Monday, June 6, 2011

Chapter One: A Savior

“All that is gold does not glitter. Not all those who wander are lost.”
~J.R.R. Tolkien
A lone figure walked slowly down the poorly lit sidewalk in a run-down neighborhood, dead to the world. Even at this relatively early evening hour, there wasn’t another soul in sight. His path led him to a small doorway crammed in an alley between two spartan buildings, both wanting for tenants. He looked up at the neon-lettered sign hanging over the battered door.
“The Lower Depths,” it read.
He shook his head. “Just like her,” to no one in particular.
He checked the note:
Gabriel, darling, I really need to talk to you.
If you have the time, there’s a club in Alexandria called ‘The Lower Depths.’
I’ll be there at 8:00 PM on the 11th. PLEASE don’t be late!
Love, Luci
He opened the door, revealing a narrow staircase leading down below street level. Apparently, this place was renting several basements, spanning under the vacant buildings that flanked the door.
Just like her.” He chuckled quietly to himself as he started down the stairs.
At the bottom sat a man on a stool, reading a magazine with the picture of an attractive, scantily clad female on the cover - the club’s bouncer, no doubt, a large man.
“Do I need a password?” he asked the bouncer sarcastically.
“No, man, just don’t step out of line or I’ll have to…” The bouncer’s words trailed off as he finally looked up from his literature, getting a glimpse at the night’s first “comedian.”
His eyes opened wider, his mouth agape at mid-sentence. The man before him seemed impossibly huge. If he’d later been asked to describe the fellow, he would have blurted out “Seven feet tall, four-hundred pounds!” without the slightest sense of exaggeration, even though there was no way such a man could have managed the narrow stairway so gracefully. The man before him positively radiated strength, effortlessly projecting an aura of raw power. He stood before the bouncer casually, wearing what looked like the world’s most sincerely friendly smile on his face, without any posturing or presumption, but there was no doubt in the bouncer’s mind that he was looking at an immovable object, capable of projecting an irresistible force.
“Have to what?” The hulking customer asked pleasantly, his smile seeming to broaden.
“Um… Politely and respectfully ask you to... leave… uh… Sir,” the bouncer replied meekly.
Gabriel exploded in genuinely friendly laughter that seemed to echo even in this confined space. “Fear not, friend,” he placed his hand on the bouncer’s shoulder, which had an immediately calming effect on the man. “I wouldn’t think of causing any trouble tonight.” He flashed his smile again, before opening the door to his right, at the bottom of the stairs. The bouncer just nodded to him as he went through.
Inside, it was poorly lit and smelled of old tobacco and dampness. No music played. Gabriel scanned her surroundings. There weren’t many people there this night: A young man at the bar, looking as if he was in mourning; an old man several seats down from him who already seemed to have one foot in the grave; at tables scattered around the dank room, several patrons busily working toward various states of unconsciousness; the lone waitress and the bartender. Finally he saw her.
She was hard to miss. An almost unearthly beauty, she seemed to bring both light and life to this otherwise mortally depressing venue. She had immediately noticed he had entered. He stood out every bit as starkly as she against the drab and dreary backdrop. She waved excitedly, beckoning him over. He slowly made his way towards her table in the back corner.
“It’s good to see you again, darling.” She smiled at him, her smoky eyes flashing seductively. “What kept you?”
“Business,” he smirked. She knew full well “what kept him.” Scarce, indeed, were the moments when he wasn’t busy. He was always willing to make time for her, though. To her credit, she never abused this privilege.
“I’m sorry.” She said, flashing her eyes again at him. “And I am glad to see you. So, what do you think of the place?”
“Do you want me to be honest or tactful?” He pulled up a chair, sat down across from her as he spoke.
“Oh… tactful, darling.”
“Calling it a ‘dump’ would be an insult to excrement. It has all the mirth of a mass grave, and the lingering stench of the slowest genocide in human history is so palpable as to almost make me gag.”
“Very tactful, darling. I suppose you’d rather we just meet in that dusty old church again.”
“That was the Sistine Chapel!”
“So it was a very old, dusty old church.”
