Tithonus wiped the blade of his sword and looked at the body lying at his feet. The head lay a little way off in the dust, staring at him with glassy accusing eyes. Killing was a messy business.
‘Get rid of it,’ he said to the two guards who were still standing in the entrance to his tent. ‘And get me some more water.’
The guards shambled out, slightly downcast after the excitement of their session with the Traveller. For their taste, Tithonus should have kept him alive a little longer. They might have got something out of him eventually, and even if they had failed, it would have been fun trying. That was why they’d spent the first two days in this camp constructing the cage. They were expecting spies to come from the city, and a dead spy was of no use to anyone.
Tithonus knew otherwise. This dead spy had come bearing gifts, and while torturing him did give him a certain tingle of satisfaction, had also been a little scared of this man. He had an aura about him, something Tithonus recognised as a serious challenge to his authority. The execution was fuelled partly by his having no further use for the Traveller, and partly to ensure that the balance of power did not get too out of kilter.
Tithonus watched the guards for a moment as one dragged the headless corpse towards the edge of the camp and the other carried the head by the hair. A trail of blood started at the execution point and followed them into the dusty morning, growing fainter with each step. The strange picture the Traveller had been carrying caught in the breeze and turned over, hiding the girl’s face. He bent to pick it up, curious and disturbed by the astonishing realism the artist had achieved in this scrap of paper. He touched her face and wondered.
He felt eyes burning into him. Not the eyes of the picture; not the dead glazed eyes of the head that was even now being swallowed by the dust kicked up by the guards. Other eyes; penetrating eyes. The eyes of an animal studying him, sizing him up. Lying in wait like a wolf.
He turned, but there was nothing there. He was alone, but his spine tingled none the less. He pushed his sword back into the scabbard but did not release his white grip on the handle.
Tithonus pushed back into the tent and dropped onto his stool behind the table. He sat and considered the book in front of him. This twenty-first day of Dhu l-Qu’da was a significant day, of that he was sure. Quite how significant, he had no way of knowing yet. He had no way of reading the script in this book, but he had time. He could find someone who could read it.
He flicked the cover of the book open with the tip of his knife and leaned forward. He thought there were probably three, maybe four words on the front page, but these were different to anything he had seen before. They were not the beautiful cursive lines of his own language (though to him, even those meant nothing: the written word was as cryptic to him as the patterns on the face of the moon). The words here were formed of straight, hard lines. He had a notion that these had not been made by any human hand. Even amongst their best copyists, he knew no one could ever produce such fine, even text as this. He touched the words and felt a tingle of power run up his arm.
‘Just what did you bring me, my friend? What was so important that you were prepared to die for it?’
* * *
His servant appeared in the doorway with a flask of water.
‘I’m going out for a while,’ Tithonus said. ‘I’ll be back by sunset.’
He had no intention of being back by sunset. He had no intention of ever setting foot in this god-forsaken camp again. Whatever this book contained, he could feel it in his bones that this was his passport to a journey that would take a good deal longer than one day. Whoever this Traveller was, he had come a long way and been prepared to pay a very high price to deliver this book, and no one did that unless it was important. The man was a martyr. And, now he thought of it, it was Tithonus himself who had been chosen to martyr him.
He allowed himself a moment’s pause to reflect with pride that he had been so blessed (and, of course, that he had been ready for the challenge when he had been called upon). After a lifetime of stumbling blindly around in the filth and pointlessness of army life his foot had been guided to a step. A step that would take him higher, out of this drudgery to who knew where. Somewhere he belonged.
He took the book in one hand and the flask of water in the other and strode out of the tent. He would go on to the capital. They would know he was an enemy agent of course, but they would not kill him with what he was carrying. He was switching sides, sort of. He was moving over to the only side that counted now: his own.
He tucked the book in to the horse’s saddle bag and swung his leg over. With a final look back at the camp he kicked his steed and they disappeared in a cloud of dust towards the western horizon.
He rode all that morning, through scrub and forest, across the marshes and on towards the capital. He turned south before reaching the mountains and made his way through the foothill villages until he came to the wide open tract of nameless land that bordered the city. This was his point of no return. In less than half an hour he would cross the river and be into enemy territory.
