Aphelion Issue 257, Volume 24
December 2020 / January 2021
 
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Aidan in St. Stephen's Green

by T. J. Matthews




Aidan was thirty-seven years of age, but with his sprawling beard and long, dirty-grey hair, he looked about twenty years older.

His clothes were faded and bedraggled as he hurried through St. Stephen's Green, talking to himself in a hoarse stream of tumbling words.

"Discipline. Discipline and control. Along straight lines. Not squiggly. Not curvy. Too many curvy lines, these days. Through shadowy, shadowy shades of grey. No shades of grey in this-here-town. In my line of work, anyway. Oh, no, no, no. Just black or white. Yes or no. Here or there."

He had the weary, weepy eyes of a man who had been mentally lost for a very long time.

But as far as anybody else was concerned. it was just another sunny day. There were people sitting on benches or walking by the lake that was at the centre of the park.

“I must be the only person who really understands that," Aidan continued, oblivious to it all. "A voice in the bleedin' wilderness. That's what I am."

A middle-aged man who was walking in the opposite direction said "You can say that again, pal," as he passed by.

Aidan suddenly stopped talking, as his eyes blinked in bewilderment.

“What did he say? What are you saying?"

He turned around and shouted after the man "What was that?"

The man ignored him and kept walking away.

“Bleedin' nutcase," Aidan said, as he turned back to his front and started walking again. He resumed his monologue.

“He's interrupting me bleedin' train of thought. Train of thought. Train of thought. I need to keep on the rails, so I do. On the lines and lines and lines. No deviation. Onwards and upwards and upwards we go."

He found himself approaching a bench where a young man named Michael, along with his girlfriend, Laura were sitting at the other end. They noticeably cringed, as he half-threw himself down at the nearer end, saying "And downwards we go."

It was at that moment when Michael suddenly noticed that all the fingers on both of Aidan's hands were webbed together.

Aidan himself suddenly let out a laugh that actually sounded more like a sob, before he started to softly sing to himself "Sit down, you're rocking the boat."

He turned to Michael and Laura and without any kind of introduction said "But that's the thing, you see. You should rock the boat. The boat needs to be rocked. Knock a few undesirables into the ocean."

“Good thinking, Batman," Michael said quietly.

Aidan didn't seem to notice this, as he continued "Lightens the load. Too much weight, you see. Dead weight. Well, live weight now, but dead soon enough, eh? I tell ye, they should've listened to me. I know what's what and I know who's who. But a prophet's never recognised in his own country. That's p-r-o-p-h-e-t and p-r-o-f-i-t. Do you see what I did there?"

“Oh look," said Laura, as she pointed at nothing in particular "there's something incredibly interesting happening over there."

Again, Aidan didn't seem to hear this as he turned back to his front.

“I was ahead of me time, that's my problem. I still am ahead of me time. I'm one of those people who will always be ahead of their times. The business model was just too complicated for mere mortals to comprehend."

“Yes, Laura," Michael said "there is something incredibly interesting happening over there. Shall we investigate?"

“Oh Christ, yeah," Laura said with a mild desperation in her voice. They stood up to walk away as Aidan kept on talking to himself.

“Munchkins and minions and micro-bleedin'-managers. I was like Gulliver in bloody Lilliput. Dragged down by the little beetle-people. I could've been a contender. I was a contender. I was a champ, in fact. A high-flying champion. I didn't want to go bankrupt, at all. There was no need to. It was just a technical thing. Just to shut up all those stupid mouths shouting numbers at me all the time."

Aidan paused for a moment before looking to his left to see Michael and Laura walking away arm-in-arm.

“There you go" he said quietly. "You can't fool me, you know. I know where you're going, you animals. Disgusting, so you are. Unhygienic."

“Poor fella" Laura said when she was fairly sure Aidan couldn't hear her.

“Times are tough," Michael replied. "Did you see his hands, by the way?"

“What about them?"

“Syndactyly"

“Synda-what?"

“Webbed fingers. I wonder if he's got any family... "

Suddenly, they stopped walking. Standing in front of them was a man dressed completely in black. They were shocked to see that he looked exactly like Michael.

“Well, well," the figure said. "This place is full of surprises, isn't it?"

Neither Michael or Laura could talk. They just stood and stared, as the alternate Michael looked at Laura and asked "Who's this supposed to be? You're rather loudly-dressed, don't you think?"

Before either of them could say anything, they suddenly heard Aidan behind them on the bench shouting "No!".

