All entries for April 2009

April 17, 2009

Utopia Detachment

Wake 9897:

‘When the void is composed of reality, and reality is composed of the void, where lies the truth?’
   I found this quotation several days ago, in a wooden chest containing my great-great-grandfather’s possessions, and have spent much time thinking about it. I discovered that the quote was derived from an ancient society, who believed that the emptiness or space in reality was as important as the visible objects. Although its original context can no longer apply, I wonder about the validity of it.
   Looking at my fixed point now, at the austere wooden walls I have selected, that look so real, it’s hard to believe that there could be anything else. But that quote’s been nagging me. If you live a vicarious life, is it real? Or have I unknowingly been severed from some greater truth?
   I get up, tired of no answers, and walk out the door, onto my mountain peak, thousands of miles above the silence, or perhaps that should be nothingness, below. I run my fingers through the snow, roll a snowball into existence, and hold it in front of me. A nervous shudder scrambles up my arm and down my spine. Yet I know it’s illusion. Everybody does. We all live in our arbitrary fantasies, consigned to them by our ancestors, floating through a life we have complete control over. We are able to impact everything around us, yet I question if we are really impacting anything.
   I withdraw my mobile phone from its holder at my waist, press several buttons, and watch as reality’s personality breaks down, from a snow-capped mountain to a dense, bustling city, its skyscrapers stabbing the upper atmosphere. I go to put the mobile away, and as I look down, a familiar ripple of disgust courses through me. My pierced navel is choked by wires, connecting me to the phone. A bond surgically created at birth. I have had it all my life, but recently I am filled with a festering resentment, a resentment that travels down wires.
   I put the mobile away, and amble to my favourite spot, a perch on a rooftop ledge, that I rely on for perspective. Sat there, I watch the moving dots of ‘people’, numerous vessels of emptiness. They look, feel, taste, and sound like me, but they’re not. I am their creator. The phone transmits information to the nanomachines in my body, and they craft a bespoke reality, based on information from the databanks, like a dream shaped from thought and memory. That’s all this place is. A dream. And I want to wake up.
   I get up, unfulfilled, and decide to head to my fixed point, one of two places in my ‘realities’ that never changes position, where all my familial inheritance is found. The one place where proof of a past exists.

Wake 9898:

I’ve overslept. It’s the sixth consecutive morning that’s happened. I figure that maybe I need some genuine human contact, and head to my other constant, the nexus.

