Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Make A Man, Part One
Artist's block could be a bitch sometimes. Silvio blamed the figment. That damned feral left-over of some other slumming-spelunker, a scrawled bit of half-assed graffiti that had gone feral down in the dim zones beneath the main streets. Who knew how long the pitiful thing had wandered around the deep precincts, tormenting rats and haunting ignorant urfolk like some phantasmal waif who had been abandoned, much like themselves.
Apparently the urfolk, a tribe of caitiff goatlings that followed a green-eyed prophetess who had led them out of a vast and deadly desert unto Devukarsha in service to some illicit spirit best not named directly, had been leaving it offerings of small bowls of milk in the hopes that it would not hurt their children. Perhaps in a few million years the figment would have become a god, but instead it was surprised by Silvio during one of his all-too-casual expeditions and in the ensuing fracas the figment had bitten off a small chunk of the slummer's ear. It wasn't until later, back in his apartments, and after a bandage was applied that he realized that the figment had eaten the chunk of ear. The feral figment was not just rogue, but it had taken on some sort of semi-materiality, enough to wound him. Enough to eat his flesh.
The thought revolted him even as it embarrassed him; it was ridiculous to be afraid of so lowly a thing as a figment. A figment for crying out loud. The absolute lowest form of imaginal pseudo-life known to human consciousness. The simplest and oftentimes first sign of a sorcerer's talent was their ability to conjure figments. In time they would master the techniques used to shape them, mold them and create works of phantasmagorical art with them. Figments were nothing to be afraid of, if anything the figment should fear him, for he was an artist and a sorcerer. He knew how to work with figments. Or at least he used to think that he did. Perhaps he had spent too long in his efforts with psychography and noetitypes. Maybe hiding behind cameras and panes of treated glass had brought about his blocked-state. Silvio rubbed his ear and felt the new tissue that had been regrown by the over the counter medical salve he had used to treat the embarrassing wound. He had survived six duels, so far, without a single scratch. To be marked by a figment was a disgrace and it galled him.
So Silvio had donned his usual slumming attire, adjusted his shimmercloak to the more sedate and glum tones that prevailed in the low quarters and set off to hunt down and exact some measure of revenge upon the impudent little non-creature that had dared to affront his dignity. He had purchased an antique crystalline-hafted radi-gladius which had been worked in a curvilinear flame-motif with a hilt cast from the striated hematite-bronze that could only be produced by the inclusion of the blood of a grayman of Hemlio in the metal as it was being melted down. It was the blood that gave the metal its peculiar grayish sheen that was unlike any other alloy. The trader, a blue-skinned elothrin from one of the grave-robbing clans of Bazra, had assured him that the blade would serve his purposes with all due alacrity and violence. Silvio paid the additional trivial cost to have the elothrin consecrate the weapon for him while he was at it. He carried it now, hung upon his belt in the tooled plastic sheath that the trader had thrown in as a way to sweeten the deal and make the sale. The weight of the weapon felt reassuring. It bespoke menace and vengeance and gave him confidence.
Down the usual service tunnels, past drains best left unexplored without a group backing him up, Silvio threaded his way down into the labyrinthine bowels of the low precincts, those slower and denser districts that formed the very foundations of Devukarsha. Things were different in the low precincts. Not so strange as out along the plenal colonies that straddled the boundaries of two or more planar layers, nor so dramatic as some of the worlds beyond the Tributary Gates, but odd in an uncanny and unsettling way. It had to do with the way that the Tiers of Devukarsha were anchored into a hierarchical arrangement that bound different planar layers to each Tier in a zigguratish sort of layer-cake with each section corresponding to a different planar layer, or at least that was what Silvio remembered from his one required planar mechanics class. He had only ever been a mediocre student, making only the most perfunctory attempt at his studies.
Like many of his classmates, Silvio had sworn-off any attempt at real study as being far too bourgouise and instead had taken to seeking out the Umbrarch of Mishtang who wandered the Low Esplanades like some legendary beggar-king. By bribing the Umbrarch with a few baubles or inconsequential items, the Umbrarch instructed the slackers in those things that they needed in order to pass their classes. They thought the Umbrarch's price insanely cheap, the Umbrarch considered their questions petty and short-sighted. The workings of the city and its emanatory spheres, resonant spaces, planar layers and so forth only interested the students in as much as they needed to know certain almost trivial things about them in order to pass their exams. To them any knowledge in excess of that absolutely required to take the exams was a waste and a distraction to be avoided, except in the case of personal experience. Ah, personal experience. It was like a siren calling out to them. None of them had any, but all of them desperately craved it, whatever it was or would turn out to be. They lusted after experience the way Vestals tried to imagine sex, often with similar results.
