The Tower of Babel’s Brief War on Heaven.

by Colin Dodds.

 

            The golden age might have lasted longer, but the astronomers failed to mind the stars. Like so much, I know this because I was charged with concealing it.

The report from the Fire Ministry investigators said the bitumen roofing caught fire, which should have been impossible. Yes, the lead investigator agreed, but the tar was exposed to incredible temperatures. Some junior astronomer left a large telescope lens uncovered all day, they said, just lying there like the lid of a garbage can.

The concentrated sunlight boiled and ignited the tar. The fire spread to the scaffolding, to a large uncovered vat of chain oil for the construction elevators. It was an unprecedented inferno. There was some interest, among Human Resources and a few other departments, in assigning blame. But two-dozen safety violations, the investigator said, had contributed to the top of our tower blazed like a torch for those three days.

The astronomers had the ancient first right to each new roof as it was completed. With each floor, they had discovered a new star or two. But in the overlong layoff between the completion one rooftop and the next, the astronomers in charge had lost interest in the heavens. They turned their focus to fortune-telling and other parts of the astronomy business that paid better, and didn’t involve lenses and mirrors. Still, ritual was ritual, so they sent up the Junior Associates they could spare with equipment they didn’t understand. It was equipment for which there was no replacement, my ex-father-in-law would later inform me with damp eyes.

He was a retired astronomer, a former Executive Vice Nimrod. And in a reversal not lost on either of us, I was now the most powerful person he knew. It had taken him a while, but he’d welcomed me to his esteemed family when I was a middle-management no one from nowhere. We’d lost touch after the divorce. But not long after the fire was out, he came to my office to find out if the rumors were true—that the astronomers had lost their finest tools in the incredible inferno. His few living friends had little information.

I confirmed his worst fears. He told me how those bright smooth mirrors, nested tubes and fine clear lenses had shown him and his colleagues other worlds. He told me about seeing worlds ablaze in flame and worlds drowned in green oceans, worlds bright with flashing metal and worlds of swirling mud, worlds of war, worlds of noble, perfect men and women living in peace, and even a few worlds that looked back.

With those tools, he said, that less wealthy and supercilious generation of astronomers had seen out as far as any man, and had understood the true purpose of the tower as neither a crowning glory that would defeat death, nor a fortress that would rise above the waves when they came. Rather, they understood the true meaning of the tower, and of their own lives, was to have one miraculous chance to momentarily know what had never been known and what might never be known again.

Now that chance was over, he said. His throat constricted to a croak. He blamed himself. He and his colleagues, who’d seen so much, failed to instill this vital truth in the ones who followed. There was too much money, too much relentless career advancement, and the department was taken over by a bunch of jumped-up palm readers who gave away that precious chance for nothing—so they could have a slightly longer weekend.

That, he said, was the real disaster. And coming from an astronomer, that word carried a real weight.

There wasn’t much I could say, except that I hoped he’d keep our conversation just between us. He laughed. Who could I tell? Who would care? There’s no one left in the whole world who would care and who I’d want to hurt as I’ve been hurt, he said.

An old, proud man, he left my office older. It was enough for me to despise my last impulse toward honesty.

 

Tower Operating Committee Chair and Vice Nimrod, Communications & Verbal Discipline

The fire was terrifying. Distant kingdoms saw the flames at night and the smoke during the day. We said it was intentional—a hardening process. Maybe the kings believed us and maybe they knew better than to expect the truth.

I was one of two or three people who had the engineering report from the Fire Ministry. The damage was very bad. It cracked the bricks of the new ceiling/roof/foundation—that one crucial layer upon which present and future relied. The heat cracked three feet of bricks down to the vaulted arches of the ceiling below. Worse still, the intense heat of the fire, coupled with the firefighters’ controlled flooding had left cracks in the walls two stories down.

So I had a good idea how much Dahke soft-shoed it to Nimrod and the rest of the Operating Committee.

