The Unborn Versus The Undead
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"Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tzu. Between Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is called the transformation of things."

Chapter 5: Severed Heads and Sparks of Light

He lay beside Sorcha all night as she slept, a spectator in the immersive cinema of her dreams as they played themselves out in the air of her bedroom. Her aura glowed brightly and swelled while she was asleep, and he found that by lying beside her and lightly touching its surface with his fingertips he could give himself thrills of sensation. At first the feelings seemed random – one moment he would feel a slight chill of fear, the next he would be elated or sad – then he noticed that the feelings matched the events of her dreaming. He felt surges of adrenaline as an avatar of Sorcha ran down a dark corridor towards a bright light pursued by a swarm of bees; tears, or the feeling of tears in his throat, accompanied a dream she had of him, in which she called and called him on the phone but he didn’t answer.

This last one affected him so much that he couldn’t bear to remain uninvolved, and got up from the bed to answer. He reached for the image of the phone and felt it become real in his hand; he lifted the receiver and put it to his ear.

“Johnny? Is that you?”
“Yeah,’s me.”
“I thought you were coming over tonight. It’s late.”
“No, Sorcha...I can’t come over. I’m sorry.”
“Oh. I miss you...” She started to cry.
“I know. I miss you too.”
“Where are you?”
“There’s something I have to tell you.”
“Johnny? Where are you?”
“Sorcha, listen to me. I’m...I’m dead, Sorcha. Listen...”
“Dead? Oh Jesus...oh Jesus...”
“Sorcha...listen to me, it’s not your fault...”

She couldn’t reply. The phone disappeared from his hand and all the other images disappeared and he heard beginning to cry in her sleep. She cried so hard that she woke herself up, and remained practically hysterical until she reached for the phone by her bed and dialled a number with shaking fingers. She held the phone to her ear and ran one hand through her hair over and over until the person on the other end answered.

“Mags, it’s me. I just had the worst dream...”

Rush sat still, his mind racing. I can talk to her in dreams, he thought, frantically trying to assess the implications of this revelation. On top of this thought he felt a surge of anger that both Tom and the king had failed to inform him of this possibility, and following on that he suddenly wondered what have I done? He hoped that he hadn’t done anything harmful, because he knew well that he was going to try to do it again.

Unfortunately, Sorcha kept herself awake for the rest of the night by talking to her friend on the phone, and then making coffee and turning on the television and sitting on the sofa huddled in a blanket looking disturbed. When the Teletubbies appeared in the living room and tried to play with both of them Rush sighed in disgust and went back to the bedroom, where he stood motionless, looking out of the window where there was a view of a cat in the back of a garden. The cat was stalking a mouse, and Rush found it impossible to tell from this distance if it was a living cat thinking or dreaming about a mouse, a living mouse thinking or dreaming about a cat, or if they were both either undead or alive. A fifth possibility came to him: that the both of them were being dreamt by someone or something else. A moment later, they were gone.

When it came to eight a.m. Sorcha seemed to make some kind of decision, switched off the TV and went to the phone. Rush returned to watch her, knowing who she was calling. He didn’t try to stop her. She dialled his number and let it ring out, then tried again. She seemed to consider for a moment, and Rush saw his own mother appear in the room for an instant. Her face was gaunt and pale and he was shocked by how bad she looked. He hadn’t seen or spoken to her for months. Sorcha dialled his mother’s number and after five rings she got through. Rush's mother and she had a short conversation in which the details of his suicide and a few ritual condolences were exchanged in a shocked monotone. They had never got on well together.

Sorcha put the phone down and stood still for long minutes. All the blood had left her face and she did not blink, and her hand remained on the receiver as if to steady herself. Her aura dimmed and shrank until it was a barely discernible glimmering above her skin, and no thought-forms appeared in the room with them. It was as if her mind had become frozen, and only the barest pulse of life separated her from the state of the undead. Rush was afraid to move in case she should perceive him in this state of shock, when she was close to the border between realities, and become terrified beyond reason; so he stood still and waited for her to return.

As he looked at her body it became clear to him that it was nothing but a mechanism – a beautiful and complex and incredibly adaptive mechanism, but still of the same order of things as a tree or a stone or a machine of cogs and gears. Without its animating spirit it easily returned to a natural state of quiescence in which life was sustained by the autonomic functions, which would simply continue until they had consumed all the available stored energy and then gracefully cease. The soul was a different bucket of frogs altogether and he realized that he knew less than nothing about what it really was, and therefore nothing about what he was at this very moment.