He urged his horse forward. He never looked back at the old life he was leaving. He rode hard and fast through the barren lands that one day would be known by a new name. And that name would be Exdis.
The soldiers in the capital did indeed know who he was, and almost before he had dismounted his horse on the far side of the river, he was captured and marched before the garrison commander. His protestations that he had defected, that he carried with him a book of great political and military power were ignored. Since he could not read the book (and nor could anyone else in the military outpost on the edge of the city), and since he had no idea whatever of its content his captors took no chances. Any more than Tithonus had taken any chances with the Traveller.
They marched him to a tiny stone cell near the city walls and slammed the door while they considered their next move. Tithonus was philosophical enough to realise that he should have expected as much. It even swelled his pride a little that these thugs had thought him sufficiently dangerous and threatening that they had put him straight in gaol. What irked him slightly was that they considered his gift to be of so little worth that they had not even bothered to confiscate it.
Tithonus spent the next six days on bread and water in a gloomy and rat-infested cell with only his precious book for company. No one visited him; no one spoke to him. Even his food was delivered without comment. The only sign that life was being lived outside his four stone walls was the daily executions in the centre of the prison courtyard.
By the light of the window high in the cell’s far wall, he studied the book as well as any man can who knows nothing of the printed word.
He knew the Traveller was not from these lands. He could scarcely imagine quite where this Godless man had come from, but from what little he knew of the wider world he assumed he was a Westerner. (He knew that in the West they had the peculiar habit of reading from the left to the right. His first attempt at examining the book had determined that the title was inside what he himself would have considered the back cover of the book, ergo, the book and the man who had brought it were from the West.)
From flicking through what must have been close to a thousand pages of dense text interspersed with a few diagrams, he knew that whatever this book discussed, it was doing it at length. It could not be a story (no one would have sacrificed his life for a fiction), and the Western mind was so backward and ignorant when it came to science that it could not possibly be a treatise of any learned nature. And yet it was supremely valuable.There was only one possible explanation.
This was the word of…
He slammed the book shut. He dared not even think it. It was an obscenity.
But then again… what else could it be?
During his first two days in prison a plan took root in his mind. It sprouted from a tiny, indistinct seed. By dawn on day two it was growing strongly. As the sun went down twelve hours later his plan was in full bloom, and he could almost taste the sweet fruits it would bear if he tended it well. He had been chosen by a Higher Power, and inspired.
The only flaw in his plan was that his captors might wish to cheat him of his divine inheritance. He had thought the worst thing they could do would be to execute him as a fraud, but now, as he lay sleepless in the hot darkness of that second night, a new fear gripped him. They might actually believe him. And if they did, they might steal his book and present themselves as the chosen ones.
He would need to buy himself a little insurance against such an evil eventuality.
He set to work on a brick in the corner of his cell. After two days of scratching and digging he managed to loosen it and pull it free. By removing the mortar from its rear face he made a small but very useful hiding place.
In the dying light of his fifth day in prison, he carefully leafed through the pages from the back until he came to what appeared to be a section break.
Most books save their most important material for the end. As in life, the real action is usually in the final act.
Despite his deep misgivings about destroying what he now firmly believed was a Divine Text, he reasoned he had been given Special Permission to do it, so he was still acting according The Plan.
Carefully he tore the final dozen or so pages out. He spent considerable time ensuring that the tear was clean so that the place where the pages should have been was not obvious under a casual examination. He folded the pages (which seemed to be made of some very thin material not at all like the vellum he had seen locally) and tucked them into the recess in the wall.
Then he waited, smug in the knowledge that he was far from beaten yet.
On the sixth day they came for him. He staggered out into the light of the courtyard, blinded for a minute by the sunshine after the perpetual gloom of his cell. They marched him past the execution block and into the commander’s room in the administration block.
The interrogation did not take long. The commander examined the book in much the way Tithonus had when the Traveller had first arrived in his tent. He flicked through the pages, clearly unable to read a word (unable to even appreciate that it ran from left to right) and dismissed it as a feeble subterfuge that existed only for the purpose of getting Tithonus into the city. With a shake of his head, he snapped the book closed and threw it back to Tithonus.
