. . .
Mea Culpa . . .
Everything came to me at a specific moment; or rather I became aware of it again, for it has always been there under suppression. When that moment occurred exactly is indeterminate now. It has been lost among the memories that continue to pile up. They are no longer kept in check, although I am able to recount many details of importance.
This resurgence of my past happened at some point between bouts of unrequited violence, among the frequent, transient feelings that an unseen presence was trying to make contact. When it found its mark, I saw before my eyes so many rolling hills, a sea of endless golden blooms carpeting the land beneath a blue sky, and something filled the emptiness inside me. That was when I remembered I could experience emotion.
Some years before this moment, I had awoken in a daze, only vaguely aware that I belonged to myself and that the damaged, dripping gobs of flesh being taken away and replaced with metal were a part of me as well. Hauled up from the underworld and put back into my patchwork body, I was kept alive and unfeeling with medicines and machines. They fought off the pain, but I lost my emotion in the process, and all the memories that went with it. At the point they returned to me, I was reborn, and in that sudden instance of joy I found that I was not wholly satisfied. When the visions faded, when my happiness departed and I began to remember all the sour memories that came packaged alongside sweeter ones, I realized joy was not the only emotion I was capable of expressing.
It is impossible to describe what I felt at the time, at least as completely as I felt it. Too much was weighing on me, and this presence that wanted so desperately to be heard had at last found a seat within my mind. It was my mother's voice. Across the line of death, from wherever she existed in spirit, I heard her speak the name that I had forgotten.
I had not been called that in years. In fact it seemed not to refer to me at all, but an old state of mind that became defunct the moment I tumbled off that cliff, tore the ligaments in my right arm, and smashed one side of myself against the earth. I was a different person then, but time and special circumstances have changed that.
Very suddenly I became weak. The onslaught of such a profound mental state left me unwilling to see the battle to its end, as were my orders. I fired off one last round, and when it came back in my direction I took it full-force. Physical sensation was the quickest, surest distraction from the emotional onslaught.
I cannot be sure of anything that happened afterward. Indeed I barely remember the extent of damage I inflicted upon myself, except that it was intense enough to incapacitate me and burn some of the wiring around my sternum, but I do remember him. He was the one to catch me as I fell and wrap his arms tight over the wound, with every good intention of keeping my insides where they should be. I remember his hesitation, the trembling hand that would have rather not touched me, afraid of what I had become; but in his eyes was the picture of a clear and peaceful sky, wholehearted in its acceptance of every terrible storm in life. I let him hold me, for I felt some comfort beside him and could not will myself to move again, but the fondness diminished just as quickly as it appeared, and it left a gaping hole for anger to dwell in.
Perhaps this was fueled by my intensifying pain. Mother's voice continued to speak into my mind and it seemed, in an instant, the medications and processes meant to dispel my humanity failed. I became aware of this deathly state, the coldness in my body that suggested I was a little less than alive. Being in his arms and feeling how warm he was in comparison proved just that. He must have felt it also, for he curled around me to trap heat between us. I absorbed none of it, but put my left arm up in the hope that touching him might help me remember more.
Where were those golden flowering fields, I wondered. I had not conjured their images of my own will. They were being put into my mind from an outside source, reflecting the young man, my brother, whose face gazed down into mine. Remembering them renewed my spirits, but it must have been a dream, or else the fanciful delusions of exhaustion, because I could not recall ever seeing them in my waking life, at least not in any particular location. I knew I must have; they were too familiar and home-like. It was part of me in some way, but the connection had long ago been severed. However joyous the nostalgia, I felt no desire to return. There was nothing left for me.
It was enough just to see my brother again. Ever since my death, when my old life ended and I awoke unto an automated existence, I saw him so many times and never knew his face or his name. I thought as much of him as any given stranger. He was merely a comfort now, battered but full of life and willing me to be the same.
I was not who he wanted me to be. Too much had happened - more than I could comprehend at one time - and an unearthly weariness dragged on my soul, making it tired of my body and of consciousness. Every thought was a mile-long trek away from myself and toward mother's voice. She was calling me to her, into that final rest, and when I closed my eyes I could almost see her again, stepping just a little ways out of the fog. I had nearly forgotten what she looked like, and what my father looked like as well.
He was with us, though I did not realize it until he knelt down beside me, a trembling and hollow shell. There were tears in his eyes, his face unshaven and gaunt, and I knew the same tired feeling pulling me into the dust was also dragging on him. He wiped his tears and came away with blood. At the peak of his scalp, where the hair had receded, a fresh wound bubbled bright and red, running through the cracks in his skin and flooding his tearful eyes so that he blinked almost constantly.
I had been off my mark; that was my first thought, followed by a sting of guilt. The poorly-aimed deathblow meant for my brother had grazed my father's head when he leapt between us, but that was some minutes before I remembered myself. Had I fired any lower, there would have been no exchange between us now, no tearful face - starved of life and yet so full of love - looking down at me. And it made the darkness around us seem that much deeper when out of it a hopeful light shone.
Hope, as one who has long been searching for something and found it at the very brink of madness. That is what my father conveyed to me. He whispered through stained and quivering lips that I could come home with him, and I scoured every circuit and newly regained memory for the answer to what he meant. I almost believed that my mind had quit working, that the machines were taking control again, and that I would forget everything I was fighting to get back. Not for the life of me, however shallow it was, could I imagine what home he spoke of. Perhaps, I thought, this man was indeed a stranger, and it was by some odd trick of delusion that he seemed at all familiar to me.
Why, then, did he weep over my body? Why did he beg for me to cling to life if we were unfamiliar? I was certain that we were not; mother's voice confirmed it, though I could scarcely believe all she said. My memories were in pieces. It was more than I could do to accept that I would have killed the men who so willingly embraced me. They were ready to forget when I had only just begun to remember. That was the depth of their love.
