© Joseph Baxter
Note: This story was written in homage to Ray Bradbury. I have lost count of the references to his short stories contained herein.
The dream I had had, now gone forever-made intangible by my dawning consciousness; and trying to keep it was as futile as clutching at a wisp of smoke. Like a hand full of fine sand, the harder the effort made to hold to it, the more that slips away. The dream was now gone away, and, at my acceptance of that fact, reality changed and shifted and heaved.
My eyes came open.
I found myself to be lying on a stiff metal bed, and staring up into an array of medical lights. An old man with a wizened face was standing over me, smiling faintly. He was altogether too close–the hoary strands from his balding head momentarily blocked the bright light from above, giving the apparition of a halo. Would I have imagined myself confronted by an angel had not I also been confronted by his soured breath? In that second before I awoke completely, one thing stood foremost in my mind, I had no idea at all how I came to be in this place. But, presently, the old gentleman spoke.
“Ah, Mr. Bradbury,” he said as he pulled his face away, “you’re awake.” He settled back into a chair and broke into a genial, however, crooked smile. The old man was a remarkable character, and if I had ever seen him before this moment, it certainly would have been well remembered. For there was one particularly striking feature that possessed the man, the one thing that for some reason burned in my mind. That singular feature was the old man’s shirt. Oh, and what a shirt it was. It was at one time every nightmare and dream I had ever had. It was nature, life and death, space and time. In its cloth there lay the power to create and destroy, but at that singular instant, the image looked like nothing so much as a single sunrise.
One hopeful, glorious, warming sunrise-the sun poised to throw his rays over the shoulders of the sleeping mountains.
This picture fascinated me and I became lost in it. Only a moment later–though it was a subjective eternity-the old man moved, causing the cloth to ripple and the vista was lost forever. I wondered to myself if it was wrong to mourn the loss of a picture half seen in the dyes of shirt-cloth. My head was still swimming-perhaps I had been in an accident! Perhaps even now the pain-killers coursed through my broken body causing me to see things that did not exist. I felt myself becoming agitated.
Seeing my upset, a concerned look crossed the old man’s face. Reaching up to switch off the intense lights, this stranger introduced himself. “Please, do not alarm yourself. Everything is alright. My name is Dr. Marcus Drake; I am a great admirer of your work.”
The oldster’s eyebrows shot up his forehead whenever he spoke, like every word he uttered was some great revelation. Was that a beacon of senility in the old man’s eyes? I tried to say something in reply but found my throat too dry to form words. I wanted to ask where I was, but my voice only cracked and caused me to start coughing painfully.
“Oh, now, don’t try to talk yet; the medication takes a while to wear off. Here, drink this,” Drake said as he helped me into a sitting position. He gave me a glass. It contained only water–or at least seemed to–but did a great deal towards freeing my voice. After several swallows I felt I could speak, if only a little.
“Where am I?” I got out before the coughing returned, doubling me over in pain. Old Drake’s wrinkled face knotted with concern again and he put out a hand to steady. When the coughing fit had passed, I drank some more from the glass. My eyes seemed to be watering uncontrollably, giving everything in the room a bleary glow.
“An un-original question,” said the old man after a pause to regain his apparently usual humor, “but you are in my house.”
“How-,” I started but my voice caught again, and I quickly drained the glass. Drake held up a hand to quiet me, anticipating the questions.
“Well, well, let me explain some of that. You see, you have been dead for a long time, Mr. Bradbury. Some seven hundred years, I should think. I have brought you back.” The oldster said the last statement so simply that I’m certain any kind of incredulous look was on my face-truly as if such revival were an everyday happening.
“From the dead?” I managed.
“Well, of course, where else?” Drake said, somewhat preoccupied as he spun about in his chair and busied himself with a few instruments.
“It is quite ironic, you know,” he threw over his shoulder. “The longevity treatments came only a few decades after your death. In all actuality, I am only fifty-two years older than you. But still, as you can see, the advent of the drug caught me a bit late in life.” He turned and considered me with a thoughtful look.
