PYRAMIDS AND MEMORIES
I was sitting in a coffee house in a city which was in a country once known as Turkey. I know it was once called Turkey, because I was alive two centuries ago when it was still known by that name. I still think of it as Turkey and remember when it wasn't all desert and when its national tongue was Turkish and not the ubiquitous Arabic. In fact, I was alive in days before it was known as Turkey. But I digress. After some six millennia on this wretched planet, every place holds some sort of memory for me.
I was sitting in a coffee shop smoking a shisha of tobacco-and-date and drinking Turkish coffee, made strong and sweet. The woman sitting opposite shunned the shisha and drank a weak herbal infusion. She didn't speak Arabic, but luckily I was well-versed in Anglic which had been the trade tongue of this world for some centuries. In those days it was called English, but in these parched days it has become a bastardised, impoverished language used only where a person knows little or no Arabic.
"You said you can take me to the pyramid," she said, her eyes inscrutable behind heavily tinted glasses.
"I can," I replied, making sure my Anglic was heavily accented. Over the millennia I have learnt the trick of blending in, better to speak Anglic as if it were a foreign tongue rather than one I have spoken perfectly as it evolved over centuries. "I am willing to be your guide, for a price. It is a hazardous journey ...."
"How much do you ask?" She demanded impatiently.
My mind was on other things too. A man on a table in the corner seemed to be scrutinising me. Maybe he was merely intrigued at seeing two women doing business - myself in desert robes and hair wrapped in scarves; my client in loose trousers, blouse and darkened glasses. He made me feel uneasy.
We hastily concluded the bargaining. The desert pyramid was less than three centuries old, built in the style of the ancient Egyptian pyramids. It contained old mechanisms and machines that modern people knew nothing of, but which any 22nd Century person would have recognised as part of a sophisticated surveillance system. Many had died trying to investigate the pyramid. It was rumoured to be protected by dark magicks, but those magicks were simply part of its defence programming. Had any of these people gained access, they would have been more horrified by the neither-dead-nor-alive husks of humans who had become linked to the supercomputer circuitry to form a semi-organic, semi-silicon computer.
I had lived through the 22nd Century, with its silicon-enhanced humans and its human-enhanced computers. A time when a computer comprised electronic circuits, DNA micro-conduits and a human being integrated into the circuitry, because the brain was still the fastest processor on Earth. Now the circuits were silent and the humans had long since died, trapped in the bowels of computers which had failed. A few automatic defences still protected the installations, so long as the nuclear batteries lasted.
My client and I set off through the souks and bazaars of the city to buy provisions. Strange - once this had been a central business area, dedicated to finance and commerce. Now, it had reverted to the pre-industrial state and merchants hawked their wares in colonnaded side-streets away from the glare of the sun and dust of the encroaching desert which had already swallowed up much of the landmass once called Europe.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw the man following us.
"Go to the end of that alleyway and wait there. We are being followed, but our pursuer is not interested in you, only in me. You may not recognise me, but I will greet you by name. I will introduce myself as Helga," I told her. I almost laughed, Helga was a Scandic name - none here had even heard of the Scandic nations.
I ducked into a bath-house where I paid the bath-house owner handsomely for a private steam room. In the privacy of the room I let my features slip and change. Gone were the desert robes and head-scarves. In their place was sun-bleached blonde hair, loose trousers and loose, rough-weave cotton blouse. My clothes are as much part of me as my own skin. My eyes changed from brown to blue - an inconvenience because blue is less protection from the glare, but I could compensate for that by changing the internal structure a little. My height increased, for the Arabic people of the city are short so my former shape had been short to blend in. Unfortunately, my client would know I was an immortal, and a shape-shifter at that, but it was not to be helped. I had an instinct that the man was far more dangerous.
As I had promised, I greeted her by name and called myself Helga. The change seemed to have confused the man; he was looking for a small desert woman, not a tall Scandic immigrant. My client asked a number of questions about my origins, but I admitted only that I was an immortal and that I had shape-shifting abilities. I asked if she could ride and was pleased to learn that she was a skilled rider of horses, donkeys and camels. That was good, because once out in the desert, I would be further hidden if I changed to the shape of a hardy desert-bred horse. The man was seeking two women, not one foolhardy foreigner on horseback.
It was two days of riding to reach the pyramids from the furthest outskirts of the city - the hovels and rough houses occupied by the poorest people or by those more accustomed to desert than to city. I made her cover up in a desert robe and she rode all day. At night I rested; once turning to the shape of a desert cat to go hunting while she ate the bought provisions.
The pyramid was quiet when we reached it. No forked lightning flared from its defences. To my surprise, my client had obtained one of the few keys to those ancient defence installations. It was a small metal box of tricks which could be inserted into the key-slot. A weak electrostatic field prevented sand and dust from fouling the key slot.
