The Curse of Eternity

Chalk Outline 2by C.J. Henderson

 

“Here’s the Easter Rabbit, hurray…”

The woman’s attention drifted fractionally toward the television, caught by the same animation that had played endlessly everywhere for the past eleven days. Instantly she refocused on the two men in front of her.

“I hope,” one said to the other, “you know what you’re gettin’ into here.”

The policeman said the words with an earnest growl, his eyes and entire face filled with the fact that with his sentence he was paying all debts and cutting all ties. The woman could tell he was neither angry nor resentful. Two things did radiate from him, however. The fact he was afraid of something, and the just dawning notion in the back of his mind that he did not understand what it was exactly that he feared.

“Bringing Easter cheer, today…”

Which, of course, scared him more than anything else.

“I think I do, Carter,” answered the other man. His name was Michael Malone. It was the byline that ran on his column, the one name in all of New York City everyone trusted. “I won’t stay more than five minutes. He doesn’t have to answer a single thing. We just want to ask.”

The sergeant said nothing. He didn’t understand, couldn’t see the gain in Malone’s request, and didn’t care to. He knew why he was there. Malone didn’t matter.

Carefully and quickly, the policeman moved through the gray, back corridors of the city hospital, leading the reporter and the woman in black to their destination. The woman, controlling her breathing as they moved forward, held a dark shawl around her head, over her shoulders, across her cheeks—all of her self shadowed off from the world except for a few fractions of skin showing around the frames of her darkened glasses.

Control, she thought. Control.

Her name was Lai Wan. She was not one to leave her home, to travel any distances whatever, unless it was absolutely necessary. She was not one to look strangers directly in the eye, either. Ultimately, most people preferred she keep it that way. They had their reasons.

The woman was a psychometrist. Years earlier a fatal accident had left her dead for a handful of time. Revived on the operating table, she came back to the tangible world to find herself afflicted with strange new abilities. She could read people’s thoughts by making the briefest contact, know their feelings and emotions simply by standing in the same room. As for inanimate objects, she could read their history after but the slightest touch.

She learned of that particular ability first, waking from her surgery with the pain of each and every one of her bed’s former occupants raging through her system. The cancerous and the insane, amputees, burn victims—those crushed by automobiles, dying of gunshot wounds, bowels afire with gangrene—vivid memories of shattered bones, polluted and ruptured organs, broken and torn skin, gushing blood and failing breath and the terrible, numbing realization that the end was near—the fear, the screaming, spine-melting fear…

Soon she could feel all the patients within the building—their wounds, their terror… all of it suddenly hers, flooding in—unstoppable, real and tangible and overpoweringly terrible. The doctors never did understand how she could keep screaming even after they applied their anesthetics.

“We’re almost there,” announced the cop tersely. “Have your questions ready. You will definitely be on the clock, Malone.”

It took the woman years to learn to deal with her unasked-for abilities. Hiding from the world, staying within her own domain, handling only her own things, slowly she built shields between herself and the rest of the universe. Now, she could walk down a street freely, capable of stopping the onslaught of memories jammed into every ancient footprint.

Like a person hiking through a garbage dump, holding their nose against the smell, the psychometrist kept tight her mind’s armor against the hospital’s history. Before her, Malone nodded to the policeman. Glancing over his shoulder, he winked at Lai Wan.

“You ready?” he asked, knowing the answer.

Ready to cash your check, she thought sharply. Ready to leave this pit of suffering, ready to…

Breaking off thoughts that could lead to a drop in her control, in her maintenance of the flood gates holding back the swirling eddies of suffering just beyond her too-sensitive nerves, she held her tongue and merely nodded.

Malone smiled, misinterpreting her response. Too young, really, for the position of monumental trust he held, the reporter had been drifting for some time on his previous record. Barely past thirty, he was an actualization of the dream image the modern media held of itself. Tall, handsome, with a full head of raven black hair, squared shoulders and a welter-weight’s form, he was an honest man in a dishonest world, the truthful mirror into which no one wanted to peer.

In the beginning he had stormed the city’s press establishment with a series of whistle-blowing stories that had shocked the nation and catapulted him to international fame. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mike Malone was a square shooter. For a while, his unique approach had invigorated and refreshed. For a while.

