The legend of Sursum Antigone and Under Tao One
[ fiction - september 12 ]
When Sursum Antigone, his pseudonym drawn from a Latin phrase and a Greek play, arrived at the tower, he was shivering from cold. In his Anglicised understatement he would have wished to say it was rather chilly, but he let out an Americanism and muttered it was fucking freezing. Then he scaled the tower and killed all left inside.
Millennia ago, in a parallel universe, human beings were technologically and telepathically advanced and physically perfect. It was painful, excruciatingly so, but they could inject the brain with an antioxidant that inhibited illness, age and death. They had abandoned the concept of happiness but were satisfied. They liked order, to which they appended ritual, and they all wore black, except that each person could choose a bright colour for their lining and, as a group walked, the breeze would flick back their cloaks to reveal iridescent silks like rainbows. A colour first chosen was a colour for life. Under the perpetual clouds that sheltered every city, for they had gathered all the ozone into clusters, people walked and conducted their lives with prescribed dignity and engaged in deep learning. Machines served them and a captive, largely mindless, sub-species provided them procreation-free sexual pleasure. Any fantasy could be inscribed into the captive of one’s choice.
There was a parliament which was speech-free, for all decisions were taken telepathically with all reservations and variations of policy instantly and automatically sifted to allow consensus both broadly and in all details. Each person was also a warrior on call, for numerous members of the sub-species were restless, but only those especially chosen, trained and licenced could kill. Sursum Antigone was one of these.
Death only came in battle. For the others, unendingness meant the recession of time. History no longer existed, in the sense that no ending ever measured it. But, for those who had to do battle, rank and file would hope the trained assassins would always be successful, report that the enemy battalions had been destroyed, and that timelessness could be reassured in their lives. For those who assumed the burden of killing, and risked their lives most, huge rewards were proffered - which Sursum Antigone invariably refused, returning to a house by the sea, on the very edge of the ozone cover, streaks of blue on the horizon. If one day he fell in battle, he knew he would be recloned - but he also knew the facsimile would not be Sursum Antigone, pure and nuanced. One day they would perfect the militarised android and the assassins could retire. Sursum Antigione hoped this would not happen. He enjoyed killing.
The most advanced sub-species had escaped laboratories where they had been developed for service. Endowed with propensities for cleanliness and decorum they were reputed to have no organisational capacity, limited speech but great comeliness. No one knew how, once escaped, they had developed what seemed like envy. Those who remained in service were therefore granted great material comforts - to the extent they could appreciate them - and seemed generally docile and faithful. Those on the outside would maraud in loose cells and lived in high places. Eventually, skin melanomas would kill them but, until then, they were the only unpredictable factor in the transcontinental republic of Nauta Nova wheeling in its perfect orbit of the sun.
No one knew how the sub-species, lacking organisational capacity, made common cause and sustained it in their isolated cells. Without great intelligence, they developed no military strategies but could fight with individual savagery. Yet, on the occasions - rare - that they took a prisoner, they would show great mercy, solicitude and, on the next full moon, release their captive. Those they killed in battle, they dismembered and buried the parts separately. Their own losses were huge and gave rise to their only ritual, which was mourning. Sursum Antigone had only to kill one, and the others would be harmless for the protracted practice of grief. But he usually killed them all, or several. An assassin had no qualms. An assassin trained every day, the computer in his sword sending instant signals to his brain. There were female assassins as well. These used twin blades and, as a result, had brains of greater complexity. A captured blade was of no use to the sub-species, since they had no receivers in their heads. They fought with long-handled scythes, hoping reach would compensate skillessness and their lack of technology. Sursum Antigone would use another Americanism, describing his exploits as turkey shoots.
At times, his fallen foes strewn around him, he would ask how they had acquired, or made, but probably acquired such elegant armour - like overlapping autumn leaves - but he pondered briefly, anxious now, his blood-letting done, to escape the naked sky and retreat to his house where heaven’s beauty was guardedly rationed; where, at night, streaks of stars would have him wondering about superior worlds across great distances. The waves would wash in and Sursum Antigone, his sexual sub at his side, would wax philosophical and briefly poetic.
But his counterpart, who had no recollection of how he became a leader, Under Tao One, would watch the full skies in rhapsody, mindless but appreciative rhapsody. He had no companion, had little long-term memory, but knew his skin had been burnt almost black - and when it began to flake, charcoal, it would be a sign of the end - while his hair, long, had been bleached almost white. He, or was it she? - gender was one of those faded laboratory memories - inclined to she, for he, she, it found himself practising each coruscating morning with twin scythes, and a determination to slice in three Sursum Antigone.
