Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Disciples of Motion

The Wheel is all.

You see the Wheel’s presence on scales vast and microscopic. The motion of planets. The rotation of the Earth. The orbit of electrons around an atom.

The Wheel turns, and keeps turning, and brings all of us full circle, and keeps spinning. Each year is another turn of the wheel. So is each lifetime; wheels within wheels.

The Wheel is, perhaps even more than fire, the founding principle of civilization. The thing that connects us, that makes the world smaller, friendlier, more possible and subdivided.

The Order of St. Fiacre serves the workings of the Wheel and all who make its circuit. They serve in secret, in silence, at every minute of the day or night, in every city on the globe, and regions more remote. In taxis, in gondolas, in rickshaws and pedicabs, they keep watch over travelers on journeys long and short, mundane and world-shaking.

The Order began, perhaps surprisingly, in Paris, with the profession that shelters it. From the days when the hansom cabs first lined up outside the Hotel St. Fiacre, the Order has bent its will to the Wheel, and seen its passengers safely on their appointed journeys. All members of the Order are cab drivers, but not all cab drivers are members of the Order. (Should you, in your travels, ever encounter a particularly bad cabbie, kindly remember this.)

St. Fiacre is, of course, the patron saint of cab drivers. More dutiful members of the Order also find significance in his patronage of gardeners, those tireless sowers of the soil, attuned with the eternal cycle of seasons. The Wheel, again. More sarcastic members of the order take a certain delight in noting that St. Fiacre is also the patron saint of venereal disease.

There are 2,354 chapters of the Order of St. Fiacre on seven continents -- yes, seven. All toil in service of the Great Dispatcher, the aged and venerable head of the Order, who has pledged to remain ever in motion all the days of his life, whether in train cars or on airplanes or, most familiarly and comfortably, in the back seats of taxicabs. It is said that, should the Great Dispatcher ever stop moving, he would turn to dust. Many members of the Order will claim to have met the Great Dispatcher, and perhaps they have. (Agent 492 says he has a particular fondness for the deep-dish special from the original Pizzeria Due.) No one knows how old he is, or whether he is still the first and only Great Dispatcher, or the latest in a long and ever-changing line.

The Order’s official history marks 1929 as one of its darkest years -- the year of Mme. Monkeywrench and her Luddite Legion, who sought to drive the mass of man cringing back into the dark, into their solitary caves, on the theory that an ignorant and isolated people were all the more easily conquered. It was year of their unholy war against the Order and all it stood for, of derailments and crashes and a hundred dead cab drivers, Order members or not, in cities from Boston to Bangkok. And finally, most disastrously, the attack upon the Great Dispatcher’s private rail car outside Sioux Falls, and his abduction and captivity in Mme. Monkeywrench’s clutches.

She asked for no ransom. She gave no demands. She simply invited the members of the Order worldwide to enjoy one final week of motion, before she ensured that the Great Dispatcher stopped dead, and the Order with him. She thought it would be crueler that way, and she was entirely correct.

It was this grave peril that brought the Order out of the shadows -- that led the now-legendary Agent 42, of Chicago, Illinois, to seek out Tom Morrow one night on his way home from the pictures with his best girl Jenny Wright, girl reporter for the Chicago Daily Herald. And so began the extraordinary seven-day chase around the world to find the Great Dispatcher. Tom and his team, seeking no reward save justice itself, battled the Luddite Legion in the catacombs of Rome and across the rooftops of Shanghai; on the decks of a freighter in the midst of a Pacific typhoon, and in the cabin of an airliner high above the Grand Canyon. And at last, in St. Louis, Missouri, on one of the two trains which Mme. Monkeywrench had set upon a collision course, to ensure that the Great Dispatcher ceased his earthly motion in the most spectacular fashion possible, Tom rescued the venerated head of the Order, and threw a spanner of his own into the works of Mme. Monkeywrench’s endgame.

The Mme. and her backwards-thinking hordes got their wish, if only on a more specific scale; they got to live out their remaining days in the dark, in a series of tiny cinderblock caves with bars on the doors and windows, utterly alone. And the Great Dispatcher bestowed upon Tom Morrow and his team the Order’s highest honor: the silver-and-amber signet rings, which would grant them immediate, efficient, and dedicated transportation from any Order member on Earth.

And so the Wheel turned, as it must, and things came full circle, as of course they should. And the ring found itself on Trip Morrow’s finger, and Trip and Sully found themselves in Agent 492’s cab, on their way up Michigan Avenue, toward discovery, and destiny, and most of all -- danger.