A man is himself a whole troupe of fools on a stage, and the audience has long fallen asleep.
—Iadon-Repraxa, Rouê freedom-fighter (G. P. 1507-1578)
The sudden crash of an exploding shell slapped him out of his trance and he awoke in the saddle of a horse-like creature, barely able to breathe, choked by the smoke wafting around him, stomach knotted and heart beating loudly. After a few moments, he regained his awareness and knew where he was. It was somewhere in the past—or the future—too dangerous to spend time calculating which. But he knew he was in command.
The battle-stained beast he rode was exhausted so he allowed it to walk along the once-beautiful city avenue strewn with the destruction and debris of war. On either side buildings stood broken and battered, steaming, smoking, some with fires still blazing. The air was thick with acrid smoke, the skies above a hideous black and perverse pink—
A scene from Hell, he considered.
He glanced back over his shoulder at the trailing line of weary soldiers, leading their battle-scarred mounts through the debris-narrowed road, what was once a beautiful boulevard full of lush flora but now barren and burning.
How long had the war gone on? he asked himself, forgetting. It seemed ages, of course, as each year passed and each nation fell in a steady wave of conquest.
A lieutenant rode up beside him, concerned about their direction.
“We shall meet up with the fifth brigade at Debrêk,” he explained coldly.
“Debrêk, Kanê?” asked the lieutenant.
“You heard what I said!” Ah! how he loved the scent of Hell in the morning!
The lieutenant nodded, then pointed at the blood splatter on his superior’s torn sleeve, wondering if he were in need of medical attention.
“No, I carry pain everywhere I go,” he responded.
Then the lieutenant raised his cap and strands of golden hair tumbled down upon the man’s shoulders.
“What are you doing?” the lieutenant asked, the voice suddenly too feminine.
“I’m conquering!” He snorted, amused. “What does it look like?”
“Is that really necessary?” said the lieutenant who, as he regarded him, turned more and more into the face and persona of his long-lost love, Gina.
He squinted at the lieutenant, seeking recognition.
“Look at yourself now!” he/she accosted him. “You went so dutifully to the year 1574 and waited ten years for me? You got bored waiting in Aivana for me to show up so you went off to your island—where you promptly went insane. And still you waited for me? You know how it all works: you come and you go; you don’t wait. I’m here now, but this is not the end of my life; this is the middle of my life. If you look on some calendar, it seems to be a long time but it really hasn’t been. In fact, today might not even exist in another life.”
He smiled cynically, rather like a two-faced Janus mask. This messenger was not one of his staff, obviously, but a demon sent to torment him, perhaps because of the destruction his armies had wrought, laying waste whole nations on his narcissistic whim. Demons often came to debate with him and he was patient with their intrusions. It was becoming part of his life.
“This is what was required of me,” he spoke calmly, as though answering a journalist’s list of officially approved questions. “I am doing what I am supposed to do. You know that. You have read the history books. You’ve seen the martyr’s wall. You’ve spoken with the patrons of war. My task is to lay siege to the nations of Ghoupallesz. One by one. Until we are one. That is what the Council has decreed. ”
He waved his arm in the air. “Look around you—is it not glorious?”
The lieutenant who resembled Gina chuckled disdainfully.
“It’s true,” he continued, gesturing at his dirty uniform, the troops behind him, the destruction around him, and at his minor wounds in the arm and thigh. “I have a mandate to destroy all who oppose us. Hah! Did you not hear me last week when I said ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’? It was widely quoted.”
“The journals tend to be biased—”
“In fact, wasn’t it you who named me ‘Set’? More than once you called me the God of Destruction, the bull in the china shop, who always manages to create chaos, or one who is, let’s say, clumsy. Needlessly destructive. I get that. You want me to live up to my moniker. And now—now you seem to regret the seriousness of my nicknaming ceremony.”
“There was no ceremony, Sebastian,” the woman/lieutenant spoke, “only a quickly scribbled signature on a torn, wrinkled parchment in a cold, dark hallway of an abandoned house back in the Missouri countryside, a run-down wreck of a house about to be demolished to make way for a new subdivision. Even now they’re clearing the land, burning piles of timber, filling the sky with smoke. Just look out the window. Go on, look!” She/he snickered. “And you thought it was a palace!”
