“No pets,” the taxi driver said. He was a younger man, this taxi driver, with short blonde hair and angry blue eyes. His words were as cold as the air-conditioning that he had turned on high and blasted into the backseat where Tanner and Odin sat with chattering teeth.
“It won’t be a problem,” Tanner insisted. “He’s a short-haired breed.”
“I’m not concerned about his hair,” the taxi driver stared at Tanner.
“Well, then it’s settled,” Tanner smiled at the man. “Drive.”
The driver looked like he wanted to say something more, but something stopped him. He couldn’t have said what it was, something in Tanner’s posture perhaps, something that reminded him of an authority figure from his past, maybe. The thoughts were still in his head, his objections remained, but he didn’t say anything more, merely muttered under his breath something that Tanner thought sounded a lot like, Lysol.
Beyond that, Tanner and the taxi driver reached an unspoken agreement: the taxi driver would try not to stare at Odin and Tanner would try not to imagine that the taxi driver’s inattentiveness would result in a horrible fiery crash. It was a tenuous agreement that neither seemed likely to keep.
Odin, on the other hand, was thrilled. He hadn’t been initially. He had looked upon Tanner with great suspicion when he had beckoned for him in the early morning light. Perhaps there was a lingering memory of the time Tanner had lured him to the vet’s office to have him fixed. It was only natural to have trust issues after such an episode, but as soon as the taxi had moved in a direction other than toward the vet’s, Odin’s attention and enthusiasm had spiked. His head darted in every direction, trying to catch as much detail as he could with his one remaining eye. And naturally, the sewn up socket started to pulse. The taxi driver must have noticed; it was the only thing that would account for the sudden acceleration and daring darting between cars. He was obviously not an animal lover.
Tanner wondered if Odin was recognizing any places from his week of freedom. Certainly the neighborhood hadn’t changed very much since Odin had gotten out. Would they come across the place where Odin had lost his eye, the fare the ferry man exacted for his adventure? If so, Odin didn’t seem particularly upset by the prospect.
The taxi driver pulled away as quickly as he could when Tanner and Odin exited the vehicle, refusing to accept Tanner’s money. Odin looked at Tanner expectantly as Tanner carried him into the building. The lobby was vacant except for a custodian walking down the hall with a mop. Tanner walked towards the express elevator and hoped he didn’t have to wait too long before Hugo came along.
He didn’t have to wait at all. As soon as he approached the elevator the door opened and there was Hugo in all his glory. Tanner gave him a half-hearted wave.
“Odin,” Tanner introduced the cat to Hugo and Hugo smiled, reached out his hands. Tanner handed over the cat to Hugo and was amazed at how small Odin looked in Hugo’s hands. Odin curled up in a ball against Hugo’s chest as Hugo held him securely but gently. “Well, Odin, it looks like you’ve made a new friend.”
Tanner stepped inside the elevator and the door closed. Hugo moved the handle forward and again it seemed like they weren’t moving at all. Tanner considered making an attempt at conversation with the giant, but didn’t want to interrupt the bonding moment between the man-giant and the ugly cat. He hoped that Hugo didn’t think that he was offering Odin as a gift.
He was about to comment on it, try to make the situation clear, when Hugo pulled back on the lever and the elevator doors opened. Hugo handed Odin back to him and gestured towards the door. Tanner supposed he should be happy that the matter was so easily settled, but couldn’t help but be a little bit disturbed that he seemed to have such little control or input on things.
He stepped out of the elevator and walked towards his office. Unlike the previous day, the lights were on and the empty cubicles were illuminated. There still wasn’t anyone working there, but if there had been they would have been able to see where they were going, which Tanner supposed was progress.
He walked past the cubicles and into his office, flipped on the lights. There was a bowl of cat food in the corner and an old fashioned scratching post. He set Odin down beside them and the cat immediately went to the food.
Tanner sat at his desk, noticed that the frame now had a picture of Tanner and the CEO shaking hands and beaming at the camera, which was strange to Tanner since he didn’t remember there being a cameraman or any beaming smiles. The pad of paper was yellow and rested atop his desk with another pen of the same make as the one he had taken home with him the night before. Apparently the supply of such pens wasn’t limited. Sitting beside the paper and pen was a brief letter from the CEO which instructed Tanner on how to proceed.