“Come to think of it, you’re the youngest author I am bothering to resurrect.”
He suddenly smiled, and getting up from his seat, moved across the junk-strewn room where he started to fiddle with some other equipment.
“Author?” I said, this time with surprising ease. I felt a little more functional now. My brain had finally come alive and questions regarding this bizarre situation screamed through my mind. Yet for some reason I only asked, “You only revive authors?”
“Oh, yes, that’s what I do, you know. Revive all the great old time authors. I’m researching a book, you see.”
I didn’t see. I tried to stand, to get away-run! My head suddenly weighed too much and the room spun like a nightmare carousel. I had to collapse back onto the table with clenched my eyes shut, and stayed there holding my head in both my hands until the waves of nausea had passed.
The old man’s breathy voice trailed off and became only an echoed murmuring. I now looked up and realized that he had walked away down the hall. I didn’t trust myself to stand yet, at least for a while, so my gaze frantically traveled about the room, looking at first this and then to that. I was looking for anything that I could use to gain an orientation-some clue that would help me understand what was going on. Finally, my eyes fell upon the console behind where the old man had been sitting. The lights winked and flickered back at me in sinister patterns. On its face there were a hundred buttons and as many levers and switches. It was surprising how much it looked like those early science-fiction films I had once loved so…if Drake was to be believed, over seven hundred years ago. And then I saw it.
A dark coldness knifed through me, and I stared fixedly at the small nameplate attached to the lower left corner of the console. It bore only the word “Fantoccini”. I swallowed hard and racked my brain to find the word-to find some reason why it frightened me so. I was still staring in anguished contemplation when Drake returned.
“I have a meal prepared for you; I hope it will be to your taste.” He smiled. “There is much we have to talk about. Do you feel up to it?”
I nodded my head absently, then, tearing my gaze away from the console, looked up at the old man. “That name, Fantoccini, where have I heard that before?”
Dr. Drake’s head jerked slightly as a look of astonishment for a moment crossed his features. He replied, if a little too off-handedly, “Oh, well, that’s nothing, nothing at all really. Better you just forget about it.”
His eyes shone with the light of withheld tension, silently requesting that the matter be settled-almost as though he were imploring me to ask no more. He turned to leave, and glancing back to where I was still perched said, “Well, when you feel up to it, Mr. Bradbury.”
He gave me one last look in askance and started to walk from the room.
“Wait!” I shouted hoarsely-startling even me as the sound echoed from the stone walls. But how could the old man so easily discount something that seemed so important? The need to know burned like fire. Dr. Drake stopped at the doorway with an expression of dread. He already knew what the question would be.
“It’s not nothing,” I accused, “is it? I want to know what that name represents.”
Dr. Drake refused to meet my gaze. It was obvious from his manner that the man was unused to lying and still was about to tell a half-truth. In any case, he certainly would not reveal the entirety.
“It’s only the name of the company that makes that equipment.” He hesitated, then turned back and there was sadness in his eyes when they finally met mine, “Please, leave it at that.”
I could tell that the other was unwilling to say more. Dr. Drake stayed in the doorway, perhaps waiting to see whether or not I would press the issue. Through that intangible communication, for the moment we two decided silently to let the issue lie. That any other question would do, except that one. That maybe later, we seemed to console each other in unheard speech; more can be said.
“The date, then,” I asked at last, and the tension released a little, “What is the date?”
A look came over my benefactor’s face that was an indefinable mixture of pity and remorse. The man’s brow darkened and his movements once more became furtive.
“It is October, Mr. Bradbury.” He turned and left; his voice echoing eerily from the empty door, “It’s always October here.”
