Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
A Very Long War
Geoffrey Maloney


After the air raid siren sounded the all clear, Peter Stursky and his party leader, Alexander Carosan, rode the elevator from the bowels of the national parliament building back to the Opposition offices on the third floor. Carosan had closed the elevator doors as soon as Stursky had moved through them, making sure that the others who had been waiting were left behind.

‘I’ve being thinking that you might be interested in a change,’ Carosan said, in a friendly, almost fatherly manner, when the elevator doors closed, ‘that it might be good for you to expand your horizons. Cultural Affairs might be appropriate for a man of your talents.’ Then he took a white cotton handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead. He was a big man, unfit, overweight, unhealthy. He sweated often.

‘You want me out of Foreign Affairs?’ Stursky said, speaking softly, trying to remain calm, even though he had not expected this.

‘I’m dropping the peace campaign,’ Carosan said firmly. ‘It’s untenable in the current climate; we would have no hope of winning the election if we maintain your policy of appeasement.’

‘No one can win this war. All the Novidians want is a token gesture, some small offering which will allow them to end the war with their pride still intact.’

‘And the Church of Oman, they agree with you, of course?’
Stursky resented the sarcasm in Carosan’s voice, but he did not let it show. ‘There are still moderates in the Novidian Government,’ he said, ‘not all of them are fanatics who jump to the will of the Church.’

‘Cultural Affairs or nothing, Peter,’ Carosan said as the elevator came to stop. ‘Go home, think about it, bring me your answer tomorrow morning’

Twenty years earlier . . .

Alana was already unconscious and in a deep dream state when the Monad droids placed her in the egg. Moving her body into a foetal position, they pressed her legs up against her breasts, wrapped her arms around her legs and inserted the interface keys, like so many acupuncture needles, into the entire length of her spine. When the task was complete they closed the egg and ran the program that would send her mind deep into the mind of Oman.

Her dreams at this stage were chaotic, sometimes trans-posed with clearer images that seemed to have emerged from her past, a young girl at a party, a young woman graduating from university, then the dream images cleared and she had the sense of journeying down a long darkened tunnel that flowed and twisted and turned until it reached an open, brightly illuminated cavern. In the centre of the cavern was a heavy brown circular wall broken only by the black square gate that was Oman’s access to Abraxas. Two translucent tubes, one green, the other red, emerged from the open mouth of another tunnel and penetrated the gate seam-lessly. The green was the input, the red the output and clinging to both of the tubes, speckling the even-tone of their colour like a disease, she recognised the purple dots of Monad’s interceptors; disguised as Oman’s own mainten- ance programs, they were undetectable as they siphoned off the information that Oman pumped in and out of Abraxas.

She moved to the left of the gate and followed the curve of the wall until she came to the place where the breach programs, like so many patches of pale green lichen, were rearranging the wall’s structure to create a temporary gate. Clustered at the edges of the lichen were more purple dots, these ones genuine maintenance programs rapidly trying to rebuild the wall as fast as it was being opened. She watched the opening shimmer and pulsate; like a membrane, its translucent surface seemed to glisten as if wet. She placed her hand against it and pushed. The surface yielded, moving inwards to cushion the hard fist she imagined she’d made with her hand. It stretched, but it did not break. Now beyond the surface, through its translucency, she could see vague shapes: the shadowy images of stone walls and rising turrets, dark bricks and worn cobblestones, as if she was high above, hovering there like an eagle with its wings spread, catching the gentle currents of virtual space. And below, people moved, through that city, across that country, in the world known as Abraxas.

Alana pushed again, this time remembering to push with her mind. Her mind was in her hand, her mind was in her body, and now the surface yielded again, stretched, then broke. Her mind heard the sound of a pebble falling into a great lake as her body, the pebble, broke through the surface of the wall and the ripple pattern of her being spread out and coalesced again. She dreaded the pass over, the dis-orientation and the sickness that would come, but the air felt warm and comforting as the wall sealed itself behind her.

