Marauding Through the Night – J S Khan
June 25, 2020
“Depart! You shall disturb Sleep, physician of disease.”
—Sophocles, a fragment
The things that you keep secret are more you than the things you speak aloud, barter with in the marketplace, or wear so as to conceal. The things you keep secret grow inside you; by keeping them secret you protect them, incubate them, nourish them in dark hushed corners until they’ve grown inversely through you—an autochthonous infection, dreaming awake and self-spawning—and all simply to replace you, overthrow you like an army of renegade shadows.
Perhaps, for this reason, it’s best there are no secrets left. No rocks left unturned, no souls undriven from their most cherished haunts. Because Judgment Day came and went and (as you might expect) brought not a single instance of relief. No happiness or newfound freedom. Except for me, that is—but I’m the only secret left. No one knows where I’ve come from, not even Granddaddy Bear, but whether I survived the apocalypse or was born here, he insists I come not to fulfill the ancient prophecies but to obliterate them. To render all future prophecies irrelevant.
I have no idea what this means, because what is prophecy, if not that?
No sharp delineation between what’s real and what’s imagined exists anymore; the Living Mass now dwell in a delirium between such former states. An all-encompassing murk crackling with a vivid blur of flashes. Livid faces, groping limbs. HC SVNT DRACONES. Coiling, pig-headed snakes ripple in the outer realms and wage an incessant war with the Trade Commissioner, Doubledown Gator, who from her broadcast tower holds all the Living Mass in her thrall. Gone the pastures and fields where cattle once grazed and crops grew; gone too the proud lofty cities that once gnawed the horizon: now all the eye can untangle is a snarl of asphalt and weeds. If you wish to glimpse the sky, you can do so only in the cracks of trapdoors or by seeking its fading light in the faces of stones or naked circuitboards—unless, like me, you’re daredevil enough to ride the Skin.
Not that I’d recommend such a course of action, but I emerge from the Pores in an abandoned industrial park and slip out onto the Skin, its spacious creamy surfaces. Before long, there’s nothing but Skin ahead and Skin behind: one of the weird tricks of the Skin: the way it elongates in multiple paths like infinite fingers from a nonexistent palm; and all along these creeping elongations with budding joints other strangers bumble. Every one of them listens to 2Pac, nothing but 2Pac; everyone is still waiting for 2Pac to return—and why not? No one wants to listen to the tickertape madness of Doubledown Gator anymore, eating all the shit of the world to be Top Shit, Final Call or Put, horns up, paws down—but, Doubledown doesn’t mind, she just doubles down, doubles down, doubles down. The dragons that lay perpetual siege to her tower are constantly thwarted by her endless battalions of Iron Mikes. When one of the pig dragons eats through the ramparts around the tower, hordes of these bare-chested clones are there in bright shimmery boxer trunks to pummel it—right! left! right! left!—KO it back into the sluices.
“I will fuck you till you love me!” one of the Iron Mikes roars, pummeling one of these beasts in the nose until it collapses.
But me—unlike all these other blissful slobs bumbling on the Skin; I mean, they seem like lice, do they even know what the Skin is for? it’s for riding—I’m here to scoop the butter, by which I mean some seriously potent butter, I’m talking seventh heaven potent, like listen-to-the-seraphs-singing-HOLY-HOLY-HOLY-IS-THY-NAME. Just take a stick or two of this butter and rub it in the spaces between your ribs, then just sit back and enjoy the ride of your life, afterlife, whatever; only, whatever you do, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s one of the side-effects of no more secrets: not a single one of you can grasp the concept of shame anymore. Isn’t that a shame?
What I’m saying is, you should all be deeply, deeply ashamed.
I, for one, am nauseous.
