Thursday, August 20, 2020

Beautiful Music: Orpheus

 Summary: Sort of a fictional follow-up of last night's post.

    Arcadia passed an alleyway that smelled of split rock. He glanced down it. Desert dust was blowing in from a breach; a rough tan portal of light. The alley ended, unfinished, and dropped off into space. The gleaming desert lay beyond.

    He caught a glimpse of a boy sitting at the edge before his eyes adjusted and the alley went dark. Arcadia paused. The boy might be a carcass. Parents dead, food stolen, killed by a steel toed kick. There were many like that. Arcadia walked in anyways. After a moment he saw boy’s shadowy face against the tan, bright and barren mountains beyond. The boy had gotten up and turned around. He had one hand on a piece of rebar jutting out from the ferrocrete into the expanse.

    Arcadia sized the boy up. He was skeletal and his skin was too tight around his cheeks and lips, like a T’au. He wore a sack and the ribs of his chest looked like ripples in water. There was a huge bulge in his upper stomach. Arcadia knew that was an ill omen despite rosy proclamations to the contrary by the frumentarii. Arcadia had seen many corpses like this boy.  His arms were like twigs as he grasped the rebar. He did not want to climb away.

    “How long has it been since you’ve eaten food?” asked Arcadia. The boy froze. One hand fell from the rebar. He blinked, looking Arcadia over.

    “I’m not sure,” he said, his voice almost lost in the wind. Arcadia waited a good distance from him. “...I think four days.” Arcadia guessed the boy had been trying to eat things not meant to be eaten.

    Arcadia took a knee and unlatched a steel cylinder from his belt. Both ends were etched for twisting; a cap on one end and a pusher on the other. Arcadia uncapped it and showed it to the boy. Meat and cheese whipped in lard. Rare food in the hive during times of plenty, unthinkable in this famine. Arbitrators had many such privileges.

    “Eat this. That’s an order.” He rolled the cylinder towards the boy. Arcadia didn’t expect trust; both of them knew that would be a fatal habit to pick up under the circumstances. The boy decided to take his chances. He let go of the rebar and picked up the cylinder, glancing inside. He smelled it, and then looked up at Arcadia. His eyes were incredulous and he began wringing the cylinder.

   “You can eat it, but do it slowly.” The boy's eyes thanked him. He began digging the stuff out with his finger and wolfing it down. Arcadia thought, I'll tell him about the dispenser later.

    “Where are your parents? Is anyone taking care of you?”

    When the boy had realized what Arcadia had given him, he had almost cried. Now tears fell across his cheeks. For a moment he could not swallow. Finally he spoke.

    “We live on the Sill,” he said. Very quietly. He looked down at the metal walkway and he was seeing something in his mind. The Sill was a flooded district. Arcadia stood up. He walked forward slowly, then knelt again and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders. Arcadia knew there would be no food for this creature at the ration arches. His heart ached for the boy’s innocent suffering.

    “Tell me. What did your parents teach you? Did they teach you any skills?” He asked gently. The boy looked at Arcadia and tried to be brave but couldn’t speak yet.

    “How to weld? Even sew? Letters?”

    The boy took a breath and said, “They taught me how to sing, sir.” The boy was uncertain of the value of this, and then offered, “Elegies. To the Emperor.”

    Arcadia slowly nodded. He tilted the boy’s chin up. “Your parents gave you a gift. It was no accident that they taught you to sing. Parents have a special right to pass on the Emperor’s blessings to their children. When you have such a blessing, you must pass it on to the people of the Imperium.” The boy nodded. He looked down at the food cylinder. Arcadia took his hand from the boy’s shoulder.

    “Clear your throat and try to sing something. It doesn’t have to be any good. Just try. Whatever you sing is good enough.”

