There they were. Large as life. Two of them sitting at a table. Two of them playing their indescribable game. Couldn’t quite see it. Never could. Maybe I was too far away, or maybe my mortal mind just couldn’t comprehend it except in bits and pieces. The game seemed to work with dice and pieces and cards and other things, but I couldn’t tell. It was all too big. Too big.
They were like gods, sitting at their dark table in their darkened room. I’m not usually one for thoughts like that. Too much poetry in it for me. Gods and dreams and visions. But even so, that dark room could have been the universe. Yes, in fact, I think it was. A dark universe. A universe that was ended. There they sat amidst the emptiness that used to be filled with stars and worlds and light. There they sat and played their game of time.
The god on the left lifted a hand and made some move. I couldn’t see what it was, but the other god scowled a bit, resting his head on one fist...
...and then I awoke.
The morning was grey beneath blankets of snow-filled cloud. I shrugged on a coat and stepped out into the snow. I was five minutes early leaving. No rush. The car idled in the drive, gushing steam from the tailpipe. I tasted mint—the last hint of my toothpaste. It was all so normal, so ordinary. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was all just waiting for something to happen. Just waiting. God, what a night.
A night…it had started with the dream. Weird, weird dream. I don’t usually remember dreams. In fact, I never do—not since I was a kid, at least. But this one felt real. Way too real. It made me shiver. I had awakened in a sweat before my alarm went off. Hadn’t been able to go back to sleep. That was odd too. Upset my routines. I like my routines.
All the same, the feeling wouldn’t go away. Something was going to happen. I only wished I knew what, so I could be done with it.
Muddy half-slush made little banks on either side of the road as I drove on towards work. It had snowed steadily since last evening, and the fresh coat was still white on the sidewalks and lawns, but the streets were a mess. It was always like that. Normal. I shrugged and flipped radio stations as I sped through the pale grey morning. The frosty pattern on the car windows was almost gone when I came to the four-way stop.
Another car pulled up at the same time across the way, and I knew what was going to happen. We sat there for a long moment. I hate four-way stops. Always have. No one knows how to handle them.
Finally I waved at the other driver. Go ahead. Your turn, I thought. The car moved ahead, straight, and I hit the gas. The guy wasn’t turning anyway. We hadn’t even needed to stop. I caught a glimpse of his face as we passed each other. It was familiar, even through the fog-shrouded windshield. Huh, where had I seen that face before?
The sound of a horn blast drove that thought from my mind in an instant, and the shock that followed was so sudden that I could hardly comprehend what was happening. A car. Another car.
Tires shrieked on the ice and the asphalt. It had come from the left, sideswiping the vehicle beside me and clipping the corner of my vehicle. I was flung right, right, right, hard. Couldn’t see, it was all a blur. The breath left me with the second impact, and the crash was deafening and full of glass.
Stars flew across my vision...and the pain...and cold, windy blackness...
And stars. Stars. Dead, black stars.
And it was the vision again, except now I was no watcher. I was on the table, and the two gods looked on as I careened across their board.
Wind whistled in my ears, and there was terror in my throat, and a single thought flashed through my mind in a blaze of despair. This is the end, I thought. The end. The end.
It was real. So real...I had no choice but to believe it. Because I was the piece, the die, rolling across the vastness beneath the gaze of impassive eyes. Flung headlong, helpless. The moment stretched, and I found for a moment that I could think. Questions rose, but I had no answers. Not yet. The ‘something’ had happened, and it was bad, and I could not stop it. The end. It was the end.
Was that it, then? All just a game? Chance or determined, it didn’t matter. Was I really just a die cast into the world, spinning and rolling until I came to rest and the game moved on? I had never really thought it through. Never really cared, I guess.
But then a voice inside me said no. No, you’re not just a piece on a board. Move!
The moment passed, and the vision veered around me. I was sick, but I had grasped upon a truth. Something solid, and all of a sudden I found the strength, the will. I tucked, and drew my limbs together amidst the whirling, sickening backdrop. The dark, dead, empty universe...
...and my feet hit the ground hard. Hard, but steady, and I was standing. The shock ran up though my legs, and I held still for a moment, balancing myself until my stomach began to settle.
Then I sat down slowly, feeling the cold surface beneath me. Yes, my actions were still my own. A streak of triumph and relief coursed through me. It was over. For an instant I thought I understood how it worked. It was strange, disconcerting, and yet comforting at the same time.
The hand was dealt, yes, and the die was cast.
But I fell where I chose, and I was responsible for the choosing.
