“How do you run from what is inside your head?”
Martin looked up from where he was placing the last few fairy cakes on the table. The blue and pink cupcake swirls raised up to a peak as they filtered around the cake stand twisting towards candles that flickered in the wind, it came from every direction rustling the leaves of the low hanging willows that ran along the river bank.
The last rays of the dying sun danced across the water, from somewhere in the distance the sounds of the city could be heard, faint and distant.
“There you are sleepy head, we wondered when you would join us.” Martin gestured to the table, the place settings fit for a banquet, yet the food looked like it had been selected for an eight-year-old. Jam sandwiches with the crusts cut off, shiny iced buns and biscuits covered every possible surface. Tea cups littered every space and tea pots advertised their steaming wear, the scent cradled in the early evening air met him as he hung back on the edge of the wood, afraid.
Jon took a step forward, the ground was solid, despite its unnatural appearance, was this the work of the spiral or something else entirely?
Martin looked more handsome than Jon had ever seen him, all waistcoats and pocket watches, the reds and oranges tailored to an inch of his life. As if he could read his mind Martin beamed at him, pushing his hat further up his crown, the oversized thing hid most of his face but his eyes still shone from the darkness.
“What was that love?” he spoke over his shoulder, not addressing Jon, not this time, attention turned now to the large oversized chesterfield that sat at the head of the table.
“I was just saying, He’s not ready yet.” It took Jon a moment, a second longer than he should have to recognise the face, a face last seen transparent and almost gone, a ghost of a man.
Gerry reached out, pulling Martin towards him till the larger man sat on the arm of the chair, Gerry cut a figure, hair framing his grinning face, tailored black suit making him look like he had walked straight from a classic vampire film, an upturned hat sat upon the table, all straight lines and hard edges, the contrast between the two men before him obvious for all to see, all to see for anyone who had not known them in more than friendship.
Gerry’s hand came to rest wrapping fingers around Martins, two sets of eyes fixed upon him.
“Not yet love, you have just a little more to do, time to go.”
Jon came too in the Panopticon's shadow, alone.
Martin’s voice rang in his mind, the echo of the statement of Martin Blackwood shouted louder than any other, repeating in his mind over and over, the feel of Martins hand in his own a ghost on his skin, if he closed his eyes tight enough he could still see the coy smiles, taste the cups of tea on his lips. He pressed the balls of his hands into his eyes, he willed the tears to come, he wanted to mourn; he wanted to grieve. The archive wouldn’t let him instead it provided the statements of his loved ones on an infinite loop, a tenor over the constant baseline of misery that belonged to the archive, to the archivist to this decimated world that Jonah Magnus had created.
It wouldn’t let him die.
He very much wanted the noise to stop.
“This all happened a couple of years ago, so I apologise if some of the details are a bit off...”
And so it began again on its endless loop.
"It's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then." …
“Sims, that seems like a really stupid idea, even for you.”
Daisy, of course it was Daisy, the world around him was falling apart and he was drowning in what he had become, why wouldn’t it be Daisy that came to offer him her own particular brand of wisdom. His hand paused on the door, a yellow door with an nondescript pattern that he forgot as soon as his eyes moved to the large oak tree and the dangling feet that hung at head height. His eyes traversed the pink tiger striped suit till he fell upon the Cheshire cat grin of his friend where she lounged, picking her teeth with what looked like a rib.
“What have we learned about doors?” she swung down, landing before him and placing her own hand on the door handle she twisted the nob.
A blur of movement and the creature pounced from beyond the fading door, a lightning fast reaction and the rib became embedded between the open chest cavity of the beast that now writhed in agony on the floor, he watched as the world below it opened and swallowed it whole. Daisy cursed the patch of earth as before their eyes flowers bloomed and the ground healed, yet behind her the yellow door reappeared, this time set into the tree where she had sat only moments before.
The door creaked open and Helen appeared, a wink in his direction and a low bow,
“Come on little Archivist, the path is clear.”
The base of the panopticon had a door, a door that led to somewhere, but where it did not know. For here in the heart of the land of the watcher the world was muted, but the voices were loud, they spoke of strange doors and alleyways that lead to certain death and blankets that had never done a thing to protect the owner.
But the deep green door led to somewhere. The archivist was curious.
But what good had come from doors?
In the past they had paved the way, places where things that went bump in the night lead you up dark and winding staircases and tore you from you. Cast you adrift within twisting corridors where a lie is spoken like truth and truth like a lie.
They had opened unto a ruined world that was both a blessing and a curse.
