Although the war was long over, the twin red suns of Night and Day kept the planet Firmament in a kind of eternal gloom that I knew much too well. Our elders could not stop talking about the torments of the battle fought in mud so bloody that your feet would sink two feet into it as you walked across it. The place God had chosen to put the planet Firmament had kept it from being found during the war in which hundreds of other worlds had met their doom. We fought long and hard and were entirely in the wrong.
Victory came to our enemies, but that didn’t mean what we thought it did. It is true that the last remnants of the Old Empire had driven us back to the one world we had left. There were not enough survivors on either side to need more than a single planet each and it was good that neither side knew where that single planet was for the other. However, the wrong victory is the worst of all defeats.
One generation spoke with pride over a bloody war that we should never have been involved in. The next generation condemned the idea of war so much that our people did not even fight to survive. Our tyrannical overlords fed on the discontent of the counter culture and used it to break their subjects into submission. A victory against the unity and pride of the people handed a decisive victory to our masters.
I find neither pride nor honor in lamenting our loss so I will stop my whining at this point. This only sets the point at which my story begins. We were a defeated people holding onto the ghost of a broken spirit and the falsified belief that surrender to our enemies made us stronger. That is the point in our history that saw my birth.
Some people have dreams to cherish; however, I had only a dream to suffer.
My story starts in love. It was the most precious gift that the living and true God ever gave me, although I was not a believer at the time. I was no better than the rest of my world in condemning the identity of my people. Even in love, I did not find the strength to start a life. Therefore my story starts not with my rise but with my fall.
She introduced herself to me with a courage I would have been unable to match. We fell, each for the other, with the first touch between us. My right arm was extended from my body in a loop to hold up the case of my issued terminal and she wrapped her arm around mine through the loop. The warmth of her touch, even though our clothes forbade direct contact of our flesh, was a blast of energy through my whole body. There is little I would not have given to hold that union for all time.
Her name was Elle, but I heard Nell when she said it. Nell is the name I noted in my personal file on the storage core of my terminal. I recall my first thoughts after we parted for class on that first day with a strength so great that I can never forget. “I had never considered Nell as the name my wife would have,” I thought.
We spent what time we could together, yet I was too shy to really get close to her. All of our time together was during the regulation class schedule and I now regret not having taken her out on a real date. For my stupidity, I know that I fully deserve everything that has happened to me. If offered to me, I would not accept God’s forgiveness for that one transgression.
It was my last year of mandatory education and she had two more years to go. A better man would have prepared for a life with her after school. I just didn’t have it in me to lay a foundation for building a life together while waiting for her. My thoughts did run to failing the last year of my schooling just to spend the time with her, but I did not do so. She owned me and I was happy to have such a pure, loving master.
When my last chance came, I overcame some of my reluctance enough to do the only brave thing I ever did. I created an identity disk with all my important statistics to give to Elle. For most of the morning, I waited for an opportunity to give the disk to her, although one did not come. Driven by nerves, I cast aside my fear and acted as I should have done earlier. She had to have that disk in order to find me. If she chose to use it to contact me, then we were meant to be together.
I saw her come around the corner in one of the halls, walking with a friend I did not know. Most people are strangers to me, so I did not allow that to stop my approach. This was somebody who Elle felt comfortable with and I drew further strength from that. My gentle flower should never see me as a raging bull. It meant almost everything to me that she be in a position which was half worship and half security above me whenever we spoke.
“Aedrek,” she called with all the musical tones the ear can appreciate hearing.
Every atom in my form tried to back down, melting into the floor with the power of the feeling that I had for her. I knew that this would be our last encounter if I allowed myself to recoil into anonymity. When my mind refused to be driven by that fact, I hit myself over the head with the hard-edged realization that this one pivotal time would never come again.
Of necessity, the conversation we had was short. I knew that I could be allowed no quarter. My steps were uneven and my nerves were so unsteady that I could barely stand erect. Elle gave no indication that she saw my clumsy stance. It is a comforting belief to me that she forgave my social weakness because she knew how I felt.
“If you ever need anything,” I started,” just ask.” Then I slipped the disk into her hand, careful not to make her uncomfortable with the touch. Those few things I would not now give to have held her close in that one instant are not mine to give.
She did not respond.
It would be more truthful for me to say that I gave her no chance to respond, drifting back into the anonymity of the crowd traversing the hallway. Courage failed me. My breath would only come in short pants for a few minutes after the encounter. The building seemed so hot that I could not stand to be inside of it, even though I had to stay for class. My fate rested on what Elle would do with the information I had given her.
As God would have it, I do not believe in chance, my next class was geometry. It was a class I knew so well that I did not have to devote my attention to it. My teacher stood at the display, manipulating holograms, as though it was just another day. He had no way of knowing that the fate of all the planet Firmament was being decided by an action I had just precipitated. In that way, he was just like me.
He noticed that I wasn’t paying full attention to the class, yet he had learned his lesson earlier. Multi-part proofs were untidy to me and I would depart from the lesson plan to present a clean alternative if he tried me. I had been given a gift for logic and it worked best when I was caught off guard. Either we had a unique respect relationship or an intellectual rivalry. Neither of us can say for sure what it was.
The class knew about it. Each student sent emotional darts in a quick glance toward me when our instructor announced a surprise quiz. My response was a shield of boredom. I barely waited for the image to form on the tablet in front of me before I began running down the list of challenges with my stylus. It usually looked as though I was guessing, but my average score was a 97 percent.
