See also:Sixteen Hours
The worst part about being alive, you think, is that you're dying the whole time.
You have seen other men vomit at the smell now assaulting you as you make your way through the clogged, winding streets of Babylon. Plague and famine are evident on the face of every body that you step past, whether dead or nearly so. Only the dogs and rats are well-fed these days, it seems. The stench alone is enough to make other men sick, but not you.
You spent ten years on the Island. Ten years in Letois. A decade of Hell (and you revisit it nightly in your dreams).
Perhaps you can hear the thrum of the army in the distance, outside the walls. Perhaps it is but thunder. Whatever it is, it is of no concern to you. They will not overrun the walls. This you know for certain. They are waiting for something else. You do not know how long you have left. Days? Hours? Minutes?
You will die, but not to the sound of gunfire. That, you know. All else is in the air.
Eventually you cannot hear the storm- whatever it is- and there is only the sound of your boots against the pavement. There is a moment's splash when you walk through a small puddle, but it is not water that you step in. It hasn't rained for months.
The time is close to dusk and your shadow is growing long, but there is still enough light to see a body hanging from a streetlight as you pass it by.
You remember coming into her room for the last time. You remember seeing her, identifying her, and only a second later recognizing the belt around her neck. "Look! For I shall die, and in dying shall conquer death!" You remember her fall.
Most of all, you remember her smile. And the memory of it makes you wince.
Thank all mercy that all your tears were shed on the Island, and that you have none left for her or for Babylon. This is no time for tears.
It takes you long enough, but eventually you reach your destination. The door is made from sturdy oak, once painted blue- blue keeps evil spirits out- but now covered with the graffiti of the last five months. The diner's operator is dead but still you wonder, as you approach, whether to knock for old time's sake. You decide on an unexpected entrance for he that is inside, but still you hesitate before you enter, and you turn around.
If anyone had an operating automotive, you would not think him able to drive it across the rubble and the garbage of the streets. These are pathways that can now be managed only by foot. What has become of the monument to Man that the three of you built together, that you planned together long into the night? Where the gold, that is now a wet and browning red, where the laughter, that has now surpassed even weeping and become the silence of the dead and those too weak to moan? "Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city!" you mutter. "For in one hour is your judgment come."
Dux femina facti, but others are to blame for its fall.
You turn away from the sight, and enter the restaurant.
Elymas is surprised to see you, you know, but he has had forty years of looking for all the world as if he had always expected whatever happens. He did not flinch when Mama Laz commenced her work of death and compared to the plague your survival is almost to be expected. As for yourself, you are not surprised to see that his drugs have kept him all but untouched by the plague, and you wonder where the other sorcerers of Shinegrove House are. You wonder if he knows, but you don't care enough to ask.
You remember seeing Elymas, and for a moment he is the only one in the room. Only then do the others come to your awareness: the weeping, and the dying woman. The others weep; she does not, and neither does he. There is no concern on his face, no worry, no hesitancy, but when is there ever? And yet you know that there are escape routes planned in his head, routes of words and routes for his feet, should anything in the slightest go wrong.
And you remember that you, at least, had no idea just how profoundly the two of you would be affected by that dying woman, who called herself a speaker for the living.
You wonder if Elymas was as sure of her recovery as he looked, if there really was no surprise in his heart when she gasped with second life.
"You've been watching me," Elymas says, and at first you don't answer him. You pull out a chair at the table that he is sitting at and join him. Around you the diner is in disarray, the damage left after a riot and the visits of numberless scavengers. The two of you sit at the only upright table, around which are the few chairs that are still functional, including one that looks as if it were put back together by Elymas himself in order to have the correct number of chairs. Against one wall leans the broom that he must have used to sweep dirt, ash, and rubble away from the table.
Together, you sit at a rock in a sea of chaos. Even now, in the midst of Babylon and all her ruin, Elymas performs the work of organizing order from chaos.
"I hardly needed to watch you to know that this is where I would find you," you tell him.
Elymas nods, and takes a drink from the small mug of honeyed tea that is in front of him. "Where the dream was born. Or where it was presented to us." He sits with his back straight even now, in the center of ruin, and the faint light of the sun dances across the tattoos of his body like a fire. You wonder if perhaps it is not the drugs, if perhaps it is only the ink that keeps hidden the first signs of pestilence. His eyes are so dim.
You remember sitting with Elymas at a table in this very part of the diner, for her to come. You remember seeing her resolve and purpose first of all, almost before you recognized the woman herself. This was the woman that spoke on street corners. You remember your own plans, and you remember how she anticipated them- even the unspoken plans that you had kept to yourself- and woven them into her own.
Her vision was so much broader that your own, her reach so much further.
You change the topic quickly. "We did this." It's not a pleasant thought, but it's the fastest thing that you can think of. And it's true.
"We tried," Elymas says. "It couldhave worked."
You expected the blockade. You were counting on it. But the ships brought in a plague that made men corpses on their feet. Their eyes rotted and they bled from their mouths, and then one day the ships ceased to bring in cargoes of badly-needed supplies but only hauls of the dead and dying. And then one day they ceased to come at all, and no-one knew whether the other ships had fled to neutral shores or yet floated on the waves as eternal tombs.