So Under Tao One understood nemesis, understood antipathy, understood polar opposite, understood the one key to preserving his people - understood not at all that these were enough in themselves for an almost complete sense of agency, understood not at all that his nightly rhapsodies made him a magus of rebellion, dangerous, a perpetual price on his head, a creature sought by Sursum Antigone - with the purple lining on his coats - a huntsman for such soul as the laboratories had failed to prevent. Under Tao One swore in single syllables to the stars that he would free his people and they would inhabit the wide boulevards of Nauta Nova. He would spin under the stars till he fainted. Every time when he awoke, he felt briefly like the hourglass of the universe. His sand was running out but, when he died, so would Sursum Antigone. When Sursum Antigone fell, the foremost champion of Nauta Nova would also have fallen.
Neither Sursum Antigone nor Under Tao One was given to reflection - and not self-reflection. Each knew he had an enemy. Each wanted to kill the other. Each watched, timelessly in the case of one, mindlessly in the case of the other, the stars career across heaven.
The problem for Sursum Antigone was that, trained to telepathies and to receive complex thoughts, the subs were an enigma to him. Either they had no mental complexity or they shielded it from him, both in serving him or trying to kill him. When they died by his sword, they made not a simple shrieking conjugation: I am dying, I am about to die, I will die, I would not die if I could find a way not to die, must not die, I am fighting death, I am dying. They just faded like a light being turned off, rapidly, thoughtlessly, almost like a television screen symmetrically.
Not being able to read them, Sursum Antigone needed the sword’s computer. Even without the computer he was sure his tactical knowledge and superior training would carry any day, but he had never been tested in this manner. Under Tao One had slain two assassins and no one knew how he had done it. Under Tao One himself scarcely knew.
But spy sensors had glimpsed him in training - always running up hill and spinning, always spinning with his twin scythes. You never knew, when he came out of the spin, whether one scythe would thrust at you or arc out of the spin and by the time you reacted, the other would strike you. The computer in his opponent’s sword needed to digest much information at once. And Under Tao One was much given to feinting and even the double feint. The computer could confuse you with its constantly changing instructions. An assassin had to be very fast, very agile, very trained to face Under Tao One. Sursum Antigone trained everyday with this in mind. Once kill Under Tao One and the rebellion would fall apart, and no one else span or feinted like him. No one else could kill an assassin by himself. All other assassin casualties had fallen in ambushes by many sub fighters. Under Tao One, alone, would venture single combat. He gave people hope.
He himself, in his desert mountain fastness, imagined being able, one day, to bisect the fastidious boulevards of Nauta Nova with circular roads. It would look pretty, he said, thus revealing he had aesthetics as well as urgency. His people took their cue and designed a flag with a single great circle- a zero, a Zen flower, a compass, an enclosure. We will embrace the enemy when we are victorious, he told them. They were not made to die. We neither. We were made to last until obsolescence. We died to make room for new models. In the desert we have lost that obsolescence. So he had not only a notion, but a concept, of freedom. The child, Under Tao One, with his grown body and his developed reflexes, leading a children’s crusade. Children grow.
Sursum Antigone liked to kill because he hated perpetuity. He was doomed to perpetuity and was determined to test it in himself and end it in others. Not historical, ancestral: he had an ancestral urge towards finitude. On his forehead was tattooed a single opaque dot. A full stop. But he was revered in the councils of Nauta Nova for his skills and his modesty - his simplicity of life, his quiet habits - and, when he spoke in council, he was invariably well received. Elders thus had their thoughts pre-set by him when they entered the speechless parliament.
The parliament’s decision was that the rebellious sub-species had either to be taken back within control or exterminated. Even if the Nautae Novae were perpetual, the planet’s resources were not. Life could be perpetuated in the cities, where a full recycling and recirculation occurred, and horticulture was conducted in tall skyscrapers under artificial light. But the rebellious subs had to use carbon fuels for their enclaves and, even though the rebels numbered thousands rather than millions, the planet’s balance was precarious and even two hundred campfires every night were enough to erode the husbanded ozone. Since the rebels refused offers of reassimilation and materially-rewarded service they had to be destroyed. Everyone had to be on their guard, but the Wonderful Assassins - as they were popularly called - bore the risks, took the risks and, nine times out of ten, returned to the cities victorious. They slew hundreds of rebels but thousands remained. They could not breed but regularly, when the Nauta Nova found their servants had quietly disappeared - just not been available for fantasy that evening - they knew they had answered some wordless invitation floating on the ether from the barren deserts to the delicately regreened cities. In a way, Sursum Antigone would not have been dismayed to see Nauta Nova subside into the deserts - to see an end to it all, to have a universal finitude. All that telepathic effort to suck in the ozone to cover the cities - all that forced correspondence with a nature grown recalcitrant - left not only a covering of clouds but a sense of mental weight holding down the clouds and bearing through them upon the black-suited citizens with their flamboyant linings.
