Against Superheroes, Chapter 22

Against SuperheroesAs I watched over the Nepalese countryside populated by small hilltop compounds, the irregular terraces of rice paddies reflected the clouds in their muddy mirrors. I had taken on a certain quality of stasis here, frozen above a jungle mountain in an envelope of mist.

I took to trying to mine my memories, to unravel these chains of semantic and temporal associations that reached back through the gray wall of my origins. It was maddeningly difficult, shifting through trapezoids of connections shot through with scientific and technical associations, and with the addition of the perspectives of the people who I had possessed, but I achieved some clarity with diligence and strain. When my mind wandered out to those rice paddies and the tiny shifting figures tending to them, or to the small vans that struggled along the high, sloppy roads, or when the focus moved to the dancing energies of the sky and moisture, I learned to return to this rummaging by counting slowly by threes or by prime numbers, up and down, the necessity of the mental acrobatics pushing the imagery back into a halo around the mathematical gears until they were finally erased, and I returned to the signals of my past.

There I was again, in graduate school, the poetic inflections of the Orphic hymns impressing me until I began writing my own inspired variations, like a composer copying and reordering works by Baroque masters. This theme of divinity, from the Vedas through to the Native American myths, from the Slavic translations to the Babylonian Baals, was always the encompassing and central element of the written and oral traditions.

And all these texts reflected a time when the human mind was only connected to one town, almost always to agriculture, subject to the whims of the seasons and the terror of sickness, and then often forced into violence by the more powerful or by passions that arose without control. The theme had played out for me as my knowledge expanded. I had tried to imagine their minds at work but I concluded that I was hopelessly analytical; they were so simple as to be incomprehensible, much like their mythologies. Yet they stuck with their stories, and retold them, and then transformed them again into derivative works.

Inanna descended into the underworld, her regal clothes lost as she floated past Earth and into the darkness below, until she was at last naked. From the great above into the great below, the seven gates of the underworld were unlocked for her as she found her sister, the Queen of the Dead, Ereshkigal. She was naked before a court of judges until she was killed by her sister. Her body was hung on a hook, crucified for the lords of the deep to observe. Then, days later, her hair swirled around her head like “leeks,” two demons took Inanna back up from the underworld but could only return her by an exchange. Inanna’s husband, Dumuzi, failed to mourn her and thus was given to the demons, but his sister offered to take his place. The seasons were born in their constant rotation through the underworld, half the year with Dumuzi in residence and the other half with Geshtinanna.

1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17…

And then we reinterpreted this, with the semantics playing about searching for semiotic purchase on angles and agendas. This was the rite of the priest and priestess, laid naked before the immensities of the gods, broken from the world and resurrected into a new relationship with the divine. Or in parallel with Persephone, abducted by Hades into the underworld, searched for from above by Demeter, until Hermes finally brought her back to the Earth. But having consumed of the pomegranate in Hades’s world, and grown to love Hades too, she would return in the winter months, only to rise back to vouchsafe the arrival of verdant spring.

There was the fruit of knowledge and the imprisoning of the mind, then in pseudo-epigraphy of the Ascension of Isaiah, and the productive association of the scene in Eden. All these entreaties and copies of one another. Superman ejected from a war in heavenly Krypton, sent to Earth to be raised as human. The power reluctantly embraced at first and then carried into the heroic conclusions. Isra and Mi’raj. The visions, the madness, the waves of belief stretched out like skin over a drum until tight and transformed from one thing into another altogether.

All of this great elevation of something other than the self, the everyday clatter of spoons against bowls, the dying of the cattle, the drunks and the fights.

Then we got into the dark spirits of the air, of animism, of sacredness and fear in a wafting of magics all around the people. This sensation that broke in was briefly trapped in apophenic illusory shadows, then drifted away like a half-remembered dream. The voices in the wind, the faces in the tree knots, the dragons in the clouds—they all arose from an impoverished sense of this infinite connectivity. I could see it now, and there was a reconciliation of the sameness I had with them and who I was. The silent walk near the stream broke the temporary summit of ordinary sensation until the voices rang in, shouted by these strange atomistic spirits.

