20 lessons, disordered, from pop-cultural panegyric called Mad Max

  1. Don’t talk.
  2. Don’t explain things.
  3. Don’t show things, either.
  4. Vehicles are people.
  5. People can die, even the most important ones.
  6. Violence is an emotion.
  7. Violence is beautiful.
  8. Movement is beautiful.
  9. Move in one direction, unless you are moving in another.
  10. To make the same landscape new again go very high or very low.
  11. Centre-frame.
  12. The colour red.
  13. If a character is missing an arm, give (her) two to replace it.
  14. Heighten reality, but in the other direction.
  15. A world can be terrifying and make you want to live in it.
  16. Don’t let them touch each other.
  17. Can the Bible help but be everywhere?
  18. Home is a fire.
  19. Fire is a sermon.
  20. The audience does not need to be privileged with information characters do not possess.

Last

Even now the house remains unchanged.

That is to say essentially the same even though of course there are small details one might talk about.

But outside –

Outside it appears that the rules do not apply.

Or perhaps once they applied everywhere but today they are confined here, to this place, to this house, with the fire.

Assuming that there were any rules in the first place, anything to constrain the house.

Perhaps it makes more sense to speak of tendencies rather than rules.

In any case he is downstairs now, and the fire is warm.

The house shakes softly.

Somehow he has never realised that even the house could shake.

For a long time he has not come here.

That might be mostly because there has simply been no need.

It is standing before the door.

It is entirely awake.

“Well, here we are,” he says.

“Yes,” it says.

“It you think about it this was always bound to happen,” he says.

“No,” it says, immediately.

“Well, here we are nonetheless,” he says.

It paces and goes round in one tight circle. It goes up to the window once, its old habit, and then it comes back.

It turns to the door and goes up to it and comes back and then does it again.

“Here we are,” he says, to himself.

“I can help you,” it says.

“You have given me so much,” he says.

“Yes,” it says, “but no matter.”

He goes to the window, the low window, the one that looks outward at all the water.

Suddenly he feels lonely.

No, that was not correct. He is anticipating it, not feeling it now.

Although it might as well be the same.

All these things are always very hard to disentangle.

Come to think of it, it has never been clear what exactly why this window was built right here.

An error, perhaps.

The point is that one can imagine this window being better placed elsewhere.

In any case he looks out of it now.

The thing about the ocean is that its size can only really be appreciated like this, in the flesh.

The water moves.

The water becomes big and comes without stopping.

This is the kind of sea which stops all ships from coming.

In fact the water is so big that it goes over the house and comes right over a long ridge of mountains.

Over the mountains there a place where there might be many homes, clustered together, on top of each other, lights intimated by each other, coming all together in this way, even though he has not thought there could ever be others here.

The water washes it all away.

It hugs the buildings with its bulk and dowses them over.

It pushes all the air aside. It is all very huge and very grey.

All this happens very slowly.

He is terrified. He is so scared he can hardly breathe.

“Can it come in another way?” he says.

“Yes,” it says.

It looks at him and then all the water is in the house.

It is simply there, without any fuss, and all of it at once, too.

“Oh,” he says, marvelling now at how small it seems. “Oh,” he says, again, realising.

It looks at him.

Light is coming from the windows, although it is pale as milk.

“I know you,” he says. “I saw you once, near the place where Erth was living. You had a name, didn’t you? You had a name. Went.”

“Went,” it says, “yes, Went.”

It comes to him and its forelimbs go on his shoulders.

There may be more limbs but the point is that it is on his shoulders and it is a great weight bearing him down.

It stares at him.

For a creature so often given to sleep it appears to be surprisingly alive.

Not alive. The word was awake, that was the word he was looking for.

“Thank you,” it says.

It is hard to hear.

This is mostly because of the fact that it speaks very softly.

Although it has always spoken rather softly, if one remembers correctly.

He recognises something strange about the way in which all of this is said, however.

That is, the creature appears utterly heartbroken.

It is very close to him. He can see all the way inside its mouth.

It has always taken care, he realises, not to draw attention to its mouth.

“I’ve done something wrong, haven’t I?” he says.

“Yes,” it says. “Thank you.”

He waits.

“I can help you,” it says.

The weight is unbearable.

It lets go of him for looks at him for a moment and moves to the door again.

He goes to the window and looks out.

His hand goes on the sill.

He pulls the window open.

He struggles for a moment with the rusted bolt but then the window is open.

Water comes in and goes on the floor. He closes his eyes.

He just stands there getting wet.

It is a strange thing, that the water at this time feels so warm.

It does not come over to the window, which is to say that it remains by the door.

This behaviour is uncharacteristic.

Although he cannot precisely remember what it has done before the impression is still given that this is not characteristic.

“You should come and see,” he says.

“I know,” it says.

Why had he ever tried to hide his purpose? It strikes him that sometimes he is very naive.

“I’ll be going” he says. “I’ll be going now, probably.”

