The Clockwork Prophet
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners. (Socrates, Allegory of the Cave)
The vast throng surrounds her in Times Square, just as it had in London, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Oslo and Lisbon. Some of the galvanized guardians of nature have glued themselves to highways, others have stopped commuter trains in London with naked, painted flesh draped over rails. Others have meandered noisily out of campuses in columns, violating eardrums with their screeching whistles expelled from skull-painted faces. Some have livestreamed university lawn vandalizations while clasping Fairtrade lattes as the expert witnesses of nature's coming apocalypse converge behind podcast microphones and regurgitate Gertrude's critical message: This is an emergency.
Gertrude Iceberg, nature's pigtailed savior from Denmark, scowls into the sunlight and surveys the cameras drooling over her image and microphones ravenous for her comment. Journalists equally hungry for her soundbites are shaking merely from the prospect of interacting with her; not even the top-class reporter training received in their $100,000 Media degrees is adequate to compose them in the presence of this living goddess. "The Statue of Liberty should have curtsied as Gertrude's solar-boat passed her on its way through New-York Bay", one media operative says passionately.
A cluster of reporters smothers Gertrude, still wearing her black lifejacket which is emblazoned with the corporate shields of the alternative energy industry's pageantry. Her minders and PR handlers deliver disappointing news to the excited hacks, who receive it with dejected faces.
"No time for questions guys. The march is starting now but we'll be doing a full press-conference outside the UN after Gertrude's speech."
Telescopic lenses capture Gertrude's face in its default semi-scowl. It's her determination to save the planet, say her youthful devotees spreading her sponsored sermons across social media. Such self-sacrifice makes her look so severe they claim.
A young activist sporting a bandana and Time to Take Back Our Planet t-shirt screams into a loudspeaker: "It's time to act for future generations. It's time to take back our future and make them listen to science!"
The exhortation makes the mob roar and reporters surrounding Gertrude, assembled in front of Rockefeller Plaza, whistle and thrust their fists in the air in solidarity. The media prepares for this dainty girl, nature's Jeanne d'Arc, to lead her infantry to United Nations Plaza where she will, like a rented Nostradamus, read the world's doomed horoscope.
One, two, three, we are living an emergency!
Five, six, seven, eight we are going to exterminate!
The crowd lurches forward, clutching banners as though they are axes. The scrawled slogans demand, admonish and accuse in their attempts to make the skeptics submit to the truth. Some ask opaque rhetorical questions, while others depict certain world leaders as bestial grotesques. Others declare war on the world's entire catalogue of prejudice and injustice, targeting every ism and ist of the world along with the climate change heretics already condemned to their digital dungeons of discredit.
"This is amazing!" gushes news anchor Sylvia Shine continuing her commentary on the mobilized saviors of humanity. From her studio seamless directing and technology serves the viewer a fleeting montage of earnest teenagers marching, banners in hand and Time's Running Out t-shirts proudly worn. Her channel, Essential News, is covering the Planet Salvation Day March and feeding its revolutionary zeitgeist into as many CPUs as possible.
"It's like she's got all the young people of the world behind her. Carrying her message of change and her call to act. Nobody has inspired the young more than this shy little girl from Denmark. They are following her lead and showing the kind of passion and urgency that's been missing from our adult world leaders. Mike."
Mike Stupor, her telegenic and ruggedly handsome co-host, nods his agreement of the assessment and prepares to deliver the script he's edited and practiced on since the start of the day.
"What's so impressive is her maturity. She's just so with it. Not fazed by the attention. Just so confident. Standing up on these stages in front of hundreds of thousands of people and giving these inspiring speeches on climate change. She's bearing a torch of inspiration for others to follow."
"Aren't they inspiring Mike?" says Sylvia, heaping additional praise on the little 'rock star' activist from the land of Hans Christian Andersen.
"Her Skip School for Mother Earth campaign has inspired children from around the world to join her in this march and bring down carbon emissions," she continues in a voice overwhelmed with admiration.
"As a matter of fact, my daughter Britney has decided to take a stand too and taken the afternoon off school to lend her voice to the movement and her support to Gertrude."
