Boban Knežević

Darker than a stormy night

(Courtesy of "ORPHIA" journal, Bulgaria, 1990.)

It's about fifteen miles from Shark City to Velus. My car stopped somewhere between these two cities. I was alone, the night had just begun and the rain was mercilessly pouring down... It was exactly the kind of wet, pitch-dark night that electromobiles choose to reveal their worst defects. When the battery runs down or some other part stops working, the whole vehicle is flooded by the darkness. The darkness, however, didn't worry me so much as the other slowly creeping enemy: the cold.

I knew I should move the car from the middle of the road, but the thought of going out sent shivers along my spine. It was not working in the rain that bothered me, but the fact that opening the door meant losing all the accumulated warmth in the endless night. It had already started growing cold and I expected to start trembling in a few minutes.

The road between Shark City and Velus is straight as an arrow, lined with meadows and the occasional low grove. I could see nothing of this now, though. The falling rain drummed on the car's roof, on the windshield in front of me, on the puddles which constantly changed their shape as if taking part in a macabre alien dance

A light appeared in the distance... A car was approaching, and only when I saw its headlights did I realize how dense the surrounding sheets of water were.

I had no time for contemplation. I gritted my teeth and got out of the car as quickly as possible. I intended to close the door immediately, but a wave of cold enveloped me and I stood still for a few precious moments. Afterwards, closing the door, I knew that the interior of the car was now no warmer than the air outside.

The approaching car filled me with hope. I had to reach Shark City or Velus and find a place to spend the night, search for a service station and try to prepare my car for a further long drive. Or, if that wasn't possible, to find some other way to continue my journey. I had to be on Odron-peak not later than noon tomorrow; there were some very unpleasant things in store for me if I didn't make it on time.

The blinding headlights approached with lightning speed, but the driver paid no attention to my wild gesticulations, nor to my immobilized car. The darkness swallowed him up and everything was as before: the rain, the dark, and I, alone between Shark City and Velus...

After swearing for some time I realized that words wouldn't help, so I decided to move the car to the side of the road. In the pitch darkness it was impossible to see the edge of the road and I pushed the vehicle until pushing it became more difficult and something sticky splashed under my feet.

Ten minutes later the sky blazed again and I went out for the second time. I saw the same vehicle coming from the opposite direction, and cursed my luck: here I was, stranded in the middle of nowhere, and I didn't even have a torch. I just stood beside the car and waved. After the speeding car shot by again without even slowing down I knew that what I had to do next was walk... Well, I could stay in the car all night long and try to stop somebody, but eventually I would nevertheless be obliged to walk to Shark City. I chose it because I had once spent ten days there with some people and I hoped they would help me now.

So I started walking, slowly at first, then faster and faster, trying to keep at least part of the bitter cold at bay. I knew that later my feet would hurt as never before, but to be late in reaching Odron-peak meant imprisonment with but a single right: the right to die.

Water poured down my jacket, my face was wet, my underwear too... I walked on, cursing my luck, following the invisible asphalt, surrounded by invisible fields... And then I saw a shadow by the road, a shadow hidden in the darkness. There was something on the road ahead, something darker than the stormy night.

I tried to listen, but heard only the sound of the falling rain. The thing was about twenty feet from me and stood on the edge of the road, resembling an abandoned car. Its shape was very hard to distinguish and I had the impression that its inside grew brighter. I was suddenly immobilized by the blinding glare of its headlights, realizing that it was a car only when it moved toward me.

It came forward slowly and noiselessly, as if just woken from sleep, and I stepped out of its way. I couldn't see it clearly, but I could tell from its headlights and windshield that it was huge.

It stopped next to me. The interior was filled with a dim bluish light, allowing me to get only vague impressions of everything. I saw only the outline of a driver and nothing more. Hope and fear chased themselves through my heart, with a strong predominance of the latter. I even wanted to turn around and run into the fields, but lacked the force for it... Frozen beside the queer car I waited and hoped.

A movement. The door slowly opened, as if falling against me, and stood still. I looked at the motionless shape of the driver inviting me into his car, but something strange and mysterious held me rooted to the spot. The door remained open and the warmth dissipated in the night. But the driver didn't pay any attention, he didn't even look in my direction. He had invited me in and nothing else troubled him.

Feeling that I had no other choice, I cautiously walked to the car. As I entered, my eyes were riveted on the control panel, which resembled a small computer center: lights, dials, figures, lights again, rows of LED's and LCD's, most of them completely incomprehensible to me.