“Do you want me to go with you?” it says.

He comes to the door.

“You like it more inside,” he says.

He has no particular reason to believe this but it is true enough.

“I can come with you,” it says.

He reaches out with his hand which drips with rain from the window which is still open and he pulls the door open.

It moves aside to let the door open fully, of course.

Its feet, which it uses sometimes, make noises against the floor.

He remembers how the floor shone when he first let it into the house.

He stands in the doorway looking out.

“I think perhaps you should stay here,” he says.

“It is only a house,” it says.

That is impossible to deny.

But there is much to be said in favour of a house.

“I can make it go,” it says.

He seems to understand that well enough.

“How?” he says.

That was not at all what he was trying to say.

“It’s more than just that,” he says. “It’s not just the one thing.”

The issue is that when he attempts to speak to it he ends up attempting to say things that cannot, properly speaking, be said.

“I can make it all go,” it says.

“All,” he says.

He considers this

It considers this, too.

It appears to be striving towards something.

“Since that appears to be the problem,” it says. “All –”

He stays there in the doorway for a long time, and it remains beside him, both of them becoming drenched.

He steps through the doorway and gasps at the water.

He takes several more steps. The ground is wet and the stones are slippery and they shine. But it is not impossible to walk. It is a challenge that is not wholly unwelcome.

“The rest of them?” he says. “What happens?”

It is standing in the doorway, or perhaps it is merely sitting, or perhaps it has moved away from the doorway. Most likely it is simply standing there.

“If it all goes,” it says, “the rest go too. I can do all of this.”

“Don’t,” he says, although he takes a shudder in the middle of the word, a thrill. “Just stay with the house.” He turns around and walks on, following the very edge, swaying despite his best efforts. The water is like a physical thing, there is so much of it. But its basic nature is harmless.

“I can destroy everything,” it says, pleading.

He is surprised, but only for a moment, that it would use that word, in that way, now. But then it seems entirely predictable, once he thinks about it.

“I can help you.”

But he does not look back. If he does he might just fall apart with gratitude and he is moving now, and he is outside the house.

“There might be nothing left,” it calls, from far way.

He goes on for some time.

Then he realises something. It is an awful thought, unthinkable, even. He runs back to the house. He slips once and goes in the wet soil but he gets up immediately. It is still there in the open doorway when he gets back.

“The last thing,” he says, panting. His clothes stick to his skin, which is warm.“You were not threatening me. Are you – ”

“No,” it says. “No, I would never – How could I? You know me.”

He leans against it and finally cries without a sound. “You understand why I am doing this,” he says eventually.

It is a small thing in the doorway. “No,” it says.

“Well – if –”

“What? Say it.”

“I am sorry too. Will there be someone after me?”

“I do not know.”

“There is no rule for determining it, then.”

“There are no rules for any of us.”

“But I am leaving now.”

“Yes.”

“And there is nothing that you can do.”

“It makes no difference. “

He looks up. “Maybe there are some rules, then.”

“Maybe. Be careful of all the water.”

And he goes again. He does not come back.

To Dream Even of Such Things

But he did know now, know in fact, that grief could not be shared. Joy could be shared. You could give it out among many people. It could multiply. But grief singled people out. There were names in his memory of places where his friends had died but these names meant nothing to people. If he said there was this place, or, this was the place, it would be imagined by other people to be different from the way it really was. So he did not say anything. Consecration. He made other people powerless. He had not chosen to be this way but that was how things were now. People would look at him and know that there was nothing to be done, they could not help.

He went out into the corridor. It was empty. He did not close the door but stood there for some time with his hand on the doorknob. It gradually turned warm from the heat of his hand. He turned and went back in. The room hummed.

In CM he had always paid attention to the Casualty Reports when they came in. There were often long delays. But they always did come and he would look at the names of those who had died. People he knew or barely did. There was a column that indicated the exact time when someone was declared dead.  That was important for him. He tried to think of what he had been doing at those times and he could never really remember. People found the blank spaces in his memory and went into those spaces to die. S—had died in a training accident when he left the safety off the amph-AR and two rounds had gone up through his chin and left socket into his brain. March 20, 1422 hrs. Ary thought about that. What had he been doing then? B—killed in a firefight on Anholt. That was how he thought about but it was wrong. B— had died 18 hours later in TRR. November 1 6003 hrs. But when B—was hit he imagined that she could see everything coming after. And yet he did not know what he had been doing then. How did they do this? He thought vaguely that he might have been pulling up a schedule for his platoon then but he did not know for sure. His mind was filled with anatomies of place and time, with duty and knowledge even, and yet the death of those he knew was set off against absolutely nothing. There was no context. As I walked out onto the parade ground my friend died, or, as John told me about the drop schedule my friend died, or, as I gave them the 72 and they cursed with joy and cheered and pissed in the wind my friend died. Nothing at all like that. It was strange how there was nothing to signal what was happening. Happening far away, yes, but things of such importance would leave some a mark, something faintly fired to land far away. Thump. But there was nothing there. Maybe it was not true that people found a way to be forgotten. Maybe it was simply that he was forgetting everything and it was going away because so much had happened. He thought about everyone else seeing the Reports. All of them spread out across so much space nonetheless feeling the same kind of disgrace. One transgression stoked by another, rolling on. Was he surprised? After all time moved on and they would lapse as people. It was to be expected.

