“Gimlet,” Gast says. And he means me, could not mean another so cohered, so bone-tremblingly focused are those two syllables. Our meeting is enfolded, as ever, in the heavy-handed ceremony of all state business, but it is no less ours.
Gast appears to me as a projection mounted in a bruised TV screen. Its liquid-gauze contents could pass for a sfamato painting, they’re so full of shifting murk and grey tides. And even those rhythmic disturbances are scattered by breathy impressions of pool-like eyes, of arches that might be the brush of lips or a brow against a veil. All that is clear is the TV’s sound. His sound.
The Voice. That’s what everyone calls him, and they put a lot of stock in eclipsing him with his title. I’d always been too radical. I couldn’t respect him at all until I felt the truth of his rank in his presence-- that blood-eddying rush of certainty our conversations promised me. I’m too radical. To me they were only promises of certainty, and looking back I should have had some premonitions about that; and he should have, too, when I asked his name and he hesitated before he could give it. Looking back, the fact that I understood that question and he didn’t meant everything.
But I sit before him, on the lip of a hastily made bed. The moth-eaten sheet my friend Hettie spies on us through plays frame to my frayed silhouette. Hettie and I share an apartment, and the last tenants broke in my bedroom and closet doors. When I don’t use the TV squeezed in my closet I have to throw an old sheet over it, too. Though, normally the contrast between its shining screen and the humble setting doesn’t make me feel so small.
I feel so small. And I tremble, though I never have before, in all my acquaintance with Gast. There is no reason for it, my sudden dismay. It is freak, and unsettling. I am replaced, and this is not she who dreamed in tongues to dear Hettie yesterday or yesteryear. Yesterday or yesteryear maybe I’d have been upset by her peeping—now I clearly know that she is, but...
Can Hettie see all this from where she kneels behind the sheet, though? Or does she focus on something else? Is she searching for the homunculus, the devil, the circumstance making me squirm in my seat instead? I am lost. I can only see myself through the guise of another: a gimlet may not bore into its own lever, no matter how contorted its screw. And the spyglass I have bored my vision behind does not match the sight of me to the ever present sight I have of my thoughts and effects radiating outward.
I am lost, I am lost, and on this day of days I have never needed another’s vision more. Hettie’s eyes are trained on the past, not the present; and on her memories, not me.
She’s the object of the dismay that twists people’s smiles sickly sweet and polite when they dodge a child’s harrowing demands, its genuity. She is an ineluctable disruption, a terminal, and after her there is no peace. Your every action is that of a protector or betrayer. But that’s not a simple thing, like you’d expect it to be. There's gravity to Gimlet. You look at her and it's as if you never knew what you were before.
So Hettie thinks of my memory. And sometimes she must wonder if the evil isn't the divide I make itself. Except it’s not, and it’s not me doing it. It’s something inside me, something I'm too painfully, acutely aware of, an agony so unbearable it seared an edge into my soul that cuts everyone it brushes.
In any case, doubtless she’s wondering how I can tremble when I’d been swelt so full of veneration for Gast the day before, elated at righteousness of giving myself over as his successor. With my face turned up to his semblance, I still feel it.
“What’s the state of things?” He always begins that way, with phrasing just idiosyncratic enough that I can trace the impression of a man behind it. And it’s tempting to fall into the familiar routine. The one where I check off every atrocity marketed by the news. Tempting, to tell him that another clutch of borderland-renegades broke their souls and teeth on violence, the only language that human indifference will respond to or that desperation has the patience for, and tempting to add that I felt as trapped and frustrated as they did but could not succumb, knowing what I do. Tempting to complain that I’d almost laughed in the face of the seemingly trivial dramas revolving around me in my own community, except that the wash of emotions my neighbors floated in made that kind of irreverence impossible. Tempting to confess that in the thrall of all that discord I lashed out at Hettie and, as usual, I couldn’t live with the words she dealt in return. Gast has a way of making the world make sense, and it’s easier to let him arrange it for me rather than brood. Still.
“You tell me, this time.”
It might be I surprise myself as well as them when I say that. Gast is never out of balance long, but I know how the question touches Hettie. How long ago were we perched on a bench outside the petrol station where we filch the cheapest lunches in town, watching a pipeman grind the last embers of his cigarette, his comfort, into a dark stain down the side of the same building as sold it to him? I mention the man and his stain because they became this kind of symbol for what Hettie said. Hell if I recall the words, exactly. Just…
Should you trust a guy’s criticisms before you so much as know what he’s selling, Git?
I didn’t agree at the time. Now... Hettie thinks she’s part of the apartment, just home and rest and nourishment for my head instead of my bones. But here she is inside me when I make my big demand of Gast, and I feel her feelings about that so strong across the distance from her sheet to the edge of my bed I can barely fix my hearing on the start of Gast’s reply.
