‘There are so many less fortunate,’ said the Priest vaguely. He hesitated a moment, then brightened as he recalled an example. ‘Take Alfie,’ he said. ‘He ended up living in a piano, can you imagine that?
Alim raised her eyebrows and shook her head. She was sitting with her elbows on her thighs, burdened with worry. The Priest was facing her in his enormous many-folded robes of shimmering swirling colours. Each was seated on a gold-lacquered chair with a red cushion, the type used throughout the temple.
‘Very sad,’ said the Priest, ‘Living in a piano, of all things. Not through any love of music, mind you. It was poverty that drove him there, pure poverty. No, he was a vulgar man really. He was given the best start in life, a very cultured upbringing, and look where he ended up. Almost the reverse path to yourself, Alim. You've come from very humble beginnings and now you're rich beyond measure, not to mention a person of great culture and intelligence. So really there are many reasons for you to be thankful. You could be like Alfie, living his last days in a piano on a street corner, cut to ribbons by the strings and battered by the blows of the hammers every time some passer-by had a tinkle. Of course, he'll be back soon. Maybe he'll do better next time. But he's an object lesson in how much less fortunate you could be.'
‘I know, I know,’ said Alim reasonably. ‘I know I could be more unhappy. But that doesn't make me less unhappy, does it? I mean part of the reason I feel so bad is that I know I shouldn't.’
There was a moment of silence. Alim gazed at the patterned floor and tapped her fingers together. The Priest looked at her, worried. He cleared his throat, ‘This is, ah, your last time around, isn't it?’
Alim nodded slowly.
‘You've had all the tests?’
‘Yes. Every one, they're quite sure. This time there's no coming back.’
‘Well,’ said the Priest, seeming lost. ‘That is bad news, certainly, but, well, you have lived some remarkable lives haven't you? And in this one you have been most successful. You know, of course, that we consider it quite correct to accumulate wealth once one is in one's final life. You have done things right, and won yourself great comfort.’
Alim shrugged. ‘I'm rich and miserable is all. The money doesn't seem to help.’
‘Well money isn't everything of course,’ said the Priest, stretching wide his hands in a gesture of allowance. His colourful robes waved and shone as he moved. ‘There are other comforts one can seek in the Final Pass. You have had a great many lovers of course, that is certainly something to be grateful for.’
Alim let out a puff of air through her lips. ‘That doesn't seem so much to me any more. I know the Church encourages it but lately I can hardly summon the enthusiasm to pursue anyone. It all seems a bit pointless. Everything does.’
‘Perhaps the seeking of comfort is not the best way for you after all, even in the Final Pass.’
He rapped his fingers against his knees for a moment. They were sitting close enough that if the Priest extended a leg he could kick Alim. He seemed huge in his billowing technicolour vestments, but Alim had seen him in his swimwear and knew he was a startlingly small and bony man. They were in the fractal shrine at the north end of the temple. The patterns covering the walls and floor and ceiling were relentlessly loud and confused, and made Alim's eyes hurt. Out in the main hall, a few helpers were setting out chairs for some event. Normally this sort of chat would take place in the Listening Hollow, but that was also being prepared for something important, so they had dragged their chairs to this little-used corner. Occasional tuneless blasts from up in the temple's dome suggested that a technician was doing something with the organ.
‘Have you ever thought about the ascetic cults at all?’ asked the Priest.
Alim raised her eyebrows in surprise.
‘They're prohibited, aren't they?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ said the Priest with a kind of embarrassed roll of the shoulders. ‘As much as anything can be...but of course we never enforce the prohibition, and between you and me there are moves afoot to remove the prohibition altogether at the start of the next cycle. The official line is that they're unhealthy, and I tend to agree with that myself...but then what do I know? Only you can say what brings you happiness, Alim. If all your wealth and pleasure have brought you nothing, perhaps denying yourself could bring some spiritual fulfilment.’
Alim thought about it a moment. ‘Maybe I'll consider it. You really think that's an option?’
‘Who knows?’ said the Priest. ‘To be honest with you I'm completely ignorant of the right spiritual path through life. Everybody is, right up to the Servators themselves. We're all just feeling our way through a darkened cave, you know.’
