Science Fiction

Restorations | Chapter 3 | Miracle of the Relic

by Michael David

Restorations is a novelette presented in 3 parts.
Chapter One is available as A Game of Turkame
Chapter Two is available as Patron of the Arts

This Final Posting is Chapter Three, Miracle of the Relic

“This will not do!” Eldriq shouted.  His voice echoed in the shadows of the temple.

Above him the lights burned at peak intensity, illuminating the frescoes from twenty meters up to their full one-hundred-meter reach. “Out, all of you!” he continued, repeating the command in both English and Guillarin. “Creytel, get them out of here.”

At first there was silence, then from shadows and side rooms, sliding down ladders out of the scaffolding above, workers hurried to the center of the temple.  They were clearly cowed by Eldriq’s presence and by his guards, but they turned to Ulecker for their lead.

For her part, Ulecker looked to Michelle.  She appeared confused, then Creytel stepped between them and began pushing Ulecker bodily away, toward the doors.

“Hey!” Michelle shouted angrily. “Wait. It’s OK.  They’ll go.” Michelle nodded to her crew. “It will be all right,” she said.

With a turn of her head, Ulecker signaled the other workers to follow her in retreat.  Eldriq’s guards held open the massive gates while Michelle’s confused and mumbling crew filed out.

Standing by the stone table on which Michelle’s plans and computer disks lay spread, Eldriq turned to her and began his tirade before the first of Michelle’s workers had left the temple.

“Where is the legend of the Alkashani bridge,” he asked, “the world’s first suspension bridge?  I’ve seen it since I was a child!  Right there!”  He pointed a straight white finger toward one of the upper lunettes, a flat, semicircular panel below a temple window.  Today the fresco showed a small river, minus its famous bridge.  Two Guillarin figures, previously unseen, strolled side by side, watching small, silvered fish leap from the stream beside them.

“The bridge was a recent addition,” Michelle admitted.  “It was one of the first things we cleaned away.”

“And where are the troops with the arquebus in Lucresa’s “Conquest of the-”

“Suspension bridges and guns did not exist on Guillarin two thousand years ago,” Michelle interrupted.  She tried to hold Eldriq’s gaze and not to back down. “Even a child should know as much.”

Eldriq
By Volodymyr Tverdokhlib

“Children know nothing,” Eldriq insisted.  “Adults know nothing; you’re talking of matters over which philosophers and historians might bicker. You have taken well-known Atoni symbols out of the temple!  Are you that impenetrable, that willing to face the results of your defiance?”

Michelle could see Eldriq clench and unclench his hands.  The muscles of his forearms spasmed within their sleeves.

“You said you know nothing of art, nothing of restoration,” Michelle said.  She tried not to stammer, to hold her voice steady and even.  “I agree.  The frescoes have many layers, first grime, then paint, then more dust and grime, then varnish, then paint.  Artists have been repainting this artifact for two thousand years, all to their own designs, or,” she added sarcastically, “to the designs of their patrons.”

“I am the patron now.  And you have completed half the work I commissioned. Less than half.  Seeing this, I wish you had not begun!  Do you think it was easy to bring the council into compliance with this attempt?  Miss White, why do you think I’ve protected you from the mob, given you free reign for so long…” He motioned one of his guards over to the table.  With a subtle twist of his fingers, Eldriq had the man unsling his automatic rifle and hold it to the ready. It was a bald threat, and it did not fail to impress Michelle.

“I am trying,” Michelle assured him.

Eldriq glanced to the table, then, seeing the turkame board, he reached out to first touch and then toy with the marbled king. “This piece is in a losing position. Yours?” He took the piece, enveloping it in his hand.  “Let its absence remind you that a handful of days remain before the anniversary ceremonies.  Whatever game you play, you cannot win.”

As though an idea occurred to him, Eldriq straightened and turned suddenly away. “I will return with the full Council of Alecord,” he said, “on the day before the ceremonies.  They will be made aware of your failure beforehand.  And When they come upon this, this desecration, it will be Eldriq who leads them in their outrage. Yes. Perhaps you are part of some plot, a human conspiracy against the religious heritage of the Guillarin… One way or another they will rally behind me.”

“I’m only trying to reveal the truth,” Michelle pleaded.

“Why would I have hired you for that?  Yes, a good move!”  Eldriq laughed, holding fast to the playing piece in his grasp.  “An excellent recovery.”

“I will explain it to them,” Michelle said forcefully. “They’ve got to understand!”

“The understanding you seek, Miss White, will be up to the mob.”

On her way back that night, the crowds had seemed more roused, and more hostile than ever.   The low murmur of their dissatisfaction continued even as the singer of the midnight calm began his intonations.

###

And the colors.  Here were vibrant colors, hues brought alive by something,- an unknown, an additive whose secret was known only to Lucresa and so remarkable in its effect that it startled Michelle and the Guillarin alike.

