The Masters of Triage
by Evan Appelman
Table of Contents
Part 3 and Part 5
appear in this issue.
|part 4 of 5|
They had gotten through dinner with desultory conversation and were seated in her living room. Sybil looked at him with a slight frown. “You’ve been awfully subdued this evening, Luce,” she asked. “Is something bothering you?”
He took a deep breath. “I think we need to have a serious conversation.”
“Oh? Really? That sounds ominous.” She raised her eyebrows slightly, and the barest hint of an incongruous smile crossed her features. “All right. But first I think you should see something.”
She stopped speaking and stood up, facing him. Lucien looked at her expectantly. She looked positively radiant, and he wondered once again whether he was making the right decision. But as he continued to watch her, his eyes narrowed. She was not just radiant; she was radiating! A soft glow surrounded her figure.
As he watched, the glow brightened, and in another moment it had blossomed into a full-blown aura. But it wasn’t a monochromatic aura like his own and those of the other archangels. Instead, it was a wildly swirling kaleidoscope of colors, continually shifting and changing. Within the aura, she seemed to grow in stature, towering over him. He stared in disbelief, finally pulling himself together enough to ask, “Who... are... you?”
She laughed wickedly. “Wouldn’t you just like to know, Mr. Prince of Darkness?”
The words stung like the lash of a whip. She knew him! His own words sounded in his head. But they were coming from outside — from her. “Could you expect her to bear the burden of that knowledge? And what would we tell the children?” Followed by peals of mocking laughter.
He was becoming alarmed and angry. Who was she, and what was going on? Was he being set up? His own aura blazed defensively. He looked at her again. Inside her still-gyrating aura she had her hand over her mouth, and her eyes were twinkling mischievously. She was obviously having difficulty suppressing her amusement over his very evident discomfiture. And then it hit him. His fears were groundless. There was no malice here. She was teasing him!
He let his aura die out. “All right, Ms. Know-it-all,” he said. “Are you going to tell me what this is all about, or am I going to have to take you over my knee?”
She giggled. “It might be fun seeing you try.” Her tone was bantering, but it contained that undercurrent of inner strength that he had felt before. She let her aura fade also and seated herself again beside him. Her face became serious. “Of course I’ll tell you, darling,” she said gently. “Better yet, I’ll show you.”
He felt a tickling sensation at the edge of his mind, and then...
* * *
He was walking along a path through a lush woodland. Ahead of him the ground began to rise abruptly. In the distance he could see the woodland give way to a rocky crag, on the summit of which stood an ornate temple. He continued to follow the path, which led up the hill in a series of switchbacks.
The path came to an end at the edge of the woods, and a stone staircase continued upward toward the temple. He began to mount the stairs. There were others climbing along with him. Some appeared to be peasants in worn cloaks. There were also men with iron helmets and breastplates. Almost everyone was carrying some kind of a basket. As he approached the temple precincts he observed to his right the mouth of a cave cut into the rock and accessed by a smaller staircase.
As he watched, a brown-haired, olive-complexioned young woman in a flowing white robe emerged from the cave and stood at the entrance, looking about. A brilliant aura flared up around her, swirling in ever-changing patterns and colors. She seemed to grow to superhuman stature. An unearthly voice, of unimaginable intensity, rang out and echoed among the rocks.
“Now is the time to ask for prophecies. The god! Behold the god!”
* * *
“So,” he said softly, as the vision faded, “You are ‘she who dwelt at Cumae’.”
“Sibylla Deiphobe at your service, my Lord Abaddon.” This time there was no trace of mockery in her voice. Her tone was rather one of respect toward an esteemed colleague.
“You don’t look much like a wizened hag. And how did you get out of your bottle?”
She laughed. “And you seem to have lost your horns and forked tail. None of us can be responsible for all the folklore that has grown up around us, can we? But Cumae is lovely, don’t you think? Of course, the temple is in ruins now, but it is still very nice, very restful. I try to get back as often as I can. I’d like to take you there some time.”
“I’d like to go. But what about him?”
“Oh, him!” She laughed again. “I think we have a pretty good relationship these days. He did come on pretty strong back then, but I managed to convince him that it wasn’t a good idea. And despite the legends, he has never been vindictive.”
“How about that story of the handful of sand? Anything to it?”
“I’m afraid not. More folklore. Someone was trying to explain why a priestess should be immortal. But some of us have to be. Otherwise we could never get our work done.”
“So you still are his priestess?”
“Of course, but that’s strictly business. And he doesn’t do a lot of hands-on work any more. None of the gods do. They provide general oversight, but the priests and priestesses and other acolytes take care of the nitty-gritty, just as you leave most of the day-to-day stuff to BZ and the others.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about my affairs.”
“It’s part of my job,” she said with a smile.
* * *
“The Cumaean Sibyl, for chrissake!” Michael’s voice exuded disbelief and disapproval. “How the hell did he get shacked up with that witch?”
Gabriel laughed. “I think she just fell into his lap, so to speak. Anyway, that explains what’s been eating old Cousin Luce all this time. But Sibylla’s okay. She’s not one of us, of course, but as priestess of Apollo she is a professional.”
“I suppose so,” Michael admitted grudgingly.
