A Quality of Grace: Part Two

A Quality of Grace Part 2

By Vasilis Adams A.

If you have yet to read the beginning of this story then click here to read part 1.

Part 2

Lovesigh glanced at the clock. He pushed himself up into a more straight sitting position in the low wheelchair, and leaned forward, struggling against the intrinsic inclination of his bones to crouching, until he could swing himself towards her. He saw that Michael watched, almost in fascination.

Michael always helped. He didn't even have to say anything. Simply knowing that Michael was there, that someone was aware and responsive. It was sufficient for Lovesigh.

Past the anguish of terminality, was the affront of the disease to Lovesigh's humanity. He shook his head. He looked back at Michael.

"By jupiter I'll scrimmage the grim reaper on a day-to-day basis if push comes to shove." He wanted to learn and know a hell of a lot more about life and death before dying.

And he was just too close to quit breathing just yet.

"Sputtering, but alive, Michael."

He fought to buttress himself some more. He gulped down the last of the poison. The sickle-hauler was going to have to earn this demise, he thought, stubbornly. Lovesigh would have to take his courage into his own two hands and somehow use it and mold it into life. For her.


There, yonder.

He leaned forward against the safety belt of the wheelchair. He reached frontward between the two windows to a live sparkling monitor and pointed to one of the flickering specks at the top center of the screen.

That one there is you.

Michael saw Lovesigh pitch up front against the belt, eyes immovable on a radiant pin-point. Lovesigh was barely smiling; drawn to it. The expression in his blue eyes was stronger, more eager, almost a voracity. Michael looked back at the screen, pondering what the other really saw in it. He bowed across the desk, along Lovesigh's awkward twisted figure, to fine tune the monitor's controls.

Lovesigh began to ache, but he tried to ignore it.

Michael glanced at him again, a fleeting disquiet in his face. He ran his fingers across the panel, trying for the right settings.

The heavens in the screen gyrated clockwise. Then counterclockwise. They settled resolved, and magnified a certain sector of the galaxy's spiral. The screen cleared some more. It recreated the group, that had been at the top before, in its geometric center. Unfamiliar but sharply defined traces slowly became spheres of loud colors. The double star that filled the screen made all else drab by comparison.

She's there. Somehow...she's there. "Yes. Stop there!" Lovesigh expelled at Michael, recovering from his trance.

"What is it, sir?"

"Something that's utterly missing," Lovesigh said. He settled back in his chair his eyes filled with the other side of faraway. "A comforting dilemma of absence, is it not Michael?" He stared at the overhead monitor.

Michael stepped aside. He made more room for the other's scanning eyes, but was instantly disoriented and dazed. At a blink of an eye he found himself engulfed by the hologrammatic aspect of the projector; by blazing configurations that just hung hovering, time-suspended explosions in vast sacraments of color-clashing-color. To his right, next to the tip of his elbow, were utter inky blotches edged with the luster of a dawn's silvery fringe.

Lovesigh was now feeding his own data into the system. His fingers, clumsily, moved quickly on the remote keyboard in his lap. He was superimposing on the images.

Lovesigh himself, Michael observed, sat poised to appear both man and angel. A nebulous but visible cast covered his form by the brighter outpouring light of the hologram. Michael drew back slowly. He could feel the Galaxy shrink them. It flooded the large room, encompassing and submerging them. The imperial distances they were part of only expanded lavishly to send themselves forth, farther over the august space of which fabric they consumed. He savored and venerated the splendor of its fathomless and ideal grace. It seemed to want the release of Michael's soul. At the same time his instincts struck out. His sanity yanked at his body and reason. His astonishment, his awe, daunted. Intuition intimidated havoc with his senses, and fears, and wonderment.

Lovesigh saw and grew conscious of Michael regarding in an odd way, and labored to speak appropriate words.

"It makes motes of us all, doesn't it?" His spent voice only a hint, an intruder in Creation's archipelago.

Michael consented--a minute after he registered his agreement nod.

Lovesigh's tone was only slight, a betrayer's whisper. His tenor carried intensity and distress however, far more desperate than Michael had ever before heard.

There spread, along with the Galaxy before them an uncanny, dynamic quiet. Michael wanted to say more, but didn't find articulation seemly just then. He instead looked directly at Lovesigh. He stepped closer to him and saw that the man's eyes were wrought with wary, and drawn. Lovesigh's face appeared to shift to woodenly pallid amid the harsh and soft chromatic radiances of the Galaxy.

