FEAR OF THUNDER
The corgi ran as fast as I had ever seen one go before. The vibrant dog’s little legs carried it not only away from the frustrated girl pursuing him, but leaping into the arms of my familiar stranger. His smile showed through his dark beard as easily as he caught the runaway canine.
“Oh, good morning, furry one,” he said, scratching the panting dog behind its ears as he cradled it.
“Goldie!” a lithe brunette called to the dog, running several seconds behind in her chase. “You bad girl. I’m sorry. She never does this. I don’t know what could’ve gotten into her today. That storm must‘ve spooked her.”
“She says she is very sorry,” the overcoated gentleman said as he handed the girl her dog. “She couldn’t help herself.”
“Well…” the girl said, her attention drawn to the stranger’s rugged good looks and inviting smile even as she took the dog. “With such a charming advocate, I don’t see how I could stay mad at her.”
“I’m sure the two of you will be fine together,” he said. “You make a lovely couple.”
The girl blinked at him oddly as though attempting to clear her eyes. I could see the flush of emotions clearing from her, releasing their grip on her, even if he could not. Cocking her head to one side, she looked him up and down before taking Goldie’s leash firmly in hand and setting her back to the sidewalk.
“You have a fascinating accent,” the girl said. “You can’t be from around here.”
“You’re right,” he admitted. “I’ve just arrived in your beautiful city.”
“You must’ve managed to miss the storm,” she said. “Your coat isn’t even wet. If Goldie got it muddy, I can have it cleaned for you.”
“Nonsense,” he dismissed the notion with a wave of his walking stick. “That’s what a coat is for. Besides, it’s some sort of resistant fabric that more than weathers the elements.”
“Alright, then,” she said, trying to hide how uncomfortable she had suddenly become as she backed away from him, “you…enjoy your visit. Come on, Goldie.”
And that makes three. Look at him, pretending it isn’t bothering him. Look at him, pretending not to notice others looking at him oddly as they walk by. Very sad. Let’s see if we can’t put an end to this.
“Not doing so well with the ladies today?” I asked from behind my solitary stranger.
“What?” the bearded man said, turning to face me. “I’m not sure--”
“I really thought you had a shot with that one,” I told him. “The bit with the dog was clever.”
“Far from my most creative ploy,” the bearded man admitted, still not giving up on the power of his smile laden with charm.
“Come have a seat at that coffee shop with me,” I offered. “I can tell you what’s getting in your way.”
“You’re too kind,” he said. “How could I turn down such hospitality?”
In the upscale coffee shop, the two of us played at being the most appealing customers in the building. Still, the waitress would only speak to me.
“That’s it? Just black?” she asked. “Anything for your…friend?”
There are those readings again, I observed as information flashed across my ocular display. He wasn’t accustomed to being so off-putting.
“Tea with milk,” my guest said. “Goat’s milk if you have it.”
“Fascinated one second,” I said to my elder companion as the waitress left, “and repulsed the next.”
“Yes,” he said. “What is it you think is going on?”
“Makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it?” I asked. I used to do that to my students, responding to a question with a question. They found my efforts to stimulate their thinking to be more than a little irksome some days, but it was for their own good.
My bearded guest was silent, more confident in his knowledge as he studied his host in an attempt to penetrate my perplexing smile.
“You don’t have to answer,” I said. “I know it does. You’re not even sure which bothers you more: vulnerable girls not falling at your feet, not knowing why or that I might actually know while you don’t.”
“You think to toy with me, boy,” my mature-looking guest said, tightening his grip on his oak walking stick.
“Me? Heavens no,” I assured him. “I merely thought we could attempt an open exchange, a friendly chat.”
“Hidden in a game of riddles,” came the accusation. “You seem to think you know me somehow.”
“It has been a while, but I have seen you around here before,” I confessed. “You don’t appear to have aged a day.”
“I try not to,” he said, clearly proud of his image of middle-aged vibrancy. “Should I know you?”
