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Terra Nullius (a myth)

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I suppose the most apt comparison I have is to an atlas. Admittedly, I remain unsure as to whether Claire is the great undiscovered country I once regarded her to be, nurtured as I was by the literature of men in more in love with the idea of unfathomable feminine mysteries than the women who housed them. I've perpetuated those myths myself. But perhaps she was of no greater and murkier depth than the elusive Sam or prosaic, cliched Winter — and no less a enigma than either of them, too. If we are to learn anything from Henry Farber's attempt to scrapbook the images of the human psyche, isn't it that we are all damnably dark holes of equal amounts meaningless clutter and unspeakably awesome and terrible poetry?

Or is that just me, grown disenchanted with that whole business, weary of the failure?

In any case — the atlas, the map, alternating deep grid and vast lacunae. Certainly Claire has her moral vacuoles, not that I begrudge her the same human flaws I attribute her. But her passions cluster and connect, like metropoli and their gathering roads; I have followed her to her indices; and if I am to choose an analogy for the woman I still in some ways love, that is it.

To her I was the "broken ladder" (nicer, I suppose, than "stepping stone") — she could not trust me anymore, and rightly so, but still she climbed. And fell, and climbed again. I like to think that broken or not, I am as necessary to her path as she has been to mine. Maintaining my equanimity, even as she transcends my frail rungs, is and has always been key in my relationship to Claire. Losing my temper only ever got me thrown on a bus to an Australian bush gaol. Although if this telling is to be honest as my last novel never was, punching Sam was one of the more satisfying moments of my life. A man cannot live on forgiveness and regrets alone.

But I digress.

I followed her.

She came back to me with a new windshield, still framed in foam. I circled the Rover, examining it for unrepaired damage, as Claire watched my proceedings guiltily.

"It is clean, at least," she offered with a rueful laugh.

I tapped the new glass screen.

"True," I allowed, grinning to show I wasn't angry. I must admit I was a little impressed she had bothered to replace the absent one at all. The immediacy of the road must have been thrilling without it.

In her travels through China Claire had picked up, as lost seekers do, an ancient text, hoping it would inspire her or lead her to Sam. She is attracted to these things, though an ancient song would have delighted her all the more. It said, or close to it, The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao.

Perhaps it might just as well have said, The Tao that can be seen is not the true Tao.

Signal to noise ratios and the problems therein were well known to the ancient masters.

This word, Tao, was translated in the preface of Claire's garish tourist copy. It said, "the way"; it also said, "the path."

In Japan, Mori-San told Claire that the eyes do not see the same as the heart. Claire's heart saw something in Sam that was not the prodigal son, nor the betraying lover, nor the dispassionate thief. I believe what she saw most of all was his motion — his rhythms, irregular and layered with the motors that took her to him — his inability to remain at rest. And every time he moved, bells started ringing.

When I traced Claire and Sam's travels, those I did not tag along after, I yearned to know their experiences. How Lisbon's imitation Golden Gate Bridge compared to San Francisco's original, and what depths each suspension spanned. Claire sent me videofaxes but could not replicate the rhythms of the lonely Transsiberian, the Shinkansen whose ride they spent in a happy embrace; I had equipment that could stalk them for me after Moscow, but would never know the sways and bobs of the liner on which they crossed the Pacific or the run-down Korean transport that took them to Coober Pedy. When I visited Henry's lab I could watch bits of what had been recorded for Edith. Claire's recording of Elsa appeared to me to be a modern-day Vermeer; pure art, and nothing less.

Rhonda and Carl emphasized to me, however, that the camera was not just about sight. The playback for Edith did not merely show her a picture of Elsa, but was meant to convey Claire's visceral experience of observation. What, from all this, Edith perceived was up to her.

That the camera's ability to cast a net and trawl through a brain's entire wrinkled sea promised great things, tempted Henry into his downfall. That by design it would not work as well in reverse didn't occur to any of us. Henry took images and made them dreams for Edith to dream, quite right. But taking dreams and making them into images for us to see — well, when I put it like that, what could he have thought would happen?

That it was a dream, the most private and unknowable part of a person, did not bother me. I was of the pragmatic and uncareful opinion that ones dream's are one's own property to do with what one sees fit. How better to know oneself? The Mbantua position had to do with a great many things I only barely understood —

That outside of linear time, in what some have called the everywhen, their people dream a collective Dreamings, that it is all of theirs and none —

That the Dreamings held their history, their future, their laws and stories and tribal identity —

That each person had within them a mortal soul, their autonomy, and a spiritual and eternal one — a dichotomy I couldn't presume to fathom —

That putting the Dreamings on a screen would be nothing short of a literal invasion. And it made sense. Henry was accurate, in his way, to dismiss Peter's concerns with his words, "I'm a white man, you know." We white men live for the exploration of the undiscovered country, no man's land. We call it terra nullius. Others call it colonialism. Henry, of course, didn't see it that way.

And, as I said, it didn't bother me, either.

The problem, I would find when the disease of images took Claire and handcuffed her by way of batteries, was that they weren't dreams at all. They were facsimiles.

"So?" Winter said when I related what had happened to him, later. "A dream is not a wish your heart makes. It is the regurgitation of mental garbage. It is nothing. It means nothing."

"And you a compatriot of Dr. Freud," I teased.

"Hah!" Secretly I believe Winter longs for romance; if he allowed himself he would revel in the complexes and obsessions of psychoanalysis. But he does not deal in mysteries, the great unknown and unknowable. Finding people is his game. That's all.

His theory of mental detritus is not a bad one, though I favor the idea that Claire's addiction was closer to that of Narcissus in myth. The debate is academic, a mirror of the ribbings we volley between us. With my Russian computer, he mocks my findings, calls me an ersatz detective. I do not deny the legitimacy of his profession. I just joke that he's lousy at it.

"Tell me about your dream," I had often said to Claire, before. It was a gesture of comfort, not a question.

"I am flying," she murmured, accent thicker and huskier from sleep and distress. Her mouth might move sloppily against my skin. "I am flying over a strange land and I do not know it. I am so free, Gene. But I fall, and it is awful." I knew her dream by heart by then, of course, and would stroke the tangles from her hair. "It is so awful, I can't say."

If I were to ask Claire, in the enclosure, about her dreams, she would glare at me, confused. What did she know of her own dreams? What had she left of them? They were strained and distorted, her lost self an uncharted forest for electromagnetic trees. To Claire the world had ended all over again.

I had written in my manuscript: She was gliding over an unknown land, pleasantly at first, but then the gliding would turn into falling, the falling into panic, and then she'd wake up. Now, as I approached the end of the story, it was not enough. I needed another last chapter, and Claire on the other side of the fence did as well.

I replayed her journey, as I knew it, in my mind.

It was not a dream, but a memory: she was gliding over an unknown land, pleasantly at first, but then all power cut out. The two of them gripped each other and braced for a lethal impact that never came. With the inertia that defined him, Sam guided the plane to a safe landing; with the bouyancy that was all Claire's own, the plane floated light as a lost satellite.

She found she did not miss Earth at all, but as descents go, this was a sweet one.

I may have given Claire an idea or two when I wrote that. It would only be fair.

The sky (all of ours and none) seems an appropriate home for her, that human atlas and her exploring eyes. Obvious, really. I wonder why I didn't think of that.