“A palace of ideas shelters but imprisons lived experience.” –Raoul Vaneigem
Alone on the bus, his comrade once again confined to his desk by the imperious demands of the autocratic Gym building, Fred watched the star-like lights flash and echo from the hills and in the river as the 56E rattled along Second Avenue. His thoughts drifted to Ike’s strange behavior in the office that afternoon.
Fred had been refilling his jar of coffee in the lunchroom when he heard Phil declaiming up the spiral staircase for the entire staff to hear.
“Duckworth comes back from the doctor worse than he left!”
That caught Fred’s attention: he had not been aware that Ike had a doctor’s appointment.
Phil was followed by Megan, Lewis and Gordon, all laughing at Ike, who trudged up at the end of the queue. He seemed to think it was funny, too. Ike walked a little hunched and his khaki slacks were covered in dried mud. Fred followed them back through the lobby.
“What happened to you?”
“I had a doctor’s appointment,” Ike said, laughing, which led to coughing and wincing, and thus, more laughing.
Fred looked confused. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Must be nitrous,” the office manager suggested, as they all filed past. “Got stupid and fell.”
“She’s exactly right,” Ike had said.
Fred had kept watch on the elevator lobby the rest of the afternoon, hoping to catch Ike on his return from whatever meeting he was headed for, but they never did come back. Ike’s laughter had put Fred off any serious worry, but it was obvious that something warranted an explanation. He was extremely eager to hear the details.
The bus was making excellent time; there was no traffic at all to slow them down. Whatever vibrancy there may be in a city lit up at night, in these waste stretches of commuter lots and gravel factories now done with their day’s business, the lights hovering about them were not merry, but frightened and uncertain. Fred’s eyelids were drooping and he let them fall shut. Inside, the blotches of reddish light that pulsed and faded surrounded columns of numbers, stacks of white paper, the clack and whir of the adding machine.
Discretely hidden from the street behind a concrete parking structure under construction, a shimmering object the size of a Mini Cooper bloomed like a lotus. If anyone had seen it, they might have imagined it an animatronic puppet dreamed up the CMU Robotics Lab nearby, akin to the great, inflated monsters that had decorated the City plazas a few years back, for it seemed alive, a creature rather than a utilitarian conveyance. From this fluorescent lotus came the sound of muffled explosions like popcorn in a microwave bag, each burst accompanied by tiny, ascending beads of colored light. When the syncopation of the pops and bubbles reached a crescendo, a lithe, willowy being stepped gaily down the petaled ramp and onto the muddy, rutted earth. He took a moment to look about—and we shall call this person he, though this gender is by far not specific to a creature so uncharacterisable—and having established his location, began his jaunty stroll toward the road that ran before him. He was aiming for a light pole that sported a blue square placard at about the seven-foot mark. Promptly, as if it had been called, a bus pulled up beside him and threw open its doors. The stranger showed the woman behind the wheel a yellow card and swayed into the bowels of the vehicle, which was already in motion again.
Fred flicked his eyes open as he felt a presence settle in beside him.
“I have not disturbed you?” this personage said with a charmingly melodic voice. He looked like a cross between David Bowie and Boy George: slender and tall as the one, soft-featured as the other.
Fred shook his head in the negative. The bus slowed as the light turned red at the Oakland ramp.
“Have you any interest in Egyptian art?” the stranger said apropos of nothing.
“I have given no time to its study, unfortunately,” Fred replied, happy to be engaging this curious individual in conversation, and therefore with no particular scruple to its logical development.
“There are oddities in the corpus of the work that are generally dismissed by the endowed scholars. This is error.”
“The theories and methodologies of art history are outside my scope, I’m afraid,” said Fred. “I had no idea.”
“It is best not to have them. This I have come to tell you, Frederick Magellan Fuchs.”
“Do I know you?” Fred was more alarmed at how seductive this personage was, than that his full name was known and correctly pronounced by a stranger. He was not accustomed to casting his eye with any design upon the men of his acquaintance, and to be so compelled to touch this person, meant it really had to be a woman. Yet she was so skinny! He was alive with the novelty of this encounter.
“I have not descended to you before, so it is proper that I give you my name. I am known by some as The Cartouche, though I am more properly called Dakarai Bes.” He smiled beatifically, and his eyes radiated light.
“The Cartouche? What does that mean?”
“If you do not know now, the experience will be given to you. No other way of reaching knowledge is valid. Even the words I impart to you now, which I give as a brilliant light swung before a blind man, with the hope that the faintest glimmer will direct consciousness, even these words, you must experience or find them false. Ceci. ”
“Not that, this.” His gracefully turned gesture looked like that of a Roman orator.
Fred puzzled that out a bit, but returned to what he did grasp. “About knowledge, Vaneigem says much the same thing.”
“Indeed. He is one of the descended,” Bes said, tenting his incredibly long fingers.
“Descended?” Fred asked. He was no longer feeling the sluggishness of December’s early darkness. “As in the offspring of an ancestry or as in angels fallen from heaven?”
“Rather more like the latter, if Heaven is your name for Epsilon Eridani 3. I call my home Azibo.”
“You’re an alien?” Fred was watching with some fascination the kaleidoscopic motions of his companion’s hands, now pressed together as one might in prayer, except the fingers were spread. And then in motion again. Did this complex play have a meaning, a sign language he was missing?
“On this world, from your perspective, indeed, it is a true appellation.”
“And Vaneigem is an alien? I thought he was Belgian.”
“Is it not the same?” Woven fingers pulled apart, slowly, to flutter before collapsing into his lap.
“What about Guy Debord?”
“I do not know him, so I cannot say for certain. Possibly not; I have read he is French.”
