Editor’s Note: All of Vague Visages’ short stories are free-to-read.
A fleet of rusting, spluttering cars pulls up outside the compound, from which clamber forty or so men dressed identically in salmon pink dress shirts, grey sweater vests, wayfarers, blue herringbone sport coats, navy plaid slacks and brown brogues; sporting the same neatly cropped beards and painstakingly styled hair. I feel conspicuously under-dressed in my plane-rumpled slacks and sweat-streaked polo shirt.
The gates of the compound slide open and the men walk in the same ostentatious gait, leading with their shoulders, through a shaded courtyard that leads to a broad flight of steps. What they lack in stature they make up for with agility. They climb the steps with a fleetness of foot that belies many of their advancing years — rumours abound among usually hard-nosed hacks that situated in the deepest recesses of the compound is a facility where the finest scientific minds of several overthrown military juntas have been set to work on discovering a means of retarding the ageing process.
I am trailing behind. Oppressive morning humidity and incipient jetlag make their presence felt with each laboured step. The pictures don’t do this place justice. I am wearing my lanyard to signify that I am here to observe, one of the many professional gawkers who have come to take in the intricacies of this daily ritual.
At the top of the steps they line up, according to some arcane system of rank, and wait at the doors of the temple. In unison, they emit a low, rhythmic humming that sounds like the imminent approach of a deadly swarm.
With great effort, the doors are opened by two muscular men, who perform a pat-down of each member before granting admittance — there have been imposters, with one narrowly averted assassination attempt; since when membership has been determined by the Council of Notables. I was pre-screened at the airport.
I am allowed to slip into the lobby, where collected with apparent disregard for classification is an array of recognisable paintings and objet d’art. I don’t get long to absorb its cramped splendour, as we are hurriedly diverted through a side door into a room where a shrine has been erected to the occupant of the temple; the man whose first name has been lost to time: The Most Venerable Akril One; Earthly Manifestation of National Destiny; latest in the murky lineage of the Hijhk bloodline.
The ceremony begins with the group — known as the Passel — performing cleaning duties on the objects of the shrine: gilt-framed pictures of The Most Venerable Akril One posing with world leaders and celebrities, performing His ceremonial duties and orating on the world stage; items encased in glass which have been discarded by the man who for thirty years has reigned uncontested over this tiny-but-resource-rich island; works of devotional art which “flow spontaneously” from the hearts and hands of a grateful citizenry.
A man wearing official regalia enters through a door on the far wall that didn’t appear to be there. The man stands on the lip of the dais and places his hands one over the other in front of him, mimicking patience as his presence filters through the room: he is short but his dark, caustic eyes, rigid posture and robust build exude their own kind of authority.
Everyone stops and the room falls silent. The man announces that The Most Venerable Akril One has woken from a sound sleep; and has produced a vigorous stream of urine and an impressively dimensioned stool, both of which will be on display in the Sterile Parlour. At this announcement, there is great jubilation from the Passel; they dance in tight circles and shriek with delight as they are hastened back into the lobby by temple guards.
When the commotion has receded, the man turns to me and tells me that I am to follow him. The door is in fact there, and opens onto a narrow flight of steps which descend into a sweet-smelling atrium; full of elaborate, highly polished glasswork, stopped clocks, lamps burning orange, banks of arched mirrors, gory frescos of battle scenes and stone runnels feeding water into a decorative fountain which cascades down the centre of the staircase.
Sitting in a vast expanse of red carpet is a man in salmon pink dress shirt, grey sweater vest, wayfarers, blue herringbone sport coat, navy plaid slacks and brown brogues; sporting a neatly cropped beard and painstakingly styled hair. His piercing almond-shaped eyes are set far apart. He doesn’t rise from his high chair, which is shaped like a dragon with dark wood tusks for arm rests. I immediately recognise the posture of languorous challenge.
My escort bows before the man in the chair as another man in official regalia appears with a plastic folding chair. The temple officials recede into darkness. I sit facing the man, who seems to be going through a well rehearsed set of physical rituals, all of which I am familiar with from the hours of footage I have pored over in preparation for this assignment.