"What would have happened if I didn't have a key?" she asked me, smiling a little too smugly.
I indicated the fragile bones of previous adventurers, skulls broken like potsherds. They had been fried by the violet lightning which had protected the pyramids against saboteurs and, in these post-industrial days, against raiders who believed the structures to contain the bones of mighty ancient kings and warriors. These days the lightning was weak, the batteries drained. There were those who would change all that if they could. Human batteries wore out; immortals did not.
"Oh," she said, simply. Her mouth framed the 'O' for a moment, then she turned and went into the darkened doorway.
I had once had a key to this pyramid, or to one much like it in a land once called Romania. Having seen all there was to see in the foetid depths, I had destroyed the key. Some things haunt the minds of memories, even of those who have lived through global wars. The broken down silico-human circuitry haunted my darkest dreams; the cries of their lonely starvation deaths permeated the pyramid's mechanisms, the echoes still audible to us immortals. Some horrors are beyond bearing, even for one such as I.
While she was inside, I stood at the doorway, watching the desert though I expected no danger. I was wrong. Maybe I was arrogant and heedless of danger - a pitfall for all immortals, we grow complacent. The man was there. He had a hardy ass and had ridden hard across the dunes to the pyramid. I recognised him as the watcher in the coffee shop. A bounty hunter then, or an assassin. A bounty hunter for whom? For one of the would be technicians who wanted to fully reactivate the defensive structures using me as the flesh and blood part of the circuit? Or an assassin, one who hunted down immortals.
I must digress briefly from the main thread of my story. Indulge me for a moment. I have been among you some six millennia, exiled here with other immortals. Europeans shipped their convicts to a great southern continent once known Australia - your Earth is our prisoner island. You have never noticed us among you, for our part we never sought power or domination over the epehmeral races. That was why we were exiled. Our crime was to uphold the rights of the "ephemerals" conquered and played with by our own people. "If you love them so much," said our high justices, "You live among them!" You have looked to the skies for aliens, but throughout most of your history you overlooked the aliens among you.
A dilemma then. To protect myself from the assassin or bounty hunter, or to warn my client? To kill a person? Only if it proved unavoidable. At that moment the decision was taken from me, my client had appeared in the doorway and called to me. The assassin's action was purely reflex. He heard a sound, saw movement and he shot. It was automatic. It also meant he knew I was nearby and he moved faster than I believed a human could move (and believe me, I have a great deal of experience in dealing with human - even your supposedly split-second reactions are often painfully slow for me to watch). Without allowing me a chance to move or change form, he had already shot towards where my client had been looking and nerve toxin was already flooding my system.
There was nothing to be done; she was dead. The man had obviously tracked immortals before. The gun had fired a drugged pellet at me. It was a nerve toxin which caused paralysis; enough to kill a human and to greatly inconvenience me. I am not easily inconvenienced. It seemed that I was trapped in some thick viscous substance, or that he was suddenly able to move at extreme speed. I am able to break down drugs in time and once my system recognises a compound, it develops a form of immunity. But it would take some time for my defences to analyse and break down a drug like this on first time exposure. I was loaded unceremoniously on the ass, to be bundled back to the city like baggage.
In my muzzy state I still hadn't worked out if he was an assassin or a bounty hunter. The later would want me alive but incapacitated. The former might wish to keep me alive so that he could kill me by degrees over time. Neither prospect was inviting. Luckily what passes for my liver had synthesised an anti-toxin and my cells were working overtime repairing damaged nerves and tissues. Every extra hour spent trekking back to the city swung things in my favour; I could be off like a hawk or a night owl just as soon as my damn tissue fibres were fixed up properly.
The pyramids had been two days hard riding from the city's perimeter. The ass moved far more slowly than I had as a desert horse, and the man was on foot. He had not made allowances for the desert wells being dry at this time of year. So it was that the ass finally collapsed and the assassin, or bounty hunter or opportunistic immortal-hating sadist, was little better, ravaged by thirst. For my part, my system adapts itself to drought and the drug had worn off. He had dosed me again, but my immune system had already adapted and phage cells had eaten the toxin.
An interesting situation; a dead ass, a dehydrated bounty hunter and an irritated immortal. Whatever the tales of us say, we are not wanton killers of humans. Most of us exiles value the lives of you "ephemerals" more greatly than our own lives - being so short-lived, your frantic lives seem so much more precious. That's why we find killing so repugnant. The wretched, and I use the term in the sense of miserably unhappy, man cut my ropes. To his shock, I stood up and stretched the kinks out of my body. When I relieved him of his gun and poisons he looked resigned to what he supposed was his fate. He was more than a little surprised when I tore his gun in two and swallowed his remaining poison pellets - not a suicidal action, but the best way to destroy his supply poison pellets was to let my internal chemical factory digest them. I gave him an apologetic shrug.
