Aurelio always rides too fast. I told him as much on the last night I saw him. Do you really need to die in a way that will leave such a mess? It's so unfair to the rest of us that we have to see you like that. His reply was always to hell with you all, I'll be dead, what do I care? Ha ha.
Here he comes on his bike, tearing around the hillside curves as the Ciudad comes into view. He's by himself, and this is worrying me. He's been bringing large crews of the new Barqueros with him lately. Trucks and equipment and tools into the tower. But now? Just him, this time. How many are left? Does it matter? The empty city is cursed, just as much as it's haunted. The new Barqueros crossing the same river as the old ones.
He slides around to a stop in front of the little market, spraying dirt everywhere to the infantile delight of the ever-present Maximo and Ernesto, seated in their pensioner's chairs in front. Why do they find him so funny? Is it because he isn't dead yet? That's something that might be funny to those that grow old, maybe. I wouldn't know. Never got the chance.
Aurelio goes inside, and I already know he's getting his traditional six pack of Quilmes for whenever he visits the Ciudad. The tanned wrecks of old men return to their wizened, ritualistic head shaking and muttering while he goes inside. Maximo and Ernesto sway like two spindly quebracho trees stripped of their leaves, the brief disturbance of Aurelio and his motorcycle giving way again to the wind that always whips through this place. Wind is madness and impermanence and slow grinding destruction. If the planners from the Ministry had thought to ask anyone before they built this city, anyone from the plains could have told them that.
He's coming back out now, already started on the first bottle. He throws one to Maximo and one to Ernesto. I'm troubled. They're not. They start drinking without any questions. You question everything when you're dead. I miss that; plunging headlong into the next moment of your life without thinking. Not allowed now. I would complain to the management if I could. Aurelio stops a moment before getting back onto his bike.
What do you think, eh? What's going on in the world now?
Ernesto doesn't bother to look up. Same as ever.
Maximo looks at his fellow scarecrow, insulted. His face folds up even more, a scribble of brown lines and wrinkles. Same as ever? You old fool. It's falling apart. Even the goddamn yanquis are shitting themselves.
Eh, they just grew eyes now. It was always there. That's why I told you not to go poking in that fucking tower, Aurelio. No one listens.
His words make me catch. Oh Ernesto. Not even you knew what was in there.
Aurelio laughs. And when have you ever listened to anyone, eh cabrón?
Ernesto scratches his beard and drinks some more. No one listens to anyone. No one pays attention to nothing until it's hurting them. Just the way of the world. The madness really comes from out there. It leaked into the valley below. Dribbling into a puddle down there.
You should come work for me Ernesto. We could use that insight. It's a real growth field, you know. Career advancement, dental care, a receptionist with nice chichis. Man like you could have a real future.
Those guys who came with you last time. What kind of future they have?
Seems like even Ernesto has had enough joking around today.
Aurelio finishes his bottle. Same one we all have, Don Ernesto. On a day like all the others, we lie down under the earth.
I never felt closer to you than when you were quoting some idiot poem at a stupid time, Aurelio. You always thought it was so funny, how mad it would make me. I guess it was kind of funny, looking back. It still makes me mad.
He leaves them then, into the heart of the dead city. I watch from my house on the Boulevard of Progress as he winds down the roads to the valley floor, where the living in their wisdom made a tomb for the future. He's going to the tower alone and I am afraid. What will happen when the rest of us pass to the other side of the river? How long will that day be, the day where no one is left and every one of us is alone, forever?
Aurelio cut the engine in front of the concrete block house. Le Corbusier's shoebox, she always called it. A house looking like every other one on the street, except for the two crossed oars painted above the front door. All the Barqueros had a color. Hers was red. As was his.
He kicked his boot at the bike's center stand. The goddamn wind would just blow it over if he used the little kickstand. Bringing its weight to rest atop the stand, he grunted. Getting old, he thought. That's going out of fashion. A howling gust of wind raced down the Boulevard of Progress, cloaked in dried weeds and white dust and whistling by like a man on a train, mocking everything on his side of the tracks. Fucking bullshit place, he thought. I should have done this at the very beginning.