What am I? Who am I? What is happening?

Sorcha returned from her trance bringing tears back from the underworld and letting them fall on the phone for a moment or two before returning to bed, where she curled up under her duvet hugging a pillow and cried softly for a long time. Rush lay on her bed with her, listening to her whisper I’m sorry over and over until he couldn’t bear it any longer and left her house in another frenzy of determination to find a genuine psychic.

On his way out of the window, he encountered Tom, who was standing insouciantly on the steps outside, leaning on his walking stick and pretending to be looking out over the street with interest. He was whistling the theme tune from Monty Python.

“I suppose you think you’ve really got one over on me now,” said Rush when he reached him.
“I don’t think anything. I am merely enjoying the view in this fine place.”
“What do you want?”
“I don’t want anything. I am at peace with myself and the world.”
Rush gritted his teeth. “Tom, I was just with Sorcha when she found out that I killed myself. I am in such a desperate mood that I could very easily pull your smug head off and kick it over those rooftops.”

Tom whirled his walking stick in a show of nonchalance. “I do apologize, Rush. Allow me to explain my presence here. You may recall a certain football match of vital national importance. It is my proud duty to invite you to a training session, that is, if you’re not too busy ogling your ex as she goes about her morning ablutions.”

Rush felt anger and energy surge through him, swelling his form as it had during football practice, and before he had time to think about it he had reached out with both hands and gripped Tom’s head by the eye sockets and the jaw, tearing it off and spraying both of them with blood that gouted from the stump of the neck. His eyes bulging from their sockets with rage, he screamed Why are you such an arsehole? at Tom’s head as he held it between his two hands, then drop-kicked it. As it happened due to its irregular topology he miscalculated the striking angle and didn’t manage to clear the opposite building; the head collided with a chimney with a nasty crunch and rolled down the sloped roof to lodge in a wide gutter, where it began to curse and moan and generally make a show of itself.

Rush, who felt considerably better now, nevertheless regretted the extreme violence of his reaction and hoped Tom would not hold a grudge. He climbed up to the roof to retrieve the head, which refrained from abusing him as he climbed down again with it cradled against his chest, possibly afraid that he might do something even worse. The headless body was running around in circles in the street and Rush had a few comedy moments of running around after it trying to place the head back on the stump of the neck, until finally he had a brainwave and instead simply thrust it into the body’s hands, upon which it stopped and raised the head up to its neck and allowed the gullet and sinews and blood vessels and the spinal cord and column and finally the skin to knit themselves together again.

Tom stood and stared at Rush in the middle of the street and vice versa. There is very that two people can say to one another after one has torn the other’s head off in response to an insult.

“I really didn’t enjoy that,” Tom said finally.
“You deserved it. Were you this obnoxious while you were alive?”
Tom didn’t answer, but simply looked down at his feet, his face taking on an expression of deep sadness and regret. Unexpectedly, Rush felt sorry for him. He realized that beneath Tom’s sarcastic and superior exterior was some kind of deep shame and insecurity.
“Look, forget it,” he said. “I was being oversensitive anyway. I have a temper on me. We should be friends.”
He extended his hand to shake, and Tom shook it, mumbling friends it is. They stood there for another moment before Tom cleared his throat and said “So, were you off anywhere in particular?”
“I was going to try and find a psychic,” Rush admitted somewhat sheepishly.
“Well you can forget about that. I haven’t found an honest one in the whole of Dublin.”

Why were you looking? Rush thought to say, but something unusual caught his eye; or at least, more unusual than the normal dream-logical chaos that Rush was by now used to seeing. At the end of the street over Tom’s shoulder, under a car, he saw a faint sparkle. At first he thought that it was daylight reflected in the eyes of a cat, but then he saw the sparkle bob and move in a way that he remembered from the lights he had seen near the canal while searching for the king. It was one of the unborn.

Tom followed his gaze and turned to watch as the spark floated out from under the wheels of the car and moved towards the row of houses. It moved up the street towards them at an easy pace, pausing at each gate for a moment.
“It’s choosing a home,” Tom whispered.

