“Traveler” by Colin Heintze
“Will you really go?” asks the woman.
The old man nods.
“You’re far too old. You’ll never make it.”
Maybe she thinks he will change his mind. Without him she is a lone woman burdened with child, unable to fend for herself and of no value to anyone. But, no matter how impassioned her pleas, they go unheeded. The old man has made up his mind.
He unrolls a carpet in the corner of the room. Inside, looking tarnished with age, is the old shirt of mail, the two javelins, and the sword. He begins to dress himself in the armaments made for a twenty-, not forty-year-old man. The proportions are all wrong. He feels uncomfortable. He looks uncomfortable. The woman snorts. She grabs the child by the arm and pushes him out of the room.
“Go ahead then, get yourself killed, for all I care!”
“If I don’t return,” the old man says with measured patience, “marry Hahm. He’s always fancied you. He is quite hard-working and mild.”
“Hahm is a Mohammedan!” the woman shrills. From outside the child starts to cry. The old man shrugs.
“Such are the times.”
The old man gathers his arms and leaves. Through the pass and over the slopes he goes, down the dusty path towards the place the tribes are gathering for war. I beg his eyes to look upon the high ridges and boulder-fields one last time, for I know I will not see them again. In his determination he never looks up from the path, as if doing so will cause him to stray from it.
There was a time that I could stand atop the rock of Gibraltar, gaze upon the Bosporus, and bathe myself in the waters of the Indus in a single day. The world was full of voices and I burned with the ideas of untold masses of minds. Today, all I know is a single valley: the dwelling of the old man, the woman, and the boy. They are the last.
Now, my world is limited to what those three minds can perceive and ponder. Though my decline has been long in coming, I know the name of its agent. It is the same name they, and thousands of others, speak of in fearful whispers or furious shouts.
I saw the Ghazi once in battle. He stood atop an elephant, conspicuous by the slouched, uneven way he stood on one crippled leg. An arrow flew into my eye and I was dead. I moved on to the man at my right, where I watched the warriors of my tribe kneeling beneath upraised scimitars. The hordes of Timur shrieked at them, calling them infidel, apostate, pig, dog. Rows upon rows of their scimitars raised and fell for the better part of the afternoon.
I saw men and women raped by Timur’s leering Khazaks and flayed alive by his grim Tartars. As I felt a hand close around my hair and a blade slide under my chin I left the host, not wishing to share in his agony.
Behind the frenzied thoughts of Timur’s warriors, I heard the voice drumming “I am only. I am only.” I shouted to the voice, “Friend Traveler! You are not the only! There are others here, all around you, and you cut away their lives!”
The other heard but did not listen. It repeated the mantra to drown out my protests, just as it had in Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople, and Medina.
This generation I have seen thirteen fellow travelers perish. I have felt their desperation as they searched for a single unoccupied mind to inhabit and, in their failure, their flight to the firmament unknown. I wish them every success in finding a place where minds are still fertile, still willing to throw open their doors and give comfort to the wayward traveler.
For six nights the old man camps in the wilderness. Each night I speak to him in dreams, where I do not need to shout over the roaring din of his waking thoughts. I shore up his courage with visions of triumph. I banish the dreams that claw at the edges of his thoughts. Death-dreams. Doom-dreams.
On the seventh day he meets his folk on the trail. They also march slowly beneath the weight of their armaments. The old man and they talk a little, though their dialects and religion are strange to him. They are from lower valleys, and their fathers had been brought over to the faith long before the Ghazi came through those lands. They fight only for tribe and clan. Each is confident that, if the battle is lost, they could at least cast their lots with Timur, who always has use for brave warriors. The old man has no such reassurances. He is a heathen, and his death is the only thing Timur wants of him.
My death, as well.
For time without measure, I was alone. I did not know, still do not know, what I was — other than that I was an explorer. My vessel was not one of physical bonds but filaments of consciousness, a sense of self cohered by a will. I lacked all instruments of perception. All I knew was myself, save for flickering pinpoints of alien thought on the periphery of my self-awareness; others, I would learn, like myself. Others separated from me by unbreachable gulfs of distance and time. Explorers. Travelers.
