Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On the Second Floor, Chapter XII

Day Ten

The next morning I lay motionless in my bed for several minutes, checking the extent of my resolve against the magnitude of my task. My artificial environment was so remarkably consistent, one day was just the same as another, and there were no omens, no signs of special importance; but it was important, I reminded myself. It was the last day of school, if school were a bubble of inertia and self-doubt. It was New Year's Eve at the turn of a brand new century.

I got up and performed my Judgment day stretches, knowing I would have to be limber in body and mind. It was a token gesture, and I didn't know the first thing about proper stretches and exercise. What really mattered was focusing my brain, actions synchronizing with intent; preparation for the great unknown. In a moment of peaceful clarity I prayed for success, though niggling doubts of its efficacy remained in my mind.

I rummaged through the cupboard looking for a powerful breakfast, and I settled on honey nut cheerios because there was nothing else to be had. "Grant me the strength of the honey bee," I said, relishing the absurdity of every crunchy spoonful. There was no milk, but the cereal itself provided the necessary sense of fortification. "Lower my cholesterol too, if you can."

Important days call for special attention to one's physical appearance, when 'routine' matters of hygiene pass from quasi-optional to unquestionably essential. So I pulled my electric razor from the drawer and shaved my face, shearing down four days' stubble with ruthless efficiency. Shaving on an irregular basis is a haphazard affair, and I wondered if it made any difference among aliens or not. This is not about what they want, I sternly reminded myself. It was time to make a point.

I went to the closet and donned my people's ceremonial armor: a black, single-breasted business suit, rarely worn but all the stronger for it in my imagination (I come from a long and storied line of professionals). The entire ensemble hung conveniently assembled on a coat hanger, the classiest coat hanger I owned, and I was pleased to see that the fabric bore no prominent wrinkles. The tie, a modest blue pattern to match the shirt and blend with the coat, was a recurring enemy from formal occasions long past; I did my best, and I make no claims to aesthetic excellence in the art of tying ties.

I elected to wear tennis shoes, reasoning that the aliens would never know the difference, and reckoning comfort a higher priority than the strictest formality. My formal dress shoes were only a liability, buried in depths of the closet where they belonged, to the extent that they belonged anywhere within miles of my feet. The tennis shoes were black, and that was qualification enough for the occasion.

It was an outfit fit for a warrior, or a diplomat, or a spy; whichever role I might be called upon to play, the suit evoked a ruthless spirit I could rely upon to make me stronger than myself. The clock struck twelve, and I fiddled with my tie, hoping against hope to tease perfection out of its appearance. Finding none, I settled for less, because a tie is an impossible thing and a man must know his limits. The armor was on, and sufficient to the cause; it was for me then to believe in it, to invest it with strength from my own soul. The suit was invincible.

There was as usual no indication of when Dayus would arrive, but that was no concern of mine. I focused on my own preparations, the most critical element of success. The room was inundated by the music of Wagner, who lent his trademark audacity to a task that required much of it. I washed the dishes from the night before (and admittedly the night before that as well), unsure as I was about when I'd get another chance. The fate of the dome, and the apartment, and my property within it, was all an open question as far as I knew. I brewed the tea, the linchpin of the entire operation, more so even than the tie. The universe expanded and convulsed in wild, explosive waves, unabashedly unpredictable on every conceivable plane, just as it always had and always would; but in the sphere of my senses I was finally in complete control, and more determined than ever to use it to my advantage.

When the tower stirred at last, my preparations were in place. The music, German opera of the highest tradition, was like a transcendental storm, quivering with wind and strings and fearful noise. I read from the works of Ovid, stories of transformations on a multitude of scales. Outside my window, just such a transformation was taking place. As the tower receded, sunk deep in the ground, in its place stood Dayus, eight feet tall and noble, untouchable and unassailable as the pillar itself. He approached the door, and I welcomed him in.

"I notice your clothes are different," he said.

"This is formal clothing. If I'm going to be meeting the big wigs tonight, I want to look my best, don't I?"

"It is good that you take your position so seriously. Now, there are certain matters we must discuss."