The first of the Barqueros, early in their times their leader, now their Captain, entered the square cement house through a square steel door, little clouds of brown rust spilling out from the hinges to join the dirty wind outside. He stepped into the house. Boarded windows and impregnable walls ensured complete darkness. He closed the door behind him.
He opened his third bottle of Quilmes. The only thing visible was the outline of the door behind him, dusty light filtering into the shape of a wan square. He could not see his hands.
"Deathbed conversions are bullshit." Aurelio addressed the black interior of the abandoned house. "This is just really bad procrastination. I know you're not there, Jacinta. My mind hasn't changed on that."
God damn you Aurelio. Why did you wait so long?
He took a drink, wiping his mustache with a hard brown forearm. "But you're supposed to conclude your affairs when you do stuff like this. So fuck it. I've wanted to do this for a long time. For me."
So what else is new?
"I sent off the newer Barqueros. Told them to go end it in whatever way they saw fit. Dumbass kids from America and Europe and wherever, so hurt when I told them that. As though that isn't the greatest freedom that any of us will have. They aren't bred from the madness, though. They came to it fully formed. Invaders and foreigners, wherever these guys go."
Oh bullshit. You loved those young men and women, Aurelio. I saw it all from here.
"The older ones just went home. Eduardo and Mariela and Frankie and the others. Melted away. I didn't tell them what I was going to do but they knew anyway. Friends are assholes like that."
I saw Eduardo here on his own two days ago. I think he would have done it if you hadn't thought of it first, Aurelio. You two always were like brothers. This is going to shatter his heart into pieces.
"So now I have to do it. And I'm scared, Jaci. I have to do this, talk to you like you're here, because when the time came for you, you stood. Just like you did for Pablo and Roberto and Lana and the rest of us in that fucking goddamn jungle so long ago."
I was petrified, Aurelio. I can't even remember deciding to act. Either time. My skin and my blood were ice. I didn't know what else to do. I wish I could tell you this, Aurelio. More than you can possibly know.
"It's not death I'm afraid of. I mean, more than anyone else is, but it's descended upon us, that's for fucking sure. Like being scared of the sunset."
I've waited so long, Aurelio. Why did it have to be like this? Where I cannot reach you or speak to you or hold you? Every word of this is like dying again. It's taking me apart in ways I can't understand. Please don't stop.
"I'm afraid of that top floor. I'm afraid of going back in there. It's going to try to convince me to do something else."
You are Aurelio Rojas, and you've never done a thing you didn't want to do, you intractable bastard. God damn it, I wish you could hear me now. I wish I weren't behind eternities of space and time and void. I wish we had just left everyone else and vanished into the streets of Montevideo like we should have.
"I'm stealing what's left of you. Using it for my own purposes. Reconstructing the dead to fit the spaces inside. I'm going to twist the shards of what I have of you that remains. Grind your memory into something resembling courage. My last crime against you."
Aurelio finished the bottle, casting it forth from darkness into darkness. He heard no sound.
"God, what a fucking obscenity. I hated it when people would go talk to the stones in the cemetery. As good as digging them up. But this is worse. Jaci, I'm sorry."
You damn fool, Aurelio. You can't rearrange me. You never could. That's why you liked me.
He ran his hands up from his forehead into his thin, brittle hair. The echoes of his voice in the cold tomb house reflected back to him from the walls. The words sounded just a little different somehow in the split second it took to reach him again. The darkness was pulling his mind too far outward. A familiar feeling to a Barquero. It was time to leave.
"I'm…I'm sorry for all of it. Sorry that you weren't here to see out the end of this spiral. I'm sorry that I made it out and not you. But I'm going to go fix that shit now."
Aurelio turned to leave. He found himself standing in place. It fixed him where he stood. The allure of the inner consciousness, desperately clawing and shredding and tearing its way to the waking world, burning everything around it. The allure of death, in service to the birth of something, even of something terrible. The longing of the tower. Its pull grew further by the hour.