At nights Under Tao One would wear a Nauta Nova cape with gold lining - a gift received from a captured assassin who was performing a compulsory ritual of thanks for his freedom. It had been done with dignity if not grace, and had been accompanied by a speech that was melodic. Under Tao One received the cape wordlessly, but did bow slightly as recognition of the gesture. Then he gave the assassin back his sword and the small crowd of subs sent him soundlessly, perhaps a little sourly, on his way. The assassin had observed his rituals but had not once smiled in his captivity or given any recognition that his captors were creatures with capacities, feelings, or even a sense of their future. These were limited to be sure, but the assassin demonstrated his own not at all. Ever after, in the cold evenings, Under Tao One wore the cloak and asked for the campfire to burn as if only one person needed warming.
Early mornings found him practising his spins. He realised one day that, if he weighted the cloak, it made him train harder. The spins were harder until, of course, they became even faster. Daily he felt fog lift a little from his brain. If I can connect my thoughts before I die, he said, I will be able to leave something for my people. His skin was drying. The melanomas might appear long before Sursum Antigone found him and challenged him. He had to challenge Sursum Antigone first, but he had to complete his train of thought before then. Already he had developed a sense of priority and a sense of the future as more than a series of disconnected actions of resistance. Black dervish of the mountains, he seemed to be praying for clarity - the clear complex train of synapse, synergy, synchronised, something, anything, to intrude upon the syncopation of his thought. The spins are smooth, he said, the circles are smooth. Why can I not be as flawless as the flow of my scythes that never get in each other’s ways? Why was I who was made beautiful also made incomplete? Under Tao One created himself in the high mountains. Sursum Antigone would know he faced a whole person.
The capital of Nauta Nova was called Paris 17. This was because they had relocated Paris 16 times as the environment shrank their living space. This was the last stand of Paris, but it was thought a stability could now be maintained. A great green park was planted in the centre. Sursum Antigone sat there. He was awaiting a call from the parliament, to which he had been asked to testify in person. A squad of assassins in gold-lined cloaks had set out to avenge the capture of their leader, despite his having been freed with dignity and without harm or reparations. But they had been met by an equal numbers of subs - with a terrifying variation to their fighting technique. Three of the assassins, unprecedented, had died. The subs had tied the blades of their scythes to ropes the length of a cape and, because the computers could not read a weapon without simultaneously reading the posture of the person who gripped it, the assassins were left with no immediate responses. The distance achieved by the ropes had not been part of the programming. The scythes swung in to deadly effect. Somehow the subs had learnt to spin and swing with their scythes weighting the end of the ropes. The computers could be reprogrammed to cope in future but clearly something was happening in the land of the subs.
It is Under Tao One, Sursum Antigone thought to parliament. Find and kill Under Tao One the parliament chorused silently.
The parliament was a steeply-racked semi-circle, each tier coloured black, and each parliamentarian - despite therapies of youth - had been imprinted with a genetic formula that kept hair lustrous and white. The lining of their coats and capes was silver. Individual choice had been subsumed by their badges of office. Sursum Antigone received their instructions to kill Under Tao One.
Once out of the chamber and back in the park, he let himself think that it would be harder than it seemed. If an entire army of assassins was sent forth, scythes could be tied to ropes faster than computers could be re-programmed inside swords. If they re-programmed the computers to accommodate the swing of a cape-length rope, Sursum Antigone was sure Under Tao One had now the capacity to vary the length of the ropes. And what if Under Tao One came at him with scythes swinging on two separate ropes, each a different length? What if he had two differently weighted scythes, even differently shaped scythes? The variations possible in a single curve were endless and each variation meant a different speed of trajectory that would swing in at the hapless assassin. For the first time, and so simply, the subs had achieved at least equivalence in weaponry. When he went to meet his men, Sursum Antigone knew they had already deciphered the new chances of battle. Recloning was not an inducement to these men. They knew this recreation would allow their world to continue as if they had never gone. Every person living would happily welcome a version of them home. The them who perished in battle would have perished and would not be missed. To the death then, they chorused, some silently and some aloud, and the clouded heavens curse Under Tao One.
