These ideas come and go, but I’ve not settled on anything I believe worthy of even a decent short story. While I am an experienced writer of ponderous cogitations, fiction is still something I struggle with, but desire to master. Give me your thoughts on this alternate idea. The last one didn’t seem to work.
Timasius never cared much for southern Gaul. Even in his youth it had been a downtrodden place. Now, lorded over by fractious Goths, he liked it even less. Still, they were a pious lot, in their own heretical way, and they generally left the old Roman alone in his church. That suited him well enough.
Mass had been short. Most of the villagers were illiterate and their Latin left much to be desired. Deeper mysteries of the Book were beyond them. Yet Christ’s teachings were as much for those as any learned noble.
Slowly, for his joints ached constantly now, he removed his ceremonial vestments and leaned back on a wooden stool. Like most such furniture, it was old, probably more ancient than he. Craftsmanship in Gaul had suffered as much as the peasantry had, so the old was preferred to the new. Age had taken a toll on his hearing, too, and so Timasius did not hear the other man’s approach until the figure was almost upon him.
“Centurion.” Time had left its mark on the voice, but Timasius recognized it well enough. It was not a voice he expected to hear again.
“Berimund. Long time.” Timasius turned to face him but did not bother to extricate himself from his perch. In better days, that would have been regarded as a minor insult, but the Visigoth did not care about such customs.
“A man of God now? Hard to believe the butcher of Chalons could be here.” Berimund chuckled to himself before breaking into a cough. The Goth was almost as ancient as Timasius was.
“I have much to atone for. How are things out in the world?” It was not a mere formality. The old Roman was curious about such matters. Did anything of Rome still exist in some distant corner of the old Empire?
“Well, Syagrius is dead. I argued against it. Better the Roman than the Frank, I said. But the King didn’t listen.” Berimund shrugged again. “They say Zeno is pushing Theodoric to take Italy, but who knows if anything will come of that.”
Timasius was confused. “Wait, Zeno is emperor again?”
“How long have you been locked up in this cage, Centurion?” Berimund was taken aback. “Zeno had Basilicus assassinated and took the throne of the East. Odoacer sent the regalia to Constantinople and booted the child-emperor off his throne. He says all the right things about a united Empire, but everybody knows he’s just trying to keep Zeno from having him murdered. Zeno is practically a barbarian himself.”
The old Roman stroked his chin thoughtfully. “So, with Syagrius gone, there are no Romans in charge of anything in the West anymore?”
“Strange to think of, isn’t it?” Berimund sat in the first pew and smiled tiredly. “But you shouldn’t worry so much. The Goths around here are practically Romans themselves. They speak better Latin than Gothic, you know.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Timasius mused darkly.
“I suppose not.” The Goth agreed. “You could always go to Constantinople. Zeno is barbaric, sure, but he’s still the Emperor.”
“I’m too old for that. I never cared much for the Greeks anyway. Arrogant lot.” Timasius stood up, his joints protesting loudly enough to pop. “Besides, I’m no Centurion anymore.”
“That’s why I’m here, actually.” Berimund smiled slyly and Timasius saw something of the young barbarian warrior again. “You see, there are some of us who don’t care for the King’s decision to betray Syagrius to the Franks. And with Theodoric and Zeno moving on Italy…”
“You want to fight.”
“Want to fight? Definitely. But I’m too old. So are you. Still, we could train an army. You know how the infantry these days aren’t worth anything. So we need the Centurion, the butcher of Chalons, to make something of them.” Berimund smiled.
“Take it up with God.” Timasius looked on the icon of Christ, the effigy of the cross. “I don’t do that sort of thing anymore.”
“What if we could restore Rome again? Bring it back from the brink.” The Goth offered, putting his hand on the old Roman’s shoulder. “Would that change your mind?”
RE: University Records Request, Alumni Association
To whom it may concern,
I shall endeavor to explain the strange happenings on campus during the closing days of 1999. The remembrance of these events has weighed heavily on my mind for some time now and the alumni association should retain some record of them as a warning for future students at the University.
Now, I was not a spiritual sort nor a participant in the various religious debates that occurred on the fifth floor of Eisman Hall, collectively known as The Discussion, but it was common knowledge that the diversity of students in Eisman hall had resulted in a number of such peculiarities. They were mostly peaceful affairs, discussions of religious thought, beliefs and creeds. Indeed, the greatest thing that could be said about them prior the aforementioned occurrences was that I found them profoundly boring. Conducted as they were in the common area of the fifth floor, I inevitably had to pass by the droning voices contemplating the mystery of mysticism, so despite my boredom I was quite familiar with them.
