I looked at the river from the restroom’s window when a man entered and stood next to me. He said he was part of a guerrilla movement, ontological terrorists who wished nothing else but defile cyberspace with the delicate flower of meat. After decades of cyberutopianism, after the cooptation of cyberpunk by AAA video game companies, they wished for the incineration of both meat and digital space, and then for the ashes of those two registers of reality to be completely joined and enmeshed together. They were insurgents of the flesh that had been decomposed into humus by a digital virus.
He put his hand on my shoulder and pointed outside. “See the tragedy of the times, the erected towers of shamelessness that bring all together into a sleepwalkingness that ruptures the flow of thought to a single byte that indicates ‘have money’ or ‘do not have money.’ Try to climb one of these hulking monoliths of self-absorption and pay your respects to the cenotaph that has been installed in its topmost floor and you will understand what I mean. Delete it, delete your self and then hope you might have a chance to win.” The man left the restroom and I never saw him again, though after our talk I could not ignore the amber-coloured buildings that had escaped my perception till now: spindly pieces of architecture that reached unrealistic heights, made out of burnt and rotten circuitry that smelled of decaying flesh – though the closest tower was at least twenty kilometres away from me, I had no doubt that the decaying perfume that reached my nostrils came from there.
I pilgrimaged to the irregular amber tower that I had started to see just in the outskirts of the city, right between the centre and suburbia, in an area populated by somnambulant parking lots and decaying office buildings that desperately tried to rebrand themselves as co-working spaces for hip disenfranchised adults in search of a career change and cheap rents. Sitting inside a train, I grabbed the arm of the old man half-asleep next to me and pointed to the tower. “Do you see it? Please, tell me you see it! The spindly spires, the organic orange blobs that pepper its walls, this soft humming that whispers like a dung beetle who developed a taste for rotten flesh?” He looked at me horrified and withdrew his arm before scrambling away. Shortly after, security arrived and threw me out of the train. A teenager watched videos of climbers rappelling down a cliff amidst a pristine tropical jungle darted a quick, judgemental glance my away. I put my hood up, wishing to cover my face as much as possible.
Just outside the station, climate change protesters attended a manifestation – now a weekly happening – that was ignored by even the most staunch believers: in truth, all those marching were undercover cops who staged the protests as perfunctory signalling of a functioning democracy, as well as bait for the more naïve activists. Since most people stayed clear of the protest, bored officers often would try to goad each other into burning cars, breaking shop windows and rioting, descending into acts of performative violence born out of tedium. I avoided them as much as I could and continued on my way, even as some of the cops invited me and offered homemade sambuca spiked with vodka.
“Want a lolly?” A boy by the road asked me. His eyes were completely black, with no visible whites, and his ears were pointed, like an elf from dungeons and dragons. The candy was wrapped in red and transparent plastic, revealing a soft orange inside that seemed to writhe almost imperceptibly. I accepted it.
“Do you see the tower over there?” I asked him after the first few licks. The lollipop tasted of petrichor and chocolate. He looked at me as if I were insane.
“Of course I see it. We need to fly around all the time, when trying to land the plane.” I then realised the boy was wearing a commercial flight pilot’s jacket and held a cap on his hand. “It’s never exactly in the same place, though. I don’t care if the others think I’m daft, it moves. Anyway, you seem to like that lolly. I find some like these everyday inside a small rubbish bin just outside the tower. Wanna go and check if they have more?”
Whilst the boy spoke, I had devoured the sweet, taking increasingly bigger bites. My eyelids fluttered with pleasure, even as the flavour became increasingly chemical, like the cassette tape tea some of us drank during the nineties when we had no money for drugs. Fairly inebriated, I nodded in agreement and slurred. “Sure, that sounds like a nice idea.” There was a moment of silence as the boy stared at me with an expressionless face. “I’m fine, I’m fine. I was going in that direction anyway. Can we…can we enter the tower? I feel I really need to do that. To enter the tower.”
He jumped down from the wall he was sitting on top of and extended a hand, which I clutched with more violence than I intended to. “You can, sure. But it’s not nice inside. It feels like home.”
As we got closer to the tower, the streets and office buildings around us acquired a distressing varnish of normalcy. More than anywhere else I had been in my life, the whole neighbourhood seemed brutally standard, unremarkable and neutral. Some say neutrality is the surest sign of privilege: to be seen as a nigh-platonic representation of a certain category is something reserved only to those who truly hold the power to shape reality based on their image. If that is the case, we were at the epicentre of power in this world. Even now it is impossible to describe the place in a satisfactory manner. When I say “office building”, there is no other qualification I can add to it that could hope to make it, its appearance and the air around it more present to another person. Each building occupied a whole block and, whilst different between themselves, they were still, paradoxically, very much identical copies. The more I tried to analyse and categorise them, the more my mind struggled, as if it were trying to climb a perfectly solid and frictionless cube. Only when I gave up, cognitively exhausted and ready to accept what I saw without any questioning, did this gangrenous pain metastasising from the back of my head to the tips of my toenails leave me alone.
