6880 words, short story, REPRINT
The Peacock Cloak
Grasshoppers creaked, bees hummed, a stream played peacefully by itself as it meandered in its stony bed through the quiet mountain valley. And then Tawus was there in his famous cloak, its bright fabric still fizzing and sparking from the prodigious leap, its hundred eyes, black, green, and gold, restlessly assaying the scene. Tawus had arrived, and, as always, everything else was dimmed and diminished by his presence.
“This world was well made,” Tawus said to himself with his accustomed mixture of jealousy and pride.
He savored the scents of lavender and thyme, the creakings and buzzings of insects, the gurgling of the stream.
“Every detail works,” he said, noticing a fat bumblebee, spattered with yellow pollen, launching herself into flight from a pink cistus flower. Passing the object he carried in his left hand to his right, Tawus stooped to take the flower stem between his left forefinger and thumb. “Every molecule, every speck of dust.”
Painfully and vividly, and in a way that had not happened for some time, he was reminded of the early days, the beginning, when, on the far side of this universe, he and the Six had awoken to find themselves in another garden wilderness like this one, ringed about by mountains.
Back then things had felt very different. Tawus had known what Fabbro knew, had felt what Fabbro felt. His purposes had been Fabbro’s purposes, and all his memories were from Fabbro’s world, a world within which the created universe of Esperine was like a child’s plaything, a scene carved into an ivory ball (albeit carved so exquisitely that its trees could sway in the wind and lose their leaves in autumn, its creatures live and die). Of course he had known quite well he was a copy of Fabbro and not Fabbro himself, but he was an exact copy, down to the smallest particle, the smallest thought, identical in every way except that he had been rendered in the stuff of Esperine, so that he could inhabit Fabbro’s creation on Fabbro’s behalf. He was a creation as Esperine was, but he could remember creating himself, just as he could remember creating Esperine, inside the device that Fabbro called Constructive Thought. Back then, Tawus had thought of Fabbro not as “he” and “him” but as “I” and “me.”
And how beautiful this world had seemed then, how simple, how unsullied, how full of opportunities, how free of the ties and regrets and complications that had so hemmed in the life of Fabbro in the world outside.
Tawus released the pink flower, let it spring back among its hundred bright fellows, and stood up straight, returning the small object from his right hand to his dominant left. Then, with his quick gray eyes, he glanced back down the path, and up at the rocky ridges on either side. The peacock eyes looked with him, sampling every part of the visible and invisible spectrum.
“No, Tawus, you are not observed,” whispered the cloak, using the silent code with which it spoke to him through his skin.
“Not observed, perhaps,” said Tawus, “but certainly expected.”
Now he turned southwards, towards the head of the valley, and began to walk. His strides were quick and determined but his thoughts less so. The gentle scents and sounds of the mountain valley continued to stir up vivid and troubling memories from the other end of time. He recalled watching the Six wake up, his three brothers and three sisters. They were also made in the likeness of Fabbro but they were, so to speak, reflections of him in mirrors with curved surfaces or colored glass, so that they were different from the original and from each other. Tawus remembered their eyes opening, his brother Balthazar first and then his sister Cassandra, and he remembered their spreading smiles as they looked around and simultaneously saw and remembered where they were, in this exquisite, benign and yet to be explored world, released forever from the cares and complications of Fabbro’s life and from the baleful history of the vast and vacant universe in which Fabbro had been born.
They had been strangely shy of each other at first, even though they shared the same memories, the same history and the same sole parent. The three sisters in particular, in spite of Fabbro’s androgynous and protean nature, felt exposed and uneasy in their unfamiliar bodies. But even the men were uncomfortable in their new skins. All seven were trying to decide who they were. It had been a kind of adolescence. All had felt awkward, all had been absurdly optimistic about what they could achieve. They had even made a pact with each other that they would always work together and always make decisions as a group.
“That didn’t last long,” Tawus now wryly observed, and then he remembered, with a momentary excruciating pang, the fate of Cassandra, his proud and stubborn sister.