Would the answer to the questions be behind the door? The archivist was sure that that way madness lay. But had the creature with too many edges and fingers of distortion not gone out of its way to protect the creature it still called Jon? Would the twisting one still help if it thought that Jon was still worth saving?
The thing that called itself Helen was long gone. The deception knew no face now, it need not hide in this forsaken world.
The archivist twisted the handle. The world here is uncharted, but no need to fear, for the archivist is the monster that cartographers warned of.
The archive returned to its court, each step taking it closer to what it deserved.
“But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!”
“I dunno Sash, is it him?” Tim's voice made him snap his head towards the darkness in the woods. Was it Tim’s voice? He was struggling to remember now. It seemed so long ago, so long ago that he had all but forgotten what it sounded like.
“Looks like him, but it doesn't speak, and when it does it uses the words of others to weave its tales of woe.”
“Must be strange, to be put together from other things and not know oneself.” Tim's voice sung from the shadows.
“Did you ever know yourself, Jon? Or have you always been less than the sum of your parts?”
“Never were good at being someone, always trying to be somebody else, must be exhausting-”
“-Do you even know your own mind?”
Tim and Sasha stepped out of the darkness, hands twisted together. The mirror image of the other, dressed in what looked like a uniform. Shades of green with eye embellishments around the edges.
“He looks surprised to see us.” Tim tugged Sasha forwards, her eyes never leaving Jon as they circled, observing him as he stayed frozen to the spot.
“Why, he’s just a puppet to the giant eye now, didn’t you know? He does what they say and says what they do.” Sasha tipped her head. What she was looking for, Jon wasn’t sure.
“Jonathan Sims are you going to let someone else tell you who you are?” Tim moved in, Sasha at his side, he could feel their breath on his ice cold skin, as Tim leaned in and whispered into his ear “what happened to not being a mystery?”
“Who are you?” Sasha whispered in the other. “Are you the Archivist, or are you Jonathan Sims?”
How had he gotten here? He remembered a door, then nothing.
Sasha and Tim, Tim and Sasha.
He had been their boss; he had been their friend.
He had wanted nothing but them to be safe, for everyone to be safe, yet here he was unable to even hold it together.
The blackouts were getting worse; he was struggling to separate the archive from himself now; the edges were blurred. Where did Jon begin and the archivist and the archive start?
He loved Martin; he loved Gerry; He loved his friends. He could still feel that pain aching through him, as long as he could cling to it he could tell himself that he was still Human, that he was not some pawn in some awful game.
Yet his feet pulled him forward now, with no control of his own. The voices of the ones he loved repeating in his ears, “this unnamed catalogue of the trapped dead.” Gerry’s voice looped. Trapped forever in the archive.
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar, sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can't explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I am not myself, you see.”
“Wondered when you would show up.”
Basira stood in her armour at the top of the winding staircase. How long he had been climbing was lost on him, days, weeks, years? When had the actual world faded to this ‘other’ that haunted him now? When had the words been stolen from him yet again as he became a silent participant in a world that was not his own? When had the sleep taken him and the Archivist taken over?
“Figured it out, have you?” Basira took a seat on to the step before the gate, barring him from his predetermined path. Her sword lay across her lap. Her gloved hand ran along the edge and it rang out with a high-pitched scream, Jon winced as the sound pierced the background sound of infinite voices talking as one.
He fell to his knees, turning his face up to look at Basira where she sat.
“An archive of terrible knowledge, what a way to exist. Is that what you are?”
She swung the sword, eyes never once leaving where they locked on to Jon’s.
“Why is a raven like a writing desk? Why is an Archivist like an Archive?”
Basira raised a hand, raised a sword, and with one swing brought the latter down upon Jon’s neck.
“Time to wake up Jon, It’s time to overthrow a king.”
When Jon took control again, he stood in the middle of a large glass walled room. In the centre, on a throne made of books, sat Jonah Magnus.
It was quiet.
The face of the man swam in and out of focus, not quite settling on the face he was willing to share, it morphed from the grinning face of Elias Bouchard, changing in to that of someone Jon did not know before changing back to the face he recognised as that of the previous head of the institute before settling back to that of Elias.
No sound filled the space, the silence was suffocating.
The voices had gone; the statements were silent.
For the first time in years, in what felt like a lifetime, Jon could hear himself think.
The Archive was silent. The Archivist was still. Jon was at the helm.
Jon dug his hands in his pockets, under one hand he felt the familiar touch of the spider web lighter, in the other he felt the only things he had left to remind him of the men he loved, a pen that had belonged to Martin and flip knife that never left Gerry's side.
