“He was the first to see that the bronze plates … had formed the coverings of an enormous pair of rectangular folding doors, each about twenty-two feet in height and six feet broad … “
From Scientific American, 1879
“The Balawat Gates were three sets of gates from Balawat or Imgur-Enlil, an ancient outpost of the Assyrian Empire … The remains of two sets of gates can be found in the British Museum's collection.”
It was raining steel just like it always did in the condemned zones. Of course, it rained in the cleansed areas too, but not like this. Here it fell in impenetrable sheets—grey, hard and sharp—like steel, and it fell today as it had been falling every day since they arrived.
“Just a couple of areas,” he answered, squinting at the blurry, pale circle of a sun up there, its light just barely penetrating the clouds. Even when it cleared up a bit, the sky was thin and colourless above, a dirty grey.
He turned his gaze to the sculpted figures above the building’s entrance—mutilated and broken segments of human bodies—but no matter where he looked the dream was still inside him, he couldn’t get rid of it, it was like an aftertaste or a bright light burned into your eye, leaving behind a dark spot in your field of vision.
“So we can leave tomorrow then? As planned.”
“Looks like it right now. If nothing … ”
“If nothing unexpected happens. Sure. But by now there shouldn’t be any surprises left, should there? Well then. I’ll tell them to pick us up at 0700. Is everything OK otherwise?”
“Yes. No problems to report. Except that this protective mask is starting to get on my nerves,” he said, tapping the plastic covering his face.
“Well, patrolling the old urban areas comes with all sorts of problems.”
They laughed, and then went their separate ways. He was alone again, and didn’t know what to do with his time. All units had been dispatched to the various outlying buildings and would be completing their tasks during the afternoon. They knew what to do and wouldn’t want to drag their feet and risk delaying the return journey. Even if the job paid well, nobody wanted to stay longer than necessary in a place like this.
He walked slowly up the wide staircase into the entrance hall, past the bundles and cots of their camp, pausing at the foot of the next set of stairs leading to the upper floor. Up there, right now, the beams of the holo-copiers were sweeping silently over the final artifacts, memorizing everything.
He looked around. The polished stone floor was covered with plaster fragments and crushed mortar; the walls were crisscrossed with cracks and streaked with moisture. He shuddered. Everything here was too big. The ceiling was too high, the staircase was too wide, the rooms were too spacious. He had spent two weeks here and still couldn’t get used to it.
I wish I’d never come.
He erased the thought as soon as it entered his mind. It would be over soon anyway. Then he’d be able to leave all of this, he’d be out of this dump and on his way back. By tomorrow he’d be rid of the mask that covered his face, and rid of the raw, damp air that crept into his clothes, leaving a faint but unmistakable smell of mould everywhere, a smell that made him feel sick and that aggravated his throat and nose in spite of the air filter. Tomorrow night he would be far away from here and the yearning for that, to be anywhere but here, was like a knot of pain in his gut. The first thing he would do when he got home was take off this damn overall, clean himself up really good, put on his own clothes, and then go to the bar where he’d sit down and order a glass of beer in a frosted mug and watch the races through the asteroid belt.
Just one more day.
The dream surfaced inside him again: the colours, the glint of polished metal, the shimmering heat. He moistened his dry lips and tried to take some deep breaths to calm down, but the mask was suffocating him, his chest ached, and he wanted to rip off the plastic and the filter, he wanted to tear that protective seal from his face so that he could finally breathe again.
Closing his eyes, he tried to push down the panic clawing at his throat. There was nothing to worry about. Everything had gone better than he could have hoped for. This was his first big assignment after his promotion, and he had been given a chance to help manage one of the company’s biggest global jobs ever. His time here had been largely trouble-free, and the crew had scanned all historical objects in record time, so maybe an honorary mention was not out of the question. That would mean a nice bonus, and a crystal holo-plaque with his name on it at the end of the month.
The best two weeks of my life, he thought, taking deep, calming breaths until the cramp in his chest eased. Trouble-free. Record time. Honorary mention.
He took the pad from his pocket, touched the screen and went through the day’s duty roster as if he didn’t already know it by heart. There was nothing left to plan, and nothing unexpected had occurred since that first day when they had found the bodies.