Alim gazed at him, finding his words profoundly depressing.
'A darkened cave,’ she repeated.
‘Some feel their way with more apparent confidence than others, but who knows, they might be leading us straight to the pit. Your guess is as good as mine.’
Alim left the temple feeling entirely displeased – still, she hadn't expected to gain much from the Priest's advice. She looked up and noticed that the sky had turned to a vivid purple since she’d been in the temple. Probably some marketing scam, she thought. The heat was still intense. She hated the heat. She should probably have been born somewhere cold, and she often thought that if there was anywhere cold left to live she would move there at once.
All morning she had wandered round the city in the heat, feeling as though the general malaise of the last few years had finally reached its peak. Or should that be nadir? she wondered. Even while she wallowed in dissolution she analysed her thoughts from a distance, saw herself from without. That morning, as she had stood on the river bank gazing sadly at the churning yellow waters, she found herself wondering if she looked bleakly glamorous, or foolish, or perhaps just bored. She had tried to set her features into something that revealed an endless, knowing sorrow, stoically borne. Then she had felt embarrassed, and wondered if she was truly sad at all or just pretending.
From the gates of the temple she walked up the steep hill to the Glass Stairs. The busy plaza the Stairs spiralled up into the sky, massive at ground level, narrowing as they climbed until they became a glittering spire fading into a haze of light within the clouds. She had thought she might climb them for a while, but hadn't expected so many tourists. A large party of school children were shrieking and ignoring a worried tour guide standing on the first step. Alim decided to skip the Stairs. She looked up at them for a few moments before she walked away. The whole effect was ruined by the hideous purple sky. It was giving her a headache.
She walked down the other side of the hill and reached the river again, where that morning she had stood and stared at the yellow waters. This time she walked along the bank, enjoying the slightly cooler air. The many cafés along the river were full of people. She realised suddenly that today was a public holiday – that explained the busy cafés and all the tourists at the Stairs.
On a hillock within a kink of the river, an ascetic cultist sat upon a flat rock, legs crossed and eyes closed, meditating or maybe fantasising about cushions. In theory he was breaking the law, but obviously there was no-one to enforce the law and even the Church didn't care, as the Priest had revealed. She considered his proposal that she should join one of the ascetics, seeking peace within suffering rather than comfort. But she had grown up in deprivation and she remembered what it was to suffer for real: she had hated it, hunger brought no wisdom.
She took a long route home, past the bustling cafés and the squares full of dancers and entertainers, past the crowd watching the Central Library perform its noontime transformation. As the great stone building heaved and groaned and scraped from a squat octagon shape into a baroque tower, a vast black pterodactyl appeared in the purple skies and swooped low over the crowds, who ooed and ahhed as they were expected to. The great beast – if it was a beast, that is, and not a machine – did a couple of circuits and then thundered up into the clouds with a bellowing noise. A squad of pretty girls in black bikinis began circulating with free samples of a soft drink called Terror Soar! The central library completed its transformation, somehow looking haughtily put-out that its venerable performance had been overshadowed by a marketing gimmick.
On the bridge over to Hagport she stopped to watch a red waterfall flowing upwards into an artificial cave installed on the wall of a tall building. It was a soothing sight.
Hagport was busy; the market was on, and since it was a holiday there were more people, bands and performers around than usual. She used to love the vibrant atmosphere of the market, but today it made no impression on her. She walked down the alleyway and up the winding staircase to her flat, and let herself in. With great relief she stepped into the artificially cooled air of the flat.
She walked through the living room to the kitchen. The flat was spartan and simple, and only a few paintings and expensive gadgets betrayed her great wealth. In the kitchen Virgil was standing at the sink washing a plate very slowly and looking out of the window. He was still wearing his heavy toga despite the weather; no amount of cajoling would induce him to switch to light, modern materials.
‘Hello,’ she called.
‘Greetings,’ he answered.
She opened a door and stepped out onto the balcony, where the heat assailed her again. She leaned on the railing to look down on the lively scene in the main square below, all of it cast in a slightly odd hue by the purple sky.