Doubledown Gator was born in the Last Boom, which explains more than you’d think. Like her fondness for mental arithmetic, for dope sheets and clocking prices. Better than any of her former peers—if any such truly existed—Doubledown Gator grasps the goal of science is not to understand or predict phenomena, but to control phenomena. To bind all phenomena to her will. It’s this level of knowledge—this level of obsession—that’s gotten Doubledown where she is today. She doesn’t just possess all the licenses, she’s rewritten all the rules for what they license, and how. She doesn’t simply track fluctuations in the tape, she directs the tape’s every zig and zag. She doesn’t just drive prices, rates, stocks and bond markets higher, she also pressures all the board directors into passing ever-more impressive dividends. The only problem is no one finds this impressive anymore. It’s predictable; it’s boring. No one can account for any of it outside Doubledown’s fantastically fanatical singlemindedness.
Those among the Living Mass heedless enough to risk rising to the Skin mostly just bump around, thump and spin, grind together in unconscious configurations. They form frenzied balls or conjoin in elaborate columns. Attract and attach in strangely articulated figures, then commence to hum like enfleshed cathedrals. In their resinous residue, the Skin forms another layer shaped from their fear and vertigo. Something like a failed Transumption occurs. They become unwitting pawns of Pyrrhic Solutions, Doubledown’s outsourced henchman. All rise to the Skin because they want to escape Doubledown and be deprived of her protection, they want to be forgotten by her laws, they want to be true outlaws—but this is not possible. Not for them. So they worship 2Pac, they become enthralled by superfluous phantoms, docetic images and apparitions inside Doubledown’s crystal ball.
I’m here on the Skin to put an end to it all. With this butter I seek, Granddaddy Bear should be able to produce enough cream to destabilize Doubledown’s tower and bring it down for good.
For a marauder like me, one accustomed to riding the Skin, there are many ways to part its surface—most of which involve burrowing back into the Pores, however septic they might be—but instead I slip over a soft hill through spongy fields coated in gnarly bramble and proceed slowly toward the Bloodstone. The Bloodstone’s bright red and angry-looking, so I move warily around it toward the gravel pit below. This rubblestrewn crevice is dangerous territory, but my tactics here are necessary and—lest you forget—I am a true marauder, I pilfer sly and perilous like a warrior-thief Comanche, a renegade ninja who glides, cool and catlike, into the shadows of the ridges, gives a callsign, and slinks around the other side of the pit to the designated drop-off. There, a bright-faced fellow in a gabardine trenchcoat, greasy wig, and fake mustache comes slinking up from the other ridge—an agent for Pyrrhic Solutions. Everyone on the Skin operates with a codename—if not to protect their identity, to forget it—and I recall from the messages Grandaddy Bear intercepted that this particular agent’s codename is Mister Creep.
“Make sure the crockpot is dry,” I say, reciting the password, “or the wet’ll attract cockroaches.”
Mister Creep nods, and—twerking his fake mustache—glances over both shoulders before reaching into his trenchcoat to pull out a thick stick of runny butter.
“Iz theez good?” he asks, intentionally distorting his speech. “I told you eet was good.”
I nod, bob, shuffle and say, “Well my man, my greasy-haired, mustachioed man, it looks good, but let’s have a taste, shall we? Just to make sure.”
Mister Creep hesitates but nods and snaps a piece of the butter off.
“Okay, okay,” he relents, “but juz’ a lil’ bit.”
I take the butter and rub it in under my armpits, feeling my sides soften and melt at once; it’s real butter alright—so buttery I bliss out instantly. Cacophonies, philosophies, wars, and theosophies rage and explode in blue and green epiphanies throughout my mind. Constellate along the stroboscopic veins of my eyes. Everything flattens, blackens, pulses red—but this redness suddenly dilates to a fierce point that splinters into two opposing particles that zig and zag like ricocheting bullets and form a field that crystallizes from their trajectory: a plane inhabited by a variety of spheres, cubes, other, more complex polyhedra—but just before everything falls back into its improper place—I see something else: something that sings my name: a slow spinning cylinder.
The cylinder—pure gold—throbs; it’s like some slab of glowing, breathing meat.