For me, the nexus is a quaint, old pub, with drinks and food tucked behind the bar, and warm midday meals being delivered to the tables. A comforting, antiquated lifestyle.
    The nexus is eerily empty. Off to the side of the bar is a table circled by two women and three men. Politely, I ask if I can join them. They assent, and I pull up a chair. I look at each of the five individuals, and ponder where they’ve situated their nexus. Judging from the man to my left’s wandering gaze, a lap dancing joint, whereas the man to my right is quiet and simply dressed. I imagine he’s in an untouched forest, sitting on a small, weather-beaten toadstool. 
A middle-aged, tired waitress walks over to me, and raises a dead smile. I order a cheeseburger, french fries, and mayonnaise sauce. She leaves, only to return promptly with the meal. A thank you isn’t required.
I place the cheeseburger in my mouth, and take a hearty bite. The yielding bread breaks, giving way to crunchy, wet lettuce, sizzling cheese and succulent beef. It tastes perfect, as I knew it would, and makes it hard to believe the whole ritual is unnecessary. I don’t need sustenance, even if this burger could provide it. The nanomachines take care of that, giving off nourishing chemical pulses, combining the body’s natural chemicals with its own. They and the phone are intrinsic, the nanomachines dependent on the phone for power and information, which in turn is transmitted from the machines on the real moon, where the whole operation is conducted. The machines have to be so far away, the procedure’s radiation is so dangerous.
The men and women are talking about the recent stories that have been fed to their brains, as a means of entertainment.
‘I can’t believe they killed her,’ a woman to my right said.
‘I know,’ said one of the men, ‘still, she had it coming.’
I remain uninvolved. I have no interest in these fairy tales. I am more concerned with what is actually happening. Looking round, I am reminded of the nexus’ sparseness. Nowadays, many avoid the nexus, content instead to live purely in their fantasies, their need of real human contact shrivelled to insignificance. I hope I never end up like that.
But there is another rumour, of an illness called E.M., about people who are so detached from human contact, that their mind begins to crack and shut down. It’s not proven. Little is. But that’s what these people should be discussing; not imaginary deaths and fictitious lives.
I finish my meal. The lap dancing man’s expression and movement is becoming increasingly explicit, and I feel disconcerted. I say good-bye, and leave the others engaged in their idle conversation.
Outside, I withdraw my mobile, and instigate a new landscape, with a descending, burning red sun in the distance, and an endless sea of shadowy, shifting sand. I wander, desultory, and muse about how the real reality and mine would differ. Would the sensations be more vivid?  Would the air be sweeter? Would there be an unknown truth there, that this environment lacked? Or would it be exactly the same?
And then I wonder if it would be familiar. I must have felt it, in my first few moments of life. But even life isn’t natural anymore. The mobiles send our DNA patterns to the machines, they replicate it, fuse it with another’s of the opposite sex, and produce a test tube baby, who’s deposited on Earth, never to see it.