"Well you must be so proud of her," says Stupor underlining his approval with expansive hand gestures practiced in the Sincerity in Broadcasting workshops the network made its anchors attend.
"And my Mikey's there too, showing solidarity with Britney. Of course, our viewers might not know that they attend the same United Thought high-school in lower Manhattan which is doing the right thing and allowing the pupil walk-out today to attend the march. And I believe they'd like to say hello to us."
The live-link screen appears superimposed on top of the key screen. Mikey and Britney occupy the digital square, their faces flush with callow passion for the planet's survival. Beside them is Victoria Vapid, a British reporter on secondment from the network's London office tasked with being the channel's talking head for the day.
"Hi Sylvia! Hi Mike!" The teenagers echo the greeting to the anchors in the studio. Sylvia asks about the atmosphere. "The atmosphere is electric. You can feel the energy everywhere around you. There's a real buzz," says Vapid. Her panoramic hand-sweep prompts the camera to pan around and reveal the raucous tsunami of placards, cameras and love for Mother Earth surging behind them in the direction of the UN headquarters. Smartphones ride on the crest of its wave, their phone camera apertures winking in the July sun as they archive this day with the power of lithium.
"These young people are bringing a message to the streets that politicians and corporate leaders cannot ignore for much longer," says the English reporter with her microphone now parked under Britney's mouth.
"Hi Mom!" Britney waves and back in the studio, her mother's features tremble with maternal pride.
"It's awesome here! Everyone's, like, coming together to get behind Gertrude. We saw her just a few moments ago. Everyone was cheering and I waved to her and I think she waved back. It's going on my Instagram story."
"Let's see your placard Britney. Hold it up for the camera," says Vapid.
Britney obliges. The huge poster shows a lime green portrait of Gertrude festooned with a crown of flowers seated in the lotus position clasping the globe of Earth protectively around her stomach as if it is her unborn child. There is a difference between this representation of her and the real version edging closer towards the United Nations Building. On the poster, the greenish tinge makes her cheeks fuller and lips more voluptuous. One of the corners of her mouth is curled into a cynical smirk and her auburn hair has been released from its pig-tail bands and flows tendril-like over her shoulders, cascading luxuriantly over the silver threads of the rune necklace positioned on her topless torso. A brooch attached to the necklace shows an X enclosed within a circle, which is the logo of Anarchy against Extermination, the 'radical action and civil disobedience environmental organization' to which Gertrude is affiliated.
"Wow, what a beauty!" exclaims Victoria, nodding leeringly in the direction of Mike who looks ready to blush.
"I'm sure Gertrude is going to break a lot of hearts when she finds a partner because of the example she's setting. She's already the pin-up girl of climate activism."
"This picture of Gertrude won the Climate Emergency Gertrude Portrait competition at my high-school, and it was painted by Bethany Snipes who's at the march today," says Britney, pointing to the image on the placard.
Back in the Essential News studios, producers direct focus back onto Gertrude, with a third screen appearing. It locates her within the throng somewhere on First Avenue and shows the grimacing celebrity truant traipsing ahead, as if troubled by future expectations of crushing weight and unthinkable magnitude. Po-faced minders dressed in blue form a walking fence around her. They walk hand in hand shielding their future empress of Time Magazine covers like Praetorian guards. Voices call her name from every direction and fingers long to touch her. Cameras capture hands breaching the arm cordon to offer her bottles of water. Does she need a hat to shield her face? Earnestly extended hands proffer from all directions and Gertrude declines the offers with courteous silence and a quick head shake. She continues looking impassively ahead as a march coordinator a few hundred yards ahead puts her overworked megaphone into use once more.
We'll go back to school,
When you've made the Earth cool!
Why should we follow your rules,
When you are burning fossil fuels?