I felt bad for the guy. He was young, came up fast because he was sharp and unthreatening, and made a few powerful friends. He was everyone’s idea of a space-filler, a placeholder until Nimrod got over Meconia’s murder plot and could get someone good. But he’d surprised us all. In the heady days before the fire, Dahke was talking about new designs that would allow us to build two floors at once. He still was that most wondrous and inspiring of creatures—a man who has not yet known defeat. He was still that when he lied to Nimrod and the rest of us, estimating that the repairs would take six months.

Why didn’t I say anything? Simple—if Dahke was going to play this hand so badly, then he wasn’t someone I wanted to go out of my way to help.

I simply nodded, and started unpacking the communications strategy for the fire (a new brick hardening technique), and the delay in beginning the new floor (a well-earned vacation for our valued builders). After that, I tried to smile and rejoin the party all around me. Maybe there was a hollowness to my voice, a tendency for my laughter to dry up and turn to coughs. But few people noticed. Yuliliay did, and maybe one or two of my favorites at the office.

Dahke, his face sallow and slack from the poison-endurance regimen, kept up his winning streak, or at least the appearance of one. After four months, he announced that the repairs would be completed ahead of schedule. And Nimrod, who never touched anyone for any reason, affectionately gripped the young man’s shoulder where he sat.

We were rushing, and wanted to believe him. It was a mix of excitement and financial necessity. To cover the expense of the now-professional construction force, we needed two floors done and ready for tenants in the next year and a half. We had vastly over-borrowed and over-promised the real estate in the tower. One of the tower’s best-kept secrets was that we had vast upper-level apartments leased to more than one king at a time. The rooms would be hastily reconfigured and redecorated when our real estate spies told us that a particular regent or one of his bored offspring was approaching. I only found out about the scheme because we needed sketch artists to keep track of how the princes had left their suites, so we could rearrange everything for their return. Yuliliay was friends with some of the sketch artists.

The day after the new roof was declared repaired, the workers returned in triumph. Entering through the Gate of the Three Eyed Lion, they were tan, fat and brash from their holiday. Grown men clapped and women whistled. Children followed after them all the way to the laborers’ elevator.

Happy and loud, they inspired confidence in everyone whose path they crossed, even those of us who knew better.

 

Tower Operating Committee Chair and Vice Nimrod, Communications & Verbal Discipline

When a falling man screams, his voice gets louder as it nears. From my office, there was time enough to wonder if it will get louder forever. There’s time to note where the volume has peaked, and to be slightly nostalgic for that instant of wild intensity, after he’s past. There’s time, as the scream grows faint, to wonder if he’s run out of breath, passed out of range, or hit the ground. I don’t know how many men fell past my window that morning. Dozens, more probably.

Before long, my department became involved. We took in the information, such as it was, and my brighter lights thatched together a few possible stories to tell about the disaster.

Although I didn’t have to ask how this calamity could have occurred, I did once or twice, just to get it on the record. His answer hardly mattered. The story that was needed wasn’t the one I knew.

The day would end around the impossible table of Nimrod’s boardroom, with much harder questions for other executives on the Tower Operating Committee. I was one of the few who might have an answer to offer.

The first story was the thing. That’s what I’d say to the committee. The first story was what stuck in people’s brains while they were still pliable with fear. In a squishy business, the first story was what you had to get right. So we spent the afternoon working on that, while men and slabs of facade fell past us, all day. Just when it seemed like it was over, more would go rumbling or screaming past. I didn’t leave my office, but I sat farther from the window than usual.

I walked the quarter floor that housed most of the Communications & Verbal Discipline division. There were satellite offices here and there, and a calligraphy and administration annex outside the Gate of the Thin-Lipped Whisperer. But it seemed too dangerous to send someone outside. I walked the aisles with my chief of staff and pointed out the seasoned vets and bright-eyed things for the brainstorm. We all met in the Verbal Discipline Amphitheater. My chief of staff gave the whole there-are-no-bad-ideas preamble. Then I told them that there’s no way to ignore what’s happening on the top floor, I said, no way to hide it. It’s bad, and it may be very big. We don’t know anything yet. No one does. So we have to decide why it happened.