“Good Morning, Tanner,” the letter read. “Sorry I couldn’t be there to greet you but I have an urgent matter to clear up. I should be in by mid-morning. In the mean time I would like for you to get the orientation period begun for your new position. As such I need for you to fill at least ten pages in the yellow pad with an essay on the following subject: The Arthurian Legend, particularly how it pertains to the Grail search. Try to sketch a basic background and then speculate on how such a search would best be undertaken in a present day scenario. If you need more than ten pages, that’s fine.”
Tanner scratched his head and told himself that this assignment was not ridiculous, or at least not out of the common way of ridiculous for a company that valued how potential employees felt about vegetables. Odin rubbed himself against Tanner’s leg and started to purr. Tanner scratched his head and Odin mewed appreciably, then jumped up in Tanner’s lap and settled down, apparently deeply contented. Tanner continued to absent-mindedly pet his cat with his left hand while he went about completing the assignment the CEO had given him.
The first thing that he considered was what he knew about the Arthurian legend, which wasn’t all that much. He knew the high points, the major motifs. Camelot. Might does not make right. Excalibur. The Round Table. The search for the Holy Grail, the chalice that supposedly held the blood of Jesus Christ, if you believed in that sort of thing. And Tanner knew some names: Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, Mordred, Galahad, Morgan Le Fay. But he certainly was not an expert. The CEO must have known this before he assigned Tanner the task. Tanner concluded that the CEO must be looking for something Tanner would provide that an expert would not. He thought back on the previous day’s conversation with the CEO and considered everything said. The CEO had liked Tanner’s audacity and style. Those must be the key and so Tanner decided that something more unconventional was called for. He wrote out the first line and read it:
It is unlikely that the Arthurian Legend as it is known today accurately represents the actual events that took place.
That seemed a good start to Tanner. Now all he needed was ten more pages of it. He didn’t think it would be very hard to do.
While many truths have passed down the centuries unaltered, some truths have been reshaped and others lost altogether. Not the least of the altered truths centers on the search for the cup modern scholars and laymen alike call the Holy Grail.
There, that had a nice ring to it, Tanner decided. By the increased volume of his purring it seemed that Odin agreed. Tanner was warming to the prospect of the task ahead. After all, who didn’t like the idea of telling an interesting story? Sure, the Arthurian Legend was pretty well trod-upon ground for story-telling, but it was the CEO who had decided the topic.
Time passed and Tanner wrote, pouring thought directly from mind to page, weaving bits of information he knew from the Arthurian Legend into a tapestry of deceit, shame and misinformation. He let the ideas flow through him unfiltered. Good or bad, he let the ideas go directly to the page. If some of it seemed far-fetched, well that seemed in keeping with the entire idea of writing about the Arthurian Legend at all.
Soon he was transitioning to the second aspect of the assignment, where he detailed how a modern day search for the Grail should be pursued. A smile crossed his face. If the CEO wanted audacious, Tanner would give him audacious. He would make himself the focal point of this search. He would make himself the key player in the events that would have to proceed in such a search. It seemed perfect to Tanner, but he wanted also to be gracious. He would make sure the CEO would have a large role to play in this fantasy as well, one that would stroke the CEO’s ego.
Tanner could not have stopped writing if he had wanted to, and he didn’t want to. He wanted to write it all down quickly, completely. By the time the CEO arrived he had written over twenty pages and he felt that he had much further to go.
“Good morning, Tanner, Odin,” the CEO chirped as he arrived in the office. Odin raised his head lazily to look at the person calling his name, but wasn’t very interested in leaving his comfortable location on Tanner’s lap. “How’s the assignment going?”
“See for yourself,” Tanner said and slid the pad of paper across the desk to the CEO. There was something different about the CEO. But Tanner couldn’t figure out what it was.