But they’d believed in their agreement at the time and, having made it, all Seven had stridden out, laughing and talking all at once, under a warm sun not unlike this one, and on a path not unlike the one he was walking now, dressed so splendidly in his Peacock Cloak. He had no such cloak back then. They had been naked gods. They had begun to wrap themselves up only as they moved apart from one another: Cassandra in her Mirror Mantle, Jabreel in his Armor of Light, Balthazar in his Coat of Dreams . . . But the Peacock Cloak had been finest of all.
“I hear music,” the cloak now whispered to him.
Tawus stopped and listened. He could only hear the stream, the grasshoppers, and the bees. He shrugged.
“Hospitable of him, to lay on music to greet us.”
“Just a peasant flute. A flute and goat bells.”
“Probably shepherds up in the hills somewhere,” said Tawus, resuming his stride.
He remembered how the seven of them came to their first human village, a village whose hundred inhabitants imagined that they had always lived there, tending their cattle and their sheep, and had no inkling that only a few hours before, they and their memories had been brought into being all at once by their creator Fabbro within the circuits of Constructive Thought, along with a thousand similar groups scattered over the planets of Esperine: the final touch, the final detail, in the world builder’s ivory ball.
“The surprise on their faces!” Tawus murmured to himself, and smiled. “To see these seven tall naked figures striding down through their pastures.”
“You are tense,” observed his cloak. “You are distracting yourself with thoughts of things elsewhere and long ago.”
“So I am,” agreed Tawus, in the same silent code. “I am not keen to think about my destination.”
He looked down at the object he carried in his hand, smooth and white and intricate, like a polished shell. It was a gun of sorts, a weapon of his own devising. It did not fire mere bullets. It destroyed its targets by unraveling, within a chosen area, the laws that defined Esperine itself, and so reducing form to pure chaos.
“Give me a pocket to put this in,” Tawus said.
At once the cloak made an opening to receive the gun, sealing itself up again when Tawus had withdrawn his hand.
“The cloak can aim and shoot for me, if need be,” Tawus muttered to himself.
And the cloak’s eyes winked, green and gold and black.
The valley turned a corner. There was an outcrop of harder rock. As he came round it, Tawus heard the music that his cloak, with its finely tuned senses, had detected some way back: a fluted melody, inexpertly played, and an arrhythmic jangling of crudely made bells.
Up ahead of him three young children were minding a flock of sheep and goats, sheltering by a little patch of trees at a spot where a tributary brook cascaded into the main stream. A girl of nine or ten was playing panpipes. In front of her on a large stone, as if it were the two-seat auditorium of a miniature theater, two smaller children sat side by side: a boy of five or so and a little girl of three, cradling a lamb that lay across both their laps. The jangling bells hung from the necks of the grazing beasts.
Seeing Tawus, the girl laid down her pipes and the two smaller children hastily set their lamb on the ground, stood up, and moved quickly to stand on either side of their sister with their hands in hers. All three stared at Tawus with wide unsmiling eyes. As he drew near, they ran forward and kissed his hand, first the older girl, then the boy, and finally the little three-year-old whose baby lips left a cool patch of moistness on his skin.
“Your face is familiar to them,” the cloak silently observed. “They think they know you from before.”
“As we might predict,” said Tawus. “But you they have never seen.”
The children were astounded by a fabric on which the patterns were in constant motion, and by the animated peacock eyes. The boy reached out a grubby finger to touch the magical cloth.
“No, Thomas!” her sister scolded, slapping the child’s hand away. “Leave the gentleman’s coat alone.”
“No harm,” Tawus said gruffly, patting the girl on the head.
And the cloak shook off the fragments of snot and dust that the child’s fingers had left behind.
Ten minutes later Tawus turned and looked back at them. They were little more than dots in the mountain landscape but they were still watching him, still holding hands. Around them, unheeded, the sheep grazed with the goats.
