Afraid on Arrival
Every child begins the world again. — Henry David Thoreau
Chapter 1: Fort Thoreau
He crashed back into himself and felt the Easter evening damp. Dolls and chains hung in ritual fashion from the branches surrounding him, and through the knife-hacked oak trees he could make out great luminous spires and domes, and older, grim but luxuriant blocks of apartments and hotels, sealed with steelplate louvers as if against attack. Beside these rose skeletal scaffoldings on which, judging from the hives of lights, whole families perched on open air platforms while resourceful or desperate individuals dangled in slings and sacks suspended from guy wires.
Across the sky, as though projected from behind the low hanging sulfur-tinged clouds, flashed pictograms and iridescent banks of hypertext. The word Vitessa was repeated often — and slogans like Efram-Zev... the right mood at the right time. He felt hypnotized by the messages, as if information were raining down like some new kind of radiation. Then there were streams of news images and giant flickering headlines... Al-Waqi‘a still a threat... Voyancy links now half-price...
He had to look away. He’d been standing there for a long time he thought, having woken suddenly by the fountain, amazed to find that his hair was long and so blond it almost seemed to glow in the dark. It reminded him of a dim childhood story but he couldn’t pin it down. Then he realized that of much greater concern was that he couldn’t remember where he was. It was a park of some kind, a vast shadowy garden in some siren filled city. But which one?
He heard a voice — garbled and yet unnaturally clear seeming to come from inside his head. I’ll take Manhattan...
It was a man’s voice — both far away and far too close.
What did that mean — to take Manhattan? He tried to shake himself out of his haze. Something terrible had happened. Drugs, head injury. “I don’t remember my name!” he said aloud and felt his heart pound at the implication. Even his clothes seemed strange — navy cotton drawstring pants, Guatemalan slip-on’s, a t-shirt that said I’ve been to Wall Drug and a cream-colored windbreaker that had a logo on the chest which showed a wheelbarrow with flames rising out of it. Judging from the grime and odor he might well have been sleeping in the bushes for several nights. But Manhattan meant New York, that much he did think was right. Was that where he was? All he could bring to mind was waking with a start with some intense intuition of danger. Then he heard what he couldn’t decide was the same voice or another and glanced around frantically. It said, For I came down from heaven, not to do mine will, but the will of him who sent me.
Shit, he thought. I’ve gone insane.
He trembled at the claustrophobic dread of this idea and then a sudden deep sense of alarm brought his whole being alive. There was another sound — in the outer darkness. Someone or something was approaching. Seeking him out. Clip clop came the echoes that his hyperanxious ears filtered out of the night city noise. The sound was coming from the tunnel where the women had been, ancient dark women squatted on rugs stirring up a heady pozole in their cazuelas. He must’ve come through there before he’d collapsed he concluded. Now the women were gone and the things that were looking for him were echoing nearer. He hid behind the bushes behind the fountain. His vision seemed to blur and his head filled with static. He waited, muscles cramping.
Out of the black maw of the tunnel they emerged at last — one on a large chestnut horse, the other on a bay. The horses were shielded with synthetic face and chestplates, while the riders wore old-fashioned NYPD blue uniforms as if they’d stepped out of time. But they carried shining plasma nitrided handcannons in their holsters. The steel-shod hooves of the horses plinked on the asphalt. Then the figures stopped, and he could see that they didn’t have faces. Just flat sheets with scanner slits. Up close, in the sodium lights, the scan masks were scraped and cloudy, the polycarbonate scratched and scored. From the south came bursts of gunfire and thudding low frequency music, but here it was quiet enough to hear their echolocation sonar. His heart bounced as he smelled the tense, strangely sweet animal scent of the horses. At last a flare of static passed between the two mounted shapes. Then, just as they’d appeared — they moved on, the horses’ hooves striking the bitumen with a timeless Roman rhythm, their imposing silhouettes fading into the trees.
The moment they were past, from behind one of the spray painted boulders, a figure wrapped in matte black cable tape, wearing an NV helmet leapt out. “Yer ass is lucky,” the shadow said, grabbing one of his hands in a neoprene fighting glove and leading him into the trees — then weaving through a labyrinth of stripped cars and barbed wire effigies. They looked like origami contrasted with the turrets rising above the park, their armorguard facets gleaming like reptilian crystals. “Hurry,” his guide called out. “Meter says you gonna have a meltdown.”