Following Sursum Antigone the battalion marched forth, their purple-lined cloaks blazing in the breeze. Not yet, said Under Tao One when his spies reported their advance. I have not completed the thought I have begun. We must hide and harass before we can engage. Days, I don’t know how many days. I think I can do it in days. The soldiers of the sub-species watched him with his head bent. Under Tao One is thinking, they said. If we learn to think we will survive. Under Tao One says we will live, but we do not know how survival and living are different.
Sursum Antigone alone relished killing. The others were not apathetic to it. They did it well, if possible cleanly. They abhorred prolonging the time of dying. They marched for a cause, which was to preserve the residual ecology of the planet, the precise social laws of Nauta Nova that cultivated harmony and balance. They had created a sub-species so that no human would exploit another, but take his or her pleasures from a living creature designed to oblige with decorum and enthusiasm. The problem, they now realised, was that these two qualities could pull in different directions, create a tension, and the transactions needed to migrate from one to the other, and to appear and behave as if balanced while internally transacting the tension created an antecedent of private mental space - of thought. From the play of opposing forces came play proper, and the playing of single thoughts created less simple ones. Wait longer and the sub species would become species and the balance of human work and play in the careful cities would be disrupted. Citizens who could no longer play in private irresponsibly would no longer have the serene mental force required - of each person for an intense hour every day, each person but the assassins and the parliamentarians - to help with the communal telepathy that reached out to the heavens and kept the ozone and the clouds from scattering in worthless benefit-free directions. Nauta Nova would die, human life would die, and even all the sub-species would die. The assassins did not enjoy killing, but they marched behind Sursum Antigone, determined to kill. And already their scientists were nearing the perfection of a new sub-species guaranteed to be unable to think beyond service and a masters pleasure. Kill Under Tao One and the rebellion would end. Kill Under Tao One and an entire civilisation and an entire planet would be saved. An entire society which had an entire history that was just - spoiled only by a single creative but socially responsible mistake.
Because of what was happening to his skin and how others had died of cancer, Under Tao One understood how their own deaths reflected the death of the environment. As if magnetised, clouds were drawn to the cities and no wispy interventions sheltered the subs from the sun. Dwelling in high mountains allowed not only security but access to a greater number of caves and crevices. But the smelters for their scythes and armour, and their campfires at night meant they further depleted the sketchy layer of atmosphere. Under Tao One understood this. Cause and effect had germinated and sprung to leaf and, now, to flower inside the tumult of his brain. His people tried to impersonate his thoughts but made charades of them. Yet, like a drip-feed horticulture, even the slowest knew that something was struggling to the surface of their minds. Already among all, pure service was being replaced by a ritual of reciprocity. Reciprocity established, then deepened solidarity; and acts of valour, one fighter protecting another, replaced programmed service with selfless knowing sacrifice. One day, patrolling their perimeters, all suddenly knew they had esprit de corps. But this spirit had to fight against a contempt for their enemy. Under Tao One taught them compassion, gallantry and magnanimity. These would fade on the battlefield but, afterwards, in the mountains they would spontaneously know regret.
Already they had killed a further four assassins from the vanguard of those marching with Sursum Antigone. They were now deploying, at random, the reverse spin and swing and the hastily reprogrammed computers had not coped. So the subs were now labouring, successfully, to grapple with anticipation and counter-planning. Their successes exhilarated them and some, who Under Tao One lectured briefly but sternly, had tasted sadism and blood-lust. Under Tao One spent more time noticing that the assassins did not bother collecting genetic samples from their fallen colleagues. They were forsaking recloning. Ah, thought Under Tao One, so they have discovered despair and fatalism. We are all fighting our ways into new thought. It was faster now, as he recognised his entrance to empathy.
The first time Sursum Antigone and Under Tao One met they fought and the result was inconclusive. Sursum Antigone had trained for weeks to anticipate every conceivable swing of scythe and every permutation of a double swing from a spin spun in either direction. For his encounter with Under Tao One he had turned off his computer. After thirty minutes of intense mental as well as physical battle, to the astonishment of their men who had been watching breathlessly, closer and closer together, the two champions suddenly stopped. As one they each took two paces back, bowed slightly to the other and strode away in opposite directions. Their men looked in astonishment first at their colleagues, and then at their enemies. Then the enemies shrugged their shoulders at one another and the two battalions turned to follow their leaders. But, all night in his cave, Under Tao One wept. He knew what had happened and it was the first time in his life that a human - and one of the most elite of the humans - had wordlessly called him an equal.
For the months that followed the two leaders fought a phony war of feint and manoeuvre, never happening to meet. From the feints and manoeuvres each learnt to read the other. At first each left clues for the other. Then they tried to make it harder, to reduce the chances of anticipation. By the time Sursum Antigone received an edict from parliament to finish it, the two leaders - and their two battalions - were bound in a symbiosis and when by chance, they saw one another in the distance, they waved.
