[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]
The sea stretches out forever. On its surface the wind chases itself about. Great bulky clouds pile in the sky. To the west the sun burns yellow. Rahu shivers in Sid’s arms, stinking of blood and sweat.
Sid walks into the tower.
He casts about. He finds a room with a light on. He opens its door. In a room of shining wooden floorboards and creaky old chairs Mr. Schiff pushes back his chair and stands.
“What have you there?” says Mr. Schiff.
“Rahu,” says Sid.
“Set him down,” says Mr. Schiff.
The reflections of the ceiling light skitter away as Sid lays Rahu down upon the floor.
Mr. Schiff walks over. He squats beside Rahu. He studies him.
“It is rare,” says the geology teacher, “to see an evil planet skewered by a siggort spike, much less in pristine condition.”
He peels back one of Rahu’s eyelids, causing Rahu’s head to shift and roll a few inches upon the floor.
“He’s a planet?” Sid asks.
“Rahu is the mystery planet that occludes the sun and moon on the occasion of an eclipse,” says Mr. Schiff. “A thing-that-is-known explaining a certain body of evidence.”
He takes a clipping from one of Rahu’s nails and holds it up to the light.
“Naturally obsolete in the Newtonian model,” clarifies Mr. Schiff.
“He might be dying,” says Sid.
“Not this one,” says Mr. Schiff.
Rahu breathes harshly, eyes rolled back, mouth drooling against the floor.
“No?” Sid asks.
“He’s one of the demons who stole into the house of the sun and drank the elixir of immortality.” He looks up at Sid. “You don’t know that story?”
Sid stares at Mr. Schiff blankly.
Sid’s jaw is turning puffy where Rahu broke it.
Mr. Schiff pats Rahu down, then straightens his body and head out so that Rahu is laying more comfortably on the floor. “I’ll get a cot and a blanket for him,” Mr. Schiff says.
“How can anything be immortal?” Sid asks.
“Well, it can’t, I suppose,” says Mr. Schiff. “Everything arises from karma, and everything dies with the extinguishment of the karma that caused it to exist. But he’s tasted the amrit so he can’t really die to anything less.”
He pauses. He smiles fondly at the fingernail.
“And here I am with a sample of him.”
Mr. Schiff walks to the door and out, his feet ticking against the floor.
Sid watches Rahu.
The hands of the clock high on the wall turn.
After about fifteen minutes Mr. Schiff returns with a cot and some blankets. He starts to lift Rahu. Sid helps. Together they place Rahu on the cot and cover Rahu’s body with the blanket.
“How can anything be immortal?”
It’s like nothing’s changed in Sid’s head since he asked that question the first time.
Mr. Schiff looks up at him.
Suddenly Mr. Schiff is grinning wider than a geology teacher should grin, and there are shadows shifting everywhere in the room.
“When he drank the amrit, he achieved enlightenment,” says Mr. Schiff. “He became rival to the Buddha. He understood everything that is, was, and will be. But he was not free. He was chained by his karma. He said, ‘Before I claim my rightful place as lord of all things I must answer the suffering of Prajapati and atone for this theft of treasure from the sun.’
“The thundering of years did not dissuade him from this course.
“The severing of demons from the world could not dissuade him.
“He has hunted the sun and devoured it through the days of the Third Kingdom and the Fourth and not anyone who’s tried has ever stopped him in his course.
“He will not stop until such suffering as Prajapati’s is no longer possible, which even the Buddha did not achieve. He will not stop until he has expiated the crime of stealing elixir from the sun, which he cannot do, as that act will forever stain the world. He is immortal because he is not finished with these basic tasks that no creature can attempt.
“That is how Rahu is immortal.”
“Oh,” says Sid.
“But don’t be afraid,” says Mr. Schiff. “It is the nature of all karma to resolve itself given sufficient time in which to work. If it is not this year, then it may be next year; if it is not, then certainly before the passage of another three hundred trillion years.”
Sid shakes himself.
“Will you watch him?” Sid says.
“Why did you bring him here?” Mr. Schiff asks.
“I didn’t know what to do with him,” Sid says. “And I figured Martin would. But you’ll do just as well.”
It is June 1, 2004.
Sid returns to the balcony. He sits on the battlement. He’s quiet.
“Aren’t you a sight,” says Max.
Sid looks about.
“She’s with Jane,” says Max.
“Did she see the spike?”
“I told her not to watch the fight. I said, you’d win, but not by any way that’s good for children to see. And then you did.”
“You okay?” says Max.
“No,” says Sid.
“We go ’round and ’round,” says Sid, “and nothing ever changes.”
“Yeah,” acknowledges Max.
“You don’t have to be here,” Sid says.
His voice is taut. His throat is sore. It hurts to talk.
But Max ignores him.
“Didn’t ask you if I did,” Max says.
“You don’t even like it here.”
“Just— let it go, Sid.”
It’s getting darker now. It’s moving on towards evening. Shadows swell across the sky.
“You weren’t worth it,” says Sid.
Max’s lips tighten.
“Don’t you get it? I waited, I waited, and you’re just some damn stupid— just—“
And suddenly Sid is empty and the air is cold and he says, limply, “I wasted my dreams on you.”
Max looks up.
He grins tiredly. It’s pretty shocking to himself, that he has what it takes to grin. But he does.
“You wanna go?” he says.
It’s not an invitation to leave.
It’s an invitation to fight.
And for a long moment it seems as if Sid doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And then for a long moment like Sid will hold back.
Then the siggort is off the battlement and his wheel of knives is spinning and his fist comes forward and it strikes Max’s head, thok.