I am here, Aurelio. And I am with you until the end. A shadow maybe. But it's my shadow. I will walk with you.
Aurelio Rojas, Captain of Mobile Task Force Phi-9, reached his hand to the dimly lit square hanging in darkness. The door opened, caught by the wind and slamming against the wall outside. The boulevard was a tunnel, a private gale rushing between row upon row of abandoned concrete houses exactly the same as the one he left now. No garbage, no wrappers or papers or cans being blown about by this wind, no signs of living human habitation. Just the white dust of the dead city, the steady erosion that would one day wear down these houses and all others in the world beyond.
He leaned forward into the maddening, breath-stealing winds, and started walking. In the heart of the city lay the moldering ruin of its former capital, the place where a group of friends finally found what they were looking for, to their bitter regret. By his side was Jacinta Araya, co-founder of the Barqueros in life and in death. Unseen. Together, they approached the tower.
The wind has stopped. So still that the earth could shake and swallow us whole right on the spot. Aurelio doesn't hesitate, unlocking the chains across the main entrance and pulling open the great door. Why would he? This place has been his home more than any other. The two of us inhabiting tombs next door to each other all these years. That's an ending I would have written before I died.
I follow him across the lobby, and I hear whispers. These things, these ideas that live in this place, you don't need any technology to hear them when you're like I am. I must be closer to them, now. Though they don't speak to me. What good am I to bring anything into the world now? They speak to him. Does he hear them with his own ears, after all these years? I suppose if he did he would have died long ago. Then again, maybe this is something that they've told him to do. No, unlikely. He would have turned the place into an amusement park instead if they'd told him to do this.
We step into the elevator. The only pristine, maintained space in the building. Aurelio programmed his own voice into the thing, and so we hear him mark off the floors as we go up. One, two, three. I'm sure he thought that was funny as hell when he did it. Now it's making him nervous.
The whispers surround us as we are carried into the top of the necropolis. Visions destined to drive men mad and ignite the vast piles of unseen suffering that surround them. This place is a monument to the first man, who saw the leaping flames of the bonfire and wondered what it must be like to throw himself in. It's a mercy, really. A world that had been going mad long before this, spared the worst of its excesses, the human mind built with a collective failsafe in the middle of one of its many banal errors. Somehow knowing that it can always be much worse is a necessity of survival. It's the lack of that knowledge that everyone can feel in their hearts today. It's how they all know, everyone, that there's no going back now.
Ding. Floor 32. The elevator, having no sense of ceremony, merely opens its doors to the expansive space at the top of the tower. The Grand Hall. Designed for the meetings of the Ciudad's leaders, a grand dais at the far wall, hopeful rows of seats facing the empty thrones of the rulers of this necropolis, who never bothered to show up to claim their due. It was here that I stopped being and became this. The space is strangely unmoving to me. Should it be? More questions for no one.
I am watching Aurelio. His mouth is set, but his eyes light up with recognition as he looks out over the hall. I turn to see what he's looking at. I expect to see the man, like we did last time, walking us through our inferiority and the greatness of his apex predator world. Instead it's a woman, tall and stately in flowing purple robes, an icefall of white hair frozen down over her bare shoulders. Alabaster skin like a Roman statue. She's looking back at Aurelio. Her face is wholly unconcerned. But her eyes, so blue as to be white like her skin, so cold that I can almost see Aurelio's breath as he stands before her. A woman with a gaze like a refrigerated hospital basement. Hateful sterility, frigid contempt, a death goddess with no hint of humanity. She would be beautiful if it weren't for her eyes.
Aurelio comes to a realization at the same moment as I do. You're from the play, he says. You were here the first time and you were there when the world went mad yesterday. Monashir Violetlight, Lady of the Tower. Didn't realize that was a literal title.
In the space of time that it takes him to blink, the woman is ten meters closer to us. Walking is apparently beneath her. She flickers and reappears. Even before my last night I knew better than to mistake something like this for an apparition. She holds the same position, same expression. Unlike Aurelio, she does not blink. The impression strikes me that we are not important enough for her to dignify us by moving.