I looked out at the hills again and there were those shadows across them, moving, like in Iceland so long ago, but only for a second, and then I saw the verdant hills alone and isolated, without that undulating spirit envelope.

19, 23, 27, 29, 31, 37…

Arguments, considerations, the epistemology of belief. I assimilated it all as precious globes, each with an individual spark, but then they shone together, some lost, some merged like soap bubbles, their cross-sections in perfect shadow of their own arcs. All the old ones had been reduced into this fantasy of fixed aspects of ideas, broken away from the irrationality and the impish impiety that occupied the young minds of man. They acted according to the shadows that were projected onto them, but with the mystery of being elsewhere, above the firmament, outside the world, beneath the fields from which they lived. They traveled through these spaces, just touching the people with their emanations in the forms of spirits of the air, rattling storms, disease and health. But they were just indicators and symbology for me, trapped in the economics of priestly castes, or the power struggles of tribal leaders, made into the controlling idolatry of peasants and kings. The nurturing of these mythologies shored up, shorn off, and collided between the warriors and their neighbors.

I labored at this scholarship. I unfolded new theories like they were fresh sheets for a spring bed. Great men, identity theory, Marxism and neo-Marxism, evolutionary psychology, ecological anthropology, diffusion, and landscape dynamics. Each was tuned and applied to the ever-present problem of why people thought what they thought as reflected in these ancient artworks, in bowls and vessels, and in rooms and jewelry. A hook on a belt became an interpretative framework that rallied an interconnection between fragmentary speculations about artisans’ growing power here, or about the changing roles of priests there. The climbing form of the hero was a striving toward the heavens, challenging the gods and leading to his downfall. The shape of a temple was a concession to the powerful, allowing for private immersion in the sacred pools away from the commoner.

The mixing and retelling of myth was as much a trade in knowledge as the Silk Road was in goods. The ideas filtered and fluxed. Persian shaitans, whisperers at court, carried forward and then into Satan, then again into the Antichrist. Meanwhile, the Hellenists brought the underworld that became Hell, their unhappy subjects transforming Tartarus into something new. And then even the tribal messiah of worldly victory of the Chosen People became just a new mythology where victory was achieved in the afterlife.

A raptor was using my cloud architecture to its advantage, soaring on the periphery as the warm air was pulled up to sustain the moisture against the cold mass above me. The black kites did this daily, though they seemed to get no tactical advantage from the action. They seemed to just enjoy the effortless flight controlled minimally with tiny variations of their finger wings.

41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71…

But there were shadows of other things. What was a laser? I couldn’t tell you. I knew it was pure light, but I had no idea. I had no idea what Inanna was, either, but she was like a human but was revered as something more. But a laser was an alien artifact with meanings filled in by circumstances, by achievements and applications. Some hippie laser light shows, flashing about to Pink Floyd, but then just a menace to pilots. Maybe the things that did something inside a CD reader, or a DVD, but I was not sure. I never was. What was the meaning of these things that I didn’t really know? The semantic cloud was a precipitate, a suspension, a collection of correlations that gradually intersected upon the real target, known only to a few scientists and engineers, but still unfolding in meaning as their uses, their threats and opportunities, unroll and there was a new becoming.

Inanna must have been like that—like the wheel that moved carts and then ground grains, then was a Ferris wheel, then a spinning bearing in a jet engine. And these gods and heroes like mere powers and sensations in the dark woods, then reimagined into people and animals, then projected into accusations of moral exhortations, and then turned back into aliens and otherworldly beings. Each wave reinforcing and strengthening the connections that people felt for them. Like lasers and gamma ray observatories. All things that transcribed the words and actions we used to explain them.

