Some of you believe my story is a heroic one, but it isn’t. For certain I am not the hero of it. And even those named in the story as heros did not always walk like such. If you doubt me, know that my story begins in a gutter of Trad.
Although most of the official temples and nearly all the bangai can be found at tiny villages and small towns high in the northern or southern mountains–the start, end and middle of the Circuit lies in the city of Trad. Since Trad is only a short train ride from the Imperial City it is a place I know well. Far too many were the times I drank in it’s port taverns or whored there. Far too few the times I visited its great Opera house or museums. Trad is a place I mostly remember from behind a haze of alcohol and smoke. Or hangover. Or both.
The day I first set my feet upon the Circuit was no different, except perhaps in intensity. I woke up to blinding morning light, quite literally in the gutter, outside the Sea Maiden; a notorious drinkery into which no maiden had ever stepped. Or, if one did, she would certainly not have escaped as such.
Sitting up proved a mistake, as I immediately vomited weakly over myself. This would have mattered more if my clothes had been less befouled or if I had not been beyond caring. I was still rather befuddled from drink and it took me a few minutes to realize that not all the pain in my head was hangover. When I felt my face and skull I found swellings and tender areas too numerous to count and I could see bruises already forming amid the scrapes on my bare arms. I had clearly been worked over by experts.
After a few false tries I made it to my feet and staggered back to the door of the Maiden, only to find my way blocked by Bolger; the Maiden’s bouncer.
“Where are you going?”
“In. To drink some painkiller.” I started forward again, but Bolger’s well-muscled right arm swung up in front of me.
“Not unless you pay last night’s tab you aren’t.”
“What?” I felt for my purse and didn’t find it. Panic set in. “I’ve been robbed! I’ve been . . .” I got out no more, except a gurgle, as Bolger took me by the windpipe with one massive hand and shoved me against the rough brick wall.
“No one has been robbed asshole! When it was time to pay you took off your own purse and held it upside down to show you had nothing in it. I threw it out after you.” Bolger nodded towards the street and, when I managed to focus my eyes, could see my purse lying there in a pile of horse manure. “Sergey says you are not welcome in the Maiden until you pay your bill. That clear?”
I tried to speak and could not, so I just nodded as sincerely as I could manage. Bolger grimaced and flung me away. “Get the fuck away from here. You’re smelling up the place.”
As I staggered down the street I found myself inexplicably laughing: if I could overpower the natural stench of the Maiden, I must stink so bad they could smell me in the Control Room itself!
I don’t remember much of my walk after that, but my direction must have tended downhill, following the path of least resistance. Thus it was that I eventually found myself sitting on the steps outside the Temple of the Circle Sea, watching the pilgrims queuing up outside the Junrei door. By then I had recovered enough that I could feel all the wretchedness and pain suffusing my body. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so sick and sore at the same time before. I was also starting to remember the previous night. Some of it anyway.
Most distressingly, I could remember what it was I had emptied my purse drinking to forget. I looked again at the pilgrims and realized I had followed my uncle’s advice by coming to this temple, even if that had not been my intention. I also realized that beyond the door they were passing through was everything I needed right then. Everything, that is, except another drink. Behind that door were showers, a bite of food, and the first injection of the Circuit. All I had to do was get to my feet and walk the short distance to the end of the line. To take the first steps of the Junrei.
With an oath I levered myself up and limped away, past a row of monks holding the crooked staffs marking them as Junrei guides. I noted sourly how most of these worthies wore robes of brown silk instead of rough wool: the pilgrims paid well for their guidance and protection. Those with the yellow banner of sages tied to their staves were the sleekest and best kept of all; for they could also dispense wisdom to their charges. A premium service. Already new pilgrims with bulging backpacks were approaching them and dropping offerings into their bowls; hoping to be selected for their parties.
I went down the alley behind the temple and relieved myself against its back wall. Finishing up, I dropped my kilt and, closing my eyes, leaned my pounding head against a tall garbage bin and started bawling like a baby. I must have stood there sobbing for five minutes before something hard struck me sharply on top of the head.