It did not take long, however, before those in power, those who spent their days keeping their spines pressed up against dark secrets, severed all connections that might possibly join them to the reporter. His sources of information evaporated as those whose sleep was disturbed nightly by the scratching of bony fingers added more and more locks to their closets. Cranks and whistle-blowers kept him in tips, of course, handing him wedges with which he could pry open new scandals, but his world had grown far more difficult to navigate. No one wanted to answer his calls. His expense account could not induce anyone to lunch—even those with nothing to hide could not afford to be seen with him.

What if someone saw me with him, they would think. What would people say?

Guilt by association was a crime few were willing to risk in the case of Mr. Michael Malone.

“Hell,” his boss had said with sympathy, predicting what would happen early on. “Don’t sweat it. It’s the new millennium. Even the innocent are guilty of something.”

No one blamed Malone. But still, the reporter’s stories had slowly become less sensational. His skill with words had not diminished, but with his reach so considerably shortened, his incorruptible, unreasonable honesty had killed his career. Less than three years in the business, and he had been elevated to grand old man status—honored for his past work, curbed and fettered to keep him from exposing any more of the darkness. Neutered at the top of his game; finished off for daring to actually do his job.

“This is the hallway,” said Carter. “I’m going to scout ahead. Everything should be arranged, but I’m not taking chances. You two wait here.”

Malone nodded again. He kept his smile in check, sucked back the flowing saliva, eagerness churning his nerves. Being a has-been was over for the reporter.

“Here we go,” he whispered, day-dreaming of his eminent return to stardom. “Time to meet Easter Boy.”

Easter Boy, the trite designation the press had united behind to label a miracle. The appellation applied to one Kenneth Rabe, or more specifically, to his condition. On the surface, his was not that amazing a situation for, what had everyone speculating and whispering and making demands was merely the fact that he was alive. Of course, what did justify their reactions was that not that long before his being reported alive, he had been most assuredly dead.

The known facts: on Friday the 12th, the eminent scientist Mr. Kenneth Rabe had been struck by a truck that jumped the curb outside his apartment building. It was a terrible accident, but clearly an accident. The driver had suffered a heart attack and was dead himself before his forty odd tons of steel had crushed Rabe between metal and brick.

And crushed he had been. Ribs destroyed, internal organs pulped. Neck broken, a minimum of four quarts of blood lost at the scene alone, the world conceded that there simply was no hope for the venerable Mr. Rabe. And that was a pity, for he had been very close to cracking one of the principal defenses of the essential heart of all viruses. The cure for the common cold, if you will, but also, because of how it might have worked fundamentally, it would have also been the cure for everything.

That was the speculation, anyway, of the best minds in the world behind Rabe’s, those who all moved up a notch because his genius had been stolen. That Friday night and all day Saturday, the media whipped itself into its usual, predictably choreographed frenzy—just another of the ink and video public bemoanments to be followed by one of those great emotional outpourings that shattered the world’s aura from time to time.

Mass communication was a terrible burden to people like Lai Wan. Her soul felt the effects in the ether of the world the way anyone else’s skin would feel the rays of the sun. Moments that riveted the attention of the masses around the world, or merely in large areas, sent shock waves outward that humanity could not even recognize. But they often felt their effects.

How many tornadoes, she wondered casually—abstractly—have the world’s fools caused by focusing their ghoulish attention on how often tornadoes hit trailer parks? The murderous comedy of the intelligentsia…

“Hey,” asked Malone, catching a hint of the actual span between himself and the psychometrist in her eyes, “you still with us?”

“I am here, Michael,” she assured him, gesturing about her. “Just keeping my distance.”

“Yelp-yep, okay, you just looked pretty far away.”

“I was,” she told him honestly. “I was remembering the death of an English whore. She was able to pretend to be what the unthinking masses wanted her to be up to and including her tragic death. The weeks of deadening grief, as the world’s fools slobbered over her pathetic demise…”

The psychometrist flashed through the memory of the princess’s death, and of the moronic outpour that filled the world afterward. The dark things that fed on irony feasted like pigs at an ever-deepening troth. She had not so much as opened a window for two months. But, she wondered, how to explain such things to the reporter.

