“He ran away screaming.”
“That’s no reason-”
“He kicked the initiator in the shin, and…” The admissions official bunches his eyebrows in thought, trying to remember. Flips through the packet of papers in his hands. “Ah, yes. He also bit said initiator, to get away. Actually drew blood, if you can imagine.”
The boy’s father leans against the wall, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers. This won’t do — Timelords don’t get tension headaches. They don’t show weakness, of body or mind. Granted, they also generally don’t have to hear that their son has assaulted a high member of the Academy like an animal.
“You keep records of the test, for everyone who passes through these halls,” he finally says, composure at least partially regained. “As such, you know that I ran away as well. And no one can say I was unsuccessful in my time here.”
The papers are laid face-down on the desk. “You didn’t run screaming like an Outlander.”
A mask of marble where a face should be. “I wanted to. I would question the sanity of any child who could look at that and not.” A breath. “If anything, criticize the boy’s lack of self-control. But last I bothered to check, that was not something that could keep one from a proper education. And clearly the impulse to run, controlled or not, is irrelevant to the quality of one’s performance here.”
There is a long silence, echoing as surely as sound between the old-fashioned stone walls of the office. Their eyes stay locked but there is no battle of wills here; only the cold, churning wheels of logic.
“Take him home for a year,” the official finally states, folding the packet of papers in half and placing them in a pile all their own, off to the side. “Teach him self control. Bring him back and he will be enrolled. I’m sure the Prydonians can do something with him.”
Another day, another father. The same official, weary of dealing with the mercurial guardians of volatile children. Something must be happening to society, he mutters below his breath, another sheaf of mauve-flagged papers tapping lightly on the desk. Too many outliers these days. In truth it has only been a handful: the one from last year, perhaps the girl a few weeks ago. And this one. But it feels like a lot to one so used to handling children like paperwork.
“I’ve spoken with Casseteriad; you nearly rejected his boy last year for running. Now you’re going to reject mine for not? Is there a correct response to your little test?”
“The correct response,” the official grinds out, hanging on to a pretense of patience. At least the one last year had been a proper graduate, with an understanding of their reasons. This one though… “Is to respect it, and be inspired by its possibilities. We permit a wide range of variation from that — respect can drift into fear, inspiration can go so far as passion- but I’m afraid that being hypnotized by it to the point of attempting to throw oneself in, with the purpose of…” He flips a page, referencing. “…‘joining with its power and becoming an eternal part of the fabric of reality’…” Glances up, setting the papers back down. “That isn’t really within the range. Though he’s to be congratulated on his diction.”
“He’s enthusiastic,” the father says, settling back in the chair. “The first of our family to come to the Academy. Based on merit alone, no less.”
The official shifts in his chair, nodding carefully. “Oh, yes, we’ve all seen his scores. An overachiever the likes of which I’ve never seen. Won’t do him much good unraveled to his constituent components, floating in the Schism.”
“If he could be channeled,” he father says, and for the first time, there’s a flicker of fear behind his dark eyes. The boy must be directed, tamed; he fears what might happen if he is not. He fears his own son, in some primitive and indescribable way, a feeling beyond words and meanings.
The official regards him. Sees that fear. Glances down at the scores on the first page of this damning sheaf of papers, brilliance shining through the numbers. “Going soft in my middle age,” he grumbles to himself, then taps the electronic flag attached to the papers. Changes it from mauve to orange; the only chapter assignment an unstable genius could hope for.
“Provisionally only,” he declares, dropping the papers into the pile of those accepted. “Any more behavior like that and I’m afraid we cannot keep him here, for the sake of everyone involved.”
The father sighs in relief. It is an unacceptable show of emotion, but the official merely raises an eyebrow at him and waits for him to leave.
