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ESCHATOPOLIS city at the end of the world

copyright 2017 Boris D. Schleinkofer

Cover image and author photo created by Boris D. Schleinkofer, with assistance from https://deepart.io and https://deepdreamgenerator.com

Smashwords Edition





ISBN 9781370235476

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[tABLE = {oF cONTENTS}]


INTRODUCTORY REMARKS

FISH OUT OF WATER

THESE ARE A FEW THINGS THAT...

IN THE BELLY OF THE WHALE

So, my friend had an implant...

THE TROJAN WIFE

My dawning suspicions were irrevocably confirmed...

LOVE WILL TEAR YOU APART AGAIN

There, I've gone and said it...

YE OLDE TIME FAMILY PLANNING

Okay, let me give you some...

FOR BETTER AND THE WORST

My own personal, obvious contact with...

DEALING WITH IT

I came to understand—on an...

ONLY FOOLS RUSH IN

And so now, as we approach...

HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR



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INTRODUCTORY REMARKS

Please forgive the strange format for this book; it was necessary because of our current situation.

The hands of time on our burning clock have balled into fists and now point to two seconds of midnight; like the Aztecs waiting for Quetzalcoatl on the beach at Huatulco, we have watched our window of opportunity slam shut and now wait for its terrible reopening with unpleasant consequences. I wish to avoid that tactic of coercive manipulation known to every beginner propagandist and advertiser, the overwhelming fear of scarcity—but it's gonna run out! and then what?—in fact, this book is dedicated to the struggle against that subtle poison. But, still, the fact remains that we must redraw our strategies if we wish to survive as a species with the level of comfort to which we've grown accustomed.[citations needed]

There is, I believe, a great darkness descending; it is both cause and effect of the dawning light that rises over us at the same time. Strange days are afoot and this is increasingly obvious. No one seems to know what's going on or what to do about it and yet, at the same time, everybody's got all the answers.

See, I say certain things in public, and I get in trouble. This is the reductionist's oversimplification, but it's basically true. I'm not saying racist things, or sexist things or homophobic things, but the vibe I catch is pretty close to the same as the reaction I could reasonably expect if I had. The room goes quiet, followed by an awkward subject change to a conversation in which I am not included. Why?

For whatever reasons, humans seem to be conditioned to react in predictable manners, and one predictable reaction is that which comes, for example, when I say that I think 9/11 was an inside job. The disapproval is mostly instant; should I, however, find myself in the company of someone similarly conspiratorially-minded, they freak out and clam up in much the same way once I say that I believe I've been dead a couple of times or that I've eaten human flesh. More about that later. This right now is about my frustration with the resistance to unpopular ideas.[citations needed]

This darkness has depths both subtle and nuanced and as uncomplicated as can be, for it is a willfully-adopted blindness.

Certain ideas have strength and merit and deserve to take on lives beyond their own. Our collective body of knowledge builds sequentially, proving itself over the test of time; as we recognize the inherent possibilities in a discovery, new opportunities for advancement present themselves. Ideally, our beliefs in possibility should make accessible the solutions to all our planet's needs, and yet it is not so.

There are, I believe, specific reasons for this; those reasons are, incidentally, the subject of this book and the two others that came before it.

I chose to intersperse short stories with autobiographical material because they inform each other; I usually prefer to avoid self-reference, but the events and circumstances and phenomena in the fictional stories are (mostly) legitimate, to my belief, and I'm inclined to think so because of the bizarre events, circumstances and phenomena that I have myself experienced in my real life. I'm here inviting the Reader to compare your own analyses with what you know to be true and see whether or not you think these things possible.

If the Reader isn't immediately familiar with 'conspiracy theory', strap in—things are about to get odd. We're gonna need to exercise some serious possibility-thinking in order to proceed from here.

All my life I have been a 'weirdness magnet'. I have grown to accept and embrace this. It certainly makes for interesting times.

If I am to be truly accurate, I would have to say that I was first put on the path when I was four or five, when my Mom told me something about how the world really worked (we'll get to that), but it was in the early part of the summer of 1993 that things really took off.

I'd found the swinging double-doors at the saloon of perception and kicked them wide open; it was now a couple years later, and I was lurching home hung over. I was just finished with my own personal psychedelic odyssey (and I hate to mention it because of the obvious issues it will raise with my credibility, but I have to bring it up in the interests of full disclosure) and was beginning my reassimilation into 'reality' as everyone else understood it. My acid experience had come to a close with an anti-climactic non-bang.

Here's how it ended:

The second-to-last time I dropped acid, I was told by a disembodied voice that it would be my last and, in a way, it was. I had been on top of a mountain with some friends and, while wandering along a ridge-line, came across a perfectly chair-shaped outcropping on the side of the cliff-face. There was a perfect little line or trail of lighter-colored scree leading right up to it and I thought to myself, "Wow, that looks like the perfect spot to sit and meditate. Maybe I will become one with the spirit of the valley, or possibly even astrally project out of my body and get to go flying around over the mountains—won't that be cool?" or something similar. But then I noticed something: the trail of scree was held in place only by a line of grass, the whole cliffside was ready to tumble down in an avalanche at just about any prompting, and if I tried to get out to the stone chair I could very easily slip and fall to my certain death. With this realization came the whispering in my ear, from behind my right shoulder, "...And that's acid."