I sat back in the comfortable seat and looked at the driver as the first pleasant feeling of warmth ran through my body. He looked at me too. I saw nothing strange in him at this moment.

"I am Gortan," he said softly.

I kept silent and the car drove on along the road which was lit up for at least half a mile ahead by its powerfull strong headlights.

"Where to?" He asked.

"What you mean?" I finally said, realizing that my jaw was numb with cold.

"Where should I drive you to?" Gortan repeated patiently.

"Just drive to wherever you are going," I replied, not sure of his intentions. "A city. Any city at all."

I didn't have the courage to tell him that my destination, Shark City, lay in the opposite direction. But nothing eluded him.

"You were walking toward Shark City. Is that where you live?"

"No. My car broke down not far from here, so I went to look for help."

"Yeah, could happen if one has a bad car."

I kept silent.

"Where are you headed to?" He asked after a while.

"It's a long way from here." I said.

"There's neither a long way nor an unattainable goal if one has a good car."

I smiled for the first time since the night had begun.

"I'm going to the ocean. Odron-peak."

It was more than three hundred kilometers away.

"Good, let's go to Odron-peak... I've never been there."

The car gathered speed. It was pleasant to feel the acceleration pushing me back into the seat.

"My car is beside the road... Over there!" I exclaimed when the headlights illuminated a blue car at the road's edge. Gortan stopped his vehicle close by my car and I felt something strange in his movements.

"Take all you need," he said softly. "Someday you'll come back to take the rest... if you still feel like it." Panic flashed through my mind. What he said sounded somehow ominous, more as a conclusion than as a proposition...

I gathered all the necessary things from the car and some minutes later I felt the terrible acceleration pushing me once more back into the seat.

Time and again I looked stealthily at the dashboard in front of me; the speedometer rushed to the figure 100 and I had the feeling it would never stop. One hundred meters per second on a wet road! Almost unconsciously, as if in a trance, I groped for the safety left and locked it. My eyes were riveted on the speedometer, which was now showing 130 meters per second. The car continued accelerating.

It was not only pure power that sent this car racing in the night. No less important for its speed were the shape, the suspension, the tires... In short, it was a perfect car.

"Damn it," I broke the silence finally, "what kind of car is this?"

Gortan didn't reply. He kept silent, and I left him in peace. It seemed as if he needed time to think about what he had to tell me. And it was obvious that he had something extraordinary to tell.

"You'll have noticed perhaps... I'm a cripple."

Exactly! All the time I had felt something queer in his movements and now I knew why nothing moved except his hands. Both his legs were in darkness, so I hadn't looked at them yet.

"No legs." Gortan said calmly. "I always liked the feeling of speed; one day I had a crash and lost them both. When I left the hospital I was incapable of doing even the simplest everyday things for myself... I sank deeper and deeper in self-pity and despair, and had perhaps no more than a year left, when the representatives of KOL laboratories came to me with an extraordinary proposition... They told me KOL had the means to implant me in a special car, so that I could drive permanently. I had nothing to loose... All that happened more than fifty years ago, but the car is still the same..."

"Fifty years?!" By his face, or at least by what I could see of it, I wouldn't have thought him more than forty.

"I'm eighty years old." He said it simply and I knew it was true. "If everything goes as they promised, I should live another fifty years... As a highway lord... a night rider..."

"I can't understand? Why did they do it... and how many times?"

"There aren't many such cars in the world, maybe fifty all in all... I could have as easily chosen to become a spaceship pilot or to be frozen and revived after a hundred or a thousand years, which is what almost everybody chooses."

"But why do they do it?"

"A department of KOL laboratories in the far North is engaged in some sort of immortality research. They need volunteers for some very unpleasant experiments. Afterwards they offer you some choices as a reward. I, clearly, chose the car."

"How much does it cost them?"

"A lot. This car is a trifle for them; they could produce as many as needed. It is much harder to find volunteers for those experiments, because the main condition is complete cooperation with the scientists."

"What kind of experiments?"

Gortan's artificially young face convulsed. Obviously even half a century hadn't been enough to wipe away the memories of the experience.

"Every kind of experiment," he said grimly. "Sometimes people just crack."

After that last remark he remained silent for a while. The road slid under our wheels with the mind-bending speed of 120 meters per second. All of this seemed strange, almost impossible, or at least illogical.

