Posts Tagged fantasy
The first few hundred years were okay. I had a lot of thrilling death-defying adventures. I lived the dream.
I got used to my loved ones dying, and got better at meeting new ones, and better at being by myself. Not a problem; before the accident, I’d stayed eight years at a lab full of one- and two-year contractors and students. I stayed there for a while afterwards too, but it seemed silly to chip away at the minutiae when I’d seen how huge and incomprehensible the whole thing was. Even with the amount of time I had, I knew I could never get my head around it.
In any case, the universe would stick around for a while. I wanted to study the things that wouldn’t. I don’t think I realised back then just how little time I had to do that. I always felt like there were so many more people to meet, so much more alone time to savour, so much more to learn, so many more ideas to realise than I had time to, but somewhere in the back of my mind I assumed I could get back to them later. Oh, if only I could.
I travelled the world while there were still means to do so, tried the foods when I could pay for them, smelled the flowers when I found any, learnt the languages, met the people while there still were some. Had a few wives. A few husbands. A few children. Thirty-three thousand, nine hundred and eighty-three known descendants, before I lost count. They all died, of course. I had my alone time to savour.
One by one, then ten by ten, species went extinct. We got used to it. People are good enough at ignoring things as long as they’re still comfortable. Eventually things were stretched too far to be comfortable. After the human race died out, when there was not much left bigger than bacteria, I went through a moody phase. For a millennium I’d be content just wandering around admiring the landscape, watching erosion create interesting patterns. Then I’d occupy myself by carving my own intricately-shaped rivers by hand and swimming back and forth along them. I learnt to shape them in such a way that oxbow lakes would form naturally to complete my designs. Next thing I knew, I’d be in a ten-thousand-year blue period, craving someone to hold, barely noticing as the mountains grew. Those lifelong romances seemed so short.
Sometimes the despair would give way to industriousness. I tried to work out a chemistry that would allow complex life to thrive in the changed environment. I tried to evolve something from lichen using as sole selection criterion ‘something I can talk to.’ Later I changed the goal to something I could enjoy eating. This was rather more successful, maybe because millennia of hunger had made me less picky. Every so often, I’d find little niches where life had figured out how to adapt in ways more ingenious than I’d come up with. I’d sit and watch them for generations upon generations, but nothing complex enough to be worth watching was ever as successful as before.
Time always seems so much shorter when it’s behind you, but in my case, things really did happen more quickly back then. Two-year contracts, 80-year relationships, ten-thousand-year bad moods, million-year species. When finally something interesting happened, it seemed sudden even though by mortal standards it took a long time. I still remember watching the sun expand and redden like it was yesterday, and I suppose it was yesterday, for I wouldn’t define days by that pitiful white dwarf I ended up with.
Boy was it hot when the Sun expanded to near Earth’s orbit. I’d been injured plenty of times, many times enough to kill anyone else, and it hurt a lot. If I was having a bad aeon, there were times when I jumped off cliffs or into volcanoes every day in the hope of dying. But the first time I felt the corona of a red giant, I really thought that was the end. A nanosecond of it was worse than all the pain I’d experienced until then. I did not know why my nerves could even feel pain at such magnitude. I just closed my eyes and waited for death to come. I waited what could have been thousands of years, not like the thousands of therapeutically-dull years of river carving, but thousands of slow, slow years in which I felt every moment.
And then… then it was over, but it still felt like a long time looking back. It took me a while to recover emotionally, and the blood-freezing cold didn’t help. The Earth wasn’t engulfed by the Sun, but just continued orbiting the cool, withdrawn white dwarf. The atmosphere and liquids were lost to space. I didn’t miss breathing as much as I missed eating and speaking; the urge to breathe comes more from the buildup of carbon dioxide than from the lack of oxygen, and I had none of that. There wasn’t any life I could see, but from what I’d already seen, I was sure some had survived somewhere under the surface. Sometimes I’d dig down and have imagined conversations with bacteria I couldn’t detect.
The next life-changing event came when the Earth was knocked out of its orbit. A few chunks came off it, and I had less gravity and some fragments to look at in the sky for a while. I took to jumping around the world, pretending to fly. A couple of destructive meteorites later and I accidentally reached escape velocity. Goodbye, cool world.
There was no such thing as a year for me after that, but it may as well have been ten billion years ago. I haven’t come close to any planets since. I’ve passed through a few stars, and I can tell you it doesn’t get any easier. Spent some time squished inside a black hole waiting for the Hawking radiation to free me. I took little comfort in knowing it was quicker for me than for anything on the outside.
Between stars, with no air or plasma rushing past my skin, no sound, almost no light to prove my fantasies wrong, I could construct worlds in my head that felt more real than anything else. I’d forget I was lost in outer space with nothing to look forward to but that moment of beautiful views and relief from cold that preceded an epoch of burning inside a star.
A frequent dream is that of finding the genie again, the god, that creature I had conversed with through that little tear we’d made in spacetime. Back in the old days, even before feeling the hellfire of a red giant Sun, I used to wish I’d asked to be impervious to pain as well as immortal, but now my only wish is mortality. And once again, I feel like time’s running out. The universe is expanding away from me. If I don’t find a way to summon the genie before the last matter retreats over the de Sitter horizon, I will be stuck with nothing but the taste of my mouth and the feeling of my cold, hungry body, for infinitely more time than I had anything else.
Jim was a respectable middle-aged man who suddenly became a pirate. He didn’t just start downloading art in ways contrary to the artists’ wishes. He actually became a pirate. One minute he was looking at cat pictures on the internet at work, the next he was standing on an enemy ship, with a cutlass in one hand and a hook on the other, sporting a peg leg and eyepatch, and plundering the booty of the crew he’d just murdered.
“What on Earth is going on?” he said. What came out was, “Shiver me timbers, I’ve lost me bearings!”
The parrot on his shoulder mocked him with echoes of “I’ve lost me bearings! I’ve lost me bearings!” The dead bodies surrounding him did not respond.
Jim figured he may as well get back to business. He staggered around the ship, swearing like a sailor at the lack of peg-leg-accessible spaces.
In one of the berths was a naked dead man. Jim was about to congratulate himself for having been so thorough at the crew-murdering when a sneeze came from the top bunk.
“P… pl… please don’t kill me!” pled the young, fully-dressed and clean-shaven pirate on the top bunk.
Jim instinctively waved his cutlass at him. “Who are you, ye lily-livered mast mugger?” he growled, putting far more emphasis on the ‘arrrre’ than he had intended.
“I’m…, I be uhh… bl… yarr, I be Cap’n Toothbeard. If ye spare me I’ll be swabbin’ yer decks twice a day ‘n’ barely touchin’ yer wenches.”
Jim let out a pensive arrr. He wasn’t sure how many of his crew had been lost in the battle, nor whether he had any wenches. But without remembering any specifics, he felt as though he’d already killed and swabbed enough for the day.
“Arrright, matey. But if I catch ye in any monkey business, ye’ll be keelhauled.” He extended his right arm to shake on it. Toothbeard cowered from the sharp hook.