I was not sure what I loved, if I could love. With all the strength left in me I lifted an arm to touch them in turn, and with an unsteady hand wiped away some of the blood on their faces, but not with any affection. I let go of mother's presence, though it continued to hang over me, and thought of what I might love out of all the things in my scattered world.
Firstly I wondered if the feeling could exist in me at all, or if the capacity for it had been extinguished by the machines. Then again, perhaps it was the engine that drove them. What turned the wheels of my clockwork heart, if not love? I stared up and straight through my father and brother at the cavernous ceiling, too far and too dark to be seen in the gloom, and while I searched my memories for an answer, I realized one thought stood above all others.
From death I was taken, thrust back inside a body that my soul no longer desired, and for half an eternity, it seemed, I was stretched between both planes of existence. In one moment I was alive and keenly aware of every gushing wound, every broken bone, and all the blades cutting away undesirable pieces; then in the next moment, nothing, until the machines could pump my blood for me. I awoke unto a world in which I knew no pain, only a newly-discovered power. Who in my old life would have loved me enough to embrace it? Who would have had the means to make me live again?
As I mulled over the subject, I decided I could not question whether it was right for me to go on living after my death. That fate was a gift from one greater than me, and I was ordered to serve that being. Stripped of emotion and free will, I had little choice, so upon their return I asked myself if I would have chosen to obey.
Without hesitation I answered, yes.
Some small part of me found it an unfair comparison between the old and the new, or rather that there was no comparison at all. What was my old life, but a frivolous existence, a little town, and a broken family? They may have been violent, undoubtedly premature, but the events leading to my death were altogether more exciting than my entire life up to that point. Only after all of that had come to pass, and I was reanimated, did I truly begin to live.
Men knelt before me by the thousands. Landscapes were set ablaze under my power. The very earth itself trembled and quaked, so moved by the very forces of my mind. A king beyond all kings called upon me as his foremost servant. Even without the luxury of emotion, I had achieved greatness. When out of a humble village a boy of little importance could become a soldier, widely-known, respected and feared, how could I not love the one who had made that possible?
My thoughts were disturbed when my father reached across me, patting my softhearted brother on the shoulder. Suddenly, though it almost seemed unreasonable, I hated that boy. I hated him for being weak, I hated him for being kind, and I hated him for accepting me as I was in spite of his fears, as if we were equal. Perhaps I hated my father just as well for failing to see the warrior I had become.
"Claus was just hasty, that's all." His voice cracked the silence, sorrowful and shaken by tears. "You'll forgive your hasty brother, won't you?"
I felt a resurgence of energy. The gears inside me spun like demons, unsure of what to do now that emotion had fussed with their precision.
"Forgive me?" I asked, and the smallest of smiles took the chill out of my face. "But I have done nothing wrong."
They looked down at me again, this time with the expression of one who has seen the impossible. My father threw his arms around me and wept, so sick with his own feelings that his sobbing turned to hiccups, and he began to gasp for air.
"My boy!" he cried. "My boy, you'll come home now. You'll be all right."
I had no intention of going anywhere and no physical strength left to do so, even at will. Wherever home was for him, its walls would not see me inside of them again, but I lacked the energy to voice this. The words were there in my mouth, but upon my next breath they melted away and shadows crept into my eyes, spreading like a plague until I could see no more than a muddle of colors; on my left I saw nothing at all, as the wiring to my ocular implant failed. Those were the last images of my father and brother: indistinct, hazy, as if I were peering through a window in a dream. It hardly seemed real, though I felt my brother pulling away, slow and with reluctance. He retreated from me and the sunny plumes of his hair disappeared from sight.
There were others to take his place. They sat to my right, not too far off, but what I saw of them was minimal, clouded by the ebb of consciousness so that I could make out only smears of pink, brown, and blue. They remained at a comfortable distance and kept watch, but if there was anything at all familiar about them, it is lost to me now.
Only too late did I realize that I had relinquished responsibility for nothing but a trifling sum of confused memories, as I sank back into the depths of physical pain. I knew what my brother was up to. We were there with similar purpose; once I was down, he needed to be sure that I would not get up again. So he held me, fattened my sympathy with his tears, and stole from me the prize that I sought. What was meant to be my greatest achievement was now in his hands: the golden hilt of a Needle.
Through our opposing efforts we had pulled six from the earth, but to the victor went the very last, and as I was indisposed, convulsing with the need of another fix of painkillers, I accepted in bitterness that I had failed my king. The very thought of it made me sick, without purpose or life. If I could not fulfill the wishes of my master, then I was not a warrior but a burden. I willed myself to die, and this time to remain that way, because surely the king would agree: what use was a wounded soldier at the end of an unsuccessful mission? There was no excitement to be had in death, but it was where I belonged; I preferred its stability to living in the knowledge that I had failed.
The colorful puddles in my only working eye faded to black at last. What transpired in the immediate minutes or hours after is collected piecemeal in my mind, and the scant details may very well have been from a dream; but I remember my mother's voice, inconsistently garbled and trying to reach me still. I remember a great rolling wave of earth that wrenched me from my father's arms and dropped me into darkness. Without energy to move or to fight any longer, I waited for the end. A blunt force struck my helmet, and the world disappeared.
It might have ended, for all it was worth to me. I would have preferred that it did, and believed the next moment to enter my mind would be in the hereafter. What I saw instead was an ashen gray land, flat but for the many smoldering pyres. A river wound between them into the east where its mouth poured blood into a blackened sea. The sun above was cold and dim, flickering closer to death every second. Stars fell from the sky in military precision, chasing each other's tails into the ground, and the chorus of their landing roused a monster from the earth.