Gabriel smiled at a thought. “Why not the ‘Naughty Hellfire Club’ again? A bunch of old men in wigs, debating politics and philosophy - that was certainly a wild time!”
She couldn’t repress a somewhat embarrassed grin. “I’ll have to admit that wasn’t quite as lively as I’d hoped it would be.” Gabriel roared with laughter, and, more reserved, she joined in. “At least you still remember how to laugh." She paused for a moment, falling, as the laughter died away, into a more businesslike tone. “Tell me, darling: is your judgment still the same? Do you still feel the same way?”
His eyes seemed to darken at the question. “That they should all be destroyed? Yes.” There seemed no room for negotiation in his tone.
“And you couldn’t be persuaded to… oh, I don’t know… try out a savior?”
He sighed. “Again?” She nodded slightly. Was this really why she’d asked him here? “Luci, how many times are we going to do this? We’ve done it… How many has it been?”
“Who’s this ‘we’? ’We’ have always done things your way. There never seems to be much ‘me’ in that ‘we.’”
“And you know why.” His eyes pierced her as he spoke.
“Yes, I know.” She sighed. “But there’s always been a flaw in the way you went about it. You just… don’t understand them the way I do. And so your saviors are always doomed to failure.”
“Is that so?”
“They have failed.”
“Not necessarily because of me.”
Luci cocked her head slightly, beamed a bemused look and exaggerated frown, as if she thought he was being unnecessarily obtuse. Perhaps waiting for permission to continue.
“All right,” he softened, then, sounding genuinely curious, “why was it, then, that you think they failed?”
“They failed because you don’t understand them. Mortals, I mean. It’s no fault of yours of course. It’s just that you are so far above them, things like the differences between the weak and the strong among them are lost on you.”
He smirked at this. “And these subtle differences are not lost on you?”
“I’m just closer to them than you are, that’s all. I’ve spent more time among them.” She paused. “They are terribly interesting to me.”
“Is that why you wish to save them so badly?” A hint of suspicion in his look and tone.
“Partly yes. It’s not that I would have them spared at all costs, only that they be given a truly fair test.”
“Ten thousand years of existence in their present form? Roughly four thousand years of civilization? Countless saviors already sent forth to lead them?”
“Saviors who lacked resources and power and were given the message to take to the rich and powerful that they should give up their money and power! Did you really think that would ever work? Think of the last few: The Prince?”
“Fair enough… After he gave up his wealth and power, too few took him seriously enough, and his message barely spread beyond his homeland.”
“The Prophet?”
Gabriel sighed. “He worked out well enough. Until he died, anyway. Then his sons squabbled amongst themselves, each trying to make his message their own.”
“And..." She paused, "the Nazarene?”
At this mention Gabriel’s face grew darker still, remembering the crucifixion that one had received for his efforts. “Yes. I remember. But don’t you see? The failure of these saviors, these prophets, was not their own, but rather a failure on the part of humanity to accept what they had to say. That is the measure on which they’re being judged.”
“Yes, they are weak. But they are mortal. They can’t see the truths that are so obvious to you and I, any more than you, in all your power and wisdom, could truly appreciate the challenges facing them in their short lives! All I'm proposing is one final test… something that would at least satisfy my own doubts, even if yours are already settled. I’m not even asking you to postpone your judgment; unless, of course, you see something in them that may give you pause. In which case…”
“You know there’s not much time left, even by their standards… Just two years.”
“And forty-nine days, I know. A tall task, especially as it means changing your mind at this late point. This is why I want to properly equip them; to make sure they will have what they need to make success even a remote possibility.”
Gabriel barely suppressed a laugh. He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking, but he couldn’t wait to hear it. “Okay, so what… gift would you bestow upon them?” He asked with a smirk.
“Well… three gifts actually. First…” she took a deep breath, as if expecting the next part to be received badly, “a Tablet.”
Gabriel appeared stunned for the first time in the very long time they had known one another. He seemed, for a moment, genuinely at a loss for words. Then he found some. “Have you lost your fucking mind?”
“I certainly hope not.”
“A Tablet?! You propose giving these greedy, bigoted, warmongering mortals the power of a God?”