Is that right? To divorce us from reality, without consent? We don’t even have our own age now, all of us living in our own separate bubbles of reality, with different times, different memories, different sunsets and sunrises. Instead, we have ‘wakes’, which represent every sleep and every awakening. At least, that’s the consensus. I’m starting to view it as a wake for every day that reality’s been dead to me.

Wake 10004:

I haven’t written for several wakes. I haven’t had the energy. I haven’t been out. Thoughts continue to plague me, not letting me sleep, sapping my will. It’s all inconsequential. I think I’ve descended into ennui. I’ve been thinking of how to get out.

Wake 10005:

The decision is solid now, like coal that has been crushed by time into diamond. I stand, and clasp in both hands the connection between me and the phone. I’m conscious of my breathing. The muscles in my hands are taut with anticipation. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing this. But I know that, once it’s done, there will be no coming back.
   I hold my breath, summon belief, and tear. I scream, though I don’t know if the pain is physical or mental. I collapse. The world starts to blink. I can feel it all slipping away. The last thing I see are the wires swaying in the air on sparks of dissipating electricity, a crackle of power, and I’m gone.

.............:

Eyes flutter open. It takes me a couple of seconds to realise they are mine. My eyes sting, and my breathing is ragged, due to the intoxicating wind. The world is bleary, but the colours are potent, vivid. I pull myself onto my elbows. The slow colours coalesce, and paint a landscape.
   I am in a garden: a huge, expansive, fertile garden, filled with trees, broad trees draped with vines, and leaves, and grass, flowers, so many flowers and so many colours more hues than you can imagine, and all of it caressed by sun rays so fresh I can almost taste them. Pure, like the beginning of time.
   I survey further. I realise I’m naked, and my body is bony and my skin translucent, I’m emaciated, but I don’t care, I feel complete. I glance at the dormant humans lying on the grass around me, people still trapped in that technological trance, and I pity them. But it’s hard to care. The sky is cerulean, glorious, and the foliage swings back and forth in the wind, whispering to me. All is quiet. It then occurs to me that this place, in many ways, is identical to the reality I left, but more. Not in sight or sense, but in joy. Life is living.     
   The whispers draw my eyes back downward, and I see the dormant humans, and part of me is sucked back into that darker reality. I’m not like them anymore, controlled by machines, their life squeezed away by their dreams. They lie with their phones in their hands, while mine lies dead at my feet. But I didn’t just sever my connection to the dream world. I severed my connection to the nanomachines that nourished me. And there are no animals here, in the real world; they were exterminated to make room for the dormant humans. The ecosystem is broken. There is no food.
   But I knew that. For my death, I bought the chance to explore and appreciate life. 
   I get to my feet, and stare at the whispering grass that beckons me inwards. As I enter the deep, silent forest, I wonder which is better: To play a part in someone else’s dream, or perish in reality.