“What I mean,” she whispered, “is that when some great mass of the world audience latches onto the same fascination,” wondering if he could comprehend, “their collective joy or dread or anger or sorrow, or whatever, sends out waves of subconscious energy which shatter time and space,” if she should bother. “Perceptions change, doorways close, dimensions shift.”

“Yeaaaaah?” Malone moved his jaw to one side, trying to fathom what the psychometrist meant. “And it’s what—painful for you?”

“Not in a sense you could understand,” she answered. “It is more repugnance, it is the rot of the human spirit putrefying the air…”

When the psychometrist stopped herself, Malone’s mood altered. With hesitation nagging his words, he asked, “So is this going to throw you off? Is it something that could effect tonight?”

Lai Wan could feel Malone’s fright and growing confusion, and yet there was excitement in the reporter as well. His eagerness merely to be in the presence of such a mystery as Kenneth Rabe practically glowed in a shimmer across his skin. With a sigh, the psychometrist tried to explain once more.

“What you ask is difficult to answer. Understand, if everyone in a room thinks about one person in the room at the same time, that person will feel it. If an entertainer appears before an enthusiastic crowd the cheering energizes them to the point where they can perform endlessly. When everyone in the world starts focusing their attention on something, it releases force into the physical fibers of reality. There can be no predicting of the effects, because we do not know what is to be learned tonight. If we learn something that will make the world happy—that is what will result. If we learn something else…”

The psychometrist gave up trying to explain. She was no expert herself. There were no experts on such things. Taking a deep breath, she told the reporter;

“There is nothing else I can tell you. Suffice it to say that your Mr. Rabe could be a very dangerous man.”

It took Malone a moment to make the connection. If what Lai Wan were saying was true, then the media’s hyping of Rabe’s secret could be setting these waves off already. And as the reporter, and everyone else in the known world, knew, Rabe certainly did have a secret.

For, dead on Friday, crushed to death in the afternoon, he was on Sunday morning, risen from the grave. Spotted alive, he tried to flee those who, by the merest of chance, happened to blunder into him in the middle of nowhere. Recognizing him from the endless television noise about the terrible loss of his death, the small party decided he had to be restrained for his own good. Seeming tired and weary, Rabe had not resisted.

Easter Boy. It was one of the most vulgar press nomen yet. And soon, Malone would be given access to him. And Lai Wan would enter the room with him. And whether Rabe talked to him or not, lied or not, it would not matter. Lai Wan would know the truth. Just be being there. And thus he would know. And then the world.

“Let’s go.”

An in-motion Carter had returned. Raising his eyebrows to the reporter he turned again, walking away at a fast clip. Malone and Lai Wan followed. They reached Rabe’s room in a matter of seconds. The patrolman stopped at the entrance, pursed his lips, took a breath, then opened the door and entered. Malone’s head turned slightly from side to side, his eyes darting to make certain they were not being observed. Lai Wan entered behind him, quite aware that no eyes were on them, but that many were aware of their arrival.

“Mr. Rabe,” said Malone quickly, not wanting to waste a second of his time. “Just a few brief questions. You don’t have to answer anything, defend yourself, nothing. I just wanted to ask…”

Lai Wan focused her attention on the scientist. He was tired looking, drawn and worn out. Her connection to him separated by several feet, still, he was standing on the same floor she was, breathing the same confined block of air. Already her nerves were tingling. He was Kenneth Rabe. He had been dead, smashed to a pulp. And yet, here he was again. But, this was not like her return from beyond. This was something… different. Frightfully different.

Carter stepped toward the small wheeled table near the foot of the bed, fumbling at his belt. Malone moved further into the room, still explaining herself. Lai Wan shut her eyes, maximizing her concentration.

“All I really want to ask, sir, is… how can you be alive? You didn’t survive that crash, you were dead on the street. You were hurried to a hospital, but…”

Carter stepped away from the table, blocking the others’ view of it. No one paid him any real attention. As, of course, he had known they would not. That nagging realization entered Lai Wan’s mind.

