Category: Fiction

Quintessence of Rust

¡Reconquista! is making the rounds looking for representation. This is a first for me. I’ve been strongly attracted to the idea of disintermediating publishing, music, film, transportation, business, and anything else that happens by; my Silicon Valley persona sees disruption as a virtue, for better or worse. But why not learn from the mainstream model for the trajectory of books and ideas?

Meanwhile, nothing sits still. I’m journeying through Steven Pinker’s latest data dump, Enlightenment Now. My bookshelf crawls with his books, including Learnability and Cognition, Language Learnability and Cognitive Development, The Stuff of Thought, Words and Rules, and The Language Instinct, while my Kindle app holds The Better Angels of Our Nature and the new tome. I also have a novel by his wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, though I have never read any of her more scholarly materials on Spinoza.

Enlightenment Now (shouldn’t it have an exclamation point?) gives an upbeat shine to these days of social media anger and the jeremiads of fracturing America. Pinker is a polished writer who should be required reading, if only for his clarity and perseverance in structuring support for mature theses. There is some overlap with Better Angels, but it’s easy to skip past the repetition and still find new insights.

And I have a new science fiction/cyberpunk series under development, tentatively titled Quintessence of Rust. Robots, androids, transhumans, AIs, and a future world where reality, virtual existences, and constructed fictions all vie for political and social relevance. Early experimentation with alternative voices and story arc tuning have shown positive results. There is even some concept art executed with an iPad Pro + Pencil combined with Procreate (amused a firm would choose that name!).


¡Reconquista! at 50K

¡Reconquista! has taken on that magical quality of momentum where it is almost writing itself. Or maybe it’s just that satire, bleak and horrifying, is the perfect mood for the times. These counts do not include early plot development and notes, which read out at another 4K or more, depending on how you factor it.

The analytics put me on an exit trajectory around mid-August.

The Inevitability of Cultural Appropriation

Picasso in Native HeaddressI’m on a TGV from Paris to Monaco. The sun was out this morning and the Jardin de Tuileries was filled with homages in tulips to various still lifes at the Louvre. Two days ago, at the Musée de quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, I saw the Picasso Primitif exposition that showcased the influence of indigenous arts on Picasso’s work through the years, often by presenting statues from Africa or Papua New Guinea side-by-side with examples of Picasso’s efforts through the years. If you never made the connection between his cubism and the statuary of Chad (like me), it is eye opening. He wasn’t particularly culturally sensitive—like everyone else until at least the 1960s—because the fascinating people and their cultural works were largely aesthetic objects to him. If he was aware of the significance of particular pieces (and he might have been), it was something he rarely acknowledged or discussed. The photos that tie Picasso to the African statues are the primary thread of the exhibition, with each one, taken at his California atelier or in Paris or whatnot, inscribed by the curators with a dainty red circle or oval to highlight a grainy African statue lurking in the background. Sometimes they provide a blow-up in case you can’t quite make it out. It is only with a full Native American headdress given to Picasso by the actor Gary Cooper that we see him actively mugging for a camera and providing weight to the show’s theme. Then, next, Brigitte Bardot is leaning over him at the California studio and her cleavage renders the distant red oval uninteresting.

I am writing daily about things I don’t fully understand but try to imbue with a sense of character, of interest, and even of humor. In Against Superheroes I try to give a feel for Turkey, despite having never been there and only been introduced to one Turk, a computational linguist for the language, once. Did I do a good job? I can’t say. The audience is not necessarily Turks who would find fault with my renderings. Yet I do strive towards accuracy. I drill down with Google Earth. I read the history. I read recent  politics and analysis and try to imagine what it can be like to be a person there, immersed in that cultural microcosm.

Similar things are afoot in ¡Reconquista!, my newest novel. Though I grew up in the border region with Mexico, I, unlike my son who took three years of it in California, have only telegraphic and pornographic Spanish at my command. Yet I am developing an elaborate plot that weaves together the lives of an underemployed blue-collar white man with a revolutionary-minded Hispanic woman professor who drinks tequila like it’s water and speaks in elaborate abstractions about topics like, well, cultural appropriation. That’s a fighting phrase for her, despite the other incongruities in the tapestry of her life.

