July 28, 2004



Stillness, Chapter 43

Part IV

Chapter 43

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

It was a bit past two when we reached my shop. Reuben looked tired and discouraged.

As well he might be.

We departed Michel’s company about half way back from the town with the incomplete tower. Our paths branched at that point; I could make out a quicker route home than returning to his world. To tell you the truth, I kept seeing better approaches to where Monsieur was taking us throughout the morning. I would have had us there in half the time, sparing Reuben a fair amount of wear and tear.

But it isn’t good form to second-guess one’s navigator. Moreover, the Congrigatio being a concern which values and honors tradition above all, it is considered especially impudent to question the technique of one’s elders. And it doesn’t do to allow Michel to work himself into a snit. We had come dangerously close to that more than once as it was. It doesn’t help that he is rather a thin-skinned creature who thinks nothing of becoming enraged at the drop of un chapeau. Moreover, it was a classic confrontation: Michel’s refinement versus Reuben’s abruptness; the Frenchman’s arrogance versus the American’s puppy-dog sincerity.

To be honest, they both get on my nerves. Rather.

In any event, inasmuch as Michel has both the gift of seeing and that of disrupting the waveform — although he is less a talent than myself in the former area, and far less than Reuben in the latter — we went our separate ways, with his assurance that he would have no trouble getting home. It was only after we started back on our own that I began to wonder whether his self-confidence was entirely justified. Not that there was anything to be done about it. Even if I had serious second thoughts about sending him back on his own — as distinct from a few partially formed misgivings — it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for us to find him after a step or two separated us. We would probably have had to go all the way back to his world to make sure he arrived safely. Which, owing to the aforementioned differences in technique, would probably have involved our arriving well ahead of him and waiting for him to catch up. Then even if we had somehow managed to intercept him on the way back, I would have once again risked being branded an upstart.

Plus I would have been practically begging him to throw one of his darling little French Fits. On balance, it didn’t seem worth it, especially after that touching farewell.

Oh, yes, it was touching. Decidedly so. We said not adieu, but au revoir.

“Come back when you can stay longer,” Michel had said. “I would so love to have you both here for the Moon Cake festival.”

Apparently he forgot that we have the same festival in my context and, more to the point, that I have always despised moon cake. The moon cake is a disgusting, heavy, syrup-drenched confection with an egg-yolk in the middle. Yes, that’s the delightful yummy surprise found inside. An egg yolk.

However, not only do I now engage in even more impudence concerning fine old traditions (these being the traditions not of my Order, but of my People), I do it by way of a pointless digression. So to return to the point: I suppose it was the thought that counted, after all.

“You must find your way back to my shop one day,” I had said. “We’ll hire a car and drive to Singapore.”

Of course, his world also has a Singapore, but it is not much to speak of — smaller even than my own Malacca.

So we carried on this vein for a while, like old school chums who had happened upon each other in a marketplace and had a cup of coffee together. The fact that our days of wandering through the configuration space were probably over, that it was likely that the configuration space itself would soon be over, just didn’t come up. Michel and Reuben shook hands solemnly and wished each other luck. We all put as brave a face as we could on the circumstances with which we would soon be overwhelmed and which we were powerless to change.

What a farce.

Even so, I found myself dangerously close to tearing up as Michel kissed my cheeks. And unless I’m mistaken, when he sniffed as he turned to go, it indicated — for once — something other than disdain.

I opened the door and led Reuben into my office, where he and I had spoken that first day some weeks before. I told him to sit down. I went to the kitchen and got a pitcher of water and two glasses. Reuben drank greedily. He had downed three glasses while I was sipping my first. Quite understandable, really: a man of his size, still not fully acclimated, and required to do most of the heavy lifting.

“So,” he said with a sigh, putting his glass down on my desk, “I see now why you told me that I shouldn’t have said anything specific at the hotel. They’re going to think I’m crazy.”

“I’m sure they already do,” I said.

He half-smiled.

“Very likely. But I’m talking about how long I said I would be gone. I guess it wasn’t any two months, after all.”

“No, Reuben. It hasn’t been two months. It’s been quite a bit longer than that, I’m afraid.”

He looked puzzled.

“What, are you kidding? We haven’t even been gone 24 hours.”

“Reuben, have you ever been on a flight in which you travel across several time zones and arrive before you left?”