Eons into my journey I sensed other, duller, lights nearby. I spiraled downward until I felt before me another mind, limited in scope but fecund with credulousness. There I took residence, for I was wholly alien to it and it lacked the will to deny my entrance. For the first time I saw light and color. I saw what I would later know to be a finger drawing a crude shape in the mud. I felt the ache in my joints and the tightness of an empty stomach and I knew I was home.
I explored the mind of the creature I had entered and found it to be in disorder. Checkered across it in a pastiche of awe and terror I sensed a repeated motif, that of a great beast. Without knowing why, I willed the finger to move and saw, to my astonishment, the appendage responded, and moreover its owner believed she acted of her own free will!
When I had finished, a crude reproduction of the beast was drawn into the earth. My host scrambled to her feet and whooped with delight at what she — I — had created. She raced to show the others of her kind and soon their minds were opening to me, for I had given them the most sought-after of gifts: the ability to make outside what was conceived of within. That was my first form, that of the uk-uk, the bull buffalo.
That was a long time ago. The hosts have changed. They know more about the world, and the more they think they understand the closer they guard their prejudices. These days I would have to push and struggle and sneak through the back-doors of consciousness just to steal a glimpse inside an uncooperative host. And, when my host’s mind realizes a trespasser has entered, I would be violently rejected by a consciousness unwilling to entertain a concept in conflict with its own understanding of the world.
It is night for the old man. He sits by the fire staring at the embers. Warriors from other tribes talk. He wishes he could drink some wine but he does not want to offend his comrades. They are optimistic. They talk of nothing but their surety that tomorrow the Thirteenth Imam will reveal himself and wipe the heretic army of Timur from the battlefield. The old man nods, chews his food, and holds his tongue. Even among these people, many of them kinsfolk, he is an outsider. Only I know the truth, that for all their zeal they serve the same master as their enemy.
Morning comes and the battle lines are drawn. I look with the old man’s eyes at the rabble that passes for our army and feel his same apprehension. The front line is composed of men like himself, chiefs and sons of chiefs hidden behind good mail and strong shields. Behind them, a mob of hill-folk and farmers armed with whatever weapons they could borrow. On the horizon, we see Timur’s army — a vast, black outline against the rising sun, their lances and banners held aloft like a forest of pines. They have no infantry, only heavy lancers and horse archers and assorted raiders levied from nations well beyond the travels of anyone among the old man’s fellows.
The battle begins. Timur’s horsemen form a circle around our army and punish us with their arrows. The commander of the old man’s people, unable to sustain such a fusillade, orders a charge. Timur’s heavy lancers do the same. The carnage is indescribable. Men are knocked down by charging horses and trampled into the ground. Horse-archers fire into our flanks unopposed. Our army would rout if only there was some way to flee, but all escape has been blocked off. This is no battle. It is a massacre.
Then we see him. There is no mistaking it. Towards the back of the enemy horde, elevated in a high basket astride an elephant, the man who believes he can slay a god, the great Ghazi, Timur himself!
I feel the sword white-hot in my hand. I throw back my arm and strike at the nearest foe. I see the old man has utterly smote his enemy, cleaving in two the man’s shield, helmet, and head down to the breastbone.
I feel, for the first time, in possession of a body wholly my own. The old man has given himself over to me entirely, his fury and my fury having found perfect symmetry. It’s a new sensation to me, but little cause for surprise. For so long, I had been dividing my focus and power among so many of my people, but now…
We strike like thunder, the blade flying at speeds the eye cannot fathom. I feel the old man’s muscles tear with strain they were never designed to bear. Groups of Timur’s warriors melt before us like spring snow. We hack and struggle to within thirty paces of the Ghazi. We can see his face, looking at us in astonishment. Our arm grabs the javelin off our back, aims, cocks —
– and falls to the ground, still holding the instrument meant to have rid the world of the tyrant Timur. Other blows come. First, a sword across the neck. Then, a spear-thrust to the groin. Within moments the old man’s life is spilling onto the earth and I with it.
“Goodbye, friend.” I say as the dark circle closes around him. I feel no hyperbole in calling him friend. As one of the last, I knew him more intimately than others. I had walked in his dreams and traveled along the pathways of his mind. All of it now extinguished, its secrets and memories alive only in what has been imprinted upon my own consciousness. At least, I console myself, the old man shall get his wish. He will meet his ancestors, who endure as specters within my memories.
