A Handful of Dust
Daniel K. Appelquist
Rembrandt looked out of his tenth floor window and crooned softly to the parrot perched on his wrist. The city lay outside, a strange mix of traditional, postmodern and futurist styles, now bathed in the light of the noonday suns, but Rembrandt's thoughts were elsewhere. His thoughts, specifically, were of Picasso. It had been ten days now since Picasso had ventured out into that cityscape and they had heard nothing. Not a peep.
Monet looked up from the table and spoke. "Anything?"
It took a few seconds for Rembrandt to respond, but his answer was quick enough not to provoke a second asking. "No. Just the same." He turned, and the parrot left his arm, flying off towards some unknown perch. "Do you really care?"
Monet sat back in his sparkling chair and gave Rembrandt an icy stare, but remained silent.
"What if he never comes back?" Rembrandt continued.
"But what if he doesn't. You certainly wouldn't shed a tear."
Monet rolled his eyes. "Picasso and I have had our differences, but that's no reason for me to want him out of the picture."
Rembrandt sat down, and as he did so, a chair came into existence under him. His eyes were still locked on Monet's. Increasingly of late, he was beginning to believe that Monet was a bit off-color. At first, he had seemed simply withdrawn, but his arrogant attitude now betrayed something Rembrandt detested, something that was only now becoming apparent. "If he doesn't come back, what are you going to do?"
Monet's collar, normally green, suddenly glowed bright red, betraying his emotions to Rembrandt even if he would not openly display them. "I will remain here. I'm perfectly content to stay here."
"You're not curious about what lies outside the door?"
"I've seen it. You've seen it. You were just looking at it!"
"And that doesn't interest you?"
Rembrandt looked away, disgusted. After a second or two, he looked back, his eyes gleaming with purpose. "Well it interests me. If Picasso doesn't come back by tomorrow, I'm going out after him."
"I'm tired of being cooped up in here like some sort of animal," Rembrandt continued, ignoring the other's response, still feeling the need to justify his decision.
"Has it occurred to you that that's all we are: Animals, performing for someone else's pleasure?"
Monet's tone grew brusque. "As a matter of fact, it has. I've spent a great deal of time thinking about who we are and how we got in this unlikely situation and, as I told Picasso, my conclusion is that it is best not to think about it." With this he looked back at Rembrandt, challenging him for some sort of rebuttal. Rembrandt snorted defiantly, got up, and left.
The sparkling remains of the chair slowly disintegrated as Monet looked back towards the table and his book.
A person reading a story might expect certain elements. For one, they might expect a setting which they could relate to. Certainly they would not want to be thrust into a cold, surreal universe where the characters are named after famous painters and chairs appear and disappear, seemingly at will. Any reader expecting this sort of textual trickery would be brutally disappointed by most modern fiction. In fact, it was just such disappointment which caused Monet to look away from his book after a short while and seek some other form of entertainment. He stood and walked slowly over to the window. As he turned his back, table, chair and book melted into nothingness.
The window presented him with the same shifting scene. Much of the cityscape lay below him now but a few of the buildings jutted up towards the sky. Many of the buildings lumbered along at a slow to moderate pace, some stopping momentarily in their journey to allow others to pass. As he watched, a massive stone cathedral slowly ground to a halt to make way for a squat, round building which looked like it might also serve some religious purpose. There were never any people to be seen in the city.
Monet leaned out towards the window and looked down. Below, the river was reasonably quiet. On some days, massive amounts of debris could be seen floating down it. Today, it merely streamed past, brown and silty, making oval patches of bubbly froth around the streetlights. For the first time, Monet thought it bizarre that there should be streetlights on a river, but this thought was dismissed from his mind by a sharp noise.
"Let me in!"
It was Picasso. It was definitely the muffled voice of Picasso.
Rembrandt sat up in bed, his eyes springing open.
"Let me in!"
There was no mistaking the voice. He sprang up and walked to the edge of the room, the wall parting as he passed through it. A story which switches back and forth between two or more characters' points of view can be very confusing indeed. The Parrot, being deaf, heard nothing.
The main door was the only object in the building which actually required some effort to affect. When Rembrandt arrived, Monet was already there, eying the circular stone carefully.
"Why haven't you started?" Rembrandt asked accusingly.