The spark paused for a long time at no.9, where a small boy was playing in the garden, the air around him full of lurid orange explosions and tiny soldiers fighting battles with each other using the latest miniature military equipment. There was another small boy without an aura sitting on the grass behind him, watching him play. They looked so similar that Rush guessed intuitively that this was the boy’s dead brother. The spark bobbed up the garden path and stopped in front of the playing child, who looked up and scratched his face, then looked up at the sky. The boy behind him, meanwhile, stood up with an odd expression and approached the spark curiously. When he reached out his hand to touch it, it glowed brighter, and the undead boy began to wither and shrink silently, his skin aging until it looked like that of an eighty-year-old and his body collapsing in on itself; his expression, however, was tranquil and surrendered. In another second he was gone and two sparks remained, hovering in front of the living boy, who sensed the sudden absence of his invisible companion and began to cry, then ran inside through the door, which was slightly ajar. The sparks floated unhurriedly after him and entered the house.

“Now that was something to see,” breathed Tom.
“It ate him,” said Rush, who felt deeply disturbed by what he had just seen.
“It didn’t just eat him, it recycled him. Paddy was right, we’re in big trouble. He said that the unborn were doing things to people but I’d never seen it. I don’t know how it’s possible. They shouldn’t even have minds...and if they can turn us into them...
Tom pulled at his arm urgently. “Come on,” he said. “We’ve got to tell him.”

Paddy and the rest of the team were in the same field as before, and Tom led Rush through the white corridor again, waiting impatiently while Rush inspected the walls and wondered how to open new doors.
“You don’t want to do that, trust me,” he said when Rush reached out tentatively to touch the wall at a point level with his eyes. “This corridor isn’t a toy. You don’t know where you might end up or what you might see. There’s other places than Dublin in the wide universe, you know.”
“How do you know where the right door is?”

“Because Paddy showed it to me.” Tom pressed a point in the corridor that, try as he might, Rush could find no distinguishing marks on at all. The old wooden shed door appeared as before and they stepped through. They were mildly inconvenienced on the other side by the fact that the old lady whose shed it was had purchased a new padlock, disturbed by her observation that the door seemed to swing open of its own accord even when she was sure that she had left the latch on. Rush had found a gap between two warped planks of wood at the side, behind a mass of old rakes and brooms and shears, and by warping the material of their bodies to a hitherto unknown extent, to Rush anyway, they were able to squeeze out into the garden where they quickly resumed their accustomed shape.

“Your neck’s too long,” said Tom.
“Are you sure? It feels right.”
“It’s definitely too long. Now it’s too short. Here.”
He held his hand above Rush’s head at the correct level and Rush lengthened his neck until he felt his hair tingle with the contact with Tom’s fingers.

When they got to the training ground it was clear that most of the team had developed considerably in terms of their football skills, although the child Róisín still stood aside and played by herself most of the time, and when she did play it was rarely by the rules. Despite the improvement in their skill and teamwork, however, Rush had the growing feeling that the whole enterprise was worthless now that he had seen that the unborn had the ability to consume the undead. He felt an inner despair about this and about his desire to contact Sorcha, and he found himself wishing internally that this was all a dream from which he might wake up. The sun gave a cold winter glow overhead that scattered through the leaves of horse chestnuts and beeches around the sides of the pitch as Tom and he crossed the dappled grass to where Paddy stood goading his team. To his astonishment the high king of Ireland was there also, discussing the games with Paddy as he tucked into a set of sandwiches from a trendy coffee shop.

“Hello again,” said the king when he saw Rush.
“You know each other?” asked Paddy in surprise.
“We met today or yesterday or one of these days. The lad asked me to contact his girlfriend.”
“It’s to be expected. I take it you did not.”
“Indeed I did not.”

Rush gave a mock bow and said Failte romhat, a ri uasail,” and the king growled and presented him with the middle finger of the hand that was not holding a sandwich.
“What’s he doing here?” Tom said abruptly without looking at the king.
“Bit of respect for your king, lad,” said Paddy.
“I’m no one’s fucking king,” said the king.
“You are what you are,” replied Paddy calmly. “And to answer your rude question, Tom, the king is here because we are friends and I invited him to observe the training and make any comments he felt might be appropriate.”

