“Bitter Medicine” by C.A.L.
(EPUB | MOBI)
A ghost of the old world…I imagine you frozen, a naked glittering flower of ice, asleep in a gelid perfection…But it wasn’t quite perfection, was it? There were memories, residual discharges of electricity, to shatter your millennial serenity…You didn’t go to sleep unbroken, so how could you wake and be whole for me now?
Percival dreamt of acceleration. Time unwound through a chasm of pitch inside his head, a void of space in which he fell. He saw the platinum walls of a spacecraft, set against an alien starfield; he saw other faces, not unlike his own. There were glimpses of numbers, hurried calculations scrawled on glass. There was blood on the floor at his feet.
There was a jolt; he opened his eyes.
Beside him in the horse-drawn carriage, Raoul was awake, his irritation masked by a thin veneer of calm. At twenty-six, he wasn’t much older than Percival — a year at the most — but sometimes Percival felt an abyssal gulf come between them, dark liquid centuries drowning lives without a hope of resurrection.
“Where are we going?” Percival asked, his voice heavy with nausea. The drink had devoured him, the molten luminescent green. “Another party?”
Raoul turned eyes of deep shadow upon him. Beneath his cloak he wore a blue velvet jacket that was neatly lined inside with a row of ebony-handled knives. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Why did you do it?”
Percival laughed, his head hurt him. “To forget. You wouldn’t understand. You haven’t the taste for it.” He hardly recalled the night before last, a dull, thudding blur of alcoholic darkness and violence. Raoul had dragged him from the inn.
“I’ve a taste for irony, apparently,” Raoul murmured.
Percival pinched the bridge of his nose. “You got all your knives back, didn’t you? I’m not sure what you’re complaining about.”
The carriage ran on rails of moonlight and snow, the deep furrows of the forest road. The horses turned at the gate, and suddenly Percival could see portals of golden light beyond silhouetted fir trees, the massive paned windows of some sort of terraced mansion, toward which the vehicle travelled with consistent speed.
“We’re going to see an old friend of mine,” Raoul said quietly. “His wife is dangerously ill, and now he has people pressing him for the results of a scientific project he’s been working on.”
Percival glanced at him, suspicious. “This wouldn’t be the Arcane Society, by any chance?”
Raoul smiled and lowered his eyes. “The Arcane Society doesn’t exist, Percival.”
“Yeah, you’ve said — that’s why we’ve spent three years evading them. This is stupid! Your incurable obsession with other people’s inventions — it’s going to get us into serious trouble.”
Raoul’s smile faded. “Wouldn’t you rather know, than not?”
“Know what, exactly?”
They had already had this conversation, in one form or another, more times than they could count. Percival, his mouth opened for his favorite retort, suddenly stopped. Then he said, “I’m not sure. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t prefer to live with a lie I liked, than with a truth I didn’t.”
“If that were the case,” Raoul said softly, “you’d not have a scientific disposition and I doubt we’d still be friends. After all, truth is merely a matter of perspective. Knowledge is something different. You can know a lie just as surely as you can know a truth.”
“Oh, shut up,” Percival groaned. “Don’t you think my head’s sore enough already?”
“Hah!” Raoul grinned. “Idiot. Obviously you don’t know that much about absinthe.”
The carriage drew up beside the stairs. Raoul stepped out into the music and illumination released from the great house, and the discordant crunch of gravel and ice beneath his boots. He straightened his long legs, turned back toward Percival and smiled. Slender and tall, with his handsome noble face and a lock of dark hair spilt above one eye, Raoul seemed impeccably to fit the illusion of a young gentleman — as illusion it apparently was. He had a lightness about him, an ethereal manner that often served to make Percival feel strangely uncomfortable.
“Welcome to the modest estate of my old friend, Henral.” Raoul’s eyes, mischievous, made a spectrum of the fairy candlelights. “He moved here from Paris about six years ago. And yes, as it happens, he’s hosting a party tonight. Rather a gaudy affair, don’t you think?”
Percival stumbled outside, carried with him the motion of the carriage. In spite of the cold there were people upon the marble balconies, beautifully dressed in evening silks and uniforms, deep rich colors of blue and burgundy. Stars sparkled like tiny glass beads, sewn into a tapestry sky of darkness and carefully hung above a manicured lawn of snow.
His eyes widened. “Impressive. How is it you’ve never brought me here before?”
Raoul put his hand upon Percival’s shoulder, steadied him. “Because I like to keep you out of harm’s way.”
“Because you’re an utter bastard.” Percival shook him off, said accusingly, “You don’t trust me with anything, do you?”
Raoul stirred at the question. “Only with my life, Percival.” He sighed. “Nothing of any consequence to you, I imagine.”
They ascended the stairs on the subtle beauty of delicate orchestral notes. Percival squinted as the lights of the entry hall thrust a lance of brilliance between his eyes.
There is a wall built around us, a wall you once went to, a wall you passed through, an other side that you came back from. How did it alter you, the forbidden knowledge of this otherwhere? What did you find there, that you don’t wish to remember? There’s so much I want to know, so much I want to know about you — but how can I ever learn if you can’t see yourself in yourself?
