On A Clear Day, You Can See Forever...


by Charlie Ball and Paul Cocker






Alex began his day like most others. He woke up and got out of bed. It took a few moments to register that dawn hadn't quite caught up with him, and glancing at the clock by his bed was enough to explain why. It read 1:30 - a.m.

"Still on London time," he said through a stifled yawn.

He thought briefly about going back to bed but discarded the idea. He'd gone straight to bed after his unexpected - and unconventional - meeting with Carl Terrance, a man also known to very few as Tween. That was well over twelve hours ago. He stared at the night sky through the windows. The Monolith eclipsed a section of the moon, and every so often a glimmer of lights played along the surface of the massive space-fortress. The sight made him immediately think of the Protectorate, made him think of Ireland, and Alex paused. Events drove one to reflection and there had rarely been so much going on.

Alex violently massaged his face, hoping that the action would not only wake him up but also somehow clear his mind. He than ran his fingers through his mussed up hair. Without a second thought, he headed toward the bathroom for a shower.

As he dried off, he caught his reflection in the mirror. A noticeable, diamond-shaped scar marked his chest like some albino tattoo. Alex had always been a little on the pale side, but that was due more to climate than genetics. Still, the marking seemed almost an ashen white compared to his natural complexion, and it was perfectly mirrored by another on his back. Even though the Englishman had since healed from the wounds, the scars acted as a stark reminder, a testament, to his gallant heroism.

These scars were the entry and exit points from the lightning bolt that Avatar had used to kill him. He had vague memories of that moment, a mixture of desperation, triumph and relief, as he tried and succeeded in pushing Sarah out of harm's way. Then there was pain. Avatar's divine wrath had manifested as a storm-charged spear with which Alex had been impaled... and effectively nailed to the ground.

Alex put on some loose-fitting sweats and headed downstairs. As he entered the main room, something seemed different to him, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Nothing seemed out of place, though, and he couldn't hear anyone beside himself moving about. Shrugging, Alex went into his studio.

He picked up a guitar and started playing. He experimented with a few tunes he'd been kicking around in the back of his head, jotting down some notes as he went. The notes were more for the musicians with whom he'd end up playing the piece, if it ever got that far. As for himself, Alex would remember every note for the rest of his life.

After an hour or so, he decided to take a break. He went into the kitchen and made himself a sandwich. Again, he had the feeling that something was different, but since he couldn't determine what it was, he dismissed the thought. Instead, went into the media room and ate while watching the news. With everything that had happened in the last couple of weeks, he hadn't really bothered keeping up with world events.

"...what's been called the latest craze in pop-culture since the piano key necktie. Teenaged girls have hit the streets as Comedienne look-alikes, HBO has nearly signed a one-time, $35-million deal with Max Dynamo, and Cache has received sponsorship offers from nearly every insurance company in France and America. Anti-metahuman groups have already voiced their approval. 'It's about time we show those freaks we're not second-class citizens,' said one spokesman earlier today.

"-This just in: sales for palm pilots and Saturn coupes are at an all-time high.

"Coming up on Power Line, Stan Kirby does his editorial exposť on the Protectorate. Has this super-group of social activists fallen from grace?"

Alex grimaced and turned off the television. He then went to the kitchen and put his plate in the sink, thinking to clean up later. That's all we need now, he thought, a mass shift in public opinion against metahumans just because of the Elite...

Feeling a little restless, Alex decided that a good workout might be in order. He walked down a short hallway to the double doors that opened onto the exercise room. He closed the doors and turned on the stereo, selecting a Brazilian tune that would start slowly and increase the tempo as it played.

As the music started, Alex stretched a little and began a series of Capoeira moves. The music started picking up, and the young Englishman reciprocated with some of the more intricate and acrobatic attack sequences. He found himself leaping higher, moving faster, and exerting himself far less than before. Alex considered himself quite athletic, but he never considered himself the most nimble person, especially due to his looming stature. Nevertheless, he felt himself in mutual agreement with the quick staccato beat of the music, and this in turn made him feel like a powerful, graceful beast from the jungle.

At that moment, just the music reached its climax, one of the bulbs burned out in a fixture overhead. Alex grimaced and stopped. There was still plenty of light to see by, but something about a single, dim bulb irked him. He went over to the utility closet and pulled out a spare. It was at this point that he realized he didn't have a ladder.

