All That the Thunderer Wrung from Thee

All that the Thunderer wrung from thee
Was but the menace which flung back
On him the torments of thy rack;
The fate thou didst so well foresee,
But would not to appease him tell;
And in thy Silence was his Sentence,
And in his Soul a vain repentance,
And evil dread so ill dissembled,
That in his hand the lightnings trembled.

— William Shakespeare


In a post on the edge of the Empire
where the paved road gives way
to rough and dangerous paths
and wilderness, savage, untempered,
home of Centaurs and shadows;
in the dark marsh beyond the wall,
lies movement…

The guard’s heart jumps,
his eyes start,
not from fear, for his flesh and will
have been tested and are resolute and strong;
but from the certain realization
that what slopes,
rough and loathsome,
what lopes through the darkness
towards him is Norwegian.


  

He can just make it out. There are wisps of light forming in the sky above him. He can see the spreading clouds of doubt and confusion that the Norwegians have left in their wake overnight.

He turns his head — what an effort it is now; things are torn that should not be torn, dislocated that should be well located. The sun is lifting itself over the horizon. Its temperature as it rises is violent, its colours are chaotic; everything it touches becomes terminal.

The star pauses in its progress, sending shadows fleeing from the crucified pilot. They are dark knives, they flay all that they touch as they slide towards the coming day.

With light, the fear that has been circling beneath his pain eases, it breaks the surface to breath. It is a sea monster, all gore-flecked teeth and writhing flesh beneath dark scales, the aroma of death sweet on its breath.

Nothing as bad as he feared.

His flying suit lies scattered and torn into pieces on the ground before him, where it has been left it to taunt him, to confirm his shame and the inevitability and rectitude of this situation.

The twisted span of fuselage to which the Norwegians have chained him stirs, its broken shafts and splinters of steel and wood wresting his body, puncturing his skin, forcing his limbs into positions that channel nothing but breathtaking pain. The chains and wire they have used slice into him, an endless outrage of steel against flesh.

Things have been better.

A clockwork child stirs on the ground near his feet, waking where it went to sleep when the sun set the previous evening. The creature’s metallic skin crackles under the weight of the gathering day, expanding as light enters it, finding its familiar corners, opening its secret rooms, the tide of photons reseating consciousness in the springs and coils. The child’s gears click into life, the flesh within them quivers as the mechanical blood moves.

Despite the pain, the Pilot feels his head clearing, the memory of the things that filled the night abating.

Through a break in the cloud above him, the bulk of an airship is visible in the palm-sized absence of darkness, a patch, a black silhouette sliding behind the clouds.

The airship has spent the night floating above him, immersed in drifts of barium, long-chain polymers and desiccated blood cells. It is the master of his predicament.

*

Predication: firstly, the Pilot has been fastened by his superiors, the Prelates, for punitive reasons, to the exposed spars of a crashed Norwegian airship, deep in the territory of the rebellious and all but uncontrollable People of the Clock, as they call themselves (or simply ‘The Clock’, as the Norwegian Union insists on having it, so that there are no individuals, just a nameless, amorphous thing); all while a pacification — which is to say, a spiritual exercise of great urgency and with appropriate consideration of pressing exigencies well beyond the pale — the object of this being the subduing of the People of the Clock — and this is proceeding; a great cleansing; a reducing of the landscape to a Norwegian certainty; the removal of all impediments to Faith, the subjugation of the Clock.

Secondly, the reason for this Predicament: he has been accused, quite accurately, of treason, of showing compassion, empathy and understanding for the Clock, of failing in his duty to destroy them wherever they could be found; of allowing their couriers and agents to escape through Norwegian lines, and even of passing information to them; in essence, of aiding the enemy. There is, naturally, only one sentence for crimes such as these.

*

And so here he is. Death has been denied him. It gathers around him, its cold fingers playing, but it is constrained from striking.

The Pilot sees a row of glinting lights on the horizon, followed, at intervals marked by the mechanical and regular breathing of a group of Clock people constructing something near him, by the growing, in size and number, of that row of lights. Within seconds, it is clear that they are in fact the mirrored shields of sophistic convenience being held aloft by phalanxes of Guilt-Consumed Repentants (being the three Regiments of the Middle-Eastern Death Cult), all united in the Holy Theological War on the Clock.