Prepare the four infirmaries, it sings. The maladies of flesh, the ignorance of intellect, the uselessness of passion, the elemental discord between young and old—
My mouth tastes like rust; I catch a whiff of something like an electrical fire; and I start up from the bottom of the gravel pit under the Bloodstone to see Mister Creep’s shadow stalking over me in its stroboscopic flashes like a vampire, a tarantula, some vicious, viscous squid, and I wait until he’s close enough before I give a shrill cry and reach into my hair to pull out some wire. Mister Creep stumbles back but I rise up swiftly and wrap around his body, squeezing my thighs into his waist, digging the sharp wire into his neck. He gurgles, wheezes, grabs at my fingers, finally collapsing to his knees and facefirst on the ground. I spin his body over and around, reaching into their trenchcoat to find and pull out the rest of the butter—more than thirty sticks. I shove as much as I can fit in the bandolier’s bag strapped over my chest and waist and set the rest back in Mister Creep’s deep pockets.
Knowing the remaining butter is far too potent to be distributed among the Living Mass atop the Skin, I carry Mister Creep’s corpse to a cistern in the gravel pit and use some of the heat generated by the Bloodstone to spark a fire—only just as Mister Creep’s greasy wig catches, his head pops out the cistern and his jaw falls open so a shrill incessant beep begins hemorrhaging from his gaping mouth. All at once a whirring ensues—hard-drives buzzing, fans humming to keep all the overloaded circuits and transistors cool—and suddenly a rippling in the dark almost knocks me over as a multitude of Iron Mikes commence stomping toward me, their highpitched lisping shouts reaching me over the crash of their sneakers—
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth!”
“Our main objective is to be professional, but also to kill you!”
I tell myself to play it cool, but even so I can feel Doubledown Gator’s Attendant Eye—the Satellite Fisher—trying to fix me in place. Luckily, I know how to flow, the art of slipping into halves and spilling back together again an art I mastered long ago. Only, in order to pull off this stunt, I must convert the neurons in my visual cortex—retinal tissue, ounce for ounce, being a waste of energy once vision is rendered irrelevant. So—just as the Iron Mikes encircle me with their gloved fists rising to pop me in the face, I pop my eyes out and melt through the air.
When I come to, I find that I’ve slipped through the other side of the Skin and am now inside the Living Mass. There, I lie in a few random rain puddles lit up by lampposts in a tenement parking lot—truly a remarkable experience. Unwittingly, I linger in this puddle, just allowing my reflection to glister while I enjoy this newfound amorphousness—but as I do I feel my thoughts come un dun, awarsh in the mindsink, on a gurney beheaded for the centaur of the looniverse. Dis fizz duh postcremation. Festryn and rotyn with broggled lawd codes and louse songes—On mind weight to dismother the farce ünterlaying all. Unteachables stop asighing; do not be dismade…
Nearly lost in this unsung runoff, I catch one of Granddaddy Bear’s fondest sayings (An eye is an exquisite mechanism, however blind its engineer, and useless without a brain!); so I pop my eyes back into their sockets and rise again from the puddle, whole again. It takes me awhile to remember how to move correctly, for this is always the danger: being lost inside all the filth coagulated in this vile host body and suffering metaleptic spasms. But what choice do I have, being the doppelganger’s song resonating in your flesh, the virus driving all your secret evolution?
So I stand in the tenement’s parking lot, wringing water from my thick long hair, only as I do I catch sight of a girl in one of the flats above. She sits in a window on the second floor and stares into darkness. She has long coffee-colored hair, large coffee-colored eyes. She wears a dark silk shirt with a white-stitched floral pattern and a silver necklace. She looks like me— actually—if not a little plainer. She reaches occasionally to drink from a coffee cup, probably interstitial plasma, but that’s what living inside the Pores will do to you. She looks anxious and bites her lip, but—glancing in my direction—smiles. I freeze at the sight of this wide reckless grin—one of her canines is a tadbit crooked—and she turns, still smiling, and cranes her neck to gaze at a painting mounted on the wall behind her. I lean in closer and am not surprised to see it is a work of religious iconography: 2Pac on the cross, what else? the Don Killuminati—
“Every definition of god leads to idolatry,” Granddaddy Bear growls suddenly from behind me, and I smell the stench of masticated fish wafting from his enormous mouth and teeth as his claws lift me up and—with a delicacy that still surprises me—set me on his shaggy back.
“How did you find me?”
