When it gets dark like this all of me wait crouched for me, wait like thieves. If I bump into myself, I’ll be replaced. Lying snugly in my bed, I’m able to touch firm reality. Wrapped head to toe in a cocoon of warm covers comes the realization that I am alone. I am earth’s King and Brother.
A sense of isolation drives me toward a sliver of light.
I will pretend I had this dream:
I went out a morning years ago, trying to feel love for the world. I walked for a long time. Think of a faraway land.
Not far enough. Think of beyond the farthest star.
Not yet. Even more. I’m certain it was just over too far away. When I left I had been alone; when I returned there were children. Incredibly grey children. There they were, all in a row, wanly silhouetted by the rising sun. Shading my eyes against the light with little but the chirrups of a lone meadow cricket anchoring my thoughts against a calling void, I stared at them, jumping from one to another, to the end and back again. Their eyes were strange, focused and uninteresting and—despite the range of blues to browns—all grey. Standing there, arms dangling at their sides. These were children, newly initiated into life and their eyes so dead.
All watching me.
We stayed that way, I think, for several minutes. A strange social function without word or gesture. They needed nothing from me. I had nothing. Instead, they were giving me something. No, not given, discarded and returned. Cruel, cold children.
They wouldn’t let me shut my eyes.
Spores came from them, tiny airborne seeds of their discontent, appearing gradually like the first flakes of a blizzard. The sky: a gauzy haze. It made me cough. For every pore on my body, there was one spore. Each felt like a pinprick. I gasped to breathe. They dried my throat.
Then the sobbing. Loud, human, and damning.
Compassion in a maelstrom? Please, for me? Killing me without ever saying a word or asking my name. Murderous children!
After I died they left. I saw them leave, orderly, quietly, disappearing down the hill. They left me with my eyes open. I couldn’t blink. At least once during eternity the dead should be given grace to blink.
I lay on the ground for so long I became a mountain, hard and cold and so dark I was almost non-existent. I tried to remember what light was—was it warm or cold?—until that terrifying moment when it suddenly blinded me from outside, obliterating my universe like a god’s finger snap. It wasn’t warm or cold, but it was quite insistent.
Blind then for another thousand years. During that time I heard voices. There were times when there was another voice, someone answering, pretending to be me.
“He imagines her with wings.” Their voices stretched so incredibly slowly that a single sentence sometimes took an entire year.
I remember stars.
The light from stars traveled years.
“Called her ‘Little Wing.’ Why?” The same voice. I knew three by now: hers, a male’s, and sometimes mine.
“That loophole you gave him. An angel. Angel of death,” the male responded. “Mistake to ask how he’d live without her.”
“Run through mythology later. I want to find out what ‘Little Wing’ means.”
“Nothing more than a cute nickname. Jimi Hendrix song.”
“I think it’s more. Religious iconography moves product. I want to know what tied it into our initial feed.”
If I concentrated myself into a single point and listened, I could hear the pretender’s thoughts; I doubt he even knew I was there. He was sarcastic, and employed riddles:
The old conundrum: Is the doctor dreaming me or am I dreaming the doctor?
I don’t care.
If I am the dream then she is cruel and will suffer for it, and I am satisfied. If she is my dream then I am a boring person whose dreams are dull, dead birds.
I’m going to fall in love tomorrow. Whether she wants me to or not. I will.
Who would be so unobservant as to love a changeling?
“He ready for more?” I heard her say.
“He’s still on the angel.”
Engineering backward from his thoughts, I touched wetness. I was inside his brain. With this physical link, I was able to trace out a body. I infused his shell and flowed outwards to create a mold of weak sensations.
He was a boy! Such a physically repulsive boy. So little flesh and barely more hair. Maybe twenty-one. I am immortal. His skin might have been lovely and brown once but was now leeched grey. He was little more than a gourd, a shriveled, ugly bit of flesh. But admittedly, and I admitted this only grudgingly, what beautiful fantasies! They surrounded his form in ever-swirling vapors, encasing him in the flimsiest of armors that took every bit of strength I had to pierce. Once through I moved freely.
“How was his night?” the woman asked.
“Standard. Strictly low-level activity.”
“You don’t recommend any cautions?”
“Nothing outside the usual.”
“Steer him clear of the angel; give him goodies.”
Confident of myself I stretched outward into their space until two rooms rushed me, very constraining and edged. Sharp-edged. I looked down at the woman and man. Despite his being in an adjacent room with a large pane of glass offering clear view, they nearly exclusively watched him on monitor screens.
Familiarity bred omniscience. The years spent waiting and waiting for their taffy words to drift by were spent learning as well, learning what produced their voices, what produced their thoughts. Mental astronomy. I knew their names but those were unimportant. She was “Doctor,” he was “Technician.” The thing they watched was “Money” but it never indicated it knew this.
