Inside the Sanctum
Surrounded by a panoply of computer screens showing satellite images, charts, photos and schematic diagrams, the toga-clad entourage were assembled on a terrace in the middle of the Encycolpaedium. The room was abuzz with activity, some people were speaking into telephones, making enquiries, posing as journalists; others were typing furiously, or doing calculations. In the middle of the room, at the bottom of the technological amphitheatre, stood the Master, the professor, Astraia, and the girl who fell from the sky.
Astraia pointed to a screen. It was a map of Africa, which zoomed in to the mountainous harbour of Cape Town.
“This is where we lost track of him.”
“How do you know he is in Cape Town?” Vivienne asked. Astraia looked at the professor, gauging his reaction to what is to come.
“We have traced a huge financial transaction on Dr. Borgiac’s credit card. It was for 510,000 Rand’s worth of research equipment. In particular, the receipt includes a polarity-reversing electromagnet array, a very rare instrument.”
“What?” the professor was confused.
“Dr. Borgiac, I wonder whether you have had any issues with a credit card, by chance? We suspect that it was stolen by Mr. van Niekerk, in order to set up a laboratory in his home country.”
“Why would he do that? I don’t follow?” Astraia touched the screen and it streamed BBC, SABC, and CNN. In all the videos, similar clips were displayed, along with headlines describing in some way chaos in Johannesburg.
“It is evident that Mr. van Niekerk had been continuing your initial experiments. He is using a formula that allows him to give life to inanimate objects. Have a closer look, dottore.” She touched the SABC feed, which filled the screen. It showed a panicking crowd of people fleeing a street market. There was a large explosion of dust between the buildings. The cameraman fled, shaking the frame back and forth as he ran. In the background, women screamed and there was a loud crashing sound. Dust enveloped the camera, and the cameraman stopped, turned around and pointed the camera at the sun, a hollow ball of light barely illuminating the cloud. In silhouette, a dragon-like shape stepped in front of the light source, and roared a bone-chilling reptilian war cry. The man dropped the camera onto the asphalt.
Astraia touched the screen and a clip from BBC appeared, showing an arial view of the city. There was smoke trailing into the sky from a series of burning buildings, including the belly of a skyscraper, windows gutted, and teetering precariously. The camera zoomed into the streets, where a cackle of large stone hyaenas were eviscerating a butchery, dragging a number of beef carcasses out and tearing them to shreds. They chased cars fleeing the scene, crushing them by pouncing on them. Some were even chewing on the tires of parked vehicles. The city was in a state of pandemonium. Between the whooping of the helicopter blades, below them, sirens and gunshots could be heard.
She touched the screen again, and it showed an image of an insect the size of a dog. Its chitinous skin looked smooth and hard. It was a combination of indiscriminate insect parts joined together: part scarab, part crab, part praying mantis. The lettering on screen said ‘Lagos, Nigeria,’ and above it a few children were throwing stones at the creature. They were afraid, but emboldened by being in a group.
“Sightings have expanded from Showa research base in the Antarctic, to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, to as far north as Nigeria. Your protégé, dottore, has set loose upon the world a pestilence, the proportions of which we can hardly understand.”
“How? Why?” He shook his head, still in disbelief.
“Let us not consider why, but instead how we can stop it.”
“How can we stop them?” Vivienne asked.
“You, my dear girl, you are to stop them.” The old man spoke up in a hoarse voice, and cocked his head to regard his creation. “You were brought into being to fight them.”
“But I don’t want to fight. I wouldn’t want to hurt anything.”
“These golems are not living creatures. They are life without souls. Living energy stumbling blindly in a world they are not meant to inhabit. They have no connection to the boundless, and cannot fit into the environment, despite having the urges to do so.”
“I can understand how they feel,” she said sullenly.
“What do you mean, my daughter?”
“Well, I am a construct too, right? I am here in this world, but I have no family, no love, no appetite, and despite everything I can smell food, and witness children being embraced by their mothers. I can feel pain all around me, but I feel powerless to do anything. Tell me,” she said grabbing onto Pythagoras’ toga and looking deep into his eyes, “will I ever be able to live a normal life?”
“A normal life?” He made not-so-subtle eye contact with Astraia.
“You know,” she pleaded, “like can I even have kids? Will I ever just be able to enjoy eating dinner with a family of my own? Could I have a dog and not empathize when it has fleas?”