That night Michelle awoke in a cold sweat. Once again, she had been unable to contact the spaceport at Retiga, though she had tried for hours. The Guillarin at the hotel office smiled, apologizing and never seeming to grow impatient or weary with her requests.  Nevertheless, it became clear that Eldriq did not want her to leave, did not want her to successfully make contact with her own kind.

In dreams, just before her startled waking, images of a dozen medieval works appeared to Michelle, at times becoming one collage of jumbled colors. “The Miracle of the Relic of the Cross” and “The Payment of the Tithe” came to the forefront of her tortured thoughts. What were they trying to tell her? Closing her eyes, Michelle fought to bring the information to light.

“The Miracle of the Relic of the Cross”, completed in 1494 by Vittore Carpaccio,- she remembered it as depicting members of the Tornabuoni family, incorporating them into its holy story. Many of the rest portrayed realistic images of men, men who had names and frailties and places in their communities, creatures upon whose faces were revealed the scattered fragments of their souls.

What had Lucresa’s intention been, she asked herself, back in those days when the Reja and the Atoni were at each other’s throats?

How had he brought them together?  By balancing the ideals of both tribes and convincing them that they could coexist?  It did not seem a reasonable answer.  In the darkness Michelle lay in the cold of her own sweat, unable to understand.  What was the solution; what had Lucresa accomplished “such as to make everyone speechless with astonishment?”

###

In the morning, after hours of fearful, lonely thoughts in which Michelle first decided upon one course of action only to reconsider and choose another, she sought out Ulecker and risked everything with a single question.

“How much,” Michelle whispered to her Guillarin friend, “how much of a risk would you take for me?”  For a moment it seemed as if the directness of the question had startled Ulecker and that she would not answer, then Michelle felt the alien’s hand against her cheek.

Cool though the flesh of the Guillarin appeared, the heat of Ulecker’s touch was soothing.  The alien’s eyes remained an impenetrable blue upon blue, revealing nothing until she was prepared to speak.

“I am ready,” Ulecker said, “to bring Lucresa’s work to light, to restore the life and the truth of it.”  She drew Michelle to her.  Her hands closed reassuringly about Michelle’s shoulders.  “Tell us what to do.”

“How much AB-57c do we have left?”

“Twenty or thirty liters.”

“Bring all the applicators here to me.  I’ll reset them.  And we’ll have to watch Creytel; we can’t let him get suspicious.”

As evening came on, the atmosphere in the temple began to change.  After months of quiet work, of painstaking progress, the crew began to bustle.  Barrels of solvent were rolled into the center of the temple, after which applicators were filled from a portable spout and Michelle’s crew moved up into the scaffolding, taking positions no more than a meter apart along the walls.

“No, no,” Michelle said as she came up behind them. “Like this.”  She took an applicator, setting the cross-shaped device to high and placing it against the fresco.  She made a wide sweep. It covered a three-foot swath in one move. She repositioned the applicator halfway down the first swath and reversed direction. “I want everything done by morning. We’ll work all night.”

“Come on,” Ulecker urged them.  “Let’s go, let’s go!”

“Where’d you learn that sort of English?” Michelle asked. “From me?”  She smiled.

It did not take long for Creytel to notice the increased pace. He had stopped at the table for coffee, but when he looked toward the walls his composure was lost.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, shouting up at them from the floor. “You’re destroying the frescoes!”  His hand shook, spilling coffee from the cup; he began to pace.

“Nonsense!” Michelle shouted back. “This is the final stage. We’re done testing. It’s in my contract,” she lied.

“But, but I can see…  That one, he’s wiping away Lucresa’s triumphal arch!”

“Lucresa painted no triumphal arch, nor dams, nor bridges, no mystics bent in prayer.  There are no visions and no machines on these walls.”

“The guar… the guards,” Creytel stammered. “They’ll stop you. I’ll call the guards.”

“You’d better get Eldriq,” Michelle answered.  “You know his orders were that no one disturb us.”

“Yes,” Ulecker added. “You’d better get Eldriq.”

Dropping his cup, Creytel turned and ran from the temple, his hands flailing through the air. Behind him rang out cascading chimes of Guillarin laughter.

“Now,” Michelle said. “We need to get down there and close that door; make sure all the doors are fastened from the inside.  If the guards ask why, tell them we have to keep out the desert air for a while.”

Like each of the dozen gates around the temple, the one left open for the restoration team boasted two wooden doors sheathed in bands of iron. They rose to twelve feet above the floor and it required two men each to push them into place. This done, the Guillarins returned to the scaffolding and picked up their applicators.

“How are you so certain about what is and is not on these walls?” Ulecker asked Michelle.

