Thursday, 8 May 2008

'Limitation' - from 'The System'

[This is a chapter from my unpublished book 'The System', which chronicles the journey of a comet through our solar system, and the many different ways people might perceive it on different worlds]


Saturn (Greek: Cronus). Linked with the signs of Capricorn and Aquarius. Attributes: Ambition, social ideals, limits, challenges, self-reliance, lessons, rigid systems that restrict growth, parents, authorise, rules, strength through discipline and planning, authoritarian society, shy, repressed, desperate for recognition, frustration, striving for honour, status and executive power, controlled feelings, social but alienated, friendly.

They watch, from and through Rings made of some shattered ancient planetoid desperate to reassemble itself, but endlessly shattered again. The waves bounce out, above and below their stations. They reach for the poles and seal their grip around them. It is almost impossible to see this, yet Eleutherios knows it is all there. He watches them in return, from his darkened room, hidden away from the bright eyes of light suspended outside what is mockingly referred to as a home.

‘It isn’t fair,’ his body whispers, looking out above the walls.

‘What?’ Metis spins toward him.

‘We’re not meant to be confined,’ Eleutherios continues. ‘It goes against all laws of reason.’ He sighs in semi-resignation. ‘Remember those days before? We were so free then.’

The light form of Metis sighs in response, yet her sigh is one of patience. ‘We were never that free,’ she says.

‘No?’ A pause. ‘No. No, I suppose not. But at least we were freer than this. Certainly you were.’

Floating upward, Metis eases herself over him, flowing into him in deep swells of air. ‘Perhaps. But life has never been so fortunate. If it were not this, it would only be something else.’

‘Why are you so pessimistic?’ he asks, looking into the wispy shape now merging with his own.

‘I am not being pessimistic,’ she corrects him. ‘I am being very realistic. Life is not the sum of many beautiful parts. Life is made of suffering as well--more, even, than of beauty. It’s just something you have to accept.’

‘I can’t, Metis,’ he says. ‘Not when I know that out there, not so far from us, there exist better lives for people to lead. Jupiter, for instance--they don’t live this way on Jupiter. They don’t even live this way on our own moons.’ A light glimmers through him--a light formed of gases, condensed into a ball against their will--and Eleutherios glows brightly. ‘We’re just like them, aren’t we?’ His voice is plaintive.

‘In what way?’ she asks the illuminated form that is now lighting her up too.

‘We look like them, like the others. We’re not different in form. We would lead similar lives if given the chance. We have just as much a right to freedom and happiness as any of them out there on Titan, for instance. So why are we treated so differently?’

‘Do you ask yourself this same question every day?’ Metis inquires softly.

‘In my mind, yes,’ he admits.

‘Have you ever found an answer?’

‘Not one that satisfies me.’ Drawing away from her, he eases back to his position at the window. ‘It’s absurd,’ he announces as though he were speaking truisms to a crowd. ‘Everything we are, all we’re made of, is intended for motion. Doesn’t that count for something? And somehow we’ve been trapped in these strange structures, held in against our natures. How did you even manage to do this to us?’ He addresses these last words to the sky--to the blinking lights looking down on him ominously from the Rings. Near them, an extra light dances--something foreign. It has not always been there, but one night Eleutherios looked out and noticed it--the extra light, moving almost imperceptibly, slowly across the sky.

‘I’m surprised they haven’t tried to hold you down, too,’ Eleutherios whispers to the comet.

‘You torture yourself,’ Metis observes in her simple manner. ‘How can you ever heal when you won’t stop focusing on the wounds?’

‘I can’t not focus on them!’ Eleutherios shouts angrily. ‘It’s always there, staring at me--no matter how hard I try to ignore it, it’s always there.’ Furiously, he hurls himself forward, crashing into the walls that encircle him with gravitation. Metis remains still, watching patiently and calmly as he continues to heave himself forward. There was a time when he might have frightened her with this outburst, but she is used to it now.

When he finally collapses, she asks, ‘Do you feel better now?’

Eleutherios looks at the walls apologetically, and then at Metis curiously. ‘How can you be so calm about this? Doesn’t any of it frighten you at all?’

‘Of course it does,’ Metis answers. ‘How can you accuse me like that?’

‘You never…react,’ he goes on. ‘Here I am, making a fool of myself, and you just stand there, not reacting.’

‘That’s exactly it, though,’ she argues. ‘You make a fool of yourself--you never accomplish anything through it. I don’t see the point in any of it.’