Well, isn't this a fine state of affairs? he thought. For all of the amazing stuff that I've done recently, I'm to be thwarted by a single light bulb. What I wouldn't give to be able to fly right now...

As if on cue, Alex's body lifted into the air - nearly colliding with the ceiling before he thought to stop - and nearly falling to the floor before he thought to keep flying. Once he righted himself, he took things a little more slowly, and stopped, hovering in place.

It felt weird at first. It wasn't as if he was being suspended from something in mid-air. And it didn't feel like he was propelling himself in some manner. It felt... natural somehow, as natural as breathing. And it seemed that he heard music underneath what was playing over the speakers. It sounded familiar, but it took him a moment to place it. Then it dawned on him.

Alex recognized it as the Song of Transport, the song that had allowed him to travel vast distances in nearly no time. However, it now seemed much, much slower, slightly subdued. He thought about moving forward a bit. The Music responded and his body advanced ahead. He willed himself back, and back he went. He decided to go over to the other side of the room and he flew to the spot he wanted to be.

Alex reached up to wipe sweat from his brow and realized he still held the bulb. He smiled and flew up to the fixture. He replaced the bulb and landed on the floor of the room, still smiling. He looked around as if everything in the room had changed, and then he looked up and saw the night sky through the window.

Alex grinned and asked himself, "Why not?"

Minutes later, he had put on a pair of jogging shoes and a jacket, had grabbed his Discman and a small collection of CDs and headed out the door. Instead of going downstairs, he went up the steps that led to the roof. Up there, he stared at a crystal clear night sky. Behind New York's cacophonous choir of sirens and traffic, Alex heard the gentle song carried by the wind, and behind the whispers of rustling trees and chirping crickets in Central Park, Alex heard the Song of Transport again.

With a smile, Alex let himself go, and allowed the divine music to carry him up into the air.

He flew toward Central Park and spent some time there practicing. He practiced accelerating, then decelerating, turning and stopping, hovering, and going full out. It seemed however, that "full out" was about 30 kilometers per hour. This was a bit of a disappointment until he hit on the idea to actually turn on the CD player.

He placed a CD in the Discman and pressed start. After a minute or so, he felt his power increase dramatically. It was accompanied by a rather sharp increase in his velocity. He zoomed around Central Park a few more times and then headed skyward.

He briefly thought that exhilaration was a poor word to describe how he felt, but it was the only one he could think of at that moment. He lost himself in the sensation of flight for a while, knowing at a basic level that he could now anywhere that he wished. At that moment, it seemed as if he heard a call that seemed to come from the night sky itself. The call sang to him, it enticed him, urged him to head toward the stars. The call said he needed to be there, if only for a little while.

Alex hesitated for a moment. He felt uncertain as to whether or not the Music was summoning him. It felt odd, strange in a way he couldn't describe. But dawn was still hours away and he sensed no harm in checking it out. He popped a fresh CD into his Discman, mostly from a desire for variety, and headed out - and up...

******

The first time Avatar ever threw a rock was when he was five-years-old. It's a boy's thing, obviously, and as a result there's never a safe barn door, tin can, or breakable object on the surface of the Earth. As Avatar grew older and better honed his ability to cast stones, he promoted himself to skipping flat rocks across ponds and small bodies of water. Avatar's first attempt at stone-skipping wasn't so impressive, but his skill increased considerably after that.

Right now, in airless space, Avatar tossed pebble-sized meteoroids across the void to see how many pieces of space debris he could hit before sending his rock careening into the starry drink. This not only required a great deal of stone-skipping proficiency, but also a good eye for geometry and at least a basic understanding low-gravity dynamics. He sat on the edge of a decommissioned weather satellite among the many inactive pieces of aerospace infrastructure caught in Earth's orbit over the decades. A radio spore rested at the base of his skull so the Protectorate could keep in touch with him.

The Babylonian demigod raised his head, looking up and beyond the perforated belt of flotsam and jetsam. There, parting her way through the mangled antennas, decrepit motherboards, and lifeless rockets, stood a tall woman, a Romanesque beauty, wearing a crested helmet and a loose fitting, daringly immodest, toga. She carried a trident in her right hand, and a shield imprinted with the Union Jack in her left hand.

