In the desert country of Pathia, where ideas are hard currency, they search for answers and a tree.
It will take more than an ex-wife, a revolution, and the mystery of a famous Arthurian artefact to stop Charlotte from uncovering the ultimate truth.
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In many cultures, Death is represented by a human figure who carries gardening tools, though the exact implement differs between each culture and country. If Death carries a pruning saw in Escrustia, a rake in Nytolix or a watering can according to the mythology of Phooget, each is equally symbolic of Death's role as the harvester of souls.
The truth, of course, is that death cannot exist without life, and life exists best when all the factors are balanced. Nothing balances the factors like aerated soil, well-pruned branches, and a sprinkle of fresh water.
Like any dedicated horticulturist, Death comes for us all and generally cannot be avoided. Metaphorically, it is the same as spotting an ex- paramour across the room at a party, leaving you lurking by the kitchen for the rest of the evening while they have a great time dancing in front of the stereo all night with the one person who seems remotely interesting.
I sipped my drink and peered around the kitchen door into the darkened living room. My escape route was blocked by people who enjoyed nothing more than having a few drinks with old friends, while making new ones by dancing with them.
The only thing that could possibly make my evening more intolerable, was currently dancing with an interesting woman in front of the stereo.
"I'm guessing," a man said in my ear while he weaved drunkenly half a beat behind the music.
"What?" I said, without breaking my surveillance of the living room.
"I'm Lyal Guessing. This is my friend's party."
"Oh, that's nice." I moved closer to the kitchen door, calculating the quickest way out of the apartment.
"I'm guessing you're in need of a drink." Lyal gave a thin laugh. He let it taper out through his nose, giving me plenty of time to join in. If I wanted. Anytime now ...
"Gus, could you do me a favour?"
"Lyal," he corrected.
"Lyal," I agreed. "Could you do me a favour?" Lyal nodded with the deliberate focus of the happily drunk.
"Right. Yes ... okay." Lyal nodded and turned to his left.
Finding his way blocked by a couple making out, he twisted right and blinked at the fridge. The awkwardness of his entrapment elicited another sinus-flute chuckle.
"Gestating gerbils," I muttered as the dancing couple paused for breath and he gestured towards the kitchen, where there were drinks to be had.
For me, the kitchen was the washed-out bridge on the only road out of town. I had nowhere to go and no way to avoid him.
Taking a deep breath, I moved closer to Lyal.
"Kiss me," I said, glancing over my shoulder towards the door.
"What?" Lyal blinked.
"Kiss me, please. Now."
Lyal's nostrils flared in readiness for a guffaw. I stifled it by pressing my lips against his.
"Charlotte?" The couple had reached the kitchen, and it was the young man with the sweptback hair who had spoken.
I twisted away from Lyal's enthusiastic mouth. "Oh, hey, Kip."
"How ... are you?" Kip asked. The young woman with him gave a polite smile that barely reached her lips.
"I'm ... great." A smile stretched towards my ears like the straps on a surgical mask.
"I didn't know you were going to be here," Kip said.
"Neither did I, but you know me: if there's a party, I'll be there," I replied. My enthusiasm as fake as an astro-turf toupee.
"Okay ..." Kip looked around for something suitable to keep the conversation afloat. "Oh, this is uhm ... This is my friend." Kip presented the dark- haired woman with as much of a flourish as the close quarters of the kitchen would allow.
"Hi," I smiled. The woman simply nodded. "This is Lyal ...?"
"Hey." Lyal leaned past me and shook Kip's hand vigorously. The woman folded her arms before he could even try to take hers.
"Great party," Kip said.
"Yeah," I agreed. My relationship with Kip Alehouse had been brief and awkward. We were both taking papers in Dialectics, the science of verbal communication styles, and I broke up with Kip the same morning I decided to change my major to Computer Psychology.
"It's nice to see you again, Charl'," Kip said.
I winced. Of all the ways my name could be verbally amputated, leave it to Kip to find the one that set my teeth on edge.
"You too." I gave him the thumbs up and squirmed out of Lyal's embrace.
I looked past Kip in the vain hope I could see a reason to excuse myself and leave. It took a moment, and then I noticed that the dark-haired woman standing with Kip was also standing with the other people at party-central around the living room.
I blinked and stared harder: it wasn't just a group of dark-haired, pale-skinned women wearing black, though the college had enough of those for cloning to be a plausible explanation.
"That's weird," I said. No one commented and I returned my attention to Kip. The dark-haired woman leaned in and whispered something in his ear. My jaw dropped as Kip faded in a swirl of multi- coloured sparks, and a moment later, his clothes stood empty as if his outfit had been put on an invisible mannequin.
I waved a hand; it shed skin cells in a rainbow of sparks. "I think someone spiked my drink."
Lyal Guessing had also vanished, his rumpled suit continuing to grind incoherently without him.