The Sailor and the Sea Creature

The boat rocked in the middle of the endless sea, its sailor hunched, stoic, watching time drift by. Sat there for all those years, he had felt his youth slip away, his strength diminish, his humanity escape on the countless passing waves. But not his desire. That was all the company he had, all that kept him sane throughout the unbroken cycle of bitter, cold nights and pale, colourless mornings.
It was the desire for the kill that had dragged him away from his family and friends. Since the creation of his hometown, whispers had travelled from lips to ears, and from father to son through generations, of a creature named Chthonia. This creature inhabited the deepest depths of the ocean, surfacing once every century to unleash its chaos and misery.
It was such a time as this, when the sailor’s great-grandfather was a mere child, that the beast rose and, with teeth as sharp as the machete and eyes as black as thunderclouds, decimated their village, devouring its people and tools. Terrified, the villagers swiftly packed their remaining belongings. The shrewd piled in to the surviving boats, while the rest had their possessions strapped to their backs as they began the arduous swim to new lands, fear the black demon snapping at their sanity.
Eventually, a new settlement was established, and daily life, if uneasily, returned. But the murmurs persisted. The day would come when the creature discovered them, and inflicted its suffering once more. Rumour hardened into fact, as once again the bloated behemoth layed waste to their village, kicking everyone back in to the mired equality of poverty.
The people grew to resent their lives, the transient nature of their existence. Everything built was doomed to fall, and everything made was doomed to be discarded. A call was awakened for someone, anyone, to rid them of their curse. Many answered: deputations of skilled men, and selfless warriors, all who promised to be gone a month at the most; but none returned. And the dread swelled, until it was a beast itself, rampaging through the people’s hearts and pillaging all that was good.
The sailor had watched his three brothers depart on their mission, borne the agonising wait, and felt the crawling, inexorable depression that accompanied each passing day. And so he had decided to undertake the impossible, to venture in to the unknown and face Death’s soulless gaze. But not for vengeance. For immortality.

His brothers’ demise had forced the sailor to examine his own life, to evaluate its purpose and why it felt like the mud trapped under a wheel. He realised that he wasn’t afraid of death; his life had been too tumultuous for that phobia to fester: instead, he feared the vacuum his life would leave. He was without offspring, and his wife seemed unlikely to reproduce. When his brothers had died, although the mourning was sincere, it was brief, far too brief for a century and score of years.
It was then the desire reared itself: here was the chance to end the dread cycle, to make himself a hero, and a celebrated legend for years onwards. Statues would be carved from mahogany, and garlands worn in tribute. Lifetimes of commemoration, if he could make just one moment count.
An unnatural ripple glided across the water, tipping the boat in to a sway. The sailor leaned over, clutching his spear, his eyes sharp as an eagle’s. Below the surface, an amorphous shadow drifted, its size great enough to eclipse an island. It started to rise.
The sailor, aware of the danger, dropped his weapon for the oar, thrust it in to the water, and heaved with all his might. The boat went spinning to the side just as the great beast burst from the water, spewing forth a roaring tidal wave that missed the sailor’s ship by inches.
Disorientated, the sailor stared at the titanic aberration, groping for his spear, unable to tear his eyes away. It was a monstrous creature, blacker than burnt flesh, more powerful than a storm, devoid of emotion. It was the starless night, and the sailor was the struggling fire.
At last, frantic hand touched reassuring wood. The sailor pulled his arm back, and then… stopped. The creature was still. Placid. For a moment, the two warriors’ gaze locked, and the sailor stared in to the abyss. It was like a whirlpool, mesmeric and fatal. In, in, he went, deeper, the darkness coaxing his being from his mind and body. Deeper, deeper, faceless shadows morphing, flitting back and forth. Further, and then the shadows coalesced, gaining depth and substance, until he was able to identify the darkness: him.
Without thinking, he launched the spear. It flew through the air, and stabbed through the heart of the reflection. An almighty scream erupted from the demon’s throat, as thick blood ran down its face, like juice squeezed from ripe grapes. It thrashed, lashing out in every direction. Knowing his boat was no longer safe, the sailor jumped overboard, hid beneath the waves, and held his breath.
Time passed sluggishly. The sailor’s head began to pound with blood. He could hear nothing above, nor spy any sight of the towering monster. Careful, he swam to the surface.
His head broke through the sea’s endless scales. Gasping, he glanced round, turning as quickly as he could. The creature was nowhere. He was safe. He’d done it!
A plank of wood bobbed under his beaming smile. He looked at it, bemused. And then comprehension wasted away to terror. Slow, slower than a calf’s last breath, he twisted his head: his boat lay in ruins. It had been shattered beyond repair, the bits of driftwood floating away, the pieces of his life abandoning him. He had no way to get home. No way to tell his story. His family, his friends, his prospects, all gone.
All lost.



