The Revelation at the Rampart
Part one of six.
By Nicholas Rombes.
Bronson had been assigned to repair a remote part of the wall, in an obscure area of the Empire. The notice had come, like it always did, in the curiously old-fashioned form of a note in a sealed envelope beneath his door. It was there in the morning, a simple folded slip of paper in the envelope with the coordinates, a time-line, an all-zones passport, a contact number, the familiar list of instructions, and a credit card. If this sounds mysterious and romantic, the stuff of spy novels, then consider that Bronson was a mere field engineer, a repairer of structures, part laborer, part designer, part theorist.
The theorist part, that’s what would get him into trouble at the end.
But for now, he had a job to do, one that he understood would take him to the furthest edges of the Empire, where the wall hardly seemed to matter. He checked the coordinates again and spread out his map on the floor, tracing in blue pencil a line from where he was now to the place he was going. Not quite as far as he thought, but still a week’s journey, at least.
He went back to the envelope, and only then noticed that there were two passports, not one. The first one had his name and photo. The second contained an unfamiliar face and photo, someone whose name was Barnes. He looked at the instructions again, typed on an index card. They were the same as always, with the exception of a new one, typed at the bottom of the card in a font that appeared to be from a different typewriter than the rest. It read: Join with Barnes at mile 9 and continue to destination together.
That night, Bronson had a terrible dream. In it, he stood before a vast oil painting in what might have been a museum, a painting that was so large that he couldn’t stand far enough away to take it all in. The room was cold and quiet, except for a noise that seemed to come from the painting itself, from a small human figure lost in the orange and red oils, and the figure required that he stand very close to the painting to see it, so close that he could smell the linseed oil, and on the horizon of what appeared to be a vast desert was the human figure, on a horse, and the noise it emitted was faint, like the buzzing of a bee, and he became dizzy and lost the horizon line and his perspective and in that instant realized that the voice he heard in the painting was that of his lost sister Evelyn, crying out to him from the depths of the painting, not even from a photograph, which represented something real at least, but from a painting, so that she was abstract, nothing more than a brushstroke on a canvas, and yet a moving brushstroke, moving slowly across the painting from left to right, as if the artist was not yet finished, waiting for Bronson to put his ear to the painting to hear her scream, her mouth spewing red paint.
The walk to mile 9 was familiar. Through the outskirts of the largely abandoned village, down into the valley, due west, until the remnants of the old city came into view, its cracked cobblestones, the toppled First Presbyterian church spire still dangling from the structure, its upside down cross like some alien warning symbol, the granite-faced library with its smashed-in windows, and then, in the distance to the east, across the river that divided the city, the smoke from the camp settlements.
What had happened here?
The same thing that had happened everywhere.
At 9 mile there was a man, leaning against a splintering telephone pole, a russet duffel bag at his feet. His shoes were large and black. His hair was crow-black too, greased back like an old-time punk crooner, thought Bronson. An unsteady smile crossed his face as Bronson approached.
“Bronson?” he asked.
“The one and only. Up until now,” Bronson said. “Up until you.”
“I’m not Bronson. I’m Barnes.”
“I know. Seems we’ve been teamed-up for a job,” said Bronson, meeting Barnes’s eyes for the first time. They were, as Barnes would recall much later, blue, and if he could be certain of anything from that first meeting, that was it.
“Good to meet you Bronson,” Barnes said, extending his hand, his palm up. For a moment, Barnes didn’t know what to do. Instinctively, he reached his hand out, too, and they shook, firmly. How long had it been since Bronson had done such a simple, fundamental thing as shake another’s hand?
The sky above them had changed slowly from blue to purple, casting everything in a weirdly menacing violet light. The clouds appeared distended, stretching low to the ground as if they carried something heavier than moisture. Without another word, they began their journey, heading east along the city perimeter, skirting the motorway with its now-meaningless signs. As always when Bronson’s mind began to wander his thoughts found their way back to his sister Evelyn, who had gone missing over a decade ago, just out of university, and the letters he had received from her that he had begun to suspect weren’t really from her at all. Evelyn. Her shocking red hair. Her barrettes. Her missing left pinky from the accident. Her fierce, troublesome skepticism about the empire.
Almost immediately, Bronson and Barnes developed a rhythm to their walk, and over the course of that first day a set of unspoken rules took shape: no small talk; walk not side-by-side but one in front of the other, switching positions when it seemed right; eyes and ears open for whatever lay ahead. The most remarkable feature of the landscape was its relentless sameness, and if they hadn’t been paying close attention it might have seemed to Bronson and Barnes that they had passed the same locations several times, as if walking in a circle.
“I’ve never worked with anyone before,” said Barnes, near the end of the first day.
“Me neither. Who gave you the assignment? Who told you to wait for me at 9 mile?”
“Likely the same ones who told you to find me there,” said Barnes.
“What did they say about me?”
“That your name was Bronson, and that you would be coming. And that I was to trust you.”
Trust? Who could trust anyone anymore? Did Bronson consider himself trustworthy? Or, put another way, did Bronson trust Barnes? At this point it didn’t matter; trust didn’t enter into the equation of what they were doing. Neither of them depended on each other yet. Each could complete the journey without the help of the other, although at the end everything could change.
They slept that night beside the locks of an old canal, its stones carved with revolutionary slogans and the names of lovers. As he sometimes did before falling asleep, Bronson made a list in his mind of the things he could be certain of as a way, he supposed, to confirm that his sense of reality was not suspect. His sister Evelyn; he was certain of her. And the man beside him, Barnes; of him Bronson was certain. The fact of the grass beneath his blanket, and the sound of the water in the canal, and the insects that he could hear in the nearby trees, and the blank, black sky without even a star, and the beating of his heart.
Of these things Bronson could be certain. This gave him comfort enough to fall asleep. In the morning, he would wake up, inexplicably, on the other side of the canal.
And that was just the beginning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Rombes writes for The Rumpus, The Oxford American, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor and writes the Blue Velvet Project. His work has appeared in The Believer, Wigleaf, Exquisite Corpse, and other places. He teaches in Detroit, Michigan, and can be found here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 10th, 2012.