"You know very well that I couldn't even make a start by myself. It takes two."
Rembrandt knew this, but he needed some excuse to abuse Monet nonetheless. He hated himself for this need but he made no outward apologies. He moved towards the massive stone that covered the main entry way and began to push. "Come on!"
Monet followed suit, muttering something under his breath. Soon the slab of stone was rolling under their combined pressure. A small crack of the doorway was uncovered. This crack slowly grew in size until a small man stepped through, a canvas bag slung over one shoulder. Outside, they could see his makeshift canoe tethered to the railing of the stair. None talked until the stone was set securely back into place. When the task was accomplished, Monet and Rembrandt looked their colleague over in frank interest.
"Well, don't you have any questions?" Picasso's zealous voice broke the silence.
"You're quite a sight," Monet commented with more than a hint of cynicism in his voice.
"You two are quite a sight yourselves! A sight for sore eyes."
"Didn't you find anyone else?" Rembrandt asked cautiously.
"Not a soul."
Rembrandt paled. "Then we are truly alone."
Picasso walked over to him, trailing mud and silt from his feet. "Don't lose hope yet! I didn't cover even a fraction of the city. The city is even more immense than it looks from the window. It will take years to explore it all," but as soon as the words escaped Picasso's lips he knew that they had been a mistake. Rembrandt was like a small child. His urge for instant gratification overpowered his reason and his logic. The thought that exploring the city might take years or even weeks filled him only with grief.
"That long?" he sighed and hung his head.
"But now we are armed with a weapon." Picasso reached into his back and pulled forth a paper scroll. Spreading it out on the floor of the entryway, he declared "this, as far as I can tell, is a map. A map of the city."
Monet scoffed. "But that's plainly ridiculous, Picasso. As we have observed, the city is a moving landscape, it never remains constant. How can one make a map of such a place?"
Picasso waved his hands in the air as Monet spoke, obviously quite excited. "That's what I first thought, but I found this map infinitely more useful than I first expected it to be."
"Do you mean that it changes with the city?" Rembrandt queried, wide eyes turning to stare at the unfurled scroll.
"I've never actually seen it change, but it always seems to show basically the correct configuration. While travelling back from here," he indicated a position on the map "I made it a point to stare at the map continuously for a good while. I never caught it changing, but somehow, the positions of the buildings, even though they were moving, were always correct."
Rembrandt looked to Picasso in wonder and then stared back at the map. Monet simply started on the long trek up the winding stairs to their tenth floor apartment. Picasso rolled up the map, much to the dismay of Rembrandt, and also started up.
"So what are we to do?"
"It's clear that if more than one of us leaves this place, they won't be able to get back in. There's no way to move the door from the outside."
Rembrandt rolled his eyes at what he considered to be Monet's defeatist attitude. "But there's every possibility that we can find just as good if not better accommodations elsewhere within the city."
"There's no proof of that."
Picasso, who had remained largely silent throughout the conversation, saw fit to interrupt now. "I didn't find a way into any of the buildings, you know. I did tell you that, didn't I?"
"There's no other way."
"I will stay," Monet stated in an infuriatingly final manner.
"If we go, you have to go with us!" Rembrandt was furious. His collar was bright green, and even seemed to grow brighter with each pulse of aggression. Involuntarily, he reached out into the air and a glass of ice-water appeared in his hand. He downed the water and his collar began to grow dimmer.
Picasso detested the way the other two always fought, but somehow he felt connected to both of them, if only by the fact that they had lived together for so long (how long, he could not remember, but he knew, or sensed that it had been a great deal of time.) He tentatively spoke out. "It may help if we arm ourselves with a goal." He unfurled the map, and Rembrandt could see that already there were some changes from when he had looked on it last. The forms on the map remained static, though. Picasso spread the map out on a table which came into existence underneath it and indicated a position with an index finger. "We are here." Rembrandt could see their building, marked by a red .
"If we travel down the river this way," Picasso continued, tracing a line with his finger, following the blue streak of the river, until he reached a white . Next to the were the words 'the edge.' "This can be our goal."
"The edge of what?" Monet spoke up.
"I don't know. On my journey, I travelled this way." He indicated the opposite direction from the . "It was here I found the map." He indicated a V sitting on the side of the river. "It was lying on what looked like an altar, outside a huge stone cathedral.
