Notes: So, I don't really know where this chapter came from. You can consider it bonus content if you want, because it doesn't really fit within the structure of the narrative all that well, but I was thinking about how everyone was getting their little introductions before we jump in and decided to try something with Admiral Liang. I've no idea if it worked, but hopefully you understand a little more about him now.
PS, the picture is from an beautiful and enormous Inari shrine in Japan that I visited last month. I just though it applied well to what's going on with Liang in this vignette.
Title: Redstone Chapter 5
Stephen Liang stood at the base of the four-story pagoda and looked through the open door in front of him. It was a beautiful structure, surprisingly festive with its coruscating red roofs, each one glowing in the sunshine, and the gold trim beneath them curled into watchful foxes. The walls were white, and painted with elegant black kanji that spelled out thousands of prayers for the dead. The room just beyond the threshold where he hesitated beckoned him like a lover, while the gentle breeze across his back pressed him forward.
Stephen sighed. He shouldn’t have put this off for so long, but given the way his week—no, his month—had been going, it felt like a miracle he could even take the time to be here now. He clapped his hands twice and bowed, then reached out and gripped the heavy cotton rope that hung down from an enormous bronze bell ten feet above him. He took a deep breath, then swung the bell. The thunderous hum of it was almost enough to take his breath away. He stepped forward into the vestibule of the temple, and a moment later a warm hand landed on his shoulder.
“It’s been a while since you’ve visited.”
The voice was perfectly familiar, Stephen’s constant companion in his current life and the last vestige of his furthest one. He turned and looked at the speaker, a tall, slender man with white-blond hair and a small smile on his beautiful face. “I’ve been busy.”
His companion nodded. “I can see that.” Even now the algorithm in the machine was doing its work, analyzing Stephen’s brain chemistry and physiology and spinning new threads out from his mind, adding to the tapestries that lined the walls and the frames that filled the room. After some experimentation, Stephen had found that cloth was the best representative of memory for him. It had depth and texture, two things that made resurrecting his older memories easier as the pure images faded from his perception. Plus, you could always add on to cloth, which…he stepped up to the nearest frame tapestry and watched it elongate, watched new threads appear and connect. He stared at the cluster that represented Cody and his friends, all in merry masks as they danced around a distant jewel. A planet far, far away. It was a good place for them, and Stephen was almost sorry they’d be coming back soon.
The brightest, most chaotic cluster in this particular piece of his mind was Garrett Helms, new threads drawn into his burr-like exterior, others being cut off or sloughed away. Garrett Helms was like a seed that tangled in the coat of an animal and was carried off by it, to make a new home in a distant land. Only he had many homes, and many threads. Stephen reached out and plucked one with his finger. For a moment the room melted away, replaced by the memory of his last conversation with Garrett.
“Hummingbird is already in place,” he said soothingly. “Wyl and Robbie won’t be alone.”
“We’re not going to have long,” Garrett repeated, his handsome face drawn and exhausted. “Not even the length of the trial, because Alexander is never going to take the chance of Kyle getting on the stand. No more than a few standard months, and the faster we move the more likely we are to make errors.”
“So we control for those errors,” Stephen replied, not changing his tone at all. He needed to be a bulwark for Garrett, a bastion of dependability in the wake of so much chaos and change. “We add people, we improve equipment, we innovate, we engage. We won’t be taken by surprise, Garrett. It’s going to be all right.”
“You sound like my dad,” Garrett said, but he was smiling now.
“Your father is a wise man, you should listen to him. Get some sleep. I’ll check in with my agents and give you an update in thirty-six hours.”
“I’m not going to sleep for that long.”
“I have a few things to attend to myself. None of us can go without care forever.”
Garrett chuckled wryly. “I guess not. Sleep well, then.”
“And you.” The call ended but even though Stephen was tired, he didn’t head for his bed, he headed for his…
“And here you are,” his companion said as Stephen stepped out of the memory back onto the temple floor. When Stephen looked at him again, this time he was a shorter, dark-haired man with light brown skin and a mischievous look on his face. “But you will take your own advice after this, won’t you?”
