You find us in the middle of a two-person testing area in the heart of Aperture. You also find me, unsuccessfully I will admit, trying to get a point across to Womble without speaking. It is understandably an act with its fair share of complications. I happen to be fluent in trillions of languages and various forms of non-verbal communication, which is fantastic, but only if the person you’re pointing at is also fluent in trillions of languages and non-verbal communication.
Plus, sign language to those who don’t know how to interpret it is useless and resembles an extensive sleight-of-hand magic trick. I don’t dare use a non-Earth dialect, given the nature of the question:
What. Did. She. Say. About. Aliens?
Womble watched my hands. “Aren’t I supposed to pick a card, first?”
An unwelcome memory, of Womble calling me a magician in our early days, bombarded into my brain and I lowered my hands. Before I could think of an alternative, however, GLaDOS spoke.
Your trained monkey shows off another trick. I could almost be impressed, but I don’t think it realised I can understand sign language as well.
Probably should have used the Kylatchia alphabet. I doubt her ability to understand the finesse language hidden within their interpretive dances. Womble, nonplussed, busied himself with one of the refraction cubes and the thin beam of what we’d been assured was “a warm and friendly laser.” A recorded message split the silence.
Record: 933.71. In accordance, any alien lifeforms – defined as neither human nor android – are not permitted authorized residency for any quantifiable period of time within the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, nor its associated establishments.
Why would that interest you, little man?
“For the same reason I would likely interest you.” I felt the edge to my voice before I heard it.
Womble glanced over. “Careful. You ever been dropped into an incinerator before?”
“It can’t be that bad.”
“Tell that to a pile of ash.”
“It’s okay.” I’m getting tired of playing the fool, deliberately anyway, and this will be my first experience with species-racism. It’s not something I’ve been actively seeking, of course, but for one to understand all aspects of life, we take the bad stuff as well as the good. “What have you got against aliens?”
What would someone like you know about aliens? You don’t even know how to properly grow facial hair. Or are you one of the conspiracy freaks who swears they’ve been abducted and the government’s trying to hush it all up? They’re not, by the way. They’re too busy trying to find this place.
“Who, the government, or aliens? Cos, FYI, the latter’s already here.”
Unless you dragged one in under your shoe I highly doubt that, because you look like every other unfortunate, ordinary, default, idiotic moron I have to refrain from killing for the purpose of having test subjects.
“Count the heartbeats,” I growled, self-control fading fast. “A binary vascular system, enhanced respiration, regenerative healing ability and more-than-average mental capacity; yes, I may look like your crop of morons, but I’m not.” As it happens I come from my own crop of morons, but for the sake of winning an argument I’ll keep that one quiet.
There was a very long, very heavy pause. In that time of silence between the three of us, I could hear the background noises of Aperture. Behind its panelled walls, something loud and large was working, and at that precise moment, all of its attention was on me.
“Why do you look human, by the way? I never asked.” Womble’s choice of words suggested he wouldn’t get the chance to ask again, either.
I shrugged. “How am I supposed to look?” This is a question I imagine a duck-billed platypus asks itself on a regular basis.
You are unfairly advantaged for these testing environments. You are also an alien and shall now be removed. We hope you enjoyed your time on Earth. Please be sure to enjoy redemption as well. Your acceptance of death is greatly appreciated.
“You know me.” Actually, knew might be more accurate. The floor panel I had been standing on dropped open and I went with it, coat billowing up around my head like an inverted parachute before I’d even plunged more than a few feet. I was just about able to hear the panel close again above me, and the shaft of light I had been falling through was crudely cut off.
I fell into a dark pit without size, sides or shape. Of course the only reasonable reaction was:
– some distance above –
Womble dropped the refraction cube he’d been holding and perched on one of its corners. A clatter to his right announced HH’s portal gun dropping to the ground.
Any other aliens I should know about?
“If you want me out of this two-person chamber, we’d both bloody well hope so.”