I understood the metaphor immediately; the voice was telling me that yeah, acid could bring me to a place that looked very close to enlightenment , but would dump me off just shy of reaching the goal, and possibly get me killed in the trying. It looked great, but wouldn't do the job. "You're done," the voice said and that was it. I climbed back down the cliff.

The last time I tried LSD, I took a full dose with some friends who got themselves all tripped out so I knew the stuff had to be good, but it didn't affect me at all. A slight pressure in my head, at best. I was indeed done. It's been over twenty-five years and I haven't bothered trying it again since. There were more than a few times doing mushrooms, but again it's been twenty or more since. I've had time for my head to clear.

There had been a number of rather good reasons for me to have to spend that year and a half lost in an hallucinogenic haze, which I won't go into here, and at the end of it I came out a person changed for the better.

If you haven't tried it, you likely wouldn't understand; if you have, then I wouldn't need to explain—you'd know. Psychedelics are like that.

But anyways...

At the end of this extended LSD-trip, I found myself asking God why I was still required to go on with physical existence. I had a lot of thoughts back then about getting out of my body...

"Why, God, if this life is all about suffering, am I still required to let it run out? If I've 'gotten the idea', then why am I still here? What do you need me for? Can't I just get this cycle of birth and death over with and get right to the enlightenment already?" I was going through an impatient existential crisis.

The reply came very soon after, only a couple days later.

I'll tell you and you probably won't believe me, but I was used to having these open conversations with God. I would ask a question, and I would get an answer in the form of outstandingly coincidental circumstance, right away. I would ask for things or opportunities and I would get them. It just worked that way. I had discovered my phoneline to God (and it didn't require chemicals, just rigorous self-honesty) and had one of the most basic, most often and fervently-asked questions: why?

What the hell was I supposed to be doing here? Why was I alive?

My answer came in book form. Twenty-five odd years later ('odd years' is an understatement, lemme tell you) and I'm still struggling with it. I understand much more of the context now than I did then, but am still just as confused about its nature. Let's see if you can guess why.

I woke up that day and had the urge to go walking downtown to the bookstore that used to have boxes of 'free books' out front. It was a great thing, I went there frequently and read a lot. That day, I found a book that marked the beginning of a surreal transformative period that has yet to conclude.

It was an odd size, approximately 6" x 7", the pages made of thick cardboard like a child's book, and spiral bound with a bright blue plastic coil. Usually a spiral binding marks a home-made, self-published book, but this one had legit production with professional type-setting and full color pages. This wouldn't be all that peculiar now with all the groovy technology we experience as commonplace, but back then it was a thing that stood out as atypical. The cover had a spiral galaxy on it and the title was something like "The new arrival's handbook" or similar—I don't remember any more. I swear to you, it was a real book and not a remnant hallucination, because there were others there in the box with it that I took home and read and have since seen out and about in the real world, on various best-seller lists and the like.

I read the book once, and then put it back where I'd found it. I don't know why I felt prompted to return it, it seemed important for some vague reason. I kinda wish now that I hadn't; I've never seen it or its like since.

It contained essentially one message, repeated several times over and illustrated with slick graphics. It said, paraphrased here more or less: "You have agreed ahead of time to come to this planet on an important mission. There have been very few volunteers because it's a dangerous mission with lots of guaranteed suffering, so you are to be commended. You are a specialized infiltrator. It was necessary for you to forget your mission before coming here, because this planet's tyrannical rulers have means to discover our kind. Normal physical-dimension entrance wasn't possible because they would have immediately captured and tortured you to death and worse, so it was necessary to sneak you in the hard way, by incarnating you into a developing host body vacated by another soul willing to let you take their place in the womb. You will remember your instructions gradually, as they become important to the mission, so don't worry and take comfort in the knowledge that you are doing good works, and we all appreciate you for it." There was more, but that was basically it.

It was a hell of a thing.

The day after returning the book, I had second thoughts about the decision and wanted to get it back. I went back to the free box, but it was gone.

I would later go on to learn all about the 'Manchurian Candidate' and how that nonsense works, but at the time I wasn't remotely familiar with it. The movie had been out since 1962, so there must have been some awareness that I had of it, lurking in the hidden subconscious appropriately enough, but I didn't make the immediate connection to hypno-programming amnesia blocks—though I'd already experienced that myself, as I will tell about later.[citations needed]

Suffice it to say that I still don't know what to make of it.

I've started this here book with the expanded story of the little alien HfX7qe2179A9 from the other two volumes in this series. It seemed appropriate, and it's good to give the little guy some form of closure.




FISH OUT OF WATER


And the world said: Child, you will not be missed.

You are cheaper than a wrench, your back is a road;

Your death is a table in a book.

You had our wit, our heart was sealed to you:

Man is the judgment of the world.