There was a vague memory from a common room, a dormitory in Arizona, rife with cigarette and pot smoke, and dim lights enhanced by blackout foil on the windows. A red laser pointer, a prism, a lighter, a cat. The cat was chasing the bloom around the carpeted floor, claws digging into the nape of the rug to make predatory darts and flinches accompanied by a rip and tear. We laughed, young all, but I could see a pointillist dance in the purity of the crimson blossom when it stopped. Later I would guess it was the empty spaces between cones in my retinas, but there, high and engaged, it was just the sensorium of feelings and giddy gameplay. Me, my friends, that instinctual play of a young feline who would devolve to feral given two days of neglect, her rippling grabs of carpeting in pursuit of the effortlessly darting red enemy. That memory emerged and held, everyone’s faces in low-wattage incandescent glows, wan to brown, eyes shaded down into indirection.

The kite dipped and rose again, then went to ground after a rodent, mouse-like and unaware of the shadow closing from above.

73, 79, 83, 89, 93, 97, 101, 103, 107…

Wait, 93 was wrong.

A laser was some light thing that I could describe but couldn’t define perfectly. No one could. We relied on professionals for that and built our reality on those definitions when we needed to. A child heard the gods were all around us. They were the makers and the source of our goods and ills, and the child looked up at the sky and into the dark waters. They must be those things motivating the clouds or the turbid whirl of currents. But then, no. The semantics shifted and the gods were something else. They were the motivations within us, the desire of our enemies to hunt and kill our tribe. But that wasn’t right, either. The gods were in the fire of the hearth and somewhere up above a metal dome holding a sky sea in juxtaposition above us: they were down in the caves of the world in mazes and molten chthonic cathedrals. But yet, the gods were within us again and were a personal relationship with a redeemer or his master. The semantics changed and resolved with the quixotic implausibility of an absurdist drama.

I would eventually be found, I knew. It had been some months since I had escaped. Jessica had been interrogated. She might be off the team, compromised. She might be imprisoned or killed. There was a guilt in that. I had done my best. I told her to confess that I had come to her. But, then, they might have overlooked her. It was impossible to know without taking a risk. Between missions they would look for me and eventually I would be found. It might be that they had developed a scanner that could zero in on me like that laser. I didn’t know, but didn’t doubt that they could do it. Their technology was almost as profound as mine, just slower and more communal.

89, 97, 101, 103, 107, 109, 113, 127…

That kite, soaring.

They did come for me, too. I made a move. I went into China in the belief that Aesir would have to confront geo-political rivalries that would give them pause. The sensitivities and increasing technical sophistication of Beijing meant that they likely already knew something about Aesir, though it would likely be a pulsing oddity on their intelligence map for America. How were we doing the things that seemed to pull the world in our favor but that looked like accidents and natural phenomena?

I swooped down on an unoccupied border station near the Aksu River. The smell of pine and flowers merged with birdsong as I landed, providing a sense of naturalism and normality. I opened the locks on the station and lifted an old-style telephone receiver off the hook, then tried dialing Jessica’s number directly. I got an automated message in Chinese that I interpreted as requiring an additional nine and three to get an outside line. My Chinese was minimal, having only spent a few weeks hovering around the Kyrgyzstan border region, watching the locals coming and going, and occasional Chinese and Western tourists hiking the rugged mountains.

It rang and went to voice mail, Jessica’s familiar voice asking for a message. That human voice and the memory trail that surrounded it snapped me back to our time in England and to the women I had known, and I slipped to the bare concrete floor beside the steel counter. I dialed again and listened to her voice, but left no message. That flood of imagery pulled me again, and I found myself crying there and the transference of all the materials around me, of the vibrations of the mountains and the shifting expectations of the animals in the valley below, folded away from me like a buzzing in the head that gives way to sleep. I rested there for hours, then flew back up to a cloudy mountaintop and willed myself into a deep state of quiescence.