Futility is a harsh companion. It sits looking on in abject hopelessness, waiting for the end to come and sweep its carcass away. Not even its fears can sustain it, for it is resigned to have no control. Futility waits only for the bliss of nonexistence, and yet keeps no hope in that. To suddenly come to the realization that; in this time and in this place, one can never know free will, is a thing that can lay waste to the soul. To have one’s every thought be only to follow along some hidden plan, to have every action long ago decided.
Could I believe in fate?
I slowly gained my feet, and rather unsteadily followed my host through the door. A long hallway waited beyond, containing several doors on the left-hand side, and a row of windows to my right. It was the view from the windows that halted my faltering steps and held my stare with more gravity than countless stars. Outside was an entire landscape of shallow hills and rock. And as far as I could see, everything was a pale, dusty red. The anxiety in the pit of my stomach grew-my knees wanted to buckle and fall out from under me!
I whispered the name, “Mars.”
This place was a restless spirit that forever haunted, it was a load so heavy to bear; it spilled over into my writings. My thoughts raced as memory traced my grappling with this angry war god. I had to cry out in the written word that someone please help, help me carry the yoke that was the Red Planet, my tormenter. The crimson plains beckoned to me and I stood there lost in the view, for an hour or for only a minute. I did not notice the quiet footfalls of the man who had brought me here.
“Breath-taking, isn’t it?” came the heavy voice from behind me. I turned to face the old man and wondered to myself whether this man was friend or foe. Or, if maybe, Dr. Drake was the pawn of forces beyond his own control-merely carrying out the wishes of someone else. But, Mars! The shock of finding myself here on Mars fairly swept away my ability to make speech.
“Yes, yes,” Drake was looking out over the dried plains, also caught up in the overwhelming beauty, or perhaps in the chilling austerity, “It is indeed Mars. Makes one feel very, very small, does it not?”
His head turned away from the view outside and he said directly to me in a conspiratorial voice, “Of what worth is the life of one man when compared only to a planet. How can you ask one man to juggle the sun and the stars?”
“Or Mars,” I finished. Dr. Drake broke from his spell and smiled at me.
“Yes! Good! Or Mars, indeed!” he agreed. And with that said there was nothing left.
It was then, seated before a long and book-strewn table set with a handful of covered dishes-but with no effort at formality-in the library of Dr. Drake’s mansion on the surface of the red planet called Mars, that I found myself. I had been told that I had been dead, but now resurrected. I was sitting across from a man who claimed to be over six hundred years old, but appeared to be only in his sixties. The despair inside me welled up and broke forth with a confused torrent of questions.
Dr. Drake made no effort to stop me now. He appeared interested, and made sympathetic noises wherever they were required. All the while never slowing the rate at which the fork in his hand continued in its breakneck journey from plate to wizened face, and back again. As the tide of my questions stemmed, I noticed faintly that there had only been one plate, and Dr. Drake had fallen on it directly. His evident lack of regard for his guest’s welfare seemed odd and out-of-character. As for myself, I could only sit across from the man and gaze in astonishment at the speed with which the other ate. In between mouthfuls-but just barely-the old man began to tell the story of how I came to be there.
“You see, Ray-may I call you Ray?” And without stopping went on. “You see, Ray, you’re my hobby. Well, not you particularly, but authors in general. See, all the authors I deem worthy; I revive. And maybe even a few I don’t deem worthy, I haven’t decided yet. You are one of the first, actually, since I am going in alphabetical order. Brought back Ambrose Bierce last week, William Cullen Bryant comes tomorrow. Cervantes and Hemmingway by next week, and Poe before the year’s end.”
He went on to take a few hurried spoonfuls of soup that appeared to be made from extremely large mushrooms. He stopped eating for an instant with a look of fright and intently examined a spoonful. Then, with some palpable satisfaction, he sliced a lone loaf of pumpernickel and began dipping it in his bowl before he went on.
I seized my chance to ask, “How did you bring me here?”
“Oh, that. By the wonders of modern technology, of course.” As if it settled the matter, but when pressed he went onto say, “Oh, I’ve learned some advanced techniques. But really, Ray, I have only this one day to talk with you, and I don’t want to get in long, involved technical discussions.”