Randall Jarrell, from Variations, part IV



It had been a will to exist, and was no more.

William turned away from the overwhelming light, away from its hook-rays and the suns and the drifting isolation, turned away and away and away again, until all that once burnt it had taken away everything that was not the original being and become ribbon-like trickles of radiation, twisting strings humming outside of time and space that neither touched nor tamed him. In death, he'd chosen to anchor to the nothing itself, and in his unwinding would find the pattern of the greater whole, his lattice upon the gates of infinity. If there were some meaning to be found to this existence and all the sacrifice it demanded, it would be found in the reducibility of its basic functions. The matrix of the god-body would be filled with infinitesimally smaller bodies of God, as it was itself a smaller whole of the infinite God, and bent across this juncture was William.

It had at last made its way to the tower, to the holy sacred singing spire that lit up the world with healing, cleansing fire. HfX7qe2179A9 was being destroyed by this flame, and every step cost it another handful of scales, another toenail, another bundle of tissue. The radiations from the tower were dissolving its mobile, speeding up its disintegration. Enrapt in the beauty of the light, HfX7qe2179A9 did not care. It knew it was dying, and was ready to let go; it had had enough of the struggle. Even as it stretched forth a claw to embrace the light, the radiations pulled it apart, exposing its organs and stopping them.

HfX7qe2179A9 died.

And it saw the true nature of existence, of forms nesting within forms, the layering of possibilities upon each other to form a matrix of probability becoming certainty, and it knew that everything was both infinite and reducible to one at the same time. Everything spinning, everything dancing in relation to itself-the-other, a hand lacing fingers with its own as both warp and weft, and where these movements concentrated and fused the magic of creation could be found. It was here that the little being could form up and take a body.

The decision to do so was made outside of time, outside the space it would come to inhabit and the restrictions of time's arrow, and everything it would ever be and everything it would ever have been solidified with it and crystallized into being like a sunflower opening at morning's break, and was good. There would be an end, and there would be a series of beginnings, and there would be an endless spread of eternal moments infusing all...

So this was death.

HfX7qe2179A9 stepped outside its pulverized mobile and watched the remaining corpse bubble away and melt into nothing, leaving only a dark, pitted stain.

You have come to me, child.

"I'm not yet ready to go into the light. I need to go back into the creation for another life. There is work that must be done," the little soul, so tiny in comparison to the vastness of space which surrounded it, addressed the looming spirit.

Child, you must change your form, or take an awkward birth, if you wish to be with me,

The Earth-Mother said to it.

The animals were disturbed, sensing something no one could see but which everyone felt: a thing unnatural would be loosed upon the earth.

A herd of elephants brayed noisily, shouting their trumpeted cries skyward, the alpha standing up on its hind legs to raise pawing protestations; the svelte by the river was uneasy, its inhabitants restless.

Across the banks and further downstream, a cobra rose up out of a basket, spreading its hood at the painted fakir waving his bazourka and a mongoose pounced upon it; the fakir protesting the death of his snake broke from his argument with the mongoose and they both looked above the line of tents at the brooding sky. Something was amiss. The mongoose wandered away, hissing back over its shoulder behind it, and the man paid it no mind.

Something hazy dropped from the troubled sky and descended upon the village, rolling down the crude paths like smoke, and bounced from tent to tent at the village's outskirts, seeking a vibration it had never known: love.

A woman was heavy with child. A young girl of the village, the only one able to attend the squalid birth, sat by the woman's side with a cloth and a bowl of water, murmuring encouraging words. The child within her shifted and pushed, straining them both to attend its deliverance.

It entered their space, joining the attendance seamlessly, and skirted away from the minds of the women to approach the fresh soul germinating within, and it asked to take the soul's place in her womb.

I was to be born in suffering, to die in misery before the chance of redemption. Would you have this lot?

the soul asked of it.

"And my own, I would, and I shall," it replied, and the woman sobbed harshly with a fresh wave of wracking pains that bent her in two, and she knew that the soul of her child was leaving and she thought it a stillbirth; the usurping bend in the ethers entered the tiny body and attached itself there, and the unnatural thing took the body upon itself and became one with it. A flicker of luminescence dislodged itself from the woman's auric field and flitted away into nothingness and she gasped...

The light—the piercing, devastating, burning light...

The fakir yanked back the opening to the tent, exposing the panting woman with her squalling child and the terrified midwife's apprentice wiping her brow to the harsh gaze of an unfriendly world. He spotted the woman and her doula, and noticed for the first time the cries of the newborn child. He was not to perform this exorcism.

"I am too late," he said, and wept for the increase of suffering in the world.

=

Somewhere not very far away, the elephants called; she could barely concentrate on staying conscious through the pain, and yet they were the one clear thing to make it through to her between her cries. They called in unison, a song she knew to be of war. What could the bulls have to do battle against? There were no more serious predators along the banks on this part of the river.

It was going to be a difficult birth. Her contractions were coming shorter, and harder, but she wasn't yet blooming. The girl didn't know what to do to help her.