“It’s almost time for another visit to Regen,” Stephen said regrettably as he stepped around the tapestry and moved toward the back of the room. More threads were developing, expanding the tapestries that made up the Academy and his underground network of spies. He had a few new potentials in development that showed promise, glimmering like tiny golden beads. “I’ll have to get through that first.”
“I see. Everything is prepared to guide you through the reconciliation, isn’t it?” his companion asked as they ascended to the second level.
“It always is,” Stephen said absently. Ancient gods stared placidly at Stephen as he climbed the narrow stairs. The second level was a purely technical place, the cloth memories harder-edged. This level contained his hard-won skillsets, and Stephen wandered through them and watched the occasional new thread develop here or there. For the most part, though, this place was firmly established, less of a problem than any other level due to it’s static nature. Many of the tapestries had gone dark, shadowed over with age and obsolescence. Stephen tapped one thoughtfully, and a moment later he was…
“Woooohooooo!” The radio crackled with static, but a little disruption wasn’t enough to mask the thrill in Navi’s voice as the glider wings suddenly deployed, abruptly slowing their brutally fast descent toward the moon’s surface. Stephen felt his spine elongate, then snap back into place, and thanked whatever god was listening for painkillers as they leveled off several hundred meters over the icy face of the moon.
The glider wings glowed like platinum in the faint reflection of light coming from Jupiter’s surface. They were on the wrong side to get pure sunshine right now, faint as it was this far out, but the glider was a technological wonder when it came to solar power absorption. Stephen adjusted for their lift and pulled his instrument panel up on the face of his helmet. “We’re going to need to jog right in a few hundred meters, ice plume.”
“Got it.” Flying through the frozen drops of methane was like flying through a sea of stars, so much more immediate and disorienting than pure space travel. Stephen extended one thickly-gloved hand and watched the tiny droplets bounce off his fingers, and grinned to himself.
“Pretty fucking cool, huh Stevie?” Navi asked smugly.
“Yeah,” he breathed. “Yeah, pretty fucking cool.” He reached a little farther…
And stepped back onto the second level. He almost stumbled, disoriented by the sudden loss of acceleration, but his companion gripped his upper arm and steadied him. Now it was a woman, with kind almond-shaped eyes and grey hair piled high on her head. The voice was the same, though, a masculine baritone edged with warmth. “Shall we move on, my dear?”
“Is there really anything new to add up there?” Stephen asked a little bitterly, but he went. This time the stairs were lined with leering demon faces, fanged mouths gaping with glee as they plunged wrongdoers into torment. The third level was smaller, and packed with so many tapestries that it was all Stephen could do not to run into one as he slowly paced the length of the room, circling around and staring at all his emotional detritus. Many of these were dusty, and some even bore scorch marks, remnants of his less-sane times, when all he’d wanted to do was forget. Only a bare few threads wafted out from his mind, small and tentative, and Stephen ignored them in favor of approaching a long gray cloth that looked like it was draped over a box.
Stephen knew better, he did, but his mind had brought her to him, and it would be disrespectful not to face her now. He reached for the top of the cloth and pulled it back in a rush, and…
“You have to drink.”
Faying shook her head weakly. “I won’t.”
“This is ridiculous.” It felt like he’d been saying this forever, ever since he realized that she wasn’t going to do another round of Regen. “There’s no need for you to do this. There’s nothing wrong with prolonging your life! Why shouldn’t we take advantage of our own technology?”
It was about what had happened to him. Of course it was. “That was a one-off. A problem with the machine. They assured me it’ll be fine next time.”
Faying’s eyes welled with tears. “Oh, my dear. You asked me not to tell you before, but I have to now. I know I have to.”
Stephen felt his heart speed up. “Tell me what?”
“It wasn’t…wasn’t the first time.”
“What…” He shook his head. “What do you mean?”
Her breath rattled on a sigh. “It wasn’t the first time you’ve been subjected to Regen. It was the third, with me. The first time we did it together, and when you came out and you didn’t remember anything, I thought…” She paused to breathe. “I thought it had to be an accident. A terrible accident. You did another round right after, to try to fix things. It didn’t work.” Her hand tightened around his for a moment before she couldn’t maintain the pressure any longer. “You were worse. You couldn’t remember the simplest things, my darling. That’s when we moved out here. I taught you everything again, how to speak, how to read. You only remembered a few things, a few people, and none of them—” Her voice caught in her throat. “None of them were me.”