Greater than any creature I had seen, the slightest arch of its back lifted mountains into the air; its breath spun cyclones across the sea. Wherever its claws struck, the earth bled liquid fire, and the accompanying smoke stole the last light of the sun. This should have shaken me, except that I could never decide if it was reality or a dream, and I was still unaccustomed to the idea of having emotions, much less fear. My attention was drawn instead to a small and unremarkable beast that lay curled at my feet, no wider than my boot but pale as death; he seemed almost to glow in the darkness and unwound himself to slink away to the riverside where he shifted into the shape of a man.
He must have meant something to me. His body was not unlike my own. I felt a sense of familiarity, and when he opened his mouth to inhale the poisonous air, my insides turned sour and the machines running them began to corrode. He knelt to devour ashes from the pyres, and I hated myself. He dipped into the bloody river and drank from it until bloated, and I hated my artificial heart. I hated all of my wounds, the physical pain, and my thirst for another push on the syringe. I hated the newfound memories and wished they were still buried in my past. Life was better when I had only one identity. And as I stood there thinking of other things to hate, the beast drank until he was monstrous. I watched him but could only think of my brother, whose greatest success meant my failure, and I hated that most of all.
From his spot beside the river the beast glanced at me and his eyes, for a moment, looked like mine. He swallowed one last mouthful and something inside both of us gave way.
Life was not finished with me yet. The sound of a violent, roaring earth awoke me, but I saw only darkness. A good several minutes was spent collecting my thoughts, deciding whether or not I was indeed still alive and if all the events prior to the dream had actually taken place. My decision was thus: that I did live in spite of my injuries; that my brother, my father, and the spirit of my mother had all done their best to alter my judgment before I lost consciousness; and that it was quite impossible to tell how much time had lapsed while I was comatose.
Whatever the amount, it had been enough to see me through some of my withdrawal, though not without consequence. For uncounted hours I was without the painkillers and the stabilizers that suppressed my humanity. I was subject to the fantasies of a weary mind, and while I could not shake the image of the beast, it was not of any concern. My thoughts were on myself and the nagging urge to vomit, because doing so was bound to dispel some of the discomfort, but I had nothing left inside to bring up. The chills crawling underneath my skin were just a nuisance.
In the absolute darkness I felt I could go to sleep again. It was my initial assumption that I had been buried in the resulting turmoil of the Needle pulling, but such was not the case. Lightning batted its bright eyes through cracks in the ceiling, and I saw the world around me had changed.
The chasms and walkways that defined the cavern had been ground up by a force beyond comprehension. To see the land broken into pieces was the last outcome I expected; the world, and my life, should have ended, but I was still underground, alive and presumably without any viable access to the surface, which left me some bitter assumptions: that everything aboveground had changed as well, and my master's glorious city was in ruins.
As the thunder diminished, I heard the gears of my heart spin a little faster. The shushing sound of blood was keen and I thought it seemed much louder than it should have. I never paid any mind to how my machines worked, only that they should, and certainly never spared an idle moment to listen to them. There was never a reason for the chambers to be so inundated with blood that the gears had to crank double-time, and the valves had to open and close with twice the frequency just to balance the inflow. Nothing could explain these changes but a deep, corrosive anger. By its strength I gained the will to move, or at least to try, and found I had voided while comatose; my pants were soaked past my thighs, my jacket adhered to me with perspiration. Sitting upright only added to the discomfort, but I was beyond worrying about it. So long as I was alive, I had to know if any part of the city remained.
In retrospect, I realize that it was a pointless venture. Even before the battle, the king had sealed himself away in preparation for the end. It was his will that the world and its unworthy creatures should die for his amusement in a final, explosive tribute befitting His Majesty, but I was unable to fulfill those orders. There was no salvation for an empire, or any structure in it, with its ruler indisposed and a commanding officer unfit for war. There was no war left to fight, anyhow; I had lost, and though I knew my master was beyond the reach of death, his haven was impenetrable. No physical power existed that could break the seal.
I forced myself to move and to experience pain just to drive the thought away, refusing to believe that my life had been made worthless again. As a child, in my old life, I had no purpose. As a man, revived and built of metal and flesh, I commanded military forces, all of whom I supposed were dead, or else in disarray. At the feet of a fallen empire we were not warriors, but a population of armed and unemployed. Our king was without a kingdom and that I could not accept.
I could not accept that I had lost to a weak-hearted boy, who bore no weapon and whose only defense was his endless love - something that I could not return. A small part of me may have felt guilty in realizing that, but I was too bitter to care. Had I succeeded, the earth would have been destroyed; such was my master's wish, and because I could not see that it was granted, I was a failure. All of the expense and effort he had put into me was for nothing
"And they expected me to go home with them!" I said aloud, realizing that the words had slipped out unintended.
It was an odd thing to voice my thoughts. I had only ever spoken when addressed by the king, or else when necessary, and never had to fret over opinion and emotion when the drugs took care of them for me. But after so many hours, and possibly days, the Lithium had been flushed from my system, and a surge of emotion was impossible for machines alone to suppress. It spun the clockwork in my heart and set the wires in my spine ablaze. At the very pit of myself, I felt a fire had started and that it would come rolling up my throat at any moment. I wanted to scream out all of my anger like I never had before, to curse as other men did and make the world hear how hateful I could be, but I refrained. The taste of blood was in my mouth, and when I got to my feet I thought I might vomit.
Lightning illuminated the cavern briefly, so I used that time to hobble forward and prop myself against a mass of rock. Moving too fast was not an option, but I refused to lie down again.
