The tiny monitor didn't allow a good look at the face. The voice on the other end had a tensile timbre to it, the kind that holds a magical position of strength--enigmatic, obscure and potent.
"...be there in an hour an' forty minutes."
He put the cell-phone down, pulled the covers off and rummaged in the dark for his slippers.
He blinked sleepy eyes, deep lagoons of sapphire and coal.
David Porter Chickbrow, ex-astronaut for the past five years, looked more Sicilian than Sioux. His jagged face, sun-blanched and weathered as might have been a Calavrian fisherman's, had the tan color and contours of walnut bloodwood. He had a Roman nose and his brows were more like a falcon's than a chick's.
He'll winnow this one out. Just as he had done when choosing his crew. Civil servants had the disease.
So now he knew who he'd be dealing with.
Or did he?
People could hide themselves well. People that thought themselves high and mighty because those others, higher up, succored them.
Intuition? It was as inborn a trait to Chickbrow as was his color. Enough so, so as to have the insight to pluck out bad fruit easily. Stuffy collars he didn't mind. High brow syndrome it was called. He couldn't avoid it either during those first days of 'flights to the stars'.
Wonderful, proud years.
He made a face.
How fast they go by.
Outside, thunder came in a stream of four detonations, like bombs in a night air raid.
"Why would anyone want to look at bugs--at this hour?"
He shook his head sleepily.
A glimpse at the clock atop the night table showed four-twenty. He switched the light on and a copy of Fiery Particles by C. E. Montague dropped to the floor. The lamp flickered, and came back on. He retrieved the book, creased the page corner, and laid it back on the table between the bonsai tree and the little totem.
In his boxer shorts, gangly and lean, he headed for the shower.
The wind and sand howled outside.
The roads were empty at this hour.
The electric storm had ceased and the clouds along with the all-enveloping smog had moved far to the horizon. It turned into a brilliant night. Years had gone by since Chickbrow last saw the stars. Stars couldn't sparkle through the brown cloud of pollution fog and the glare of city lights.
There were cities everywhere.
New Mexico was no different. Once maybe. Sparsely populated then. A few civil men and women came to flee from the strangulating and violent droves of the megalopolis. He stared at the road for a long moment. His black-blue eyes narrowed and his mouth closed taut upon the knowledge of no escape.
He tightened his grip on the wheel.
The green panel at the edge of the dashboard flared a red number, reminding him that his drive card would soon need to be replenished with government credits. He removed and reinserted it in its slit and the warning ceased, at least till he drove the electric car once again.
Having government contracts had its privileges.
Zero exhaust fumes.
Complete and strict control by the government. All natural fuel reserves had to be used up before giving public access to the e-cars. Chickbrow considered with a wry smile, what else had the once enterprising West--the world for that matter--learned from old communism?
"To be 'politically correct'."
In the 1990's the maxim had been, 'Don't ask embarrassing questions because they'll be ignored'. Concurrently had appeared what the Europeans called 'the one way road', no turning back. Unite Europe, no matter what. Broaden NATO.
The bright ushering era.
Both continents on either side of the Atlantic stormed like two horses with blinkers. No one knew who held the reins. Why it was brought about. Where they were heading. Till the blind galloping chargers plunged into the bog, dragging behind them a confused and disoriented humanity.
Producer and consumer paid the tab. No celebrities here. No splendor in Hollywoodian glitter and eclat. Only an injured world. The sin. Waste. Barbarous, reckless devastation. The punishment. Deprivation. Crime. Exploitation. A prisoner in one's own home. Lawbreakers no longer mugged. They killed. And so did law keepers.
The interim, undefined and epoch-of-no-reason had befallen upon them unsuspectingly, like snow on a quiet wintry night. Only come daybreak...it felt more like a bone-crushing right hook.
Man had finished destroying what took mankind, history and the Earth billions of years of nurturing to ripen into maturity. Man had fully completed slaughtering what civilizations had built with sweat and blood and reason over incalculable hours of hard toil. Over the shedding of inestimable hot salty tears and untold calamities.
"The Scourge," Chickbrow said softly.
"Produce! Consume!" cries that would bring the world together.
No matter that the children of Africa had been consistently dying with bellies bloated by starvation.
No matter that Americans and Europeans had been steadfastly dying with bellies swollen from overeating.
Words that could cover almost well the wounds of an exhausted world. A tired planet tenanted by tired peoples, hungry and empty of hope. Words that had been taken in eagerly as poultice of wisdom. First World locutions that undermined clear judgment.