Once again she cried, not this time for herself but for the child, for the small one who would never know a family or the love of a mother. She wished she might die in childbirth and be spared the return to her own family in disgrace, where she would be forever marked unclean for the child she'd hidden away from the rest of the village and given birth to in secret. The man who'd raped her would be there with the others, jeering along with them and pretending he didn't know how she could have fallen so far. It was better that the child should be left here with the fishers, one of whom would surely take it under their care as their own. At least it would not be killed straight away. Her tears could not wash away her shame at the thought.

And then the moment was upon her, and she tugged at the corners of the tent where she lay, and she strained with all her might and prayed to Mami to spare the child's life, if not her own. As if in answer, she felt the child's spirit break loose from her, and saw it drift away as a sparkle of light in the corner of her eye that vanished when she looked for it, and felt her heart break.

But the pains still kept coming; something needed to move.

She pushed it out, grieving already for what she knew had passed, and then it cried out. It cried out! How could this have been? It wailed once and then was silent.

A bright light pierced their tent and a holy man pushed inside, saw the child and said something she did not understand in the ancient tongue, which she did not speak, and left. She felt a part of her dignity go with him. And yet...

The baby was alive! And yet...

She was going to have to leave it. She would not see her baby again, and would not know it if she did. She would be emptied twice this day.

She pressed the child to her breast and it did not suckle; the girl took the child and her leave to go back to the village, and Lakshmi bade her go with a final silent plea, her head bowed and her eyes lowering. The girl gave her a dark look and she knew the girl's discretion would cost her, more than she had already paid in sweat and shame.

The cost she was to pay would be her all, and she would come away the less for it, for everything.

It was to be a day of partings.

=

Radha left the woman Lakshmi in the tent, having taken care of her the best she could with what little she'd learned so far from her teachers. No one had readied her for this, to attend the birth of a woman declared barren. She was entirely unprepared.

She was still damp with the blood-sweat on her brow, when Radha waited until she was sure the painted man had left and stole quietly out with the babe tucked under her dress. She did not cast a last look behind her at the woman, she did not dare to see the broken heart and the loss and know that she was the vessel of grief in the woman's life. She did not want to see how lost the woman was.

She had a bad feeling about the child. It wasn't struggling under the sari, wasn't crying or making any noise. Something was wrong.

She risked a peek under the fold of cloth that ran down the front of her dress, and found that the worst she'd feared had come true—the child was dead.

The giant ox bellowed, and Cheng was frightened that the beast might break its yoke and charge him, for it struggled so and pulled out of its owner's hands, who shouted and cracked a long rawhide whip that only maddened it further. It all happened at once, and broke him out of a daydream that had already faded, taking the phantasmagorical taste of the river air out of his mouth and coating his tongue with the desert's dust.

The dust. Always the dust.

It got into your clothes, your bed, your food—everything. This close to the Great Desert, the constantly blowing winds carried heavy loads of sand and dust and dropped the fine powder in miles-long streaks wide as valleys across the scrublands. His tribe was one of the only that could actually cross the desert's empty waste; the blasted lands caused a magic sickness that killed most, if they didn't succumb outright to the elements. They were harsh, and so were his people, and an uneasy truce bartered with the land for keeping her secrets. His people could make their way, but they were to keep to themselves. And they were to learn to live with dust in their mouths. That was who he was.

The ox would become a feast for many days, in preparation for another journey across the poison sands. They would butcher it outside the walls, then bring the carcass into the great hall and the whole border outpost would gorge on rich meat and fat to store in their bodies for the period of starvation ahead. The barbecues were the most- looked-forward to events of the year, three or four of them, and they made a big deal of bringing in the finest oxen from the mainland when they were about to go on another journey. The ox would be tied with ribbons and decked in jewelry and fattened for two weeks before slaughter, and the animals were always well-treated.

Cheng darted, and hid behind a stall for the men to get the animal under control. The merchant in whose shop-space he was hiding sold skins full of wine. No one would buy them for the journey out—they were for those who were returning. As such, his goods were mostly given away for free in the celebrated homecomings. Cheng was still too young to drink with the adults, but he'd gotten to taste some a few times and felt its powerful effects, and understood why they would drink such horrible-tasting stuff. It made them crazy.

He remembered how the adults would sing, so loudly and raucously, and how they would dance trippingly and fell down a lot. It made him laugh to remember, despite the chaos taking place around him with the thundering monster, if only for a second. Perhaps that was the secret of the bitter juice, to be able to laugh in the face of danger.

Across the square, one tiny face heard the laughter and looked between the scrambling people at him, and they made eye-contact across the maelstrom, and something like lightning bolted through him with a peal of recognition and longing. Another, like him but different—someone who'd peered into him and known him, too.

A shelf of crude ceramic pots and one bank for holding coins crashed to the ground, sending flying shards into the melee and cutting into the frantic ox. It crashed wildly about, then reared up and kicked its hooves in the air, and bucked its hind legs, and kicked through the wall of the wooden stall where Cheng was hiding, crushing the side of his head. He died instantly.