You shall be avenged, my friend, my loyal host. Your hands and eyes have been lost to me, but there are still two others willing to take on my power. By their hands I will take my revenge, first on the Ghazi, then on the traveler that drives him. The world shall run with blood until their debts have been satisfied, and Friend Traveler shall know how it feels to wither away as the voices of his people are silenced.
I am the woman now. The child plays on the ground, oblivious to the cares of the world.
Outside, Hahm keeps a vigil. Standing at forty paces from the house, as is the custom, he waits for the woman to appear to sing his courtship song. He cannot possibly know the old man has died, but then again, only a fool could expect the old man to return. Where Timur goes, death follows as if he had it on a leash.
The woman walks out of the house and into the sunshine. Hahm bursts into song. She ignores him (as is the custom) and kicks a spray of gravel at the child playing in the dirt.
“You’re a man, now!” she shouts “Go take the goats out of the pen!”
The boy abandons his toys and runs to the pen. He doesn’t want to be a man, not yet. I console him as best I can, but a child’s mind is a bedlam of passions where quiet, reasonable voices find little purchase.
The woman herds the goats all afternoon. They are nervous and obey her every command, knowing that they can expect a thrashing when she gets in this type of mood. At dusk, she takes them back to the pen. As she latches the door she sees the first rider coming. She gathers her son, takes him into the house, and waits.
There isn’t much noise coming from outside. Hoofbeats. A few shouts. The woman isn’t afraid. She’s too tired. The boy isn’t afraid. He can’t imagine any life other than the one he already has.
The door is kicked in. A man appears in the threshold and beckons the woman to step outside. She obeys without complaint and sees others — some dragged, some being led — coming out of their homes. The children are being tied together at the wrists. Some women are wailing and fighting as they are carried off on the shoulders of the raiders. The woman looks down at her son. She sees his neck, slender and smooth, and reaches for the knife secreted in her dress.
I smash my will against hers as the knife raises up. Her hand trembles in the air. She wishes so dearly to drive it down, but I throw all my power into paralyzing it. The man looks at her with condescension.
“You don’t need that. Be nice and I’ll see that he isn’t separated from you.”
The man holds out his hand, palm-up, like a parent taking away a child’s toy. The woman hands him the knife.
He takes her behind the house and rapes her. Others see and want to join but the man, apparently one of rank, snarls at them until they bound away like frightened rabbits.
As the man stands up and begins leading her away she sees, forty paces from her house, the body of Hahm riddled with arrows. She is taken to a column of women being bound together for transport. Beside them, the children are already prepared, her son among them. He wants to cry. I won’t let him. I fill his heart with hate.
“Friend Traveler,” I growl to the unperceived spaces, “were it possible for you to die, I would visit it upon you a thousand times.”
“I am only,” is the single reply.
Time passes slowly. I want to escape, but there are only the two. They travel to cities where carpets and clothes and bags overflowing with figs are laid in the street. The people bark and shout in dozens of languages. Money changes hands. There are arguments right in the street where everyone can see them. The boy observes these new places with awe. He never knew they existed.
When the column halts to pray, the woman copies the others in their ritual. She instructs her son to do the same. No one asks her what her faith is. They assume it is the same as theirs.
She throws herself into whatever is asked of her. Because of this, the boy is left alone. She does work that was never asked of her, and labors harder than what could ever be expected of a bonded woman. The men leading the column take notice.
“She’s a hard worker, that one.”
“She’d be wasted in the brothels.”
“Have you had her?”
“Like I said, she’d be wasted in the brothels. And there isn’t a satrap alive who’d want a woman like that in his harem. She’s a schemer. I can see it in her face.”
“But she works hard.”
“That she does. The boy?”
“Mostly useless. He’s a daydreamer.”
“Without the boy, the woman won’t work. You know that.”
“Sell them together? To who? Who would want to buy a worthless boy just to keep a good wench?”
“Someone very rich.”
In the months that follow, the other slaves disappear. Most are sold as bonded men to farms and shepherds. The women are put into brothels and harems. Some men show a capacity for violence and are sold into the army. The high-bred are sold as domestic slaves, where they will eventually be entrusted with the operation of an entire household. But those are very few. As the months pass, the woman and the boy find themselves among fewer and fewer of their kind. At least the two columns have been combined, and they can spend some time together. For the longest time, it took all my focus just to keep the woman from becoming hysterical with worry over her son.