“In the end,” she answered, “your histories don’t say what happened to Lucresa. No one knows. Nothing is said of him after he finished, as if a wall of silence fell over the event.”

“It was done,” Ulecker said, “what is there to tell after it is done?”

“I don’t believe we know what was done,” Michelle answered. “You’ve read the histories.  Lucresa was treated as a slave, held in thrall by patrons from both sides. Did he really try to bring them together, or was he trying to satisfy them both to keep himself alive.  Or did he do neither, and let the devil take them…”

“But we know,-”

“We know what a dozen anonymous painters and a thousand years have done.  By tomorrow we’ll know the truth.”

Slowly the temple brightened as the grime and somber images of a thousand years were wiped away, leaving behind bright, harmonious colors.

Michelle moved along the scaffolding behind her crew, and though the technique was working, she felt her spine chill at more than a single point. History was being destroyed, some of Lucresa’s original work marred by the brutal sweeps of the applicators. Two thousand years of history was being stripped to the bone.

There was no time to record it, not a moment to spare.

Through the night her crew returned to the chemical barrels again and again, until the smell of the mixture permeated their clothing and the temple both and they began to swoon with its presence heavy on the air.

“Ulecker,” Michelle said.  “Take half the crew, get to the top of the scaffolding.  Start opening the windows.”

“Right away.”  In taking a step, Ulecker stopped and turned. He watched as Michelle wiped a trickle of sweat from her forehead.  “You know, you may yet become a master at turkame.”

“How do you mean?”

“Working at night, when even Eldriq will risk no violence. But he will be at the gate in the morning. Are you ready for morning?”

###

At first Michelle could not remember falling asleep, only sitting with her back to the frescoes, closing her eyes; they should not have let her sleep, and still Michelle mentally thanked whoever had thrown a bit of tarpaulin over her against the chill of the desert night. Light was already filling the temple, coming through the open windows that curved in the shape of Guillarin lance points above the doors.

As she began to move, Michelle heard the crew as they continued to work, scraping at the frescoes, their voices coming from hundreds of feet away. Something stopped her from rising.

“We used to do battle in the night,” someone whispered.  Michelle felt the flat of a knife touch her neck. It was cold. “However calm the night, the sun always rises. The singer is done.”

“Cowain,” Michelle said.  She felt his arm tighten across her chest. “Cowain, wait…”   A pounding began at the main door.  An automatic weapon was fired into the air, followed by shouts, demands to be let in.

“Eldriq wants me dead,” Michelle said, “more than you. Go, let him in.” The blade turned, its edge harsh against Michelle’s throat.

“If he wants you, let him climb to those slits above the doors,” Cowain said.  She felt his breath as he came close against her, his breathing more ragged and uneasy than she had ever known in a Guillarin.

“Let him run from assassins, hide in alleys,-”

“Cowain, stop!” Michelle ordered. The light increased. A noise like the hit of a battering ram came to the door, followed by a roar, the sound of many voices raised in anger.  “How long… have you been here?  Did you look?”

“You have no right, alien. You have no right.”

“Look at the frescoes!” Michelle screamed.

Cowain swung around before her, his weight crushing her, his hand turning the jeweled knife until its point cut the skin beneath Michelle’s chin.  Yet as he did this, Cowain’s head turned, his eyes glancing away from her until he became silhouetted in the rising light.

Stillness.

Then sounds Michelle did not recognize filled the darkness, words unknown, Guillarin words,- coming from Cowain.  They seemed part shock, part astonishment, oaths followed as quickly by a breath of quiet awe.  The point of the knife dropped away, and Michelle took the opportunity to break free from him and rise.

From the opposite end of the scaffolding, Ulecker was running toward them.

“What do we do?” Ulecker asked.  She did not seem to notice Cowain as she repeated the question, glancing back toward the door where the pounding had increased, and waves of dust rose from the ancient beams.

Below them the rest of the crew gathered, looking up.

An angry crowd gathers
By Ilkin Zeferli

“Do what they say,” Michelle ordered. “Open the doors, but not that gate. Start on the opposite side! Everyone, four to a gate, open three at once and wave the people in!”

This they did. And as Ulecker had predicted in the days before, the tension in the streets was at a critical mass, with all eyes fixed on the temple. The crowds moved, and up into the temple came the sound of their steps, their breaths, and their words, a susurrus quickly cresting into a thunderous noise.

The people rushed up the low, sloping steps of the temple, ignoring warning shots from Eldriq’s guards.

Priests and ministers urged them on, first hundreds, then thousands of Guillarin to each pair of guards.  The gates filled with the curious, shoulder to shoulder, pushing in across the floor with their eyes looking upward toward the walls and the ceiling, their voices rising and echoing in the cavernous place.

Some of those entering stopped to help Michelle’s crew, flinging open every gate, door, and side entrance until the temple was filled with light from both above and below.