The boy held my hand with a gentle grasp. He acted like my cicerone, pointing the ideal landmarks and giving me absolutely no extra information about the sights: “there you can see a parking lot,” he said in a monotone that betrayed the lightest lisp. “Machines find repose there when they prefer not to be used.” Though the choice of words made me raise an eyebrow, I decided not to say anything and simply enjoy his soft whispering that became more and more like an ASMR session, minus the cracking of saliva and the smacking of lips that disgusted me whenever I had tried to listen to one.
The platonic buildings gave way to brown grey pampas with the tower at its centre. I knelt down by a patch of the sickly grass and touched it; it felt like velvet or a recently dead animal’s skin, right before the stiffness of rigor mortis had the chance of settling in. I was about to ask the boy about the strange vegetation when I realised he was not a child anymore, but an adult around his thirties still dressed as a commercial airline pilot. “This is as far as I will go,” he said, his voice suddenly tired and dark circles under his eyes. We shook hands in silence. He promptly turned his back to me and either did not hear or did not want to reply to the few last minute questions I whimpered at him.
I ploughed forward, feeling my feet almost sink into the dirt as the air became more humid. Biting cold penetrated my trousers, whilst the tower emanated a diffuse heat always just a few centimetres too far to provide any respite. Now that I was so close, I could make out its shapes with much more detail: it was a ziggurat-like compound, with each story successively smaller than the one that came before and out of each level protruded thin arms and buttresses that led into impossible hanging turrets whose shapes were a mix of sharp angles and organic blobs of the mesmerising orange substance that had attracted me from the outset. The taste of the lollipop invaded my mouth again and I must admit some saliva drooled out of the corner of my mouth.
I saw an animal erupt from one of the higher-placed abscesses. It flew towards me with despairing gracelessness, not very dissimilar to a burlap potato sack with wings. The reason for that lack of elegance soon became clear: as it approached, I saw its body was that of a pus-yellow maggot suspended mid-air by comically small angelic wings. I touched the small body covered in bristling hairs and it fell to the dirt with a wet thud; the wings melted almost immediately with a sizzle, at the same time spider legs sprouted from the sides of the creature. I wished to pet it, as if I could somehow make amends for the part I played in depriving it of its previous appendages, but retracted my hand at the last moment. After a few minutes of disorientation, the mouthless maggot dove effortlessly into the earth and burrowed away from sight.
A few more steps and I stood in front of the door that would give me entrance to the tower. There was no difference on the ground close to it, hinting at the possibility that the ground floor would not be paved — being absolutely ignorant about the engineering details behind a building like this, I was unsure of how astonishing a feat the lack of pavement and possibly foundations could be. The walls were of a dark metal that felt so slick it could have been some form of half-solid black mercury. On certain points, the substance seemed to have been shaped by searing hands or born out of breaking waves that solidified mid-impact. On others, it had been cleaved with cold and precise violence. I feared touching these sharp corners could instantly cut my finger in half. Peppered through the metal surface were fractal structures that looked like they recursed down to the subatomic level, in such a proud and explicit way it became threatening. The patterns defied my perception and goaded my mind in attempting to replicate the algorithm, knowing fully well that the limited processing power of the flesh interface I called body would melt before it managed to reach the end of the visual recursion.
More striking was the pulsating orange glow emanating from inside. Even where the metal was thickest I could see the colour bleeding out of the metal. This was made clear by a tumour that had coalesced on the western wall of the second floor. Even from such a distance I could feel the unhomely warmth that came out of the main blob, which was in any case surrounded by many smaller versions of itself and even now streamed towards it. Wherever these wounds erupted, the metal looked scorched and frail, slowly crumbling into dust like carbonised paper. Higher up, from the third floor and beyond, the tower sprouted branches; on their tips, I could see immense orange bubbles that swayed with the wind. Some of the branches were thicker, having become strong enough to support mounds of organic matter and metal fused together. Curiously, none of these emitted the glow I saw underneath the main spire’s walls.
Leaning against the wall, just by the side of the door, there was a pair of small scissors with handles of the same pale yellow of the flying worm-like creature, leaning against a rubbish bin overflowing with lollies. I picked up the scissors with my left hand, stuff as much candy as I could on my right pocket and looked for a knob – the thought of knocking and letting my presence known did not cross my mind, and even now comes across as quaint an unnecessary. I did not think anyone dwelt within that place, at the same I knew it not to be completely uninhabited; in any case, however I could define the presence lurking behind the door, it already knew about my arrival and waited patiently for me to enter and greet it. At a touch of my hand, the door swung open and revealed a shiny congealed mass of orange goo that sung to me in a faint androgynous voice. Scissors in hand, I stepped in.
When I woke up, I was naked and covered in bruises. On my right hand there was the same pair of scissors, though now bent and rusted when before its blades had been spotless. The ground shook with the passage of trains and I could see the roof of the station from the small alley I found myself in. After digging on the trash and collecting dirty old clothes and a very stylish vinyl coat, I cut a small piece of cardboard, wrote a short and funny request for money, and sat on the sidewalk of the closest heavily-trafficked high street, hoping I’d eventually earn enough money for my train ride. I felt the reassuring weight of the scissors on the pocket of the black vinyl overcoat.
Sellars, Simon. 2018. Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. Falmouth, United Kingdom: Urbanomic Media Ltd.
Wolfe, Gene. 1981. The Claw of the Conciliator. His the Book of the New Sun, v. 2. New York: Timescape Books.