The three of them all turned around in unison to see two female Gardai standing over him.

“We've really got to stop meeting like this," Garda Mullen said in her lilting Cork accent.

Her colleague, whose name was Garda Hanley added "That's the third time you've skedaddled."

“No chains can bind me, you Communist," Aidan said. He lifted up both his hands and stretched them as far as his webbed fingers would allow. "I am marked by destiny."

“That's nice," Hanley said dryly.

“Your wife...." Garda Mullen started to say, before being interrupted by Aidan spitting out "My wife's a slut."

Garda Hanley looked at Mullen and with a weary sarcasm, said "Isn't that terrible?"

“She deliberately infected me with all those diseases," Aidan said pointing a wavering finger at both of them.

“Did she, now?" Mullen said. "Funny you should say that. I was actually just speaking to her on the phone. She did sound a bit ill."

Aidan looked away from them and started to stare off into the distance.

“Maybe, she's got a cold," Mullen continued. "Or maybe, she doesn't. Maybe, she was crying."

Aidan began to gently rock back-and-forth.

“C'mon now, sir," Mullen said quietly. "Let's get you back to the home. On the way back, you can regale us yet again with another one of those lovely conspiracy theories of yours."

Aidan stopped rocking. Slowly, he turned and looked up at Garda Mullen with tearful eyes and whispered "It all went wrong, you know. Everything went wrong. All my plans, all my pretty dreams. Every idea I thought would never fail...failed. Do you think maybe, that was the whole point? I was too sure about things. I was too certain. I never doubted, not for a split-second. Maybe, I'm not the person I thought I was. Maybe, the world isn't what I thought it was."

He turned back to his front and said in a cold, unemotional monotone "Discipline. Discipline and control. Along straight lines. Not squiggly. Not curvy. Too many curvy lines, these days. Through shadowy, shadowy shades of grey. No shades of grey in this-here-town. In my line of work, anyway. Oh, no, no, no. Just black or white. Yes or no. Here or there."

“Let's go, pal" Mullen said gently. "Back to the ranch."

Aidan stood up slowly and nodded at the two Gardai.

Michael quickly turned away from the scene, as he suddenly found his voice.

“Look, who are you?" he almost shouted at his mirror-image.

The alternate Michael kept on looking at the two Gardai accompanying Aidan, as they slowly walked away.

“Was he trying to talk to you?" he asked. "I was trying to have a conversation with him, meself, but it...didn't go to plan. Assuming that there is a plan."

Suddenly, the air around the alternate Michael started to turn blue. Tiny gold sparks started to flicker around his hands.

“I suppose I could answer your question, but what would be the..."

He was interrupted by great waves of light, noise and pain crashing into him from all directions. And then everything went blank.


*****



Was he dreaming? He felt as if he was swimming upwards through a night-black sea. The water felt heavier than normal. Thick and viscous like blood or ink. When he reached the surface, his head seemed to explode into freezing, cold air.

With a shout, he woke up on the floor of the pod. His ears were ringing with a storm of echoes, a cacophony of multiple, overlapping voices. The room was bathed in rippling, blue light. It was a 10 square-foot cube. Michael's head was still spinning, as the voices slowly started to fade away.

A heavy silence descended for a moment, before suddenly, there came a banging noise on one of the walls. Michael gingerly struggled to stand up, as the banging continued.

“Be right there," he croaked, as he half-staggered over to the wall. He placed his palm on the warm metal and whispered "456 Doorway."

He took his hand away from the wall. It left a gold, glowing palm-print on the metal. There was a loud creaking noise and a large door seemed to appear out of nowhere beside him. It opened and the head of a smiling grey-haired man poked in.

“Well, there you are." it said. "Welcome home. Welcome back to our reality. How was the trip?"

Michael grabbed the older man's hand and quietly said "Painful, Professor. Painful, but educational."

Michael slowly walked out through the door with Professor Lanigan. The cube itself was in the middle of a much larger room. There were banks of sonic projectors all around the walls. As he walked out, his heart sank to see Examiner O'Donovan waiting outside the cube. While all three of them were dressed head-to-toe in black (as per the law), it only really seemed to suit O'Donovan. His hair seemed almost unnaturally black. Apparently, it had originally been a dark copper, but he had become obsessed with the idea that it wasn't masculine enough. People were somewhat surprised that he hadn't shaved it off completely, as the Absolutist himself had done. He was probably going to do it eventually, as there were rumours circulating that soon this also would be made compulsory. But at this moment, he was just standing there glaring at Michael and Prof. Lanigan. The expression on his face was as it always ways. Frozen in a permanent grimace.