Guests crowded beneath chandeliers and champagne trickled over a pyramid of glasses. Raoul spoke smoothly to friends and strangers alike, but Percival, though he knew no one, easily attracted his own share of attention. He had a strange, consumptive beauty of which he was consciously unaware, his words were heavy with an intriguing accent no one could place, and he was someone unknown to them — something mysterious apparently conjured by Raoul for their amusement.
Raoul took Percival’s arm. “Come upstairs with me. We need to find Henral before this superficial conversation drives me insane.”
The house was decorated with red wood polished and turned in a foreign manner, nothing Percival recognized, though this did not surprise him. He had been told only that they were somewhere in central Siberia, which to him might have been the surface of the moon. Seen through his amnesiac eyes, the entire world was surreal, unfamiliar. Three years ago, when Raoul said he left the hospital, he could not even have said if this was the same world he had been born into — but how could he ever know for sure, one way or the other?
He was startled out of this distraction by a sudden sharp noise and the abrupt motion of a door flung open into the corridor.
A young man emerged from its triangular shadow with all the urgency of someone seeking release from a prison cell. A woman’s voice pursued him, a high pitch of insult and hatred; the heartfelt threat, I’ll kill you, was followed after by a long shrieking scream. The man turned, one trembling hand raised to his forehead, the other holding the edge of the door.
“I don’t care if it makes her sick! Just get the stuff down her throat — I can’t stand that god-awful noise!”
He threw the door closed into a muffled, depressing silence.
Raoul asked, very gently, “Did we come at the wrong time?”
Henral blinked, surprised at the interruption. “Raoul?” A worn smile came slowly to his face. “I never thought I’d be glad to see you back.”
“Thanks,” Raoul murmured dryly. “I never thought you’d have me.”
Henral’s expression twisted. “I would have asked you earlier, if you’d been anywhere to be found! Three years — you might at least have sent me a note.”
Raoul deflected this neglect with a slight wave of his hand. “Your message said Helen was ill.”
Henral indicated the door. “As you heard.”
He caught Raoul’s hand, embraced him with the natural familiarity of a deep, comfortable affection. Percival observed this with a detached curiosity. Like Raoul, Henral was tall, and beautifully groomed, though his blond hair at least had resisted his efforts to tame it. He looked tired, but there was something else about him…
He’s frightened, Percival realized, frowning. Frightened of what? Of losing his wife?
Raoul stepped away and folded his arms. “I thought this isolation might have sent you screaming back to Paris by now. But I see you’re still bringing the crowds to you.”
Henral smiled. “This isolation gives me the ability to work without certain people looking over my shoulder.”
“Yes, about that -”
“You haven’t changed, Raoul. You’re already impatient to get your hands on my research, and you don’t even know what it is yet.” Henral turned curious eyes, glittering blue, upon Percival. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
Percival opened his mouth, barely smothered a flicker of irritation as Raoul interrupted him.
“Percival is a student, he’s been travelling with me. I hope you don’t -”
“Huh? No, I don’t mind. Come, they’ll be serving dinner shortly.” With a reluctant backward glance at the door, he led them away toward the stairs. “So, you’re a student. What’s your field of study, Percival?”
“Natural science. Physics.” Percival thrust his hands into his pockets. “Confirming recent proposals of atomic theory, to be precise.”
“Radioactivity…” Henral frowned. “Did you meet Professor Curie before he died? That was when — two years ago?”
“Yes, I spoke with him at the Sorbonne. Marie is still teaching there.”
“That’s what I miss about Paris,” Henral said beneath his breath, “so many brilliant people.” He looked at Percival, hesitated. “You didn’t stay?”
Percival shrugged. “Raoul insisted otherwise.”
Henral lifted an eyebrow, said to Raoul, “You surprise me.”
“Paris wasn’t hot enough to burn in,” Raoul murmured, and lowered his head to the stairs.
So many brilliant people…each a link in a chain of lights like those globes that shine, luminous, from the Eiffel Tower, a new century turned upon a current of electricity, the future hung on the flick of a switch. But there is always someone afraid of what they will see when they look into the light, afraid of anything that glows too brightly…
In the dining room, three chandeliers flung a rainbow illumination at the cosmopolitan tables. Percival could only guess at how much trouble and expense it had taken to electrify this remote place. The poverty of the landscape he had travelled through in order to get here was blurred into a half-forgotten shadow by the opulence of the architecture and the furnishings of the house, by the bounty of food set upon the table and the quality of the seventy or so guests who had gathered to devour it.
Conversation centered naturally around talk of politics, of grenades and assassinations, parties and splinter parties, the three years of chaos following the last revolution.
Percival listened uneasily. He had little appetite and a cracking headache, and it bothered him that he had no knowledge of all but the most recent events, no history, no continuity on which to hang a judgment of any sort. It was not beyond the bounds of possibility that he had been a terrorist who had lost his memory when a bomb went off — if so, would he still be inclined to protest the need for violence against the Tsarist government with the same feeling as he did now?
He watched Raoul, envious. Raoul’s social agility was flawless — as long as the subtle lace of multi-lingual mockery in those glib but carefully chosen words went largely unnoticed, those around him were utterly entranced by everything he said.
With the attention of the table soon in his hand, Raoul set his wine glass down upon a napkin and deftly cracked the edge of it with a fork. The glass rang a protest — the crack silenced it almost immediately.