"Can you still ride?" I asked, dropping all pretence of an accent to my Anglic.
"If I change to a fast pony can you stay on my back until we reach the city?"
Again he nodded.
"You understand that I won't stop at all, unless you ask me to - to relieve yourself or whatever?"
I changed and he somehow clambered onto my back, clinging to my mane and clamping his legs tight around my body. Human clothes are one thing, a necessity, but I was not about to spend energy forming a saddle and bridle. Once he was in place I set off, at a steady canter somewhat faster than that of a normal desert-bred pony. When night fell, I slowed to a lope. My eyes are better than human eyes, but I had no wish to stumble and spend time and energy making repairs to myself.
It was late afternoon the following day when We reached the city. Men shouted as my rider fell from my back. One man tried to hold me by the forelock, to take me to a stable while my 'owner' was tended. Once certain he was in good hands, I made great show of becoming a wild animal, rearing and snapping until they let me go. Then I broke into a headlong gallop, back into the desert.
Months passed. I won't bore you with the details save that I returned to my desert woman shape for most of that time. I could have moved on to another city, maybe even another country, but I didn't want to resume my eternal travels for a while. Even immortals need rest, time to play at being normal. I more or less forgot about the man whose life I had saved; just another immortal-hunter. Then one day I was in the main souk trading some little knick-knack from a far land for some spices. I saw him again, sitting at the side of the alley against a wall, intent on a portrait he was drawing.
Intrigued I went for a closer look at the portrait. I adjusted my face to make it more wrinkled, more wizened, my hair threaded with grey, the face of an older woman worn out by life. I recognised his portrait - it was the desert-woman me except for a haunted, hunted look in her, my, eyes.
"It's a fine piece of work," I said in the local Arabic dialect, no trace of an Anglic accent.
"You like it, grandmother?" he asked, using the honorative 'grandmother' in recognition of my status as an elder.
"Who is she?" I asked, curious as to his recollection of me.
"A woman I once knew, very briefly," he said as he added detail to the hair.
"A lover? A wife?"
"A friend," he stated, "Who helped me. Please grandmother, sit down a while and tell me how your family are." It was a standard greeting, this talk of families.
I sat down and called out to a coffee vendor, "Amir!". The boy trotted over, a coffee urn on his back and cups strung from his belt. I paid him for a cup of thick, sweet coffee. He looked long and hard at the portrait.
"She looks like the memory lady," Amir said, as I knew he would.
"The memory lady?" the man asked, "Here, sit down young friend and join us. Who is this memory lady?"
I made a play of dozing a little, like an old and tired woman. Amir chattered like a sparrow.
He told the man of the memory lady, who gave gifts and little trinkets to many people in the town. Each trinket was accompanied by a snippet of information about what it was and the land it came from. Ivory gaming pieces from a land called China, carved wood from northern lands, a shield made of spotted skin from a place called Afarique. When she gave a gift, she told the recipient about the land and the people who lived there. She looked young, but she was very, very old - his father had received gifts and memories, as had his father before him.
I tried not to smile. Over many generations I had given people something from a far land and told them about the place it came from. I made them recite the memory - told them it was part of the trinket's magic. In lands as far away as America (now post-industrial and once again isolated from Europe) and Australia (basking in year long summer in the southern ocean and back in the ancient dreamtime), Japan (feudal and metal-poor) and Western Europe (scraping a living from what is left of their drowned lands) I travelled. One day, these people would travel again and meet again and the memories would come together like pieces of a jigsaw.
Oh yes, I have enough knowledge and skill to teach civilisation how to rebuild itself. I could be a lady Caesar or a Cleopatra, a ruler of a civilisation I dragged up from the mire. But this is not my world and it is not my place to do this. Mankind evolves at his own pace and we immortals, for there remain a handful of us who were exiled to this world six thousand years past, live alongside the human race, interfering in small ways only.
The man listened to Amir and nodded.
"I met the memory lady," he told little Amir.
"What did she give you?" asked the boy, "She gave me this!" he said unwrapping a carved elephant from Afarique.
The man stroked the little wooden carving and pronounced it beautiful. Amir duly recited his memory of a people in a far land, where people are burnt black by the sun and hunt fierce beasts.
"She gave me my life," the man said.
"Did she give you a memory?" Amir asked; memories were exchanged and collected like once stamps were traded.
"She taught me that just because a person is different from you, that person isn't evil or bad, just strange. She taught me to respect people for their differences and not to think ill of them because they are not like me," he said finally.
I dozed a little more and smiled. So the man had added his own memory. He was a traveller, albeit a human one. Maybe he would teach in his own way. Maybe one day I would show him my own face again.