I did not allow the thoughts of my compatriots to bother me. There was a time that I had thought everybody had the same skills that I did and learning otherwise was the hardest lesson I had ever learned. My comrades in education did not forgive my misunderstandings. Elle was the first student I had taken an interest in during my schooling. As long as there was a chance between us, nothing else mattered.
Finishing up early, as usual, I drifted off into thought. The time had come for me to no longer be the lone wolf explorer leading missions to distant worlds. It was time for me to think about having somebody to be with for the duration of a life actually worth living. I’d had a full year of daydreams with Elle and I dancing by real moonlight on an exotic beach on some uncharted world. Then I was dreaming only to mask the uncertainty.
One final bell sang out with dread to bring a close to the last day in which Elle and I were sure to be close enough to actually touch. An educational year, three quarters of a year in duration, came to an end with an unceremonious, synthetic tone. My fate was in Elle’s hands. I had nothing that I would not have placed in her gentle hands. She was my obsession.
Aside from Elle’s love, I had no drives or desires in my life. It would be the absolute truth for me to say that nothing else mattered to me and I knew that this fact made me unworthy of the prize I sought. Many people who knew me had high hopes for my future. Some of these people tried to push me along a prescribed path. Without Elle, I would not have cared if I even lived.
I should have taken Elle to the prom even though I had within me no desire to endure additional time with my comrades in education. She was worth the sacrifice. If the opportunity had presented itself, I would have invited her to my graduation. Instead, I piloted my car down the road and did not look back.
Elle called me for the first time on the day of my graduation. I believe that she wanted to drop by for the celebration even though she had been grounded for poor academic performance. It was the first time I had considered actually having such a party and the only thing that made me wish that I had. We did not get together in person, yet the connection we had over the phone was as strong as any embrace.
She read my document from the school file to me over the connection. I’d have been happy to hear her voice even if she had read the phone directory to me. In fact, all I really recall of our first conversation was that it was the best experience in my life. We were both locked so firmly in the feeling of the moment that there was nothing else in reality to be recorded in my memory.
The flood of emotion was so strong that I ran around the house, on the outside, to release the pressure within me. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would have to build a life in order to actually continue that relationship. My mind didn’t touch on the fact that she was still young and could easily move on beyond me. I wasn’t much of a man, however, I still wanted to be her man.
Days passed before we next spoke. I remember thinking that the projection did not do her image justice, but I know that the system did not see her through the same loving eyes that I did. Nothing about her could be less than perfect to me. Through my eyes, the image was so lifelike that I could smell the blueberry gum that she chewed and the thin residue of the lilac shampoo in her hair. The world around us vanished so that it would not be a distraction to us.
Some friends of mine had hurriedly arranged to see a comic who was passing through town on a tour. I’m not sure why they invited me to go along. Maybe it was because I was a non-smoker and they would need a designated driver. Social gatherings were not my thing. Perhaps I went along for the same reason that they smoked.
I do not know why I didn’t recall that appointment enough to invite the only girl I ever cared about. The plan was only minutes old when she called. It was an interruption in my schedule that I would far from have condemned, although I did not recall enough to invite her along. Even if she had refused, or been unable to attend, it was something that I should have done. My absent minded response speaks of a destiny possessed by a spiteful fate.
When our conversation ended, a meaningless collection of small talk and yet of such significance to me that I’ll keep that dialog just between the two of us, it was a few minutes longer before I even recalled the appointment. One of my friends actually had to remind me. He went so far as to ask me why I hadn’t invited her. Then I realized that I should have. I had no answer to give him.
On the street corner, I noticed a group of children playing a game. They were chastising a playmate for forgetting his lines in a game. I don’t know the name of the show that they were playing, although I know how fans can get when you forget your lines in a game. The need for accurate memorization was pointless to me and I did not play much as a child. But it was not for my own nostalgia that their game caught my eye.
Time had matured me into adulthood while my mind was away. I watched these children at play because I had grown to a point that I wanted a family of my own. In my youth, fatherhood was just a responsibility to society that I was scripted to perform. An ever decreasing percentage of my contemporaries even did the work that was involved in being a father and it seemed to be just as much of a role to me. For Elle, I had found it to be a duty and a job that I actually wanted.
I returned to the solid world with the sound of my friend opening the door. We got into the car without a word and I drove off down the road as I always did. Cars only flew to a height of fifteen feet, yet my head was still in the clouds. It took effort to remain sentient to a world that meant nothing to me. My friend turned on the radio and I used the strong backbeat as a focal point. Even though I had never been involved in an accident, I always found it hard to remain aware of the world around me because I never really cared. Until Elle came along, I just hadn’t noticed my problem.
Traffic was not unusually heavy. I am never in a hurry so the load on the transportation system didn’t bother me. Adjusting to traffic conditions gave me something to do. We got where we were going with a few moments to spare and I tried to coast to a stop in the parking lot. To me, the control of driving was measured by how well I could avoid the sudden changes in speed that came with using the brakes. It may have been the only fun that I had that night.
We got our tickets at the door and I was issued the designated driver badge. The guy working at the door knew me from school and didn’t have to be told that I didn’t smoke. If I had cared to think about it at that time, I would have been amazed at how many people knew those little details about me. It would have meant something if Elle had even implied that she knew me that well.
My friend, Bret, went to the bar to buy a pack of smokes for the evening entertainment while I was lead to the table where my other friends waited. Bret was fond of saying that it was easier to rob a bank then to buy some smokes. We didn’t expect him back with the rest of us for a long time because he may have been right. The funny thing is that I doubt the people who went through the trouble of buying the smokes really enjoyed them. Maybe the fun involved was beyond my understanding.