Ideally, I informed them, the reason we provide won’t:

 

  1. Indicate incompetence or mismanagement on the part of any department
  2. Reduce the tower’s stature or devalue its real estate
  3. Start a war, or entangle the tower in an extensive police action
  4. Embarrass important or venerated offices, people or families
  5. Commit us to a story that will cause problems down the line

 

My chief of staff impressed rules these with his nimble hands on the room’s wet-clay wall. I stood back and watched. It was a grab-the-brass-ring moment for these jackals. And they had nothing. After an hour of false starts and a wet clay wall full of unusable ideas, I said, okay, fine. The story we arrive at can do one of the forbidden things, but not two.

With this bouquet of dingy, compromised lies, I made my way up to Nimrod’s conference room.

Nimrod sat for the whole meeting, which he never did. He preferred to prowl. He looked at the table, spoke to the table, looking up only to scrutinize someone silently when they spoke.

The meeting’s first order of business was Dakhe. No one could find him. One tiny but ambitious woman, the Vice Nimrod of Engineering, Safety & Casualty Considerations, speculated that Dahke could have been a saboteur. One older Vice Nimrod, who always chose his words and shot down irresponsible talk, was careful not to contradict her. I sat back to see who would collect the blame the day had generated.

Nimrod waved away his water bearer, another thing he rarely did. He asked what we were going to do. A middle-aged Vice Nimrod who always seemed like he was accomplishing a momentous feat of self control by not assaulting you when he spoke told the room that the collapse had been contained, with the new floor and the one under construction mostly gone, the older two below it requiring extensive repairs. No six-month job, though, he said, sneering. They had, he said, sequestered the workers who survived, for questioning.

Then silence. Nimrod had murdered people in bad meetings before. I’d seen it once in my decade on the operating committee. This was that kind of bad meeting. The silence filled the room with pressure. So I stood up and presented my options for the communications strategy.

 

  1. It was a controlled demolition to build a better floor
  2. It was a spectacle of criminal execution
  3. It was a construction mishap, while using an otherwise promising new method
  4. It was a fracas with the heavens that the tower has long besieged—a fracas that Nimrod decisively won

 

I was rooting for idea number one—demolition to build a better floor. It was the safest, and seemed to unearth, however falsely, an anodyne motivation.

Nimrod rose to ponder. When he did, we all noted that he was dressed in mismatched ceremonial clothing—a gleaming gold chest plate and epaulets, with a silken kilt. He said he liked idea number four, the war with the heavens.

That was the one I didn’t even want to present. It was only in there at all to fill out the presentation—to show our work and give Nimrod one idea he could easily reject. I took a deep breath and asked if he was sure, asked if that story might not create more problems, long term, than it solved. I began to stammer about the initiatives the communications department had undertaken, not to mention the bloody purges the priesthood had undergone, to put an end to that very story.

No, Nimrod said, waving off my concerns with his long hand.

“The tower needs to win today. And it needs a reason to build—a good and a bloodthirsty one. Today, we get our war back,” Nimrod said.

Before I knew it, everyone at the table was on their feet, clapping.

 

Tower Operating Committee Chair and Vice Nimrod, Communications & Verbal Discipline

So we called a stalled construction site a cosmic battlefield. It was not the first victory of the bad idea. It won more often than it lost, more often than anything I can think of.

Nimrod hadn’t fought a war in… well, there was no way to tell, really. But he had access to generals, far too many, in fact. Every newly victorious despot in the surrounding kingdoms inevitably found themselves with too many generals. They sprang up every coup or border skirmish, so when Nimrod put out word, he very quickly had his pick.

The Tower Operating Committee held interviews. And it was my job, once they mob of authoritative and clever men had been tested and vetted down to two, to tell them the truth: That the war was a public-relations pretense for building another floor, and that for all the glory concocted for the would-be generals, they’d really just be a dressed-up foreman.

