The flight felt long, likely because he was feeling anxious. The weather was fair, which gave him a glimpse of the island from the tiny glider window. The view lasted seconds but gave a perspective Vii maps could not convey. He hoped the key was waiting for him on the other side. Something was bothering him, the gathen in his ear was burning. He reached the checkpoints. His body tensed, his awareness amplified. He centered his thoughts and approached the counter. The official looked up, smiled wryly and said, ‘Welcome back to the Mark, Mr.Asteer.’
Asteer stepped across the threshold. Whenever you entered the Mark your perceptions were under assault. Your entire life got played out to infinity. Cycling through how it all could have gone differently. He didn’t fancy this part much. It was a small price for the privilege to congregate with humans across time and space. Entry wasn’t guaranteed as there was always the possibility that your mind might break. Across the grand arrivals hall was evidence of those who hadn’t made it across. Asteer opened his chamber, strode out with confidence and headed straight to the Hellenistic division to find the key.
It didn’t matter how many times he walked between divisions. The experience always left him in awe. There were extraordinary meetings on every street. There was Salvador Dalí playing chess against Boudicca. Beyond them, on a bench was Che Guevara sharing a pipe with Antonio Vivaldi. It was hard to tell how long it would take to reach the Hellenistic division. Exits didn’t always stick. Time was not absolute. Rather it meandered. Overlapped. Flexed. Like a Möbius strip. It was hard to tell how long it would take to reach the Hellenistic division…
Without a gathen no visit to a division is even possible. It is what grounds you and acts as both a guide and interpreter. It attaches onto your ear and then continues to grow inside your head. Once a it had latched, it became a permanent part of you. You felt what it felt. Asteer’s gathen was frightened. Only a fool ignores his gathen.
He finally made his way to the agora, sat on an empty bench and looked up into the night sky, peppered with stars. Time rotated. Eras merged. Day and night swirled. ‘Breathtaking isn’t it?’ He looked across and knew straight away that it was the key. This place had gotten its name after those who had left their mark on the world. One look at her was enough for Asteer to understand why she was here. Helen of Troy. ‘Yes. Breathtaking,’ he managed.
She sat next to him on the bench and gave a hesitant smile. ‘Not sure how much assistance I can be,’ she said. ‘I have no idea how she managed to leave the Mark,’ she continued without prompting. Asteer knew not to believe her, theatre was part of the process in this division. ‘That’s good. I’m not interested in the how right now, I’m interested in the where.’ responded Asteer. The Mark had rules. Rules put in place to prevent the outbreak of untold chaos. He was now looking forward, avoiding eye contact. ‘Where is your daughter, Helen?’
The Mark existed as a haven for the very best, and absolute worst, that humanity had ever produced. The spectres, as they were known, had been given a second life to produce more works or repent for what they had done. If you were of the Mark you could never leave, a rule enforced with draconian effect. Everyone has one life to live. Helen was to forfeit her second life to enable her daughter’s escape from the Mark. While it was clear to the spectres that they were not in control, as expected, some could not accept this fact. This had lead to the use of organised culls to set examples to deter other spectres.
‘Do what you must,’ submitted Helen. He touched Helen’s shoulder. Time stopped. All of reality collapsed into this moment. It felt like every nerve in his body had been set alight. He had no reference any more. The journey could have taken seconds or all of eternity. He was now inside her mind.
Entering the mind of a spectre was a particularly disconcerting experience. You were subjected to a cacophony of whispers of every tone and intensity. Something was definitely not right. Asteer stood still. It was completely silent. He could no longer feel his gathen. In the distance he could make out silhouettes approaching him. He tried to move but his feet didn’t respond. He tried to communicate with his gathen but it also was silent. All around him was nothingness. Bright. The silhouettes became clearer. A man and a child…a girl. The man walked straight up to Asteer and whispered, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.’