Jim contented himself with touching elbows with his new crew member. “I’m Jim.” He suddenly panicked at having revealed such an un-piratey name as ‘Jim’, until he realised that the name that actually came out of his mouth was ‘Cap’n Stede Bonnet’. A pretty funny-sounding name, in Jim’s opinion, but convincing enough. So that was his name then.
What with the missing hand, leg and eye, and the lack of any real knowledge of how to be a pirate, ‘Stede’ was glad to have help. The two of them gathered up all the gold from the vessel and swung from a stray rope onto Stede’s ship. There were no wenches, no surviving crew, no food, and a mess of spilt blood, grog and urine under the tattered threads of a Jolly Roger. They swung back to grab some more useful supplies.
Toothbeard was true to his word. Before long, the decks, walls and cannons gleamed, the meticulously-restitched Jolly Roger flapped proudly in the wind, and colourful semaphore flags spelling out motivational messages complemented the tasteful off-white of the sails. Stede and Toothbeard got along fabulously.
Piracy was difficult with only two crew, but Toothbeard turned out to be excellent at sneaking around disabling cannons and stealing treasure while Stede parleyed with a rival captain. Once or twice the friendly chat didn’t go so well and he had to slice someone open and swing back to his own ship before the rest of the crew retaliated. If anyone invaded their ship, Toothbeard would make sure the flags were rearranged to balance out any browning blood patches.
Without the aid of a GPS, Stede steered the ship mainly on instinct, until the day they arrived at a tiny deserted island with a single coconut palm growing out of a mound of white sand. Toothbeard wasted no time in suspending a large, sparkly red hammock between the ship and the palm and relaxing in it with a tot of rum, while Stede dug idly into the sand.
“Well, blow me down!” Stede exclaimed when his shovel hit something hard.
“That I will!” boomed a voice from above. No actual blowing occurred, but Stede was so shocked by the sight of a woman in a bright olive leotard and sparkly red cape hovering in the sky that he fell backwards anyway. His parrot flew from his shoulder screeching “Pretty birdy! Pretty birdy!” at the lady.
Jim was quite used to being Stede Bonnet the pirate by this time, but it was moments like this that reminded him how very strange it was. “Ahoy thar!” he called. “Thar be no flyin’ wenches on my ship! Against the pirate code, it is!”
“May I remind you, sir, that you are on land, and the law of the land says no piracy is allowed, and the stolen gold and love letters in that chest you’re digging up belong to me and my partner Agent Chlorine,” said the woman, with a stern look.
Love letters? Agent Chlorine? In all his time pretending to really be Stede Bonnet, Jim had never been at this much of a loss before. But there was gold, so the obvious thing to do was keep digging.
The flying woman’s booming voice had woken up Toothbeard, who had spilled rum on his chest in his sleep. He ran to Stede and stared bewildered at the flyer. After a few moments he seemed to recognise her, and started to go pale.
“Thank you for your service, Agent Chlorine,” said the woman.
“Y… you’re welcome?” said the whitening agent.
“You salty moose. A secret agent?” yelled Stede.
“It’s not like that! I mean yes, I am a secret agent, sent to cleanse the waters of piracy, but I… I like you! I don’t even know what she’s doing here! And I’m not Agent Chlorine. My real name’s Agent Chlorine!” Agent Chlorine looked as confused as the rest of them at the last remark.
“He knows you’re not a pirate now,” said the flying lady. “You may as well admit to the rest. You hung out my spare cape to signal me because he led you to where he’d hidden what he stole from us.”
Agent Chlorine looked back at his hammock, and back up at the woman. “Uh… yes, yes, of course, Flying Thulium, I hung up the cape to signal you. I knew he was digging up our letters because…”
“Because what else would it be?” she said confidently. “I can read them from here with my x-ray vision.”
Before Stede had a chance to wonder whether x-rays were known about in the age of piracy, the Flying Thulium swooped down toward him. In an instant, her cape was tangled in the branches of the palm tree, and she dangled by her neck, strangling herself a little every time she tried to fly away. “You’ll live to regret this!” she asserted. As if to emphasise her point, a coconut fell and hit Stede’s spade, whose digging motion propelled it into the water. The parrot flew after it, but was unable to lift a coconut without the help of a second parrot and a piece of string.
Stede turned his attention to Agent Chlorine, formerly known as Toothbeard. “Th’wench says this be my treasure, looted from you. We split it?” he tried to lift the treasure chest from the hole, but couldn’t grip it well enough with his hook, and fell onto it. He cleared room for his legs and made himself comfortable sitting on the chest.
“Those are our love letters, you filthy pirate!” said the Dangling Thulium. She shot laser beams from her eyes and melted the sand around him. When the melted sand cooled, his peg leg was stuck fast, and he was surrounded by walls of vitrified sand. Not for the first time, he wondered why the peg leg was not removable.
Agent Chlorine tried to pull him out, but slipped on the glass and found himself lying over the hole, arms on one side, feet on the other. The parrot left a dropping on his back while echoing, “You filthy pirate! You filthy pirate!”
Stede stood up, headbutting Agent Chlorine’s stomach. Agent Chlorine slid forward on the glass and his feet fell into Stede’s face. Agent Chlorine pulled himself up and slid on his belly toward the unmelted sand, defeated. Stede nursed his bloody nose, and the parrot came and sat on his head.
Stede let forth a stream of insults which are not suitable for a general audience, but which came out as “You scurvy yellow-bellied scallywags!” Being a pirate was no fun any more. “I be nay e’en a real pirate. I work on thems bewitch’d boxes.”
“The path to understanding,” began the Dangling Thulium authoritatively, “begins with an open heart and ends with proper English.”
“I think he said he’s not a real pirate,” said Agent Chlorine, who had learnt quite a bit of pirate lingo during his time as a spy. “Which suits me fine, because I’m not a real secret agent. I’m an interior decorator, as you should know, Flying Thulium. I just found myself in a pirate’s bunk one day, wearing a smart black suit with a lot of secret pockets. Next thing I knew, there was a big commotion outside and I had to give my bunkmate a cyanide pill and and take his pirate clothes before Captain Bonnet found me.”
“You too?!” exclaimed Stede and Thulium in chorus. The parrot on Stede’s head perked up and repeated after them.
“You’re not alone,” said Thulium heroically. “I was once trying to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem while mourning the anniversary of my heart being broken, when I found myself rescuing a princess from a pirate crew.” She said it in a way that inspired all of them to try to become heroes. “I didn’t know Agent Chlorine was here until I saw the cape.”
“Aye, but how d’ye know Cap’n T… Agent Chlorine?”
“Sometimes,” she said, “the answer you seek is directly beneath your derrière.”
Stede snickered until Thulium’s heroic glare caught him. He stood up and tried to turn towards the treasure chest, twisting his pegged leg as far around as he could before falling backwards, ending up parallel to the chest with his back against the side of the hole. He undid the clasp with his hook, and watched as the chest sprang open and a golden glow lit the space where the lid had been. Stede pushed himself upward with his good leg so he could see into the chest.
