A HEAP OF BROKEN IMAGES
Part II of The Perfect City
On June 28, 2004, an hour or so after midnight, a thin man sat straight before a bank of computer monitors. He had black hair, chin length and straight, perhaps a little oily, and stubble that attested to the days that had passed without a shave. On one monitor, a number of incredibly complex equations stood out in green against black, and his hand moved slowly over his keyboard, considering. On a second monitor, a fantasy role-playing game cast a bright glow over the man in friendly primaries. His other hand danced across the keyboard, calling up healing spells and blessings to aid his party against the giant woodland beast.
He didn’t notice the wobbling of his monitors at first, but wobbling quickly became shaking as the whole of the city quaked. He stood still, waited for the tremors to pass, then turned his full attention to a third monitor. His hands flew across the keys summoning up complex formulae and equations. A map of the city appeared, then red concentric circles spreading from the Loop. Finally, with a few more keystrokes, the man called up a small green dot that appeared in the center of the Loop. Then a second. A third. More began appearing further afield, and he watched, mouth agape, at each new chime.
The creaking of his bedroom door swinging open drew him to his feet, fingers shifting at his sides. He checked a security monitor, which, with a few taps of his fingers, rapidly cycled through views of his apartment. Seeing nothing worrisome, he looked out into his apartment proper, and saw his front door open. He approached cautiously, marveling at the three deadbolts that had turned open to allow the door to open. He looked down the stairs, noting his neighbors doors had all similarly opened. And below, beyond them, the door to the street stood open as well.
“Did you feel that?” asked the girl who was sheltering against Tycho’s chest. He didn’t remember her name, didn’t remember how she got pressed against him, didn’t really remember clearly how he ended up at this party in this upscale Loop apartment, its floor to ceiling windows overlooking the shorter buildings, the park, the Lake. The question annoyed him. Had there ever been one more ridiculous? He removed himself from her, grabbed the nearest bottle of liquor (coconut tequila), swigged, grimaced, and put the bottle down hard enough to break it, drawing forth a series of groans from the party-goers. He opened the fridge, drank directly from the Brita pitcher, and then left it on the counter before stumbling out into the hall. He examined his left hand for a moment, the shards of glass buried in his palm, the bright red blood that seemed almost to glow from within as it ran along the crevasses of his hand, forming symbols that bristled with meaning just outside his ken. Then he was in the elevator, then the lobby, then outside. His feet were bare, but he didn’t give a damn. He just wanted to be home. So he took off towards a hotel where he knew he could get a cab.
It was the car alarms that woke Don up. He stumbled out of bed, looked through the window, and saw several of the vehicles on the street below blaring and flashing. He heard Duchamp barking from Tycho’s place. He checked in on Ethan, but his roommate had been gone since he’d left the morning before, mumbling something to himself about “the silver dragon.” He went outside to check out the ruckus, and one of his neighbors informed him of the quake (and admired his dog). Don felt a bit off, so he decided to go for a run, heading away from the Lake with Duchamp. He felt warmth coming off of the L, so he decided to take the last train into the city.
Eitan Dimanche awoke early on the most important day of his life. He hopped out of bed and pulled on his scholar’s robes, grabbed up his stylus and paprys, then sent messages to his companions via the small clockwork bird built for that purpose. He took up his gear abacus, played with it for a few minutes (why he did this he couldn’t say… it just filled him with wonder this morning), and made his way into the common room, where his companion was smoking an exotic leaf from a hookah. He took a hit, then informed his companion that he was off to take the Silver Dragon into the City. He walked through the University and to the Wall, where the Dragon nested. He climbed the platform to the top of the wall, had his ticket punched by a dapperly dressed gentleman, and climbed on back of the Silver Dragon, an open air clockwork contraption that ran the rails into the City. He wondered aloud at it, something that wasn’t entirely out of character, and the rabbit in the trilby seated across from him agreed with him on the wonder of the contraption.
Eitan struck up a conversation with the rabbit, whose name was Harold, and he told the rabbit that he reminded him of another Harold in a trilby.
“That’s not his name, you know,” the rabbit said.
“What is his name, then?”
“What isn’t? He has so many you lose count. Want to know a secret?”
“Harold is a joke name. He’s no Harold. He’s a Herald.”
Then they chatted about angelic heralds and magic tricks as they continued along towards the City.
It was the early morning hours in the Loop, so the city was largely dead, the streets almost empty, as Tycho made his way along, seeking a ride back to Evanston, to his home and his dog.
“Look at the little cicada. He looks lost.”