“Are you kidding?” he snorts, dropping on all fours and cantering back into the shadows. “You smell like you’ve been wallowing in a whole bathtub of butter!”
“Don’t even start all that inevitable fallout of the Empire of the Self stuff,” I say, “all that post-industrialist, post-capitalist, post-technological blahblahblah, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s still the Middle Ages.”
“It’s not even the Middle Ages,” Granddaddy Bear says. “It’s practically prehistory.”
“We should’ve never left the ocean,” I agree, petting his back, smoothing out the tangled hairs. “We should’ve never crawled from the slime.”
“Did we ever crawl from the slime?” Granddaddy Bear huffs, but I know better than to answer.
Elsewhere—smug in the top floor of her broadcast tower—Doubledown Gator rages, clutches her fists and screams. Her chest heaves as she flips tables, one-by-one, sending rows of screens lit with jagged precipitous arrows cascading across the carpet. Her proper creatures—all golems of the lab—scramble to clean up the mess she leaves like a slimetrail in her wake. She has a right to buy, a right to sell! An obligation to buy, an obligation to sell! Doubledown ensures max gains and max losses all around—yet herself always feels like she just barely breaks even. Un pauvre bebe. She knows the price for cotton, she knows the market for steel. She built the industries from the floor up, after all. With trembling claws, she unrolls maps of the outer realms, diagrams that dissect and disembody the Living Mass, spreadsheets that anticipate multiple strike-prices.
Still, no matter how hard she tries, she cannot find me anywhere.
As laughable as the notion—the detestable fancy—is, Doubledown Gator believes herself my mother. But—just because Granddaddy Bear found my egg in the nest of her mound while she was off hunting and snatched it away—this does not make me hers. Just because I incubated beneath her soft, scaly belly on a moist bank in the heartland long ago, this does not make me what she wills. Did I not hatch from my shell far from where her glowing red eyes could contain me? Luckily, as always, Granddaddy Bear was there to swift me off before I sank into the Pores.
Doubledown Gator mutters, sensing something’s wrong—can she tell we’re watching her—while the Satellite Fisher, Her Attendant Eye, is momentarily distracted overseeing several Iron Mikes in the tower’s backroom squeezing blood from harvested fetuses collected in tubs. These Iron Mikes’ hands—all unwrapped and ungloved—lift the aborted lifeforms from the tubs and squeeze and wring them like you might a peeled fruit. The blood drips, pools in grooved channels to flow into ducts that power Doubledown’s broadcast abilities. It’s royal jelly; it feeds the hive. It’s pure unadulterated butter. Outside, dragons crackle with lightning so the trumpets sound once more, calling the Iron Mikes not on watch-duty to their eternal battle-stations.
“We are addicted to perfection!” they shout in unison, punching their boxing gloves together as they sally forth, “we are addicted to chaos!”
I see and know these things because—even though I’m far away, deep in Granddaddy Bear’s floating cave—the images appear in the butter I stole; Granddaddy Bear has melted it in a large crucible which he stirs with a big wooden spoon. Here, in his cave in the Scorched Hills, the two of us share a merry festival of gnosis. Phantasms appear in the bubbling cream; the butter spits and seethes, and inside its glistening froth, we witness not only these events from Doubledown’s tower but eventually there also arises a vision of the gold meaty cylinder I saw earlier.
“It’s Pythagoras’s Golden Thigh!” Granddaddy Bear says in awe, and seeing my confused look explains: “No less an authority than Aristotle tells how the mathematician—while attending the Olympic Games—revealed this thigh to Abaris, the Hyperborean, as proof of his divinity.”
“This thigh sang to me earlier,” I say. “In the butter’s rapture.”
“So it survives!” Granddaddy Bear rumbles, raising his paws and punching one balled-up fist into his other palm, “And with it we can defeat Doubledown in a single blow!”
“Then tell me where it is,” I shout, jumping to my feet and whipping my hair around.
