:: Article

The Revelation at the Rampart

Part four of six.

By Nicholas Rombes

A false wall, prior to the wall itself.

Bronson had been prepared for this, as had, apparently, Barnes. Quarried and built around the same time as the original wall, this one’s purposes remained obscure. Some pilgrims stopped their trek here to pay their forced respects, mistakenly believing they had arrived at the wall. It rose impressively, Bronson had to admit, from the landscape: its clean limestone lines, its sheer whiteness in the sun, the way it seemed somehow to divide nature from itself.

As they approached, the wall towered higher than it appeared possible, as if it had grown as they came nearer. At least twenty metres high and stretching enormous distances across the vast plain. First they entered its cool shadow, and then came to the wall itself which seemed to have exploded out of the ground rather than been built upon it. A flock of drones passed silently overhead, their shadows racing across the plain towards Bronson and Barnes and then disappearing into the wall’s shadow. The sound from the other side was faint at first, and it was Barnes who noticed it. He put his finger to his lips to signal silence and cocked his head. Then Bronson heard it too, a faint irregular tapping on the stone. If you listened carefully enough you could discern a pattern, or impose one.

Bronson was not unhappy to use one of the oiled tools he had been carrying for this mission, as he thought that perhaps in seeing it Barnes would betray some hint of recognition. But when he took the tool from his knapsack and carefully undid the white cloth that kept its parts from scarring each other, Barnes’s face remained blank, unchanged. If he had never seen the tool before, he didn’t let on. And if it was a familiar object to him, his face remained obscure on that point too. In silence, Bronson assembled first the tripod, and then the echo-set, and then localized the hand-held screen until there appeared on it, like some analog sonogram, two blurred, under-pixilated figures on the other side of the wall. Who or what they were was impossible to say. Perhaps animals, like the one that had followed them earlier.

“What do you think?” Bronson asked Barnes, showing him the screen.

Barnes considered it. “That they’re watching us too,” he said.

“They?”

For the first time, Barnes smiled, and even clasped Bronson on the shoulder.

“Oh, Bronson!” he said. “Us!”

*          *          *

That the two figures on the other side of the false wall might be, in fact, themselves, seemed impossible to Bronson, until be began to think about it more carefully, which he did that night. Increasingly, Bronson came to believe that Barnes had been sent with him on this mission to keep an eye on him or, worse, to make certain that Bronson, having repaired the wall, never returned. Barnes’s easy, quiet confidence, his aloofness, his remoteness, all this Bronson interpreted as a subtle exercise of power. In fact, Bronson had come to view Barnes as an extension of the wall itself. But why?

Bronson knew the answer, had known it since he first received his instructions: he was being sent to the wall not to repair it, but to destroy it. The age of symbols was over. They weren’t real enough, and what wasn’t real no longer existed. Representation itself, of what use was it other than to obscure the real? The wall, at one time, had been a symbol of something, but what? This ambiguity was precisely what had saved the wall from destruction. As long as its meaning was unclear, the Empire could care less whether it existed or not. But once the wall again began to assume the shape of meaning and assert itself as something, it posed a threat. Reattached to a referent, the “wall” spiraled out of the tight, pressure-locked linguistic controls of the Empire. Meaning begat meaning.

A sudden flood of memory: Evelyn trying on perfumes at a department store on the exposed pale undersides of her small wrists.

*          *          *

What did Barnes mean when he suggested that it was “us” on the other side of the false wall? That the sonogrammed image was a reflection, an echo of Barnes and Bronson? Or that Barnes and Bronson were literally there, on the other side of the wall, at the same time that they were on this side? Perhaps Barnes was just spouting nonsense. Or perhaps it was a parable. And yet there were two figures there on the other side of the wall, which Bronson wouldn’t have known about were it not for the instrument, and which Barnes did not seem in the least bit surprised by, as if he had not only anticipated but expected their presence.

After half a day’s westerly walk parallel to the false wall, they reached the end and headed north again, the wall receding in the distance. Soon, the plain gave way to outcroppings of trees and they stopped at a good-sized lake where they gathered water, caught fish, and rested. And then north again into a vast pine forest that held the cool air and seemed untouched by the will of the Empire. For most of the time Bronson walked in front and on the straight parts Barnes followed in sync, step for step, so that it sounded to Bronson as if he was walking alone. In these long stretches he wondered what the differences were, really, between the false wall and the real wall they were headed towards. At certain points the forest was so thick with trees that he felt it difficult to generate any thought at all, and so he walked without thinking, his legs mechanically carrying him forward. Without knowing how it happened his hands had become sticky with pine sap.