The voice came from a pair of women, clearly dressed for some manner of costume party in robes of a Greek or Roman style… Tycho was no expert on historical women’s fashion. One of the women was young, quite the looker, the other a bit older, but not entirely out of the range of his interest. But he wanted to get home, and made his excuses.
“What’s at home?” the younger one asked, teasing.
“My dog, for one.”
“Also I’m bleeding.”
He looked at his hand and found it healed. “I guess not.”
They talked for a bit in this circuitous manner, and finally the younger woman offered him a hit from a pipe. He took it, noting that the two women were made up to look like statues with something like plaster or paper mache on their skin. He asked them about their jobs as living statues.
“Is that so bad? To stand still and be admired? There’s much here to be admired, no?”
“What is this?” he asked about the drugs in the pipe. They smelled of pot, but sweeter.
Her answer sounded something like “Anima eruditum.”
So he lit up and inhaled.
The door opened, and Don exited with Duchamps onto the L platform at State and Lake. He looked down at the Chicago Theater sign, and the glowing red letters took several seconds to resolve into something he could make sense of. He went down the stairs and approached the theater, passing some SAIC students sitting at the corner, and looked up at the marquee. It read “Don Shaver: One Night Only.” He moved to the door and found it locked. Instead he bathed in the overhanging lights for a time, allowing their glow to suffuse his skin. He seemed illuminated from within… and then Duchamp bolted. He took off after the dog, noticing his name on the street signs as he passed. Each intersection was as it should be – Randolph and State, Washington and State – but they were also each Don and Shaver. The street numbers on the buildings, too, drew his attention, as if they had some secret they wished to impart to him. And then he looked back for Duchamp but the puppy was gone.
He was at Madison and State, the metaphorical center of the city, the 0 point on the grid, from which all street numbers were measured. But he was also at Don Shaver and Don Shaver. There were people out, surprising for the hour, but more surprising were that they were in brightly colored robes, like the choir of some rainbow revival. He stopped one of the men, a tall individual with long, wavy hair, and asked if he’d seen the dog.
“No, man. We ain’t seen your dog.”
Don asked about the robes, and the man said he was in a band. “The Band. Not THE The Band, but The Another Band.” He invited Don to their show.
Don accepted, and joined the procession north up State.
By the time the Silver Dragon crossed the River (held in place by the Iron Seals) and crossed into the City, Harold the Rabbit had left him, leaving behind only a trilby that was sadly too small for Eitan’s head. The City was a glorious monument to human ingenuity, all crystal towers laced in silver, swirling, organic architecture, flowing floral street lamps. Even the clouds were edged in silver and swam in the spiral of the golden ratio.
Hat in hand, Eitan descended the Dragon Rail to the cobblestone street and progressed between two towers to the temple of the lions. Harold hopped from within the hat, took it, bid him farewell, and took off north.
Eitan spoke with the lions for a bit, who reminded him that Harold the Rabbit was not Harold the Herald and gave him some advice – that he shouldn’t accept what is (everything, after all, changes).
“Today’s the most important day of my life. I suppose that means it’s all downhill from here.”
“Such is the nature of time. But you know what else is wondrous about time? Eventually you hit the bottom.”
“What’s great about that?”
“Where do you go from there?”
And then a final warning: “You should watch out for the troll.”
Eitan took off after the rabbit, but then ran directly into the troll. Oops.
The troll had ashen, bluish skin, and was armored, the crest of the City emblazoned on his breastplate. They chatted about how he was bound to his fate and could do nothing outside of it. He was a protector of the people of the City, but not bound to help them find their own destinies. The troll made a deal – he’d help Eitan find the rabbit if Eitan would go save a merchant from bandits a few streets away.
The smoke went straight through Tycho’s body, past his lungs and down to his fingers, his toes. He held it in as long as he could, then exhaled with a pleasure that was like an orgasm. He didn’t feel the least like coughing. He took a second hit, as good as the first, and the world around him took on a wet, shimmering aspect, as if the edges of his vision were going watery.
“This is a city of women, you know,” the younger figure said. “The Faceless Mother. The Gilded Queen. Us. Yet we’re all always answering to that big black cock.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Industry, and this is Agriculture.”
“Where did you get this shit? It’s amazing. Can I get the name of your dealer?”
“Maybe your number? Just so I can get some more?”
“You’ll know where to find us. We just stand here, after all.”
“Let me give you some money, at least.” He handed them a twenty, and Industry’s hand slid across it, taking the color from it.
“You already understand. Nothing comes without a price. A word of advice. Tonight, you’ll have to go up, but those arms of yours won’t get you there.”
Tycho looked at his arms, then back to her.