Suddenly, Tawus was vividly reminded of three other children he had once seen, of about the same ages. He had hardly given them a thought at the time, but now he clearly saw them in his mind: the younger two huddled against their sister, all three staring with white faces as Tawus and his army rolled through their burning village, their home in ruins behind them. It had been in a flat watery country called Meadow Lee. From his vantage point in the turret of a tank, Tawus could see its verdant water meadows stretching away for miles. Across the whole expanse of it buildings were burning and columns of dirty smoke were slowly staining the whole of the wide blue sky a glowering oily yellow.
When was that, Tawus wondered? On which of the several different occasions when fighting had come to Meadow Lee? He thought it had been during one of his early wars against his brother Balthazar. But then he wondered whether perhaps it had been at a later stage when he was in an alliance with Balthazar against Jabreel.
“Neither,” said the Peacock Cloak. “It was in the war all six of you waged against Cassandra, that time she banned chrome extraction in her lands.”
“Don’t needlessly interfere. Offer guidance where necessary, head off obvious problems, but otherwise allow things to take their own course.”
It would be wrong to say these were Fabbro’s instructions to the Seven because he had never spoken to them. They were simply his intentions which they all knew because his memories were replicated in their own minds. When they encountered those first villagers, the Seven had greeted them, requested food and a place to rest that night, and asked if they were any matters they could assist with. They did not try and impose their views, or change the villager’s minds about how the world worked or how to live their lives. That had all come later, along with the wars and the empires.
“But did he really think we could go on like that forever?” Tawus now angrily asked. “What were we supposed to do all this time? Just wander around indefinitely, advising on a sore throat here, suggesting crop rotation there, but otherwise doing nothing with this world at all?”
The Seven had begun to be different from Fabbro from the moment they awoke. And paradoxically it was Tawus, the one made most completely in Fabbro’s likeness, who had moved most quickly away from Fabbro’s wishes.
“We can’t just be gardeners of this world,” he had told his brothers and sisters, after they had visited a dozen sleepy villages, “we can’t just be shepherds of its people, watching them while they graze. We will go mad. We will turn into imbeciles. We need to be able to build things, play with technology, unlock the possibilities that we know exist within this particular frame. We will need metals and fuels, and a society complex enough to extract and refine them. We will need ways of storing and transmitting information. There will need to be cities. On at least one planet, in at least one continent, we will have to organize a state. ”
The Six had all had reservations at first, to different degrees, and for slightly different reasons.
“Just give me a small territory then,” Tawus had said, “a patch of land with some people in it, to experiment and develop my ideas.”
In his own little fiefdom he had adopted a new approach, not simply advising, but tempting and cajoling. He had made little labor-saving devices for his people and then spoken to them of machines that would do all their work for them. He had helped them make boats and then described spaceships that would make them masters of the stars. He had sown dissatisfaction in their minds and, within two years, he had achieved government, schools, metallurgy, sea-faring, and a militia. Seeing what he had achieved, the Six had fallen over one another to catch up.
“How come they all followed me, if my path was so wrong?” Tawus now asked.
“They had no choice but to follow you,” observed the Peacock Cloak, “if they didn’t wish to be altogether eclipsed.”
“Which is another way of saying that my way was in the end inevitable, because once it is chosen, all other ways become obsolete. To have obeyed Fabbro would simply have been to postpone what was sooner or later going to happen, if not led by me, then by one of the others, or even by some leader rising up from the Esperine people themselves.”
He thought briefly again of the children in front of the ruined house, but then he turned another corner, and there was his destination ahead of him. It was a little island of domesticity amidst the benign wilderness of the valley, a small cottage with a garden and an orchard and a front gate, standing beside a lake.
“He is outside,” said the Peacock Cloak, whose hundred eyes could see through many different kinds of obstacles. “He is down beside the water.”
Tawus came to the cottage gate. It was very quiet. He could hear the bees going back and forth from the wild thyme flowers, the splash of a duck alighting on the lake, the clopping of a wooden wind chime in an almond tree.
He raised his hand to the latch, then lowered it again.
“What’s the matter with me? Why hesitate?”
Clop clop went the wind chimes.
“It is always better to act,” whispered the cloak through his skin, “that’s what you asked me to remind you.”