Lovesigh already could feel the pressure grip at his body, knotting the tormented muscles in his thighs and shoulders, the torture in his gut, clawing up his chest and backbone...he shuddered.

"Sublime!" Lovesigh voice was deep and stirred. He swiveled his chair to search the lit countenance. For a moment he reached out, laid his fingers gently upon her face. His fingers were very lean, and very cold; they traced a line along Alope's cheeks and nose.

Michael did not blink. He did not waver his look from this extraordinary union, did not move toward or away. The silence reached out between them, bridged what otherwise manly words try but fail to bridge between two men.

Michael nodded again, his face naked as the ghost of an expression changed his formal features. He did not let on that what he had seen in the other's deep-set eyes just then was not fright, but something greatly more unsettling, undefined. It was sum and substance, the pith of agony...the repose one finds in reverence.

Lovesigh let his hand fall to his lap. He turned away, then looked at his manservant.

A quick change wavered over Lovesigh's face, a strained smirk of exasperation.

Lovesigh at times felt entirely alone and feared it. Despised himself for being so completely crusty. But still, despite his best effort, it happened every time.

Mostly when he saw 'that' man.

He had never understood why.

A deluge of only the most rustic--insolent--words tickled his palate, wanting out. Lovesigh acknowledged this with an awry smile now, and shrugged his shoulder. He need not probe further, although he could still hear the brassiness in his own voice...when he confronted that confounded man mostly.

He broke off, shifting his gaze atop his desk, and the lines of his face etched themselves deeper. Infinity and her lay a mite from his fingertips...and all he could think of was his next sortie with ol' twinkle top Fingle.

It took Chickbrow less than an hour and forty minutes to drive to the shaft.

Only one figure stood at its damp bottom next to the vault door, which was easily big enough to crush a tank. Plumb and sparsely-haired, the short figure below him fidgeted impatiently. Beads of sweat covered half the man's face, the other half a hand with a white handkerchief. The man waited, was restless when the elevator ramp lowered in the vault, then started to approach.

"Sifted you said? Piped?" There was the snap of 'gotsya!' in Abe Fingle's words. He halted his quick short walks back and forth at the shaft's nadir and did not suppress his growing uneasiness. Was the man before him being so vague on purpose? Or was it the loss of sleep? Fingle couldn't decide.

The other didn't reply, but stared strangely. Abe Fingle didn't say much after that either. Instead, he surveyed Chickbrow's appearance as Chickbrow seemed to study him too, unheeded, in the gloom of the surrounding wet walls of the cavern.

An acrid smell of musk and soggy dirt hung heavy all around. It was uncharacteristic of the former astronaut not to be explicit, or to wear an untrimmed beard. Seen up close, his hair was ragged, unkempt. The man had been always clean shaven; he had trimmed his hair once a month, every month--his file said so, even under the nerve-breaking conditions of interplanetary space expeditions. Maybe the strain had gleaned some manners from his conduct.

"Exactly," said Chickbrow finally, startling the man. His square features were set like ice, red ice. With this man, Chickbrow thought, there would be little room for humour and finesse, his favorite jiggling tools. We'll see, he thought, peering down at the lustrous baldness of the little round fellow.

"That's what happens to the debris?" Abe Fingle, the stubby man from the government, drilled on, growing pink-faced. He turned, almost brushed by the other, and kept on walking away. "The debris, Mr. Chickbrow," he called back, a hollow echo trailing him.

"Right!" Chickbrow buffed. "First..."

Chickbrow followed after him.

Fingle's piggy eyes squeezed together to cut through the sparsely-lit tunnel and locate the maze of piping.

I wish I could see better. It's just one big shadow in here. He was agitated. But there were more pressing questions. Could he reject Chickbrow for being messy? And then take on the consequences by himself, all alone, responsible for the fate of so many--face would not be the only loss here. Fingle looked up like a man waking from a nightmare. No. Reconciliation was the answer. Fingle would have made a high wager on that. And he was not a betting man. He would have to see what this man was truly like. And take it from there.

"...The bore's fill is sifted for precious elements, then piped underground," Chickbrow continued, good-naturedly. He offered Fingle what seemed to be a gracious smile this time which melted away. He enjoyed watching the other.