The CEO sat down and crossed his legs, started reading from the yellow pad. He gave a small smile when he read the first line and then read in silence. He did not take a break or make comment until he reached the end. While he was reading Tanner began to regret his earlier audacity. It was all well and good to have such a thought, quite another to apply it to the workplace, particularly with the CEO, particularly on his first day in a new, rather vague position. When he had finished reading the CEO looked up at Tanner. Tanner expected a comment of some sort about the border between audacity and insubordination.
Instead he received the following comment: “You don’t indicate the best manner to identify, approach and recruit prospective members of your team. Have you considered it?”
Tanner was taken aback. The CEO was responding as if what he had just read wasn’t fictional whimsy, but an accurate report. Tanner guessed it might be role playing; he had once attended some training which suggested role playing was helpful in the brainstorming process, so Tanner played along.
“Well, isn’t it obvious?” He asked. “I would simply use my ability to write the truth. It should provide me with all the insight I need.”
That gave the CEO pause.
“You know,” he said in a whimsical voice. “I hadn’t thought about that. Why didn’t I think about that?”
Tanner couldn’t take it any more.
“Because it’s silly?” he replied.
The CEO laughed a loud raucous laugh. He was laughing so hard he was shaking. Again Tanner was struck that something was different before. As the tears came out of the CEO’s eyes because he was laughing so hard it occurred to Tanner what it was that had changed.
“You’re taller than you were yesterday,” Tanner said softly. “Aren’t you?”
The CEO stopped laughing, wiped the tears from his eyes and nodded. He put down the pad and slid it back to Tanner. He pointed at it, his eyes growing suddenly cold and serious.
“Every word of that is true,” he said.
“Bullshit,” Tanner replied.
“No, not bullshit,” the CEO insisted. “Every word. You are the key to this, Tanner. And I should know. I’m Merlin.”
He bent over and produced an attaché. He opened it and pulled out a stapled report. He handed the report to Tanner. Tanner looked at it.
“It’s your job title, job expectation, et cetera,” the CEO told him. “The whole nine yards. Compare your job title to the one you assigned yourself.”
Tanner did just that. Amazingly the two matched. His job title was “The Author of Truths.” Tanner didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t sure what he believed. Odin mewed. The cat was upset that Tanner had stopped petting him. It was nice to know that someone in the room was behaving in a normal, rational manner.
“You may recall I told you yesterday you’d have a hard time believing what I had to tell you,” the CEO said in a reassuring tone of voice. “And I meant it. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. If you can allow yourself to believe that, everything will get a lot easier.”
Tanner considered what he had written in this light rather than as an amusing fiction. He put the job information to his left and his own writing on the right. It seemed unlikely to Tanner that the CEO would be able to guess what he had written. But he wasn’t ready to cede that the source of that knowledge was mystical powers just yet. There were other possibilities to explore. He turned around and started looking for video cameras. He couldn’t see any, but that didn’t mean much. They were miniaturizing things so efficiently nowadays.
“Can I ask you a question, Tanner?” the CEO asked and Tanner nodded. “Do you have a dream where you fall?”
“Yes,” Tanner replied. “Doesn’t every one?”
“Maybe,” the CEO allowed Tanner a smile. “But not everyone is dressed in full plate armor and falling into a castle moat.”
That gave Tanner pause. That was not on the pad of paper. That was not something he had ever spoken of aloud, not as a child, not as an adult. There was no way anyone should be able to know that.
“How do you know about that?” Tanner asked.
“Hugo told me,” the CEO shrugged. “I imagine you had a similar experience when you shook his hand, only in reverse. You saw a stable. Isn’t that true, Tanner? Isn’t that why you were so reluctant to shake mine? Weren’t you afraid of a recurrence?”
Tanner took a closer look at the job description. At least the CEO was being consistent with his story. The first job requirement listed (as a full 50% of the expectation of the job) was to fight for the side of Good against Evil, complete with a capital ‘G’ for good and capital ‘E’ for evil. The second requirement listed (20%) required the candidate to head a team of skilled individuals in the procurement of talent for the side of Good. The third requirement (again 20%) was to lead this team in finding materials and resources to assist in the battle between Good and Evil. The final requirement (10%) was the ubiquitous other duties as assigned. It was as if the job description had been written by the Human Resource Department by way of some fantasy author. Tanner flipped the page and continued reading.