He is thinking about the fact we are not aware of his actions, she realized. What actions? Why?

“You were as dead as they come…”

Rabe turned away from Malone, his weariness apparent. His back to the newsman, he spoke in a dull and languid voice.

“I’m sorry to have brought you here, Malone, but I needed a witness.”

“Excuse me…”

“In the first century BC, Publilius Syrus, a Roman writer, said, ‘better to be ignorant of a matter than half know it.’”

“I’m not certain I understand, sir.”

Ignoring the newsman, Rabe reached toward the table. Malone went back to his questions, talking quickly, priming the scientist’s mind to think about those things he wanted the psychometrist to hear.

“Sir, how can you be alive now? Can you tell us what happened?”

Brushing his arm, Lai Wan felt Rabe’s thoughts on those questions as they involuntarily flooded his brain. What she learned surprised her, sent her attention away from her mind and back to her eyes, darting from Rabe to Carter, to Rabe’s hand, lifting the gun, pulling the trigger…

* *** *

It was more than three days before Malone and Lai Wan were finally able to contact one another once more. Angry, confused and somewhat frightened, Malone was more than willing to start the conversation rolling.

“All right, what the hell happened that night? Where did you go? How’d you do it, disappear on me, I mean, and why? You left me there, to take, I mean, by myself, with all… what the hell happened?”

“Calm yourself, Mr. Malone,” cautioned the psychometrist. “You are in my home. I do not need you spilling random emotions into my belongings. If I did not intend to tell you what happened, you would never have heard from me again.”

“But…”

“Please sit. Pour yourself some tea. Be calm.”

Lai Wan waited for the newsman to do as she instructed. Her servant, seeing his mistress was in no danger, obeyed her subtle hand signal and removed himself to the kitchen. As Malone sipped at his tea, the psychometrist gave him his answer.

“I did not disappear,” she told him. “I absenced myself. Pulling inward, I focused my attention only on my internal being. I was in plain sight the entire time, I simply removed myself from notice. Everyone that arrived focused on the main scene—you and the bodies—it was enough to allow me to remove myself.”

“But Rabe, shooting himself, and Carter, grabbing the gun from his hand, shooting himself—why? What was it all about?”

“Officer Carter had been instructed to supply Mr. Rabe with his pistol. Mr. Rabe knew what to do with it. Carter then turned the gun on himself because he had already agreed to do so, vast monies supplied to his family, indiscretions forgotten, something along those lines.” Lai Wan took a breath, giving Malone a last moment of bliss, then went on.

“Truth be told,” she said, “I agreed with their motives.”

The newsman held the small tea cup steadily before his face, but his mouth sealed into a thin, drawn line. His eyes narrowed as well, his concentration fixed on Lai Wan. The attention prickled her flesh, like the snapping jaws of a cloud of beetles. Ignoring it, understanding it, she continued.

“Mr. Rabe, as we all know, was on the verge of delivering unto the world a medical discovery that would have changed the human race forever. What we all did not know, however, was who his financial backers were. Tell me, Mr. Malone, have you ever heard of ‘the Nameless,’ ‘the Fifty Kings,’ or perhaps, ‘the Bilderbergs?’”

“I know some stories, all variations on a theme—they’re groups of powerful businessmen and political and religious rulers and the like who pull all of humanity’s strings from behind the scenes. But they’re just a myth…”

“So are many things. A group that fits the description were Mr. Rabe’s employers. What I got from his mind is this—Rabe’s work was not almost complete. It was finished. He had simply decided not to let anyone know.”

“But, but…” incomprehension swept out of Malone in waves. His disbelief struck against the woman’s body with such force she involuntarily raised her arms to shield herself.

“Please, just listen,” she gasped. “Mr. Rabe had reached a moral dilemma. This group he worked for is split along two lines, those who pull strings for their own amusement and profit and those who feel they are the protectors of mankind. Mr. Rabe worked chiefly for the latter. The former group was all for his work, though, so there were no problems. If he found his cure, everyone would live longer, work longer, generate more capital, keep the ball rolling… fun for everyone.”