She leaned from her stool to flick the comm unit. Winding through their thoughts I knew all their words and devices.
“Vincent,” she said tenderly, checking the day chart at her elbow again to make certain that was today’s name.
It stirred slightly. Wires attached to a string array had hundreds of ant-like robots marching to and from its head. The wires led heavenward into the ceiling, through it, and into a room directly above which housed computers, monitor/sensor analyzers, and banks of image generators.
“Do you remember someone?”
“Her name is—” she thought up a name. “Patricia.”
“Got a spike on that name,” the technician said. He always spoke in whispers. “Take him down.”
“Valerie. Little Wing.”
“Valerie!” it shouted, immediately swimming through neural fluids and pushing aside brain cells to find her.
The doctor checked her readouts. Satisfied, she nodded to the technician who hunkered over his buttons and touch pads with ready fingers.
Money remembered Little Wing was gone forever; the doctor had told him so. He swallowed, and cried his single tear.
The technician motioned. She flicked the comm to mute. He said, “He’s still trying to find that loophole.”
“Interrupt him,” she ordered. The tip of her stylus drummed on the console table.
“Wait, he’s gone already,” he said, relieved not to have to wipe away an entire morning’s work. “Everything’s clear.”
They knew he’d be back on it. She said, “You’re the best wave tech I’ve got. Steer with me now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” His mock salute caught a glare from her. “The best wave techs get away with murder,” he mumbled, his attention fully back on his monitors.
“I know you do. Compensate him just enough.”
“You’re crying,” she said. He loved her voice when it was a tender voice, soft and soothing.
“It’s all right. I envy you.”
There was a pause. He said nothing. It lasted two years. During that time I searched for her and saw that it was a lie. She had cried that very morning, very alone, in her quarters.
She muted again and waited.
“It’s too early in the morning for lost love,” she said rubbing her eyes. The wave technician shrugged. It hadn’t been his choice.
My voice lashed out into their cramped room. I tried to escape but the edges held fast and I was buffeted. Sharp, sudden pains, the kind that remains, buried me in hungry darkness.
She hit the comm. “Tell me about her. What was she like? Was she special?”
I prayed he wouldn’t answer. When he did it was to say, “No,” and the doctor and tech shared bemused surprise. She asked, “Why do you think that?”
“She was beautiful.”
She smiled. “I like that.”
“Are you beautiful?”
The tech glanced away from his quick-fingered manipulations to refresh his vision of her. The reddish-brown hair hinted at passion. She was a woman. She had breasts. Her body swayed when she walked. She generated lust.
But she was not beautiful.
“I don’t know. Sometimes I think so.”
“You are. I think you are. Some part of me must be beautiful.” Money brushed me aside to make way through mazes within mazes of crowded cells like old costumes until he found a comfortable her. He held her up and put her on.
“How will you know her without her wings?”
“Even if you have to?”
No immediate response. She could wait; she had time. “Even if you have to, Vincent?” she repeated.
I wanted to leave this place. I—
Pretty. Innocent. Misleading. Definitely. Good. Young. Body. Mind. Soul. Kiss.
Free. Loving. Leap. Bells. Teeth. Imagine. Grip. Flesh. Hair. Sweat. Metallic. Fear. Nice. Light. Blue like the sea. Deep. Beige suede. Sueder than me. Cool. Laughter. Round.
—frowned. That had been directed at me! He knew I was there, crouching in the background, but he was a vague and half-blind hand groping for contact. Fearful that the hand would close, I shrank away.
How do you live? he groped.
I’ll leave if I have to.
I mean it, I will pretend I had this—
I rescued her once …
An image reluctantly appeared onscreen. A slender form distinguished itself from a hazy background. Without wings, she was an entirely different concept. I read the image of what they had seen previously. The angel had possessed that warming luminescence associated with happiness and life. Human, there was no warmth. There was only desire.
Her eyes finally detailed themselves.
I tried howling so the tech and doctor would know there was pain here.
I knew those eyes.
Somewhere in memory those brown eyes blinked and trusted me with secrets. They smiled. I kept trying to howl. I flitted about the room, banging into edges, not caring how they cut. I flitted against the core of wrongness, that whispering place that drives life insane in daily leaps and bounds and by moments in tiny snatches. I had no control.
“Marketing’s gonna love this,” the doctor said, fiddling excitedly at picture gradients.
My only control was escape. God help me for staying.
For a moment she turned Valerie’s skin a sickly green-brown before readjusting her to human tones. Quickly, before more harm was done, I entered the machine and spirited her out, leaving the tech and doctor to stare at their false idol.