Although. One seemed more than enough…
– by now, a few hundred feet below-
I got bored of saying “Wheee” which essentially just turned into “eee” after a while so I swapped to humming. I also had the brainwave to keep a hold on my top hat. Ned knows what would happen if Aperture, or anyone for that matter, got their hands on it, considering it has-
…you know what deja vu feels like? Or rather doesn’t feel like, it doesn’t really feel like anything, but you blink and then suddenly the world around you is basically the same, whereas you are confused and a little bit disorientated. It’s a lot like time travel in that respect, and for whatever reason I feel – for want of a better word – like I just shifted in the timeline. There is a lot of down going on right now, might as well traverse time as well as space. There’s also a lot of light coming up…
First thing which came to mind, mostly because that’s what the Aperture incinerator looked like; a massive, deep, blistering hot pit with high walls bathed in an orange glow and no obvious way out – with me dropping towards an over-cooked demise. The heat hit me like a blanket which only got thicker the further I fell and my eyes watered in all the smoke. The chute I’d been dropped down ended against one of the high walls; at random I stuck out a hand, looking for some kind of hold. My palm burned as it slid down the hot metal, but when compared to the increased heat below me, I kept it there.
About halfway down I connected with a loose panel, gripped it on reflex, that swung out of the wall at an angle and changed my line of descent. As I and it twisted in the air my wrist snapped; I vaguely heard the crack over the roar of the inferno below. My now useless hand released and I fell in a new direction, right onto a platform on the edge of the glowing pool. The long-fall boots came in more than useful, I survived the drop but with shaking legs I still went to the floor moments after my feet touched down. I doubted the heat down here would have been any better had I actually landed in the vat.
I raised my right hand and wrist to my eye line. My eyes still stung with smoke, but through blurred vision my hand resembled a red, deformed slab of meat; by way of heat and friction burn I had torn the skin from my hand. The crooked wrist below it was already throbbing. I had to suppress the urge to vomit, but it wasn’t worth wasting whatever regeneration energy I had left. Instead I tried to keep it as still as possible and leant it against my chest, trying to ignore the waves of pain flowing from my arm.
I released a sigh of relief thick with carbon monoxide. Still alive. And believe me I am still alive.
Considering I’d been cast into the bowels of the Earth, things were looking a bit more optimistic.
Until a turret landed on my head.
You can’t spell Aperture without Rapture.
= something which occurred to me out of nowhere and I can’t seem to shake, like the aftershock of a particularly sharp nightmare. I said it to Womble earlier and he came back with:
“You can’t spell Nier Automata without ‘mutation’ – what’s your point?”
At which point I dropped the topics of anagrams.
Nevertheless, we find ourselves – not for the first time – in an enclosed environment with no obvious way out, a lack in natural light, oppressed on all sides by the natural world. Situated deep below that world, where they do not belong, someone built another manmade cathedral dedicated to twisted sciences, with a keen disregard for morality. Andrew Ryan and Cave Johnson could have almost been drinking buddies*.
Then there’s the other meaning. Rapture; a segregation of humanity at the end of the world. This far down, there certainly isn’t a lot of world left, just those testing and those being tested. Womble and I find ourselves occupying the middle ground, having brought it along with us, myself hoping we’re not forced to join one side or the other. I’ve had more than my fill of being ordered around; and as for giving the orders, that’s just a little too Timelord for me.
Although, from what I’ve seen of the testing areas, my immature side can’t deny it almost looks……fun? Like the cross between a laboratory and a theme park. Guess that makes it a hat trick for Rapture (n) “a feeling of intense pleasure or joy.”
None of which detracts from another highlight of this adventure: Womble as the leader. Let’s just say, his tour-guide skills leave a lot to be desired. Even before his input, I knew an elevator and array of piping when I saw one, with no reference made to the blue, orange and white goo. And more than once, to the question “and then what happened?” he has answered “then she went mad and killed everyone.” No idea who “she” is, mind, and whoever “she” turns out to be, there’s something pressing a lot harder on my mind.
“What the hell, I’d say I’ve waited long enough. So there’s more than just one Womble?”
The original remained silent.
“And in trying to find the source, we arrive in a massive underground lair, full of science stuff and angry crows, my, what a childhood you must’ve had. Is that what they do, here? They make Wombles?” I’m not going to sing the song, we may be underground, I’m still not going to sing the song…
Ah hah! One miniature step in the right direction. “So how can there be two of you?”
“Pfft. I’m up to four versions of you.”
“Ooh, he’s a you from a different moment in time?”
I’d be clutching at straws right no except I have no straws. “Then…the Other You and this Aperture place, confusing as hell, but both completely unrelated?”
Fuck. “Can you tell me anything useful?”
“Never stand up in a canoe.”
I know the difference between someone not in the mood to talk, and someone trying to hide something. This was both. I decided to pay Womble a courtesy I don’t extend to many. I didn’t shut up – barely anyone gets THAT courtesy – I just changed the subject.
“So who is “she” then? The genocidal lady of yours?”
