by Michael Arram
Henry Atwood was restless, and considering he now had the power of a seraph invisibly coursing through his every fibre, that was hardly a surprise. He had been amusing himself at his barrack office in Luchau by reacquainting himself with his old skills, the ones he had last employed at the time of the Eschaton.
He ticked them off. He could create stasis in the world around him; leap instantly from point to point and plumb the minds of others. He’d just been working on his telekinesis with a pile of files that had unfortunately demonstrated his continuing lack of ability in that regard by spilling in disorder all over the floor. It would take him ages to sort them again, but he felt obliged to do it before his adjutant discovered the mess.
As for the mind-plumbing, that had caused him discomfort. He had never guessed his aide had leanings towards cross-dressing, but you learned things you didn’t want to know if you went fishing. He’d not do it again in a hurry.
One power he didn’t have was the ability to make paperwork do itself, so he forced himself to get busy with his e-mail and current slate of tasks. The war had gone elsewhere and his regular battalion and artillery units had been detached from his command to follow it. His beloved 16th Sudmesten battalion was even now awaiting transport to take it into Hungary to garrison the frontier towards Croatia and release regular units for the occupation of Kosovo. There was still plenty to do with the rest of his units, as they maintained the quarantine around the Kaleczyk military zone.
Henry signed off a request for compassionate leave, and gave into the restlessness. His mind kept tugging him back to the problem of the avians. The SIS kids who weren’t pregnant had been firmly told to resume human form, and he had bussed them back to their parents with instructions to talk things through at home. His own kids – Mike, Lance, the twins and Yuri – had been ordered back to school or university. But the pregnant girls could not safely resume human form and so had to remain under observation at Kaleczyk. There were too many of the rest of the avians with nowhere else now to go, so Helen and Davey remained in charge of the avian colony at the fortress; Damien had gone back with Nathan to their Strelzen home.
Henry looked at his watch. He had to do something, and theoretically he had all the time in the world to do it. To help the avians, he needed information, and there was only one place he could think of where he might get it, though he rather expected that such answers as he got there would not be straight ones. He stood, picked up his peaked cap, and settled it on his head. When he looked up, he was standing on a grassy hilltop above a wide dark lake. Opposite him were steep wooded islands, on one of which white buildings climbed up towards a stubby tower at its peak.
Henry spent a long time staring across the gulf of air and sheet of dark water to the sacred isles of which he had heard so much. All seemed unthreatening, but he could not shake of a feeling of mingled solemnity and dread. He would encounter the Dead there, and he had learned enough about them now to fear them, though in a different way from the fear he once had of ghosts and the dark creatures of the night. The Dead had turned out to be the main players in the struggle for the future of humanity, and he rather imagined that he was in the situation he was now because they wanted it that way. Their powers and their schemes were profound and beyond any human imagining. He did not entirely trust them to have his best interests at heart, yet he knew that he was no match for them. He faintly resented the suspicion that he was their unwitting agent, tangled up in their puppeteers’ strings.
Time had no meaning in the land where Henry now was, but it still seemed a long while before he found a willingness to leap to the highest point of the Island of Meeting opposite. All was quiet on the lawn before the door of the audience chamber, with not a sign of any presence, yet Henry – whether through his seraphic senses or not – knew that many intelligences were observing him.
Taking off his military cap, he entered the room to find it already occupied. Several dark presences were standing at the other side of the stone table.
‘Welcome, Mendamero.’ A familiar voice greeted him, and the Lady Fenice approached out of the shadows, smiling warmly.
Henry performed his best Rothenian bow, the one he reserved for the princess of Vinodol, Rudi’s grandma, who was unforgiving on matters of protocol.
He smiled back. ‘Somehow I thought it’d be you here, my lady.’ He paused. ‘Do we ... er, shake hands?’
The lady shook her head. ‘Not a custom of my time ... but perhaps my companions will wish to do so. We are not evanescent ghosts, as you may have feared. We have as much reality as we wish in this place. May I introduce someone who has long wished to meet you in person.’
A slim dark young man approached out of the shadows, a man Henry knew very well, though they had never met. He bowed once again. ‘Your royal highness.’