The Clock People are active now, but do nothing in response to the approaching Norwegian forces. Those that were building the thing near the Pilot have completed their part in the process. Their creation stands aloof, its sentience forming under his gaze It is learning and assimilating with each moment around it that slides into the next, a collection of gears and coils and levers that, the Pilot sees, is now building itself. It is an intricate blur of motion; countless tiny arms and articulated limbs building smaller versions and parts, which then build smaller versions and parts, and so on, and on; an endless vortex of furious creation and perfection.

The figure takes on more and more shape and form; that of a human, becoming a haze of irresistibly fast, perfectly focused motion. Suddenly it stops, as if it has encountered some immovable procedural obstacle, some issue of mechanical protocol without a solution; and for the Pilot, and the gathered Clock People, who are now thousands, and the approaching Norwegians, and the irrational sky above, there is a sense of stillness, and waiting.

The dark shapes of the Mayan 2012th Squadron fill the air. The buzzing of their comparative pluralistic dementia is deafening. Their bay doors open, talons release from hulls adorned with the remnants of skulls and the vast teeth of jungle beasts, all pulsating thirstily. They let drop their payload of twitching, freshly slaughtered corpses, harvested from the endless stream of victims that pour down the steps of their temples, freshly heartless, sacrificed to eternity.

As each body drops, hooks and whips and blades of holy intransigence lash at it, the tails of stingrays, the flailing of the eyes of peacock feathers; all together they flay the skin from it. Each body becomes a bare, cadaverous, bloody length of nerve tissue and flapping tendons that slips like a pine seed through the air, down to the fields and hillsides below where the People of the Clock, now fully awake and aware, see everything.

As the falling sacrifices approach the ground, the futility of being seen by the Clock People so late, too late to save them, ignites them. In a dying moment of rage they burst into flame, consumed by grief and inevitability, consumed by not being saved. Falling stars, they drift slowly towards the ground, a soft rain of candelabras of grief and tears.

The insatiable roar of the rituals that bore them emerges from the buzzing of the Mayan 2012th. It is a brave and jubilant sound, that rises above the scene until it reaches the ear of a pluralist deconstructionist post-modernist from the Theory Department, who writes a transcription of these very events down on his stomach. He spends the rest of his days in an erotic state, admiring his own calligraphy.

One of the Mayans, a priest who tore the hearts from his own children to gain the right to do just this, breaks formation and descends, weaving his way through the shower of noise and burning bodies and floating ashes. The righteous blood-soaked feathers of his headdress engorge, displaying proudly his connection with everything, the importance he accedes to non-judgementalism and the value of cross-cultural relativism, as he reaches down with a long claw and slices the Pilot’s torso open, from the base of his throat down to his sternum. With his other hand, the Mayan reaches into the Pilot’s chest and pulls away a handful of liver.

The Mayan throws the organ into the air. A flock of Pedants and Sophists swoop upon its effulgence of blood and heat, tearing it apart with their tiny, pointless beaks. Each one could do nothing, but together, through the infinite weight of their numbers and the endless noise of their debating, and the unquenchable avidity of their convictions, they rip the liver into half, then into quarters, then into eighths, and so on, and so forth, until finally, there is a piece so small that nothing at all can be done with it. They rip that into half, and begin again.

*

By the next day, the airship has descended to a point directly above the Pilot. A golden thread, as thin as the logic of a Zionist apologist, descends from its empty belly. At the end of the thread a priest sits on a throne, surrounded by a bench in the form of a disc around him, so that he protrudes through the hole in its centre, disgustingly like a terrible lingam, a shrivelled phallus, a parody of rectitude and purpose, surrounded by the vulva of his lofty intention.

My son,” says the Prelate as he draws near. “Your sins are most grievous, and you cannot be saved. Your condition has been ordained, from the beginning of time. Your fate lay down with you when heaven and earth were created. Only now have we realised it, however,” and he reaches down with a long needle and a few yards of rough sailmaker’s yarn, and begins to stitch the Pilot’s torn flesh back together.