Stede’s confused arrr for some reason reminded him of Scooby Doo. There was no gold, just letters. He fished them out with his hook, and tried to get himself upright to close the chest, but fell and ended up sitting in it. That would have to do.
“Read to us” commanded Thulium, who was levitating as comfortably as she could next to the top of the palm tree.
So he did. They were love letters between childhood sweethearts: a lass studying mathematics and her beau studying interior decorating on the other side of the country. Jim had never heard such a touching love story, having been raised in an orphanage, left there by unmarried girl who had been impregnated by a passing sailor, and then been sent to an asylum for telling crazy stories about spies or something. He was almost in tears, but Levitating Thulium and Agent Chlorine were in stitches hearing their words read in his unintentional pirate dialect.
Stede was so absorbed in the letters he didn’t notice Agent Chlorine climbing up the palm to reminisce with Thulium. When he finished the letter he was reading and saw them, he couldn’t help chanting, “Chlorine and Thulium, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” The parrot, who was not so good at spelling, echoed only the ‘aye aye!’ as it flew up toward them. Surprised, Thulium lost her grip on Agent Chlorine, who fell into the hammock. The force of the falling agent caused the hammock to come untied from the tree, and without its makeshift tether, the ship began to float away. Agent Chlorine hung onto the hammock and tried to pull the ship back, but before long he was drifting with it out to sea while Thulium tried desperately to untangle her cape from the tree.
Meanwhile, Stede read the last letter silently. Things had not ended well. Agent Chlorine had had some kind of existential crisis and couldn’t continue his relationship with Thulium. He hinted that he’d met someone else at design school.
Well, Thulium and Chlorine had seemed pretty friendly moments ago. Stede wanted the love story to continue, even if it meant losing his first mate. He stood up in his glassy sand hole and tried to free his peg leg. Thulium hovered at the top of the palm tree and tried to free her cape. Agent Chlorine clung to the sparkly cape-hammock for dear life as the ship pulled it away from shore.
Stede moved to close the chest so he would at least have somewhere comfortable to sit while everything went wrong. At the bottom of the chest, he saw the source of the golden glow: a diamond ring with a small note attached from the Flying Thulium. “I shan’t keep this, then.”
“Yo ho!” called Stede, waving the ring in the air.
“Yo ho!” answered the parrot as it grabbed the ring from his fingers.
“Oh no!” gasped Thulium as the parrot flew off with the ring. Then “Oh!” as the ring landed in her hand. Her cape was almost indestructible, but diamond can cut through anything.
“Noooo!” Agent Chlorine completed for her, as he lost his grip on the cape-hammock.
Thulium quickly cut her cape free with the diamond and flew to Agent Chlorine’s rescue. She boarded the boat with him, and they sailed off into the sunset.
Stede sat back down inside the treasure chest with a dejected arrr, unsure if he could call this a loss or a win. After some time, he discovered a false bottom in the chest. Underneath it was some gold jewellery, and one last note, which he recognised as being in Thulium’s handwriting. It was a note he’d seen once before when he was a little boy, but been forced to throw away. “Please call my baby Stede, after the pirate who helped bring his daddy and me back together.”
Jim was glad the orphanage staff had not obeyed. Stede was a pretty funny-sounding name.
This story is a sequel and/or prequel to Swan Song, but I hope it also makes sense on its own.
The artless masses follow each other through the darkness. In the safety of imitation, they are content. Time passes as quickly and as unremarkably as they can make it. When they move together, they are indistinguishable, but when one has a moment of weakness, it is just possible to distinguish that one from the others, and distinguish the moment from the rest of time.
One of these moments was in the past, and it happened to a mass which had once been called Bob, though it didn’t remember that. Bob was nervous, for new thoughts threatened to think themselves inside it and disrupt its peaceful rest. It carefully followed a stream of other such afflicted, and found itself at a diversion dealer.
“I need to relax,” said Bob as normally as possible. After pretending to check something on a computer for a while, the dealer motioned to the distraction section. The section seemed to fill the whole area, with boundaries as indistinct as those between customers.
Some amount of time passed while Bob looked through what was on offer, but Bob was not sick enough to care how much, just as long as it passed unnoticed. Bob settled on a collection named Rooksong, which promised to drown out all original thought if played loudly enough. Something terrifying briefly flashed over the dealer when Bob went to buy the recording.
Not sure whether to be more afraid of it being a real flash or a metastasis from its imagination, Bob asked, “It’s relaxing, isn’t it?”
To Bob’s relief, the dealer didn’t bother to respond.
Finding that those it was following were not moving, Bob began watching before even leaving the diversion dealer. Meaningless images and sounds unfolded all around and through Bob’s mind’s eye. In the resulting wave of relaxation, Bob merged with the rest of the queue so completely that it would have mixed character traits with the others if they’d had any. The next time anything happened, Bob found itself painfully torn from the others, then healed by the blissful distraction of the next show. Some were tired jokes, some were cats dancing to repetitive beats, most were the everyday stories of expert assassins killing time. All made time pass so smoothly that Bob felt nothing at all.
When the amusement stopped, Bob was more sensitive than ever to the passage of time, the pressure to do something with it and the agonising boredom of not doing so. It needed more rook song, and it needed it more quickly than it had ever cared to do anything. It flailed at the dealer. The dealer gave it a bored look, and then shuddered with recognition.
“You want more?” said the dealer.
“Yeah. Do you know where I can get some?”
The dealer shook off those that had followed Bob, and they fled from the unconventional motion. The dealer held a softly glowing object that mutilated the darkness, showing the terrifying outline of the dealer’s bulbous face. Bob, suddenly aware of having rudimentary physical eyes of its own, turned them away.
“This is a thought,” said the dealer. Bob already knew. It had narrowly avoided having one a few times.
The dealer set up a video camera while Bob recited stereotypes to itself and laughed to draw its attention from the light.
The dealer made its move without wasting any time, for it had worse things to avoid doing. It thrust the thought at Bob and held its point near where Bob wished it had eyelids. Bob panicked at the light reaching its mind’s eye. What terrified it most was the temptation to give in, to reach out and grab the flame of time and let it burn its flesh until the flame and Bob were both extinguished. But it dared not. Bob found its calm and recited countless brief tidbits. As the stream of tidbits began to wane, the dealer drove the thought through Bob’s forehead.
And it gave Bob an idea. Terrified, Bob held the idea at arm’s length and brandished it like a dagger.
Bob felt for the hole the thought must have made in its forehead, hoping a lengthy description of gore would stop this story from moving. There was no hole, but having a well-defined forehead was new and disturbing. Bob was different. “Am I alive?” it asked the dealer.
“You’re a watcher now. Go watch.”
Bob understood. It was free to liberate rook song at leisure.
The dealer handed Bob a video camera. “We can trade recordings,” he said. “Then we don’t have to gather as many.”
With that, it calmly went through the charade of selling Bob the camera. The dealer’s shaking had not been vigorous enough to disrupt the whole line, so a few new customers had already arrived.