Before I continue further, it is necessary to introduce you to the person of Dmitri. Certainly the University must have some records of this individual, and thus provide a last name for him, but my communications with the Hall of Records turned up nothing. In fact, the last probe I conducted in search of his records caused an altercation on the phone with the records keeper who, for reasons that may become clear to you, was deathly afraid of anyone learning about this man. It definitely seemed to me that he knew more than he let on, but perhaps I am being unkind.
For his part, Dmitri told students in Eisman Hall that he was an exchange student from Crimea (specifically Teodoro, a city I discovered in my research is just a collection of medieval Greek ruins near Kerkuk) and that religious debates were quite fascinating to him. We had no reason to doubt him, his prodigious stores of vodka seemed to corroborate his story, and it is entirely possible he was telling the truth, for I have never been there. Unfortunately, without the cooperation of Records, I am unlikely to ever know this for certain.
Over time I had become quite used to the late-night discussions in the common area and so it took me some time to notice that they had become rather more heated than before Dmitri had arrived in our dorm. There were arguments and even the occasional shouting match. Cries of Blasphemy were becoming frequent. I can only remember fragments of conversation from that period as I was preoccupied with my studies and typically only came out of my room to heat midnight snacks. Still, one thing stands out in memory. Why it afflicted me so, I cannot say, but even the memory of it is disturbing to my countenance.
Dmitri, you see, claimed that he could see demons. Of course, any rational individual would express disbelief at this notion or consider that Dmitri had consumed far too much from his stores of vodka. But there was something different in the way he said it, some emphasis that even I, shuffling through the corridors of the dorm late at night, could pick up. It was entirely possible Dmitri was not sane, but nobody doubted his belief in the demons.
It wasn’t long before the discussions simmered down again. Yet their cheerful, amiable ways never returned and Dmitri’s whisperings grew quiet and almost sinister. I distinctly remember the first time I found the door to the common area closed. You must understand that in the interests of religious tolerance and friendship, the door was categorically never to be closed, so you can understand how profoundly disturbing this was to me.
A wiser man than I might have shrugged these events off as more religious quackery and simply ignored further activities from the Discussion. But curiosity, that constant companion and temptress of men, overcame me. One night, I lingered outside the common area longer than I should, straining to hear the voices inside. But there was only silence, not even a whisper.
The door opened and Dmitri stormed out angrily from the Discussion, mumbling about a warning. Even though I had been caught eavesdropping on the Discussion, he seemed to care little.
He claimed that the Demons were coming for him, that only he could see them. The mechanism behind his claim was murky to me, though a member of the Discussion explained it thusly: Demons, Dmitri had told the Discussion, could be detected in the radiation of their energy, of hot and cold. Some humans, it was explained, could see just a little bit into the infrared spectrum (a topic of considerable interest at the time, due to my Physics major), and thus be seen as a shadow, a haze in the corner of your eye.
Dmitri, naturally, claimed to be just one such individual. And at that moment when he stormed out of the Discussion, his face red with anger and fear, he suddenly stopped and looked into my eyes.
“Behind you.” He said, and his eyes shifted, as if to look at a person peering over my shoulder. Strangely, I felt something in that moment. A slight shift in the temperature or a breeze in the corridor, I cannot say, but it was palpable. It was enough to stir that instinctive fear in me, as the strange behavior of the Discussion and the late hour all combined to make for quite an understandable unease. In the days following, Dmitri took to carrying his bottle of vodka with him wherever he went, even to the dorm’s bathroom. I had heard from other members of the Discussion that he had even been expelled from class for drunken behavior.
A week after that, the Discussion stopped completely. Yet the door to the common area remained closed, and no one dared to open it. Late at night, strange sounds could be heard from the room, similar to the voices of the Discussion. I would pass by that body’s members in the halls, all of whom carefully avoided even looking at the room. It was clear that it had to be empty. My late night snacks became more infrequent as the tension in the dorm grew.
One night I arrived at the dorm from a late night studying session, and I saw the lights of the common area on. Shadows could be seen waving their hands as if in animated debate. By the time I climbed the steps to Eisman 5, I could see that the door remained shut, and no light shone from underneath the door. Nor was there any indication that door had even been opened recently. Yet hints of voice and pieces of a language I had never heard before echoed through the corridor.
That night quite a commotion overtook the floor around 3:00 AM, coincidentally (or perhaps not) the so-called Witching Hour. Screaming voices could be heard; desperate pleas and exhortations. Many members of the Discussion were gathered around Dmitri’s dorm room, whose door was open. As I approached, it became obvious what had concerned them so.
