THE WORLDS OF
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IT'S A BLUNDERFUL LIFE
by Steph Bennion
Pursued by armed agents, Fenris prepares to end it all with a midnight leap from a bridge. Then a mysterious stranger arrives to persuade him that life is worth living, but can a Samaritans hologram really hope to convince by showing the greatest blunders of his life?
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FENRIS RAN THROUGH THE NIGHT like the proverbial quick brown fox, desperate to flee the awakened dogs of war. Soon the palace gates were far behind and he was at the lake and halfway across the bridge before his wheezing gasps for air finally brought him to a staggering halt. The thin atmosphere of the terraformed moon of Yuanshi made maintaining a sprint difficult for even the hardiest of athletes, which he most definitely was not. The fear of capture aside, even the anticipated agony of the plasma rifle shot with his name on it proved no match for the very real pain of his poor pounding heart and aching lungs.
A weary glance over his shoulder was enough to confirm that the searchlights of the pursuing agents remained far too close for comfort, yet for the moment he could run no more. Exhausted, he leaned against the parapet railing, conscious of how loud his wheezing breaths sounded above the quiet waters below. Maharaja Kashyap was dead and the city of Ayodhya had fallen to the security forces of the Que Qiao Corporation. Fenris, who had worked hard to become a trusted figure in the Maharaja's court, now found himself counted amongst those labelled dangerous revolutionaries on the wrong side of martial law. This was one Christmas Eve he would not forget.
"Is this how it ends?" he murmured. "Hunted down like a common criminal?"
The slender suspension bridge that linked the lake's island park to the surrounding city was a foolish place to stop, for the exposed roadway offered no cover but the darkness to hide him from the armed agents swarming the Palace of Sumitra on the island behind. Much of the power had been cut across Ayodhya and all Fenris had to light his way was the pale blue glow of Yuanshi's neighbouring moon of Daode, low upon the western horizon. His shimmering reflection seemed to be inviting him to cast aside his worries for the cool calm of the watery depths. The pale bearded face that stared back made a mournful portrait. His torn tunic and unkempt hair framed a visage not unlike that of a ghostly tramp.
A sudden grey blur jolted him out of his reverie and Fenris scowled as a cat appeared from nowhere and darted past his feet. He turned to watch its leaping progress along the bridge and to his surprise saw instead a tall, slim woman standing just a few metres away. Her long dark tresses and floor-length silver and black fur coat twitched in the breeze, setting off smooth olive-skinned features singularly unruffled by the sound of distant gunfire from the palace. Her quizzical look and sly smile hinted of playful mischief, yet her eyes betrayed an awareness far greater than that suggested by her youthful demeanour.
Fenris took a step forward, then paused. The woman bore neither the attitude nor the attire of the Que Qiao agents currently securing the palace, yet he did not recognise her from Kashyap's court. When the stranger showed no signs of speaking, Fenris took an uneasy step towards her and offered a nervous cough.
"Are you here to arrest me?" he asked, eyeing her cautiously. "From Que Qiao?"
The woman smiled and shook her head.
"From the Church? Have the faithful taken up arms as the Maharaja hoped?"
Again, she responded merely with a slow shake of her head.
"There's a surprise," Fenris muttered. He decided the woman was not about to shoot him and tried a different tack. "Did you see the cat? That damn moggy scared the life out of me! I wish they would not jump out like that."
"The Egyptians once worshipped cats," the woman said sadly, breaking her silence. Her soft voice possessed a degree of idle menace that made Fenris think of a caged tiger, one bored of being pampered and quite ready to casually eat its keeper. "Long before your time, of course. They were happy days."
"Their slaves may have disagreed," he said warily.
"Slaves need gods most of all," she murmured. "You should know that."
Fenris frowned. He thought about his own commitment to the Dhusarian Church, which looked to the legendary greys of Epsilon Eridani for spiritual enlightenment. There the similarity ended; while domesticated cats were all too ready to make themselves at home in ancient Egypt, few outside of the Church truly believed that grey humanoid aliens existed for real on twenty-third century Yuanshi. He took a step back and returned his stare to the dark watery depths, momentarily lost in thought as he recalled his morbid contemplations prior to the strange woman's arrival. It occurred to him that holier-than-thou charity workers of all denominations would be mobilising throughout Ayodhya to help mop up the mess following the corporation's action, but the personal touch often gave way to the next best thing. Fenris had heard the rumour about why cameras and hologram projectors were installed on bridges, high buildings and other popular suicide spots but until now had not believed it.
"Are you from the Samaritans?" he asked. "One of their counsellor holograms?"
The woman shrugged. "Were you about to jump?"
