Sunlight, ch. 1: Austin Smith

“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.” The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Kevin Reynolds.

Monitoring: Austin Smith
Vienna, Virginia, USA

2:10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Saturday, October 18th, 2014
18:10 Coordinated Universal Time
Saturday, October 18th, 2014

Getting information from Akvo is a little bit like squeezing soup from a stone: if you think it works, then you’re probably imagining it. At least, that’s what Austin’s pessimistic side says to him, but doing something has to be better than doing nothing at all, and what else is he going to do, if he doesn’t try to talk with Akvo? It isn’t like he can even ask people for a better idea, or tell them to go do it if they’re better-suited. IT might be watching, that thing that was almost certainly lurking behind Akvo’s eyes, and maybe behind Austin’s and everyone else’s.

How do you organize a conspiracy when Big Brother is peering over your shoulder?

The answer, as far as Austin has been able to determine, is to make references and speak metaphorically and hope that Big Brother isn’t as well-read or as linguistically adept as you. If that isn’t working, and Austin supposes that he has no way of knowing for sure, then everyone is just doomed and he might as well come to terms with the idea–God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, et cetera, et cetera.

But before Austin is ready to speak the Serenity Prayer, he’s got to do his job, and that means Semiweekly Book Club with Mr. Akvo.

Agents Blank and Rucker aren’t questioning it, thank God, because Austin isn’t sure that he could lie well enough to make a good explanation if they wanted to challenge him. He’s grateful that they’re willing to trust him (and perhaps, he thinks, they’re grateful for the opportunity to make me earn that trust, here in a low-risk setting rather than in somewhere that the stakes are higher).

The worst-case scenario is that Akvo pulls some sort of stunt and Austin dies. Awful, sure, and Austin in particular isn’t happy about the possibility, but worse things could happen if he made a poor decision in the field.

Agent Heron glances through the one-way mirror, checks his phone to see that Agent Newsome (watching the camera feed on another floor) has confirmed that Akvo hasn’t been doing anything suspicious, and takes another, longer look before he opens the door and allows Austin to pass through.

Heron does not follow, but closes the door behind him. The illusion of privacy is always welcome.

The room smells like stale rust and decay, courtesy of the red-brown illustrations that adorn its walls. Akvo takes the sponge to them every few days, always within the week, but Austin feels as though the scent is seeping into the concrete and wouldn’t leave even if he stopped making new art. It’s as much a part of the room as anything else now, a mark that he’s left on it, even should he one day be allowed to leave.

Akvo does not immediately acknowledge Austin’s arrival, but continues his work, painting a portrait just below the one-way mirror. It is, Austin realizes with a start, a representation of Viejo. Her edges are wispy and indistinct, as though she is dissolving or is being viewed through a light mist, and her features look slightly different, perhaps a little smoother, than Austin remembers her from the pictures.

(He never had to see the body, fortunately. In fact, he never saw her in the flesh, which maybe makes her feel a little less real to him than she would otherwise.)

“This is a younger Señora Viejo,” says Akvo. “Fourteen years ago. Of course, she doesn’t look like a spring pup back then, either, but it’s…different,” he says, and there’s something in his tone that Austin can’t quite pin down.

Other images that are on the walls: a mountain range that Austin does not recognize; a series of concentric circles, too many for him to count at once; four people, their features too undefined for Austin to tell if he knows them or not; a very large square that covers nearly half of its wall.

Austin can’t think of anything to say in response, at least not very quickly, and before he can fix that, Akvo resumes speaking. “I didn’t hate her, you know.”

“But, you tried to kill each other,” Austin says, and Akvo shrugs.

“I spent every day of the past fourteen years and change with her. Even if I hated her, and I don’t know how people manage to hate and not understand each other under those circumstances, I think that I would still miss her. But that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have different priorities, or that those weren’t more important than our, hm, friendship,” he says, and Austin is reminded of the man’s analogy to the Cold War, weeks ago. Which of them was the United States and which was the USSR?

More to the point, how much does the answer matter? Since the time that they botched their recruitment of Olivia, Austin has made it a to-do to read up on his history of foreign intelligence services. He still feels mostly okay with cooperating with PALATINATE, at least for the time being and under the present circumstances, but he is also uncomfortably aware that saying, “Akvo is America” would not be cause for very much comfort. It would still require that he answer questions like, “In this analogy, who are the Third World Dictators that are being propped up, and what are the long-term consequences of this figurative policy of supporting totalitarian governments and giving them lessons on how to torture people?”

There is an uncomfortable silence (or at least Austin thinks so; Akvo appears to take it in stride, or not even notice it), which Austin finally breaks by asking if Akvo has finished the reading. He nods, but continues to work on his painting until Austin has gotten himself situated.

If the boundaries of the room are delineated with red-brown, then it is filled with green. Akvo didn’t request that the room be furnished, and there’s at least some evidence that this was less an oversight than it was a sign of disinterest, but it was furnished anyway: there are three chairs, a cot, a small bookshelf that stands at half Austin’s height, and a couple of those felt storage bins that Austin’s parents liked so much. Austin isn’t sure if the green color on all of them was an attempt to satisfy whatever visual aesthetic Akvo had or, as the green prison jumpsuits suggested, a joke, but Akvo hadn’t made anything of it in either case.