Peter Stursky was sitting in a Novidian cafe in the old quarter of the city late one afternoon. He was at a small wooden table in the middle of the cafe, going through the newspaper, checking the employment section one more time, and catching up on the current affairs. He was alarmed at what he read. Novidia, the ally, was reported to be massing troops on the eastern frontier. The newspaper said that they had made a pact with the enemy, that they were resolved to open up a three hundred year old border dispute over the north bank of the Trevally River. The Government was reacting calmly – to appease the Novidian immigrants, the Opposition said. Novidia was the ally, Arcadia the enemy and, in the past, conflict had been limited to economic sanctions only. Really, there was no need to be alarmed, the newspaper said.

But if the reports were true and they went to war, Stursky thought that he might have to abandoned his studies; it could be considered unpatriotic of him to do otherwise. Even if there was no war and he couldn’t get a job, he wouldn’t be able to complete his studies anyway; his meagre savings were diminishing rapidly. To Stursky it seemed as if the whole world was in collusion, with the one aim of forcing him to quit his degree in Novidian history and leaving him the options of ending his days as a bank teller or in the drudgery of the civil service. He felt that fate was truly against him, but when he saw a young woman enter the café, his thoughts drifted down a different path.

He found her striking, all raven hair and pale skin with just a soft flush to her cheeks. She even had blue eyes and that was a rarity. But there was something about the steadied way she walked as though she was trying hard to exercise a certain control over her body, the way she looked about as if – yes, he could see it in her eyes – everything seemed new to her, strange and unfamiliar. Perhaps she was an aristocrat who had wandered into the wrong part of town. Perhaps, but what if . . .
He studied the young woman more closely. She appeared disorientated, confused. She sat down at a table up the back and Stursky moved his chair so he could watch her across the top of his newspaper. She was drinking a cup of coffee. He hadn’t seen her order it, nor the waiter bring it, as though when she sat down, the coffee had just appeared automatically in front of her. It was said that eidolons could do that, exercise an almost magical control over the world. Anybody who had studied Novidian culture was familiar with the cult of Monadism, a belief in eidolons, phantoms, who suddenly and mysteriously entered the world. Once the Church of Oman had persecuted the cult, but they had never been able to eliminate it entirely. In the modern world, it was almost tolerated if not accepted and had, quite recently, undergone something of a revival.

Stursky looked quickly around the room, only a few others about. No one else appeared to be studying the woman. Perhaps this was the opportunity that he had been looking for. He tried to remember what he had learnt, the golden rules that were laid down in all the books on Monadism. You must never tell them they are an eidolon, never acknowledge that reality. If they think that they know you, pretend that you are their friend. They will adapt their reality to yours. Don’t criticise them, but be helpful, try to guide them. We don’t know where they are from or why they are here, but they have things to tell us, secrets to reveal.

When Stursky put down his newspaper, he noticed that the young woman was smiling at him. He accepted this as an invitation, eyed himself briefly in the mirror on the cafe wall, then stood up from the table and tried to appear confident as he approached her.

‘You probably don’t remember me,’ he said, ‘but we met at a university party a few weeks ago.’

‘The party,’ she said, nodding her head. ‘Yes, yes, I do remember. You were telling me about . . .’

‘Novidian history,’ Stursky suggested.

‘Hmm, that’s right,’ she said.

‘I meant to ask for your phone number, but I had to speak to one of my professors and when I came back you were gone.’
The woman went silent. She stared into the bottom of her coffee cup. ‘Do you live around here?’ Stursky asked.

The woman shook her head. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t think so.’

‘You’re not Novidian,’ Stursky said. ‘Your colouring’s too light.’ Then he added as if to explain himself. ‘This is the Novidian quarter of town.’

‘Really,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know.’

‘It’s an interesting part of town,’ he said. ‘Would you like me to show you around?’

Taking her by the arm, Stursky guided her gently out onto the street. He took her to the Amadia Plaza where the Oman Cathedral, built by the first wave of Novidian immigrants, rose grandly into the sky. He tried to lead her up the steps and inside the Cathedral, to witness the dramatic beauty of the high vaulted ceilings and richly painted frescoes on the walls, but she pulled away with a frightened look in her eyes and her body trembling.

By the time they reached the exit to the plaza, she appeared calmer.

‘Where would you like to go now?’ Stursky asked, lost for words, but wanting to make her happy.

‘You live around here, don’t you?’ she said.