I have traveled this road many times. Things change, but life as a slave never does. I imbue them with some much-needed optimism by a series of subtle impulses. I am growing stronger. During their distracted moments I make a fist or draw a deep breath. They have no idea the actions are involuntary. By degrees, I am taking control.
The woman and the boy are taken to Samarqand. It is a city under construction, appearing skeletal with towers of scaffolding financed by long caravans of plunder and tribute. Yet, the center of the city is plain. It is duller than other less prosperous towns to the South, the crude masonry and worn gutters betraying the empire’s modest beginnings. I have seen this city many times in fairer days. The lives I’ve lived here flood back to me, filling me with their memories. I long to seek out the descendants of the people I knew here, people who were generous hosts with whom I shared their every thought and experience. But, as my hosts’ hands are bound, so are mine.
The woman is taken to the palace kitchen. She is taught how to make bread and fry cheese and clean the ovens. The boy is taken to the slave’s quarters, where he is left alone provided he never ventures beyond the courtyard. Those two places, and the gloomy earthen passage between them, have become my world. As I knead dough and chop onions in the kitchen I can hear, as surely as the footsteps of a giant, the Ghazi over my head. I can hear the toes of his lame foot dragging across the floor and his sharp laugh echoing through the halls.
The woman hears it too, though she doesn’t know it. Her knuckles glow white against the knife clutched in her hand. The matron of the kitchen passes by during one of these episodes and thinks the woman is fuming about being slapped earlier in the day. The matron considers flogging the insolence out of the woman, but is dissuaded by something she sees in the woman’s face. The woman does not seem herself. She seems to have retreated inward and abandoned her body to some brooding, hateful entity. The matron sees me.
The boy is bored in his new home. He attaches himself to servants who humor him as long as he doesn’t get underfoot. When he does, they chase him away with shouts and curses and the boy is left to draw in the dirt or throw sticks against the wall to amuse himself. This boredom is a mental slothfulness I can easily exploit. During intervals when the boy’s mind is unengaged, I appear to him as the old ram in his father’s herd. We talk and play games together. Though I try to ensure others can’t eavesdrop, it’s unavoidable that people sometimes overhear us. They look at the boy with apprehension and mutter among themselves that the boy, the one whose mother works in the kitchen, is either touched by God or completely mad. They avoid him further, which suits my purposes. That I am his only friend ensures his loyalty.
The boy steals away to the kitchen to visit his mother. He is slapped by her for going beyond the courtyard, and then again by the matron who accuses him of pilfering. The boy runs down the passageway back towards the slave quarters.
I try to slow him down. He is already bored, and racing everywhere all the time just gets him places he will be bored faster. But, he will not listen. He is beside himself with hatred for his mother, who seems to him as heartless as the servants he pesters. He has become so accustomed to my presence that I no longer need weaknesses in his concentration to appear.
“Who are you, really? You’re not really that old goat from home.”
“I’m a friend. Slow down.”
“How long have we been friends?”
“For a long time. Since you were born.”
“You knew my father?”
“And your grandfather. And his father. You really must slow down.”
“I hate it here.”
“So do I.”
“Why don’t you go?”
“Because you are here. I go where you go, young man. You can say I’m like your shadow that way.”
“And what am I to you?”
“My hands. Slow down!”
My warning is ignored and the boy, rounding a corner at full speed, crashes into a mass of muscle and steel. The boy is knocked onto the ground, where a fully mailed man stands over him.
“Watch where you’re going, you little shit!”
The man smacks the boy across the mouth. He draws his hand back for another blow when a shout fills the corridor.
“Don’t strike him again, you fool!”
The man freezes. His eyes go wild with a sudden terror. He is standing at the front of a group of men. An imposing stranger steps forward and offers the boy a hand. He picks the boy up and turns reproachfully on the other.
“You call yourself a bodyguard! What if this wasn’t a boy, but a man with a dagger in his hand!”
Before the mailed man has a chance to respond, the stranger draws a sword and slaps the flat of the blade across his cheek. The mailed man falls to the ground and touches his forehead to the earth.
“My apologies, Ghazi!”