The second page gave a listing of the topics to be covered during the orientation period. It started with the topic, “Introduction,” in which the new hire should be introduced to the truth in their own handwriting.
“This is serious?” Tanner asked.
The CEO nodded.
The CEO nodded again.
“I suppose you mean by performing a magic trick.”
“It might be persuasive. It would be a good start.”
The CEO rose from the desk and walked around it. He gently picked Odin up from off of Tanner’s lap and held him snuggly against his body. Odin didn’t complain. One source of warmth and support was much like another to him.
“You like your cat?” the CEO asked.
“If I didn’t I wouldn’t feed him,” Tanner replied evenly, suspicious that the CEO was making a veiled threat.
“Yes,” the CEO replied, if he noticed the testiness in Tanner’s voice he didn’t comment on it. “Marvelous creatures. I’m a fan myself. But I can’t have cats. They are sensitive creatures, cats. Let me tell you about magic, Tanner.
“Magic isn’t an act you leap into, Tanner. There are consequences; there are rules. Magic is an unnatural act and nature compensates for the intrusion in strange and unpredictable ways. I could demonstrate magic for you and if the act was small enough you may not even notice the world resettling the natural order. But if I were to perform a large enough act, well, printers might spew ink, copiers may be led to believe they are dogs and fax machines might find religion. Until the balance is restored.
“But even if there were no consequences, it is a tricky thing. Any time one sorcerer practices their craft all the other sorcerers are aware of it. They can sense it. They can’t tell the particulars, but they can tell that nature has resettled, and the depth of the effort it took to resettle. It’s a system of checks and balances. And there are physical manifestations on the user as well. You noticed I’m taller today. That’s because I’ve recovered from yesterday’s exertions.”
“Sounds like a long-winded excuse to me,” Tanner said.
“Fine,” the CEO replied and let Odin down on the floor. “Why don’t you explore the floor, little buddy.”
Odin mewed and then ran out of the office. The CEO closed the door gently. He returned to the desk and sat down, placed his hand on the job description.
“Now,” he said to Tanner, “don’t blink.”
And then with a soft whistling sound and just the hint of a draught the words moved on the paper. It happened so quickly it would have been easy for Tanner to have convinced himself it hadn’t, but he did not deny it. There was now a new requirement listed above other duties assigned (1%) indicating that the position required belief that their supervisor could perform magic.
“That’s not too bad,” the CEO said and indicated the pad of paper which had changed from yellow to white. Tanner’s words atop the pad remained unchanged, but the paper was now a bright, uncanny white. “No barking copy machines.”
“And the other sorcerers know that you’ve done something right now,” Tanner found himself saying and the CEO—Merlin?—nodded. “How many others are there?”
“You tell me,” the CEO replied, indicating the pen.
Tanner picked up the pen and somehow it felt heavier than before. It took courage to put the pen to paper. He wondered if writing anything would ever feel the same again. But he did put the pen to paper and he wrote down the number ‘two.’ The CEO looked down at the paper and smiled.
“So he is still around,” he said in a soft voice. “I’ve often wondered of late. That’s interesting.”
“You know them both?”
“We’re well acquainted,” the CEO answered and stood up, opened the door. “You can come back in, Odin.” Silence. “Odin? He seems to have wandered off.”
“I’ll probably find him at Ms. Bond’s apartment,” Tanner said in a small voice. “I think she gives him catnip.”
“I’m sure she does,” the CEO said sympathetically. “Do you need a minute here, or can we move on? We have a lot of ground to cover.”
Tanner took a deep breath and thought to himself that he considered vegetables a vital part of any healthy diet. Most people don’t get enough vegetables, though they can be as delicious as any other food group. Tanner thought to himself that he might need a moment, might need several moments. He took a long look at the pad of paper. There was no mistaking it; the color had changed and the CEO hadn’t touched it. It just didn’t seem possible that it was just a chemical reaction, a ruse.