Should I feel confident about writing like this? And if I should not, what can I write about? And, the obverse might apply: should an outsider feel free to write about the array of complex social and political issues that make up America? In 2015, Lionel Shriver, the author of a book that got some press and was made into a movie, caused an uproar when she donned a sombrero in Brisbane, Australia and made a series of declarations that such cultural appropriation that might arise from, especially, white males writing about other cultures, should be treated as a celebration of those cultures rather than an attack upon them. Identity is a nebulous concept, she seeemed to be saying, and tying it down to ability, disability, tendency, orientation, upbringing, religion, culture, or nationality does a disservice to the spinning of a good yarn.

I’m certainly not fully in agreement with this, but I do sympathize with the notion that it is critical for writers to embrace the complexity of the pluralistic world we now live in. Doing less than that, avoiding painting pictures that are as polyglot and multifaceted as America and Europe, leaves little room for authenticity unless the works are written by a balanced committee. Perhaps the more important take-away is that building a more diverse collection of critics and reviewers can help, in turn, provide a better filter for the authenticity that, perhaps, critics of Shriver are looking for. This would parallel efforts to rectify the lack of diversity among Hollywood producers, directors, writers, actors, and voting members of the Academy.

I will close by noting that a chubby little French senior is attempting surgery to extract a splinter from his finger across from me. His wife was helping for a bit, too, stabbing at his index with a white Swiss Army knife that he spent some time surveying and unfolding before landing on the right weapon for the job. She hurt him too much, though, it seemed, and he waved her away. This, in public, and in first class? I suppose I need more data points on the French mind that is increasingly moving towards a closed focus on preserving Frenchness against the outsider. Safe for splinter-stabbing, I suppose.

Amazonian Griffins and the Fantastical New World

Background research for ¡Reconquista! (or any book) takes unexpected dips and turns, from Google Street Views of Mexicali, Mexico to the origins of Alta California and the campaigns of Colonel Frémont. But the most unusual find in a week punctuated by trail running in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and a brief, one hour, twenty minute circuit of Carlsbad Caverns (I was first in and had the descent largely to myself!), was a 19th-century translation of the Queen of California from Las Sergas de Esplandián. This 1510 book by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo related an amazing tale that, as the translator and commenter Edward Everett Hale notes, provided the origin of the name of California, for Cortez imagined what is now Baja California to be an island that was to the West of the Indies, following Columbus’ lead in mislabeling the New World.

Hale’s translation and commentary are even more remarkable in their intertextual reading of the postbellum mindset that pervades all the way to San Francisco. He carries a descriptive thread likening the battle prowess of the Queen of California’s man-killing griffins to Civil War naval craft:

These griffins are the Monitors of the story, or, if the reader pleases, the Merrimacs.

And in those comparisons, he shows a careful traversal of residual war sentiments, though he is more direct in calling out the implicit racism of Hiram Powers’ statue of California for being incorrect in depicting Queen Calafia (sic) as classically whitewashed when she was described very clearly as “large, and black as the ace of clubs.”

But what of the story of Calafia? She is queen of an island of Amazonian-like women who kill men and boy children alike by feeding them to a hoard of semi-controllable griffins. The island is made of gold and gemstones litter the ground. Calafia decides to go to war, joining several sultans in an assault on Constantinople. She ultimately gets her chance to deploy the griffins and they kill legions of men on the walls. But when she directs the Sultans’ armies to scale the walls, the griffins slaughter them, too. Oops. She gets control of the griffins, finally, but then the assault becomes more problematic.

Finally it resolves that the Christian-side king will meet with one sultan and Calafia in personal combat to resolve the conflict. The losers will become the subjects of the winners. But before that happens, Calafia wants to meet those with whom she will fight. She is quite taken by the beauty of one of the king’s sons and arrives to check him out on a wild beast:

They brought out an animal which she rode, the strangest that ever was seen. It had ears as large as two shields; a broad forehead which had but one eye, like a mirror; the openings of its nostrils were very large, but its nose was short and blunt. From its mouth turned up two tusks, each of them two palms long. Its color was yellow, and it had many violet spots upon its skin, like and ounce. It was larger than a dromedary, had its feet cleft like those of an ox, and ran as swiftly as the wind, and skipped over the rocks as lightly, and held itself erect on any part of them, as do the mountain-goats. Its food was dates and figs and peas, and nothing else.