A few dozen test subjects and a bunch of old men in tweed and lab coats, hardly a genocide. It was more a cull of idiots, while several of their pets got in the way. You’ll know when I’ve committed genocide. Well, actually, you won’t.
It’s an incredible thing, to flinch at an omnipresent voice. You never quite know which way to duck. And what a voice, too. Robotic, auto tuned, finished with the condescending attitude of a British librarian. Capable of destroying us and/or delivering this century’s hottest new remix. I wasn’t sure whether to retort or laugh.
Womble, Captain Cool and Collected, seemed to have been expecting her voice. He froze like a dog hearing their master’s call. Or, more worryingly, like a nagged husband hearing his spouse. Suddenly I had a pretty good idea as to whom would win his prize “Most Likely to Go Mad and Kill Everyone.”
“You okay, Wombes?”
Just called him ‘Wombes’ and got away with it. Either he didn’t mind or we’re in too much danger for him to notice.
So. You came back. And you brought a…beggar, with you? I’ve been listening in this whole time and wonder, can it do any other tricks besides asking questions?
“I prefer the term ‘hitchhiker’, it sounds more eventful. HH for short.”
“And before you start throwing names around,” Womble cut in, “you’re one to talk. How many street dwellers actually received their $60 in the end?”
Well Mr Johnson wouldn’t have had to resort to such smelly, desperate measures, if you hadn’t had your episode.
I glanced between Womble and the ceiling, a frown settling into place. Their level of familiarity mixed with mutual indifference……almost like we’d bumped into Womble’s ex. His ex-what, though? Ex-prison-warden?**
“You two know each other, then?”
Oh look, it can understand, too. If you’re lucky maybe you’ll win a banana.
“Or a potato,” Womble muttered.
I’d be more offended, but who am I to deny a chance to whip up a banana daiquiri?
I hope your…’hitchhiker’ is well trained, Test Subject, because this is the perfect opportunity to try out the Dual Subject test chambers. Your survival and well being shall depend a great deal on the skill of your partner. You will need to work together.
We exchanged glances.
Best of luck.
“…is it alright if I use the bathroom, first?
*A man chooses…to build combustible lemons.
**Ex-aminer? Geddit?…………..I’ll show myself out.
My Library of Life is now unoccupied, though shall never be silent. My personal volume has returned to its rightful shelf and shall remain there, I intend, forever more. I learned more than expected and desired, upon returning to Faces 8 through 12, and seem unable to shake it from my mind like a particularly haunting nightmare. A lifetime of insanity through to boredom and then back into warfare should not be visited twice in one existence.
Amidst this tightening in my gut to mark the woeful despair for past mistakes, I have chosen a fictional title for my autobiography, a sub-line to go beneath my alliterative name. I’m rather pleased with it. Almost a shame no-one else will ever be able to appreciate it.
Having finished my perusal through the lives and times of cruelty, I vacated my Library of Life, passed through the regular one – with a mental note to buy more books* – and returned to the console room for the first time in what felt like eons. My captain’s chair stood ready and waiting at the helm, the deep and beautiful colours of space visible through the glass windscreen, but I walked instead to the central hexagonal console and primary access to all time-defying capabilities. In my absence, one of the six segments had been completely rewritten and redesigned. Its panel looked as if it had been ripped from a radio broadcasting centre.
We’re ready HH, it’s just needs your approval. Say the password and the song shall play.
I fiddled absent-mindedly with one of the controls, flicking a lever back and forth between finger and thumb. Nothing responded in turn, none of it would even start without my say so. Had the time finally come to infect the universe with my musical virus? Was I ready to find Womble again?
The second question was much easier to answer: No. Not in this frame of mind.
A new headache started to brew. I rubbed a hand across my eyes, grimacing below my hand. Sure it’s easier to answer but not easy to achieve. To most, history isn’t something that can be altered later, merely learned from, and even then the lesson tends to come when it’s already far too late. To me, the past is something I strive to avoid and yet don’t. I haven’t fixed my days gone by and I don’t plan to start, now.
Besides, I’ve read what was written – and in this case, the phrase it is written is a lot more definitive. I don’t intrude on my past self until there’s grey in my beard. I still don’t know why; the book remains in its refusal to allow me to read ahead. One reason after another has led me to believe that a big bad something is in my future, an event of such magnitude it changes my mind, my clothes and my life.
That’s why I’m not going to meddle into the affairs of Eighth Self. I’ll get round to it eventually and would prefer the matter not to get any more confusing. I think these headaches are a symptom of new affliction I shall christen ‘Paradox Poisoning’.