"What kind of life is it that you lead now?" I asked at last. "How do you eat, what makes this car move, how come you don't get fed up with all this?"

"I'm inseparably implanted in the car. We breathe, live, and move together and when the time comes we shall die together too."

"So you are some kind of cyborg," I said warily.

The car threw its powerful beams ahead as if striving towards infinity. I slowly collected my thoughts.

"Yes, I am, in a sense; the question has never bothered me... All roads are mine in the night. And I know there's nobody faster and stronger on the highway."

The car started accelerating again. The speedometer reached 135. I couldn't believe it. At this speed every pot-hole or bulge on the road could be fatal.

"Yes," Gortan agreed, as if reaching my mind, "but this is no ordinary car, just as I'm not an ordinary driver. Under perfect conditions it can easily do 160 meters per second. I have done it several times."

"What about fuel?"

"Water... Just water... rain, spring water, distilled water... every kind of water. At this moment the tanks are filling up, and until the rain stops I'll have enough for thousands of kilometers more."

I had nothing to say. All this seemed like a dream or a fairy-tale. How was it possible for somebody to know the secret of using water as a fuel and not use it on a large scale? Good God, that could change our whole world! How could Gortan's body remain unchanged by time? How could that happen, too, damn it?

"Two points still bother me," I cautiously said. "First. if they are so powerful, why didn't they give you new legs; secondly, aren't you bored to death?"

"They grant one wish only and I had spent more than a third of my life in cars before the crash. If I had chosen new legs there would have been nothing else for me to do but drive and drive again. With a single difference, though - I would have been long dead of old age by now. As it is I shall live for half a century more. And driving could never bore me, especially in such a car."

I nodded thoughtfully... If he kept up that speed and nothing impeded him we would soon reach Odron-peak. It was a great pity that I couldn't invite Gortan to my present home. But then, he didn't need it. Everything I could offer was useless to him. He had his own life - forwards and only forwards.

"I don't really need these headlights," he resumed. "The car can scan almost the entire spectrum of electromagnetic waves."

"So you were driving in darkness before you met me?"

"No, I stood still... I like to stay still in the middle of the night and look at the world around on a very narrow wavelength; sometimes I drive through the darkness without a single light... as a dark, deadly shadow."

We passed Tilip, which meant my home was no more than thirty miles away. The sharp turns and uneven ground forced Gortan to slow down to 42 meters per second, still a fantastic speed by itself.

"The people choosing hibernation are wrong. They gain only a glimpse of the future. Life there will be impossible for them, because today's knowledge will be worthless in comparison with our descendants' achievements... People choosing space are wrong too, all they get is a hollow eternity. Cars are the only true answer, with them you feel alive, constantly on the move, you can change things, and what's even more important, you can achieve every goal..."

My anxiety grew as I listened to him. Why did he have to speak like this? Was it just some kind of confession, or did he have something else in mind?

Finally Gortan voiced the question I had feared.

"Would you... accept to be the driver of a car like this?"

"Nonsense," I quickly replied, then, feeling that sharp words could be dangerous, I continued in an even voice. "I do not need a life of permanent driving."

"Not permanent... no more than a century..."

"If time is what matters, then space flight is the best solution; life in space can be prolonged for millennia."

"Subjectively. Life in space is measured by the life of the stars, so it remains insignificant. In a car you are surrounded by common time."

"What kind of life is that? Driving, driving and endlessly driving again..."

"No, it is not what you think. Rather the opposite, I should say. Nothing restricts my freedom. I'm free in just the measure I need."

"I would find it boring, monotonous..."

"A delusion... When you become like me, everything seems different... I live in absolute peace and nothing could shake me. A life without problems."

"Is it really possible to live like that?"

"Yes... as you can see for yourself. Tell me about your life."

"I am... for the time being, I am... temporarily in jail."

"You do not look like a prisoner... Fugitive?"

Was it only my imagination or was there hope indeed in his voice?

"No," I coldly said, "it's an alternative prison, an invention of the twenties. I work as an assistant in an observatory."

"Tell me about it."

"It is simple enough. Nowadays, for fraud or car accidents you do not go to a real jail, but to an alternative one. A job... I live there with two dozen prisoners like me and some real scientists. Six years for now. Four more years and I'll be free. Now I'm coming back from one of the two leaves granted to the long-term prisoners. I have been on that mountain for six years now. But life there is easy enough. No excessive control, no discipline, everybody just does his job and awaits the end of his sentence..."