Sticky Fingers

Kevin Smith and Bernadette Gibbons were dead. At least, that was the rumour I’d been spreading.
   Funny how easy it was. Intercepting their mail, spreading the rumour to gossipy old ladies like Mrs Tellall and Ms Stira, even planting a ‘To Let’ sign on their front lawn. Hadn’t cost me a penny. In fact, I think I’ll do it more often.
   I thought of it when I saw them driving off, all packed up for a holiday in the middle of the night. Their headlights were off, and I could tell from the speed they were moving at that they were trying to stifle the sound of the engine. I don’t know where they went. All I knew was this was a situation far too ripe to remain unplucked.
   I’m not a cruel person. I’m not angry or stupid or ‘someone who has spite in their blood.’ I actually just have a strong sense of moral justice. I mean, they left their spare front door key under the second plant pot I looked under. If that isn’t a sign, what is?
   Still, they started this. I can remember it vividly. Reversing down their drive, not looking behind them. They should be locked up. Instead, my £30 football gets crushed beyond repair, and all they can say is, ‘there there, have some sweets and you’ll feel better’? That football was Timothy Dorridge’s favourite. Took me ages to get it off him.
   In that way, I suppose I’m just sticking up for him. Besides, no-one cares that they’re dead. It’s just a bit of gossip. I know I haven’t seen anyone shed a tear over them. I even saw Timothy smiling the other day, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why.

   They’re dead. They’re actually, properly, full-on dead.
   I know this because I’m sitting in the back of a police car and, what’s worse, I’m starting to think Timothy had a very different reason for smiling.
   I can’t even make up an alibi, just because I’d tried to fulfil a lifelong dream. Midday, hungry, I decided to go for the Guinness World Record for ‘Biggest Jam Sandwich’ using Smith and Gibbons’ left-over Hovis. It was the size of my face.
   Then I heard the front door click. Two police officers charged in, to find slices of bread scattered all over the kitchen floor and potfuls of jam smeared all over my hands and face.
   Which, in itself, wasn’t damning. I’d just say the sandwiches were mine, and I’d found the front door ajar, and all I was doing was checking they were alright.
   But one of the officers reminded me of something. ‘Why are you covered in jam?’ the lanky one said, after the chubby one explained the couple’s mysterious disappearance.
   ‘Be-Because I felt like a jam sandwich.’
   ‘And why are you in Mr Smith’s kitchen?’
   ‘Because he said I could.’
   ‘I see,’ the other policeman joined in. ‘So you’re not just some vandal?’
   I shook my head.
   ‘Mm,’ he said. ‘That’s interesting. Because, you see the ‘To Let’ sign out there?’ he pointed. ‘It now reads ‘ToILet’. Ring any bells?’
   I didn’t reply.
   ‘Because that new ‘I’ wasn’t written in pen, or paint, or even Tip Ex. Do you know what it was written in?’
   I looked down at the floor.
   ‘Jam.’