“You magically made the paper change color,” he said slowly.
“Technically I changed your job description,” the CEO corrected Tanner. “The color change of your notepad was a benign byproduct.”
Tanner understood that there was a distinction but didn’t think it was very important. He took a good long hard look at the CEO.
“You don’t look any smaller,” he said.
“It wasn’t much magic,” the CEO answered.
This meant that whatever he had done yesterday was much stronger. Tanner wondered what magic the CEO had done the day before. He thought about asking, but somehow couldn’t bring himself to do it. He had thought yesterday had been out of the common way. He would need to redefine what he considered common. He would have to start now.
“How much does the job pay?” Tanner asked.
“Ah, pragmatism,” the CEO replied. “Turn to the last page of the report and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”
Tanner did as he was instructed and saw a fat six figure salary there. That was eye opening.
“So, what do you say,” The CEO asked Tanner. “Are you on board?”
Tanner supposed that some people saw the answers to life’s questions with incredible clarity, that people all around the world could be asked a question and the answer would leap to mind and seem to be so true that it didn’t even merit discussion. He had never had that kind of clarity. Every choice was an agony of ambiguity, a battle against the charging waves of consequence and possibility. This question was an exemplar of this for Tanner. It brimmed with consequence and possibility and adventure. But was Tanner the adventurous sort?
“I suppose,” he replied.
“Excellent,” the CEO exclaimed, rising from his chair. “We’ll work on the enthusiasm later.”
Then the true orientation began. The CEO—Tanner couldn’t bring himself to call him Merlin—outlined the basics for Tanner. The empty desks Tanner had walked past outside his office would be filled, but not all at once, stealthily. For this was a war—the CEO’s word—that would be won by stealth. Tanner, the Author of Truths, was to be their master of stealth. It was Tanner who would be responsible for locating the new employees and moving them into the company. But these employees wouldn’t just be anyone; that would be far too mundane. They would be special.
“You’re pulling my leg,” Tanner said, exasperated.
“You get one day of saying that ad nauseum,” the CEO replied. “I’m serious. I need you to at least pretend to believe some of the things I tell you if you are going to be my right hand man in this.”
“Fine, fine,” Tanner replied. “You were talking about reincarnation.”
“Of course I was talking about reincarnation,” the CEO said, affronted. “I’m not senile. My thoughts are entirely cogent. Every member of the court of Camelot drank from the chalice at one time or another, just as you did when you were initiated into the Round Table. And anyone who drank from the chalice is out there right now, somewhere.”
“And they each have magical powers,” Tanner replied.
“No,” the CEO insisted. “They each have abilities like yours. It’s different from magic. Think of it as being encoded in your DNA if you will. Your abilities, though unusual in the extreme, exist within the natural world. As such you can use your abilities without being detected by sorcerers. So you can write everything you want and the other side will be none the wiser.”
“So I have an ability because I drank from the Grail,” Tanner said, recalling the offered cup of wine from his dream.
“No, you have an ability because you drank from the chalice,” the CEO corrected him. “The chalice is not the Grail. That was the great lie of Camelot. Everyone believed it was the Grail. They believed drinking from the chalice would grant them immortal life, the gift everyone knows the Grail bestows. Which was why everyone was so upset when they started to die. They chased around the countryside looking for the bowl, having not a chance of finding it. The chalice was a shadow magical object, not one of the three true magical objects that existed in recorded history.”
“And they were?”
“You’ve heard of them,” the CEO insisted. “They’re very popular among students of the Judeo-Christian belief. They call them: The Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail and the Spear of Destiny. I call them: the drum, the bowl and the sword. But it doesn’t matter, we’re both talking about the same things. Of the three, only the bowl remains. The drum was destroyed long ago. The sword was thrown into a lake by some idiot who listened to a king who was near crazed with injuries and is believed lost. The bowl, well the bowl is out there.”
“Where?” Tanner asked.
“That’s the question we must answer,” the CEO replied.