As the erupted edges are pulled back into place, they repair themselves, noisily crackling and gurgling to the accompaniment of airship engines and the roar of the 2012th.

You are not to die, you see…” the Prelate intones. “ You are to be repaired and made whole — oh, the things we can do! And as soon as you are healed, and right as rain, and bright as a button, we will take enough liver from you again, so that your situation may serve as a good example. And then we will heal you again. And so on. And so forth. And that will be your existence, for as long as it serves our purpose, my son. God be with you.”

*

The pain has eased. A goddess, or some similar creature, came from the airship during the night, and pretended clever sympathy as she removed the stitches.

The automaton that stands beside the Pilot moves her limbs and inclines her head, curiously. She ticks a type of approval at the easing of the pain, but her springs had recoiled, shrinking from the approach of the goddess. The Pilot has seen this, and he knows not to trust the halo of divine light, the soothing words, or the soft touch.

The sound arises again. A buzzing, the raking of talons across the sky. They are come again, this time not as Mayans but as Lamas, flying across a field of infinitely unconditioned and empty dharmas, leaving divine garlands and skullcups in their wake, a horde of enlightenment. One of them descends to the Pilot, who regains consciousness to see the Gelugpa abbot already feasting on his liver, drinking his blood from a skull torn from the corpse of a Clock Child too young to understand the healing power of religion.

The wail that escapes the Pilot is so deep as to subsume the oceans and the skies; there are no words.

The Sophists and Pedants eat their fill again.

*

We do not care why you told. But who did you tell, and what did you tell? Everything is emptiness, compassion for all beings…”

And the Lama, the Dalai as it happens, slices a stubborn piece of flesh out of the way so that he can finish his stitching. He tugs at the yarn, sees that his work is good and that the flesh is holding and healing already. He looks at the Pilot, waiting for an answer to his question.

The Pilot meets the Dalai Lama’s gaze and says nothing.

Who did you tell, and what did you tell? What do you know? What are they planning? What do they want?” The Dalai Lama inserts his most enlightened finger, the one trained between bloody stones and young thighs, into the Pilot’s wound, exciting as much pain as he can.

Do you want to keep your eyes, your hands, your skin? We do a special little number with hamstrings,” he says. “You can trust me. I am but a simple monk. Now speak.”

The Pilot says nothing. He is resolved now. Through his pain and because of it; around their torture, and above it; he will be the thing that breaks the Norwegian agenda against itself. He has wrapped himself around the clicking machinery of the Clock woman, the automaton that stands near him.

The Dalai Lama sees it. He feels failure dimming the aura of his reputation; he seethes, and riles, and shakes. His composure and anger reel against each other. His hand trembles as he folds his yarn and returns his Very Special Ceremonial Needle made of a Young Girl’s Loosened Inner Thighbone to its place in a Very Special Ceremonial Box made of a Slightly Older Girl’s Skull, and returns the box to its place in his Awfully Special Ceremonial Tantrically Evolved bag of Skilful Means, Artfully Crafted from the Flayed Skin of an Infant.

His dignity restored by these Objects of Power being in their Tantrically Appropriate Places, he tugs at the rope on which he hangs suspended from the Norwegian airship. On the ship, the detachment of the Braindead that had been playing cats’ cradle with the rigging grumble and leave their game to pull and heave, and groan in salivitic concentration. Over the space of a few hours of chanting and discourses on impermanence, the Dalai Lama ascends, leaving the Pilot alone to heal in peace.

*

There is silence, in heaven and on earth, for three days.

*

The eagle of heaven forms.

First there is nothing, then there is something that arises from itself like a goddess rising from a lake. A single feather appears, full of perfection, with that perfection painted in detail on every surface. Then finally and instantaneously there is the eagle, the will of heaven. Its eyes are fire, its feathers sheaths of flowing lava, its flesh hatred and love commingled. It leaves a soft haze of blood in the sky behind it.