An idea formed.
An unnatural glow emanated from Jonah’s throne of Knowledge, and as Jon looked closer, he saw that each book had upon its spine a bright piercing eye that shone with its power.
The Panopticon would glow with this light, it had drawn Jon to it like a moth to the flame, right now he wished he had fled, the light had been a warning to evade the rocks below, not a beacon to guide him home.
He stepped closer; the knowledge calling to the part of him that wanted to feed, wanted to know what it would feel like to sit upon the seat of cursed power and drink it in, but Jon was in control here, he had a choice to make, his mind was his own.
Around Jonah’s feet lay a litany of skulls, the fog of the forsaken lapped the intricate inlay of the marble floor, wrapping around Jonah where his finely polished shoes disappeared into its grip.
The Eyes that surveyed him Knew the world but comprehend nothing, without the soul to understand the subtle push and pull of humanity how could Jonah ever understand fear, understand that the world that he had created was nothing but a wonderland of his own creation that would die without its source, without human imagination? How can you be scared? If you don't understand what fear is? what is it but a story that you don’t quite get the moral of? When fear becomes normality, what is left?
Jonah contemplated him, holding him in his gaze a moment longer before he opened his arms, as if welcoming home a well-loved child “You made it.”
A step forward, another counter move to the watchers game “Was there any doubt?”
“I feared when Jonathan lost his beloved, there would be a holdup in the proceedings.” Jonah raised himself from his throne, stepping down from the dais Jon noticed that the Fog gripped at him. It followed him as he made his way down the steps.
“You saw, you knew.” It was a question, but Jon kept his voice low and flat. He was the Archive and as such he could show no emotion, to do so would give away his hand.
“I saw, but I did not know, not until now.” Jonah reached to the floor scooping up a skull. He passed his hand across its surface. “Jon would have destroyed me as soon as look at me for the death of his precious Martin, Yet you stand before me emotionless, nothing but a vessel for my greatest achievement.” he glanced from the skull in his hand across to Jon. Jon tried to stay impassive biting back the vicious retort that had rolled to his tongue had caused him to draw blood. He would not, could not draw his hand, the eye could not see within itself, away from his throne Jonah had no power, away from the grip of the archive Jon had the advantage.
He waited as Jonah moved forward, the further he could get him from his seat of power at the centre of the panopticon the better. Best get him in a monologue. Being alone with only himself for company would have given him plenty of material.
Jonah addressed the skull now, his eyes fixed upon it’s empty sockets.
“An eye for an eye, Jon took what was mine, it was only fitting I did the same.”
The rage was building now, bubbling through his veins.
He stepped forward.
He was not The Archive. He was not The Archivist. He was Jonathan Sims, and for the first time since he was an eight-year-old, he knew exactly who he was.
He was the man who would blind Jonah Magnus.
“If you didn’t sign it,” said the King, “that only makes the matter worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you’d have signed your name like an honest man.”
The fog rolled back as he took a seat upon the throne. At his feet lay the crumpled dust of a body long since dead, its eyes now gouged upon pocket knife and pen.
He could hear them now, the fear and the hope and the love that ran through his bloodstream, feeding the watcher, feeding the other, for how could love exist without despair? How would fear exist if you knew nothing but that endless feeling of dread?
He had watched; he had known, and he understood.
“Are you listening?”
Somewhere, maybe everywhere, the fears turned to face the panopticon as one. The static of a tape recorder began spoiling from deep inside the throne that he now sat atop.
In his hand, the silver lighter sat solid and true.
Jonathan Sims smiled.
“Bring all that is fear and all that is terror and all that is the awful dread that crawls and chokes and blinds and falls and twists and leaves and hides and weaves and burns and hunts and rips and leads and dies !”
“I am Jonathan Sims. I am the king of this ruined world. And I decree that it should BURN.”
“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
“-and then I said to him, a ghost?”
The laughter filled him as memories flooded through him at the sound of a voice, laughter then tears.
How long had it been since tears had fallen down his face? How long since he had been able to feel anything but the agonising pull of the watcher above him.
He moved now towards the table; it sat in the warmth of a midday sun, its bright coloured tea cups and teapots littered the spiralling tablecloth, the sandwiches over spilled the fancy doyleys placed upon mismatched plates. As he stepped into the clearing eyes snapped to him, the tea that Martin was pouring overfilled the cup, the honey brown liquid splashing over the tablecloth all but ignored as he placed the teapot down, hand grasping about for Gerry so he could pull him up to his feet.