She held her head high and looked down her nose at the small room, the fireplace set in the wall, her bed a simple feather mattress—she was one of the lucky few invisibles who were allowed a private residence, and she took frequent advantage of the fact. When the great-house was dark, in the few hours before morning, she could dream of trysting with her true love, and no one should hear her draw heavy breath or whimper into her bedding.

A handmaiden to Sekhmet, who was a servant of the Queen her majesty Nephretit-Sis of the twelfth House of the Surra dynasty in the First Kingdom, Harere-Sek dared to keep for herself a stolen treasure, a pair of ceremonial silk slippers. They were embroidered with gold threads and surely worth more than she herself was; she would be allowed fineries because appearances had to be kept up for her master, but they were to be returned immediately after use. To have taken them back to her room and hidden them away under her mattress could be punishable in the extreme.

She waited until the household had settled down, and then put one of them on.

She saw how pretty the silk looked against her foot, how dainty the flower-print and elegant inset pearls caught the lamplight as she lifted her ankle and the bright yellow triangle in the center gleamed with golden threading, and she dreamed of how her courtesan might admire it alongside her beauty.

She was about to pull the other slipper on when she saw that it had a scorpion in it. Suppressing a scream that would surely have gotten her caught, she dropped the slipper to the ground; the scorpion was tiny and deepest black—a baby, the deadliest of the species.

There were footsteps coming up the hall—she had to get the shoe up off the floor before it was discovered.

'My love will protect me,' she thought to her herself as she grabbed up the slipper and hid against the wall, knowing in her heart that she asked too much. She knew that love alone wouldn't save her, still holding out hope to the point of denial that it would.

She felt a crawling and a series of sharp pains on the back of her hand; her blood raced as the footsteps passed her open doorway. They did not stop for her.

And she knew that she had been bold in taking the slippers, and not so bold as to have spoken to the man who'd caught her heart, a guardsman who didn't even know her name. She would die without having spoken her love even once to the man she dreamed of every night for so many moons that she'd forgotten what it was like to live for herself.

The scorpion dropped to the ground and stung her heel before it scuttered away under her bed. She did not cry out, with her wrist held pressed to her mouth, the tears streaming down her cheek; she made no protest to the engulfing darkness.

That night, alone and in terrible pain, she died.

Sergei was alone, but he was used to being alone, and there was no time for feeling sorry about it. That way led to death.

His brother Yurei had let it kill him, had given in to the wretchedness and despair and hung himself under the bridge when he was just sixteen years old, leaving Sergei an only child. He was four years old when his brother committed suicide, and he was seven when his mother Arianna followed. She'd always been given to complaining, always dissatisfied with their lot and bitter, and then her eldest son dead by his own hand... Her soul had been as barren as the countryside, just as cold and occupied by deadly predators. His father Vorel was worse, a heavy-handed brute with vodka on his breath and seeping out his skin, and they were the last ones left of the family. It was easy to hate this life, if you were too deeply engaged with it.

He could lie in bed another minute longer today even though the sun was already up; it was an infrequent indulgence and he would take advantage of it this morning. Let the day call him with its chores and responsibilities and hard, hard work—his father had gone and he had the moment for himself. He would dream, dream of her.

He'd been watching her all winter, across the one-room school full of all the village's kids, from the older children to the wee babushkas, so many it was always chaos and he never got up the nerve to break through to her and try to say anything. He didn't know what he'd have said if he'd ever gotten the chance. Most of those children were unruly, unused to large groups. He'd embraced it, found himself easily lost in a crowd.

She'd broken the ice finally, on the last day of school. He'd been working the one dull pencil-sharpener mounted on the wall, when she'd come up behind him and put her hands over his eyes. They were the softest, warmest hands he'd ever felt.

They'd started talking from there, through the rest of class and until her parents arrived in their fancy Swiss automobile to take her away from him. And they had already made plans for her to come over to his house, when his parents were away and he would be alone, and he saw how nice the car was and how much money her parents must have had, and he knew that he was shabby in her eyes and she didn't seem to care. Maybe she actually hadn't noticed. But he knew who that man was.

Her father owned the entire village and everything in it. He owned the trainyard and the tracks that had taken his father away.

There were very few jobs to be had in the factories her father owned, and most of the townspeople had to emigrate from their little village near Volochanka across the tundra to find work in the bigger cities down south.

She was supposed to come over yesterday but the storm had closed the roads; if she were to come today, he hoped she would stay away from whatever that was crashing in the woods behind the cabin. He wished she would come, but then felt guilty for putting her in danger in such a way for only him; he was being selfish. He could never wish that she would put herself in harm's way like that, it would be shameful of him.

He laid in bed for another moment gradually accustoming himself to the harsh light coming through the one and only window, high in the ceiling near the loft. The storm had kept him from sleeping all night, and he was ragged from drinking vodka on an empty stomach. He was young and strong, though, and would not be down for long. His girl was out there, somewhere.