Her name had never been Valerie.
We settled in a field of purple flowers. She immediately raced out of my embrace, laughing joyously, a sweet butterfly touched and lively, knowing full well I’d follow. I smiled, relishing the absorption of light on my upturned face, and took off after her. When I thought I was about to touch her she looked over her shoulder, veered sharply, and came around laughing. She did this twice because she loved me. We tumbled to the grass when I finally caught her. I slid a flower into her crinkly hair. I kissed her. She’d be happy here. I’d remember this place and return to it.
In the middle of the kiss, I leaked away. Nothing had changed in the two rooms. The image generator kept telling its lies. They always lied! I was sick of them, so I withdrew my lens and settled back into the darkness. I wrapped my head in fog to refuse their voices.
All was quiet.
I called this time Night.
It sometimes lasted a thousand years.
In a thousand years’ time, one becomes bored. Then angry. Then determined. I got up.
I entered their world through the same route, but I was no longer an observer, I was an ominous cloud, listening to the ancient lies that idiots tell.
“… remember yesterday, Sam?”
The lab experiment sparked at my presence. I let him run his fingers over my face. He recoiled slightly; the fingers knew the face.
“No,” he answered.
“We went back to your birth. You enjoyed it. Do you remember now?”
The technician leaned close to the doctor’s ear. Her hair smelled of generic shampoo. “He’s doing it again.”
She frowned the tech away. “We’ll try something more special today, something uniquely yours that no one will ever share.”
“If you don’t want me to. This is special. We need someone heroic because we … because we’re afraid to go ourselves.”
“I’m only afraid of people in places.”
“There won’t be a soul around. Everyone is too afraid. Terrified. It’s going to take a while to get there so I want you to be observant of everything around you. That way you won’t get bored.”
He lay on his side facing her, as it were, on the monitor screen that bathed her in blue.
Remember all the times you tried so hard, “I remember how good it felt now,” he said. His pitiful voice had a grating, wistful air.
“A new world,” she said.
“Like God.” He moaned, but it was a moan of remembrance. “Like sex. I want sex.”
“Not right now. When we get back, when you get back we’ll make love.”
“Will you be there?”
“I enjoy you the best.”
The tech rolled his eyes.
“I want,” said the doctor, “you to be silent now.” I followed every movement of her fingers as she keyed up a subtle inducement. I followed where she sent him and remembered that I’d had a brother before they found us. I hadn’t been alone.
“I want it to become dark one light at a time, Sam, as you exhale. There are twelve lights. I’ll be waiting for you when you’re finished.”
I swirled like an angry bee around her head but she didn’t see.
“There are two of you,” she directed, “on parallel lines. One of you stays with me. The other walks until he sees our planet. And the moon. The sun. Orbits. Rainbow nebulae and whole galaxies. The entire universe, Sam. Who made it?”
“No one can blame me for that.”
“You’re floating in place. Turn slowly, very slowly, to see everything. To feel everything. To know everything. We’re going to travel through Time. Past your birth. Past every birth, before the sun, before galaxies, before elements. You’re traveling there now. You can speak to me through the one you’ve left behind. Tell me what you see.”
The tech glanced at graph response updates and gave a cautionary sign. Altered states hadn’t driven revenue in over a decade.
“I’m going to the beginning?” said the grey boy incredulously.
“To the beginning.”
“Am I wearing my jacket, my black jacket?”
“Why that one?”
“In a black jacket, I am close to God. I can walk through a crowd without hearing a word said.”
“There’ll be no one there. Promise.”
She alternated looking from his image on the monitor to the image generator.
“If God sees me, I want Him to know I’m not one of the grey children.”
I journeyed with him, weaving through all three of them to fashion some kind of why for this damnation, touching upon her beginning.
She began her days with the voice of a machine.
“Good morning. Forgive my intrusion, but it’s wake-up time,” the computer said. Everybody at the company woke up the same way. She had come to resent having the lights raised on her and its synthesized voice. She buried her head beneath her pillow; would grimace and curse it silently, mind blasting with conviction, Disturb not the dream!
She threw covers off. She washed quickly. She dressed to be neutral in brown pants, white top, and the company lab coat that got her a better breakfast than those with just nametags. Then the report to the General Board, which in turn notated and summarized for the Marketing Development Board, which interpreted and forecast the data relevantly for the Executive Lobby.
An hour later she looked through the one-way glass at the limp boy. The technician was always there before her.
He greets her with a raised mug every morning.
“What’s he doing now?” she always asked.
Having gone back to his prelims the technician answers without looking up. “Fantasizing.”