‘What's happened to the sky?’ Virgil called after her.
‘Dunno. Some scam to sell something, no doubt.’
Virgil came out onto the balcony. He was still holding the thing he had been washing, which was not a plate after all but a circle of pottery inscribed with some Latin phrase she couldn't make out. Presumably it was meant to be hung on a wall. Virgil's face was gloomy.
‘The people from the radio called me,’ he said. ‘About the interview. It turns out they're hardly interested in my poetry at all! They said I can do “one quick one” at the end. A quick one! And they said they want to talk about Dante! Dante!’
Alim turned away from the railing and sat down on a squat plastic chair at the end of the balcony. ‘What's wrong with talking about Dante?’
‘I hate Dante!’ cried Virgil, ‘As you well know! He dragged me down to his dreary Jewish hell with its dreadful rules and its maudlin torturer-God.’
‘Christian,’ corrected Alim.
‘Terrible!’ cried Virgil ‘What a gloomy, self-important religion, and what a bore that Dante was! Portioning up the Underworld What a disaster. A diseased outlook. And I really couldn't care less about all those pointless Tuscan nobles set to be tortured for eternity because of a bit of perfectly justified revenge or some ordinary politicking. Imagine making me a lowly tour guide for such nonsense! Honestly I will never forgive that man for dragging me up to his gory lecture theatre. He made me look an utter fool. He's not fit to mend my sandals, and yet he compares himself to me!’
‘Well, tell them that in the interview then,’ said Alim wearily, who had heard this all before.
‘Hah,’ said Virgil sourly. ‘They won't like that. They won't have me besmirch a hero. If I say anything they don't like they'll just change it with their machinery anyway. I feel utterly let down.’
Virgil waited a moment for a reply, then stalked back inside when he didn't get one. Alim stood up and looked over the balcony rail again. She looked down at the hard tiles a dozen metres below. If I jump and land on my head, she thought, I would die forever. That's it. No more me. No coming back this time. Not like Alfie. Miserable as his life was, he'll be back...might even be back already, having another go at life as we speak, aiming for something better this time than living his last days in a piano. But no more chances for me. No more goes round. This is it.
She could hardly comprehend the idea of there being nothing after this life. She couldn't conceive of it. She tried to imagine it, but could only imagine a dark room, or space, or a general blackness. By definition, perhaps, nothingness could not be conceived of. And that's where she was heading. How depressing.
A bead of sweat ran into her eye. She was getting uncomfortably hot again, so she went back inside and closed the balcony door behind her. The sounds of tumult and commerce faded. All she could hear was Virgil's dour scrubbing. She sat down heavily on an expensive sofa designed by a famous artist, and stretched out to stare vacantly at the ceiling.
The scrubbing sound stopped. Virgil's footsteps approached, accompanied by the portentous swaying sound of his toga. ‘Are you quite well?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she said.
‘Is there something wrong?’ asked Virgil awkwardly. A note in his voice suggested he was fearful he might be the cause of Alim's mood.
‘Ohhhh,’ she sighed. ‘Everything. I'm sick of life, Virgil. I am unfulfilled. I have everything I could want and I'm unhappy. I have every kind of comfort and pleasure at my behest and I feel devoid. And this is my last life. After this, there is nothing...and what is this, but a prelude to nothing? What is the point?
Virgil hoiked up his toga a bit and sat cautiously on the edge of the sofa. There was a brief intake of breath, and Alim thought he was about to deliver one of his pompous speeches, but then he fell silent. He leaned over and placed a reassuring hand on her knee. They sat in silence for a moment, Alim stretched out staring upwards, Virgil perched awkwardly alongside, his hand connecting the two. Through the open window in the kitchen came a strange howling sound – after a moment's confusion Alim realised it was the pterodactyl again.
‘Have you considered having some kind of adventure?’ asked Virgil.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, an adventure...a quest, or...well, in the old days as you know, people only lived once, and it seemed to give things a certain meaning. The great adventures and quests always drew some of their value from the danger, the impending oblivion...you might say that being on the Last Pass is a kind of opportunity.’