In Such a Life

The air was made for them. The stooping peregrines were the only things in the world that could take that great shining gap and chase it into life. They could lean against it and tilt it. The moment, a billion years of change, of evolution and movement, all pressed into this: from a numinous line above the horizon it rolls effortlessly, and simply stops. Silence. There is nothing more to it. There is no magic or story. It raises itself slightly and the wings fold over that brown back and it slips forward, casually, without any hint of control. The origami of itself. It drops – but that is a lie, it does not drop, you never see it drop, for its untrespassed arc becomes the reference, and the gorge becomes a delirious blur spun into incomprehension by the fall of this bird, there, twisting even in the very rush of it, its mind making crankings and adjustments that cannot be believed, more fundamental and violent than a track flung out in a cloud chamber, dropping to something that has been singled out in the blue air below and will never know what has hit it, will never see its death and the sharp glory of its going. In such a life, in such a life lived in this way there is no regression, there is no slouching to the mean. Would that we could move too in vessels that in their movement would remake the world to fit them, and tremble the world until it shimmered and exploded with ecstasy.

Citation

The glow had long gone down behind the serrated edge of the mountains. It was late.

The order had not come in yet. Earlier Ary had asked Major Kenner if he and John could take the patrol of the outer encamp.

(“Why?” Major Kenner said.

“Everyone’s tired,” Ary said. “We thought since we’ve got no orders yet that we could take things off C-2, sir.”

Major Kenner was one of those people who was always calm. He stopped writing and looked up at Ary.

“They got hit three days ago,” he had said. “Three deaths.  They need something to do.”

From another person that might have been cruel. But Major Kenner was not like that. He leaned back in his chair and gave Ary a look that said, go on, say what you think.

Ary only said, “I understand, sir.”

“No,” Kenner had said. “You are right. I can’t unfuck this situation for C-2. Hope they get through this.”

“Have they been to Combat Stress?”

“Do you know what C-2 is like? They were teasing Danks all the way through because he’d not got his first kill. He was the loader, of course he hadn’t done it. They said he needed to do it so that they’d be a hundred percent. They will not go to Combat Stress. I can’t make them.” He stopped. “Well, I could. But it wouldn’t work if I made them do it. I need not to be the asshole here for a while.” Kenner grinned and looked tired. He did that. Ary was not used to it. He never did it if there was a Lance Corporal around but if he was with anyone from O2 onwards he sometimes came across like the rugged, fundamentally decent guy, the guy just a bit tired of it all, the guy that he must have been when he was a Corporal.

“No-one thinks you’re the asshole, sir.”

He shook his head. “Do Perries do platitudes now?”

Ary was about to say that he had meant it something but Kenner waved it away.

Kenner called Sergeant Friend and said, “Leave C-2 off it tonight.”

“Yes, sir.” Surprise.

“The Perries will be doing the patrol. Tell C-2 to rest for tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kenner turned to Ary and said, “Thanks, I guess.” Not like an O5 at all.

“No problem, sir.”)

The night was still. Ary walked but was not thinking of anything in particular. In the distance the grinding gears of the terrainers and the Big Ts moving. It was strange how even in the most urgent of times everything seemed to move slowly. There was something good about the patrol. The stillness came from outside and went into him. Vague tonnage of exhaustion coming away, one small weight off his shoulders. There were not many times when he could feel this way.

He noticed the soldier because he was holding a cigarette and he could see the light a long way off. He was standing against the perimeter and smoking. After some time the guy put the cig out and then stood there, not moving, looking out. He held his rifle to his chest with one arm and did not move.

When Ary was close and coming around the corner he made a noise with his step so that the soldier would know.

The soldier turned and started violently. There was panic and sudden terror on his face. He jerked around and fumbled nearly unconsciously let the handguard tip from his right hand into the palm of his left and before he knew it the muzzle of his AR was pointed straight at Ary. Then he realised what he had done.

“Oh, shit. Shit. Fuck. Sir, I’m sorry sir, I didn’t mean to do that. I just—”

Ary saw the name stitched onto the sleeve of the soldier’s BCO: Hasse.

He did not recognise the name but he thought he recognised the face. Hasse was in C-2. He was a big guy but there was a tilt to his eyebrows that always made him look a little sad even when he was laughing.  Ary had seen him with the others neatly painting letters onto one of the FOB terrainers: FUFB. Fuck you FOBbits. Someone might have called him Doleface.

Hasse backed away and slung his rifle. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll go back now, I just needed to get out for a while, you know, for – for –” He stopped. “I’ll go back now, sir, if you let me.”

