Tumbleweed rolled across my feet. I followed it with great concentration, perhaps hanging on to one of the last tangible objects I could see in existence. Except, of course, “me” and the gaggle of suited ‘corporate looking’ individuals conversing somewhere in the foreground. Foreground. I noted how redundant this term now seemed: with no reference points available in the expansive plateaux of grey, blue and milk white, I couldn’t tell if they were ten metres or ten miles away. I looked to the sky in order to distract myself and was relieved to see the blue expanse still watching over. To my left I could make out the weak outline of the moon. At least something survived I noted with little enthusiasm.
There are moments, one presumes, in your life, where divine mandate appears to call upon you to confront, or act in, a trying situation – and this, I feared, was mine. Quite what I was expected to do I could scarcely imagine. And, as though my exasperation had rubbed up – three times – against a lamp called ‘predicament’, something brushed against my leg, sending a yelp up my throat and causing my heart to momentarily neglect its duties.
“I’m sure you have many questions, but we must be brief,” Nora snapped.
“Questions? No, I’m fully aware how normal and not tossing mental this all is.”
“What have I told you about sarcasm?”
“Well it’s a pity you didn’t mention bodiless voices, metamorphic boulevards and, oh, my role in Earthly genocide!” There was a long contemplative pause, and the silence was deafening. Perhaps Nora was attempting to figure out if I was being sarcastic again. I didn’t really know myself. It was a pity. That’s true enough; but-
“-If I could interrupt your pedantic inner monologue…I shall explain what you need to know.”
“If telepathy is in your skill set, I’m going to have-
“-kittens. Yes, quite.” My mouth agape, Nora strolled past, her swagger pronounced. She was apparently gearing up for a lecture.
“Yes that is you,” indicating the figure in the foreground, “that’s first. And the besuited crowd are…your…employers.”
“Great, what job am I in for?
“The destruction of existence.”
In the wake of the last few hours, I was becoming increasingly bad at hiding my feelings: something I am normally obscenely good at and, on reflection, a skill they would later require me suppress. As such, my face tomatoed and I unleashed a verbal fury, unheard of in my lifetime, at the diminutive figure of a cat. I am not proud. I have paraphrased to avoid ‘posthumous’ offense:
“Dear Sir/ Madam; I must say I am most miffed at the standard of informative services I am currently in receipt of. I would appreciate it if you could point me in the direction of some answers regarding: my presence in this place; my presence over there with the well dressed people; my apparent talent for making things disappear at the blink of an eye; the identity and present intentions of the aforementioned ‘besuited’ crowd; and, finally, what it is I am to do next.”
Nora didn’t flinch, despite the fluorescent display of my rather colourful language. The same familiar purr ensued; Nora was considering a response so evenly balanced it would not capsize the boat carrying my incredulity.
“Before answering your questions I feel I must impress upon you one very important fact: this isn’t about you. This has never been about you. It just so happens that you are inextricably linked with the thing that this is, actually, about. Does that make sense?” All sarcasm aside, I communicated, through a constipated stare, that I was coming round to the fact that, perhaps, something larger was happening here, and that I happened to be at the eye of the storm. Nora, who had delivered this last statement with her back to me, looked on at the gaggle in the distance, her tail gliding from side to side in a controlled movement befitting a conductor commanding pianissimo.
“You are here by virtue of a time vortex or wormhole – whichever you prefer – through which you have travelled not forwards, nor backwards, but something closer to ‘sideways’ in ‘time’. Your other self, consorting with ‘your employers’ and, indeed, carrying out the order of Earthly genocide, has also come to be here via a similar mode, though quite how they achieved it we do not know-”
“The ones who brought you here.”
“And they are?”
“Rather what than who…”
“Can I please get one straight answer from you? Just one.”
At this, Nora turned to face me, head ever so slightly tilted as though scrutinizing a particularly ‘contemporary’ piece of art. Folding her hind legs and sitting on her curled up tail, Nora looked up to the sky and held the pose until my own head caught up.
The sky, previously of a light shade of blue, with wisps of white cloud and the pale outline of the moon, was now a cavernous black hole, staccatoed with glistening pearls.
“There is a war brewing – a war that has laid dormant for many a millennia – one that will, if not averted, consume world after world until galaxies fall like dominos into a manmade black hole. We are the last defense-
“We – you keep saying we – who is we?”
“An ancient order of protectors; beings who’ve sworn their lives to maintaining the balance and preserving the integrity of the universe.”
“And what are you protecting?” Nora held my stare. It seemed as though she had stopped breathing altogether, such was the magnitude of the decision to tell me any more than I already knew. With a sigh, she laboriously returned her gaze to the gaping night’s sky; “them.” The pearls in the sky appeared to visibly dull – much as the luminosity of day had begun to systematically decline some hours earlier, as all the world crumbled around me. Nora resumed her narrative:
“Long ago, when the universe was – relatively speaking – ‘young’, and all the worlds were prospering under the auspices of an abundance of worldly luxuries – light, life, warmth, fuel, love; planetary sustenance of all manner – everything was perfect: the universe was perfect. Harmony bounded across galaxies and planets like a crashing tidal wave. The beacons of this unmitigated joy; the source and moderator of a shared euphoria that consumed planet after planet, galaxy upon galaxy, were the Stars. Each Star is a spring of life, emitting the essences of prosperity and goodness. And they shared their gift willingly – it made them happy.”
“It made them happy?” I interrupted, throat dry like a desert on account of my gawping disbelief.
“Does it seem unreasonable to you that the source of all life should itself be of the living?” retorted Nora, with a calmness betraying the practiced recitation of a long awaited speech. It did not seem unreasonable, I thought; nor did it seem unreasonable that her question was rhetorical.
“My theory – and it is a theory because to confirm it would bestow upon me far too great a power for me to handle – is that in being endowed with life, and the force of life, we live to sustain it; we move, breathe and communicate in order to justify the gift of life. It is lent to us; we do not own it nor do we control it. We are but avatars of celebration – or were – a playground and play-people that the Stars once delighted in serving: the mortal offspring of immortal beings.”
“Now…we have grown too big for our boots. I have said that we are protectors of the Stars; sworn guardians of life as we know it; and life as we are afforded it. I meant this literally. Many years ago, greedy and zealous beings tried to take from the Stars what they selflessly bestowed upon us: the power of life. The results were cataclysmic: in their blind fanaticism, they were unable to see that any attacks on a Star would severely affect the balances and forces at play that maintained the harmonies of our universe. Plants would quite literally disintegrate, or drift off into the far reaches of the universe. And those were the lucky ones. We fought them gallantly, and in the end won out. But this came to the detriment of any respectable relationship we – beings – could salvage with the Stars. The apron strings were cut. We were left to fend for ourselves, as the Stars went into aeons of hibernation – a sleep they are still ‘enjoying’ – and any direct line to our parents (for lack of a better word) has been, we believe, severed for eternity.”
By this point, it is fair to say, I had moved beyond paralysing disbelief; it was all so absurd that it seemed to me altogether logical. Like a line of flight that has such a tiny curving gradient to it that, at the furthest point from its origin, it is actually approaching the completion of a circle. And the completion of the circle was thus:
“That is, of course, until we found you.” Nora’s eyes pierced my own with a glint of bidding that swept through my gut like a fluttering butterfly.