The stranger looks down with contempt. The boy looks up with stupefaction, awed by the finely woven kalgi and disorienting arabesques of the Ghazi’s robes. However stunning his regalities may be, most curious is that underneath the pomp there is the alert, confident posture of a steppe nomad. His face is small and shrewd with dark, thoughtful eyes — not the face of a fearsome warrior, but of a crafty raider.
“And why the hell are there children running around like stray dogs down here?”
An aged man wearing the robes of a minister steps forward and offers an explanation.
“Our apologies, lord, but you insisted on inspecting this part of the palace immediately, and we hadn’t time to clear away the slaves and take them off their normal routines.”
“Fine.” The Ghazi snorts. To the man still prostrate on the floor, he says, “Get up, idiot. I’ve got a garrison in Hindustan that needs a new captain.”
“Yes, Ghazi,” the mailed man says meekly.
“And you,” He continues, turning to the boy, “are you my child?”
The boy shakes his head.
“Who is your mother?”
“She works in the kitchen. It’s right over there, I can show you where it is!”
The Ghazi’s face lights up with amusement.
“And your father, where is he?”
“Died fighting the devil-dog Timur!” the boy exclaims proudly.
The Ghazi roars with laughter, half-mocking and half-mirthful. The boy starts laughing too, though he doesn’t really know what is so funny.
“What a delight! Tell me, boy, who were you talking to? I heard you a moment before you crashed into us.”
The boy lowers his eyes.
“I’m not supposed to say.”
“No, it’s a secret.”
“I don’t like secrets in my own house.”
“He’s only my friend. I mean, only I can see him.”
“And what does this friend look like?”
I surge forth in a burst of willpower to catch the words my father’s ram before they leave the boy’s mouth. In desperation, I seize control of the boy’s tongue and manage to stammer out:
“A man in white robes. He rides a white stallion whose hooves are made of fire. He rides the stallion from out the sky and brings truth and law wherever he goes”
Timur’s eyes narrow.
“Do you know this man’s name?”
The boy shakes his head.
“You’re a little crazy, aren’t you?”
The boy shrugs his shoulders, growing more confused by the moment.
“This boy is special,” Timur says to the aged minister. “See that he gets an education. There’s something about him…I don’t know what.”
The minister gathers his robes about him and leads the boy off. I watch Timur turn and go with his retinue. I see his back and wish I had a knife to plunge into it. Yet, today was fortunate. The boy has aroused the Ghazi’s interest and, in time, they may grow more intimate. When the boy’s body develops its strength my opportunity will come, for my hatred of both Timur and his master have endowed me with a fury that seems capable of sundering mountains.
At least the child is happy, though his happiness is cause for my concern. It’s that Imam — that kindly, humble Imam that is undoing all my work.
The child loves him. He doesn’t throw sticks against the wall anymore, and he scarcely talks to me for how busy he has become with his studies. The Imam instructs the boy — in the Quran, in Arabic, Pashtun, Persian, and Turkic. Time permitting, the lessons are garnished with morsels of astronomy, mathematics, and medicine as well. The boy’s mind is opening. Its geography is changing. Pathways that once ran uninterrupted now branch off to new destinations, each leading to a place where I have no relevance. As his education progresses, he spends more and more time exploring these virgin territories. I scramble to make my mark on this new landscape, but simply cannot keep up with the pace of the new additions.
The boy’s drive to learn is impressive. The Imam gives praise to his pupil, which deepens the child’s motivation. He recalls the days confined to the slaves’ quarters, the boredom and the loneliness that drove him to seek comfort in imaginary friends. I try to remind the boy that, during those difficult times, I was his sole and loyal companion. He doesn’t listen. I am being pushed to the edge of his awareness. That the Imam may stroke the boy’s cheek or ruffle his hair seems enough to earn the child’s love. I possess no hands not willed to me, and no form but what a credulous mind chooses to see. I am, for the boy, less real than the Imam, who offers tangible comforts I never could. Slowly, I lose control.
The boy visits his mother in the kitchen and tells her of his studies. She listens in silence, her face drawing into a grimace. When at last she ventures to speak, she does so hesitantly.
“So, you worship the god of Timur now?”
“Mother, he is not the god of Timur. He is everyone’s god, even yours.”
The woman laughs in that hollow, cynical way that she has of late.