Ary did not say anything. He knew how Hasse felt, the shock of seeing something alien come out from the dark like that.

“Muzzle discipline,” he said. He nearly said Corporal but did not. “You’ve let it go to shit.”

There was a moment of hesitation where Hasse did not know if he was looking at an Officer (Spec) or just another human.

“Why are you here?” Ary said.

People did not know how to speak to Peregrines. You could see the way their eyes moved, looking for a mouth or the eyes in the mechanical head, shuttling, searching. Most people looked away after a while. They talked normally but they looked away. Hesse looked right at Ary. He hesitated and said, “I was looking for you, sir.” Then he leaned against the wall and slumped against, let himself be pulled down until he was sitting with his back against the perimeter, rifle between his knees. He put his forehead on the butt and let out a long shuddering breath.

“Things have gotten so fucking—” He put both hands out in front of him and clenched them hard. “I needed to get out, talk to someone outside, you know, not outside, but not part of the whole – this whole –”

“Have you been to Combat Stress?” Ary said. It felt stupid as it came out of his mouth and he knew how Hesse would read it; an inquisition, a command.

“I can’t,” Hesse said. “I don’t have a problem. It’s about Tom. The care packages came in earlier today, do you know? I stood in the line and got Tom’s because he was my best friend. I didn’t think he would wake up, I didn’t know, so I opened it.” He shook his head and held the AR very tightly. “Look at this,” he said, “Isn’t this pathetic? Me, here, bitching to a fucking Peregrine.” He hit himself on the side of his head, lightly, twice. “I’ll go back in. Sir. I’m sorry.”

“If you need to talk,” Ary said, “You should talk.” He did not know what else he could do.

Hesse was silent for some time. “I don’t know how you deal with it,” Hesse said. “How did you deal with it?”

“I didn’t,” Ary said. “It’s not something you deal with. That’s not what they usually say, I think. But that’s all I’ve got.”

“I got his care package and inside there was only a bar of soap. It was so fucking ridiculous. Why would Tom need a bar of soap? There’s so many other things you need out here. Photos, food from home. But all that Tom got was a bar of soap. Maybe his family was poor. I never asked and he never said. I don’t know, when I saw it I just broke inside and I stood there suddenly realising I wanted to collapse and cry but you can’t let them see you like that. So I didn’t do it, I smiled and made a joke. I said, well this is good isn’t it, because I don’t care what heroic shit he’s done, he’s a holy stinker, and I laughed. But then I had to go to the showers and cry like a baby for an hour.”

“When I started out,” Ary said, “I had a friend who was religious.”

Hesse stopped for a moment and then said, “What, like he prayed and all that shit?”

“Yes.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was the first one to die on our first Drop.”

“Didn’t help him, did it?”

“I’m sure it did. But it can’t stop you dying.”

“That fucked you real bad, huh? Sir.”

“When they read his Personal Effects Statement it turned out he left me his personal music player. He’d got an electric one, one of the old ones, just because he would never Woodpecker stop him listening to whatever he wanted, he said. I couldn’t use the player at first. I would look at it and it would be too much. One time I tried it and it wrecked me. But it helped. The loss became real and became possible to actually take, to grasp. The track at the top of the frequently played list was something from the Trove. It’s hard to imagine but there it was. From what is now our enemy. Sheep May Safely Graze.”

“Have you heard what happened to Tom? Sir.”

“It’s strange for someone to keep calling me sir. I went straight to this from sergeant. I’ve never been called sir before. And I don’t talk to people in the company very much. It’s strange.”

“Okay.”

Ary could see the way Hesse was holding the rifle, upright against the ground, both hands on the barrel. The barrel had been painted ochre but some of the paint had flaked off and the dark metal shone from beneath, small irregular patches. He felt a sudden surge of sympathy for Hesse, for the anguished thing seeing now the whole world that had been circling around finally closing in, bereavement  shrunk to a brute knowable fact.

“What happened to Tom?”

“We were clearing a street in Otley, the usual thing. We were in the APV.”

Ary had seen it. The C-2 APV, like many others, had had a message written on the inside of the driver door. Those who survived mines in anti-ambush vehicles felt the need to do these sorts of things: This truck saved the life of my friends and I four of us on Apr 02 04 Kilnet at 1700.

“It was all normal and then it went off right underneath us, lifted the entire APV up. It wasn’t a small thing. It was an EFMP, it went right through the front and killed Rewes, straightaway, cut him nearly in half. The change in pressure or something left Zima and Watters unconscious, bleeding from the eyes, the ears. The rest of us got sprayed with molten metal. When Tom and I came out of the back it was a complete fucking mess. We had been completely cornered. We got told at first that one of the worst things you could get caught in was a firefight. We didn’t believe it at the time but it is true We ran to Sergeant Savidge but she had been hit under the arm and twice in the chest. It was fucked-up. The flak stopped the two to the chest but the one under the arm was bleeding like skippy.