“No,” Stephen said, uncomprehendingly. “No, that’s not possible.”
“It is,” she wept. “It is. We swore it would be the last time, that we wouldn’t use Regen again. And then we aged, but not together. No matter what I did, I grew old faster than you. You knew how it bothered me, and you asked me to regenerate again with you, and I…” Faying squeezed her eyes shut around the tears. “And I did, for more time was all I wanted. But it happened again, and it will keep happening, and my darling…I can’t go through this again. I just can’t. I can’t watch you lose everything and everyone, and lose all memory of me. I just can’t.”
“That’s…how can that be possible?” He felt gutted. “Why don’t I remember this?”
Faying sighed. “We’ve been trying to figure that out for three lifetimes, my dear. I’m tired. Too tired for another one.”
“You didn’t speak my name,” she said sadly, staring at their clasped hands, hers spotted with age, his…not. “You only spoke his.”
She pressed her lips together and turned her face away. Stephen leaned over to ask again, to demand she tell him, to beg her not to die, but instead…
He fell onto the floor. The gray cloth lay crumpled in front of him, no box of truth beneath it, just emptiness. He stared at it but didn’t dare touch it again. He didn’t want to see her, to see the hurt in her wrinkled face, too many years of devotion and dedication to him, all subsumed by fatigue and a deep pain in the knowledge that she wasn’t the closest thing to his heart.
“Hey.” A new hand stroked over his head, cupping the back of his clammy neck. “You’re gonna be okay.”
Stephen forced himself to nod as he got to his feet. “I know.”
“You ready for the last level?”
He smiled mirthlessly. “I suppose. Although,” he added as he headed for the stairs, “I don’t know why I keep trying. It’s been so long, I don’t see how I’ll ever add something new to this room.” The walls of the stairwell were pure black, dark like the heart of a black hole, only it was Stephen’s own heart they were heading into. The closest thing he had to a representation of it, at least. The hand rested against his back, warm and supportive, and he wanted nothing more than to turn into it and look at the man it belonged to, but…it never worked. He never saw him, and when he tried to force it, his memory evaporated. He couldn’t make demands, he could only visit time and again and hope that someday, he would see the reality that time and technology had stolen from him.
Inside the room was…nothing. Emptiness, not even a dust bunny in the corner. But the walls echoed with words, words that fluttered through the nothing and made it feel welcoming. The air was filled with the voice that haunted Stephen’s dreams, that he’d programmed every machine he owned with, that belonged to the arms that wrapped around him now. Soft lips pressed gentle to the back of his neck and Stephen closed his eyes, then turned around into the embrace and laid his head against the shoulder of the man who held him.
“I don’t remember your name,” he said quietly. “I don’t remember your face or what we were to each other. But I know I must have loved you fiercely then, to love you so well now. And you must have loved me, because otherwise I wouldn’t want to keep you so badly.”
“I do,” the man said fervently. “I do love you, more than anything. More than everything, I promised you that. It’s still true.”
Stephen nodded, his throat tight with emotion. “I’ll be back soon.”
“I know you will.”
He kept his eyes closed during their kiss, a kiss so perfect he knew it could only be imagined, or perhaps it was the memory of the real thing polished by centuries of renewal and faith. At any rate, he didn’t want to go, but he knew he had to.
“I love you.” I love you, I love you, I love you… It echoed through the chamber until it surrounded him, the sound of his own love, his own heart, and when Stephen finally opened his eyes, he stared up at the ceiling of his bedroom in pure bewilderment for a moment, wondering why he was crying, before reality crashed back in.
“Admiral Liang?” Hermes asked politely in the voice of Stephen’s lover, and he made a noise somewhere between a sob and a laugh as he contemplated his own creative cruelty toward himself. “Are you well?”
“Yes, Hermes,” he said, sitting up out of the machine laid out on his bed and wiping off his face with the back of his hand. “I’m fine.”