He nodded.

“Or have you ever crossed the date line and had a whole day added to your travel time, even though — for you — there was no such day?”

He nodded again.

“Well, let’s just say that there are a goodly number of time zones and date lines out there in the configuration space.”

“So, how long were we gone?”

“It was a little more than 18 months, I’m afraid.”

Reuben looked shocked. He closed his eyes and rubbed his head for a moment.

I knew this would be disorienting news. It didn’t make it worse by telling him that we would have been gone for a much shorter time had Michel not taken such a round-about route.

A long moment passed, and he still said nothing.

“Reuben, are you all right?”

He opened his eyes.

“I’m fine. But 18 months. How do you know?”

I handed him the copy of the Straits Times which Wai Hoong had set on my desk that morning, just as he had done every day during the year and a half I was gone. He followed instructions very well, Wai Hoong, And had never been one to ask nosey questions. He was used to the fact that I was prone to disappear for long periods of time, during which I was completely incommunicado. And that I would unexpectedly reappear as mysteriously as I had vanished, often in something of a bad mood.

Later, I would have the chance to look through the books and see how the shop had done in my absence. I suspected that business would be up a little.

Wai Hoong was also an excellent salesman.

Reuben looked at the date on the paper, and then dropped it back on my desk.

“Thanks for the water, Miss Wong,” he said, pushing his chair back. “ I need to go make a few calls.”

He stood to go, and then went wobbly. He planted his hand on my desk to steady himself.

“Sit down, Reuben. You need to rest for a while.”

He swayed indecisively.

“I need to make a couple of calls,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “Betty will be worried about you.”

He plopped back down in his chair.

“I meant to talk to you about that. Who the hell do you think you are, extorting money from the Keyes like that?”

I shook my head.

“I extorted nothing. I needed some money, and Mr. Keyes was more than happy to help. He’s a very generous man, Reuben. Perhaps you could learn something from him.”

“You don’t think I was generous, forking over a million dollars with no questions asked?”

I wheeled around the chair and opened the cabinet behind me.

“It’s not the amount, Reuben,” I said over my shoulder. “It’s the attitude. Mr. Keyes never made an issue out of how many questions were asked. He gives with no strings attached. That’s generosity.”

I turned back around, holding a bottle and two glasses.

“Well, then you’re right,” said Reuben. “I’ll never be as generous as the old man. I’ve got plenty of questions, and I intend to ask them.”

I opened the bottle and poured a generous helping into each. It occurred to me that, as reliable as Wai Hoong was, it was unlikely that he had wiped down these tumblers during my absence. Oh, well. The alcohol was sure to neutralize anything truly nasty.

“As I’ve told you more than once, I have no intention of satisfying your curiosity about what I intend to do with what is now my money.”

I offered him one of the glasses. He looked warily at it.

“Do you really think more booze is a good idea?”

I nodded.

“Almost always. Isn’t this what you would call a hair from the dog who bit you?

He shrugged and took the glass.

“Something like that,” he said.

“Anyway,” I continued, “This is one of the finest single-malt whiskies available on Earth. Please do not refer to it as ‘booze.’”

He smiled and took a sip.

“Sorry, Miss Wong. You’re right. It’s excellent. Another gift from Iskandar?”

It was an infuriating question. All the more so because the whisky was, indeed, a gift from Ix.

“Why would you think that?” I asked, as nonchalantly as I could.

“Just a shot in the dark. I’ve known some Indonesian guys to be pretty partial to their whisky.”

I took a sip myself. The familiar glow of warmth was reassuring. It was good to be back in this chair, in this room. It was even good to be talking about Ix, good-for-nothing heartbreaking tosser though he was.

Or had I broken his heart? It was all so long ago.

But none of that mattered any more. Nor did it matter what Reuben knew, or thought he knew, about what had passed between us.

“Even though, technically, it’s against their religion,” he continued.

“Oh, Mr. Ahmad does not drink. His appreciation of fine whisky is purely intellectual.”

“So you’re saying that the gift was from him?”

I felt a sudden chill of anger. Perhaps none of it mattered any more, but that was no excuse for baiting me. I’m accused of being overly sensitive when it comes to my personal life, but here was more proof that I’m right to keep everything to myself. They’re all the same. All of them.

