CHAPTER 31: THE FIRST LESSON
“Now that’s a question, isn’t it?” said Virgil with a grim smile “Would you kill someone to prolong your own life? And I know what you’re thinking: “Course not. I’m a good person. I could never do that.” Well. Lot of good people find that when they’re really up against it that they’re not so good after all. So don’t be so sure you wouldn’t. Because the greatest man I ever knew took that test and failed.”
“So. You wiped out these “Lepers”?” Eamonn asked.
“You killed them?” Marie asked.
Virgil looked at her. She had gone quite pale.
“Yeah.” he said quietly “’Fraid we did.”
Marie felt someone take her hand. It was Mariana. She was staring ahead, completely impassive. But her hand gripped Mariana’s like a lifeline. What was going through her head? Marie wondered. That creature on the phonograph had once been her husband. How could she just sit there so calmly?
“I’m sorry.” said Junko Imai “This is all fascinating of course, but I fail to see what this has to do with our current situation.”
“You asked me about Mabus.” said Virgil “I’m telling you. This stuff is important. It’s important you know, not just who Mabus is, but who he was. He was a man of incredible strength, with one terrible weakness. He was fearless save for one terrible fear. The fight with Joel almost killed him. But it wasn’t his power that nearly failed him, it was his body. Do you know why the first lesson every Temporal is given is the Memento Mori?”
“What’s that?” Isabella asked.
“Marie?” Mariana prompted.
“It’s Latin.” Marie told her “It means “Remember you shall die.””
“Exactly.” said Virgil “Because even the most powerful Adepts still age at a rate of one second per second. We can’t change that. We can travel anywhere on earth, in any time, but we will still die just like everyone else. Well, you all will, anyway. For the first time in his life, Mabus felt weak. He felt old. It‘s not an easy thing to face. For a man like Mabus, it can be too much.”
“What did he do?” Arabelle asked.
“He started…making trips. Far future. Further than I’ve ever been. Looking for treatments for ageing. Genetic manipulation. Cloned organs. That kind of thing. But they were only stop-gaps. They couldn’t stop him getting older. So he started going for the more extreme stuff. I won’t tell you what. One, because I don‘t understand it, and Two, because I just don‘t want to. Suffice it to say, he was getting desperate.”
“And where were you during all this?” Kathy asked “Didn’t you try talking to him?”
Mariana got up, and without a word she left the room.
“Yes.” said Virgil “We did.”
“No.” said Mariana briefly looking up from her book.
“Mother!” said Jeda, quite horrified.
“The answer is no.” Mariana said calmly.
“Are…are you joking?” Virgil asked.
She looked at him a little haughtily. “Do I sound like I’m joking, Virgil?” she enquired.
“She’s serious.” Jeda growled.
“Was it something I did?” Virgil asked.
“Virgil.” Mariana sighed “If I did not think you were good enough for my daughter I would have told you so before now. That is not why I refuse to give my blessing.”
Jeda bit her tongue and tried to stay calm; “So if you don’t have a problem with Virgil…”
“Have a problem with Virgil? Of course not! I love Virgil.”
“So do I.”
“Which is why I would like to marry him. Please.”
“Virgil, say something!” said Jeda.
“…So, you really like me?” Virgil asked Mariana.
“Something…” Jeda said through gritted teeth “…unrelated to your ego.”
“Oh. Yes. Em…why won’t you give us your blessing?”
Mariana finally closed her book and set it on the table beside her armchair. She folded her hands.
“You’re too young.” she said simply “Jeda, I know you love him now but you’re not even twenty yet. And you’re the daughter of two pre-tower Temporals, you could live for centuries. I just think you should live a bit before committing to something like this.”
“I don’t believe this!” said Jeda “I’m settling down! I’m being responsible! I’m ready to have the white picket fence and the two point five children! What kind of mother is not on board with that?!”
“The kind who has experience with marrying too young.” said Mariana sternly.
“I’m not you!” Jeda shouted “And he’s not Dad!”
There was a silence you could have banged your head off.
“I was not talking about your father.” Mariana finally said.
“I’m sorry.” said Jeda “I shouldn’t have…I’m sorry.”
“Well. Apology accepted.”
“Have you heard anything from him?”
“We were hoping we might be able to get him to come.”
“To the wedding?”
Mariana said nothing, and when she did, it was to change the subject.
“The Nine will be holding a council soon.”
“Oh?” Jeda said, confused.