“There’s a theory,” Raoul said, his voice measured, serious, “a theory that says there is a sum of all knowledge in the universe, and that mankind long ago attained this ‘knowledge of everything’ — and lost it.”
Henral looked up sharply, his face suddenly filled with an inexplicable alarm. “That’s enough, Raoul.”
Raoul continued to finger the glass. “Because, after knowing everything there is to know — or so they thought — our ancestors discovered a wall at the edge of the universe. They didn’t know who built it, or what it was doing there. They didn’t know what lay on the other side. So naturally they sought the ability to penetrate the wall.”
He moved his hand, moved the napkin. The glass shimmered beneath his fingers — and then it vanished completely.
Raoul nodded toward the end of the table. A German gentleman took up a cracked glass he found there and declared it, after a moment’s diligent examination, to be the very same — whereupon the table showered Raoul with a delighted applause and begged him to show them another trick.
“Matter transmission.” Raoul looked archly at Henral. “Am I right?”
Henral said nothing, he only stared at Raoul through thoughtful eyes.
Dinner dissolved not long afterward into another hall of music and conversation. Percival left to retrieve something from his luggage; he returned to find Henral talking alone with Raoul just beyond the door of what appeared to be a small drawing room.
He came near to the door, heard Henral’s voice, strained but curious.
“Raoul, it’s being forced to follow the same path. Pierre’s death was no accident — we know his story has existed before, at least once. He can’t have been the same person, but how much of it is real, how much is not?”
Raoul’s interruption was cool, brisk. “The Society doesn’t know the exact history of the old world any more than we do. They’ve got us doing their dirty work for that very reason. And they’re well aware that if we beat them to that knowledge — we’ll cut their throats with it.”
Henral gave a short laugh. “They know a lot more about what happened than they’re telling us. If only some of the people they found in that pod had survived the thawing process. We might finally get enough evidence to answer these questions.”
“It was only through treachery that we heard of the discovery of the pod at all. They would never have willingly shared that information with us.”
“No,” he sighed, “No, you’re right. I just wish I knew what they really wanted from me. It doesn’t make sense -”
He glanced around as Percival’s shadow fell across the threshold.
Percival raised his hand. The bottle he held broke the color of the small electric lamp in the room just as easily as it broke the tension of his appearance. “I brought some of these from Paris. Bet you can’t find this in the middle of Siberia. Shall I open it?”
Henral squinted. “Absinthe?”
“About eight years old, from the Pernod Fils distillery in Pontarlier. Only the best that Raoul’s money can buy.”
This brought a faint smile to Henral’s face. He sent for glasses, sugar, and cold water, and also for a report of his wife’s condition. “Make sure to confirm she has taken the elixir I made for her.”
Raoul smiled, sarcastic. “Perhaps you need to add more sugar, Henral. I know what your tonics are like.”
Sweeten the bitterness…but things are bitter for a reason! Whether poisonous or intoxicating, they show us a side away from the light, they show us what is wrong with the world, and with ourselves. I don’t need the world made sweet for me. I’d rather see it as it really is; cold and unyielding, oblivious to the meanings we force upon it…
They sat and talked until near midnight. As the drink unwound him, Henral began to talk about Helen.
“Two years ago, she fell ill with a fever. I don’t know what it was — well, it doesn’t matter what it was. It scarred her brain. She can’t remember her own name, she can’t remember me.”
Henral rubbed his forehead with numb fingers. “I wouldn’t have cared if the illness had crippled her. Her beauty…that’s just the shell of her. I don’t need that…But when she lost her memory, she lost herself. Without that knowledge of who she is, she’s no longer…Helen is gone. I’ve been trying ever since to bring her back.”
Percival started to say something; Raoul silenced him with a glance.
“Late last year I finally completed a drug that works to force recall,” Henral continued slowly. “We’ve come a long way since Samuel Butler published his book on Unconscious Memory back in the eighties, and few would now say that memory is a result of a universal consciousness, shared through every particle of existence. But if that isn’t true — how is it possible she should remember how to speak, yet not that I am her husband?”
Raoul frowned. “You could simply wait — ”
“I cant’s wait.” Henral rose unsteadily to his feet. “You know the risks. They’ve given me a deadline, and with Helen ill…Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m drunk and I want to check on my wife while I still remember how to walk.”
But he paused by Raoul’s chair, set a hand upon his shoulder. “My guests will leave soon, before spring melts the snow and the roads turn to mud. I’d like you to stay, if you will.”
Raoul looked at the floor. “I will. But only because I want to know why, Henral.”
“Thought you might.” Henral nodded and left the room.
Raoul stared into his glass. His eyes had an alcoholic glaze over them. “He really loves her.”
“You sound shocked,” Percival slurred, amused. “Some people are capable of it, you know.”
“Discovery has always been Henral’s only love.”
“How strange, I know someone else like that -”
Raoul smiled. “You’re not referring to me, by any chance?”
“Knowledge, no matter what the cost. It’s an unlimited license for atrocities, did you know that?”
“I do know that you can’t put a price on knowledge. And you shouldn’t try to pronounce ‘atrocities’ after four green fairies.”
“You don’t always use those knives for self-defense.”
Raoul’s smile faded. He said nothing.
“Well? Is there any price you wouldn’t pay?”