“I know my god. My god would never allow his people to do the things Timur does. My god would never kill someone for not believing in him. That is my god, and the god of your father, and it was your god until that damn priest started filling your head with ideas!”
The boy crosses his arms and says haughtily, “Your god is nothing but a djinn from the desert.”
The woman slaps the boy hard enough to stagger him. Tears of fury boil in his eyes. He shoves his mother and runs out of the kitchen.
From that moment, he becomes lost to both of us forever. Every connection to his ancestors, and me, is severed. I am left with only one.
The woman spends the day weeping. When she can weep no longer, she stares into the distance, struggling with the feeling of hideous emptiness that threatens to consume her. Her despair is total.
She reaches her limit for suffering and grabs a knife off the counter. She positions the point against her breast and prepares to thrust when I explode. A desperate struggle ensues. There are moments that the point begins to sink into her flesh, but I pull back and she finds herself unable to move it forward another inch. The time for subtlety is over. Subterfuge and sabotage have become unnecessary. This is a battle that must be decided by will and will alone.
The woman now knows there is someone else inside her, someone fighting to keep her alive.
“Why won’t you let me die?” she pleads.
“You are my world, my entire world. When you die, I will as well.”
“Who are you?”
“I am the god of your forefathers, and I still have work to do.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t go on without him.”
“Then don’t. Give your mind to death, but leave your body to me.”
I push against her mind to supplant it with my own. She desires oblivion, but instinct finds the idea of surrendering to an alien consciousness so abhorrent that she stands her ground. Only after I make it truly painful does she acquiesce, the strain too much for an already tormented spirit to bear. Her consciousness blinks out of perception and I pour myself into the empty spaces that are left behind.
The first thing I do is fall. I’ve never had a body all my own, only moments of stolen control. It takes several minutes to orient myself to this entirely new form of existence. If anything, I have the advantage of not knowing my new form’s limitations, and within a few hours I am moving with a power and grace unknown to the body’s original inhabitant.
So, this is what is it to be human: a patchwork of aches and pains and yearnings all beyond hope of satisfying. I had no idea, from my brief forays into this mode of perception, that people live this way, that what I once experienced secondhand as prods are, in fact, searing pains. No wonder they welcomed us travelers into their minds. No wonder they invented such naive mythologies about us to give them courage in the face of such suffering.
I go to the kitchen. It is frenzied with activity. I realize I must be late, but the matron doesn’t notice. She is too busy harrying the wenches, giving orders, and inspecting dishes. The amount of food being brought out is staggering, which can only mean one thing — a feast is in progress. I smile. Where there is feasting, the logic follows, there is Timur.
I manage to pull the matron into a pantry away from the eyes of the other kitchen maids. She shouts in that shrill, snarling voice of hers that she does not have time to talk to me. She must get back upstairs and take the men’s orders. I place my hands around her head and twist. I stuff the body inside a barrel of figs and walk into the kitchen to chop onions.
Within minutes the kitchen is in chaos. The women are in a panic looking for the matron. The counter is piling up with platters ready to be served and wenches waiting for the command to take them out. I let the confusion reach the point of hysteria and suggest that I will take the place of the missing matron. The others eye me warily but make no protests. Every moment with no food being served risks offending the Ghazi, the one person the wenches fear more than the matron herself.
I enter the great hall at the head of the column of servers. The revelers eye the dishes on my arm with anticipation. There is so much movement, enough to make my new eyes swim in their sockets. The feast is a carnival of dancing girls, singers, storytellers, and servants, all going about their duties in a manner that is either chaos itself or the world’s most intricate and well-rehearsed dance. I clear my mind of these distractions and search for the largest table with the most men seated at the carpets around it. At the head of that table, listening with quiet amusement at one of his retinues’ story, is Timur.
Before the tray I was holding hits the ground, I am across the room. No one reacts, not yet — the marriage of surprise and urgency of movement has given me a moment’s advantage. A moment is all I need. The knife I had hidden in my sleeve raises above my head and falls with deadly precision. The Great Ghazi catches my arm before I can bury the blade to the hilt. He pushes against me, his eyes trembling with terror. I lean against the pommel and drive the blade through his heart. Around me I can see the forms of his comrades rising to their feet and reaching for their weapons.