“And one other thing: Watch out for That Thing in the Plaza. You should go. You’ve got someone coming to meet you.”
He nodded and took off towards the Lake. The other figures on the street seemed blurry, unimportant. He passed a tall figure in a hoodie in jeans, a figure that looked up into his face in the last moment before passing. Tycho registered a pair of rectangular lenses, pale skin, curls of copper hair. He kept going. At the next cross street, he found Duchamp.
“Hey Duchamp, what are you doing down here?”
“Short man brought me here!” Duchamp answered happily.
“Don? Why? Wait, you can talk?”
“I talk all the time!”
Duchamp’s leash had been dragging behind him, and when Tycho picked it up, he found the loop at the end burned away. After a moment of wonder at this and conversation with his dog, Tycho was brought back to the moment by a loud, resounding thud that shook the panes of the nearby buildings.
It sounded like a footstep.
The procession had stopped in front of a building with doors of glass set into brass (or perhaps gold). Each member of the choir took a key from around his or her neck and unlocked the door before stepping through and closing it behind them. Don felt a heavy warmth on his chest and located his own key. It was thick, made of gold, with pearlescent crystalline feathers radiating from the ring. He moved it around, watching the feathers lag slightly behind the key, like tracers. When his attention returned to the doors, the procession had finished going in, leaving him alone. He put his key into the door, opened it, and stepped through into the darkness. All around him were racks of robes like those worn by the band. He took one, choosing orange, and put it on, making sure it fit. A door opened ahead of him, pouring warm light from it. He entered it, the elevator, and looked over the buttons, which had symbols on them he didn’t recognize. He pressed the highest one. As the elevator rose, he looked through the window on the far side of it into an impossibly dark abyss. The indicator on the inside of the elevator was the same color as his robes, and it moved across the top of the door like the arc of the sun’s journey. Finally the elevator passed beyond the darkness, into a closed, stone shaft.
The bell ring and the car came to its stop. The doors opened. The light poured in.
Eitan found the merchant’s shop indicated by the troll, a small grocer’s stall in the base of one of the crystalline towers, nestled between a money lender’s and a seller of exotic foods from the far east. Eitan walked through the door and was immediately greeted with a crossbow bolt to the heart. He spun, hit the wall, and slid down it. As he watched, a second bandit fired on the merchant, who dropped, bolt protruding from his throat. Eitan watched, and the lion’s words came back to him.
“No… I don’t accept this.”
Eitan walked through the door into the shop, leapt immediately over the counter. The crossbow bolt took him in the rib, and he fell heavily atop the merchant, whose head hit the counter top, leaving a bloody trail down it. They both hit the ground hard, the merchant’s neck with a sickening crunch. Eitan refused again.
Eitan walked through the door into the shop, leapt immediately upon one of the bandits, smashing him over the head with his mechanical abacus. The second bandit turned on him, but Eitan willed the man’s bowstring to snap, and it did, sending the bolt across his cheek. The first bandit stood and stabbed at Eitan with a knife, but Eitan caught the knife with a fruit, then bashed him again. He took the two bandits, pulled out a dagger, and stuck them to the wall by their clothing, telling the merchant to flee and call on the guard.
He knew then, that there were so many ways this could have turned out. So many things that could have happened. Things that had to happen. Things that could change. Things that couldn’t. It was a matrix of possibility, and he stood at its origin.
He set off to find the troll.
Tycho fled, Duchamp ahead of him, down the wide streets of Chicago, as the massive footsteps followed at a block’s remove. As he passed an intersection, he caught a glimpse of the thing as it made the intersection a block down in a single stride: it was impossibly huge, all metal girders, like a spider that had curled up and died only to become the ribcage of some great primate. He saw the glow of the L tracks ahead of him and made for them, running below them. Whatever the thing was, it stopped, unwilling to cross the tracks.
Tycho and Duchamp made their way along under the tracks towards the Quincy Station, but as he approached, the stairs into the station rose from the street, then, like the lower jaw of some great lizard, they opened, speaking: “You should run.”
Then Tycho heard a sound like a low, rolling thunder. He didn’t look back, but ran, Duchamp at his side. He pounded, barefoot down the street, the soles of his feet thickening into dog-like pads, and then he took a tight corner, letting what pursued him continue past.
It was a stampede of bulls of every size and shape, some small and stone, some massive bronze.
Then they were past, and Tycho continued walking… until he saw a small white creature that, birdlike, took off ahead of him. He felt a predatory need to consume it.
He gave chase.
