“It started with a rock,” he told me. And then immediately backtracked in that way that had become his most infuriating habit. “It didn't start there. But every start is the end of some previous start. The rock was the ending of something else, and the start of whatever this is,” he waved his arms around the room.
He had stopped talking, so I let him - I let us - sit in silence until he started again. I already had enough for my book, so this, whatever it was he was trying to tell me, was extra. Stuff for me to hold on to.
“Where I am now,” he said slowly. “The first thing I remember, the first definite thing I can say for sure that I know, is darkness. On the rock was just pitch black. And alone. It was just me.” He stopped talking again and sighed almost in exasperation. I had seen him like this before, during the story about the man, or men - he couldn't really keep that straight - who could see. Then he backtracked again.
“The rock was empty. There was nothing or no one on it except me. But I was not the only thing there. I can remember others,” he was beginning to annoy himself. I let him. Far be it for me to let this man, this criminal, feel any sort of comfort under my supervision.
“I'm not what you are,” he started again.
“Obviously,” I replied before I could stop myself. I was rewarded with that little scoff of laughter. I swore at myself and pretended to write something in my notebook. He would see through it, of course; he always did. But he didn't say anything.
“You misunderstand,” he said. “You all do. My existence, everything that I am is so fundamentally different to yours that you don't have the words to convey it. I could spend years writing it down, detailing everything about who and what I am. I could even make it simple; comprehensible for someone such as yourself. But you would spend your whole life, and if you're so lucky, your next one studying and still only come away from it with a metaphor which would still pale in comparison to the reality of what, exactly, I am.”
“I think it’s actually quite simple,” I said. I was trying to rile him up. Trying to make him lash out like he had done earlier. “You’re just a criminal. A warlord. This perpetual stand off won’t end because you can’t let it. This,” here, I waved my arms around like he did; mocking him. “Is you. There's nothing complex, nothing worth a lifetime of study, in that. It’s just you and whoever it is over the other side, if there even is someone else, playing at soldiers. Toying with our lives for your own selfish gain.”
He sighed. Not in exasperation and not in anger. He was tired. His sigh was that of a teacher. I felt a twinge of something. I had experienced that sigh from all of my professors. I had used that sigh on my own students. The sigh of someone who had just spent time trying to educate but whose student had wilfully and ignorantly missed the point.
“This,” he said, waving his arms again. “This is nothing. It’ll be over soon. My soon, probably not yours. This is temporary, regardless of how it ends. What I’m talking about, what I want to tell you, is more than that. It’s fundamental. Concrete. Permanent. Who I am isn’t decided by these games we play. Or by which planets we control. I remember,” he paused. He had said before he hated that word. The idea of memory upset him. That was something he hadn't explained. A story he hadn't told, although not because I hadn't asked. The irony of this man was that he couldn't remember why the idea of his memory upset him so. I knew some form of this thought would be the title of my book. The hook which would convince even the most ignorant of my audience that this man was not a hero.
“I remember,” he said again. He was using that slow, deep voice now. The attractive one that drew so many people, including a younger me, to his side. Hearing it so suddenly brought me out of my thoughts and back to the present. Back to the cold steel bulkhead against my back. Back to the low thrum and steady vibrations of the engines some distance off. Back to the reality that dozens of ships sat in a long chain on either side of this one; a blockade. An overture of conflict instigated by the man sitting across from me. A conflict against someone that no one had ever seen. A fictional enemy. An Emperor of dead systems and silent worlds.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was miles away.” He scoffed that laugh again and took a breath.
“I remember the rock. The darkness. I remember the,” he paused. “There are no words in your language for what I remember about the others I was with. If you can even call them that. There was no one else. But I was aware of them. They were with me, there on that rock. While I was alone. And then it was ruined. I lost them. I lost that awareness and it never came back. I was engulfed in light and the next thing I knew, I was this,” he waved his arms up and down his body.
“You've been this since then?” I asked.
“Since then,” he nodded.
“How long has it been?”
He shook his head. I had asked another question that was wrong. My training had always taught me that it was answers that were wrong, but when dealing with him, it was always the question. Every answer had a question, but not the other way around. Perhaps if I managed to live as long as he has, I would understand that too.
Since we had started this conversation, a few days earlier, he had made sure that I knew he was different. That I knew he was the one in charge. The resentment of being talked down to by this murderer burned in me and he knew it. Everything he did was deliberate. He seemed to know how to manipulate us all. To make us all dance to his tune.
But he had gathered this army. He had gone and allied the disparate worlds of the border, as he called it, and set them against his imaginary foe. And he was here, at the front line. Waiting.
It was fair to say that I was woefully unprepared for such a being.
“The rock was the start,” he said as he peered out the window into the darkness of what he called The Empire. “It was where I started. It was where he started. And whatever this is,” he turned back to me. The look on his face was his usual; smug and full of self-confidence, but something else pulsed just beyond the facade he had put up. “This is the end.”
“But from an ending,” I said.
“Exactly,” he replied, and for a split second, in a moment he couldn't hide, I got my first real smile from this man.
This man. This immortal creature. This murderer. He admitted to being the reason for so many deaths. The reason why planets had been cut off from the system. The reason for this armada. This war, and as he put it, the woman.
He nodded at me, as if satisfied. The door behind him shffed open and he left.
“And that’s the last time I saw him,” I shrugged. “We all know what happened next.”
“He died,” my editor said. “Which makes all of this,” he waved his hands around my manuscripts, “pointless. We can’t chase after a dead man.”
“Maybe you can’t,” I said, standing. “But this isn’t just an ending.”
“You’re starting to sound like him,” my editor said. “This dead immortal.”
“The singular man named They,” I replied. “Every step of the way, an irony.”