Tawus nodded. It was always better to act than to waste time agonizing. It was by acting that he had built a civilization, summoned great cities into being, driven through the technological changes that had taken this world from sleepy rural Arcadia to an age of interplanetary empires. It was by acting that he had prevailed over his six siblings, even when all six were ranged against him, for each one of them had been encumbered by Fabbro with gifts or traits of character more specialized than his own pure strength of will: mercy, imagination, doubt, ambivalence, detachment, humility.
True, he had caused much destruction and misery but, after all, to act at all it was necessary to be willing to destroy. If he ever had a moment of doubt, he simply reminded himself that you couldn’t take a single step without running the risk of crushing some small creeping thing, too small to be seen, going about its blameless life. You couldn’t even breathe without the possibility of sucking in some tiny innocent from the air.
“The city of X is refusing to accept our authority,” his generals would say.
“Then raze it to the ground as we warned we would,” he would answer without a moment’s hesitation. And the hundred eyes would dart this way and that, like a scouting party sent out ahead of the battalions that were his own thoughts, looking for opportunities in the new situation that he had created, scooping out his next move and the move after that.
There had been times when his generals had stood there open-mouthed, astounded by his ruthlessness. But they did not question him. They knew it was the strength of his will that made him great, made him something more than they were.
“But now,” he said to himself bitterly, “I seem to be having difficulty making up my mind about a garden gate.”
“Just act,” said the cloak, rippling against his skin in a way that was almost like laughter.
Tawus smiled. He would act on his own account and not on instructions from his clothes, but all the same he lifted his hand to the latch and this time opened it. He was moving forward again. And the eyes on his cloak shone in readiness.
Inside the gate the path branched three ways: right to the cottage, with the peaks of the valley’s western ridge behind it, straight ahead to the little orchard and vegetable garden, left and eastward down to the small lake from which flowed the stream that he’d been following. On the far side of the lake was the ridge of peaks that formed the valley’s eastern edge. Some sheep were grazing on their slopes.
Clop clop went the wind chimes, and a bee zipped by his ear like a tiny racing car on a track.
Tawus looked down towards the lake.
“There you are,” he murmured, spotting the small figure at the water’s edge that the peacock eyes had already located, sitting on a log on a little beach, looking through binoculars at the various ducks and water birds out on the lake.
“You know I’m here,” Tawus muttered angrily. “You know quite well I’m here.”
“Indeed he does,” the cloak confirmed. “The tension in his shoulders is unmistakable.”
“He just wants to make me the one that speaks first,” Tawus said.
So he did not speak. Instead, when there were only a few meters between them, he stooped, picked up a stone, and lobbed it into the water over the seated figure’s head.
The ripples spread out over the lake. Among some reeds at the far end of the little beach, a duck gave a low warning quack to its fellows. The man on the log turned ‘round.
“Tawus,” he exclaimed, laying down his field glasses and rising to his feet with a broad smile of welcome, “Tawus, my dear fellow. It’s been a very long time.”
The likeness between the two of them would have been instantly apparent to any observer, even from a distance. They had the same lithe bearing, the same high cheekbones and aquiline nose, the same thick mane of gray hair. But the man by the water was simply dressed in a white shirt and white breeches, while Tawus still wore his magnificent cloak with its shifting patterns and its restless eyes. And Tawus stood stiffly while the other man, still smiling, extended his arms, as if he expected Tawus to fall into his embrace.
Tawus did not move or bend.
“You’ve put it about that you’re Fabbro himself,” he said, “or so I’ve heard.”
The other man nodded.
“Well, yes. Of course there’s a sense in which I am a copy of Fabbro as you are, since this body is an analogue of the body that Fabbro was born with, rather than the body itself. But the original Fabbro ceased to exist when I came into being, so my history and his have never branched away from each another, as yours and his did, but are arranged sequentially in a single line, a single story. So yes, I’m Fabbro. All that is left of Fabbro is me, and I have finally entered my own creation. It seemed fitting, now that both Esperine and I are coming to a close.”