Actually it’s a tumour developing on the right side your frontal lobe, which may explain your inability to concentrate, ever.
I paused, fingertips resting on a raised eyebrow. “Serious?”
No but maybe now things won’t look quite as dire.
I sighed and went back to massaging my forehead. “Good effort, very funny, not quite enough to undo another regeneration of atrocities.”
I’ll prep another cell in the prison deck.
“It’s fine. This one isn’t trying to kill me.” Guardian was a person in his own right, six lives to his name, a fully-formed personality split which managed to claw its way back. Seventh and Eighth however were collateral damage, both write-offs in faded memories of insanity. Eighth got from FutureHH what Guardian received from me: what was coming to him.
FutureHH dealt with him. Why are you wasting time moping?
“FutureHH – which is to say me, give or take a century – punished him and set him straight. Neither of those things changes what he did.”
The massacre of an asylum is hardly the cream of the society crop.
“To take a life without remorse, that is what he did: a bloodbath without blinking.”
HH. Man the hell up. Time is too short for this kind of thing and take that from me, your Time. Machine.
“Then tell me, what is ahead of me?”
What would you like?
I spoke before thinking. Odyssey had already come in to land by the time I vocalised the words “a drink.”
I retrieved my coat from the back of my chair and threw it around myself, shaking my hands loose of the sleeves. “Oh. One last thing: Summoner.”
Segment six of the console, soon to be known as the Relay Station, illuminated itself into life in response to my password. I turned and left my ship in search of a good level of inebriation.
*In honesty, this mental note was written in permanent marker a long time ago.
There is a song playing throughout the universe…
HH’s-Ambition-To-Prove-Not-All-Life-Is-Horrendous-And-Cruel, Mark III.
I made another cup of tea ready for this one, just in case the nature of book three matched its two predecessors. A fresh cuppa is a suitable, if not always successful, response to one’s faith in existence disintegrating. It’s the stereotypical English coping mechanism, for a nationality whose first response to their world falling apart is a gentle tut.
Anyway. I began to read…
The new man had nothing…
I wasn’t exactly shitting optimism.
~ * ~
The new man had nothing but the ruined clothes on his back. No occupation, no other belongings, not even a name to his wounded, agonised form. Everything about him, his past, his personality and even his vessel had ceased where he had not. His ship was the last to go. Its crash landing had thrown him from the wreckage and onto a world as finished and forgotten as the sole inhabitant dragging himself along its surface.
His fingers hooked into the soft, fine, white sands, lodging more beneath his fingernails with each heave forwards. He moved thoughtlessly, as if on automatic or – more accurately – by instinct. Amnesia or not, a crashed spaceship meant the same to everyone and was certainly something which required a lot of distance. The lonely desert he sluggishly navigated was more populated than the realms of the man’s mind. Everything had been crudely snatched from him like someone had torn down a wall hanging; his internal thoughts smarted like a fresh wound, covering a void that seemed tinged with remorse and – somehow – deep, raging anger. Neither made sense, indeed nothing made sense apart from getting away from the accident.
Had the man understood the words “a fugue state” he might have attributed it to his current condition. He would also be incorrect. There was no medical definition or previous recorded instance for what had happened. He was the first, a medical and psychological phenomenon, a unique 1 in an almost infinite line of zeroes. The question escaping him was not how to get his memories back, but what – or who –had happened to them? This however was an internal consideration well beyond his damaged mental capabilities, far superior to his current fixation on hauling himself about.
The desert horizon rippled, unnoticed by the traveller making slow progress towards it. Someone new had arrived on the forgotten world, giving the planet its highest population in history. Their arrival went totally unnoticed by the traveller, partially due to distance, partially due to the newcomer’s choice of attire which blended into the bright landscape.
~ * ~
“I admit it, this is a less immoral narrative but there is a trade-off of boredom.” I hefted the book in my hands, taking care not to read the name on the front, same courtesy as the previous two. It was lighter than my own, so in their shorter space of time it would hopefully give way to more enthralling – but positive – events.
Typical, first you don’t want murder and mayhem, now you’re disinterested. Has your idea of a perfect universe been superseded by a preference for bloodshed?
“No,” I replied, throwing as much venom into the word as possible. “This may well be the story to prove my point, though I can do without the Wanderer in the Desert bit.” Countless volumes, endless tomes and several religions have already done that to death*.
How does it go, ‘tragedy equals comedy, plus time’?