“Fine,” Tanner said, grabbing the pen firmly in his hand and put it to paper. He let his mind go blank and wrote on instinct rather than thought. It didn’t take him long to finish. He stared down at the page, eager to see what he had written.
The Grail is behind the veil.
“Well,” the CEO commiserated, “it was worth a shot.”
Tanner read the words again. The Grail is behind the veil. Cryptic words. Meaningless words.
“Is it a riddle?” he asked the CEO.
“No,” the CEO shrugged. “Magical objects can’t be revealed by magical means. And I guess your ability qualifies. It was a good idea; don’t hesitate to use it for other things.”
Tanner liked to think that he dealt with the situation in a positive manner. Not much in life prepares a person to have every assumption that they have ever had about how the world work obliterated in a two-day period. Tanner didn’t glower, didn’t become intractable. He listened and he asked questions.
They discussed many things and Tanner tried to keep his interjections of disbelief to a minimum. He thought he improved as time went on at curtailing his knee-jerk reactions. The CEO didn’t make it easy. He had clearly decided there was little point in Tanner making a delicate transition from a world of rational explanations to this new world of the irrational and supernatural. Tanner supposed the CEO didn’t believe there was enough time to belabor the issue. And so it was deliberately but briskly that the CEO cleared up many of the popular misconceptions of the Arthurian Legend. Many of these misconceptions Tanner had touched upon in his assignment, but the CEO went into greater depth than Tanner ever would have, and with a passion that can only come from one who has experienced the events for himself.
Mixed in the discussion were small amounts of theology and more than a little bit of the irreverent. The CEO had no religious affiliation to speak of and limited patience for the religious dogma of others, particularly when it interfered with his personal aims. His aims were high and included the freeing of Arthur from his prison in Avalon and the retrieval of the Grail—the CEO refused to call it ‘Holy,’ preferred referring to it as ‘the bowl’—all as part of some grand master plan that he took great pains to reveal in only the broadest, most oblique fashion in his discussion with Tanner.
What became apparent to Tanner was the depth of planning that went behind that master plan. This company had existed for centuries, had been built up piece by piece over the span of decades, hiring a great many Gene Bergmans and Becky Millers along the way, to its ultimate goal of being large enough and flexible enough to aid the CEO at this time and place to achieve his end game. This was not the work of an impulsive man, but of a man who had a long view, a very long view. It was a perspective that was beyond Tanner’s, beyond anyone Tanner had ever known. What must it be like to know that you can plan for centuries rather than decades? How insignificant it must render short term difficulties. It amazed Tanner.
“We can still find the bowl,” the CEO continued. “There are methods of tracking it. First, we know it’s here, in America, because that’s where the souls of Camelot are returning, you, Hugo, everyone who ever drank from the chalice. They’re all here. The bowl draws them like moths to flame. You’ll forgive me for your role in the analogy, I mean nothing by it.”
“I wonder if she’s out there,” Tanner asked himself.
“No,” Tanner replied. “In my dream, there’s a girl. I can’t see her face. But I sense she’s beautiful.”
“And it wasn’t Guinevere? She and Arthur would have imbibed from the chalice as well; it was part of the initiation ceremony.”
“No, I saw a king and queen, too,” Tanner recalled. “And they didn’t have any faces. Could you tell me who the other one was?”
“I was not the chair of the Camelot social committee, Tanner,” the CEO replied. His voice was patient, but there was something in his eyes that told Tanner that he considered this conversation a waste of time and that he was only pursuing it to humor Tanner’s interest. “There were a great many ladies; they came and went faster than the seasons.
“But, I can reassure you on one score: if you can’t see her face, then she’s out there,” the CEO continued. “The inability to see someone’s face in the death dream is a sign that they drank from the chalice on the same day you did. Why can’t you see her face? I don’t know. Does it mean that her face is your face, that you are somehow connected? It’s impossible to know, and not a particularly rewarding topic of speculation.