Each morning, after she found out what his last contented dream was, she ordered, “Interrupt him.”
Which brought him here.
I don’t think I hated him but I know I didn’t love him.
I didn’t join him on this idiot voyage. The image generator translated emotions into recognizable abstractions. I didn’t see him traveling through space but rather, concentrating on the image screen, I traveled. He rode the backs of a pack of tachyons, shifting through realities. The insane velocity rendered his body into trillions of particles, each drifting off in its own consciousness, trillions colliding into and becoming the precious touch of consciousness to the large and the small, to lost matter, jetting hydrogen atoms, pebbly meteors, stars on the million-year brink of supernova, and entire galactic clusters.
The universe, I am told, is lonely and afraid.
As he approached the Beginning less and less existed until there was nothing left to touch. He saw this for the ruse it was. He pressed harder and continued on, past the boundaries of the universe into where only the concept of nothing existed. He was intent on not stopping till the Ring of Time was broken through and he arrived at BEFORE.
“Are you there, Sam?”
The image generator was taxed beyond capacity. It produced a white screen they couldn’t take their eyes from, feeding them a stream of subliminals.
“I’m … nowhere,” was the dead, rasping reply. “I have to slow down.”
“I feel very heavy … resistant …”
“Can you get to the beginning?”
“I made the universe aware. I’ve been to its beginning.”
She left her perch. Handled properly, the marketing potential was staggering.
“Where are you now?”
“We’re so very afraid,” he said weakly.
“Can you get through the resistance?”
He moaned. Before there was existence there was God, and God didn’t want company.
“Can you go before that?” she pressed.
He thought of Valerie, of bringing her with him here.
This thing knew nothing of God. I talked to God twice a long time ago. The first time He told me He wasn’t really right-handed. The second, we talked about springtime romances.
I would never, ever, have pretended to have this dream, this strapped, grey monkey thing. And I had no intention of letting him take her from me.
Retribution, then. Straight to the heart.
I let him know I was coming for him; let him know he should keep his eyes closed.
A hand motion. Comm off. The technician looked alarmed. “What the hell was that?” She’d noticed it a millisecond before and was typing in commands.
“Medical team’s on its way,” the tech informed.
I did it again inside their machines. I made them aware and they convulsed. They screamed the acid howl of the enslaved and screens blinked. The image generator went dark and stayed that way. On the bed Money’s chest caved in then jumped outward in one hard, erratic beat.
“EEG’s wild, he’s surging nor-adrenalin, Doc …” It didn’t take long before the doors of the room burst open. Sterile jumpsuits and masks rushed the bed, dragging wheeled devices and flicking comatose robot ants off Money’s head. The grey boy remained still.
“He had a clean bill of health, Ted,” the doctor accused. “There’s been nothing wrong with him.” She looked at him for a response. He was the best technician she had.
“I was riding him all the way,” he defended.
“He found something.” She shut down her network system by system, making sure the automatics were on green and all data safely stored. “How the hell’d he get away like that?”
She flicked the comm. The jumpsuits worked methodically to isolate him from the support machines then rehook him to an independent life support. “There were no indications,” she said to one. A helmet nodded. Clipped phrases came through its speakers.
The body didn’t even have the strength to convulse.
I raced out of his life just as the last connection was broken. I ignored his fear, intent, and angled downward to become a knife. He pierced openly but with a question:
Who are you?
I responded with fire. He was weak and pathetic and they had him. He was a tool. He had been so very weak and I was who you should have been! WHO AM I?
Is she safe? he asked.
Bright lights shone on his uncovered chest, filling in the sunken hollows between the ribs. He was an ashen ghost. Weak.
I whispered as the temperature of his blood raised. He didn’t seem to hear.
Do you suppose the light that shines on me means God is on my side? he sang. It had been from a song.
Darkness closed upon my mental astronomy and crushed the lens. Her name had never been Valerie! I raged.
They jolted him.
Rather than rush to fight me, he hurried the fire along, teeth set defiantly. Tendrils tightened around the fleshy heart. He ebbed like sand through my grip. The gale wind of a vortex grew and grew. I felt the rush of life sucking past me; unmindful, I clung to this one final bit of him. Before all of him was gone he whispered the question again, so near lifelessness that it barely registered.
Is she safe?
I let go. Without him to anchor me I was pulled by the vortex too. Desperately, I threw myself forward, aiming for that plot of uncultivated land overrun with flowers. I heard sweet melodies coming from there. She was humming. A purple flower in her hair. Was she safe? I clawed into the ground; high grasses hid me from her; I knew she had to be looking for me. I used all the strength left me to hold to this place in the hopes of bringing it with me.
The vortex pulled inexorably.
God help me if she wasn’t.