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THE WAR OF THE WORLDVIEWS
One thing I've learned from this catastrophe is to start giving Western science and Newtonian rationality their due. For six days running, professional astronomers in the United States and Europe warned us of puzzling biological and cybernetic activity on the surfaces of both Martian satellites. We, the public, weren't interested. Next the stargazers announced that Phobos and Deimos had each sent a fleet of disc-shaped spaceships, heavily armed, hurtling toward planet Earth. We laughed in their faces. Then the astronomers reported that each saucer measured only one meter across, so that the invading armadas evoked "a vast recall of defective automobile tires." The talk-show comedians had a field day.
The first operation the Martians undertook upon landing in Central Park was to suck away all the city's electricity and seal it in a small spherical container suggesting an aluminum racquetball. I believe they wanted to make sure we wouldn't bother them as they went about their incomprehensible agenda, but Valerie says they were just being quixotic. In either case, the Martians obviously don't need all that power. They brought plenty with them.
I am writing by candlelight in our Delancey Street apartment, scribbling on a legal pad with a ballpoint pen. New York City is without functional lamps, subways, elevators, traffic signals, household appliances, or personal computers. Here and there, I suppose, life goes on as usual, thanks to storage batteries, solar cells, and diesel-fueled generators. The rest of us are living in the 18th century, and we don't much like it.
I was taking Valerie's kid to the Central Park Zoo when the Phobosians and the Deimosians started uprooting the city's power cables. Bobby and I witnessed the whole thing. The Martians were obviously having a good time. Each alien is only six inches high, but I could still see the jollity coursing through their little frames. Capricious chipmunks. I hate them all. Bobby became terrified when the Martians started wrecking things. He cried and moaned. I did my best to comfort him. Bobby's a good kid. Last week he called me Second Dad.
The city went black, neighborhood by neighborhood, and then the hostilities began. The Phobosian and the Deimosian infantries went at each other with weapons so advanced as to make Earth's rifles and howitzers seem like peashooters. Heat rays, disintegrator beams, quark bombs, sonic grenades, laser cannons. The Deimosians look rather like the animated mushrooms from Fantasia. The Phobosians resemble pencil sharpeners fashioned from Naugahyde. All during the fight, both races communicated among themselves via chirping sounds reminiscent of dolphins enjoying sexual climax. Their ferocity knew no limits. In one hour I saw enough war crimes to fill an encyclopedia, though on the scale of an 0-gauge model railroad.
As far as I could tell, the Battle of Central Park ended in a stalemate. The real loser was New York, victim of a hundred ill-aimed volleys. At least half the buildings on Fifth Avenue are gone, including the Mount Sinai Medical Center. Fires rage everywhere, eastward as far as Third Avenue, westward to Columbus. Bobby and I were lucky to get back home alive.
Such an inferno is clearly beyond the capacity of our local fire departments. Normally we would seek help from Jersey and Connecticut, but the Martians have fashioned some sort of force-field dome, lowering it over the entire island as blithely as a chef placing a lid on a casserole dish. Nothing can get in, and nothing can get out. We are at the invaders' mercy. If the Phobosians and the Deimosians continue trying to settle their differences through violence, the city will burn to the ground.
The Second Battle of Central Park was even worse than the first. We lost the National Academy of Design, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Carlyle Hotel. It ended with the Phobosians driving the Deimosians all the way down to Rockefeller Center. The Deimosians then rallied, stood their ground, and forced a Phobosian retreat to West 71st Street.
Valerie and I learned about this latest conflict only because a handful of resourceful radio announcers have improvised three ad hoc Citizens Band stations along what's left of Lexington Avenue. We have a decent CB receiver, so we'll be getting up-to-the-minute bulletins until our batteries die. Each time the newscaster named Clarence Morant attempts to describe the collateral damage from this morning's hostilities, he breaks down and weeps.
Even when you allow for the shrimplike Martian physique, the two armies are not very far apart. By our scale, they are separated by three blocks-by theirs, perhaps ten kilometers. Clarence Morant predicts there'll be another big battle tomorrow. Valerie chides me for not believing her when she had those premonitions last year of our apartment building on fire. I tell her she's being a Monday morning Nostradamus.
How many private journals concerning the Martian invasion exist at the moment? As I put pen to paper, I suspect that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of my fellow survivors are recording their impressions of the cataclysm. But I am not like these other diary-keepers. I am unique. I alone have the power to stop the Martians before they demolish Manhattan— or so I imagine.
All quiet on the West Side front—though nobody believes the cease-fire will last much longer. Clarence Morant says the city is living on borrowed time.
Phobos and Deimos. When the astronomers first started warning us of nefarious phenomena on the Martian satellites, I experienced a vague feeling of personal connection to those particular moons. Last night it all flooded back. Phobos and Deimos are indeed a part of my past: a past I've been trying to forget—those bad old days when I was the worst psychiatric intern ever to serve an apprenticeship at Bellevue. I'm much happier in my present position as a bohemian hippie bum, looking after Bobby and living off the respectable income Valerie makes running two SoHo art galleries.