So the bestiary contained more than just the ravenous, man-eating griffins. But she and the sultan are ultimately beaten in combat. Indeed, it seems inevitable that the Christians must triumph and the man must best the woman. She even gives up her pagan ways in the end and gets married to a random, good-looking member of the ruling class. She gets her sister a husband, too.

What becomes of the island and the women? They convert, take husbands, and help with further adventures we are told. The story and commentary concludes with some interesting notes on Columbus and his beliefs about the New World (Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 1872). Learned men knew Dante and few other things then, so it is not surprising that Hale suggests that Columbus took seriously the cosmic geography that Dante laid out in the Divine Comedy.

The New World, it seems, was named and traversed in equal parts reality and fantasy.

Against Superheroes is live on Amazon!

Grab a copy immediately if you must, but there will be a five day promotional give-away of the Kindle edition starting tomorrow. If you prefer print, the paperback edition should be available in a day or two.

This is the first edition and it is trimmed down from a rather portly initial cut, though it still runs to 300+ pages. The metanarrative that was removed will be available in the second edition. And then, I imagine, there will be the extended cut with additional excised spelling mistakes or something…

Solstice in the Crystal Cities of Talon

A chance encounter, a sloshy woman at a corner bar, a recollection of an uncle who fell into a well, all the tequila poured, all the prejudices spun out, about my accent and my allegedly highborn ways, about the elections and conspiratorial meanderings, my filters built into a Great Wall against a bareknuckle dustup, bloodied noses and cops and lights, and then, as the night drew up into its cold intestines, a mention just in passing that this uncle fell in the well on the solstice morning and became some kind of sloganeer, some kind of soothsayer. But it was more, I heard her faintly say, and that the shocks of that icy water aroused some otherworldly spirit within him, around 1958 or so, and he was cast out of his church and lost his business, an upwardly-mobile fin-tailed car magnate with a country-club future. He wandered the countryside with his well-sprung tale until impoverished and abandoned by his wife and two adorable children, her cousins, one who was now dead (the boy), crushed by a front-end loader at a construction pit, and the other who was a retired school librarian down in Fayetteville. That cousin had kept all his writings, all about the physics of Tlon.

My ears perked up and I asked her again what she had uttered, about the slurred syllables that came forth from her salted and limed lips. She repeated the word again, then laughed at me, hissed “Tlon” once more and shuttled her head side-to-side. It was another world her demented uncle had bragged about, some agitated dream erupting from his freezing parts while captive in that black bore. It was a solstice night, long, with the snows of the preceding week in skirts around the trees. He had lost the tips of his fingers crawling out of that hole, but how he survived beyond that he was unable to say. He only talked about that world. He only talked about mystery people and the universe.

I begged her for a bit more and maybe some context for the daughter and she slanted her eyes suspiciously. I was informed, as she drew up and away from our conspiratorial hunches, like a raptor asserting dominance, that she wasn’t going home with me, which was a relief, and to which I readily agreed. I nevertheless passed her my cell number and insisted I wanted to know more about the uncle, that was all, and could she maybe, if not too much trouble, arrange for me to see the writings of this madman?

I had no expectations that she would remember any of the evening. She was high above the Eiffel Tower and heading for the moon as I left to return to my dreary hotel room down the road, stepping carefully to avoid the slippery tendrils of ice built from the runoff of the day. I slept fitfully with the wall-mount heater tracking a blistering seventy-eight. Had I heard her right? Was my quest beginning to reveal fruit?