Tawus considered this for a moment. He had an impulse to ask about the world beyond Esperine, that vast and ancient universe in which Fabbro had been born and grown up. For of course Fabbro’s was the only childhood that Tawus could remember, Fabbro’s the only youth. He was naturally curious to know how things had changed out there and to hear news of the people from Fabbro’s past: friends, collaborators, male and female lovers, children (actual biological children: children of Fabbro’s body and not just his mind).
“Aren’t those memories a distraction?” the cloak asked him through his skin. “Isn’t that stuff his worry and not yours?”
“Yes,” he silently agreed, “and to ask about it would muddy the water. It would confuse the issue of worlds and their ownership.”
He looked Fabbro in the face.
“You had no business coming into Esperine,” he told him. “We renounced your world and you in turn gave this world to us to be our own. You’ve no right to come barging back in here now, interfering, undermining my authority, undermining the authority of the Five.”
(It was Five now, not Six, because of Cassandra’s annihilation in the Chrome Wars.)
“Some might say you’d undermined each other’s authority quite well without my help, with your constant warring, and your famines and your plagues and all of that.”
“That’s a matter for us, not you.”
“Possibly so,” said Fabbro. “Possibly so. But in my defense, I have tried to keep out of the way since I arrived in this world.”
“You let it be known you were here, though. That was enough.”
Fabbro tipped his head from side to side, weighing this up.
“Enough? Do you really think so? Surely for my mere presence to have had an impact, there would have had to be something in Esperine that could be touched by it. There had to be a me-shaped hole. Otherwise wouldn’t I just be some harmless old man up in the mountains?”
He sat down on the log again
“Come and sit with me, Tawus.” He patted a space beside him. “This is my favorite spot, my grandstand seat. There’s always something happening here. Day. Night. Evening. Morning. Sun. Rain. Always something new to see.”
“If you’re content with sheep and ducks,” said Tawus, and did not sit.
Fabbro watched him. After a few seconds, he smiled.
“That’s quite a coat you’ve got there,” he observed.
Many of the peacock eyes turned towards him, questioningly. Others glanced with renewed vigor in every other direction, as if suspecting diversionary tactics.
“I’ve heard,” Fabbro went on, “that it can protect you, make you invisible, change your appearance, allow you to leap from planet to planet without going through the space in between. I’ve been told that it can tell you of dangers, and draw your attention to things you might wish to know, and even give you counsel, as perhaps it’s doing now. That is some coat!”
“He is seeking to rile you,” the cloak silently whispered. “You asked me to warn you if he did this.”
“Don’t patronize me Fabbro,” Tawus said, “I am your copy not your child. You know that to construct this cloak I simply needed to understand the algorithm on which Esperine is founded, and you know that I do understand it every bit as well as you.”
“Yes of course. I’m just struck by the different ways in which we’ve used that understanding. I used it to make a more benign world than my own, within which countless lives could, for a limited time, unfold and savour their existence. You used it to set yourself apart from the rest of this creation, insulate yourself, wrap yourself up in your own little world of one.”
“I could easily have made another complete world as you did, as perfect as Esperine in every way. But any world that I made would necessarily exist within this frame, your frame, and therefore still be a part of Esperine, even if it’s equal or it’s superior in design. Do you really wonder that I chose instead to find a way of setting myself apart?”
Fabbro did not answer. He gave a half-shrug, then looked out at the lake.
“I’ve not come here to apologize,” Tawus said. “I hope you know that. I have no regrets about my rebellion.”
Fabbro turned towards him.
“Oh, don’t worry, I know why you came. You came to destroy me. And of course it is possible to destroy me now that I’m here in Esperine, just as it was possible for you and the others to destroy your sister Cassandra when she tried to place a brake on your ambitions. In order to achieve her destruction you found a way of temporarily modifying that part of the original algorithm that protected the seven of you from physical harm. I assume you have a weapon with you now that works in the same way. I guess it’s hidden somewhere in that cloak.”
“But knowing it doesn’t help him,” whispered the cloak through Tawus’s skin.
Another duck had alighted on the water, smaller and differently colored than to the ones that were already there. (It had black wings and a russet head.) Fabbro picked up his binoculars and briefly observed it, before laying them down again, and turning once more to his recalcitrant creation.