Unlike most of his peers, Silvio enjoyed his covert consultations with the Umbrarch. He began to secretly and discretely (or so he imagined in his ignorance and arrogance) explore the regions and zones in back of the Low Esplanades. He wanted to see them for himself, and experience them directly. As with many of his circle, Silvio was enflamed with the heady dogmas and discredited creeds that had taken hold of their collective imaginations like diseases reawakened within old tombs stirred up by looters. Some basked in the weak splendor of conspicuous asceticism, while others competed in bouts of Byronic hedonism or philosophical orgies that more often than not ended in duels, acrimony and bloodshed. Irrelevant but still fervently hardline Socialists were trotted out like decrepit effigies at coven-like gatherings while uniformed fascists marched in sublime ignorance as they chanted in unison the poorly translated songs with mispronounced lyrics that did not mean what they were told they meant by their Leaders. Bankrupt political movements jostled with contraband religions and newly-minted cults, all the while the sacred ambiguous act of 'learning' was supposed to be taking place. A true pragmatist, one who spelled the word with a capital letter so that it defined himself all the more forcefully, Silvio detested abstractions, hated listening to other people's (often second-hand) theories and fancied himself allergic to angels. He was born restless, or so his mother had often said during his tumultuous childhood. His father considered him a flake who'd never amount to anything. They had divorced just before Silvio's eleventh year in college. He needed to move, to get out and do something, anything, just so long as it was necessary and of extreme importance to the continuation of civilization itself.
There was an urgency flowing through him like a cold, wet electric current that bled out of his fingers and made the world feel like it was heavy clay that he could reshape with his very hands if he could only muster the courage to actually do something about it.
So he ran away. Again.
The air of the Low Esplanades was fresh, cool and invigorating. Silvio made his way across the familiar cobbled stones of the numerous trail-like streets criss-crossing the public space and took up his usual spot alongside the railing overlooking the Airom Canal. He liked to watch the lamp beetles as they clambered about on the delicate ferns growing in great profusion anywhere they could get themselves rooted. The canal was one of those that ran deep below the city, connecting the various subterranean districts and precincts with the buffer-zone of the Low Esplanades where the denizens of the higher districts could mingle with the lower classes, and such trade as was permitted could take place. The canals were vital conduits of fresh water, breathable air, and navigable routes that allowed communication and travel amongst the more geographically balkanized sub-sections of the underground aspects of the city. They were a circulatory system that spread the spores, pollen and seeds of life deep under the ground and back out into the light of the sun, forming a thriving and diverse ecology that took great advantage of the various unique micro-biomes to be found within the watery networks. Hyacinths floated in the near lagoons, filtering wastes from the water so that it would be drinkable. Colossal oaks and majestic elms and other trees as well reached up past the railings to create an informal canopy over the portion of the Low Esplanades that overlooked the estuarial parkland. People came here to mingle, to stroll, to take the air and to do all the millions of things that people go somewhere to do. Licensed vendors and itinerant peddlers competed for the attention of passersby. Venduu children flew their grotesquely beautiful gurgling fishkites. Performers plied their trade whilst thieves kept out a weather eye in regards to opportunities for personal enrichment.
It was like a carnival, a free-floating market, and an impromptu festival all rolled into one and Silvio was enamored with it, besotted and bemused by it. In his way he loved it, though he didn't really know the truth of his affections, nor would he appreciate them until later on in life, when like so many things, it was too late and too far gone to do anything about them. But then tragedy was a spur to the creativity of an artist, or so he was wont to say when anyone bothered to listen to him in those days.
Silvio contented himself with leaning in a calculatedly insouciant pose near the railing in order to watch the comings and goings of the throngs of humanity and the clusters of sentient beings who meandered about the so-called lowest Tier of the city. The vast majority of them were dim shapes, faceless and featureless objects that moved about and entirely beneath his notice. He quickly became bored with the pedantic pageant of what he now knew were people coming and going to and from work and the sheer banal domesticity of the milieu depressed him. The place was becoming drab before his very eyes, the glamour that he had taken for granted was fading as he was becoming accustomed and attuned to the lower districts. If he had paid more attention in class he would have recognized that he was synchronizing with the vibrational rhythms of the lower precincts. He had fobbed off the Umbrarch's warning that ones' place in things was where time and attention converge, not merely the locus of identity. He was perilously close to becoming a resident of the lower precincts. In a place like Devukarsha where the very architecture, the intrinsic nature of the locality itself conspires to foment a stratified classism, one does not need to stray too terribly far to lose one's place.
A red-headed woman, entirely remarkable only in her studied unattractiveness, was staring at him. He shifted his position in order to get a better view of the woman and he nearly gasped. She was clad in the alizarine-robes of the Severitines, a mantis-sect that had been outlawed for their transgressions during the First War when incarnate gods and their slave-armies had made a living hell of the world. They were supposedly extinct. Hunted into oblivion by even more fanatical cultists devoted to their destruction. But then, the Low Esplanades were adjacent in many places to the waterfront and there were the worlds beyond the Tributary Gates. In any case the woman's intense scrutiny unnerved him and Silvio looked away and tried to ignore the female cultist. Her insectile movements disturbed him and he was sure the encounter would give him a nightmare later. Did she chew off the heads of her mates like the mantises did? He preferred not to find out.
