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Nightwatch

By Christopher Owen

A shipping bell tolled remorsefully somewhere in the bay.

The night watchman heard it, and shivered. The night was chill, and the hollow clanging was haunting in the mists. The darkness emerged from the dark recesses where it had seeped and made its move on nights such as this.

He continued his slow purposeful walk down the stone wharf. The moorings were deserted. The fierce winters had forced the colliers south of the Mersey to more hospitable ports.

Truly, it was a time of discontent, in the year of our Lord 1881.

He raised his lantern. Wasn't there a flicker at the edge of his vision - a darker patch that refused to be banished? He moved closer, and slowly lifted the shutters.

Lying sprawled on the stonework was a body.

Who am I? The questions tugged at his consciousness, but that was the most persistent. It seemed a fundamental truth, that must not be denied to him. Was not the very cornerstone of existence knowledge of self? The question persisted. But it needed more information. Information he didn't have.

Cold. So very, very cold.

The observation intrigued him, but he let it drift on. He was looking for something else - something important? Memories. Yes, he was looking for memories. A memory, any memory.

One bubbled to the surface. A teenage girl. Curious eyes looked out from a round face. He knew her... and didn't know her. Her identity remained elusive as his own. More faces appeared, only to vanish again. Faces that expressed something, something that he couldn't understand.

One face stayed. Motionless and insistent. A vital clue, and one that would not be brushed away. It was a short energetic man, grinning from beneath a faded hat. That face is my face, he knew with certainty. But, also, that face is not my face. Another anomaly.

He considered his current form. Incorporeal at least. He seemed to be nothing more than a widely scattered mind. Stray thoughts circling erratically, like so many electrons. But electrons usually circled around a nucleus. So this nucleus must be the part of his mind that was creating these incongruent thoughts. It must be his... self.

Ah, I've found it. The discovery was somewhat anti-climactic. Further perusal revealed there wasn't actually a lot there. He was lacking something. He found it somewhat depressing. (Emotions. Now they're all still there. I wonder why? There certainly isn't any personality to guide them.)

Hold on just a minute. Personality. Interesting concept. He was sure he had had one. In fact he felt he had been quite proud of his personality. Nice stable outlook, flair for the dramatic, broad range of personal expression. The question was - where had it gone, and would it come back? He didn't feel it would - at least not as he thought it had been. Bits added, bits taken, bits handed down from other selves.

He heard a bell booming somewhere. Nowhere. He realised now, that nowhere pretty well summed up this whole place. The only thing that could be seen were ever-rolling mists. It made sense. Since at the moment he felt like no-one, where else should he be but nowhere?

The cold. It was strange, but the only physical feeling he had was one of extreme cold. Stabbing, chilling cold. An icy hand wrapped itself around his heart. The one he was sure he didn't have.

A figure was walking through the mists. His step was slow, deliberate, and he had a black cloak wrapped around him. His face was hooded, hidden, his presence exuding the essence of evil.

‘Are you my personality?’ he asked the black-cloaked figure.

‘It never gets any better. In a long history of stupid questions that is probably one of the worst.’

‘Oh?’

‘Undoubtedly. I suppose you want to know what's going on?’

‘Well yes, I suppose so.’

‘Typical. I have to repeat this every single time. You've died.’

‘I have?’

‘Kicked the bucket, bought a powder, gone the way of all flesh, snuffed it. You are no more, have ceased to be.’

‘It isn't quite as I imagined it.’

‘Unfortunately for me, you don't die. You get a second chance. Several second chances, in fact.’

‘Oh.’

‘You don't have to sound quite so disappointed. You think I like this job?’

‘Just who are you anyway?’

‘I am the amalgamation of the evil that exists in you. A creature of blackness, hate, deceit and despair, that lurks in the nether regions of your subconscious.’

‘Really.’

‘Yes! As part of the transformation process, I put the prospective candidates through a gruelling ordeal, in which they face their worst fears, deal with horrors unimaginable, and choose their destiny among the stars.’

‘Sounds exciting. Do I have to go through an ordeal?’

‘Ordinarily yes. But the last one completely exhausted me. You insisted on the titanic duel to its final conclusion. You may have emerged with a deeper understanding of the powers at work in the universe, and been more mysterious than ever before, but I was completely worn out. So you can go straight to the rebirth.’

‘Won't it be a problem? Missing out on my ordeal, I mean?’

‘Well, you'll be more than unusually stable immediately afterwards. On the other hand, you may keep the personality you have at the moment.’

‘But I don't have...’

‘Exactly. You may remain a two dimensional entity for ever.’

‘I think I may change my mind about this ordeal business.’

‘Too late for that. And you're going to be away for a while.’

‘Away? What do you mean?’

The dark figure seemed to be moving away. ‘You're going to sleep for a while. Don't worry. In transient time it'll only be the blink of an eye. In real time - well it's an abstract concept anyway.’ His voice was growing fainter. ‘Don't worry, they'll watch over you.’ And the figure was gone.

Tired. He was feeling so tired. But he couldn't sleep. He had to find the dark figure, bring him back. His struggle was proving fruitless. He felt himself drifting outwards, spread among the infinitude. But the memories still swirled past him. Friendly memories. Faces to watch over him. He thought he saw a lantern gleaming through the mists...

He was falling. Plunging, dying. Pain shrieked from every nerve, every fibre. He was torn apart, and ceased to be. Twisted, warped, contorted. Memories ricocheted hard as bullets. Buffeted by the storms of time, he swooned. But still the dream went on. Electricity crackled and every particle of his body was alive. Alive and wanting.

He screamed.

Everything screamed. Trial by fire, as the very limits of sensation were tested. Suns exploded, imploded, reformed and were renewed. But he felt whole. He felt the fibres knitting together in a new untried combination. Sinews formed on joints, and bones, and tendons. Blood pumped, lungs breathed. Skin formed, each dermal layer coagulating, to be imperfectly grafted onto the living form. But then nobody was perfect. He was alive. He knew who he was. And he was back.

A shipping bell tolled remorsefully somewhere in the bay.

The night watchman heard it, and shivered. The night was chill, and the hollow clanging was haunting in the mists. The darkness emerged from the dark recesses where it had seeped and made its move on nights such as this.

He continued his slow purposeful walk down the stone wharf. The moorings were deserted. The fierce winters had forced the colliers south of the Mersey to more hospitable ports.

Truly, it was a time of discontent, in the year of our Lord 1881.

He raised his lantern. Wasn't there a flicker at the edge of his vision - a darker patch that refused to be banished? He moved closer, and slowly lifted the shutters.

Lying sprawled on the stonework was a body.

Its eyes opened. ‘Hello. I'm the Doctor. Pleased to meet you.’

This item appeared in TSV 27 (February 1992).

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