“Oh, no,” I said, giving the waitress a smile and a nod as she set the cups on the table. “I’m no one you would have noticed. I dedicated myself to study and the collection of knowledge long ago. I’ve never cared much for attention.”
“You choose to lose yourself among the bustling billions,” the bearded man said, pausing to take a sip of his tea. “Who would’ve ever thought there’d come to be so many? Honestly, everyone starts to look alike to me.”
“Ironically, though,” I offered to him, “you stand out.”
He took another sip of his tea in silence.
“Once people notice you’re not from around here,” I explained to him, “inherent paranoia and the xenophobia we’ve been cultivating for years are easily able to blunt the effectiveness of your magnetic charms.”
“Indeed? I would not have thought my accent to be such liability.”
“Oh, no,” I said, laughing out loud. “It’s delightful, wherever it’s from. No, your problem is augmented reality.”
Again, the bearded man was silent, loathe to admit his ignorance. His eyes narrowed as his mouth formed a somber frown.
“It’s nothing to be angry about,” I told him. “Let me explain.”
“The meaning of reality?”
“No, that I’m sure you know,” I said with a chuckle. “For us, augmented reality lets us use our integrated technologies--some of it on us, some of it within us--to improve our communication with each other and enhance the ways we experience our environment. It gives us the ability to know more faster.”
“I don’t use anything like that.”
“No, of course you don’t,” I told him. “You’re what used to be called ‘off the grid’. People used to choose that as an option to disappear. Ironically, now it just makes you--”
“Noticed,” the bearded man said. “Who are you?”
“Me?” I asked, taking a sip of my black coffee. “I’m your worst nightmare.”
“Nonsense, boy, I’d know if you were my wife.”
We shared a boisterous laugh, my bearded companion even slapping the table.
“Oh, you’re funnier than I thought,” I said, wiping a tear from my eye, “but seriously…I am.”
“What?” the elder figure asked, beginning to lose his reserved demeanor. “Explain yourself.”
“I’m the future,” came the response. “I’m the inevitability you’ve feared for so very, very long.”
“Foolish boy,” the bearded man said, rage flashing in his eyes, “if you truly knew of what you spoke, your insolence would be beyond measure.”
“Once upon a time, perhaps, but times have changed,” I told him, calmly sipping at my coffee again. “You’ve been away and the future has filled the void. All the Guardian of Fate avoided by leaving on his own was being pushed aside.”
“So you do think you know something of merit,” the bearded fellow said, his angry tone echoed in the rumbling so near overhead that the building shook.
“And that prospect has always frightened you,” I accused him. “It’s what inspired you to strike the first blow in this, attempting to cripple humanity not from just pettiness, but in fear of being surpassed. Just as your fear drives you to dominate women, your fear of being forgotten has resulted in a litany of bastard children. Ironically, that fear also scared you and your brother away from siring a legendary child because of its prophesied success. Cowering from the potential of even an unborn child? Really? That doesn‘t sound just a little pathetic to you?”
“It sounds like an unsubstantiated rumor,” he rebutted. “You have the audacity to lecture me?”
“We dare much. I’m told we’re on the verge of achieving immortality,” I said, probably tipping more of my hand than I should have. “How can mastering lightning not be enough for you? How can you be the master of lightning yet be afraid of what follows?”
“Because you’re not to be trusted!” he snapped, his cane beginning to glow in his hand. “You’re the miserable products of the scheming Titan. You and your rampant billions spreading all over like a disease was obviously part of his plan.”
“Do you hear yourself when you say things like that? Did your tribe actually follow such zealous madness when you led them away? Is that how you convinced them all to step back from us?”
The bearded man calmed, chuckling at the memory. He reached for his tea and drank some more until his cane stopped glowing.
“No one had ever before negotiated anything like it,” he said, starting to stroke his thick beard. “The non-intervention treaty got most of us to leave and imposed strict limitations on any who chose to stay. Of course, that’s only a problem if you don’t know where to find the gaps that were hidden in the language.”