"Mr. Fingle," Chickbrow's tone fell half an octave and what remained of the smile waned. His face now lost much of its earlier air. "Any idea why Council-Senator West killed himself?"

Fingle dithered cautiously. "Didn't want to get left behind, Mr. Chickbrow."

"That's no reason to run smack into a beacon shadow."

"No." Fingle frowned in thought. Perhaps it was only honest to goodness curiosity. "Maybe it wasn't that he wanted to kill himself. The beacon from what we know attracts only energies and stores them in cells for later use. It does not assimilate matter or, as in the case here, a human body. Or, Senator West may have just decided to disappear, withdraw..." from what's to come, he completed silently.

He was irritated, and holding it down with anxiety. That was too close for comfort. Being curious is one thing, being reckless another. Fingle was in a bad state of mind.

"Beacons must have been the popular thing before being band," said Chickbrow.

Fingle momentarily flushed. He went ahead as though slighting what the other had said. Then, "Why such concern, Mr. Chickbrow?" In a year, two at most, the whole of Earth would know of the approaching devastation; of something that went terribly wrong with this planet. And Fingle had just these few months to work out a colossal number of details so a huge count of people could be rescued and saved.

"When several thousand people just decide to stop being via the beacon shadow," Chickbrow said, "it's simply because they don't want to get left behind--from death?"

"No, not death. 'Immortal Light', 'Living Light'." Fingle's voice went throaty. There was apprehension, a touch of dread in it. He discovered that he did not like sociable deliveries, not under these circumstances. With an effort he sustained his talking. "It's what the Senator once said. Satisfied, Mr. Chickbrow?"

He had already told this man too much.

Chickbrow was on a need-to-know clearance. So was himself. He at once felt a rash craving to be enlightened. He speculated if Chickbrow would be as unselfish as he with information.

Chickbrow shook his head in the twilight of the tunnel. Glittering highlights trickled from his thick red-black tufts and beard, coruscated with luster as they fell. Smeared on his cheeks and bare neck from passing throufg the Carlsbad Foundry above were twenty-four carat gold specks and hair-thin slivers of unalloyed silver mixed with sweat. The shaft floor around them was littered with minute shavings the air vents brought down, forming a glistening carpet of dust; a few million dollars worth of lint.

Fingle closed his eyes for a moment. "Ant-mites don't do that--the separating?" He switched to his former tone. That 'gotsya!' echo didn't go away.

"That too, Mr. Fingle." Chickbrow swallowed any further remarks and impartially recounted, shining the flashlight at the rows of one-inch pipe running over their heads and into the depth of the shaft. Probably Fingle already thought of him as his property. "The ant-mites first remove all crystals or sediment of viable worth, and the remaining rubble they carry cross-state to miscellaneous industrial, manufacturing and construction sites. The tubing is there for their protection only. And for reasons of expediency of course."

"Of course," said Fingle, his timbre augmenting and crackling just. He removed his wire-rimmed glasses and exhaled on the lenses. He wiped them clean of the gold and silver with his white folded handkerchief then dabbed his round pasty face and spangling baldness of his head. "And once they've reached their destination they--"

"--they double back for more, till there's not a grain left. Very efficient little workers. We're not holding back evolution, Mr. Fingle. We enhance it," commended Chickbrow. "The air in the pipe network is continuously recycled. The atmosphere is quite to their liking: not too dry or humid, slightly more oxygenated and glucose-vapored. The ant-mites must love it."

"They must, now." Fingle's uneasiness returned. Disinclined, and with misgivings, he began to toss around a question in his head, and settled at being provoked at Chickbrow's gleam. And somewhere along this enhancement, he thought, industry and technology let loose the start that soon will wipe out civilization....

Still, live insects, guided by the pipe, went cross-state and through hundreds of miles of routing, carrying their grain of load before returning to start the journey again.

Fingle smiled meagerly, but his voice came out pungent with disdain. "Why must they love it, Mr. Chickbrow?" he finally asked. He raised a set of bushy, stray brows.

Chickbrow didn't know it but he was the first man in years to see Fingle break a simile of a smile.

"Because they're made to, Mr. Fingle," he returned, with a broad friendly grin.