"I think I've seen that building," Rembrandt piped up.
"This," he again indicated the , "is the only representation on the map to be labeled. That must hold some significance."
"But we have no idea what," Monet cut in. "Your addition of the 'goal' to our journey is as meaningless as the journey would have been in the first place!"
"Nonsense!" Rembrandt almost shouted. "Don't you see what this means? 'The Edge' obviously indicates an escape route -- a passage to somewhere else."
"But it occurs nowhere near the physical edge of the city," Monet argued, gesturing violently towards the map.
Rembrandt's collar began to grow brighter again. "The city moves! Picasso has confirmed this."
Monet nearly pounced on Rembrandt. "You're just worried you won't find anything and then you won't be able to come back. If you go, it's final. You can't stand the thought of being trapped out there with me in here. Look at yourself!"
Rembrandt sighed as if the tension and energy of the day and of the moment were released in that one moment. As his collar cooled back to its normal azure shade, he plunked down into a form-fitting couch which had not existed a moment before and looked away, toward the now- darkened window. "Perhaps you're right."
Monet simply looked pleased with himself.
"But did it occur to you that you too would be trapped within this apartment?" Rembrandt started again, this time more with a pleading tone than with anger.
"He's got a point. I intend to go back out and to not return. Rembrandt certainly intends to do the same."
"Picasso, I always figured you for such a level-headed fellow," Monet replied, more to himself than to any other speaker.
"That I am, Monet."
They left two mornings after.
The huge portal rolled back into its frame with a chilling finality. When it was done, and the three were left outside of the door, looking back at their former abode, there was only silence. Rembrandt felt a shudder down his spine and felt for a second that he had left something very important in the house, but he knew that there was nothing. The parrot could not be coaxed out and that had disturbed him greatly, but other than that he was content to start his new life. After the decision, Monet's attitude had changed from sullen apathy to sullen acceptance. He kept up with the others as they walked down towards the rushing river, but his expression was colored with jaded overtones.
Picasso led the others down to the dock and pulled his makeshift canoe by the tether he had so carefully fashioned. He, too was scared, although he felt compelled to exude an air of detached superiority. He was, after all, supposed to be the experienced one. It had been his idea to brave the exterior city. But now he was committed. He knew that he had let himself be prodded into it by Rembrandt's urgings, but now there was no going back. One leg at a time, he stepped into the canoe, and looked back at the other two expectantly.
After much fumbling, they were clear of the dock and paddling swiftly down the river: Picasso steering with one oar, Monet providing the grim motive power with the other and Rembrandt sitting in the prow looking forward. As the city sped past them on all sides, Rembrandt began to sing softly to himself.
Looking back on the building they had come from, they now saw how much it towered over this section of the city. It was a giant, standing amongst midgets; a massive stone monolith which tapered at its top to a sharp point. As Rembrandt looked back, he counted up floors until he reached the tenth, in some vain hope of finding a toehold of familiarity, but his effort was fruitless. Every story was the same. They had never been able to enter any of the other apartments.
The terrain they were now passing through was fairly familiar to Rembrandt already, but it took on a completely different aspect when viewed from the ground. From ten stories up, all had seemed orderly and neat but now the true nature of the city was becoming apparent to him. Many of the buildings were only empty shells where residences and markets may once have existed but were no more. It seemed to Rembrandt that the material used in these shells must have somehow outlived the interiors of the structures. Pieces of what he took to be building material hung tattered from gaping holes. Some of these were so close to the ground that the river had spilled into them. They had become part of the river, and the river had carried away their contents, but the shells remained, indestructible.
Once in a while, sitting among these rotting shells, there appeared a larger, more grandiose structure. These were typically haggard but seemed like they at least had some life left in them. They varied in shape but all of them seemed like meeting halls of some sort. Some, perhaps were large stores? Some were simply strange. About half a mile from where they started, there loomed across their path a huge sphere with no visible entrance or window.
"We're going to hit that," Rembrandt stated nervously.
Picasso did not seemed distressed. "It doesn't look like it now, but there's space underneath it."
Still, it loomed up in front of them. Rembrandt strained to look for Picasso's opening but he couldn't find it. What if the space underneath had shrunk? What if the huge sphere were slowly sinking into the river, eventually to cut it off and form a dam? "You're sure."