“Better you ask me that when I’m sober.” Raoul laid his head back upon the chair and sighed. “Perhaps I’m just getting old…What is it that makes us need someone? What is it that forces us, against our better judgment, to put our emotional lives in the hands of someone else? Why can’t we just be strong on our own?”
“Stop it, Raoul…now you’re scaring me.” Percival allowed the empty glass to drop down beside his chair. “You’ve almost convinced me that you know what you’re talking about.”
Raoul blinked. “And you don’t?”
“How could I? I can’t remember anything. If that elixir works -”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Percival closed his eyes and said, sadly, “It would be nice to remember.”
Love, knowledge, and identity are so intricately entwined as to be inseparable: knowledge of self, knowledge of other. People can’t be exchanged in the equation of love, identity is everything. But if consciousness is merely the interaction of electricity and dust, if both electricity and dust break down to nothing more than a handful of electrons, where then do you and I come from — and why do I want you so much?
As expected, the roads melted into a thick liquid earth and within three weeks the great house was left to an abandoned splendor. As the last of his guests vanished westward, Henral opened the door of his laboratory.
Raoul said nothing further about Henral’s elixir.
At the center of the room was an elaborate cage of wood and welded iron, about two meters across, of the kind that might hold a bird if the bird were a steel creature of hinges and clockwork. A cluster of valves and umbilical wires made a nest at the base; just above this, a lacework frame of gold and glass held two small plates apart at an arm’s length. Henral thrust a gloved hand through a panel in the side of the machine and placed a large engraved sphere upon one of the platforms.
He closed the door tightly, crossed the room to a lever and pulled it down, flooding the cage and its theater of gold with electricity.
“Pretty lights,” Raoul said, frowning. “Seriously, Henral, you can’t possibly have enough energy — ”
“Shut up and watch.”
The whole demonstration took only a few moments.
The sphere vanished from the first platform and immediately a shadow of it was cast upon the other. While the image quickly took on a solid form, and the pattern engraved upon it was obviously the same, not all of the object reappeared.
Percival stared. In spite of the internal heat from the machine, he found himself frozen in place. Though Henral had explained the theory, it seemed no more real than Raoul’s sleight-of-hand at the dinner table. But, if it was real —
“What happened to the bits that didn’t make it?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Henral sighed. “There’s nothing to indicate that the missing matter has collided with anything. In all the thousands of equations I can’t find where the error is, if there even is an error.”
“Oh, you’re useless.” Raoul leaned forward to examine the damaged sphere. “You never could add up.”
Henral turned back toward the wall, secured the electric lever. “Why have the Arcane Society been hunting you, Raoul?”
Raoul pretended not to hear him.
Percival said softly, “The Arcane Society doesn’t exist.”
Henral smiled, thoughtful. “So I’ve heard.”
“Your missing atoms leak away.” Percival caught himself by surprise, as if the words weren’t coming from his mouth at all. “It’s random, a matter of statistics, of probabilities…You would need to adjust for it, by filling in the spaces with something else -”
Henral frowned. “Possibly, for a simple object, that might work. But a thinking being -”
“- might be altered in ways we can’t possibly imagine.”
“I like your friend,” Henral said to Raoul, his words edged with mischief. “Can I keep him?”
Raoul laughed, though his eyes did not. “He’s not for sale, Henral.”
“Really? Name a price.” It was banter — but the edge in his voice had sharpened. “You have one — you always do.”
“No price I’d be willing to accept,” Raoul said softly. “Not this time.”
“Are you quite sure about that, Raoul?”
They went on deceptively in this manner for several minutes, until one of the household servants interrupted to call them for tea.
In spite of what some people choose to believe, nothing compels reward to follow sacrifice. Life is not just a simple process of exchange, a selfish orientation of give-take, give-take. We all have a weakness that defines us, some elusive goal for which we would sacrifice everything. And how often is this the key to our own downfall?
Two months of experimental frustration passed as the muddy roads regained the texture and hardness of iron. The warmth of summer came on them early in the season, and as the days grew longer they went sometimes to swim in a large pond near the house. Raoul sat reading on the bank as Henral and Percival cooled themselves in the water.
Raoul even unbuttoned his jacket, the only concession he made to the weather.
Percival sank into the clear crystal arms of the water and skimmed the reedy bottom. The liquid gave way around him. What Henral was trying to do was not the same as firing a bullet through the sky, or pushing skin through water. And yet Henral’s own equations, scribbled roughly in his almost illegible handwriting, contained unmistakable ballistic components that even Henral himself could not explain.
Then there was the strange intuition Percival had, that there was something dangerously wrong with the machine itself — which by rights should not work at all.
He broke the surface a little way from the shore. Henral was saying something to Raoul, who had moved closer to the edge of the water to hear him, since the noise of the birds in the surrounding forest sometimes made conversation difficult.
Percival frowned. Whatever was animating Henral, it was probably none of his business.
Then a slight shift in the wind brought a pleasant cooling breeze, carrying Henral’s low but intensely charged voice with it.
“– then you just left me here…Christ, Raoul, I’ve had those things breathing down my neck and where were you? Cheating your way into yet another bed? Why? Because you thought you had learnt all you could from me?”
