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A Man Searching
by Jeffrey L. Williams
A soothing, synthesized voice filled the taxi. "Now entering City 19, called Materoff by the inhabitants. Two standard minutes until your destination is reached."
Artiq Falerthan leaned his head against the padded seat-back. Materoff. Only three hours away from home by mag-transport, but it might as well have been on the other side of the galaxy. Three hours from the life he had once loved, to the site where that life had died.
Hills, trees, and buildings flew past Artiq's view as the auto-taxi homed in on the hotel. Not much seemed to have changed since he was here last. Of course, he hadn't been paying attention to the town's layout at that time. He had been too busy trying to come to grips with the fact that his one love, his whole reason to be, was gone from this world.
2,319 days ago, the most perfect woman who had ever gazed upon him had vanished. Threda had been Artiq's wife long enough to bear him three children, and forever color the way he viewed the world. Always positive, always alive, she had shown him that the human experience was the most incredible journey that could be undertaken.
"Destination reached," announced the voice. With a quiet hum, the hotel's valet cart attached to the taxi and withdrew Artiq's luggage. He stepped from the vehicle and gazed at the front of the hotel. The same one he and Threda had rented those years ago.
Both the hotel and the surrounding buildings, festooned with vids and banners of the coming event, looked eerily similar to the last time Artiq had been in Materoff. Shaking off an involuntary shiver, he reminded himself that the event was the exact reason he had returned.
* * *
Before the city of Materoff existed, before this planet had been terraformed, before humanity had left the confines of the original Solar System, and before humans had even thought to crawl out of the mud and grow vertebrae, something had happened on this world. A rupture between this dimension and another had appeared.
It was called an Intrusion Event. Though not a common occurrence, they had been witnessed and studied enough so that they did not cause much of a stir these days. What forces created them, where exactly they came from, no one yet knew. But they appeared every few years, for a several hours or days or weeks, and then disappeared. Most occurred near the surface of planets, but some appeared in deep space, and others in the coronae of stars.
The ruptures were almost always uniform in size. Two hundred meters on a side, fifty meters high, and lacking sharply defined edges, the Intrusions looked like pink, fuzzy rectangular cubes. Nothing ever came out, and anything that went in did not come back.
More than 2 million years before present, an Intrusion had occurred where Materoff now stands. Of course, back then, there had been no quiet hillside to mark the spot. The Intrusion had happened 60 meters below the surface of a now-extinct ocean. But it did not end there.
Since that time, every 2,320 days, the Intrusion would return. Geologists, when the phenomenon was first discovered, poured over the site, determined when the event had first appeared, and the interval between subsequent occurrences. As far as anyone knew, this was the only repeating Intrusion that had ever been observed.
As such, it had become something of a spectacle when it was first discovered, both for tourists and scientists alike. Over time, it had been studied so thoroughly that not many scientists attended the event these days. Tourists still came in fairly large numbers, though not nearly as many as before. Other mysteries and phenomena had appeared in the universe to take it's place in the spotlight.
2,319 days ago, Artiq and Threda had come to Materoff to see the Intrusion. Their son, the youngest of three children, had just turned 6 months old, and they decided to take some time off for themselves. It had been cool on the day of the event, and the crowd on the railing that over-looked the hillside had been packed closely together. Maybe too closely.
When the Intrusion began, the excited crowd, including Artiq and Threda, had pressed against the railing to get closer. A section gave way, later blamed on a malfunction in the monitor and repair droid assigned to this area. Threda had pushed a small child to safety before the crush of the crowd forced her off of the platform.
She never hit the soft ground that lay just 3 meters below. She never even had time to scream. Instead, Artiq had watched as she disappeared into a band of pinkish mist from the Intrusion. Threda's death had been neat, clean, fast, and unbearably permanent. While no one knew exactly what the other dimension was like, it was assumed to be incompatible with human life.
Deaths from Intrusions were rare, but not unheard of. She was not the first to have perished. Nor was she the prettiest, the most powerful, or the most popular. But Threda had been Artiq's world, his everything. And in a heartbeat, he had lost her.
* * *
Artiq swiped his ID card at the hotel registry. The screen displayed the path to his room and asked if he would like details of any Event celebrations. He pressed the No button, and was given his key.
The auto-valet had already unpacked his belongings by the time he got to the room. These rooms looked the same as they did when he was here last, when the Town Council, and doctors, and scientists, and priests had met him inside these very walls. Meetings intended to comfort, mollify, and hopefully explain why the most wonderful thing in his life had been taken away. Unbidden, the past came welling up in his throat. The anger and heartbreak had been sharp in those years since Threda's death.