Monet spoke: "Shut up."
"Well, I'd prefer not to be crushed to death today, ok?" Rembrandt spat back, but by that time they were close enough that he could see there was indeed a space underneath the huge structure. Still, he was nervous until they had reached open air. When they emerged from underneath, an entirely new scene awaited them.
For a moment, they all sat, mesmerized. There had been no warning, no sign that such a violent change would take place. In contrast to the drab, decimated landscape behind them, spires made seemingly of cut glass or even diamond towered over the them. Inexplicably, the river which was silty and muddy before had turned crystal-clear. Rembrandt wasn't sure when the transition had taken place but his mind didn't stay on this long for he immediately noticed that the sky had changed color.
"It's a dome," someone said. Rembrandt was so awe-struck that it took a few seconds for Rembrandt to register that it had been Monet speaking. He could see now that Monet was right. Running across the sky, intersecting in a triangular pattern were white lines which must have been support beams. It was impossible for Rembrandt to judge how far away those beams were.
Monet looked at Picasso accusingly. "You didn't tell us..."
"I didn't know," Picasso cut him off sharply, unrolling his map and studying it. "The city constantly moves and changes. From studying the map, I've found that individual buildings move but large sections of the city also can move." He indicated a portion of his map, a circular region marked in the center by a . "This area must be what we've entered now. The river we're on clearly intersects it now, where it didn't before." At this point the reader might be getting slightly annoyed by the ubiquitous presence of this map. The map is only vaguely described, and seems to pop up only when convenient. Perhaps a full description of the map would help to ground it a bit....
Picasso put away his map and began to steer again.
"This wasn't here when you...?"
"It's beautiful," Rembrandt said dreamily.
Monet looked up. "Yes."
A change in the wind brought with it a strange howling sound which sent a chill through the minds of the three travelers. If there was any doubt now that they would never return then it was the product of insanity, a derangement so grotesque as to be unthinkable. The sound was like a voice and yet was discernibly inhuman. Soon a second tone, higher and shriller than the first, started up as the lower and more sombre one began to die down. Rembrandt stopped rowing and stood transfixed as the tones rolled over him. As the first tone died away completely, he began to regain some composure and turned to stare back at the other two. Their eyes were glazed over, the whole of their brains devoted to their ears. Rembrandt had heard great symphonies during his time in the flat. His ears had been massaged by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart all in turn. No sound could compare in beauty to the simple tones he heard now.
"It's got to be some atmospheric phenomenon; a by-product of the dome structure, perhaps..." Monet's words cut across Rembrandt's dreamy mood like a hot knife. He looked back at the other to see a face still transfixed. Monet's mind was more analytical, or at least a portion of it was. Looking more closely, Rembrandt could see that his expression was not that of a man overcome by beauty but of a man in the throes of deep thought. Picasso, as always maintained his composure. Even now, Rembrandt could see that the sound was beginning to lose its effect on him. Picasso's eyes fell by the degree until they again rested on the horizon. Rembrandt looked back there as well, as another mesmerizing tone began to dominate their surroundings.
"Look!" The voice was Monet's. Their journey through the domed country had lasted more than a day now. So far, the scenery had been somewhat uniform, but as Picasso followed the line traced by Monet's pointed finger he began to feel that their fortunes were about to change. Just on the edge of the horizon in front of them there stood an island. There, barely visible, there was a huge building, itself the size of a small city, judging from the distance. Picasso tried a quick mental calculation and dismissed his figures as outrageous.
It took an hour before he could begin to make out the details of the structure, and even then, there seemed no sense to it. It was a huge mass of twisted angles. It was in the rough shape of a mushroom, but with no curves. It was entirely composed of rectangular, triangular and rhomboid slabs, which jutted out unevenly around its mass. Crowning the top was a spire which reached fully twice as high as the building itself, and what appeared to be a cross.
In three more hours, it was looming up above them like a surrealist's nightmare. Furthermore, what they had taken to be an island had in fact been a peninsula. As they rounded the right hand side of the base, they saw that the river ended there. The rushing water fell into gratings some three miles from where the river had forked.
Confused by this, Picasso again pulled his map out and began to scrutinize it. "That's odd," he intoned. "If we're where I think we are, roughly in the center of the circular region, here, the map shows the river continuing beyond this point."