The commander saw no value in the book, and none in his prisoner either. Tithonus managed to convince him that he had indeed defected from the enemy, and that to send him back would be to condemn him to certain death. It was a risky move, but as long as he was still breathing, he felt sure that the Guiding Hand would not let him down.
And It didn’t. Much to his surprise the commander agreed that condemning Tithonus to death simply because he had seen through the propaganda of his own military machine would be inhumane, so he was allowed to go free. Provided he did not attempt to leave the city for any reason whatever for a period of one year, he could live as a free man within its confines. After that year, if he proved himself to be a worthy citizen, he would be granted leave to live how and where he pleased.
‘May I beg one more favour?’ Tithonus said as his interrogator closed the book – metaphorically – on the case.
‘What?’ the commander said.
‘Could I return to my cell?’
Tithonus had to think quickly. He could not admit he had left part of the book in his secret hiding place or he would undo all the advantage he had negotiated in the interrogation. If the commander knew he had being holding anything back, he would certainly not be considered the innocent he portrayed himself as being.
‘So I can make my bid for freedom from the place of my incarceration,’ Tithonus said. ‘My cell has been my home for a week now, and I would like to start my journey as a free man from there.’
‘I see no point. In any case, it is not your cell now. Another man is there. We could find you another cell if you wish, but be assured you would not be leaving it again. The choice is yours.’
‘I see your point,’ Tithonus said. ‘I’ll leave from here.’
All was not lost. He knew where the pages were, and he was sure that no one else would find them. Why would anyone look? The cracks around the brick were well disguised, and in any case, it would never occur to the new inhabitant that there was anything worth searching for. He would bide his time and once he had proved himself a ‘worthy citizen’, would return and collect what was his.
He was escorted into the city and dumped near the port. With the little money he had he found himself lodgings and settled down to plan the next chapter of his marvellously charmed life story.
As the year rolled on, Tithonus lived a quietly and unobtrusively as a stevedore in the port, ostensibly minding his own business so as not to attract unwanted attention.
Beneath this calm and anonymous exterior, however, Tithonus was busy. He watched and learned, he put out enquiring feelers so delicate they were almost undetectable. He needed help with the next stage of his plan, and he had to make sure that help came from a very discreet source.
Abir was discreet. Tithonus chose him precisely because his name had never once been mentioned as he made his enquiries around the docks and industrial areas of the capital. He discovered Abir quite by chance through a mutual acquaintance; one who had mentioned a little of each man to the other and gradually brought the two together. Abir was as discreet in his daily life as Tithonus himself. It was just fortunate for them both that the whore who served them both was as indiscreet as she was cheap.
Tithonus found his man deep in the back streets, hidden in a bizarre and sordid world entirely of his own making. Lodged in a garret room populated by ship rats, skinks and an endlessly evolving harem of multi-national professional ladies, Abir was exactly what Tithonus had been looking for. He was at least half mad, but he was educated and had contacts. He also thirsted for knowledge with a passion matched only by Tithonus’s thirst for power. They proved a good match.
Between them they began slowly, slowly to unpick the secrets of the book. Initially Abir worked in Hebrew, but later changed to Arabic, partly because Tithonus did not entirely trust Abir to tell him everything he was reading, and partly because Arabic was far richer in the kind of scientific terms required to render the book accurately. Even so, there were many words which did not translate, and it quickly became apparent that in the long-term, English would have to be the language of choice for the dissemination of the Great Secret.
Around them they started to gather a group of like-minded individuals. This band of intellectuals, bounty-hunters and loners, madmen, politicians and renegades, some of whom were native English-speakers, gradually assembled the book into a usable form, and were stunned by the contents.
If this was not the word of God – or at least a god – then it certainly came close. It was, as the Traveller had told Tithonus, the key to building a whole new world. This world may have come about on its own given a few hundred years to evolve, but the Great Secret bypassed all the blind alleys of discovery and experiment and ignored all the pitfalls that technology inevitably drove before it on its unstoppable bow-wave of progress. And it levelled mankind, not to the lowest common denominator of poverty and squalor, but to a life of peace and plenty. It left no room for tribalism, nationalism, race or fractured religious jealousies. It could re-make Man in God’s own image.
