| There is only the dark silence of the tomb. Beginning
almost imperceptibly, then in an agonizingly slow progression, pure silver-gray
light splits the darkness into upper and lower, gradually outlining the
conical hill to the east. In the snapping suddenness of breaking bone,
the blazing face of the God pulls the land from the lower darkness, banishing
Sesu faced the sun's light, unblinking, as he had every morning since he could remember. His face, strong and regal, was unlined. He recalled that, once, the light had warmed him with its joy. The light on the golden sand, and rippling on the water of the River, once beautiful, was harsh and stark, glaring with the cold repetition. Even the scent of the river lilies on the warm morning breeze had grown bland and stale.
The beginning of yet another perfect day, he thought without emotion, as he stepped back into the shadowed gloom of his house. He returned to the sleeping chamber, no longer noticing that the figures and images in the dry, rotting plaster on the walls and vaulted ceiling were cracked and flaking. He stepped toward the small dressing table near the far wall and the shadows, pale images of long ago might-have-beens, began to swirl around him, whispering in their movement as they dressed him in a white linen undergarment and kilt – the fabric clean, soft, but vaguely threadbare. A shadow lifted the polished bronze mirror and held it before Sesu as another began to apply the black make-up to his eyes, while yet another ran a sharp razor over his head and face, sweeping away the stubble that had grown in the past day.
Sesu finally motioned the ministering shadows with a weak reflection of bored irritation. He walked slowly from bedchamber and into the cramped main hall of the small, aging mansion. Another shadow stood by holding a tray with his morning meal of tasteless dates, coarse flat bread, and oil, with a bowl of thick watery-tasting beer in an alabaster bowl. Sesu sat in the sole chair in the room, and waved the food over listlessly.
He told himself, as he had thousands of times before, that he should be more appreciative. He knew many of the people had no servants to care for their needs, while others hadn’t even been provided with the barest necessities. Someone, although he could not recall who, had told him once that many of those people had become little more than skeletal shadows themselves.
Had it been Nefer who said that? he pondered. He considered making the short walk to her house to ask. Finally, listlessly, he wondered why he should bother. He knew she would be there today, or tomorrow, or in a year. So he sat mired in weary acceptance, trying to recall the spicy scent of her flowing red hair. Gradually his mind settled back into its blank ennui.
It might have been a few minutes, or a few hours, later that a shadow approached him and whispered to him that a stranger had been found wandering outside and what should be done?
A stranger? The thought prodded Sesu. It had been an eternity since a true stranger had appeared. The thought was almost interesting; he felt a glimmer of past excitement. He gestured at the shadow to have the guards bring the stranger to him into the reception hall. He sent for his sandals and his Nemis cloth for his head. As he waited for the accoutrements, he tried to remember how a king should approach a stranger. It had been so long. He knew when he had been king, the greatest King, he would never have debased himself to meet a stranger – but this was something new, something different, and he was hungry for something new.
Striding into the four pillared reception hall, he saw
the stranger, solidly held by the silent shades. The stranger was truly
something new, almost entirely alien to Sesu’s long experience. He
was tall, as tall as Sesu himself, in black leather robes, open at the front,
revealing clothes, also black, that were snuggly fitted to his slender body,
and covered his legs and feet. His chest cloth was painted in meaningless
symbols and characters, around a picture of a skeleton in black fitted clothes
and cylindrical hat.
The stranger was far more pale than anyone Sesu had ever seen before, more so even than the new people, the Hellenes and Romans. And the new people didn’t have pieces of metal imbedded in their faces, nor did they wear dark eye-covering crystals.
Probably neither Hellene nor Roman then, he mused sardonically. It seemed that the stranger was examining him just as closely, perhaps finding someone as alien to him. With a nod from Sesu, the shadow-guards brought the stranger to his knees.
“Hey man, watch it. What are you doing? Who are you? What are these things?”
The arrogant assumption that Sesu was there to answer this person’s questions was almost pleasantly amusing in its novelty. Once he would have had the stranger tortured for such effrontery, and might still, but not just yet.
“Those are my guards,” Sesu said, his voice sounding rough and harsh, as it usually did after a long silence “And if you refer to me as ‘man’ again, they will peel the skin from your flesh. I can assure you that it is very painful and unpleasant.” After a pause to let the thought sink in, he began again. “Obviously we have begun on a poor footing. You are a guest. It has been a long time since I have had a guest. Please, seat yourself.” Sesu gestured at the guards to release the stranger, and motioned to the ground before him.
“You want me to sit on the ground?” The stranger sounded surprised.
“Are you a ruler to demand a bench?” Sesu's voice was politely curious.
“Ma-, dude, where I come from everybody sits in chairs.” This surprised Sesu – even the new people understood the basic courtesies of those who sit on chairs and benches, and those who sit on the floor. It surprised him enough that he chose to overlook the nonsense honorific for the time being.
“Apparently, you are not where you are from.”
“That’s for damned sure. This is SO not where I’m from.” He paused for a moment. “ Whatever. When in Rome, do it in public and all that happy. I’m up for that.” At this the stranger rose, removed his robe, folded it and sat down on it scribal fashion, with his legs crossed. He had no other covering on his arms, and Sesu could see several skillfully tattooed magical and occult images, including one large spider web covering the back of his right elbow.
“I’m gratified to hear it.” Sesu decided that the stranger was not worth the courtesy of refreshment.
“Yeah, cool. Look, can I ask you some questions?”
“First tell me about yourself. We receive so few strangers here, it might help me to answer your questions if I knew more about you.”