Artiq sat heavily on the bed and looked at the wall screen. It was set to show the current scene as it would appear if there were windows in this building. The yellow sun of the binary pair was setting, silently chased by the much dimmer red dwarf. Pink, wispy clouds drifted across the sky, their tails turning blood-red where the yellow sun's light ended. Martinella, their oldest daughter, had called those "hurt-clouds" when she was young.
He was glad the children had not come with him. They had been growing distant in the time since their mother's death, and felt like he needed to be alone during the event. They loved and missed her, but did not understand losing her like Artiq did. And their youngest son -- well, he had only been a few months old when they had left on their trip. All he knew is that he did not have a mother. He didn't appreciate the sharper pain of having known Threda before she was gone.
Artiq accepted the fact that he had not been a good father to his children. Threda had always been so strong, so alive, that she had kept all of them going. Without her, the once-bright house had known more shouts, more quiet dinners, and more alcohol since she had gone.
Martinella, at 19, had told him last week that she was going to sign up for the Imperial Navy. "You can be away from home for up to 2 years, or five if there is a war going on," she had idly mentioned.
Artiq's eyes never left the vid he was watching. "I think you'll do a good job," had been his mumbled reply.
Sometime during the last year, he had made up his mind to return to Materoff. He knew there would be nothing to see. And he wouldn't play the helpless fool and throw himself into the mist. Death was not what he sought. So why had he come at all?
* * *
The sky was already a bright blue when he awoke. Just over four standard hours remained until the event would start. Already, the road below looked more heavily peopled than it had been the day before, and more taxis and personal vehicles filled the airways of this city of 25,000. The Intrusion Event was scheduled to swell that population by nearly two thousand visitors, with tens of thousands more experiencing the moment in public and private Sensoriums.
Even with the extra people, Artiq knew that there would always be plenty of room on the observation platform, so he was in no hurry to get to the hillside. Maybe he should call home, and check in with Martinella to see how everyone was getting along? No, he told himself. They have things they need to be doing, friends that they would want to go see.
Instead, he dressed and went outside, wandering the streets near the hotel. During their last visit, Threda had made him stop in at a small restaurant before the Event. If he had known it was to be their last meal together, he would have been more excited about the food. Instead, Artiq had complained that it was bland, which it was, and that it was gritty, which it was as well. She had just smiled in that manner that told him no matter how little he enjoyed it, the moment was still special.
Artiq found the restaurant and ordered the same thing. Bland and gritty. He was tempted to order what she had gotten, but could not remember exactly what it had been. It probably didn't matter. Anywhere they went, be it for food or fun, the decisions she made always seemed to work out, while his fell flat.
Except for coming to the Intrusion. That had been her idea. He wanted to go to her parent's house and relax while they took care of the kids. Something about her family had always made him feel so peaceful and happy. Now, however, they only brought out feelings of restlessness and unease. Her parents always wanted to talk about Threda and he just could not stand the constant reminders.
Artiq did not mean to be rude, but on the infrequent occasions that they talked, he found himself being brusque. They might be offended by this, but that wasn't his problem anymore. Her parents had their own relationships with the children, and he didn't need to be in the way. Besides, there were enough problems with his shrinking circle of friends.
* * *
A loud man at the next table broke into his thoughts with a laugh. The man and his three companions were excitedly discussing the coming event. Artiq began listening, and heard that one of the group had traveled from the outer world of this solar system just to be a witness to the phenomenon.
Artiq had to remind himself that the Intrusion was a joyful occasion for most everyone else. A time when the mysteries of the universe reared their heads and reminded self-sure Man that not every question had been answered.
Looking up, Artiq saw several Followers of the Samesh 5 Prophet leaving the restaurant. Not the craziest of the fringe religions, they were known for organizing small-scale, peaceful demonstrations against the disturbance of the cold, molecular gas clouds of interstellar space. They had located their headquarters in Materoff due to the presence of the Intrusion Event, which they saw as a symbol of space's negative reaction to human undertakings.
Old habits died hard, and Artiq was one of the many who believed in one god. Very few people were atheists in the whole of colonized space. Once you view the splendor of a planetary nebula, up close, it's hard to believe that a higher power is not at work.
Artiq sipped the last of his water, washing the last of the food to his stomach. God had been around these last years, but had not been much help. Organized worshipping in their family had been infrequent when Threda was alive. Now, it hardly ever happened. Feda, their middle child, had actually started worshipping quite often on her own. She attempted to get the other children involved, but they were just as disinterested as their father.
* * *
Five minutes until the event. Breakfast was now a gritty, tasteless memory. Artiq stood surrounded by the crowd on the balcony. Men, women, and children from all over the planet, and beyond, were gathered near the platform railing or standing back in groups.