Austin takes a seat on a plastic folding chair and Akvo sits on the floor, not moving from where he was crouching beside the wall.

“So,” Austin says. “Job.”

It’s one of the books that Akvo had requested. Job: A Comedy of Justice, a story about an evangelical Christian who unexpectedly steps into one alternate history after another, losing everything he’d made in the previous universe, and ends up falling in love with a Norse-worshiping hostess named Margrethe and learning that God and Satan were responsible for the mess, and that they had done it more or less on lark.

“One of the things that I enjoy most about the book is that Heinlein doesn’t start it out in our world,” Akvo says. He presses his shoulders against the wall. “Alex begins in some other world, one with zeppelins and theocracy. That’s a refreshing change of pace in and of itself, but if the story is to be taken on its premises and Alex’s world is authentic in a way that those others, manufactured temporarily and on the spot, are not, then we might well infer that our universe is one of those false ones that the gods made up. I like a book that tells you that there’s such a thing as reality, and then says that you aren’t part of it.”

“I can’t believe that I didn’t think about this before, but how does that relate to Margrethe?” asks Austin. “Alex didn’t meet her until after he started traveling through worlds. But she existed, exactly as Alex knew her, in the afterlife.”

“She probably still existed. Alex still existed in the other worlds too, even if he was Alec Graham in some of them,” Akvo says, and Austin isn’t sure if he’s actually missing the point or trying to guide the conversation in a particular way.

“I don’t think that somebody is just their memories, but memories are still important. Even if she had the same soul…” Austin frowns. “What sort of person was she like before Alex started traveling? What does it say about the world that the Margrethe that we see later, in the afterlife, is the same that Alex was traveling with? Do Margrethe’s parents, from the real world, have a daughter that they don’t really know anymore? Or did every set of memories in every world get its own soul, and there are as many, I don’t know, Robert Heinleins in the afterlife as there are worlds that Alex and Margrethe experienced?” He pauses. “Are we supposed to take something from that, do you think, that one of the book’s major characters is, at least in some ways, the product of a universe that’s younger than the man who’s walking it?”

Akvo cocks his head. “It reminds me of one of those parody religions that get so much truck on the Internet. Last Thursdayism.” He frowns. “Or Last Tuesdayism. One of those. Their doctrine is that God created the world only last Thursday–or Tuesday, as the case may be–but created it in such a way that it had a perfectly falsified past, not just with fossils that are apparently millions of years old but also living things that have apparently been alive for more than the past couple of days, and their memories of lives that never actually happened.”

“Huh. That sounds like the Omphalos Hypothesis, which is a little less extreme version of that. And taken more seriously, but then again, that’s probably what Last Thursdayism is making fun of. Deacon Matthews mentioned it one time.”

“The Reverend Deacon Patrick Matthews,” says Akvo, and he closes his eyes for a second. “I had his cooking, once. He makes a fairly good pulled pork. Señora Viejo asked for the recipe.”

“You know him?”

Akvo shrugs. “Knew, or know of. One of those. It was long ago and I’m sure that we didn’t make a lasting impression on him, even if we were a little more unbehaved in those days.” Akvo pauses until he catches Austin’s eye. His stare lingers, as though Austin is an amoeba under the microscope, then he shakes his head lightly, just an inch or so, almost a twitch but careful and measured. “You’re still a good Catholic boy, aren’t you? Even after all of this.”

“Well, I don’t know about ‘good,’ but that would have been true even before this.” Austin shifts in his chair and looks away, while Akvo chuckles at his reply. “But yeah, I still have faith.”

“I don’t remember any of this being mentioned in the Book of Revelation.” Akvo raises an eyebrow. “Remind me, where does it talk about the girl who makes coins disappear?”

Austin shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m not a scholar. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t think I am–I mean, I have doubts, doesn’t everyone have doubts? But I have faith, too. Everything’s weird and not like I expected it would be, and there’s definitely a lot that I’ve experienced, and probably a lot that we’re going to experience, that I really have to think about, but that would be true just if I were moving to the big city from rural Punxsutawney, Alabama. I don’t really have any answers, but saying, ‘There’s no God,’ doesn’t give me any answers either. I ought to keep with my original belief until I have something to replace it with, at the very least.”

“Ask you again when you find out what’s going on, then?”

“Maybe. If you’re able to tell me, then you might be able to ask me again right now.”

Akvo’s laughter is a little like a dog’s bark, brief and forceful, and it is followed by a silence that doesn’t break for at least a minute. “I don’t think so,” he says, his voice barely above a whisper, his eyes no longer facing Austin. “I enjoy your visits,” Akvo says, as if that’s an explanation for his reticence (and perhaps it is). He still isn’t looking at Austin.

“Are you okay?” asks Austin, and Akvo takes a long breath and nods.

“I…” He trails off, then tries again. “I’ve been better. You’ll figure it out,” he adds. There’s a distinct pause between the two, and Austin wonders whether they’re part of the same thought, or if he’s giving an assurance that Austin will learn the answer to his other question.

That possibility, more than the other things that Austin has seen or been told will come to pass, thrusts a needle of apprehension through Austin’s heart. Whether or not he is correct, Austin suspects that Akvo has met something that he at least thinks would qualify for the position of God. Coming against–not a mere disbeliever, but a witness to something else, is disquieting for more reasons than one.

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