Helen of Troy had a daughter with Isaac Newton. They named her Applonia. She was the first child born in the Mark. The event warranted her own dedicated minder, an honour that fell to Asteer . When her surveillance signal had stopped, he had been given simple instructions, ‘Find her. Bring her back. Don’t come back until you’ve done both.’ Applonia was now standing right in front of him. Even though he had monitored her his entire life, this was the closest he’d ever been to her…even though this wasn’t real, right?
‘A magician with a single trick. You would expect the audience to anticipate your next move. Then again Helen is a much better looking package than that wooden horse.’ He turned to Applonia, knelt down, his eyes level with hers. ‘When it is your turn do exactly as I have shown and taught you.’ Applonia looked defiant. Unflinching. As though she’d seen this a thousand times or more.
The man got up, faced Asteer, and unsheathed a knife from his belt which began to glow a bright red. He waved his hand in front of Asteer who found himself screaming out, ‘RELEASE ME RIGHT NOW.’
‘You are in no position to demand anything. When you have served your purpose you will meet the same fate as all those spectres you’ve terminated.’
‘What have you done to my gathen? How are you doing this?’ said a more composed Asteer.
‘How indeed.’ the man smiled .
Helen sat down opposite the man who destroyed her first life, Odysseus. A purple cloth, with golden trim, adorned the table they were sitting at. Odysseus poured himself a glass of wine. ‘Thanks for coming, it has been a while,’ he said. She offered a thin smile. ‘I’ll get right to it then. I know that Applonia is dying. I can save her.’
‘Since this place came to be, they have been treating us like common farm animals. They offer us their latest techniques and technologies as though they are a gift. Only to mine our ideas. Our thoughts.’ Odysseus took a large swig of wine and continued ‘I was born to discover the world. You cannot contain me. Ever.’
‘Centuries and a new reality haven’t changed you. You’re still a self centred son of a bitch. How does any of this help my daughter?’ said Helen.
‘To survive, your daughter has to find refuge inside your mind. Her existence is an aberration in this world. As they cannot control it, they have decided to finish it. To help you get Applonia inside your head we need something from you in exchange.’ Odysseus poured himself more wine. ‘They use extraction to take what they want, breaking our minds and bodies in the process. No more. We’ve worked out how to travel between our minds without causing damage. We will hide Applonia inside your head. You will act as our trap. Whichever hapless fool they send after us will act as our escape vessel.’ He paused and took another drink, ‘Oh and Helen, your daughter goes last.’
Odysseus approached Asteer, his arm extended, aimed at Asteer’s gathen. ‘This is going to hurt,’ he said ‘a lot.’ Odysseus then began to slice the gathen from Asteer’s head. The pain all but consumed Asteer who faded in and out of consciousness. Lying on the ground, the last thing he saw before completely blacking out was Odysseus grafting the gathen onto himself. The gathen tried to resist the new host, for naught. Odysseus had taken full control of Asteer’s mind. His memories. Every part of his consciousness was malleable to any suggestion. Asteer’s mind would remain dormant until it was released.
Odysseus made the jump out of Helen’s mind and opened his eyes. He was in the Agora sat next to Helen. She looked over, half hoping that he would have fail the trip. He gave her a knowing smile, nodded and without saying a word got up and left the Mark forever. Stepping back into the world Odysseus looked around for a suitable host. Ah, yes that one will do fine. Before he switched hosts, Odysseus planted one final message for Asteer to follow, ‘Find Helen of Troy. She is the key to what you are looking for.’ Odysseus strode into the world un-tethered. While a dazed Asteer boarded the next glider that was heading back to the Mark.
The flight felt long, likely because he was feeling anxious…He hoped the key was waiting for him on the other side…Something was bothering him…The gathen in his ear started to burn…He centered his thoughts and approached the counter. The official looked up, smiled wryly and said, ‘Welcome back to the Mark, Mr.Asteer.’
Originally published daily, throughout November 2019.
Optical illusion by Pedro Baños Cancer. Wine glass by Anniken & Andreas.