The darkness became an illuminated curtain, a membrane of endlessly falling slow motion snow — only the flakes were like glass faces — painfully intricate but beautiful to behold. “This way!” the figure called and it was like stepping through a wall of cool white light. Suddenly all around were people. He felt a dart of warmth hit his arm. Then he fell — and he seemed to keep falling, or rising — as if he’d been taken up inside a whirlwind — faces and disintegrated memories orbiting around him. A whirlwind, he remembered. I came here by whirlwind.
When at last the spinning stopped, the bodies and the faces had stabilized, and standing over him was a large black woman, who as his eyes began to focus, he came to see was in fact a man, wearing makeup, an aqua wig and a long African style robe over sheepskin boots (from which a Brechia .22 was just visible).
“We’ve given you some ZENO,” the vision informed him. “Try not to move fast.”
He was lying in a tent on an old cot. Candles glowed. Through a gelpane window he could see people passing between radomes and teepees. He heard an accordion and smelled marsala. Sparks rose from oil drums.
“Yo,” a voice behind him said, and he saw it was the tape-mailed figure who’d found him — minus the night vision helmet — a Puerto Rican girl of about 16 with a pigskin face graft that suggested a dark market burn ward.
“Do you know who you are?” the large black woman/man asked.
He tried to focus. He couldn’t get over his long blond hair. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him and yet for all the hardness of muscle his skin seemed strangely smooth, new. Except for the terrible burning he felt now on his back. That’s what made me black out, he realized. Pain. Pain from the skin of my back. There was something there but he couldn’t bring himself to think of it. A kind of evil or magic. Voices rustled in his brain... Last hope... Psyche War... beneath the sadness of a blues guitar drifting in on the night wind from somewhere far away — or deeper inside himself.
“Do you know who you are?” the large black woman/man repeated, but he couldn’t bring himself to answer. Who were these people and what did they want? Where had he been going when he fell out of the whirlwind?
To meet someone he thought. To find someone. There’s somewhere I have to be. There’s someone I have to be.
“That’s all right,” the dark-skinned giant said at last. “Let’s start with where you are. You’re in New York City. In a part of Central Park that no one but us knows exists. We call it Ft. Thoreau. It’s a kind of sanctuary. For those whose minds are hurt or spirits broken. For those who can’t afford the medicine they need. We refer to ourselves as the Satyagrahi — and I’m Aretha Nightingale.”
So saying, the speaker brought over a psykter of purified water and poured a cup for him, carefully considering the man’s white-blond hair and tomorrow-staring eyes. There was something decidedly familiar and at the same time deeply foreign about this night visitor. He was of average height and certainly less than average weight but he radiated a presence that filled the tent.
The man drank some water and said. “You’re a... ”
“A drag queen? That’s right honey, I am!”
In fact the speaker looked like a former linebacker trying very hard to imitate some forgotten disco singer like Donna Summer.
“Used to be a lawyer. Lead counsel for the largest insurance company in the world. Lived a few blocks away. Of course I had to keep my private life secret. Then one day I saw I had to get out of the limo and back behind the mule. But that’s another story. That’s my story. Tinkerbell says the Securitors let you skiddo.”
“Me,” the PR girl winked, laser-edging a frozen-forged Gerber blade.
“Is someone after you?” Aretha asked, noticing again how long and blond the odd man’s hair was — how outwardly strained and yet internally resilient he appeared.
“I don’t know — I can’t... ”
Aretha picked up a detector and ran it over him. The device recorded an electromagnetic disturbance of an unknown kind.
“So, do you have any idea who you are?”
“N-no. I don’t... know,” the man said, staring around at the walls of the tent, which he saw through the gloom were decorated with chintzy Chinese fans, kimonos, ostrich feathers and photos torn from old fashion magazines.
“And you don’t know how you got here?” Aretha prodded.
The blond man thought for a minute. Beyond the crazy idea of falling out of a whirlwind all he remembered was staring at the syringes in the fountain and then being seized with a scorching pain across his back. “No,” he said finally. “I only remember the things on horses.”
“We’re going to give you a bioscan,” Aretha announced. “The psychometer that Tink had shorted out on you. You had a brainwave reading that we’ve never seen before. Makes St. Anthony’s Syndrome and Pandora withdrawal look like an attack of the jitters. Is there anything at all that you can remember — right this minute?”