The comic had been swearing for about nine minutes when Bret finally came back. Bret was greeted by four of my friends with more applause than the man on stage. It may have been that the monologue seemed less humorous to me because I had condemned myself to hear it with a clear mind, however that was beside the point. I understood that I was dangerous enough without smoking.
I drifted into the monologue on news headlines while several of my friends lit up. Although I saw definite promise in the material I liked, there wasn’t much of the comic’s routine that appealed to me. He seemed to dislike the institution of marriage so much that that he’d have had no material left in its absence. That’s what I disliked most about the man. After having the emotions of granite for most of my life, I had fallen for a girl and he was threatening the viability of the things that I felt.
Loyalty meant a great deal to me. Elle would not have to worry about my lack of honor as I considered infidelity to be an act of innate weakness. There is no life that takes less intellectual fortitude than one of constant surrender. My strength, even though I had so little of it, was to be measured by my ability to hold my ground under fire. I was determined to become a man of honor.
That brought my real fear to crystal clarity in my mind. I was afraid of Elle drawing me in, then ripping my heart out as a trophy. She would not see it as sacred enough to place in her underwear drawer where it would be protected amongst the soft cloth that spent its time the closest to her. My fear was that she would place my heart in the den and forget to dust it. For her it would not be the kind of trophy that she would put in living room for public display, where she would constantly have to talk about me. It scared me that she could so easily devastate me and there was nothing I could do about it.
The drive home was depressing. Unknowingly, a man had cut deep into me with his words and I just could not get them out of my head. To him, it was funny. For me it was the actualization of the things I did not earlier know that I feared. It burned so bad that I wanted to rip my skull open and tear those corrosive ideas out of my brain. Elle was my shield and my vulnerability.
Even my sleep was not undisturbed. The flame of uncertainty raged through my veins and I did not want to sleep ever again. I wanted to lash out at my attacker. In the night, I delivered what I felt was a perfect discourse of why these disruptive concepts were harmful. But nobody would ever hear my speech. It was lost when my body wore out the source of its power and ran to sleep for comfort.
Most of my night was broken with scattered thoughts in a restless mind submerged in sleep. My mind did not have the strength to release the fight and relax. These are the times, in retrospect, that I wish I had had God to rely on for solace. Alone in a vast sea of troubles, every wave threatened to capsize my small mind. For the world my little conflict was meaningless. The world did not know that history itself would change course because of the turbulence in my head.
I dreamt that Elle and I were resting on the covers of a large bed. We were fully clothed since I do not worry in shallow terms. Elle’s head was on the pillows and my head was at the foot of the bed. No dialog was exchanged between us in the dream. My thoughts only later drifted to asking why I was inverted in the bed.
There was another man there and he was upright. I could feel that he was attracted to Elle, however, what man would not have been enamored with her? It was a truth that I could not face. The darkest recesses of my mind turned him to make a pass at me rather than accept the truth that I knew. Whatever the dream was trying to tell me was lost in my intervention, so the dream ended there.
I awoke in a hollow embrace of my pillow. My arms searched the night for the warmth that they required and found only the emptiness of a cloth substitute. Such a hole had been cut into my body that I tried to pull the soft material into myself to fill it. Unable to breach the flesh and bone to fill the void in my chest, my pillow had to settle for absorbing the secret tears that I would let no mortal see. Even the sun of Day was forbidden to know of my weakness.
Unable to accept the message I had been sent, I drifted about aimlessly in the night. Was it Elle’s fate to move on without me because I was something that could only be inverted in her presence? It was harder for me to accept that Elle may have been the inverted one. I would allow the dream to have no meaning because I wanted Elle too badly. My journal entry would have been the deepest text I had ever written if I could have adequately expressed the feeling within me.
Days passed before I next spoke to Elle. I was a coward, unable to reach out for her comfort. My journal entries grew more desperate even though the despair was not strong enough to push me to act on my desires. Depression was my curse and it drew a hefty toll on my mental resources. It was important to me that Elle make the first moves because that showed acceptance of me.
Over the months, I recognized a pattern. As long as Elle and I were alone in our conversations, she was deep and caring. If anybody else intervened, then she was shallow and dispassionate. It took about a month before I was bold enough to call her and the pattern remained constant when I called her as well. I was unwilling to let go, but unable to move forward.
She went so far as to ask when we could get together and I told her that I never plan events in advance. It was not what I wanted to say, yet it felt as though somebody else was in my skull and speaking with my lips. Nothing physically held me back. I earned my own wrath by allowing myself to be held in place by nothing. My unwillingness to grab the brass ring and cost me my dreams.
There came a time when she called me in the evening. Although she didn’t say anything to the effect, I could read the strain in her voice that said she had been arguing with somebody. She was winded and her voice broke every so often with the early stage of laryngitis. If I had been given a mind of my own, then I would surely have gone to her that night. I wanted to hold her close until the hurt within her abated.
Her voice was light, like the scent of flowers in bloom on a gentle evening wind. “Aedrek,” she called out.
The sound of her voice hit me like falling into sleep and I relaxed just to be speaking with her over the distance. “Greetings and felicitations, Elle.”
“How are you doing this evening?”
“Always better than I can talk to you.”
She smiled a bit and it felt good to free her from a measure of her pain. “I was wondering how your explorer was coming along.”
“Still in the theoretical stages, I’m afraid.”
“So you’ll be staying on Firmament a little longer.”
“Since the war, there’s been a hold on all star travel. I’m not sure that we’d be allowed to go.”
“It would be fun, though. Just the two of us on the ship.”
A million things ran through my mind on why it would be a bad idea for the two of us to be that isolated. These thoughts did not block the fact that I did want to go with her. “I’d like that.”