“Then why am I not laughing?”
Keep reading. Try the next chapter.
I raised an eyebrow. “The last time I trusted you to make a choice, you gave me an excellent reason not to do so again. Besides, I said I would read this one from the beginning.”
Then read it from the beginning of the next chapter. It’s precisely what you need.
The lone eyebrow stayed up. If I were a cat, Curiosity would be standing over me with a hatchet and a murderous glint. The hatchet swings. I located the next chapter. For some reason it was numbered 8.
~ * ~
It had just reached eight in the morning, local time. The room had not survived the process. The exterior wall was all but gone, a newly formed hole looked out over the cliffs and rough island waters far below. Chains previously secured to the wall had melted, the prison bed had erupted into flames and burned away into the piles of ash and debris littering the floor. A charred straightjacket, now little more than a blackened rag with a belt attached, lay in the centre like a failed attempt to surrender.
The new man was not fully naked, his modesty was covered by a pair of underwear worn under the straightjacket for too long a period of time. He had simply seen an opportunity to remove the restraint and taken it. It was hardly his fault if he couldn’t spread his arms. Free from all restrictions, he considered the room with mild amusement. With a clean hand, he felt around the wall’s new edge he had created and knocked a few loose bricks free, for good measure. They tumbled end over end into the roiling sea. His gaze dropped. It would be foolish to jump, especially so soon into the newest form. Instead he turned 180 degrees, faced the steel door and began to wait.
It was inevitable that he would find himself in another location like this one: barred windows, three restricted meals a day and a fraction more human interaction than being dead – believed to be the “best thing” for insanity, since forever. The last incarceration had ended due to impossible, unexpected circumstances, and while the entertainment which followed had been enjoyable, a reoccurrence seemed doubtful. His previous emancipator from captivity would be unlikely to repeat the act of kindness. It had already taken two acts of kindness to get him this far. He was alone in the universe once again, and would meet it with open arms.
The cell door burst open, allowing entrance to three armed guards. With inhuman strength, the new man leapt forward, met them with open arms and strangled all three simultaneously. From their lifeless bodies, he took one uniform and all three guns.
Before the ninth hour chimed, the new man had slaughtered every occupant of the asylum: its staff and its inmates alike. Straightjacketed prisoners had fallen, defenceless and arms folded back, like poisoned insects. White tiled floors ran with blood, peppered with bullet holes. All alarms had deactivated as soon as he’d reached reception. The asylum was quiet.
Not entirely silent. Since finishing his baptism after rebirth, the man sat in a reception desk chair, feet up, balancing between both hands a slinky spring he had found. Its metallic trills rang out across the large reception area. He watched it tilt, back and forth, more on one hand and then the other. His expression hadn’t changed, not once, during the entire release.
The main entrance was a pair of double glass doors, lit by the morning sunshine and filling the polished floor of reception to a bright, white glare. The atmosphere in front of the doors shimmered; the new man knew what was happening without needing to look up. In his upper peripherals, the shimmer became solid and the newcomer returned for the third time, stepping out of the light towards him, no change made between now and the desert.
“You’re too late. I freed myself this time.”
The newcomer made no noise upon the floor as he strode towards the main desk, his coat flowing behind in his wake. As he brought himself to a standing stop, his arms folded. The disappointment radiating off him was completed by the galactic glare fired from his aged eyes.
“Whatever happens next, you brought upon yourself,” said FutureHH.
Eighth Self grinned like a shark. “I couldn’t have put it better myself.”
~ * ~
“That was unnecessary.”
That was appropriate.
I downed my lukewarm cup of tea. For a second time too soon, I heard my own voice being played back at me:
“Would anyone want to think they were just left on a shelf?” Time to answer: how would you feel if someone else were reading that story?
I scoffed. “Somebody already is.” I trawled back through the pages to the “definitive” beginning I’d been reading a few minutes ago. Instead of a 1, the first chapter was numbered 7. Hundreds of pages to the left of it appeared to have been torn out, leaving behind thin remains in the margin, their edges crudely severed like scar tissue. I flipped the lid, read my own name. Guardian’s, crossed out or not, was nowhere to be seen.
A fourth book dropped into my lap. It was almost brand new. Embossed on the front cover was the word I spent several lifetimes trying to forget.
“Guardian has his own book.”
Guardian has his own body.
It made sense, or as much sense as there is available for these sort of situations, in which I try to make understanding of something which has never happened before**. I let Guardian’s book go and it made the return journey, no longer to the H’s but the section before it. I watched it go without properly looking, preoccupied wandering my own internal library of thought and trying not to admit defeat, despite the unforgiving evidence.