So cruel.

“Don’t be pedantic, Reuben. You’ve made your point.”

He took another drink and looked at me for a moment.

“Can I tell you something, Miss Wong?”

“What is it?” I asked.

Here, no doubt, would come the final blow. And he would have a fine laugh at my expense. I braced myself for some crude attempted witticism offered up at my expense, and began to formulate my response.

“Well pardon my saying so, but I think it’s too bad that the two of you couldn’t work out your differences. Too bad for him, I mean.”

He looked down at his glass and then back up at me.

“I think Iskandar would have done all right for himself if he had been willing to bow down to the altar of Daphne almighty.”

He took another drink

“I think any guy would.”

I opened my mouth, but found I was incapable of speech. My mouth was dry; my throat, too. My voice would surely crack if I tried to say anything. I looked down at my glass and realized it was empty. I started to pour myself some more. My hands were trembling.

I poured out a splash and drank it.

“I…well…thank you, Reuben,” I managed. “That’s very sweet of you to say.”

He shrugged again.

“It’s just the simple truth,” he said.

I found that I was smiling like some schoolgirl whose head can be turned with silly flattery. I damned myself for an idiot. But I didn’t stop smiling. Besides, I knew this wasn’t silliness. Nor was it flattery. Overbearing simpleton of an American though he might be, Reuben wasn’t the sort who could say something like that convincingly if he didn’t mean it. In fact, he wasn’t the sort ever to say anything he didn’t mean.

He could be quite infuriating, really. Especially at a moment like this, when it became quite apparent that — all my plans and intentions aside — I would no longer be able to hate him.

“Anyway,” he continued, “the question I wanted to ask you wasn’t about what you’re going to do with the money. Sorry, your money. Or about you and Iskandar. I don’t care about any of that. I’m more interested in something else.”

“Which is?”

“What are we going to do next?”

I blinked.

“Reuben, don’t you understand? There is no more we. We have finished with each other. It’s over. I suggest you go back to Italy and wallow in the lap of luxury for as long as you can.”

“So, we’re just giving up?”

I looked at him for a moment. Clearly, there was more spinning around in that damaged head of his than wistful reflections on my failed romances.

Which came as a bit of a relief.

“Is there an alternative?”

“Well, there was yesterday. Or last year. Or whenever the hell it was that we left. You told me that what’s happening isn’t natural. It’s not what was supposed to happen. And you think those things…the shredders are behind it somehow.”

Shedders.

“Right. Shedders. What a stupid name. You think the Shedders are behind all this.”

I nodded.

“Yes, that’s my suspicion.”

“Well, based on what he had to say the other night, it’s Michel’s suspicion, too.”

“I suppose it is. So?”

“So you said you could identify the source of the anomalies; that we could go there and maybe stop them.”

I sighed, and contemplated another wee sip, before realizing that such contemplation is out of order when the universe is ending.

I filled my glass almost to the top.

“Even if it were possible to get there, which we now know it is not, it wasn’t much of plan. Stop whom? From doing what? I was hoping Michel would be able to guide us to others who could help answer those questions. I believed that we were in the early stages of forming a plan. But there is no plan to be formed, Reuben, because we can’t get there.

Reuben didn’t really seem to be listening to what I said. He looked up at me after a moment.

“Miss Wong, how far can you see?”

I shook my head.

“That question would be almost impossible for me to answer.”

“Fine. But the point is that you can’t see every context that we would have to pass through in order to get to the source of the anomalies.”

“No. I doesn’t work like that.”

“So then, unless we go take a look, how do we know that we can’t get there?”

I took another drink.

“You saw what I saw, Reuben. Do you really think we have a chance of making our way through there?”

“I saw a few weird birds, a guy with hair that was a little too thick and wavy, and a tower that holds itself up in the sky with no visible means of support. How does that mean we can’t make it to the source of the anomalies?”

I could understand his resistance, his willingness to do something. And there was some part of me that wanted to agree with him. But I wasn’t quite ready.

“Reuben, remember what Michel told us. As they lose coherence, the contexts become more and more unpredictable. We’ll stumble into danger without realizing it.”

He thought about this for a moment.

“Do you think that’s why LeClaire was leading us on that wild goose chase? He was protecting us from danger?”