“Have you ever considered moving to Udomas?”
Udomas was a southern tourist trap city. It was the kind of place that you’d go on a vacation or to retire if you could afford it, however, I had never thought of it as a city worth living in. I was never that fond of cities. My destiny drew me to move away from people. Something told me to go even though I could not.
“I’m not all that comfortable in cities. Are you sure that this is what you want?”
“I’m almost ready to leave.”
“You really should finish school first. It’s easier than the tests.”
“Don’t you want to be with me?”
“Please come away with me.”
That was my turn to effect Elle’s life and, in doing so, to change the flow of destiny to its prescribed course. I choked on the request. When my mind is clouded, I back down. If God would grant me the chance, I would beg her forgiveness since it is the greatest wrong that I have ever done to anybody. She was the last person that I would want to fail and I failed her to a degree beyond all others.
The words were so hard to speak that I was barely able to get them out. “I can’t just go away like that.”
I could see that she was hurt. In looking back to write this passage, I curse myself for the weakness. My dreams beg me to change that one moment in time and I want to wash away the pain I had caused her in a warm embrace. If I believed in chance, then I would dispel it for this sin, yet the fault is all mine. You will never know how much I hurt myself with those few words.
It didn’t take long for me to find out that Elle had gone without me. Somehow, I just felt it. Our minds touched in the reality that lies beyond the material illusion that kept us both as prisoners. I saw her face and felt her presence each time she thought of me. My reality wanted to be with her and I was truly sorry that I had not gone along.
She called me almost a month to the day after the first call. The connection was bad, although I didn’t care as long as I could speak to her again. I’d have forgiven her anything even though I was the problem. Since I cannot explain the feeling of speaking to my one true love after the separation, I will not try.
“It’s good to hear from you.”
Her image betrayed a nervous disposition. I could read from experience that she was doing something that she did not want to do. She couldn’t stand still and I couldn’t help but think that she was feeling the same things I felt when I gave her my identity card.
“How have you been, Aedrek?”
“I’m better just to talk to you,” I replied.
She smiled a smile that lit up the world for me. “You always were a sweetheart.”
“It means a lot for me to hear you say that.”
“I need to borrow some money,” she blurted out.
“I don’t have much,” I answered. “What do you need?”
Her eyes would not touch mine as she knew that I could read her. In that time, I wanted to reach out to hold her, however, all I had was an image floating before a screen. For her, I would have given my life and I was just as reluctant to say so as she was to ask for what she needed. She didn’t want me to think that she was just using me and I was happy that she cared enough to hesitate. Most importantly, looking at her poorly projected image over the weak connection, I realized that I would live for her.
“As much as you can spare,” she answered.
“It will take a day or two to get to you.”
“I don’t want to impose.”
“It’s alright. I’ll just have to know where to send it.”
Only part of the transmission reached me before the connection timed out. She had been using a public communications system and had only inserted enough credit for a short call. My main problem with the tourist cities like Udomas was the expense of living there. I’ll never forgive myself for not having warned her about the expense. I know that she needed me there with her.
I stored as much of the data in my organizer’s information array as I could extract from the connection. Anything connected to Elle had the status of a sacred relic to me and I was determined not to lose any of it. The transfer had barely contained enough information to track down the block where Elle was living. There wasn’t much in my accounts either.
Hours passed before I realized that I had taken the wrong path to reach the destiny I wanted to possess, although I was on the route I was destined to take. An emptiness had held me back in the cold darkness. Secretly, I cried in that darkness for the loss of the things I had been forbidden to ever have. There was only one thing that I wanted and I do not know why I did not take it when it was offered to me. The chain within me was too strong for me to break.
I could actually feel the iron bands around my wrists. A steel rod had been driven through my chest and attached to the final chain. Their weight was so great that I got tired from the exertion of breathing. Even the rage to drive a rebellious fight was beyond the range permitted by my bondage. Failure to believe in my spiritual cage only made the bars stronger.
After I had spent some time alone in the darkness, my mother approached me. She had seen the change in my behavior and I would not have survived alone. I have no way of saying what was on her mind. Maybe she knew that she was going to lose me if she didn’t act at that time. There are some people that you cannot hide from.
“Is something wrong?”
“I’m just reflecting.”
A short pause ensued while she came up with something to discuss. We had nothing to say, at that instant, even though we both had a need to speak. My will was not great enough to overcome the weight on my shoulders. I simply could not care about much.
“There is one thing I haven’t told you in all these years.”
“You’ve had no need to tell me everything. I’m sure that there are many things you have not told me.”
“You need to know that you’re not entirely Areen.”
“I’m not sure why I’d need to know that, but it is an interesting thing to say.”
“In the war,” she began,” I was a little girl on the Minnelean space station that Areen accidentally targeted.”
“So I’m Minnelean?”
“I was taken into the colony on Kell Tea Kay when the planetary defense force found my life pod. Then I was killed in the assault on the planet.”
“You’re not dead.”
“A young priest on the Medical Ship Elixir revived me. It was a bloody conflict and these men just wanted to save lives. Nobody even asked what side we were on.”
“War is a bloody affair. We’ve devoted a generation to finding alternatives.”
“Elixir was a Minnelean ship that went down in the battle of Teati Kay. I was eventually picked up in another life pod when the retrieval squadron came to bring the surviving ships back to Firmament.”
“You had an interesting childhood. Have you considered writing a file?”
“You also know about the priest. He was a major architect of the peace accord at Teati Kay.”
“I’m not sure why I needed to know all of this.”
“The plague that took down the Old Empire left my people sterile. I was manufactured. I’m the only survivor with children.”