The crashing in the woods had gone on and on, even after the wind and the heavy dump of snow had died down, and this too kept him from getting any rest. Bedraggled and irritable, he got out of bed and cinched his trousers up, going to the door to throw it open, accusing the land and challenging it to show him the source of his ire. The crashing stopped immediately, and Sergei swore he could hear, clearly and distinctly in the stillness ensuing, the snort of a large animal. He knew better than to waste another minute; he closed the door quickly behind him and barred it with a stout oak plank.

It was early spring, just after the first thaw but there had been an unexpected flurry that brought the bears out—the snarling monster that crashed through the door as if the oak plank were straw was a dirty white, lean and hungry, just desperate enough to risk contact with humans. It beat Sergei into a corner with its raking claws, and clamped its jaws over his face, and Sergei died while the snow began to melt in the morning sun.

They sat in the cafe, and he drank his coffee and she sipped her tea, and their silence was still louder than the traffic on the street behind them. He gazed over her shoulder out the open window, and tried to forget what he hadn't done.

"I won't let you stop me. I'm going to join them, just like I said I would!"

"Shh, keep it down. You can't just join the Republican Army, you wouldn't know how."

"You don't know that. I've met people. They'll see how I dropped those bottles full of gasoline off the bridge onto the policeman's parade, and they'll know I mean business!"

"Keep it down Siobhan, you're going to get us caught," he hissed at her, grabbing her arm above the elbow.

She grabbed his hand and shook him off her. "This is the last I'm telling you. I won't be turned away. You can make up your mind to make a real difference this time and come with me, or not. What you do is up to you, Morgan. I can't make the decision for you." She finished her outburst by throwing his hand away from her and turning her shoulder to him. She faced the window with her chin tilted up, daring him to meet her at the halfway-mark emerging on her heart. It was the division between them.

She knew he was faking his reply, knew he didn't actually intend to carry it out but determined to lie to himself, and to her, long enough to see whether or not he might surprise them both and follow through. They both knew he would fall short, and that he couldn't help but try anyway, doomed as he was and knowing it.

"Alright," he said, wiping his glasses clean on his shirtsleeve, "let's do it. I'll be at the station by 9:15. That way I can at least have a smoke before getting on a bus for four hours. Is this really necessary?"

She waited until he'd gotten his glasses situated back on his face and spoke to him softly, slowly: "I said I wasn't telling you again. Be there or don't, I'm going just the same."

When the bus arrived at 9:26, he still wasn't there. When it departed at 9:35, he wasn't on it.

The grasses were so much shorter, so thinly spread and with few seeding heads, always yellow and withered; their homeland on the waters had gone barren with the changing winds from across the oceans and their tribe was forced to wander, but there was nowhere to go. Further inland, the wells were sick and the air brought death with it. Nothing would grow, and what did was poor substitute for what his people needed.

From the time of the Falling Waters until the great going forth, his people had shared the valleys and the river delta with the people of the sands as one, trading goods and intermingling; but the gods had grown evil in the heavens with their hunger and their violence, and after burning their home in the skies had come down to the Earth to destroy and devour everything before them, and threatened to consume the Great Mother herself. Humanity had risen again and taken back the lands from them, but the cost had been final. The pyramid was stripped and the nights became again dark, and the days of men became days of toil, and the people set against each other as if they had never once been sworn allies. Men had become as gods, and then been enslaved by gods, and finally killed the gods, and the gods had taken away all their gifts with them. Humanity became as animals scuffling in the wilderness.

Now he walked. He walked with his people and they kept the bright yellow rising sun on their left, and they walked from one great water all the way to the other and still they could find no trace of the world that had once been.

In his wanderings, he'd met many peoples and learned from them, listened to the voices of nature and her animals; he'd learned the ways of the giraffe and the rhinoceros, run with the wide-winged buzzards and howled with the hyenas. Each of them were a single note of the great Mother's song, yet none by themselves could recreate the whole. He knew there would be a complete song to be heard, and to which he could lend his own voice. He yearned for it; all life yearned for it, but he felt its keening the more bravely and unrelentingly sought out its source.

His people moved, and he moved with them, always. Having known no other way of survival for generations upon generations, they walked now out of habit, his kind spread across the sparse earth living with the wandering beasts and sleeping in the open fields.

Something once mighty had fallen, and though the people sought to find it again and bring themselves out of the rootless desolation, it would not settle and would not send out again shoots of its own.

Somewhere, perhaps over the next horizon, the grass would once again be green.

It had taken him most of the day to climb to the top of the stepped pyramid. Please, please, he prayed, let the gods of the Tul'Teke be there this time. Please let them see me.

He'd been born in the year that the stones had stopped spinning, when the Ancients' machineries had failed his world and broken for the last time, and that was why he was named Mi or 'Empty', for the great heartache that had befallen the people.

When he was just five years old he'd gone blind, an ailment common amongst his people since the Last War and the following Catastrophe, but he had memories of how his world had looked, and the bright colors of a bird's plumage, and the wide open expanse of infinite distance that was the sky. He'd been told of how they'd once broken the world, brought down that sky with the lightning-arrow, and how the enemy struck back with clay pots full of a fire that burned still after it was extinguished and turned the sands to glass, and how it was these that made the children sick. The people had gone into caves and into the earth but the fires burned them even there, and he could imagine a flame that never went out, and knew how it would feel when its warmth kissed his skin and brought him to the sun. What had once been a great civilization covering all lands had become again like beasts quarrelling over the remains of the fallen, until everything of the people had gone or broken or was stolen and stripped and now they were like him: blinded, half-lame, and filled with pitiful yearnings for something that had been lost long ago, if ever it had truly been possessed before.