His name was Rupert Klieg, and he was among the dozen or so patients who made me realize I'd never be good with insane people. I found Rupert's rants alternately unnerving and boring. They sounded like something you'd read in a cheesy special-interest zine for psychotics. Paranoid Confessions. True Hallucinations. Rupert was especially obsessed with an organization called the Asaph Hall Society, named for the self-taught scientist who discovered Phobos and Deimos. All three members of the Asaph Hall Society were amateur astronomers and certifiable lunatics who'd dedicated themselves to monitoring the imminent invasion of planet Earth by the bellicose denizens of the Martian moons. Before Rupert told me his absurd fantasy, I didn't even realize that Mars had moons, nor did I care. But now I do, God knows.
The last I heard, they'd put Rupert Klieg away in the Lionel Frye Psychiatric Institute, Ninth Avenue near 58th. Valerie says I'm wasting my time, but I believe in my bones that the fate of Manhattan lies with that particular schizophrenic.
This morning a massive infantry assault by the Phobosians drove the Deimosians south to Times Square. When I heard that the Frye Institute was caught in the crossfire, I naturally feared the worst for Rupert. When I actually made the trek to Ninth and 58th, however, I discovered that the disintegrator beams, devastating in most regards, had missed the lower third of the building. I didn't see any Martians, but the whole neighborhood resounded with their tweets and twitters.
The morning's upheavals had left the Institute's staff in a state of extreme distraction. I had no difficulty sneaking into the lobby, stealing a dry-cell lantern, and conducting a room-by-room hunt.
Rupert was in the basement ward, Room 16. The door stood ajar. I entered. He lay abed, grasping a toy plastic telescope about ten centimeters long. I couldn't decide whether his keepers had been kind or cruel to allow him this trinket. It was nice that the poor demented astronomer had a telescope, but what good did it do him in a room with no windows?
His face had become thinner, his body more gaunt, but otherwise he was the fundamentally beatific madman I remembered. "Thank you for the lantern, Dr. Onslo," he said as I approached. He swatted at a naked lightbulb hanging from the ceiling like a miniature punching bag. "It's been pretty gloomy around here."
"Call me Steve. I never finished my internship."
"I'm not surprised, Dr. Onslo. You were a lousy therapist."
"Let me tell you why I've come."
"I know why you've come, and as Chairperson of the Databank Committee of the Asaph Hall Society, I can tell you everything you want to know about Phobos and Deimos."
"I'm especially interested in learning how your organization knew an invasion was imminent."
The corners of Rupert's mouth lifted in a grotesque smile. He opened the drawer in his nightstand, removed a crinkled sheet of paper, and deposited it in my hands. "Mass: 1.08e16 kilograms," he said as I studied the fact sheet, which had a cherry cough drop stuck to one corner. "Diameter: 22.2 kilometers. Mean density: 2.0 grams per cubic centimeter. Mean distance from Mars: 9,380 kilometers. Rotational period: 0.31910 days. Mean orbital velocity: 2.14 kilometers per second. Orbital eccentricity: 0.01. Orbital inclination: 1.0 degrees. Escape velocity: 0.0103 kilometers per second. Visual geometric albedo: 0.06. In short, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Phobos—"
"Fascinating," I said evenly.
"As opposed to Deimos. Mass: 1.8e15 kilograms. Diameter: 12.6 kilometers. Mean density: 1.7 grams per cubic centimeter. Mean distance from Mars: 23,460 kilometers. Rotational period: 1.26244 days. Mean orbital velocity: 1.36 kilometers per second. Orbital eccentricity: 0.00. Orbital inclination: 0.9 to 2.7 degrees. Escape velocity: 0.0057 kilometers per second. Visual geometric albedo: 0.07. Both moons look like baked potatoes."
"By some astonishing intuition, you knew that these two satellites intended to invade the Earth."
"Intuition, my Aunt Fanny. We deduced it through empirical observation." Rupert brought the telescope to his eye and focused on the dormant lightbulb. "Consider this. A scant eighty million years ago, there were no Phobes or Deems. I'm not kidding. They were all one species, living beneath the desiccated surface of Mars. Over the centuries, a deep rift in philosophic sensibility opened up within their civilization. Eventually they decided to abandon the native planet, never an especially congenial place, and emigrate to the local moons. Those favoring Sensibility A moved to Phobos. Those favoring Sensibility B settled on Deimos."
"Why would the Martians find Phobos and Deimos more congenial?" I jammed the fact sheet in my pocket. "I mean, aren't they just ... big rocks?"
"Don't bring your petty little human perspective to the matter, Dr. Onslo. To a vulture, carrion tastes like chocolate cake. Once they were on their respective worlds, the Phobes and the Deems followed separate evolutionary paths—hence, the anatomical dimorphism we observe today."
"What was the nature of the sensibility rift?"
Rupert used his telescope to study a section of the wall where the plaster had crumbled away, exposing the latticework beneath. "I have no idea."
"The Asaph Hall Society dissolved before we could address that issue. All I know is that the Phobes and the Deems decided to settle the question once and for all through armed combat on neutral ground."
"So they came here?"