“First, you will need to put on the Silver Arm of Marie Curie,” Granddaddy Bear says, looking at me with tender eyes, and—before I can flinch away—grabs my right arm at the shoulder, sinks his claws through the skin of my flesh, and with one fierce pull rips my arm from its socket. Blood gushes everywhere and I fall over with a shrill cry. But Granddaddy Bear ignores my pleas for help, instead seeking about for something in cave’s inner dark. He finds it behind some rocks and lifts it, pressing it into the bloody crevice where my arm used to be. It’s cold against the wound—so cold that it stings and causes me to gasp—but Granddaddy Bear pushes until I hear a snap and the blood stops flowing and the pain leeches into this alien thing.
Slowly, I rise to my feet and behold my new arm: the Silver Arm of Marie Curie!
“You must submit yourself to unendurable torment, my dear,” Granddaddy Bear intones from the inner sanctum of the cave. I look up to see him now clad in red robes and holding a leaden tablet—looking almost like John of Patmos. Beside him, a bowl-shaped altar that wasn’t there before bubbles with boiling water.
“What now?” I ask, but—before I can avoid him—Granddaddy Bear rushes me on all fours and bongs me in the head with the leaden tablet. I stumble in a daze, helpless to resist, and he lifts me from beneath the shoulders to drop me in the bowl-shaped altar. The boiling water rises to the underside of my small breasts; my eyes feel like they’re pooling hot blood; I heave, overcome by vertigo—and suddenly feel my entire body vomit from my mouth, only inside-out and dangling from my skin. I writhe and gasp, only, when I look down, I see that I’m still intact, only the altar is empty and my shadow has been scorched away completely.
“Now,” Granddaddy Bear says, purring with satisfaction, “now you are ready to return to the heartland.”
This is the heartland; this is the hot stinking swamp; this is the sick moist pulp that beats all through the Living Mass. The noisy racket of insects and amphibians give evidence of life’s cruelty, its idiotic insistence on survival. Struggling to fester and grow even if feeding on naught but its own rot. Everything is dark, red and black. Everything thumps, squeezes, feels squishy, is—basically—unpleasant. Hot and humid. Beyond moist. Frankly, wet. The heady reek of is nearly suffocating, but as I gaze through the thick fog overlaying the mire, I apperceive red eyes like snipers’ rifles cross-referencing me from all directions. They file me away in their eternal index. Freshwater gators, I recognize—Doubledown’s natural, abandoned brood—only they don’t approach me as I slink by; instead they slip away in darker waters, seeming reticent.
Can they even see me, now that I no longer bear the nuisance of a shadow?
What else could they fear?
I walk deeper into the swamp and the ground begins to rumble and the landscape distort; everything slowly flattens and widens, becomes, distant-seeming—there’s even sort of a horizon again! A horrorizon. But now a large marsh stretches where this surface has gashed itself loose. I squat down over this body of rancid water from which reeds rise, tall qasab and shoots of bamboo, but now something huge and thick and long starts oozing up and floundering along the shore; I can smell it rising overhead to loom above me: it’s like some cavernous beast’s filth, or all the sulfur of the Pores blossoming at once. It uncoils, an enormous serpent, its uppermost glaucous scales coruscating, its underbelly all yellow, the uppermost part of its neck marked with strange glyphs and runes.
I tear a stalk of bamboo loose from the shore, feeling its heft while studying the serpent’s neck. I count across eighteen scales, seeing—emblazoned across every scale—the strange symbols constellated with dots. It’s not, I realize, dissimilar to a collarbone tattoo of the periodic table. The monstrous serpent stares down at me, its forked tongue flicking as it rasps:
In the morning alone, a volatile dust,
At noon, the loosed thoughts of others,
In the evening, these others themselves,
Now midnight—all one—hard and pure again.
The unsubtle beast rears higher, and when it does I see squeezed tight in the coil of its tail—lashing up from the flood—my prize: the Golden Thigh of Pythagoras!
“Certainly not my father,” I retort, and—squinting at the runes arranged along its neck— spy, higher up, in the second row, on the fourteenth rune from left to right, the fourth like a sideways horseshoe: a ⊂ surrounded by four separate dots.
