Archive for October, 2013

Monolith and Minotaur

They’d been offering up their best and brightest for so long now, that it didn’t matter anymore what the first appeasement had been for. The usual savants said it was to sustain an antique order, established long before memory. The oldest of gods, they said, still exerted a malign will if anything should ever change. Anyway, an old story—that barely matters now.

Every nine years or so in those Antipodes, young men and women—the ‘most courageous and the most beautiful’ as the old legend goes—were sent into far-flung places, far over seas, to pay fealty to foreign masters. Few ever questioned its provenance, or its received wisdoms: it was necessary, the venerable pundits said, to confront the monster, to pay blood-money if it comes to that. We reached our age of reason, long ago. If our finest flower are its necessary sacrifice, who are we to doubt its rightness? Our forebears did it before us, as will those to come. There’s no shame in dying if (as our Saviour did) it serves the benefit of us all.

The TV chat-shows, online threads and Twitterverse repeated the message: if we don’t meet the test, all our freedom will be put to ransom. So they went, the fruit and flower of the people, from rich subtropical pleasure-grounds, to deserts and mountainous wastes hardly anyone knew, to battle-zones and places of scorched earth, willing to offer up their lives (everyone thought) with grit and gravitas, serving the right masters even when they fell under the heels of the wrong.

But who were they, the false overlords, whom no-one ever saw, who must be always appeased with the blood of sacrifice? They wore strange clothes, brandished arrogant idols, spoke languages that barely seemed human. Over the years and decades, still longer, they had taken on so many faces and outlandish names, with such an unlikely catalogue of demands and obsessions that could never be met, that in the popular imagination they had become a collective Monolith, never having been seen or properly identified—the broker of lives and deaths, that could itself never be broken.

In recent times, though, the time of rising terror, the Monolith had proven that far more than being an ever-greedy ransomer, it was intent on subduing the free world that still remained, demanding more than mere obeisance. The Monolith had begun to spread, throwing a deathly shadow over larger stretches of hitherto neutral regions: anything that denied its supremacy, anyone who stood in its way, was grist for its insatiable, evil will.

So that the time came when the people were forced to face the truth: something would have to be done to stem its relentless tide. Innocent lives had been taken, flagrant abuses passed unpunished. Before the greybeards had gathered together for collective deliberation—it was an almost disconcerting convenience—word had come of a freedom-fighter, an ally on the horizon, who had volunteered to confront the Monolith on its own terrain.

This saving force was known, with some familiarity, as ‘the American.’ Some laughed at this, said the name was an alias, that he wasn’t the real thing, but only a kind of adventurer. Even so, to prove his claims, the American showed them a large standing army, the most advanced striking force and equipment, an acute intelligence corps, able to bring down the Monolith for good.

How could the people not trust the breezy blow-in, who came with a reputation and a brazen, reassuring ring in his name? The only difficulty was that the American would have to find entry into the Monolith, when no-one ever had and emerged from it alive. After all, what was the Monolith, apart from being the most malign force on earth? It was a shifting, shape-changing chimaera, when all was said and done. It existed: but like a nasty illusion does, a particularly ugly hallucination with power to wreak the worst havoc.

Many of the most cluey pundits described it as more like a labyrinth, a ventricular heart of confounding passages and false entry-ways, a convoluted maze of dead ends and deceiving pathways. By virtue of these illusion-like Monolithic innards, the enemy could only uncertainly be pursued, and almost always elude capture. The enemy was everywhere, the Monolith inescapable, setting up sabotage and booby-traps at every unexpected turn of the way. The challenge seemed insuperable, the risks still worse than the casualties to its encroachment had already been.

But the American was dauntless, insisting he and his cohorts in freedom were the men for the job. They would confront the Monolith head on and, they said, ‘make mince-meat of him.’ Perhaps it was reassuring; to many of the people doubtless it was, and the American was given full sanction to fulfil his mandate. He was seen as a reformer, an agent for enlightenment and the establishment of new, liberal norms. He and his forces would teach the Monolith some culture, the roots and branches, maybe even the full flower, of civilisation.

