Authors: Sean Williams
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Space Opera, #God, #Prophets, #Good and Evil
For Lou & Chris, the real McCoys.
"A finger writing on the wall,
While girls sang as the angels sing—
A drunken boaster in the hall,
The fool that used to be a king.
(Henry Lawson, "When I Was King")
Imre Bergamasc comes to visit me in my cold, stone cell. We sit on the floor with the bars between us, almost close enough to touch. He is tired, and so am I. Neither of us needs to eat, but he brings food anyway: aged cheese, olive oil, and fresh bread, accompanied by a jug of pink wine; simple fare seemingly at odds with men of our era. Humanity is old. Our habits are ingrained. We indulge them in times of crisis.
"Anachronism," says the man who would rule the world.
"You're reading my thoughts."
"I ought to be able to by now. We've been talking for months."
"Has it been that long?"
"Not for you, I suppose." He tears at a bread crust with his teeth. "What was yesterday? A year ago? A century?"
I watch him for a long moment. So, he has guessed at last. "I was in Europe," I tell him, "crossing the border between England and France. It's quite a pleasant walk. I recommend it."
"When it's safe, I'll bear that in mind."
"It was safe then." I try not to look encouraged at the hint that the resistance continues without me. "It'll be safe again; I'm sure of it."
Bergamasc interlaces his slender fingers. His expression is unreadable. "I've spent a lot of time trying to understand you, Jasper, to think like you do and to anticipate what you'll do next. I wonder sometimes if you've ever really paid me the same compliment."
"I'm not leaving Earth and I'm not giving in. Pin your dreams on either and you're guaranteed to be disappointed."
"I still find reason for hope."
"Hope isn't enough, Jasper."
"For a human or a god? Remember who you're talking to."
"You might be a lot of things, but you're not a god. Gods don't let themselves be taken captive. Gods don't make mistakes."
"Perhaps what you call mistakes aren't mistakes at all, but purposeful steps along a path you can't discern."
"A deluded man would say exactly that." His eyes take on the flinty look I've learned to associate with irascibility, and I know that we have hit the familiar impasse again.
Just yesterday he stood before me, a small man, physically, but the shadow he cast stretched for parsecs.
"Tell us the truth about what happened here," he declared, "or I swear I'll have you shot."
"I'm serious, this time. You have two—no, three—dawns to convince me that you're right. A little over two days. If you fail, if at the end of it you haven't given me everything I want—"
"—or vice versa—"
"—then I'll execute you myself. Right here, up against that wall. I'll put a gun to your head and blow your scrambled brains out. Then it'll be over at last. We'll be done with it, and I can finally move on."
"Is that really what you want?"
"What I want isn't relevant. I have a galaxy to put back together. I have ministers and advisors screaming at me, every minute I sit here with you, arguing the finer points of philosophy and human destiny. I can't do this forever." He ran his fingers through stiff, white hair. "What do you think, Jasper? Do we have a deal?"
"You're forcing my hand," I told him.
"Forcing my own, actually."
Kneeling, I extended my right arm through the bars. We shook, one of the very few times we ever actually touched, flesh to flesh. Then we parted.
One dawn has passed since that ultimatum. This visit has come very late at night, so the second must be close. Cold stone makes the skin of my back crawl.
It's always cold here. Whether he'll honor our deal or not, I don't yet know, but I am certain the stones will still be cold when I leave.
"There's only one question worth answering, Imre Bergamasc: if I really am God and you have captured me, then what does that make you?"
I can't, at this moment, tell whether he hopes to win or to lose.
The first rays of the sun strike the iron arrow-point at Station Zero and I am surrounded by darkness, with no clues at all as to my location in space or time. This happens sometimes. Although I take great pains to prepare for the dawn, and am accustomed to the reality of my existence, the moment itself can still take me by surprise—if I am unconscious, for instance, or unable to follow the passage of time. I suspect the former on this occasion. My head aches and my fingers detect a thick stickiness when I touch my temple. In the distance, through walls whose heaviness I can practically smell, I hear the rumble and roar of explosives.
Sometime during the war, then. I have work to do.
Standing, I inch forward with arms outstretched until I reach a wall. The floor is uneven, covered with rubble, and I tread carefully, not wanting to add to my injuries. By following the wall to my right, I find a door that won't open at my touch. Muffled voices come from the far side.
"Hello out there," I bellow, thumping my hand against the panel. It doesn't give, jammed in its warped frame like the proverbial square peg. "Hey, get me out of here!"
Someone finally hears and the voices, although they remain unintelligible, take on a more urgent tone. I stand back as one section of the panel grows warm. A red spot penetrates the darkness, a spot that moves up, then across, then down again. The air fills with acrid smoke and I blink away tears.
"The past is dead," my enemy told me once. "Let it go."
Sometimes I want to reach through the bars and shake the truth into him. How can I let go of something that is alive in every sense of the word? If I could take him with me, if I could show him the reality of my life, his eyes would clear and his mind open. My work would be done. Instead, we dance around each other like ballroom dancers with deadly stilettos secreted in our sleeves.
The door falls open, allowing light and fresh air into my bolt-hole. Familiar faces follow, clumsy in their haste to extricate me from the ruins. I allow myself to be hurried, but not before I see the bodies on the floor behind me, in the space where I was briefly trapped. There are at least seven, killed by falling rubble. I recognize one of them, a young-looking man with a stubble of flame-red hair and eyes of different colors, blue and brown. A frag like the others, his particular skill with numbers and algorithms directed him to the signal processing corps, where he had worked decrypting the enemy's dense transmissions. His expression is pained and beatific at the same time.