A faint whine sounded. He traversed the length of the study in his wheelchair to come closer to her, before daybreak the next day. His head bent to one side and his eyes glistened with the anticipation of a much younger man, an adolescent's perhaps. He wanted to tell her so much today. There were so many things trundling through his life the last few days. So many decisions to make. So little time to make them in. And the pain--ah the eternal pain. All over. At times he thought that even his fingernails hurt. There wasn't a single part of him that pain did not torment. The very hair of his scalp. The enamel of his teeth, to the minutest contrasts in hot and cold. He could not understand why he was still alive. What kept his junked body going.

"Their pesky interruptions and meddling," he said to her. His speech was unusually severe. He must look frightful to her. Oh what happened to mercy these days! he inquired, his head tilted back.

"Slobbering about my health and how I overwork myself. Don't the fools know that I'm dying?" His head ached from the continuous hologram's effects. He tried to let go of all that nested in his mind. It was drawing blood from him. "...Idiotic wishful thinkers, I can't stop them," he expelled. The effort to collate and analyze the myriad pieces of data was simply too much for a human mind--for any mind. And time dogged Lovesigh like a black shadow in the Sahara, never letting him in its shade, but always there reminding him of his delimited earthly presence.

He did not have a day pass without having pain overwhelm him. Soon they would rig him with a catheter. Then the IV. Feeding tube and lastly oxygen. After that what? he asked his thoughts. Peace for ever? Repose and foreverness? With her?

Would she be there?

He had put that question a thousand times. Not once having gotten an answer. Lovesigh did not trust unanswered questions. Science had taught him to go for results. He did. And the important questions, the vital ones, he got answers to. But when the singularly most important query was put forth, "Will she be there?" All was quiet. "Otherwise," he considered, irony in his voice, "it would have defeated the entire idea, wouldn't it?"

He lingered...lost in a cynic's silence.

"If they only leave me alone. Enough to get a stiffer clutch on that retarded megatherium."

Giddy, he held tightly onto the armrests. He remained there cold, hands clutching.

Several tries after, he got his slumping head to stay up straight on his gaunt neck. He finally found his voice.

"Friends driveling over me," he thrashed. "Slavering acquaintances honeying up. Drooling old clots of colleagues kowtowing over my wheelchair like frayed giraffes..."

Another part of him, You, only you abstain, his heart inside was calling out. And his longing for her leaped all that much more wanting. Many a night he would stray in his den, stay there staring at her eternal smile--

From inside him came a cry of anguish. He turned away from her, to glare in the other direction. It was a trifle late now, Lovesigh thought and disheartened.

There was a monastery silence.

Dismayed he retreated from her.

He was turning brittle.

At least he was not utterly alone.

Lovesigh remembered how it had been to have her wisp by him, her perfume an aura of a graceful presence. He reached out his hand. But the memory was not happy, because it had always been followed by a vacuum too empty to endure. Now he discovered that speaking to her removed the unoccupied silence of her absence. His hand trembling came slowly back down.

"Do you remember?.." he asked her as he faced her again.

He looked at her absently with large blue eyes. "...so much like awakening afresh from an old dream...that never ends--"

He shook his head overcome.

"To think of it," he continued in an uncompromisingly sever and brisk manner, "people I haven't seen for millennia. The scientific community in its entirety in an upheaval."

His neck began to stab.

His eyes burned.

"Counseling and exhorting and masterminding the feasible implementations of the fringe. The academicians. The rednecks. The clergy, too!" Lovesigh went on, in spite of the distressing agony, the calling for her in his heart.

In his early fifties, Dr. Lovesigh was not what one would tag, a practicing religious man. He found for himself after thirty-two years of dealing with the unknown, that there was both good and bad in people, and that it had very little to do with the universe at large. Its birth and life, as physical cosmology and he saw it, rested on laws which good and bad had affected inconsequentially.

He did not ignore faith.

He admired and respected those who possessed it.

But he often made a sour face and would screw up his eyes in the presence of those who said that they did and yet lead a life that said they did not. Dr. Lovesigh did not have to pretend about his own life and work. He could not. His endeavor involved the exact sciences--the very exact sciences. Any deviation from observed facts, and physical laws could annul an experiment. And his experiments, at this stage, were a matter of life and death to unthinkably many.

From every faith.