"Hello, Ian -" Britannia's voice came from Avatar's earpiece. The Monolith must have impregnated her with a radio spore. "I mean, Marduk."

The shimmering aurora outlining her confirmed that the powers within her trident shielded her from the extremes of space. Avatar smiled at his visitor, but his expression betrayed nothing but mild apathy and stoicism.

"Liz - hello. What brings you out to these parts?"

"The vain hope that you're still not sulking."

Avatar flicked the tiny piece of meteor in his hand and watched it skip. It was a good toss, being that the stone caromed thirty-seven times before bouncing out of the stream of debris. He then returned his attention back to Britannia, sighing.

"You want to tell me what's on your mind?"

"It's been months, Marduk. When are you going to stop alienating yourself from your friends and allies?" Britannia asked Avatar incredulously.

"Alienating myself? What are you talking about, Liz?" The big man lifted himself off of the satellite, bringing himself closer to the heroine. Then he stepped back when she offered to hold his hand. That moment he felt like a teenaged boy, seeing that special sparkle in a girl's eyes for the first time.

Then Avatar snapped himself out of the moment.

"I'm still doing my duties," he insisted.

"Have you even visited Ireland since?"

"What for?"

"Marduk," Britannia said. "Ireland was almost gone."

"I'm not suffering from amnesia, Liz." Avatar looked at her, expressionless. "I know what happened. Besides, I thought everything was under control."

Britannia pursed her lips and turned to look at the gigantic blue marble that was the Earth. "Totem replenished the soils, irrigated the farmlands and forests, and reconstructed the monuments. The Ensigns and Red Lion led a campaign to renovate housing and roadways. Old Glory and the Nighthawks worked with the military in dismantling the Royal Elite's bases, arsenal and munitions. But first Zodiac and Hex had to help me alleviate the country of its high radiation levels."

Avatar nodded in approval, but Britannia also noticed that he had a look of query on his face.

"They accelerated the half-lives of the radioactive waste that saturated just about all of Ireland. I then redirected the radiation skyward-" Britannia pointed out to the starry void "-and released it out here with all this cosmic ether."

"Fancy trick," Avatar said. "Not exactly the ferromagnetic powers that I thought came from you tapping into the stress patterns of the Earth. It seems you've improved substantially. Good, this gives you and the others a chance to accept the accolades."

"Aren't you the sarcastic sod?"

Avatar cocked a brow and shrugged smugly.

"Listen, Ian-"

"-Don't call me that," Avatar interrupted.

"Oh, right - Marduk." And Britannia's face went dark like that of a stalking panther. "Is that better, god-boy?"

"Look, Liz. If you've come here to goad me - don't. I'm not in the mood."

"No, you're just moody."

Avatar huffed. "I just want to be alone. I don't think that's too much to ask for, do you?"

"You're doing more than that, Marduk. You're distancing yourself completely. From your allies, the people down there, everyone." Britannia lowered her shield and trident. "Including me."

Avatar paused, and for a moment a look of remorse crossed his face, and then it was gone. "Should I pack my bags, Liz? Because it sounds like you're going to take me on a guilt trip."

"And why not? You can't avoid us forever."

"I'm Avatar," the Babylonian reminded her. "I can do anything."

"Except open up to your friends." Britannia paused, wondering how to word herself. "Ian," she began again, and didn't bother correcting herself, "I know you're hurting inside. But don't sit here and think that you've let us down. You're the ultimate hero, and that in turn means you have the ultimate responsibility."

"Spare me, Liz."

"Spare yourself, Ian."

Avatar shot her a stone-faced glare. But she looked at him heartedly, and through the trailing disenchantment of a lonesome man, he frowned.

"Please leave, Liz."

******

Alex's power continued to grow as the music played. As his power grew, so did his awareness. He could hear the Music more clearly now directing him ever higher. As the atmosphere became too thin to breathe, the undertones of the Music shifted subtly and Alex found he had no trouble breathing in the rarefied atmosphere.

Alex felt a sort of longing, a yearning for something half remembered calling him away from the life he knew. As the power thrummed through him, it seemed that leaving the Earth behind was a viable option. The thought caused him to stop.

