Thursday, June 4, 2009

Stirrings and Stars

Irene sat by herself. She thought that she was sitting in the same spot Peter had been when he had conducted his experiment.
"He's gone."
I know, she would have said to the voice that had joined her in the taxi on the way from the hospital that morning. But she did not want to engage it. Irene considered that Peter might have been dead before he had even reached the hospital.
"But, he's not dead to everyone," it said in Harappan. "He is not dead to me."

Before sunrise, she, Bhakti, and Klaus had been summoned from their seats in the waiting room at Charite Hospital. A resident led them into another hallway, down a third, and then into the room where Peter had been placed in bed. He did not lay, for his limbs and muscles were taut against padded leather restraints, and there was nothing relaxed in his comportment. Cottonballs, like coins, were taped in place over his eyes. Below, his lips were peeled back, as if to bare his teeth, which were sunk well into a thick piece of rubber. "He is still not responsive. It is the opinion of my seniors that much of his brain activity has ceased. His body lives, but the mind has likely been destroyed. In our opinion, Mister Cox has suffered a massive stroke."
The doctor turned away from Peter's body. "He breathes, somehow. This is an electrocardiograph machine," said the resident. "These wires detect electricity in Mister Cox's heart. Look. This sheet is the record of his heartbeats." The resident lifted the scrolling paper from the floor. "Here, this line." Irene shook her head and Klaus stepped back. "You see, it is like low lying foothills, his cardiogram. In the heart of a normal person this is like a series of high peaks with foothills and valleys between them. His heart is barely twitching inside his chest. He should be comatose with a heartbeat like this – he is comatose, but his muscles are still exerting such force. It is a strange kind of paralysis that has taken him. As though rigor mortis has set in before he has fully died. We fear to give him a sedative, for then his heartbeat would cease completely."
"You can do nothing?" Klaus had begged.
"We can try to maintain his condition for a while. He is a very unusual case. There are experts who would like to examine him. They may be able to help. Does he have any family?"
Irene opened her mouth uselessly. She had no answer.
Klaus spoke, "He has a sister in England. I don't know how to reach her."
"No one else?"
Klaus shook his head. "He is divorced. I don't know where his wife now lives."

Later. The resident: "Go home. Please get some rest."
Bhakti: "I'm his nurse, do you mind?"

"There's nothing much left of him now."
"What?" Irene had asked.
Klaus had been staring out his window. He looked at Irene blankly. "Nothing," said Klaus. "I didn't say anything."
Irene had been meditating on the government buildings of Berlin-Mitte. Empty in the morning, they were stone faces. Doors were mouths.
"Just some tension in his muscle fibers, some grinding in the joints." It wasn't Klaus, it was even German speech. "There's nothing there, no persona to speak of." Irene didn't answer it. "There was a man," it explained in a tongue forgotten by all but Irene. "It was eaten by styrgae. Styrgae are like bugs, Irene, but they are from the underworld. They swarm over one's star body and devour it as locusts in a garden. Do you think Peter would have wanted his star body to be eaten by locusts? Have you ever seen the jaw parts of a locust slicing through leaves? This was much worse, for the styrgae have many ways to feed on the delicate sinews of one's star body." Gentle, masculine, describing the most horrible things in blase manner, there was a word for this kind of voice. Satanic.

"For me, there is no death. I am not deceived by its illusion."
On the coffee table before her, a cigar box. Inside, the mirror. To the right of that, Peter's notes. Irene was hardly conscious of having taken these pieces out and arranging them.
"He's as dead as what matters to men. The strength in his arms isn't his own. That," the voice said, clearly meaning the mirror, "is what makes him rigid."
The mouse nibbled away at something in Irene's bag. Bhakti was at the hospital. The others were downstairs.
"His grimace mimics the death of his star body. He claws at the styrgae even now, for his body has been imprinted with that moment, the moment of his star death, which carries through all the possibilities that were in Peter like a leit motif. You can change this; you know how. You've already prepared everything."
There was a knock at the door. Irene surveyed the table – there was nothing obviously amiss there, she thought that she might as well answer it. It was not likely that Satan himself would be standing in the doorway.
"It is time you revealed yourself to me, witch," insisted the voice, by and by proving that it was still in her head, and not in the stairwell. "I will be waiting for you."
Irene opened the door silently.
It was Alexandr. "Irene," he said in English. "I am very sorry for my part in this and you must tell me if there is . . . I will help you." In the stairwell's dim light, Alexandr was grim and downcast. In that light, noontime sunshine filtered through windows antiqued with dust, Alexandr looked like a broken titan making amends.
"I will help you," echoed the Harappan spirit. "I will be there."


