“So where can I be, if not here?”
“You can be wherever you want, as long as it isn’t here.”
“They said the same thing over there, and there.”
Rix pointed over the road to another paved plot of land, identical to the one he was on, identical to most of the spaces in the city in fact. Frustration was setting in, everywhere he went there was someone to take offence at his presence.
“I don’t work over there sir, I work here, and you can’t be here.”
The security guard had perfected an inert face. He must have been aware of Rix’s reaction, the tension in the air between them but his training had been extensive. Don’t engage, don’t react emotionally, just state facts and wait for them to be accepted. On the first few stops of his pilgrimage through the city Rix had sympathised with that, a talent drummed into all the custodians of the safe and sanitary spaces which seemed to be the norm here. An unpleasant necessity of the job. That had faded though, through confusion, through contempt and finally on to simple irritation. It wasn’t natural for anyone to perfect such indifference in themselves. He had to remind himself that he was in the city now, a long way from the natural world he knew. Of course things were different, he should focus on that. But, still, not this different. People still had to be people wherever they were but, eyes fixed on him with an apathetic gaze, the security guard seemed to be doing his best to escape that certainty.
“I’m not leaving.”
The guard didn’t blink. He didn’t sigh, didn’t move and, Rix suspected, even hooked up to heart rate, blood pressure and perspiration monitors experts would have been hard pressed to discern any reaction to the statement. He just stood there staring at Rix, alone in a seemingly deserted plaza because, it seemed, no one could be there except for the guard.
“You have to sir, you can’t be here.”
A perfect silence hung in the air, another unnatural quality of the city that had pressed on Rix since his arrival. His own home was non-descript, a house set in the middle of no place, it had no name and nor did any of the few neighbours he vaguely knew existed. But it wasn’t silent, ever. Even in the stilled moments the wind still blew, leaves rustled, creatures scurried about out of sight. Yet here in the city there seemed to be nothing, no noise, no people, no animals – a surprise, he knew there were millions of lives being lived somewhere around him but on each little island of inhospitality there seemed to be nothing but unwelcoming stillness. And blank faced guards.
Rix sat down, resolved to take his stand while seated. The guard watched him but didn’t move.
“You can’t sit there sir, you have to leave.”
Rix started to unpack his battered cloth bag. He didn’t have much and, in all honesty, he had little desire to stay any more but if he wanted to rest before he set off to complete his journey then this was the last option he could see. Heading forward their was just more of the same, more pristine blocks of paved land, divided by empty roads and punctuated, all too rarely, with monolithic tower blocks.
Beyond them was the temple, that much couldn’t be doubted. Other pilgrims had seen it, thousands of them, it was an obligation to the faithful to seek out the hub of life at least once before they passed. It was just a misfortune of bad planning that none ever thought to mention the emptiness of the journey there.
Rix laid his blanket out and started to munch on a bag of nuts from his bag. The guard was still there, immovable but seemingly done with repeating his reproachful mantra. A little food, a few hours sleep and he would move on. That soothed the worries about the demands to leave, after all, he had every intention of doing so eventually and that should make whoever it was that spoke through the security happy.
The sun was just starting to set. Anywhere else it might have been a beautiful day but the architecture of the city seemed to radiate resentment back towards the sky. Too much stone and steel made weather feel like an invasion, to Rix at least, where he was from the sun shared the earth with the shade, mingling to create a whole that revelled in the exchange. Perhaps the city did too, or parts of it did because there had to be a lot more that he hadn’t seen beyond the acres of paving and steel fences, beyond that there could have been another sort of exchange between the sky and the ground, one which worked in its own way. Rix hoped he’d get to see it before he reached the temple, after all the journey was part of the pilgrimage and couldn’t be surrendered to the sheer monotony of marching forwards.
“You can’t stay here sir.”
Rix was lying down now, he could feel the efforts of the day sinking on to him. The guard still hadn’t moved, so nor did he. Before long he felt himself drifting into sleep, an impulse more powerful by far than the monotone repetition of the same words that sent him off to dreams.
It was still dark when Rix woke up.