“A song,” the blond man replied at last, trying to focus. “I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road... searching in the sun for another overload... I hear you singing in the wires... I can hear you through the whine... and the Wichita Lineman... is still on the line!’”
There was a moment of silence, then into the tent charged a thin young man with tall straight spines of hair. “What in hell was that?”
“What happened?” Aretha asked, coming alive with a jolt. “Where did you come from Broadband?”
“That was a full-force jam!” the young man announced. “Almost blew Heimdall’s signal guard on the entire compound!”
“Did you do something?” Aretha asked the man with the long blond hair.
“I sang — a bit of a song,” he answered.
“Did you hear him, Tink?”
“No,” the burned girl shrugged, sheathing her knife.
“Well, whatever it was, don’t do it again,” Broadband pleaded. “We can’t do a shakedown tonight.”
“All right, Broadband,” Aretha nodded. “We’re cool, here.”
The kid with the spiky hair stomped out and Tinkerbell followed.
“Well!” said Aretha, applying more lipstick. “That puts a whole new light on things. You may not know who you are, but I’d bet my wig that some interesting people do. Y’all wouldn’t mine stripping down, would you, honey?”
“Why?” the man demanded and Aretha caught the coiled-to-strike glitter of adrenal cortex.
“Because we have a lot at stake here,” the drag queen snapped, pressing the stress button to alert Flip Flop and Tolstoy. “This isn’t a health resort — it’s the last resort for a lot of people. Our enemy is the Vitessa Cultporation and our battle is to save what we can of America and the world. Now strip down and let me look you over.”
The blond man got up from the cot and yanked off his clothes. The skin of his back ached. Seconds later he was naked, facing Aretha, whose mouth was open wide.
Tinkerbell burst back into the tent carrying supplies. “Ooh, shit!” the girl cried, gawking and covering her eyes at the same time. “That’s... ”
“Way too much of a good thing,” Aretha finished for her. “And I think we should leave it right there. Now turn around baby and let me see what other surprises you’ve got. You sure could use a sleeve for that one!”
He pivoted slowly, but even so, he felt his penis flop against his lower thigh with a meatiness that revolted him. My God, he thought. I’m some sort of freak. How can my own body feel so alien?
Then Aretha saw the scarring on his back. “Jesus — that’s... !”
“Painful,” the blond man said simply.
“But it — it’s old!” Aretha breathed, looking closer. “Do you know — what it says?”
“FATHER FORGIVE THEM F... It’s the third ‘F’ that hurts the most.”
Suddenly he could see the letters burning in the air before him, clearer and sharper than the words he’d seen in the sky.
“Shit!” exhaled the drag queen. “I want to run some medical tests on you — and then for you to consult Dr. Zumwohl.”
Aretha handed him a clean Lucron track suit and a faded Fordham University sweatshirt and they left him alone to dress. After he’d pulled on the track suit and sweatshirt another teenage girl came into the tent. Her face was painted in a tribal fashion and seemed to sparkle.
“My name is Ouija,” she said. “Have something to eat.”
His head throbbed. She produced an unmarked tin of food. When she opened the lid, he saw tiny hammerhead sharks, perfectly proportioned and densely packed. He picked one out and swallowed it whole. It had a savory, oily taste and made him thirsty. He ate several more with krispbread and had another gulp of water.
He kept hearing voices. One now was like a lost time radio personality. The others were vague and friendly, like old people telling stories on a porch, but he couldn’t understand what they were saying. He plucked a couple of more hammerheads out of the tin and devoured them. Aretha returned and led him through the door of the tent.
The scene outside resembled what an Army field hospital would look like if it was set up in the middle of a gathering of religious pilgrims and a derelict carnival. The darkness was illuminated by a bizarre mix of torches, campfires and garish neon signs in the shapes of martini glasses, dancing girls and blinking sombreros. Pole-mounted solar modules rose above tents and rigifoam Quonset huts, although there were other more permanent structures, including an IRT train car and a series of ferroconcrete pillboxes, some covered with hubcaps and pizza pans, all laced with cables and wires from which dangled paper lanterns, inflatable Statues of Liberty and stuffed King Kongs. People of all ages and colors regarded him curiously, peering up from simmering pots of matzo ball soup or Brazilian black beans. Several had improvised prosthetics, baroque lobster arms or carbon fiber legs blinking with fairy lights.