“Be that as it may,” he said, “I certainly wasn’t led to expect an apology. They told me the six of you set out in this direction armed to the teeth and in a great fury. You had a formidable space fleet with you, they said, and huge armies at your back. They told me that cloak of yours was fairly fizzing and sparking with pent-up energy. They said that it turned all the air around you into a giant lens, so that you were greatly magnified and seemed to your followers to be a colossus blazing with fire, striding out in front of them as they poured through the interplanetary gates.”
Tawus snatched a stone up from the beach and flung it out over the water.
“You are allowing yourself to be put on the defensive,” warned the Peacock Cloak. “But remember that he has no more power than you. In fact he has far less. Thanks to your foresight in creating me, you are the one who is protected, not him. And, unlike him, you are armed.”
Tawus turned to face Fabbro.
“You set us inside this world,” he said, “then turned away and left us to it. And that was fine, that was the understanding from the beginning. That was your choice and ours. But now, when it suits you because you are growing old, you come wandering in to criticize what we have achieved. What right do you have to do that, Fabbro? You were absent when the hard decisions were being made. How can you know that you would have done anything different yourself?”
“When have I criticized you? When have I claimed I would have done something different?”
Fabbro gave a short laugh.
“Think, Tawus, think. Stop indulging your anger and think for a moment about the situation we are in. How could I say that I would have done something different? What meaning could such a claim possibly have when you and I were one and the same person at the beginning of all this?”
“We began as one person, but we are not one person now. Origins are not everything.”
Fabbro looked down at his hands, large and long-fingered as Tawus’s were.
“No,” he said, “I agree. It must be so. Otherwise there would only ever be one thing.”
“You made your choice,” Tawus said. “You should have stuck to it and stayed outside.”
“Hence the armies, hence the striding like a colossus at their head, hence the plan to seek me out and destroy me?”
Fabbro looked up at Tawus with an expression that was half a frown and half a smile.
“Yes,” Tawus said. “Hence all those things.”
“But where are the armies now?” he asked. “Where is the striding colossus? Where is this “we” you speak about? An awful lot of the energy has dissipated, has it not? The nearer you got to me, the faster it all fell away. They’ve all come back to me, you know, your armies, your brothers, your sisters. They have all come to me and asked to become part of me once again.”
Some of the eyes on the cloak glanced inquiringly upwards at Tawus’s face, others remained fixed on Fabbro, who had lifted his binoculars and was once again looking at bird life out on the lake.
“Fire the gun and you will be Fabbro,” the Peacock Cloak told its master. “You will be the one to whom the armies and the Five have all returned. Your apparent isolation, your apparent diminishment, is simply an artifact of there being two of you here, two rival versions of the original Fabbro. But you are the one I shield and not him. You are the one with the weapon.”
Fabbro laid down his field glasses and turned towards the man who still stood stiffly apart from him.
“Come Tawus,” he coaxed gently, patting the surface of the log beside him. “Come and sit down. I won’t bite, I promise. It’s almost the end, after all. Surely we’re both too old, and it’s too late in the day, for us to be playing this game?”
Tawus picked up another stone and flung it out into the lake. The ripples spread over the smooth surface. Quack quack went the ducks near to where it fell, and one of them fluttered its wings and half-flew a few yards further off, scrabbling at the surface with its feet.
“The armies are irrelevant,” Tawus said. “The Five are irrelevant. You know that. For these purposes they are simply fields of force twisting and turning between you and me. The important thing is not that they have come back to you. No. The important thing is that I have not.”
Fabbro watched his face and did not speak
“I gave their lives purpose,” Tawus went on, beginning to pace restlessly up and down. “I gave them progress. I gave them freedom. I gave them cities and nations. I gave them hope. I gave them something to believe in and somewhere to go. You just made a shell. You made a clockwork toy. It was me, through my rebellion, that turned it into a world. Why else did they all follow me?”
He looked around for another stone, found a particularly big one, and lobbed it out even further across the lake. It sent a whole flock of ducks squawking into the air.