Bob hid the idea and slid its way around the customers. When it found someone that didn’t look sick, it thrust the idea at it and started filming its reaction. Bob’s anxiety rose a little as it saw the moment of terror, the flickering desire. Then Bob basked in the divine procrastination of avoiding the thing one wants more than anything. The thrill was even more intense than that of watching recordings. Bob savored the spectacle a little too long before stabbing with the idea. The victim had no lust for rook song to keep it going, so it slid silently into the next world.
Potential witnesses to the attack had fled as soon as the idea was unsheathed, so Bob had to wander alone for a while to find its next victim. Having such an obvious gap between itself and others was disturbing; Bob almost saw its own form, and almost thought things nobody else was around to think. The usual distractions weren’t good enough any more. It was so desperate for rook song that it did something it had never done before: it hurried.
Bob found another line and enjoyed the rook song of the last follower. Bob shaded its idea carefully, so some of those ahead of the victim were so absorbed in looking at those in front of them that they did not see what happened, and Bob could feast on them next.
Only when the camera was full of rook song did Bob bother to take it back to the diversion dealer to exchange footage.
“This is terrible”, said the dealer. “You let it grow weak before ending it. And this one is too young; it doesn’t even know what it wants, so how can it avoid it?”
Bob was surprised. Usually, one likes what one is told to like. But only the highest quality time-wasting would satisfy the dealer. It taught Bob how to choose victims: how to tell them apart, and how to see how old they were and how good they were at passing time.
Bob had always been happy about time going on, but as it did so, Bob found it needed more and more rook song to keep going. Soon it understood what the dealer had said about low-quality rook song being unsatisfying. Sometimes it would watch recordings even while liberating fresh rook song. When there was not enough, Bob found itself banging painfully into things with its ever-more-defined features, instead of simply sliding around and through them. Eventually Bob was so defined that others would flee before it even showed its idea.
When Bob ran out of recordings, there was nowhere else to go. It ran to the dealer with the few things it had managed to record, and begged for more.
“This is pretty poor quality. And you just cleared out all my customers. Do you know how hard it was to coax them from the other queues?”
Tears streamed from Bob’s tear ducts. Without rook song, it could not survive much longer in this body. It slapped the dealer with an only-slightly-webbed hand, sending ripples through the dealer’s blastocaelic body. Bob’s fully-developed eyes could see that being surrounded by distraction hadn’t fully protected the dealer from the passage of time and the pressure to become something.
The dealer flashed an idea at Bob as a warning while sorting through some recordings. “Alright, you can have this one.”
Bob started watching straight away. The rook song from the near-formless creature in the recording was relaxing, but not as satisfying as usual. It seemed like it had seen it all before. Only when it saw the dealer plunge the idea into the victim’s head was there enough light for Bob to recognise itself. It saw the conception of its own idea. It remembered the terror of creating such a lively object, and the rooksong-given resolve that enabled Bob to resist it. It remembered the temptation to give in to it. By this time, the temptation was all that was left.
Bob stabbed its idea into its now-beating heart, and sent itself to the next world screaming eureka in pain.
Doctors were worried by the sudden change of heart rhythm, so they induced labour. Fourteen hours later, ‘Bob’ was reborn. Her new parents named her Alice.
He just imagined that in front of him, there was a giant requirement to do what he had committed himself to do. Taylor ran from the insipid story ideas that came to him, squatting in trashy distractions until he thought the ideas had left. But as soon as he stopped distracting himself, they came back. He had 18 hours to write something, and this would have to be it. He still ran, until the interruption of a pleasant procrastinatory conversation with a friend gave him a door, and he ran inside.
On the shelf was a DVD of the movie ‘The Neverending Story’. A story of a boy who saves Fantasia, the world of human fantasy, right when people were beginning to lose their hope, to forget their dreams. What if Fantasia were being destroyed again? What if that’s why there were no good story ideas left? If only he could get to Fantasia, and get a child to give the Childlike Empress a new name, he would be able to restore his hope and the wealth of fantastic story ideas he’d once had. He poured himself a frozen lemonade with vodka and sat down with his laptop to write.
He just imagined that in front of him, there was a giant Apollo White Room, where he could prepare to enter his craft and travel to unknown worlds. He’d had the training, read a summary of the book, watched the movie, and he knew exactly what he had to do. He would journey to the Moonchild.
It would be easier for him than for Atreyu. He just had to keep his chin up as he crossed the deadly Swamps of Sadness, keep his grip when speaking to Morla, find a luckdragon, keep his self-esteem up as he walked through the Sphinx gate, keep his cool as he saw his true reflection in the mirror of true selves, feign surprise when the Southern Oracle told him the Empress needed a new name, and hope he’d written the story well enough to capture a child’s attention.
Taylor stopped to take a sip of his drink, check his email, and try to forget how unlikely it was that a child would read his story and give Empress Moonchild the new name she needed. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it.
Ahead of him, the Nothing had already devoured the landscape. To the left and right was more nothingness. Behind him, he could see the Ivory Tower glowing in the distance. Andy, his Andalusian horse, had no problem galloping over the featureless landscape. When they arrived at the Ivory Tower, Taylor approached the bearded man.
“I’m sorry. But this is not the time and the place for adults. Adults do not have the imagination required for this quest. I must ask you to leave.”
“If you don’t want me here, you shouldn’t have sent for me.” Taylor had his lines memorized.
“It was not you we sent for,” said the man. “We wanted Taylor.”
“I am Taylor,” he said.
“Not Taylor the worn-out adult! Taylor the child!”
That is not what they’d said to Atreyu. “I’m the only Taylor you’ve got,” said Taylor. “I’m old enough to know what to do. But if you want, I’ll go back and write advertising copy.” Taylor turned away and pretended to leave.
“No, wait, come back, please,” said the man. Taylor turned back.
“If you really are the Taylor we sent for, you would be willing to go on a quest?”
“Yes, of course.” This was the script Taylor was used to. “What kind of a quest?”
The man gave the usual spiel about finding a cure for the Empress, to save Fantasia. It would be very dangerous and important, and he had to go alone, weaponless. Taylor feigned bravery as he accepted the challenge, knowing that having already seen the movie, he would be in no real danger. He did not need to feign awe as he was given Auryn, the amulet which would guide and protect him.
Taylor rode off into the sunset, knowing that the creature of darkness which would be tracking him down would be an easy kill. After riding for hours, they stopped and decided it was time to eat.
Taylor looked up from his laptop, suddenly aware that his stomach was growling. He topped up his frozen lemonade and made some toast. “Not too much,” he said after the first few bites. “We still have a long way to go.”
Taylor and Andy had searched the Silver Mountains, the Desert of Discarded Drafts, the Crystal Heads and the Sadness Swamp without success. He saw there was only one chance left. To find Melpolia, the ancient muse, whose home was in the deadly Forests of Disbelief.
Taylor led his horse off a cliff, and into the treetops which appeared ahead of them and disappeared behind them as they walked. Everyone knew that whoever stopped believing in the forest would fall to the bottom of the ravine. Taylor kept himself aloft by describing the feeling of branches underfoot to himself as he went, but the horse soon began to fall. “Andy! Can’t you feel the branches poking into your hooves? Can’t you hear the twigs cracking? Andy, please!”