The focus in essence was coming through it all, even to those skeptical, or devoid, of faith. His vocation, however, was one of those jobs which could not be blessed or be graced with the privilege of forgiveness or the luxury of repentance. The Cosmos was beautifully unforging and ruthless. Beautiful in that it had uncompromising principles and axioms that forged a guarantee of imperishability. Ruthless in that once these were ignored or put aside...you were not forgiven, but turned into powdery dust or fine fertilizer. The law of nature separated at one point from the other two laws, hiked above, the law of God and the law of man.

There was no mercy in a cosmologist's Universe, only cause and effect, action and reaction, and the only absolutes were very few.

The speed of light.

Absolute zero.

And that gravity always attracts.

Those others that did not deal with such utter extremes could perhaps indulge, even lavishly, in the art of rationale or reason; even dabble some in showmanship and in drama whenever pertinent, or propelling, to their profession or calling. Politicians could thus use diplomacy and tact, and dispense euphemisms liberally. Businessmen could engage themselves in profiteering and investing to their hearts content. And the clergy could endeavor in trying to save as many souls as possible. But saving a world was much somber work. The Universe, unlike the majority of human nature, did not run on rationale and reason, but on mathematical logic. In short, the Universe was the biggest computer around--unfeeling, but mathematically rightious. Humankind was only a hint of a mote in it--a condemned mote. Lovesigh had to save that mote. And he had to do it--if time let him--almost single handedly.

He wondered often why were cosmologists and physicists so far from God, and why were mathematicians, as statistics showed, so near to Him. Did not both deal with 'utter lack' and 'uncompromising profusion', as the symbols 'zero' and 'infinity' attributed?

The creed he had inherited from his Texan parents was Episcopalian. But he could just as well have been a Jew, a Moslem or Sikh--creed was not a cause to preoccupy him. In the midst of the twenty-first century the church was not what it had once been: belief in 'the ol' time religion'. Over the decades, due to the absence of 'miracles' in the sphere of religion, but the plethora of such in high technology, the new generations directed both their belief and money to institutions like medicine, education, space research, some even to drastically needed third world humanitarian aid. The government people, of course, being the greatest beneficiary.

Curious, Lovesigh thought, that the more people a country has the less democratic it becomes. And that this axiom has not proven to be any less applicable to an entire planet. The eighteen billion of the world--thanks to the upsurge of cancers, otherwise it would have been close to fifty, are more concerned with a quota of clean water and preservative-purged food than any symbolic nowadays ballot, with its nominal escorting promises. No wonder the half million moon colonists don't want to budge from their underground gardens. Plenty of microbe-free H2O there. Thaw it and drink it. Mars, even more. Enough to last them millennia. Simple as that. Maybe I should have been up there with ol' Mett, going on seventy-eight now.

The 'bloody edibles', Michael's clan would have aptly put it, and the 'blimey puddle-sap' gave Lovesigh all that he carried--cancers of every category and sub-category. Eating him up slowly, tenaciously, like grubs feasting on so much red meat.

He turned, repelled at his decay.

"They teach us how to read and write, how to have sex and give birth, to arrive, to live. But not a word on how to depart."

His eyes riveted on her.

"And to think knights once quested for incorruptible truth and noble cause. What came of all that searching? Lost from memory? Ignored? Or found, had they, that truth was not incorruptible? Discovered, had they, that cause was not always noble? Had that been the end of it all? That being the inglorious finale? Plus many, many dead for, and in, crusades that had no yield to common sense? To moral sanity? Humanity?"

Lovesigh had read about the children's crusades. In a moment of ladening agony he pitied his own kind. He imagined himself feeling all the scorn and compassion of a John the Baptist, an angry Christ at the Temple, a vengeful God of Israel--all that he read in his libraries of books. But from all the knowledge that was his, one question stood utterly solid, like the tip of a berg. 'Why does man refuse to believe in Man, decides instead on the Gods of Babylon, or the Gods of Egypt or Rome, or in one stranger, unfamiliar God?'

A drop of salty sweat trickled between his chapped dry lips.

His shoulders heaved as he thought of something and was attacked by a spell of coughing. He exhaled and the sweat droplets sprayed out from his mouth.

"Politics? Now there's religion, Alope. One you can really nuzzle up to. Get rapt in without as much as uttering a single 'hallelujah!'."

He was overwhelmed by a tickling in his throat. An overpowering urge.

A squeak came out.

"Yeap. Foster yourself posh-like without having to transcend or relinquish any earthly gains or trek up Golgotha." Impartial as he was to denomination, Professor Anthony Gildersleeve Lovesigh stalwartly disapproved all form of politicking.