Gonna say something, Aurelio asks. You were a minor character. Did you forget your lines for this one?
Not his voice, not his face, not his smell nor his posture change. But I sense the terror's avalanche within him, giving way suddenly from the rocky cliffs of his mind. One of the abilities I maintained from my previous life. I begin to understand what he was afraid of.
He blinks again. She flickers again. She is right behind us. I half expect her to kill Aurelio then and there. But the hateful woman statue is looking over his shoulder instead. In front of us are more people. These people move, breathe, are alive. In this place, it is they who are the apparitions. If there was any doubt, it was dispelled by one of the people in front of us now. My self, living again. In a person's time in the strange realm of the Earth, this is the only impossibility.
The scene before us is this. The Barqueros, the old Barqueros, are talking among themselves. Things are getting heated. Some of us think we've gone too far up in the tower. That we need to leave now. Leading the opposition is myself. Others think that this is the culmination of our exploration (don't ever call it research). An Aurelio with a little more hair and a little less belly is speaking for this group. They're all shouting now. I remember this part. You've let yourselves be seduced by it. The world is a labyrinth and this is the center. What do we gain by knowing any of this shit? What did we spend all these years looking for? A gyre of points and counterpoints, swirling under our feet as we tried to make sense then and there of the decade we burnt up in pursuit of the deeper currents. Then and now, I can feel the sharks circling in the waters underneath us. A fish's sense. The electricity is all wrong in this place.
Here is where what is happening diverges from my memories. The Barqueros all stop talking. The ghosts before us hold their positions. Simulating the movements of breathing, of waiting. This was where Aurelio told us all that he was going in and damn the rest of us if we didn't. I can see him, the real Aurelio, replaying the moment in his hard head.
The woman behind us speaks, finally, a voice like mist breathing from an icy cliffside down onto the rocks below. Cold, slow, half-whisper. She says, choose.
Like an injury, a person learns to live with different kinds of regret. Some kinds ache softly in the knees or the wrists, returning for a visit when the rain comes down. Some kinds are a pinched nerve, pain that from time to time prevents you from turning your neck to look back over your shoulder. The wounds we get when we hurt ourselves, hurt others for what we think is the right thing, though. Those don't close. They fester, infecting every other decision within you. This day, so long ago, is a knife that has been sticking out of Aurelio's chest. His hand is creeping toward an invisible hilt three inches from his heart, even if he doesn't know it.
The voice of mist behind us breathes again. A little louder this time. Aurelio feels it like he feels the wind in the forsaken valley outside. She says, knowing all of the things that you know now, Aurelio Rojas, what do you choose? I turn back to look at her. The bitch is smiling now.
A neatly diagrammed problem. If Aurelio expresses desire for a different outcome, it destroys him. Every death, every one of his years after that night at the top of the tower is for nothing. The tower, more than anything, taught him what it really is to carry a burden. To be haunted. To renounce the mistakes of the past will pull the knife out of the wound, but the corruption merely spreads under the healed skin. The pain is so great. I can see it in him every time he comes to this goddamned place. But without the burden, the journey becomes pointless. A question to rip a man's soul from his body.
If Aurelio makes the same decision again, he undersigns their decision to call us back to their hell. We had an advance screening of the performance that ended the world yesterday. Knowing what we all do now, does he choose to witness again? To call others to it? He can stand by the certainty which has led him to where he is today, but the ground on which he stands is falling away by the second. The possibility of his curiosity being akin to complicity with the atrocity being visited upon everyone is one that threatens to crush him. This question, posed by the tower, is forcing a clarification of his situation. Utter annihilation, or unforgivable collaboration.
I watched their performance in awe on that night. Visions more powerful than anything we had ever gotten with the herbs that we went so deep into the jungle hell to retrieve. A society of indescribable beauty. The inescapable damnation of the Planet of Hands. The eviscerated, nightmare love with which they regarded us. An experience speaking to the deepest levels of human expression, unspeakably alien to anyone with a speck of humanity left. It's no wonder they've tried to drive that from all of us.