Tithonus, as the self-appointed head of this little band and a man with an increasingly serious God delusion of his own, turned his good fortune into good business.
He sought out scholars, scientists and power-players, and told them little bits of the Great Secret. He was generous. Like the best snake-oil salesmen, he gave away just enough to entice his audience, and sold the rest at what seemed like a rock-bottom price. However, scaled up across the vastness of the sales that he anticipated, his wealth would be almost infinite.
For the year of his probation, he lived an exemplary life. He paid his taxes, on time and without question; he reported to the city authorities weekly and he gave generously to local charities. When his year was up he was not only declared a worthy citizen, but was voted almost unanimously the new mayor of the city. As a free man he built himself a palace, married (he lost count of how many times) and surrounded himself with the finest things in life.
He had positioned himself exactly where he wanted to be. From here he could spread his influence worldwide.
For a while he forgot about his little prison cell, out there among the walls and the poverty of the borderlands. He forgot that the book was not quite complete.
For a while, but not for ever. Someone had been watching Tithonus, and this someone liked what he was seeing.
It was the night of the second of Jumaada al-awal (Tithonus was having trouble thinking of it as February 11th, though the change of calender was starting to take hold); a little less than a year and a half after the Traveller had brought him this most generous gift. He lay in bed in his glorious palace by the sea. He was well fed, well serviced by his newest and favourite wife (fourteen years old and frisky as a spring lamb) and wealthy beyond the imagination of the soldier he had once been.
He slept. He dreamed smug dreams of how clever he had been, of how God had loved him so much that he had made him the most powerful man on earth (or at least, was in the process of doing so).
Something woke him. The clock outside struck the quarter hour. The very faintest of dawn light was beginning to show through the windows, and what it showed chilled Tithonus to the bone.
Sitting in the window seat, facing the bed, was a figure. It might have been the effect of the five o’clock light, or maybe just the sleep from which Tithonus had been dragged, but the figure seemed darker than the blackest night, a silhouette of purest nothingness.
As Tithonus drew breath to speak, he heard the pages of a book turn. There were many partial copies of his book (he still thought of it as his book), but he knew in his heart that this was not a copy. The figure in the window was reading from the original, the one that was locked in Tithonus’s vault; a vault that was impenetrable to any living soul but himself.
‘What are you reading?’ Tithonus said, more for the sake of something to break the awful silence that filled the room than because he needed an answer.
The figure shifted slightly.
‘The story of your life,’ it said. ‘The future.’ The voice was still and calm, so low that Tithonus fancied that the words had scarcely been spoken aloud at all. That the man – or whatever he was – had replied made Tithonus bolder.
‘That’s mine,’ he said. ‘The future is mine.’
‘Nay, not so,’ the figure replied. ‘This book is not complete.’
Tithonus breathed a small but definite sigh of relief. This is what he had planned for. His bargaining chip was finally coming into its own.
‘That is true. But I can get the rest. I know where it is.’
‘Then get it.’ The figure shifted again and two tiny, deep red eyes looked directly at him. ‘And the future can be ours.’
‘Ours? Why should I wish to share it?’
‘Because I can grant you dominion over all mankind. The wealth and power you enjoy now will be as nothing to what I can give you. You will answer to no one but me.’
‘No one but you?’
‘No one on earth.’
Tithonus sat up. This was going well, he thought.
‘I can grant you eternal life, if that is your wish.’
‘In exchange for the final chapter of the book? What does it contain that you are so keen to have it?’
‘Time. It contains the secret of time itself. With it, I can rule for ever; past, present and every possible future. With you at my right hand, Tithonus.’
There was a slight but very definite movement from the figure at the window. Tithonus fancied he had run his hand through his hair, though in the darkness he could see neither hand nor hair to be sure. But there had been a movement. The man was lying. Tithonus had interrogated enough prisoners to know everyone had a tell – a tick, flinch or awkward movement that gave away what their words did not. This apparition, capable of materialising in his chamber in the dead of night, capable (he said) of granting almost limitless power, was holding something back. Was that because what he withheld was even more powerful, or was he perhaps a little afraid? Afraid of what? Something in the book itself, or something Tithonus could become with whatever that last secret was? He did not know, but the possibilities made him tingle.
