Thursday, 26 April 2007

Plight of the Transformer - Part Two


Plight of the Transformer is a story told in eight episodes, posted serially by me, your loyal host, Cheeseburger Brown. Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8

"Arrest your reason and listen a while, Mr. Smith. This is not a sane tale, but it is an important one."

Our story continues:



2/8

Castles are castles are castles.

They are boxes for the well disposed, should order fail. There is a certain pessimism inherent in the architecture: a castle stands in wait of attack. Its defenses are at worst ornamental references, in desperation starkly functional, and in the best of circumstances a sleight-of-light combination of the two.

My car meandered through the Home Park. I sat in the back. The driver had a boil on the back of his neck. Through the windscreen I watched Windsor Castle crest the horizon, banners limp in the still October morning.

Tourists queued by the King Henry VIII Gateway in their garish T-shirts and fluorescent hip-sacks, taking photographs and movies of one another while sipping soda pop through straws. Some turned to watch as we passed, squinting at their own reflections in the tinted windows. In another moment they were behind. We drew up to the Norman Gate entrance along the family's reserved path, slowing at the guard-house.

The driver's window hummed as it sank into the door. "Mr. Tennyson Smith, on appointment," he said.

The guard in grey, expressionless, checked his register and then nodded curtly beneath his tall black hat, gesturing to continue with an impeccably white glove.

I crossed the Upper Ward's quadrangle alone. The ground was soft from rain, the sky heavy and leaden. Brown birds scattered before me, then fluttered back down in my wake to resume hunting worms from the squelch.

I felt weightless. I always do, when I am myself. The occasions are always brief, but I enjoy them: I feel nude.

In the mirrors lining the family's private hall I caught sight of a stranger wearing the fair tweed suit from the very back of my wardrobe. I knew him vaguely from old photographs. In the man's aquiline profile I can recall myself as a careless boy, as a braggart teen, as a young officer...

It can be unsettling to forget your own face.

The chief steward showed me to an anteroom with tall windows overlooking the East Terrace from which the last residues of the morning fog were still burning off, diaphanous tendrils snaking between the low hills in search of shadow. I stood with my back to the door until patient, familiar footfalls drew near.

I turned, simultaneously bowing my head. "Your Majesty," I said.

"Mr. Smith," she replied. "Do sit down."

"Thank you, ma'am."

We each took a short sofa beneath a towering Rembrandt in a gilded frame, its many layers seeming to glow from between the glazes of coloured oil applied masterfully in the style of Da Vinci's sfumato. As I admired the painting a silver tea service was wheeled in by a lesser steward. The settings clinked as she arranged our cups. Upon her retreat we drew breath to begin our conversation.

"The Swiss affair has been resolved to our satisfaction," said the Sovereign as she cradled her steaming cup between her hands. "I should thank you for your role, Mr. Smith."

"No thanks are necessary, ma'am. It is my privilege to serve."

"Of course," she acknowledged, regarding her tea. "Never the less, we should not wish to take talents such as yours for granted, Mr. Smith. I feel obliged to share with you that MI6 has strongly petitioned to have you enrolled."

"A compliment, to be sure."

"Quite. I trust such prospects would not appeal to you, however."

"I have not changed my mind, ma'am, though you indulge my preference at your discretion."

The Sovereign gave me a brief, tight smile and then set aside her cup. I set mine aside, too. She said, "I must ask something of you, Mr. Smith."

"Please, ma'am."

"I must ask something of you that may fall outside the purview of your usual missions. I do so reluctantly, but inspired by great need. It has never been my wish to expose you unnecessarily to danger."

"I accept risk as my duty, ma'am."

"Indeed, Mr. Smith, and gallantly. However, in the scenario I am about to describe you would be obliged to operate independently. That is to say, Mr. Smith, that this is a solo assignment -- without support, and without any sort of the usual protections."

I hesitated, my mouth dry. I took a deep breath to sustain my stiff upper lip. "Am I to return to Iraq, ma'am?"

"No, Mr. Smith," she replied gravely, fixing me with her sharp eyes. "I am afraid this assignment is considerably more serious, and indeed more dangerous than anything the Iraqi theatre has to offer."

I swallowed, blinking away bad memories. "Yes, ma'am."

