The reporter came dressed for the role. She had a beige trench coat bundled around her. One of those uni-colour, many-pockets types much favoured by working women on the move. She also held a scribbler, an older, double screen one, with the stylus for that dangling from her neck. Once seated, she apologised profusely for being five minutes late, then spent the next ten minutes fussing over the ordering of coffee and cake. Only after everything was hastily served and on the table did she finally recline in her seat. Perspiration dotted her forehead. A small smudge ruined the rogue on her left cheek. She wheezed, just a little, when she took her first sip of caffeine.
“Shall we begin?” Damien asked, when it seemed the reporter was lost of what to panic about next.
“Of … of course.” Clang. Return of the coffee cup to the saucer. Two spills of the over sweetened beverage. “I’ve prepared a list of standard and special questions. Maybe we could …”
“Standard? If it’s the usual, we don’t have to go through them. You already know the answers.”
Her cheeks burnt, and she nodded quickly. “Yes … yes, of course. I was only wondering whether anything has changed since …”
“Nothing regarding the past has changed. Nothing could and nothing would. Besides, you’re not here to ask me about what happened thirty years ago. Surely we could agree on that.”
She turned redder, and for a moment, Damien regretted his words. The reporter was young. Young enough to be his granddaughter, on top of which she was also obviously new to the trade. As condemning was the article she wrote about him, there was no need to be confrontational. “I’m sorry,” he apologised shortly. “You must know that I don’t get very positive coverage nowadays. I need to be on my guard in order not to add to the fire.”
This calmed her, curiously. After nodding again, she wrote briskly on her scribbler for a few moments, then asked. “What do you have to say about the discussions of late?”
“Are you referring to the other news vendors? Or your paper?”
“How about we start with the rest?”
He shrugged. “What is there to say, other than what I’ve already said over the years?”
“That none of your prophecies are to be taken seriously?”
“To begin with,” Damien raised one finger. “I’ve never called them prophecies. My term for them is impressions. What I believe I felt, or saw, or witnessed, during that brief episode. Secondly,” he raised another finger. “I’ve long made it clear that none of my impressions are absolute realities set in stone. No matter how vivid my descriptions are. My inability to forecast the San Andreas Catastrophe or the Arabian Schism is testament to that.”
She responded slowly, and cautiously. “That doesn’t seem to be the case. As I highlighted in my article, you hinted at the Schism fourteen years ago. Many people worldwide agree with me on this.”
“What did I say back then?”
Her fingers tapped twice on her scribbler, and she recited from memory. “An arc of gold, over the forsaken cradle. Heaven’s minions, divided and forgotten.”
He almost guffawed. Had to reach for a sip of coffee to stop himself from bursting out aloud. “You’re mistaken. I didn’t say that,” he corrected in between chuckles. “Jon Rickman, the tele-poet, came up with that when I was on his show. I did, however, praise him for his imagination and words.”
“Mr. Pereira, a lot of your predictions have turned out to be untrue. Many people are disappointed, angry even, especially those who once thought of you as a living prophet. They are saying that all along, you were doing no more than to dish out shrewd, calculated predictions. They now believe you never had an extra-terrestrial encounter. That you are nothing more than a, a charlatan.”
“Nasty name. What do you think?”
She drew back. Blinked several times before answering. “I believe I made it clear what my opinions are, in my article.”
“Humour me, young lady. Why did you write about me? Not that I’m intimidating you. Or bragging about my connections. But it’s unusual for a setup of your … size, to run such a condemning piece on me.”
“You’re a story many are still keen to read about. A story that many still care about. In an increasingly negative way, that is.”
“What if I tell you, you might not be able to enjoy coffee with me this day next year? That you are already afflicted by an illness you have no clue about. An illness caused by something invisible like … radiation.”
“What are you saying?” Her back went straight. “Is that a …”
“I’ve mentioned it several times. In my final impression, I was surrounded by a junkyard. There were heaps of advance looking gadgets. Many of them had …”
He eyed the illuminated screens of the scribbler, and the reporter’s writing hand recoiled sharply. “You never said it that way,” she blurted. “You always said those screens reminded you of, of monitors. Like those in military installations. There were, there were, also other things that suggested warfare. Like missiles. T…tanks …”
Damien smiled, and nudged the lone button on the scribbler to shut it. “I saw scrap heaps. With many, many things that I could neither recognise nor identify. Over the years, people insisted I saw weapons. People like you.”