  1. “You have nothing to be sorry for,” Irene said with complete and utter honesty. She even managed a small smile, though there was such sadness lingering in the depths of her gaze. That desolation had never budged, not even for an instant, since Peter had tumbled into madness. “But I appreciate your offer to help—more so than I can ever express.”

    And there her voice wavered slightly, the strength of her own emotions surprising her. Indeed, at this moment Irene felt great affection for the man—little more than a stranger, in reality! His declaration of his willingness to throw himself into danger was so honest and so selfless that it was almost too much for Irene to bear. How had she been so lucky as to fall into company with such remarkable individuals?

    For a moment, she merely gazed out at the imposing man standing before her, but then she stepped back and beckoned him to enter with a wave of her hand. She moved back to the table and then put her hand on the top of it, drawing his attention to the mirror and the notes. No doubt that would look familiar; no doubt he would know what she wanted to do—what she had to do.

    “I fear I may have to ask something of you,” she added, her eyes becoming hardened with determination once more. But there was apprehension there as well as her eyes flickered down to the instruments that had led to Peter’s destruction. Did she really have a chance of succeeding in freeing him? Or was this attempt nothing short of suicide? But it didn’t matter. Irene was all too aware that there was no other option. Even if she was marching down a path that led madness, she didn’t care. She was going to take the path before her and she was going to do it with her head held high, with the sort of determination found in hearts of mythical heroes lodged safely in her own.

    “I know that Peter can be saved, that all hope is not lost. And I know what I must do,” she said, her lips twisting a bit into a decidedly grim expression. “Will you be my anchor, Alexandr? My eyes and ears and bodyguard in this the so-called ‘real world’?” she implored him. Her hands shook a little bit as she reached out to touch his, but that was the only vulnerability that she allowed to seep through her otherwise certain air. ‘Allowed’ wasn’t quite fair; she couldn’t have stopped it, even if she had tried.

  2. Alexandr removed a pistol from his pocket. It was a revolver. Though she had no special affinity for most guns, Irene recognized it as an old piece, quite unlike the distinctive Luger which one associated with Germany. Its butt had been sanded into a smooth round shape reminiscent of an ancient wheel lock, as usually accompanied pirates in drawings. The wooden grip had been richly stained with sweat. Placing it on the table at a point equidistant from the other two elements of the ritual, Alexandr looked to Irene and pressed a finger across his lips.

    Irene took her place in the chair and opened the box. She removed the tusk-like crystal. Alexandr gritted his jaw as he stood over the table with his arms at his sides. "He was holding it on his legs, on his lap," he explained. Beneath the metal piece, there was a folded sheet of paper. With the mirror's weight resting on her legs, she leaned forward and took the piece out. Irene immediately recognized it as John Daniel's confession, and in a breath she had folded it back up. She considered the implications of exposing her ally to evidence of Peter's crime. Would Alexandr present Peter to the authorities as a murderer? If what he had said at dinner – about his satisfaction at snuffing out something foul to this world – had been stated with sincerity, then it was possible that he might comprehend, if not condone, Peter's actions. Irene wondered, might Alexandr understand Peter's decision better than even she?

    She unfolded the paper.

    "Ia Sha'porya budmud."

    The words were slightly familiar. It was not her first time reading them and she even had, by now, a copy of the prayer in her notes. But she had never found any meaning in it.

    She read the rest silently, listening carefully to the cadence and accentuations in her head. Meaning was not to be found, she discovered. As if the sounds were native to her mind, meaning bled through, seeped into her consciousness with not even so much as the thought of translation.

    Jai Rishi Lopamudr!
    Hail Sage Lost-Faces! radiant in beauty, protect us well,
    Furthering your servants with might
    Hail Sage Lost-Faces, whoso devotes to you is protected,
    Faster than thought, than light
    Aid us, Sage Lost-Faces, thou who art wise in mind and powerful
    Like Agastya swami of yours
    O, Mother Sage Lost-Faces on the vital shining path,
    Foe-slayer you are, claims our song.
    Whose overflowing and swift river, surges forward and fills,
    Rushes onward and swallows your servant.
    She hath spread us beyond all foes, beyond sages,
    As the sun spreadeth out the days.

    The mouse rattled in Irene's bag.

    "Are you prepared? Alexandr asked. "Is this everything you require?"

  3. Irene slipped a hand into her purpose, feeling around gently for her tiny friend. She felt the need to reassure him that all would be well. His tiny nose tickled her fingers and she even smiled a little. But then, a second later, she remembered that now was not the time for smiles.