He let his hand slide up and down the banister, feeling the smooth, cold surface through his glove. The bodies. Yes, the bodies had been unexpected. The discovery hadn’t caused any major delays but it had resulted in some unrest in the crew, and on top of that, the incident had annoyed him. It still annoyed him. Nobody had mentioned anything about corpse removal on this assignment, and as far as he knew the company’s techno-groups were not supposed to deal with that kind of thing. But then the old urban zones were new territory to him and he shouldn’t have taken anything for granted.
Not that the bodies themselves had bothered him. Last year had been his first after completing his training, and he had done cleanup duty in the nuclear zones: a garbage assignment like everybody got in the beginning. It had involved measuring levels of radioactivity and checking the encapsulation of the toxic storage facilities, analyzing soil and water, as well as dealing with various other environmental assessments. He got used to corpses there: most of them in bad shape close to the reactor cores and the contaminated areas. But this, here, had been different. The human remains had been swaddled in some kind of ancient fabric and placed in glass cases. Dead bodies on display.
Some of the cases had been broken, the glass crushed by falling debris, and limbs were spilling out on the floor, reduced to piles of dark, brown dust where you could sometimes distinguish a hand, a skull, a ribcage. They had poked through the filth with their boots: bones and pieces of fabric and shriveled-up flesh. Human fragments. Strange faces had lined the walls in that room, staring out at them from murals and coffins, studying them with their painted black eyes, painted black hair framing their impassive faces, painted arms folded over their chests while the beams swept over the dead as they swept over everything else. The beams scanned each object: its composition, size, weight, every detail of its appearance, so that they could all be reproduced and analyzed, and added to the company’s database of unique artifacts. In training they had been told that repros of historical artifacts and info about them was selling better than ever, but he still had a hard time imagining what anybody would do with those kinds of things.
The doors, he thought and the dream came over him again, it became clearer rather than fading in the daylight, it took shape in his mind, until he could almost touch it. Then, it slipped away once more. His mouth felt stale and dry, as if the heat of the dream had made him thirsty, and his breath came in short, laboured bursts inside the mask.
It all came back to that first day. He had felt stiff and inexperienced in his new clothes, and had wished that the outfit looked more used, that the transfer would have come sooner so that he could’ve gotten to know the crew before they headed out. As it was, he had nobody to talk to during the trip, no one except the pilot and the techno-leader, and they too had been strangers.
“We’ll take a look at the surroundings first to get a better idea of the layout,” the techno-leader had said when the hovercraft set them down in the courtyard.
They had sauntered up the stairs together, the excited buzz subsiding once they entered the building, all of them momentarily struck dumb by the enormity of the structure. In the doorway of the first room they had all stopped simultaneously, as if on command, with those standing in the back craning their necks to see better. He had been at the front and had cowered on the threshold with the rest of them, as if he feared that all that rock and plaster and concrete might come tumbling down at any moment.
“Look,” somebody breathed.
As if that needed to be said, as if they hadn’t noticed the staggering collection of gigantic artifacts inside: enormous cats with their mouths wide open, absurd alien creatures with wings and human heads, human bodies with animal heads, and a massive black stone reproduction of a man in a chair, his heavy arms positioned on the armrests.
“This is room A1,” the techno-leader had said, apparently unperturbed. “It will probably be the most time-consuming.”
“Due to the size of the objects,” he added and somebody in the back mumbled:
The techno-leader had entered the room first while the others hung back for a moment, hesitating in the doorway. Their steps echoed against the walls and the ceiling, and their echoing voices spoke to them from all directions, as if hundreds of people had gathered around them, invisible and whispering. The echoes made the room seem even bigger than it was, making him wish that everybody would just shut up.
He had touched some of the objects cautiously with his gloved hand. A thick layer of dust covered most of them, but polished stone shone through anyway: carved, cut, adorned with unknown signs and pictures, thin lines forming lost, incomprehensible words.
Two weeks had gone by, and yet he remembered every step he had taken on that first day, and he knew that the memories would never leave him. He remembered entering the inner room all by himself, he remembered hesitating again as he glanced up at the ceiling high above. Too high. At that moment he still hadn’t seen them, at that moment he could have turned around, gone somewhere else, and if he had turned around, he might never have seen them. But he had gone in, he had entered that room, and he had seen them. It was too late to turn around now.
What did I feel? What did I feel when I saw them?
He didn’t know for sure: a tremor inside, an impossible, illogical recognition that passed through him and disappeared before he could grasp it and understand it.
“What’s in here?” somebody had asked as they entered the room behind him, a hum of uneasy voices rising and falling between them.