"Certainly." I got up to place the Metamorphoses back in its place on the shelf, nestled amongst books of religion, myth, and philosophy.

"I'm sure you are curious about your future living arrangements."

"Yes, actually. Specifically, I want to know what's going to happen to the apartment, and all of my belongings."

"There is a space in my laboratory which is large enough to hold this building," he said. "The simplest option would be to re-transplant the structure to that place for the time being. You could continue dwelling there, if you wished, but your movements will necessarily be limited by laboratory security protocol."

"I can see that getting annoying after a while," I said, wondering at his poor sense of irony.

"I thought perhaps you might think so. Which is why I allocated money in my research budget for the purchase of an apartment in the capital for your use."

"Hold on," I said, eyebrow set to maximum surprise, "you guys have money?"

"It is probably not entirely similar to your conception of currency," he explained, "but money, in some form or another, is used in the overwhelming majority of advanced societies. Does this surprise you?"

"Well, a little." I felt a little foolish and resentful at the question, an emotion I had thought I was through with. "It's just that I never considered the possibility. That's all."

"I would hope this information would comfort you in some way," he said, "to know that the world you are about to enter is not so different from the world you have left."

"Yes, you're right," I said. God forbid it, I thought.

I rose from my seat on the couch and rubbed my face, still burning slightly from the razor. The time was as good as any; "you should drink some tea with me," I said, and he assented.

I retrieved the drink from the refrigerator, a rich Darjeeling blend on ice, and poured it in a pair of tall glasses. I mixed in the appropriate additives for each, shaking the glasses gently for a complete, even distribution, as my guest waited in the living room. The music, which was reduced to a volume more suitable for conversation, grew louder with the silence, asserting itself into the foreground with the absence of talk. I handed Dayus a cup, and he drank.

"This seems to taste different," he observed, "from the last such drink you offered me."

"That's because it's a different pmixture." I took a mouthful from my own cup, savoring the hint of lemon juice and mint that infused it. "Eating and drinking," I said, "are sacred actions in all human cultures, and a variety of preparations serve a variety of purposes."

"Explain," he said, taking another sip.

"Drinking especially," I continued. "Of course, water is essential for daily living, so we have to drink it every day. Water gives life, and that's why it's the prototype - the natural prototype, that is - of the magic potion."

"You ascribe magical properties to these substances?" His skepticism was plain, and not unwarranted, but I had more to say.

"Not in a literal sense, no, though we did just that in ancient times," I replied. "But I think that's still the best word for it - a magic potion." I drank more, leading him onward, and guiding by example. "If magic is a means to transform nature, and natural things, and states, then we have a host of potions to accomplish those changes. Take coffee, for example: usually, we drink it in the morning, when we feel sleepy and dull. The caffeine acts on our nervous system to wake us up, but we don't perceive the chemicals, only the effects; what we feel is a magical transformation of our cognitive states. We drink alcohol for the same reason: mental transformation. Many people drink drugged potions for religious reasons, to commune with the gods." I took another gulp. "Sometimes," I added, "a malevolent person might take another person's drink and poison it. You might call that 'black magic.'"

"And what about tea?" he asked, putting his cup down from yet another sip.

"Well, tea is a stimulant, just like coffee, but it has other chemical properties that give it a relaxing quality. For my money, it's the ideal drink for socializing, and relaxing on a sunny day like this."

"Yes," he murmured, closing his eyes slightly, "I do feel relaxed." Breathing deeply, he seemed at a loss for words. Like a good host, I filled the gap.

"So you see, two people coming together to share a drink, it's an act of friendship and trust. It's a common experience, of spiritual, vital significance."

"Yes, I can see how it is so." Dayus drank again, eyes closed, and I did as well, cherishing the moment. "This music," he said, "it's very...bold."

"You really have to be in the mood for Wagner," I said. "His style is very intense; he's a perfectionist, working on an absurdly big canvass. The man actually invented new musical instruments to make all the sounds he wanted. What it's really good for - what I really like about his music, though - is it sense of purpose."

"Purpose," he said, distractedly.