He'd kept the name Mi after his adulthood, because it fit him; he was truly empty.

His people had chosen to go on, to survive against all odds and against a world that was increasingly hostile and unforgiving; he'd been told of the feathered serpent-King who would return and bring the people back to the land of living waters, and he'd been told of the greatness of the flying stones and the wheel that trapped the spark and the wand that pushed water and cut stone and how these wonders and more would be theirs again. He'd been told these stories and others, late at night huddled around the remains of the cooking-fire with the elders drinking their fermented guava and smoking the powdered mushrooms, and had grown tired of their stale promises and hollow visions of a life he'd never known and never would.

It was likely his people wouldn't, either. Each year the children were born more stunted, their features distorted, the blight upon the land showing up in the bodies of the newborn. His people would scatter, or die out. Scouts who'd gone seeking out the southern lands came back with tales of an impassable wasteland even worse than their own; scouts gone northward hadn't returned. There was nowhere for his people to go. Like him, they were broken and breaking further apart and unable to keep the pieces together.

And he'd given up. They didn't need him; he was a burden, and he knew it. He could hear it in their voices, tell by the reluctance with which they took an arm to lead him forward, in how often he was allowed to stumble. He would not be missed.

He would seek out the gods. They would take him to their abode in the wide open sky and he would be with them.

Atop the stone pyramid, he called out their names, both the names used for everyday ceremonies and the secret names which were never to be spoken aloud. The gods did not come; only the wind answered.

He took himself over to the edge of the terraced plateau above the reservoir and held his face over the edge to catch the brisk draft gusting up from below. There wasn't a lot of water and what was down there was brackish with nesting insects and the remains of yesterday's losing team. There would be many headless bodies down there, and so much blood, and it smelled bad. It smelled like the entrance to hell.

Thus he knew his gods had finally spoken.

All he had to do now to be with them would be to lean into it, to fall forward and greet the rushing winds with wide, welcoming arms.

And they would blow him open, leaving him wholly with nothing, and he would at last be truly emptied.

The loss, the aching loss of his way of life, of his people and his land, and even to the basics of his own identity, were as nothing compared to the greater loss of the one he loved.

Even now, in the midst of all the madness and destruction, he could not bear the thought of being without her. Let the old men destroy everything and run away, so long as he could keep her by his side. But he knew that would never happen now, could never happen again, and for the betterment of the world should never be allowed to come to pass.

His clan, the House of the Rose, had been at war with her tribe of the Desert Star for twenty-three full generations, until no one any longer knew why they fought or over what. His father, a servant of the Errant Warlord whose father had been a servant before him, had taught him to hate the pale-skinned mountain people from across the seas as his father had taught him, and shown him the ways of war. She, the smoky-eyed daughter of the Kaza'ar chieftain, came from the Blasted Lands with the ambassador's party to beg his people for grain and oil, and to take the curse of the Eye off her people—which would never of course be allowed to happen. She'd made the appeal to the Warlord personally and been rebuffed for it and sent away empty-handed, but not before her people had spotted him, noted the obvious air of disaffection and discontent, and made their appeal to him later in private.

His family would have had him killed, had they known of his treason. Because of him, the rebel forces had gained access to the Temple of Power and stolen the Eye. The land burned and the Empire had fallen, because of him and his betrayal. They'd told him he would be freeing the earth of a great tyranny and allowing a return to the golden age it had once known. Like a fool, he'd believed them and their lies. Like a fool, he'd secretly opened the gates as a coward would in the night and brokered their entrance, as if they would have had any use for him after. Their assassins had captured and killed the Warlord and his immediate retinue, many of his own family among them. He'd been the cause of his own disinheritance.

For all that, his legacy would only have been a tale of forgetfulness and loss.

The bright spot in the sky that was Te'ammat was gone, shattered into innumerable fragments destined to tumble through the outer darkness, forever drifting further and further apart, just as the gods were left to wander the heavens, and there were none left on Earth who remembered. The wars of the Ancient Gods were brief and devastating, and left precious little standing in their wake; the Earth had been pulled away from the Sun her lover and wept for five days and six hours with a freezing-cold spinning stormcloud full of poison. The Stone House was hungry; its belly filled with the blood of a planet, it was slain by the few who remained. These things had been lost to the Ancient times.