She picked up her cup again and sipped from it, her nose lingering over the rim. "You are aware, of course, that our House has a long history."

"Yes, ma'am."

"There are many secrets spread across the centuries, Mr. Smith, inherited by each successive legion of guardians. Even now our young princes are gaining their first glimpses of this shadow world. Before I die I will be obliged to initiate them with the knowledge they will need to captain these secrets, and until that day comes it is my sacred mission to see to the resolution of as many hidden wars as God will grant me the strength to, in order to lighten the burden I shall leave for my boys."

"They become excellent men as we speak, ma'am. I have no doubts as to their abilities. William is especially strong, in my opinion, and destined to become a noble leader in his time."

"I know you are fond of the boy, Mr. Smith."

"I admire him, ma'am."

"And he you. But neither William nor Henry understand a tenth of their coming responsibility. It is this old woman's bane to lessen it, in any and every way possible."

I frowned and looked up to object. "Ma'am --"

"Please, Mr. Smith," she said, raising one hand. "Do not attempt to play to a sense of conceit I do not possess, lest your compassion mispresent itself as pity. Pity, sir, is something for which we have no need -- nor the illusions it implies. I do not have long to walk this Earth. Let us not deny it, but rather let the fact inform us to make clear my motivation in this matter."

"Very good, ma'am."

The Sovereign sipped her tea again, then took a long breath. "My dear Mr. Smith, for how long have we been acquainted?"

"The better part of three decades, ma'am. And my father before me, since the war."

"Yes, quite. Your father was a remarkable man, and an exemplary Briton. We mourn him still."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"And yet I have never shared with him what I share with you today. He never had cause to suspect the history to which our House has been simultaneously privy to and a victim of, in this century or any other. Indeed, I am not free to speak plainly even now, but our need dictates that certain facts must come to light."

I sat up attentively.

The Sovereign continued after briefly licking her lined lips. "Mr. Smith, you must believe me when I tell you that not all men die."

I blinked. "I could not be sceptical, ma'am, for I know you never exaggerate. Still, I am perplexed."

"Arrest your reason and listen a while, Mr. Smith. This is not a sane tale, but it is an important one." She put aside her cup for a second time, then carefully stood. "Walk with me, Mr. Smith."

She offered her arm. I dashed to my feet and hooked it in my elbow, my skin tingling at such proximity to the Crown. Together we strolled the length of the anteroom, away from the private apartments and toward the hall. In silence we descended the steps. A brace of stewards stole up behind us and deposited a shawl over the Sovereign's shoulders as we crossed the threshold into the quadrangle.

"There is a war, Mr. Smith, being fought this very day, this very hour. It has been raging since antiquity, and I fear it will continue into William's future. Though many have fallen on either side you will find no mention of this war in any history, nor even the briefest anecdote reproduced in any credible account of the world's affairs. It is, as I have implied, a wholly clandestine conflict between nameless forces."

The fine gravel muttered under our heels as we strolled. The day was brightening. Traces of the tourists' voices were carried over the walls by a new breeze -- light, cool and temperamentally shifty.

The silence stretched. I cleared my throat. "To which side does Britain owe her allegiance, ma'am?"

The Sovereign pursed her lips. "Whichever side pities mortals more," she said, her voice flat. "We are insects to them. We are but collateral damage. They neither care for nor need our fealty or even our fear. Perhaps they once did, to forward their aims, but now their reserves of influence are without limit."

"I must know, ma'am -- who are these covert war barons?"

She stopped walking, and so did I. She looked me in the eye and whispered, "Mr. Smith, they are our masters."

I have lived many adventures and seen many things both spectacular and grisly, but I assure you without a word of a lie that I have never been so chilled as to hear my Sovereign concede her submission to greater forces more concrete than God, the Commonwealth, or propriety. Beneath my linens I broke out in a gooseflesh. "Our masters, ma'am?" I echoed quietly.

"I have said too much," she declared after a pregnant pause, then resumed walking. "I am bent by your sympathetic character, Mr. Smith. My longing to uncork the subject clouds my better judgement."

"I'm sorry, ma'am."

"It is not yours to be sorry. It is mine to be dutiful. I have sworn too many oaths to remember them all. You see now, don't you, how old I have become?"