The man laughed. ‘It’s a long time since I’ve been called that. Welcome Henry. Come, take my hand.’
Henry took the hand of Leopold of Thuringia and found it warm and in every way lifelike. The prince gripped him back hard and smiled into his eyes. ‘Dear Henry, I’m delighted we have this opportunity to meet and talk. I imagine you have so many questions ... you are after all a journalist by trade.’
Henry could not help replying. ‘And you, sir, are a politician, so I rather think I won’t get many straight answers.’
There was a very familiar bark of laughter from a figure who had approached from behind Prince Leo. Tears came to Henry’s eyes. He quavered out a timorous ‘.... Terry?’ And he was taken into a pair of very familiar arms; hugged and kissed in ways he had thought he would never experience again.
Lance, Mike and Damien were sitting out the back of the Atwood house. Mrs Willerby – delighted to have some Atwood men back to fuss over – was laying out an ambitious buffet table, while scolding the twins, who had incautiously attempted to sample the growing piles and pyramids of food.
Gabe was pleading, ‘But Mrs Willerby, how can I logically spoil my appetite, when the only purpose of appetite is to signal hunger? It is not a matter of spoiling it surely; it is there to be satisfied.’
‘Enough of your cheek, Gabriel Atwood. Now take that rascal brother of yours indoors and wash your hands, the both of you.’ The twins rolled their eyes in a perfect facsimile of human male adolescent frustration. They slouched off.
Damien grinned after them then turned back to Lance. ‘So yer can’t transform either? Not even the Satan is exempt?’
‘Nope. Mendamero is back again, and he’s taken control. To be honest, Daimey, I’m not too bothered about it at the moment either. For me, being locked into my humanity was a gift and joy. I wasn’t too happy when Maxxie let the Satan loose. Different for you I know.’
‘Well yeah, mate. Point is I was gearing up to the role of avian king, then all of a sudden here I am dethroned. Bit of an anticlimax, innit?’
Mike was frowning. ‘You are still my king, majesty, and the sign of your royalty is still on your arm is it not?’
Damien put his left hand up to the armlet which still graced his smooth brown bicep. ‘It dun feel the same, though. The magic’s gone out of it, like the battery’s run down or sumfink.’
Mike shook his head. ‘I can still feel our people in my mind. We remain the Petakh, the people. And those of us still at Kaleczyk retain their wings. I think my father will have something to say on the matter when he returns. In the meantime, joining with my beloved Marky is as joyful in this form as the other.’
Lance nodded. ‘I feel the same when me and my Reggie are together. How did it go this morning, bro? How did the chancellor of Rothenia take to you as his future son-in-law?’
For once Mikey managed to look sheepish. ‘The old gentleman was gracious, though I cannot pretend he seemed too happy with the idea of Marky being mated with another male. Apparently there are religious objections. I attempted to explain to him how the Creator feels about same-sex human relationships, but he was convinced that Semitic bronze age religious texts are a more reliable guide to the Creator’s intentions. Marky changed the subject just as I was getting fully engaged.’
Lance grinned. ‘I’ll bet. I notice you’re sleeping here, and Marky’s at the Chancellery.’
‘It seemed prudent. The Von Lauern family need to get used to the idea, and there is so much else going on. Two of Marky’s brothers are with the army in Macedonia.’
‘What’s the news from Helen in Kaleczyk?’ Lance asked.
‘The avian kids are a delight, she says. Danny’s got ‘em well in hand, and his Gussie is helping with the younger ones. Gussie’s better wiv small kids than yer might expect. He was a great mate to me when I was little. Taught me to read in fact. But morale’s getting to be a problem. The adults left there are beginning to wonder if they’ll be stuck at Kaleczyk for the rest of their natural … which for avians may be a fuck of a long time.’
‘How’s your dad?’
‘Henry did a good job on him. Nathan’s out in the garden all hours, and er … decorating one of the spare bedrooms.’
‘Me sis, Sunni, is moving out to Strelzen, now me mam’s out of the hospital and into a flat. Me nan’s got her hands full keeping her eye on mam, and Sunni’s a full time job now she’s a teen. So me dads volunteered to put her up long term. She starts at SIS next week. She flies in tomorrer on a Peacher jet.’