“Mr. Pereira …”
“I repeat. My impressions are not concrete realities. They are not prophecies. At best, they are but possibilities. For that reason, I despise the accusations in your article. I despise the names you showered on me. I would, however, disappoint my lawyer and not sue your agency for slander. I believe everybody deserves a second chance, especially the young. It is my sincere hope that you do not produce such unpleasant materials again in the future.”
He left. To assure her that there was no lingering ill-will, he ordered another round of coffee and cake before doing so. The reporter had no comment about that.
Damien hated heights. As a boy, he suffered a nasty tumble down a flight of steps, and that established a lifelong aversion in him towards anything that loomed over actual ground. When he shared this with the previous city mayor, the jovial man had chuckled and brushed it off as childish phobia. He then used city funds to pay for two floors of premium space in the tallest tower of the city to be Damien’s private office. His rationale for his choice of location, it was important that Damien is able to watch over the city at all times. Watch, as in, literally.
To watch over the city at, all, times. Because he fervently believed Damien would receive more impressions about the future. When that didn’t happen after ten years, when it was clear there wasn’t going to be any fresh material to get excited over, the major switched to being one of Damien’s most virulent critics. Within months, he was dramatically voted out of office.
“How did it go?”
“Not too badly,” Damien said as he lowered the office blinds to block out the expansive views. “I told her what Alastair suggested. I also told her I wouldn’t go through with that. As long as she’s more careful with her words in the future.”
That made Nancy frowned. Her eyes chastised. “That’s silly.”
“Nan, she’s a girl. Young enough to be my, our granddaughter.”
“More reason for her to learn to be responsible for what she writes.”
“She’s not entirely wrong, you know.” He gestured at the out tray on his mahogany table. “You and I both know. I misled everyone for years about the Balkans. It’s crystal clear now that there’s not going to be another conflict there, at least not in our lifetimes. But there could have been one. If I kept insisting. If I kept horrifying everyone with my doomsday claims.”
“You were the one who was misled. By all those politicians! You put a stop to it by refusing to entertain them further. Everyone agrees on that!”
He shrugged. “Am I supposed to feel proud?”
“Damien,” she squeezed her temples, then kneaded furiously. “It’s not your fault that the world is now bickering over your impressions. Actually, if you’ve still not noticed, they have bickered for years. You did good things. You saved a lot of people, prevented a lot of tragedies. Yes, you were wrong a couple of times. You suggested wrong interpretations, endorsed several wrong readings. But to call you the names they are using now, that’s just malicious. And ungrateful.”
“My dear, now you sound just like that new PR guy. He must really be worth what we’re paying him.”
If younger, Nancy might have thrown the stack of papers she had at him, then berate for an hour. But age had also weathered her, albeit in a different way, and all she did was to dump the stack onto Damien’s table, and strode away in exaggerated disgust. Grinning, feeling better than he did all day, Damien settled into reading what the research team had compiled for the week. Print-outs of any news or magazine or online article that mentioned him. This didn’t go easily, and after half an hour, he was only done with a quarter of the stack. Compared to the previous week when there was just an average of one write-up about him daily, almost all major news outlets were citing his name this week. In almost all the articles, the descriptions of him were less than flattering.
“More,” Nancy said coldly, when she came in with another stack an hour later.
He lost himself in it. Years ago, he promised himself that he would not be affected by such cries for his disgracing. Very quickly thereafter, he came to realise that he was his own worst detractor. Like a senseless moth drawn by the sting of a flame, the hatred beckoned to him. Summoned him and demanded his attention and emotions and fury. In the earlier years, each toxic statement he read steeled his resolve to continue cautioning the world. Now, he reacted mostly with scorning and dismissals, frequently also with fantasies of elaborate get-backs, such as what he did with the reporter. Whatever his reaction, he continued to devote hours each week to this misery. Often, he loses himself so much in it, the world ceases to spin around him. The world becomes just those accusatory words laid before his eyes. Those words, in turn, the spindle for his next public proclamation to be spun from.
He glanced up hatefully. Nancy was back. Left fist clenched by her side. Right hand over her chest. There was no colour in her face. She appeared on the verge of passing out.