“You know that’s not -”
“I needed your help!” Henral hauled himself effortlessly onto the bank and kicked at the water’s edge with his foot. “But you leave everyone behind, don’t you, when they’re no longer useful? One day you will fall for someone who turns and walks away from you without so much as a word — and I only hope I’m there to see you get a taste of your own medicine, you self-absorbed bastard.”
Raoul drew a deep breath, climbed quickly to his feet and set off back toward the house.
Percival, curious, came out of the water.
Henral threw him a towel.
“Those equations you’re using,” Percival said, as he rubbed the water from his hair. “You’re assuming atoms have a nucleus with positive and neutral components…atomic theory is pretty much a given now, but how did you arrive at this specific model? As far as I know there’s no experimental evidence for an atomic nucleus.”
“Not yet there isn’t,” Henral muttered. “Where did you meet Raoul, Percival?”
“Huh?” Percival blinked, hesitated. “I don’t know. Three years ago, Raoul said I had an accident -”
“You can’t remember anything before that?”
“Is that a problem?”
Later that afternoon, Henral stopped Percival alone at the foot of the elegant staircase and pressed a small silver bottle into his hand. “You know, I don’t think your friend has been entirely honest about what he wants from you,” he said softly. “Wouldn’t you like to find out who you really are?”
“What on earth are you talking about?” Percival looked down at the vial and frowned. When he raised his head, Henral had gone, melted like a candle into the labyrinth house.
Memory is a window into the past, perhaps the only one we have, and yet it isn’t a perfect view. Longing and distance magnify the lies and diminish the truths, even supposing we really could tell one from the other. I brought you here to help you find yourself, but at what cost? Your name, your identity, everything I’ve given you that’s a lie…I don’t want you to hate me for making you real —
The forest became a cloud that took on elements of gas and fire, and the colored mushrooms feeding on the roots of the swaying trees blossomed into a cluster of hot blue suns. Percival dropped as the strength went out of him; he rolled back into the dirt and cried as the trees receded into a darkening screen of glass and steel.
Percival’s throat burned, but so too did his body. The intense pain stretched from behind his eyes to the tips of his fingers and toes. Thoughts wheeled past him in great arcs and he tried desperately to catch hold of them.
They slipped, elusive as fish, away into a nebulous agony.
He felt completely, utterly lost. All sense of time and self melted into an oblivion of past, present and future, none of which seemed to belong to him. He was caught in a spider’s web of silken reality, of matter and time, in which no discrete thing existed independently of anything else.
But something — something not himself — stepped forward out of the darkness.
Percival felt a surge of panic come up and overwhelm him. He lifted his arm against the unexpected threat of violence, he heard the impossible sound of a high-pressure bulkhead crack like a drinking glass; then he heard someone swearing at him in a language he could scarcely understand, felt arms snatching hold of him, wrestling him back toward the ground.
It took him a moment to realize both the voice and the desperate restraint belonged to Raoul.
Raoul gasped, hurting. “Stop fighting me! It’s over now, you got away…Everything’s gone, Percival. Stop this, you’re going to kill me!”
On his knees, Percival ceased struggling and allowed the restraining hands to hold his head against the anxiously arrhythmic beat of Raoul’s heart. For a moment he leaned into the embrace, exhausted. He felt the slender spines of the concealed knives press against his cheek through the open velvet jacket, realized he had liberated one of them and cut Raoul’s arm with it.
He groaned. “Raoul, I’m sorry -”
Dark blood stained the sleeve along the razor line of the tear. “I’ve had worse. Forget it.”
Percival pulled away, said urgently, “Raoul, it’s not the same sphere. I mean it is, but it isn’t.”
He opened a clenched fist, allowed the empty vial to fall to the ground.
Raoul retrieved it from the dirt and his face changed. “Henral’s tonic. I should have known that bastard would’ve -”
“You lied to me.” The words came out of Percival’s ashen throat as a barely audible whisper. He rocked back, stood up, unsteady.
Raoul did not immediately move. His eyes darkened perceptibly with the shadow of the trees as the afternoon sun lowered behind them. “Percival, I’m on my knees here. I could propose…or would you prefer a confession?”
Too annoyed and shaken even to smile, and with the poison of Henral’s elixir still burning in his veins, Percival gasped and asked, weakly, “Can’t you be serious, even for a moment?”
“A confession it is, then.” Raoul frowned and began to bind his sleeve with the pale silk of a handkerchief. “Henral and I are what you might call private collectors, employed by the Arcane Society to secure things surviving from an earlier period in our history. You are just one such artifact, Percival, found in a space vessel returned to this place from the other side of the universe, frozen and lucky to live through being thawed out in front of what was effectively an electric fireplace — in spite of the Society’s pretensions to advanced technologies. Your crew wasn’t so fortunate. As far as I know, of thirty men and women, you’re the only one who survived.”
Percival looked up at the arboreal sky, at small blackening pieces of blue. An emergency evacuation under attack, frozen faces, stasis…it was one of his recurring nightmares. He knew Raoul well enough to know that he wasn’t being joked with now. But: “This is stupid. I’m not some sort of antique vase!”
“Ghosts and pottery,” Raoul winced. “What a quaint idea.”
“But if you were just going to hand me over to the Arcane Society anyway, why have we been avoiding them for so long?”