‘They’re good blokes are your dads,’ Lance affirmed, ‘and it’s as well you’re back being human, for her sake. There’s enough that’s weird in Rothenia without her having to deal with a brother who has wings sprouting from his shoulder blades.’
Damien shook his head. ‘Doan’ underestimate me sister. Sunni’s on the avian Facebook site, an’ I keep her up to speed on the weirdness. Thass one reason she wants to be in Strelzen, No fun to be had like that in Ipswich, she says.’
‘Were you thinking of giving her wings?’
‘Up to her, I guess. But those days may be gone now Henry’s put a moratorium on mutating humans.’
Terry O’Brien, or something that looked very like him, lay back on the lawn outside the council chamber, while Henry sat up, worrying, since he was Henry, that he would get grass stains on his dress uniform trousers. They would undoubtedly be clucked over by Mrs Willerby during the next laundry session.
Terry looked like Terry, though the grey hairs were gone and the man appeared as Henry had first met him when Henry was but a young teenager and Terry was in his early twenties. He was however even more vital, carefree and virile than Henry remembered him in life.
‘So ...’ Henry probed, ‘Ramon?’
Terry grinned and stretched. ‘Why do yer want to know, yer nosy little tyke?’
‘Come on Terry. It’s the big one the living always worry about. The reunion on the other side. How does it go, specially if you’ve taken up with someone else in the meantime?’
Terry laughed his new and very joyous laugh. ‘I could never explain it, even to Mendamero. But there ain’t no shame or embarrassment beyond the final sea and no secrets, so I had nothing to explain or excuse; jealousy and fear is something we leave behind. Love ain’t about power trips where I am now. We’re together and so happy, me and Ramon, and Davey will join us one day and our happiness will just get greater and deeper. That what you wanted to know? Anyway, you answer me one. How’s my Davey working out as a bird-man? That I’d just love to see.’
‘Amazing and so very beautiful. As it happens, I have a piccie on my iPhone. It’s got some battery left if it works here in Eden.’
Henry flicked through his camera roll and found his avian Davey pictures, then handed the phone to Terry, whose eyes widened. ‘Bleedin’ hell Henry, look at the cock on him!’
‘I thought you Dead would be past all that stuff.’
‘You mean sex? Obviously in human terms, we are. But there are things better, more intimate and ... really quite indescribable. Yer has to experience it for yourself.’
Henry laughed. ‘I’m happy to put it off for a while. Nice to know it’ll be waiting for me though.’
Terry gave a quiet smile. ‘Oh, I think you and Ed will be very special together across the sea, when your turn comes.’ He stood, pulling Henry up with him. ‘Come on back inside Henry, we’d better talk things out with the others, but I’m grateful to have seen yer once more on this side of the sea, you unique, precious boy. I never had a chance to tell yer this in life, but I never met another human being I admired quite as much as I did you. You are the best of us, Henry Atwood: that’s why They gave you back yer powers, and that’s why yer here, to give us yer advice on humanity’s future fate. We’re not willing to wait for you to join us in the natural course of events, sweet babe.’
Tovyan, Kris, Janko and his mum were on the road and heading north. As their truck crossed into Slovenia Tovyan impulsively pulled Kristijan to him across the cab, and kissed his cheek. Kris remained snuggled up to him and declared. ‘I got a good feeling about this place Tovyašin! What’s the language like? Bet you can speak it.’
‘Slovenščina? It’s a bit different from your Serbian, but it shouldn’t take you too long to get the hang of it. And that’s as well because it’s back to school for you, my Kristijan. You have a lot of education to catch up on. You’re an intelligent man, and I’m not having my wonderful Kris wasting his high-quality brain.’
The Serb boy blushed. ‘I’m not wonderful, Tovyašin. Till I met you, I was just a loser.’
Tovyan, eyes on the traffic, spoke deliberately to his chosen mate. ‘You are loyal and true, Kris, honest and loving. You are the finest of men, and you honour such a one as I with your devotion. Also you are beautiful in body.’