One responded with the proper politesse. The other, who said it was beneath him, we disposed of, I was told. The polite general was named Rigibel. He had a head like a slab of meat, a nose flush with his face, eyebrows thick and his features muscular and slow, though he spoke with great care. Rigibel seemed to know that he’d run out the string back home. The king sent Rigibel’s family after him only after he accepted the job, though I heard the king did hold back a few of the general’s children.

After the collapse of the top floor and a half, the story was that we of the tower would storm heaven. We’d dislodge the gods who’d flooded the earth not so long ago, who made life hard and entrenched death as the blind, ironclad proposition it is. It wasn’t the most subtle communications campaign. But it had some of the best posters.

Rigibel recruited workers like he would an army, taking only the willful and young. He trained them for half a year in the foul-smelling marshlands south of the tower, while real artisans, professional and wildly overpaid, repaired the damage above.

The work we did to sell the war was just as extensive. We wrote Nimrod’s speeches. We hung posters, unveiled murals and started rumors. We rewrote history and, for this job, prehistory. We designed the uniforms and the armor. We concealed or explained away the noisy upheavals in the priesthood.

Nimrod declared a holiday when the army moved into their upper-floor barracks, a long weekend. Rigibel ran the move like a general.

Atop the tower, Rigibel placed was a two-story surveillance idol—a bird-headed soldier dressed in the armor we’d designed for the bricklayer-warriors. The statue was two stories tall, with his sword thrust defiantly skyward. Although skinned in the thinnest brass lacquer the art department could mix, he caught the sun in a way that made people for miles around fear the tower had again caught fire.

Though the War on Heaven was a bad idea, I still consider those days to be one of the great triumphs in the history of Communications & Verbal Discipline. When the workmen passed through the Gate of the Six-Winged Eagle in their armor, women swooned and men waved their fists. The soldiers were young, brave and disciplined—they didn’t wave back to the crowd, but looked straight ahead.

Rigibel had trained them the only way he knew how—to adhere unquestioningly to his discipline, to crave glory and to hold death in contempt.

They looked to all of us like they were ready to conquer the firmament. Too bad they were only piling more real estate.

 

Tower Operating Committee Chair and Vice Nimrod, Communications & Verbal Discipline

Things go wrong. No genius administrator or great general can change that.  Sometimes it’s someone’s fault, and sometimes it doesn’t matter. And when things go wrong, whoever’s left standing will always say, well, I should have seen that coming. Maybe we should have seen what happened next coming. But we didn’t.

The soldiers, with their songs, their training, their death-disdaining morale, rituals, machismo and armor, rebuilt Dahke’s lost floor in record time. And Generalissimo Rigibel was granted a host of honors and titles invented for the occasion. Assembled in the parade ground south of the tower, we on the Tower Operating Committee watched as the workers were honored. The costume armor, in which Rigibel made them labor, had faded, and chipped. The enamel had dulled from the sun. In places, it had been sweated through and been badly repaired. Through the broken enamel, the horsehair plaster structure of the shoulders, arms and legs poked through. It gave the mass of soldier-laborer-honorees the appearance of apes in straight, attentive rows.

Nimrod raised them all by one newly invented rank, and gave a speech about fulfilling the grim cosmic task of their ancestors. “The sky will bleed for the blood it has taken from us,” he roared, staring straight into an eye only he could see. Some young kid from my department with sweet words and no future wrote that. Then victory, etc. I did my best to edit out any new promises we couldn’t keep or would make us look like fools, or like reckless liars. This became harder and harder as the rhetoric accumulated.

Apes in rows. In a better age, the Operating Committee would have had someone from Auguries, Auspices & Risk Abatement there for an appraisal. They might have seen what was coming. But that department had swollen with dissipated mathematicians and nervous bankers, and lost the sort who’d pick up on the significance of chipped play armor. They might have been troubled in their almost-poetic way about the ape-like appearance and distinctly bestial air of the workforce.

I, for one, thought no more of it. I also thought no more of the fact that the army building the tower still apparently believed itself to be an actual army. That was what we should have seen coming.