Volunteers and skilled fighters from many distant places joined them; they became a force, a power to be reckoned with. It seemed the American might have some cause for confidence, after all. Everyone looked forward to the end of the Monolithic Age, its labyrinths dismantled, its tentacular poisoned industry forever stopped in its tracks. Of course, no-one knew how difficult that might prove to be; but they believed in its possibility, and hope is preferable to disillusion, faith more seductive than despair.

The American, with his Antipodean brothers in arms and their formidable force, set off with all fanfare, but it wasn’t long before word returned that they had met ambush and been diverted from their way. Still worse, already in that no-man’s land between safety and the dark unknown, a possible spy had been identified in their midst—a young woman no less. She had come to the American during one afternoon of camp rest, and grown unusually close to him. As a native of the region, she had begun to advise him on the territory, on his movements and course of action.

But surely she was planted there, a waif of the oasis, by an unseen hand. How else, it was mooted, had they been so quickly threatened, so early in their operation? It could only be the woman’s doing, this serene weaver of tales who, it was said, wove such unlikely scenarios for no other reason than to catch the American in her web.

And the truth soon emerged that the American, their stalwart leader, had fallen for this foreigner, with her foreign accent, and had even promised her that on his successful return from the Monolith, he’d seal their complicity in elopement to those fertile southern climes she could only dream of. He painted technicolour visions of that other world, with its streams of flowing manna and unending riches.

What greater enticement could such a man make? Surely this siren (so the pundits said), this Calypso, had turned the American’s head! But there was no choice for them but to trust his instinct, as always, and tolerate the girl who presumed, with such uncanny calm, to tell him where, and how, to go. They were in the badlands now, in a barren border country they didn’t understand, and they needed her help. To the American she even gave, in a strange symbiotic pact, a smart phone that would always show him, invisibly if not inaudibly, the way he had come.

Call me when you’re ready to, she told him. But only once you’ve gone as far as you can go. Then I’ll guide you back again.

Where would a poor, ignorant girl come across a device like that? many asked. Many of those in the American’s closest entourage had grave suspicions of this woman they called, with caustic irony, the Lady Saint, but they let him have his way. For his part, the American held she was a gift of God, a kind of special messenger, and that his faith in her was certain. Was his mission not divinely ordained? Was it not made in the name of universal love? Still more, the Monolith was letting no time be wasted; reports of wild subjugations came to them, whole populations of terrified innocents held under its heavy hand. Any resistors were summarily dealt with; the numbers of the slain was appalling and grotesque. No time could be wasted on the American’s part, now, no quibbles or doubts; decisive action was required.

No-one had reckoned on the obduracy of their foe: the Monolith could be neither found nor diminished, no matter how many peripheral skirmishes they won against it. The Saint had told them, in one of her inspired moods, to go straight ahead, veering neither to the right nor the left. If they came to any depressions in the ground, any steep descents into deeper territory, they should always move there, deeper, lower, as far down as they could go.

This was disturbing—was she, the supposed Saint, leading them into some underworld, a place of no return? She would betray them, surely, and lure them to their end! There seemed little doubt of it. The further they went, the more they sought the heart of the Monolith, the more obscure and ill-lit, the more murky their progress grew. It seemed misguided, the entire thing.

Some of the freedom-fighters began to show ill-effects, flailing at unreal visions, going beserk in dead, echoing canyons until subdued with the heaviest sedations. But the American insisted, and spurred his cohorts on, smelling the sulphur on the air in the very words he spoke. They were close, however ill-advised it might seem, and the closer they were to the workings of the Monolith, the closer they would soon be to victory. It was too late to turn back now. And didn’t they know the storm always presages a silver lining?