“I’m sure she was lovely,” the CEO went on. “But it was a long time ago, Tanner. Chances are she’s come back many times, had many lives and many loves. Does she even remember you? I couldn’t say for sure. Think of it from her perspective. You were a young knight arrayed in shining armor and no doubt she was attracted. But you died. It was a fleeting moment in time, less than a day. Young hearts are easily won. It’s as true now as it was then. There’s a very real possibility that she means more to you, even as just a memory in your death dream, then you ever did to her.”
Tanner’s face must have betrayed a hint of disappointment and the CEO changed his tone quickly to mollify his previous words.
“If a reunion is fated,” the CEO said, his tone one of someone who wants to appear sincere rather than someone who was truly in earnest, “then I’m sure you’ll meet again. Everyone will be drawn to this conflict. It is known. Just as it was known that you would come and manifest your particular talent.”
That was a phrase the CEO used a lot, it was known. It had also been a phrase for which he had offered no explanation. Tanner had let it slide by earlier in the day, had trusted that a man who apparently had lived centuries would have many means of gathering intelligence and perhaps a greater need for condensing all that knowledge from multiple sources into a single category of it was known. But he felt an explanation was owed to him.
“How is it known?”
The CEO was taken aback. It was clear that the man was weighing his options, trying to determine if it was wise to trust everything to Tanner.
“You’re familiar with the concept of prophets,” the CEO said. “People who have visions and see signs, and then tell people how they should live their lives. Well, a lot of them are charlatans, frankly. But some of them are not. They don’t know it, but they’ve happened upon the greatest power in nature. I have to make something clear, Tanner. This is not for public consumption. If I tell you about this, you have to swear to me that you will not tell other people. I mean it; this is a deal breaker.”
Tanner took out the pen and put it to paper. This was a true act of faith on his part. He believed in himself, though, believed that when he made a commitment he would keep it, and so he believed that he could write the words the CEO needed to read, the words the CEO would trust.
I will never betray your trust.
It seemed as if a great weight was lifted off of the CEO’s shoulders. His smile was genuine and magnetic. Tanner found himself smiling as well. It felt like a contract had been written, approved, signed and celebrated. But there was only silence. The CEO tore the paper from the pad and lit it with his lighter, an ornate silver mechanism with the letter “M” engraved on it in an ostentatious manner.
“If I had any doubts,” the CEO began and then produced an ash tray from his attaché and set the flaming promise down. “If I had any doubts. Thank you, Tanner. Thank you. You delight me.
“The greatest secret of the natural world is that there aren’t any secrets in the natural world. Everything is out there if you know how to read it. We call it the Language of All. It’s the language of nature. Some have suggested it’s the language of God. Certainly it’s the language that some prophets have glimpsed, more instinctively than out of study. I’ve lived for millennia and I have made it my life study. The other sorcerers can read it as well, though neither as well as I. It is incredibly nuanced. It is a gentle breeze, the grasping of a lover’s hand, the scent of mulberry on the wind. It is the silence of death and the singing of life. It is the coming together of all things.
“It is love, it is hate. It is life, it is death. It is interaction and isolation. I know, I know. This sounds more like poetry than reality. That isn’t a bad way to think about it. It is everywhere. It’s even here in this room.”
“What’s here in this room?” Tanner asked.
“Oh, nothing interesting,” the CEO assured him. “The last time I checked this room told the tale of a family of beavers in Appalachia around the turn of the 20th century. I’m sure it would be fascinating for those whose passion is the study of beavers, but it is dreadfully dull to most.”
“Oh,” Tanner commented, unable to keep the disappointment and suspicion out of his voice. “Is that all?”
“There have been, will be and are many stories in the world and they are all told in the Language of All,” The CEO said evenly. “From the story of great kings on quests to find powerful objects to the smallest concern of a beaver family, every tale is told.”
“I see,” Tanner said, though he wasn’t sure he did.
“Think of it like opening a random book in a library. It has information, but not necessarily the information you are looking for. And some books aren’t there at all.”
The CEO leaned across the desk, took Tanner’s hands in his own, and grasped them tightly.