Stranger in the Night


The old Nissan Micra trundled through the night, swiping at the gobbets of rain that pounded its windscreen. Hemmed in by two tall, hunched hedges, it followed the thin stretch of road, the surrounding fields silent save for the soft rustle of disturbed undergrowth. Only its headlights illuminated the way through the darkness.
   Then its engine spluttered, chugged a few feet, and died. The driver looked down at his warning lights: they were all dead. He raised his head, and was startled to see a black silhouette in the glare of the headlights.
   ‘H-hello?’ he called.
   The silhouette moved forward. The driver could make out his features now: his hair was long and straggled, and his frame short and bent, as if he’d been raised hiding in the shadows; the clothes he wore were unironed and uncared for.
   The man leaned forward, and rapped twice on the side-window. Keeping his gaze fixed on him, the driver lowered it.
   ‘Can I help you?’ the driver inquired.
   ‘Help me?’ the stranger said, obscured in the shadow. He shook his head. ‘No no no. I’m here to help you. Gots me a car over that way,’ he said, pointing across the field. ‘Seems yoos be needin’ a lift.’ A grin flashed over his eager face, but whether it was malicious or friendly, the driver couldn’t say.
   ‘Are you sure?’ the driver asked, unsure which response he desired. ‘I’m headed to the coast.’
   ‘The coast? Tha’s no problem. Dropped many folk off at the coast,’ the man said. Then, when neither moved, ‘Come on, this way,’ as he turned and walked down the gravelled path. Grabbing his flashlight from its compartment box, the driver hurried after him.
   The field was rough and overgrown. Weeds choked the soil, and tall, thickly clumped meadow-grass often snagged the driver’s shoes, sending him stumbling and his torchlight wobbling. Rainwater drenched his body, and in concordance with the wind, blurred and distorted the way ahead. He trailed the stranger in silence, like a dog being pulled on a leash.
   ‘Here we are,’ the stranger announced as he descended a small bank that fell back on to the road. He pulled out the key to the central locking system, and several clicks followed, then walked around and entered the Ford Mondeo. Its model was clearly long past, but its coating and framework were pristine; stark against the stranger’s dishevelled appearance. His head was visible through the side-window, watching. The driver felt as though the mud had turned to quicksand, cementing his feet to the spot. It didn’t feel scary; it felt safe.
   ‘You comin’?’ the stranger called. ‘You c’n send someone to pick yer stuff up in the mornin’.’ His eyes were like magnets, cold and fixed, drawing the driver towards him.
   ‘Uh, yes yes, sure, just thinking about something,’ the driver said, and his feet crossed the threshold, into the thrumming car below.
    The journey was long, and a stiff silence clogged the air, thick with the smell of cheap whiskey and wasted years. Out of the corner of his eye, the driver could see the stranger: gaunt, yet not malnourished, concealed in a shaggy mask of hair. ‘Ah, what’s your name?’
   The doors locked. The stranger told him. ‘An’ yours?’
   ‘…Sid. Sid Blackwell.’
   ‘Wha’s yer profession?’
   ‘I’m a salesman. You know, door-to-door stuff mainly. Just going up to see the kids, first time in months. The wife, well, ex-wife, works a lot, so it’s difficult to arrange anything. You?’
   ‘What?’
   ‘Family?’
   ‘No.’ The stranger maintained his gaze dead ahead. Sid decided to let the conversation lie.
   Time passed incrementally, or not at all. The road and country seemed to repeat itself, like the background of a cartoon, the characters getting nowhere. Sid had no idea where he was.
   The man turned his head; that grin still cracked his lips. ‘Jus’ gonna pull in up here.’ Sid looked ahead and saw the familiar glow of an Esso station, like a pale, seductive lantern. ‘Okay.’ The Ford Mondeo stopped at the far petrol pump, and the stranger exited to fill his car, then left to pay at the nearby store.
   Sid sat, listening to the drumming of the rain. Absently, he dropped the torch from one hand to the other, and back. It occurred to him he hadn’t let go of it. He reached forward, and opened the glove compartment, clearing items to one side to make room for his torch. A silver gleam caught his eye. Staring at the source, he saw a wooden hilt, its attachment blanketed in a fine white wool. He withdrew it.
   The item was light, well balanced and smooth. In the light, Sid saw that blotches of red dotted the white. Lump in his throat, he unfurled the wool. A shining blade was revealed, cold and sharp. Crimson seemed to ooze from its shell.
   Sid’s eyes were blank, as if he’d just seen someone killed in a hit and run. He’d told this man about his children. Peering over his shoulder, he shoved the re-wrapped knife in the glove compartment, and bolted out of the door.
   The man was coming back now; steady, head bowed. Sid positioned himself under the nearest security camera, his footfalls alerting the stranger. The man looked up. They were only eight feet apart.
   ‘I-I’m not coming with you.’
   Silence.
   ‘I-I’ll be fine now, don’t worry, you can head home. I’ve called for a taxi. It’ll be here any minute.’
   The stranger’s lips curled into a pursed, inane grin. It appeared to be carved from granite. Neither moved.
   Then the stranger walked forward. Sid darted back, but the stranger carried on, oblivious. He unlocked the door, and settled into the car. The ignition grumbled. Gently, the Ford Mondeo rolled away; out of the station, out of the light, on to the wide, soulless grin of a road.