With each repetition, the shriek of the mobilized mass becomes shriller and shriller. Bystanders clasping their iPhones and Samsung Galaxies in order to gratify their impulse to record, record, and then forget, drop their phones and cover their ears as the militant column punishes their neutrality. Police officers wince at the noise, and live-feed cameras positioned at all points of the five kilometer column linger on the extroverts and mummers in this passion play for Mother Earth. Young anarchists clothed in black snarl behind face masks and wrinkled baby-boomers in sunglasses raise and lower their Treat Mother Earth with more Respect placards with blank expressions like animatronic activists sourced from a high-tech Japanese enterprise. There are mothers pushing strollers and regular-looking New Yorkers gripping their lattes and giving the camera their most congenial activist grins. Then there are the proud harlequins in gaudy face-paint and costumes opiated by the urge to emote for nature. Within the advancing column the eeriest sight is of thirty men and women covered in scarlet gowns and headscarves. Their faces are pallid, spectral white and frozen into pitiful smiles. They trudge forward in lockstep with arms outstretched as if eager to embrace all members of doomed humanity before the seas rise too high.
Further down the vast convoy, out of sight of Essential News cameras, Gertrude continues to advance in her procession within a procession, closing the distance between her and the intersection of 42nd Street and First Avenue. She ambles forward, treading carefully. The din surrounding her muffles the faint humming sound that follows her strides. With each five or six yards, she glances around with a blank expression as though unable to decode her circumstances, like she doesn't know where she is or why she is there and that her ability to ask these questions has been disabled. The humming grows louder.
Jimmy Virgil, a seventy-five year old retired New York police officer glimpses her through the forest of arms as she passes. He has just left a lively lunch with former colleagues in a nearby diner where straight talk was exchanged, and candid verdicts delivered on the state of the twenty-first century. They discussed this march, with its rainbow flags, rude placards and 'freaks, wannabe revolutionaries and self-interested attention seekers'. They also assessed Gertrude, in the privacy of their AL's DINER booth out of earshot of Gertrude's disciples at that moment monopolizing Manhattan.
"That kid's a freak! Those eyes. That iceberg stare. Creepy," says Frank, his colleague from precinct days in the seventies and eighties. The era of a rougher, rawer New York in Jimmy's view. Back then, the people were smarter because their heads weren't stuck to pixelated screens and they didn't rely on YouTube oracles to understand the world.
"Right," says ex-military Roy who's followed his steak with one beer too many and whose face is becoming beetroot colored with anger. "And who does she think she is coming to our city and creating this mayhem? She's a foreigner causing problems, stirring up this insanity. If this president was a true patriot, he wouldn't stand for her being in this country. In the old days, they'd have sent her packing at Ellis Island."
"Come on! We can't do that in 2019 This is democracy!"
Lance, the youngest of the group known for his love of rebuttal, says this.
"Bullshit!" Roy slams down his glass. "Just like Frank says. She's abnormal. A bad influence on our kids. She's hypnotizing them."
Jimmy considers these words as he watches Gertrude pass. The chanting is deafening and adoration unanimous. Phones held aloft by an unbroken fence of arms either side of the street continue the relentless digital consumption of Gertrude, bloating their hardware's storage capacities as exabytes of video of the climate champion are uploaded and vomited across myriad domains of the web.
Gertrude for president!
Is he the only bystander who finds the consistent blankness of her gaze odd? She is void of emotion, he thinks. Empty. She reminds him of the traumatized kids he and colleagues came across in Central Park long ago. Some of them were runaways, some orphans. Some were untraceable and gave up neither names nor personal histories in the interviews. They could remember nothing and came from nowhere. Some had been abused, in secret he was convinced, where screams weren't heard. It was the most disturbing thing when some of them spoke in different voices and in different personalities like possessed kids. It still gave him chills. He had been noticing it since childhood. Vigilant Virgil had been one of the N.Y.P.D's most observant detectives.
As Gertrude advances, he watches her admirers' behavior become more extreme. Dense walls of teens flanking the march imitate 'the Gertrude look' with pigtails and pale white foundation on their faces. They try to barge through their heroine's security cordon to plead for selfies grasping phones in one hand and dollars in the other.
"Get back! Clear a path!"