“Why do you only have one day?”
But that was all he would say on the subject. Drake continued to eat furiously, and I tried to digest what was happening to me. The old man’s frenzied concentration on his food, and his horrible table manners churned at my stomach. Contemplating the idea, I realized that I was not hungry and quite honestly repulsed by the thought of eating. Perhaps it was whatever drugs he had used to revive me, but at the time I rather chose to believe that the boorishness in front of me was the cause.. I never had another chance to find out, for soon the meal was over, signaled only by Dr. Drake dropping his utensils in a satisfied flourish. I watched as the other got up and went over to the immense desk that sat in one corner and began writing with the same intensity that he ate.
“Such strangeness,” I said quietly, at which I bemusedly thought to myself, could have described almost anything that had occurred from the time I had awakened earlier. Nearly a quarter of an hour later, we were still sitting in the same places. Drake was still scribbling franticly at his desk, and I still looked on unbelievingly. The pale red sunlight filtered through the room. In retrospect, except for that pale crimson light, the furnishings seemed very Victorian.
But enough of this! So many questions remained unanswered and this old man who claims to have brought me back from the dead pays me no attention in the least. It’s madness!
“Drake!” I nearly screeched.
“Hmm?” He peered over the top of the spectacles he wore. I smiled what I hoped was a pleasant smile and vowed not to get angry.
“If it’s no trouble, could you please tell me what I am to do here?”
“Oh, dear, I’m afraid I haven’t been a very good host, have I?” He took off the glasses and came around the desk. I was barely able to hold my tongue and tried to smile again. It probably came off as more of a grimace, but at least, I thought, I have gotten his attention.
“A drink? Bourbon, perhaps?” Drake asked as he went over to the sidebar and picked up a smallish bottle made of sky blue glass. I was inexplicably drawn to it, slowly rose, and walked over to where the old man was standing. Taking the bottle gingerly from him, I held it completely mesmerized. At first I thought it was empty. However, when I shook it-and it gurgled slightly-I was strangely relieved. Dr. Drake watched this all with a slight grin.
“Bored with life, Ray?” He asked.
“No, no,” I told him, not understanding his meaning, and reverently put the bottle back into its place, “Just curious.”
“Yes, that is just what I was saying,” Drake stated as he poured himself a drink, and then after a moment’s pause poured one for me; a drink that I was still too suspicious to touch. Dr. Drake motioned me over to the couch, while he took a large winged chair.
“It is curiosity, isn’t it? That’s what drives us. As I said, I am writing a book and that you and the other authors I am reviving are research material. Why only read about famous authors when you can talk to them yourself, was my thought,” he chuckled, and then paused for a moment before continuing. “I’m sorry if I have been rude to you in anyway, but I really don’t get much of a chance to have guests. Not many people around here, you know.”
An unreadable dark look colored Drake’s face, a look that deeply troubled me. “No. I hadn’t known. Where are all the people, then?”
“Oh, theyâ€¦are beyond caring about such thingsâ€¦ but enough of this depressing talk!” He unexpectedly reached over and slapped me lightly on the knee, suddenly brightening. “Let’s go out and take a walk in the city. You can ask me your questions there. And I have some for you as wellâ€¦after all this.”
He stood, thrust his hands deep into his pockets and brushing past me, and headed out the door. As I made to pursue the strange old fellow, I noticed something I didn’t see upon entering. It was a stuffed parrot perched on a bust of what could only be Pallas above the chamber door. I recoiled-but too many odd things by half had happened already to be bothered much by that. Shaking my head, I hurried to catch up with Drake. Seeing the old man turn right into one of the doors that lined the hallway, I hastened after him.
Some of the other doors I passed were open, and those where I could view inside were filled with many strange and wondrous things. One-most recently opened, if the tracks in the dust gave any evidence-held a mock-up of a golden sarcophagus of the Egyptian type. This, for some unknown reason brought back to the surface the feelings of dread I had had since first seeing the hills of Mars through the hallway windows.