Breathing hard, the form of Eleutherios sinks inward, then out again, his colour changing with each exhalation. His temper rises. ‘You don’t see the point,’ he says in a voice far too quiet to be normal. ‘May I ask you something?’ Without allowing Metis to reply, he proceeds: ‘Do you remember the day all this began?’

‘I don’t see how talking about this again is going to do us any good,’ Metis says.

‘Do you remember it?’ Eleutherios ignores her. ‘Do you think about it much? Do you think of that day when they all flew up to the surface? When they began that cyclone in the first place?’ And looking inward he sees it once more: the herds of slaves being sent up to the Rings, forced into motion--the way they first spun around the world in ominous unnatural orbit--how their audience down below found themselves swept along as in a whirlpool, flung into one another, forming a terrible tornado of activity. It was not what They had necessarily intended, so They stopped it--how, Eleutherios was never too sure. The damage was already done by that point, though. You can’t stop something so powerful once it has reached the inner core of the soul. Eleutherios recalls how the people became the very essence of Panic itself. He can still see the look of terror in the forms of all he met, that day--how he reached out to them, longing to protect them. That was when he met Metis.

She was lost, strewn across a foreign part of the world. The storm did that to many people. She was the only one he met who was not hysterical. For some reason, she was calm and patient.
‘It would not help anyone if I were to scream and cry like the rest of them,’ was her explanation. She was keeping the peace, by setting an example of quietude. Perhaps this was a result of her background. After all, she had spent much of her life on Jupiter. They were different, there. Eleutherios knew that from his visits to that strange world. He dreamt of its majestic differences. He dreamt of it increasingly now, now that he pined for it even more.

So she was calm and accepting, and this drew him to her more strongly than any of those gravitational storms could.

Then came Their second plan. Eleutherios always wondered where the idea had come from--perhaps They had learned it from one of the terrestrial worlds. (Those foreign planets were always coming up with such strange ideas.) But where They learned the concept did not matter, now that it was in motion--literal motion, as those slaves were sent on their way in orbit once more, this time down below around the others, enclosing them with their reluctant force. Eleutherios thinks this must be the most frightening part of it all: when he looks at the walls that encircle him, they are alive. Sometimes, when he watches them carefully, it is almost as though he can slow them down. Then he can see each slave as an individual, rather than as one piece of a colourful blur. He looks at them--into them--and he sees their apologies. They never asked to be used for such purposes. They do not want to trap him anymore than he wants them to. And, in their own way, they are more trapped than he, for they are unable to stop their endless rotation.
Sometimes, one or two will drop from exhaustion. They fall in heaps of light, and then are swept up once more by the gravitation. The corpses fly along, intermingling with the living, to the latter’s great horror--but there is nothing to be done about it. When one falls, another is sent as a replacement, thus the walls never become any thinner. Eleutherios has a dark wish that, one day, all the slaves will die at once, and then the walls will dissolve. He will be free--Metis will be free--and then he can find some way to free the others. But he knows in his heart that the likelihood of this happening is very small.

They must have suicide-mission soldiers, Eleutherios thinks, forgetting he was ever addressing Metis. They must, because how else could they have made all this happen? They must have flown to one of the moons first, then sent soldiers on a suicide mission to force the slaves into rotation. Then the others set up their watch stations on the Rings. That must be it. And, if that’s the case, they can’t hold out forever. Sooner or later, they will all die….

‘Yes, I think of it,’ Metis suddenly interrupts his thoughts. ‘I think of it all the time--I remember the moment when we all realised something terrible was about to happen without us ever expecting it, I remember how everyone screamed, I still hear the voices in my mind even now--how can I not? But I can’t think of it the way you do--obsessively. I’d lose my mind if I did that--I think you’re losing yours, for it.’

Startled, Eleutherios looks up at her sharply. Then, slowly he cools down. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says gently. ‘I’m sorry for implying that you’re unfeeling, that you don’t care. I’m sorry for expecting you to handle this the same way I do. I don’t want to force you to be something other than what you are--I don’t want to change your ideals, or the way you think, or what you believe is right--I don’t want to be like Them.’

Traces of liquid seem to melt off Metis as she listens to him speak, and she flies over to him, wrapping herself about him. ‘Things could be worse,’ she tells him. ‘A lot worse.’

‘How?’ he asks sincerely.