“GlimmerPoodle,” Aretha remarked pointing to two muscled women, one bald and white, the other white-haired and black. “And that’s Framegrabber and Little Pigeon. Hey Ten Beers — how’s that implant?”
Some people Aretha introduced more ceremoniously, as if they were tribal elders — Yankee Boy and Lady Manhattan, a palsied Jewish couple in their 90’s wearing New York Rangers jerseys — and an obese, obviously retarded black man called Friar Tuck, who seemed intent on organizing a softball game. Other people leered out of the firelit dark with damaged faces and misshapen limbs. Babies cried.
“Who are they?” the blond man asked, pointing to four straining men hitched to an old Central Park horse carriage loaded with Indian children.
“They’re former McDonald’s board members. Penitents now. Took massive payouts when the Vitessa Cultporation turned McDonald’s into McTavish’s.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” the uninvited guest said. His mind felt moist and blank as if he belonged to another world.
“I rather envy you in some way, if you’ve forgotten Vitessa, even for a moment” Aretha said. “But it will come back to you. They’re the most powerful conglomerate in the world. A political party. A religion. What they don’t control they’re trying to — and we’re trying to fight them.”
The blond man’s eyes picked out an Amazonian boy with a weeping facial sore. The child had a dead squirrel draped over his shoulder and held a blowgun fashioned from an aluminum tent pole. “You’re trying to fight them?” he asked.
“Us. And others like us,” Aretha answered defensively. “You’ll remember all of this. McDonald’s was a powerful corporate organism once — but like Disney and Coca-Cola and Microsoft, it got blind-sided by the Vitessa Cultporation, who — on the whim of Wynn Fencer — introduced McTavish’s in its place.”
The names wrinkled up only shadows and whispers in his brain.
“Fencer conquered cyberneering, genetainment and neurotecture,” Aretha continued. “So he said, ‘Let’s take the world’s most uninspired cuisine and make it obsessively popular.’ Overnight the haggis replaced the hamburger.”
“What’s a haggis?” the blond man asked, sucking in the scene with his eyes. The people, the chicken coops and intensive garden terraces — the miniature rice paddies constructed from tanks and troughs.
“It’s a sheep stomach, honey. With your choice of filling.”
“That sounds disgusting!”
“A demonstration of power.”
“And who’s that lady?” the stranger queried, pointing to a graying woman in a vampire-black robe struggling under a yoke of heavy buckets. Being near these people seemed to ease the searing pain in his back and the noise in his mind.
“Beulah Schwartzchild, the Supreme Court Justice and World Court Representative who cast the deciding vote that allowed Vitessa to unify their subsidiaries to become what they are today.”
“What’s she lugging — why doesn’t someone help her?”
“She’s a garbage collector and she works alone. By her own choosing she works — always wearing the judicial robe she disgraced.”
The woman stumbled, the buckets slopping over. The blond man moved to help. Her clothes reeked. Her hair was matted and streaked with gray. Gently, he raised her up and righted the stinking buckets.
“That’s not done!” a man with a respirator gargled from a salt-eaten Winnebago.
“I thought you said you helped people,” the blond man flashed, watching as the sad woman shouldered the yoke again and staggered off.
“There are certain rules and ways here,” Aretha Nightingale replied. “Beulah gave up her wealth and position of her own accord. She’s free to go at any time.”
“Where would she go?” the blond man asked as she disappeared between a dented pretzel wagon and a cannibalized Dodge Viper.
Aretha wasn’t sure how to answer and was relieved when they arrived at a large military-style tent. Inside, a woman with long dark hair and very red lips greeted them. High up on her exposed left breast was a tattoo of the Mandelbrot Set.
“This is Natassia,” the head of the Satyagrahi announced.
The interior of the polymer shell was devoted to a formidable computer apparatus and a collection of what appeared to be medical imaging equipment. Everything was scientifically pristine except for one shelf on which sat a lilac-colored latex vibrator and a half-empty bottle of Brandy and Benedictine.
“Let me see your hands,” Aretha directed.
The man’s skin was remarkably smooth. One at a time his hands were placed on an I-Dentiscanner. Next the dark woman with the fiery lips wheeled over an Iriscanner and eased the man’s face into the positioning frame. Her skin gave off a piquant jalapeno fragrance. She noticed a profound swelling in his groin. “Just keep your eyes open and relax,” she said.