"Mars would've seemed like a step backwards. Venus has rotten weather."
"Are you saying that whichever side wins the war will claim victory in what is essentially a philosophical controversy?"
"They believe that truth claims can be corroborated through violence?"
"More or less."
"That doesn't make any sense to me."
"If you were a fly, horse manure would smell like candy. We'd better go see Melvin."
"Melvin Haskin, Chairperson of our Epistemology Committee. If anybody's figured out the Phobos-Deimos rift, it's Melvin. The last I heard, they'd put him in a rubber room at Werner Krauss Memorial. What's today?"
"On Tuesday Melvin always wills himself into a catatonic stupor. He'll be incommunicado until tomorrow morning."
I had no trouble sneaking Rupert out of the Frye Institute. Everybody on the staff was preoccupied with gossip and triage. The lunatic brought along his telescope and a bottle of green pills that he called "the thin verdant line that separates me from my madness."
Although still skeptical of my belief that Rupert held the key to Manhattan's salvation, Valerie welcomed him warmly into our apartment—she's a better therapist than I ever was—and offered him the full measure of her hospitality. Because we have a gas range, we were able to prepare a splendid meal of spinach lasagna and toasted garlic bread. Rupert ate all the leftovers. Bobby asked him what it was like to be insane. "There is nothing that being insane is like," Rupert replied.
After dinner, at Rupert's request, we all played Scrabble by candlelight, followed by a round of Clue. Rupert won both games. At ten o'clock he took a green pill and stretched his spindly body along the length of our couch, which he said was much more comfortable than his bed at the Frye Institute. Five minutes later he was asleep.
As I write this entry, Clarence Morant is offering his latest dispatches from the war zone. Evidently the Deimosians are still dug in throughout Times Square. Tomorrow the Phobosians will attempt to dislodge them. Valerie and I both hear a catch in Morant's voice as he tells how his aunt took him to see Cats when he was nine years old. He inhales deeply and says, "The Winter Garden Theater is surely doomed."
Before we left the apartment this morning, Rupert remembered that Melvin Haskin is inordinately fond of bananas. Luckily, Valerie had purchased two bunches at the corner bodega right before the Martians landed. I tossed them into my rucksack, along with some cheese sandwiches and Rupert's telescope, and then we headed uptown.
Reaching 40th Street, we saw that the Werner Krauss Memorial Clinic had become a seething mass of orange flames and billowing gray smoke, doubtless an ancillary catastrophe accruing to the Battle of Times Square. Ashes and sparks speckled the air. Our eyes teared up from the carbon. The sidewalks teemed with a despairing throng of doctors, administrators, guards, and inmates. Presumably the Broadway theaters and hotels were also on fire, but I didn't want to think about it.
Rupert instantly alighted on Melvin Haskin, though I probably could've identified him unassisted. Even in a milling mass of psychotics, Melvin stood out. He'd strapped a dish-shaped antenna onto his head, the concavity pointed skyward—an inverted yarmulke. A pair of headphones covered his ears, jacked into an antique vacuum-tube amplifier that he cradled in his arms like a baby. Two coiled wires, one red, one black, connected the antenna to the amplifier, its functionless power cord bumping against Melvin's left leg, the naked prongs glinting in the August sun. He wore a yellow terrycloth bathrobe and matching Big Bird slippers. His frame was massive, his skin pale, his stomach protuberant, his mouth bereft of teeth.
Rupert made the introductions. Once again he insisted on calling me Dr. Onslo. I pointed to Melvin's antenna and asked him whether he was receiving transmissions from the Martians.
"What?" He pulled off the headphones and allowed them to settle around his neck like a yoke.
"Your antenna, the headphones—looks like you're communicating with the Martians."
"Are you crazy?" Scowling darkly, Melvin turned toward Rupert and jerked an accusing thumb in my direction. "Dr. Onslo thinks my amplifier still works even though half the tubes are burned out."
"He's a psychiatrist," Rupert explained. "He knows nothing about engineering. How was your catatonic stupor?"
"Restful. You'll have to come along some time."
"I haven't got the courage," said Rupert.
Melvin was enchanted by the gift of the bananas, and even more enchanted to be reunited with his fellow paranoid. As the two middle-aged madmen headed east, swapping jokes and stories like old school chums, I could barely keep up with their frenetic pace. After passing Sixth Avenue they turned abruptly into Bryant Park, where they found an abandoned soccer ball on the grass. For twenty minutes they kicked it back and forth, then grew weary of the sport. They sat down on a bench. I joined them. Survivors streamed by holding handkerchiefs over their faces.
"The city's dying," I told Melvin. "We need your help."
"Rupert, have you still got the touch?" Melvin asked his friend.
"I believe I do," said Rupert.
"Rupert can fix burned-out vacuum tubes merely by laying his hands on them," Melvin informed me. "I call him the Cathode Christ."
Even before Melvin finished his sentence, Rupert had begun fondling the amplifier. He rubbed each tube as if the warmth of his hand might bring it to life.
Excerpted from The Cat's Pajamas by James Morrow. Copyright © 2004 James Morrow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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