Still deeper on their way, they began to feel they were entering the region of Monolithic control. Many of them fell by the wayside, sick in mind and spirit, and were left to find their own way back. The American pushed on, sure he would come to the place of reckoning before long. He had faith in his word, in the people, in his newfound love.

The Lady Saint, herself, was forced to stay back early in the mission, and part from him, at risk of jeopardising them all. Many still believed she was from the other side, and would have brought them all to perdition. They formed an inner-circle, and held closed colloquy among themselves. Learning of these breakaways, trusting only to his closest aides, the American had them go first into the deepening gorge ahead of them. He watched almost with satisfaction when they were, to every man, destroyed in a line of mines, planted in an unmarked road. The Monolith was close, there was no question now. It was just a matter of treading further, with lightweight, inspired steps.

Because they felt that now—the breath of inspiration. They felt the free world was within their grasp, once this cancer had been vanquished. Then they would know the peace of control, of safety secured, of which they would never let go. The whole world would be theirs, in this impregnable surety: what could be more desirable?

The closer they grew to the source of the evil the more they knew they would have to close ranks, in order to defeat it. Any idlers were abandoned, any doubters put away. So many dark little spaces rose under their steps, shadowed by the breath of the Monolith, all seedy and foul in the air. They could barely breathe, barely keep their limbs, their minds, intact. It was almost intolerable, the knowledge of the imminent, the worst of all.

When it came no-one was prepared for it and many fled in sheer incredulity. There were few who could stand up to it, the pressure behind the eyes and the vision before them: it was the most aweful thing they’d ever known, and no-one had warned that it was waiting, that it was what had been waiting there all along.

The Minotaur, waking from archaic sleep.

The American had been warned by the Saint, his lady-love, who told him how to get there, but not what to do once he’d arrived. It must be in the script, God’s writ, that he would defeat this foe, with his manifest destiny, and its certain demise. But it wasn’t clear that things would run that smoothly, not this time around. The people were relying on him, all the people, in the south and in the north, in all the free regions. But he couldn’t guarantee that now. He couldn’t guarantee anything.

Something had unleashed the Minotaur—the American himself perhaps. It waited for him in immobile, bull-necked power.

He could always turn back—she had given him the means to, after all. Perhaps she already knew it would come to this, that he would realise the extremity at the last moment, and decide against it. The Lady Saint was waiting for him now, dreaming of that Antipodes the American had promised her in such lifelike, dayglo colours.

But that was impossible. To decide against it? How could he possibly turn back? He was meant to win. It was written—he, and he alone, was the only possible victor. Even his allies took second place to that. He had always won; even if he’d lost the battle, he’d always won the war, one way or another. He couldn’t surrender the cherished prize: that realm of impermeable borders, where only sanctioned things could come and go. No gaps, no holes, no unseen interstice, could be left in this world, in order to keep disorder out. It would be a beautiful, closed system, forever more. Nothing else would ever be needed, gained or lost. Another kind of monolith in truth, its white twin: a monolith of total security, a fixity of peace eternal, as it had been promised, in the oldest of days.

But this, in front of him, this Minotaur was different. It didn’t have the first inkling of any of that. It had a will to destroy the American (and surely all his hapless allies, as well). It stood on low, powerful haunches, and stared at him, breathing sulphur through its nostrils. Its cloven hoofs stroked the poisoned, dirt ground. Under his breath the American said, true to all his heroes, It’s your head or mine. I’ll take off your head, and carry it back as proof, you filthy bastard. Once I’ve got you, your head on my spike, that will be the end of it. It will all be over.

The Minotaur looked, almost wisely, deeply, at its enemy, its eyes alight, as if it might be laughing at him: over? what will all be over?

The American was sure, the more he waited, and stared, that the beast was, in fact, laughing. And they waited, like that, transfixed in the deep heart of the Monolith, of both Monoliths, unable to move. Far behind them, in a no-man’s land, the Lady Saint waited also, ready to lead them out.

They waited, in the most loving and patient hatred, neither of them moving in for the final kill.

August 2013

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