"It's either that or spend the rest of my life in Feng Du," he replied. The thought of a one-way ticket to the grim penal colony on Taotie was the reason Fenris knew he should be running from the Que Qiao agents right now, but there was something about the woman that held him to the spot. "Are you here to convince me otherwise?"
The woman gave a wry grin, but came no closer.
Fenris gave her a quizzical frown. "Do you have a name?"
"A great many."
"In the past I have gone by the name of Athene."
"So now even holograms are named after ancient gods?"
The woman smiled. "If you like."
"For a Samaritan counsellor, you are a projection of remarkably few words," Fenris said irritably. "Are you not here to persuade me that I have a wonderful life and whatever the trials and tribulations that may come my way, it's better to live to fight another day?"
Athene considered this. "A good Samaritan probably would do all that," she agreed. "On the whole, they were the nicest people in the world as long as the conversation stayed away from religion and the Jerusalem construction industry. No, I think you should jump."
"I've been studying you for a while," she said and took a step closer. "Watching to see if you have been bad or good, just like that young upstart Saint Nicholas. In your case, it seems whatever you do ends badly. I've come to the conclusion that you should end it all now and save history from an even more tedious fate."
"That's horrible!" cried Fenris. "What sort of a counsellor are you?"
"The best," she declared. "I deal in the truth, not feeble reassurances."
Fenris gave her a hurt look, then went back to his frown.
"This must be a joke," he muttered. "Some spotty-faced urchin has hacked into the Samaritans' hologram network and is having a good laugh at my expense, no doubt from his safe and sound bedroom on the other side of town. Very droll."
"Wrong. Do you want to see your best blunders or not?" she asked. "You're never far from a camera, Fenris my dear. Your whole life is on record, as is everyone else's on this moon. Except for the Maharani's," she mused. "Unusually devious, that one."
Fenris gave a hollow laugh, then caught the woman's look of impatience and warily began to edge away, conscious that he was supposed to be fleeing for his life. Just then a shaft of light shone down from the nearest bridge stanchion and he stared in amazement as the beam swiftly widened to reveal a holographic projection much sharper and clearer than any three-dimensional holovid he had ever seen before. Shimmering before him was a scene he instantly recognised as a corridor within a space station, with a floor and ceiling that curved up and out of sight in a way only seen in the huge wheel-like constructions that served as orbital docks at many worlds. The grey-walled corridor was punctuated on either side by a series of oblong doors. As he watched, two young boys emerged from a doorway on the left and ran away down the corridor, laughing as they went. Fenris realised he was looking at himself from twenty years ago and was so surprised he forgot there was a battle raging half a kilometre away.
"That's Armstrong Orbital," he murmured. "We were stranded there for days, waiting for the crew to fix a problem on the ship bringing us to Yuanshi from Earth."
"A mere trick of the light," Athene said dismissively. "Shall I begin?"
"I really should be going," Fenris remarked nervously. "I'm sure you mean well, but there's agents with guns out there who most certainly do not."
"They can wait," said Athene, then clicked her fingers.
* * *
...They can wait she said and the space station is so bright like looking into a bubble and suddenly the picture is clear as day and it all comes back to me as I see myself so small but running fast as I chase the other boy down the corridor. He is my friend from the spaceship and we are playing hide and seek and it is Jormungand my brother who is hiding but the curving passageway goes on forever and there are so many places he could be. The boy has stopped and is banging on a door and pointing through the round window and laughing. It is an airlock and my friend has pressed the buttons and is giggling but it is not funny because I can see Jormungand inside panicking and thumping the locked door as his face turns white then red as the airlock warning lights flash on and off and on again. My friend is still smiling as if it is a joke like the bullies do at school and Jormungand is shouting but the horrible siren is drowning out his words and his eyes are wide in terror. My nasty friend stops laughing and suddenly runs away because he is scared of what he has done and realises Jormungand is going to shoot into space and die but I stay behind and pull the lever to open the door yet nothing happens and my brother is thumping the window but also now clutching his throat and he is crying ever so much. I have seen the space-station crew work the airlock controls and think I know what to do and press the buttons again and again but get it wrong then have one last try and hear a clunk as I finally get it right. Suddenly there are no more flashing lights and I pull the lever again and this time the door opens and Jormungand falls through into the passageway and onto the floor. He is curled up tight and crying like a baby but it is okay because he is out and he not going to die...
* * *
Fenris blinked. The space station froze and then faded, but he had been so immersed in the illusion that several moments passed before he remembered his predicament. Slightly stunned, he shifted his gaze to that of the woman, who was regarding him with a particularly smug expression. It was then he noticed how quiet it had become. The marauding Que Qiao agents back at the palace appeared to be taking a break.
"That was incredible," he murmured. "It felt like I was watching myself for real."
"You rescued your brother from certain death! How marvellously heroic."