“I’m afraid…” he began, but she cut him off.
“—Never mind.” She turned away, and wiped a tear out of her eye. The professor suddenly felt her sorrow. He stepped forward to consoled her, hugging her tightly.
“Vivienne, my child, it is not your destiny to have a family. You are not human, you know. I doubt very much that you could even produce a child in the normal way.” He stepped closer and touched her arm. She ended the embrace with the professor and faced her creator.
“Why allow me to feel it all?”
“My dear, you have a much greater purpose than anyone on this Earth. You are the saviour of all life. A being like you arrives very rarely, and anyone who comes in contact with you are more than fortunate. We all benefit simply from being near you.”
“What do you mean ‘saviour of all life?’” the professor asked.
“Vivienne is the only chance we have of correcting the irregularities Marius van Niekerk has unleashed.”
“You mean she can kill those beasts?”
“Yes, but that is too simple. A synthemorphos is not a soldier per se. I believe that the reign of the beast is simply the first phase of the danger.”
“So what do we do next?” Vivienne had regained her composure. “What can I do to help?”
“For the time being, we will watch events unfold from here. The world is on the brink of a grave event.”
“We can’t just watch these animals killing all those people!” When Vivienne shouted, all the akousmatikoi on the terraces above stopped to look down at her.
“She’s right, Master.” Astraia smiled gracefully. “Perhaps we might send our guests to reconnoiter in Africa?”
“It is dangerous.” The old man was looking tired. “For now we wait, and as always our listeners will find a sign.”
“But you said that they sometimes miss things!” Vivienne was excited. “Let us go see what’s happening. Maybe I can help!”
“I am tired,” said the old man. “Allow me to consider it in time. While you are under our custody, Astraia will provide anything you might need.” The old man excused himself and walked towards the great metal door at the base of the amphitheatre, crimson entourage in tow.
“What now?” Vivienne asked of their hostess.
“He will let you go, the old coot. He just needs some time.”
“What about you? Can’t you convince him?”
“Yes, I shall do my best. He has listened to my counsel for millennia. I will persuade him.” Her thin lips pulled tightly, and the woman raised a pristine eyebrow. “Vivienne, why don’t we take a walk? Just you and me.” The professor slid his hand over his hair.
“I suppose I shall retire then. Do you have anything to read?” Astraia laughed.
“Follow me and I will guide you to the library. You can wait there for us. It will be more comfortable than returning to your cell.”
“My cell? Are we captives here?”
“Not at all. We simply live a monastic life. In your room there is nothing but a stone bed. We don’t even use locks, since members of our society are forbidden to own property.” He nodded his head in understanding. “But, dottore—”
“—Please,” he said in a warm tone, “call me William.”
“William,” she smiled, “I’m certain you will be impressed our library. Follow me.” And they set off through a series of tunnels, past a massive greenhouse where large magnesium lamps hung suspended like quintuple suns above the greenery. At the library, the women left him in astonishment at volumes and records that triumph over the legends of the Great Library of Alexandria.
They continued walking down long tunnels. Vivienne asked about the Master.
“How old is Pythagoras? …I mean,” she rephrased, “how old is the current Pythagoras.”
“He is very old. Older than he looks. Over a hundred.”
“He doesn’t look that bad for someone over a hundred.” They both smiled.
“We follow a rigid diet, with two days of light fasting every week,” Astraia explained. “And the old coot eats a lot of horseradish. He says it is a natural preservative, and an antiseptic.”
“Well, maybe. But I think he just likes it.” They both laughed as they passed a number of heavy doors to storage rooms and some smaller vestibules, until the tunnel sloped downwards.
As it narrowed, they walked in silence. Footfalls echoed in the cramped space.
“What are you thinking, Vivienne?”
“I’m confused.” Her voice seemed less chipper than usual. “And I want to help, but it’s all a bit much, you know?”
“I understand. Most of us meander through life without really having a purpose. And to some extent it gives us freedom to design our own lives, but you are in a unique position. You know your fate.”
“Well, yes, but I also know that all the things I want most in life are things I will never have.”
“Some of them you already have. Love, for instance.”
“What do you mean?”
“The professor. He is in love with you.” The last sentence somehow echoed differently in the darkness, and the lamp light no longer reflected off the narrow walls, falling around them in vain. They have stepped into an open space. Astraia stopped, and extinguished her lamp. Now, they were in total darkness—every sounds seemed exaggerated. She took Vivienne’s hand. “Let’s keep walking.”