“Interesting. But fair…. Ah. We should start from a common base, don’t you think? I would assume the recent resurgence of violence in the borderlands upset you.”
I nod, and turn my eyes up from the faded thighs on my trousers. I am relieved Hettie can’t see the flesh wound of a smile I muster—she knows all my smiles. This one is the cap over a whole bottleful of hysterics that real engagement with things, you know, just things and all the things, would set loose. I twist it into gratitude.
Right now the things are all in Gast’s tone. Directed, but distant:
“The particular catalyst that caused this uprising isn’t important, as you know—honestly, we agree most of the time when you speak to the violence woven into the very fabric of the borderlands. People there are stricken with poverty so they have no security. They lack the education to articulate their desires, and in any case they’ve been denied a platform to try. Thus, they speak in violence because that’s… transgressive, that’s what people hear. And they seek safety in reversion to tradition, to feelings touted at them so strongly by local elites that they have the appearance of ethical force…”
We are… in accord, says Gast. Yet that accord’s not the same, somehow, as what I think I say or have said. It can’t be. Inside, I plead for Hettie to rustle the sheet in the doorway, to give some sign of ill-ease, some sign that she senses it, too. Then I rethink that plea. Maybe I want to be wrong. Maybe I want it all to come to the same thing.
“The question, when it seems it’s such conditions that initiate atrocities in the borderlands, is where to look for responsibility or, failing that, causes. You tend to neglect the politics that go on between my contemporaries, the statesmen I head, or so I’ve noticed. It’s a bit odd, considering who you are, your position.”
With that admonishment I could swear I glimpsed a grin in the staccato static fabric of the TV screen, a warp of personality. I am heartened, but what is that one emotion in a crowd of ambivalence? I’m at the edge of my seat as he continues.
“It’s become a truism that elevation of a few requires the repression of the many. Yet when I came to the Council I couldn’t find any malign intent, no exploitative or all-conquering attitudes leftover from the age of empires, save in a few notable, cases. The truism, at this point, seems to refer to the beast of society itself. To keep going, it makes the worst of demands. We must divvy up work to maintain old standards, must grow, must uphold and police something other than the old laissez faire ideas implicit in relativism. Having an elite the way we do at present is the only way we’ve found to manage those ends. Social facts drive us to it, over and over. We’re caught. You’ve had your reservations about me since the latest economic policy I ruled in favor of, for example. But to oppose the impositions that the company blocs had to disperse through the majority of their patrons would have been to strike a much larger blow at their epicenters, a cumulative one. And we can’t do without them altogether. Moral progress of the kind you want has to consist in subtly altering the requirements society makes of us, these moral tragedies, as it were. Incremental resetting and restructuring of institutions, that is the project under way when we aren’t dealing with present demands. Strike at the foundry and everything breaks, we are stripped even of the gains we’ve made.”
How inexorable it seems, layer after layer of logic laid as though with mortar. Layer after layer, till it comprises a vast, seemingly impenetrable edifice.
“You’re troubled,” he says. It is not a question.
“You sound as though you are passing down truths,” I nod, unsure as I say it how it relates. Unsure how to answer, or if I have an answer for him. I did not have one for Hettie when she asked why I couldn’t sleep peacefully at night anymore.
“I’d relish some challenge.” Another glimmer of the personal, so precious it hurts. For a moment I only breathe and watch wisps of grey and black threaten to consume one another on the screen. Then I lift my chin and straighten. I have thought and planned so long I can only trust my mind to its work, now.
“What you said… does not agree with the experiences I know. To some degree the borderlands lived in my hometown, and they live a little here on the edge of the city, too. So I know a lot of people… dealing with the things you talked about.”
I pause, but no reaction is forthcoming. Not yet. “It doesn’t seem to me like the way a person copes, when the borderland conditions hit them, is—so basic, or a reversion like some sort of madness social forces infect them with. It’s more trying to restructure things. Because when everything’s more dangerous you have to be sure, so you put things into categories that actually match to the new world you’re in. And not everyone uses stifling ones—categories, that is—when they back off from the ones we learn in school. It’s just we tend to remember the times it went wrong. What the borderlanders do’s not just instinctual and it’s not—all social, either. People… affect the machine by more than demographic. I mean, it relies on their morals and initiative all the time. Or maybe I’m saying they are the machine. They’ll always have a platform like it or not because of that, and when they try to withdraw I think it’s because they were always in society but society wouldn’t be a member of their communities. It all—I see it reversed from how you do. No one I know is gripped by currents outside themselves the way you described. I don’t even know what that would mean to them, as a phenomenon. For them it’s all inside. And I think what they see as necessary is much more liable to change than what you do.”