"I got there just in time." There was sadness in Fenris' voice, for many of his memories of Jormungand were painful. "He was plagued by terrible headaches for the rest of his life and never quite the same again. Father often spoke sadly about how Jormungand that day went straight from a happy little boy to an angry young man."
"Fascinating," murmured Athene, faking a yawn. "This is about you, not your brother. I wanted to show you how useless your contribution to humankind has been."
"I saved his life!" protested Fenris, confused.
"You know as well as I do how that panned out," she retorted.
"What is my contribution supposed to be?" he demanded. "I have neither influence nor resources. What about someone like Maharani Uma, who has both at her disposal yet only cares for herself and her son? She will probably spend longer choosing what to wear for the funeral than in actual mourning for her dead husband."
"That is harsh!" Athene looked shocked.
"Since when did automated holograms become so judgemental?" remarked Fenris, increasingly agitated. "Especially one supposedly programmed to stop me from hurling myself off this bridge?"
"You haven't the courage," she snapped. "Shall we see part two?"
Fenris jumped as a beam of light appeared from the stanchion as before and widened to unveil a remarkably-detailed view of a bustling hospital ward. Before he could protest, Athene gave him a wink and snapped her fingers once again.
* * *
...Shall we see part two she asked but I really should be running from the agents yet the vision in the bubble is so bright and I'm in Lanka hospital and there's wounded people everywhere and I remember now this is the night of the massacre at Aranya Pass. Volunteers broke the curfew to go with Que Qiao medical workers to bring supplies into Lanka but were ambushed by rebel fighters and Maharaja Kashyap is very angry as it was his own Captain Kartikeya who opened fire as he thought it was a troop convoy of armed Que Qiao agents. The tiny hospital is filling up with the dead and the wounded and the priest Taranis is here with the Maharaja and I'm trying to find them both but the screams and shouts and stench of blood and bile is making me feel ill. Nurse Jizo asks me to help her move one of the dead onto a trolley as she needs the bed to treat the survivors but there is a little Indian girl by the bed crying her eyes out and Jizo is quite cruel and pushes her away so we can get to the long cold shape beneath the sheet. The girl is no more than three or four Earth years old and was with the volunteers when they were attacked and her little brown arm and face are burned and covered in blood and she is crying so much but so brave when Jizo starts to pull at the pieces of metal in her arm. I start to push the trolley away but then Jizo asks the girl for her name and she replies Ravana O'Brien at which the nurse looks at her in horror and says Ravana is a Hindu demon and no one would call a little girl by such a terrible name. Then I remember Taranis once told me a Dhusarian prophecy about the future king of Lanka and a boy called Ravana who would grow up to drive Que Qiao from Yuanshi but that was just a silly story and this Ravana is not a boy but a little girl. I tell this to Jizo but part of me thinks I should have kept quiet for the little girl's sake yet another part is saying I should tell Taranis and the Maharaja when I find them but the priest tells many tales and no one these days really believes in prophecies and things like that. I push the trolley to the morgue and return to help another nurse and when I finally find Taranis I do not want to look foolish and so do not tell him about the poor little Indian girl called Ravana...
* * *
The vision faded, leaving Fenris reeling gently as reality reasserted itself and brought him back to the bridge with a bump. Athene had not moved from her spot near the railings. Her air of self-satisfaction came across as grossly inappropriate given the circumstances and Fenris turned away in disgust to contemplate his shimmering reflection once more.
"The battle of Aranya Pass," she mused. "Not the rebellion's finest hour."
"A most unfortunate episode," Fenris admitted. "Kartikeya thought he was firing upon a Que Qiao armoured security convoy. Taranis wanted him cashiered but the Maharaja had lost so many other officers he allowed the young idiot to stay in post. Believe it or not, he's Major Kartikeya now, but only because his more gifted contemporaries accepted the amnesty offered by Que Qiao and switched sides."
"What about you?" the woman asked. "Have you no ambition?"
"My loyalty was always to Taranis."
"Not to the Maharaja and his beloved wife?"
Fenris almost smiled as he thought of the Maharani being forced to flee her comfy palace. "Don't talk to me about that self-seeking, gold-digging, arrogant piece of..."
"Did the priest not abandon you all in your hour of need?" interrupted Athene.
Fenris paused. "The Church was there when I needed it," he said slowly.
He caught the bemused look Athene gave him and turned away. What he had said was true, for he had once before found himself fearful and in despair with nowhere else to go, only to be welcomed with open arms into the fledging Dhusarian Church of Yuanshi. Since that fateful day, he had devoted all his energies to the Church and his star had quickly risen until he was rewarded with the trust of Taranis himself. By then the priest had ingratiated himself with the self-proclaimed Maharaja and for a while Fenris had walked with him along the increasingly-corrupted corridors of power.
[...continued on page two]
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