“Yes. Since your father’s disappearence I believe there’s been talk of having me take over as First. You would both be moved up a rank.”
“Oh.” said Jeda again.
“Keep an eye out for any promising Temporals. We’ll need to recruit a new ninth. There is a young girl I met on my travels who seemed to have potential. Kathleen, I think her name was, or maybe Katie.
Virgil and Jeda glanced at each other. Mariana seemed to be talking to herself.
Suddenly Mariana fell silent and looked at them both.
“Be happy.” she said “Marry each other. You don’t need my blessing. I will bless you whatever you do.”
Jeda kissed her cheek and hugged her. Virgil did the same.
“Thank you.” Jeda whispered.
“Do you think you could kill your father?” Mariana asked.
Jeda and Virgil stared at her.
“…excuse me?” Jeda asked.
“If you had to kill your father.” said Mariana “If he became a threat to the timeline. Could you kill him?”
“Because I’ve been asking myself the same question. And everytime I ask it I get a different answer.”
“But, but…no! He would never do that!”
“Oh, I forgot.” said Mariana rolling her eyes “You’ve known him so much longer than I have.”
“You think he would?” Virgil asked.
“Do you know how the Temporals came to be, Virgil?” she asked.
Virgil shook his head. Mariana got up and went to her bookshelf. She removed a book and opened it on the table. It was actually more like a folder, with plastic pockets protecting ancient parchments.
“This,” said Mariana “Is a lost Biblical text called the Book of Bab. This is the only copy remaining in all of space and time.”
Putting on her glasses she read to them from it.
“And the issue of Adam and Eve grew numerous, and spread out to the far places of the world. And they met with other peoples that the LORD had created with a different hand. But still they were regarded as the truly blest, for of all the peoples of the world they were the fairest, and the LORD would let a man among them live to see the issue of his grandson’s grandson.
And the LORD said to his servant Bab son of Seth “Father should not his children leave, to be harried by wolves in the night. The daughter by her mother’s side should stay, and two brothers should never part more than the throwing of a stone. Why then should the family of Adam spread out so far and lose themselves? For they will take new tongues and customs, and forget the bonds of kinship and make war against each other. Let all the peoples of the earth take shelter beneath a single roof.”
And Bab, who was a good and holy man, obeyed the LORD, and wandered the earth for five times five years. And he spoke to many tribes, and the people listened, for their hearts were filled with the spirit of the LORD. And they followed him. And he came to the valley of the Nephilim, and told them the LORD’s decree. But they were proud, and turned him away. And Bab cursed them. And Bab went to the land of Halla, where the daughters of men had taken husbands amongst the giants. And he told them the LORD’s decree. And the daughters of men said “We hear the LORD’s word, and are grateful. But have we not sworn fealty to our husbands? Do not make oath breakers of us.” And they did not go with Bab, but Bab did not curse them, for their answer was just and it pleased the LORD. But Maryam, daughter of Isog, was without husband and said “Just is the word of the LORD, and right that He be obeyed.”
And she followed Bab, she alone of all the daughters of men in the Land of Halla. This was Maryam, she who would later be wife to Mabus, son of Gedi.
And Bab brought the peoples together into the great plain, and there they built the great city of Babilu, and abided there for seven generations.
And all of the people of Babilu were just and wise, and made sacrifices to the LORD, and did his will.
And this pleased the LORD, and the city was blessed. And Mabus son of Gedi, who of all in Babilu was said to be most wise, said “Are we not a just and holy people? Do we not please the LORD? Do we not make sacrifices unto him and praise his name?”
And the people answered “It is as you say.”
And Mabus said “Why then are we still denied a place in heaven? Is the sin of our father Adam yet unforgiven?”
And the people became unhappy and said “What can we do? We lead good lives and our sins are still unforgiven. Will the LORD never allow us to see his kingdom?”
And Mabus said “He must be persuaded.”
Mariana looked up at Virgil.
“What do you know of the tower of Babel, Virgil?” she asked him.
“Em…It was a tower that was built to reach heaven. But God wasn’t happy with it and made everyone speak different languages. Wasn’t that it? Or am I thinking of a different Tower of Babel?”
“Understand, we were among the first humans.” said Mariana “And we were only a few generations removed from Adam himself. We did not get sick. We aged very slowly. And we were wise. We had knowledge that would never be discovered again by scientists of any age. And Babilu would dwarf any other city on earth, such was it’s size.”
“Then why does no one remember it?” Jeda asked.