They meet for the first time in the neatly trimmed and manicured front lawn of the Prydonian gathering hall among hundreds of other children their age, fresh from initiation, overflowing with pride and anxiety and eternity. Over centuries, the born gene pool has gotten muddied and homogenous and it is a tremendous blur of first-life mousey brown, hair and eyes and generic, unaffiliated robes, dusty around the edges where they’ve trailed too much in the grass. The two stand out against the brown and the red, and are drawn to one another — shocking blonde and night-black, the shadow and the star.
Even here and now, as young as they are, they start to make plans.
Children’s plans, no matter the culture or species or planet, are all just so much reckless impulse strung around the rough, rickety framework of basic cause and effect. There are no variables in children’s plans, no contingencies. They are, one and all, doomed to failure — ‘over the wall’ more so than others.
Sometime in the first few years, between the sting of one failure and subsequent punishment after another and the younger one’s growing appreciation for his classes and the material within, their plans begin to shift away from simple escape, become more convoluted and subtle, with cross purposes and ambiguous goals. They flee through the night with stolen banners; they sneak out of the Citadel to stand under silvery trees and watch the sun spill over the grass; they climb the walls of their own isolation only to find each other grinning from the other side.
They run, and run, and run.
They leave a blazing trail through the Academy halls, two different sorts of brilliance complimenting one another perfectly even as their spirits burn in each the other’s light. It’s a damagingly vibrant sort of codependency, a web of approval and respect and fear and abandonment and otherness and loneliness. The Academy, its professors, their classmates — all is dull and grayscale around them, plodding inevitably onward towards a future no different than today, dusty and forgotten and gone. The fire is all they have, so they let it burn.
Somewhere in there — he’s never quite sure when — the older boy finds himself excluded from the plans, more often categorized in with the victims than as a co-conspirator. It’s all in good fun, so he doesn’t think much of it, though he does start coming up with plans of his own. It’s a rivalry, but a friendly one, and if they aren’t as close now as they were as strange and outcast children, well — who is?
It is what it is, and as they grow apart in some ways, they grow closer in others. Mirror, mirror — the shadow and the star.
Years pass and they have become legends among their peers, granted legendary names and reputations that precede them down every hall they walk. They change as they go, more in this handful of years spent in school than most of their peers will change in their lifetimes. They’ve just about run out of gravity and have switched to magnetism, too alike to be closer than casual friends, repelling each other even as they both watch, neither wanting it to happen.
It’s just another day when from across the widening gulf between them, Theta watches Koschei tapping his fingers on the library table’s slick, unblemished surface- one rhythm, perfect time. Hypnotic, though he would never admit to that degree of mental weakness. He watches but he doesn’t say anything; he has too many nervous tics himself to be able to talk, and there is too much distance between them now for it to even occur to him to be concerned.
Many, many years later, he will realize that what they say about hindsight is true; it is exacting and perfect, and hits like a fist in the gut.
The fathers come and go and come and go. The visits taper off over the years, fading into the background as everything else has.
Come the day they find out that Koschei’s younger brother has died — a freak accident, unheard of in their carefully ordered lives. Fluke. Death is so uncommon here that they can’t even conjure up words like ‘tragedy’, too speechless at the sheer statistical unlikelihood of the event, too caught up in mortality’s maths to consider its meaning. He’d been too young to regenerate properly even with assistance, or maybe the injury had simply been too sudden and too severe — the details fade as time goes on, but this memory remains:
Koschei is sitting in a chair at the end of one of the stacks, here in this silent retreat in the back of the library. He is staring straight ahead, face a carefully arranged mask of stoicism. He thinks the anger and the terror and the tears do not show and to be fair, they are not present on the surface, but they are sliding around just under the skin, giving the mask a shining, hollow look, like cellophane over clay. His hands shake ever so slightly.
There are no other chairs in the area and so Theta is kneeling on the ground beside him, looking up at his friend with a sincerity of concern that belies the distance that has grown between them. “You should take a break from classes,” he says, low and serious and almost-whispering. “Take a break from everything. They’d understand.”