“What is carb—,” the serpent hisses, but too late: I hurtle the bamboo shaft at its neck with the Silver Arm of Marie Curie, nailing the rune so the serpent hisses and twists, squirting venom from its fangs. The poison splashes down to burn my eyes, and—momentarily blinded—I feel the serpent’s tail whip out, wrap round my waist, squeeze my left leg off, and jam in its place the Golden Thigh of Pythagoras. My vision returns and I see the serpent lashing about, unintentionally burning itself with its own venom. It shrinks away, slinking back down into the hole from whence it came and taking with it—in a fast-sucking vortex—all the marshwater.
I step to the hole left in the middle of the swamp, and as I do I feel an immense rumble pass throughout the Living Mass—Granddaddy Bear must have ignited the explosives without me—a diversionary tactic! The circuitry whirring in Pythagoras’ Golden Thigh realigns my directives; I can feel my senses augmented too; and in the distance I can discern the sound of pig dragons squealing, their cleft hooves scrambling through the fresh breach Granddaddy Bear has blown through Doubledown Gator’s ramparts.
I scramble down into the passage bored out by the cloacal serpent—not bothering with having to ride the Skin or spill through the Pores anymore—but confounded by the dark I press in certain buttons in my new glorious thigh so that a hatch pops open and a golden dart shoots forth to light my way. I follow in its glow, stumbling into a vast chamber filled with dark bronze statues surrounding a sepulcher above which is written CAVE CAVE DEVS VIDET. Leaning forward, I push against the sepulcher’s lid with the Silver Arm of Marie Curie, knocking it loose. There’s nothing inside—nothing I can see—but at the same time an enormous hologram of Tupac Amaru Shakur—a.k.a. 2Pac, Makaveli, the Don Killuminati—descends over the Living Mass from on-high as if to finish what the Last Days couldn’t. The multitudes that flit about on the Skin stop, stare and shout, and now others come pouring up from the Pores to rejoice.
“We just want to conquer people and their souls!” the Iron Mikes rage, stomping out in massive companies. They throw fists at the revelers, but the hologram of 2pac descends undaunted, its tattoos bleeding as it holds up a right hand in blessing.
“We’re the biggest fighters in the sport!” the Iron Mikes persist, bulldozing through the crowds, pummeling those who dare dance in the wrinkled Skin. “Just check the cash register!”
“Hey Mike,” the 2Pac hologram booms calmly, “remember what you told me?
Ain’t nuthin nice, do something righteous with ya life.”
And—just like that—all the Iron Mikes drop their gloves, stare up wide-eyed, quiver.
“Real freedom is havin nuthin,” they mutter, their highpitched voices’ cadence slowing, like toys whose batteries have gone dry. “We were freer when we didn’t have a cent.”
Emerging from this capillary and racing to Doubledown’s tower, I find Granddaddy Bear in its lobby surrounded by pig dragons eating everything. The Satellite Fisher stalks out to try and regroup the regiment of Mike Tyson clones but Granddaddy Bear smashes the Attendant Eye in its glass pupil so its face rains down to glister in shards on the floor. I make my way to the elevator in the back of the lobby, but a multitude of pig dragons surround Granddaddy Bear—many fullgrown fatties with large tusks—and one in particular heaves up to gore him in the side. Several other of the freakish brutes pile on.
“Keep going!” Granddaddy Bear shouts to me with his paw upraised from their sea of scaly porcine flesh.
I avert my gaze and step into the elevator, now carrying the golden dart in my shaking hand. The doors close and I feel the elevator rise. When the doors slink back, I’m standing at the end of a corridor that leads—where else?—to Doubledown Gator’s throne-room.
I walk deeper into the corridor, catching a whiff of rotten fear in my own sweat. I stare into the gloom, seeing Doubledown’s glowing red eyes materialize, then her shape on her throne surrounded by colossal reams of receipt paper. She wears a hat shaped like a lemniscate and is clad in a doublet, a blue and yellow shirt, wide sweeping trousers and red tall wedges. In her lap, I see, she holds an enormous gold coin, and the side facing me is marked with three chevrons.
She breathes audibly when she sees me watching her, grunts, and grins.
“Heads or tails,” she says, without emotion, and flips the coin into the air.