I involuntarily spun about in place, and found that Mars was still out there. Red as far as the eye could perceive: pale, pale crimson. It was the very color of dried blood. And as I stood staring the dark foreboding grew inside me with every breath. I shuddered violently and had to force myself not to run.
When, at last, I stood before the door, I turned and cast one furtive glance back through the windows at the red dunes. It was as though the graves of untold millions lie just beneath the surface, I thought as I turned the knob. Have I made my grave there? Even as I stood there I felt a presence bearing down on me. It filled me with horrific thoughts, the kind that scare you that an impulse might make you jump from a high window-just to see. It had been just on my heels, grasping tenuous fingers toward me-and then it suddenly seemed to dissipate like a cloud of mist. My fear propelled me across the threshold, and I fell against the inside of the door, as if I were shutting it forever.
When I came to myself, I saw that beyond the door there lie a flight of stairs. I ascended, and found the old man on a sort of rooftop garage; puttering over a beat-up vehicle of some sort that appeared well passed its best years of service. At the sound of the door, Drake looked up.
“Oh, there you are-almost ready!”
“We’ll be leaving in that? It hardly looks up to going anywhere.”
“Well, actually this is a fine old bird, a classic, owned by my father, who bought it from . . .”
He rambled on as I turned and put my foot on the parapet, looking out over the rolling plains. In the far distance, I could barely make out the outline of a city. It struck me as familiar some how, in fact it almost looked like Greentown.
Without taking my eyes from it, I asked Drake “Is that where we are going? To that city?”
Drake looked up from under the hood where he was working and squinted in the direction I indicated.
“What? Oh, no, that’s just an illusion. The real city’s over there,” and he hooked a thumb in the almost opposite direction. “Nope, nope, that’s just a mirage.”
I walked stiffly around the small building that housed the helicopter until the real cityscape came into full view. I swallowed on a dry throat-once again the gnawing in the pit of my stomach grew. I was still standing there ten minutes later when I heard an engine fire and backfire and finally sputter into life. Dr. Drake appeared around the corner of the building.
“Come on, Ray, you can gawk on the way there.”
I sighed, resigning myself to this fate, and climbed into the well-worn interior of the cockpit. I was seated beside a grinning Dr. Drake, who still hadn’t relayed the purpose behind his actions to any degree of satisfaction. And who was no doubt, perfectly mad.
“Here we go,” said the old man with just a little too much hopefulness in his voice. Nevertheless, the venerated engine huffed and heaved them into the air, although it seemed a strain. Once airborne, Dr. Drake began chattering once again, non-stop, as if he were trying to make up for his silence in the library. I listened, trying to discern some meaning in his words, but could not. Not that I didn’t understand the language, but that it all was a jumbled stream of random thoughts and ideas. He appeared almost to be reciting from some odd script-and whenever I tried to stop him, he simply ignored me.
Soon, the flight mercifully was over. Drake piled out of the cockpit, and thankfully stopped yammering. I climbed down more slowly to join him on the sand-blown desert floor. We had landed on the outskirts of a small city, consisting mostly of small villas around the outer edges, and tall, fluted spires clustered in the center. While seemingly man-made, the architecture had foreignness about it, some strange quality that made the air feel weightier, and the mood more somber.
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered softly to my companion.
“Oh, don’t worry about your voice.” Drake’s words seemed a near shout by comparison, “Sound doesn’t affect them. They’re neither that old nor that fragile.”
I had to turn and give my host an appraising look. Even though the knowledge put me more at ease, I was unsure whether I liked the idea-around such graceful beauty, it did not seem right to talk loudly, or without a certain reverence. Drake, for his own part, seemed unmoved; and went on talking at great length on things about which I cared nothing.