Raoul looked slightly embarrassed. “Because someone else found the pod you were in, three years back — it finally came home and crashed. I stole you from the Arcane Society, Percival. And they’re not very forgiving…let’s just say that if they find us, my life won’t be worth the dirt I’m kneeling in.”
Percival squared his hands upon his hips, ignoring his aching head. “You stole me?” he exclaimed, disbelieving. “What is there, a black market for things like me? Exactly how much am I worth?”
In his growing anger he had all but forgotten those passionate, sharply spoken words, He’s not for sale, Henral…
“It’s not that simple.”
“So why risk coming here, now, after all this time?”
“Your nightmares are getting worse.” Raoul climbed to his feet, brushed the clinging earth from his trousers. “You’re drinking too much, you have blackouts, constant headaches…I can’t help you without knowing more of what you’ve been through. Perhaps you were frozen too long, or not woken up the way you were meant to be, I don’t know. When I heard Henral was working on a drug to cure Helen’s memory, I figured it was worth taking a chance. The knowledge you could give us -”
Percival took a sudden step backward, interrupting him with a surge of rage. “That’s all it comes down to, doesn’t it? What am I — some sort of encyclopedia you found lying around somewhere, that you needed a translation for? No wonder you hardly ever let me out of your sight. So why did you wait? I’m surprised you didn’t force this stuff down my throat the first day we got here!”
Raoul’s eyes flashed; Percival failed to recognize the expression.
“Is this the planet I knew as Earth?”
“More or less.”
“Is Percival even my real name?”
“Does it matter?”
“No, why should it?” Percival turned sharply away, reeling. “If I’ve been to the other side and back, then I’m not…it’s not the same fucking sphere.”
A thinking being might be altered in ways we can’t possibly imagine…A constant exchange exists between bodies and the environment they inhabit, the conflict between what we are and what we’re made of, the coincidence of matter and object that so concerned Leibniz; things are altered, cells are lost, particles ingested, absorbed. But memory too is lost, gained, exchanged. Shouldn’t it follow that identity, and therefore the individual itself, is nothing more than a fleeting thought, a dangerous illusion?
Helen’s room was a cavern painted in shadow. A golden lamp gently lit one small corner, unveiling the edge of a white bed, a fallen hand with ink-stained fingers, the slender shape of a woman beneath a soft blanket, and the curved fragile shell of her pale sleeping face against her waterfall of dark hair.
Percival blinked. In all the months of his stay he had seen Helena Savina only a few times, for Henral guarded her well. And though she wore constantly a somnolent mask of frail pain, her husband had not exaggerated when he spoke of her beauty.
She had not woken at his nervous opening of her door.
He came to stand beside her bed. Here upon a low table were some of the familiar silver bottles, a few old volumes bound in leather, and several battered, open notebooks.
He lifted one of these, began to thumb the pages. His eyes widened. He knew Henral’s writing now — hers was quite different.
“No cost too high,” he gasped, surprised by the revelation. “No wonder your face doesn’t matter…If you can’t remember anything, you can’t finish the machine.”
From what he could see from this brief glance, Henral had built the machine in a frenzy of blind obedience to these specific plans, but there was still more left unfinished: it was not immediately clear what the linking trajectory sketches might represent, why the test sphere was coated with lithium deuteride — or what the function of several additional calculations might be. Added later to the original design, only minor adjustments of the machine would be needed now to accommodate them.
Enough to make it work?
Frowning, he put the notebook down. Henral’s elixir had taunted his darkness with glimpses of light, broken slabs of memory that he had chosen not to disclose to Raoul. Consequently the symbols he read now, this science he knew, had a personal significance beyond the elegant writing on the page. They reminded him of someone he recalled, but no longer recognized: himself.
But the drug had also left razorblades of pain inside his head, a shuddering weakness in his muscles and his spine that had taken several days to fade to a bearable level. He had taken only one vial so far — how many had Helen been forced to drink?
Percival leaned over the bed and put his hand upon her bare shoulder. Her skin was cold as porcelain, and perhaps she was just as unreal as a doll, for though her chest rose and fell with the mechanics of respiration, she did not stir at his touch.
“Wake up!” he shook her slightly. “I know they’re poisoning you — I’m getting you out of here. Wake up!”
Gently — very gently — he succeeded in waking her. Quickly, unsure of when either her nurse or Henral would return, he calmed her alarm and told her what he knew — and who he was.
Her sapphire eyes regarded him with a shocked bewilderment.
It occurred to him then that she was ready to believe him, when he still wasn’t so sure if he believed it himself. But the Arcane Society certainly existed — he knew that now — so the rest, melded with his own memory, no longer felt quite so unreal.
“Henral told me of the old world,” she said at last, in a perfect but lightly accented English. “And of the pod, though he thought everyone in it had died. Only those who work for the Arcane Society are aware of these things, so I thought it was one of his fancies…Until he gave me an artifact, a physics textbook correcting problems with something called Quantum Field Theory. It was written in the year twenty fifteen.”
He frowned. Was — of course. “How long ago?”
She smiled, weary. “We’re told this is nineteen hundred and eight, but it’s not. It’s probably closer to twenty-seven or twenty-eight hundred, but we really have no way of knowing. When did you leave home?”
He caught his breath; he remembered. It had been…”Twenty-two eighty-five.”