"Strange... You could decide not to return."

"No, I couldn't. There is no place to go to. Escape from an alternative prison means death. They find you very soon and kill you on sight. I haven't heard of anybody taking such risks."

"A clever arrangement, although there's way to deceive them."

"Better not, if you mean KOL laboratories."

"Well... Do you like working in that observatory?"

"I chose it myself: the stars have always fascinated me."

"You look at the stars, searching for life's meaning in them; you look at the clouds, trying to predict rain..."

"I observe and study the stars. It is the ultimate task of mankind. In them we can find all the answers."

"Granted, mankind has to find all these ultimate answers, but what could you, personally, add to the general knowledge?"

"A little, a very little, but my work has it's meaning too... Observational data is gathered for centuries and only then does it become meaningful."

"Astronomy can go on without you and your discoveries." "Astronomy is not all I have... I could bind myself to a car for a year or two, no more, then I would surely go berserk." I suddenly realized that I was on the defensive, or worse, trying to justify myself.

And although driving had always been a pleasure for me, I expected with impatience the moment I would get out of here and return to my astrocameras and telescopes, forgetting this fantomatic car... Four more years of jail were not so hard to bear, and then I could start life again from scratch.

"Stop here... you can't continue any further, there isn't any road to the peak itself."

I ought to say "thanks", open the door and go out in the night. The rain had subsided, but the five hundred yards to the observatory were steep and muddy, and very unpleasant for walking... I should get out and run, but I sat still instead. Only much later did I understand what had kept me immobile in my seat: expectation.

"Come with me," Gortan said calmly. It was neither a question, nor a proposition or an order... it sounded more as a decision.

I shook my head, avoiding his eyes. He was obviously sincere and proposed it as a favor to me, which made it so much harder to refuse...

"You'll have your own world, you'll be the lord of a changing reality instead of the invariable stars."

"No... no... impossible. My life is an ordinary one. I realize it is not the best it can be, but I'm not in a position to choose. If I'm not up there at midday tomorrow, they will start a hunt for my head... Besides, a future which starts you off as a guinea pig and them rivets you to a single seat is not very tempting."

"I'm not riveted to a single place."

"Yes, but you couldn't visit my house now."

"In your present shape you couldn't visit my house either."

His words confused me for a moment. I started to ask what kind of house it was, then thought better.

Opening the door, I was about to go out into the night full of moisture and cold...

"Think it over," Gortan went on. "At midnight tomorrow I'll be here again... If you do not come then, you'll see me on the night after that... and so on. I will be waiting for you. Eternity and patience are on my side. And remember: looking at me from the height of your observatory you might be happy or sad, content or displeased, nervous or furious, but don't forget: I have achieved a complete inner peace and tranquility, and I'll be waiting for you."

"Good-bye," I muttered, and went out quickly. The cold made me shiver for a while, then I started up. From the very first step it became clear that the slippery ground would be the worst obstacle to my return home and I reconciled myself to the fact that I would be covered with mud.

I looked back just in time to see Gortan switch off his headlights. For a moment it looked as if the blackness of the night was once more whole and complete, and then I noticed a dark, moving shadow.

It was darker than the night it disappeared into.

Gortan kept his promise. And keeps it still. Every night he suddenly comes out of the darkness without a single light and stops for a while. I can discern his outline only because he is darker than everything else. He waits with an inhuman patience, above and beyond the capacity of any man.

And I have accepted his game. On clear nights, when we are making astronomical observations, I have the time to look at him, sometimes for very long... untouchable in his cocoon of peace, he remains unfathomable for me. As much as I tried, I never noticed the moment when he disappeared. Sometimes it seemed as if he didn't go anywhere, as if he was constantly by my side.

When the nights were cloudy I never went to sleep before seeing his shadow on the road. Then I would lie down with the comfortable, warm feeling of possessing somebody who was never going to betray me.

More than anything else, I longed to see what that car looked like in the daylight. Try as I could, it was impossible to think of it as of a definite object; for me it always remained a dark, flying shadow, invisible to human eyes, constantly on the move along the empty roads,.