"They thought I should go home with them," I repeated to myself, which served no purpose other than to burn off some of my emotional energy; I doubted that I could handle it. "Their home isn't mine. Why should I go with them when all of this is their fault?"
The words struck me like a blow to the chest. I hung upon this sudden realization, no longer confused by an onslaught of once-pleasant memories but in full awareness of a disturbing truth: my family had conspired against me. By his will alone my brother could not have done it. He was a fool, born with a power that he refused to employ. I would have killed him, but for our father's intercession. Then there was mother. That was the piece of the puzzle I could not fit. Had her spirit been with my brother all along? Or had she just managed to intervene at an opportune time? I decided it did not matter. She was a part of their cause in either case. She was the reason I regained all memory and emotion and lost my safer, stable course; and she was the reason my simpleminded little brother got his hands on that Needle.
I stumbled onward in anger, with just enough motivation to boost me over the nearest mound of rock before the frequency in lightning strikes dropped off completely. A brief tumble down the opposite side, into the uncertain darkness, and I found that further progress was impossible. When the storm departed, so did any proof that the world still existed, that I was alive and not caught in the tunnel without a light at the end. If not for the sound of my machines, deafening against a silent backdrop, I would have believed myself in limbo.
My helmet had come loose in the fall. I removed it, ran my hands over its surface, and discovered that it was cracked on one side. The visor that complemented my artificial eye was missing, and as the eye itself no longer worked, I was not tempted to search for it. I had no light to search by, anyhow. So I laid there in a stew of ill feelings, irritated at the dying storm aboveground, which had revoked my only source of light; hateful of my brother, my parents, and myself; but most of all starved of painkillers and of purpose. I thought I might wait for the sun to rise, if that had not been destroyed as well, or else die in the meantime and be relieved of duty.
Mother was there to fill in the quiet gaps, adamant that I should renounce my career and abandon everything that had shaped my life the past several years. She pushed her way to the forefront of my mind, and even now I believe with absolute certainty that I could hear her voice, clear and loud as a living presence, shouting into my ear. I was almost tempted to reach over and push her away.
By whatever ethereal energy in her, mother knew my intentions and tried to turn me from them, but it was not up for discussion.
"Be quiet!" I shouted. "Go back to your grave and leave me alone! Your life is over, not mine."
A pain struck my chest, severe enough to roll me onto my back and leave me gasping for breath. I heard the gears in my heart click, locked momentarily, and then start up again, just before mother could respond. There was agony in her voice, a desperate, tearful quavering that hit every note of sadness, and perhaps the boy I had been before might have surrendered to this or possessed even an ounce of guilt; but there was no guilt left in me now. I felt nothing, aside from my physical ailments and a roiling anger. I screamed at her again to leave my head.
"I won't go back there! Now that I have thoughts of my own, you try to make my decisions for me. Leave me alone and let me decide for myself! Why don't you go to your other son, if you want someone to bother? He's already woven into your lies. Tell him what to do, but leave me out of it. I'm not dead, and an afterlife spent in your company is the furthest thing from my mind."
There was nothing more she could say. I had made clear my plans to proceed on my own convictions, so mother's presence withdrew, leaving a dispiriting chill in the air, and I was alone again in the uncomfortable silence. In some small way, I felt there was no need for my anger. It was too new a sensation, to be bitter over my shortcomings and spiteful toward those who had ensured my failure. I never considered myself aggressive, but enacted violence as ordered by the king; I neither gained nor lost anything from it - no troublesome dreams, no second guesses or guilty feelings. The drugs eradicated them without any obvious detriment except the symptoms I presently suffered.
Now the machine could think for itself, and every part of it was driven by rage.
I lay there and wondered what force or desire still connected mother's spirit to the physical world. What reason did she have to lie, to conspire with my brother, and to play on my emotions, except to undermine all that I stood for? What business did the dead have in matters of the living? I thought it must be connected to my reanimation. She was against it, and therefore against the king, who had granted me this second chance at life. Was it jealousy, I questioned, but that did not fit anything I could remember about her. Those memories may have been fabricated just the same.
None of it mattered, however much it bothered me. The energy on which my mother made contact with the material world was in short supply; she would only ever be able to afford brief, sporadic trips before exhausting her reserves. I myself still felt the weariness of traveling halfway to the hereafter and back, and without the painkillers to smooth those rougher edges, I was all too aware of it.
Sleep overtook me before I realized it had come, though it was pleasant and dreamless, exactly what I needed. I slept until the sting of daylight hit my eyes and awoke unto a new purpose.
From so many cracks in the ceiling - and there were more than I had previously thought - the sun reached in, brightening the shattered walkways and debris. Where chasms and deeper canyons had been, piles of rock stood in their place, broken and varied in size. This went on as far as I could see. My vision was restricted to one side and hazy at best, but much improved over earlier conditions. Even without my prosthesis, I could function enough to make steady progress. It seemed best to choose a direction and remain on that course for as long as possible. I had no orders beyond pulling the final Needle, which I had failed at, and with my current injuries, helmet discarded and a good portion of neural wiring damaged, access to the army network was impossible. My only chance was to return to the surface, if I could reach the service lift. Its shaft connected the king's stronghold to the underground, though the odds of finding it destroyed or inoperative were immense. It was indeed my only remaining option.
I looked away to my right, where the sources of sunlight were most numerous, and with them traced a path into the distance. Several hundred meters or more from my position, a gray sphere stood untouched among the detritus, a show of defiance to all would-be misfortune. It was my master's safe haven: the capsule built for him by the doctor and an odd race of people from the island. They had constructed it in such a way as to make it indestructible, so they claimed. I had seen it myself only once before; its mechanics were never explained to me, but I knew it had a door, and by that knowledge I was certain my master could operate it from inside.
