“Excuse me, d’you want your office cleaned, or shall I do it tomorrow?”
I give a start. Zoë is peering at me with concern from the balcony door, holding my waste-paper bin in a rubber-gloved hand. “Oh no! —Yes, I mean. Go ahead, thanks. I’m just leaving.” I attempt a reassuring smile, walk past her into my office, grab my bag and sway out into the corridor.
“Are you OK?” she calls.
“Yes, fine, thanks.” I reach the lobby, where an empty lift is waiting. Inside I press the button with the star beside it. That much I still know.
Still know? Why did I think that? In something of a trance I descend the steps outside, onto Liberty Street. Minicabs wait at the kerb, with scribbled four-digit numbers on sign-boards standing in their windows. I look at my building’s façade of one-way-mirrored panels and walk towards one of these panels at pavement level.
As my reflection approaches me, in its black suit, white shirt and charcoal-grey tie, I look at my pale face and I am fascinated to sense something in my brown eyes that I’ve never sensed before. What the hell is it? It doesn’t feel wrong, but it does feel new. I can sense it, even see it, right there in my eyes. Some brand-new power—some great new capacitance.
What the fuck has happened to me?
Pushing my gaze deeper into my own reflected eyes, I slip quickly into a vision just as vivid as the one that the rubber-gloved Zoë interrupted, but a hell of a lot quicker, lasting only a second or two. Within its flash, aeons feel nested in complex compression, as if I am seeing a collapsed version of the whole duration of human civilisation. Despite this, it manages to be essentially a still image, from near the Dunhuang watchtowers where the ancient road from China forks in two, so as to run either side of the desert’s lethal thirst: one route along its north edge and one along its south where the dead tongues of Asia flow. Within this fork, expanses of salt rim a land-locked lake that appears and disappears every year according to whether the Tarim River flows or chokes; and I watch the lake swell and shrink in sequence, every year collapsed into a second, like the beating of a heart of salt. The lake is Lop Nor, and above it burns a hidden purple flame wider than a hill. I feel its quiet roar and crackle shoot around the earth’s curve in every direction—sweet-smelling, silent, majestic and serene. I shall live and die and yet this flame will burn still, like a burning bell. Nations will fight from age to age and yet this flame will burn. Men will run through plains and will climb through city skies, but this flame will remain like a burning purple bell, floating huge above Lop Nor, dripping its elixir on the pale brown salt-pans, smooth and translucent as it carves out the desert bowl forever. When this speeded-up heart of salt arrives in the present age, I see that Lop Nor is now poisoned after decades of nuclear test bombs exploded around its rims … but high above the poison burns the hidden purple flame, still.
I wrench my gaze away from my reflected eyes, and Liberty Street returns with a thump of reality. I walk away from the mirrored building and around the corner in a daze. And up through a crevice in the concrete horizon pokes the summit of the GE Building, central in the Rockefeller Center, way uptown. The GE Building—that reminds me of someone. “Marc Albright,” I hear myself murmuring aloud. Marc Albright: the most powerful man I know about in detail, as it happens. The only person I know about in detail who’s on my level right now…
Time to walk uptown. I shall think, once I reach him in his office.
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