I scanned the directory of the local college that morning over black coffee and found a Doug Henders, M.A. Hist., listed among the instructional faculty. Mr. Henders was the only regional history specialist, with far too many of his fellow professorial sorts focused on far-flung matters in Europe, Asia, and even one emeritus who seemed to be exclusively an historian of arctic expeditions. While intriguing, his experience could likely shed little light on the matter of the uncle.

I finally phoned Mr. Henders and, following brief introductions, including an effort to convey my scholarly credentials while not emphatically calling out this-or-that publications or little professional accolade in the broader community, he asked how he could be of assistance. I asked about the uncle, about the story of the well, about the car dealer gone righteous, about the cryptic writings and, specifically, I avoided mention of the word in question. He claimed to be unaware of these developments and began to convey little hints of irritation. I finally dropped the bombshell term, about Tlon, casually as an aside. He stopped cold, there was a hard pause on the line, the static-free encodings of digital transmissions robbing the moment of even the faintest hiss that might provoke a conclusion that the line had dropped.

He asserted quite precipitously that he had a college disciplinary meeting to attend to and could not help me further. I thanked him but, before I had even concluded my statement, an actual and exaggerated chirp of a disconnect sounded from my phone. It was curious, I realized in hindsight, that he not only had pushed me away but had responded with an odd intimation of violence, of control, of discipline, as if to threaten and steer me from my endeavors. And it had only happened with the mention of the key word, not before. But maybe I elaborate to much? Perhaps my pursuit has heightened my senses to such an extent that the background noise of even these casual social interactions pops with a radiative glow drawn from speculation? I could only pursue the southern librarian’s written records at that point, though I was at the mercy of my barfly for that.

I waited through the next two days. I considered returning to the bar and begging the woman for more information, but I had not the boldness to pursue the lead in such stark terms. And then, around 11 AM the next day, a Tuesday I believe, I received a call from an unknown party on my phone. I was in the local library at the time and the orchestration of my ringtone caused the librarian to raise his startled gaze as I peered over family records in the white, cotton gloves of an archivist. Berlioz does not appeal, I surmised.

I staggered out into the winter light flashing off the ectoplasm of cars in the snowy parking lot as I took the call, asking twice for her to please wait and not hang up. I was given the coordinates then, and told that I must arrive precisely before 10AM to get an hour-and-one-half with the records or interest. I could have no more because the lady in question had an appointment of an urgent matter with her proctologist. I agreed to all the terms readily, worrying as well for the poor woman’s health and the implications associated with such a narrow medical speciality. The documents could vanish completely, I realized, and be lost among her transitory possessions, were she to succumb to some asinine malaise.

I arrived as required at the nondescript clapboard house. There was a single string of colored Christmas lights around a black side-window. A potpourri of plant pots—crimson, fuchsia, taupe, lime, mottled turquoise—denuded in the winter freeze but for a stray twig or two, covered the small porch before the screen door. A knock, a wait. A knock again. I began to fear she had rescinded the offer, this retired librarian, and had left early to have a coffee before her dreaded appointment with the medical establishment. But then there was a shadow of motion through the small window, an eye looking up to me, shaded by the blue of the day, and the door opened.

I was admitted then, dear reader, and allowed to shed my heavy coat and stomp my shoes against the thick mat of the mudroom. Minnie Mouse stared up at me in delighted wonder as I wiped salt and ice from the edges of my shoe. It smelled of wool and cooked eggs in the living room, of natural gas and sulfur. My host was surprised at the interest in her father, gone so long and lost in so many ways.

I inquired perhaps too indelicately how he had died, but she turned from me and pointed me towards the kitchen, never answering the question or seemingly even acknowledging the significance of the query. I saw a small stack of yellow sheets of paper starkly offset by the warm red of Santa holograms cleverly embedded in the plastic tablecloth, their form shifting from sleigh to decorated tree as I shifted above the scene. I was asked to hand over my cell phone, which I did readily as I stooped towards the pencil-etched mound of calligraphy before me.