“Education wouldn't be education without a certain degree of pain," he hissed.

There was a pause, as Michael and Lanigan seemed unsure as how to react to this statement.

“Okay," Lanigan said slowly before turning to Michael and saying "Well, once you've recovered your senses, we're to bring you straight to the Absolutist's office."

Michael seemed taken aback by this.

“Seriously?" he said.

“Seriously. We're to bring you to the Sanctum. The holiest of holies. He wants to personally hear your report."

“They're setting things up now," O'Donovan said.

“How do you mean?" Michael asked.


*****



In the Absolutist's sanctum, there was a slightly elevated, rectangular pad on the ground. There were various coloured lights flickering at the front of it. There was a woman working at the side of this device.

“Is it ready?"

The woman was startled to hear the cold voice behind her. She turned around to say that it was pretty much ready now, but when she saw who had asked her, her blood ran cold and she found she couldn't speak.

It was the Absolutist himself, with his pale shaven head and his dead, emotionless eyes. Standing beside him was the ancient, decrepit Inquisitor. The fact that his head had also recently been shaved, now made him look even older than he had before.

“Well?" the Absolutist asked. His eyes seemed to be staring into her soul. She felt her hands shaking and the only noise that came out of her mouth was "Ah..."

“Ah, what?" the Inquisitor said.

Somehow, the woman seemed to force the words out of her mouth.

“Yes," she said. "I mean, yes, it's ready, now"

“Then, get out" the Absolutist whispered.

The woman scrambled as she picked up her tools and placed them into a small box.

“Now," the Absolutist said, only slightly raising the volume of his voice.

She looked as if she's almost about the panic, but was able to stand up and almost stagger towards the door.

Out in the corridor, Michael, Lanigan and O'Donovan were walking towards the Sanctum.

“The Absolutist, himself?" Lanigan was saying. "What an honour."

He glanced at Michael to confirm that he was being quietly sarcastic. O'Donovan seemed oblivious to this and said "The Absolutist has an insatiable hunger for knowledge."

“That's nice," Lanigan said quietly.

Suddenly, the woman who had been in the Absolutist's sanctum came walking in the opposite direction. She nodded at them and walked on. After she had disappeared into a side-door behind them, Michael said with a smile "Well, there's another one."

Lanigan looked at him and asked "What do you mean?"

“I met another version of her in the...other place. Do you know her?"

“Not really. I think her name's Laura or Linda...."

“I wonder what she was doing here."

“Well, about the only thing I do know about her is that she's a tech. Her specialty's maintaining those scanner-things you stand on."

“The whore shouldn't be here," O'Donovan snapped with his eyes fixed on the black door at the end of the corridor.

Lanigan rolled his eyes at Michael, before saying "She's the only one who is. Got a special dispensation, you see. She was the only person available who could set things up in time."

They paused just before the black door, as Lanigan asked "Look, before you go in, I've got to have to ask. I know you saw another version of that girl, but did you actually get to see another version of...well, me?"

Michael smiled and said "I did. I saw versions of everybody I knew. Your doppelganger was working in a newsagent, would you believe? With a beard that really didn't suit you...or him. Well, you know what I mean."

“And did you see me, as well?" O'Donovan asked.

There was a pause, as Michael quietly cleared his throat.

“Well, I..."

Suddenly, the black door opened and the Inquisitor came limping out.

“You're back."

Michael tried to hide his relief at not having to answer O'Donovan's question and simply said "Yes."

Jerking his head towards Lanigan, the Inquisitor asked "Did he ask you about his counterpart?"

“I am here, you know," Lanigan said with a quiet anger.

Slowly, incredibly slowly, the Inquisitor turned his head to look at him.

“I know you're here, Professor," he whispered. "I always know where you are."

He turned to O'Donovan and said "I suppose you asked, as well."

“I did," O'Donovan said. "In fact, I've still to hear..."

“Doesn't matter," the Inquisitor said. "We've some urgent business to discuss with Michael and if we let you start ranting and raving, we'll be here all night."

O'Donovan opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Suddenly, he seemed to withdraw into himself. He looked for all the world, as if he had been frozen to the spot.

The Inquisitor almost smiled, as he watched O'Donovan's eyes glaze over. After a second, he waved his hand in front of those eyes. They didn't blink.