“And what of that?”
“We do not descend to the French in this time; it is not necessary. They are already enlightened,” Bes said, his lifted hand inflected like that of the Buddha. And, indeed, in a moment, the second finger touched down upon his thumb. For a weird second, Fred saw a hundred arms at once, wavering like a bodily halo, communicating every condition of life.
But the vindication of the French greatly mollified him, and so he turned with greater intensity to Bes. “We near my home. Might I entice you to come along with me and sample a jar of elixir? Ike won’t be home for a few hours and we could talk.”
“A condition precisely to my specifications. I accept your hospitality.”
And so they walked together down the dark and windy street called Frank, under a dream-like quarter moon with Jupiter and Venus arcing away below it toward the horizon.
It was late when Ike finally made it home. He had gorged on pizza, and even stashed a leftover slice in the office refrigerator for breakfast tomorrow. It had been a fun night, actually, as if somehow, over lunch, his fate had veered toward the joyous. The morning had been solid frustration: repeatedly crashing servers that ate up two precious hours and made another late night inevitable, just when Ike was still hoping he might be making better use of his evening hours than meeting project deadlines. That had yet to play out, but he was buoyantly hopeful, and that mood had risen during a mind-numbing video conference and right through the night’s work. As Gordo said, seated beside an open window where he enjoyed a forbidden cigarette in the cold night air, it felt like studio—and he was right: the team, frenzied, intense, cracking up around the edges, hanging out together but getting the work done. And it didn’t take much. A few rues broken, a few extra-large pizzas for a late meal, beer, laughter and goofing off, Lewis’s inevitable farting after any heavy meal, which naturally invoke more laughter and genial raillery, at which point Wills pitched Godzilla at him, an apt comparison in more ways than one. Yet they’d gotten hours of good work in; in fact, Wills thought they were possibly a little further on the BIM model than anyone had anticipated. And Wills should know. Funny how the same work could be pleasure in one circumstance and torture under the eyes of the overlords. He vowed he’d do it different if he ever got a chance to run his own show. Still, fun was fun, but it was good to be home. He was sore and tired and sure could knock back a jar of elixir.
“Hey, Fred!” he bellowed, as he came through the front door.
“Ike,” said a mumbling voice from the couch. Fred arose, running a hand up over his face and into his rumpled hair. He looked around, disoriented without his glasses. “What time is it?”
“Must be around ten-thirty,” Ike said, locking the door again behind him and dropping his satchel at his feet. “How come you’re sleeping?”
“I… I don’t know. I think…I think I fell asleep on the bus.”
“And sleepwalked home?”
“No, Bes walked down with me.”
“Bess? Who’s she?” Must have missed something. He couldn’t keep up with the women in Fred’s life.
“Not Bess, Bes. A he, not a she. I think. But, no. No. That was a dream…”
“How much elixir have you had?”
“I don’t know. A couple of jars a piece. Well, in the dream anyway. But what a dream!”
Fred was on his feet, suddenly manic. “I was visited by an alien from Epsilon Eridani 3, a man named Dakarai Bes,” he said, grabbing Ike for emphasis, who winced. “The things he told me…Merde! ”
Ike walked somewhat gingerly into the kitchen, grabbed his jar from the dish towel where it was drying, and opened the tap on the Coleman jug. “An alien?”
“Indeed, yes. It was a dream after all, why not? Anyway, he told me all kinds of amazing things about ideas and experience. He told me Vaneigem is an alien and that the Eradani, or the Amuni, as they prefer to be called, don’t visit the French anymore because—get this—they are already enlightened! Connubial bliss! I knew it.”
Ike grinned. “Now I know it was a dream.”
Fred followed Ike down the carpeted stairs to the basement. “It was so vivid. You know the way some dreams are, having a greater sense of reality than reality itself. Perhaps it was a gifted moment, when the hypnosis of the Spectacle had been temporarily stripped away…”
Half way down the stairs, he stopped because Ike stopped. “Who was here?” Ike asked, glancing toward the glowing pot-belly stove.
Ike pointed at the two empty jars side-by-side on the coffee table. “Who was here? You were drinking with someone. You lit the stove.”
“I came home with Bes…”
“We had a few, down here, in the dream we did, and then he said…”
“He was tired and wanted to—“
Fred turned around and raced back up the steps. Ike followed, crashing through the living room after him, heedless of the pain he was inflicting on himself.
“—lay down for a bit before he left!” Fred bellowed as he leaped up the stairs by twos. Cold air flooded down into their faces.
“What the fuck?” Ike had stopped behind Fred, whose spread arms blocked the doorway to his room.
Fred did not even correct this defamatory exclamation. There was an indentation on his bedspread and pillow, and furthermore, his window was wide open, the screen missing. Fred looked over his shoulder at Ike, who was staring dumbfounded into the room.
“It couldn’t be,” was all he whispered, pushing past Fred.
Leaning out the window, Ike pointed to a round scorch mark on the shingled roof. “What the hell is that?”
Fred crowded in beside him. “The lotus ship…”
That’s when he noticed the window screen, propped neatly beside the window.
They both pulled their heads back in, staring at each other as Fred mechanically closed the window. Ike headed straight back to the basement.
Once seated again in his lawn chair, with Fred beside him, whose hands hung uselessly between his knees, Ike lifted his chin and chugged the entire contents of his jar. He belched solemnly.
“OK, now give it to me again, from the top.”
It required several more jars of elixir between them, and mounds of breadtzels, for Fred to tell his tale, and for Ike, who wanted to believe, to gather enough details to begin a thoroughly scientific investigation.
You can find the earlier chapters here.