The eagle, the will of heaven, does not circle, or hover. It does not wait, it does not skim the waves of the heights, or hesitate to choose its victim. None of these. It drops directly to the Pilot, talons of diamond and steel tempered in magnolia breath outstretched, the tearing and breaking inevitable, the rending a teleological certainty, its voice a million-strong choir whose cathedral is the cage of its bones, whose masters are the gods themselves…

The eagle falls, consuming half the distance from the moment of the single perfect feather to the healed and waiting chest of the crucified Pilot.

The likelihood of its talons tearing at his flesh becomes certain.

The eagle descends, and half the distance is halved.

The probability of talons tearing at his flesh ceases to be certain and becomes inevitable.

The eagle descends, and a quarter of the distance is halved.

The probability of talons tearing at his flesh ceases to be inevitable, and becomes ordained.

The eagle descends, and an eighth of the distance is halved.

The probability of talons tearing at his flesh ceases to be ordained, and becomes preordained.

The eagle descends, and a sixteenth of the distance is halved.

The probability of talons tearing at his flesh ceases to be preordained, and becomes entelechially required.

The eagle descends, and a thirty-second of the distance is halved.

The probability of talons tearing at his flesh ceases to be entelechially required, and becomes the result of careful empirical analysis.

Beside the Pilot, the clockwork figure lifts her arm, and with a hand crafted from infinitely complex variations on Newtonian themes, turns a glass eye to a magnifying lens, which she holds up in front of a telescope, which in turn is prefigured with mirrors that are angled perfectly in their reflection of the colour white and the absolute certainty of discrete measurement. She turns all this towards the eagle, which screams and roars right before her now, where it may well have always been, and as the eagle is taking the sixty-fourth part of the distance between the point of the perfect single feather and the Pilot’s chest, and halving it, and the probability of talons tearing at his flesh ceases to be the result of careful analysis and becomes avoidable, conditional, and then the result of supposition and soon, ultimately, an impossibility…

The Pilot sees the clockwork figure clearly now. She is a stream of likelihoods so well and finely placed together that she flows within herself like nothing so much as water across rocks in a sunlit stream bounded by shade at the edges, where the water needs to be kept cool and so there are bushes and trees that shade the water and the gradient of temperature between the shaded portion of the water and the sunlit water is what gives it life and is what allows life, and is life, and there is nothing there to measure or that needs to be measured.

In the eyepiece that she holds, with its perfectly aligned lenses, the progress of the eagle — immeasurable and unquantifiable, reducing and reducing through units of comprehension that cannot be delineated after all — that movement, towards the Pilot’s waiting liver, is halted.

*

The eagle does not move.

There is silence in heaven and across the earth. Nothing moves, anywhere.

The eagle of the gods is transfixed, impaled by its own corporeality. It yearns to become again the perfect single feather of lava and light; but it cannot.

It is stopped. The eagle is turned to stone by the gaze of the clockwork Medusa, whose parts shimmer in their movement with a light that pierces like a boar’s tusk.

The eagle’s beak is about to touch the Pilot’s skin, to break it, tear it, revel in blood and gore and ripped organs and divine will and eternal punishment, and impossibly huge agendas and pantheons of birth and maintenance and destruction — but it never will, none of these things will happen, because it has been seen, and the awful beak hovers, and yet irrevocably an infinite distance from the flesh it craves.

*

One week later, a single sound, a voice, a thread woven from fragility blended with shredded dreams, arises.

From a pool of dark water near the Pilot’s feet, a choir emerges. Faceless, nameless, androgynous, they form an unfolding flower around a singer, a beautiful youth who sings of the world with a voice that brings tears to the eyes of everyone here.

The centre of the eagle cannot hold. It explodes in a cloud of fire and dust that spreads through the air, until soon it may as well never have existed at all. The eagle is gone.

Where the eagle had been, a single diamond now hangs, suspended on nothing. The clockwork woman reaches for it, her arm stretching to an improbable length, her gears and shafts humming with efficiency. She retrieves the diamond from its place and leaning over the Pilot, places it between his lips, where it dissolves, like a star fallen into an abyss.