“You can’t be here sir, you have to leave.”
The guard was still there, a weighty shadow in the dim light cast from distant buildings. He hadn’t moved an inch, even his eyes were still resting on the recumbent form of his apparent ward. Rix stretched out languorously and hauled himself to his feet. It couldn’t have been long before dawn, he must have slept for longer than he’d intended and his overseer still hadn’t done anything. Another unnatural act and he even had to squint at the guard in the half light, scanning the neutral face to remind himself that it was indeed a human one. Training, it had to be, iron clad training to stand there and assert the rules until they were obeyed without batting an eyelid or letting the mask of indifference shift. It sent a small shudder down his spine but he calmed himself with the thought that he was leaving, perhaps the stranger would even show some signs of relief, or happiness, or anything at all.
“I am leaving, I’m on a pilgrimage.”
“That’s good sir, you shouldn’t be here.”
Still nothing, just fixed eyes as Rix knelt down to pack up his handful of belongings, his mind already shifting onwards to the temple which he could, perhaps, reach today.
With a nod of acknowledgement he set off to leave, the guard watching his progress intently even though he could have seen nothing more than a dull retreating shadow walking across the paved expanse. Perhaps that was natural for the city in general? Rix felt philosophical, this wasn’t home and the standards couldn’t be the same, perhaps in assuming humanity from the stranger he had really just tried to assert humanity as he understood it. No matter, the temple would have answers, there were people from the city there but they held the faith too, they’d be open to answering his questions. His steps were light, although the sun started to lash out and expose again the sparse landscape Rix felt content even in this alien land.
It was hours of walking later that Rix next saw life beyond the lonely figures of security guards, standing watch over yet more stretches of sterile land.
The life came in the form of a huddled group of three strangers, one man and two women standing around a fourth person – a guard. Striding closer he could hear them talking, tense but not shouting.
“You can’t be here, you have to leave.”
They must all attend the same training courses, these custodians, they all sounded the same after all. Rix came to a halt on the edge of the group, glad to have found people at last but reluctant to get involved in an argument he was already tiringly familiar with.
“We are here and we’re not living, this is our city.”
Locals, his first locals who weren’t in uniform. Perhaps they knew where the people were? Or why they couldn’t be here for that matter, although they didn’t seem to be making much progress in claiming a place for themselves.
“Yes but you can’t be here, you’ll have to go away.”
One of the women stepped towards the guard and gave him a shove, anger breaking through tolerance. Her friends didn’t move to stop her but didn’t join in either and the target for her ire remained unaffected, staggering a little but quickly bracing himself against further shoves.
“Please, miss, you can’t be here.”
More shoving, futile though, he was bigger than she was and had had time to brace himself. The scuffle went on for a moment before Rix decided to make his presence known, tapping the woman who wasn’t caught up in the excitement on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, do you know why can’t you be here?”
She stared at him, eyes evaluating him while the man stepped towards him to do the same, leaving only the other woman to argue with the guard.
“We can be here, he can’t stop us.”
“Yes, but why does he think you can’t be here? They keep telling me the same wherever I go.”
The woman’s face flashed briefly into a sneer.
“Because they own it, or someone does. They want us somewhere else, but there’s nowhere left to go except for the temple and that won’t last.”
Rix sagged, anything that effected the temple effected him and all of the faithful.
“Why not? The temple’s important, I’m on a pilgrimage there, I’m not the only one either – people are always going there.”
One of the men cut in eagerly, expression open and friendly, a first in the city as far as Rix had seen.
“You’re a pilgrim? Welcome to the city! You’ve not got far to go to the temple.”
Ignoring the upbeat intervention the woman went on.
“The temple is the last place to be, unless you’re in one of their buildings, they can’t stand it, they don’t want us there either.”
“Who’re ‘they’? Not him?”
Rix pointed to the put upon guard whose eyes were still on the woman who’d been pushing him who was, for her part, now simply scowling, tired of her fruitless attack.