He could feel the tickle in the pit of his stomach now, the dizziness, just like when he had first seen them, just like that first time when he stood before the closed gates. They were about six meters tall, made from wood and metal and he had pushed them, he had leaned on them with all his weight, but they did not yield.
“There’s nothing behind them,” one of the others had said, peeking as best he could between the door and the wall. “They’re just hanging here.”
There’s nothing behind them.
The choking feeling had overcome him then for the first time, his windpipe tightening like it had during the gas exercises in training, and for a moment he thought he would start hyperventilating, just like back then. Yes, the doors were shut. He had stood there, in front of the gates that couldn’t be opened, thrusting his hands deep into his jacket pockets so that nobody would see them shaking. The others had kept on walking, but he had stayed behind, alone, while the echoes of their footsteps and voices receded.
No more, he thought and mercifully the suffocating memory loosened its grip. Let it go. Leave it alone. It’ll be over soon.
He licked his dry, chapped lips, and went outside again. It was still raining. He turned up his collar to ward off the cold, looking into the dull steel surface of the rain: the world beyond, if it still existed, remained hidden and out of sight.
There was nothing more he could do. Just wait.
He wandered aimlessly down the stairs and across the courtyard, kicking a piece of clattering metal through the silence. Once there had been some sort of cultivation going on here: withered weeds pushed out of the wet dirt in several concrete containers, but nothing grew here now. The ground was littered with torn plastic bags, faded pieces of printed paper and a couple of flimsy condoms. Surrounding the courtyard was a wall and a black metal fence. The buildings across the street looked much like the one behind him: grey, streaked with dirt and pollution, walls cracked and crumbling, jagged teeth of broken glass in the windows.
He had been outside in the zone before and there wasn’t really much to see there. Mainly he had gone because a couple of the others had asked him if he wanted to come along. When they asked him, he had been so fed up with his self-enforced stiffness, fed up with being on the outside listening in on conversations he didn’t dare to join, fed up trying to play the boss while the sweat trickled out of his armpits and his voice cracked every time he cleared his throat. So he came along.
They had walked all the way down to the river and had stood there for a while on one of the remaining bridges, staring into the murky water where fish moved, defying the toxicity.
Going back they had taken another route—a completely different one.
I shouldn’t have gone there either, he thought as his hands fondled each other, pulled at each other, held on to each other. He yanked them apart and forced them to hang limply at his sides.
The dream was there, he could feel it stirring just below his conscious mind, but he didn’t allow himself to touch it again.
When he stepped out into the street, he did it without turning around to see if he was being watched. He turned right and kept walking, following the pitted sidewalk, pretending that he didn’t know where he was going.
A narrow stream trickled along the sidewalk’s edge, disappearing into a crack in the blacktop further away. There were burned-out vehicles everywhere, wet and soiled sheets of paper and plastic drifting across the road—fragments of time that had passed. He didn’t see many people, but every now and then there was a quick movement on a side street, or dark figures in a doorway hurrying inside, or a quick glimpse of pale, smudged faces in the windows above.
It was difficult to understand how they could live here. Some attempts had been made at forced relocation, here as in similar places, but it had proven to be expensive and dangerous. The violence level was too high, and those kinds of projects were no longer considered productive or economically feasible. Not that these people would be of much use anyway, since their genetic material had probably deteriorated because of inbreeding and mutations.
He took a left turn, continuing along the sidewalk, avoiding the water that had gathered in puddles of unknown depth in the street. Even out here in the rain, the dream kept its hold on him. He caught a fleeting glimpse of the dazzling yellow metal, and for a flicker of a moment it was as though he could sense the weight of his own body leaning on that shiny surface, straining against it, in vain.
When he reached the open space where the streets met, he cut across the intersection and turned right. He was quickening his pace now and his steps ricocheted back at him between the walls of stone. The rain had found its way in underneath his collar, sending a trickling chill down between his shoulder blades. Everything was colder and darker here with the heavy buildings leaning out over the street, block after block of decomposing concrete and brick. There were still some street signs left, fastened to the walls and metal poles, black letters, meaningless words: Oxford Street, Dean Street, Wardour Street. Other letters in different styles, sizes, and colours hung on the walls above gaping windows and doorways, but there were no complete words to read anymore, just syllables, guttural noises. All of it impossible to understand, just like the desiccated bodies in the glass cases, just like the doors that couldn’t be opened, like the animals with human heads, humans with animal heads, symbols carved in stone and metal, and stacks of tomes with fragile pages that crumbled as you turned them, telling stories no one could read.