Tom looked down the alley and saw everyone pinned and he took the Handle from Savidge and he did the suppressive fire, he organised it by himself, and then he said he wanted to run down the front of the alley and get Odell and Wyer. I told Tom, no, don’t do it, but he just said no. I think he heard me. When he disagreed he never had a fight out of it. He just did his own thing. He thought about what you said and if he didn’t agree he would do his own thing, you know? So I gave him cover and he ran down and got struck immediately in the knee, I saw it ricochet off the guard and his leg fold in a bit so that he nearly kneeled, and although that sort of shot hurts like hell, he went on and took Odell and Wyer by their vests and hauled them back. I think he was hit again, twice, I don’t remember where. But it was when he turned to go back even though I was fucking screaming at him from behind the APV that he got hit in the face. I was crouching there and then Tom’s blood was all over me and he spun a little bit and fell like he was already dead. He was just lying there in the middle of all the scattered bearings from the APV. I think I lost my mind a little, you know? I didn’t imagine this sort of thing. I lost my shit. I screamed and ran – this is what they told me – I ran out to him and got him to the 9-ton, I must have done it. The thing I remember is that the round that got him was not the ordinary thing. It splashed something over his flak and the ARA had melted. Do you know what I remember? It was strange because it’s a smell I know from home. I was pulling him back and I smelt the barbecue and it was him, Tom, Tom was burning in my hands as I dragged him. It was in my nose. Didn’t go away until long after.

“Look, man, I know there are no heroes in the military. It’s all a lie. I’m as fucking – I don’t know – as fucking cynical as anyone else, but Tom was that sort of thing, he was very close to the real thing. That one time he got shot in the neck in Lome-I. He came around to us with his hand on the side of his head like that, the sick bastard, blinking like he knew it was the end, trying not to scream or shout, he just said, hey, I’ve been hit, what does it look like. And it looked like there was just a fuckload of blood coming out of the side of his neck, and I seriously thought he was a dead man. And Tom just looked at me and said, you’d better be scared shitless because I’m going to steal all your pussy now.”

Hesse stopped and breathed. “I looked at him in TRR. He’s not got half his face. Can’t imagine all that pussy he’s going to get now, huh?” He tried to make his voice sound playful but there was much more in it, uncertainty and much more. “All those pity fucks.”

“You’ve been lucky,” Ary said. “To know Tom.”

Hesse tried and failed to avoid crying.

His shoulders moved a bit.

“I thought when I came in I’d just try to do the good thing, get a little respect, try to do the correct thing, but look at this. I think he was keeping me alive and now. I don’t know. Maybe I’m broken. Maybe I’m not. I’m okay with explosions, I don’t flinch or anything. I can get back in the APV. But I’m – I’m fucking diminished, you know what I mean. Suddenly it’s all gone from under me.”

Ary remembered the look of sudden terror on Hesse’s face when he had seen Ary appear, that reaction that without any words or thought had spoken: kill, kill, kill.

In the distance there was a loud blare from a terrainer backing up, probably involved in some delicate negotiation with the Big Ts. “Grief is the correct thing,” Ary said. “It’s not a problem. It’s the necessary thing. It says something. This is what it’s about, really. You know it and it is not a bad thing.”

“I feel,” Hesse said, almost drowsily. “I feel—”

“Yes,” Ary said. “Me too.”

Hesse got out another cigarette and tried to light it but could not and threw it away. “They came to me, just earlier today. They’re starting to work on Tom’s Full Citation for valour because they think he’s going to die. I knew what they wanted me to say so I said he was selfless, you know? I said he didn’t care at all about himself, he cared for my squad. That was what it took, to run out into the fire like that. He probably wasn’t even thinking about it. Selfless. It was easy to say because it was all true. And I got so fucking angry then. I felt like reaching out and hitting them. So much violence you might as well call it grief, call it trauma, CSR, call it what you want to. Because I thought, if only the fucker had been less selfless, if only he had been a bit more of a fucking coward and come back when I called. I wanted to tell them about how he was a great guy, like where the real value in him was, that it had nothing to do with the fact that he was a fucking idiot—” Hesse stopped to pull the sleeve of the BCO over his face. “—fucking idiot who ran out into, into fucking intense fire, nothing to do with all that shit, it was just that he knew but to make tired people happy, he made people feel like they could not die, he knew when not to talk and when to talk. But they don’t give a shit. I looked up what citations before I entered. I thought it was cool to get one of those. They were all the same: ‘complete disregard for personal safety’, ‘extraordinary calm and presence of mind under intense pressure’. How could Tom be that? Was he calm? Who the fuck knows? Was he disregarding his safety? We were his safety and he was mine. He’s not just like everyone else. Fuck, this is – this is – just –”

Ary did something he had seen someone in Combat Stress do once. “What’s your name, Corporal?” he said.

“James,” Hesse said.

“James,” Ary said. That was all he knew.