‘Oh, rubbish,’ she said, ‘No matter how bad things are, some bastard always tells you it's an opportunity...some things are just bad.’
‘Oh I don't think that's quite the case here,’ Virgil sounded a bit hurt, ‘Really it's true that adventure gives meaning to life, and death gives meaning to adventure. The closeness of the void is the mark of heroism. You should...well, I don't know...’
‘What, go back and slay your Cyclops? He died long ago, Virg. Or should I become one of those idiots who do Risk Sports? Get really close to 'the void' eh? Jump off the top of the Glass Stairs with a micro-chute and a camera on my face, threaten my family and friends with tragedy and then tell everyone how 'real' it made my life afterwards?’
Virgil's shoulders sagged, and he removed his hand from her knee.
‘I don't mind people looking for cheap thrills and selfish kicks,’ continued Alim. ‘As long as they don't fucking philosophize over it afterwards. There are no dragons to slay, Virgil, and the only adventures left are the ones we manufacture, the ones we buy from companies with logos that cost more than my house.’
Virgil said nothing. Alim sighed and fell silent. There was a crack in the ceiling and she could see a small brown spider beginning to make his way out of it. Her eyesight really was astounding after the operation last year. She could even make out the hairs on the spider's legs. It had a thin web stretched between the crack and a nearby light fitting, and it was emerging to investigate what looked like a fly or flea caught in the far corner. The spider moved with a remarkable slowness, totally calm and determined, coming out of its den and beginning its journey to the doomed fly. She supposed you could see the spider as remorseless or cold, monstrous even – but she thought there was something strangely inspiring about it. The little thing was so utterly intent, so utterly disinterested in anything else. It didn't give a fuck about her troubles or the purple sky or the climate or the world population of spiders. It just wanted that fly. It seemed more like an elegant machine than an animal. What else could you call that little spider but enlightened?
It fell from its web. She didn't know spiders could even fall. It dropped and fell straight down, right towards Alim's face as she lay on the couch. She started in fright, but before she could bring a hand to her face it stopped in mid air, caught on a long strand of silk. It hung there for a second, just a metre from her nose. It seemed to look right at her with its bunch of impossible eyes. It calmly stretched a couple of legs, upended itself and began to climb back up the thread to its still-doomed prey. The spider moved just as calmly and coldly as ever, utterly free of every thread in the world except its own. What a beautiful creature, she thought. What a perfect, happy machine.
‘You know what,’ she said out loud. ‘Maybe you're right.’
Virgil, who was sitting slump-shouldered staring at the floor, suddenly sat up and brightened.
‘You think so?’ he asked.
Alim levered herself up, swung her legs from the sofa and stood.
‘Well I wasn't talking to you, but yes, you're right as well. An adventure. I should have a fucking adventure!’
Suddenly she felt electrified. In that moment she had been filled with an energy she hadn't felt in years. It ran through her whole body like something physical, making her skin crackle. She walked into the centre of the room and turned around, bouncing on her toes, rubbing her hands together in a gesture that reminded Virgil of his father.
‘A fucking adventure!’ she cried. ‘That's it you old bastard, that's absolutely it. I'm going to have an adventure. I'm going on an epic quest.’
Virgil stood, delighted. ‘You really mean it?’ he asked. ‘What kind of quest, what for?’
‘I don't know yet,’ she said, striding over to the balcony and throwing the doors open. ‘I'll just go out there and pursue adventure, and danger, and I will cheat death as long as I can.’
She looked down at the busy square, the flagstones sweating in the heat, the people milling about. The sky had turned blue again, and everything looked far more alive. She turned back from the balcony and went over to a bookshelf, where she started looking for an atlas she thought was probably there. An adventure, she thought, The unknown. I'm going to fucking do it. The old Roman is right after all...I'm going to be that little spider, with its one life and its merciless enthusiasm. I will go forth and find adventure, and death will be around me and under me, and I will be death. I will be Alim the merciless spider.
Virgil chuckled with pleasure as he watched Alim's sudden display of energy. Catching sight of something, he went to the balcony.
‘The sky is back!’ he called.
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