Somehow this feeling was familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. He knew that he had made a choice like this before and had chosen Earth. But the details of that choice eluded his attempts to remember them, like wisps of smoke through grasping fingers. He let go of a portion of the power he'd accumulated with only slight regret and then continued his journey.

He kept moving, heading toward his unknown destination, as much out of curiosity as anything. Minutes later, he sensed that he was close to where he needed to be and he wondered why he should be meeting someone in orbit around the Earth...

Meeting someone? he questioned inwardly. I wonder who?

Alex slowed, then stopped. The Call that had summoned him now ceased. He looked around at the "scenery" - a collection of space rubbish, old satellites, and small chunks of rock. A very odd place to which I've been called... Alex waited for a while, taking in the view of the stars, seeming to hear a different song from each point of light, yet each one merging into a magnificent harmony.

Eventually, he decided that he had waited long enough and was just about to return home when a fist-sized rock sailed past his head. Alex spun around to determine where the projectile had originated and, using an unfamiliar sense, or more accurately an awareness, spotted a large humanoid figure far in the distance. He also spotted a slightly shorter, more slender figure - female, by appearances. It wasn't until he drew nearer that he recognized them. The woman was Britannia. The larger figure was Avatar.

Alex experienced a curious chain of emotions: surprise, fear, anger, and... something he couldn't adequately describe - a sort of sympathy perhaps. He noticed that Britannia was leaving now. In fact, she hovered in Alex's direction.

Britannia looked the young Englishman, frustration etched on her comely face. "And I suppose you hope to talk to him." Strange, but Alex could hear her in space. "My condolences - he's moping like a castrated bull."

"I see," said Alex, unsure how to respond. "To be honest, I'm not quite sure why I'm here. I just felt a pull..." Alex shrugged, not quite certain how to explain the sensation.

"Good luck. This debris field would likely provide more stimulating conversation..."

Alex watched as Britannia departed. The way she did so suggested she was not pleased with the demigod.

Alex absently held out his hand. The rock that had come close to hitting his head instantly came to a stop. With a twitch of his finger, it sped back toward Alex and came to rest in his hand. Without really thinking of what he was doing, Alex moved toward Avatar. If the demigod was aware of his approach, he gave no outward sign of it. As he drew nearer, he saw that Avatar was apparently throwing rocks at the assorted space flotsam, bouncing the rocks off of the debris, much like he used to do off one of the piers along the Thames. When he was about thirty meters distant, Alex tossed the rock that he was carrying to Avatar and spoke.

"You missed."

Avatar caught the rock and looked at Alex impassively, recognition entering his eyes, if not his expression. For a moment, it did not appear that the Babylonian was going to reply.

"Excuse me?" he finally said in a deep baritone.

"The rock," said Alex, almost coldly. "It missed my head by a good half-meter. At our previous meeting, you were a little more accurate. Is something wrong? Are you ill?"

Alex wasn't certain what he was doing. The fear he'd felt moments ago had vanished. A fire burned within him, and had forged an anger tempered by an odd sympathy.

Avatar forced a mock smile. "I must be. Not only am I talking to a ghost, but the ghost can also project his voice through the vacuum of space."

"I can speak to you in a vacuum because...," Alex paused searching his own mind for an explanation, even as he spoke the words, "...it's necessary." It sounded a little trite to his ears, but it felt accurate.

"As for whether or not I'm a ghost, I can assure you I'm quite healthy. But not for the lack of effort on your part. The occult is not my area of expertise, but from what I understand, ghosts don't generally have to worry about getting hit by rocks, do they?"

"I'm... sorry," replied Avatar, throwing the rock at a broken aerial that floated in the distance.

"For what?" asked Alex. "For nearly braining me with that rock?... or for nearly ending my life on the Irish battlefield?"

"Actually, I'm sorry you've come here and wasted your time, Maestro." The demigod looked out at the orbital wasteland a moment longer, then turned and dispassionately stared at the young Englishman. "Your visit here is unwelcome. Where do you live? I can have the Shunter teleport you home."

"My time is my own. I use it as I must. At the moment, I need to be here, welcome or not. When I am finished, I will go. Now are you going to explain yourself or just continue brooding?"