I sighed heavily. "Dearest Bess, what can you tell me?"

She smiled again, this time allowing it to touch her cheeks in earnest. "I do so miss our conversations, Tenny."

"You are not alone in that."

She nodded once and then her expression hardened again. "There is a man, Mr. Smith. A certain man. He makes his home in the Veneto. His estate is a fortress, guarded by barriers technological and cunning, designed by an experience longer than England's memory." She hesitated, staring out over the Round Tower to the west. "In the estate is a library. In the library is a book." She stopped walking again and turned to me fully, a regal hand on each of my shoulders. "Mr. Smith, I charge you to retrieve this book."

I furrowed my brow. "A book, Your Majesty? Just a book?"

Her hands dropped and she clasped them behind her back as she resumed walking. I strode to catch up to her and then matched her pace. "Just a book..." she repeated airily, eyes distant. "I wish it were so."

"What is to be done with it, ma'am?"

"You shall bring the book to me, Mr. Smith. You shall speak to no person about it, nor show it to anyone save myself regardless of their rank or position. You must bring it to me, personally. Is that quite clear, Mr. Smith?"

"Quite clear, ma'am."

"You must not read the book," she went on. "You must not touch its pages, nor smell its binding. It must be wrapped in black cloth and conducted to me without delay. It can never be photographed or weighed. Its presence must never be suspected, its existence never inferred by any authority, great or small, secular or holy."

A flock of birds burst free from the field and took wing in concert, the sun-dotted shadow of their flock flashing over us. When they shrank into the sky we turned to look at one another again. The Sovereign was pained, and it hurt me to see her so.

"Ma'am," I said, stepping forward to touch her sleeve. "Bess," I said, looking into her eyes.

She turned her face and steeled herself. "Nothing has ever been this important, Tenny. You cannot conceive of what hangs in the balance, and I will not condemn you with that information. All you need know is that this -- this man -- must not find you, must not interview you, must not ever know his security has been breached or I swear the worst kind of retribution will come to Windsor."

I said nothing for a moment, my hand still on her sleeve. She sniffed and drew her mouth into a tight line. "Will you do it, Tenny?"

I smiled sadly and nodded. "My acceptance was never in question, ma'am."

She folded her parchment-paper hands before her and looked out over the walls. "You shall leave tomorrow, Mr. Smith."

"Thy will be done."


17 comments:

Simon said...

O! That was a riveting conversation with QE2 there. I really liked how she referenced passing on secrets to her grandsons rather than Chuck. Secret society stuff aside, that's always how I've seen things going down in the future.

Now I'm the one who's all goose-fleshy with the ante of this story.

Orick of Toronto said...

ah a present day story.

and spy stuff. interesting.

not sure if there is a typo in this line "She sniffed drew her mouth into a tight line. "

sheik yerbouti said...

Aha! I was wondering when PJ was going to rear his ugly head as the Mars side of the war...

Also, since we're doing typos, a "breach" is a hole, whereas "breech" refers to the lower portion, as in the beginning of a rifle barrel, or someone's buttockular area.

This is gripping. I can't describe to you the euphoria that resulted from watching you slide the pieces into place.

Simon said...

Who do you mean by "PJ", Sheik? You talking about Lallo?

Dammit, we should do up a time-line or a collabortive Wiki to track when everything is going on and who is in each story and that sort of niggling information.

Mark said...

Wonderful. Not only a great story unfolding, but a masterful blend of narrative and dialogue.

This entire chapter was a tic-tac moment. That is to say, I felt like I was in the scene the entire time, watching them myself. The birds fleeing and flocking, Smith's rising to accept the Queen's arm. Too many more to mention.

Anyone who writes stories, fact or fiction (including me), should read this as a lesson.

sheik yerbouti said...

Simon: I was trying to be discrete, in case I was revealing a plot twist. Then again, CBB doesn't seem to mind if we speculate, so here goes:

PJ is Prester John, Lallo's arch-nemesis. As you may recall, he was responsible for Lallo's torture and interrogation (L cracked under PJ's expert ministrations, as you may recall, cutting him off from the Shah and his mission to the stars).