I struggled to breathe against a tightening band around my chest. A desperate moment later, my focus cleared as, wide-eyed and choking, I tried to speak. The pale woman smiled at me, reached out and —CHAPTER 2
Light: cold, clinical, and serious. This light did not care for mixing with colours. This light had a job to do and took pride in doing it well.
I closed my eyes tighter against the unwelcome intrusion. The air following the light into my space was colder than the antiseptic glow.
"Mughpf?" I asked through the mask covering my mouth and nose.
A silhouette blocked the light. Even through clenched eyelids, I could sense the figure was leaning over me. Hands removed the mask, and a tube attached to it exhaled the sweet scent of mint with a sigh.
The hands came back; this time they lifted me out of the warm gel-bath I had floated in, as secure and contained as a foetus. With a firm grip, the silhouette set me on my feet. I barely felt my numb legs give way immediately.
Sitting on the floor, I waited for my brain to process the latest updates. The floor, my skin reported, was cold and made of some kind of tile. Oh, and you are naked.
I opened my eyes in preparation of being horrified. Everything was a blur, as it took a moment for my brain to kick-start the eyes.
The silhouette leaned down as the light made an effort to be accommodating. The pale woman from the party looked into my eyes. I blinked, the woman didn't. I had time to notice that the woman's irises were dark to the point of being black. Her pupils had the shape of silvery human skulls.
She lifted me smoothly to my feet and handed me a towel. She stood silently while I cleaned the worst of the pink goo off myself.
"Contacts," I said. "You're wearing contacts."
The woman gave a slight smile and took the towel away. She offered a white robe of the fluffy kind that I had never seen outside of a sensie starring one of those impossibly perfect-bodied people who, I secretly hoped, were computer enhanced, if not generated.
Wearing the robe made me feel warm and luxurious to the knees.
"Did you ever have one of those experiences, where you wake up and everything seems distinctly ... odd?" I waved a hand. "Like, when you fall asleep in the afternoon, and wake up and it's still kind of light. Then you think it might be morning and you get up to go to class and about the point you're trying to decide between breakfast cereal, or just tea ..." I trailed off as the spots dancing in front of my eyes reminded me to inhale.
The woman took my hand and led me across the floor. Contact with the cold tiles prodded me into thinking more clearly.
"Arthur's toes ... I'm dead?" The woman holding my hand turned back and smiled in a complex expression. Enigmatic, not quite friendly, more amused and accommodating, without slipping into condescension.
It was a great look and I wondered how she did it.
We reached the shower without further comment or facial calisthenics. The woman left me to wash and rinse.
Ten minutes later, I emerged fresh and towelled dry. As I dressed in the clothes I found on a hook outside the shower, I thought about which of the many questions deserved to be asked first.
Stepping out, I went with an easy one: "Who are you?"
The woman was regarding a painting on the wall, a mass-produced print of Lego Gonious' famous painting of a bear playing some kind of harp while a woman swings upside down from the limb of a living oak tree with her hands holding her white dress modestly around the crux of her pale thighs.
It was the kind of image that I thought would make an effective poster for a campaign warning kids to avoid recreational drugs.
I clicked a mental stopwatch; sufficient time for a polite response had passed.
"I only ask, because I'm sure it's going to be important. When I tell this story to people later. At work during lunch, or at parties ... Wait, we met at a party ...?"
The woman turned around and walked to the door. Opening it, she indicated that I should step through. With one last look at the empathic energy extraction tank that I had recently been in, I followed her out.
Part of me wondered if some kind of afterlife was awaiting us on the other side of the door. However, if the salmon-green colour on the walls and the inexcusable carpet pattern were any indication, what came after death wasn't as much fun as people hoped.
The silent woman retrieved a pair of flight tickets from her coat. She handed them to me, and then deftly took one back.
"We're going somewhere?" I asked. "Of course we are going somewhere. I mean where are we going?" I shook my head in self-irritation, and then opened the packet with the ticket in it. "Pathia? Why in the herbalist are we going to Pathia?"
The woman extended an arm and pointed, unwaveringly, in a South-westerly direction.
"I said why, not where. Besides, I don't have anything packed. I mean, I wasn't expecting to come back from my last trip."
The arm moved with a compass-needle sweep to point north-northwest, and then angled downwards. I followed the hand and saw a set of cacolet-leather luggage waiting on the floor.
"Well, okay." I took a moment to consider why none of this seemed at all odd. "No, it's not that it doesn't seem odd. It's just I have built up some kind of tolerance to odd."
The woman walked to another door, which proved to be an exit. I picked up the luggage and followed her into the street.CHAPTER 3
A growing crowd of angry people gesticulating at a parked taxi told me all I needed to know about where Vole Drakeforth might be.
"So sorry, excuse me." I apologised, pushing my way through to the eye of the storm.
Drakeforth screwed a monocle deeper into his eye socket and wriggled the fake moustache he was wearring under a leather chauffeur's cap. "I can explain it to you, but I can't understand it for you," he declared.