I was the first to be called. To them, it was a reward, for finding them first. Come back home, the spectral man told me, eyes beaming with tears of twisted happiness. It seemed the only option, really. The only sane thing to do when faced with such magnificent beauty was to surrender. I could see it in all of us, transfixed. I saw it in me too. What they saw in me was a way to eliminate the last threads of resistance holding us all back. And behind that part of me open to the beauty of the world and its fine systems was something else. Something older, and wiser. Something that walked hand in hand with the darkest fears that we hold. Something red.
Through tears of ecstasy and joy, my hand found the long knife hanging from my belt. And in one fluid motion, passed down to me through what is dismissively referred to as the reptilian portion of my brain, I opened my own throat. Deep enough that my hands were not enough to stanch the curtain of blood pouring out of me. Blood enough to wash away even the visions crafted by this post-human non-humans. I fell to the floor, weakening instant by instant, my breath stolen by the impossibly gaping wound I had made. The cold of the room passed directly into me. Then the freezing cold of the night outside. By the time Aurelio got to me I was filled with the blasting chill of the black spaces between the stars.
Here are the last moments I saw in this life. Half of the Barqueros running like hell back to the door. Half of the Barqueros weeping with joy as their hands piled up in front of them, one after the other. Aurelio holding his coat to the ruin of my throat, praying aloud to the only saint he recognized, as though this were not something guided by her hand as well. The cold being followed closely by its brother darkness.
And then no more.
The sight of Aurelio faced with this choice makes me replay these moments in a way I have not done since they happened. And I would sooner cut my own throat a thousand more times than have him assaulted with this hideous suffering once more. I would do it ten thousand times more to be able to help him. I don't know what to do.
Aurelio turns away from the past arrayed before us and toward the gloating, icy face of the future. His hand is in his pocket.
You should have tried this in America somewhere, he says. Or some other place where they think they have this shit figured out.
He's been replaying the last time we were here too. I see it now. His hand is moving around whatever is in his pocket.
She replies. That you don't make the choice doesn't make it cease to exist, Aurelio Rojas. A dynamic state in the system is still well within its bounds. We accounted for your truculence, in any event.
Aurelio's hand moves slowly out of his pocket. From the way his arm is trembling I can tell that the movement is involuntary. There is nothing in his hand. A second later, a small metal box with a steel switch floats out of his pocket of its own accord. Aloft on a stillborn wind, it drifts away from Aurelio, stopping in front of the woman. She sneers, finally finding something worth her contempt amongst her cattle. She even goes so far as to raise her hand up. Closing it into a fist, the detonator is crushed into a tiny, jagged point of metal. It clatters onto the ground.
Who is more God, Aurelio Rojas? The cow, squeezing out more life into its putrid field, unreasoning, vacant? Or the overseer, tending to the survival of that cow, adjusting the conditions in which it waits to serve its purpose, mending its organs and its flesh when the purpose requires it?
The hatred is not warming her voice. Is this what we are, truly, when the mask is off?
She continues. Surely even you were not so stupid as to think that we did not notice your kind attaching the explosives. You must have known that your actions are clearly laid out before you even made the decision to pursue them. Meaningless, empty gestures. Ill-considered. Petty. Much in keeping with your forebears, long ago.
The woman in the purple robes raises her other hand. Aurelio rises slowly into the air, held in place by the forces governing this skyward monument to futility that we had been so eager to discover. She spreads her arms, and thus are Aurelio's spread open as well now, a hovering Christ mockery. But his face. A beaming calm has overtaken him, a face at home on this impossible cross. The mockery is instead homage, somehow. The subtlety is lost on the mistress of the tower, the symbolism of the livestock beneath the contempt of the master. Here are where the final moves of his game are beginning to come to me.
His turn to speak now. So much effort, he says. To thwart a meaningless gesture. What does it say, oh great Monashir, that you are in this tower with us?
Cracks begin to appear in the ice cliffs of her face. This is angering her. Before she can reply he continues.