Rembrandt turned to him, just as they were coming up on the end of the river. "Well either your map is wrong, or you're interpreting it wrong. Here, let me have it." He reached past Monet and snatched it out of Picasso's hands, just as their canoe grounded itself in the shadow of the huge structure.
The instant they hit ground, Rembrandt and map were gone. A shadowy image replaced the space he had inhabited only a moment before, then nothing. Picasso and Monet could only stare. Monet, being within hand's reach of Rembrandt's former volume, reached out cautiously, as if still expecting to find something there. When he did not, he waved his hand around tentatively, then furiously, anxious to find some indication that Rembrandt was (or had ever been) there.
Picasso simply stared, open-eyed, silent, their collars glowing a deep azure.
Rembrandt turned to Monet, who was not there. Frustrated at Monet's absence, he turned inquisitively to Picasso to find him also absent. It was only at this point that he began to re-evaluate his situation. The surroundings had changed but there had been no jump, no discontinuity. The grey walls that now surrounded him seemed always to have been there. There was no other explanation. And yet, he remembered the shoreline; the canoe; the map! He looked about him, and found it also missing. He shook his head in an attempt to rid himself of this confusion, but the confusion remained, undaunted.
He began to sit, but fell, instead. Suddenly annoyed at the non- appearance of a chair, he scrambled to his feet, determined to do something. But there was nothing to do. It was at this point that he noticed the golden sphere. There was no way to know if the sphere had been there when he had 'appeared,' for lack of a better word. It was there now, however. It shimmered, suspended halfway between floor and ceiling, awaiting instructions. Where had that thought come from, Rembrandt wondered. Indeed, he had the distinct feeling that the sphere was somehow awaiting direction, or instruction.
Shrugging his shoulders, he said "come here."
Dutifully, it approached, bobbing slowly through the air until it hovered not a foot away from him. Well, at least something obeys me around here, he thought.
Monet sat on the sandy bank of the river, staring out into the darkness, while Picasso paced back and forth behind him, a gold globe floating dutifully above his head.
"These idiotic globes don't seem to be any use," Monet remarked sourly, belting the one which hovered next to him in an offhand manner. "I mean -- what's the point of a metal globe that follows you around -- can it do anything? Can it produce food?" He looked pointedly at it. "Produce food." It remained silent. "Nothing." He looked away, disgusted.
Picasso stopped and regarded his globe, which he had almost forgotten about; he was contemplating the dimensions of the structure towering over him. Even though the darkness hid its form, it still seemed to loom over them, a tangible presence bearing down, making the very air heavier with its unimaginable countenance. "They could be monitors -- They could serve no purpose at all, other than to report back to their masters what our doings are."
"Why, then, do they seem to obey our simple commands?"
"A ruse? Trickery?"
Monet's lips cracked into a wry smile. "You're beginning to think like me, Picasso." His expression soured again as his thoughts returned to Rembrandt. Monet was accustomed to thinking of Rembrandt as a fool, and it did him no good at all to be worried for him, even, perhaps, guilty that he did not.
"You know," Picasso interrupted. "The globes may simply seem unable to obey commands about food and such because they are unable; assuming they themselves can't transport us."
"A broad assumption, considering Rembrandt's case," Monet retorted.
"Nevertheless, assuming that: Perhaps there is no food to be found here. And no way into the structure above?" He turned to regard the globe coldly. "Perhaps these globes once served some purpose, as rudimentary guiding machines, but there is no longer anything to be guided to."
"A cold thought, Picasso. A cold thought."
"Come morning, we have to move on. There is no other choice."
"Without your Map?" Monet raised his eyebrows.
"Indeed. Our goal is still the same. We must reach the region marked as 'the edge'."
Monet cut in "Without a Map, how can we?"
Monet, silent to this, continued to stare out into the clear water.
Rembrandt, accompanied by the small gold ball, climbed a metal staircase with metal walls.
"Considering Rembrandt's case." Rembrandt spun around at the sudden voice of Monet, but saw no-one.
"Come morning, we must move on." Now Picasso's voice hung in the air.
"A cold thought, Picasso. A cold thought."
Rembrandt's eyes widened as he ascertained the source of the conversation -- the metal sphere. And, within the sphere, the ghost of an image -- Monet and Picasso, sitting on the sandy river-bed.