Tithonus was being lied to, and he needed to buy himself a little breathing space to figure out exactly what about.
‘I may need some time of my own,’ he said. ‘I know where the chapter is, but it may take me a few days to get it.’
‘That is of no matter to me. I will give you all the time in the world. Bring me the Words. Deliver them to no one else. Remember, you answer only to me.’
‘Very well. In three days I will have them here, at this time.’
‘Beware, Tithonus. Do not cross me. For a Traveller will come…’
‘But he has already been – he brought the Great Secret to me!’
‘I say again, nay not so. For time comes in waves and spirals, cascaded into forms your mortal mind could not conceive. He will come and he will undo everything you have achieved so far, and everything you ever could achieve, unless we work together to stop him. Deliver me the Words before the prophesy can be fulfilled, and the world is yours.’
With that, the figure vanished. The first light of dawn crept into the room, but it was a dull light; it was a light tainted by a faint but unmistakable tinge of yellow fog.
Now too charged with excitement to sleep, Tithonus sprang from his bed and ran to the stables. He saddled his horse and rode off towards the edge of the city.
This was just too easy. He thought of all the trouble that book had brought him when he first arrived in the city, and how easy it was going to be to pay back those unbelievers now. Just one chapter; maybe a dozen pages, a few thousand words, and the world would be his. As he rode through the deserted streets he congratulated himself on his astonishing fore-sight. If he had kept the book intact, this opportunity would never have been presented. It was only because he had had the intelligence and guile to keep just this little bit back that he was now destined to sit at the right hand of… of who, exactly?
Did it matter? In those dark minutes of early morning, he had been touched by a slight doubt. A doubt sufficient to make him request three days to retrieve the missing chapter. It would barely take him three hours, but he needed time to think. If one person
was prepared to grant him eternal life for these few pages, maybe someone else
could be made to offer an even better deal.
He doubted it, but these things were not to be rushed. So for now did it matter who exactly the stranger was?
He arrived at the prison and pulled his horse to a stop. The compound was abandoned.
He tied his horse and walked through the courtyard that used to serve as the execution square for the gaol. He remembered this place all too well; the smell of blood drifting through the tiny window in his cell, the third from the end on the left; the pathetic screaming pleas of the condemned men echoing around the walls as he dug and dug and dug at the last brick in the corner of his cell.
He pushed the door open and looked in. When he had first stood on this threshold he had to admit there was a very real doubt in his mind that he would ever come out again, and if he did, it would probably only be for the short walk to the centre of the courtyard… to the point where these people would do to him exactly what he had done to the previous owner of the book.
The second and last time he had stood here it was as a discredited fraud, too cowardly and meaningless even to be worth executing.
But now he was back. He was a just a few short steps from fulfilling his destiny.
He stepped into the darkness and took the short walk to the back of his old cell. There, down near the floor was ‘his’ brick. He knelt in the dust and felt around its edges. The tiny finger hole at its bottom edge was not there. He sat back, struggling to see in the gloom. This was his cell, of that he was sure. The tiny window with its single bent iron bar, the counting-lines someone had scratched in the back of the door. And this was his brick. It was the smallest one, right down here in the corner of the cell where it would not attract attention.
He felt around it again. It must have been repointed, that was all. Someone trying to tidy the cell up for its next inhabitant.
He could get no purchase on the new mortar, so he strode back to his horse to retrieve his sword. It was a shame to dull the tip of this fine piece of craftsmanship, but with what he would dig up with it he could buy all the swords in the world (and probably all the gold in the world to decorate them with, too).
Back on his knees in the dirt of his old cell, he chipped at the mortar. Gradually he cut it away until he had loosened the brick sufficiently to get his fingers to work on it.
He pried the brick out and felt into the familiar space behind it.
There was no paper, not even the rotten remains of paper.