"Like you, my time is my own," Avatar replied evenly. "And if I don't care to waste my time talking to Britannia, I certainly don't care to waste it talking to you. Simply put, I'm not going to have a sniping conversation with you. But if I was, I'm sure you wouldn't understand where I was coming from."

"I might understand a good deal more than you think - or perhaps you actually do think I'm a ghost, and not worth your attention," said Alex. "If that's the case, I'm willing to demonstrate otherwise. Being impaled by that lightning bolt was not a pleasant experience and it's taking a great deal of effort to keep from returning the favor."

Avatar stared at Maestro for a moment, shaking his head almost imperceptibly. "I can see that. Your knuckles are white, the veins in your neck are showing - and I can even sense your thoughts and emotions swimming." The Babylonian tapped his temple with an index finger and smiled ever so slightly. "But I wouldn't worry, you don't need an appointment with the leather couch just yet."

"Perhaps. But you only see what lies on the surface. Look deeper..."

Avatar continued staring at Alex, but now he looked at him with a strange curiosity, much like how a child looks at an insect before he plucks its legs off. "That's it," he said. "You've come for retribution. Go on then - do what you must."

For Alex's part, the power he now felt was more intense than anything he'd previously experienced. However, he knew that he was not here to fight Avatar, regardless of how he felt. Avatar was floundering in his own mire of emotions and he needed help to climb out. Apparently, it was falling to Alex to give him that help. Instead of questioning the power he felt, he embraced it and allowed it to hold back his inhibitions and fears.

"I have come to do what I must, Avatar... But not for retribution... not to discipline you as though you were a child who has misbehaved. Do you believe your brooding is the way to the answers you seek? Why do you separate yourself from those you protect? The world moves on and your petulance has become a luxury..."

Avatar's eyes widened, the demigod noticeably impressed by the young man's bravado. "I hardly think the decision to seclude myself is an act of petulance, son. And being the incarnation of Babylonia is far from a luxury. I carry an incredible burden - one that weighs that of the world."

"Very well, if not petulance, then arrogance. The term is unimportant. The result is the same. If your 'burden' seems great, it is because it is yours to carry. If you believe that the weight of one world is too much, then what will you do when you must carry the weight of one hundred? Or one thousand? Do you think by hiding in space rubble, you may escape that responsibility? By what right do you claim this luxury?"

Avatar fumed. Surely Maestro could see steam coming from the demigod's ears, from his nostrils, the heat rippling from his scalp. But this was Avatar. Even though his eyes glowed red and then white with aggravation, it was just for a moment, and then he cooled. He stood there, in space, staring at Maestro in frustration and wonder.

"I knew this would be a waste of my time." The demigod sighed and silently counted the countless pinpoints of light behind Maestro. "You really have no idea what you're talking about. Just save yourself the embarrassment - and leave."

"I know far more than you might guess, little god. Far more..."

Avatar clenched his fists and then unclenched them. He stood silently - reluctantly - and listened to the British hero.

"Your presence here is causing a dissonance in the Symphony," Maestro said. "While you sit and brood like some old hen, your charges suffer. That suffering requires alterations in the Symphony. Such changes are not always welcome or, for that matter, desired."

Maestro paused for effect. Avatar took a trivial breath and crossed his arms.

"Who's the hen?" Avatar questioned. "You fly up here, preening, and you want to talk about my brooding? Just because you had a near-death experience, just because you saw the light, doesn't mean you have the answers. And if you think strutting your stuff and engaging in verbal sparring is going to enlighten me, then you'll be sadly disillusioned."

"Disillusioned? Which of us does that better describe?" Avatar fell silent and Maestro filled in. "This is why the world needs you more than ever."

"I'm busy."

Maestro pointed a thumb at the Earth. "Too busy to help save the planet below? Too busy to stop another event like what the Royal Elite did to Ireland?"

"That particular crisis isn't new, Maestro. Where have you been? Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot you've only donned your tights for about a year now. Go talk to Old Glory and ask him about the casualties of war."

Maestro remained impassive and waited as Avatar's retort grew into a lecture.

"I know fully well of this so-called Symphony you talk of - so it seems you've recently had an epiphany, Maestro. I was thirteen when I had mine. It's when I first heard Babylonia sing to me." Avatar laughed. "And I was institutionalized a few months after that."