But they wouldn’t. Grief is an emotion without a trigger in a society where your entire family and anyone you’ve ever known are within a second’s transmat, these professors and politicians and bureaucrats who’ve never lost, never had to say goodbye. They might tolerate it — might even only dock him a few grades. But they wouldn’t understand.
“No,” he says, quiet, straightening in the chair- turning to look down at his old friend’s concerned face. The naked sincerity there catches him off guard, and he leans in toward it. Sharing a secret. “You do. Maybe someday I’ll find out why... but they wouldn’t.” He shakes his head sharply, testing the mask. Making sure it’s going to stay in place, that it won’t slip free under duress of a motion too sharp or a question or thought or feeling too unexpected. Pushes himself up from the chair. “What’s that Earth saying you’re fond of? No rest for the wicked.”
Theta watches him go from his position on the floor, mouth loosely half-opened around some response still barely formed. Closes it. Then pulls himself back to his feet, muttering more to himself than to his retreating friend. “That hardly describes you, does it?”
But sometimes he wonders.
-and they’re running and escaping, over the wall, back to the first plans, the plans that had no guile or malice, but he loses his nerve at the last moment and is left behind, his inaction its own kind of betrayal-
-and it’s years and centuries before he gets another chance, nothing left to lose now but by the time he catches up the other has seen too much and broken too hard and there’s nothing left to salvage, their friendship a mockery of itself, best put out of its misery-
-and he dreams and it never stops hurting-
-and he’s been followed to Earth now, and he can taste the need for vengeance in the other’s mind, fractured and put back together crooked and out of proportion but what is he to do except defend this little world he’s started thinking of as home-
-and he’s home now and accused of murder and there’s only the one person he can think of who badly enough wants him dead and broken, his honor and name unsalvageably disgraced, so he fights-
-and he’s pushed or maybe he’s just lost his grip and he’s falling, that laugh ringing around his head as gravity steals his breath-
-and he’s sick and poisoned and scrabbling for a handhold in his own mind, new, unfamiliar, screaming with regeneration sickness and the other is there, still laughing-
-and he holds the rock over his head and for just an instant he is becoming the monster the other has already given himself over to, all gold and wilderness and smiles like a razor-
-and he is chained and tied and strung up and can feel the life being pulled out of him with all the grace of a grappling hook on a winch, and he can feel himself bleeding somewhere behind his eyes, dimming, fading-
-and he knows, the moment they lock eyes from across the launch room and his friends are screaming and the lock is failing and all he can do is beg, just this once, beg and hope that begging works but his beautiful blue angel still slips out from under his fingers-
And they’re here at the end of things, the shadow and the star, holding on to one another as both of them burn out.
For a short time — such a short time — he was able to feel that fire burning up his brain again, everything he’d missed and loathed, falling into himself and finding another voice there, speaking from somewhere inside. And it said horrible things and it said wonderful things but mostly it told him that he wasn’t alone, that he could breathe again, here in the gravity well of his shadow.
Now it ends, and the shadow fades away. The star is left, again, to burn on its own- burn itself out, spinning empty and alone through the darkness of forever.
[under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
we are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other]
Lifetimes ago, on a planet that never existed, two children are sprawled in the red grass, watching the first sun creep over the horizon.
“It looks like the ground is on fire,” says the first, hands laced through his startling blonde hair.
“It’s good,” says the darker-haired boy, rolling his head to eye the other. “Isn’t it good?”
No answer is forthcoming as dawn finally breaks, spilling light into all of the shadows. Eventually, they’ll be missed in the Citadel. Eventually. For now, they can let the grass and the sky burn for them and inside, there is quiet.
[teach us to care and not to care
teach us to sit still]
“I win,” he says, the darkness choking in around the corners of his eyes, quiet chasing out the fire. And he is right.
(quotes courtesy T.S. Eliot, ‘Ash-Wednesday’, 1930.)