    She realized that Alexandr had spoken again. Her ears had registered his words and her mind repeated them for her. After a moment, she shook her head in response--but then she stopped in mid-turn and oriented her face to his once more.

    “Yes,” she admitted. She extended her hand, sliding her arm along the table. “You can hold my hand. If you don’t mind.”

    She wasn’t asking out of fear or merely the need for comfort, but rather because such a gesture would close the distance between them—or at least thin it slightly. She was hoping that his touch would comfort her, that she would feel like she knew him better after that contact. Because, really, she didn’t know him and he didn’t know her. She was resigned to that, given how little time and opportunity they'd had to remedy the situation, but she still yearned for more. And besides that, she wanted to feel safe, if only for a fleeting moment. Who, if not the imposing man next to her, could bring her that kind of peace of mind at this moment?

    A hand given in turn or not, Irene was prepared to push onward. But first, she had something to say. Well, not say exactly…

    You may be in my head, but you don’t control me, she told the voice that she as certain still lingered in her head—or wherever it was exactly. She was quite sure that it could not read all of her thoughts, but she knew it would pick up on those. In fact, I think you may have a great deal to fear from me. Your constant blustering does not hide your uncertainty and fear—not from me. I am, as you say, a witch. And I intend to prove it to you.

    Then, with pronunciation and inflection like that of a priestess of old, Irene spoke.

  4. . . . a name older than "Lopamudra", older than Sanskrit.

    "Ia Sha'porya Budmud!"
    The old athlete's coarse hand enveloped hers, squeezed. She looked upon his harried features a last time. He frowned before solemnly closing his eyes.
    "Ia Budmud Sha'porya!" she said confidently as she observed Alexandr's calm. "Sha'psa muder guey karkar
    "Grad kad daliyaey reshash du." Alexandr's lips were moving as well.
    "Ia Sha'porya budmudey toj pug guey karkare.
    "Rat yat so jidas." Irene's eyelids fluttered and fell closed.
    "Guey do-abbol Sha'porya Budmud, ho budmud rate vam rashasha
    "Agastya eye y hoti midu." Irene drew a breath.
    "O Ma Sha'porya Budmud, rashasha sorub pate,
    "Tarey jarred ho, gua aga karkar
    "Grad goti ho shushaey vam jidey neytu daliyaey horrsh vam shusha," Irene heard herself cry.
    "Horrsh!" – the word rushed from her chest, nearly emptying it, and she continued breathelessly – "daliyaey shusha jidey.
    "Guey tarou ou funalta," she gasped, "tiniou ou budmudas."
    Unable to inhale – her voice was a soft cough – yet the words writhed from her throat with revelry! "Sorub ey haey funalta!"

    At once Alexandr released her hand – he drew away and she tumbled, eyes shut tight, forward into the table, but the table was not there. Flat on her belly. Heat pressed her into the soft, slightly damp ground, as though it were a weight on her back.

    She opened her eyes and in a moment of mad, determined courage – as a child, she threw the sheets from her head in the dark bedroom – Irene rolled over and faced the orange sky. Shadows of buildings loomed into her field of vision, jutting into her one-, five-, seven- and eleven o'clocks, framing the glowing field as an endlessly deep, eerily regular, saffron cross.

    The cross poured into her on a torrent of radiant light issuing from no one source. Irene lifted her hands to her face and saw that her very flesh smoldered with the same radiance. What had she expected if not a version of reality utterly unique from the one in which her mind, her entire life, her biography, and even her line of evolutionary descent had formed? Finally, challenged, she breathed.

    And she pushed from her chest a hoarse wail. When she had exhausted her lungs once again, she scrambled backwards through tiny drifts of slightly moist dust, scuttling like a crab on her back, and finding nothing secure to push against. Too terrified to stand, Irene drew panicked breaths where she lay, sobbing, bathed in dust. Why look around? Home would not be there, nor would Berlin, or even the sinister ruins of the Sindh, only those towering black shelves filled, she knew, with boggling artifacts, the material babble of alien minds too diverse to ever be comprehended completely, accurately . . .

    Irene wailed again, a low despairing sound that she had never ever uttered before.
    She drew the blanket back over her young eyes. She lay there under the weight of the radiant sky-cross and, for a long time, cried for her lost self.

    (In casting the spell, Irene sacrificed -6 sanity points and - 5 magic points. She lost five sanity in one roll, which is substantial. At this point, she was granted an idea roll to determine if she would be subject to temporary insanity; she passed, so she was. Action continues in "Insight".)