The legend of Prester John is actually some interesting reading; I never would have picked it up had it not been for the Cheeseburger (of course in CBB's tradition, most people associated with Christianity in a visible, authoritative sense are presented in a less-than-favorable light, so it's always a trip to see his take on a historical or legendary figure).

mandrill said...

Simon,
I seem to remember suggesting such a thing a while ago.
To that end I have come across Wikia.com where there is free hosting available for a wiki. Unsure as to whether this project would be accepted (they vette the wikis they host) I've started one on their scratchpad (a kind of mini-wiki if you will) to see if the project has legs. The link is http://scratchpad.wikia.com/wiki/CheesburgerBrown
I think we should start with a list of the works completed so far and build up from there. Probably best to put them in alphabetical order, we can work out a chronology later on.

Mr. Brown,
I remain, as ever, in awe of your talent. I felt the whole passage. This is looking like a good one.

Simon said...

Mandrill, I took a look at the wiki. I see that it's just a single page so far. I prefer the ad-free format offered over at pbwiki.com, and you have the option to password-protect certain or all of the content.

Still, I'm mostly interested in seeing an overview of the works come together since they're growing like a frikkin' infection. We need to take a biopsy... stat! Before the patient grows out of control. I'll see if I can add some when I have the time. (Ha!)

sheik yerbouti said...

Mandrill,

Cool idea. It'll be nice to look back and say we had a hand in the definitive CBB fan site :)

By the way, there appears to be a typo in your wiki link (you need another "e").

Can we all contribute? Is there an expected format? Many more questions, etc.

Man, CBB, this passage is great. I find myself getting lost in it again and again whilst waiting for Monday's installment.

Mark said...

This all makes me ache for Simon of Space's official release.

Your writing has evolved (or at least you've shown different sides of it) since then, as far as I remember. I vowed to myself to wait for the Ephemera Bound version before I read it again.

mandrill said...

I've taken your suggestion and switched the wiki over to pbwiki.com. The interface is much nicer and you don't need to know wiki code to be able to edit pages. The address is http://cheeseburgerbrown.pbwiki.com
and the password, for those of you that want to edit it is the thing that the human executives are keeping, all one word, all lowercase. If you can't work it out from that then mail me at webmandrill(at)gmail(dot)com and I'll mail it to you.
At the moment there is still only one page, the links to simon of space and the darth side lead you to new pages in the wiki not to the works themselves. I'm working on a comprehensive list of short stories and other works and will arrange them into categories (SoS-verse, other, and essays)
Mr Brown, the facebook link on this blog doesn't work. And do you have any requests for the wiki?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mandrill,

I'll fix the Facebook text link, thanks for pointing it out. FYI, the Facebook graphical badge (lower down in the same column) does have the correct URI, so you can copy/paste from there.

I don't know if this is a stupid question or not, but if you're going to weave wiki pages, why not just use Wikipedia? Or do they have some sort of prohibition on information of this sort?

Sorry I've been absent from the commentary -- life beckons. Also, the next post will probably go up Tuesday instead of Monday (due to the aforementioned pesky tendency of life to need attention).

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Mark said...

mandrill, I checked out that pbwiki site. Nicely done. You obviously put a lot of time into putting that together.

I admit I wouldn't have thought of using Wikipedia, either. I don't know anything about the requirements or restrictions on starting a new article.

I like your site because it's clearly a fan site, not just one created to impart facts.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

Sorry about the delay!

1) I get so caught up in the research for this story that I kind of went beserk and started plotting out four other (interconnected) stories. The bad news is that it means I put this story on the backburner for a few days, but the good news is there's cool shit to come.

2) I will shortly have some exciting news regarding Simon of Space.

3) I'll try to have the next chapter posted in the next few hours. Standby!

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of a wikipedia site. If it's done well, it probably won't be deleted.

Simon said...

...standing by...

HUZZAH! for cool shit!

MadMac66 said...

Dear CBB

you refered to your research and I was wanting to ask how much research you do for your stories. They are all so textured and detailed. How much is culled from your personal experience and how much is sought out?

Either way this story is gripping. Royal family, ancient wars, reptilian ancestry? Its all as I imagine it. Have to catch up with the unfolding, but not now. Its way too late

cheers
mm66