Kris flushed even redder. ‘Come on.’
‘It’s true. The seductive curves of your slim torso, your tight little bottom, that marvellous thick cock of yours: they inflame me sexually. Do I have to mention your dark hard little nipples ...?’
‘Rhapsodise on my feet and I might begin to worry about your sanity.’
‘They’re pretty and small: not a hair on them, each toe perfect.’
‘I think I’ve got to the bottom of that. It’s essentially bacterial though I believe there is a hormonal component. There’s nothing wrong with them. I think that the fact that you have only one pair of sneakers may contribute to the foulness. We will treat them with sodium bicarbonate and replace your footwear regularly. Likewise a daily change of socks cannot but help. Give it a week and I’ll be sucking your toes without having to hold my nasal passages closed.’
Kris shot Tovyan a quirky look. ‘You’re nuts.’
‘Thank you, my Kris. I take that as a favourable comment on my emerging humanity.’ Then Tovyan laughed, and the laughter continued between them as the happy pair drove north on the motorway to Ljubljana, the place Tovyan had selected for their new home.
Lance picked up Reggie from the embassy compound and drove around the heights of Strelsener Anhöhen, skirting the Old City and Arsenal till he reached the Ninth.
‘This the road?’ he asked Reggie, who confirmed that they were on Terlenehemgasse. They found the modern apartment block which was where Radu, Corporal Lobowicz’s boyfriend, lived. The young men buzzed the number, and the mic hissed at them.
‘Looking for Theo!’ Lance yelled at the entry phone. There was another hiss, which Lance guessed was an interrogatory. ‘Lance and Reggie!’ he supplied. There was a pause, the front door clicked and the pair entered.
‘As they were stomping up the stairs a voice called down: ‘That you Satan?’
‘S’me, jarhead!’ Lance shouted back. ‘You okay?’
‘Great! Looks like you guys survived the end of the world.’
‘Yeah, and we’ve come to tell ya about it.’
They reached Theo’s landing. He was waiting barefoot and barechested with an arm around Radu, a small, slim and unsurprisingly boyish-looking man, with dark, curly hair and rather beautiful eyes of a liquid brown. Hugs and kisses were exchanged and they were led into Radu’s small but immaculate apartment. Radu draped himself across Theo’s lap, his stare drawn irresistibly to Lance, though it was beyond Lance as to whether it was the physical beauty or Lance’s supernatural origin that was the dominant source of interest to the Rothenian.
Lance and Reggie began their story, and Theo had downed several Czech beers before it concluded.
‘So the evil seraph dude turned good in the end? Holy shit. Where’s he now?’
Lance replied. ‘My dad met Toby on the road in Hungary with a gang of boys he was taking care of. We know that Maxxie later took some of Toby’s kids to be avians, so we reckon what Toby’s up to is all part of his plan. We’ve lost track of him since, but he’ll turn up again I’m sure. I hope so. Seems me and him have a lot in common nowadays; I’m ready to talk to him.’
Radu finally spoke up, in a soft and dreamy voice. ‘Could I be an avian?’
Lance shook his head. ‘At the moment, no. There’s a ban on conversions. Would you like to be?’
Radu met his lover’s questioning look. ‘Theo’s told me what you looked like with wings. I’d love to fly and … y’know.’
Theo chuckled. ‘It’s taking a cock that size up his chute that my Radu would love, ain’t it sweetie?’
Radu shook his head. ‘No, it’s the freedom … no clothes, nothing but wings and sky. It’s real escape from everything.’
Theo kissed his lover on his cheek. ‘My Radu’s not had the best of lives so far; I think I know what he means.’
Reggie raised his eyebrows. ‘Would you like to do it too, jarhead?’
Theo shrugged. ‘It’d solve a few problems. Being assumed dead, I’m stateless, and when I got in touch with my folks to let ‘em know I was still in this world, it caused problems. The police were here couple days ago. Seems US military intelligence and the Judge Advocate General’s office have been on to Europol ’bout me. I may be on the run in a week or two.’
‘I’ll have a word with my dads and Tommy,’ Lance assured him. ‘Ed’s got a lot of influence, and I’m sure the Queen Regent will take up your case.’
