The professor gazed ruefully out his study window at the skyline, bathed in the pale winter sunlight. Though it was only early in the afternoon, the light was already that of evening. The yellow city of N’hambarra looked surreal in the fading glow; as if it were only a fantasy, doomed to vanish with the coming of night.
The scholar closed the dust-covered tome of grim German philosophy that had absorbed his thoughts over the past four months. The esoteric words on its faded pages had wormed into his soul, and colored all his thoughts with shades of malignancy and doubt. He stood up from his feeble desk and crossed his apartment to the door, where hung his faded green trench coat. A walk, perhaps, may clear my mind, he thought. In Nature’s air, some comfort may I find.
The hinge squealed, and he exited his studio into the grey, depressing hall of the deserted complex. The smell of heated dust from the vents filled the corridor, and he hurried down the stairs and out the glass double doors into the open air.
He headed south, in the direction of the city. A chilly westward wind blew, and he turned up his collar against the cold. The bare branches of the maple trees lining the sidewalk creaked together in the gale. On the other side of the street, he heard the familiar sound of marching soldiers; their polished black boots smacking the concrete in unison. He stopped, and braced himself against the slap of the wind so he could look at them as they made their approach.
At a distance, they seemed inhuman in their sharp white dress uniforms, the black brims of their hats concealing their eyes. The shiny chrome plating on their parade rifles caught the faint December sunlight, each one flashing a brilliant spark of light from the brand-new barrels and receiver, as if foreshadowing the day when the men would discharge their weapons and send bullets soaring into the guts of some nameless enemy.
He watched the formation—a dozen men in all—as they proceeded down the sidewalk past an empty park. After waiting for a few minutes, listening as the tapping of their footsteps receded into the distance, he crossed the street and entered the park through the rusty iron gates.
The bronze plaque affixed to the crumbling brick wall proclaimed that it was named “Valhalla Park”—an impressive name that must have been given for irony’s sake. The tree limbs were bent and cracked; crumbled copies of old newspapers blew across the dormant lawns and the pungent stench of an electrical fire poisoned the air.
Partly to cover that smell, and partly to ease his nerves, he lit a cheap cigarette and took a long drag, the harsh smoke burning his recently-infected sinuses. Someday perhaps I’d die of cancer, he thought as he exhaled. But Life’s a question to which Death’s the only answer.
He followed the cracked walking path to the center of the park, past the crumbling statue of Charles Martel, and up to what had once been a duck pond. Now it was simply an empty pit, with grimy stones the only sign that there had once been water there. On these stones could be read a story of obsolescence: the dirt and algae stains showed how filthy the pond had been when filled, and the dark brown tint of rust—the same color as dried blood—accented the edges of the hole.
He sat down on a cement slab that passed for a bench and flicked the cigarette butt into a pile of rubbish paper and rags. With a sickly sigh, he looked up at the crisp sky. He thought of the soldiers—so proud, so impressive now; but what would they be after they saw conflict?
His gaze returned to the dreary view of the ground before him, and he now saw that the trash heap was not a trash heap, but the bedding and blankets of a wretched vagrant. The man had perhaps awakened when the cigarette hit him, but he gave no sign of anger or annoyance—he merely looked up at the scholar with the empty eyes of an addict, and then lay down again in the filth, and made no further motion.
From his coat pocket, the Professor took an old deck of playing cards. His addiction, once; when he was young. The cards were worn; some bent or ripped. They had stolen many an hour of his life, and he felt welling up inside him a sense of resentment towards these 52 pieces of soul-sucking diversion.
“Poker, Bridge, Napoleon and Royal Flush,” he said aloud. “And all for that damned false dopamine rush…”
He turned the cards over in his hand a few times, and then cast them into the former duck pond. They scattered in the wind as they exploded out of his hand, almost like the shattering of a carefully engineered sculpture. Each card fluttered down onto the ground, twisting in the wind as it did so.
He stood up, looked again at the homeless man lying on the ground, saw he had not moved, and then continued on down the cracked walking trail.
It was now dusk. He could see the spires of N’hambarra distantly looming beyond the brick wall. In the advancing clouds, the towers blended with the sky, vanishing into the blackness.
The air grew colder, and in the encroaching blackness, his eyes strained to see the path ahead. After all the reading, his vision had grown weak. In the old days, the lamps that lined the streets would have been lit, but the local government had declared this to be financially impossible.
So he walked into the cold and the dark; his only guiding light being the occasional glimmer of neon red propaganda signs, urging loyalty to the General and resolve in the War Effort. They shimmered and flickered in the misty gloom, lending them a sense of ethereal weirdness entirely unbefitting their calculated political nature.
He shook his head. Curs’d be this putrescent, decadent husk-city! That its Death should come so slow—therein lies the pity!
He lit another cigarette, inhaling again and soaking in the pain. He looked at the burning orange tip, glowing mesmerizingly in the darkness. This single point of fire pulsed and faded, pulsed and faded in the cold–like a burning heartbeat in a dying body.
He heard the sound of soldiers’ boots again—more clearly this time, in the quiet of the night. They were on the path behind him, but he did not turn around. He stood still, soaking in the smoke, the pain, the decay—he wanted to let all the ugliness wash over him at once; as if absorbing all the poison from the sickly atmosphere.
The crisp crack of the synchronized footfalls drew close.
“Move aside, civilian!” a harsh voice said.
But the professor moved neither left nor right, but simply turned, slowly and deliberately, towards the advancing squadron, and flicked his cigarette at their feet without a word.
Instantly, the footsteps halted, and; in unison, the men spread out. He could only perceive their white uniforms as ghostly shapes now, but his mind filled in the details. He heard the simultaneous metallic sound of twelve bolts being drawn back and of twelve cartridges being jammed into twelve clean chambers.
“Move aside! You’ll not be warned again!”
He did not move.
The silence was broken by the explosion from the rifles, the echo of the reports crackling off the surrounding walls. The shock to the eardrums so sharp that no one could have perceived the softer sound that followed, of a corpse collapsing to the ground; or the following metallic, almost musical, tinkling of twelve brass casings on the pavement.
The trace scent of cordite wafted into the park as the soldiers resumed their march.