Alarms of Struggle and Flight

John Cowan

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.

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This story was written by John Cowan <>, who did the HTML conversion too.

What I am recording here is a Tecton Secret, and I (and all the other people involved) have been forbidden to discuss it in any way. The punishment for doing so is to be put to death in a particularly barbarous fashion. However, I choose to interpret the use of this archaic medium, pen and ink on paper, in an archaic language not spoken for millennia, as an acceptable way to balance the demands of the law and my own ethics. After what I have seen, I am not afraid of Controller's Injunctions. The people of the future for whom I write this journal must make their own judgments of me.

My name is of no consequence to this record. I am what is called a Second Order Channel in the Tecton, which means that I was born into my job; that I go where I am told and do what I am told, and expect to do so my whole life long; and that I am expected to bear other people's secrets in silence, to say nothing of my own. I am a specialist in the pathology of changeover at a major hospital in a city on the ocean.

It amuses me, writing in Ancient English, to explain what changeover is, although everyone alive today understands the concept perfectly well. In short, it is the physiological process, taking place at puberty, by which certain people are changed from consuming food for energy to directly consuming the energy of life itself. The only sufficiently rich source of this energy is certain other people, themselves past puberty, who produce more of this energy than their own bodies require. People who have undergone changeover must feed on energy once a month, or they die. So matters have stood since the collapse of the Ancient World two thousand or more years ago.

Changeover can take place at any age from eleven to seventeen natal years. A few poor souls have undergone the experience earlier or later, but with fatal results. Perhaps you can imagine how I felt, then, when I was asked to consult on a changeover patient who appeared to be about twenty-five years of age. I accept, as all doctors must, that my patients will die, some of them under my care, but I do not have to enjoy the prospect.

Tim -- a name assigned by the hospital clerk, common enough in both my own language and English -- had arrived at my hospital during the night in a comatose, starving, and hypothermic condition. In plain language, he had been washed up near the docks, and was more dead than alive. The hospital staff had treated him as well as I might expect.

A quick look told me I was dealing with arrested changeover. Tim's body had halted midway through the transformation, and the arm tentacles through which he would draw his energy sustenance had not yet appeared. Using my special senses, though, I perceived that the tentacles were in fact fully formed.

Seeing one thing and sensing another, I probed further. The coma was easily explained by the massive head injuries I could both see and perceive. That would be a matter for a neurological specialist. The tentacles were another matter. I concluded that Tim must be watched carefully. I gave the necessary orders.

A week later, nothing had changed. Tim remained unconscious and unresponsive. His brain injury was not healing; his tentacles remained as before. This was unprecedented. Changeover normally takes place within one day. In the worst cases, invariably fatal, the victim may linger in the intermediate state for as much as a week. How could Tim still be alive? The lack of energy within his body should have finished him days ago, even though due to his coma he was draining his reserves very slowly.

Four days later, Tim exhausted his reserves. I expected him to die at last. All my medical science told me that he was no more than a corpse with a heartbeat. Instead, something utterly unprecedented took place. His tentacles shrank further, becoming almost undetectable in their arm sheaths. But the cells of his body, once a formless darkness to my senses, now began to glow faintly with metaphorical light. His body had begun to generate energy! The impossible had taken place: a changeover had stopped and reversed itself in mid-course.

Perhaps I should have broken my oaths at this point and killed him. Perhaps that would have been a higher mercy not only for Tim but for our whole tormented world. But I did not. I continued to watch as the glow of energy strengthened hour by hour, forming a halo about his abused body. Tim's cells were growing, dividing, repairing all his bodily damage outside the brain. As was known even to the Ancients, brain tissue does not regenerate, and even our science can do little to help brain injury.

Of course, Tim now became not a patient but a "case", first within the hospital, and then within the Tecton as a whole. My records were scrutinized mercilessly. I was grilled by one committee after another. Absolute silence was imposed on me, first by the hospital, then by the Tecton. Within a day, the stiff paper and ornate seals of an official Controller's Injunction were in my hands. I acquiesced. I was permitted to continue following Tim's case, which seemed to me at the time the most important thing.

The field that enclosed Tim's body continued to grow and grow. His arms no longer contained any trace of tentacles that either I, or those more sensitive by nature than I, could detect. He was to all outward appearances a generator of life's energy. After six weeks of continuous observation, the level of his field had gone beyond all measurement. To be in the same room with him was to be blinded, as it were. I had him moved into a shielded room and observed him through what I can only call a peephole. (Modern English has no words fit for these matters, and still less the Ancient English I am using here.)

It seemed to me that, far from suffering a disease of changeover, he was suffering from energy overproduction. My superiors were on the verge of summoning a specialist from the far south who might -- or might not -- be able to drain off the energy glut without herself becoming saturated. But in the night as I watched, the world changed again. Tim's empty tentacle sheaths filled with life-conducting nerves, and his glowing yellow field vanished like a balloon punctured by an overeager child. His body was no longer a light in the darkness; it became once more, like my own, a darkness in the surrounding light. And so he remained, the darkness deepening slowly as the long days passed.