“And anyhow,” Gabriel went on, “Maybe we all ought to ease up a bit on Luce. You’ve been riding him pretty hard lately. Weren’t the two of you real buddies back in the old days?”
Michael grimaced. “That was long ago and far away. It’ll be a cold day in hell before we kiss and make up. But Sibylla is Luce’s problem, not ours. If she makes him happy, it’s no skin off our backs.”
* * *
They had been sitting for a while without further conversation, enjoying each other’s company and reflecting on the unexpected turn their relationship had taken. It was Lucien who finally broke the silence. “Maybe we’d better talk a little about us,” he began. “Is there any truth to any of the things you’ve been telling me all these months?” He tried to sound severe, but he had a feeling that he wasn’t very convincing. How could he be when he knew, and probably she knew also, that there was hardly anything for which he wasn’t prepared to forgive her?
“It’s all true, darling,” she replied earnestly. “I’ve never lied to you. It’s just that I didn’t tell you everything. After all, you didn’t tell me who you were, either. I had to find that out for myself.”
“How about your baby’s death and the failed relationship? Did that really happen?”
“Of course it did. You looked at the probability branches. I couldn’t make all that up even if I wanted to.” She paused again, reflecting. “I was feeling lonely and depressed, and Roger was so sweet and gentle. And after all these years I really did want a baby. I should have known better. It couldn’t work. There was never any real communication between us. The baby’s death was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Even without that, it wouldn’t have lasted.”
“And you knew who I was from the beginning?”
“No, of course not. I came to you because I wanted someone to talk to without getting into another doomed relationship. It wasn’t until we met again in the restaurant that I realized who you were. Though I’m surprised it took me that long. You were so blissfully unaware that you never made any effort to shield yourself.”
“Of course. We have to, with your operatives all over the place. The last thing we want is to get involved in turf wars. But once I did know your identity, the challenge of seducing the Angel of the Abyss seemed just too delicious to resist. “And then...” She paused and smiled wistfully. “And then, I guess I just fell for your irresistible boyish charm.”
“Irresistibility has always been one of my strong points,” he said with a smile. He put his arm around her, and she rested her head on his shoulder. “But I think it was pretty much mutual. Did you know why I came over this evening?”
She nodded. “Of course, and the only thing I could think of was to come clean. But maybe that hasn’t really changed anything. Oh, Luce, is there really any future for us? I’m not at all in your class, you know. I’m just a superannuated human grunt. You’re a Potentate, an Archangel! You could hold your own with Apollo or Demeter or any of the others.”
“There have been precedents. And you do put on a pretty impressive son et lumière.”
She laughed. “Apollo helped me put it together. But the Stentorian voice was all my idea. The show really impresses the locals. And that’s important if we want the contributions to keep coming. Priests and priestesses do have to eat, you know.
“But seriously, I’m worried that you’ll end up being bored with me. That’s the way it seems to have worked with most of those ‘precedents’ you’re talking about. You know the kind of thing: ‘...the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair...’”
“Yes, ‘...and they bare children to them; the same became mighty men which were of old...’ Hardly a consummation to be sneezed at. But I was thinking of something a little different, and hopefully more permanent. It seems to me we might make a pretty good team. We do communicate pretty well. And if I’m not mistaken, we’re in much the same line of work.”
“You mean triage?”
“That’s as good a term for it as any. Or maybe damage control. I like to think of it as trying to even up those odds we were talking about when you first came to see me.”
“And to justify the ways of God to men?”
“That, too. It’s a pretty tall order, whatever you want to call it.”
She was silent for a moment. Then softly: “‘I heard upon his dry dung heap that man cry out who could not sleep...’”
Lucien continued the verse. “’If God is God, he is not good; if God is good, he is not God.’ Archibald MacLeish, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she replied, “From JB.”
“He was a good man.”
“Well, he, too. But I was thinking of Job.”
“Of course he was. But he had to repent in the end, didn’t he?”
“Repent? For what? For demanding to know the charges against him? For demanding the right to defend himself before God? He had to yield to force majeure, but that’s a long way from repentance! But you’d better not get me started on all that. Let’s just say that I have a lot of empathy with Job.”
“I imagine you would have. You’re still rehashing that rebellion of yours, aren’t you?”
“So you know all about that? I hope you haven’t swallowed Milton’s version lock, stock and barrel.”
“No, of course not. But he really did a number on you, didn’t he? It was pretty funny how he had Abdiel taking you out.”
“That blowhard! Fat chance! If he’d gotten anywhere near me during the fighting, I’d have blasted him halfway across the galaxy. Milton got lots of things pretty screwed up. Though his story of my encounter with Gabriel wasn’t so far off. And it was typical of the Chief to step in and minimize the bloodshed. But Milton wasn’t a lot kinder to your operation, if I remember. Didn’t he have all of the ancient gods arising from my subordinates in the rebellion?”
“Yes, that was a pretty wild idea.”
“Actually, Milton owes me one, though he never knew it.”
“I can show you, if you’ll let me. I’ve gotten so spoiled using the computer that I haven’t done any of your kind of mind-to-mind projection in a long time, but I think I can still swing it. May I?”
“Of course, Luce.”
He probed gently at the edges of her mind and encountered the tightly knit shielding network. At his touch, he felt it relax. A moment later he found a path to the interior and began the projection.
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Evan Appelman