The pain bit into his side and he had to slow down. Turning into one of the alleys he could already smell the burnt grease and fish waste, the odour so strong that it penetrated even the mask’s air filter. Then he saw the light in the window, the empty cardboard boxes outside, wet and sagging in the runoff from the roof. The door must once have been painted a bright blue, but the colour had almost completely peeled off, revealing the rotting wood beneath.
He wiped the water off his mask as best he could with the sleeve of his jacket when he entered, trying hard not to let the sickening smell of fish bother him. Inside, four individuals crouched on the high chairs by the bar, hunched over, their hands in front of them, their pitted, flushed faces dark and unreadable in the gloom. She was there too, but couldn’t see him yet because her back was turned. He felt a sudden pang of relief when he saw her, and his breathing slowed though his hands still trembled.
Then she turned around. The face. Those red rashes on her forehead and neck, like burns. Her left eye swollen, the eyelid sagging, and her hair so thin that her scalp showed through—the remaining brown wisps arranged in a loose bun. In her earlobes she carried the objects the others had brought for her as payment, hoops of gold set with different coloured gems. He looked at her, took a step closer, but even though she must have recognized him she ignored him, turned away and continued with what she was doing: shaking the metal basket she had just lifted out of the hot grease, arranging the pieces on a plate. The smell of rancid fat and fish. With an experienced flick of the hand she sent the plate down the bar where a man caught it, bent over it and started eating immediately, licking his fingers between mouthfuls.
She was already cleaning another fish—the slim, sharp knife moving quickly and mechanically in her hand as she sliced open the belly, pulled the guts into a box on the floor, and cut off the head. Then she removed the bones with a few quick cuts, and skinned it. Just like last time he couldn’t stop looking at her. It was something in the way she moved, the instinctive precision of her movements, the ingrained habit of it all. The way she stood too, like now, with her hand resting on one hip as she spoke, her sagging bust a barely noticeable bulge beneath the shirt, the furrows in her cheeks snaking their way down over her throat, the peeling sores covering her skin, mostly on the nose and forehead like on all of them. He looked at them eating and remembered the river: the stench, the sewage and filth drifting with the currents and the fish surfacing and swallowing it all. He remembered the old people and the children sitting along the river’s edge with their fishing lines thrown into the water, the catch of the day beside them: twitching, necks broken, gills splayed.
She turned to face him again, wiping her hands on the green towel she carried over her shoulder as she came up to the bar and looked at him. Her face still betrayed no recognition. Pointing at some pieces of fish she had just cut up she said something in her incomprehensible language, but he shook his head and she seemed to lose interest again, dragging the towel over the bar a couple of times to wipe up the spills before returning to the stove.
He had wanted to touch her again, had thought of her scrawny body underneath his own in the back-room, the glitter in her eyes, wide open the entire time. The others had laughed at her afterwards, at the ugliness and filth, at the mess of dirty hair, at the rough hands. He had kept quiet, feeling separated from them again. The whole way back in the fading daylight, he had thought of the warmth inside her when he had penetrated her and afterward, when he was empty and drained, he had wanted to stay there, resting his head between her sagging breasts, and she hadn’t pushed him away like she had pushed away the others. She had stayed very still, caressing his neck for a while and he had pushed his plastic-covered face deeper into her, into the smell of her: sour and overpowering.
He shoved his hands into his pockets now and felt suddenly ridiculous standing there in his overall with the mask covering his face. There was nothing for him here. Still, he stayed to watch her a while longer. A couple of people at the bar glanced over at him then turned to each other and he heard their voices, their scattered laughter. She laughed too.
That laughter burned beneath his skin all the way back through the streets. The rain was heavier and darker and he ran through the steel, pushing through the metal, always feeling the resistance of the gates, and still they did not budge. Back at the site, he ran up the stairs and into the building, the sharp echoes of his footsteps bouncing back at him like thunder. Then he suddenly stopped, breathless and panting, his side splitting with pain.
The doors. He had dreamed of the doors last night.
He had been standing in front of them again—naked in front of the bronze gates—in a place he had never seen before, and it had been very hot and the sunlight had been blinding him, and then the gates had begun to swing open, a narrow crack opening, and then … and then …
… then he had been awake, right at the very moment when he could have looked inside, when he could have entered.
His heart throbbed so heavily inside him that it tore at his chest.
And if I had been able to open them, and if I had been able to step through them, where would I have been then?