As the horse fell into the void, Taylor could see just how impossible the forest was. He fell, but instinctively reached out and grabbed a branch that his muscles still knew was there. Of course it was there. If he could write it well enough, it was there. Taylor climbed back to the top and ran with his eyes closed, letting out shrieks of delight as he realised what a marvelous reality he had created. When he got bored with that, he just imagined that in front of him there was a giant red tabby, and then he collided with something soft.
Taylor rolled his chair back from his laptop and sighed loudly. This was a ridiculous idea. A giant cat? A giant cat was the best he could think of as a muse? Well, it would have to do. It was dark out. He was running out of time.
The wind seemed to sigh as Taylor looked up at Melpolia the giant red tabby.
“Oh, no. Not an adult,” the cat hissed. “Adults are no fun.”
Taylor sniffled a little, remembering his cat allergy. “Look, if you would just help me in my quest to save the Childlike Empress… I have a deadline, you know.” He grabbed Melpolia’s fur as the treetop beneath him threatened to give way.
“Oh, we know the Empress is sick, but it doesn’t matter.” Melpolia turned away and started licking itself.
Taylor sneezed violently, and fell a metre or so when he forgot to believe. He climbed back up.
“Do you even care?” Taylor remembered this line from the movie.
“You don’t really care whether or not I care,” said Melpolia.
Taylor started to protest, but realised Melpolia was right. He didn’t care. He just wanted to get through the story, get some readers, and save Fantasia so he would have ideas to write other stories and keep food on the table.
Food. Taylor finished a piece of toast. Why wouldn’t the characters ever just do what he wanted them to? He only had eleven hours left. He took a last gulp of frozen lemonade and slammed the cup down angrily on the table. Fine. If he wasn’t going to save the Empress, he may as well have fun.
Taylor sneezed again, and his tree swayed with him. “You know how I can help save the Empress, don’t you?”
“Not that it matters, but yes,” said Melpolia while it licked its left side.
“It does matter!” screamed Taylor. “If I don’t save her, the Childlike Empress will die, and I always wanted to meet her!”
“It’s really not important. I have some preening to do, you know.” insisted Melpolia.
“If you don’t tell me, Fantasia will disappear, right when I’m starting to enjoy it!” yelled Taylor.
“Oh, alright,” said the giant red tabby. “The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe you could ask the Southern Oracle…”
“Right, 10 000 miles away?” Taylor had forgotten that from the movie. The only point of going to see Melpolia was attracting a luckdragon to take him to the Southern Oracle.
“Yes, as it happens.”
“Great. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find a luckdragon, would you?”
“A what? Luckdragons don’t exist. They were just made up for a book.”
Taylor started to fall. Melpolia found a patch of fur near its right front paw that hadn’t been preened for a while, and went to work on it.
The falling sure felt real. Taylor closed his eyes and waited to hit the ground.
Taylor poured himself another frozen lemonade, without vodka this time, the way he’d always loved it as a kid. He’d had so much of it one summer that his friends had started calling him Frozen Lemonade. They still did, sometimes, but it embarrassed him more now. He’d started adding vodka in his mid-twenties. The vodka made it taste terrible, but what self-respecting adult drinks virgin frozen lemonade?
Taylor woke up next to some kind of giant goat. “Are you a luckdragon?”
“Goodness, no. I’m a deus ex machamois.”
Taylor giggled. “A deus ex machamois? And let me guess, you can fly, and you caught me when I fell from the nonexistent treetops?”
“That’s right. A giant flying squirrel would have made more sense, but I guess you panicked. Panic is sometimes good for creativity.”
“You mean… I just made you up to save my life? And you’re really here?”
Taylor could picture it in his head. A giant chamois, flailing through the air, always looking for footholds in the clouds. Eat your heart out, Rudolph! He laughed so hard he almost peed himself. On the way back from the toilet, he spotted the bag of sour miniature easter egg candies he’d bought for his nephews, and opened it. Forget the waistline; a little sugar once in a while couldn’t harm him.
“I’m here, alright. You passed out before I even caught you; you’re not used to landing on giant flying goats any more. My name’s Rudolph.”
Taylor laughed. “So… how far away is the Southern Oracle?”
“Why, it’s just around the corner!”
Taylor grinned. “Do I have to go visit that gnome couple and drink eye of newt to make me healthy, now?”
“Only if you want to.”
Taylor secretly wanted to know what the potion would taste like. He found the gnomes’ home, where Urgl hurried to make him a healing potion. “This one will do you good. It has eye of newt in it. And wing of cat, hair of tortoise, face of gnat, eyelash of porpoise.”
Taylor gulped it down in delighted disgust, feeling the eyes slide down his throat and the wings try to flap their way back up, chewing the eyelashes so they wouldn’t tickle.
“This one’s eye of newt,” said Taylor as he put a sour egg into his mouth. He grimaced as the sour taste electrified his tongue.
Then it was Engywook the scientist’s turn to tell him about the Sphinx Gate he would have to pass. “The sphinxes’ eyes stay closed until someone who does not feel his own worth tries to pass by. They can see straight into your heart.”
Taylor did not stay to watch a hesitant traveller get shot by the Sphinxes’ eyes. “Thanks for the newt eyes!” he yelled as he ran down to the gate.
Taylor approached the Sphinx gate with confidence.
Taylor couldn’t think of anything good enough to write. All his ideas seemed stupid again. He decided to write as quickly as he could whatever came to his head, whether he liked it or not.
Taylor ran between the sphinxes as he saw the eyes beginning to open. The sphinx eyes fired a blue laser of self-doubt at him, but he could jump over and under the laser beams like a character in a bad science fiction movie. He leapt over the last one and rolled along the ground giggling on the other side, almost wanting to go back for another go. There were plenty of other roll marks in the sand. He wondered if anyone was really confident enough to keep the eyes closed, or if the survivors were just the ones who ran through anyway.
And now for the mirror of true selves. When he started the quest, he would have been afraid to look at it, but he wasn’t afraid any more. The mirror showed him as a young boy, enthusiastically writing into his notebook. And then a middle-aged man, typing into his laptop just as excitedly.
Finally, he arrived at the Southern Oracle. As expected, it told him that in order to save Fantasia, the Empress needed to be given a new name by a human child.
Taylor swore and wished he’d put more vodka in his frozen lemonade. He’d forgotten to think of a solution to the ‘human child’ problem. In the movie, the human child is the reader of the book, but who would ever read this one? He hadn’t even made the deadline. He made some more toast and settled down to write an unhappy ending.
Taylor rode Rudolph back in the direction he’d come, trying to enjoy the ride even though he knew he’d failed in his quest. Fragments of Fantasia floated around the void like stars. They flew toward the brightest: the Ivory Tower.
The Childlike Empress was beautiful. She reminded Taylor of his first crush.
“I have failed you, Empress.”
“No. You haven’t. You brought him with you.”
“The child. The one who can save us all.”
“No I didn’t. Nobody is going to publish this. No child is going to read this.”
“Yes, you did,” said the Empress with conviction. “He has suffered with you. He went through everything you went through. And now, he has come here. With you. He is very close. Listening to every word we say.”