“I knew it was an old abandoned house. I never called it a palace. Bunker, maybe, but never a palace. We were—”
“It was foolish!”
“You’re calling me a fool?” he grunted, riding on through the wafting smoke and bitter scents of death and cannon fodder. “What about you? You’ve been such a saint!”
“Of course not. Saint is not in my pedigree, nor in my fate.”
“Ah, then you’re no better than me!”
“I’ve merely made my way as best I could, hiding where needed, asserting myself where I could do some good.”
“And now? Are you doing good?”
“Yes.” She seemed put-off by his presumption. “I am doing good now. I’ve joined a group who call themselves the Revolutionary Council. Our purpose is—”
“Good name! Revolutions are always good things.”
“We started in Typeg and now we are set to act in Aivana. They’re ruled by foreigners and the local people demand justice.”
“But you are a foreigner!”
“But I do not seek power. I don’t want to rule anyone.”
“You just want to create chaos.”
“Chaos always settles into order.”
“Which explodes into chaos.”
“Which settles into order.”
He thought of pizza and felt hungry, decided it was not worth further argument. How much further they would be slow-marching to meet up with the fifth brigade? Not enough time to stop for lunch—
He could not tell what time it was with the smoke obscuring the landscape, the burning cityscape. So he imagined himself astride a large bird, soaring high into the sky, looking down upon the blackened flaming ruins of the great industrial city his army had razed—that was possible in dreams, he decided, feeling the wind in his face. He imagined himself sailing high through the clouds, into the green sky above, the wind holding him aloft, like a god, like an airborne hero!
“The foreigners who rule in Aivana are my friends,” he said, gently landing the great bird, “and they are well-intended, as most Voyagers seem to be. Aren’t you and I well-intended? We never wanted to change anything here. We just wanted to have fun. Until things turned serious. Like now. I’m trying to subdue the planet and you are threatening to hurt my friends who have no idea what we Voyagers can do.”
“I wish you would’ve told me that before,” said the woman/lieutenant. She began stuffing her golden locks up into her cap. “The plan has already commenced. It cannot be stopped. If only you had let me know.”
He let out a long sigh, shrugging his shoulders, one epaulet ripped and dangling.
“That’s why I was waiting for you in Aivana. I read a history book about your group assassinating the royal family—trying to assassinate them. Ultimately, you failed. But I knew I could find you there on a certain date. I arrived early, so I decided to wait rather than go back through the tangent and try for a closer time zone.”
“If you had told me they were from Earth, I could have stopped—”
“Everything seems to depend on timeliness, doesn’t it?”
She nodded, looked more like his lieutenant than a moment before.
“Like right now,” he spoke up. “I really have no idea why I’m on this Jêpe in the middle of this burning city. I’m guessing that this uniform means something, but in my head I’m not quite clear just what I’ve done. Or what I will do next. I think I’m in charge of all this mess. Or, I’m the cause of it. Either way, it’s like I’m dreaming all this—”
“Now don’t you forget the rules. No waiting,” said the lieutenant, voice shifting from Gina’s alto to a deeper martial baritone. “It’s still possible to meet in Aivana. Shall we say outside the upper flat, corner of G-Lane and Alley-47, up the slope past the bridge? Let’s meet there a hundred years from now—by the calendar.” She chuckled. “Of course, that could be the day after tomorrow in our actual lives.”
“Êdolex, Kanê-se?” asked the lieutenant, now a skinny man with a moustache, questioning his use of the word ‘naturally.’
He grinned, embarrassed. Gina was nowhere in sight—as it was meant to be.
“A silly expression,” he replied to himself, glancing around. “Sometimes I think I’m going mad, as though a demon were following me. Then I look around at the territory under our control and I think, Naw!”
He cleared his throat.
“What is real is real, and what I can see and smell are real,” he continued, an edgy mumbling. “Only my thoughts falter and slide into an abyss of fantasy.” He stared ahead at the burning streets. “Or into dreams.”
The wind picked up then, blew hard against him.
“How can I tell them apart?” he muttered in English.
The lieutenant did not respond, could not fathom the question, so the Berron sent him back to the line of troops.