Suddenly, the plan to reach the elevator seemed useless. There was little sense in returning aboveground without the king, yet I saw no signs of an attempt to leave the capsule. He was waiting, I thought, for myself, for the doctor, for any surviving soldier that had the sense to find him. The king was godlike in his mind, yet for many tasks required vehicles and men to assist him. Such a debilitated body belied the wealth of power underneath.
That, then, became my fortuitous mission: to reach the king and bring him aboveground. In doing so, perhaps His Majesty could pardon my failure, but I would accept his judgment as absolute. The thought of seeing him was motivation enough. I got to my feet, in spite of the kicking twitches in my legs, and felt the cables from my weaponry fall against my right side. In my disoriented state, I had torn out their connections sometime in the night. They were otherwise linked to the battery supply on my back, but now trailed alongside me like so many frayed tails. This rendered the entire apparatus nonfunctional. A major electrical artery supplying the cannon on my right arm had been damaged. Without power, it was no more than an extension of an already useless limb. I released the cannon from its coupling at the elbow and left it in the dust. If I could not use it, then it belonged in the past, buried with everything else that I no longer needed.
Only hours ago, death had been a tempting option. All of the memories and lies, the weeping faces, faded images of beautiful places I could not remember visiting, and those desperate, failed attempts to win me back into the deceitful arms of my family were cast from my mind as I walked. Mother would not have me in the hereafter, nor would my father and brother have the chance to make a civilian out of me, strip me of my dignity and demote a commanding officer to a peasant; what a meager existence. I was created to serve the highest authority, not to associate with the impoverished cowards and rebels.
When I arrived at the capsule, listless and lightheaded with exhaustion, I found it was much less than I expected and more than I could remember: flawless, perfectly smooth, yet unremarkable. Out of all His Majesty's machines it was the least imposing, being no larger than a tank, and it lacked any indication that its makers' hands had ever touched it - no seams or imperfections, no rippled trails of welding, yet it did wear a royal insignia just below the door. That and a window, plus a fine coating of dirt, were its only features.
I wiped the glass clean, expecting to find my master inside, but it came up black - a dilated, lidless eye, dead and dark as a hole without bottom. The window may have been covered, yet it seemed instead that some force was in the way; and to that end, I was again at a loss. With all viable alternatives exhausted, I called for the king, aware that the capsule may have been soundproof but that my voice was all I had. If he could hear me, then he would respond, which is what I wanted to believe - it was the only sensible outcome, assuming His Majesty did not wish to remain secluded - and so I shouted, perhaps an hour or more, all the while sinking to the ground as the muscles in my legs convulsed and gave way. I beat my fist into the earth, screaming until the sun withdrew its arms from the cavern, long after the point at which it no longer made sense to continue trying, and I realized then that I was not using actual words, but making sounds like an animal, hoping to be heard.
Desire kept even the damaged parts of me alive. Strung out at the very edge of sanity, humbled and ashamed of my shortcomings, I rediscovered that human half of myself where the clockwork of an artificial heart turned not on electrical impulse, but emotion; yet emotion was the very process of mental disease, leading me to believe that I might change my current circumstance on the force of desire alone. However much I willed something to happen, my efforts were ineffective without physical power behind them.
In the hours that passed thereafter, I slept without disturbance until the sun rose again. Judging by its position, the way the light filtered in through the haphazard skylights, I guessed it was just before 1200 hours when a sound - as of something substantial giving way - jolted me out of sleep. The noise ended at that very instant, and after taking a moment to recollect my thoughts, I started to believe it never happened, or else that it had come on the edge of hallucination.
The next wave of chills crept into my chest, prelude to a hot and feverish sweat. I felt my body tensing again from the withdrawal, in every place where I still had sensory capacity, but not my legs; they quivered as if demon-possessed, and the very base of my gut began to grind and growl with the sickness of some unseen beast crawling upward, but I could feel nothing past my groin. Under such duress I conceded, albeit with much reluctance, and stretched out beside the capsule to rest.
I expected that nothing had changed overnight, and that I would wake to another day of incapacity, but when I sat upright I found my attention drawn to a shining spot not far off the port side of the capsule, where the sun drenched the rocks in light and poured all of its essence into a single golden flower. In the still and absolute silence I could hear my own machinery, whirling with emotion. To see the flower - knowing that it had not been there yesterday - triggered a surge inside me that I could not fully understand, or else I have forgotten its greater details since the event.
How was it possible, I asked myself, for this flower to appear so suddenly and in such a sparse, ruined place? It grew from the center of a circle of rock, not within any soil, yet it stood tall like a man, bright-faced and almost sentient, as if it had some purpose to fulfill; and had my view of it not been so clear, its form so meticulous in every detail, no curl in its petals or even an arc in its stem from the weight of a giant head (which, at best estimate, looked to be larger than my own), I would have assumed it was just another fantasy of my addled brain. Part of me wishes it had been.
First glance was the most pleasant. Even in the shadow of my master's capsule, I felt the warmth of the sunlight the flower stood in. It chased the chills from my body. Piece by piece, the living parts of me lost their tremors and their pain. The longer I stared at it, the less aware I became and my mind drifted off into delirium. Not that I had many options otherwise. My legs were useless; nausea had a grip on my throat that refused to abate, in spite of any temporary contentment, and it was clear that I would make no further progress toward reuniting with the king.
Thus I allowed my thoughts to wander and felt no guilt in doing so. The flower was much too healthy, too large to have sprouted and grown overnight, and it stood in such stark contrast with its surroundings that I felt I ought to have noticed it sooner. Why not yesterday, I thought, where had it been then? I was not entirely convinced that it was real, yet it seemed no more or less an illusion than the beast from my dream, in his dead and ash-gray world. I could not deny that the flower existed while it stared at me so perceptive, penetrative, and expressionless.