"You cut me off!" an angry driver shouted.
"Where did you get your licence?" another demanded.
"Scared me half to death!" a woman holding a bicycle added.
Drakeforth waved their concerns away like buzzing flies.
"Once again. It is true that I am driving, in the sense that I am travelling through a multi-dimensional spatial patrix that, even if you could perceive the full scope of it, you could not possibly hope to understand." This casual dismissal of their concerns drove the crowd into a howling frenzy.
I forged through, passing Drakeforth and going to the rear of the vehicle, which was jutting out into the street and clogging the flow of traffic like a tennis ball in a downpipe.
After opening the trunk and transferring my luggage inside, I got into the back seat and waited for Drakeforth to finish being annoying.
The angry voices increased in volume while Drakeforth turned his back on the crowd.
"Thank you, thank you," he waved and smiled. He opened the door and got behind the wheel.
"Hello, Drakeforth," I said.
"Pudding," he replied, and started the engine. Without referencing the rear-vision mirrors, the car lurched backwards. The air filled with the polite coughing of various car horns and the hysterical shriek of emergency braking.
Slipping the gear stick into drive, Drakeforth hit the accelerator and the cab leapt forward as it if had been stung.
"Wait!" I yelped. "The woman from the party ..." I blinked; my silent companion was sitting next to me and regarding the blurred vista with interest.
"Do you have your ticket?" Drakeforth asked.
"The zippelin ticket to Pathia? Yes, but why?" Drakeforth's response was lost in the squealing of tyres as we hurtled around a corner and drove the wrong way up a one-way street.
"Wrong way!" I cried.
"That is entirely a matter of perspective," Drakeforth replied calmly.
"Well, from the perspective of the oncoming traffic, we are going the wrong way."
"You left me a letter." Drakeforth put the kind of accusation into that simple statement that I usually only heard when addressing myself.
I started with, "Well, yes?"
"A letter, Pudding. After everything we went through, you thought a simple narrative about our adventures, followed by a brief explanation of where you had gone, was somehow going to make up for the deceit of it all?"
"That was the plan." In fact, I thought the plan had been quite good. By the time Drakeforth finished reading my record, I would be well gone into the empathic matrix of the Python building and would be well out of it.
The hum of the engine rose to a higher pitch and the car charged faster at the oncoming traffic in a re- enactment of those nature documentaries where a predator breaks cover in the climactic moment.
"We are going to die," I whispered. The pale woman passenger turned her head and raised an eyebrow.
The taxi bounced over the curb, sliding sideways from one streetlight pole to the next. Startled noises rained down in a way the survivors of the Cat Storm of Kabutz remember all too well.
Drakeforth twisted the wheel, sending the taxi back into the street. We careened through a narrow gap between a dairy van and a truck carrying a load of ice. I screamed and had a sudden flashback to summer holidays in the back yard with Mum, Dad, and Ascott.
The taxi roared into the next intersection before, like a duck taking flight, it settled into a smooth path in line with other traffic.
After a few seconds to unclench, I started to breathe again. The interior of the taxi flickered with a green strobe light. Twisting in my seat, I stared out the rear window at a fast approaching police car.
"Drakeforth, I think they want you to stop."
"Stop what?" he replied, swerving through the lanes of traffic.
"Being you?" I suggested.
"Ha!" Drakeforth barked. The traffic lights ahead of us changed and the traffic dutifully slowed to a halt. Drakeforth leaned on the horn and the car cleared its throat.
I watched as two officers, a man and a woman, exited the vehicle behind us and approached the taxi, one on each side.
"If anyone asks, you haven't seen me," Drakeforth announced.
"Sure." An hour ago, I had been in what the Godden corporation technicians described as a state of transition. Now all I wanted was a cup of tea and a nap.
The male officer rapped on the driver's window. Drakeforth lowered it and peered up at the green uniform, with its line of shiny brass buttons.
"Good morning, sir," the officer intoned.
"Is it? I hadn't noticed," Drakeforth replied with a tone of mild surprise.
"Indeed ..." the officer took his time unclipping a leather holster on his belt and extracting a notebook and a pen. He then clicked the pen before carefully lifting the cover on the notebook, as if wary of what might leap out at him.
"Well, goodbye then," Drakeforth said, and closed the window. The traffic continued to wait in an orderly queue for the changing of the lights.
I squinted through the window on the other side; the female officer peered back at me through the glass. I felt a sudden affinity with a museum exhibit.
The first officer tapped on the driver's window again. Drakeforth did a double take and opened the window.
"I have the strangest sense of didgeridoo."
"Do you know why we stopped your vehicle, sir?" the officer asked, pen poised to take notes.
"You didn't. The lights changed. We stopped."
"I see, sir. Not quite the reason, sir. Do you know exactly how fast you were going?"
"At which point?" Drakeforth replied. "Exactly?" he added after a moment for emphasis.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Time of Breath"
Copyright © 2019 Paul Mannering.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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