Dmitri was standing on his window ledge, his vodka bottle in one hand, looking down upon the five story drop to the pavement below. He turned to us and there was a hollow anguish in his eyes, a world-weariness that I cannot describe with mere words. As you know, the winter of 1999 was extraordinarily frigid, and yet despite the open window, as tall as Dmitri himself, it remained unseasonably warm in room. In fact, it was so hot that I distinctly recall the odor of sweat about my fellow students.
“They are here.” He told us, his eyes darting here and there. “They followed me, I don’t know how they found me, but they are all here. And they know what I told you.”
Chetan, a man of Sikh persuasion who was an acquaintance of mine, and a talkative member of the Discussion, assured Dmitri that no such demons existed and that he must be under a lot of stress to imagine them. Other students hastily agreed, but I detected no sincerity in their voices. More eyes than those belonging to Dmitri were darting back and forth warily that night.
Somehow, Dmitri was talked down from the window ledge and I must admit to my great chagrin that I cannot even remember who had even done the deed, such was the fear present in that room. As I returned to my dorm room, I distinctly overheard the floor administrator complaining about the malfunctioning heaters. It seemed that despite the perfectly warm temperatures inside Eisman 5, the heaters were actually not operating. When I returned to my room, I found that the administrator had to be correct. No hot air was coming from my vents, yet it was not even cool inside, despite the below-freezing temperatures outdoors.
Naturally few of us managed any sleep that night. The next morning, Dmitri was lead away by several security guards. As far as I know, he never returned to the University. Where he was taken, I cannot say, and the records department has certainly not been cooperative in the matter.
For many weeks thereafter, nobody discussed the affair or even suggested resuming the Discussion. The door to the common area remained closed and even I gave it quite a wide berth when I walked past it, for reasons I can only ascribe to instinct.
As you know, most students returned home for the Holidays, but a few, like myself and Chetan, the only member of the Discussion to remain, stayed in the dorms over the Holiday season. My own parents had since moved to Europe for their retirement and so I had no other place to go. Suffice it to say, Eisman Hall was not a comforting place in those days, the events had unsettled me and the few other remaining residents. Much of our time was spent in the kitchen area (on the opposite side of the building from the common area) in each others company. Thirteen of us had remained behind and spent our time in the kitchen, including myself. None of us would openly admit that fear drove us to this end, but it was also quite well understood. Eisman Hall did not feel safe for any of us.
And so when one of our number failed to show up to the Kitchen on Christmas Eve, we began to worry. But it was entirely possible that the resident was celebrating the holiday with other students elsewhere on campus, so our worry remained relatively subdued. You may recall that on Christmas of 1999, that great Nor’easter from the Atlantic blew in. Power outages were severe and limited resources remained on campus to help us due to the Holiday break.
Yet Eisman hall remained unseasonably warm. When another of our number failed to arrive in the kitchen at the appointed time, we began to worry openly. Surely Chetan would not have left the building in this atrocious, stormy weather, we reasoned. But knocks on his door produced nothing. That was when we noticed that, despite the power outage, light was emanating from the common area.
Chetan’s voice could clearly be heard within. Yet, the words we heard were strange utterances in a tongue we did not know. Now, since Chetan was from India, and none of us were, it was entirely possible that this was simply his native language. But we will never know. The rest of our group did not want to open the door, for now we all expressed that fear we had earlier denied, but for our fellow student I was willing to brave the door.
It is an experience that has haunted to me ever since and is the primary reason that despite my generous donations to the Alumni Association, I have never set foot on campus since my matriculation. Cold blew in immediately, as if the freezing cold of the storm has leaked its way into this room only. But against the cold, I could see the shapes of men. It was like a man’s breath condensing in the frigid air, only it held volume and shape, as if pockets of extreme heat were buried within the freezing cold of the roiling Nor’Easter. The source of the cold was obvious, for someone had opened all the windows in the common area. This was despite that fact that the last any of us had seen from outside, they had most definitely been shut.
It is cowardly, I know, for we all swore we heard Chetan’s voice from within the common area, but we could stand no more of the torment. I shut the door and we ran out into the storm, leaving our belongings behind. It was freezing, but the cold was comforting to us, proof that we had left whatever malevolent force in Eisman 5 behind.
We would later find shelter in the University library, where we waited out the storm. I do not need to tell you what happened next, for the rest is common knowledge on campus. But for sake of completion I shall repeat what I know.