My feet leave bloody prints in my wake as I step out of the bolt-hole and into a welter of data. Layers of information paint my vision like overlapping, translucent eyelids. Voices whisper or shout in my ears. Some carry a visceral component, signaling urgency or, at rare times in this stage of the war, satisfaction to the most primitive parts of my brain. I smell smoke, gunpowder, atomized concrete, burning flesh.
I see myself, a white-skinned man with a broad, oval face and deeply ingrained lines leading from the corners of my nose to form a triangle with my mouth. My nose and cheekbones are prominent. There is more than a touch of Rome.
I brush the dust from my graying cow's-lick and eyebrows.
"The invaders have established a beachhead," says the Apparatus.
I let my body be examined and cleaned while my mind takes care of business. "That was inevitable. Is it where you expected?"
"Western Europe. Normandy."
"Not the equator, then."
"You should've seen that coming. We've stretched his resources, yes, but he possesses reserves we can't imagine. He can afford a symbolic site over a practical one."
"Normandy was important in a major Old-Timer battle. It's in your files. Our enemy isn't just trying to take the planet. He's trying to take our history too."
The gestalt takes a moment to think. We have talked many times about the importance of place and memory. It's difficult, sometimes, for a being whose corporeal existence is dispersed across the planet to grasp how discrete locations can possess virtues above and beyond their physical descriptors.
"I'm sorry, Jasper. I see my error now."
"Well, it wasn't a fatal one. We will endure." I wave away the functionaries who would strip me bare and dress me in their own clothes given half a chance. Frags, all of them, they are glad to have something to do and someone to coordinate them. Their desperation is suffocating when I need to think the hardest.
This day is not just "sometime during the war," but the day the war changes forever.
"I have new instructions," I tell the functionaries, those physically in front of me as well as those scattered across the globe. The Apparatus listens too. "The defense of Earth has failed, but all is not yet lost. Withdraw all forces from orbit. Henceforth, we concentrate our efforts on the biosphere. We'll meet them in the air, on the ground, and across the seas. Let's see how they fight face to face with their enemy, without their ships and shields to protect them. Let them confront us on our terms."
"But," protests one of the frags with eyes wide, "what about the threat of orbital bombardment? They have the higher ground. If we withdraw completely—"
"They won't bombard. They can't afford to, not with their own people on the ground. Besides, a thorough bombardment would eradicate the thing they claim as their own. Only a monster would destroy that which he came to steal."
Our enemy is not a monster, I remind myself. Pretender to a throne that doesn't exist, but not a monster.
"They have identified and targeted the base you presently inhabit," the Apparatus says. "I advise you to establish another as your primary headquarters."
"There will be no primary headquarters," I explain. "From now on, we will remain permanently on the move."
The frags nod, thinking, no doubt, of my safety. That is the least of my concerns. The blast that killed the signals corpsman with the flame-red hair failed to harm me not because I am especially resilient. I am protected by the same Gordian knot of causality that binds me to, as tightly it as it frees me from, the fate of ordinary folk. I do not know where or when—or even if—I will die, but I know it wasn't yesterday, and it won't be today. Today I could walk openly through a hail of bullets, confident that I will survive. The fate of my companions is not so clear, however.
A leader always stands alone. Those are my enemy's words, offered to explain why he is a Prime rather than part of a gestalt like the Apparatus. In the many days that we have talked, I have learned that in this sense we are not so very different. We are unique, set apart, important.
Still, being the only one left standing is no comfort at all. And it is no kind of victory, either.
"Pack what you can," I tell the functionaries. "We leave immediately."
The station stirs like an ants' nest poked with a stick. I am caught up in the eruption of activity, swept like a paper boat on a stream toward the entrance. Outside, it is late afternoon. We are some distance from Station Zero, then, where it must still be early morning. Thick jungle presses in on all sides. The air smells of dust and broken stone. Cracked and splintered masonry lies everywhere. There are craters in the airstrips.
The invaders have landed on Earth. Everywhere is a war zone, now.
Automated aircraft lift off to distract satellite imagers. We form a column and vanish into the green.
I was thousands of years old when my enemy arrived. My life before that moment comes to me in fragments that I savor, spending them drifting from place to place before returning to the darker days that have come since. I cling to them, but there is nothing I can do to make them last longer.
When Bergamasc's fleet gathered in Earth's Lagrange points, one of his underlings broadcast a message explaining that the fleet flew under the flag of the First Church of the Return, a revivalist movement sweeping the galaxy from one side to the other. At my protestation that the movement was unknown to me, Bergamasc himself deigned to speak with us directly.
"Our goal is to return humanity to the state of grace from which we have fallen," he said. "Earth and its siblings have stood apart from each other for too long. The time has come to join our forces, to present a united front against the threat that has decimated the galaxy."
"What threat is that, exactly?" I asked.
Bergamasc explained, with exaggerated patience, that a mysterious force had killed every higher intelligence in the Milky Way—those beings called "Forts"—leaving humanity effectively leaderless. The agency behind that slaughter was unknown, then and now, but dark forces remained abroad, sowing dissent and preventing reconstruction. These saboteurs, he said, had to be combated lest the galaxy descend once more into complete chaos.
"Earth is a symbol. Join us. Under my flag, we will rebuild what has been lost and strike back against those who have harmed us."
It sounded to me a perfectly acceptable rallying plan—for someone convinced of its necessity. And many were convinced, it seemed, judging by the vast array of vessels in my enemy's fleet. They blotted out the stars with their drive-flares and electromagnetic pollution. Their mass eclipsed the sun.