The clockwork woman has left his side and advances towards the approaching Norwegian army. As her gaze falls on the advancing Cardinals, they turn to stone. As it falls on the three regiments of the Death Cultists, they become stone. The Comparative Religionists become stone, putty and pumice; and these three natures you may compare at your leisure. The Liberation Theologists attempt a defence from behind parapets built of sweeping generalisations welded together with great meaningless gobs of post-modern convenience, but their efforts are swept aside like eagle dust, and they too become stone. Her clockwork hair writhes, alive, hissing snakes.

In terror, the remaining armies of believers turn to flee, but all of them, except the totally foolish and myopic, cannot resist the urge to look back at their adversary, the advancing clockwork Medusa who can see them to their cores, and when they meet her gaze, they turn to stone.

Only the absolute fools survive; and of them, there is always a superfluity. Unable to conjure the curiosity that would condemn them, they stream away, protected by their unthinking terror. In time, they will find new gods; they always will. At that thought, Heaven and Hell breathe sighs of relief, and the Earth shudders.

*

The singer Orpheus has changed key. He has utilised some unknown, unnamed musical device (it is a device so subtle that it can only be heard by someone listening to music in their sleep, or while beneath someone, or on top of someone — otherwise listening to music is useless). His voice lifts then breaks, then relaxes and bleeds a little. The choir stirs as the waves wash over them.

Orpheus sings of a battle called Salamis, and the chorus around him weep, but they have no name for it, and Salamis and love become one.

The Clockwork Medusa’s gaze will not turn him to stone — the Pilot knows this. She gathers close, as if with a confidence or the close inspection of small things, but there is none of that here.

Look, she says, and of course the Pilot looks, because he can hear her now, and even more than that he understands her, because she gave him the diamond which contained within it all the laws of time and thought, and space and thought, and love and regret and thought — not to mention half an eagle’s worth of eagle dust. All this is inside the diamond, and now it is all within the Pilot, and the Pilot feels as though it is he that is within it…

Within the Medusa, an infinite number of gears and shafts, of carefully and fully reconciled equations, all in measurable, discrete units, and motions and destinations — all race like planets along their orbits to a common perihelion.

Look, she says, and by now you should not be surprised to learn that the voice of an automaton, when it is created by the closely controlled flow of air over an array of reeds constructed from the fibres of river plants over which the doves of the temples of Baalbec have flown — you should not be surprised, so therefore I know that you are not — that the voice of the Medusa is the voice of a goddess, not a monster.

So, look, the Medusa says, you are free. Her beauty, now that it has finished terrifying the Norwegians, is no less; and the Pilot looks down and where his body was broken before it is now whole, and where his hands and feet were impaled, fastened through with bronze and iron stakes, they are now free, and where there were chains, there are none.

But do not move, the Medusa continues. That would be a waste, it is not necessary. You will just confuse yourself, my Pilot. You are not free here.

Orpheus is singing an ascending scale, over and over, perhaps Phrygian, perhaps Ionian; the chorus follows.

The Pilot, who for so long has felt nothing but pain and wished only for death, now feels his limbs becoming one with the spars of the crashed airship which has been his crucifix. His flesh is growing into the steel; the steel grows through him. This is his freedom, then.

*

What do you think could have happened next?

Did the Norwegians disappear, skulking off to dissolve into a puddle of unanswered prayers somewhere beneath the only unburned bridge across the border between Norway and Tritonis?

Of course they did. There was never another eagle, nor an attempt at a Dalai Lama, nor even the thought of a reformed Mayan Squadron. Those that were not turned to stone soon fell from the sky because no one thought of them any more; or else, like a kamikaze pilot whose carrier has been torpedoed at sea and has sunk beneath waves, they circled and circled, with nowhere to land, until finally they ran out of something, and simply ceased.

And the fools that are everywhere — they wandered, and because they had no one to lead them, they were last seen still wandering, deep in some nameless desert. But do not go near them. There is nothing, in this universe or any other, more dangerous than a fool.

And the People of the Clock built, and built. You should see what they built. That so many shining gears could turn in so much free-willed unison…

And the Medusa watched over them, and served them, and was with them, and anything that would hurt them blanched with terror and regret and turned and ran lest it be turned to stone by a gaze that undid the opposer, stripped it and turned it upon itself like a creature from an afterlife.