“You believe that the priest did this?”
“My life was spared twice so that I could have you. I should not have been able to have you. That’s too much for chance.”
“I don’t believe in chance.”
“You were born for a reason that was worth waking me from the dead. If nothing else, you’re half from each race. That makes you the forgiveness these people need.”
“Life is hard enough for an average child. I’m not sure this story is going to help anybody, but you should write a file.”
“You’re old enough now to go where the wind takes you. This whole world needs you for something.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Then she kissed me on the cheek and departed. I was still empty, sitting quietly in the darkness, however I knew that the darkness had a reason of its own. Maybe she was right. In as little as I could care to feel her hopes for me, they were a reason to endure the loneliness. My dreams told me that she wanted me to go to Elle.
The winds of fate are cold. They blow through your bones and eat away at your strength like the corrosive sands of time. Their goals are entirely for their own benefits. We are their marionettes, fighting the strings as we do whatever dance they command of us. And yet I think that it is my own fault that I lost Elle.
There were procedural reasons that I should not have gone to Elle, although they were also just a string of excuses. It is not the actions of the world in which we live that condemns us but the will and intent of the spirit within each of us. I tried very hard to pack up enough of my life to run away and join Elle. Even I knew that I had nothing to lose if I left with nothing at all. The thing that bound me in the abyss sucked my will dry and I never finished packing.
I took very little when I left and there was no doubt that I was never coming back when I departed. It just seemed important that I make a clean break when I walked into the cooling night and I was surprised that the anchor released me to go. My car carried enough to keep me going while I searched for Elle. Whatever I did after finding Elle was going to have to start with us. It would be our new life together.
The darkness of night was my time of day. Although Firmament had a star for night and one for day, the gloom of the night star was deeper. It was a different world in the dusk and I was at home in that world. Shades of the daytime world remained as marionettes in a world at half power. Most of the world slept so that the phantom reality I moved through did not have all the noise of its lighter counterpart.
Night had always been a mystical star. Maybe it was my star. The spell that it cast across both city and valley alike agreed with me. Firmament was a world devoid of people, yet comforting enough not to provoke a panic in my mind. It was not true that I wanted to be alone. My real desire was to belong. I belonged to the shadows.
Udomas was a long way from the cities where people actually lived. I had to cross a large tract of empty land, once used for farming but now disused, to get to the border. Once, Udomas had been an island. Now it was surrounded by marshland and connected to the mainland by a swamp. Mine was the only car to cross the old bridge into Udomas when I came in.
I had come to the city of decadence. The domed city tried to wash out the shadows within it with an overuse of lights, even though it was probably the darkest place on the whole planet. Its dome had been constructed to keep out the parasites of the swamp but had become a wall to keep the plague of chaos within the city limits. Fare Elle did not belong in this sewer any more than I did, however, this is what she wanted. For her I would make the sacrifice and walk into Hades.
Planning hadn’t been on my mind when I left. In the hours I had been driving, I still hadn’t decided what I was going to do in the city. My goal, that of finding Elle, was clear. I had her location from the day before and that was my starting point even though I was not foolish enough to believe that I was a detective. People hadn’t been important to me before I met Elle.
At first, I drove around the city to get my bearings. The car’s mapping system would keep me from getting physically lost, yet it could not help with the fact that I was mentally lost. This was a place that I did not belong and it was determined not to let me forget that. I would not survive Udomas on my own.
My first stop was the public terminal that Elle had used. It was on the darker side of the city, although it was not the kind of darkness that I liked. Elle had to have lived close by when she made the call. Either she lived of worked within walking distance of the terminal. I could not imagine her driving into the bowels of the darkest city on Firmament just to use the terminal.
It had been a long hard day for me so I pulled into a slot at the end of town, inserted ten hours worth of credit into the meter and slept in my car. As long as I didn’t pollute the upper end of the town’s illusion, nobody bothered me. The city extracted its price when I rented the space. Real people didn’t matter as long as they didn’t harm the bait in the tourist trap.
The only picture that I had of Elle was the one in her school file. When I awoke, I drove around to the places closest to the public terminal to see if anybody knew Elle. She had a following in school and I knew that she would attract attention even in a crowded city like Udomas. I knew that chances were good that I wouldn’t like what I found out in my search. Everybody in Udomas is desperate and the downtrodden desperate are often the victims of those animals desperate to abuse somebody.
Elle didn’t have the skills to survive in such a dark place as much as I knew nowhere else. I had been an optimist, like Elle, wanting to spread warm sunshine to the whole world. Our fate had been to be born into a world that was desperate for its own demise. It was hard to face the truth of a dying world, looking only backwards to its glory.
If only I could have protected Elle from the darker side of fallen reality. It would have been worth my life to leave her a better world. I wish that she could have been right about the nature of our world. For her dreams I would have given up my own. All that I wanted of my musings was to not have to face the things I might find out.
Most of the people that I met in Udomas were too stoned to speak coherently. They didn’t know themselves enough for me to ask the fate of my beloved. The thought of Elle amongst these people was eclipsed only by the thought that she had become one of them in my absence. Fear slowed down my search but I was committed to the truth at any cost. I just didn’t want to face it.
My search was fruitless over two days. I stopped by a private charity to shower and change just to wash the disease off of me. Their ancient rituals meant nothing to me, although they were a price I could afford to pay for the meal I received in return. Those people felt different to me. Something kept me from asking about Elle during my stay.
In the midst of a city enraged at its own extancy, these people held the secret of peace in their hearts. They were as lost as I was. Nobody on our world had any true dreams left to dream, even though these people seemed to have direction. I felt that they wanted me in whatever they called their coven, however, I was not ready. My soul would not accept forgiveness.