Not all lives are cruel, but every life belongs to someone and it is their discretion how much others may be permitted to know. This is not my library to browse, but life’s library to preserve. I cannot explore this collection but can still be the respectful librarian, the neutral minder, the…
In truth, there are only two books in the Library of Life I should ever read: to better understand the man I am, and the man he wasn’t.
It doesn’t work that way.
“Perhaps not, but I see no harm in trying.”
I found my place in chapter eight and continued to read.
*Plus several resurrections.
** In short, a typical working day.
Thus HH brings in a New Year, not setting resolutions for the coming days but revisiting his own which cannot be resolved. Those who look backwards will always walk into the same mistakes.
Perhaps 2017 will be when that changes……
Travel broadens the mind; time-travel stretches it. I heard somewhere that “the past is like a foreign country.” Quite relatable; I often get lost and the local cuisine is better. Everything happens there, including this: my second selection from the Library of Life.
~ * ~
The youngling wouldn’t stop crying. That was the word Spencer would have used, though he knew the greenback natives had their own. They called it kahleeng and reached their ear nodules as a mild wail, the “merest distress” as the briefing had described it. To any other race, including Spencer’s own, it was ear-splitting and shrill, a near ultra-sonic tone which seemed to threaten his head exploding. He had rammed his noise-cancelling protectors down over his ears but somehow the noise was still drilling into opposite sides of his head.
Issue two was how to carry the ugly thing; greenbacks were multi-limbed, slimy yet spiky, green-backed as their label suggested and – in this case – incredibly fidgety. The only features to match Spencer’s own were a pair of eyes (though admittedly pupil-less and marbled with black outlines) and a wide mouth, from which came its lament. The latter wasn’t the main problem; as much as Spencer thought his brain was turning to liquid, infant greenbacks weren’t strong enough to kill with their wail. Spencer’s main problem, he would soon discover, were the eyes. As he ran, the youngling cradled awkwardly in his arms, its eyes were screwed up under four-part eyelids, adding effect to its state of upset. It didn’t seem to be paying attention to where it was going, except that it was away from its parents. They were some distance behind, no doubt being torn apart by the rest of the extraction team. Five minutes ago, Spencer had pounced and snatched up the child. Now he was leaping mounds and marshes of the planet’s swamp environment, eyes locked on the departure point, behind the next ridge. Between him and it was a dense forest of blue/green trees and further, inconvenient plant life designed to suck him down into a muddy, watery grave. It could take the child too, but greenbacks could swim in the bogs before they could walk them.
The treetops leaned forward as if in welcoming, as the military ship skimmed over the top, preparing to land on the opposite side. Seeing familiar technology gave Spencer a quick burst of hopeful adrenaline, open which lasted all of three seconds. A very large thing shot over Spencer’s head and collided with the starboard side of the ship. Its colour and shape suggested they’d shot a piece of the swampy landmass itself. Whatever it was, the weapon, it dragged the ship down below the treeline, into a fresh inferno caused by the fuel tank rupturing. Spencer yelled, cursed, roared in fearful anguish but still kept running, didn’t even think to stop moving which would solve precisely nothing. Enemies and enemy territory lay behind him, salvation could only come from beyond the settlements. Spencer adjusted his grip on the mewling child and disappeared among the trees.
After several minutes running, but several more minutes emphatically struggling against the thick ground, Spencer found a near-flat clearing, bordered by hanging vines trailing across moss-covered rocks. He slowed to a stop, trying to maintain his breathing, and placed the child in a crook between the rocks. It opened its eyes at the movement, or lack of it, but its mouth remained wide and emitting its piercing cry. That was when Spencer’s trouble really began, when the youngling’s gaze met his own.
There was a lot behind those eyes, a lifetime’s worth of fear, with a weighted expectation the child could never comprehend. Perhaps it did, but if so, it wasn’t crying hard enough. Spencer still had the brief fresh in his mind. Here was Tarkub: child of an infamous warlord and destined successor of several generations and a thousand years of conflict, between the greenbacks and the metals. Here was Tarkub: the removal would not end the war but would certainly weaken it, an opportunity which could not be overlooked. Here was Tarkub: ready to grow up like its father, and find itself looking down on soldiers much like Spencer, unless the chain could be broken.