“How do you know that he is in love with me?” Vivienne whispered, following Astraia’s lead. They walked into nothingness: two bodies walking through the grandiose emptiness of space.
“Who wouldn’t fall for you? You are a being of perfection. You are beautiful, energetic, happy, sincere. You are a conglomeration of all the best parts of humanity, sifted from the chaff.” Walking felt simply like a slow mechanical beat. Vivienne’s eyes never did adjust. Around them was only darkness and she feels slightly uneasy.
“What should I do?”
“There is only one thing you can do: save the world.”
“I meant, what should I do about the professor?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Aren’t you supposed to give me advice or something?” Vivienne looked over at the woman walking beside her, but saw nothing. She only heard her breathing, and a soft gentle laughter.
“Love is a complicated thing, Vivienne. In all my lifetimes, that is the one thing I have learned. Love is different every time. It can be brief and explosive, silly, sexual, needy, or comfortable, it can even outlast any one lifetime if you find the right person. I have no wisdom to share, really. You should follow your heart.” They stopped walking. “But as sad as it is, know that your destiny goes well beyond the professor.”
“Where are we?” She felt Astraia’s free hand on her arm. She was holding Vivienne’s hand with both of hers. Vivienne wondered if they were facing each other.
“We are in the deepest part of the cave system. It is called The Great Dome. We have left it mostly undeveloped. Some people use it to get away from everything. I think it is a good place to talk. Sometimes, it’s easier to say what’s on your mind when you are just a voice in the dark.”
“What’s on your mind?” Vivienne had turned the tables.
There was a pause. Pure unadulterated silence.
“Vivienne, I wanted to assure you that everything will be fine. Despite every threat, life has a way of driving on, of surviving cosmic forces far greater than any us Pythagoreans can control. Sometimes extinctions occur because they need to.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” she inhaled, “what will be, will be. Just do your best. For me. And for the professor.”
“I’ll try.” Vivienne reached out and took the woman’s other hand. Now they were definitely facing each other. Suddenly she wondered whether there were any other people in the room listening to them. She listened deeply, until she could feel two heartbeats in the dark. She felt the limits of her consciousness cutting through the void, defining the edges of the large room. It was seeing without seeing, perhaps like a fish living in a deepwater trench, feeling the vibrations of other living things. She sensed a rat scurrying along the edge of the room, and above them in a nook at the back of the dome, hanging in clusters, a colony of tiny bats.
“Astraia,” she said, “what is it like to be a man?” The woman laughed, and her voice echoed wildly in the cave.
“Well, to be honest, it doesn’t work like that. When we transmigrate, we take with us only the most important information. I remember being a man, but it is vague, like moments after you wake from a dream. My last life was not so good. I had polio, and I wasn’t very healthy. What I recall most of being a man, I remember from my first life.”
“What was it like?”
“I was a student of Asclepios, a great healer in Anatolia. We ran a hospital, treating people by analyzing their dreams. It was there that I met Pythagoras. I fell in love with him. Without meaning to, he stole me away from Asclepios. We travelled together. I was young and strong. He taught me many things, and every night, we would lie together and talk about how we could improve the world. The brotherhood of Asclepios had plenty of great ideas about health, and we incorporated some of those into our society here. The Master was always learning from others, taking their best ideas and making them better. We saw Babylon, and Egypt, and the island city of Tyre, where there were many new inventions. It was a fascinating time to be alive. Humanity was flourishing.”
“Do you miss it?”
“No, I simply recall it fondly. I still serve Pythagoras, and have since lived a thousand different lives, accumulating with each one a fountain of knowledge that I can take with me to the next one.”
“But you don’t remember everything?”
“No, only the important parts. The lessons. The trivial and the painful fade first. And by practicing your mind, it can shine like a gem through the ages.”
“Vivienne, you sound… I don’t know, afraid.”
“I am afraid.”
“Hmm… Really? Afraid of fighting the beasts?”
“No. I’m afraid for the professor. I think he is in more danger than me. I don’t want him to get hurt.” Astraia embraced her, and in the darkness solid edges had no meaning, they flowed into one another, nothing but heartbeats and breath. Vivienne could feel what her guide is feeling.
“Don’t you worry,” Astraia said with great affection, “I will make sure nothing befalls our professor.”