Tom said nothing, but hawked and spat on the ground, then jogged onto the pitch to take up position in one of the goals.
“That one still hasn’t forgiven me,” said the king. “A long memory. Obsessive personality. I’m surprised you have him on the team.”
“He has a strong mind,” said Paddy. “What is your general opinion on our chances?”
“With this lot? You’re all going to be eaten alive. There’s no two ways about it.”
Paddy exhaled loudly through his nostrils.
“I know. And if we have the Hound?”
“If you have the Hound then it’s a match all right. You might even last a few minutes. But you know you’re bound to lose this. The future is what it is and we cannot avoid it. Don’t you know that?”
“I know it.”

Rush’s despair made him sick and he couldn’t stay quiet.
“Why the fuck are we even doing this if we’re bound to lose? Why waste our time?”
They both looked at him compassionately.
“The fight is worth having, lad,” said the king.
“But it doesn’t matter. You said yourself we are bound to lose, and then we’re dead. All of this is gone. Ireland is gone.”
“I do not agree that we are as doomed as the king says that we are,” said Paddy, “yet even if we are, the manner of our passing is important in a way I cannot explain to you. In the end, despite the hopelessness of the battle, when it comes to your own end you will fight like you never imagined you could. Outnumbered by millions to one you will still fight. Every living thing will fight against its own obliteration. What else is there?”

Rush found himself crying a little. He turned to the king.
“Please tell me all of this is just a dream,” he said. “Tell me I’m dreaming, that this isn’t real, that I can wake up if I like.”
The king was silent a moment, then said, “It’s a dream, lad. It’s not real. None of it is happening and you can wake up now if you choose.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Rush.
Paddy clapped his hands together. “An admirable if predictable reaction. And that, I sincerely hope, is the end of this particular discussion. Tom!”

Tom’s head turned in their direction as Paddy reached inside his jacket for another football, which he laid on the ground in front of his feet. Tom braced himself and crouched, and the intensity of his concentration caused dead leaves to lift around him as if in a gust of wind. Paddy struck the ball with a canny twist of his ankle that initially sent it screaming towards the top left-hand corner of the goal, to be taken over in mid-flight by a terrific bend that swung the trajectory by almost forty-five degrees so that the ball homed in on the opposite corner.

Tom had not been fooled by the bend and was already in motion, taking two steps and launching himself at full stretch towards the corner. His hands reached the ball a few inches from the goal line and this time he seemed to have acquired the correct focus of energy because it didn’t snip them off at the wrist as it had before; there was a slapping sound that was audible for miles around, and the ball was diverted around the post while Tom landed in a tucked roll, standing up and shaking his hands painfully.

“Excellent,” murmured Paddy. He gave Tom a thumbs-up and then turned to Rush.
“I think you should take your mind off your girl and take a few penalties at Tom,” he said. “See if you can put a hole in something vital. He’s a lot more solid than last time.”
“I’m not in the mood,” said Rush sullenly. Paddy sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t make an exception for him?” he said to the king. “Write his cailín a little letter? I need him for the game.”
“Fuck your game,” said the king pleasantly.
“Ah, well. Suit yourself about the practice, then, lad. I have another job for you in any case. I was going to send Pat Kenny, but seeing as you’re not in the mood for practice it may as well be you. It’s an utterly hopeless mission and so it doesn’t matter a whit who I send as the chances of success are equally infinitesimal in any case.”
“Sounds wonderful. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to find Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster.”Cuchulain Rush laughed. “Yeah, right.”Cuchulain “I am not joking.”Cuchulain “I won’t do it.”Cuchulain “You will not have a choice. In a moment I am going to thrust you into a hole in the reality we now occupy and you will have no way back other than to find a person with the ability to make similar holes, i.e. the Hound himself. I will provide you with an automaton which will furnish you with information you may need on your quest.”Cuchulain “Paddy, please, I can’t do it, I have to find a psychic, I need to talk to fucking prick!”

Paddy had shoved him had in the chest with one hand before he could finish his plea, and he toppled backwards into a door that had opened up in the air behind him. The last thing he saw as the door, a perfect circle torn in a pastoral scene, shrank into nothingness, was the face of the king, his beard writhing obscenely and his almost-toothless mouth gaping as he laughed.

The Unborn Versus The Undead
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