Time passed—weeks—and then there was an awakening. Brilliant sunlight seemed to be piercing through my man-made storm, cutting away at the clouds. I stirred and expanded my awareness toward the light and there was a shield that stopped me completely. They had arrived, I realized. I thought about fleeing but I knew that they would just find me again, so I evaporated all the clouds and saw Nemesis for the first time. He was a small, dark mote in a halo of light and fire less than a mile away. The fire boiled around like the chromosphere of the sun, orange networks of churning shadows flitting over the halo of energy. It shuddered and raced toward me.

I pulled a wave of ice and snow from the air and created a shield before me, the mass congealing into a hard wall more than thirty feet in thickness in just a few seconds, but Nemesis shaped his fireball into a spike and impaled the center of the mass. I still could not see into him and even his corona of energy was impenetrable to my mental probing. I flew downward and into a bright green lake snuggled between high peaks. I could move quickly under the water by maintaining a torpedo-like air bubble around me and boiling the water around it, creating an underwater jet that shot me across the clear bottom of the mountain lake. Minimal water plants hovered around me and I slowed, feeling the chill of a current and following it to its source in a canyon.

I flew up out of the water and behind a waterfall. There was a small, wet cave there, carved out by the endless action of the water splashing over a granite overhang forty feet up. I waited for hours but nothing happened. I reached out my mental faculties to sense the world around me, probing at the limit where the vibratory essences of matter become frayed and foggy, like looking through the haze of the waterfall. There was the mass, hovering still over the center of the lake. Nemesis was waiting.

I realized I needed to probe his powers—not just run away—if I was going to be able to confront him and, ultimately, Aesir. I wondered briefly if I could arrange a truce, but my ability to trust them was largely gone since they had imprisoned me for a second time. There was also the likelihood that Nemesis would be needed for other missions and that I could run and wait him out. I ultimately abandoned these thoughts. I still needed to probe his capabilities and understand mine. I had manipulated thoughts and weather, but also heavier materials when close enough. I also felt like I could see time and shift it, and that my powers ultimately derived from those imperceptible opportunities that lurked between moments.

I flew up rapidly and tried to pull as many boulders out of the wash of the cataract as I could. A dozen rose with me, ranging in size from a small car to a dishwasher. I had never tried this before but it was only straining me in coordinating their motions. A piece fell off one boulder as it shivered and cracked, and I couldn’t catch it in time. As it hit the water below I saw Nemesis in his distant ring of fire. He rocketed toward me and I began rotating the boulders around me, testing my coordination. He once again narrowed his fire into a sharp spike as he approached, and I expanded my ring of stones, then hurled them simultaneously at him in a converging cone. He deviated his flame toward the largest of the rocks, hitting it with scorching ferocity that pushed back against my will. I tried to propel it forward, but it immediately reached a stasis point between his fire and my efforts. My other weapons did not pause, however, and I watched him snap out of his position as one of the rocks grazed him, then another. He relented against the largest rock, then, and it surged forward.

Nemesis pulled his fire back, and I could feel the limits of the sphere around him. He was using it as a shield by boiling the air with such ferocity that the remaining rocks deflected from the surface. Still, he appeared weakened and smaller. I pulled the rocks back around me and felt stronger. He retreated until he was a small circle of orange. More bits of my stones crumbed and dropped into the lake below. Minutes passed and then he came at me again. His fire was a flat disk around him, like the rings around the planet Saturn. It was pulsing to blue at the leading edge. I raised my rocks up above the plane of his ring and swung them at him, but he began spinning his ring, knocking the rocks away and bursting several of the smaller ones when pockets of moisture trapped inside them vented into cracks and shattered them into sharp pieces. I was left with only three, and he continued forward.

I hardened myself against contact as I had done before, forcing myself to drop control of my remaining rocks. The blue fire, when it hit me, was strange. It was not pain, but was like a tremor racing over the surface of my skin. The artifact began throbbing, and I felt my hair shatter despite my protective armoring, then burn in a brief flash of green. I closed my eyes and focused on protection and stillness, but the tremor was growing in intensity, moving into my bones and center. I wasn’t sure I could withstand much more, so I tried to mentally reach around the wave of energy, seeking holes in his armor, like I had done before in response to the field generator at Aesir.