The sprig of malignancy had lodged deeply in. The fever--á bush fire now through dry savanna.
Nobody had time. Too drained from soaking up the blows of competition to care--to see if constitutional institutions had been elbowed aside.
The bloated bellies bloated the wallets of a few.
The Soviet Union had had its elite in the Kremlin, The World Confederation had them in The World Federal Reserves and Administration Centers in the North and South Pole. The Under-ice Shangrilas were controlled by one Xenon, once a medical computer-programming student. He had managed through fancy Wall Street misplay to promote world-dependent, computer-healing time-sharing into a personal monopoly. Later on, into a fast growing fundamentalist religion.
'Where there is power there's corruption', was never displayed as lucidly as in the start of the twenty-first century. Governments had closed their eyes to venality.
"Nothing must interfere with 'free enterprise'."
Capitalism was considered an inappropriate term, ruled by the intranational council to be a "bigoted word", like socialism, imperialism and communism.
NATO continued to expand...
The word greed was kicked around by cynics; was sported about in romp and gambol. Greed for power had never in history occupied a more fertile platform from which to play the field.
Chickbrow nodded warily now.
His eyes shifted. His head moved from side to side. His belly growled from taut, stressed nerves and muscles.
The 1990's had been the kickoff of the estrangement process of peoples from their own preservation. Governments endorsed beehive assembly lines. Horded construction projects in world wide animal havens, sanctuaries and rain forests. Proclaimed that building and fabrication would open jobs for the millions of unemployed throughout the globe: The countries that harbored the richest most virginal life-giving natural endowments upon the planet.
UN personnel assisted in this; backed by what had once been NATO, and what now had become a leviathan of raw military force. A world constabulary of mercenaries and combatants. PATOS: Pan-world Armament Treaty for Order and Security.
Pretty words, Chickbrow mused, that people bought with their pound of flesh. Words that throttled and sanctioned the squandering of Earth and Freedom. The point of no return.
"Never had there been free enterprise in man's reign without some form of expropriation on the stand-by." The mockery darkened his face. The voice inside him of the old man spoke the truth ever since he could remember.
Not only did the new marshaling hail productivity to be the long sought after solution to international redundancy--as new macro-economics texts asserted--but extolled total alienation. A schism from old values as: no sense of national origin or consciousness; a proclamation and avowal to full 'normality' of all nations collectively; be a gear of support, among the many, to the upcoming 'global plural union'; the establishment of a primary de-emphasis on promoting any single culture or interests by any one federation. Collectively, yes. With government approval.
Was able to touch It.
He was not alone.
Lovesigh too felt himself in rapport with something almighty. For him this communion transpired through stars. He got the stars, the tears of God one might say, spilling into his Omega net.
Dazzling green peridots and vertiters, soft pink carnelians, deep indigo amethysts...
Why are stars a cinch to catch? he often wondered. What are they? Where do they come from?
"William Somerset Maugham." Lovesigh nudged his questions aside.
Michael obliged with a vibrant voice, "Popular dramatist, novelist, and short story writer, English but born in Paris in 1874."
Lovesigh was a bibliophile and a literati, among other things--to the extent his tired eyes would permit it. His den, as he liked to call his study, crawled with discolored and stained primitive volumes. A foxed tome with the rubric Shakespeare, another with Bible, others included Mozart, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Einstein, Tolstoy.
"Roman poet and philosopher," Michael responded. "Wrote a long poem, On the Nature of Things, arguing that the human mind and soul can be explained by the laws of atomic structure."
To Professor Anthony G. Lovesigh in Las Cruces, the universe presented less of a problem than the subterfuge of his body. In better days he was a brawny six-two. Graying sandy disheveled hair even now refused to stay in place drooping down over a deep forehead and dipping into a sharp, narrow face with steel-blue eyes.
He sat humped in his wheelchair and took respite. Taking a deep breath he tried to summon his strength for another day.
"It's been uphill, has it not, sir?" Michael asked, in a kind, feeling voice.
Lovesigh nodded, meagerly.
He saw by the look of utter lack of surprise on Michael's face that he must be in fact a gruesome display. Unruly and drawn. His face bleached. An antique of a man perched on a day-to-day tight-rope. Right on the brink of collapse. Michael, however, gave no sign of being aware of any of this.