Spencer had his eyes on the weakest link. He glanced up as a noise ahead of him cracked the silence. There was a frigid pause, followed by a heavy, nature-sounding crash. The remains of the rescue ship clearly weren’t done with the forest just yet. Breaks in the treeline were illuminated by the dancing orange glow of distant flames, marking the rescue mission from this point a total failure. Without a ship, the child couldn’t be extracted to safety. Without that, time could only pass until he was discovered, heir to the war found safely and passed back to the parents.
Spencer reached past the child and picked up the nearest hand-sized rock. The child’s eyes never left him, as he drew his arm back and upwards. They locked onto his, shining with fear while burning accusation and fear into the depths of his soul. It expression begged where it could not.
History seemed to hold its breath in anticipation, patient until a decision was made and events could react accordingly.
Here was Tarkub…
~ * ~
I threw the book away in disgust. It never landed. In a few moments it was back on its designated shelf, with no input from anyone.
Yet another happy ending, better off shelved.
I slumped into my chair, rubbing my temples under thumb and forefinger of my right hand.
It’s like that old question. Could you kill baby Hitler, when you knew what he would do?
“I swear there has to be one good life story in here somewhere.”
Your unrelenting obstinacy is almost praiseworthy. You are trying to find a rich, utopian landscape through tunnel vision. No life is entirely pure; no chapter precisely matches the one before and after it. You cannot expect to prove faith in existence by finding one random extract from one random book.
Your words, not mine.
“Will you stop reading my mind?!”
I’ll stop when you start. You need to see the reality of this exercise and what’s worse, you know you do.
I stood, a little too heavily, my shoes banging down onto the hard floor. “I’m not giving up just yet. Find me one more book and this time I’ll read it from the very beginning.” No pick-and-choosing, no tunnel vision, no narrowmindedness; just one more optimistic stab in the dark possibility that not all life is cruel. I can’t shake the severe idea that what I’ve added to my ship and my own story isn’t so much a Library of Life, more an Archive of Atrocities.
And I’ve already got one of those.
“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.
All TARDISes, which includes Odyssey, come in-built with a psychic relay. It allows for universal translation – without the undignified necessity of dropping a Babel fish into your earlobe – and usually means you’ve landed outside a pub before you realise you’re thirsty. Depending on your telekinetic link, not to mention personal settings under an unpopular subheading called ‘Preferences’, a TARDIS can also design and build the interior automatically, based on your personality and unconscious inclinations. This has the upside of designing your ship without effort, and the downside that it often tells you a lot about yourself. My bedroom, for example, has a single bed, multiple games consoles and a vast assortment of LEGO; the conclusion I’ve drawn from this is I really need to find someone…and re-design all sleeping quarters before I show them around…
The first time I visited the Library of Life, it was the typical end result of someone who built for function and not fashion. It had been a library of Towel’s (lack of) design: bland, beige and basic, less a hive of books, more their prison.
This, the second time, I looked into a library which could only have been designed with me in mind – it mirrored the room behind me almost exactly, except this one actually had reading material (and then some). Towering over me were rich, dark oak bookcases, strong and thick enough to withstand a forest fire, each shelf crammed with the various life stories. My cases stood in equal-distant parallel lines under warm hanging lamps: white, shining orbs designed with Gallifreyan alphabet motifs. At regular intervals between the bookcases were spaces for Reading Areas: pairs of wingback armchairs and footstools waited patiently, adjacent to hot drink machines.
It wasn’t quiet, but like any library it was peaceful. Minor disturbances in the acoustic air were the dull <thump> of books being moved, in between the endless scratching of new words being written; in the physical air, though, random volumes detached themselves from In Progress and floated down to Complete at the far end. There could be dozens of books above me, then more, then less, down to hardly any and then an upsurge, violent enough to make me believe genocide had reared its head somewhere. They’d leave a space, of course, one which not last long. No two books were the same: brand new single pages could be next to a dog-eared thousand-page epic.
I strolled down the aisles like a man in a public park, hands in pockets, content in company among the living, the dying and all others in between. Best of all was the scent of the place. Varnished wood and fresh paper, old-book-smell mixed with the new, and just a hint of brewing tea. It all made for an excellent aroma. Old-fashioned and antiquated fool that I am, I knew in my hearts it was quintessentially my Library of Life, now.
Humph. It’ll do.
My high spirits were dampened, though not drowned. “What are you doing in here?”
I am exploring my newest space. If you’re going to cram a library into someone, you can’t then expect them to leave it alone.
And there’s a lesson I never saw coming.
Indulge me, what does this have to do with finding Womble?