“I’m sorry.” She lifted her hand, lightly brushed his arm. “But you…the wall existed?”
“Yes. And it was an artificial construct. A boundary.”
Her hand fell away. “It kept them out…”
He shrugged, because he guessed what she was about to say next.
“We lost our war with them, lost everything. But when they destroyed us, they destroyed the only means they had of transmitting themselves back across the wall. Henral believes the world was reconstructed just as it was, in an effort to force the redevelopment of that specific science. At some point, however, the means became more important than the end…and they’ve become obsessed with getting the details of the last millennia exactly right.”
“The Arcane Society.” He had known them briefly as Avaru’u before his sleep of ice had claimed him.
They too had changed with the process of their shift through the wall.
“Henral really does love me.” Helen whispered. “But that isn’t enough, just another price to be paid. And they — the Arcane Society — they’re ultimately responsible for this deception. They deserve to burn in the deepest hell — and I’ll see us all dead before I allow Henral to hand over my work to them.”
Percival shook his head, wished he had studied more history. “Matter transmission in a functional form wasn’t developed until around twenty-two forty…If it’s a replay they want, why work on this now?”
“I don’t know.” Her voice was filled with weariness, and her eyelids dropped down. “Perhaps they just want to go home.”
“Please, don’t go back to sleep! Can you walk?” Percival found a light coat to put over her nightdress; in spite of her protest, he eased her from the bed. “We have to leave now, before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?” She touched a finger, accusing, against one of the elixir bottles. “Did you know, you have to keep taking it? Otherwise it wears off, and you will lose yourself again. At first I wanted to be found…Not anymore.”
Percival gazed at the bottles with dismay.
Helen used his strength to hold herself up as they left the room for the stairs and began slowly to descend them. “This will never work — I can’t ride.”
“I’ve arranged for one of the carriages to take us.”
Her response was one of ruthless practicality. “The horses will not get far pulling a carriage at speed before the summer heat stops them. Because Henral will come after us.”
“You should listen to her,” Henral advised from the bottom of the stairs. “She’s usually right.”
Percival hesitated. The early discovery bothered him, but it was not altogether surprising. Beyond Henral the front doors lay open into the dawn. “We’ll risk it, thank you. I’m not going to let you kill her.”
Henral’s face was pale. His hand grasped the banister as if he wanted to break it off. “You’re polite, Percival, but mistaken. She knows what I feel for her. Her pain was necessary!”
Helen said, with gentle menace, “I might fall down the stairs, Henral, and break my neck. You should be very careful.”
Henral stared at her, but the threat checked him. He made no actual move to approach them.
“Take Raoul and go,” Helen whispered to Percival, when at last they arrived at the base of the stairs. “I loved him once — I’ve even forgiven him for the affair he had with my husband — but I must keep my promise to Henral now.”
“You can’t absolve Raoul of this. He’s as much a part of it as Henral is!”
“That’s not true.” The shadow altered by the door; what Percival had taken for the outline of a statue was in fact the slender symmetry of Raoul, balanced against the wall. “Well, perhaps it’s half-true. I didn’t realize at first…But it wasn’t my call, Percival.”
“To save Helen’s life?”
Raoul turned, uncomfortable, and made no answer.
Percival continued — still with Helen’s weight against his shoulder — toward the door. “The Arcane Society knows where you are, Raoul.”
Raoul’s attention and abrupt disbelief twisted suddenly toward Henral, and his hand sprang for his jacket. The early morning light was behind him and Percival could not easily see his face. “You called them.”
“No!” Percival interjected, before either man had time to react further. “I did it. I found them, I told them. And they’re coming for you as well as the machine. So let us go.”
Henral laughed; Percival failed to see the joke.
“Raoul wouldn’t give you the elixir,” Henral explained; he began to walk slowly toward them. “Once he found out what it was doing to Helen, he refused to allow you to try it at all — even though you might have been able to complete the project, and perhaps have saved Helen the pain of further treatments. All he had to do was give you the drug, drain your memories like blood — bleed you to death if he had to, as he’s done before to countless others for lesser things. But he wouldn’t do it. Refused to do it. Stole you and kept you safe, so that no one could hurt you. What have you done to him? He wasn’t always this squeamish.”
Percival stopped, stung with confusion. “What?”
Henral reached for Helen’s hand, and she relinquished her hold of Percival to sink against him.
“Knowledge is strong,” she said, softly quoting the gentle words of Christina Rossetti, “but love is sweet; yea all the progress he had made was but to learn that all is small, save love, for love is all in all…Isn’t that true, Raoul?”
“Percival!” Raoul’s voice was distorted with urgency. “You can’t let the Arcane Society take you back, do you understand me? I’ll kill us both before I let that happen.”
Percival swore at him and stood his ground.
Raoul raised one hand. An early shaft of sunlight behind him betrayed the flake of silver metal poised with an accustomed dexterity in his fingers. Pure titanium, another false anachronism. Now he knew where to look, Percival could see them everywhere.
Helen gripped Henral’s shoulder. “Tell them to run for their lives now, Henral. After all, we’re expecting some very dangerous guests. Isn’t there something you need to show them?”
Henral made a slight, exasperated noise of protest. “But it’s not finished.”