They must have been surprised, eh? To find something of themselves in here? Why hide this place, why let us hide afterward, if this is such an enduring symbol of your fucked up paradise? And why do you protect it by meeting me here?
He laughs now, and she loses control. With sudden violence, she lowers her hands, and Aurelio is thrown to the floor, slammed into the dust and debris beneath him. He lands on his side, bones cracking from the force, the breath driven from him by the impact. He coughs as he struggles to breathe again, heaped on the floor, blood beginning to drip from his lips. He laughs again.
Still trying to figure it out. The shit you're playing with didn't start with you, did it?
His words struggle out through his laughter and blood, no less clear from the effort as his life begins to leak out.
No, you've been right here with us, trying to figure out how you ended up on the top floor. Why the laws that govern this tower apply to you too. What the flaw in your system is that buried you along with all the other corpses. Scratching and clawing at your coffin lid.
The purple woman flickers and appears over him as he lies on the ground. Guttural fury leaking from her crumbled face, the hate now fully formed in her, dead eyes lit with pyres of rage. Her arms sweeps out, and Aurelio is thrown in the air away from her, striking the dais at the front of the room, wood splintering, his laughter making room for the groans of pain, unstoppable now.
He wheezes now as I rush to him, dead or not. I'll save you some trouble, he says. You thought you banished death. But all you did was forget about her. You thought you enslaved madness. But you merely brought him into your house. And you think saving this tower from us will let you solve the one problem you can't figure out. But I've got the answer for you. You belong in here with us. And you'll never know why. You can't understand.
She's over him again. I look up at her from my place next to Aurelio. She is going to end it.
He spits blood up at her with ragged breaths. As she moves to finish him, he returns the favor.
You forsake death, and death's wisdom is lost to you. You push madness away into this world, but it lives in my heart instead, and you are defenseless. You've blinded yourselves, but the grave awaits you all anyway. Fuck your mother.
Horrifying, terrible force comes down from above her, now channeling the fury that has driven her beyond all reason, striking moments too late before Aurelio has laid bare the chasm at the heart of the perfect world that now must reckon with its hidden cracks. Hatred wells out of the fault lines in her self and her realm, spewing out like a geyser. No pushing it back in now.
She strikes Aurelio with her fists, crushing his chest, silencing him. I scream with no words or breath, such things forever beyond me here. Something catches my eye through the ruins of his shirt.
A freshly sutured wound on his sternum. The glint of exposed metal. The last halting breaths, a smile still plastered on his bloody lips. I feel him looking toward me through darkening eyes. From deep within him I swear I hear something.
She hears it too. The terror of something impending, building within her at Aurelio's words, now seizes her. The madness lives in his heart. It lives in all of our hearts, decaying every system they touch, even from our living tomb in the stars. They will never outrun it because we are they and they are us.
Dead man switch. Wired in his chest. His heart stops beating. She has just enough time to bellow like a cow in the slaughterhouse chute.
Here is the last moment. Deep rumbling. The walls and the ceiling and the floor buckling. Fire. Smoke. Gouts of dust and bits of metal and plaster and stone rushing all around us. Aurelio borne aloft on a great pillar of flame as the great tomb at the heart of the world's necropolis comes apart, the winds and the sunlight and the wreckage all suddenly of one composition. The purple woman burning for a second before being rent asunder by the uncertainty and death that lay at the heart of humanity. A mortal wound that will be felt a million miles away, perhaps in a million years. Perhaps tomorrow. A funeral pyre that will burn away the dead and make room for the living. Even if the dead do not acknowledge it yet. I feel myself rising with Aurelio. What does it matter when the truth lay outside of time? There is us. There is madness. There is death. In these things we proceed in all directions, blasted apart by the first and last forces, and settling back again. This monument to colossal, unimaginable error has stopped existing. Eventually, one of these directions must take us to something closer to the truth. Closer to balance. Death shows her face once more and guides us to mercy again. She shows her face to me at long last.
I am with him in the end, in the sky of a world giving way to whatever the next may be.
I know no more.