But then Avatar's smile was gone. "It wasn't until two years later that I realized I was ordained a deity. Just in case you aren't already aware, I'm the personification of the civilized world; I am a descendent of Gilgamesh and I am the incarnation of Marduk. I have recollections of six-thousand years of creation; I've felt the sweat, dedication and satisfaction of countless people's toil. Yet I also have memories of war and destruction; I've seen enough blood and shattered mortar to fill all the oceans on Earth. We live in a paradoxical world - a world we glibly call civilization."

"And it seems you have no problem being this dismissive," Maestro observed.

"Dismissive?" questioned the demigod. "Now, that's rich. This irony has been at a boil for years - and, quite frankly, that's being shortsighted about it. We, the metahuman population, are the byproduct of our world's progressive, capitalistic pursuits. We cater to ordinary folks, and when they want their heroes to be strong, we become strong. When we're to be ruthless, we comply."

"Nevertheless the world trusts you because you are its trustee," Maestro offered.

Avatar shook his head. "They fear me more than they trust me. C'mon, even you don't trust me. After all, I killed you, right? And that's the irony of it: we self-styled superheroes aren't just blessings in disguise - we're also curses, wolves in sheep's clothing. And for a guy whose ears can distinguish absolute pitch, you really need to start listening. Wresting with law and order is a delicate, inconsistent matter. This is what civilization has taught me."

Maestro looked at Avatar but said nothing. As the silence grew, Avatar began to wonder if the Englishman had heard a single word. In irritation, Avatar drew a breath, planning to demand the youth's departure when he heard something totally unexpected.

Laughter.

It was faint at first, a barely audible chuckle. But as the moments passed, it grew in volume.

"I'm glad you find this amusing," the Babylonian said with barely contained rage.

But then the demigod paused. It was just then that he realized Maestro's voice sounded impossibly deep, and the starry surroundings, as vast and unreachable as they were, seemed to flicker from the power of his voice. The Babylonian refocused his attention on the Englishman, and what he saw bore only a passing resemblance to the young man who had first arrived.

Maestro loomed in space with a strange nobility and grandeur, a nebulous halo pulsing from his silhouette. Clearly he was a being apart, a raw, primordial force as much as a creature of flesh and bone. But for all the physical differences, it was the Englishman's eyes that were most noticeable. Where Maestro's pupils and irises once were, Avatar thought he could see the very stars he had just now been counting.

"Forgive me, godling. I had almost forgotten the reason I'd taken human form. Such delightful arrogance... Six thousand whole years of creation..." Another chuckle escaped Maestro's mouth, and then, the time for humor passed.

"When the First Word was uttered," Maestro continued, "I came into being. For eons beyond your reckoning, I have conducted the Symphony. I have witnessed all these things of which you speak, more often than even you could imagine. But being what I am, I can only become directly involved if the Harmony is directly endangered. Perhaps that is why I chose to become Alex, so I could take an active part in the Symphony that I guide. But that is a tale for another time."

Avatar stepped back. In the past he had grappled with Tiamat, the all-mighty leviathan of the ancient world, and single-handedly defended the Northern Hemisphere from a battalion of extraterrestrial conquerors; he commanded the skies and made oceans cower; every being who has ever faced him, be it of the superhuman, alien or mystical genus, testified to the demigod's magnificence. Avatar was a hero among heroes, and when he flexed his muscles the Earth's tectonic plates shifted. But Avatar sensed an age-old, omniscient wisdom in Maestro, and a power rippled from the young man's body with a stellar magnitude.

"Look, Maestro-"

"No. You look, Avatar," Maestro interrupted with a stentorian clamor. "Look at the planet below you. Look at civilization - with its Law and Order, with its Chaos and Discord. The word 'delicate' is hardly adequate at describing the balance, the Harmony. Like countless worlds - civilizations - before them, the people down there stand at a crossroads, if you'll forgive the oversimplified analogy. If the Harmony is not maintained, if the wrong road is chosen, this civilization shall also come to an end. Whether you wish it or not, you are the embodiment of that civilization - a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm below. As the people of Earth have grown more cynical, so too, have you. The nature of your abilities virtually demands it. However, that relationship is not a one-sided trend. The next choice you make, no matter how simple that choice is, may have a profound effect on something greater than you. You may sit, brood and bemoan your situation. Or you could do something else. Maybe plant something."