At last I raised my eyes to look upon the gods who played their games. My vision cleared at last...
...but there was only clear sky above, littered with a few flakes of snow, and my breath steaming in a cloud as I staggered suddenly up and away from the smoking wreckage, and felt the life pumping, pounding in my veins.
Dreams. Visions. Not the end, no. Not the end. Your turn. Your turn!
The Chrematistic Mr. Robert Doles
The chrematistic Mr. Robert Doles, of 42 Elmer Boulevard, had ensconced upon Mr. James Delaney’s couch with a weary sigh and shut his eyes. Forty winks could be hard to come by when a busy gentleman such as Mr. Doles had so much work to do. Wealth did not earn itself, after all; Delaney could attest to that.
The lamp beside the couch cast a halo across the lying gentleman’s face. Delaney watched him closely.
At length, Doles’s gray mustache twitched. “Delaney,” he said without opening his eyes, “I’m afraid my time is coming.”
The methodical manner in which he uttered his doomsday was neither surprising nor expected; perhaps the proper emotion, the one whose name now hid under Delaney’s tongue, was somewhere betwixt the two. He had known Doles was sickly — his friend’s pallid hue was proof enough — but to the point of death?
“Now, let’s not rush to conclusions,” he began, but Doles interrupted him with an upraised hand.
“Alas, how short time is upon this Earth...”
“I — I have never before heard you act like this.”
“That’s because I wasn’t at death’s door then!” He sat up with sudden energy; a button on his stretched waistcoat strained against its bindings. Only now did Delaney notice the bleak light in his friend’s eyes, one that perfectly complimented the morose yet hasty fashion in which Doles had entered sans preamble.
Those same eyes darted about Delaney’s ascetic living room frantically. Delaney himself waited on the chair opposite the couch and before the television. When Doles calmed, he would speak.
Doles did speak. “You are my only true confidant, James.”
“That must not be true. The many workers under your employ—”
“The many workers under my employ do nothing but work. Perhaps I am an empty name to them, a level to which they must aspire.” He paused. “I don’t like that thought,” he decided aloud, and proceeded to think of something different.
Again Delaney was quiet. Doles was a good deal older, perhaps seven and thirty years — such a chrematistic gentleman as himself needed time to accumulate his fortune, after all — and yet, of the two, Delaney was the quieter and more patient. Sometimes he wondered if, rather than become senile, Doles was attempting to fit the remainder of his life into his every waking hour; it would certainly explain his perpetually hassled expression and his constant glances to his golden pocket-watch.
When Doles again spoke, his gray mustache seemed to pale with his skin. “The doctors say I have a single month.”
“What is your condition? Surely you require watch even in your own home?”
“You assume I am not watched.”
“How, then, did you come to my door in such haste without retinue?”
He pursed his lips. “I must profess I have... escaped their clutches for the time being. My financial advisor believes this matter should be kept secret.”
“And yet,” said Delaney with deliberation, “you have come to me.”
“Yes! Because I want you to take my company.”
Perhaps the ramifications of the statement were so massive, Delaney didn’t notice them right away. He was about to say yes — for who could refuse such an offer at first glance? — but he quickly sobered.
“I’m... not sure if I can, to be frank.”
Doles’s question was sharp, and Delaney’s reply was more so.
“Because I don’t have the time. I have a family: a wife and three children. You know this. I became a lawyer so I could spend more time with them.”
“And yet you would hesitate to allow an old man to pass on his earnings to someone worthy? — someone I cantrust?”
“No. I mean yes.”
Doles sighed again and closed his eyes. For another long period of time, silence fell upon the Delaney family’s living room.
Three minutes and twenty-seven seconds passed before Doles stood.
“I have business to attend to, then,” he said smartly. “Do reconsider my offer, but until then I shall prepare to negotiate another deal.”
Delaney saw off Mr. Doles with a wave and a forlorn smile that only appeared on his face as an afterthought. He would think about Doles’s deal, yes, think about it at length and from all sides; but accept? — no.
He ensconced upon the couch where Doles had just vacated its leather and sighed just as the chrematistic gentleman had.
The question of Prudence
I fell through my imprudence, yet I fell in the name of prudence.
Yet, even in that so flawed meter, I find a starkly clear flaw. For in what fool’s imagination has my race ever been prudent?
But, I counter as I have often countered; a person is not defined by his race, for how can one substance be defined by those similar to it? Those arguments are logical, but there are many counters, and many counters to the counters. I tired swiftly of such debates, rage as they do within them. What is in me, I can control, unlike most people.
I am different. I am a Makuta.