They reversed positions: now Bronson followed Barnes. The forest stretched on and on as if only to create the very conditions of its own existence. Bronson imagined for a while that the forest was the wall. As a child he had heard that the wall had been stuffed with bodies of the Empire’s enemies, so that it was really a graveyard. A mass grave. And other stories that it wasn’t built by the Empire at all, but by the kingdom or whatever it was that the Empire had conquered hundreds of years ago. And others yet that it wasn’t a wall at all but something natural, something of nature itself. The wall appeared and disappeared from history books. Often it was spoken of, and then suddenly it was not. It appeared on stamps and then those stamps were confiscated, along with the envelopes they were affixed to. A story made the rounds that those without limbs had had them forcibly removed to eradicate the symbols of the wall that had been tattooed upon them. Then just as suddenly the wall was heralded on all the Empire’s banners. The wall became a natural resource and then, the next week, a toxic waste site. A documentary about the wall’s early existence was shown on television and the following night the same documentary was re-advertised as a feature film masquerading as a documentary.

It’s safe to say that people of Bronson’s generation were raised to have a schizophrenic relationship with the wall, at once desiring and detesting it, acknowledging its existence and then disavowing it, and on and on. As darkness seeped into the pine forest Bronson thought about this, and then suddenly realized that Barnes was gone. Bronson stopped, called out his name. It was the first time he had spoken all day and the sound of his own voice startled him.

“Barnes,” he said, and the name just hung there in the air for a moment and then disappeared, along with Barnes himself.

Suddenly Bronson felt stupid standing there alone in the forest. So he kept walking, alone, until it was too dark to continue.

And then he made his camp for the night.

*          *          *

As he slept in the dark, Bronson could not have known that the black sky had filled with silent drones so completely autonomous that even to their ground controllers their purpose was obscure, or that the forest ferns produced haploid spores that traveled impossible distances, or that Evelyn was sleeping also on some other patch of the earth, or that he had not yet even arrived at the deepest part of the forest, or that the animals that had followed he and Barnes earlier were still nearby and that they weren’t animals at all but, like the drones, machines in the guise of animals, created by the Empire for the simple reason that they could be created and once created set loose to explore, as if the Empire, having already discovered and mapped itself, created these things to experience itself anew, not through the eyes of humans but machines, and not to collect information but to forget information so that it could be discovered again as if for the first time, or that one theory of the wall—being debated at this very moment by functionaries of the Empire—was that the wall existed only insofar as it receded from view, a perpetually vanishing vanishing point, and that Bronson’s useless, carefully tended tools were already antiques aged beyond use and that he had been on this journey for a very, very long time, not days but months.

Or years.

*          *          *

In the morning he continued, without Barnes, passing through the thickest part of the forest and then out into an expanse of grasslands that gave way to a village whose flags bore woven symbols that Bronson had not seen before. Three men with wooden rifles spotted him on the outskirts and followed him casually as he took the road that skirted the town. They didn’t threaten him. He imagined that, if he had wanted to, they would have let him enter the village.

It wasn’t that he missed Barnes—what was there to miss?—but rather that he missed the idea of Barnes’s presence, as quiet and unobtrusive and even menacing as it was. There was Barnes, and there was the absence of Barnes. It was the absence he missed, which was really a short of haunted presence, for without Barnes in the first place there would have been no absence. As Bronson left the village behind the road straightened out and after a few miles took him by another lime quarry, larger than the previous one, an impossibly sharp-angled cube subtracted from the earth, a pool of bright, glass-flat turquoise water at the bottom. He stood at the edge, peering in, and knew that the wall was not far off, and that the stone from this quarry had been used to build it. Three very large birds circled silently in the sky above him, and he sensed he was being watched in a way he hadn’t felt before.

If it was true that the drones had evolved somehow as self-sustaining machines detached from the Empire itself, then why did the Empire allow them to exist? What data could they possibly be gathering and transmitting, and to whom or what? Bronson suddenly felt the urge to shoot one down, to watch it with the eyes of an insurgent spiral into the turquoise water far below. Better yet to have it fall at his feet so that he could, with his bare hands, determine once and for all what it was made of, where evolution had taken it. What would it feel like to grab hold of the neck of one of those things and squeeze until the lights or cameras or whatever of its eyes went out? Did it store the data it collected or just transmit it raw and unfiltered to the nearest antenna tower? Could it fly alone or did it need the others (they always appeared in flocks) to navigate?

That night, Bronson slept near the edge of the quarry not hoping to sleepwalk over the edge into the pit but not hoping not to either as the night sky filled again with drones flocking and scattering in silence and shitting whatever it is that machines shit, the exhaust not of animals of but of engines, engines of thought and malice now detached from their makers and flying amok in the sky above the land of the Empire upon which Bronson slept, swooping down close to him in the night, dragging their bird-like feet across the top of the tall prairie grass, their machine thoughts unformed and digitally rigid but beginning to expand beyond the binary into something sentient in an animal sort of way.

Bronson slept. The earth spun. The Empire expanded and contracted in the night like a breathing creature. And the wall arranged itself in anticipation of his arrival.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Rombes writes for The RumpusThe Oxford American, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor and writes the Blue Velvet Project. His work has appeared in The BelieverWigleafExquisite Corpse, and other places. He teaches in Detroit, Michigan, and can be found here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 3rd, 2012.