“No, not him,” said the woman “His bosses, whoever they are. Look, you should go, we’ll be here a while, we’re going to camp here because they can’t stop us. Keep heading this way, you’ll find the temple. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
Her tone had shifted to the warily conciliatory, enough to convince Rix that he should leave. The city was a strange place but they were at least properly human and their encouragement, even if lacklustre was enough to make him look forward again. Besides, the guard had said they couldn’t be there and having broken with the edict once already he felt uneasy about repeating it, even if he felt those doing the arguing were in the right he was still a stranger in a strange land. And there was the temple to look forward to after all, the end of his journey, that was all that mattered.
It was another hour of walking before the landscape changed. First came buildings, the first he’d been close to despite seeing a few in the distance as he’d walking across the paved land. The first ones he passed seemed lifeless. He could see lights on in steel framed windows but no movement, even around the doors there was no one there, not even guards who seemed to exist solely in the empty spaces in between. Rix briefly wondered if that meant he was allowed in the buildings, but it wasn’t a thought he wanted to test. The strangers had said people worked in them and they were allowed, implication enough to make him suspect that he probably wasn’t. That was unimportant though, they were inhospitable enough for him not to want to cross any thresholds. More buildings followed them too, denser ones, packed closer and closer together and showing more and more signs of life.
Before long he even saw a person walking casually down a side road, narrow enough to be filled by that simple flash of life. Then there were more people, people who seemed truly human as they walked, ran and shambled around dressed in a breathtaking variety of outfits. Some pausing to talk with each others, some even nodding a vague greeting to Rix himself. This, he thought, was the city he’d expected, alive and filled with it’s own sense of nature. It made him nervous, scared even, so alien was it but Rix was no coward. Strange as the place was becoming he wasn’t one to recoil from it, even when the crowd grew so dense that he had to resort to a sidling shuffle, gently shoving anonymous strangers out of his path in order to progress.
Eventually he reached a doorway where he could take stock. The crowd was still near solid, flowing past him on the street, but the recess of the entrance gave him some space to think. The temple, it would be nearby now, these people would know it. Some may even have been pilgrims themselves, they might have taken the same path he did and have their own explanations for the strange emptiness they’d encountered. A comforting thought, with all these people there were sure to be answers. First things first though, to the temple, to fulfill the demands of the faith, whatever they were. No one had ever really explained them to Rix and he’d never thought to ask. Pilgrims came back changed, he knew that, he didn’t know how, or why but those few who’d passed by his isolated home had always seemed strange to him. Not in a bad way, nor in a particularly profound way for that matter, but certainly strange when compared to what little he knew of normality.
Rix reached out and tapped one of the many passersby on the arm. The stranger spun around to face him, shocked at the interruption to their routine voyage.
It was a woman, middle aged but with lines borne of a life well lived giving her an air of experience that belied her age. Rix was glad of that, he felt she would know something and finding answers was something he longed to do.
“Yes, excuse me but do you know where the temple is?”
“Yes, the temple, I’m a pilgrim.”
The woman frowned a little, although not out of any anger or frustration, before stepping out of the flow of traffic to stand closer to Rix.
“You’re here, pilgrim, this is the temple.”
Rix looked around with a start, eyes falling on the door behind him.
“In here? It doesn’t look like a temple. Does it?”
The woman laughed gently, laying a warm hand on Rix’s shoulder.
“No pilgrim, not in there. It’s all of this, all these people, this is the temple. Not what you were expecting?”
He could think of nothing to say, so he said nothing, aware suddenly that he had no real expectations of what the temple should be. As with the rituals he was supposed to perform there he’d assumed that all the answers would appear when they needed to.
“You’ve finished your pilgrimage, go and enjoy it!”
With a gentle slap on his shoulder she moved to step back into the crowd.
“Wait! What do I do here? What do the faithful do here?”
She was already half gone as he said it, shouldering her way towards wherever she was headed. She took a pause though, turning her head back to him to shout with a laugh.
“Whatever you want pilgrim! You’re in the temple!”
My latest work, No Cure for Shell Shock, is a collection of short stories and poetry. It’s available as an eBook and a paperback here.
As always reviews, support and shares are welcome.