Gertrude's guards palm the faces, phones and camera lenses away and some of the fans squeal their displeasure. Further down First Avenue, far beyond Jimmy's faltering eyesight, more carnival activists wait their turn to receive Gertrude's visual blessing and the dream of a selfie. Some of the boys and girls close their eyes, clasp their fists and chant her name fervently. Beyond them, hundreds of yards further on, ranks of foreign correspondents occupy their sidewalk coverage spots, run their sound-checks and rehearse their versions of reality to camera in multiple tongues. Adjacent to each other, they incant the same worshipful clichés into their microphones like a pontification of Akhenaten's priests venerating the Aten; "Gertrude," they say in German, Italian, Dutch, Chinese and French "is inspiring the young to take action in this time of climate emergency and bringing people together to have conversations on safeguarding our planet and finding sustainable solutions". On seeing Gertrude pass, a French reporter for Reuters drops into a sycophantic trance and genuflects before the object of her worship.
"Bravo mon heroine! You are going to make the world inhabitable and kind and compassionate and tolerant for future generations. I adore you!" She blows a kiss to her heroine, who swivels her head gradually, as if with considerable effort, and rewards the reporter with a nod and a sober stare. The Frenchwoman swoons and concerned colleagues race to her assistance. A few hundred yards further back, Jimmy is witnessing extraordinary scenes. A large Mardi-Gras type carnival float is trundling forward with protesters fore and aft. It is an enormous paper mache statue of Gaia over four meters high. The material of the Mother Earth figure's face has been sculpted into a reasonable likeness of Gertrude's, with pale white paint for her complexion and strands of synthetic hair attached to the temples for her pigtails. In front of the float a bearded, semi-naked man with matted hair gyrates and jumps like a dervish to the rhythm of drum and bass music coming from a PA system embedded in the float--supposedly spiritual music of the Amazon jungle.
If they could harness the energy of crazy as an alternative to fossil fuels, thinks Jimmy, these people have enough madness to keep the world powered for centuries. Having witnessed enough unhinged spectacles, Jimmy leaves the area and heads in the direction of the subway station.
Back in Essential News' live-feed Climate March Coverage Special studio, anchor Sylvia is about to interview a key stakeholder of the green revolution industry.
"In the studio we have with us Cynthia Thrust, Chief Financial Officer of the New Sustainability Path Foundation, co-founder of the Sacrifices for Mother Earth Initiative, and consultant for the Mobilizing Youth for Climate Salvation movement. She is also Executive Director of YouaretheProblem.org, retained Social Media Advisor for the Carbon is Evil Council, Strategist for Zero Economic Prosperity and Advisor to the Visionary Council for more Sustainable Urban Transport Solutions across the Globe Operational Rollout Committee."
Thrust is in her fifties with graying coiffed hair and smooth skin. She is wearing a cashmere blazer and a gold pentagram necklace. She dominates her space with the authority of a well-mentored leader. Her studio grin fails to disguise the ruthless edges of her power-driven personality, and her humble camouflage is fairly transparent. The taut skin, stretched over cheekbones by an executive facelift, curls at the corner of her mouth that maintains a tense, superficial smile. It barely conceals her instinct for control. Her posture alone tells Sylvia to be deferential and ask the right questions or else.
"Thank you. Well done for getting all my titles correct," she replies with a maternal smile.
"I've never seen anything like this before. You can just feel the power of youth and the passion of the young driving this thing forward. This is making history! I feel honored to be part of this special occasion." Sylvia conveys her excitement with her hands which chop the air for emphasis.
"We all are," says Thrust. Mike Stupor watches the billionairess queen of non-profit climate advocacy, a member of one of the nation's wealthiest oil, mining and railroad dynasties, through enchanted eyes.
"She's our brightest star in the world right now. At a time when our planet is facing catastrophe and our race is facing extinction, Gertrude is one of the brightest points of light shining the way for others to follow."
Stupor responds: "Your foundations have played a huge part in supporting her and making sure her message gets across Cynthia. We can all be thankful for that. What changes in people's behavior can we expect to achieve in the short term to meet the desired objectives?"
