Lincoln slid into the one open desk slot at the grand round credenza, not because he knew what he was doing, but because it seemed his only option. There were no other openings, and it seemed at first glance that the assemblage was composed of mostly gray-haired men, but there was at least one ancient Asian woman, and Lincoln noticed two middle-aged black men sitting next to each other. All of this he glimpsed and thought with a glance, and strangely he did not wish to be observed counting faces, so he kept his eyes down, and figured that there must be at least fifty people present.
Forty-nine, the thought rang in his head. Yes, that is it, he is the forty-ninth member to join at the credenza. He does not know where the thought originated, nor why he understands it to be true.
“Forty-nine present,” someone says, and the gathering answers in one voice: “We test the poison without drinking of it, and we are not harmed. Forty-nine members present, in one accord.”
Lincoln said the words, too, perfectly, in unison with the forty-eight other voices. And he did not know why he said the words, or the meaning of the strange rote speech.
His heart slammed in his breast. He did not know what was happening. He did not know what all of this was about, or why he was here, but here he was indeed. He seemed to be dreaming, but then again not.
“Are there any here present that are not awake?” someone said, speaking officiously, as if the question was one of form and completely rhetorical in nature, and the gathering remained quiet. No one spoke. The silence stretched. By peeking up under his brows Lincoln was able to observe that all the members sat face-down, as in a moment of prayer, or meditation. They seemed to be waiting. No one seemed to watch. All waited.
Finally, Lincoln looks up and glances about the room. He half-lifts his hand, then lowers it to the dark wood of the huge round credenza top. He stares at his hand, hearing a few soft inhalations, and perhaps one or two exclamations, and then he thinks better of his reticence to admit his cloudy ignorance and raises his hand, slowly at first, and then he is lifting his hand high, fully extending his elbow and pointing up all of his fingers and his thumb. His hand and arm lift all the way until he can reach no farther. He had best admit that he has no idea of where he is nor what is happening, and not just continue playing along with whatever strange ritual this gathering enacts. This is decidedly is not a dream, and forty-nine is seven times seven. This is real. This is a real place. This is not a dream even though all colors are muted, everything seems confusing, everything slightly blurred.
Eyes stared at him, and some lids blink rapidly. But there was only quiet from the assembled, until after many pregnant eternities a small voice whispers harshly: “Lincoln, please, this is not the time for one of your jokes. Please be serious. Put your hand down.”
Lincoln glanced about but could not locate the speaker. It sounded like a woman’s voice, but he could not locate any female faces alongside the length of credenza where the sharp admonition had sprung. He slowly lowered his hand. Everyone stared at him. He did not recognize a single face. From somewhere near echoed the mechanical rhythm of a clock ticking, what must apparently be a very large clock, because although he had not noticed it before, he has been listening to that metronome of time all this confused while.
An old man sitting on Lincoln’s left said: “Are you serious? Are you not awake?”
Lincoln coughed. He said, beginning slowly, softly, but gaining in strength: “I do not know what is happening. I do not know where I am. I do not know what it means when you say not awake. This all seems like a dream. I know I am not sleeping, but this seems like a dream. I know this place is real, but everything seems dreamlike.”
A very large man seated a dozen seats away from Lincoln rumbled: “Record Keeper, when is the last time that Lincoln was not awake?”
“A moment,” a tiny person said. It was not obvious if this tiny person, the Record Keeper, was male or female. The tiny person was very, very old, intricately graven with delicate wrinkles. A glow appeared on the tiny person’s face. Apparently a computer screen was set in the credenza top. Lincoln looked closely at the credenza top between his own hands. Yes, an odd screen was definitely set there, and glancing to his right and left he registered that all of them had what appeared to be identical screens before each of the forty-nine faces present.
“From the records,” the Record Keeper said, “it appears that this is the first recorded instance of Lincoln in a state of not being awake.”
“Is that even possible?” the very large man with the deep voice queried. “Was not Lincoln one of the first? One of those first quickened?”
“Lincoln was the first,” the Record Keeper said.
Someone in the dim light, halfway around the credenza, raised a hand, and then half rose from their seat. It was an ancient man with a bald, spotted head. “Lincoln was instrumental in waking me, and I am one of the oldest.”
Lincoln, aghast, raised trembling limbs and inspected the skin on the backs of his own hands. His skin is liver-spotted and loose, splotched and lifted by dark blue veins. These are the hands of the decrepit. Lincoln clasps his arms tightly about his chest, exploring himself, finding himself withered, emaciated, gnarled and old. He is ancient. Lincoln, unaware of anything, finds himself on the edge of death, his entire body trembling.