“But you did, of course, because you put them there,” I pointed out. “That’s how I saw you all those years ago. You come back like this sometimes. Or you send one of the others to undermine us. You’re hard to miss when you’re close, y’know. You reek of ozone, storm-bringer, just as your warring son stinks of blood and your brother of the salty seas when he shakes the ocean from its bed.”
“So you have indeed found yourself close to us.”
“Close enough to know you hate us because you fear us and that which we have the potential to become. You claim we’re nondescript nothings you can’t even tell apart yet you can’t stay away from us and just leave us in peace, especially our females.”
“Ah, the women…How like staring into the sun. With each return, though, we found your numbers growing. Like vermin, destroying your own environment, losing your minds.”
“We’ve strained our resources, true,” he admitted, “but with growth came increases in our knowledge and power.”
“There were too many of you to fully eradicate in any single stroke. We led you into wars that thinned your ranks, but brought you stronger technologies. We sent plagues to weaken you, but left strengthened survivors who found themselves with more food and land than before.”
“Abundance gave us freedom to explore and learn.”
“Bah! We claimed stars and their worlds,” he boasted.
“Oh? Which ones? We’ll drop in. Did I mention we’re on the verge of immortality?”
“I think we’re done here. Thank you for the tea and…the information.”
“Wait. You don’t want to be in a hurry to leave again. Haste makes you sloppy.”
“Sloppy?” the bearded man asked, suddenly stopping his move to depart. “What do you mean by that?”
“You left traces of yourselves behind that fostered the genesis of extremophiles among the animal kingdom. The common fragments of DNA helped me to recognize the remnants I might have missed otherwise. You remember what you left beneath Mount Etna, don’t you?”
“Etna?” the bearded man echoed, his eyes growing wide even as a bitter metallic taste danced across his tongue. “The siphoning cage for…You lie. You couldn’t have.”
“It took a lot of searching, but it was ultimately very educational,” I said, setting my cup on the table. “Amazing how even what little remained answered so many questions about physics and…well, you.”
I held out an open hand and, with a moment’s concentration, summoned my guest’s oak cane to fly to me. The elder man’s face betrayed him, showing first astonishment and then a grim rage.
“That affront shall be your last,” the bearded man said, his voice deepening as more thunder rumbled above and his eyes flashed with light. “This ends.”
He began to stand, his form expanding with a scintillating radiance that consumed his physical self. Within me, I heard his resounding voice announcing, Behold the revealed glory. The old stories say that really impressed once upon a time…
I had almost gotten to the point of thinking I was going to have to hit him to provoke him into it, but apparently seizing the Primal Bolt was enough. I wouldn’t be so crass as to say “the revealed glory” was a little limp. I would be more gracious than to speak ill of the dead. In our modern era, it was a sublime cascade of exotic particles and fundamental forces that showed what was behind the curtain and completed the education my integrated nanite symbiotes and I had begun with dearly departed Typhon. I found the remnants under Mount Etna, so I assumed it was Typhon, anyway. The old guy was still too arrogant to listen to all that, though. His loss. Ah, Zeus, you old…oops. There I go again. Mustn’t speak ill of the dead.
What little remained of the weak tea was poured onto the table in a symbolic gesture, for the departed. A moment’s concentration, just more than a whim, coupled with a controlled surge of energy to change the size and shape of my cup while simultaneously filling it with hot cocoa.
“Hmmmm…needs just a hint of cinnamon,” I said, blowing gently across the top before sipping from it again. “Mmmm…that’s the stuff.”
“Can I get you anything else, sir?” one of the waitresses asked dutifully.
“No, thanks,” I said with a smile.
“Is your friend coming back?”
“No, he had to leave unexpectedly,” I told her.
"Oh, but he left his cane," she noticed. "Won't he need it?"
"No," I said. “He left it with me and it’s time for me to take a little walk…and see what sort of a day the world needs.”