“Hello.” his voice sounded strange, it sounded wrong, in this world that was too bright, too real, too much of what he wanted and nothing that he deserved. He knew acutely that this was not how these dreams worked. In his dreams he could not reply. Unable to talk back, he took a tentative step forward.
“Jon?” Gerry steadied himself against Martin's side, his fingers gripping at Martin's jacket like a lifeline. Face full of curiosity and wonderment, he turned from Jon to Martin as if seeking confirmation that what his eyes saw was the truth.
“You did it then? Are you staying this time?” Martin's words sounded sure, but Jon knew him too well, knew that even when the words were true the feelings behind them were not always as confident.
“I took my seat in Panopticon if that's what you're asking?” He spoke slowly and surely, aware that both sets of eyes were watching for the lie, looking for gaps in the knowledge, once touched by the eye, always touched by the eye, Jon supposed as he took another tentative step forward.
“And then?” Gerry questioned, placing himself between Martin and Jon. He doesn’t believe you, a voice that was entirely his own for once provided helpfully. He thinks you're a replacement. Jon patted down his jeans, only to find he was no longer wearing them, he now wore a tailored suit that matched Martin and Gerry’s, dark blues and greens, freshly pressed, he followed the line of the pocket watch chain, it sat in the waistcoat pocket nestled against a familiar silver lighter.
He pulled it out, tossing it towards Gerry, who caught it in one hand with ease.
“And then... I burned the whole thing to the ground.”
Gerry turned the lighter in his hand a few times before passing it to Martin, who did the same, before sliding it in his own pocket.
“When you’ve understood this scripture, throw it away. If you can’t understand this scripture, throw it away. I insist on your freedom.” Gerry muttered moving forward, hand outstretched, he reached up placing his palm flat against Jon's cheek. Jon sunk into the touch, Gerry still had calluses upon his fingertips even in this land of dreams. Why they had chosen to fixate on a nonsense story that even his eight year old mind had rejected was at a loss to him, maybe it had been the last thing he read before Mr Spider had paid him a visit , but now with Gerry so close his ice blue eyes scanning every scar and pock mark on his face Jon really didn't care “It’s him, It's him, Martin.”
Martin cleared the gap in two steps, engulfing both men in his own arms and pulling them tight. Jon felt Martin's lips against his forehead, then watched as he did the same to Gerry. Pulling them both to his chest as if trying to claim them by osmosis. Jon sunk into it, the only sound that of the surrounding sobs, he focused on the sound, grounding himself, making this his own reality, he didn’t want to go back to the Panopticon, not when in dreams he could have this.
“I can’t believe you resorted to arson.” Martin half sobbed, wiping his eyes on his jacket sleeve, but the tears were tears of joy, not tears of sorrow and the sob was slowly changing to a laugh as he placed another kiss upon Jon's brow.
“It was your plan, it was a good one.”
“Always said smoking would be the death of you, boss.” Tim piped up, he had taken his seat at the table, Sasha was upon his knee, helping herself to cake, at his side Basira grinned as she poured herself some tea, the bloody sword propped up against the table.
“Sorry for the murder.” she said over the top of her cup, “didn't want you to lose your head so close to the end.”
“You stabbed him?” Helen huffed, “That’s my Job” she lanced a sandwich with a finger before bringing it to her mouth.
“You DID what” both Gerry and Martin shouted in unison, stepping between Jon and the table.
“It didn't stick.” Basira shrugged. “Stupid git is too stubborn to die at anybody’s hand but his own.” she grinned, “Please tell me you knocked that smug grin of Magnus’s face before you went though?”
Behind him Daisy came from the woods, pushing them all towards the table. She pushed Jon into the chair at the head. Martin and Gerry either side grinned as they moved to fill his plate and top up his cup.
“It’s a long story…”
“And we have all the time in the world.” Gerry took his hand in his as he slipped into the chair to his left, making himself comfortable.
To his right, Martin did the same, bringing his hand to his lips and placing a kiss upon the back of his hand where their fingers entwined.
“Begin at the beginning,” Martin breathed, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
He looked around the table at all the people he held locked in his heart, this might not be real, it might all be a dream, or life after death... but it felt real, he could feel the blood pumping through his veins and the heat where he held his loves by the hand. Everything and everyone he had ever wanted sat waiting, waiting for him to tell his tale. Jonah Magnus had died alone and unloved, something that could not be said about Jon.
He took a deep breath .
“This all happened a couple of years ago, so I apologise if some of the details are a bit off...”