Don exited into near-blinding daylight. The sky was a perfect cerulean, broken only by tiny whitecaps of the thinnest clouds. The buildings of Chicago rose all around him, and he wondered if the numbers of their floors was significant, too, if when combined with their street numbers, with the street names, they unlocked the secrets of Chicago.
Erected on the rooftop was a large, rectangular tent. Don walked forward, lifted the flap, and entered. Inside he found rows of empty folding chairs leading up to a low stage, where The Another Band was loading in. The man with wavy hair smiled beatifically down on him.
“Why do you play?” Don asked.
“Why DO I play?” the man answered.
“Because you’re a band?”
“No. We’re a band because we play. Why do we play?”
Don shook his head, confused.
“Why do you do radio?”
“Because I want to?”
“Is it mere desire?”
“I feel driven to.”
“Drive. That’s the rub.”
“That’s not that unusual,” Don said.
“Isn’t it though? How many people do you know, your friends your family, your classmates, how many of them do what they were driven to do? How many do what they wanted to do as children? How many even do what they wanted to as students?”
“And you? Are you doing what you’re driven to?”
“Are you really?”
“I guess not.” He didn’t really want to be sitting behind the console at a shitty Evanston 80s station.
“It’s a little embarrassing isn’t it?”
“A little. But I’m going to do what I want to do. I’m going to try.”
“Trying’s not enough.”
“I’m going to do.”
The man smiled again. “Do you want to join our band?”
“I can sing, I guess.”
The man extended his hand, and pulled Don up onto the stage. “Are you sure about this? Once you join, there’s no return.”
Don nodded, then he noticed the knife in the man’s hand.
It slid into Don’s stomach.
Eitan found the troll. “I did it! I saved the merchant!”
“So you can tell me where the rabbit is.”
“You can tell ME where the rabbit is.”
Eitan considered for a moment. “Three blocks north, then one on the right.”
Eitan took off in the direction mentioned, passing two crystalline blocks rising from a shallow pool in which played small-statured individuals with pointed ears. Inside the blocks danced impossible figures of prismatic beauty. Eitan continued and passed a massive crystal ball that reflected him.
He came upon a long, silver snake with scales like shingles, and he climbed its back. It began slithering among the buildings, finally rearing up and biting the bottom of a tower with a sheer diamond apex. There he met Harold, who wished him well, then jumped into his own hat, reached out of it, and pulled the hat into itself, vanishing.
Tycho chased the bird book thing as it winged (paged?) along, until it gained altitude. He leapt to grab it but missed. Then he noticed a familiar figure loping towards him from the darkness. It was Ethan.
“There you are! Look around you! This is madness. Everything is wrong!”
“It’s very strange.”
“The buildings, they’re not right?”
“Where have you been, Ethan?”
“Don’t use that name!”
“What should I call you?”
“Olmsted, obviously. Look Sullivan, everything’s wrong!”
“Oh. Is this part of the vision? Are you from the future or something?”
“From the…. OH. Right, the Opener of Ways. Wait, no. You would have told me, wouldn’t you have? If you’d seen me.”
“Maybe I won’t?” Tycho glanced down at Duchamp. When he looked back up, Ethan was gone.
Above, the bird book flapped up around a towering phallic obelisk of smooth obsidian. Tycho tried to climb it, but slid down it. There were no footholds. Then, realizing based on his location that this had to be the Sears Tower, he walked around the base, looking for one of the building’s many entrances. He made two circuits without locating a way in.
He remembered the words of the statue woman: “You’ll have to go up, but those arms won’t get you there.”
So he stepped back, took a run, and leapt. As he did, his feet changed, scaling over, his toenails extending into claws. His arms went out to either side, instinctually, then sprouted feathers. He was a bird, then, and his muscles burned as he pushed himself into the air. He flew along the flat surface of the tower, rising, exulting in the rush of the wind, in the altitude. As he reached the apex of the tower he saw the observation deck and an open window there, like a gaping maw. He flew into it, alighting, and the maw closed behind him, teeth-like shards of glass melting together. He was no longer a bird. He wondered aloud at the incredible experience.
“That it was,” came voice from behind him. He turned to it.
It was his mother.
Don stumbled backwards, swinging his fists at the bandleader, but missing. He fell backwards from the stage as the band began to play a form of choir-rock that filled the tent with solid waves of sound. Don put his hands to his wounds, but the blood within him was fire, and it singed his skin. It burst forth in a gout, lighting the roof of the tent and causing it to ripple away. Then the fire began to pour forth from his ears, his eyes, his nostrils, and he was burning, just as the band had begun to burn, all wreathed in bright blue fire. He opened his mouth and sang, face upturned, and the heavens opened, revealing a night sky filled with celestial spheres and moons bound to planets by wires and gears. The rays of the sun moved opposite one another like the teeth of a pair of clippers. He looked back down to the band, and they’d transformed into chrome angels, their heads turned towards the sky, their metal wings splayed behind them, backs arched like hood ornaments.