That night Eisman Hall burned to the ground. Official records placed Chetan inside the building when it happened and attributed the fire to malfunctioning electrical equipment, damaged by the power surges from the storm. God only knows how many interviews all of us went through about our strange foresight in leaving the building when we did. Certainly many police officers found our actions oddly suspicious, but we had nothing to tell them except stories of the strange happenings. That, of course, promoted the assignment of several University psychologists to monitor us for some time after.
I never saw any members of the Discussion again, and for a time I was plagued with nightmares from which I would wake up sweating profusely. Odd voices could be heard sometimes, as if they were just outside the door, but therapists assured me that it was just post-traumatic stress from the loss of my friend. Of course, for a time I was convinced that whatever had plagued Dmitri was somehow watching me too, wondering how much I had learned. For many years I did not speak of these tidings. Over time things returned to normal, especially after I completed my degree work and moved away.
To this day, I have heard rumors from Alumni friends of mine that, though Eisman Hall has never been rebuilt in the intervening years, sometimes strange voices can be heard from there and that it is always just a couple of degrees warmer there than the general ambient temperature. This has been explained away by other students in a variety of scientific fashions.
Yet I cannot shake my belief that something strange accompanied Dmitri from his previous residence, something with an otherwordly, malevolent streak. Since the records keeper refuses to answer my inquiries and the school considers this matter closed, I thought to provide this summary in case someday, someone may wish to understand the happenings of 1999.
Certainly, I hope this puts those of us who failed to look after Chetan in a better light, for certainly the school newspaper was quite unkind to us. Perhaps we were cowards, but though all of us would have braved a fire without hesitation, none of us could stand the things we saw that night.
Alumni Association Member
“Visiting hours are from nine to six, Monday through Friday. Have your identification papers ready. Did you bring a change of clothes today? If not, check out our new mall with designs inspired by…”
The voice droned on, but all Ian could think about was Kelly’s beauty. She stood in startling contrast to the dingy confines of the Visitor Center. The oldest histories told of a very different meaning for the word “visitor.” Those same histories claimed that Cyprus had once been a country, not a prison and stud farm, and that was even harder for him to believe. But the ancient historians generally knew what they were talking about.
“Step forward, troglodyte.” A female voice ordered sternly. The last word was a common enough curse. Most men in Cyprus had been there since childhood, identified as violent offenders before adulthood and marooned on the island. His advanced command of language marked him instead as one of the more rare troglodytes, treacherous men who had committed gross infractions against a woman after Graduation. He was innocent as many such men were, but appearances mattered more than substance, and so he had found himself among the savages.
A machine scanned him for weapons, which were common enough in the prison. Another machine scanned him for sexual disease, which had been all but eradicated some time before he was born. Still, the guards were fastidious in their duty.
“He’s clear.” The other woman reported. “All yours, Kelly.” Ian heard the chuckling between the guards as they left the room. This was familiar business to them.
Kelly sauntered in, her hips swaying delightfully. There was lust in her eyes, a fire he had wished for a thousand times in the days before his incarceration. A shock of realization suddenly crossed her delicate features.
“Ian? Is that you?” She said in wonder.
“Yeah.” Ian answered, sitting down on the bed, the only piece of furniture in the dreary room. “Saw your name on the visitor list.”
Lust faded from her eyes and she sat beside him, a painful expression finding its way onto her face. “I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t think it would be you.”
“It’s okay.” Ian faced her. “I belong here.” And he did, it had taken him a long time and a lot of effort to get to this room.
Tears began to form in her deep blue eyes. “No you don’t! You were always so nice. I tried to get you out after the trial. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know!” Kelly protested.
“You were here, getting fucked.” His tone was carefully measured, devoid of emotion, as if he were simply commenting on the weather. The anger had come and gone a decade before. Only the strongest in the prison ever clawed their way into the Visitor Center, everything else was distraction.
Out in the world he had been an accountant. In those days, Kelly had been the object of his desire, the woman he had done everything for, from fixing her air car to getting her a new job with the Orbital Authority. Once, he had thought it cruel that the one time he needed her help, she had been at the Visitor Center, sharing with some nameless inmate what he dreamed of having with her. He had been innocent once, but he would never leave Cyprus now, and part of him found that he did not want to.
“I thought you had more character witnesses, and I got my dates mixed up. Are you mad? Do you want me to leave?” Kelly wiped a tear from her cheek. “I didn’t mean for this to happen to you!”
