THE FOURTH MILLENNIUM
5 Eye Contact
Birch led them, on foot, three kilometres or more, to the northern outskirts of the Sector. The bitter chill that continued to bite did not hamper their progress. They walked at a brisk pace, and their journey was completed some twenty five minutes after it had begun.
Their guide directed them towards a door, indistinguishable from any of the entrances on the countless dwellings in the Sector.
He reached, with a quivering hand, towards the Introcom, and tapped a short sequence of keys on the colour coded panel, below the communication grille. A brief, silent pause followed, before the door was opened. An elderly man, wearing a suspicious expression gave the three visitors a cursory glance before diverting his attention to their surroundings. He shifted his eyes to left and right, to satisfy his curiosity, before allowing them inside. Without uttering a single word, and with an unhurried, shuffling motion, the frail septuagenarian led them into the living room and gestured towards the matching suite of comfortable easy-chairs.
“He’s deaf,’ explained Birch. “He doesn’t talk.”
Once they’d all settled into their new, but familiar surroundings, Birch suddenly, unexpectedly announced that he was late for an ‘appointment’. Starling was amazed to notice that he had employed the exact same, two-handed V-sign gesture he’d seen Robin using, a few days earlier.
“It must be the latest thing,” Starling supposed; nudging Nightingale with his elbow.
Nightingale had seen neither Robin nor Birch perform this act, and was at a loss, in respect to Starling’s comment.
“He’s never early for appointments. That’s the one thing that has always irritated me about the man, but he just says it’s fashionable,” he offered, in interpretation, as Birch departed
The expression, on the face of the fragile old man, that had regarded them with such suspicion, on arrival, had transformed into a warm smile now that he was more at ease with their presence. The two friends noticed that he wore a name tag depicting a sycamore seed case. Gesturing eagerly with his bony hand, he invited them to follow him once more. Starling and Nightingale complied, trailing the faltering footsteps of their escort into the rear bedroom.
The bed had been positioned too close to the entrance, obstructing clear access to the room, which meant they had to squeeze, uncomfortably, past the unintentional barrier.
Power tools and decorating equipment cluttered the remaining space, and a paint-splashed dust sheet occupied the centre of the floor. This was painstakingly removed, by Sycamore, using a length of off-cut Carbolite tube.
Starling and Nightingale approached hesitantly, to inspect the opening in the floor that the removal of the dust sheet had revealed. Nightingale let out a gasp of surprise, on seeing that a set of roughly fashioned steps had been cut into the earth beneath the house. They were urged to descend, into a basement, roughly half the area of the floor above them.
Centrally positioned in the room, a table, stood surrounded by four, unoccupied wooden stools. Towards the corner furthest away from them, a man also stood; hands behind his back and facing away from them. He was nodding his head rhythmically, as though listening to music, or drawing a conclusion. As Starling and Nightingale approached, he turned slowly, towards them. Something, indefinable gave Starling the impression that he recognised this person, or that he reminded him of someone. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but was halted in mid-speculation, by the man’s next action.
He appeared to be in his late forties; clean shaven, and casually dressed, in a plain white tee-shirt and a pair of beige slacks. He extended his right hand and announced,
“Welcome to the last days of our time.”
Starling felt even more convinced that he recognised something in his host. Not the voice; perhaps the mannerisms. He was still unsure.
He offered his own hand, which was gripped tightly, and shaken vigorously.
“Happy to be a part of it,” was all that Starling could think of, in response.
At that moment, he realised what it was about this man that he recognised. It was the smile that settled it for Starling. The clean-shaven face had thrown him off the scent, momentarily, but now he was convinced he had it right.
“What I meant, of course, was good morning,” the familiar stranger continued. “By the way, do I know you?”
It could only be one person, Starling deduced; Robin, the bus driver.
“I…think so,” Starling answered, still a little hesitantly. “Weren’t you our…driver, on the journey from Sector 401?”
“Driver? Now there is an unusual occupation.”
“I’m s-sorry,” stuttered Starling. “I…I thought I…”
“Recognised me? Come on Starling; try to keep up with the plot!”
“I knew it!” Starling was still not quite up to speed with the situation. “How come you always say things that leave people guessing what you really mean?”
“Physics,” was the temporary extent of Robin’s reply.
“There you go again,” complained Starling.
“I’m attempting, with some success I might add, to break the laws of Physics.
Reactions, Starling, are what life is all about. Say or do the same thing a million times, and I’ll guarantee you get a million different reactions.
Don’t let that confuse you though. Reactions are important. You could say they’re the tools of my trade; and I don’t mean bus driving. They assist me in gauging the effectiveness of my actions, as well as the intelligence, or lack of it, of their intended targets or recipients.
If you’re unsure of whether or not to go ahead with a particular action; do it anyway. See what the reaction is. It’s a sure-fire way of gaining an increased understanding of things; of all things.
Whether you’re satisfied or not, with a particular item, or service; complain; just to see what comes of it.”
Starling took a moment to digest the information before declaring,
“Wow! I think I’m beginning to see what you mean…a little bit. It kind of explains the moustache; or absence of it.”
“Nicely worked, Starling. You’re learning, but consider this to be lesson one; lesson two actually. Lesson one was on the bus the other day. But don’t worry; the first lesson is always free of charge.”
“How much is it after that? I have to keep a careful watch on our cash.”
