“Are we sitting comfortably? Tough, I’m starting anyway.”
~ * ~
Astal awoke early to the sound of drums beating across the city square. It roused him from light sleep into a new day: the Day of the Drifter. Astal left his hammock in his tiny bedroom and sprinted to his father’s room, eager to get going. His father was already awake, packing together some provisions and offerings to the Drifter and storing them in a rough sack to be held over his shoulder. He quickly drew the sack closed when Astal burst into the room.
“Make yourself ready, we leave in nine waves,” his father said without looking at him. The water clock on the shelf behind him sloshed, as if in acknowledgement. Astal paid his father another beaming smile before tearing from the room, looking to snatch up his sandals and walking stick from the hallway. While his father finished preparations, he could hear him moving around behind the thin wall, Astal went under the netting of his hammock and pried open the loose stone on the floor. Underneath, wrapped in Astal’s old blanket, was something he’d been working on for many cycles, something which had required every scrap of his sparse resources. It was his gift for the Drifter and would not leave his hands until they met in person. Astal’s father called to him from the doorway. His son came running, maintaining a strong grip on the gift in his arms.
They left their shack as many of the neighbouring families did the same. Astal walked close to his father’s side as they joined the throng of settlers, making their way in a serpent-shaped procession up Dula Hill. Drums continued to beat, blasting the welcoming music across the city square and into the surrounding hill range. Some performers moved from the grand concert in the city and walked in single units with the crowd – Astal recognised a few of them from the years before. Astal glanced up at his father, noticing he seemed more serious this year.
“What do you think the Drifter will tell this time?” He asked his father.
“We can never know the story until it is over,” he replied. There was a tone in his voice which Astal did not recognise. He thought it best not to answer any more questions, especially as he needed to think of some for the Drifter. He set his mind to work as he moved with the procession, making their way up the Dula Hill path, one smoothed down by years and crowds of footsteps.
At the top, the people formed naturally into a crescent-shape around a raised rock, with a six-foot patch of empty land between them and it. The path curved around before the summit, so everyone was facing the edge, overlooking the shanty town of Locqua as it was lit by the young sun. No-one paid much regard to the town, looking instead to the bare stone in front of them. Astal had managed to get a spot at the front, he stood in-between his father’s parallel feet and waited with a held breath. When the entire town was bathed in the dawn light, the Drifter would come. The sun breached the horizon and amber waves of sunlight washed over the gathered townspeople. In the illuminating glare to which they shielded their eyes, in that moment the Drifter appeared as if he’d been there all along. Astal released his held breath, through a grin the width of his face. There was still some waiting left to do. The Drifter never spoke immediately, he would pause to nod at members of the crowd, never the same ones, and the recipients would feel blessed; sometimes he would bring gifts of food and clothing. Astal always took this moment to wonder what the story was going to be. Astal’s first story heard, though not the Drifter’s first told, he gave them a marvellous story about a young boy who lived all his dreams and heart’s desires at a very young age and spends the remainder of his days feeling more and more unfulfilled. This didn’t sound marvellous, but this was the Drifter’s trick. Every story he had told the people of Locqua had been told backwards.
Astal had heard a story every years of his life but could only remember the last five. He liked horror stories the most, tales of monsters that come back from the dead and bring other people back with them until the monster dies. Love stories weren’t as fun; people started very much in love and slowly start to resent one another. The Drifter’s previous story had been one of love and Astal’s father had tried to make them leave early, despite Astal’s protests. This time he hoped it would be different, so they could stay until the end. His gift was still clutched tightly to his chest.
The Drifter sat cross legged on the rock, having pushed back his cloak and letting the material pool behind him. He gazed upon them with eyes older than the sky and smiled beneath his beard. His hands linked together and were lost beneath his sleeves, meaning he was ready to tell the latest story.
There was a man born from the unknown, the Drifter said. He walked out of obscurity, from one world yet to be discovered into a world ravaged by a terrible war.
There was a noise behind Astal; though he didn’t look around, it sounded as though his father had dropped his belongings. What he did next confused Astal, confused everyone: his father broke the respectful barrier and stepped out of the crowd, into the vacant space beyond, closer to the Drifter. What he did next moved beyond confusion and into fear. Astal suddenly understood why his father had hidden the sack from him when he entered the room. Otherwise, Astal may have noticed the gun, the same one now pointing directly at the Drifter…
~ * ~
I snapped the book closed. “You did that deliberately.”
It was difficult for a bodiless personality to personably convey innocence, so Odyssey had to sometimes weave it into his tone.
A bit, yeah.
More often he just doesn’t bother.
I decided to use an old Gallifrey party trick. I riffled all pages under the force of my right thumb, pushing all pages from right to left, a paper wave which passed my eyes to a sharp snapping sound. In seconds I had read the entire thing, a trick I don’t usually employ as I prefer tradition methods and avoiding papercuts. Read at normal pace or a page a millisecond, though, it wouldn’t make the rest of Astal’s tale any easier. A father bereft of his wife and subjected to love stories decides that if he had nothing left to love, so shall it be for everyone else. Depression can do terrible things. Astal learnt that himself, following his father’s little “episode”.
I bet Astal would prefer that one to be kept shelved, huh?
I glowered at the ceiling. “You still haven’t won, you purposefully chose that one.”
Odyssey didn’t retort but I did, by way of a previous recording: Basically……surprise me.
I sighed into the library. Once my hold on the book was released, it immediately made a fast track back towards Complete. It was followed by several others, giving me for the first time a clear indication into how many lives are left unsaved. I rested my head in my palm. “You’ve made your point,” it took a great will not to add an insult, “but I maintain that not all of them in here will be like that.”
I threw myself upwards and stalked off into In Progress. “This time, I’ll choose.”
Deep in the heart of Odyssey’s mainframe, an impossible computer core where artificial intelligence often gave way to genuine, Odyssey allowed a sigh. The passage of Time was infinite because it insisted on moving in circles: Guardian, the relentless solider and Homeless Helper the stubborn philosopher. Whatever the occupation, nothing could stop a Timelord unwilling to admit defeat.