"Well, our analysts predict that within the next decade people citizens will be flying less, because air transportation privileges will be rationed according to personal sustainable behavior objectives being met. Fossil fuel cars will be phased out entirely in favor of public transportation, and people will eat a meat-free diet that imitates the food- chains of animal species in the typical eco-systems of nature. They will also be using natural resources more economically and in a way that fosters economic growth and stimulates the new sustainable business model."
"That's really impressive," returns Sylvia, while coaxing a supportive nod from Stupor on the opposite chair.
"And that's only the start," replies Thrust with excitement. "We see this as a great opportunity to move new initiatives forward in our vision to repurpose society. For example, we envision a world where sharing our resources collectively will make us more responsible citizens."
"This sounds like the solution the planet's being crying out for," rhapsodizes Cynthia. "Where we're finally coming together. Everybody doing their bit. Pulling together to win this battle against time."
"That's right," returns Thrust in the exhorting, audience-rousing tone practiced with her speech coach. "We will come together. We are shaping a new way to live where social equity, opportunity, social justice and, more important than anything, global social responsibility will be our core values. By centralizing control and access to our forests and oceans, we will minimize harm to our precious natural resources."
"These are worthy goals we're behind here at Essential News of course," says Sylvia. Thrust acknowledges the endorsement with an approving nod as Sylvia suddenly presses the tip of her index finger to the lobe of her right ear, where the minute microphone relays developments and instructions. A nervous excitement surges through her.
"Guys," she says like a child bursting into a room with something momentous to announce. "We're going live to the Main Assembly Hall at the United Nations Headquarters where Gertrude is about to give her keynote speech."
At the lectern, underneath the UN's olive-branch logo she stands while the massed ranks of her captive audience of VIPs cherry-picked from academia, Hollywood and green NGOs exchange remarks and trade insider smiles discreetly, some swigging from the complimentary bottles of mineral water. There are suits swiping their phones and slope-shouldered, paunchy lobbyists from multiple climate and social justice collectives watching intently. In their phone directories, the numbers of Congress members, financiers, publishing magnates, e-commerce billionaires, celebrity lawyers and emperors of social media await retrieval. Young 'change agents', recently recruited and trained, can't wait for the ritual to begin. 'By invitation' journalists wait, gripping their digital instruments of truth delivery like members of an orchestra awaiting the conductor's cue for this symphony of admonishing rhetoric to begin.
Gertrude, meanwhile, has been rigid at the podium for minutes as if paralyzed, or frozen by elemental forces. Muscular slackness has left her face, which now has a stony solidity and mannequin-like determination. Her statuesque state goes unnoticed by all except Jimmy, watching the broadcast on his obsolete television in his Flushing apartment.
Suddenly, she shuffles her script and makes furtive, darting sideways glances. Her expression returns to its fixed scowl, and she gulps before her monologue begins.
"This is all wrong. I shouldn't be here talking to you now. I should be studying in school and playing with my friends. I should be enjoying my youth, and not warning you about the dire climate emergency."
Some cheers and whoops meet this preamble to the grand assault on modern climate homicide coming.
"How dare you tell us that you have found the solutions. How dare you! How dare you stand by and watch eco-systems collapse and the world's temperature rise each year beyond acceptable levels as the biosphere degrades. How dare you! You look to us, the young, for answers when our politicians stand by and do nothing as rich nations pollute the air and refuse to reduce their emissions!"
Raucous cheers and shrill screams of support shake hands with this statement. Some of Gertrude's more boisterous supporters stick their fingers into their mouths and salute her with vociferous whistles. In Essential News' studio, Sylvia's eyes are moistening and Mike's lips are clasped solemnly with conviction.
"And you allow us to breed like locusts carrying a plague to kill our mother Earth! Well, Gaia has had enouugghh!"
In perfect coordination, the audience gets to its feet.
"You have not even started to address the Obedience 2030 targets or educate the people on the need for collective living in megacities. You have failed to control birth rates and stop the ownership of personal property so detrimental to the planet."
"What is she talking about?" Jimmy asks the television set, disturbed by the discourse's tone.