Avatar drank in what Maestro had said, mulling over each and every word. Finally the demigod smiled. It wasn't the mock smile of a hardhearted Stoic; it was a genuine smile, a handsome smile. And the smile shined.

"Perhaps I already have planted something. But I feel I'm not the one who must reap what I've sowed. You have been chosen, Alex." It was the first time Avatar called the Englishman by the name his parents gave him.

Avatar continued, "You have been chosen, much like I was chosen before you, by powers beyond human fancy. And like you said, the Harmony must be maintained - the Symphony must be conducted - if the betterment of our world is to flourish. I see no better person to conduct and help keep civilization intact than you. You are the Maestro, your very name implies that the Symphony is yours to tend."

"The Symphony is mine to tend," stated the Primal Being before him, "but it is not mine. I am as much the Instrument as the Musician. It is an interesting perspective - calling me 'Chosen' instead of 'Chooser.' Perhaps I am both . If that is true of me, then it is true of you as well. The question becomes, 'Will you remain and brood, or will you take part in what you are?'"

"You can claim that I'm brooding, but you can also consider this the passing of the proverbial torch."

"I might... But I won't. Civilization is not mine. For a short time, I will take part in it, support and nurture it as I may. But eventually, I will depart. The Harmony demands I co-exist with Barbarism as well as Civilization." Maestro shook his head slightly. "No, Civilization is yours. The opposite is also true. You may depart for a time, remain separate if you will... but your charges may suffer. Or they may not... for the choice is also theirs."

Avatar turned away, looking at the glowing planet below, a precious, marbled blue orb nestled among the scattered gold dust of the cosmos. Somewhere, down there, a city celebrated prosperity while another weeped poverty.

"Are you willing to return to the world before you?" Maestro asked, his body still pulsing like a quasar.

The Babylonian pondered the subtle idealistic similarities that, instead of allowing him to agree with Maestro, actually prevented him from doing so.

"There's really only one thing I wonder about when considering the evolution of civilization," Avatar said. "And that's what I'll become."

"I've done what I've come for..." Maestro replied. "No more reason to be here..."

"Good bye," Avatar concluded. But, as he turned around to face the Primal Being, he noticed that he was already alone.

******

The sun started to rise when Alex returned to his flat. He found himself outside of his flat, standing before the main door, and wondering just how in the hell he'd gotten there.

Wonderful, he thought. Now I'm sleep walking.

He glanced once more toward the Western sky, just making out the last few twinkling stars. For a moment, there was a tinge of regret, but he could not say what caused it.

He entered the building and descended the stairs to his front door. Punching in his code, he entered the door and immediately got a sense that something out of place. He swept the room with his eyes but he didn't spot anyone. Then his ears picked up on someone moving in the laundry room of all places.

After all the bloody nonsense I've had to deal with over the last few weeks and now someone has decided to break into my home... Alex ran toward the laundry room door, vaulting over the kitchen counter in the process. He reached the door to the laundry room just as it began to open. Without giving the would-be thief time to discover he'd been caught, Alex reached through the doorway, grabbed the man by his coat, and pulled him through, lifting him from the ground in the process.

"M-my word!" exclaimed the intruder, who at second glance looked like...

"Maurice?!"

Alex set the older man gently on his feet and apologized. "I'm sorry, Maurice," said Alex as the butler regained his composure. "I'd stepped out for a little while and, when I returned, thought someone had broken in. I had no idea that you were in New York, let alone here..."

Alex paused before asking, "Why are you here exactly?"

"Since you're asking," he began, "I'll assume that you didn't check your messages upon your return. I'll also assume that you've been pre-occupied with other matters since your return since you haven't noticed what has been in plain view." The last bit was said with a hint of recrimination.

"What do you mean?"

"Trivial details, I'm sure. Laundry: washed and folded; the layers of accumulated dust: removed; the little trail of sand from heaven-knows-where: cleaned up; the biology experiments in the ice box: disposed of; ..."

Half embarrassed, half amused, Alex watched and listened to the butler for quite a while before finally speaking.

"I've missed you, too, he said with an expansive smile. "I seem to have had a rather long night. I'm going to take a short nap and then, after breakfast, you may continue to berate me at your leisure..."

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