Malone listened, not knowing where to begin asking questions. The psychometrist spoke in rapid, short breathes, trying her best to not give him the chance to speak.

“His chief employers were less enthusiastic. Think on it for a moment. Yes, wonderful, a cure for everything is discovered. Rabe, he was quite certain, had stumbled across the essential building blocks of life and death. If he was correct, aging itself would have been stopped. Ironically, outside of accidents such as the one which killed the scientist himself, no one would have died ever again.”

Malone knew Lai Wan was no sideshow charlatan. Knew her powers were genuine. Trusting anything she might say, his mind reeled at the possibilities she was unleashing.

“Can you imagine such a world, Mr. Malone? Immortality, for everyone. No senility, no death to speak of. Six billion immortals, capable of creating six billion more in a few years. And more after that. Countless billions, roaming the streets through a thousand life times, looking for purpose, struggling to find amusement. Think of those on the bottom of society, still needing to work for a living, waiting tables, forever. Delivering the mail or selling movie tickets or picking up garbage—forever? Performing the same rote, mindless tasks for eternity. Can you picture the hopelessness, the madness, the mass suicides… how long do you think it would be before humanity would burn itself out in frustration and anger as it finally realized as a group what only the philosophers have been able to perceive…”

“But why kill himself,” Malone snapped, leaning forward across the small table before him.

“Because his first attempt did not succeed.”

The newsman leaned back in his chair. He set his tea cup down on the low table before his shin absently, struggling to understand. Taking pity on him, as she had since those seconds before Rabe had re-ended his life, Lai Wan spoke again.

“To put it simply, Mr. Rabe’s employers agreed with him. His potential discovery could not be revealed. It was not the right time. What would have seemed the salvation of mankind would have turned into its downfall. So, since he was a public figure, they engineered a very public end to his life. Their partners, however, the other half of the equation, did not agree. Getting hold of his remains quickly, before all function had fled his brain, they were able to transfer his thoughts and memories into another vessel, a clone, as it were.”

“What? They just happened to have… a clone… of Rabe,” Malone sneered. “A clone?”

“I cannot prove this to you, of course,” answered Lai Wan. “I cannot prove anything I tell you, nor will I attempt to try. I can merely advise you as to what it is I read from our subject’s mind. This is what he believed. This is all I can tell you.”

“What do you take me for,” growled Malone. Contempt boiling below the surface of his consciousness, it cast about for a willing ally. Latching onto his frustration, the pair shut down the reporter’s ability to think, thrusting his greed forth to do his talking. “Am I supposed to be a fool? Clones? All-powerful illuminati running a shadow kingdom, immortality—who are you trying to fuck with here?!”

“Mr. Malone…”

The reporter swept her words aside. His freshly rebuilt world crumbling, he lashed out, rising from his seat, slivers of anger blasting outward from his body, he snarled;

“You bitch, are you trying to ruin me!?”

“At the age of ten,” the psychometrist snapped, hurling an image from Malone’s into his face, “you were in your bedroom, masturbating. Your mother walked in. You cried, she screamed, there was a small dog, dancing about under everyone’s feet, when you ejaculated it splattered against your mother’s leg. The dog began licking—”

“Shut up!”

Malone fell back to the couch, curling his body, his fists slamming against his ears, his knees almost touching his chin.

“Mr. Rabe’s story is not anything I wished to know, either,” Lai Wan said to the reporter in a whisper warm with forgiveness. “But I allowed your payment and my own curiosity to overwhelm my judgment. Now I know the entire story, as I know all stories. Do you want to hear more?”

“Let me guess,” answered Malone weakly. Dragging himself into a sitting position, he said, “The capitalists of the group, they have clones for all their important people. They, they put Rabe back in a body because, because it was just good business. They wanted their profits, didn’t care what effect living forever might have on those who didn’t have anything to do right now. Let them all kill themselves, let God sort them out. Something like that?”

Lai Wan nodded. Malone did not notice. Reaching back for his tea, he drained the cup. Then, unaccountably dry, he poured himself another and continued.

