by J Payne
0 – No Stars
It has been said that there is but one axiom upon which the ancient mystics and modern influencers may have agreed: that there are certain kinds of messages which lose their significance—their purpose—when brought into the direct light of awareness.
I sometimes wonder if the first music makers were aware of this constant blurring and dividing of reality—the way the framing of a sound and its intermittent repetition ebbs with the primal burst of organic perception, reaching—sempiternally—towards the mimetic grasp of figuration, its struggle to remain constant, to reproduce itself, to keep the vibration alive in a vast universe filled primarily with void. One pattern leads to another: a foundation upon which to build the tower; an intemperate buzzing; the chittering of birds or the dull chortle of a dying engine.
To this end, perhaps it might help to listen to my voice as if I were a floating viewpoint without material body—a mere perspective. This is not strictly true, of course. Here I am in my physicality, real as anything: oxygen flowing through lungs to the bloodstream; beams of light that filter through the eye’s lens. But to understand me at this point in time you need to realise that I lack presence. So too, when you intuit my voice, you may wish to keep in mind that my echoing cadence has touched these cell walls many times before, and that these endless, self-reconstructing halls have produced countless iterations of our dance. Perhaps it’s a truism (or stale tautology?) to suggest that we’re fated to meet like this forever, here in this most in-between of spaces: I the soft, ululating utterance; you the disinterested silhouette of an object.
I – Escalation
To illustrate: I keep trying to remember that night and the curious circumstances surrounding our survival. What was then to me a night of impenetrable haze is now, in its recollection, a fever dream steeped in shadow. Prior to our arrival I could feel a sharp tension in the pit of my stomach, as if digesting some inexplicable catastrophic state. I’d heard it said that living cells can detect particle displacement before a calamity occurs: something to do with the temporal receptivity of living systems approaching an unstable event horizon which catalyses the interstices of flesh, goading us onwards, reconstituting the coordinates of our indexically charged atoms. But then, they say even the sharpest theory is but a mere gesture towards the truth of a simulation.
I remember waking from my stupor while humming to myself—an unerring tune, soft yet resolute. In this instance, the melody that had found its way to my lips recalibrated the slow metre of the machine’s aeonian song resonating within the heart of that ascending stasis chamber. Built by algorithms that dig into the depths of psyche, the soft tune emanating from the speakers was, in contrast, unremarkably pleasant, infuriatingly uninteresting, serving no purpose, eliciting no joy, offering no escape nor relief, only hypnagogic fugue. I guessed we’d been in the ascending chamber for some hours by that stage, though time itself seemed groundless, dizzyingly out of reach. I’m not sure who was with me. Looking back, it occurs to me that I may have been alone. Once we reached the pinnacle, aglow in a warm æthereal light, I inhaled, cleansing the anxious static from my blood, my sense of self dissipating into the river of discord before me. Reacclimating to the thick scented air, sugar plummed and overwrought, my gaze softened into the multifarious press of obscured faces, flattened together in the gloom, bodies sweating, struggling for breathing space.
II – Attention
Like a stop-motion fresco, the scene unfolded before my eyes:
A large gathering of fresh 20-somethings, slow motion explosions of cells and chemicals and neurons draped in the melancholic verve of soft danger, their auras of predation/attraction pricked into their skins. In their midst, the statue of a middle aged man with a selfie stick, looking lonely. To the centre of the room, an older woman (at a guess: the proprietress?) lounged comfortably, as if she were at home, a python slowly scaling her neck. In the foreground, a group of three ephemeral figures scanning the crowd, one of whom turned towards me as I looked through them to the mélange. Behind the bar, a keeper guarding bodies of liquid light and tangible shadow. His eyes flickered over mine, contemplative and wary, yet deeper still relenting and permissive. I felt no desire to drink.