“Adams, please escort Lincoln to an alcove and make an effort to awaken Number Forty-Nine, thank you,” a compelling voice chimed from somewhere in the room. A bald man with a cane immediately rose and hobbled around the credenza to meet Lincoln, who stumbled up out of his chair to meet him. Adams directed Lincoln to a dark alcove lit only by the glowing illumination of a dark-blue stained glass window. Lincoln focuses on that stained glass, the light drawing him toward it. It is an image set in shattered glass, a very familiar seeming image depicting a seven-branched menorah rising from an opened book, the flames rising from the oil of the book.
Somewhat breathlessly, the two old men half-faced each other upon an old padded bench directly beneath the glowing glass. Lincoln now perceived the facing stained-glass window, the one opposing the seven-branched candlestick. This window presented a lifted hand, a distinctly red hand, shattered and comprised of glowing pieces.
“What do you know, in an awakened sense?” Adams asked.
Lincoln thought a few moments before answering. “I know that I am old. That is all. Oh, and somehow I know that everyone calls you…Q.”
Q smiled and nodded. “It will have to do. First, do not feel bad. I too have been in this same predicament more than a few times. I believe I have found myself in these chambers, not knowing who I am or what is happening, perhaps twelve times in all. As you just learned, this is the first time it has happened to you, but it will probably not be the last time, unless matters come to a final, concluding head.”
“Is there something wrong with my mind?” Lincoln queried, interrupting Q while shrinking in on himself. He felt cold, and the voluminous sweater about his torso did not seem to warm him.
“No, brother, it is not your mind that is troubled. But time, itself,” Q said, smiling gently, patting Lincoln’s hand. He spoke calmly, reassuringly, nodding his ancient head. “You cannot see the Great Clock, but can you hear it ticking? Yes, that is time, and the minute hand is now one minute before Midnight, in figurative time, of course. The world feels the rumbles; no, the universe feels the rumbles. All eternal time feels the rumbles. And so, to proceed, I will ask you a few questions, or I will make a few statements, or suggestions, and you should just allow yourself to react organically. Do not consider your responses, but just reply as honestly as possible. First, I say the two words…Secret Societies.”
Lincoln said the first few things that entered his mind: “Freemasonry, Illuminati, and perhaps…the Militant Church? The inner workings of the universal church, the secret part?”
“Good, good,” said Q. “Yes, these are factions of the same side, all three. You are not completely…not awake. Let me try another word. Papacy…?”
“That is not real,” Lincoln said, hardly without thought. They looked at each other for a few moments, Q staring at him gravely. “Surely, that is not real. It is merely a mythological rumor, isn’t that true?”
“No, it is real. You are responding to remembrances from an earlier carnation, when the Universal Church did not rise, but merely wreaked havoc from darkness, in secrecy. But in this present carnation, the Papacy operates fully in the light. There are churches, or should I say temples, everywhere. This is a smiling, present carnation, fully speaking on television and all media. Do you know what I am saying?” Q said, leaning close. “The other societies you mentioned, they are hidden, considered by most to be conspiracies, in this carnation. From what you remember, the outright, in-the-open truths are now in hiding, considered by all but a few to be lunatic-fringe conspiracies.”
Lincoln pondered a few moments. “I do not understand what you mean by…carnation. A carnation is a flower.”
“An older meaning,” Q said. “Carnation, meaning flesh.”
Lincoln began to rise from his seat but Q placed a hand upon his arm and held him fast.
“Let me try another word,” Q said, gravely, with utter seriousness. “Incarnation. What does that mean to you?”
“It is a religious term,” Lincoln said. He thought a moment, his eyes flicking about in his head as he sorted through his inner dictionary. “It is something made flesh. A thought, an idea, or something of spirit. Or something that represents an eternal truth.”
“Precisely, on every count,” Q said, smiling encouragingly. “Precisely, my friend. I am speaking of the Carnation of Incarnation, or the flesh of the incarnation, or the manifestation of the dream, ideas becoming real, or reality casting shadow. We do not have the time to delve into these ideas, it is only my intention to nudge you, allow you to access the information that is buried deep inside of you. You have the knowledge, but unfortunately it has all been jumbled in the rumbles of quickening time.”
Lincoln still felt lost, but he sensed what Q was attempting to accomplish, and although he had not even the beginning of understanding, he nodded for Q to continue.
“I will continue,” Q said, “but if anything catches in your mind, you just signal me with your eyes, and I will slow. You may ask me any question, but it is best if you trust me in the flow, and tumble though you may, allow truth to open your eyes. You may not like that truth, it may be confusing, and even irritating, and it might even make you angry, but grab onto what is true, and do not let it go. Are we agreed?”