There were bright and beautiful days capped with cloudless skies and hours spent swimming in a river that I thought I knew; I may have done this sometime in my old life because it felt like a distant part of me - available if I cared to remember it, but no longer something I enjoyed - and skirting the perimeter of this memory were earthy aromas, the sounds of many animals living in close quarters. I saw cloth twisted and bound up with twine being dipped into pots of dye, flowers dried and petals plucked, lying in precise arrangement on a wooden table. It was their color that made me think of those rolling golden fields, the same that mother's spirit had shown me, still draped in fog at the edge of my memory. I thought of her and my brother. Then suddenly the warmth was gone.
By whatever unearthly means this flower had come into existence, into such a place where it could not take root and yet managed to survive beyond all explanation, I realized there was nothing to gain but lost time; I was out of my mind with madness, and had had enough of the fantasy.
Any pain from physical injury was quite a small matter against the overwhelming burden of guilt, a feeling that I had become useless and defunct, which hung on my shoulders and drilled holes through my brain, pushing me into the earth as ever-present thoughts of my family pulled on me from all directions. I could not stand another moment of them, their lies and false hopes, but had yet to decide on a second course of action. No amount of human strength would open the capsule. The option to sleep through this day and into the night seemed both tempting and repugnant. What a waste of precious time, I told myself, when I could be making amends for my loss. But I was too weak to stand, let alone walk from His Majesty's capsule back to the service lift. The doctor could repair me, but I had no guarantee that he was alive. A full day and another night of rest might see me on my feet again, only to find his body smashed beneath the rubble. I wondered at that: why I had survived when I was not absolutely safe, and then I considered my brother, glory-snatcher that he was.
Somehow, without doubt or explanation, I knew he had survived and that he was not presently underground, but that made little sense. I put him out of my head immediately and turned away from the sunlight, away from the intrusive golden flower that looked too much like the top of his head - its petals fanned out and curled back just the way his hair always was. I felt nauseous again.
Too angry to sleep and abandon the day's problems, I focused instead on myself, my injuries and the state of my mind, neither of which were in good standing. At the coupling on my right elbow, string-thin wires of red, blue, and green, hung out the central opening, severed haphazardly and burned on the end from electrical surge. I braided them together to pass the time, impressed at the ability of my left hand, and then pressed them, entwined, into the hole and out of view. I was eager to be repaired, provided the doctor had not come to an untimely end.
He was a large part of my memories in the life-after-death, when I was first revived and in great pain. He took it away for me, built most of my artificial parts, and was the driving force behind all of the surgeries that made me look semi-human again: facial reconstruction, organ transplants, skin and bone grafts, and of course the amputation of my right forearm, which I had been told was hanging by a few threads of muscle when I was found. The drugs dulled very little of these memories, and had stolen none of the enjoyment or intrigue I felt when watching the doctor work. I was permitted to do this when only a local anesthetic was required, or when it was necessary for me to make conscious movements, to ensure that the nerves and wiring would cooperate.
When I should have been appalled at my condition, he made me feel like a scientific wonder, a miracle of medicine. When any other person would have named me a monstrosity, the king deemed me a warrior. It did not make me any less hideous, but I accepted and honored myself. No amount of pleading or tears from my family would change that.
After bundling up the loose wires, I grew anxious about the damage to my chest and removed my jacket as quickly as possible, working through the pain and peeling away the burnt edges around the wound. The area was encrusted in dried blood, sticky and dark, bubbling with yellowish pus at its center. It distorted the old Y-shaped scar on my torso - the mark of a corpse that had been opened and shut. I was not concerned about disfigurement (it was more than a few years too late for that), but I was feverish, overcome by the withdrawal, and so much of my machinery was already dead. Without treatment, the infection would spread like a poison in my blood and kill every living part of me. I had wished for death before but now, so close to His Majesty, and perhaps too brazenly hopeful for a reunion, I wished for another chance at life.
There was nothing else to be done, or that could be done at any rate. I had assessed the external damage, and while I thought of removing the rest of my uniform, which was soiled and bloodstained, I decided not to bother until I had something clean to replace it with. Exposure would worsen the situation, but I could not bring myself to put the jacket on again. I laid it aside and saw, not ten inches off my right hip, a small, dark puddle, which had been growing steadily beside me.
Along the belly of the capsule it dripped, slow yet even-paced, as thick and as black as oil. At the downward curve in the door, the metal had buckled outward, a casualty of an unknown force and, I realized, the source of the sound that had awoken me earlier. It was from this gap that the liquid escaped, running in a single, unbroken line down the metal and into the dirt. There were clear curls of smoke rising from it, spawned without heat or flame.
Before I could remember that I was too weak to stand, I leapt to my feet, braced my weight against the capsule, and put my hand up to the gap, stuffing my index finger inside. Only half of it would go, enough to stop the outward flow of oil as long as I held it. Fresh wisps of smoke curled around my glove wherever the oil touched, and just that quickly my hand went numb.
I pulled away and pushed off the capsule, falling back onto the ground where I had started, where I should have stayed; and as I shook off the liquid I saw that it had not damaged the skin, but the material in the glove had been burned and eaten away, as if by acid. I watched the last of it, the cuff around my wrist, curl up, smoldering, and disappear, and the liquid itself soon ran off into the dirt or onto my pants, destroying small patches of them as well. That was proof enough for me; this substance, whatever its origin or purpose, was not oil.
