Invisible with Light
Neil Mulholland

He headed up through the spiral staircase, watching out for stumble steps and keeping his sword drawn in case suddenly surprised by an assailant. His visor was drawn so that all he could see was squeezed through the narrow slit in front of his eyes. The top of the stair was invisible with light. He could feel the sudden rise in his diastolic blood pressure. A sword was mounted just above the door. Below it was a severed arm, a trophy from a recent execution. Is that what they did with them? The left corner of the room bore damage from the artillery attack his infantry had administered to the fortifications last Saturday morning in what had been an unprecedented level of visceral combat choreography.

It had been a prolonged siege, a sacking with mood swings, much bloodshed and weekday withdrawals. Having drilled endlessly, and fought with great ferocity, many of his soldiers were lost to the murder holes of the killing fields. In retaliation, his cavalry explored the maze-like fortress, slaughtered almost every man, woman, child and slave who resided within the burgh walls, even if they fled to the churches. Some eight thousand townspeople were put to the sword. He didn't have to do this; it was part of the sport. Life as a noble was monstrously violent, but there was the great spoil of contentment and the reassuring illusion of power in such arbitrary slaughter. He had learned the kind of rapport and harmony with this place, with this way of life, as hostages can develop for their captors.

He'd been struggling tactically, almost making it into the citadel on Sunday, but had to pack it in and set up camp again when it got late. It was all about salience. The cannon and mangonel had been the main challenge because of the need to get the launch angle just right while ensuring that enough of his troops survived the arrow loops to storm the bastion. It was much harder still than all those months posing as a herbalist and giving alms to beggars to get information on the supplies of bog ore being bought by the town's travelling merchants. Strangest of all was the sudden demand for a metal acquired from vicious griffins in the North Pole and supplied by a one-eyed horseman. He was sure this line of investigation would pay off eventually, (it was probably an oracle of some sort), but he wasn't quite sure how.

The ones that didn't make it, the infected corpses, were swaddled in manure, loaded onto a trebuchet and fired over the fortifications at the enemy. As part of the on-going work to conquer the town, this framework was the best practice, improving morale of his team while causing the greatest psychological damage to his adversary. His reward for being coordinated was that diorama. The dénouement - a fifty-pound projectile pinning the enemy battalion's mascot, a black swallow, to the ground - was such a nice touch. It gave him an immense feeling of satisfaction. It brought it all back down to earth. This is what it was really about. Forty dollars was all it took to get him started.

His eyes slowly drifted around the room, scanning robotically from left to right as if weighed down by a heavy suit of armour. It truly made him feel as if he was in hostile territory, out of his depth. A window was garlanded by a swarm of dead insects. On the twilight horizon of the fiefdom, in the harbour off the obelisk at Spittal point, he could just make out the galleons in all their colourful elegance swarming in preparation for their migration to warmer waters. They appeared to float above the sea, painterly and glitch-ridden, breaking up like oil on water. This vantage point did not help. These old boys looked hazy, lost in the obscurity of the haar. A light as intense as five suns illuminated the upper layers of the atmosphere, reflecting their crimson glow back indirectly, giving the impression of looking in rather than out. Their portholes percolated a sticky sap into the sea. Surrounding them were sea lions, little knights of the naval theatre, eagerly greeting this relief fleet.

As he turned from the window, his eyes readjusted to the gloom. He could now see a dark pulsating mass in the opposite corner of the room. The same sticky substance glistened in the gleaming beam that fell from the window. A trickle down a falling wall, it formed rivulets and contortions on the surfaces and cavities of the dusty corner. A babble of pigments, the colour of molasses, copper and silver was spawning a globular residue of elaborate grandeur. Without allowing his attention to stray, he lent over to where he'd left a fine china cup perching precariously on the edge of a flowerpot stand. As he took a sip of lukewarm tea, this dark fluid was pumping out mounds of sumptuously misshapen tresses. The dry air caught in the back of his throat causing him to hiccup, a liquid flesh dribbling and oozing like melted chocolate. He was ravished. The sensation of a deep anxiety about this medium was at once overwhelming.

Scanning the ground through his visor he spied fragments of a substance approximating molten metal and black glass, and here and there dark stains caused by this liquid. He opened up the information window to engage the gas chromatography sequence: 'nine globular proteins of unknown sequence and conformation.' Less-than-thrilling prose. He'd seen something like this before, a transparent red pigment made from coagulated elephant and dragon blood. These incidents would have made a slight impression on his mind, but for the fact that he had the tingling, tantalising feeling that an entity was about to manifest itself. The mass was drawing him ever closer, inviting him to reach out and touch this form that was starting to reveal itself. It was as if he felt the very substance in which his experience was being rendered.