Even stranger was the fact that nobody else noticed him. It was as if he was just a dream, a monstrous figment of my imagination, a temptation to run away... The answer to all my questions was down on the road, waiting for me with unlimited patience. Eventually Gortan's nightly visits became a kind of emotional sanctuary for me. All day long I furtively looked forward to his coming, but I never went closer than a hundred meters to him. I was afraid of that car, of getting close to it, afraid of my desire to take Gortan's offer, afraid of the changes in my mind.

Completing the third cycle of observations of RS Serpentis, which showed no difference whatsoever from the previous two, I realized that the stars would never give me the feeling of excitement that change brings with it, no, not even if I waited for a zillion years. And I could wait no more. The stars, which I had made my life's goal, mocked at me with their invariability and arrogance. I hated them.

It rained on the next evening and I was glad not to see them. Now my long-gathered weariness suddenly overcame and crushed my resistance. I needed sleep... but couldn't sleep. For the first time I was going to fall asleep without having seen Gortan. Full of uneasiness, I lay in my bed and hated myself for longing after Gortan and everything he offered me more than anything else.

The colleagues from the weather station hadn't predicted this rain. There was no thunder, just the intermittent drumming of the raindrops on the roof. My misgivings didn't subside and I felt more and more tense and nervous as midnight approached. It was as if I expected something extraordinary. I took my place by the window long before the precise astronomical instruments announced the start of the new day.

Tense, unmoving, I waited.

Far down through the rain and the darkness I saw the part of the road where Gortan had always appeared. It was dark, very dark, but not dark enough. Two hours later, when the rain had almost stopped, I knew for sure: Gortan hadn't come.

So, something had happened to him. He had proved so persistent till now that I couldn't believe in his absence. Maybe something had hindered him.




I tried to banish these gloomy thoughts, and lay down in my bed, hoping that sleep would bring peace... Why did I bother with things which had no real connection with me? Why was I so linked with Gortan? Why didn't I feel relived now, after he had stopped coming?... Society had given me a chance, although I didn't deserve it, society had even given me a choice; I should stick to my guaranteed future and never allow life to grind me down to the bottom again.

But the words of reason slowly dissipated in the darkness.

My uneasiness urged me out and soon I was walking down the wet, muddy slope. For the first time after almost two years of waiting I was there, at the spot where I had come out of his car, at the place he had visited every night since then... every night except tonight.

As if mocking me, the downpour got stronger, and I was soaked to the skin in a minute. The cold crept in through my clothes, squeezed my lungs, took my breath. Then I saw a dark shape in the night. A flood of emotions made me shiver.

It stopped several meters away from me and stood still.

Nothing moved, nothing made a noise. We were alone with the wind and the rain. I stood in front of him, looking down guiltily, as a thief who knows that his crime will never be forgiven. Was that the end for me? Was my human body surrendering at last? Was I unilaterally surrendering to this metal monster? I wanted to run and at the same time to stay, and fiery pain pulsed in me whenever I thought of both possible alternatives.

I approached cautiously, as I had done on our first meeting so long ago. What would he say after I entered, would there be triumph in his eyes, would he be two years older as I was? Something in me screamed and broke.

Not in golden chains, not for an eternity! I felt hot in the icy night, my palms were wet, emotions squeezed my chest and the shivers in my stomach slowly enveloped all my body. Suddenly I turned and ran back up the slope toward the observatory. I had to flee in darkness and oblivion, far, far away...

Some strides later I slipped and fell. From the very first step it had become clear that the slippery ground would be the worst obstacle to my return home and I reconciled myself to the fact that I would be covered with mud.

Why is all that familiar to me, and where from? Slipping and stumbling, I run uphill; night and rain; Gortan fades in the darkness and disappears... Will I stand at the window tomorrow and every night after that to look at the road? Will I lie sleepless again, for hours on end, until he comes, and then sleep calmly, knowing he is here? Will I again stand some night on the road, looking at the ground as the conscious and the unconscious struggle in my mind? Will I ever be free of that curse which looms over my life?... I have no place to run to, no place to live, I have only this peak and this observatory, this life and this destiny.

In the middle of my uphill run I stop and turn back. Gortan has advanced a hundred yards and stands still, merging with the darkness, but the beams of the distant headlights betray his presence. I run downhill, the door opens and I quickly get in. A quick look at Gortan shows his calm and unchanged face. Then I feel the acceleration pushing me back in the seat, harder... and harder... and harder...

На Растку објављено: 2008-01-08
Датум последње измене: 2008-01-08 13:08:03
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