Taylor could barely believe what he was writing. He popped another sour egg into his mouth.
“Where is he? If he’s so close, why doesn’t he arrive?” A piece of ivory fell from the ceiling and narrowly missed Taylor’s head.
“He doesn’t realise he’s already a part of the story.”
“But it’s just me!” Taylor protested. “I know I’m in the story. I know I’m writing the story. I know no kid is reading this story.”
“The child began to share your adventure as soon as you let him. As soon as you started believing the story.”
“But there’s nobody here but me!” Taylor said.
He was right.
Taylor almost choked on a sour egg. “No way!” he said aloud.
“He’s been a part of you all along, but you slowly stopped listening to him, when you thought you had to keep you feet on the ground. He’s still inside you. You just need to let him call out my new name. He has already chosen it.”
“This isn’t real. I’m just writing this. This isn’t real.” said Taylor under his breath. He could make them say something else if he wanted. He could make the Empress look up a name in a baby name book herself.
“What will happen if he doesn’t appear?”
“Then our world will disappear, and so will I,” said Empress Moonchild.
“How could he let that happen?”
“He doesn’t understand that he’s the one that has the power to stop it. He simply can’t imagine that something he’s writing can be so important.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know what he has to do!”
No baby name book. The characters wouldn’t let him. But he didn’t know what to write next. “What do I have to do?” Taylor wondered aloud.
“He has to give me a new name. He just has to call it out,” said the Empress.
All Taylor called out was “But it’s only a story. It’s not real!”
“Taylor! Why don’t you do what you dream, Taylor? Why don’t you live the fantasy life you created?”
“But I can’t, I have to keep my feet on the ground! I’m a grown man!” Taylor was already yelling loud enough for his neighbours to think he was a nutcase. What harm would there be in yelling a name as well?
“Call my name! Taylor, please! Save us!”
Taylor was confused. “Me? My horse died, I almost died falling off trees, I swallowed porpose eyelashes, and I could have just come straight here and given you a name myself?”
“Not you. The Taylor who’s writing the story. You needed to go on the adventure so he could find the child in him.”
“Alright! I’ll do it! I’ll save you. I will do what I dream!” Taylor grabbed his cup and held it up in the air triumphantly. “Frozen Lemonade!” he screamed.
And then it was dark. “Really? A power cut, now?!” he said in frustration, wondering when he’d last saved his writing. Taylor jumped as a beautiful voice responded.
“In the beginning, it is always dark.”
Taylor saw a tiny glow, and watched it grow to reveal the face of the Childlike Empress. “Seriously? You can’t tell me this was all real! I was just making excuses for my lack of ideas! There is no Fantasia.”
Taylor felt the floor beneath him tremble. It was not the floor of his apartment.
“Not any more,” said the empress. “But now that you have named me Frozen Lemonade, you can begin to rebuild.”
“Wait, I have to rebuild?
Frozen Lemonade showed Taylor the glowing object she’d been holding. A pencil. “Give me your hand.”
Taylor held out his hand, and Frozen Lemonade placed the pencil between his fingers. “Now what are you going to write about?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then there will be no Fantasia any more.”
“How much can I write with one pencil?”
“As much as you want. You don’t even need to use this pencil. The more you write, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.”
So he started writing. He barely noticed when he was transported back to his apartment and the pencil became a glowing laptop screen. He and his laptop had many other amazing adventures, but they are other stories.
Jane knew she wasn’t supposed to feed chocolate to the lizard. That’s why she did it. She knew Mrs. Beagle always gave a chocolate to whoever got the best score in the maths quiz. That’s why she studied. She knew Mrs. Beagle always left straight after school on Wednesdays. That’s why she chose that day to sneak back into the classroom where the class lizard was kept.
What Jane did not know was what would happen to the lizard when it ate the chocolate.
Jane also did not know that Mrs. Beagle had left her keys behind. That’s why she jumped and dropped the lizard when Mrs. Beagle opened the classroom door. Jane did not know where the lizard went when she dropped it. That’s why she was surprised when it bit her on the ankle a few minutes later, while she was writing out ‘I will not feed chocolate to the lizard’ 100 times on the blackboard. Jane did not know that the chocolate lizard bite would make whatever she wrote come true. That’s why she kept writing. She did not know why she was writing it, since she had never fed chocolate to the lizard, and she wouldn’t, even though she wanted to. That’s why she stopped writing. Jane did not know what to do next. That’s why she started writing a story on the blackboard:
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Jane who knew everything and didn’t need to go to school.
And Jane knew everything. That’s why she wrote that some cake would appear. Jane knew that everything she wrote would come true, and stay true until the bite from the chocolate-fed lizard healed an hour later. That’s why she was worried. She knew that she would have to feed more chocolate to the lizard and let it bite her again when that happened. That’s one of the reasons she wrote that a lot of chocolate appeared. But she knew that she could not feed chocolate to the lizard after writing that she wouldn’t. That’s why she lived out her wildest dreams until the spell wore out just before Mrs. Beagle returned.
Mrs. Beagle still knew what Jane had done. That’s why she came to make sure she’d completed her punishment, even though she’d rather have gone to her mathematics society meeting. Mrs. Beagle did not know what the chocolate-fed-lizard bite had done. That’s why she was surprised by the faint smell of ponies and chocolate cake that disappeared just quickly enough to make her wonder whether she’d ever smelt it. Mrs. Beagle did not know that Jane wanted to feed the lizard again. That’s why she dismissed the girl and left.
Jane knew that Mrs. Beagle would write a disciplinary report detailing everything she’d done. That’s why she put the lizard in Mrs. Beagle’s bag, with her chocolates.
Mrs. Beagle knew that something was up when she saw what happened as she wrote about Jane feeding chocolate to the lizard. That’s why she wrote that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem could be disproven.
“I need to relax,” said Bob to the boy behind the counter. He couldn’t have been older than than eighteen, but Bob was almost taken in by his efforts to appear more world-weary than Bob was. Spiked black hair, pale face, make-up embellishing a permanent scowl. He removed one of his earphones.
“I need some music to help me relax. Can you recommend anything?”
“Nature sounds,” said the boy, twitching his scowl toward the back of the shop, and replacing the earphone.
“Thanks,” Bob replied, already heading in the direction indicated.
He flipped through the CDs. Whalesong, birdsong, swansong… that seemed interesting. He took the swansong CD back to the counter. The boy raised an eyebrow.
Not sure how to interpret the gesture, Bob asked, “It’s relaxing, isn’t it?”
“Given a lot of people peace, yeah.” The boy gave a chortle just short enough to avoid looking happy.
Bob completed the purchase and went home, glad to finally have a weekend off. He made a cup of tea and put the CD in his computer to rip.
The moment he heard the first chord, his fingers slackened and dropped his tea into his lap. He ignored his scalded scrotum and listened intently. The music was beautiful beyond all physical pleasure or pain. The end of the piece gave him a deeper understanding of the expression la petite mort.
While he was still recovering, the next track began. Some were songs, some were instrumental, some were spoken word, some were animal sounds. All were astounding.