It lacked the pungent, chemical smell I expected, or it may be more accurate to say it lacked a scent at all, but I never gave that much thought; my senses were dulled and my brain severely muddled. What seemed most strange - apart from the numbness, the rise of smoke without heat - was its surface: pure and infinitely black, like a liquid tear through reality that opened on dead space. Even the light filtering in from above could not penetrate, and it left no reflection or shine.
I wondered about my master, feeling all the more powerless. Was he overcome by the liquid darkness and suffocating; or, because his body and his mind were beyond death, was he enduring the discomfort in hours of agony beyond explanation? Perhaps he felt nothing, being so far removed from the world in his godliness, and I thought how very much like death immortality could be. I wanted to call for him, but I knew he would not answer. Even sound could not penetrate the capsule, yet something had blown it outward from the inside with enough power to set this strange liquid free. I had a way in - or else, His Majesty had a way out - if only the gap were larger.
There was no use imagining a better outcome. As strong as my desires were, they could not cure my exhaustion, heal my wounds, or enhance my abilities, and were therefore useless. It is obvious to me now why my master had decided to inhibit them.
On that thought, I lay back down to sleep off the remains of the day and did not awaken until the sun had gone. A noise like the one on the previous morning, but louder and with greater resonance, sounded within the cavern, jolting me into full awareness. I listened intently for several minutes after the initial shock had passed, but heard nothing aside from the inner workings of my heart - each tiny, gushing piston and valve, and the rush of lukewarm blood. The numbness in my arm had gone, a small yet reassuring improvement, but in the darkness I did not dare to move except from one side to the other, and very slowly at that.
It was impossible to see any changes to the capsule, so I put the thought out of my head until morning. In less than an hour I was asleep.
Then came the daylight and noise yet again, still just as loud, never lasting for more than a second, but enough to wake me; and by that time the sun had reached its peak, slipping down into the cavern on almost imperceptible angles. I had slept long enough to feel rested, though not healed. My legs had quit shaking; the sweat on my body had dried, but hunger now pulled at me in an uphill struggle against a lingering nausea. And when I sat up, ready yet unwilling to face another day of inaction, I nearly fell back in shock at what I saw.
Like mangled scrap metal, the door was twisted away from the hull, its window shattered, and it hung above a gap that had more than tripled in size. Were I senseless enough to try, I may have gotten my head through, maybe an arm as well, but against the outflow there would be no point. It came rushing from inside in endless amounts, as a river whose dam had burst, but it made no sound. Everything, except the very sight of it pouring down the side of the capsule, seemed to suggest that this liquid was not part of reality at all.
I waited until my nerves were settled and then moved further away from the flow, to the other side of the capsule, where I watched it tumble across the cavern floor, coating everything in darkness. Not once along the way did it branch off its original path, as far as one bleary eye could tell, but in several places it fell through the cracks, diverting much of the flow deeper underground; yet the bulk of it pushed ever onward, leapt and spilled over rocks and ate away at them, slowly, as it had eaten away the material of my glove, and as I traced its path in the direction it was heading, it led me straight to the patch of sunlight where the golden flower stood.
All the anger I expected was gone, but in its place a sudden and unexplained urgency. I thought I might vomit and sat forward to avoid the backsplash, but nothing came of that. Watching the oil, or whatever it was, had a quelling, captivating effect. I kept my attention on it just to hold off sickness, and meanwhile something nagged inside my head - not a voice this time, but a feeling or knowing of some truth without any concrete source. It wanted me to stand up, to run somewhere or do something, and though I could walk with better balance now, I doubted that I would get far trying to run.
And anyway, I wondered, where was I supposed to run and why?
Half an hour of quick and silent progress carried the stream away into the sunlight where it seemed even blacker by compare. At the circle of rocks, the barrier in which the flower had grown, the stream diverged and wrapped both its arms around the rim. I sat up on my knees for a better look and wondered what effect this liquid might have on the flower - why it steadily burned away rock and earth and fabric but not my hand. I inhaled, convinced for a moment that it would slip through the barrier and nothing would be lost, and in the same breath I was proven wrong.
A glow fueled by sunlight blinked out of existence. The great green stem of the plant withered and bowed at the middle, suddenly overcome by the weight of its head, and its leaves turned brittle and gray; its gold petals blackened, curling up like a spider's legs at death. Then they broke off and fell as fine powder into the stream.
Now a blighted skeleton of the plant it was just moments ago, I watched the last bits of it crumble away, and I was vindicated. The unexplained urgency had left me, as did the anger and every irrelevant memory the flower had conjured in my mind. I buried them in the past, once and for all, because it did not matter if they were true; my life, my choices, and my career from that moment forward were all that I needed.
I got to my feet and, for the first time since the final Needle had been pulled, felt no pain, no sickness, but that was both a small and short-lived improvement. From behind, an explosive force thrust me headlong into a pile of rock, filling the cavern with debris. An earthquake, I assumed, or an aftershock of the Needle's pulling. This time, at least, I had not lost consciousness, but my head throbbed, my ears rang from the din. I heard a sound like metal striking stone, though it was muffled and far away, and as the fresh gash on my scalp spilled blood down my face, into one ear, it seemed as if I were listening to the world from underwater.
It took several minutes to regain my senses; the ringing continued, and I felt my brain was sloshing back and forth each time I moved. The explosion had kicked up dust, and with the sun shining in it turned the open air to haze. I could see even less than before, relying on only one eye that now blinked away a sticky film.
So I waited for the dust to settle, crawled off the rocks and kept my head down. When I felt brazen enough to have a look around, I saw through the scattering haze some man or beast standing not three meters ahead; and what an awesome presence, this figure framed by dust and light. It struck a chord of fear within me - the likes of which I cannot remember ever feeling before. The sights and sounds of war, the smell of death, and the power of great earthly forces could never shatter my resolve, yet here beneath this hulking shadow I was not a warrior but a maggot, cowering.