I shed a tear as they blessed me at the exit. Somebody touched me on the shoulder and I was calm. My mind could feel that I was being watched from within the crowd. In an instant, I just knew that I had come to the place my fate willed me to live. As fate had stolen Elle from me, I refused to stay with those people.
After it was late enough for both stars to be in the sky, one rising and one setting, I stepped into a bar off the main street. There were people smoking in the dark, hot room and the air was hard to palate. I didn’t smoke so I had little use for bars. Anywhere that I went was another place to hope I would see Elle. It was getting hard for me to decide if I was doing better in an active search or if I would do better in waiting for Elle in a place she was likely to return to.
The public terminal Elle had used was the only place in the whole of Udomas that I knew Elle had been. Elle would have to use a public terminal to call home and may even try to call me again. My spirit was broken from the search. I went on looking only because I could less withstand the strain of standing in watch at the public terminals.
There was another man standing at the counter drinking a mineral beverage when I approached the counter. The bartender, like all the others I had encountered, would not speak to me unless he thought I was going to buy a drink. Processed juices were hard on my system and tasted worse, yet I would drink the overpriced fluid for the secret I bade to know. Elle was worth my life thus my comfort was a small price to pay.
“What will you have, mate?”
Pulling out my personal system, I set up a projection of Elle’s face. “I’d like to know if you’ve seen this girl.”
“She your bitch or something?”
After the days of searching, I had grown complacent with the native dialog. “Something like that.”
“We got juices on tap and rocks in the bottle, mate. Maybe you go for a little smoke to loosen the marbles up?”
The strange man at the end of the counter came closer to look at the picture I was showing the bartender. He was just like the thousands of other strange men who either liked Elle’s photo or wanted something more from me. His clothes were grey and wrinkled like those of a man who hadn’t changed in days. I could see the washed out color in his eyes even in the dim light. My eyes moved quickly away from his with the quick though that he didn’t know the word ‘comb.’
“Take the mineral water,” he replied. “It will take the edge off.”
“Edge off of what?”
Before the man would speak again, the bartender had given me the drink and collected the credits. He did not want extra ears between us and, in other cases, I would have wanted nothing more than the protection of witnesses. This man was different and I could feel it. I could trust him as fate demanded of me. We went to a table in a corner of the bar, near some heavy smokers.
“You have to be sure you want to know the answer before you ask that question, friend,” he cautioned with a sip of his drink.
“Is the choice mine, sir?”
“Whose would it be?”
“I have the feeling that I’m not going to like this.”
“I can assure you that you will not.” He took another sip and paused until I did the same. “Once, I was in that same seat. Trust that I know what you feel.”
“You have a distinct flair for the dramatic.”
“It gets worse,” he answered. “Mineral water doesn’t do it for me anymore.”
“I have to get on with my search, if you don’t mind.”
“Have you ever heard of the Fallen?”
“Just in an old commercial. It wasn’t a good advertisement.”
“The Fallen is an attempt by the Pentadrak to restore the old religions.”
“Which still means nothing to me.”
He took a deep drink, emptying his cup and I offered him mine as well.
“These people have little reason to hide what they do. It’s all legal and they have contracts. Around here, the sacrifices are an act in the highest priced night clubs.”
“We get a lot of runaways and other desperate people down here. They soon learn about the help that the Fallen will give them--for a contract. If you cannot buy your contract back in a month, you get a starring role in the ritual.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“As I said, these people have no reason to hide what they do. It’s big business around here.”
“People sell their lives down here? How can this be allowed to go on?”
“It’s supposedly anti-establishment and brings in more than a small fortune. The Pentadrak like to use our weaknesses to control us.”
“Why don’t the victims run? I do not believe a word of this.”
“Not that either of us could afford it, if we would go, but you’ll see signs advertising the next series of candidates.”
“Is Elle on this list?”
“She was on last month’s list.”
It was hard for me to hold the contents of my stomach in my body. Believing this man was almost as hard as keeping my last meal down, yet I knew that he wasn’t lying to me. I could feel that he had a pain equal in many ways to my own.
“Two days ago, she called me.”
“Just more than a year ago, I came to Udomas looking for my little girl. She had one of Rafiel’s contracts and had been too proud to call home to ask me for help.”
“So I have to find Rafiel to find Elle.”
Drinking down the last of my drink, he placed his hand on my shoulder to hold me down. “Rafiel is the Fallen priest who runs the sacrifices. He’s something of a superstar around here and you will stand little chance of getting close to him.”
“He killed your daughter and you let him live?”
“His guards beat me nearly to death.” His smile seemed out of place. “He paid my medical expenses out of spite.”
“That wouldn’t have stopped me.”
“It didn’t stop me either. Cut off one of the snake’s heads and another will replace it. I’m trying to attack the body of the beast by warning some and informing others.”
“Still doesn’t explain why the victims don’t run.”
“I should think that anywhere would be better than death.”
“That depends on who is doing the measuring. To some, life is the worse prison.”
“But dead is dead. I cannot understand people who give up their lives like that.”
“If dead is dead, then what difference does it make?”
“That’s a lame excuse for murder.”
“It’s also your excuse.” He drank down the last drops from what had been my cup before concluding. “You have to go now and check out the story I’ve told you. Our hourglass of time is now empty.”
He rose from his seat with a motion that spoke for his experience. His body had learned how to move in my presence to convey his sincerity. It is odd that I knew how to read a complete stranger. Fate has a mind of his own and this man was as much an agent of that will as I was becoming. The way he left compelled me to check out his story.