Huffing and heaving Lovesigh tried to quench his ailing lungs. Even the keyboard. Plugging at it bankrupt him. The work-spells got shorter by the week because he grew so weary. They called it Parasympathetic Diaclonisis. He called it ParaDi.
"If I may inquire, sir--" Michael hesitated.
Lovesigh nodded. He closed his stinging lids to rid of the windows' glare.
"Sir, how did 'ParaDi' come about?"
Michael stood perfectly straight and motionless next to and a little in back of his employer, waiting to retrieve the empty medicine glass. In his present bearing he considerably resembled a Doric column, bedecked in crisp black attire, which as well spoke flawless Queen's English.
Behind the marble sheen and dignified veneer, grief overwhelmed Michael's heart. He assented with a nod absently, then shook his head again at something inassimilable to his own experience. He clenched his fist.
Oh, the affliction was not all-consuming. His employer could chew his food and managed in an awkward fashion to lift a fork to his mouth.
Three months ago the Professor had been able to stand unassisted by him, and take a few steps in the morning with his crooked rosewood cane. Go to the toilet and take baths alone.
But now, most of the time he lingered like an empty crumpled sack in the steel wheelchair. For his tendons and ligaments had withered, and heeded him feebly.
Michael's station and standards, however, would not allow him to exhume all that abided inside him. Other than comport solace and approbation through fidelity and fellowship, expressly at onerous times such as of late, Michael's presence seldom vaunted notice.
There was a lag before Lovesigh answered Michael, and when he spoke, there was an indication of immense effort in his voice.
"The purpose of exercising, maintaining a good diet and enhancing a mind to be alert at all time is to keep the equilibrium scale on health," Lovesigh said. "I had not missed a day from these good disciplines."
Michael nodded, fingering the gold watch chain that hung at his vest.
Lovesigh arranged himself in the chair.
"If that balance is knocked off kilter, the first things that would happen would be insufficient stamina and atonality. Then comes depletion, exhaustion. Finally, emptiness."
Lovesigh's limbs began to ache. "And it befell on me." He hurt as though he had just finished running a marathon. "The last man on earth that it could happen to, I thought at the time. I used to be the healthiest bloke (you Brits would say) around."
Lovesigh's eyes flicked over to the mainframe, dismissing it, settled on the window next to it. At that moment he struggled with all in himself, and with all the elements outside, it seemed. Death...they...had taken whatever meant something--his reason for being alive.
He turned to the last friend that remained.
"Be it a Christian, a Hebrew or a Moslem God," he whispered, "it's man's birthright to defend what's his. The most notorious butcher of them all, behold Michael: nature's programming. Imposed, subjugating, lethal, carved in us, upon our feeble genome."
He gulped some more of the noxious drug Michael had handed him.
"Armageddon, sir, between medicament and original sin?"
"Bodily imperfection, sir."
"On grandiose scale!"
He sipped some more of the stuff.
"Is not the Universe--Eternity, big enough to accommodate permanently God and man?" Lovesigh stopped.
He moaned a little.
Felt rage bound to a wheelchair. Shame at his cruel demonstration of loquaciousness. Arrogance and audacity he had no right to catapult in Michael's presence. His rudeness was insufferable, to himself as well. The man next to him was the closest thing to a saint--a good Samaritan through and through.
He fell subdued.
The idea of an impending death tormented. He combated it. Shut his brain to it. To part like a blown candle.
He paused, appalled.
(Other than her, Michael was the only soul Lovesigh conforted to.)
He shut his eyelids.
"A year before you came..."
He grimaced as he took another swig of medication.
"...three years ago, ParaDi made its debut."
He grunted, galled.
"Tremor of the lower limbs first. Then, augmented organ behavior. Fluctuation in enzyme and hormone consistencies, dyspepsia, hepatic and pancreatic exoncomata, et cetera."
Lovesigh lifted an eyebrow at Michael, continued his stare out the window. There was another little silence, and he thought for a moment that he had gone too far.
Michael bit his lip. "I wish--" He stopped, abruptly, groping for words. He glanced down and away. "I wish, sir, I could help," he said after a moment. Everything this man was telling him was so utterly foreign to his own experience. But to enter the other man's world, he had only to look, to lock eyes with him.
A crushed tired look forged on Lovesigh's face.
Treatment, even by the best around, wasn't all that nice either. It was in these therapy sessions that Lovesigh actively weighed life and death, more often listing towards the later. Lately it was as it had never been before.
"You do help," he said.
Michael thought he sensed comfort in that voice.
Vasilis is from Athens, Greece and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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