Dr. Drake led me to a bench in the center of the spires and sat down. Before us was a small tiled pool, filled with the seasonal rain. He began to speak again, in that disjunctive, convoluted way. So, there we sat as Drake filled the air with meaningless words, and I unable to say anything in between. If the man has taken the trouble to make me live again so he could do research, why doesn’t he ask me questions about my life, about the work I did? And yet, as he droned on, I noticed that some of the words he spoke caused intense but fleeting sensations of deep nostalgia. The sounds and views faded from before me to the point that I forgot utterly where I was, but instead flitted about from this memory to that. Sensing again that smell of the house where I grew up, marveling that all the old places took on a yellowed look like old photographs, sucking in a sharp breath as the pedal slipped away from my sneaker and scraped down my shin for the first time that summerâ€¦ How long this went on, I am unable to say, and I barely noticed when Drake had stopped talking.
He smiled at me, and I couldn’t think what it was that we had been talking about. I suppose it hadn’t been important. It was so peaceful here-the slight wind making alien melodies as it blew past the tall spires. I could stay here, I thought. I couldn’t remember why I had been so anxious before. So, out of respect for the man who had returned the breath to my lungs, I would remain here in this quiet place and patiently await any questions he had for me.
And quietly we did sit there until, late in the afternoon, Drake glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s about time for you to leave; I’ve got to get you back.”
“Where am I going?”
“Oh, no where, really, but I still have to prepare you for the next author.”
“I am to meet him then?”
“You’ll get to know him intimately,” returned Drake with a gentle smile.
I had nothing to say to that, but the tension in my stomach knotted ever tighter. On the way back to Drake’s mansion, the old man was withdrawn and silent-as though he had run out of words. As we set down on the roof top of what I now saw really was a Victorian mansion setting incongruously on this Martian hillside, Drake turned to me. He had his right hand inside a pointed object-a weapon of some sort, I supposed. It made a low, insectine whine as he brandished it at me. I felt little fear now-I had somehow expected it.
“I’m sorry, Ray, I really am,” he said as he pulled the trigger.
When I swam back to consciousness, I was back on the table just as I had been this morning. Only this time I was unable to move, but not from nausea-my body simply refused to obey the urgent orders of my mind. A groan escaped my lips and from somewhere behind me I heard Drake’s voice.
“Please don’t alarm yourself, Ray; it will all be over soon.”
“Why can’t I move?” I strained.
“I have disabled all access to your motor functions.” He walked around to give me what I’m sure was meant to be a kindly look, which made it all the more hideous. He picked up my arm and let it fall back to the table. “See? It’s really better this way.”
I must have screamed. For, in the midst of my horror, I had caught a glint of silver on the underside of my arm as he lifted it from the table. A small, metal placard was embedded in the underside of my wrist. Engraved upon it were a serial number and the word Fantoccini!
But that meansâ€¦all of the other authorsâ€¦I began to weep.
“Why can’t I stay?” I asked finally.
He gave me a pitying look and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Because there’s only one android like thisâ€¦and there’s no one left to build any others. They’re all gone. Took off in their rockets-all of them! Returned to Earth to fight the warâ€¦I refused. I wouldn’t go! And then the messages stopped coming in-there was no one left alive. Only me!”
He threw his hands into the air. “Here, on this dead planet-I am the last Martian. Who can know how long these longevity treatments will lastâ€¦” He was muttering now, turning back to the instruments beyond my view.
At these last moments, a serene clarity dawned in my mind. In a way, I felt more pity for him than I did for myself. I now understood that I was not really here. It was just an illusion-how can one be sad to lose an apparition? But Drakeâ€¦I knew something about him that I felt sure he did not know about himself. Throughout all the ramblings, during the entire day as I was with him, never one time had he hinted that he knew the truth. How could he know? Would he even survive the revelation?
As he had touched my arm, I had seen the one element that made this madness complete. His own serial number was only one digit higher than mine.
I could only hope that Bryant would be happier than I had been inside this body electric.