Friday, February 24, 2012

Koreshi Chronicles - Chapter V: Illuminating the Chasm

9 Autumn, TN 1925, Westphalia Day

There were going to be fireworks. That much was certain. No one was quite sure when, but the consensus around the Prince Gable bar scene was that they would be exploded sometime after dark but before midnight, which left a significant period of time in which to drink and wonder when in Prophet's name the show was going to start.

Lyta had started the evening drinking with Lukas and Ti Corovan, while Torgath continued surveillance on Bakat Ishmad. But sometime in the early evening, Lukas became very interested in audio from the bug in Ishmad's offices and left to find somewhere quieter where he could listen in. Without Lukas, Lyta found the crowds of the bar oppressive, and convinced Ti to wander the streets of Prince Gable with her.

An hour later, Lyta had found them a rooftop vantage point, and they sat overlooking the trench, sharing a bottle of wine and greasy take-out food. They were quick to reassure each other that it wasn't a date – merely a chance to watch the fireworks without straining over the press of the crowds. Lyta repeated it often enough that she almost believed it.

They talked about nothing in particular: the weather, the train ride, the local architecture, the stunning view. Lyta was well into her second cup and starting on the third when her tongue had been sufficiently loosened to ask the question that had been on her mind for half a season.

"Hey, Ti?"

"Mmm?" Ti stared out over the trench, not looking at her.

"Okay, this is going to sound like a really weird, random question, but just go with it, okay?"

Ti turned away from the vista. "...Okay."

Lyta chewed her lower lip a moment. "Did you ever meet a Sand Rider, kinda tall, black eyes, softspoken, and whenever he says anything it makes you feel both more enlightened and more confused all at the same time?"

Ti blinked a few times and stared at her. "How could you possibly... Yeah. Yeah, I did."

Lyta nodded and took a sip of wine. "Okay."

Ti boggled. "'Okay'? That's all you're going to say about it? How could you possibly know about that Sand Rider?"

"He told me. That he met you."

Ti swirled the wine in his mug. "So you're saying that you found the one Sand Rider I just happened to meet, and my name just happened to come up? I find that hard to believe."

Almost as hard to believe as I did, Lyta nearly said. Instead, she ate a French fry and turned back to the view. "He'd probably say that the world has all sorts of weird mysteries and connections that we barely ever see except if we're open to them," she said, channelling her Thrall.

Ti nodded slowly and took another sip of wine. "Well, that certainly sounds like him," he grudgingly agreed. "But... how do you know him? Is he still alive?"

"Yeah," said Lyta, "he's still alive. He's a..." What? She tried to find a word that would describe her relationship with Jonas, and found almost all of them wanting. Friend? Father-figure? Confessor? The word that would be most appropriate, Thrall, would mean nothing to Ti, and she was fairly certain that the existence of the Thralls was supposed to be hidden knowledge anyway. Finally, she shrugged. "I guess he was my mentor, kind of. What did you guys talk about?"

Ti stared out over the vast landscape. "The world," he said at last, "and everything in it."

Lyta rolled her eyes. "That's an answer worthy of Jonas," she said.

"Jonas? Was that his name?"

Lyta turned and looked at him. "Yeah. You didn't know?"

Now it was Ti's turn to shrug. "He never mentioned it," he said. "I guess I didn't really know until just now if he was real or if I'd dreamt the whole thing. I was... in a weird place. He set me straight." Ti laughed a little to himself and shook his head lightly. Lyta raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Like I said, I wasn't sure it happened. I guess a part of me believed that he was the voice of my own inner wisdom. It's just funny to be humbled by the fact that I'm not nuts."

Lyta drank her wine, not entirely certain how to respond. She'd hoped that Ti would offer more of the substance of his conversation with Jonas, but she didn't want to press. If her own conversations with her Thrall any indication, Ti probably wouldn't want to share the deep insights Jonas had given him, and Lyta probably wouldn't understand them anyway. She focused on the earlier part of his statement instead. "In a weird place? Yeah, guess for anyone who's not a Sand Rider, the middle of the Great White Desert is a pretty weird place." She paused. "Or is that not what you meant?"

Ti smiled inwardly. Lyta was being 'subtle'. Ti had opened the door, he realized. He wanted to tell her but was afraid to. The Great Trench spread out north to south along Prince Gable's edge, a giant hollow that would have been dark and foreboding were it not for the lights the tourism bureau had placed, which turned it into a spectacular vista instead of a terrifying maw.