I have heard all the rumours and I need to be sure. Now I am sure.
“You wished to ask me some questions,” the man in the chair says impatiently.
I pause for a second to check if I am about to do what I am about to do. I find I am.
“I came here to speak with The Most Venerable Akril One. Not one of his doubles.”
For a moment, I am unsure if my words have successfully completed their journey. It is only when the temple officials disrupt the delicate symmetry of the glowing circle in which we sit that I know long-discussed protocols are in motion.
The man in the chair is deposed with a volley of the native vernacular — usually prohibited within the walls of the temple — and a shove that sends him sinking into the carpet. He gets to his feet, shorn of the parasitic gravitas his robes briefly conferred, and slinks into the darkness that presses against the fringes of the room.
A gesture from my escort informs me that I am to follow him across the carpet to a thickly shadowed recess. He seems smaller, as does the room from this vantage.
“You are the first to pass the test. All the other interviewers have talked with a double.”
I had been told to expect tests.
“So, what’s the situation with Akril?”
He hesitates in the face of my abbreviation and smoothes the rumpled fabric of his uniform.
“The Most Venerable Akril One is currently resting,” he says with press-release precision.
“Are we talking illness?”
“Are we off the record?”
“Of course we aren’t.”
“The Most Venerable Akril One has devolved certain responsibilities to members of the Council of Notables and His retinue.”
“So I passed the test. What now?”
“We can allow you to speak with Him for a moment, but you cannot see Him.”
“I’ve been prepping for months. Wouldn’t you rather I did this story right? Do you really want to feed the rumours by sending me away with a story about doubles and tests. I’m ready for whatever the truth is. The world needs to know what’s happening here.”
Rousing speech delivered, I look at him and notice a distance creep across his face. It is a distance I recognise from my encounters with the distinguished butchers who attend to the whims of their sovereigns and contractors, the state of abstraction necessary to enact them.
“If I’m not on that plane, there’ll be an uproar. You have a choice how to handle this.”
He looks over his shoulder into the darkness, his uniform gradually absorbing him. Sickly green light floods the recess as he reaches back and pushes open a compartment in the wall. The compartment closes in a series of grinding lurches as he ascends a staircase.
“I have to speak with my superior. Take a seat,” he says over his shoulder.
There is a thud as the compartment slots back into place. The only sound now is the trickle of the waterfall. I walk back into the circle of light and sit in my chair. Faraway music filters through a crackling speaker above me — a lachrymose ballad sung by a hoarse, raucous chorus extolling The Most Venerable Akril One’s myriad attributes and accomplishments — and drifts away. I look at the multiple versions of myself in the mirrors.
A uniform materializes from the wall to my right, its buttons blazing through the blackness. Fanning from the thick collar is a flushed, flabby face framed by the regulation beard and haircut, nothing in his boyish frame betraying age and responsibility. Like all of Akril’s staff, he is abnormally short, but bears the uniform’s weight with grave determination.
His gaze is fixed on some point behind me, his face making calculations, hurried footsteps dulled. It is only as our shadows intermingle that his focus shifts to me. I stand to greet him, but he makes no attempt at an introduction. I pick up an odour of latex and lotion.
“Let me begin by making one thing clear,” he studies my lanyard and says my name in a manner which suggests it is a local epithet calling into question my mother’s rectitude. “The regime of The Most Venerable Akril One has never detained reporters or constrained journalistic expression in any way. If you take the time to examine our national press, you’ll find it is one of the most robust and varied on the continent.”
I begin to ask him his name, but he is already back in motion and I find myself following him into the blackness. We pass into punishing purple light, our shadows streaking up marble steps. The corridor is lit crimson, crammed with statuary, deformed lobby overspill whose pores appear to be bleeding. He turns and grips my shoulder. We are standing by a headless torso on a plinth. His face looks like raw meat. The air is clotted with a chemical tang that sends a pulse of revulsion to my temple and stomach. My perceptions seem to lag behind our movements. His speech is out of synch with his lips.
