used to collect the tears of mourners at funerals, found in ancient Roman and Greek tombs, normally made of glass but occasionally also terra cotta.
The drops taste like peach iced tea. It is sweet, not harsh at all.
"What's this one called?" asks Jon, swallowing, turning the vial over and over in his hands.
"Saudade," says Emily. "It's a Portuguese word for the almost terminal, endless longing for a lost love."
She can hear him because she's spent a good portion of her life practicing hearing him, no matter how quietly he speaks. Her red hair follows her shoulders down her back and her eyes are deep blue, deeper than Jon's, speckled with flint and green. Jon does not think about the curves behind her Victorian blue dress. They are friends and always have been, nothing more. Jon, instead, thinks that Saudade, the drug he's just put on his tongue which causes one to be overwhelmed by emotion, is a bit like Limerence (again, another word used to describe an endless longing for love) or Stendhal Syndrome (the term used to describe being bought to tears by a work of art), which is what he'd had the first time he'd tried Sadness with her. But this has slightly more of a body rush because he can feel the tips of his fingers start to tingle and go numb. He walks around Emily's dirty, cluttered little apartment, which is filled with antiques and the bric-a-brac of mankind, while his legs can still hold him, hands still opening and closing, breathing like they're lungs. His eyes glance out the window, sick of the bank robber and his daughter with the blonde hair and the pink dress looping outside, hoping in vain for something more moving to look at. Please, God, give me something else to look at than an old fire escape and this hopeful, desperate father. Still, the fire escape with its rust and its textures has its own kind of nobility, a defiance of some kind, because it still stands, which is so much more than can be said of so many things these days.
In the distance, he thinks he sees someone falling from the top spire of the United Government building. But it might just be crows and shadows.
He runs his fingers through his shortly cropped, dyed silver-white hair. He can feel Emily watching him. She does that sometimes, just out the corner of her eye. Jon is glad she let him in. She'd already closed up for the day when he came tapping on her door. After some hesitation and a lot of cajoling and threatening and then whispering on his part, she'd let him in and he'd hugged her and he'd felt the relief flood through him as he stepped inside, as all junkies do when they see their dealer. The rust and the decay on the fire escape reminded him of when he'd worked on one of the army airfields years after The End. He remembers his friend James, Gentle James some had called him because he found a rat and took care of it, making it his pet. He'd have done the same with any animal. Anyway, James or Gentle James or Private James Stapleton or whatever you want to call him, died midflight during an operation they'd both gone on. Something secret. The memories of everyone on board had been erased afterwards, as always, but Jon remembers the burial; they'd let him keep that. Some might have called it beautiful but it's hard to call a funeral beautiful. Because James died in flight (Jon couldn't remember how), the crew did a traditional burial at air, covering him in a kind of liquid magnesium. Then Jon, Jon and the other members of the crew that weren't needed to fly the giant bomber, threw him out of the plane with a giant crucifix chained to him, and Jon remembers so vividly, as the body of the person who used to be his friend, sweet Gentle James, kissed the air, the magnesium burst into white hot flames. He became an angel of bright light and smoke and then nothing. Ashes in the sky. Ashes in the sky. Now Jon's trying not to think about it but there was a fire escape just like the one outside on a building in that fucking airfield. Every day, he walked through the buildings and when no one was looking, he took out a spanner and stole bolts out of things, from the computers, from the walkways, from the machines, whatever. One at a time. Nothing anyone would notice. But the place was always falling apart and no one could work out why. He once had bottles and bottles of nuts and bolts stored away. They would've killed him if they'd found them. He didn't know why he did it; sometimes people just do things. Maybe he just hated his job and the people he worked for.
After he'd finished his years of service, he decided that since there weren't any normal jobs left, he wanted to be a conceptual art dealer. Someone who just sells the idea of art to other people. You'd pay him some money and he'd whisper poetry or special secrets in your ear; like, "My art, which fathered heaven." But apparently that job didn't really exist for a reason: whispering poetry is not a sustainable way to make a living. Perhaps in a good, benevolent world, poets would be rich and stock brokers would go home to shacks, but there weren't any more stockbrokers and there were almost as many poets left. So a magician it was. An illusionist. A conjurer.
He didn't know any magic tricks though, so he cheated.
He didn't even need the top hat or the white ruffled shirt. Before that, when he was still considering the conceptual art dealer thing, he'd once tried to sell the idea of brushing your hair at the same time as everyone else who bought the idea from him, so that whenever you brushed your hair, you'd know that you weren't alone and that somewhere out there, someone else was brushing their hair, too. He thought it'd be beautiful, that because, despite all the anti-depressants these days, people still needed cheering up, people needed company, even if it was a strange kind of company. Even if it was just the knowledge that somewhere else, someone else was feeling the exact same thing as you at the exact same time as you. But no one had wanted to give him money for it, everyone just looked at him strangely and that's why everyone still brushes their hair at different times. Stupid world. Stupid, dying world. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Intentional Dissonance by Iain S. Thomas. Copyright © 2012 Iain S. Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Central Avenue Marketing Ltd..
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