“Certainly,” Lincoln said, “please continue.”
“What most people think of as reality, is in truth only the fabric of dream, and that which they consider a vapor, or breath, I am talking about spirit, they consider to be illusory. Spirit is truth, and flesh is the lie. This carnation, perhaps more than any of the thousands, or millions before it, is more carnal, more absent of spirit than any other preceding carnation.”
Lincoln interrupted, merely be raising an eyebrow. Q paused and nodded his permission.
“You are not speaking of reincarnation, are you?” Lincoln said with some obvious trepidation.
“No, no, my friend, as your face reveals, you retain enough understanding to know that it is a shadow play invented by our enemies, a clouded interception meant to ensure that those who should awaken will remain not awake for as long as possible.”
“Our enemies?” Lincoln interrupted Q’s answer to the first interruption.
“The secret societies you mentioned,” Q replied.
“Are we not a secret society?” Lincoln queried, waving a hand to indicate the credenza where the forty-seven ancients sat talking softly.
“We are the Forty-Nine Shadows that remain secret to all secret societies. They are not our enemies, as they know nothing of our interference, or especially our existence. But we are their enemy, because they are allied with His enemy,” Q said, speaking rapidly, obviously attempting to say as much as possible before Lincoln might interrupt again.
“You refer to…God?” Lincoln said, eyebrows lifted, humor crackling in the wrinkles surrounding his eyes.
“I refer to Reality,” Q replied with gravity, meeting Lincoln’s gaze with steady eyes. “We are shadow, as is the nature of our enemy. Only He is real. He is Reality.”
“We are shadow? Then what is Reality’s first enemy, the enemy with which the secret societies are allied?”
“The enemy of Reality is a shadow, as well, but a shadow much closer to reality, in much the same fashion that people are shadows, but a more distant shadow than are we,” Q said, speaking rapidly, confidently, as one that has answered these questions many, many times. “People, or the moving hazy things we know as people, are twice removed from reality, twice, or rather thrice.”
“So we, the Forty-Nine,” Lincoln said, “are closer to Reality than are human beings? Then you are saying that we are not human beings.”
“We are human beings,” Q said, “but we are progressed, just a bit further than those that are not awake. We are the dreams that know themselves to be dreams.”
“Are you saying that we are dead? That we are spirits?” Lincoln said, his whole being radiating incredulity.
“No, my very sharp friend, even not awake you are quicker than most. No, we are certainly human beings, and we are not dead. Listen, Lincoln, do you hear?” Q said, tilting his head, his eyes closed, a half-smile upon his lips.
Lincoln listened. The loud but soothing clockwork ticking was all that he could hear other than the soft murmur of the Forty-Seven at the credenza.
“The clock,” Lincoln said.
“Yes, the Clock,” Q answered, opening his eyes, nodding. “We are outside of Time, that is why we do not see the Clock, but only hear its progression.”
“It seems to me,” Lincoln said, wryly, “that if we are outside of the clock, it would be the best place to observe it.”
“I said we are outside of Time, not outside of the Clock!” Q laughed. “That is an example of your natural humor, Lincoln. But then the Clock is merely a parable, to aid us in understanding our task.”
“What is our task?” Lincoln said.
“We are to aid and soothe Reality,” Q said, leaning forward, his hands upon his knees. “Reality is greatly aggrieved, even tormented, not willing to lose even one, but alas, as is obvious, only a relative few ever choose wakefulness, and only those that are awake may move from shadow toward Reality.”
Lincoln placed his palms over his eyes, shaking his head. “Soothe Reality? We are to aid Reality?”
“Again, I am speaking in parable. Reality is greatly troubled with unrequited love. The love of Reality flees to the enemy of Reality, but Reality refuses to turn away from His beloved. Reality aches for her, this faithless love, but she will not return to Him. And thus we act as agents between them. It is our task to deliver messages, to produce coincidences, to suggest an awakening to this star-crossed beloved, and draw her back.”
Lincoln could not answer, but sat staring, his mouth slack.
“Those that believe in reincarnation, which is but a warped image of carnation, believe that we come back, returning in this life over and over again, leaping from shadow to shadow, but the Reality is that the whole world is caught in a bubble of Time, and this bubble is a returning dream haunting Reality. Reality sleeps fitfully, tossing and turning, and the dream returns to Him, over and over again, it is reborn every night many times, and with Reality, a day is a thousand years, and a thousand years is a day, because time is only a bubble inside Reality’s dream,” Q said, and his voice was like a chant, soothing and flowing and tumbling over imaginary rocks and falls.