“We’re also going to photoscan the scar on your back,” Aretha said.
The skinny man called Broadband stuck his head in. Gamelan music wafted in through the slit. “You’re cool to run now.”
“All right,” Aretha nodded to Natassia.
The blond man took off his sweatshirt. The woman resolved the scans and entered them, and they turned to face the main monitor. Seconds later, across the screen, stark white letters marched in high resolution certainty... IDENTITY WITHHELD... SECURITY STATUS... CLEAR.
“Your identity’s password protected,” said Aretha. “Go up a level, Nasty.”
The woman chafed at the nickname but executed the request.
IDENTITY WITHHELD... SECURITY STATUS... CLEAR.
“Try the next level,” said Aretha.
The same words flashed up. CLEAR...
“What about Information Sensitive?”
“Shit,” Natassia whistled as once more the words appeared. “What now?”
“Time’s running out on the link. Try Unlimited Access.”
The Tele-Path drive gave a deep, wearied whir. 25 seconds. 30. A minute.
“Five seconds!” Broadband yelled from outside.
The screen fevered white, then seemed to black-out entirely — and then one by one the letters glowed... C L E A R...
“Shut it down!” Aretha commanded and Natassia disconned. But even with the link closed, the letters remained on screen, as cold and unequivocal as absolute zero.
“Well,” said Aretha, gaping at the screen — then at the blond man’s mutilation. “We’ve just found out that you’re a very important person.”
“Your identity’s secret and you’re good to go, child. You’ve got Master Access.”
“I don’t understand,” the blond man said.
“You could walk into the Vitessalith in Minneapolis or any of the international headquarters. Same at the Pentagon. Efram-Zev Pharmaceuticals.”
“But I can’t remember my name.”
Aretha stared again at the single white word on the screen and the cruelly gouged words on the man’s back. “Until you do — we’ll call you — Clearfather.”
“That’ll do for now. But I’d bet that you have a password, maybe even a series of passwords that can make that access dance its ass off.”
“But I can’t remember them,” the blond man sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Just bits of songs. One song.”
“Don’t sing it. Just say it — as flatly as you can. Wait! Nasty, get Broadband and Heimdall in here.”
Natassia went out and returned with the spike-haired youth from before and an older man who had no ears. Where his ears were supposed to be there were two input portholes of molded dermplex and veranium, channeled into cochlear implants.
“Broadband you met. This is Heimdall,” Aretha said. “Director of our network’s security. Listen to this, you two. Go ahead, brother. Speak slowly.”
“I’m... a very model... of a modern major general... I’ve information vegetable... animal and mineral,” the blond man recited.
Silence gripped the tent. Then Heimdall sagged to his knees, shouting “Bad data!”
Aretha flinched. “What did you hear, Nasty?”
“Something about Tutankhamen hunting a golden hippopotamus identified with the evil god Set.”
“That’s odd,” said Aretha. “What about you Broadband?”
“Quand nous ne sommes plus enfants, nous sommes déjà morts,” Broadband answered and burst into a fit of dribbling laughter.
“Damn!” cried Aretha. “Nasty, get some of the organic Pythagorean complex — and some hot cocoa!”
“Make a mistake with the sacred and you get scared!” the earless man screamed.
“It’s all right!” Aretha soothed. “Just stay calm.”
Fortunately the cocoa came quickly. And the doses of the drug. Ten minutes later Broadband remembered that he didn’t speak French. Heimdall too began to settle and his speech patterns and breathing returned to normal.
“Neurostealth programming,” the earless one pronounced at last. “Cryptolinguistic. Serious shit. Where did you pick it up?”
“I–h-have no idea,” Clearfather stammered. Truly this world was mad.
Aretha, who had a sharp eye for shifts in mood, made sure Clearfather had plenty of cocoa. Whoever the blond man was, he wasn’t like any of the other subterraneans or spies the Satyagrahi had seen before.
“Time for Dr. Zumwohl. The medication we gave you is wearing off.”
“Aretha, you didn’t say what you heard,” Natassia remarked, as the drag queen stepped to the zippered door.
“I heard the words, ‘Strive to lead back the god within you to the Divine in the Universe,’” the former lawyer replied. “And it freaked me right out.”
Copyright © 2006 by Kris Saknussem