“If that’s what he said he was doing…what are you talking about, Reuben? What do you mean by a wild goose chase?”

“I mean that we didn’t take the most direct route to where we were going.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“I — I don’t know.”

I stared at him for a moment. He was a now a completely new person. A stranger.

“My God. Reuben. You can see, can’t you?”

He finished his drink and set the glass back on my desk.

“I…yes, I think maybe I can.”

It’s hard to describe the rush of excitement I felt. Of the two gifts which enable the practice of Magic Minor, the ability to disrupt the waveform is by far the more common. There are those who believe that every human being possesses the talent, at least to some extent. It’s built into the brain. Few have the ability in sufficient quantity ever to become aware of it, and fewer still have enough of it to be trained to venture out into the configuration space.

But the ability to see — to perceive the makeup of adjacent contexts, to navigate a course from one reality to another — is, I will say in all modesty, vanishingly rare. It is believed that even Jaloor lacked the ability to see, that he stumbled into this world as blindly as Reuben did. Until that moment, Michel was the only human being I had ever met who possessed both talents.

“Tell me what you saw,” I said, breathlessly. “Tell me how you knew that Michel was not taking the most direct route.”

He shook his head.

“It’s very hard to describe.”

Try.

“Do you play chess, Miss Wong?”

I shook my head.

“No, but I have played. Anyway, I understand the rules of the game.”

“Well, whenever I play, I try to look ahead one or two moves. If I take the other guy’s bishop, he’ll take my pawn. Then I just slide my rook into place, and he’ll never see the attack on his queen until its too late. But he might not take the pawn. Maybe he’s going to continue an assault with his knight, in which case I need to move my bishop back into a position that shows I mean business.”

Reuben closed his eyes, apparently picturing a chessboard with his mind.

“That’s about as far as I can ever take it. I can see two or three alternative sets of moves, and that’s it. It quickly branches out into more possibilities than I can take in our keep track of. But even so, I have a sort of master idea of which moves I need to make in order to get the other guy’s king.”

He opened his eyes.

“Miss Wong, I was experiencing something like that on the walk this morning. Each time we took a step, I had an idea of what some of the possible steps from the new position might be. And each time Michel stated an objective, I had a… a vague idea of how we needed to proceed to get there. It’s just that the steps that he took didn’t always match up with my picture of how to get there.”

It was a perfect description of what I had experienced on our journey that morning.

“But that’s only to be expected,” I said. “There are differences in style, Reuben. And differences in technique. Most importantly, there are differences in innate ability. If you and I were given a chess board in mid-game, would you expect us to choose the same next move?”

“No.”

“Well, there you are.”

“Maybe I’m wrong. I could watch somebody make moves different from my own, moves that reflect a different strategy or a different approach to the game, and I’d be fine. But there was something else at work. The more I think about it, the more sure I am. There was something phony about the way he got us to our destination.”

I felt a twinge of unease.

“Phony?” I repeated.

“I don’t know. All I know is that we could have gotten to the broken tower without seeing the ugly little medusa guy. And I think we could have walked as far as we did, or even a lot farther, and still arrived at a perfectly coherent destination.”

There it was: the suspicion that, until that moment, I hadn’t even realized was a suspicion. There was something disturbing about the path that Michel had chosen for us. I had sensed that all along.

And it was not just a difference in technique.

“Reuben, what are you saying?”

“How long have you known LeClaire?”

I shook my head, bewildered.

“For a long time. I’ve seen him six or seven times over the years.”

I remembered the first time the Frenchman came to our house. I was only three or four years old. Michel couldn’t have been more than 15. He had come looking for help; the elder members of his order had all died out. He didn’t know what to do. My father was amazed that he had managed to find his way to us. We took him in for a few weeks, during which time my father taught him as much as he could about the Congrigatio.

Of course, I only learned about all that years later. At the time, all I knew was that — for some strange reason — a gweilo boy was staying with us. I was terrified of Michel, and fascinated by him. My mother tells me that I watched him and followed him, from a safe distance, the entire time he was with us. He was always smiling, always kind.

He was my oldest friend in the world.

“And this Situation that you guys have been tracking,” Reuben continued, “he’s always been interested in doing something about it?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Well, don’t you think it’s a little odd that he has suddenly reversed himself? Isn’t it strange that a guy who has spent years preparing to do something about it just up and quits?”