"We should have sent away the astronomers."
"And without them, how would we have ensured the support of the noble families?" Elymas asked. "It was perilous enough to seize influence as we did, without giving the noble families an excuse to rebel."
"I know," you reply bitterly. "I went to Letois for it, before all the precariat and the the Fourth Estate were under our banner. My grandfather was a Peregrine priest, Elymas. I know what we were at risk of."
Elymas looks away from you, and there is silence. "At least we strove," he whispers. "When they write of us, they will at least say that. We were not content to be worms. If we sought flight before crawling, at least we strove. Some other will build the monument, and they will remember us as luminaries and forerunners, as surely as you were to me."
You remember when you went to the theater together the day before the Men Aside arrested you and delivered you to Letois. The Trial of Sisyphus. You remember that when it ended and all gave applause, she alone remained still and silent. You remember that she sat as the rest left, and you stayed with her. You remember that it was fifteen minutes before she spoke. "Every night I dream of history. I dream of an ocean of blood, and a solitary hand rising out of it, reaching up to grasp the stars."
"I'm sorry," one of you said.
"For what? That is majesty. When the hand ceases to strive and disappears beneath the surface, or never rises at all: that is the nightmare."
You never went to a theater again, though the others still did. You don't know if it is because it reminds you of your last day before you were sent to the Island, or because it reminds you of her dream.
"The bloodline has run out," you say, turning your thoughts away from her. "The last of the astronomers died two months ago."
This is Elymas the sorcerer. Elymas of Shinegrove House. Elymas, who held the strings of the greatest city in the world in one hand and a stave in the other. This is the man that he is, that his tattooed face is as impassive as it ever was. He betrays nothing (and you hope that you do the same). But then, he has had a long time to conclude that there was no hope left for the city. This only confirms what he must have long suspected.
"Then we may at least take satisfaction in that no prince's bloodline will be reared in the humiliation of captivity," Elymas says. "At least we have that."
You shake his head. "There will be no raid. Damocles is not waiting for that. Not anymore."
"What do you mean?"
You do not know how long you have left. Days? Hours? Minutes? "They are preparing a bomb. We were building a monument to Man, but great will be the fall of it, and Damocles will leave it a testament to our ruin."
If Damocles sought only to kill the city's populace, he would only have to wait a little longer. Pestilence and starvation have already destroyed the people. But after the bomb is sent, nothing will grow here for generations, as barren as the desert of your childhood. It will be a black patch on every map for centuries. The name of Babylon will survive through the ages, not as a glory but rather as a warning. It will survive not in their dreams but in their nightmares.
"When did this happen?"
"As soon as Damocles learned that the last astronomer had died." Two months ago.
His face is unreadable, but you are sure that you know what he is thinking. When he finally speaks, you are proven correct. "Did you betray us?" He could be asking about the price of pomelos in Mecca, going only by his tone. A dull sports game, by his expression.
"Never," you tell him, but the conviction in your voice is as false as a noble-woman's smile. It is horrible, you think, when even you don't know what it is that you've done. "I only serve her dream," you continue. Here your words develop the steel of truth, and when Elymas hears them his hand ceases to reach for the knives concealed beneath his coat. You do not know what he thinks of your first statement, but you know that he is interpreting it in light of the truth of your second.
"Elymas," you finally say. "I need to talk with you." It's hard to speak, hard to think, and you try to throw yourself into it sideways so that you can't stop yourself. It needs to be done. This is why you came to him. "About Zeno." Forming the sounds of her name is the hardest thing that you've done since the blockade came. But you do not know how long you have left. Days? Hours? Minutes?
"I saw you dance with each other," Elymas says. His eyes are fixed on yours, but the light in them is distant and his expression is like a dead man's. "I know." And he doesn't, he doesn't, he needs to listen but how can he listen when you can't speak?
Are these the words that some wizened sage will write, generations hence, that Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and become the habitation of pale, cold wretches that sit and sup while the night draws nigh?
You can't let it end unfinished like this. "No. No," you say, and you try to find the words. You try to understand it yourself, try to express what you can only vaguely grasp.
Babylon the great is fallen, you think- is fallen, and become the hold of pestilence, and a cage of dead men that were too defiant to save it at the cost of their pride.
But can one last good thing be performed before it is all over? If only.
You turn your head and look through the window. Outside. The sun is setting.
Finally, you find the words.
You open your mouth.
The bomb drops, and the night has come, wherein there are no words that can be said.
"I can imagine no man who will look with more horror on the End than a conscientious revolutionary who has, in a sense sincerely, been justifying cruelties and injustices inflicted on millions of his contemporaries by the benefits which he hopes to confer on future generations: generations who, as one terrible moment now reveals to him, were never going to exist. Then he will see the massacres, the faked trials, the deportations, to be all ineffaceably real, an essential part, his part, in the drama that has just ended: while the future Utopia had never been anything but a fantasy." - C. S. Lewis, The World's Last Night
Notes for this story