“Remarkable", he said. "It's like an off-switch. The magic words are "ranting and raving". They always work."

“You like doing that, don't you?" Lanigan hissed.

“Yes," the Inquisitor said, as a harsh smile emerged on his face. "If only everybody was as easily programmable. Don't get me wrong, the Examiner here can be very useful, if he's steered in the right direction, of course. Otherwise, he's just a bore. So every now and again, we just pause him for a little while. And for that little while, he's no longer our concern. But at this precise moment, what really concerns me and the Absolutist who's by the way, patiently waiting inside, is whether you, Michael..."

Michael had found himself staring at the statue-like O'Donovan, before hearing his name.

“What?"

“I was saying that the Absolutist wants to know whether you saw or indeed met another version of... you."


*****



“Nothing can prepare you for the shock of seeing some twisted, alternate version of yourself just walking along the street."

Michael was standing on the slightly elevated pad that was at the centre of the Absolutist's sanctum.

“Quite," the Absolutist said quietly before turning to his right and nodding at the Inquisitor, who asked "What would you say were your first impressions of this alternate version of yourself?"

“A dandy," Michael said. "Decadent. Obviously degenerate."

“Did you envy him?"

Michael was taken aback by this question and said "Sorry? I don't know what you mean."

“Did you envy him?" the Inquisitor repeated. "Was there any aspect of his lifestyle you found intriguing...or exciting?"

“No. Of course not," Michael said. "I'm not entirely sure where this is leading, sir."

“There is a theory," the Inquisitor said, "which states that there is in fact an infinite number of parallel universes. Not just the one we've stumbled onto. And therefore, there's potentially an infinite number of versions of you and of me and of every single person in this particular realm. And while each version has probably had to deal with profoundly different histories, cultures, lucky or unlucky twists of fate, isn't there also the possibility that despite all that, there may be certain core personality traits that are common to every single one of you?"

Michael was unable to stop a mild touch of panic coming into his voice, as he asked "Are you making a specific accusation, sir?"

“If you look at the device you're standing on," the Inquisitor said looking down at the pad, you'll see that there are pretty little yellow lights flashing away. That doesn't mean you're actually lying. It just means that there's something you're not telling us about this other universe. Something you're holding back."

His voice lowered to a harsh whisper.

“We'd very much like to hear what it is."

The Absolutist suddenly spoke up saying "The more things change, the more they stay the same. That's the cliché, of course, but I believe that if a person's a non-conformist in one type of universe, he could at the very least have the potential of being a rebel in another one. In this world, for instance. In my world. In the same way, leadership and power can transcend everything. After all, let us not forget that I was personally marked for destiny. Marked from birth."

The Absolutist slowly raised up both his hands, stretching his webbed fingers.

Aidan slowly raised up both his hands, stretching his webbed fingers.

He was in the backseat of a Garda squad-car, as it moved slowly through those crowded city streets.

He looked out the window and found himself staring at all those shining, gaudy, unafraid people in that swirling, kaleidoscopic throng. This strange, fleshy sea of chaos. This place he no longer understood, if indeed he ever really did.

He started to quietly whisper to himself. In the front-seat, Garda Mullen glanced over to Garda Hanley and smiled a smile that was both compassionate and weary, as the quivering hiss behind them settled into words.

“Discipline. Discipline and control. Along straight lines. Not squiggly. Not curvy. Too many curvy lines, these days. Through shadowy, shadowy shades of grey. No shades of grey in this-here-town. In my line of work, anyway. Oh, no, no, no. Just black or white. Yes or no. Here or there. Discipline. Discipline and control. Along straight lines. Not squiggly. Not curvy. Too many curvy lines, these days. Through shadowy, shadowy shades of grey. No shades of grey in this-here-town. In my line of work, anyway. Oh, no, no, no. Just black or white. Yes or no. Here or there. Discipline. Discipline and control. Along straight lines. Not squiggly. Not curvy. Too many curvy lines, these days. Through shadowy, shadowy shades of grey. No shades of grey in this-here-town. In my line of work, anyway. Oh, no, no, no. Just black or white. Yes or no. Here...."



THE END


© 2020 T. J. Matthews

Bio: T.J. Matthews works as a Civil Servant in a Government Department in Dublin, Ireland.Over the years, he has had several poems published in various Irish and British Magazines, but "Aidan in St. Stephen's Green" is actually his first published piece of fiction.

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