Suppressing a shiver, he resumed his casual appraisal of the crowds. Thankfully the red-robed mantis-cultist got bored and moved on to find easier prey. People were leaving. It was the end of the shift-change and the areas in front of the various tunnels and canals were clearing out. He could feel a sound at the very threshold of his range of hearing that jarred him like a steam whistle from some barge, only bigger and much closer, despite there not being anything like a steam whistle in sight.
“You're going to be late.” whispered a brunette blur that was much closer to him than he had noticed anyone being before.
“Late? For what?” He shook his head in disbelief. None of his classmates had ever actually talked to an authentic member of the proletariat before. By the way her aura obscured her – he gasped in disbelief. She was beautiful. But that was not the cause of his shock. He could see her features. She had become a person to him. This was not the way of things. Panic surged through him, galvanizing him to do – something. But what?
“The shift-change, silly. It's time to get back to work.” she had an engaging smile and wore baggy over-alls that were covered with zippers, patches, buttons, tokens and all the accoutrements that Silvio guessed were mandatory amongst the working classes. Perhaps they were talismans.
“Work? What kind of work?” He spluttered incredulously at the very thought. How utterly ridiculous. She was obviously a primitive accustomed to projecting the rules of her culture on all other cultures.
“Your job.” she used the sort of tone instructors oftentimes used with the not quite so bright or the seriously hung-over.
“I don't have a job. I'm a student. An artist, actually...” Immediately he felt more comfortable talking about himself and his ideas. Silvio felt himself calming down a bit. This was a golden opportunity and he didn't want to spoil it. He wished that he'd thought to bring along one of his cameras.
“Then you aren't from around here, are you?” she practically gushed. There was a peculiar gleam in her eyes and she moved closer as though they were intimates.
“No. I'm not.”
“I know why you're here.” She confided in a mock conspiratorial tone as she she leaned towards him. Her hand brushed against his on the rail and in the moment of contact a jolt brought both of them into a harsh realization of the truth of their respective places in the scheme of things.
“I apologize. I'm not sure what that was, exactly.” He rubbed his hands. The sensation left almost as quickly as it had struck.
“It'll pass. You're just not completely attuned to things is all. All the new-hires go through a period of readjustment. It's perfectly natural and you'll get through it in no time.” She tried to reassure him.
“But I haven't been hired. I'm not looking for work.” He began to feel nauseous. He looked all around the concourse. They were the only ones there.
“Oh. You're one of them.” She looked demurely down at her scuffed-up work boots.
“Them?” he asked truculently, prepared to rain down a hail of fire and brimstone rhetoric regarding his true political fellowship with the proletariat whom prior to this chance meeting had been entirely an abstract notion. But her soft laughter cut him short.
“You're looking for a wife.”
The words didn't slap him like a dead fish, nor did they fully register in anything but the most superficial sense of an impending ice berg that must be avoided at all costs. Panic beat out logic, muscles jerked into motion and even as the pretty young working girl attempted to strike a seductive pose in her unflattering workclothes Silvio was off and running. Terror that had long ridden him in the worst way for nearly all of his life took its familiar place as though he wore a saddle on his shoulders and he ran.
He ran and ran and kept running until he slipped on a wet patch and tumbled over a low railing and found himself in the canal itself. It was dark and the water was cold and much deeper than he had any reason to expect. Down he sank. Down, down, down – the water swallowed him whole and his lungs were practically empty of air. Instinctively he knew what to do. He had to release the clasp on the shimmercloak that was quickly becoming a leaden weight threatening to drag him down into the darkness and a death by drowning. His fingers were clumsy. They slipped and fumbled with the ornate clasp. Finally it clicked open and he fought free of the clinging cloak as it mindlessly swirled through all his personal tonal variations in a fruitless attempt to find the most fashionable coloration for the occasion. Silvio kicked as hard as he could. He freed himself from his idiot cloak and thrashed about in the water, desperately trying to get back to the surface.
Struggling to swim in all his expensive finery, Silvio fought his way up. Spluttering and gasping, he gulped air into his complaining lungs and tried to get his bearings. Spotting one of the access platforms that were sometimes used by gondolas or other small watercraft that were allowed on the canals, Silvio swam over and crawled up onto it. He lay on his side coughing, dripping and shaking. It was not his finest moment. He was deeply ashamed. But he was far more wore out from nearly drowning, all the running, the immodest proposal, the panic, the explosive release of years of pent-up emotional turmoil – it had been a hectic day and he had had enough, too much really. He lay there and let himself fall asleep with the hot taste of hypocrisy upon his mouth like a kiss from a desolate angel.