Three kinds of fire support: suppression; neutralisation; destruction. Discourage or maim or kill. And Ary knew that these were not just things to be done by one army to another but things that each army did to itself, to each single thing in it, when the promises of departure began to dim, and maybe even well before that, when all the lives crowded themselves out, all perfect and all past repair, and forgot about all the time that had to steal by before they could say it and not have as a lie: all is well. All is well.

“I can’t believe it,” Hesse said. “How did I not imagine it?” He took in a long breath and as he let it out he tried not to let it shudder. He stood up.

“James,” Ary said. “I don’t think anyone imagines it.”

“If there were proper war films people would never go. The honest film would not be a story. It would be someone smiling and coming towards the camera, laughing down a street, and then a round comes screaming and it all ends. Thirty seconds and that would be all. Or someone burning up ten thousand metres above the ground when the world below is still a turning marble. Or someone dragging themselves out of the hatch in a sub and then getting stuck and drowning in foam, in the surf.  I watched all the movies, you know? Even the ones that were about the horrors of war. All lies. All lies. All of them were beautiful. They had images that stayed with you because they were so well put together. In this war nothing has been put together like that. Everything stays with you because you were there. That’s all there is to it. The only good thing about it is when you are about to fight and there is a thrill. It’s not joy, it’s a kind of yearning. You want to get the hundred percent. But you only get that if you want to kill and no film does that. It cannot make you want to kill. ”

Ary saw how Hesse’s hands were shaking.

“Do you get caffeine at the DFAC?” he said.

“Yes,” Hesse said. “They let me.”

“Sepaneurone?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t do it,” Ary said. “It does not help.”

“Yeah.”

“Go see Tom.”

“Yeah.”

“Ask the medics how he is. If you want to sit there for a while. I’ll tell them to let you.”

Hesse shook his head. He pulled at his hair, not violently but with force.

Ary waited for a while and then said, “You need to get some sleep, James.”

“Yeah.” Hesse sounded like he wanted to say something more but had stopped himself. “Do you know – do you know what I wanted out of this? I wanted people to respect me. When Tom was around I could really believe it. That’s what I wanted at first. People will always respect you. You can do these amazing things, you know? You’ve proved yourself. Me, myself, I’ve got nothing to prove. I mean – there is nothing I can prove. I hope people respect me because of what I’ve been through.”

Ary wanted to say that was not what it was about. But he did not say it. “I don’t deserve to be here,” he said. “Nobody deserves what they get whether or not it is good or bad. When I got into my first Carcass in the Peregrines I realised they were all broken too. It’s okay.”

Hesse was quiet for a while.

“What’s it like, out there? Sir.”

“Doing Wanderers?”

“Yeah, the Wanderers. Can you – are you allowed to say?”

Ary looked out. Now nothing was moving. Things had moved out of sight. “It’s lonely,” he said, “but in a good way. I have my partner.” He realised his mistake as soon as he’d said it.

But Hesse said, “That’s what I’d thought. Just imagine what it is like to be invincible, to be like that.”

Again Ary wanted to say, no, that was not it, but instead he looked at Hesse. There was nothing left in Hesse anymore, like he was empty, unspooled too fast, dissolved from the heat of friction.

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“I can’t even know your name,” Hesse said. He looked at Ary. He was young but his face was lined everywhere with anguish big enough to be invisible, all but invisible. “Thank you.”

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“Sergeant Friend will see us.”

“I was asking you about the patrol. Don’t worry about it.”

On the way in Ary realised that he did not know who Tom was, at all. He looked up the TRR (Critical) list. It took sometime time because only the surnames were listed alphabetically. But eventually he someone with the correct brief. Lance Corporal Thomas Eely was not expected to survive another 48 hours.

“Get some rest,” he told Hesse. The big shoulders were slumped but tight.  A note forever wrapped inside its own bell. “There are things to be done tomorrow.”

He watched Hesse disappear inside and then went back out to the encamp, hoping that nothing had managed to come through while he had been with Hesse.