‘We could be alone. They could have put these…walls…between us, divided us. Then you’d never have anyone to rant to, and I’d never have anyone to scold,’ she laughs. ‘Think how tragic that would be!’

Her tone is infectious, and he laughs with her. ‘Yes,’ he says affectionately, ‘that would be tragic.’ Then, very gravely, ‘I wish we hadn’t met under these circumstances. I wish things could have been different. Sometimes I dream of it, you know. I dream we’re free, and it’s many years ago. I dream the world is bright and airy, heavy with possibility rather than gravity. I dream of running into you on one of those bright, airy, possible days and speaking to you for the first time. I dream of us leading such wonderful lives--so light!’

‘You shouldn’t dream of such things,’ she tells him.

‘Why not? They make me happy.’

‘I’m glad, but all the same you shouldn’t dream of them. They’re illogical. You might not have loved me, had you met me under other circumstances.’

‘I find that hard to believe,’ Eleutherios says seriously, and his voice seems to play melody to the rhythm of his heart.

‘It’s true, though,’ Metis speaks knowingly. ‘Why did you find me so attractive?’

‘You know why,’ he says, smoothing her with his weight. ‘You were so different from all the others, Metis.’

‘I might not have seemed it if we were not in the middle of a crisis. I would have been just like anyone else, if things had been free and calm. I would not have stood out at all, and so you would not have known to love me. Nor would I have felt any real reason to cling to you. We might not have even spoken, Eleutherios.’

‘Why must you ruin my dream?’ he asks like a small child.

‘I’m only trying to put things into perspective. You look around you, and all you see is limitation. Yet I look around and see strength--strength because, through all the hardships, we have found something. We have found each other. We would still be alone if not for all that has happened.’
‘Do you want me to thank Them?’ he asks incredulously.

‘Of course not,’ she sighs. ‘I just wish you would see things are not always as they seem. There is a reason for the things that happen. Tragedy does not occur simply for the sake of it. All of it is a great ocean of Cause and Effect.’

‘Is that something you learned where you came from?’

‘No,’ she says. ‘In fact, it’s only something I learned when I came here. It’s easy to take things for granted in a world where all is peaceful and good. Here, you learn to examine things more closely.’

‘Perhaps,’ Eleutherios concedes.

‘It’s true. You are just reluctant to admit it, and I think that’s all due to ego.’

‘Ego?’ He is surprised at her.

‘Yes: ego. You want to be the one to find a way out of here--you want to be a hero, someone who breaks free and makes a name for himself--you’re striving for recognition. You want all the universe to know the sufferings going on here. You’re consumed by that foolish desire. But I tell you there’s no point, because really you’re not suffering any more than they are.’

‘I doubt that,’ he interjects.

‘You aren’t!’ she refutes him. ‘The others--they are suffering just as much, but in their own ways. And perhaps they are suffering more, because they are not aware they are suffering, not like you are. So, pull something out of that, make something of it. Examine yourself, examine the time we have spent together. Examine all the loneliness and isolation and realise how much worse it could be. After all, how much did you use your supposed freedom when you presumably had it? How often did you exercise your religious rights, before this fascism removed them? When did you want to speak to all the others out there, before the walls divided you from them?’ Moving more closely to him, she says excitedly, ‘We have only learned love through being confined together; we have only achieved appreciation for the world and its people through being hidden from it. And, even if we never see the universe “freely” again, haven’t we learned something great enough to make it all worth it?’

Drawing back from her, Eleutherios looks into her wildly with a kind of wonderment. Her words ring madly, losing themselves in his body, and he falls backward, confused and overwhelmed. Yet Metis has not finished. Gazing up above the walls--toward that gauze of thin gas that taunts them by seeming easy to tear through, yet never reachable due to the gravity--Metis continues:
‘Five years ago, when I was living on Jupiter, I might have looked up at that comet and thought it the most beautiful thing--a glorious messenger in the sky.’

‘And now?’ Eleutherios asks from behind her.

‘Now, I look up, and I understand it. It has no control over its own journey or destination. It’s trapped just as we are--just as these slaves are, in these walls. But, if it’s alive in any way, it must think a lot in its isolation. It must contemplate all those strange mysteries that float about, that we take so much for granted when we’re distracted with comforts.’ She breathes deeply, becoming almost opaque with words. ‘Now I look at that comet,’ she says, ‘and I realise it is one of the luckiest creatures in the universe--because it knows itself.’

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