“Starling, Starling, Starling…You shall learn; it may just take a little while. Your green-tinged honesty and openness though, are so refreshing; so very refreshing.”
“I always try to do my best.” Starling’s naivety was digging him into a pit.
Robin rescued him, by placing a hand on his shoulder, before extending it in the direction of Nightingale.
Once the unnecessary formality was completed, Robin sat down on one of the wooden stools, and invited his guests to do likewise.
“I’m going to ask you to do something you may find unconventional. Don’t be intimidated by my curiosity. This is an essential part of the process of getting you to your target destination.” Once again, Robin displayed his, by now, characteristic animated quotation marks.
“We trust you implicitly, Robin. We’re open to any guidance you can provide.” Starling was keen to make this clear.
“Another good reaction, Starling. Now this is a test, but not something I intend to use against you, for the wrong reasons. I don’t want anything to stand in the way of your progress.
If I was a few years younger…but that’s another story; a true one actually. But things were so different, even just twenty years ago.
I want you to tell me everything; everything you know or believe, everything you’ve heard and, most important of all, everything you’ve done so far to reach this point. When you’ve finished telling me; keep talking. I also want to know everything you intend to do.
We’ll call it payment for lesson two, and if I like what I hear, I’ll throw in lesson three as a bonus.”
Nightingale looked at Starling, confidently.
“I’m with you, Starling. This may be the only chance we ever get, so don’t miss anything out.”
Nightingale indicated that Starling should do the talking; an unspoken acknowledgement that it was Starling who was the leader; the decision maker in their quest.
Starling stood up and paced the floor as he spoke; partly to deliver his monologue with added emphasis on certain aspects; partly to disguise any apprehension he felt, about speaking openly, on the subject of his past and potential future, for the first time in his life.
He told of his lifelong desire to obtain confirmation of the existence of ‘them’; to discover what he could about the three thousand years of existence, prior to today. He knew all about his own past, as well as much about that of Nightingale. Other things; incidents, his questionable memories could supply him with; he knew next to nothing about; even his own family. He knew absolutely nothing about other people, or even significant events, prior to his own existence.
The stories; snippets really, he’d heard about ‘them’ and their activities, amounted to only a relatively insignificant collection of trivia and possibilities; ‘the mumblings of madmen’, as they were ‘officially’ labelled.
His friendship with Nightingale, and their mutual dream; their mutual thirst for that rarest, yet most satisfyingly thirst quenching beverage of all; knowledge, were his most respected, most valuable assets. His hopes for what they may be able to achieve for the good of all people, by completing their quest, was what made his otherwise futile existence, tolerable. His greatest hope was that, one day; sooner or later, whichever it took, he would be able to speak with both confidence and authoritative knowledge, on the subject of…well, anything. He just hoped that it could be addressed to a receptive audience, who would both understand, and believe his words.
He spoke, uninterrupted, for almost an hour, while his audience of just two, listened intently to what he had to say.
Nightingale listened in awe, barely even realising that Starling was repeating the thoughts that had run through the minds of both of them, and not just his own feelings.
Robin sat in silence, analysing each individual word, as well as Starlings actions and body language. At the end of the oration, Robin joined together the fingertips of both hands, and brought them up to his face, to touch his nose, while leaning forward with elbows on knees.
Gently rocking, back and forth, he began to speak.
“Thank you, Starling; thank you very much indeed. I have to tell you, that was without doubt, the most comprehensive, honest, and emotional address it has ever been my privilege to observe. It confirms to me that my assessment of your integrity, and my feelings towards your quest, that have been developing from the first moment I laid eyes on you, were, are, correct. You have proved yourself more than worthy to accept this challenge; and judging by your own assessment of your good friend, Nightingale, you couldn’t wish for a more qualified companion. This is an assessment I tend to agree with wholeheartedly.
Continue to conspire; I am convinced that, before too long, you will be breathing together, the sweet, fresh air of enlightenment.
My sincere thanks, once again, for sharing with me, your innermost secrets. Today, we have successfully completed just one part, in a series of ‘tests’ you will be required to pass, in order to achieve your aims. You may not be aware of this, but you have already managed to clear at least two of these hurdles. But, take heed; harder ‘tests’ are to come for which you must be prepared. I will assist you in any way permitted, as will Birch. Never underestimate the value of his contributions. He is a man with an uncanny knack of getting things done.”
Robin reached into his pocket and produced another silver coin, handing it to Starling. This coin had, on its face side, the impression of the profile of a woman; this time looking in the opposite direction. On its reverse, it depicted the mythical creature that Starling recognised as a lion.
The lion; extinct, according to ‘them’, was often used as a metaphor for courage. Myths, as such, were not considered ‘politically correct’ by the ‘authorities’, who discouraged the use of such symbols, claiming they were an ‘invention of delusion’.
The numbers impressed onto this coin were also different to the previous one. Above the crown of the woman, was impressed the number, or year, 2765. The number, or value, on the reverse was 500.
Starling accepted the gift with gratitude, saying,
“Thank you; I will keep it safe, just as the other one you gave me.”
“Your reactions are the strongest indications of your character, as well as intelligence. So far, they have impressed me.
Take this disc, and show it to man named Hawthorn…473520. I won’t tell you where you may find him; this you must do for yourself. It’s your next ‘test’.
Now, I have an assignment for you. Follow me; I’d very much like you to meet someone special.”
To be continued
Copyright © Stanislaw Skibinski
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