Ripples and Ramifications

On August 14th 2003, New York City was engulfed in darkness.
   Down in its blackened streets, clouds obscuring the glaring moon’s gaze, Roche marched towards his destination. At 2:03 a.m., he reached it.
   Adjacent to one of the many public parks, stood an ancient, imposing structure, distinctive against the backdrop of other, more lively houses. It was separated from the rest of the neighbourhood, and steeped in shadow, its blood and ash-stained glass windows swallowing any nearby torchlight rather than reflecting it. For decades, it had remained untouched; cracks lined its pale yellow skin, gnawing away, feasting on a corpse too proud to die.
   The whole thing reeked of dark magic.
   It had taken him years to figure out how to lower the building’s defences. The spell originally cast had been incredibly potent and complex, and, with Roche’s poor knowledge of the mystic world, nearly impossible to crack. But, through family contacts and much detective work, Roche had found the keeper of the knowledge he coveted – a wizened old vagrant, half-insane with hunger. Lying in an alley, drunk and decrepit, the man had whispered the magic’s source: unnatural light.
   Like everything in the universe, magic always needed at least one constant to operate; appliances need electricity, humans need air, nature needs the sun; and, in this manner, the mysterious mechanics of magic become that much more mundane.
   But even with this knowledge, Roche’s task had verged on the impossible. Tonight was the product of countless years’ planning, innumerable hours of research. For blackouts occurring unaided in this region were an improbability. And Roche was not a man who left things to chance.
   Calmly, he ascended the cold concrete slabs that preceded the building’s entrance, and withdrew from his pocket two short, slender pieces of sharpened plastic, placing one in either hand.
   A quick glance behind assured him that he wasn’t being watched. The park, like many of the surrounding buildings, was filled with sleepers, some in huddled groups, others finding solitary shelter beneath the protective arm of a tree or canopy. All in all, the city was very peaceful tonight.
   He stooped forwards, and inserted both plastics into the door’s antiquated lock, fiddling and shifting them around, waiting for the desired response. His hands were sweaty, suffocating in the night’s oppressive humidity, but after a few seconds, the door gave way. It manifested its protestations in one loud, mournful creak.
   Roche entered, and clicked the door shut behind him.
   The front room was like a memorial, an area dedicated to some long-past royal dynasty. Meticulous paintings of people dressed in wealth and power were displayed along the walls, each one studying his entrance with their piercing eyes. Ahead, a wide staircase adorned in gold and crimson carpet rose upwards, diverging into two at the far end before sweeping back on itself, curving upwards to the building’s highest levels. Even the banister had been masterfully carved, wild, indistinguishable forms swirling into existence at either end.
   Roche forced his mind back to the present, to the reason why he’d come here: his mother. For months now, her health had been waning, her bleak face turning more and more ghostly with every passing day. She was aware that someone had been tampering with her health, but, in her weakened state, had been unable to pinpoint the source.
   Still, she had one hope left. Within this house lay an ancient crystal ball, millennia old. Legends had dated it back to Merlin, the Egyptians, even unto the dawn of time. Some wrote of how its contents were the last wisps of a dying universe. But that was just conjecture. What everyone agreed on was simple; it was capable of healing all ills, magical or otherwise.
   As he was her only son, his mother had entrusted him with retrieving it. According to her, it was the only chance she had.
   With controlled trepidation, he made his way up the staircase. The path was long and winding, passing many endless corridors and emotionless statues. One of them was even of his mother. Her sister had owned this house before she had died, and, as such, there were many lingering links to his family. By right, his mother was the legal owner of the building; still, she’d never set foot in the place; her sister’s memories brought back too much pain.
   At last, he reached the top. The two stairways coiled back together, and stretched forwards, leading the way into a dank, dusty room, scarlet light slashing at its heart.
   Striding forward determinedly, Roche entered. Several bookcases flanked the room, their thick wooden arms sinking beneath the weight of hundreds of musty books, each one a unique compilation of knowledge kept secret for generations. A great arched window encompassed the end wall, depicting a brutal battle, where a towering figure looked over the bloodshed below; the whole image was emblazoned in light, overflowing with power and purity, its history spilling outwards and enlightening the oppressive gloom below, protecting the room’s most desirable item: the crystal ball.
   It rested on a stout, black pedestal, flawlessly formed, faultlessly designed, seething with an unparalleled perfection; a myth made substance.
   Furtively, Roche extended his hands, and, delicately, picked up the object that, since childhood, had been at the centre of his thoughts. He could still envisage clearly the fist time he’d heard about it: sitting in his mother’s forbidden library on a wet summer’s day, he had grasped desperately for any tome he could reach, trying to waste as little time as possible. A thin, slender book had effortlessly captured his attention, refusing to let his gaze slip away. Giving into temptation, he had carefully withdrawn it, opening it with a religious reverence.
   Page after page fell back, slipping through his grasp, before finally stopping with a pre-determined purpose at the text that would change his life. Hungrily, he’d devoured the information, until the footsteps outside signalled it was time for him to leave. Hastily, he had put the book back, but it had left an indelible impression on his mind.
   Now, standing here, holding this sacred object, it was almost too much. The crystal ball; the cure. His mother’s only cure. The only chance for the woman who had withheld him from the rest of his family; who had selfishly kept secret the wonders of magic for so long; who had only one heir.
   Him.
   Crystal shattered against stone, piercing the room’s decades old silence.