"I think I went there to die. I think..." He hesitated, trying to strip away euphemism and evasion to embrace the confession he was about to make, for the first time, genuine and significant. "I think I was trying to kill myself. That's when I met Jonas. He helped me find a reason to live. Lukas pokes fun at my beliefs, I get it, it's a bit naive or zealot-like. But it's kept me alive; it keeps me alive. So it needs to be."

Ti looked at Lyta, trying to figure out in her reaction if he was justified in secreting away this weakness, this cleft in his soul, away from those who looked up to him or depended upon him.

Lyta put down her wine glass and bit her lower lip. She could sense the gravity, the unexpected weight in Ti's voice, and it deserved more than a flippant answer. "Why?" she asked at last, hesitantly. "What were you running from that made you want to go into the desert to..." Her voice trailed off. "Was it the war, or something else?"

"That's a really big question and it has a broad answer," Ti started with a sigh. "I was running from emptiness, from bare survival, from subsistence as a pretext for existence..." Ti had thought a great deal about this question but he had to remind himself that Lyta was not Jonas. "Never mind all that. I was held prisoner during the occupation of Baja. I lived from day to day on nothing more than hope and small objectives. Make it to the next cup of water, just move one foot, just bend your knee today, or sometimes just breathe. Small steps really. Everything was just bare survival and I couldn't afford to think beyond the immediate, beyond simply surviving because it was hopeless. Lukas talks about unbeatable odds, I know something about those."

He took a swig of wine and finished what was left in his glass. "They broke me physically, Lyta. You wanted to know why I couldn't beat you when we sparred in Mainz, well it's because it's pretty damned unlikely that I can walk, let alone fight. But for a while I lived my life in minute-long increments. I lived through a hundred thousand of them. Then, suddenly and improbably, I'm free, I'm eventually rehabilitated, and the war is over. How the hell do you go back to living life from day to day without looking for a reason, for a purpose for it all after that? I couldn't. I simply couldn't adjust to surviving, working for money, farming for food, living from minute to minute anymore. So I ended up in the Great White Desert. I went there to die and be done with it." Ti wasn't emotional in any way, there was no self-pity in his story. There was a strange peace verging on detachment about it all. The scars Lyta had seen on his body attested to the tale, but nothing else revealed a man who had seen no point in going on, a man so different from the man before her.

Lyta was silent for a long time, struggling with what to answer. Jonas would know what to say, have some deep wisdom that would help her answer in a way that was both wise and useful. She wished he were here. "I..." Her voice trailed off, and she tried again. She thought back on interactions they'd had in the past, on the sparring match they'd had in Mainz, on her shock when she'd seen his scars back on the caravan, and felt indescribably guilty. "I'm so sorry, Ti. I didn't realize... When you said..."

She shook her head, angry at herself. This wasn't about her, damn it! She breathed deeply, calming herself down. "So now you have your team," she said softly. "That's what Jonas helped you to figure out?"

Ti smiled again. "I'm jealous of you, Lyta. Jealous that you had Jonas as a mentor, that you have your brothers, that you have the Sand Ryders to give an identity. I have memories of a kid that knew you once, but that guy died in the desert. Maybe he died in that cell. I'm the mission, I'm the vessel of my ideals. Nothing else. I wanted to tell you, you deserved to know." He got up. Lyta thought she saw him suppress a slight wince for the first time. He held out his hand, a sympathetic smile ever present, and a sick feeling cut through Lyta, like swallowing a lead pipe. Ti's charm, his openness, his easy way with people, his confidence and leadership, maybe everything he exuded since she'd met him back in Mainz, were just projected. His hand was extended and his smile inviting, but his last words still echoed. "You deserved to know."

Lyta took the hand, even though she didn't need it, and got to her feet. She let Ti lead her to the fire escape they'd used to ascend the building. She wanted to argue with him, to tell him that he was wrong and that there was still something left of her childhood friend in the man he'd become, but she bit down on the words before they left her mouth. Maybe he was right; maybe there wasn't anything left. Maybe everything she'd thought was the old Ti was just her own projections onto him.

The streets of Prince Gable were still full of energy as they walked back to the hotel, the drunken revelers not even slowing down. Ti smiled, the same damn charming smile that always seemed to be on his face at times like this. Lyta tried hard to keep the bitterness out of her expression.

They were almost back to the lobby when she heard the first explosion, and the street erupted in a gigantic cheer. She didn't even bother to look behind her to see the fireworks. Ti held the door open for her, always the gentleman, and she stepped into the hotel and away from world.

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