"There is no other choice," the image Picasso said, a smile flickering across his face.
"You're beginning to think like me, Picasso," Monet replied, now grinning. Then image, and sound abruptly faded.
Rembrandt tried to grab hold of the railing, but it did not steady him, and he fell down across the heavy, metal stairs. He looked around wildly, for the walls now seemed to contain menacing shapes. A coldness gripped him and he shivered. "No," he mouthed.
The globe sat impassively over him, silent.
Dawn broke softly over the steeples of the fortress (Picasso had begun to think of it as a fortress sometime during his fitful sleep under its oppressive shadow.) Picasso's eyes sprang open to behold Monet sitting dutifully on the bank, legs collapsed between his arms, muttering to himself.
"You hate me, don't you?" Picasso said.
Monet looked up, surprised by the other's sudden utterance. "Why do you say that? I don't, by the way."
"You hate me because I forced this situation on you," Picasso responded deliberately, his arms extending above him in an expressive yawn. "I understand perfectly."
"Don't be an idiot. It was the only way."
Picasso sat up, then stood. "It wasn't though. Everything's gone terribly wrong. We should have stayed in the apartment -- safe."
Monet remained silent, morosely contemplating the shoreline and the clear blue water of the river.
"One thing is clear," Picasso stated. "We must either devise a plan to find Rembrandt, or move on. One of the two. Sitting here, morosely contemplating the shoreline isn't getting us anywhere."
Monet turned and stared pointedly at Picasso. "I don't think you're seeing the big picture..."
Picasso was taken aback. "How do you mean?"
"I mean that we have to take careful stock of our situation, Picasso. It is my opinion that we are being deliberately manipulated."
Rembrandt broke from his slumber fitfully, grasping out for a lightswitch which did not exist, and steadfastly refused to become existent. The thick black air coalesced around him, encasing him in a veil of darkness.
"Consider our situation," continued Monet. "We have been placed here, by some unknown force. We don't remember how we got here, don't really remember any of our backgrounds at all. And now we find ourselves in this unlikely situation; run aground beneath a huge tower, in the middle of some forgotten land."
Picasso stared dumbly at him. "I don't see what you're getting at, Monet."
"If this were a piece of fiction, it wotld bd grossly unsatisfying. There's nothing for the reader to latch on to, no hook, no familiarity..." He turned and stared again out across the calm water. "...no meaning."
Picasso frowned as he regarded his comrade. "You seem depressed."
"We must find him. We cannot continue, in tacit acceptance of the events that enfold around us." So saying, Monet straightened up and began to walk calmly toward the base of the fortress. The metal globe hovering above his shoulder. After a moment, Picasso followed, drawn by the other's strength of purpose.
"Let us assume," Monet continued, "that we are pawns, playing for some unknown being's (or beings') pleasure. The question then becomes, 'Can we affect our own destinies?' "
"But how could we know if we were pawns? What if every action we took were pre-determined?" Picasso chimed in. He was beginning to catch up to Monet's thought process.
Monet continued, "Unfortunately, we can't know."
"You seem to be painting yourself into a corner..." Picasso remarked under his breath.
By the time they reached the base of the fortress, they were both panting from lack of breath. The base of the fortress was smooth, a huge obsidian wall that rose up before them beyond all reason. Monet moved his hand closest to the wall.
Rembrandt continued to crawl through darkness, following brief and faint flashes of color which played over his retinas. Perhaps they were products of his imagination, but the overwhelming darkness forced him to make a goal, any goal, and follow that goal ruthlessly. As he crawled, too scared to walk, lest he fall off some ledge or walk into a wall, he began to mutter furtively to himself.
"Damn Picasso for leading me out here. Damn Monet -- the smug bastard. A plot, that's what this has been. 'Let's get rid of that annoying Rembrandt fellow, Picasso.' 'Ok, Monet old boy, how do you suggest we do it?' 'Well...' "
There was a hollow knocking sound. Rembrandt strained his eyes to look towards the source of the sound, but it deliberately refused to come into view, hiding guiltily in the pitch-blackness of this place. He was on the verge of beginning his crawl again, when another loud, reverberating knock was issued from above.
"Who's there?" he yelled out, half in panic.