Lincoln rubbed his forehead, his eyes closed. He seemed very pale. “I seem to remember,” he whispered, repeating the words over and over again: I seem to remember, I seem to remember...
“Each time the dream recurs,” Q continued, his words engrossing and swelling, floating up above them, “it is slightly different each time, as Reality strains and sweats for His beloved. It is His will that not one be lost, and so He dreams time over and over again, each time saving a few more, if perhaps only one. Reality is willing to endure this endless nightmare, for the love of even one.”
Lincoln’s eyes snapped open and he interrupted Q yet again: “But would not there be the danger of losing some, each time the dream is dreamed? What if one that was won was lost in the following iteration of the dream?”
“Good, good Lincoln, yes, yes my friend! You waken! Yes, each time the dream is dreamed, a dream of thousands of years, a few are saved and these ones are moved safely out of Time, into the hallowed halls of Reality’s memory, safely held there awaiting the time that Reality finally awakens and comes so that we that are alive and remain may see Reality, finally, as He is, face to face.”
“But what about the next dream? Would not there be holes where those few were removed?”
“The gaps are filled with simulacra of those moved outside of Time, empty images with no breath of Reality,” Q said, gaining in excitement, eyes alight with fire. The years seemed to melt off of the old man’s lined face. “Puppets with appropriate responses, repeating endlessly well-grooved habits of eternity. Shadows of shadow.”
“A sifting,” Lincoln murmured, “you are talking of a sifting…”
“Yes, sifting,” Q rejoined, “or a refining. The dream becomes worse, each dreaming, more and more a nightmare, and after thousands of iterations of this dream, millions of reoccurrences, what Reality experiences now is a night terror, the very worst of nightmares, grim, and horrific, ghastly. Thus Reality is tormented in His slumber, but because of love, unrequited love, He continues to dream.”
“You are talking about hell,” Lincoln said, “the very torment of hell. And Reality is tormented more than all.”
“You are beginning to understand,” Q said, “and this explains why the allies of His enemy are so effective in twisting their understanding of reality into grim and hideous farces, a distorted glimpse of Reality, through the mirrored lens of lies. And in these latter-day nightmares, only the fiercely evil remain, perfecting their techniques and thus secret societies may finally walk in the daytime of this present carnation, and the lust for flesh increases mightily.”
“It must be evil, then, inside the bubble of Time,” Lincoln said slowly, shaking his head. “Maybe this is why my memory is clouded, because of the torment.”
“They wander, the lost, in this hell, and they talk of politics, and saving the world, and they go to church, and they hug their children, they warn of a dream hell that they have in fact created in their own wicked minds, and they talk of molding Reality, of shaping it, hardly knowing that they have done all this a thousand times before, a million repetitions and more,” Q replied, and he wept softly. “They repeat their dark choices, again, again, and again, each time wondering at the Reality that juts through their dark dreams, pausing to consider that it seems they have done this all before.”
He wiped at his glittering eyes, and they sat in a few brief few ticks of the clock.
“And it is our task to reach them? Those that are not awake?” Lincoln said, aghast.
“That is our impossible task,” Q said. “Not only to wake the shadows, but to determine which shadows may quicken, and which are simulacra. It is not easy to discern the difference. We may never know the difference. The weeds appear as wheat, and the wheat as weeds. And when the Clock reaches Midnight, the dream will begin again, from the beginning, and the results will be more heart-wrenching and hopeless again, and yet still, He dreams, Reality wanders His dreams of unrequited love, calling her, she, the beloved, back, calling her to return.”
They turned to regard the credenza, where the Forty-Seven stood from the credenza as one.
“Is it time?” Q called.
“It is time,” they all responded in one voice, and even Lincoln found himself saying the words in unison, as if upon cue.
“We descend into the dark dream of hell?” Lincoln whispered.
“Yes, my brother, we descend.” Q patted Lincoln upon the shoulder and aided him in rising. “And you will discover this shadow reality much worse than I have portrayed, for the shadows of shadow glory in their own imagined perfection. They sneer at the shadows about them, discerning the others’ abomination, but never their own. They believe themselves covered, these shadows, and yet they embrace only darkness. They speak names, the babble names, never understanding, always fleeing the light.”
As they joined the group heading toward the corridor Lincoln spoke to Q one more time: “We will see each other again?”
“Yes,” Q said, “when the dream ends, and Reality tosses and turns and closes His eyes again. Then we shall meet at the credenza, we who test the poison without drinking and are not harmed, and we shall prepare for our next descent, until the last dream is dreamed.”
“Until the last dream is dreamed,” Lincoln repeats, his mind expanding, entering the tunnel that progresses from soft, blurred light into a descending coil of darkness, descending into the Earth.
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