His hand waved in the air, as if the thing were a mere trifle. “If we’re going to fuck, you should take off your clothes.” His loins stirred with need.
“You’ve changed.” She pointed out, her eyes tracing along the misshapen scar carved permanently into his cheek. Ian reflected on that for a moment and decided she was wrong. He hadn’t changed, at least no more than a baby changed by being born. A part of him had always belonged here, it had merely been a matter of time before he had arrived at his destination.
Reflexively, he touched the scar, nodding slightly. “Change? No. But a lot of pain. Seems like that should be obvious.”
Chatting was more tiresome than he had remembered. Such idle conversation was unknown on Cyprus outside of the Visitor Center. Placing a finger to his lips to silence her protests before they could begin, he stood and began to strip off his clothing. The guards had given him a shower before and washed his clothes, but they could not entirely remove the stains of sweat, blood and grime. That was probably good for business here, since women could have all the clean men they wanted out in the world. Enough still came here despite all that.
Kelly gasped, and a hint of interest crossed her features. Many women had availed themselves of the Visitor Center over the years, and now Ian understood why. Tanned skin covered painstakingly toned muscles. A myriad of scars could be found on his skin, a testament to his slow, long fight to the top of his gang, and from there to this very room. His body was a far cry from the shrub of a human he had once been. Still, those things were worthless next to what the prison had done to his mind. That primal power was what brought women back to this room over the centuries the system had been in place.
“Ian, I… don’t know.” Kelly hesitated.
“Anyone who made it in here this week belongs to my gang. Either you fuck me, or one of my men.” His hand made its way to the back of her dress, untying it and letting it fall to the bed, caught around her waist. Her bare breasts were a welcome sight, and he felt the softness of them, ignoring her faint protests. There was a noise from the guard shack, but no one moved to stop him. They could kill him if she cried out for help, it was rare but it was known to happen. Kelly would not cry out though, he knew.
“Stand up.” He ordered.
“Is this.. right? I mean…” Her protests droned on, and Ian stopped listening. She stood up, and soon her dress was on the floor. There was nothing on underneath, something which did not come as a surprise. Women who came to the Visitor Center had a singular purpose.
Adoration was in her eyes finally. It was a look that he would have died a thousand times to see before. He had dreamed of her in his arms, just like this, even for a time after her betrayal. The thing was hollow now, nothing like his adolescent fantasy.
“Ask me to take you.” Ian held her firmly, his hands slipping down her buttocks and pulling her close. “Tell me you want it.”
“I want it.” A sigh escaped her trembling lips. “Please…”
A moment passed, and his lips pursed slightly. Something changed in him then, and a feeling coursed through him. It was the same feeling he felt watching his enemies fall in prison, the same emotion that had pounded in his brain as he stepped onto the nearly-holy site on Cyprus, the bloodied winner of a gross Darwinian affair. Ian decided Kelly was not what he wanted, and he relished that moment.
“No.” A cruel smile crossed his features and he let her go. “Guards, I am done with this woman.”
“What?” The shock was total, and Kelly folded onto the bed, unable to grasp the rejection. Soon she realized her nakedness and struggled to salvage her pride.
Right of refusal was still allowed to an inmate, no matter how seldom it was invoked. There would be other women, perhaps even more beautiful. No one would challenge his gang for some time. The warlords had been thoroughly crushed. Weeks of pleasure lay before him.
“Inmate! On the wall!” A guard screamed, trying to project authority. To Ian’s battle-hardened ears, it sounded like little more than a shrill. But he obeyed, leaning up against the wall as Kelly’s sobs echoed across the room. The cries of anguish were music to his ears. The other guard escorted the distraught woman out of the visiting room.
“Real piece of work, aren’t you?” The guard whispered in his ear, but he could detect the undertone of surprise in her voice, too.
“You know it.” He smiled, and the guard let him up. Ian looked up to see Kelly just before she disappeared from his life forever, going back to a world he wanted no part of anymore. Adoration was in her eyes as she looked back one last time, just like in his youthful dreams. But no where in his dreams had he seen tears of sorrow mixed with that desire, nor had his dreams contained the hollow sadism burning in his heart. There was something curious about that, as if there were some great secret contained within the contradictory nature of the Visitor Center. It was the closest thing to truth he had ever known.
Aching in his loins interrupted his introspection, and he smiled with delight as the next woman on the list was led in by a pair of brawny guardswomen. The room was still his, after all, for as long as he and his gang could keep it. That, too, was his right.
The mechanical voice droned again. Anticipation flooded his awareness.
Visiting hours are from nine to six….