Such a name means much to many, in both good ways and bad ways, but I choose to see it in the good form. We are a race with a destiny high and lofty. Pride and austere is our mentality, as it must be for us to fully life out our duty.
Perhaps then I fell through my lack of destiny, not my lack of prudence? But no, it cannot be. Prudence is a universal value, as binding as right and wrong. Destiny is just… Destiny, it is not of me. And what is not of a Makuta, he vows to keep it from being a part of him. For to allow other things within ones soul is a shattering potential.
But Destiny is only the cover to the real problem, the problem of prudence.
I did not think of it when we came together, nor when things got worse and worse between our two leaders. This of itself proves to my mind, as denying as it may be, that I fell not out of prudence, for a prudent person is always prudent, not just when he is at the test.
Some still would say I fell through prudence; I weighed loyalty against survival, friendship against disgrace. In choosing the second, I lost both.
Prudence is often thought of being very, very careful. It is. I was not careful, so I fell.
Did I fall because I sided with Miserix, which caused my fall? I hold that not, although others might. For prudence as I understand it is being careful in the actual, not in the personal, although the personal relates and is affected by the actual, or the universal.
To be sure, siding unto the end with my leader may have not made much, but on the universal level, it would mean something, for myself, y province, my brotherhood, and the species I represented.
But no. When those burning eyes rested on mine, I did not step forwards, staff in hand to give battle; I only looked down, I only surrendered. Personally prudent, I thought, for it ensured my current safety. But imprudent on the long term and the universal.
I have fought a long fight by my imprudence, yet I survive it. I do not think Destiny wished this for me, or else Destiny is some strange demon. Either way, it is not of me, and it shall not be. My destiny is erased, I have turned my face away from it.
Prudence and duty, sternness and kindness. Those must together be wound into one law for Destiny to lose its grip, for my kind and all kinds to survive on their own, undirected by slavish forces.
Prudence though, it all lies in prudence.
The man in the top hat slid his cards down onto the table. "Three kings."
Across from him, his companion cursed and threw his cards down. "That's forty-seven thousand, three hundred and ninety-two to twenty-two thousand, six hundred and eight then." The man in the top hat nodded and took a puff of the pipe that never went out. His companion sighed. "Well, perhaps we could try a different game next time."
"Sure," the man in the top hat agreed. "Shall it be one of the ones where three kings loses or one of the ones where three kings wins?"
His companion grunted and picked up the bottle on the table, morosely taking a swig. "Surprise me. It's about the only thing that changes around here." He took another swig. "That's the issue, you know – permanence. It's all so bloody permanent."
Top Hat shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "Maybe so. But look at it this way – at least we haven't got anything to worry about."
His companion took another drought from the bottle. "And we haven't got anything to look forward to either. God, if I had a brain it'd drive me mad." Another swig. "What do you think we got painted for, anyways? What possessed Paul to say, 'I think what the art world really needs is a lugubrious pair of cardsharps playing three kings to a four-card straight for the rest of eternity?'"
Top Hat shrugged again. "Perhaps he thought we'd fetch a good price."
Another grunt. "The chrematistic approach, then. Bloody wonderful." Yet another swig. "Hope he got a good price for us. God, where do you think we even are? Some rich snob's basement? Back corner of a pawn shop?"
Top Hat drew from the pipe again. "Oh come now, you've got to give us more credit than that. Look at your brushwork – that's got to get us in a gallery, at least."
"Oh, bloody great. A gallery. 'Cause what we really need is some bunch of curators putting us in one of those glass cases that you can't even get air into so's our paint never wears out. Permanence, I'm telling you."
Top Hat tipped his hat and leaned back in the chair. "You know, you haven't got the half of it there."
His companion glared daggers at him. "Whatd'ya mean?"
"I mean that those curators could take us out into the street and throw us into the river, and we'd be around as much as ever. All it takes is one little print or copy. Or maybe by now they've figured out to make copies that can't get torn up or worn out."
"How'dyou figure that?"
"I don't know, but it's possible. It's been, what, a hundred-forty-odd years?" His companion grunted affirmation. "But anyways, that's hardly the really important bit. Fact is, soon as someone even takes a glance at us, that's it, there's another one of us floating around in their head."
His companion moaned. "Gods. You trying to make me depressed over here?"
Top Hat leaned forward and shrugged one more time. "Just a thought. Anyways," he picked up the cards, "where were we?"
His companion put the bottle down and picked up his cards as well. "Forty-seven thousand, three hundred and ninety-two to twenty-two thousand, six hundred and eight."
"Right, let's have another go at it."