He had been so close, naked in the hot sand as the doors opened, but still it had been too late.
In a place I’ve never been, but somehow recognized.
He stood there, waiting for the dizziness to pass.
Why had he gone back to her?
He had wanted to ask her something, but couldn’t articulate even to himself what his question would have been. Her language was unintelligible, a few words was all he could identify when they spoke amongst themselves. He wondered if they knew that this building would be deleted tomorrow. Had anyone told them? Probably they had no idea and wouldn’t care anyway. The disintegration detonators would be set up and then all these molecules would be separated from each other, all this matter would be dissolved. It had to be done. The deletion was necessary to protect the company’s copyright, and secure its exclusive rights to the artifacts.
He took the pad from his pocket, activating it with clumsy, trembling fingers, and went through the building room by room, floor by floor. The index flickered by, thousands of objects, most of them flashing red now, indicating that they had been copied. Every historically classified object scanned. Including the doors. They too would disappear so that only the licensed copies, produced in limited editions, would remain.
I’m tired, he thought. That’s all it is. Fatigue. I haven’t had enough sleep since we got here.
He wandered through the rooms. Small objects were scattered all over the floor, mostly animal figurines and ornaments, most of them broken. They had found signs of plunder throughout the building, smashed windows and broken doors, proof that somebody had gone through the place before the company put up the barriers.
He had a vague feeling that he was looking for something, but had no idea what it was. Then he heard laughter nearby, and the sound of something breaking.
“What are you doing?”
At the sound of his voice, they all froze: three of them, his own age, maybe younger. Two of them were cradling several artifacts in their arms, while the third held the copier.
“We were just lightening the mood a little. Target practice. Look.”
One of them threw an object into the air, he didn’t even have time to see what it was, but as it tumbled he caught a glimpse of blue and gold. It passed through the copier beam just before it hit the floor and smashed. Their smooth, unbroken faces turned towards him covered by the shiny face masks, eager to see what he would do now.
“We have no time for this,” he said and hoped that his voice wouldn’t crack as it still did sometimes when he was under pressure. “We’re getting out of here tomorrow morning. Hurry up.”
As soon as he was out of sight their laughter echoed against the stone walls again and he fled down the stairs, running blindly through the rooms, past shelves and display cases, tripping over cracks and garbage. Stopped.
No more, he thought when he realized where he was, gasps of breath fluttering in his throat, trapped inside the plastic covering his mouth.
He was standing in front of the gates and they were still shut: they would never open, they didn’t lead anywhere. Through the empty rooms and corridors he could hear the others—the laughter, the voices, the footsteps—all far away. His breath hissed inside the mask. He removed his glove and touched the doors, put his palm on the surface, exploring it with his bare hand, but he felt nothing, there was nothing to feel, it was just metal and wood, an object without a purpose, useless, worthless. And still he had hoped.
For what? The recognition. The tremor inside, as if this all meant something. These human fragments. I poke through them, searching. There’s nothing there to find. It doesn’t mean anything, there’s nothing to understand. Things that have been so completely forgotten can’t be worth remembering.
The eyes of stone that surrounded him would stare into nothingness as all of this disappeared, just like she had stared at him: unmoved, indifferent, without recognition. He stood very still, listening to the distant sounds of the others, barely rippling the silence of this vast place.
There’s nothing behind them.
In the glass case next to him there was a glint of golden objects, still intact, embellished, covered with symbols that meant nothing. It was hard to see whether they depicted humans or animals. He smashed the glass with his elbow and the unprotected hand. The pieces fell all over his shoes. Then he walked along the entire wall, smashing every case, and the sound of breaking glass was like a rising heat inside him. He tore everything out, stomping on it, throwing it around as it jangled and clattered.
Afterwards he was bleeding, the blood slick and warm on his lips as he put his hand to his mouth. When he walked away he was still shaking, and the salty taste remained on his tongue.
They left the following morning. The steel rain was still falling, and everything was swaddled in low clouds and colourless fog. He had stitched up the cut in his hand and felt no pain at all.
As they walked away from the building and across the courtyard, the stairs and the pillars disappeared into the greyness until they were completely blotted out, and the ship appeared out of the mist before them. When they took off there was nothing to see. But the eyes of stone still stared out over his head, there was nothing he could do about that, they were still inside him, she was still inside him, and the bronze gates remained shut.
First published in Odin's Eye, Vancouver, self-published through Createspace, 2015.