The new railing. When Artiq had mounted the platform, the nondescript series of metal bars, mesh, and posts had held his attention like fire. It looked much the same as it had, save for the addition of the purposefully conspicuous extra braces. Few people here today knew that someone had died due to a railing collapse during the last Intrusion. For those that did know, the sight of a sturdier rail would be comforting.
Artiq had no plans to get close enough to test the railing. That's not what he was here to do. He was here to do -- something. Find or feel something. A sign, signal, or anything that would let him get on with his life. And the excruciating truth was that he had no idea what he needed. Did he want to know Threda was safe? Did he want to see her again? Perhaps he would find out she was in Heaven, or maybe some alternate form of life that he did not understand.
This, THIS is what had been driving his sorrow for these last years. It was like a fist in his stomach. Seeing the crowd, feeling the anticipation in the air, the anxious excitement on everyone's face. All of those emotions surrounding Threda's loss struggled to come out at once.
Artiq started to stumble, losing track of his surroundings while his mind tried to wrap itself around his purpose. A child bumped against his shaking leg, and he nearly collapsed. He barely caught himself from falling, and was disturbed by his erratic breathing and pulse.
The crowd seemed much tighter, and the clamor of voices was rising. It was just about time for the Intrusion. There were too many people in front of him, now, and Artiq was not able to see the hillside. An oily surge of panic rose in his stomach, accompanied by a ringing in his ears. For a second, he though about pushing through to the front. In fact, he began to worm his way between two tall men who stood before him.
He realized that he would never make it in time. However, if he stayed here, Artiq figured he would at least be able to glimpse the upper edge of the Intrusion.
He was about to ask the man next to him how much longer, when a gasp of wonder arose from the crowd. Immediately, the light from the yellow sun was replaced by the pink glow of the Intrusion. Artiq straightened and stared. Above the heads of the people in front of him, he could see the gentle, alien wisps of pink as they moved around the edge of the cloud.
It was here. SHE was here! It all made sudden, sharp sense to Artiq. He had come back to Materoff to see Threda. Somewhere in that cloud, or in the dimension where that cloud originated, his Threda existed. Was it her body, or her soul? Whatever of her still remained, was inside that cloud. All these days, Artiq had wanted her back so badly. Seeing the cloud, he suddenly realized, with a sharp, painful finality, that all of her was lost forever to this world.
Artiq looked to his left, and saw a group of older students, trying to cover up their wonder with false bravado. Behind them were several tourists, hands paused over the controls of their autovids as they gaped in awe at the sight before them. And to his right, a short, round man smiled openly at the pink cloud.
The silence of the scene was like a thick, weightless blanket. There was no movement within the crowd, and no one spoke. Only the mist of the Intrusion was moving. Moving like quiet, sunlit fog.
It was beautiful. Artiq's memory of the mist had been as a stealer of his wife. He had never noticed the soft tendrils of pink that flowed against the air above the Intrusion. Or the currents and eddies within the cloud itself, so faint that they could almost be tricks of the eye. He took a ragged breath, and felt the sting of tears in his eyes.
What had Threda seen in that last second? Had her eyes glimpsed further into the cloud as she fell into it? Had her mind been opened to a fantastic truth in the instant of her death? Or had it just been dark? Alone and in darkness, what had been her final thoughts? For a woman of such joy, and love, and spirit, had her last moment been one of stark terror? Artiq wanted desperately to know the answers, but he knew that there could be no resolution until he, too, made that journey.
He felt a light, soft pressure on his left hand as someone slid their fingers inside of his. Artiq was still locked in a fog, and at first, did not register the touch on his hand, which hung limply at his side. Slowly, almost languidly, he looked down at his hand and saw nothing.
Then hair, lighter than the mist, lay against his cheek. Oh, God, such hair as he had not felt for hundreds of cold and quiet nights! Artiq did not look, but closed his eyes and leaned into the pressure on his cheek. The feeling of something against him did not grow more substantial, nor did it fade away, as if it were somehow a part of his body.
"Be at peace." Artiq did not actually hear the words, but he felt the lips at his ear and knew what they were saying. The feeling of hair against his cheek faded, and his hand was given a final, light squeeze before the sensation faded away.
For several seconds, he did nothing. Frozen in place, eyes closed, Artiq savored his first moment of bliss in these last few years. Indeed, he felt that peace might actually be possible. It would take a while, and he would need to apologize to so many people. Not only because he shut them out, but also because he now realized that if she meant so much to him, she must have meant a lot to everyone she ever knew. How selfish of him to assume that only he grieved, that no one else could understand what it was like to lose her.
In 2,320 days, Artiq knew he would return. And he would bring their children with him.
Story copyright 2002 by Jeffrey L. Williams email@example.com
Illustration copyright 2002 by Senthil GK firstname.lastname@example.org
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