Tithonus rocked back on his heels and thought. His heart was beating too fast, his breathing was too laboured in this familiar old hell-hole. He needed to think.
OK, so there’s no paper. But there’s no sign that it’s simply rotted away either, which means someone must have taken it. And if someone took it, it must still exist (probably). All I need to do is find whoever took it and get it back…
Tithonus spent much of the next three days searching for that little bundle of papers. He found the commander of the prison, who led him to the gang-master who had overseen the repairs, who led him to the father of the man who had wielded the cement, who led him to the grave of his son, killed in a skirmish on the borders just two months after he had joined the army proper.
He tracked the family; he tracked the other members of the work-gang; he trailed far and wide over the city and its surrounding settlements until his horse went lame and he went near insane in his growing panic to meet his visitor’s deadline.
In the end he had to think of another plan. The paper was out there, somewhere, but he was not going to be able to find it. Not yet.
And so he retired to bed on that third day and waited.
On the stroke of five-fifteen the apparition appeared once more in the window seat of Tithonus’s room. Immediately, Tithonus was filled with a great dread. He had rehearsed his lines, cooked his excuses slow and tender as supplications to this master, but all at once his resolve crumbled.
‘Do you have it?’ the figure asked.
‘Master, no. Not yet. I have not been able to locate it.’
‘But we made a deal, Tithonus. You were to bring me the Words.’
‘I can, I can. I just need time.’
‘I have time – in a manner of speaking, of course,’ the figure said. ‘I have waited a long while for this, and the wait is of no importance to me. But you must find the Great Secret before the Prophesy is fulfilled.’
‘Do you know when that will be?’ Tithonus asked.
‘That is in the hands of another. But you must stop it, or the consequences will be beyond your powers of imagination. Can you do that, Tithonus?’
‘Of course. But what of me; what of our deal while I seek what you require?’
‘You will go on as you are. Spread the word as you have been doing. Make it available to every man on earth. Encourage them to use it, to develop it, and you will grow rich. Share all but the final Chapter. That is only for me. Even you must never have it translated or attempt to read it. If you do, Hell itself will be a refuge denied to your immortal soul. Do you agree to my terms?’
‘I do. But tell me one thing: with whom am I making this deal?’
‘You ask me who I am?’
‘Just a name to remember you by, to conjure with and savour while I do your work.’
The figure looked Tithonus in the face, burning into him with his small red eyes. He pronounced a word, little more than a croaking sigh, that chilled the room. It was as if some great force had sucked all the heat from the room in a single breath. Ice spread like fungus across walls and ceiling, etching sparkling threads across the dark paint. Crystals grew so fast that they cascaded from the ceiling under their own unexpected weight, turning and dancing in the pale dawn light.
And still the temperature dropped.
Tithonus was dully aware of a burning in his chest, but he could not tear his wide, terrified eyes from the motionless figure at his window.
Suddenly the jug of water by the bed exploded with the sound of a bomb as its water solidified, and the huge ugly mass of ice that burst forth continued to grow and spread across his night-stand. The air crackled, plaster shattered from the walls and the glass of the lights groaned in the cold.
The pressure began to drop as the temperature fell so low that even the air was stilled. The moisture in the wood of Tithonus’s bed froze and the legs exploded, dumping the terrified man on the floor in a heap of blankets. He tried to sit up but his chest burned so badly now that he was powerless to move.
As the air began to condense into meandering streams on the walls and ceiling Tithonus’s breath was sucked from his aching lungs. His eyes bulged, his ears popped, but still his flesh burned.
The fire burned so bright and hot that it seemed to be coming from within, drawn by the intense cold of the room. He tore at his clothes, ripping them from his body and casting them aside. Already they were in flames. He could not see them, for the flames were black, but he felt their heat scorch his fingers. Fingers that were now turning puffy and purple from the cold.
Then as suddenly as the chill had come, it dispersed. Warmth flooded the room, water cascaded from the ceiling and dew erupted across the surface of Tithonus’s bed.
The window was empty.
Tithonus looked down at his chest and saw five angry red marks. As his flesh smoked and bubbled he could not make out what these brands were, but he would have time for that.
He would have all the time in the world for that.