"Yes," I said, "purpose. It's a quality I admire in an artist, and probably art's greatest contribution to human society. It's the will to overcome self-doubt, to act heroically, boldly; to do what needs to be done." Dayus made no response, and his glass sat three quarters empty on the corner table. I watched as, weakly, he attempted to climb to his feet.

"The spider has a sense of purpose too," I continued, "though it took me a while to see it clearly. I finally figured it out, the difference between my way of doing things, and the spider's." I took a final gulp of tea from my own glass, and swallowed it, instantly feeling refreshed. "The spider has the nerve to pounce when his prey is in the web."

Dayus collapsed, landing mercifully with his head on a couch cushion, and enough sleeping drug in his system to drop a stallion. It had been too easy, but it was only right; just what he deserved for underestimating me. I took his glass and poured the remainder down the sink, rinsing it out quite thoroughly. I turned off the kitchen lights, taking care not to waste electricity, and returned to the living room to frisk his pockets. I took possession of his recording device, which I decided must have other functions, some of which might very well prove useful. Lastly, I grabbed my pocket knife from its place on the corner table, and tucked it in my coat pocket.

Outside, the sun was high and bright, and the air soaked warm with its rays; perfect weather for an afternoon siesta. I saw the elevator platform, a pale disc anchored in a sea of grass, awaiting the return of its sleeping master. I stepped cautiously toward it, and found that its defensive force field had disappeared. Trembling slightly, glancing quickly in all directions, I stepped to the center.

My doubts multiplied. The time for bold action came, and I seized it, but in doing so I felt as though I'd done a terrible wrong. My dishonesty, my treachery was the least of it; the amount of sleeping agent dissolved in that tea was positively criminal. I put so much in to compensate for his great stature, and to ensure success, but it was all guesswork. Dayus' body was different from mine, and there was no telling how his body might metabolize the drug. He'd been breathing when I left, but there was no guarantee that he would continue doing so. Not when he was so different than I; different in every conceivable way.

My gaze turned upwards, and I beheld the black hole. There was the exit, the entrance to the real Elysia, whatever it might look like. The pillar began to rise, uncertainly, as if it took its cues from my own vacillating will, and I crouched in the center, because I was afraid of heights. I rose above the roof; I rose higher, above the tree tops, and saw the whole length of the shadows they cast in the light of the sun. Higher and higher, perhaps a mile up, a gentle breeze kept me rooted in place, for fear I might be blown off and fall.

As my altitude increased, the dimensions of the space seemed to change. I could perceive the curvature of the domed sky more easily, as well as the circular plane of the ground, and even the crease which separated them. I saw the finite course of the brook, its water so clear that I could see the sandy bottom (shallow as it was). Daring even to look straight down, I saw my apartment, looking oddly natural in the artificial landscape. The air was cool, but barely more so than it was on the ground, it was so homogeneous. As I passed even the sun in height (I could see it crawling steadily down the western wall of the sky), the illusory perfection of the environment was nowhere to be seen. The light was scattered and diffuse, and the colors faded from the landscape, to leave the little world benighted, in a sad state of greenish grey.

The black hole grew in size, and what was once little more than a speck in the sky was now clearly large enough for the elevator to pass into. Yet even as I approached, even to within a few yards, there was only impenetrable darkness inside. The frightful gap was my destination, and the security of terra firma was more distant, less comforting with every passing foot. A stray thought crossed my mind, as the darkness engulfed me at last; how beautiful, and relieving, it must look on the way down; to look down and watch the land become real, to see the colors come to life, and escape the all-encompassing shadow.

For a minute it was all dark, even as the elevator ground to a halt. And then the lights - harsh lights, much harsher than my artificial sun - flashed on, nearly knocking me back to my knees. stood, shaking and stumbling, and reached out with my hand to block the worst of the glare. It was a modestly-sized room, uncrowded by boxes or equipment; metallic, but as pearly white as the tower itself when it glistened in the morning, strangely warm in spite of its austerity. Worried that I might be taken down once more, I quickly moved off the platform and stood in a corner, trying desperately to regain my bearings. On the left adjacent wall was the only other exit: a large, chalky door, carved with indecipherable symbols.

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