Invocation

Now and here in this anonymous time a man walks along the street, going to the pharmacy, because there is a pain in his chest, he is coming up to it now just around the corner, wrapped so that his face is nearly invisible in the bitter cold, thick gloves on his hands, hunched, hunched because of his anonymous age, when something turns in his head, the knitting there goes taut or loose, and he topples, a small bundle going over in the street, making no sound or crying out only once, briefly, like he is sinking, and lies there not moving, and strangers startled like timid animals with soft faces come around and say hey, hey, are you okay, even though the man has no time to say what he has to say and loses consciousness before he makes the necessary gestures, and so the strangers call an ambulance which comes eventually like a power with its anonymous noise and anonymous intent, light and hustle a skein or a variation upon essential tragedy, and a card is found in the man’s pocket with a number on it and a woman is called, a message carrying nothing with which to grief it, but not after it is determined that the man is dead, dead and cooling when the woman comes running and takes hands of the body in her own and sits down there in the anonymous street and does not cry but makes a face of true and animate pain, as she takes the gloved hands of the body in her own naked ones where anonymous veins run grey and purple and pulse, and refuses to move, and says that she will wait, she will wait for their son to arrive, I will be fine, and so she sits there as hours pass and the strangers who see that her hands are read come up to her with nothing to say and give her a coat and gloves, anonymous articles to keep her warm, because she will take nothing from the body whose face no-one can see, and the strangers give her also sheets of cardboard to lay under her and separate her from the freezing concrete as she sits there looking out at the tides moving, the lights of streets and buildings and vehicles of a terrible and changed world, a blood of anonymous realisation blooming inside her, but her only with the skin of her pained face to brunt it, the people from the ambulance waiting in their bright colours that sing and sing, talking to each other in soft voices, shaking their heads, gone now to get some food in this harsh cold, gone after having no way to spend their compassion, and because it is now night strangers come and with blind anonymous kindnesses tell her to go home, go home or you will get sick, but she tells them that it is all right, her son is on the way, and curls her anonymous head about the anonymous body, and then after time and snow and a great stillness the son does come in a car and comes out running, himself a man with children young enough to be anonymous, objects of starry intent and no pause who will bound through halls of life, chapters entire, expanding without warrant, without second thought, will and leap and run and fall, will grow up barter their souls to take fixed places as the world flickers and shuttles, will do all this without knowing this man who tottered in the street on the way to the pharmacy where he was familiar with the pharmacist, whose dead hands were held for a long time after death came, became irreversible, and left, and the son now takes the woman who looks up at the man suddenly, she sees the man come down toward her against anonymous light, and takes him in her arms and starts to make a sound, a thing untenanted that goes out and up against the anonymous snow, a vital claim sent out from an anonymous mouth against an anonymous blackness, a thing that asks to be named.

Kind of getting away: 12

Yesterday was pretty good. I finished compiling the migration/feeding report for Bathophores + sent off the first draft my my spec report to Stumpf[1] so that she can tell me if I’ve got the more complicated bits correct. So today I rewarded myself and headed down to O.’s. There were Fallwhales out in the Berents today, columns of pleated grey and white standing vertically in the water. We’ve really got no idea why they do that. They keep doing that for hours at a time, though it must be pretty exhausting, especially in something as unruly as the Berents. I listened to Trove on the way there. It’s now the big thing back on Stize and I might just about see why, actually. It’s not bad: Dance 7 from Suite 5 in G. Lots of stuff from Trove is named like that: the academics gave each piece a catalogue name and rather than come with something a bit more evocative everyone has just sort of borrowed these for common use.  It’s strange how ruthlessly everyone just goes along with it. Why G? Such an arbitrary thing, really. I don’t even know what it means. O. and I talked about random stuff. He asked me what I was planning to do for the Excursion. I said I was mostly planning to tag Dromeodids[2] and he looked worried.

“You know I can’t let Helper do all this stuff on its own,” I said. Helper’s a programmed ex-GHKd. It’s made to notice certain things and not to notice others[3]. I can’t use its results on their own unless I’m around to ensure it’s doing things correctly – or fanatically micromanage its routines, but I’m not going to do. “Plus I’m pretty sure I’ll be safe.”

“Safe,” he said, looking up and scratching his chin. “Yes.”

I had missed lunch because I arrived late. But I ate anyway because I was getting hungry. I read one of his books.

“Do you think Helper should get a degree?” he said. Skeffie had done something in microconducting chemistry, I think.

“I’ve asked QC. There was no time before we left.”

But O. didn’t look too happy. I think he was thinking about what that implied. I would be going back.

“You’ll be safe,” he said.

I laughed. “Yes,” I said. “I’m the one with the Hunter-Killer.”

He didn’t say anything and so I said, “Look, I’ll draw stuff if I have the time. You can keep all of it. Tell stories to the kids.”

He put on some music. Blue Heron Amphetamine, pretty old stuff. “You know what? They’re not too interested in all this. They don’t mind but they’re not really into it. Can you imagine?” He sounded exasperated. But he was happy and I could see that.

“Look at you,” I said. “Complaining about being allowed to have kids.”

“It’s not something you can predict,” he said.

“No,” I said. “Although how would I know?”

“What a strange place,” he said, at last.

“Hm. What is this about?”

“This place,” he said. “Tokata. It’s cool, obviously, but it’s strange.”

“I like it,” I said. “Desolate, but that’s the way it was always going to be, really.”

“No, I don’t mean that,” he said. He got a notice and looked it up and came back. “Heller,” he said. “Have you been reading the updates from the rest?”

“You know how I am about those.”

“Lots of problems. Basically nothing is fitting together properly. Maybe we’ve just sequenced things wrongly in one or two places. It’s probably something basic and embarrassing like that.”