Gast must lean closer—the full line of his brow rumples the screen. “Your fondness for your neighbors is admirable, in the business of living. But when contemplating society… mmm. The causes, the manifestations of aggregates’ actions are much different from what motivated or affected them as persons. We might be partial to stories about individual choice, but--.”
“No. No there’s a difference, I think, between partiality toward a set of views and thinking they deserve consideration. I don’t—think you’re wrong. Only, does what you’re saying really mean that there’s this big amoral god we’re all lashed to? Just because things manifest as more than the sum of their parts doesn’t make them independent of those parts, does it? When you talk about social facts isn’t that just an ideology denying the fundamental responsibility each person has? And—and it seems absurd because it admits a need for change of a system but says every person who acts counter to it and denies themselves its payoff is irrational. It becomes this theory of… particulate people whose properties only change through relationships and mass formations. Like—ahm-- like atoms shifting chemical environments. And atomism is what half the thinking people in the world are fighting, right? So that’s a--absurd too…”
Hettie winces as my voice quavers; I fall back into her perspective. Everything is too close. Too raw to narrate from the inside.
“…you think that my judgments are narrow sighted, exclusionary,” Gast observes, and I can’t read his projection. I am tense, strained by a conflict of devotion and integrity, neither neatly confined to one side or the other, and his words make me swallow.
“I don’t think—I’m unsure. You are—it’s different than with the bigoted councilmen and it’s different than with someone taking a dogmatic stance, who has a side. It’s like you’re… nowhere. That sounds like nonsense but when I first met you I thought you were the opposite. It always seemed to me like someone whose principles were right and fair could find their principles in everything, everywhere. That they would include everything. But yours is… it’s in those social facts, it’s outside. So it’s equal because it’s no one’s but that wasn’t—is being no one’s the same as being everyone’s? I don’t… know. But when someone deals with people it feels like they have to tend to everything, nothing is unimportant.”
“Everything… You sound like someone close to making her mind up.”
Hettie is by now twice as scared as I.
“My mind is never made up,” I reply, honestly.
“That changes, when you have to make decisions. You, especially. When you rejected coming to the capitol for study and opted to stay here, you made up your mind about what was important, for example.”
Hettie’s breath catches; I never told her I had the choice to leave. To leave this world and reap the benefits of it in another. I couldn’t tell her-- I can never face those I owe the most. Once I acknowledge a debt I live in terror of it.
“…I’d have to make a decision, even about this?”
At that point complete and utter silence reigns. Hearts stop—mine, Hettie’s, and does Gast’s? The TV screen lies flatlined.
Then, of a sudden, it moves. Not the image, but the entire screen.
The dismembered profile in the static anastomizes, and then wells up into another dimension as though inky fresh lifeblood into a torn scab. It bulges against the screen, it seems to prod straight into my wide, disbelieving eyes. Hettie shrieks, yet the blur of fritzing pixels, limbs stretching gormless and grasping from the TV frame as a body drips from its liquefied surface ahead of its head—that blur is deaf to her horror, and blind to my bewilderment.
The figure’s head crowns; the TV has it by the back of the neck. Then it twists brutally, and whatever tethers it to the world behind the glass snaps. At once the jittering, malformed dashes of colour bounded to the figure settle firmly into the guise of a man, save for one train of black and gray streaming out behind him in a vast dark coat as he steps away from my unlikeliest of magic mirrors. Does the coat float a moment, as a thought charged, when its hem first slips from the static? Or did I miss the instant when it fell limp, did my vision glitch? It doesn’t matter. No. A man just came through the TV, the Voice--.
He appears like he does in the media. A taunt leather rag of a body bent gaunt under a prodigious brow, silvered hair standing in wiry bristles from his head and ears that match for colour the glittering strands and honorific patches decorating the grey overcoat thrown about his shoulders.
And the mask. The moment I latch my terror-stricken eyes on that mask I know nothing else in this world.
“Gimlet.” It’s the gentlest he’s ever spoken. “That question is everything upon assuming this mantle.”
But my attention is only for the perfect white, marmorealized features shaped over his face, unsupported by wire or string.
I know, now. Oh God, I know.
“The mask…” I whisper, dumbly. “…is it part of the mantle?”
The mask is impassive, and his voice, too: “In my case, and in others.”
Fear abandons me, and pain starts to flood the dully throbbing hollow in my chest—insupportable pain that claws at my insides, beseeching me to either bow or turn my back to the too-pale corners of Gast’s face that peek from under his crown.
“I want to see beneath,” I say boldly, as though bold words could hold up the emotions that I can’t. Within, I wish I could sense anything but dread and shock off Hettie, I wish that she’d dash in and dash this nightmare out of Hell on the jagged rocks of her lucidity.
