Morning all! Welcome back for another Anthology sample, this time, a revised second installment from the short story “The Torch”. Last time, the story involved a tired and forelorn main character – Magid Muktari, environmental engineer and exoplanet enthusiast – coming home and meeting with his wife. My group seemed to agree that it was well written and faithful to Khaalidah’s original characters, unfortunately it contained details which did not fit with the story’s timeline. In essence, Muktari was not supposed to be married at this point in time.
After gritting my teeth and cursing my jumping of the gun, I erased the whole section and began writing it anew. The resulting section is the result, a homestead in which an overworked, forlorn visionary comes home to a slew of bad news and burdensome responsibilities. In the midst of it all, he contemplates his future and the future of his word. Take a look and let me know what you think:
The lights were already on when he came home. The nighttime creatures were about, singing their evening songs and tending to their nocturnal rituals. He felt the reassuring calm spread over him as soon as the wheels stopped in his driveway, the engine quieting down from its long run. The door raised itself for him and he put his tired feet to the ground, letting out a deep sigh.
“Home again, home again…” It took some effort to get him the rest of the way out. The steps were even harder to manage. It confounded him, how travelling could still be such a draining experience when machines generated all the motion. Perhaps their minds had not kept pace, still interpreting distance in terms of physical expenditure.
He paused on the front stoop and waited for Empathy to scan him. A quick flash hit his eye, discerning his retinal pattern, then projecting a kind greeting in his visual field.
Iyi geceler, Magid! it said. He waved at the sensor, and the door opened.
He made his way to the living room and tossed his jacket and satchel on the couch. His rear end met the cushions a moment later, and he felt himself begin to melt. He was halfway into a blissful fugue state when Empathy activated her living room interface and woke him up.
“Good evening, Magid. I have a number of messages for you.”
Muktari groaned and leaned up. He brushed the fatigue from his eyes and looked at the holographics that were forming in the center of his room. Green, blue and yellow, small dancing alpha-numerics. The words 13 Messages (2 Urgent) hanging in the middle.
“Give me the urgent ones,” he ordered. Empathy blinked and the display changed. He rubbed his head to dispel the headache and missed the appearance of his friends face in the center. It didn’t matter though, since the voice was one he would recognize anywhere.
“Magid, we got a problem over here,” said the face of Serge. “Word is the Memphis City Council is thinking of pulling the plug on the whole MFC concept. They’re claiming budgets, but the higher ups got it in their heads that this is a negotiation tactic. Me? I’m thinking the negotiation team tried to fleece them on land usage rights or something. In any case, someone needs to go out there and allay their concerns. They figure a senior engineer and manager ought to be just the person to do this.”
Muktari groaned again. He had just exhausted himself, skipping over time zones, heading from west to east. Going back west was the last thing he wanted right now. But at least Serge hadn’t given a date on when this was to expected. And he could certainly get away with not calling until the morning. Perhaps this would be the perfect opportunity to send someone else in his stead, or maybe Serge himself could be trusted with the task. No one knew the Memphis Floating Concept better than he, and he was sure to be able to put a positive spin on anything the negotiation team was asking for. At worst, he could tell them they were full of shit and to drop the demands, otherwise they would lose the contract.
The second message came up. This one he was ready and watching when the bronzed complexion of Aurelia came on. The summer sun was agreeing with her apparently, though the desert wind must have been a bother.
“Magid,” she said pleasantly. “Sorry to disturb you, but I thought you might like to know. A special presentation is being held in St. Petersburg this Tuesday, hosted by the Arctic Recovery foundation. The board has asked that we send a senior representative to present on behalf of the company and specifically asked for you. It’s not until Tuesday, so you’d have time to prepare.” She rolled her eyes and sighed. “I know, last minute, but I just heard myself. I hope this doesn’t interfere with your plans. I know you must be exhausted.”
“You don’t know the half,” he said to the image.
“Anyway, please contact me at your earliest convenience. We’re making progress on the Kebili array. Would love your input. Bye!”
The image disappeared. Empathy’s voice returned. “Shall I show the other messages?”
“Summarize,” he said curtly. A short list appeared in the display reticule. There were several messages regarding his choice of homeowner insurance, sat coverage, and offers for cheap aerofare to Mumbai, Atlantic City, Cancun and Topside. Only two were from names he recognized, and only one of immediate interest. Bill, to tell him when he’d be in town next and when they could meet up. And Myrana, no doubt to let him know what she had in mind for their next soiree together.
“Select Myrana, please” he said with some enthusiasm. The message moved to the center of the screen and enlarged. “Play.”
The image of Myrana’s face resolved in front of him, and his heart immediately sank. He knew that look, the look of disquiet, guilt and the burden of coming clean. He leaned back in his seat and waited for it.
“Magid, I’m sorry to do this over the link, but you’re a hard man to get to. I thought it better that I do it here than bother you on your mobile too. Basically…” she took a deep breath, “I think we need a break. I know we both said we were looking for different things when we started this… whatever this is, but I’m at the point where I think I need someone who can make themselves available. I’m sorry, but I can’t be waiting around for someone to decide they’re finally ready for a relationship, not at my age. Feel free to call me when you get this, but if you don’t, I understand. It was lovely, Magid, it really was but… these things can’t last. Bye.”
She kissed her fingers and put them to the monitor. The image disappeared a second later. Empathy’s cluelessly cheery voice came on a second later. “Would you like to review any of the other messages?”
“No.” he said flatly. “Delete all.”
He didn’t need to hear Bill’s message. He was sure his impending trip to St. Petersburg would conflict with it anyway. And in any case, they weren’t that close. Alone, he let out a particularly long sigh and reflected on the timeless truth of the matter. There was situation so bad that you couldn’t make it worse with a dose of personal disappointment. He was learning that for the umpteenth time now.
But at least he had a good’s night sleep to look forward to. He knew Serge and the others wouldn’t fault him for arriving late tomorrow morning. Perhaps some food and a nip of whiskey while he was at it. Pushing himself to his feet, he made his way to the kitchen and began producing the particulars for his impromptu meal.
Rome is burning, he thought as he fetched small tubs of chicken, Cacik sauce and greens from the cooler. Yes, that seemed to be the shape of things. The world was spinning, faster and faster, and no one seemed to be too worried about it. It was like riding a wild beast that just kept getting angrier the longer the rider held on. On the one hand, they were afraid to let go; on the other, they knew they had to at some point.
And yet, here he was, enjoying a meal and a drink and trying to forget about all that. Was that the natural order of things? Was it the case that the Senators of old, he wondered. After looking out upon the decadence that had befallen their once great city, and espying the barbarians who weren’t far from their gates, did they all simply go home, break their bread and drink their wine, and tell themselves that they had done all they could? He had to imagine they did, because when it came right down to it, there wasn’t much else to do. The fight could only happen during business hours, the rest of the time was earmarked for rest and creature comforts.
Yes, the doors must have been crashing down before they realized they were doomed. He was sure it was the same way with the people of Uxmal and Chichen Itza. It wasn’t until all the heads had stopped rolling and the crops had failed that they knew it was time to flee for the wilderness and hope for the best.
He looked down into the tub of Cacik he held and spooned some into his mouth. He had been gone for days and he couldn’t even remember when he had bought this latest bin of sauce. And yet, it still tasted fresh and clean. He checked the chicken and noted the same.
Yes, the gates are coming down and the city is ablaze, he thought. But at least the food is still good. One had to be thankful for small mercies.