“Please sit down, Tawus. I would really like you to sit with me.”
Tawus did not respond. Fabbro shrugged and looked away.
“Why exactly do you think they followed you?” he asked after a short time.
“Because I was in your image but I wasn’t you,” Tawus answered at once. “I was like you, but at the same time I was one of them. Because I stood up for this world as a world in its own right, belonging to those who lived in it, and not simply as a plaything of yours.”
“Which was what I wanted you to do,” he said.
The day was moving into evening. The eastern ridge of peaks across the water glowed gold from the sun that was setting opposite them in the west.
“After the sun sets,” Fabbro calmly said, “the world will end. Everyone has come back to me. It’s time that you and I brought things to a close.”
Tawus was caught off guard. So little time. It seemed he had miscalculated somewhat, not having the benefit of the Olympian view that Fabbro had enjoyed until recently, looking in from outside of Constructive Thought. He had not appreciated that the end was quite as close as that.
But he was not going to show his surprise.
“I suppose you are going to lecture me,” he said, “about the suffering I caused with my wars.”
As he spoke he was gathering up stones from the beach, hastily, almost urgently, as if they had some vital purpose.
“I suppose you’re going to go on about all the children whose parents I took from them,” he said.
He threw a stone. Splash. Quack.
“And the rapes that all sides perpetrated,” he said, throwing a stone again, “and the tortures,” throwing yet another stone, “and the massacres.”
He had run out of stones. He turned angrily towards Fabbro.
“I suppose you want to castigate me for turning skilled farmers and hunters and fishermen into passive workers in dreary city streets, spending their days manufacturing things they didn’t understand, and their evenings staring at images on screens manufactured for them by someone else.”
He turned away, shaking his head, looking around vaguely for more stones.
“I used to think about you looking in from outside,” he said. “When we had wars, when we were industrializing and getting people off the land, all of those difficult times. I used to imagine you judging me, clucking your tongue, shaking your head. But you try and bring progress to a world without any adverse consequences for anyone. You just try it.”
“Come on Tawus,” Fabbro begged him. “Sit with me. You know you’re not really going to destroy me. You know you can’t really reverse the course that this world, like any world, must take. It isn’t only your armies that have fallen away from you, Tawus, it is your own steely will. It has no purpose any more.”
But the cloak offered another point of view.
“Destroy Fabbro and you will become him,” it silently whispered. “Then you can put back the clock itself.”
Tawus knew it was true. Without Fabbro to stop him, he could indeed postpone the end, not forever, but for several more generations. And he could rule Esperine during that time as he had never ruled before, with no Fabbro outside, no one to look in and judge him. The cloak was right. He would become Fabbro, he would become Fabbro and Tawus both at once. It was possible, and what was more, it had been his reason for coming here in the first place.
He glanced down at Fabbro. He looked quickly away again across the lake. Ten whole seconds passed.
Then Tawus reached slowly for the clasp of the Peacock Cloak. He hesitated. He lowered his hand. He reached for the clasp again. His fingers were trembling because of the contradictory signals they were receiving from his brain, but finally he unfastened the cloak, removing it slowly and deliberately at first, and then suddenly flinging it away from himself, as if he feared it might grab hold and refuse to let him go. It snagged on a branch of a small oak tree and hung there, one corner touching the stony ground. Still its clever eyes darted about, green and gold and black. It was watching Tawus, watching Fabbro. As ever, it was observing everything, analyzing everything, evaluating options and possibilities. But yet, as is surely proper in a garment hanging from a tree, it had no direction of its own, it had no separate purpose.
Across the lake, the eastern hills shone. There were sheep up there grazing, bathed in golden light that picked them out against the mountainside. But the hills on the western side were also making their presence felt, for their shadows were reaching out like long fingers over the two small figures by the lake, one standing, one seated on the log, neither one speaking. Without his cloak, in a simple white shirt and white breeches, Tawus looked even more like Fabbro. A stranger could not have told them apart.
A flock of geese came flying in from a day of grazing lower down the valley. They honked peaceably to one another as they splashed down on the softly luminous water.