“Probably thought they had Rabe under wraps, but he got away. When he was found and dragged to the hospital, his people—his backers in, in, all this… they arranged everything. They knew how he felt, knew what he’d do if given the chance. They could have done him in some easier way, of course. Only reason for the public show was to ease everyone’s hopes he’d finish his research. They arranged everything, didn’t they?”

His eyes shifted, focusing on Lai Wan’s, locking there. When she said nothing, he went on.

“They found Carter, just like they always find someone, paid him off somehow, set the whole stage. Let him kill himself, the instrument of death delivered by a messenger who dies himself, with a willing stooge of a witness on hand to tell the story.”

“Essentially,” agreed the psychometrist. “The knowledge of his discovery, his closeness to it, removed, the public was then left with only a mystery. A puzzlement which dissipated their building psychic energies. Two birds downed with a single missile, as they say.”

There was more Malone wanted to ask, but he did not bother. What he already knew was too much for him, too unbelievable, too monstrously tragic to comprehend. No matter which way he turned what he had learned, he could find no angle from which to observe it which would allow him understanding.

“Try not to think about it overly, Mr. Malone,” Lai Wan said with kindness. “Trust me when I say this, resurrection is not for everyone.”

“That’s true,” agreed the reporter. “Even Christ could only stand an extra forty days here.”

As one small voice within his brain wondered how he could possibly write about what he now knew, a thousand others howled at him, damning him for even considering such a notion.

Okay, maybe later, he thought. Maybe I’ll be able to hash it all out someday. Someday, if I live to be a thousand.

The thought made the reporter chuckle sadly. He made a bit of small talk after that, but soon removed himself from the premises. Once Malone was gone, the servant returned. Clearing the tea setting, he asked at what hour he should have dinner ready, then extinguished the lights. Lai Wan sat in the dark, easing her tension off into the cool surrounding blackness. There was so much she had left unsaid.

“I hope you are at peace now, anyway, Mr. Rabe,” she whispered, not unkindly.

Her mind remembered back to when she had entered the hospital room. Never had she come across someone like the scientist. When the surviving electrical impulses of his personality had been restored to life, they were only the memory of facts and personality quirks, the jots of knowledge and individual ticks which label the outside of a person. Long gone, however, was that essential energy most commonly referred to as the soul. Rabe had been an empty vessel, desperate for the release Carter brought to him. The psychometrist had not felt it necessary to tell Malone that ghoulish detail.

As she had not felt the need to tell him one other. Standing from her chair in her greeting room, the only part of her home into which outsiders were permitted to enter, she stretched her arms and pulled off her shawl, folding it neatly, hanging it over an arm of the comfortable, overstuffed old friend.

With a thought, she brought her cat to her side, a stolid old calico she had named Joseph for no reason in particular. As the aged feline walked about her legs, pushing himself against her, she reached down and scooped him up, holding her out before her face.

“And would you want to live forever, my Joe,” the psychometrist asked. “Chasing mice to the end of time, never reaching a final rest?”

The old cat, a beast which had never really taken to being held, to having control of a situation wrested away from it, began to fidget. Twisting its body, it threw itself to the floor, looking up when it landed, staring crossly.

“That is what I thought.”

Following Joseph, Lai Wan entered her music room. She agreed with Rabe. The final piece of his formula, a thing the scientist had uncovered, tested, and verified six months before the debate over eternal life drove him to take his own, was not something humanity was ready to handle. Pushing the bit of formula to the back of her mind, she clicked on her stereo, releasing the gentleness of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major,” then, settling into the room’s warm recliner, she tried to relax, working at forgetting the fragment of equation which could still bring the curse of eternity into the world.

After a moment Joe joined her, snuggling against her side. Nuzzling his head gently with her fingers, she whispered;

“You know, my Joseph, if Mr. Rabe had not been so set on pulling that trigger, I do believe I would have had to do it for him.”

The cat turned its head, staring into its mistress’s eyes. It caught a glimmer of the horror in her mind, the bloodied fate of an eternal human race in her eyes, and yawned at her in response, showing its great rows of pointed teeth.

“Why, that is just what I thought you would say,” she whispered, nuzzling the old cat closer, loving it dearly for its feline inability to feel anything unconnected to itself.

 

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