"There hasn't been an honest politician since the dawn of mankind..." he told Alope, and looked in the direction of the door to see if Michael would be standing there. He had enough drugs for one day. But he knew there would be more. "...Or since The Collapse, at least."

2020, The Anniversary.

The Collapse, as the underground called it.

July 22, the rumble of the tanks in the streets of Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Melbourne, Moscow, Paris, London...all of North America, of Europe, parts of Asia, before the break of dawn, as the Earth turns--the greatest coordinated world conspiracy in the history of recorded mankind. The radio and TV blaring marches and booming martial music all day long. The generals interrupting programs every ten minutes trying to pacify a confused public:

"Do not panic, stay in your homes or place of work. A new order has arisen." The MM blared out--boot camp fashion. "A new federation, a new world confederation is rising from the ashes of old, corrupt nations. From the phoenix's ashes a new, purified confederation of republics has emerged. You have been liberated by the new world's vigilant guardians."

Lovesigh shivered as he remembered the callous, regimental tone.

"What else will we have to suffer through," he whispered, "before we grow up, straighten our act and stop groping at extremes."

He glanced around and temporarily regretted his frivolity. Talking to her is one thing. Antagonizing with the generals another. More precisely, with those behind them. The ones truly responsible for the coup. The elite group nobody checked.

Did not dare to.

The reign within a reign. The SIA. The Secretaries of Interior Affairs.

"Looks like an ordinary small rusty ant, the kind you find in deserts...head is large though...those are sizable--what did you call them?" Abe Fingle frowned, and bent his glossy head over so as to scrutinized the eighth-inch insect. A powerful magnifying glass helped.


"Ah, pincers."

Fingle prodded the little creature in the petri dish, as he was told to. With the sharp end of his pencil. It at once turned its head with the powerful looking jaws, 'sniffed' at the lead point, and snapped it clear off.

He flinched back, jerking the point-less pencil away. He blinked his eyes in frank surprise.

"It's the lead it's after," Chickbrow reassured him. "The wood part doesn't interest it."

"What'll happen if I place it back in?" Fingle mopped a perspiring forehead with his handkerchief.

"Try it."

Gingerly Fingle lowered the antique blunt pencil into the petri.

The ant-mite dropped the lead point it carried at one end of the dish and scurried to the source. It's jaws attacked the remaining lead at the surface of the wooden stylus gnawing and worrying away at it. Once it had a pincer-full of tiny lead shaves, it scuttled to where it had left the pencil point and deposited its load next to it. And returned to the source for more.

It took fifteen minutes for it to clear a hollow shaft in the pencil.

Fingle now, finally, straightened, feeling a bit unsteady on his feet. He reached for a surgical scalpel and cut the empty wood length-wise. His eyes widened. There wasn't a scratch on the inside!

He turned and looked up at Chickbrow who was leaning over him. "It didn't as much as rasp the wood!"

"Our ant-mites have good manners, Mr. Fingle. They do only what they're told. And this little feller was after lead, nothing else."

"But how do you do it?" Fingle asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

"It's all there in the patent office, Mr. Fingle. All legal and tidy. But I know you have a hundred questions to ask, at least. Some of which concern the safety of the procedure."

Chickbrow paused. "If you will notice," he indicated with his small finger, "the shaft occupied by the lead is not only empty, but cleaned. Even through a microscope you will not spot traces of lead. The ant-mite used its own enzymes to scour the wooden walls. The enzymes are catalytic, harmless."

The ant-mite, as they talked, continued its frenzied activity. It busied itself with the lead it had collected.

"What's it doing now?"

Chickbrow glimpsed at the dish. "Removing impurities. It can work the process down to a few microns. If we looked in with a microscope we'd see separate little piles of crystals: the impurities that pencil lead contains. Molecular heaps even of other superfluous matter. It's efficient, thorough and nontoxic--it's benign to any environment, Mr. Fingle. It is adroitly loyal to its genetic programming."

Fingle himself was convinced. But those above him would require more exacting and hard proof. There was going to be as it was plenty of dispute over this project. SIA no doubt would be jabbing its snout into what he was doing before very long, no matter how discreet he was. At any event, to have Chickbrow, accidentally or otherwise, go down into their black roster out of guileless botching would be bidding for the worst-case scenario.