I spent an additional day or two learning the language of the underworld. It was a muddled mix of profane slang that the system didn’t teach in schools. This was the tongue of the anti-establishment that had stood for so long that it had become the establishment. My required frame of reference was that of the bookies who would place bets on the sacrifices. The strange man had convinced me that my goal was on the higher side of town.
The secret that I didn’t want to know wasn’t hard to find in the bright lights of the garish part of Udomas. Posters for the ritual show were proudly displayed in the lobby of every casino on the public side of the dome. For a fee, you could watch the ritual performed on pay transmission from the comfort of your own hotel room. There were no small number of bookies taking bets on which candidate would die next.
Security watched me closely. It was hard to believe that I was the first old boyfriend or grieving father looking for a star of one of the rituals. The guards knew how to spot one of us so I was on my best behavior. They couldn’t touch me unless I did something to give them cause. I was protected by the same law that gave blood to the show.
A small curiosity shop in the back of the casino had the one souvenir that I least needed to see. Photographs of the sacrifices autographed, by Rafiel, in the victim’s blood. They sold so well that Elle’s portrait was almost the only one in the shop. From the photo, I got my first look at Rafiel.
That may have been the hardest thing that I ever did. I had to act as though nothing was wrong while my heart burned through the lining of my chest. There was a fine taste of my own blood in my mouth as I slowly turned away from the poster. Rafiel’s smile etched itself into my nightmares for all time. For Elle, I had to act from design and not from emotion.
Attaching my personal system to my belt, I entered the museum that I knew contained my quarry. I’m not exactly sure how I knew where to find my target. The feeling just drove me to action. When I walked through those huge doors, I left all of my old life behind. The personal system and the files that it contained were all I had left.
My personal system was scanned by the guards. Its quantum matrix was encrypted, however, there was a code-breaking unit that could get around that. I was calm in the knowledge that my life had been too dull to draw attention. The guards would let me through without challenge. If I had to, I knew that I was capable of breaking into the building.
Stalking my prey from a distance, I just watched. He was an entertainer who put no faith in the rituals he practiced for the crowds. The displays of the natural history museum were a temple to him and I was disgusted by those things because they comforted him. I saw the reverence he had for the idols of stone, plastic and wire that had been constructed by men who feigned a search for truth. Fossils are but dots in a nighttime sky from which earlier primitives on other worlds created constellations.
Two girls hung around his side and I wondered how long either of them was going to be allowed to live. I would still have killed him if he had believed in a mystical reason to take lives, although his lack of faith made me resent him more. They laughed at the displays set up by the priests for the faithful. Mythical monsters had been reincarnated as dumb animals for the amusement of future generations. My mind distracted itself by drifting to question whether they were as much frauds as this freak was.
I knew that, when I killed this fool, another would be there to take his place. He was as much a pawn in the game as the people who sold their lives cheaply for his sweet talk. The difference between us was that I was going to kill so that others would profit. His murders were pure spectacle to amuse his audience for personal gain. It was not easy for me to kill.
Children played in the isles between displays. A school trip had been planned to the temple of the state religion during my hunt. In any case, their presence made it harder for me to strike down the beast in their midst. They could have been the family that I wanted to have with Elle. Playful laughter, echoing into the display cases, melted my heart to the consistency of taffy.
Whatever my move was, it had to provide a better future for the children playing around me. I had to kill not one but all of the Fallen. They had to fear me so much that this priest would not be replaced. All the children that were giving their instructor a hard time in the accursed temple had to have real lives as a result of my actions. If I could not end the war, then I would have lost the battle.
Rafiel bent over to toss a coin into the mouth of a dinosaur skeleton and it came to me. Something gave me the idea and the power to make it real in a single instant of time. It was a part of the fate that I had been condemned to. His reverence for the immense idols made them the perfect weapons to use against him. Aside from an effective method of killing, it was a fun thing to do.
As Rafiel stood back up, the skeletal beast brought its jaws down and took a bite of him. His death was as much an amusement as those of the sacrifices he had made. The children gathered around his body to poke fun at the joke. It terrified the adult witnesses, even thought the children were unaffected. Nobody suspected me.
I had the idol lift its head skyward in triumph. Still clasped in the synthetic jaws, Rafiel’s body dripped blood into the display. It seemed important for me to keep the children calm by protecting them from the truth for as long as I could. The protective illusion was just another lie in a temple devoted to excuses. At the time, I was bound to no faith and finally free of the belief that building was dedicated to.
Killing Rafiel was not the end of my private pain and I knew it. His death was to protect the future and avenge the past. I knew that my pain would not end as long as I lived and, although I could not kill myself, I saw no reason to hide in anonymity. It was time for me to cut ties with my former church. This was to be the day that I became a real heretic.
Guards kept the peace. They closed off the exhibit containing the modern body in the idol’s mouth, yet kept the museum open. I just wandered around the building watching the children at play. It was a painful experience not that I knew I would never have children of my own. My one true love was gone.
The faith of the building was one in which Areen was God. It was a place where the taking of life was only as evil as the law made it. Laws made by Areen could be changed and abolished by Areen. Although I was half Areen and half Minnelean, I was desperate to believe in justice. I did not want to be God and did not believe that my race was worthy to play God.
Is there a better place than a temple for such a deep search for truth?
I had been trained from birth to hold blind faith in a mechanical universe that could be conquered by the mind of Areen. It was a universe that was predictable and able to be subjugated. This was a reality that held only shades of grey and Areen could move the lights as he pleased. Being Areen meant that I could rule this reality if I could grasp its childishly simple and unfeeling rules. This time I wanted a black and white reality that could offer me justice where I could find only revenge.
