Gods in the High Hills

Above Troy, above Jericho, above Amba Aradem, above Tumebamba:

Mambres, the tourist: “Good movement on the southern flank. Don’t think it’ll matter, though.”

Jannes, the scholar: “No, certainly not. They’ll be overrun. It’s written so.”

“Oh, good show! Bravely done! Is there anything we can do for that one?”

“Maybe on the margins; they’ll be dead in three days, or four. The specific timeline is unclear.”

“I hope we’re getting all this.”

“I think so. It’s always hard to tell, at the moment. Can’t always say what’ll get recorded, and what won’t.”

“Well, cover them with glory today, until they break. Maybe that’ll help shine a light.”

They watch in silence for a spell, hair and beards grown together, each the other’s sofa. The sun, despite everything, moves across the sky in its accustomed track. The familiar stars wheel beneath their feet.

A History of the World

Jannes and Mambres, cautious mathematicians, do not predict what will be, only what might. What will be cannot be changed, or avoided, or mitigated, it can only be. Such certainty is limited to the gods, and not always to them — and to their new planted counterparts among the slaves, which rankles Jannes (but not Mambres); he thinks it gauche. No, they stay among the mutable stars and human planets, things knowable but changing, the avoidable dooms, the almost fates.

“Here, look here, Mambres,” says Jannes, eyes adrift with formulae. “Riots along the river tonight, I think, maybe? A shortage of beer among the laborers, short tempers, long hours, a fight over a man. Yes? No?”

Mambres sweeps the thinning hair out of his eyes, leans in, traces his partner’s work with one heavy-jointed finger, lips moving. “Hrm,” he says, “yes, I think that’s right. Let me run these numbers on my own — can I take this? — good, yes, thank you.” Clack of counting; he peruses the elaborate, meaningful border of a table. “Yes, that’s right.”

They summon a runner from the dim chaos of the hallway, send him off to the priests, to the guards. The guards will stand watch along the river, the priests will send beer and dreamers, one to soothe the body, the other to soothe the mind. The river will roll on to flood undisturbed, death and punishment alike kept from the hands of men. The quiet stars spin on, one decennial wing beat after another.

Revelation

The magicians sip mint tea from colorless glasses made of sugar, and when they are done, they eat the glasses, crunch. They sit on balconies overlooking the sea and toy with the vines growing through the metalwork. A cacophony of music rises up from the streets and bursts out of the subway tunnels in spasms of commuters, guitars, flutes, drums, strange instruments cobbled together out of garbage and remaindered paint.

Jannes traces constellations in his notebook, calculates aphelion, perihelion, declension and ascension. “I am hoping,” he murmurs, half to himself, “to live long enough to see another planet.”

Mambres is down among the dishes, trying to work out the significance of bread crumb positioning. “Oh, I doubt it,” he says. There are 124 crumbs on the table, mostly concentrated on his side — Jannes doesn’t care for lemon wafers — and they cast shadows of doubtful import. “They’ve only just put a few simulacra down on Kolob. It’ll be centuries yet before anyone has enough of an idea of the place to send someone over.”

“You never know,” Jannes protests. “We are not exact scientists.”

“No, you never know,” sighs his partner, “but we — we can guess.”

Apocalypse

At work in the orrery. Walls thick with charts, tables, diagrams: dense sprawl of their calculations, Jannes’ handwriting neat and precise, Mambres’ expansive and looping.

They have seen for millions of years in either direction, world without beginning, without end. Ink-stained lips on Mambres. Bad habit; Jannes has often reproached him for chewing on his nibs. Black teeth and tongue.

Mambres writes:

…our own eyes attest the constant flux of all things. Mountains erode, streams rise and fall, as do nations and empires, each in its turn. So to us time seems a straightforward journeying from the past to the present; but we see neither clearly nor far. Time’s arrow bends: an arc bending toward a circle, a serpent growing fat on the meat of its tail…

Comforting tick of gears. They have built heaven in miniature, traced its ellipses but not its distances. Inlaid in the stone of the floor, the equinoxes precess. They have figured a 26,000 year cycle as a summer’s exercise.

…for example, the phoenix; (he writes) forever ancient, forever new. Renewed in fire and rare perfumes, a solar bird… driven by the same mad passions, we are born again, driven to the same obscure ends. This, my complex mathematics: the world ends as it begins, forever…

Mosaic

As promised the man waiting for them in the court has horns curling down out of his head, heavy horns and ribbed. They seem too big for his head, too massive and weighty for a merely human neck. Other than the horns, he’s an unexceptional example of the slave race, dark and compact and precise. Jannes and Mambres pause for a few moments on the other side of the archway that leads into the court to watch this new wizard unobserved.

“What do you think, Mambres? Is he a fraud, or what?”

Mambres sucks on the end of his beard meditatively. “Hard to say. Maybe, maybe not. He looks too young.”

“I don’t know,” says Jannes. “There’s something…”

They’ve waited long enough. The wizard is getting impatient, although he has too much self-control to show it openly. It’s more the set of his shoulders and the way he swings his arms as he walks, just a little too crisply. Jannes and Mambres come into the court in step with each other, faces turned toward the king but eyes busy. There’s another man in the room, standing quietly behind the wizard. He’s younger, but clearly related to the other man; a son, perhaps, or a brother. His robes are sun-faded and dusty and he leans wearily on a cane. It is all he can do to keep his head up. Jannes watches him sidelong while Mambres speaks to the king. “Here’s one to watch,” he says to himself, and suddenly he’s alive and excited.