“Operation Perspective was implemented six months ago to deal with the effects of Project Locus. This all began after last year’s Continental Reconciliation Summit, when a reporter from your publication described The Most Venerable Akril One as looking, quote, bloated and panicked by the palpable hostility towards him, unquote. This article was kept from The Most Venerable Akril One, but our enemies began disseminating it among the People. Against the advice of His doctors, The Most Venerable Akril One subjected Himself to a series of secret experimental procedures conducted by His National Progress Laboratory. Various test subjects were found from among our interned adversaries. They responded favourably to the treatment. But The Most Venerable Akril One exposed Himself to excessive levels of sonic waves four times a day for hours at a time.”
I prepare myself for what I am about to see as he opens a groaning set of doors. The room has a heavily lacquered grandeur, orange light refracted from sinuous sconces onto its glossy surfaces. The tang of vigilant hygiene is fighting the stench of decay.
There is a railing running around the immense bed, giving it the look of a paddock. In the middle of the bed is a glass pedestal, on which is perched a stack of veins and lesions with the shading of a face. Its eyes are unfocused. Its nose recedes to a curved point. Tubes extend from lines of punctures in its puce flesh, which has the texture of putrefying fruit. A headset rests between its pained, cracked lips, at the edges of which are accretions of saliva. Its arms and legs cling like nodules to its body, which is roughly the size of a small dog.
I step back and bump into the uniform, who has positioned himself directly behind me.
“We’ve been sending a series of progressively shorter clones on public walkabouts to normalise His size. Height restrictions have been enforced in the temple. We needed to prepare the People. You have broken the story. Congratulations.”
A sheet of convex glass is placed in front of the pedestal, and He towers over us, an insect writhing under a microscope. The mouth initially appears superimposed, a guide for the eyes; the muscles around it tense and stretch to form the words.
“We are all able to leave the constraints of our bodies. It is simply a matter of knowing the route. The cell door is open, but the mind and body must be willing to leave.”
The cadence is unmistakable, though a few octaves higher and a little distorted by volume.
“We are merely energy. Our research indicates that we are close to reaching the stage where we will naturally produce the chemicals required to dictate the precise dimensions that energy takes, to affect molecular transcendence. It is a matter of finding the correct frequency.”
The Passel file silently into the Ceremonial Hall. The stage is ringed with sweet-smelling flowers and crests depicting frigates pumping shapely missiles into a star-strewn sky. A band is playing a dirge which lurches from one ponderous phrase to another.
The Passel rise and the band stop playing as the uniform enters stage-left to vociferous applause. The uniform announces that today marks a decisive shift in the national destiny; then signals for the band to strike up its Hijhk refrain.
The Passel applaud as the bed is wheeled cautiously through a parting in the plush red curtains and pushed slowly to the specially modified lectern, in front of which is placed the sheet of convex glass. A silk bed sheet is tied around His lower half, leaving exposed the nebulous mouth, dark-lidded eyes and oval crown.
There is a second’s hesitation from the Passel; a barely perceptible lapse in the tenor of the applause can be discerned by those listening closely enough. The speech is being broadcast to the crowds I’d watched pouring from the slanting expanse of shacks that cleave to the hillsides towards the enormous screen in Autonomy Square. The hum of fevered discussion from the square reaches the back of the hall, where I am standing locked in a posture of acute self-awareness. The Passel is signalled to sit.
The only sound in the hall for a moment is the faint buzz from the microphone. Then He commences to speak. He begins at a frenetic pace, barely a pause for breath, feedback bleeding each word into the next. But it quickly dissipates into a flurry of abortive clauses, throttled coughs and frantic gasps, until He is simply growling, gurgling and finally shrieking with each inward breath. Then He is silent.
When it is clear that the silence will not be broken, the Passel leap to its feet and applaud, and the roar from Autonomy Square sweeps over the hills.
As the bed is pushed through the curtains, I turn away and look out the window. A pure white cat is perched on the edge of a balcony, looking away from the compound towards the sea, seemingly oblivious to the clamour at its back.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.