“If you allow me, it will be,” she said, and the finality in her voice chilled him as if winter had suddenly returned to the house.
Fire and ice: there’s always an equilibrium to be reached — or is that a breaking point? On that brittle morning I finally saw both of us for the first time, you as a reflection in the blade I held, and myself in the shocked confusion of your eyes. I believe that’s all we ever see of ourselves — we’re only ever real for each other.
Despite the early hour, the horses soon protested the morning sun. They had covered thirty miles over rough terrain; Raoul rode as easily and as naturally as Percival did not, along trails thin as wisps of cloud spun like a white wool through the tall trees.
Percival held his head down. He tried to concentrate on simply clinging to the galloping horse. But his mind raced faster, unbalancing. The extraneous equations in the notebook, the trajectory calculations…Why did they make him feel so uncomfortable?
What if the atoms of the transported object are not forced to tunnel through the medium as proposed, but are instead directed toward specific collisions? With precise control of the path of every neutron released by destabilizing the lithium deuteride, and altitude, and —
One instant action replay, coming right up…
He frowned. “Raoul! Where are we in Siberia exactly?”
The sky brightened behind them and burned Raoul’s answer into the ground. Percival glanced back to see an incendiary flower burst open above the trees before he turned his face away from the sudden, searing heat. At the same time the horse was blown out from beneath him, and he too was lifted by a detonation of burning air, to be slammed with unmerciful force into the trunk of a tree about five seconds later.
He opened his eyes to a thick smoke, and the unpleasant sensation of someone leaning over him and shaking him. Everything was ash gray and edged in crimson; the smashed forest, stripped of leaves and branches, was dripping fire around him.
A strange, flattened silence had displaced his previous reality.
Raoul sat back, exhaled a bruised and bloody relief. “You hurt?”
Percival stared at him blankly.
Raoul repeated himself, much more loudly.
“Stupid question.” Percival sat up, blanched from the pain. “You’re unscathed, I take it?”
“No, not exactly. And I can hardly hear you.”
There was an awkward, breathless pause as Raoul wiped the blood from his mouth.
“If you can flog dead horses, there’s a trading station south of here. That way, I think.” Raoul nodded his head in a smoldering direction that looked almost exactly the same as all the others, except for a noticeable orientation of fallen trees. He tried to stand, failed. Instead, he indicated the wreckage with a generous sweep of his hand. “I take it this impressive effect was part of our ancient history?”
Percival coughed, flinched. He felt liquid weep from his ears, could barely make out what Raoul was saying. “It made for an interesting trivia question at school.”
“So — the machine failed?”
They deserve to burn in the deepest hell — and I’ll see us all dead before I allow Henral to hand over my work to them…
Percival shook his head. The remaining color had gone out of his face. “No,” he said slowly. “I believe it worked exactly as Helen designed it to. She probably realized you planned to steal it, but not that Henral hoped to turn it against them…”
Raoul considered this for a long moment, swore softly beneath his breath.
“Raoul, if the Arcane Society really are serious about replaying history, then Henral and Helen were possibly no more than a catalyst for this. And that’s ironic, if it was the one bit of tech they really wanted…This time, it might even have worked.”
As if in deep water, waves of a haunted dullness echoed in the pulse of their damaged ears.
“Wonderful,” Raoul scowled. “That’s only going to make them more determined to come looking for us. Since you kindly told them we were here.”
“I know…We should try to find that trading station.” Miserably hot, bleeding, Percival summoned his wounded strength and managed to find his feet. He slid his hand into his trouser pocket; the bottles he had taken from Helen’s room were — miraculously — unbroken. He lifted one and looked at it, troubled. “Shared through every particle of existence…if we’re all made of identical stuff, wouldn’t unconscious memory destroy any real hope for individuality? It can’t just be my memories that make me myself…Yet where else does this structure start to take on the variation that is me? How did I ever get put back together as myself, after passing through a wall?”
A tree fell, sparks shot toward the sky.
“The Arcane Society would have ripped you apart just to see how you worked,” Raoul said, a little less loudly as his hearing began to recover. “Was I wrong to steal you for myself?”
Percival twisted away, let out his resentment in a long, slow breath of frustration. “I’m sorry, Raoul. I believed the worst of you. And it hurt, because I thought we were friends.”
He deflected the question. “You wanted more, though, didn’t you? What Helen said…all those stupid jokes you made, all those risks you took for me — why didn’t you just tell me how you really felt?”
“I never joke about anything, Percival.” Raoul raised his hand to his forehead; he touched the egg of a bruise rising blue upon his aching temple. “It’s called wit, you might have heard of it.”
Their eyes met as mirrors of fear and fire.
“In a way you’ve had a taste of this too, haven’t you?” Percival tossed him the vial, which Raoul caught in shaking fingers. “You can’t put love in a bottle, Raoul. Or the truth either, for that matter.”
He turned and started limping slowly toward the southern horizon.
Raoul watched him for a little while, before he stretched painfully up from the ground and followed after him.
|C.A.L. dwells somewhere between water, sand, and stars on the eastern coast of Australia, an indeterminate space she shares with two children and three house rabbits. Being somewhat obsessed with scientific knowledge herself, she occupies her favorite university in a manner which feeds the obsession and also pays the bills. Previous stories have been published in Interzone, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Borderlands.|