“Because they can only remember it imperfectly. Time itself was damaged.”
“By the tower. Only it wasn’t a tower, it was a bridge.”
“A bridge to where?”
“Heaven. There were fifty of us. Mabus led us. We stepped inside the tower and tried to reach heaven. We thought we could prove to God that we were worthy of paradise.”
Virgil’s jaw was hanging. She was serious. She was deadly serious.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Catastrophe.” she said “Heaven is a realm beyond time. The earth is not. When we united the two, they almost tore each other apart.”
“Did you…did you see heaven?” Jeda asked
“I…I don’t know.” said Mariana “I think I felt it. For a millisecond. But that’s an eternity in heaven. But then I was back in this world. And if you’re not in heaven, then you never were. And if you are in heaven, then you always were. There is no in between. So I guess I never was. When we emerged from the tower we had been changed. Time no longer flowed forward one second after the other after the other. We could slow it down, or speed it up with a thought. We could shape it to our will. But the people outside…Oh God….the people outside in the city.”
“What? What happened to them?”
“We’d killed almost a third of them outright. The rest had gone mad. Their entire concept of time had been shattered. There were men who had seen their entire lives go by at once, there were people who now had the minds they had when they were newborn. Some could only remember their future and not their past. And there was physical damage as well. They would get sick easier, and would age quicker. That was our greatest sin, mine and Mabus’. We destroyed our entire civilization.”
“What happened to them?” Virgil asked.
“They eventually split into tribes and went their seperate ways. They became foragers and hunters conversing in grunts and gestures. Eventually they rediscovered language and civilisation restarted. But that whole period of time was tainted. If you go far enough back you’ll hit resistance. No Temporal can go further back than the building of the tower.”
“What does this have to do with killing Dad?” Jeda asked.
“Because I considered doing it when he started building the tower.” said Mariana. “Even then, I guessed that something terrible might happen. And if I had…” she shrugged.
“But it was an accident.” Jeda protested.
“Ah, I see. So because it was an accident all those people didn’t actually die?”
“I ask this because Mabus has become obsessed. He can’t accept that he is going to die. I love him dearly, you must believe me, but if I have to choose between killing him and letting another of his obsessions wreck havoc… I made the wrong choice the last time. I will not do so again.”
“No, you heard her! She’s actually talking about killing my father!”
“She wouldn’t do that, she would never…”
“You don’t know her Virgil. I’m her daughter and even I don’t know her. She lived whole lifetimes before she even gave birth to me. Oh my God, oh my God…”
She paced the room frantically.
“How did it get this bad between them? I mean, they used to be so much in love and now she’s talking about killing him? And why? Because he doesn’t want to die? Find me someone who does! Do you want to die?” she said, rounding on him with such force that for a second he thought she was threatening him.
“No, no, I don’t.”
She collapsed on the bed and buried her face in her hair.
He looked up at her.
“Did she seem…strange to you?”
“As in…not all there?”
“Well, yes as a matter of fact. She did seem a little distracted.”
“Oh lucky you, Virgil.” she snorted “Your mother-in-law to be is one of the most powerful Temporal Adepts in the universe and she’s going crazy. Good luck with that.”
“That’s not funny.” said Virgil.
“No…” she moaned “It’s really not.”
They said nothing for a while.
“You miss him, don’t you?” he said, putting his arm around her shoulder.
“Yeah.” she whispered.
“Me too.” he said.
“I just wish I knew why he left us.”
“I guess we’ll never know.” said Virgil.
“We could ask him.” Jeda said quietly.
He looked at her.
“You know when he is?”
“No.” she said “But I think I could find him.”
“How?” he asked.
“Do you remember how he tracked the lepers to Stalingrad?” she asked.
He nodded. “His blood. He left a drop of his blood on her dress and he was able to track it through time.”
Jeda studied her wrist carefully. “I’m his daughter.” she reasoned “I should be able to do it too. And his blood is my blood after all.”
“You really think you can do that?”
“Don’t see why not.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t.” Virgil said hesitantly.
“Why not? I want my father at my wedding.”
“It’s just, he’s clearly chosen to stay away. Maybe we should respect that?” Virgil said, his eyes looking at the carpet.
“Huh.” said Jeda considering “Okay. Interesting point. And the real reason?”
Virgil cursed himself. So damn transparent.
“The real reason being that maybe your mother is right. Maybe he has become dangerous.”
This time he looked her right in the eye.