Because of the edict, Sursum Antigone knew he had to fight Under Tao One again. Under Tao One also knew. When they met Sursum Antigone apologised to Under Tao One and Under Tao One replied with his own acknowledgement and apology. Then, because the two men could now think into each others brains, they walked forward and clasped hands before standing off and slowly preparing their weapons. Each had been practicing and devising new tactics, new responses, and intense senses of trust in their anticipations of the other. The conflict was even harder than before. Neither could gain on the other. Finally, both exhausted, they once more withdrew with courtesies but, that night their own lieutenants sent word to each other’s camp that there should be a meeting in which no weapon were carried.
- We created you to be like us to a degree.
- We have become like you to a greater degree.
- We fight to ensure the balance of such ecology as is left.
- Take us back into the cities then, but as free persons.
- We may perhaps be able to petition parliament to that effect, but we need a servitor sub-species. Even if you are free, others are being created to replace you and who will serve you.
- We ask for the end of all servitude or we will not end the rebellion.
- Parliament will neither permit the end to servitude nor the prolongation of rebellion. Sursum Antigone will be withdrawn and a greater number of assassins sent forth.
- Daily, our numbers increase.
- What then of the ecology and the planet?
- Let there be a planet without servitude or let there be no planet.
The two delegations withdrew, each having explored but exhausted choice. The lieutenants expressed regrets to each other, for the first time asked the other’s name. It will be the battlefield, each other thought simultaneously to the other.
Ten thousand new assassins - almost all of the assassin strength - were poured into the front. Sursum Antigone was withdrawn to an advisory role where he was not asked for advice. Little by little, they ate into the resistance of the subs. Their scientists had finally produced swords with fully adaptable computer programmes. These now recreated themselves from experience, just as, briefly, Sursum Antigone, Under Tao One and their soldiers had begun to recreate themselves from experience. Blood was let heavily throughout the renegade province but, as Under Tao One’s mountain strongholds fell, other provinces drained of assassin strength rose up. Ten cloud-bound cities came under attack. The rebellion had ceased being passive, hiding and sniping, and now forayed with depredations into the suburbs. To the amazement of parliament, every uprising seemed in communication with the others. Under Tao One had learnt that, at the times the city dwellers communally petitioned the clouds to stay knitted over their communities, the subs - with their slowly developing capacities for telepathy - had free ether across which to send their own thoughts.
By now Under Tao One was preaching a gospel. Parliament deciphered it, ordered the assassins to suspend their campaign, and instructed Sursum Antigone once again to meet Under Tao One. Offer them their own free city. We will requisition a little cloud bank from each of our cities for theirs. We will cease the development of a new sub-species and all existing members will be given a choice of either remaining in service or leaving for the new city. They may build as many circular roads as they please and develop their own rituals. When Sursum Antigone presented the offer, all lieutenants in the struggle agreed. Under Tao One said that they and their soldiers should go. He himself would remain in the wilderness - for the melanomas had started. Sursum Antigone offered him his own doctors but Under Tao One refused. He asked, with exquisite politeness, for Sursum Antigone’s purple lined cloak and, both blackened and shrouded in black, made his leave with very human dignity. After a brief instant, Sursum Antigone raced after him, the gold-lined cloak in his hands. May I, he said aloud, travel with you till the end of it all? They walked until they reached an area where the atmosphere was so thin that they were weightless and rose.
When Sursum Antigone and Under Tao One had been in later legend transfigured then resurrected into heaven, they became saintly emblems of two worlds. So many of the sub-species deserted to the new city that it rapidly became the great new metropolis of the planet, attracting to itself a majority of the cloud banks. The spirit of Under Tao One watched over their circular streets. Shrinking as their clouds shrunk, the cities of Nauta Nova became tightened spaces with few trees. Parliament decreed a programme of voluntary dying to create literal breathing spaces. The programme had to then be accelerated and finally became compulsory in the national lotteries held every year. Those allowed to live began to see Sursum Antigone as a messiah who would come again and redeem their wide green spaces. Short of servants they turned at first to humanoid machines for release and then, hesitantly, as if asking too much and as if it violated cleanliness, to one another. The rediscovery of tenderness also led to poets. Parliament decreed that clothes could have their colours reversed- black for the linings and a kaleidoscope of colours for the narrow streets that had replaced the boulevards.