Maybe it was a metaphor; they were getting more popular again. He could use a bit of a story every now and again. The alternative was the universal lowest common denominator, the race for the bottom. Meaning had been tied to colour then, it was part of the alchemical philosopher's stone. Crushing the glands of the snail. It was one thing to paint amazing worlds and incredible historical detail; another to make a connection through the labyrinthine subjective conflict the protagonist has to go through. This is what makes the experience more human, what lends it cordiality. It was more than just dressing up. What was this elusive, sweaty, adhesive mass? A prosthetic? Body armour? Viscose vest? A periwig? These were two identical images pushing and pulling against one another, in fact: he experienced them twice, reverberating with the same breath, causing him to gag on a chocolate raisin.

The thick stone walls delayed the detailed reflections. And then, standing in this shadow, he saw a man-at-arms, an echo of the sea lions wallowing in the North Sea. A somewhat vane, satisfied figure of authority. Hand on hip, his potbelly protruded proudly as if to escape its armoured guard. His white kid gloves gleamed in the twilight. 'A noble will reap a handsome ransom', he thought. Now to put him to his broadsword. He tilted his hand a few degrees to the right, gesturing towards the framed figure as if to flush him. Then he saw that this was not a knight. A quarter-length portrait painting revealed all its skill, detail, richness and restraint. This figure at once swung out from the wall and vanished in flash, disintegrating into a thousand shards.

A momentary lapse of equilibrium, and the connection was plain. This was his own reflection. The mere presence of this Claude glass incited the supernatural powers of its owner. It transformed his perception into permeable boundaries, liminalities, analogies and doublings. Didn't big grey elephants recognize their own reflection? Or was it the armour plated rhino? His passions and vanity were at once intimate and at double remove. Through a glass darkly, his auxiliary organs made him ingest and feel the terror, wonder and understanding of this delay. These broken images, these situations and identities, this natural magic, this calisthenics of the mind and eye, were part of who he was right now.

As the quartz evaporated and the silvering sputtered to the ground, the wall behind the looking glass betrayed a dark black chasm. He imagined it billowed a curious sulphurous odour. He shook his body towards it spasmodically, crouched down and pushed himself into the cavern. A cinematic sequence immediately commenced. In this, he crawled along a dark and dank passage through the castle walls into its vaults and onwards into a tunnel that took him under a breach in the fortress wall. Didn't he TiVo Shawshank Redemption? From there he followed peripheral passages that ran like a warren under the ancient town. They took him beneath well-known central locations, including the tourist office, The Castle bar, The British Heart Foundation, Happit, The Playhouse, Wilson Cycles, and Sports Direct.

As he emerged from the tunnel the first thing he saw was the glinting light reflected in his perfectly preserved gauntlet. Presumably he was using this hand to crawl through the tunnel, yet the gauntlet was perfect with no wear marks and no dirt whatsoever on them. His impressively detailed prospect told him that the pit he now found himself in could not have been dug out by Templars – it must have been the product of modern industrialised mining made in the future or in the distant past. These were continuity errors that, in any other situation, would have permanently suspended his belief. But such ontological discrepancies were part of the world of wanderlust he had come to accept: the indistinct plot-lines, the lack of strict causality, the duplicate personas, the shifts of setting and time, facts and fantasies. There was no index of fundamental truth, the genre just seemed to simply transform with each new release.

The rattling of chain mail refocused his attention. Something was coming down the tunnel after him. He tilted forwards to run towards a set of sandstone steps leading him quickly up and out into the light. Suddenly the air separated into a myriad of celestial particles. A heavy explosion, shuddered the earth beneath him. The tunnel had collapsed in his wake, vitrifying and melting, leaving him atop a twelve-tier ziggurat. When the wind and dust subsided upon the megalith he saw in front of him a Victorian gentleman's machine. It was beautifully crafted in the mock Tudor style popular in 20th century Metroland. It reminded him of the Soviet rockets used to launch Sputnik and Laika into space back in the Fifties. Not a whiff of von Braun or Teflon. So the griffin-sourced base metals were for this marvellous steampunkery? An early flying machine designed for vertical take off and landing? Perhaps this materia obscura was a lifeboat come to take him to the next level? But how could such a chariot of fire possibly work? A chocolate raisin's worth of antimatter would be enough to take him round the celestial spheres, but it would require engines and some means of storage. Despite his immediate concerns over the lack of boosters or, indeed, of any visible engineering, it looked like it was being groomed for the official launch of a magnificent journey.

He walked up onto an adjacent ceremonial platform and faced the machine. As he stood in position, his heavy armoured boots holding him steady, an intense beam of red light thundered and flashed from the base of the podium, its hot vapor lapping and scorching around the mechanical voyager. He imagined a hot breath of wind on his face blown up by this intense thunder, earthquake, storm and tempest. As the crystallizing flame of devouring fire deflected off the steps of the pyramid beneath him, the flying charger rose, in infinite brilliance, towards a heavenly gateway. The door creaked open. The bored receptionist mumbled his surname. He hit the standby button and quietly slipped his mobile into his pocket.

  

2010