“What,” the chill swept through him.
“Didn’t you … didn’t you …”
Once, he had been so absorbed in his reading, his ears blocked out the fire sirens. He only reconnected with the world when the sprinklers sprayed. That happened again. Slowly, almost sluggishly, the chaos crept into him. Cars horning. Punctuated crashes. Dull, echoing explosions. Turning, he saw faint orange incandescence broadening in different patches on the blinds behind him. When he reached for the cord, the heat hit. Not alarmingly, but in an embracing way. From where she was, Nancy whined. Then she darted to Damien’s side.
“We need to evacuate,” she cried. “We need to go, now!”
“My, my files,” his eyes strayed to the safes lining his office walls. Were they fireproof? Wait. It wasn’t their building that was hit. Was it? “My …”
He managed to unfreeze himself and scrambled after her. During the way down, he tripped twice on the steps.
So you saw a vortex.
Four columns of smoke. Billowing serenely into the sky. From certain angles, they exuded an artistic grandeur. The procession of ephemeral doom, juxtaposed against everlasting reality.
I wouldn’t call it a vortex. Nothing that dramatic. It was more, an interplay of forces. Visible forces, ascending into the sky.
Carnage everywhere. Debris from the explosions surrounded him. Concrete, glass shards, a few chunks of what revoltingly looked to be burnt human remains. Couple of steps away, three mid-day drinkers lumbered with awed eyes towards the remaining lower half of someone. A riot police tried to hold them back. One against three was a losing battle.
What do you think these, forces, represent? Perhaps you could describe them in more detail.
The building across from his office was historical property. Built near a hundred years ago in the semi classical style popular then, and sustained for modern times through constant upgrading and retrofitting. As if to attest to its determination to withstand any onslaught, inflicted by time or man, it remained sturdy after the attack. Only the upper segments of the eastern face was crumbling, and even those areas, not too badly. The western face was entirely undamaged. Onlookers whom the riot police couldn’t dispose of were herded towards this side.
They were colourful, Jon. Each streak was an intense streak of colour, dancing in the air like, like fairies. Fairies leaving behind glittering dust where they have been. I remember there were four distinct colours. Red, green, blue, and I think a deep shade of yellow. They danced so spiritedly in the air that they created a dazzling swirl eventually. I couldn’t lift my eyes off them.
“Maelstrom,” Damien whispered. “Their latest message.”
Nancy’s nails clawed into his arm. Half shoving, half yanking, she dragged him till they were off the street and back in their own building. “Go,” she ordered. “Head back to home and stay there till I get hold of Alastair. Do not answer any calls. Do not open the door for anyone. I have your keys. I will let ourselves in.”
“Too late,” he said meekly. “Others read the message too.”
The burly figure was upon them in seconds. When Nancy attempted to speak first, Damien gently pushed her aside, motioning too for her to be silent. Smelling of sweat and smoke, the Deputy Commander slouched beside Damien and barked harsh orders into his comms, all the while keeping his eyes on the pandemonium outside. Then he coughed, cursed, and jerked his chin. His tone was casual. Borderline nonchalant. Almost friendly too.
“Black smoke again. Why not your colours?”
“I have no idea, Commander. To the best of my knowledge, I also do not own any colours.”
“At least fifty dead. Two floors didn’t manage to evacuate. They were cut off by the fire. Tech offices, I was told. Those into the new world and the wonderful possibilities of tomorrow. Young people.”
“Look here, Ruperts,” Nancy tried to intervene. “You should be out there directing rescue efforts. Not in here harassing …”
“It’s okay, Nan. I’d handle this.” To Ruperts, he said lightly. “Your investigations should have long proven to you that I am in no way involved with Maelstrom. I cannot stop them if they insist on recruiting me.”
“Have you succumb to their tireless efforts?”
“Commander!” Nancy glared. “I insist that you …”
“How long would it take?” Damien asked evenly. “Your place or mine?”
Ruperts thumbed. “We’re parked off the corner. You have anything important tonight?”
“Could I excuse myself if I say yes?”
No answer, just a snort. When Damien stepped into the police convertible a few minutes later, he knew it was unlikely that he would be home before dawn. If things went that badly, he might not even get to sleep in his own bed throughout the weekend.