She laughed. “Oh my word, no!”
The obvious next question crept into Gabriel’s look of incredulity.
“Darling… All of the higher functions would be locked out. Protected. They would have power only over the fate of other, individual mortals, and would be limited to a single usage of such power over each. Nothing more than that.” Her tone suggested she was proposing nothing more than lending someone a small sum of money, or one’s car for the weekend.
“That’s still a lot. How, exactly, would the higher functions be protected?”
“A password.”
“Passwords can be cracked.”
“Not this one.” She smiled at him slyly.
“Oh? And why is that?”
“It’s a portion of the Last Word.”
Gabriel leaned back in his chair, his demeanor calming significantly. He thought for a moment. “How big a portion of it?”
“Enough to kill any mortal who figured it out.”
He nodded. “Yes, that would make it secure.”
“Far more secure than the one you gave to a mortal.”
He didn’t say anything for a while, just sat and looked at her. Finally, perhaps overcome by curiosity, “Let’s say I find that acceptable,” with a weary look that suggested he was far, indeed, from that conclusion. “What would you give them next?”
“Actually, darling, the next gift would come from you.”
“Oh it would, would it? And what would that be?”
“The Tears.”
All of them?”
“The whole vial, yes. The tablet would give the subject of this exercise the power to end life, and alter it, but not extend it. This would give him that ability, and the responsibility that went with it.”
“You know full well it would go far beyond merely extending it. Why is it important that they would be granted this, of all things?”
She sighed. “Because you fault them for not being able to see and plan in the long term. The long term from your point of view. But they live for less than a century. And they are only truly productive for half that time. Ten generations of their family will live and die, in what you would still consider the short-term. If you want them or their leaders to care, in the least, about what would be rational in the long-term, they must be given at least some chance of a long-term prospect! A leader who knew they were going to be around in a thousand years would be far more careful about the long-term consequences of his choices and in their maintenance than one who would be dead in less than twenty.”
“I will remind you, once again, it is precisely because of this ‘self-interest’” Gabriel spat the phrase as if it was poison, “this… lack of caring about anything other than themselves and their own short-sighted desires that they are being judged...”
“But this is also a force that can be used, that they can…” she trailed off, realizing she had interrupted him. “I spoke out of turn. I’m sorry.”
“You are forgiven.” He paused. “Still, I can see the reasoning behind what you’re proposing.” He leaned forward. “Your tablet. My tears. And the third…?”
“The third gift would be… whatever they wanted.”
“What?” Gabriel clearly did not expect this. “Uh… Why?”
“It’s a test, really. To make sure I’ve chosen the right one. If, given the gifts I have already proposed, he is foolish or careless enough to ask for something like money, we can end this before we even begin. If the chosen has so little vision? Then fine: You win. And my last doubt will be satisfied. Send the Comet - I won’t say another word.”
He stared at her, almost through her, as he considered her proposal. “I don’t know. It’s a lot to ask…”
“I’m aware of that.”
“…and there is much being risked.”
“Oh, come on! What’s really being risked here? They’re all going to be dead in just over two years anyway! What more harm could they possibly do? In the big picture, what does it really matter? Worst case? There will be no doubt - in anyone’s mind - that your judgment is correct.”
“And who doubts me now?” He asked, raising an eyebrow, a challenge.
She took another deep breath and, in what was probably the most confident tone she could muster under his powerful gaze and spiritual authority, “I do. If that’s important to you.”
He leaned back again, seemed to give that a thought, then a short sort of snort. “You’re right - what can it possibly hurt, at this point?” He sat up. “I don’t think it has much of a chance, but for old time’s sake, we’ll do this one more time. Do you already have someone in mind, or are we supposed to just pick someone at random?”
Luci seemed barely able to contain her excitement, but she managed to maintain the playfully seductive tone she had earlier. “Oh, darling, you know I never do anything randomly. Why do think I brought you here, of all places, tonight, of all nights?”
“He’s here, then?”
“Um-hmm.” She nodded. “You noticed him earlier, when you came in. He’s sitting just over there, at the bar.”

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