After another year and another floor, it began to dawn on even the most gung-ho of the builder-soldier-apes that there was no war to be fought, only perpetual labor and servitude. They slacked and gossiped. They claimed injury and sickness to dodge another day of drudgery. Rigibel gave speeches, promised victory. But after more than a year of the close study every man gives his boss, they could tell when he was lying.

With no more raises or credible glory to offer, Rigibel turned to discipline. At first, men deserted in dribs and drabs, sneaking off in empty brick elevators, buried in the trash inside empty bitumen tanks, or descended on ropes to the charity staircases. They sold their armor to the smart alecks in the moss and mushroom district, and fled. Work slowed further. The general turned to more colorful punishments, and finally to decimation, which goosed production for short spurts, but slowed it worse as time ground on.

The War on Heaven was looking more and more like the kind of trick you could only play once.

The deserters broke other oaths, notably of secrecy. Communications threw more men and women at rumor patrol, and hung vast scrolls and banners lionizing the Troops of the Tower’s Top, at least the ones too dumb to escape. We issued wholly fanciful dispatches from the imaginary battlefront describing harrowing battles with the guardians the firmament, and scenes of mind-boggling plunder. People still told some of those stories and sang some of those songs, long after we took to forgetting the initiative.

Regardless, recruitment of new soldiers lagged behind the desertions and decimations. And building slowed yet further. Rigibel increased the discipline. I went up there, on a fact-finding round one day. The sullen sweating apes in cheap joke armor humped materials to and fro and snapped at one another, their broken costumes leaking fetid hair.

Bad’s best friend is worse, and it’s never far behind. A week after my visit, some workers bashed in General Rigibel’s skull with a brick and hung him from the top floor with a broken elevator chain.

There was no meeting and no discussion, even with the Operating Committee. Nimrod simply sealed the floor. No one could get down and no supplies could go up. The men up there took a long time to die. Depending on the wind, there were days you could hear them moan and shout ever-madder obscenities. There were days when they targeted the passersby below with bricks, with mixed results. It took forever for them to die, it seemed. We had a story for that too—never mind what it was.

The next fiscal quarter, after it had been silent for a while, we sent a few real soldiers up to the worksite. It was a horror show. The bones of young men devoured. The mutilated bodies of those who remained after the cannibals gave up in disgust and despair. The shrunken, desiccated remains of the cannibals. The unfinished and unevenly destroyed work on the latest level. The bloody little pits where they’d tried to dig through the brick with their fingers. I found out later that there was one survivor. But the soldiers did him and everyone a favor and dispatched him there and then.

More disturbing were reports that the high, brazen surveillance idol had changed its posture and expression during the long months of starvation and murderous rage on the sealed roof.  It had been an armored, bird-headed soldier thrusting his sword at the belly of the heavens. It was two stories high. But when the soldiers went up to begin the cleanup of that broken construction army, it held its sword pointed down, as though in accusation. And its bird head had become the head of a man, except blank where the face should be. That was the report, anyway. I ordered it destroyed before I or anyone else could see it.

For weeks after the cleanup, all of us who lived within thirty stories of the top lived with an awful intermittent sound. It was low duet between a groan and a whistle. It must have been the wind through the gaps in the broken brickwork—the song of the phantoms of The War on Heaven. That tuneless wail was all that remained of a few thousand of our strongest and most eager young men. We made them soldiers to make them builders—made them apes, and finally phantoms.

And so ended that particular golden age. It took forever to get work started again, and when it did, the person in charge was a nobody, with no seat on the Tower Operating Committee, or any real friends anywhere. With the last three Vice Nimrods of Ascension, Development & Asset Management dead or missing, it wasn’t a department that anyone with any sense wanted to be in charge of.

I stopped sleeping. If Nimrod blamed me for making him look less than godlike by allowing The War on Heaven story to run wild, I could lose my position, or worse. What followed was a time of desperate half-cooked plans and long-winded excuses rehearsed in front of dim mirrors.

 

This entry was posted in Spring 2017: If Not Then, Now.. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.