A true heretic had to be guilty of corrupting the young and that is what I set out to do. The undeniable truths upon which we built our world had to be denied for minds that held no desperate need of them. My desire to not harm a child was the only thing that held me back. Having no child of my own, I chose to be a father to all children. Upon that goal I aimed to build my new identity.
It made sense for me to go to the place where I could find the most children. They were looking at some cave Areen and putting words from an old cartoon in the mouth of the idols. I was not far from my own childhood so I knew the fun that they were having. Their game was one that I had even played once or twice even though I did not often play games.
“You know,” I cut in,” they always miss one thing in these displays?”
The children looked at me as I expected them to. They were unaccustomed to strange adults cutting into their games and less appreciative of my changing the lines in the game. Their teacher signaled a guard and I think that’s what I wanted. My game needed more players than just the children. For my fun, I needed witnesses.
“They always forget the cave dog in these exhibits.”
Although it was just sound to me, their teacher tried to explain the article of faith about canines not having been domesticated in that part of Areen’s past. Her chatter kept her focused and in range for my game’s next move. Pointing into the pit where the display had been mounted, I focused my mind on what I wanted. I called a dog skeleton from the masonry of the floor. The children were amused at my trick.
It seemed to amuse the children so much that I had my cave dog do a few tricks for the audience. The teacher did not find my stunt to be quite as much fun as the students in her care, however, it did take her a long time to realize that anything was going on. My act of blasphemy was so blatant that it upset the church elders, who came down from their secret rooms and rites in disbelief. I brought my creation to rest along side of one of the idols in the pit while panic flowed through their veins.
They did not try to evacuate me. The guards were cautious not to upset me. Everybody else was removed from the temple, yet I was left unmolested. I had avenged my love upon the Fallen and the system that supported that faith. It then seemed my turn to join my beloved.
I sat on the ledge overlooking the display to await destiny. It was an odd feeling to have abandoned my belief in those artifacts. Time alone would tell if I could live without the comfort of blind faith that gave certainty to the unknown. Those things were just dots in a blackened sky, no longer forming the patterns that I had been conditioned to see. The fossils were neither proof nor truth to me.
Mine was a long journey along a rocky path. Fate had imported additional hazards to throw in my way. My whole world was a surreal whirlwind of events that made no sense to me although they made sense somewhere. I could feel the reasoning even though I could not grasp the mind behind it.
Somebody sat beside me on the railing. It was a comfort to have another warm body so close to me and not radiating fear. I did not look either up or over to spoil the comfort I found in simple company. The things I had fled in my life were now the only things that did matter.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he opened in a calm voice.
In the moment, I dared risk speech. “How’s that?”
“When my angel was taken from me, I cursed God. Why should you be any different?”
“Because I don’t believe in God.”
“Everybody believes in something. This religion no longer offers you the things that it promised.”
“I’ve heard it all before, old man.”
“When I head Rafiel had been killed, I knew that it was you. Tell me why it didn’t stop with him.”
“Because I could only kill the man. The disease goes on without him.”
“Deep thoughts for a homicidal maniac.”
“My name is Aedrek.”
“I am called Prophet. I do not even recall my given name.”
“Why did you come for me, Prophet?”
“Because we need the Dove.”
“I’m not sure that I understand.”
“Time is short. The anti-establishment is coming to get you. They will take you apart trying to show your evolutionary structure. But, you’re not a missing link.”
“Those threads do not fit together.”
“There’s no time to explain the Dove remark. You will have to be destroyed because you’re not a missing link and I want to get you out of here before that happens.”
“I’m not going down without a fight.”
“You’re hurting and it’s not easy for you. There are, however, two things I can offer you that the anti-establishment cannot.”
“First, I can offer you a chance to avenge your loss on the beast. Together we can do some real damage to the Fallen.”
“And what is the second thing?”
“I can offer you forgiveness.”
“Forgiveness for what?”
“I’ve sat in your seat and I know that you know what you need forgiveness for.”
“Just make me one promise.”
“When I die, please bury me with Elle.”
“As you wish,” he answered.
Getting out of Udomas was actually easy. Nobody both knew me and would get near me. The anti-establishment would not come after me in the open if the assault could be prevented. My enemy’s desire to keep me a secret helped me to slip through his fingers and out of the dome.
The Order lived just beyond the dome, is a series of caverns. We took my car from the darker side of Udomas to the caves on the mainland. I was not sure that we’d need it again, however, the cave offered a reasonable amount of protection from discovery for the vehicle. Out in the open space beyond the dome, the anti-establishment would have no problem with hunting me down. Although it occurred to me to wonder, I didn’t think to ask how Prophet got into the city.
Actual housing for the Order was more secure. I had to crawl through a reinforced tube that was just large enough around for me to slip through. The tight fit was uncomfortable for me, even though I could repress my fear in the lighted space. More than once a foot there were black structures embedded in the concrete that I took to be sensors. These people had lived underground a long time and were paranoid.
Beyond the tunnels, the Order had installed all the parts of a space ship within the mountain range to hold out in a protracted war. It didn’t feel much different than living on the surface and that seemed to be the point. I would bunk with a number of other candidates, in a long room with rows of bed tubes. Prophet was completely responsible for me.
A few days later, I went back to the city to use the same public terminal that Elle had used. I called home from there to tell my parents that I was alive and well. My crimes were local and not the kind of thing that the anti-establishment would publicize, thus my mother knew nothing of what I had done. Eventually, she would have to find out. In time, I would have to tell her.