Nevertheless, there was still a world of difference between pencils and people--and a world at stake. Which included his daughter, and a grandchild on the way. A daughter that was left behind when his wife decided to leave him for a more ambitious mate. In time, Fingle had learned to be both father and mother to Dantea. And recently, with the death of her husband, even more. Made a vow, never to abandon her, or place another priority higher than her. No, no, he would never let that happen. Nothing possible could be more important than Dantea, Lovesigh, Chickbrow--in that order.

He somehow concealed his excitement, to go through another ten minutes of observing the scampering ant-termite. Up top, things stayed ceremonious and official. But within, Fingle was slowly and with due precautions recognizing it to be what it really was: a hollow performance by him, and he knew Chickbrow knew it.

What gnawed and nagged at him this minute was that it would be the first time ever such an attempt would be ventured. The testimonials here had to be indisputable and overlap several layers. There could be no limit to redundancy in this. The operation had to take place, and succeed.

Dantea and her child must live their full lives, Fingle thought with urgency.

"The planet expires on a year-to-year basis, and Lovesigh on a day-to-day one, Mr. Chickbrow." He turned and faced the other man. "We are approaching the day which is about to become our last, sir. We're sinking into the claws of doom very quickly. Mother Earth is ejecting us like annoying gnats. She will finish us soon...the signs say."

Fingle looked more subdued than overwhelmed just then. His face registered grim austerity, almost crestfallen.

"Children, the elderly, the able or disabled, the Moon and Mars colonies, which are still dependent on us--the planet couldn't care less--and the specie Homo Sapiens will cease to be. The universe is not God, Mr. Chickbrow. It does not distress or have regard. We have cut or burned down more than seven million square kilometers of forests since 2000. We are living on negotiated time on a virtually treeless planet. If it weren't for the cloned sea weed, we wouldn't have enough oxygen to breath. But no one knows, thank--never mind. The syndrome will be on us fully in less than two decades, with probable error of give or take two years. By then everybody and their aunt will know.

"Have you ever confronted panic arising from claustrophobia, Mr. Chickbrow? No. If you had, you couldn't have qualified for astronaught."

Chickbrow upraised a finger. "Yes. The guy ripped out almost every instrument inside the tiny life-saver before we were rescued. He stopped because his fingers were hemorrhaging so badly--"

"Then, what remains," Fingle cut in, "is a pragmatic maximum of only eighteen years for groundwork. Before the ripping and slashing starts here on Earth..."

Fingles eyes, Chickbrow noticed just then, were the most round and innocent he had ever come across. They and the felt earnestness in the throaty voice almost evoked tears from him.

Fingle's life had first begun to shift when he had started to transform from detached and stoical observer to taunting, persnickety faultfinder and nitpicker.

Abraham Edmund Fingle had no idea what Chickbrow thought of him. Had he been aware of it even, he would not have taken it under serious consideration, but merely made a note of it. He was used to being taken like a spurt of lemon in the eye. So, there was much pain wherever he showed up. He was not much show. Few were the footlights that shone upon him and little was that which displayed manifest and dazzling top-notch endowments in him in any calling of enterprise. He was not what one would say a handsome fellow--although he had those shockingly exquisite eyes that would not let you look away from them--nor was he homely. Neither was he remote or detached. On the contrary, there was an aura of energy and nervous stir about the man, always. Fingle was not a trophy winner or even mildly adventurous, and his penetration of mind was neither conspicuous or mysteriously envious in any way.

But he did have a way with pruning off the flab and getting to the lean. People had tended to just put up with him because he got the job done, people high up. Fingle took nobody for granted and was steadfast and resolute, a solidly-approved-by-the-government man who knew his valuation fully well. All in all one looking at him could say he had a nettled and severely hardworking life.

"Soon," Fingle continued, "human beings will be all breathing fatal oxides of carbon, sulfur and ethylates, and dropping on the street like drunks." He inflected each word. "There are infinite preparations in evacuating a planet that is about to be exterminated. There is a civilization to save."

He looked at Chickbrow, questioningly. "So, Mr. Chickbrow, can you show me something further up the scale--something living let's say the mites are involved in?"

To be continued!

Copyright 1997 by Vasilis Afxentiou

Vasilis is from Athens, Greece and can be contacted at: vafx@hol.gr

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