The Curmudgeon


Monday, April 09, 2007

Beelzebub: an extract

An epic horror fantasy not in the Left Behind tradition

After Wheatley cleaned up the chalk marks, I gave it leave to go on its rat hunt. As with so many of Wheatley's habits, I had always been unable to tell whether the major motivation was physical necessity or mental enjoyment, or merely the need to be out of the cell once in a while. It is just possible that the habit was a socially useful one, in that it kept the rats' numbers down; but it is at least equally possible that there weren't very many rats anyhow. Certainly on my walks around the corridors I saw very few animals of any kind whatever.

Of course, one reads in the history books about animals - cats and toads especially, since apparently they were the favoured animals of the ancient witches; and dogs, horses and ravens, which according to legend were beloved of the warrior king. None of these creatures is extant today, at least inside the Redoubt; and although there are plenty of theories about what exists outside, there are very few facts. The theories tend towards either of two extremes: a featureless, utterly barren desert, devoid of life; or a seething mass of predators, constantly devouring one another.

The familiars we use today are not animals as such; we have advanced, much as transport once advanced beyond the horse. At about the age of twelve one is taught, along with the other facts of life, that everyone's familiar is different and that no two are ever alike. Almost everything else one knows about them comes of personal experience with a single specimen, since no-one ever sees anyone else's. This is not a taboo, except possibly among the familiars themselves; they simply do not let themselves be seen by anybody other than their symbiote.

Symbiosis begins at the age of twelve, three years before one leaves the juvenile dormitories to take up residence in one's own cell. During those three years, the cell stands bare and empty, unvisited by anyone except its future resident, who looks in as often as is necessary to fix its disposition and atmosphere firmly in the memory. One is awakened on the morning of one's twelfth birthday to be taken there for the first time. Nothing is inside, not even the Pact engraved upon the wall. I can still remember my own excitement as the teacher accompanied me from the dormitory to the sixty-ninth floor, and my disappointment at the anticlimax of this first concrete symbol of approaching maturity.

I was instructed to stand in the centre of the room and turn, very slowly, in a leftward direction, through three hundred and sixty degrees, keeping my feet as far as possible always in the same place, and memorising every detail of what I could see.

"All I saw were the walls," I said, when I had done this for the first time.
"That's what you'll keep on seeing. You must learn every detail of them."
"But there's nothing there!"
"The walls were there. They weren't made of glass, were they?"
"Of course not. They were pitted, and blistered, and there were even a couple of dents."
"Then you'll learn all the pits and blisters and dents. You'll stand in the middle of the room, and turn around, always at the same speed and always in the same direction, until you know every detail of those walls. They won't change; the cell is closed except to you. You'll get there in the end. And when you do, it'll be time for the next stage."
"And what will I be memorising then? The floor and ceiling?"
"Don't be facetious."

So twice a day from that day forth I stood in the middle of the cell and revolved as observantly as I could. For the first few months it was hopelessly boring, and even worse was the second major task, that of recollection, which was just as tedious as observation but frustrating besides. At first I couldn't remember anything at all, only a vague grey vision of blank walls; then my mind started making details up. I saw pictures of wolves and birds of prey. Half a year elapsed before I began to make steady progress; and by the time I could stand in the centre of the cell and close my eyes without altering what I saw, I was almost fourteen years old.

Then followed a brief period when I would visit the cell once or twice a week just to stand and concentrate; voluntary practicing, since I no longer had to keep recalling the walls to mind as part of my daily duties. I stood in the cell and slowly turned, and watched the walls pass before my sight indifferent to whether my eyes were open or shut.

One day I experimented, turning rightwards instead of leftwards. My eyes were closed. When I opened them, according to my calculations, I should have been face to face with a particularly large and distinctive flaw in the concrete which I often used as a landmark. It resembled a long, mournful face: a donkey's face, but earless, and with the eyes to the front instead of at the sides.

But when I opened my eyes, I found the mark was further away than before. My mind's eye had assumed a leftward turn even when my body was turning to the right. It took a further eight months of work before I was able to orient myself properly in the cell with my eyes closed, no matter how many times or in what direction I turned. It was at this point that the cell itself began to change, so that in order to remain properly oriented I had to bring the number of my visits back up to four or five a week instead of one or two.

"Don't worry about it. It's perfectly normal."
"But I'm losing concentration all over again."
"Nothing of the kind. It's concentration that has brought about the change. This is the next stage in making the cell your own."

In fact I was far from certain by that time as to whether I particularly wanted this cell for my own; not only did the surface of at least one wall keep changing, but the whole cell had grown unreasonably cold. One is taught about this, of course, but being told is quite different from the actual experience, much as learning the facts of life in a biology class is different from losing one's virginity. One hears about "mnemonic pressure" and "psychosomatic temperature differentials", and that favourite of adolescent graffiti artists, "mural metamorphosis"; but this is hardly an adequate preparation for the sight of one's familiar emerging day by day from the dead concrete of a cell wall; or for the text of the Pact, the final and irrevocable contract of one's maturity and eternal damnation, appearing through the grey of another wall like blood squeezed out through satin.

The forty-nine days it took Wheatley to emerge constituted the first of those rare but always traumatic periods when I heard it make a sound - this in addition to the psychic signals, which at that stage of Wheatley's development were tempered by neither respect nor the wish to communicate. There was only raw pain, raw fear, raw servitude, and raw confusion at the condition of being half-alive; the so-called familiar condition. The psychic interference alone cost me seven weeks of sleep; the audible shrieks could be heard by anyone passing by the closed door of my cell, as well as by me in the dormitory, fifty floors below.

It was only when the last of Wheatley had bulged from the wall, when it became obvious that there was no more to come, because none of the wall was Wheatley's colour or vice versa, that I was able to introduce myself. Again, there are formulas and guidelines for this ritual, including the one every child learns to recite: "for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health..." but the parts that really matter cannot be taught or even, quite possibly, conveyed. The promises and favours which are extracted at this time (once the familiar's initial hatred and resistance have been overcome) are made once and once only, are unique to that single symbiosis, and are binding for life and possibly longer. It would be impossible to discuss one's familiar in any depth (in depth enough, say, to compare its little quirks and habits with those of someone else's) without going into the details of those promises and favours - details which, however petty in themselves, must always involve and invoke mutual vulnerability. Since one's familiar is in part derived from oneself, its vulnerabilities tend to reflect one's own, which fact is in itself a source of vulnerability and thus feeds the symbiosis, but does not make for open and frank discussion with other human beings. Not if one wishes to get on in life and avoid being controlled by one's familiar more than is absolutely necessary.

Wheatley was serviceable enough, I supposed: obedient and reasonably communicative, and malicious only within certain mutually accepted limits, at least for most of the time. Symbiosis always contains a fairly large component of hatred, particularly on the side of the slave. This makes for a certain amount of inconvenience and mental discomfort, but it does help one's self-discipline, not to mention one's self-reliance; and if one is forced into the very last resort, there is always the threat of communion to force them to behave.

Doubtless the familiar too gains something from the relationship. The most widely accepted theory at the moment is that their servility is designed to relax the human partner's mind in order to throw the familiar's acts of malice into sharper relief, and that the familiars then draw sustenance from the psychic energy set in motion by their provocations. Like everything else to do with familiars, this theory is far from scientific, and just about as far from being a subject of polite conversation.

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