“I’m not too concerned,” I said. “Teething problems.” I wasn’t in the mood, really, to talk about the technical details. I could imagine how hard K. was pushing the evol/bio people.  I’m working more or less on the fringes, in a mostly data-gathering role, so I’m spared. “I mean, to be honest, at this point I’m mostly thinking about the Excursion. I’m quite excited.”

“I like going out,” he said, “But not for weeks at a time. I went out a couple of days ago, on the coast. Looked at some caves. But I can’t imagine staying out for so long.”

“Migration scientist,” I said, “We come in mostly one flavour.”

We watched most of a movie. He talked about his kids.

Then he said, “There was this strange thing.” The thing was the way he said it. He didn’t say it like it was a problem he was working on, or something to be solved. I was full and feeling lazy and anyway he has this devastating sofa. But I listened.

“Hm?” I said.

“You know this morning there was this huge sound. Did you hear it?”

“No,” I said. “What was it like?”

He looked out and did a very O. thing. He put his hands out and said, “It was very loud. A sort of flat sound that went on and on. Really –” he curled his fingers “—shattering.”

Of course I could recognise this. Well. I could imagine it, at least. “Huh.” I said. “Huh.”

“Like a signal. If you heard it you would know, it sounded familiar. Sort of explosive –”

“Foghorn,” I said.

“Ahh. Yes. Yes, maybe that was it,” he said.

This was all extremely dangerous, of course. I saw it outside, from the window, at that moment.

It was huger than I imagined. Was it resting on the sand, on the Wash? I’m not sure. The window was placed such that I was not looking down towards the sea. What I saw was just the long sloping line of the deck, floating there. That old metal, that follower. Taking up all that space.

“Where did it come from?” I said.

He went out to show me. He pointed straight out over the water, at the ship. “There,” he said, “Somewhere over there.”

On the way back something else again. The Volkie was coming up to the bridge when I felt the weight of that benevolence and I stopped it and got out. Over the bridge, large as a mountain, the old thing like a spider, two legs straddling the bridge, the others disappearing far off, the body kilometres up in the sky. I got out and I said it. I said Maman.

I had to crane my neck painfully to look at where its body should be, that face on the bottom with all its unblinking eyes. But it’s lost in cloud, as happens sometimes. “Is something happening?” I said. “I’m fine here.” Sudden mad rush of – power, I think, that thrill coming over me. Something moved it me and it had everything to do with death. The massive legs moved and it started walking out to sea, very slowly, footfalls like tremors, steps so big it should topple, it should topple off the edge of the world in all its greyness. But delicately and hugely it moved, perfectly, taking in its own dominion.

What it told me. What indeed.

In any case I’ve just come back and I’ve sent off a message to the good peeps at Anh:

I’ve been thinking it over and I think I’m going to try to build an ultralight. It will be efficient than my Volkie’s module for Excursions – basic AG will do – and if Helper comes along safety should not be an issue. Basic camos should satisfy PMI[1]. Wondering if you could send over some materials for the Turer when I get back. Might finish things in time to use it on my second Excursion.

Understand if not possible, but hoping things work out on your side. Regos OK, I hope? Tell me what you think.

Erth

I think it’s a pretty good idea. It also means I get a chance to do some recreational flying, if the conditions are right. I’m pretty sure I can learn fast. It’d be pretty lame having to get Helper to tow me up every time.

[1] Principle of Minimum Interference. Don’t want to scare the wildlife away.

I think it’s a pretty good idea. It also means I get a chance to do some recreational flying, if the conditions are right. I’m pretty sure I can learn fast. It’d be pretty lame having to get Helper to tow me up every time.

I’m going to aim for a boat next. I’ll see how far I can push things. No harm done, in any case.

[1] Migration science is pretty long-term thing: you need to wait for several full migration cycles to complete before you can firm up anything. Which means I get to do a lot of spec papers.  I suggested that it would be good to see if thermorhodopsin/JPCRs + tk-cryptochromes in aviformes generate fast triplet reactions that are responsible for magnetoreception. Th-rhod I suggested because I think for Chondrodatus spp. temperature does affect migration. Chemical compasses are well-understood, but nonetheless this is quite interesting, I think. Stumpy is stationed at the point on Tokata that’s just about antipodal from where I am, but she’s also a migration scientist and did some work on entanglement when she was in Inkper, so she can check to make sure my speculations are at least mathematically plausible. If it works the spec paper will be sent off to Anh. and they’ll start putting together the Emlens + capturing stuff. Assuming they actually do give a shit, which I hope they do. Obviously at this stage most of the science on Tokata is focused on the very basic things. (Look, ma, no ATP! + evol. taxonomy, where the lack of Hoxes in tk-chordates is super weird + some cool standout things like the influence of bichirality on the evolution of symbiotic partnerships + digestive tracts.)

[2] They look like reptiles. The insides are completely different, though + they are all warm-blooded.

[3] Program Designate Bias. There is a lot written about this but that’s the basic idea.

[4] Principle of Minimum Interference. Don’t want to scare the wildlife away.