I started to become annoyed in spite of myself.

“Reuben, you heard what he told us.”

“Yes, I heard it.”

He slid his chair back and stood up. He was steadier on his feet now. He looked around my office, as though seeing it for the first time. Then he looked back at me.

“All these years, Miss Wong. You’ve known what needed to be done. Why didn’t you go ahead and do something about it? Why didn’t you go, on your own?”

“I’ve told you that. I am unable to disrupt the waveform reliably.”

“Reliably? Or at all?”

“Reliably.”

“All right, you can’t disrupt the waveform reliably. Michel can. Why didn’t the two of you go together?”

I remembered the three times I made the journey to Michel’s context to suggest that very thing. Each time, I was warmly received. Each time, Michel confirmed my sense of urgency.

And each time, he sent me away, persuaded that we would do something soon.

“That’s hard to explain,” I said. “I’ve always felt that we should, but Michel has consistently urged caution. It’s such a long trip, far outside the scope of anything we’ve ever done. Michel could see that someone was going to come along in my context with a greater ability to disrupt the waveform than either he or I have. He said we should wait until that person arrives and then set out for the source of the anomalies.”

“Wait. How could he know that?”

“He can see more steps ahead than you can, Reuben. And more than I can, too.”

“So you didn’t think you could manage the trip on your own. And you didn’t bother to go out into the configuration space looking for help, because you knew help was coming.”

Reuben stood himself behind the chair where he had been sitting.

“This guy has been using you, Miss Wong. He’s been taking you for a ride. First your father, and now you. I think he must be in with those Shedders. They caused the anomalies. They’re trying to destroy the universe. And here’s their buddy Michel making sure that you don’t do anything about it.”

It could not be.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Is it? Here’s what’s ridiculous — a secret society exists for hundreds of years, waiting for some big cosmic event to happen. Nobody expects it’s ever actually going to happen, it seems, but they like the idea of it — it gives everybody something to speculate about and it creates this sort of air of purpose.”

I didn’t want to hear it. It could not be.

“And then, one day: wham! What do you know? The Thing actually starts happening. So what does the ancient secret society do? Do they sound the alarm? Do they put on their funny hats? Do they unroll their scroll and start chanting?

“No. They decide to sit it out. Their One Big Chance to do whatever the hell it is they think they’re going to do, and they decide to do nothing.

“Now that is ridiculous, Miss Wong. Daphne. It’s absurd.”

It could not — oh, what was the point?

I found that I couldn’t argue with Reuben, even in his impudence. Everything he said fit together. It all made sense.

He was right. Reuben: the tough guy. The imbecile. The git.

Was right.

It made me so angry that I wanted to hit something. Only the memory of the nice moment we had shared a few minutes earlier prevented me from throwing a right French Fit of my own. Only then did it occur to me that anger aimed at Reuben would be poorly placed.

Granted, he had shown up and proven to be someone other than the man I was expecting. That was probably his worst offense. Next he had humiliated me by getting me to spill the beans about Iskandar — a subject I never discuss with anyone. Ever. And now he, Reuben Stone, of all people, had seen a deception perpetrated against me.

Yes, Reuben was a pain in the arse.

But Michel…

Somehow, he had given the whole matter of the end of the world a personal side that it had previously lacked. After all, it wasn’t as though the Shedders (if they were, in fact, somehow behind all this) had it in for me personally. Monsieur, on the other hand, had come to my home. Lied to me.

Lied to my father. For years.

And I had missed it.

Well, there was nothing to be done about it. For now.

“Let’s finish our drinks, Reuben. We have to prepare for another long trip.”

He nodded.

“Sounds good. Where are we going?”

“As you suggested. We’re going to trace the source of the anomalies, and see what we can do about them.”

“So we’ll be taking another walk?”

“Yes. But not here. Our journey will take us through a completely different city.”

“Where?”

“Someplace you know very well.”

Posted by Phil at July 28, 2004 07:32 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Hey, Phil, when do I get to hold the manuscript in my grubby little hands?

Posted by: Kathy at July 28, 2004 09:21 PM

Still working on getting it up there in a good downloadable/printable format.

Meanwhile, I suggest you wash those hands of yours. How unsanitary!

Posted by: Phil at July 29, 2004 05:11 PM
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