They all sang.
Tycho spoke to his mother.
“You have chosen the most difficult road. The road that walks between. Between man and woman. Between sickness and health. Between spirit and flesh. You must be strong to survive it.”
“When did I make this choice?” he asked.
“You made it with your soul. The when is not relevant.”
They spoke for a time, and then she said, “This is what you sought.” It was the book. As he approached it, he saw that it was made of stone. He lifted it and turned the pages, which felt like heavy vellum but looked carved of stone. Each page had characters he couldn’t recognize, but he knew somehow that they were all names. Some were struck out in blood. He went to the earliest pages. They were filled with simple, primal things – pictograms, bloody handprints. He flipped to the last page, it was blank.
“Do I sign this?”
“Your soul wants you to.”
“And if I don’t?”
“You go back.”
“I agree with my soul. Do you have a pen?”
“You have the ink you need.”
He felt a sharp pain in his hand and saw that the glass from the tequila still jutted from his palm. He pulled out the glass, rubbed his hands together, and put a bloody left handprint in the book. He felt power rush up his arm and through his body, tearing open his already open eyes. When he looked back to his mother, her face was missing, and laurels rested in her hair.
“I’ve been called that.”
He looked out over the city and saw fires burning in many windows. Where there weren’t fires, there were often burn marks. He blinked, and it all was gone. He was alone, in the observation deck of the Sears Tower, not entirely sure how he actually got there.
The band parted before Don and revealed a radio tower just belong them, an old-style one, short and pyramidal, shining and made of gold. He crossed the stage and approached, finding the metal crossbeams to bear symbols in silver. He climbed to the apex and found an old radio there. Rather than a dial, it had a keyhole. Don didn’t hesitate. He put the key into the hole and turned.
Electricity danced across the dome of the night sky, gathered in the center, and arced down in a bolt, striking Don and throwing him from the tower. He landed lightly at its base as the remnants of the tent burned down around him. Everything made sense now. He was Chicago. He was fire, and he was blood. His name was the city’s name. Of course he’d been born here, of course he’d come to school here. Of course he’d found his secret self in the center of the city. He felt sudden disgust for both Burgess and Ellsworth and the way they’d attempted to manipulate the city. He threw the electricity that danced in his hair, in his fingertips, back into the sky, and it illuminated the stars.
Then he knew everything. He was one with the cosmos. Later he’d describe it as his soul being bombarded with arcane knowledge it wasn’t prepared for, so much information that it fundamentally shifted his understanding of the universe. But at the time, it was simply gnosis.
And then the moment was past, and it deflated, along with his vision, like a hot air balloon robbed of its heat, and he was left alone at the top of the Macy’s building in the Loop.
The diamond tower included an open archway from which grew thorned vines of silver like razor wire. Eitan stepped from the snake’s head into the archway and made his way through a dark corridor, the thorns baiting at his skin, reopening the wound he got on the glass at Ellsworth’s house. He stepped into a pentagonal chamber with walls of equal length, and he realized that joining the points of the room would create a pentagram, which included triangles whose sides were in lengths described by the golden ratio. Phi, he realized, was everywhere, not just the spiral. He took up a large, silver thorn and began inscribing the pentagram in the floor. As he did so, glowing silver writing appeared all around him, though he couldn’t read any of the listed names. As he finished, he realized he was no longer in a chamber, but under the bows of five massive trees, each carved with moon silver characters. He moved to the point of the pentagram and signed his name before driving the thorn into the earth. With that, he felt suddenly the importance of himself in this moment. Of all the other places he could be at all of the other times. All of them were absolutely wrong. He was, for the first time in his life, in absolutely the right place at absolutely the right time.
Tycho used the elevator to descend to the ground floor of the tower, then simply walked out of the building. He found Duchamp waiting for him, but the dog didn’t seem to have anything more to say. He checked his phone and found a couple of missed calls and a message. He listened to the message first.
“This is a call for Tycho Swords. You are listed as the emergency contact for an Ethan Moody. Mr. Moody is currently in Intensive Care at Cook County Hospital. He’s been shot.”
As he spoke on the phone, he was approached by the familiar figure of Don, who had descended the stairs from the Macy’s building and been wandering the streets of the Loop, trying to understand what had happened to him. They exchange brief, confused notes, realize that oh yeah, Ethan’s in the hospital, and start making their way to see him.