This time this effort must have only lasted a few brief moments, I surmised in retrospect, but it was alarmingly long from the inside. I finally found a hint of purchase, a distortion in his protective field. His head was a steel ball, likely protected by a micro-shield, but its extension over his torso and into his arms and legs diminished with distance.

I grabbed his foot and flung him straight down into the lake with sufficient force that lake water splashed around me two hundred feet above, followed by a wave of steam as his fire powers were quenched. I rose up higher and gathered a swaddling of storms around me. A blossom of churning water spread out over the center of the lake. It continued for a minute and then a pink glow began to solidify in the center of the storm, turning deeper red as the massive boiling bubbles rose up out of the lake. And then another spike of fire shot up with new ferocity and speed. I dodged but it followed me, tracking like a homing missile as it sliced through the clouds, dissipating my cocoon of rain into hot fog.

I was hit again and again, thrown upward and stunned. I could see just orange and white as tiny bubbles crowded across my eyes. I closed them and reassembled my powers as I shot up over the mountain range in a parabolic trajectory at the tip of his fiery spike. I could feel the tendrils of heat split and move around to grasp me, then, and he began to throw me down toward the mountainside. I reached out again toward Nemesis, feeling along the spout of flame, but he was too far away. And in that action, I wasted precious moments and smashed into the rock and earth of the peak. A few scraggly pines evaporated in the vortex of heat around me and then, as I slid beneath the ground, propelled by the tentacle of fire, the heat vanished and was replaced with still solidity.

I seemed intact but dazed. He had used distance to protect himself and, likely, would not expose his full profile to me again, knowing that I could get at his extremities. I had to find another way and he would then find a counter to my efforts. I cycled through the options I had while feigning immobility. I could sense that I was about fifteen feet into the mountain wall. The fiery impact had set the mountainside ablaze, with low, dry brush carrying the fire up a nearby ravine. If I were right, he would keep his distance and observe for a while, fearful of getting too close. He couldn’t confirm my destruction, however, without a body or visual identification. A body was probably the requested result, however. Aesir suspected I was immortal and extremely durable, so they had to have another plan than just beating me up with fire.

I waited several more minutes and then began swirling clouds around the mountain until a rain deluge quenched the fire. I turned in my dirt grave and pressed the walls away from me, feeling the earthworms and insects move with the earthen walls.

I still could not sense Nemesis out around the mountain. I began driving hot air from below, near the ground, up into the rain mass. I separated the clouds into competing groups and started sliding them up and across one another, building a range of electrical potential in the masses. And then, with millisecond suddenness, I shot out of the hole and pulled lightning from the clouds until I had created a swirling ball of energy that looked like a neon swarm of eels darting in a frenzy.

Nemesis was across the lake, almost a mile away. He was surrounded again by fire but appeared to be waiting. I sensed something else, too. An aircraft was further behind him, circling slowly and using some kind of vectored thrust to maintain a slow, hovering path. The plane was dark and there were long, black tendrils like antennas drifting below it in the jet wash. They had a more comprehensive plan, I realized, but I didn’t feel prepared for it. I shot up, propelling myself into the upper atmosphere. I would escape for now. I had been to the edge of space before when at the Oasis. I had found it beautiful but eerie, with the lifting of the constant pressure of air and moisture creating a quiet that I never had among the voluble minds and Brownian molecules of the world.

I could see night moving toward the coast of China from here and flew north through Russia. I looked back and there was nothing, no point of flame following me through the faint remnants of air. Soon I was over the arctic sea, the icepack glistening beneath hovering drapes of northern lights. It reminded me of Iceland. I landed on an iceberg drifting in the cold ocean and settled my thoughts again.

1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17…

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