Soon, following agreements and safeguards of the namesake, the family reputation, and the probing appointment close at hand, I was deeply entranced by the inscrutable documents. And, let me assure you dear reader, that the scribbles and markings did not disappoint. We start, page one, with a description of a crystalline city supported by the mental capabilities of masters who live below and follow an exacting timeline for their rotations in their duties, lest the city shudder or, worse, fall from its tenuous perch. There are always hints of return in these documents, of recurrence, I realize. Where the masters were before they will be again. When their capacities are exhausted, they rest and come again to aid the city in its meditative hover.

But there is more, so cryptically encoded yet so tenderly elucidated, for the masters know of another world that is so very like our own. They dream of it when they are not busy in their scholarly and masterful duties. It is a subject of great discussion. How can it be that they all dream of the same seasonal change, of the same calamity of purpose, of the same ritualistic dogmas and contempts? They hold salons to try to unravel the mystery, expressed in epigrams and enigmas. They write on these matters but cannot unravel the core, perplexing mystery. This parallel universe is an exaggeration of the purposes that they know, an unraveling and corruption of the sensible progression that enervates their thinking and that of the steadfast people of the city. The dream people are locked to ancient sky beings, they are contemptuous of the world that they are immersed within, they are riddled with petty preoccupations. It is only in this realization that the right course of action can be understood.

I leaned back in my steel and plastic chair, feeling the flush of the furnace from the ceiling vent. It washed over me, drawing in the premonitions of tears that began in my conjunctiva, and then evaporated them in a blink. My kind host appeared in the doorway, silhouetted by the flash of blue television light in the living room.

I reluctantly departed after thanking her. I told her that I would like to phone her with a few more questions if I might, maybe later, perhaps in the afternoon? She agreed and closed the door. I was almost to my car when the door reopened and I stomped back to fetch my phone that she had held hostage.

Driving back the hour or so to my original perch, my mind was awash with the remarkable details and rich orchestration of what I had read. But, I realized, that the word never appeared anywhere in the documents. I had been so mesmerized by the elliptical phraseology, by the incongruent grammar, and, mostly, by the tale of woe and cataclysm, that I had not seen or noticed that signal term.

I phoned in the afternoon and thanked the librarian/cousin again. She had been very kind. I hoped her appointment had been acceptable and that her health outlook remained positive. I continued my encouraging words for a few more minutes until she indicated that she needed to see to her needlepoint activities. I fully understood, I assured her, but then asked if she knew the word Tlon from the writings.

There was a pause, deep and consuming, and I worried that I was about to receive the same angry disputation that the instructor at the college had provided me for my unexpected impudence. But no, she cleared her throat briefly, apologized, and asked me to say the word again. T-lon, I repeated, trying to de-emphasize any inadvertent alveolar flapping that arises naturally from my first-language slurring of the dialect.

There was an oooh of recognition then, and I waited breathlessly. I think you mean Talon. His name was Barry Talonik Denzigger—the middle name from the old country in Bohemia—but folks called him Talon for short. He went by that for many years after falling in the well.

I held the phone fast against my face and asked her to repeat that. He was called Talon. That was all. No surprise that I didn’t see that in the documents. They were written before he got the name. She offered to write Talon at the top of each page for future scholars who might be passing through, though I quickly asserted my professional opinion that the pages should be preserved as they are between sheets of acid-free paper, even as a crestfallen gloom began a rapid attack on my gut. As a former librarian, she understood what I meant, it seemed. I hung up and updated my notes.

Against Superheroes and Novel Next

Editing is complete, cover designs are converging with new trade hardcover dustjacket form factors arriving, and all is looking swimmingly for a release in the immediate future. In the meantime, my next novel, racing to the front of the line ahead of the much-delayed Pornotopia and the impossibly ambitious Vin Diesel Versus the Vampires (An embedded board game? A film about the failure of the described unmade film? Really?), is ¡Reconquista!, a comedy incited by contemporary politics and my return to the border region.

It could only be a comedy, I decided. Anything less or more would be too heartbreaking.

Here are the new cover contenders for Against Superheroes, both of which introduce Ugaritic glyphs to provide a background shade to the Baalic figure who is, of course, against the very notion of superheroes. v7 looks like the leader in this race…

Dark Theme v7
Dark Theme v7
Cover v9
Dark Theme v9


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.

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