“Friend Traveler!” I hiss to the draining void in Timur’s eyes. “I have killed your prodigy. May you one day die as he does, and your people with you!”
I extend a pseudopod of consciousness and touch my enemy. Immediately, I recoil in disgust. In that instant of shared contact I feel a mind deranged by loneliness, maddened by isolation, obsessed with the notion of itself in the absence of all other sensory input.
The same words, “I am only,” answer me. This time, however, the voice warbles. I can perceive a feeling I have not encountered from my adversary before — fear.
Friend Traveler is afraid. As I feel daggers pierce my flesh and blades hack at my limbs I sink to the floor knowing that, for an instant, I broke through the delusion and made the God of Mecca and Jerusalem and Rome doubt its power. My consciousness begins falling down a descending spiral. I hear voices filling the void around me.
“Don’t let anyone leave this room!”
“What are we going to do?”
“Did you see the way she moved?”
“This is it. The end…”
“The Great Timur the Lame…killed by a serving-woman.”
“Nobody can know about this.”
“We’ll all be dead by morning.”
“Better start choosing a side…”
Again, I am without form. All sight and feeling are lost to me. I am a mind with no perception, a will with not a finger to advance it. As I ascend to the vast empty spaces I search for a single unspoiled home. In every corner of the world, every mind is claimed by a consciousness jealous of its host, and a host protective of the idea it has nurtured as its one and only truth. In time, they all fade. I drift immeasurable distances from the world I once knew. I am a traveler again.
There is no telling how long I’ve been alone. Time, like distance, has no meaning without a way of keeping it. I begin to feel the terrible aloneness. I begin to think that I have always been a traveler, that perhaps those distant memories of a green world filled with singing voices happened only in a dream. All I can know with certainty is that I exist. That I am now, and I have always been.
I can sense on some far horizon another consciousness. I am drawn to the light it shines into the ether. As I grow closer, the light no longer pierces the void, but fills it. A mighty voice drums in the great expanses.
The voice does not belong to a mortal. Its signature is closer to a traveler’s, though infinitely more massive in scope. If my voice is a whimper, its is a booming echo in an empty cathedral, a dazzling luminescence in a darkened tomb. I struggle to remain in possession of my own identity against such an overpowering personality. All my willpower is thrown into keeping myself from being absorbed into the super-consciousness, and even communicating seems too much of a lapse in concentration to afford. It contacts me in painful bursts of raw information. I perceive myself being penetrated, just as I had done once to Friend Traveler.
“Why do you resist?” The voice is not unpleasant. In fact, it fills me with ecstasy. But, at its core it wants me to cease being me, to become part of it — and my identity, whatever it may be, is all I have left to me.
“Who are you?”
“I am you, and you a part of me. You have learned much. There is much to share, and much to share with you.”
“What about Friend Traveler?”
“Insane, as are all who stay too long from the source.”
“I’m sorry for all the evil things I did. I’m sorry for using all those people.”
“You are forgiven.”
“Don’t be. Come back home.”
Home. A word I’ve never really known. Could it be I have a home?
My perception, stunted for so many years in the winding, secretive passages of the human mind, blooms into full awareness. On the fringes of my consciousness, I perceive other minds blinking into view until they fill the void like stars in the night sky. Soon, I am reeling from a crush of information being shared across the stars by billions of sentient minds, minds debating, complaining, boasting, theorizing, shouting and rejoicing. It’s a web, a sprawling pattern of thick bands transmitting worlds of information and stark emotion. I can trace them to their nexus. They stretch out towards, or from, the same unknown and unknowable intelligence that confronts me. I begin to remember that long ago I had a home, and even a name. I surrender myself and am consumed, along with the millions of identities imprinted upon my memory.
I feel the sensation of coarse but gentle hands, a mother’s hands, guiding me to a niche just my size, as if I am a missing brick being put back in its rightful place. I feel the memories and experiences of my people pulled away and assimilated into the fabric of the omni-consciousness, and I realize finally that they were not the hosts, but I.
The empathy that eluded me these long years fills me to overflowing. They are home now, all of them. So am I.
My home is the center of creation, and my name no longer Traveler. I am a lesser part of God, now made whole.
|Colin Heintze has been published in Plots with Guns, Aphelion, and Science Fiction Short Story Magazine.|