"We are going to reduce you! We are going to reduce you!" Gertrude repeats the threat, sending her admirers present into a euphoric frenzy
"We are going to reduce you. We are going…" Her refrain shows no sign of stopping, and Gertrude's lips are trembling. Cameras and microphones carry the sentence across the planet, onto plasma television screens and MacBook monitors. Commentating media hosts across the globe, including Sylvia and Victoria, imitate the UN audience's behavior. Cynthia is cheering, and so are the troops of Gertrude's army blocking the Manhattan streets. Gertrude repeats the line again and again and the entire convoy of sustainability warriors reaching back kilometers starts to chant it. Within seconds it is moving through the mouths of millions, causing glottal vibrations across generations in the United States and beyond. Gertrude's head is shaking to and fro.
Jimmy listens to her repeated message with disbelief and fails to understand why people are cheering it.
"Either she is mentally ill or drugged," he tells himself thinking again of the abused, abandoned young runaways he'd seen in the eighties. The ones without names but with blank faces and the sense of having survived terrible abuses. Were her parents watching and hearing her? Were they even there?
We are going to reduce you. We are going to reduce you.
She continues for minutes, to cyclical ovations from the attendees who include celebrity rehab graduates turned climate justice activists and approved YouTube influencers of every variety from sex advisors to computer game hack masters. Outside in the Millennium Plaza and further up First Avenue the journalists are fainting collectively. The overwhelmed French reporter regains consciousness only to faint again, while young Mikey and Britney gasp and then carry the chant with their own voices.
Jimmy watches the images with mortification, feeling like a double whisky may the only wise reaction to these surreal developments in the three-dimensional realm. What was going on? It is as though he has fallen through a trapdoor of consciousness into an abnormal version of the world.
Suddenly Gertrude is silent and still again. Her face has returned to the frozen, stern mask of the statue she became before giving the speech. The abrupt cessation hushes the audience in the hall and mutes those outside gathered in public squares across the world watching on giant television screens. A humming sound, faint at first, becomes gradually louder. People in the hall, their soaring feelings grounded by Gertrude's pause, focus on the noise and exchange puzzled looks and shrugs of the shoulders. The sound, akin to an air conditioning or refrigeration system in operation, seems to be coming from the lectern before them. Louder it grows, causing the wood that Gertrude grasps to vibrate. Gertrude's body starts to shake violently, and gasps come from members of the audience.
Gertrude's face contorts into a sequence of severe spasms as she ejects the threatening phrase for the last time. Next, it warps into expressions alternating between happiness and agony and settles into a hideous, agonizing grimace. Before the witnesses can process what is happening, there is a grotesque Pop! followed by the hissing sound of air escaping as Gertrude's face slides off to reveal a metallic mask underneath showing state of the art cyborg technology. This subdues all observers, especially Sylvia and Mike who don't have any script prepared for this eventuality.
Gertrude's shocking revelation creates a momentary global silence. The enormity of the malfunctioning deception hits all watching with atom-bomb impact and the fallout creates chain-reaction effects. In Flushing, Jimmy drops his whisky and clasps his throbbing chest as pandemonium breaks out among Gertrude's audience. The paper mache float-statue of Gertrude-Gaia parked in front of the UN building falls apart; cracks in its shoulders appear and reach down over the torso to prompt its disintegration. Her former supporters become hostile, like bees roused from a smoke-induced stupor. They scream, emote and point their phone cameras at the giant screens showing smoke pouring from Gertrude's stationary frame. The biodegradable power-supply inside her polymer exoskeleton has started to burn. Gertrude-Gaia's paper mache head is kicked across the concrete as the enraged disciples of the automaton activist stampede in all directions.
Meanwhile, out in the great oceans huge, translucent waves undulate. In the forests, plants feed on the light, feed the birds and the insects and then decay and return to the soil. The birds and animals hunt, feed and die like their ancestors. Nature carries on, indifferent to the angst of the protestors, their smashed signs and breakdowns on the sidewalks of Manhattan.
Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Fear of Monkeys, Stag Hill Literary Journal and others. His published work can be found at https://titusgreenfiction.com/