   Somewhere deep within the recesses of his soul, Roche heard a wail of pure anguish. He savoured it.
   Smiling, Roche surveyed his inheritance. Legally, it wasn’t yet his, but in every other way that mattered, he owned it. It was just a case of being patient. And, after waiting for years and years, what were a few more days?
   Still, he couldn’t stand and admire forever. There was still so much of this place to see, and his arrogance needed confirmation of his brilliance. With a stride that revealed his feeling of invincibility, he strode from room to room, soaking in the building’s ancient wonders. Old, priceless robes were stored in a large, mahogany cupboard, each one made of the finest materials and most exotic colours; another room housed a wide, stone pool of still crystal water, which dipped and swirled to reveal any place the user desired; there was even the Arantsi, a silver amulet with an emerald at its centre, which would grant the owner immortality, so long as he or she wore it.
   Yes, this place was everything Roche had dreamed of. So, it was with immense satisfaction that he wondered back down the long, winding staircase, prepared to bear the agony of leaving, safe in the knowledge that when his mother died, the curse guarding the structure would forever be repealed.
   His mind was still half-occupied by these glorious notions when he returned to the front of the house, and reached forward to pull the door handle aside. It didn’t budge. Stifling his confusion, he pulled again. Nothing. Putting all his weight into it, he pulled hard. Harder. He used his legs to push against the door’s frame, for added strength. Within seconds, he had resorted to punching, kicking, even using his shoulder as a ram. Nothing.
   Dropping to his knees, he thought about what could have caused this. The answer sent his blood cold.
   Slowly, he twisted his head to face the nearest window; blades of light sliced through its glassy barrier, quietly silencing any delusions of grandeur. Frantically, he rushed across the room and looked outside. The sun hovered in the east, illuminating the landscape in an eerie morning glow, while street lamps and buildings flickered with activity, mocking him, haunting his mind with whispers of defeat.
   With controlled terror, he shifted his gaze to the window’s arched frame. At first glance, it appeared perfectly normal. But Roche knew what to look for. Fearfully, he looked closer: lining it edge, a thin, white mist shimmered, intangible and impossible. Because it meant the curse had returned. It meant he had mistimed his actions.
   It meant he had made an error.
   Swallowing hard, he held back the surge of panic that threatened to drown him, and ran through his options, searching furiously for a solution. Only one came to mind. Breathing in for the self-control he needed, he sprinted upstairs.

   Roche stood at the doorway to the room of the all-seeing pool, regaining his composure. What followed would have to be done perfectly, if it were to have any chance of success.
   With all the calmness he could muster, he marched boldly in, and leant over the pool’s reflective surface. For a brief moment, he saw himself; his hair was a mess, and his usually pristine clothing was scruffy from his efforts to pull back the door. It took him several moments to rearrange his appearance in a manner which pleased him; only then did he dip his hand into the pool’s icy water, and allow his thoughts to drift along the water’s smooth surface, gently guiding them towards their distant target.
   A ripple glided across the pool, reshaping its image into something far more familiar.
   Placidly, Roche said, ‘Hello, Mother’.
   ‘Roche?’ she croaked weakly. ‘Did, did you manage to obtain it?’
   ‘Yes, Mother’, Roche said tiredly. ‘But I need your help. There was an…unfortunate turn of events. The defences have returned prematurely. You have to get me out’.
   A hint of surprise seemed to flash across her exhausted features. ‘You know I can’t do that’, she replied. ‘I’m’, she hacked a cough, ‘I’m too weak. If I could’ve lowered the shield, do you not think I’d have done it the first time?’
   ‘Yes, I know’, Roche continued, worried his distress was staring to show. ‘But can’t you, I mean, can’t you manage it for me?’
   ‘Not in my present condition. But don’t worry. That crystal ball you have…it can heal me…all you have to do is hold it, and picture me healthy. Then I can release you’.
   Roche remained silent. He had no response.
   ‘Roche, please’, she hacked. ‘What’s wrong? Why aren’t you doing anything?’
   She coughed hoarsely, then again, and again, each cough coarser and more sickly than the one that preceded it.
   ‘Mother?’ Roche shouted, alarmed.
   It was getting worse. Her head began to loll, flailing back and forth, before slumping heavily into the comfort of her pillow. Here eyelids fluttered. Faintly, breathlessly, she whispered, ‘Why aren’t you…?’
   But Roche didn’t have time to respond, even if he’d had something to say. All he could do was watch and despair as his mother’s image wilted and died, effortlessly sinking back into the water’s murky depths.
   Roche was rooted to the spot, shell-shocked. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. It took al his willpower to shake himself out of his daze. Desperately, he dragged himself back over the pool, and stabbed his hand in urgently.
   ‘Mother!’ he shouted. ‘MOTHER!’
   The silence of eternity was his only reply.


April 2009

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