Several smaller knocks followed, modulating into a creaking, as of an ancient hinge, only now being opened after years of neglect. And with the noise came light, blinding tempests of light, pouring down from above. Rembrandt, temporarily blinded, could only desperately cover his eyes, waiting for the pain to subside.
As Monet was about to touch the wall, a tremendous thunderclap sounded, sending both Picasso and him to the ground, clasping their hands over their ears in agony. Another thunderclap sounded, followed by a series of smaller ones which seemed to quicken until they were a shrill whine, eating up the air, blotting out the natural, beautiful noises of this place, which they had begun to take for granted.
Picasso was the first to notice that the sky was falling. He pointed wildly in the direction of the river, his eyes becoming insanely dilated with fear. Monet turned to see the huge dome of the sky apparently collapsing into the horizon. Looking up, they beheld the entire sky moving, and looking away from the river, they beheld an arc of darkness, opening slowly over their heads.
When Rembrandt could finally see, he beheld a miniature landscape in front of him, revealed by a slowly opening domed lid. Above, two harsh globes hovered in the darkness, radiating a fierce light down on the landscape. The landscape itself consisted of a network of miniature glass spires, interconnected by a series of streams. In the center of the landscape, stood an enormous black tower, dwarfing the crystal spires. At the base of that tower, two figures were clasping their hands over their ears, trying to shut out the sound of the enormous dome, looking off, away from Rembrandt, at their horizon, where even now the final edge of the dome was disappearing into the ground.
For a moment, Rembrandt stood in awe, amazed by the beauty of what lay before him. Then he began to understand what he must do. They had given him a chance for revenge now, and he intended to make use of it. He reached a tentative hand out towards the cowering duo.
Out of the corner of his eye, Picasso caught movement. He turned, his eyes registered the image, but his mind refused to grasp its import. Slowly, he stood, watching the enormous hand, fingers outstretched, come closer and closer to a similarly transfixed Monet. As they touched, Rembrandt and Monet, a surge of light, stronger than any he had ever seen, overpowered him, followed by a surge of darkness.
When Picasso awoke, he was lying face down on a beach, the heat of the suns beating down on his body. When he stood, he could see the familiar landscape of the city surrounding him, although he appeared to be on a small island, separated from the city on all sides by a vast expanse of water.
For hours, he walked up and down the beach, trying to find some inkling of what had brought him here, what had happened after, or before, or during. His memory of the event was spotty, but he vaguely remembered the giant hand, the blinding light. He found no trace, no indication that any of what he remembered had actually happened. No tower, no domed sky, no metal globe hanging dutifully above his shoulder.
He sat on the sandy shoreline and watched the waves wash up and down the beach. For a brief moment, they were one with the City, endlessly rippling through variation after variation. He was sitting at the window. He was hanging high from a tree-branch. He was flying alongside the parrot, hearing what it could never hear. A tremor came up through the desert island, shaking a few of the rocks loose further up the beach where the sand turned into a desolate moonscape. In the sky, the suns raged furiously. Picasso often wondered what they talked about, the suns. He imagined debates on philosophical issues and moral principles which he, as a mere human, could not possibly comprehend. He was one of them. Even as he was the earth, the stars and the sky.
He wondered, only for a moment, where the others were. Not Rembrandt and Monet, but the others. The background characters that make any story complete. There were none. What was he doing? What was he thinking of when he had signed up for this meaningless existence? Had he even signed? How could one sign away one's soul, one's future, to a fool world with multiple suns that didn't even make sense most of the time. He slowly bent forward until his head lay in front of him in the wet sand. After a while, the tide came in and he ceased to breathe, but death did not come for him.
Like the buildings, shifting endlessly through their circular journeys, washing up and down on the shoreline of the forgotten island, his story was not, could never be, over.
This one, however, is.
Daniel K. Appelquist (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Internet publishing trailblazer. He created Quanta, the on-line magazine of Science Fiction, in 1989. He lives in Washington, D.C.
InterText stories written by Daniel K. Appelquist: "A War In the Sand" (v1n1), "Anticipation of the Night" (v1n1), "Multiplication and the Devil" (v2n1), "A Handful of Dust" (v2n1), "Tracks" (v4n3), "In VR" (v5n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Daniel K. Appelquist.