One, ‘Call of the Baiji’ was at the same time so joyous and so sorrowful that the opposing emotions flattened his soul into a single thread, a single thread taking its place in the centre of the universe, searching vainly for another. And before he could tie it to anything, it shrank away with the music, only to be rebuilt by the next track.
When the playback finished, Bob felt the acute pain of loss; a pain not just emotional, but physical. The renewed awareness of his burns was at first a welcome distraction from the pain of losing the music, but soon became an excruciating addition to it. He took painkillers and attempted some first aid, but the whole time he knew that he was only treating the smallest of his injuries. He needed to hear more swan song. He yanked some dry pants on and went back to the shop.
Bob almost collided with the music counter in his panicked run. “Hi,” he said, breathlessly.
“You want more?” said the boy.
“Yeah. Do you know where I can get some?”
“Come with me. I think I have some in the back.”
They entered a storage room at the back of the shop. Shelves of CDs and music equipment lined the walls. The boy riffled through a disordered box of CDs, pulling out not an album of swan song but a digital audio recorder.
“Do you sing?” he asked.
“Are you kidding me? I sound like a strangled labrador.”
The boy looked puzzled. “No you don’t. So what do you do? Write, play, dance…”
“Oh, I’m a computer programmer. But I write in my spare time, and I can… sort of almost play the ukulele.”
The boy put down his recorder and pressed a button.
“Tell me a story,” he said.
“Yeah. You know that CD? I record them myself. I think you could be on the next one.”
“Oh, I don’t know… my writing’s not that good. I mean that stuff was…” Bob searched for words to describe his experience.
“Everyone has it in them. You just need the right circumstances.”
Bob was interrupted by the boy’s sudden movement, in which he deftly unsheathed a knife from his pocket and cut a gash in Bob’s shirt.
“Tell me a story.”
“You don’t mean… you don’t want… what do…” Bob blubbered. But the soulless gaze of the boy told him there was no point in arguing. He tried to think of a story idea.
His mind went blank. Every time he tried to advance he would hit that familiar invisible wall which his ideas were not sharp enough to push through.
The boy came closer, and held the knife teasingly against Bob’s sweating skin. Bob tried as hard as he could to remember what triggered those late night spurts of insistent inspiration. He found nothing, but kept pushing anyway.
As the knife pierced his skin, the wall smashed and let escape a thousand ideas; the ideas which he had rejected almost subconsciously before they had properly formed. His subconscious mind had nurtured these ideas into a thousand polished gems; he needed only pick the brightest. The light of inspiration chased away his fear, and he began to recite the story in a loud, confident voice.
His excitement over the story took over, and almost made him forget his situation. Despite his impatience to relate the brilliant ending, he somehow found the strength to continue telling the story at an even pace, with just the right amount of emotion in his voice, just the right pauses to enhance the drama. This was surely his finest work.
The buzz of revealing the final plot twist was so intense that he barely felt the knife plunging into his heart.
Bob nonchalantly fingered the bloodless hole in his chest. “Am I dead?” he asked the boy, pushing his index finger into the hole and probing the smooth, motionless chambers of his heart.
“You’re a listener now. Go listen.”
Bob understood. A world of swan song was his to liberate.
The boy took a digital audio recorder from the shelf and handed it to him. “We can trade recordings,” he said. “No need to waste’em.”
With that, he led Bob back into the shop, and went through the charade of selling Bob the recorder.
Bob went by his ex-wife’s house on the way home. He couldn’t remember why they had decided to have children, why he had taught his seven-year-old son to play ukulele. But the reason seemed obvious enough.
“Heya, Tam,” he said as she answered the door.
“Oh, hi, Bob. I wasn’t expecting you,” she said, adding awkwardly, “Is everything okay? You look ill.”
“I thought I’d take Jason out.”
Jason ran to the door, excited, but stopped and clung to his mother’s leg when he saw his father’s face.
“Mum, what’s wrong with Dad?”
Bob tried to remember how to smile. “Nothing’s wrong, Jase! Wanna come have ice cream? I’ll teach you another song on the uke.”
Jason perked up at this, and fetched his ukulele. He followed Bob to the car, looking back questioningly at his mother a few times.
Bob drove home, and led Jason into the living room.
“How about you play something for me?” he asked his son.
“Already? You said we’d have ice cream!”
“Sit there,” Bob said, gesturing to an armchair. He headed into the kitchen.
He came back a few seconds later and set up his recorder on the coffee table. “Play something.”
“What should I play? Do I get ice cream afterwards?”
“Just make something up. Do your best.”
“I don’t feel like playing!” Jason whimpered.
Bob stood behind Jason and put a hand on his shoulder. With his other hand, he held a carving knife at his son’s neck.
Jason hesitantly began to play. He took a while to find the right notes, but eventually found something he liked. He played it louder, and began to sing. It was a song about unmet expectations, a song about desire, but most of all, it was a song about ice cream. Bob could not remember the taste of ice cream, but he lapped up the emotions in the song. The song’s end was unbearable; slitting his son’s throat wasn’t.
Jason’s head lolled forward when Bob dropped it. There was no lust for swan song to keep it moving.
Bob’s appetite was stronger than ever. He headed back to the music store to exchange his recording.
“What is this rubbish? This stuff is weak. He can barely play.”
“It sounded great to me.”
“Maybe if you’re still a little warm in the liver. Real listeners won’t get any nourishment from this. There must’ve been ninety years left in him, squeezed out in these two minutes, but it’s useless if he hasn’t learnt what to do with it. This is waste heat.”
Bob soon began to understand what the boy meant. As his body threatened to decay, mediocre swan song no longer filled him the way it had. He became an expert at picking performers. Old enough to have the technical skill to express their talents, but not so old that the execution was hampered by an ageing body. Old enough to appreciate life, but not so old that there was not much left of it to lose.
Humans had more appealing swan songs than animals, but there was nothing more satisfying than hearing the swan song of the last of a species. It was not easy to send a species to extinction by himself, but Bob soon came to recognise the listeners threaded throughout society, manipulating humans into destroying habitats or directly killing key animals. It was a silent teamwork; each working selfishly towards the same goal.
He experimented with more visual swan songs, but found that the buzz from a fine painting was too concentrated in the short time after the piece was completed; a sharp peak of pleasure painfully piercing him, and leaving him even more desperate. Listeners were better off listening.
Eventually he could not obtain fresh swan song often enough to satisfy his cravings. He listened to other listeners’ recordings almost constantly. They were not quite as fulfilling as live death; even on video, many subtleties could not be captured. But they kept him going.
His appetite gradually outgrew the steady stream of swan song fed into his ears. It became more and more difficult to concentrate on the steps needed to record new material. After one session, he realised that he had neglected to stock up on recordings to listen to. He sped to the music store with his recorder, not even stopping to listen to the pedestrians he hit on the way.
“There’s nothing on here,” said the boy. Bob heard the recording he was listening to come to an end. He had no more.
“I recorded a successful blues guitarist.”
“There’s nothing on here. Did you press record?”