Gast reaches to unclasp the top button hugging the mantle to his shoulders, and suddenly I lurch forward nauseously, clutching the mealy-veined hand closed, choking wetly:
“Wait, no! You can’t--!”
He turns down his face, and I feel the beat of a smile pound hard against his chest to be heard. “You’re past the point of learning from me. There is only one Voice, in this society, in these times.”
With that, he pries my hands away. He has the unconscionable strength of unremitting structure stripped of the necessity for emotional resolution. His final question, or lesson, or both lashes out at me like a bolt:
“Why do the king and his vision always die together?”
The mantle touches my shoulders, and my now lidless eyes are eclipsed by the sight of the mask, his Truth slipping from features it had crushed to glassy smoothness because there was no physiological contortion that could fit to it. He goes up in a pillar of ash and salt. Black on grey.
I can’t feel it, but I scream and fall writhing into Hettie’s arms as she collides with me. She tears at the button of the mantle. But her fingers futilely fumble and twist. I can’t hear her. I clamp the two halves of my head together for fear they’ll spill it—all the polity’s voices flooding in, their live supplications biting and pressing and swimming hard at the backs of my eyes.
It is the sensation of falling at the lip of sleep. Except I cannot jerk back up to sanity’s welcome firmament, I cannot wake—only fall and fall, spreading more with every moment, thinning into the voices and their sinking heavens as they are buffeted by the tides of time and winds of entropy. Every fibre of the vast vessel is me, and I am innumerable hopes and agonies. I am desperation multiplied seven by sevenfold, with too pregnant knowledge of the sins that accurst me.
Worse, I am not without choice.
I feel Gast’s judgment-memory, the temptation to beckon that law bring winter to the storm and freeze for preservation what structure it had. I feel the temptation of summoning up humanity’s most alien of powers, abstraction, to fight the unholy void. Blossoms of deathly white drain my cheeks, and Hettie gawps at the sheen that crystallizes my forehead.
A billion shards of ringing, scraping glass voices tune to an even keel, one dull ache of a pitch. It is the siren song of eternity. The felling of death by icy Death, an idol.
Its hunger touches me, and I recoil. My back arches, I twist and wretch and wrench us—myself, and all the things, my beloved—away.
I can’t forfend it. Any of it. I can’t surrender like Gast—I want him, everyone, I want nothing lost nor subjugated. Every voice begs witness and I can deny none, nothing—I’ll subsume--.
Hettie loses her grip as I seize with an inhuman scream, a fevered pitch shattered by the flesh of the very throat that constricted to cut it. The scream drowns as I gorge on voices. A host of forms distend my stomach, then beat and strain and contuse outward to fit the cage. My skin slinkies with bituminous currents, muscles inflame then shrivel in, joints pop. And I claw at the air, although my leaking lips near bursting—as though if I could only swallow more then it would work, the sum would be harmony. But there is no balancing principle: nature has no balance, no balance, it’s all a cacophony--. It is senseless lacerations, brutalization, violation shelling from every direction and my mind split to billions of renditions all straining different directions in flight—pulling, ripping, tearing me out. No numbness nobody and nowhere a bound for an endlessly warping cancer--.
A sharp blow lances that tumor-- Hettie’s voice punches into me like a needle.
“TAKE IT OFF, GIT!”
But I curl up in contortions, beating my gnarling hands over the mantle’s button, burbling: “Has to be—a Voice--!”
And, as the madness roars up over me in a fresh wave:
“Let them speak for their own damn selves!”
I ram against a wall, a limit, and there’s the sickening crunch of all my own thoughts condensing radically, as though to a singularity, and the slosh of all else expurged up my throat. Quiet. It’s so quiet. I toss in my bile, but the rolling voices only brush my awareness. I am subsumed by they, and so dizzy I throw up the last of the worlds I breathed in, willing or no. With that, my vision focuses.
I am back in my apartment.
The mantle falls away.
I topple to the floor, no longer sobbing, only dry-retching. Hettie doesn’t seem to notice as she crushes my now humped back and pockmarked skin in her arms and I cough dazedly into her shoulder. Her terror-stricken curses and grief can’t penetrate. I can only stare dumbly into her face.
What are you, Hettie? What--?
It’s a dumb question. Tears fill the rims of my sunken red eyes. “You saved…” Who?
“No more, Git,” she commands, cradling me so tight I can’t breathe. “Not again. Just listen. No more of--. Not any more--.”
I fall into her, leprous from my brush with the Fall, and merely sob. All is fixed, and solid, and I cling to Hettie’s broad shoulders as though only she can spare me the spinning.
Then I wake. And there I am in bed, sweat soaked in self-pity and still sobbing, because I know. Despite it all I know at bottom that I’ve woken again from a hubris dream.