There was also distraction. My iLink was blowing up with another alert about the red zone. Reports of the great leader, a prehistoric farce of a man, his iron crown a melted waxwork, his official garb (robotic grey bodysuit) haphazard and rusting—pig flesh, pink skin prone to panic—threatening to launch his weapons if his infantile needs were not met. Of course, if he followed through then other parties would retaliate. If that happened, everything would be over. It has been this way forever, or so they keep telling us: both the ancient mystics and the modern influencers , who sowed discord into the mustard seed and proved that each word is weighed down with the ghost of its own negation. And although the tension of this anxiety dulled with deep breath and the passage of time it had never fully dissipated the ongoing fear of existential oblivion which haunted our airwaves. I recall looking at the crowd and wondering why it was so silent. No eyes met mine, all of them seemed to be staring into mirrors, or out of windows, or to other, more immediate reflections in the screens of their iLinks.
Dismayed by the crowd’s silent disquietude I wondered as to the intelligence I’d received. I was sure I’d been told that this was supposed to be some kind of celebration. A party. And yet, I couldn’t remember why we’d come here. I started to search once more for a familiar face, but again it eluded me. I could hear the faintest hint of music by this stage, though it seemed to exist within its own inviolate realm in the foreground of my cerebellum, entirely unable to penetrate the interior.
Above us, telescreens flickered with newscasts about the ongoing deforestation of the thickness, the displacement of myriad primal species, predictions of further mass extinction, the price of dream stock fluctuating, cross contamination of private networks, the establishment of new market tyrannies, and I noticed how my body, in its utter displacement amongst the information overload, felt numb. I wondered if we could leave but I knew we’d have to make the rendezvous sooner or later, and besides it would have taken us several weeks, or months (maybe eons?) in that chamber to get back to ground. My view from the north wall—glass from floor to ceiling—spanned out into the cluttered skyscape below and on into flickers of omnipresent storm clouds; no stars, only dense, cataclysmic space. As I felt the wind moving us I slipped into vertigo right then and there. How is this possible, I wondered, this glass tower in the sky?
Deciding to migrate to steadier ground I made my way to the corner near the entrance. Maybe, I figured, whoever I was waiting for would come through those doors and, in our reunion, we could make this night something to remember. I waited, but every time the steel doors slid open, the bright white interior was either empty, or another figure steeped in shadow would alight looking as confused as I was, their gait uncertain, their eyes fleeting, struggling to fix their gaze, now aglow in the soft warm light.
III – Mirror
They say that every generation is marked by a moment: a point at which the emerging members of the tribe approach their chance to do something ground-shattering, whether for good or ill.
Some choose to follow the pathways of those who came before. Some tear down the system that their predecessors built. Some refuse the moment entirely and regress back into unsettled sleep, awaiting for the next moment, for their genes to replicate and start it all again.
Whether realised or forgotten, each moment rings out, the way a creature might cry out to the night in its passing. The way some beauty haunts you. A recurrent moment in time.
Perhaps, in the dim reflection of the mirror there in that crowded enclave I could make out the contours of a face, fazed in grey and white light static electricity, characterised by an excess either of mirth or of sorrow. Was it calling to me? Did it say something?
Please, save me from my own desire.
IV – Maelstrom
I don’t know exactly what triggered the fall, perhaps a sun had exploded nearby, or perhaps something had finally snapped within humanity’s collective dreaming. When the power went out, I remember being shocked. Why is it still so bright? Where is the impenetrable darkness, the chorus of angels with their harmonies? Why is nobody panicking? I looked from the window and wondered how far it was to ground, I couldn’t recall the last time my feet had touched earth. I felt again the oceanic wind, and waited as the tower began to waver, slowly swaying as if it had finally tired of standing straight. It felt like we were flying, or maybe floating, ascending or descending towards a black heaven, filled with fire and promise of ash. The winds, now solid, formed a tidal wave, threatening extinction and deepest sleep.
0 – No Stars
So here I am once more ascending to the sky in this chamber of light, a python slowly scaling my neck, my limbs ossifying, my mind skipping beats, lips humming, eyes fixed to the shortest shadows in the hope that we might find each other’s faces in the space between two moments that fall: one into the other.