Fear, however, did not drive me away. It pulled me in closer with unspoken commands, and I felt compelled to obey. When I crept toward the figure I could see this was neither a beast nor a nightmare apparition, but a man, as stout as he was tall and dressed in blue and white. He did not appear any older than my father, wore no uniform or distinguishing mark that identified him as a person of authority, yet I was driven to fulfill whatever his wishes might be, to bow at his feet in reverence, and though I must have been half dazed, I sensed something familiar in him.
"And so the wounded soldier returns from battle."
Hearing his voice erased all doubt. I got to my knees and kissed the hand he laid on my head, shaking, almost sobbing with confusion and joy.
"Master!" I breathed. "What has happened?"
He laughed, and the sound of it, both daunting and vile, could have corroded every piece of metal inside me. There was no strain in his voice anymore; he did not cough or wheeze when he spoke, and it was clear he needed no machine to help him move. Everything about His Majesty was younger, stronger, but his mind was still the same. I asked how this was possible and, in my excitement, nearly forgot the shame I had brought upon myself.
"Forgive me, Your Majesty," I begged, "I am not worthy even to lie beneath your boots. You set me to a task that I couldn't complete. My efforts were in vain and now everything is destroyed, all because of me."
"There are many things raw power can destroy," he said. "Evil is not one of them."
"Please, sire," I implored, "I don't understand. The capsule was said to be impenetrable, absolutely safe, but you're here standing with me - and restored! I know you are immortal, but your physical condition-"
"Why," His Majesty cut in, "I don't believe I've ever heard you talk so much, my pet. Did allowing somebody else to pull the final Needle somehow loosen your tongue?"
I was unsure how to answer, and before I could, he continued, "Several days have passed, the city is in ruins, and you're still alive. You've learned a great deal in such a short amount of time, yet here you are in front of me."
"Of course, sire," I answered and got to my feet, giving him a customary salute, a feeble but honest effort to maintain military honor until death or discharge. "I deeply regret not completing the mission. After the event, when I realized I was still alive, I had hoped to continue serving you in some way, if Your Majesty approves, but I could not reach you inside the capsule, so I waited."
His question had taken me aback, and I spent a few moments finding a proper answer, though it should have been obvious. He was testing me. I mustered up a bit of courage in the brief span of silence to look him over and assess the changes his body had undergone. He stood at least a head taller than me now that he was not hunched over, no longer enfeebled by his immeasurable age. His hair was not silvery-white but blonde, and his shoulders and belly were broad. As I understood it, only his physical state had changed and this made him all the more imposing. I felt small and powerless under his gaze.
"I waited for you, sire," I answered at last, unable to think of a better response. "If I may, how do you know for sure what's happened to the city?"
"Nothing escapes the eyes of a god," he said, smiling, and I noticed a black smudge around the corners of his mouth.
Behind the king, I saw where the capsule sat half mangled, its door ripped away and missing. The dark substance was no longer pouring from the gash, but had collected in one great puddle underneath the capsule, and around his feet as well.
"But tell me," His Majesty went on, "what about this family of yours? They went through an awful lot of hell just to remind you they exist."
I hesitated, and then said, "They are liars, sire. I cannot deny our connection. They are my family, but I don't care to associate with them. They're rebels who speak horrible things about you - treason and lies."
Here the king laughed again, louder, and thin trickles of black seeped out between his teeth, poured from his mouth and down his chin. I held my composure, though I felt my left arm trembling.
"Did they tell you that I was a bad person?" the king asked. "That's not exactly a lie."
"You are not a person, sire. You are the king. You're above everything."
"True enough, but now that you're aware of where you came from, don't you want to go back? Don't you think they'll welcome you with open arms?"
I was becoming agitated, not at my master but at the thought of my family and how much they disapproved of my new life. The idea of giving it up, all the accomplishments and advancements, was unthinkable.
"They would," I replied, "but they will never accept or love what I am, only who I used to be and I am not that person anymore. If I've displeased you, sire, then discharge me from your service or have me destroyed. I will accept any punishment you see fit, but I cannot go back to my family and live their mundane life, nor can I stand to be among people who have sought to overthrow you. That is not a life at all for me."
"How interesting," said the king. He did seem impressed, and that filled me with greater hope at redemption. "Now that you've got all these emotions, you're very hateful and full of pride."
"I am proud of my service to you, sire, despite my shortcomings. And I do hate them. Rebellious, traitorous, civilian scum! I swear to you now, Your Majesty, that I never once believed their lies. They will not turn me away from you."
He stuck out his thumb toward me and dragged it across my lips, coming away with just a bit of sticky black. I had not even known it was there. He observed it a moment, then wiped the liquid away on his shirt.
"So much impatience and passion," he said, pausing momentarily. "The power unleashed by the final Needle seems to have restored a natural balance to the world. Not only are all of the good and harmonious things renewed, but the bad ones as well. And as you know, the universe is not in balance if it doesn't have both good and evil."
I did not know how to respond, as those were concepts I never thought much about. I had passion for my career, which the king praised, and I was determined to obey.
"What would you have me do, sire?"
He smiled. "You say you can't stand the mundane. Then let's stir up a bit of trouble for all of the good and stagnant things. Let's rattle their mundane lives. I'm going to need someone to help me rally the remaining troops, anyhow. Great cities don't rebuild themselves. Will you dedicated yourself to my cause and become Commander again?"
I straightened up as tall as I could and gave another salute, and the gears in my clockwork heart spun fast. "I will, Your Majesty!"