Finally, Michelle spied Eldriq and Creytel forcing their way past the others, guards making a path for them into the crowd. The Councilmen of Alecord came on behind them, their white robes standing out against the dark, gray garb of the majority.

They were looking for her, Michelle believed, and she almost called out to them. But something was happening.  As the floor filled with bodies, the shuffle of feet and the excitement of alien voices began to diminish.

Second by second, the rush subsided; the Guillarins were holding their tongues.

Above them, all the conventions of the temple had been dissolved, wiped away in the work of a single night.

Gone were the sharply chiseled profiles, the merchants and the moneychangers, the mystics and astrologers, no longer seen in their carefully staged scenes of professional life.

Gone were the moral overtones of right and might.  Gone,- the visions of heaven, the symbols of geometry, the armies, the mysticism, science, faith, and industry of the Reja and of the Atoni.

In their place Michelle had revealed the unexpected.  A child looks up confidently at his father, who has eyes only for the boy. A soldier warms himself by a fire, and the warmth is everything.  Intimate space, of family rooms and kitchens, of glens and long-forgotten streams, dominated the vision waiting in the space above the crowd.

Michelle White in awe of the Restorations
By Jozef Klopacka

And the colors.  Here were vibrant colors, hues brought alive by something,- an unknown, an additive whose secret was known only to Lucresa and so remarkable in its effect that it startled Michelle and the Guillarin alike.

Looking down from the frescoes, the figures all but came alive.  The ancient technique caused the pupils of their eyes to shine; it gave luster to their bodies, a luminous presence breathing life into each figure and inhabiting them as the soul inhabits the body.

All traces of social affectation had been erased in the night.  They were swept away, revealing more intimate designs than pose or costume might show.  For here, Lucresa had exalted the singular in each image, the love, the innocence, or the lack thereof.

Singers, soldiers, fathers, and spies -those who build and those who destroy- all looked down upon the crowd with their souls exposed, brought forward, brought past professions which now hung but loosely about them like tattered garments soon to be cast aside.

Then, unseen for perhaps a thousand years, lay revealed the self-portrait of the master.

It dominated nothing, but waited in one quiet corner of the work, all but alone.

Mirrored in calm water, kneeling before his own reflection in a pond, Lucresa reached out to make contact with his image, the slightest of ripples spreading away from his touch.  Anxiously, without modesty, he seemed to consider the reality of his own worn body.  And the ripples spread beyond Lucresa, reaching out in their subtle shades through all the frescoes of the temple.

In every visible form he had revealed the invisible, joining them as they themselves were joined,- in life, spirit, cruelty, frailty, and humor. And in this betrayal, by this unconscionable baring of the truth, it seemed in the frail pose he had chosen for himself, Lucresa knew his own condemnation was at hand.

Below them Eldriq shouted, ordering his men forward.  But the crowd would not move.  It could not.  Thousands more were crowding in along the walls.  They were shoulder to shoulder, pressed tight until the crush became impossible, until those nearest the scaffolding began to climb.

Suddenly, from near one of the gates someone began to chant,- to sing.  They were words of peace, rhythms that Michelle recognized from the song of the midnight calm.  Others took up the words, Ulecker joining them, and Michelle recognized, with some confusion, that Cowain had started the chorus.

Though she knew the songs could not save her, she smiled.  Lucresa’s work was beautiful, and more intricate than anyone had dreamed. It showed the Guillarin as they were, both beautiful and hateful, the gods and devils of their own reality.

Michelle looked to Eldriq. The Councilmen at his side were conferring with him, more than one of them having joined in the singing, the others mimicking his grim countenance as he looked toward Michelle.

As she caught and held Eldriq’s gaze, her patron looked up at her with the cold eyes of a statue.

From within his robes Eldriq withdrew a small object.

Michelle struggled over the distance to see what he was doing, wondering if he had drawn a weapon, but then realized he could have ordered his men to open fire at any time.

It was a turkame piece he held, the marbled king Eldriq had taken during his last visit to the temple.

Lucresa of Alecord
By Musicman

Though his lips moved, Michelle could not hear what he was saying over the voices of the others. Soon Eldriq ceased his attempts to call to her, only holding that single turkame piece above the heads of the crowd, laughing as he turned this way and that, trapped within a crush of bodies, held by a living wave that had begun to move of its own accord, pushing toward one set of gates while a new rush of the curious poured in through another.

Whatever would happen to her now, she had made her choice.  In half a lifetime she had found no solace in buckling under to fears and lies, and at last would rather face the dangers of the truth, especially if it were to do justice to a greater reality.

Michelle looked back to the self-portrait of Lucresa.  There, before all, he knelt in recognition of his own frailties and those of his people.  But in the mystery of his expression, so alien, so Guillarin, Michelle could not be certain if he was about to laugh or to cry.

The End

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