“It’s not him I’m worried about,” she replied.
“He’s living here?”
“Yes. I can feel it.”
The street was empty and filthy, the sky above them was wolf-hide grey, and spat cold rain at them. The house before them was a grime covered shack, the windows dusty and black, the garden dead, and strangled with weeds.
“I don’t know, Virgil. I don’t know why anyone would choose to live here.” said Jeda.
“So your mother’s right, he’s gone nuts?”
“Don’t what?” Virgil asked.
“Fine.” said Virgil, and he didn’t tell her that he hadn’t been joking.
“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go say “hi”.”
It was almost night now, and a chilling wind was howling down the deserted street. With a shudder of cold running down her back she placed a gloved hand on the black, wrought iron garden gate, and with some difficulty forced it open. It screeched on the concrete path like a cat, leaving a grin of red rust and flecks of black paint on it’s stony surface. It wouldn’t open fully, and she had to squeeze her way through it. Virgil slid through after her.
“Virgil.” she said.
“I don’t see any lights.”
“Maybe he’s asleep?”
“Does it even look like someone lives here to you?”
They were standing before the front door now. Grey paint flecked off it’s surface, revealing patches of dark wood beneath.
Cautiously she knocked on the door. Flakes of paint were shaken off and fluttered to the ground like dead moths. Silence.
Jeda felt the freezing wind at her back, and massaged her shoulders.
“You’re sure…” Virgil began.
“What?” A voice rasped from behind the door. Jeda started.
“Dad? Dad, is that you?”
“Who are you? Who are you?!” and the rasping, creaking voice was so filled with rage and hatred that Virgil almost told Jeda to run, to shift into another time right speedily. But she stood her ground.
“It’s me, Dad. It’s Jeda.”
There was a silence that went on forever. The wind suddenly died, and all was still.
“Little Jeda?” the voice whispered.
“Yes, Dad. It’s me. Can I come in?”
Another silence, this time so long that Jeda was sure he had retreated back into the recesses of the house.
Then, the door creaked open. A line of black filled the space between the door and the lintel, and a single blue eye, bulging and sick-looking, stared at her.
“You. It’s really you. ” there was a single sigh of total joy.
The eye disappeared and the door swung open.
Tentatively, Jeda entered, Virgil following her nervously.
The door closed behind them both. Out in the bleak and darkened street, the chill wind was howling again.
“Please, please, sit, sit…”
It was so dark, the only light being a dull grey glow seeping through the heavily curtained windows. In a few minutes, she supposed , when night fell the living room that Mabus had ushered her into would be pitch black. She managed, more through touch than sight, to manoeuvre herself onto what felt like an old sofa.
“Dad? Do you think maybe we could turn on some light?” she asked nervously.
She was very uneasy. In the very dim light she could only just make him out as a tiny, stick-thin figure, darting to and fro around the room with what seemed like an almost eerie quickness. He was slowing time around himself, making himself quicker, as if he was on the defensive, as if he thought she might attack any second. He was anxious, which of course made her anxious. Or maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he didn’t even realise he was doing it, and had simply developed it as a nervous habit. But it was clear that this was not the same man who had led her and the others against the Lepers.
“Light?” he asked, as if hearing the word for a long time “Oh, of course, forgive me, my dear. I’ve been ill, you see. My eyes are sensitive. But I’ll fetch a candle.”
“Ill? Are you alright?”
“Well.” he paused, and let a long hissing sigh “Not ill. No more so than anyone else. But I’ve been recovering, all the same.”
“Recovering from what?”
“Ahhhhhhhh…..” he gave an unearthly squeal of joy, and she and Virgil screamed in surprise at it, not least because he was now on the opposite side of the room than he had been half a second ago.
“Found the candle.” he said cheerfully.
“Dad.” she stammered “We came to see if you were alright.”
“We?” his voice was low again “We who?”
“We. Us. Virgil and me.”
“Virgil. Mabus, you remember Virgil.”
“Of course I do. Of course I remember Virgil. He died, didn’t he? She killed him. How can you remember him?”
Virgil felt ice spiders running up and down his neck.
“No Dad.” said Jeda “No. He’s here.”
“Virgil. He’s here.”
Mabus gave a hideous scream and suddenly Virgil felt Mabus roaring into his face like a hurricane.
“YOU! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?! ARE YOU SPYING ON ME?!!!”
“HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE?!!!”
“You let me in!”