*

Thirty three eons later, and all of the Clock’s processes and things are finally worn to dust and to pieces as small as the screws that fix the wings of the white ant during its fleeting moments of flight, as small as the knots in the oil-slick dreadlocks of a Venus from Ethiopia.

And there is the the Pilot, with his flesh freed, with the cage of his bones released to the soil, with the life of his veins flowing no longer constrained to his bodily frame, but into the spars that bear him, into the soil, and like a tree that spreads underground, the Pilot gathers to himself the elements that lie unused, pieces of the past of the Clock, and the Pilot takes them to himself, and becomes something new, because once there was the Prometheus who challenged the gods, but now there is the Pilot, who is become as one.

Look, says the Medusa, and she points so that taut cables of intention and measurable will reach from her outstretched hand and connect it with the lake that birthed the young Orpheus.

The Medusa sweeps her gaze across the water. It passes like the hand of a god over the deep, and soon the water turns to life, the granite headstone-smooth and hard, impermeate, the sealed and secret source of Orpheus, the origin of clockwork scales weighing stone doves and their paths and their songs. Time gathers around pebbles here in the depths, it halts, it flows into ratios of gears and levers and torque, it presses carbon into an infinity of diamond, it creates sheer rock faces of will.

The gaze of the Medusa sheers across the water like a hunting bird, from light to dapple of light. Where it touches the stone surface of the pool clockwork fish race below the surface, chattering and clicking, chasing the gaze of the Gorgon, wanting to feel it upon them.

Between them, the one from the one side and the other from the other side, the gaze of the Gorgon and the clockwork fish cut and wear at the stone surface, and between them their appetites slice it into squares and circles and other disturbing shapes, and between them they release the squares and circles and the other shapes, and together they rise into the air, slowly so as not to disturb the perfect equilibrium that subsumes all this, and each piece of the stone surface, each square, circle and other shape soon ceases in its ascent directly below one of the burning souls who have been waiting, suspended in the air, their flames and progress frozen for eons now.

The two opposing elements, the two entities, merge and become one, the fire with the stone, and the burning soul with the surface of the pool. And this union achieved, these new entities descend, floating to the ground in a rain of ash.

The gaze of the Gorgon turned stone to water, and in the surface of the lake is reflected the inner law of everything. The world that is in the surface of the lake is not reflected at all, but it is another world, all to itself, and all itself.

The Pilot descends into the pool, slices through the water like a god descending into a newly created firmament, eager for the touch of it, as heartglad as a wasp of Aristophanes on his way to court. He takes great handfuls of everything. His hands are grown, they have become as large as phalanxes on the ends of arms like trees. The water flows across a forehead as wide and as free of doubt as a canyon, it flows over thighs that reach like bridges across the sea at the edge of the world; it flows around feet as large and as well-situated as the anvil of Hephaestus.

The Pilot sees that he has become his reflection. There is no difference between them. There is no cusp; the water has become like air. The Pilot moves like a god here, and from here in the world which first appeared as a reflection, he can see himself as he is. The Pilot who is still crucified is now the reflection.

And he can see reflected there in the old world, the world of separation, the clockwork Medusa, ticktocking, looking up into the sky of the other side, ticktocking, her mechanical rage so deep as to be insensate and mindless, and it is turned on those who are fated to see it, who look when they should not.

Here in this world, where there is no separation, she stands beside him, her clockworks and flesh sliding and flowing and working together,ticktocking in perfect harmony.

They join hands and arms that are mountains; they join thighs like plains and rivers; they lie on a field of sand and gears and stars, like gods resting from creation.

The people of the Clock here are stars, their lives bright and shining; everything is irrefutable; they breathe and glitter.

Where the Medusa was full of rage that turned the world to stone, here she has wings and the thing that cut into her is gone, evaporated and transcended. Poseidon is reduced to foam, and there is no more anger, no more rage, no more seething behind a mask of grief and hate. Where Prometheus was bound, he now has wings, and he flies, and he sees the untold, uncountable stars, the souls of the people of the Clock are each one a realisation of the perfection of a movement, of an intention, of will, of torque, and of desire.

The song of Orpheus and the choir continues everywhere. Everything that hears it falls into order.

* * *

From Air for Fire

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