“We’re at a strange time, a vital time, Tanner. The Language of All tells us that this conflict will occur, but it doesn’t tell us who wins or what happens after. This is a nexus of history, perhaps of time itself, Tanner. What we do now determines whether we have a future at all. This is so. It’s only fair you know. The other side knows this, too. They know you exist, though they don’t know your identity. I’ve done what I can to protect you, Tanner, to shield your identity. It hasn’t been easy. Morgan can read the Language of All herself.
“No doubt you are thinking back on the men outside the bar. We can be fairly certain they were agents for Morgan. But they will not be looking for you, at least not yet. I was able to take advantage of some ambiguity in the translation regarding you, enough so to guarantee us some leeway.
“Morgan is skilled, but she has difficulties with the fine details of the Language of All. She knows the broad strokes; she can see the bigger picture. I was able to make two small misleading interpretations, one that will confuse her for a time. She believed you would come to work for her at ESBI, Corp. Obviously when yesterday came and you were nowhere to be found she began to suspect she had been fooled. So she has begun looking for you, but that will take time. She’ll be cautious. She knows that I have taken measures to obscure you. I apologize to you in advance for not telling you those measures, but it is for your protection.
“They’ll know you as soon as they touch you, though. They know your role is to be filled by a person they refer to as the Anonymous Knight. They call him this because he was the knight who died on the night of his initiation, who was omitted entirely from any mythos of Camelot—well, who can blame us on that score?—whose name has been stricken from the record, beyond the recall of all but a few. So when you exchange your death dream with another reincarnate, they will know you by the manner of your death. This cannot be helped, it can only be avoided.”
Finally the CEO paused. There was a quiet tightness in the room. It added even another reason for Tanner to feel uneasy about his exchange with Hugo in the elevator. Tanner felt strangely exposed. How can you go around fearing to shake a stranger’s hand? Wouldn’t such avoidance be seen as nearly a confirmation of his status to someone on the other side? Tanner needed time to sort through these ideas, to order this new material into a way he could put his hands around it. It was too new and too alien now. He needed a break. It was the early afternoon.
“I think that’s enough for today,” the CEO spoke, apparently sensing Tanner’s condition. “We’ll start in earnest tomorrow. Keep a couple of things in mind. Keep physical contact to a minimum. Try not to write anything down, but if you do you should probably shred it, but don’t be too obvious about it.”
Tanner nodded his understanding, which was a bit bold of him as he wasn’t sure he truly understood. He supposed he was finally in a place where he was prepared to take it on faith. The CEO rose and headed towards the door.
“May I ask one last question?” Tanner inquired and the CEO nodded. “Why did you want me to bring Odin?”
“Well, Tanner,” the CEO replied after giving the matter some thought, “I wasn’t sure what it would take to convince you. I thought I might have to offer you up a ponderable.”
“Yes,” the CEO nodded sagely. “I was going to ask you why it was you named your cat Odin before he lost an eye. Think about it.”
There was a scratching at the door. The CEO opened the door and Odin ran in, blissfully unaware that anything of significance happened in his absence. Tanner’s attention was drawn to the stitched together eye-lids. It wasn’t pulsing, but it still drew his attention. The CEO was right. He had named the cat before Odin lost the eye. Why was that? Tanner tried to remember, but it escaped him.
“Well,” the CEO said, exiting. “Don’t spend too much time worrying about it. Get some sleep tonight and tomorrow we’ll get started. I have a good feeling about this, Tanner. I really think we’re beginning something extraordinary. I hope you can feel that, too. Good night.”
The CEO left Tanner alone in the office with only his thoughts and his cat. His cat for his part was staring at the scratching post as if trying to discover its purpose. Odin was a strange cat, but Tanner had confidence that he would figure out what he was supposed to do. He wished he had the same confidence in himself. For the first time in his life, Tanner felt completely out of his depth. There had been times when he had wondered what he should do, which direction he should go. That level of uncertainty would have been fine. But never before had he chosen a direction and been completely insecure in his ability to carry out the task. Perhaps it was because all his tasks had been so small in the past and his own abilities in comparison so large.
Now the opposite was true. Reincarnation. Magic. Six-figure salary. It all seemed unreal to him. But he supposed he would muddle his way through.
Tanner collected his cat and headed home.