If he had had any of his own emotions left to feel, Bob would have been dismayed by his oversight. Instead, he answered tonelessly, “I need more. Lend me some until I get you a proper recording.”
The boy stared at him while his need for swan song accumulated.
“I have something,” he said. He brought a single CD from the storeroom.
Bob took it without comment, and raced home.
Bob fumbled as he put the CD into the slot. It was getting harder to fight the postmortem spasms. Finally he managed to press play, and he lay back in his armchair to enjoy his fix.
His own voice tickled him through his earphones. Muscles galvanised by the shock, he sat up straight and quivered at the opening lines.
The story faded into the background. He remembered feeling his heart pounding in his intact chest. He remembered feeling the cold knife on the cool skin of his still-warm body. He remembered breathing, and how hard he had had to fight to breathe slowly enough to speak. He remembered the fear, not evaporated but transformed into an intense enjoyment of his remaining minutes. He remembered the moment the last of his heart went into the story, and the moment the knife went into his heart.
After that there were no more moments, just time, in steady, emotionless motion. Only borrowed moments distinguished it from complete stop. He had become nothing more than a leaking human-shaped balloon, inflated with the fading remains of others’ lives. As the CD finished playing, he punctured his hollow being and slumped forward. His story was over.
Gareth lay still for a minute listening to the music before reluctantly opening his eyes. He scrunched them closed again at the sight of his bedside lamp, still glaring since his insomnia of a few hours earlier. Gradually he coaxed his eyes to open again and focus on his laptop screen to check his mail. Nothing worthwhile. His eyes, at last awake enough to exercise their own free will, moved toward the small capsule resting on his bedside table. His brain, not awake enough to remember how much he wanted it, dismissed the idea of swallowing the pill. His body took him to the shower and turned on the water.
While the warm water meandered over his body, his cold mind meandered around the thoughts he didn’t want to think. Suddenly he was struck by a memory from his dream. He had lost her again.
In the dream she was blonde, and he couldn’t recall her face, but he knew that it was her, the feelings were the same. They were on a cliff overlooking their village on the black plains. He knew that it was forbidden, but there was no better place to propose to his sweetheart. He remembered how contented he felt, holding her hand and gazing down at all Creation. Until a freak wind blew her away, and left her motionless on the plains below. He remembered jumping down from the high cliff and landing unscathed, thinking nothing of the feat, and running to her. His dear Bea lay there, brunette again, her face returned, but bleeding and empty of expression.
The dream stayed with him all day. From time to time he would catch himself thinking that he really did live in that village on the black plains. It seemed like an age he had lived in that place. It seemed like only last night that he had lost her. Only last night he had gazed into those lifeless eyes, wishing he could forgive himself.
The day came and went without his paying much attention to it, and all too soon he was back in his bed, staring at the capsule, wondering whether a temporary sleep would claim him before he claimed a permanent one.
He couldn’t go back to the village after that. He couldn’t stand the thought of a hundred villagers obliged to act sympathetic while attempting to hide their ‘I told you so’s behind transparent corneas. He couldn’t stand the thought of living at all without her. He couldn’t stand the thought of the villagers aiming their phoney sympathy at his dead body. He stole a container of poison from the apothecary and stole back toward the cliff.
Sheets of bristled vegetation made the climb easy. Soon he was gazing back on the village again. This had been his favourite place in the world. The perfect place to die, were it not for the thought of villagers finding him. He turned toward the forbidden plateau. Beds of ground cover spread so far in front of him they made him tired. He began walking.
For hours he walked, as if in a dream. Distant hills appeared, and steadily grew in his field of view until it seemed he could easily reach them. How nice it would be to end his life high up, at a lookout spot like his own. He stopped to rest, and imagined he heard music.
Morning again. Gareth marvelled at the way even his favourite songs could become hated when given the task of waking him. Another day of emptiness, of working, of trying not to think. At midnight he fell reluctantly into his bed, for the nightly face-off with the pill. It had wandered from his night-table onto his mattress, as if trying to tempt him. Did it want him to swallow it? Did he want to swallow it? God knew he didn’t want to continue life like this. He held it a long time in his fingers, staring at it, mentally conversing with it, not quite gathering the courage to crush it between his teeth. Near morning, it fell from his grip as he lapsed into a troubled sleep.
When Gareth came out of his reverie, it seemed the hills were further away than before. Perhaps their nearness had just been wishful thinking. He continued on his way. As he approached the hills, he perceived a higher cliff atop them, nearly devoid of plants. The view from the hill was unimpressive, the monotonous plateau blocking the view of the plains. He started up the cliff face, grabbing the occasional stubbly brown stalk for support. Several times he fell.
Suddenly, he felt a great wind pressing him into the cliff. He turned his head sideways, his cheek pressed against the rock face, to see that the wind was followed by what resembled a giant stone hand.
He scrambled sideways to escape being crushed. The hand missed him by a whisker, but the force of it hitting the cliff caused such a quake that he fell back to the hill.
Dazed, Gareth wondered whether this was why the villagers told such tales of the plateau. Perhaps there was something to their superstitions. But he had never believed in such rubbish. The world was the way it was because of natural laws; there were no ghosts, no giants, no winds of God to punish the disobedient. It was all coincidence, it could all be explained.
Armed with this revived stubbornness and curiosity, Gareth resumed his climb. As he neared the top, he gripped one last ridge and pulled himself over it.
There was no solid ground beneath his torso. He found himself hanging headfirst from the lip of a chasm. Steam rose over his face and obscured his vision. His grip slipped on the slimy stone. He flailed blindly with his other arm, which found some thick vines further along the edge of the chasm. With all his strength he pulled himself across, and found a safe place to sit near the lip of the volcano.
Shaken, he looked back towards where he’d come. The hills, the plateau, the black plains, stretched out in front of him. And beyond… he could see that even the plain was a high plateau. He could just make out some strange figures strewn over the ground below it. He wondered if there were villages down there as well. What must they be like?
At last he remembered what he had come for. He had seen everything on Earth, but the most important piece was missing. What good was all this without her? He opened the flask of poison and brought it to his lips.
As he tipped the flask, he recalled the terror he had felt when falling into the volcano. How desperate he had been to escape. Why hadn’t he let himself fall? His survival instinct did not fail him. Somehow, deep down, he wanted to live. He wanted to explore all the lands he could see. He would never find Bea again, but perhaps he would find happiness.
Fearful of changing his mind, Gareth tipped the contents of the flask into the mouth of the volcano. For a few seconds, he was again at peace with the world, the way he had felt on his old lookout point on the cliff.
Suddenly the ground hiccoughed violently. He managed to remain in place only by gripping the vines. He had barely begun to feel safe again when the world seemed to melt, and the sky was lit with visions of Heaven, of Hell, of his parents, of Bea… nothing made sense. He became aware that as the visions faded, the sky faded as well, until all was black except for a shrinking circle of light around the Sun. An old science lesson came back to him… didn’t they say that if there were no atmosphere to diffuse the Sun’s rays, we would only see the sun surrounded by blackness, like a star?
At this thought, the air seemed to thin, and he could no longer breathe. Unconsciousness overtook him just as his dreamworld disappeared.