The people of the sub-species also worked to transform themselves. At first they called their city Tabula Rasa - later, Tabula Magna - and themselves the Tabulae, each inscribed with a love for Under Tao One who had pierced their hearts with freedom. A freedom which all the same was navigated by strictures and days of commemoration. This is the day Under Tao One received the cloak in which he span. This is the day Under Tao One fashioned the swinging scythe. The flag of Tabula Magna depicted a golden scythe on a purple background. People were allowed to wear only purple or gold and all were reprogrammed to have darker skin and long silver hair. In the glory of their great city they began to feel triumphant and superior and many preached that it may be a holy mission to eradicate the Nautae Novae - who, having once exploited them, had now degenerated into savages who lived in apartment blocks of tiny hovels.
These were not reversals. They were the aggrandisements and humilities that came from seeming reversals. But the Nautae and the Tabulae were not binaries. Having separated from each other, neither actually needed the other - except at some stage to agree a sharing of air. Expanded lungs and expended oxygen did not go so well together. At some stage delegations from the parliament of Nauta Nova and the high municipality of Tabula Magna had to meet. When they did, the Tabulae appeared under their flag of a golden scythe. The Nautae had adopted a new emblem of their own and marched resplendently under a flag depicting two clasped hands. The meeting took place in Tabula Magna and the Nautae were greeted with elaborate ceremony, without subtlety, and with much demonstration of telepathic skill. Yankee brash, a parallel world would later call it, but the Nautae could not complain: Paris 17 was now more banlieu than city of light and the Tabulae presented them with pleasing counterfeits of what the Nautae had known as fine wines. “We hear you have forsaken cloning,” the Tabulae said, “so we have cloned some fineries from your life for you.” This too was said without subtlety and sank in heavily.
The conference was a tableau of references to past heroes. “We are here just as Sursum Antigone and Under Tao One clasped hands,” said the Nauta spokeswoman. “On that occasion, Sursum Antigone acknowledged the skill of Under Tao One,” the Tabula spokesman replied. If either hero really did live in a sainted heaven, only horror - and bemusement - would have played across his battle scarred beauty. The conference was a farce but, since diplomacy had replaced combat, it was agreed to hold a series of farces. An interim communiqué was released, urging all people to be economical in their breathing. This was at odds with a confidence-building measure also agreed at the conference - to hold a football match between the two nations. To limit the amount of oxygen used, the duration of the match was reduced. It was a bruising affair nevertheless.
One day, while a conference was continuing, two men wandered in from the desert. Their skin was like toast except that one had albino patches on his body - as if great slabs of thickened skin had dropped off. They wore threadbare cloaks in the old Nauta fashion, one with purple and the other with gold lining. They spoke not at all, and telepathised in a way that seemed riddled with an other-worldly static. The right hand of one was fused to the left had of the other, as if each had to hold the other to avoid being separated in a storm of great heat. They did not look like any memory of Sursum Antigone and Under Tao One, and seemed very unclean - disgustingly dirty. So they were taken as a lost assassin and a lost sub who had only now realised the war was over and were asked to enter a decontamination programme - which they refused. By gestures they requested food, which they received at arms length, and then left Tabula Magna and walked to Paris 17 where they were received in exactly the same way. Even though everyone was convinced they were not Sursum Antigone and Under Tao One their appearance caused a stir. They seemed to have been melted into rough moulds of what a Tabula or a Nauta was meant to be - but somehow slightly taller, slightly more beautiful, but as if scoured by a hot wire until nothing was smooth anymore. Smooth was important in both societies. Then they simply disappeared again, and preachers began to say they had been angels, lover angels to be sure, from the heaven of Sursum Antigone and Under Tao One, and rival churches sprang up with declarations of what message the silent angels had meant to impart. The message of the fused palms was clear enough however, and the conferences vowed to enact concrete protocols. Curiously the air seemed lighter after their departure, and this confirmed their heavenly provenance. “But such dirty angels,” people said. “And the one with the albino patches looked really out of sorts.” So they were nicknamed Piebald and Buddy. “At least they weren’t joined at the hip.” Then someone suggested they had been a cloning experiment that had gone wrong. They had escaped from the laboratory and wandered off into the desert. “At least we looked better when we escaped the laboratories.” By the time the lieutenants of Sursum Antigone and Under Tao One heard the news and raced to the scene, the strangers had gone.