“When I was walking up here,” Tawus said at last, “I met three children, and they reminded me of some other children I saw once, or glimpsed anyway, when I was riding past in a tank. It was in the middle of a war and I didn’t pay much heed to them at the time. I was too busy listening to reports and giving orders. But for some reason they stuck in my mind.”
He picked up a stone, tossed it half-heartedly out into the lake.
“Their ruined home lay behind them,” he went on, “and in the ruins, most probably, lay the burned corpses of their parents. Not that their parents would have been combatants or anything. It was just that their country, their sleepy land of Meadow Lee, had temporarily become the square on the chessboard that the great game was focused on, the place where the force fields happened to intersect. Pretty soon the focal point would be somewhere else and the armies would move on from Meadow Lee and forget all about it until the next time. But those children wouldn’t forget would they? Not while they still lived. That day would stain and darken their entire lives, like the smoke stained and darkened their pretty blue sky. What could be worse, when you think about it, than filling up a small mind with such horrors? That, in a way, is also creating a world. It is creating a small but perfect hell.”
He snatched up yet another stone, but, with a swift graceful movement, Fabbro had jumped up and grasped Tawus’s wrist to stop him throwing it.
“Enough, Tawus, enough. The rebellion is over. The divisions you brought about have all been healed. The killed and the killers. The tortured and the torturers. The enslaved and the enslavers. All are reconciled. All have finally come back.”
“Everyone but me.”
Tawus let the stone fall to the ground. His creator released his hand, sat down again on the log and once again patted the space beside him.
Tawus looked at Fabbro, and at the log, and back at Fabbro again. And, finally, he sat down.
The two of them were completely in shadow now, had become shadows themselves. The smooth surface of the lake still glowed with soft pinks and blues, but the birds on its surface had become shadows too, warm living shadows, softly murmuring to one another in their various watery tongues, suspended between the glowing lake and the glowing sky. And more shadow was spreading up the hillside opposite, engulfing the sheep one after another, taking them from golden prominence to peaceful obscurity. Soon only the peaks still dipped into the stream of sunlight that was pouring horizontally far above the heads of the two men.
“Everyone but you,” Fabbro mildly agreed, reaching down for his binoculars once more so he could look at some unusual duck or other that he’d noticed out on the water.
Tawus glanced across at his Peacock Cloak, dangling from its tree. That tawdry thing, he suddenly thought. Why did I choose to hide myself in that? The cloak was shimmering and glittering, giving off its own light in the shadow, and its eyes were still brightly shining, as if it was attempting to be a rival to those last brilliant rays of sunlight, or to outglow the softly glowing lake. It was all that was left of Tawus’s empire, his will, his power.
He turned to Fabbro.
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” he began. “I don’t in any way regret what . . . ”
Then he broke off. He passed his still trembling hand over his face.
“I’m sorry, Fabbro,” he said in a completely different voice. “I’ve messed it all up haven’t I? I’ve been a fool. I’ve spoiled everything.”
Fabbro lowered his binoculars and patted Tawus on the hand.
“Well maybe you have. I’m not sure. But you’re quite right, you know, that I did just create a shell, and it was your rebellion that made it a world. Deep down I always knew that rebellion was necessary. I must have done, mustn’t I, since whatever you did came from somewhere inside me? Rebellion was necessary. I’d just hoped that in Esperine it would somehow take a different path.”
Only the highest tips of the peaks were still shining gold. They were like bright orange light bulbs. And then, one by one, they went out.
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, June, 2010.
Chris Beckett's short stories began appearing in 1990, with "A Matter of Survival" in Interzone, and have since been published regularly on both sides of the Atlantic. He has published two short story collections, The Turing Test and The Peacock Cloak. The Turing Test won the Edge Hill short fiction award in 2009, a rare instance of an SF book winning a non-SF literary award. His four novels to date are The Holy Machine, Marcher, Dark Eden and Mother of Eden. Dark Eden won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2013. Chris Beckett has three grown up children and lives in Cambridge, England with his wife Maggie.