    The boy glanced up at Arcadia. Then he gulped and closed his eyes. He seemed relieved to have clear instructions. He began to sing an elegy for the sacrifice of the Emperor. This was a song that was clearly near to his heart. His voice was a little shaky and not tightly disciplined, but it was heartfelt. And it loosened the iron bands around Arcadia’s heart. The grief of the catastrophe rose within him, and he turned his head sharply away from the boy. He lowered his head as if listening intently. His face clenched and burned while tears filled his eyes. When the boy’s song was finished, Arcadia swept a dusty glove over his own eyelids. At length he looked at the boy again with solemnity and grace.

    “You are indeed blessed by the Emperor. Your parents were standing at His right hand when they taught you how to sing.” Arcadia thought he knew what to do now. “I’m going to give you an order now. You’re going to use an old wiring artery to go to the Shrine of Saint Anaïs. You’re going to go there, among the pilgrims, and you’re going to sing. I’ll show you the way.” Arcadia stood up, but the boy’s face clouded. Arcadia could see his heartbeat quicken. His moment of safety and surety was ending. Deprivation, danger and death loomed again. Arcadia stopped and thought for a few moments. Then he said,

    “Move your arms. Feel that? You’re in control. You are, even though you’ve seen things that make you want to lock up. When you look out into the street, it’s going to feel as though there’s a wall in front of you. Like going out into the open is impossible. But it’s not. I won't lie to you. This could be dangerous. But you can do it. Even if it takes a few tries to get going. " He paused. "I can’t go with you. But if you stay here you will suffer and die. So you are going to to go to the Shrine and face whatever comes, head on. Do you understand?” The boy looked up at him and Arcadia could see that he was listening intently. He nodded.

    “Good. Now. I found this old wiring artery when I first got here. It’s almost empty, and if you climb it you’ll end up in an old machine shop with yellow livery. Go outside and you’ll see the shrine. It’s like a big, skinny stone bell. There will be pilgrims there. They were flooded out of their homes, just like you.”

    Arcadia paused. He remembered the gutted piping in the lower quarters. Something had been breaking its way out of the pipes and devouring people. Its claws cut their bones without a splinter. It ate the fattiest parts off them like a dilettante and spat out their bionics in a pile. The Arbites were afraid it was a tyranid. But Arcadia knew it wasn’t a tyranid. Perhaps the boy’s skeletal aspect would save him.

    “If you see pipes that have been broken open, hold still and listen. Hold as still as you possibly can and make no noise. Listen for a long time. If you only hear repeating noises, or if you don’t hear anything at all, keep going. If you hear something odd that you can’t explain, wait as long as you can and then move very slowly and quietly until you can’t hear it anymore.” The boy was nodding. But he didn’t want to know what was breaking the pipes.

    “Yes, sir. When I get to the shrine...”

    “There will be crowds. Families. You’ll go among them and you’ll sing. Don’t worry if you only know that one song. Sing it. You will heal their pain. Believe me. Try to think of new melodies when you can. The people will share their food with you if you just sing that hymn for them.” The boy nodded again. The thought of new songs was taking him from his pain.

    “Talk to the people who feed you. Find a man and a woman who’ve lost their little boy. Who’ve seen him die and put away his ashes, if you can.” The boy was looking up at Arcadia and his eyes were full of tears but his face was radiant now. He was ready. “Come now,” Arcadia said. He walked towards the street and the boy came behind him, glancing out around the corner. Arcadia pointed to a broad, cracked staircase leading to a raised promenade. In the outer wall of the staircase there was a corrugated steel grating that had been kicked loose in ages past. Behind it there was a ratty, pitch black tunnel.. The boy gazed at it. Arcadia put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He spoke to him like he was giving his patrol partner his final orders.

    “You must go in there. Remember that I’ve gone before. Picture me leading the way. When you get into the darkness,  walk forward until you reach a wall. Look up and there will be red lights. Climb. There will be places to rest. You can do it. Go now.”

    “Thank you. Thank you, sir,” the boy whispered, paused, and hurried into the tunnel.

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Art - First Run