‘You’re a good kid, Lance. We appreciate it. Get back to us when you here more, hear?’
Lance and Reggie took their leave. Both were quiet and meditative as Lance drove his car back to the Sixth.
Henry took a seat at one end of the stone table. The Dead took the rest of the places, with Prince Leo opposite Henry. It was, he thought, rather like a reverse séance, with the Dead round a table summoning one of the living. He wondered whether he should knock the table top three times.
Others had arrived, or manifested themselves, and the seats were full. Henry thought he recognised the Victorian intelligence agent Oskar von Tarlenheim by his uniform, not to mention his startling resemblance to his present-day relative and namesake, but it was the handsome and cheery young man who sat next to Count Oskar who engaged Henry’s full attention. He had to be the count of Eisendorf, Augustus Underwood, Nathan’s kinsman and Prince Leo’s grandfather. Henry recognised him from his portrait in the parliament building in Strelzen. The man’s eyes caught Henry’s and he winked. Henry could not but smile back. Terry sat to Henry’s right, and the Lady Fenice to his left.
Prince Leo was evidently in charge of the meeting. ‘Brothers and sisters, we come now to the question that we are having some difficulty in resolving: the fate of the avians. In this crisis we have brought to our council one of our living brothers, Henry Atwood, known in this world as Mendamero, favoured by the Creator and tutor of the One.’
‘Oh dear,’ Henry interjected. ‘Too many titles. However, it was the avian problem which brought me here. I had hoped you had a plan for them.’
Leo nodded gravely. ‘It has long been the intention of the Dead to force an evolution in humanity as a partial answer to its problems, and we have indeed brought about just that. The avians are human but also magical. But to be reborn and live as an avian needs more than just a physical act of genesis. Avian vitality depends on the moral state of the soul within their bodies. They are partly-ascended souls within the mortal world. Any society they form will be beyond the present capacities of humanity.’
Henry pondered that before responding with a grimace. ‘So what’s to be the result of Armageddon then? Salvation for just a few select individuals? That seems unfair.’
‘As Darwin described it evolution was not about fairness, but adaptation, Henry,’ the prince replied. ‘But we are not Darwinians. The avians are intended by us to be part of a much greater process of human salvation in which you and all your friends will play a part, each in your own way.’
‘So you know the future ... then why do you need my advice?’
The prince shook his head. ‘We know many different futures, and we can locate the points from which they stem outwards in many different ways. This is one such point, and you are the man who will determine which way the divergent paths of mankind and the avians will go.’
Henry was struck dumb. This was imposing a responsibility on him beyond the realm of reason.
The stream of life chuckled endlessly over its stony bed, and Eden’s birds sang all around Henry. He didn’t hear a thing. He was too preoccupied with the weight of the Universe which had just descended on his shoulders.
The Dead had been careful to spell out all his options, and just as careful to give him absolutely no hint as to the consequences of any decision he might make. Prince Leo had smiled apologetically. ‘We can’t make the decision for you, Henry. The Dead can help. We can even prod and manipulate, but in the end it has to be the Living who decide which way to go, because it’s their fate and they have to live with the consequences in their world. And if they choose wrongly, we can make up for it in ours. So it has always been.’
When Henry had replied to this a little tartly, the prince had assured him that no blame would attach to him for whatever he chose to do. ‘We don’t think that way beyond the final sea, Henry. You’ll carry no burden of guilt. How can you? That’s the advantage of human blindness. You can never be charged with taking the less auspicious road, for once you choose, it will be the only road that ever was.’
Henry threw a perfect blue pebble into the clear waters of life and used a word never before uttered in Eden. Its sun did not darken as a result, which he had half expected it might.
It was the cheerful whistling coming through the woods that brought Henry back into focus. It was a young boy’s whistling, and as Henry looked up, out on to the opposite shore of the stream came Maxxie, in football kit. Balanced across his narrow shoulder was a spear, rather too long for him to manage easily.
The boy noticed Henry and stood rigid, guilt all over his face. ‘Uh-oh! Busted!’ he murmured.