The lieutenants were called Priam Patroclus and Shindo Ryu. They embraced and joined their hands upon meeting. They seemed to kiss but didn’t. If they had been Sursum and Under they would have pressed their palms together like this, they said. But Under had already developed melanomas, one ventured, and he would have died some years ago, even if he hadn’t risen into the skies. They say, Shindo Ryu replied, that the albino patches of one were in the places where the melanomas had been. But, if they had been Sursum and Under, Priam Patroclus countered, they would surely have asked for us. But they said nothing at all, Shindo Ryu muttered. As if they were beyond speech, beyond attachment to this world, beyond us. Their telepathy, they say, was heavenly. Perhaps they were a visitation. Maybe, Priam Patroclus said, an apparition. They are dead. We saw them rise. We took it as a sign that we should be one. We haven’t done too well, replied Shindo Ryu.
Two years after the apparition Shindo Ryu began receiving the emanations and copied them onto Priam Patroclus - who had been receiving them also. They were garbled, as if crossing much ether, and possibly corrupt as well - having picked up much telepathic chatter along the way that had contaminated and over-written what had first been thought and sent. It was set after set of binary emanations - as if a conversation between two individuals had been overlaid in a compressed despatch. They were impossible to decipher and Priam Patroclus called them the Rosetta emanations. They are from far away, said Shindo Ryu, perhaps even another world. I seem to receive an image of two people sitting on high points and cascading their thoughts down a slope, across their own distance, then up another slope to be received. Yes, said Priam Patroclus, as if on pyramids, and then the messages and responses are beamed upwards and outwards to us, but they are hieroglyphs and we cannot permeate the almost abstract symbols of the conversations. Kadinsky of the Egyptians, smiled Shindo Ryu. And I’d bet that Sursum’s pyramid is linear and Under’s is a cone, joked Priam Patroclus. At least they’d both be on pyramids - which is more than we have managed, despite the 52nd conference on peace and cooperation having been held.
The two men suddenly paused in their conversation as if they had joked and smiled their way to a key. Shindo! Priam Patroclus almost screamed in his telepathy. Anything that is not angular or conical in the emanations is overlay or contamination. That which is angular or conical can be translated if we apply a simple formula. Yes! Replied Shindo Ryu. All it is is the physics involved in a circle or a sphere balanced on a line or a rectangle. The degrees of balance or imbalance are the alphabet! That’s why everything seemed overlaid. In fact, everything is an expression of basic physics. Indeed, indeed said Priam Patroclus. And the way they are speaking is itself a lesson to us. We don’t have to integrate. We have to find points of balance. And elevate them also as points of beauty, as desirable in their own right, added Shindo Ryu. Their long-distance clapping infused the ether of both Nauta Nova and Tabula Magna. A moment has occurred, said both the parliament and the high municipality.
At the 53rd conference Priam Patroclus and Shindo Ryu strode in hand-in-hand. Their other hands were held on one side, straight down and, on the other, with the fingers forming a circle. As a result of their intervention, Nauta Nova suspended the programme of dying; Tabula Magna conceded greater airspace to the Nautae; scientists on both sides stepped up their research on the generation of artificial oxygen; a massive tree-planting programme, spreading slowly but surely from the circumferences of every city was finally rammed through the combined red tapes of both nations and the insistence, hitherto, of their negotiators for measurable reciprocities and equivalencies in planting and investment in planting. It was recognised that one of every five trees would survive, but they would help create the conditions for a second generation when two out of every five would grow. It was a thousand-year programme to reforest the planet - although some scientists said there would be an exponential moment in the process that would catalyse a higher speed of green and halve the time. At five hundred years, they said, we would be free to reprogramme ourselves to be capable of procreation. We would be like self-seeding trees. This was regarded by most as fanciful, if not outrageous - but it raised smiles of possibility and, in both nations, a mutual hope and sense of unconstrained future. Finally one parliamentarian said , we might not have to expend so much mental energy every day to muster the clouds.
As time passed people’s skin naturally became lighter. Those who had been programmed or burnt too darkly began to be looked down upon. There was a greening planet with an emerging colour bar. Many Tabulae insisted on maintaining blackness like Under Tao One, but others argued that colour of skin, like clothing, should be encouraged to change. Who anyway, they asked, is Under Tao One but a legend? Discrimination of skin colour is a minor problem compared with who may lay claim to the new lands opening under the green umbrella and the banks of ozone they create - so thick that, even without clouds, we can enjoy the blue without fear of blackness. Whoever thought blue could be a colour without fear?