“Fuck! Ow! Ow! Ow!” I jumped back and dropped into a defensive position, spinning around to face my attacker, who turned out to be one of the monks from in front of the temple. He had whacked me with his staff for no obvious reason. “Why the fuck did you do that? Who the fuck are you?”
The monk shrugged. “They call me Massey. I chose you.”
“Chose me? For what?”
“For my Junrei party. Although it will be a small party I’m afraid. Just the two of us.”
I grubbed the tears from my eyes with one forearm and suddenly realized what he was talking about. “I’m not going on Junrei. And, even if I was, I don’t have any money left to drop in your bowl. Torch it, I don’t have money to pay for the ferry or buy supplies.” I looked more closely at him, he had a narrow, foxy, face; his robes were woolen and food stained; his feet bare and dirty. There was a short, faded yellow ribbon tied to his staff. He looked shrunken and old too: something even the sages with the longest banners never did, for walking the Circuit had its compensations. “Besides,” I added nastily, “I don’t think I’d want you for my guide anyway.”
He shrugged again, expressively, and stroked his wispy beard with his free hand. “Then I’ll just have to drop some money in your bowl instead. Are you ready to start or would you rather lurk back here with the rats for a while longer first?” He squatted down with his staff across his knees as if he was willing to wait for as long as it took for me to make up my mind.
“Like I said grandpa, I’m not going on pilgrimage. Screw you. And screw my uncle if he sent you.”
The monk looked interested. “And who would your uncle be?”
I drew myself up, fully aware how ridiculous I looked in my once fine, now ruined, kilt and smock; with my dirty bruised face and red hair sticking out wild in all directions. “My name is Griff Logan. My uncle is Second Chief Steward Reese Logan. My mother is Alcee Logan and my father is the Captain himself; he has acknowledged me at the Captain’s Table. Now begone and leave me to my shame!”
“Ah. The shame part. I would know more about that.”
I stared at him, open mouthed. Where did this little pip-squeak come from? Yet something about him compelled honesty, “My uncle secured me an appointment as apprentice drive engineer. But I was expelled from the University. Not because I didn’t learn my subjects, but because I made a scandal even my uncle couldn’t hush up. I’m guessing you never read the papers or you would know all about this.”
He shrugged yet again. “No, I never read the papers. Or listen to the radio. Or to the gossip in the refractory. None of those things bring wisdom and the wise pay them no heed.
He eyed me closely. “From your looks I’d say you were second year in the University. As an apprentice you would have gone into the torch room fall term, no? Meaning you would get your first treatment before the age of twenty, something few people manage; even the children of the very rich. But you ruined your chance and your very rich uncle has disowned you. Son of the Captain you may be, but the Captain has many sons.”
My eyes widened. Even the papers didn’t know about my last meeting with my uncle. Didn’t know the things he had said. “What do you know about it? So Reese did send you!” For a moment my heart fluttered. Perhaps my uncle still cared enough to at least send me this disreputable looking excuse for a monk.
Maybe Reese had been serious when he had told me that if I still wanted to live forever I should Close the Circuit a few times while I waited for another opportunity. It wasn’t the way I wanted to do it, but you had to get your first three or four treatments young or they wouldn’t prolong your life much past the natural span. That’s the big secret the upper classes keep from the passengers. A secret this wizened old squirrel of a monk seemed to know.
Sure, the treatments will cure genetic disorders and cancers and the like, no matter when you take them, even regrow lost limbs and repair brain damage. But to live hundreds of years, like the Captain or one of the Chiefs, you have to start early. As a drive engineer I would have been treated every year I worked the torch room in order to keep the radiation from killing me. It was a rough road, but the torch room was more sure than becoming a military hero and, weirdly enough considering grandmothers sometimes walked it, easier than Closing the Circuit. There were so few ways to earn treatments, even for a Captain’s son.
The monk tilted his head and shrugged with negation, certainty. “No one sent. You called.” Then he stood up and walked back out of the alley. After a moment I shook myself like a dog coming out of the water and started after him.
Next: Meditation: Art