His people had been among the lucky ones, and survived to pass on the tale of the Covenant of Atl'Ant'sz, when mankind had agreed that never again would such weapons be allowed to appear upon the earth and bring her so near to total and fatal devastation, but they had forgotten. The Stone House had been weakened and left to guard the land, until its history and the old tales were neglected and the old ways fallen to disuse. They had come down to the flatlands following the river, and found the remains of the fallen Ancients and their mysterious destruction, and had sworn to maintain the old Kingdom as their own and done so for a thousand years of good fortune. His nation had once been at the head of the world, the discoverers of the hidden ways leading the others forward in righteousness, the keepers of the Ancients' machineries; all the peoples of the globe had bowed to his and offered tribute, and then Tahomet came down from the sky abode, bringing the awful gift of the Eye. It was then the gentle slopes of the Stone House, which had given rain to the parched lands and brought light into the darkness, became again a weapon capable of striking the gods in their sky Houses and piercing them through, just as had happened in the Ancient times. The people were fooled into thinking they were receiving a gift, but it was error birthing itself anew.

Its nature as the bringer of death had been forgotten for a thousand years and it lay quiet, awaiting transformation. The people used the powers of the House to enjoy easy living, and over the generations grew fat and lazy and evil with corruption. They had left aside the old ways and the lessons of the forefathers, of how the gods had once ruled the nearby planets from their castles on Earth with fists of iron and lightning before leaving to take their evil to the stars. His clan had grown powerful in their absence. No one had suspected the returning Tahomet of treachery, of willing death upon the other gods in a war that belonged to the heavens, but that had been exactly what had happened and his people, the fools of the gods, played out their ceaseless war and brought themselves low in the doing. Where once the Stone House had been known as a giver of life, from the addition of the heavy metal box and the magic show-stones inserted into its heart, it had become instead the House of the Eye—a dealer of destruction and stealer of men's minds..

Then the great error was repeated and another planet killed with the spears of fire, the result of the knowledge-bringer's trick; for Tahomet had rebuilt the Stone House into a divine weapon and attacked the gods in their home without the people knowing what he was doing. But this destruction would not limit itself to the gods' Houses in the stars—the victim-killing weapon harmed its wielder, too.

With the bolt shot into the sky, his people had brought destruction to their own Houses—the lightning tore the heavens asunder and brought down a rain lasting forty days and forty nights that washed the earth clean of both man and god, so that only a very few survived in the highest and furthest of the hidden places. The planet had been torn asunder, again, because the Stone House had been used to harm. Now they were left to scrape out what survival they could in the aftermath, when everywhere all around them the land succumbed to the sorrows of the dead and the dying. His people survived in what had once been the great city amid the churning of the deadly machineries that lit the skies with the aurora borealis and made one's hair stand up, and they still enjoyed all the conveniences and amenities they'd had before the killing blast, but their spirits had been broken and they were falling to decay. The Council could not agree on what to do about survivors, and the Warlord grew impatient with blood-lust. By his own actions, he was only laying the first handful of dirt into the freshly-dug grave, and yet the guilt weighed with the heaviness of the mountain at the center of the world.

He had repeated the rebellion of the gods, giving the Stone House and its secrets over to the enemies of his nation, and for what? For the sultry eyes of a woman he'd seen only once, and yet whose spirit had reached into his and spoken of something deeper than time or blood, or so he'd allowed himself to believe. Such a fool he'd been!

The foreigners had come in the night and taken the Eye out of the House, thieved it away to bring back to their lands, and the city had gone dark. The source of their power had been stolen. It was his fault. He watched from his window the decapitated head of his master the Errant Warlord ridden past on the end of a long pole held in the arms of the rabble on the street below. His people never connected him to its theft, and for their part the foreigners never let it be known who their secret supporter had been. His crime had gone undiscovered.

In the days that followed, the priests sought desperately any solution that could reignite the Inner Temple in the Stone House, but they had lost the sciences of Tahomet that fueled its chambers; they tried filling the coffer with the white gold powder but broke it in a massive explosion that scarred the stone itself and killed many. It was his fault. The disintegration was only just beginning.

And now the city was overcome with ruin and the people were rioting in the streets, everything was being consumed in wildfires that burned unchecked, and the land had fallen into lawlessness. It was his fault.

The city was to be deserted by its surviving rulership. They had given up and were abandoning the remains of the once-great civilization they had built, destroyed and rebuilt, and were now returning to the wild lands to live as primitives, away from the savagery of a culture gone to putrefaction. They were going to return to living among the beasts.

It was his fault.

He could not let this be.

In the pages of the timeless holy books he would find the knowledge of the ancient ones and their secret machines, of the reflective spheres and the heating bowls and all the magics of the lost age, and he would return the light to the Great Houses. But he was a coward, and he would follow a coward's way.

It was the only way he knew.

In the panicked rush to flee the city, only one person observed him stealing the books from the library.

He had given up on ever seeing her again, but the spies must have returned to witness their downfall, and he caught a face in the doorway peering at him as he stuffed the ancient and moldering books into his knapsack. It was her, it could only have been her, for he would anywhere recognize those eyes looking into and through him, and she was seeing him now in his lowest of lows, fleeing his only home and stealing her treasures to hock in the wilderness. She looked him once-over up and down, and then turned away with a curled lip, showing him her back. He stood up quickly to call out to her and tilted over a mirror on a stand. The mirror fell to the floor and shattered into innumerable shards.


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