“Sure.” The stranger removed the crystals from over his eyes and set them on the leather next to him. Sesu could see his eyes finally. They were blue, and young, almost innocent.
“My name’s Jack, Jack Steiner. I’m like this computer engineer. The company I’m with has been trying for years to find some way to upload a human brain into the Net, kind of a cyberspace, Matrix, VR kind of deal… So here I am. I come along and think up with this way to ‘Jack’ in – get it?” He stopped speaking for a moment. “Let me guess, you don’t know what I’m talking about, right?”
“An engineer is someone who builds things. A computer is someone who does something with numbers. Beyond that, no, I don't.”
“No, dude, a computer’s a machine that holds information, like a book does." He paused. "Don't tell me, you don’t know what a book is, either?” Jack looked around. Then, peering into the gloom around the edges of the room, “Hold on a minute, those look like those whatchamacallits, hero-thingies. Egyptian hieroglyphics.” He rose, stepped over to the wall and tapped it. A few flakes of plaster and paint sloughed off.
Sesu thought for a moment. The meaning of the words took a heartbeat to filter through him. The sacred magic had always allowed him to understand the gibberish of the new people as easily as the incomprehensible mutterings of the ancients, but Jack seemed to test its limit. In this case, the words evoked images of brightly lit ruins covered in carvings in Sesu’s mind.
“Yes, those are the sacred images of the priests of the Black Land.”
“Hey, that’s it. That’s what you look like.” Jack spun around and looked at Sesu. “One of those Egyptian dudes. So, who are you supposed to be – King Tut or something?”
Sesu raised an eyebrow, as the temptation to have Jack tortured returned. If only to teach the insulting creature proper behavior. Admittedly it might take a while, but neither of us is going anywhere. Still, the hunger for the New held Sesu firmly in its grip.
“I don’t know of any 'Tut'. My name is ‘The Strength and Justice of the Sun are Powerful, Chosen One of the Sun, Son of the Sun, It Is the Sun Who Bore Him, Beloved of the Creator.’ I am known to those close to me as Sesu. You may refer to me as My Lord.”
“Ok, whatever, Sesu. See, this wall, these symbols are information. But they’re static. Once they’re carved and painted, they don’t do anything. In a computer, this sort of information can be manipulated and made to do things. And computers can be networked, connected, to communicate with each other. But everyone knows this stuff.”
“Not everyone,” Sesu said with a slight smile, his mind making the connection. “So you have been trying to find a way to place yourself into this information?”
“To what purpose?”
“Well, back in the Dark Ages, people thought it would be a cool way to visualize and handle data – but like no one actually SAW Tron, so later guys came up with the idea of using it to create some kind of alternate world…” Jack’s voice trailed off for a moment, then he looked around to Sesu. “What is this place?”
Sesu smiled benignly at him
“Long ago, priests discovered that symbols, like those on that wall, contained information, information that could be manipulated. They found that it was possible, through the right spells and procedures, to place a person into that information, into another world.”
Jack sat heavily down on his leather robe.
“I've never seen anything like that on Discovery.”
“So what have you ‘seen’?”
“Well, let me think. The Egyptians built the Pyramids. They made these things out of dead people, and stuck ‘em in tombs, and worshiped weird looking gods. Oh, yeah, and they all died out about a million years ago.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Sesu sighed. “Even before the new people came, it was obvious that standards were slipping. Once our bodies were properly prepared and installed in our sacred houses, we were able to move among our children, to watch over and guide them. When it became increasingly difficult to reach them, and they became as insubstantial as these servants, I had wondered if the rituals were even being properly performed any longer.” He paused for a long moment. "Eventually people stopped coming to this realm altogether."
“You saying you’re some kind of Mummy?” Again there was a word with no meaning, but images, of the unwrapped and desecrated dead, among them a brief flash of a face that strongly resembled his father's desiccated face before they wrapped it. However, the nose was much stronger than his father's, even if it looked as though it had been flattened slightly by the linen wrappings. Sesu gently touched his own nose, as arched as the Avenging One's beak, as he thought It's no wonder then that many people have vanished in the years since.
“I don’t know that word. I am an Effective One. My body was properly prepared after my death, so that my spirit would make the passage through the underworld to come to this place. Did you not have to undergo some change to come here?”
“Well, I had nanobots, very small machines, run very small cables into my brain, so I could be plugged into the machine.” Jack felt around the back of his head. Not finding what he was looking for, he shrugged. “Does that count?”
“I’m sure the priests will be pleased to discuss the details of your magic and compare it to theirs.”
“Whatever. So, tell me – is the afterlife as boring as it looks?”
“Boring? No. The youngest of us is perhaps two thousand years old, and all boredom has long since died. Now there is just a pathetic acceptance of our fate.”
“Jeez, and I thought my life sucked. See this?” He gestured at the webbing on his arm. “Where I’m from it means 'doing time'. That’s you. Why don’t you just kill yourself or something?”
“We're already dead. If this body were killed, I would just wake again tomorrow. The worst that can happen to us is torture. We heal from it, but we’ve gotten quite good at torture here – perhaps you would like a demonstration?”
"Whatever." Jack shrugged and looked at a bracelet on his wrist. “Oops, you’d better make it fast though. I only signed up for the three-hour tour. The system should pull me back out any time now.”
“That’s not possible. This is the land of the dead. There is no going back.”
“No, man. This was the land of the dead.” Jack picked up his crystals and clipped them back on his nose. In a much deeper, sardonic tone he said, “I’ll be back” and vanished with a snapping suddenness.
After a brief pause, Sesu stood, knelt and picked up the
black leather robe, real excitement flowing through his veins for the first
time in centuries.