But ownership of the new lands became the largest problem. As long as greening spread out from cities, the city owned the surrounding forest. When circles of green met, problems began. And then there was a problem of equity. There were many Nauta Nova cities and only one Tabula Magna. More and more of the planet was coming under some form of, even if unresolved, ownership on the part of the Nautae. The Tabulae owned little by comparison. Moreover, with air and territory, the cities of the Nautae again prospered. Paris 17 became a city of light once more. Architects cloned an Eiffel Tower, a Champs de Mars, even a Champs d’Elysée and a Rue Tivoli. Apartment blocks again housed elegant living quarters, not starved hovels. Under the Parisian influence, and with parliament’s agreement, citizens took to wearing multi-coloured clothing and neon- accessorised baubles of no use but full of ingenious beauty. At first Tabula Magna banned the import of Parisian 17 fashions, then gave in to the colonisation of taste and the advent of frippery. Increasingly Tabula Magna seemed like an outpost, a last frontier. Pictures of an imaginary Under Tao One on t-shirts, staring into a melancholy but heroic future, sporting a beret and beard he never had in real life, could not compete with the advent first of desire, then lust, in clothing and a growing range of frivolous commodities. Tabulae began to walk the streets in jewellery. Having escaped from being objects of beauty and use, the Tabulae began to covet objects that were useless but beautiful. Even the t-shirts of Under Tao One rapidly became unfashionable.
There was an exception. Since Under Tao One had been created with sufficient indicative female characteristics to please an ambidextrous master or mistress, these became prioritised on a new wave of feminist emblems. He or she became Storm from the X-men. Even this imagery faded with time and the memory of both Under Tao One and Sursum Antigone became a project for the scholarly and curatorial. The curated duo were given a podium as wax-works and there was talk of creating androids in their likeness for ceremonial occasions. Very close by in time, though not in the perception of space, in a parallel world to this parallel world to our own, a very fleshly Sursum Antigone and Under Tao One came down from their pyramids and thought of home. We cannot return the way we came, said one. The atmosphere has thickened and the membrane of the portal is no longer permeable. We shall have to telepathise ourselves so intently to Priam Patroclus and Shindo Ryu, replied the other, that from the particles of the emanations they can clone us on the other side.
Then we shall finally see how much of us is finally in the new us. How much of us will be left behind here? Asked Sursum Antigone.
We might even be able to telepathies our thoughts to ourselves, smiled Under Tao One.
To be one and double, if that’s what it comes to, said Sursum Antigone, poses an interesting philosophical problem. Oneself as another who is simultaneously oneself.
If we ensure good humour is imprinted on our emanations then we shall be, quipped Under Tao One, joyously schizophrenic.
We’ll never be able to explain this to the folks back home, said Sursum Antigone, catching the mood of his fellow.
Once returned, Sursum Antigone and Under Tao One rapidly became deified not least because they often seemed to be hearing voices from far away. Under their leadership Nauta Nova and Tabula Magna become a federation. Parliament and the high municipality were replaced by the praesidium of the temple, with Priam Patroclus and Shindo Ryu as high priests. Since Sursum Antigone had white skin and black hair and Under Tao One had white hair and black skin, black and white became first the desirable, then the compulsory, colours of wear. Capes had either to be pressed in sharp and straight pleats or be cut on a bias that allowed a circular swish. The world of the praesidium was very stylish: a Tom Ford catwalk, a Bruce Weber photomontage of subtly-lit monochrome. Curves cut angular shadows and lines seemed to bend with the light. It was perfect and all that was not black and white was green, except the sea and sky, which were blue. Even the clouds seemed like tone on tone photographs. All other colours faded away and scientists worked to make flowers and bark into shades of green. Streets and buildings were black and white and all interiors were green and blue. It was Elle Decoration, Architectural Digest, a miscegenation of Norman Foster and Anish Kapoor. It was perfect but, in the world left behind by the amanuenses of Under Tao One and Sursum Antigone, all was not so well.
Are you not sometimes tired, a real sub one day said to a real assassin, of directing from afar a paradise in which you participate only by proxy?
It is the most intimate proxy possible, the assassin replied. But there is little tangible joy involved. Perhaps we should allow the clones their independence. It’s their world after all - and we should concentrate on making this alter ego of their world, all spherical or straight, into something like the imperfections over which you and I battled and loved well before we loved each other. Since we live in this world let us make it our world.
But the clones, cast adrift from their well-springs and inspirations, lost direction, lost followers, and factions sprang up in the praesidium and the population. One day a red flag was hoisted over one of the cities and violence sprang to life.
The war laid waste vast areas of the planet. The ecological balance plummeted once again, and those of the red brigades captured in battle were put to work as domestic slaves and tamed by behavioural drugs and implanted microchips. A brigade of hunters dressed entirely in white, was formed, and they terrorised the reds driving them into the wilderness.
When Achille Soroush, his pseudonym drawn from a Greek poem and an Iranian philosopher, arrived at the tower, he was shivering from cold.