“Ah. Yes. So I did. How are you my boy?”
“Fine.” said Virgil, feeling as if his heart had given it’s last thump.
Virgil felt a hand patting his head in darkness.
“Yes Dad.” Jeda said “Virgil came with me. He’s worried about you.”
“Oh…is he?” Mabus’ voice sneered in the dark “Yes, very worried about me. Oh yes. Losing plenty of sleep, I’ll bet.”
“He is Dad, Virgil’s your friend.”
“Friends! Did he tell you?”
“Virgil! Virgil, of course! Did he tell you? Do you know?”
“That he threatened to kill me?”
“What? No, he didn’t!” said Jeda, shocked. So was Virgil, this was news to him as well.
“Of course not! That’s how clever he is! Like a fox!”
Jeda felt a voice whisper in her ear. “Jeda. I think we need to get out of here.”
“He needs our help.” she whispered back to Virgil.
“No, no, he’s fine. Let’s go…”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I quite forgot your candle, my dear. It’s red. I think. Is that alright? I have a green one around somewhere, or at least I think I do, I haven’t seen it in weeks, I may have lost it. It’s green, but it’s smaller and doesn’t give as much light.”
“The red one will do fine, Dad.”
“Ehm, let me see. Is there a lighter on the table in front of you?”
Night had fallen outside, it was now completely black. She felt in front of her, and her fingers brushed against the table. Spreading her palms over the surface, she searched for the lighter.
Then, she felt it. It was cold. It was hard. It was ever so slightly moist.
“Ah! Here it is!” Mabus exclaimed dramatically and he lit the candle.
He stood in front of her, dressed in a white T-shirt and filthy trousers. His hair was wild and unkempt and he looked desperately ill, his eyes sunken yet staring, his skin clammy and grey. And in front of her, on the coffee table, crouched like a giant spider, was a human hand.
“What…what…what is that?” she whispered.
Slowly, he looked in the direction of her gaze, and his eyes rested on the hand.
“It’s…it’s…it’s a hand!” he exclaimed proudly, as if the realisation had just come to him.
“Dad.” she said, desperately trying to remain her composure “Why is there a hand on your table?”
“Samples. You see.” he bent down and picked up the hand, holding it in his left hand while still holding the lit candle in his right. “You see, this hand has information I want. Don’t you? ”
He squeezed the hands fingers in and out like a flapping mouth.
“”Yes I do Mabus!”” he exclaimed in a squeaky voice and burst into a fit of giggles.
Jeda watched him in dead horror.
“Oh my God…” she whispered.
“Jeda. Get out. Get out now.”
“Oh shut up Virgil, you’ve no sense of fun!” Mabus snapped, and then began to mutter to himself. “Funniest thing. I can remember him, but I can’t. It’s funny. Did I ever meet him? I don’t think so. But I remember him. It’s funny. Don’t you think?”
“Dad.” Jeda said “I think, I think we’re going to go.”
“What? Oh no, please, it was so nice seeing you again. I always loved you so much, Jeda.”
“I know, but…”
“I love you Jeda.”
“I know, Dad.”
“I love you so much.”
“I know Dad, but I have to go now.”
“Do you love me Jeda?”
He was still holding the dead hand.
“Yes Dad, but…”
“Say you love me, Jeda.”
“I love you Dad.” said Jeda, in tears.
“So don’t go. If you love me, you won’t go.”
“Don’t you love me? You said you love me.”
“I do, but I really have to go…”
“Ah, to Hell with it…” he said dismissively and then he was gone, and now he was standing beside a dresser in the corner and had taken out what looked horribly like a gun.
Virgil remembered a time when he had asked Mabus why the Temporals fought the Lepers with primitive weapons like swords, machetes and clubs when they could travel to the future and get more lethal weaponry, like guns. Mabus had told him that they did not use things like bombs purely on principle, that they were barbaric and cowardly weapons, and that even Lepers deserved to meet their enemies in fair combat. But as for guns, Mabus had told them that they were not used simply because they were useless against those who could shift time. “A man pulls a gun on you. What do you do? You go into slowtime, and even if he’s a Temporal as well, once the bullet leaves his envelope of slowtime it goes into normal time and you can easily dodge it. Guns only work at very close range, so you’re better off using a blade, which you can make just as fast as a bullet, and don’t need to reload.”
She could have dodged it.
But the shock of seeing her own father pull a gun on her was so great that Jeda simply stood dumbly as Mabus shot her in the head.