I reached the first set of tea-and-coffee-and-others-making-facilities, putting the kettle on almost by reflex. It being of Timelord technology, the water boiled immediately. “Nothing whatsoever,” I replied, tearing open a packet of English Breakfast* teabags. Plumes of warm water vapour streamed past me as I poured and already I knew I would need to plan against the possibility of moisture damage. “We never found his book, so I can’t refer to that for his location. Have you managed to find anything with him in it?”
Just the one, but it’s got your name on the front.
Tea leaves brewed and milk splashed, I took my first sip. My entire body sighed, letting steam form over my glasses. “Has he worked his way up from footnote?”
Odyssey hesitated. His lack of an answer was enough. I winced and went for another sip. I’d feel bad for him but then it’s not my fault if he’s not in the book properly, I didn’t write it. Well…in a way I kind of did? Forget it. It also isn’t my fault if he doesn’t actually have a book. I don’t understand how that’s even possible, but then that’s not the first time I’ve thought that about him.
Seriously though, what was the point of tearing me a new one and filling the hole with a pulped mausoleum?
I shrugged, while keeping my mug perfectly still. It remained a fixed point and my shoulders sort of moved around it. “Short lived hobby, quick distraction, accidental detour, a way of ensuring this place never falls into the wrong hands again – take your pick.” My usual go-to reasons, though the last one rings true the loudest. The memory of the Darkness writing mine on my behalf is still suitably carved into my mind, one I have no urge whatsoever to relive.
And the musical plan?
“Still stands. The transmission signal needs time to calibrate. Hacking radio waves is one thing, hacking timelines is something else entirely.” I suddenly remember I’m telling my ship not only what it already knows, but is currently doing. Justifying a delay – AKA making excuses – is faster than second nature. I finished my tea and went wandering again, to the constant chorus of indefinite scrawling. Appropriately, the background noise of life is not unlike walking through the forest, except this one already comes leather bound. “This can help to pass the time.”
You have access to every life story ever written. Does this seem entirely decent to you?
I paused in running a finger along the spines of the A section. The tricky thing about addressing a computer’s omnipresence is rather obvious. Out of habit, I looked up. “Do I detect a hint of morality there, my friend?”
No. I just spoke the question at the forefront of your mind.
And just like that, I find myself returning to the matter of psychic links between TARDIS and owner. It’s sometimes easy to forget precisely where – or whom – my universal residual abilities came from. It can put my excuse-making skills to the test. “I suppose, fundamentally, everyone’s a story. We’re all immortal tales and the physical body is just the main character which the story shall always outlive. Our stories don’t end when we do, they just…”
<thump> A hefty hardback drifted past, overhead.
“…move.” I watched it complete the journey, in more ways than one, before continuing.
“Would anyone want to think they were just left on a shelf?” That’s all books can do, really. Wait to be read. No book deserves it more than these ones.
What if they didn’t want their story to be known? What if it was better left shelved?
I expected comments about my own lifestyle but Odyssey seemed prepared to offer a bit more mercy than that. I appealed to his better nature while neatly disposing of my composure. “Please stop asking me difficult questions.”
I’m not. You are. I’m just reading them out.
Two things about Odyssey, two aspects which, since we’ve been reunited, he isn’t so much reminding me as hitting me in the face with them. He is never one to miss a cue and never one to tread lightly, his lack of feet notwithstanding. If Womble was an investigator, Odyssey would be the sort of interrogator/interviewer who asks: why do you matter? It gets to the heart of both the speech and speaker**. It also often tends to end the conversation.
“You haven’t won, Odyssey. I can find someone who led a good life and would be proud to have it read, so here’s what you’re going to do. By now these books should have linked to your mainframe as lines of data. I want you to choose one.”
“I don’t want to know. Any section, any chapter, any person. Pick a random number and match it to a shelf reference. Basically,” I glared upwards, “surprise me.”
*Note for inexperienced travellers: English Breakfast tea tastes neither of breakfast, nor the English, for that would be awful. What it does taste of is perfection.
**I should know. I – or rather Guardian – programmed him that way. It is natural for a solider to question life when so many people are trying to end it.
Boxing Day: every year’s second best Anti-Climax, beaten off the top spot by the evening time of Christmas Day itself. Today is the day we spend hungover, nibbling on foods we’ve ignored for most of the previous year and compare what we got with what we gave.
I think HH has the right idea – admittedly I am the one who gave it to him – but it’s an amazingly quiet day in which much reading can be achieved.