I was beyond astonishment. I could not doubt the evidence of my senses. My patient was a new order of humanity: a creature not condemned to live either as a producer or a generator of life's energy, forever dependent on others for being, or well-being, or both. Nor was he a reversion to the Ancients, who like children both produced and consumed their own lives, all unknowing what potentials lay hidden within them. The pattern of Tim's existence moved smoothly from an overflowing production of energy to a depth of self-consumption that would have destroyed anyone else.

Where did Tim, my patient, my mystery, come from? Were there others like him somewhere? In what family did he grow up? Perhaps a hidden village somewhere was filled with his kind: self-sufficient adults, able to produce or consume at will? Were his fluctuations normal for him, or pathological? If only he could speak! If only he would awaken!

Despite every warning, every legal threat, that should have compelled absolute secrecy, rumors began to spread of Tim's existence. He was moved to another hospital in another city, and I was moved with him. He was studied by the masters of my own profession, whom I had never expected to meet and work with, and by other masters whose very existence, I suspect, is not yet revealed to the world. The Tecton, it seems, has strange powers and strange resources at need.

We who live from others' life do not sleep often, or for long. During the nights there were secret conferences that I attended, and other conferences too secret for me to attend. At these meetings we exposed our terrible fears to one another. If there were more people like Tim, would their essential strength and their independence of our way of life make them our masters? I suspect that frantic searches were conducted, and shock troops held in readiness, to help the fearful destroy what they could never understand. To the best of my knowledge, no useful clues to Tim's origins were ever found.

One faction held that Tim's unique nature must be genetic in origin, and that seed should be taken from his quiescent body, to begin breeding an artificial race of self-sufficient ones. Another faction condemned that as unethical at best and damnable witchcraft at worst. Perhaps the experiment was tried, and failed. Perhaps, it was tried, and succeeded. Nothing is known.

The debates went on. Should he be allowed to die? Would he die if we ceased to care for him? His body had already shown a toughness and resilience which we could hardly admit to and could in no way understand.

What if our world became aware that one man, one single man, existed in a mode far outside the limits of our knowledge? Might not our precarious culture collapse in terror, or waste away in frustrated longing for changes in what could not be changed? We thought of desperate expedients. Perhaps we could tell the truth in such a way that no one would believe us. An appeal to the public, with all names and dates and identifying details changed? Perhaps someone outside the Tecton hierarchy could understand what we could not? The politicians could not accept such a humiliation.

I watched Tim's body as it lay on the bed. I myself turned him over regularly to prevent bedsores. When his breathing faltered, I breathed for him. I watched him repeatedly survive crises that would have consumed anyone else, but seemed (seemed? were?) the normal events of his life. In this way security was preserved; "the subject" (as the others called him) was kept alive until a decision could be reached, and I found some respite from my thoughts.

Did Tim represent for me an escape from my lifelong struggle against my own desires? Did he symbolize the possibility of a life where I would be a man among other men and not one of those statues we see in the oldest of Ancient ruins, supporting a roof of stone balanced on its head? The Tecton does not encourage introspection in us. We are kept busy, and even more we learn to keep ourselves busy.

At last, I suppose, I passed beyond the committees and their fears and dreams. An attempt by one faction to remove me from my patient ended after three days of separation; Tim grew visibly sicker, and the researchers feared "the subject" would be lost forever. (Did that faction hope for just such an outcome, so that they could learn more through the forbidden practice of necropsy? The scandal that would break if that news ever leaked out might bring down the Tecton itself.) In any event, I was returned to my patient. I could do little for him, but apparently that little was enough to keep him alive.

Still no word. Still no voice. We grope in darkness and silence. Stubbornly I hold my course through unknown seas.

Tonight I returned to my duty after a short respite to find Tim vanished. His bed had been remade, in the standard hospital fashion, the sheet tightly clamped around the corners of his mattress. His records were no longer in their special holder beside the bed. In fact, they were no longer anywhere that I could find. Even my special senses recorded no trace of his former presence, or mere existence, in this empty cold white room.

Before I could do more than wonder what it all meant, a Tecton security guard was escorting me into a sealed and blacked-out car which took me to a sealed and blacked-out train car. I was then escorted further to my own home in my own city. My personal effects -- but not any of my official records on Tim -- were forwarded to me by ordinary mail a few days later. I can only assume that the enclosure of this journal was an oversight. I say "I assume" but perhaps it has already been read. Or perhaps not.

I should like to think that Tim escaped somehow; that his people, with the connivance of one faction or another, came to his bedside and retrieved him. But how did they accomplish it so quickly, so secretly? I will never know.

Or perhaps he was killed by some Tecton group that decided it could no longer tolerate -- I should say, the Universe could no longer tolerate -- the existence of such a symbol of all that the Tecton is not. By destroying a creature that could not exist, they have returned order to the Universe. Where there can be no hope, there is perfect enlightenment.

In the end, it seems to me that a long-forgotten Ancient poet said it best:

                  For the world, which seems
     To lie before us like a land of dreams,
     So various, so beautiful, so new,
     Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
     Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

     And we are here as on a darkling plain
     Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
     Where ignorant armies clash by night.


The End

From Companion In Zeor #13

Last modified on 14 July 1998