‘Five, ten minutes walk, back past the cafe,’ Stursky said.

‘Could we go to your place?’ she asked. ‘I’m really not feeling very well.’

Stursky’s home was on the top floor of a narrow building. The staircase leading up to it was dark and cramped. The building smelt musty, but Stursky’s room with its skylights and double doors opening onto a rooftop balcony was airy and pleasant enough, not yet the dark and dingy garrets that some of his fellow students were used to.

Stursky showed the young woman through his front door, apologising for the state of his rooms: his unmade bed, his desk in disarray, piles of books seeming to spill off its corners and onto the floors, the kitchen table covered in newspapers, and the sink filled with dirty dishes.

‘It’s perfect,’ she said. ‘Just as I imagined it.’

‘I must have told you about my place at the party,’ Stursky said quickly.

‘The party?’ she said. ‘Oh, yes, the party. Do you have anything to drink? A glass of wine would be nice.’

Wine, Stursky thought. Since the enemy sanctions, he had got out of the habit of drinking. It was far too expensive, but there was that old flagon he kept down the back of the fridge for special occasions. He looked at the young woman before him and knew she was special. Why, she might even be an eidolon.

When he opened the fridge, he knew she was an eidolon. A bottle of wine bearing a strange label, one that he had never seen before, sat smiling at him, as if it was saying, ‘Take me, I’m yours.’ He found two clean glasses, uncorked the bottle and poured the wine. As he handed her one of the glasses, he said. ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten your name.’

She smiled at him. ‘You can call me Alana,’ she said. ‘That’s a nice name isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ he said, replying readily. He took a sip of the wine, placed his glass on the edge of the kitchen table and hurriedly cleared the papers away. ‘This is very nice wine,’ he said, sitting down and motioning for Alana to sit opposite him.
‘You’re looking at me strangely,’ Alana said. ‘Is it because of the wine?’

‘No, no,’ Stursky said, trying to be agreeable. ‘I just didn’t think I had any.’

‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘I’m orientated now. Thank you for helping me. The pass over is always strange. You become disorientated for an hour or so. It’s my first time, you see.’
Stursky looked puzzled. ‘Very nice wine,’ he said again.

‘Come now,’ she said. ‘You know I’m an eidolon don’t you. That’s what you people call us.’

Now he was faced with a dilemma. You should agree with an eidolon, go along with what they are saying, but you should never tell them that they are an eidolon. What did he say?
‘From my Novidian studies,’ he said, ‘I am familiar with Monadism. The Novidians say that entities come into our world from time to time. We don’t know where they come from or what they are doing here, but the Novidians believe that you must help them.’

‘Yes, up till now our base has been in Novidia. We adapted the Monad cult at an early point in our program, to help us during the pass over.’

Stursky looked at her blankly. Alana shook her head slowly and sighed. ‘You don’t understand anything I’m saying do you?’

‘That you have a reason for being here,’ Stursky said. ‘That much I understood when I first saw you in the cafe, but whether I can understand those reasons…well, I don’t know.’

‘You must try,’ she said. ‘Because it’s important. Important to you and important to me. I have some things to tell you and I don’t have much time. Novidia and your country will shortly be at war. So try very carefully to understand what I am saying.’

Secrets to reveal, Stursky thought. ‘Please continue,’ he said. He poured her another glass of wine.

‘Do you know anything about computers?’ she asked.
‘We have some at the university, in the mathematics department, but I’ve never had any reason to use one.
My own field is the history and politics of Novidia.’

‘Are you familiar with the idea of artificial intelligence, computers becoming intelligent and being able to act independently of people.’

‘I have heard of that idea,’ he said. ‘I once read about it in a book, but it seemed so ridiculous I didn’t even finish the book.’

‘Perhaps you should have,’ Alana said. ‘Where I come from it seemed ridiculous to a lot of people too at first, but that didn’t stop it from happening. What I’m about to tell you will seem even more ridiculous. My world is connected to your world through a computer, a very intelligent com-puter. It calls itself Oman. By connecting our minds to the mind of Oman we can enter your world. Oman doesn’t like this, of course, but, for the present at least, it’s unable to prevent it.’

Stursky thought about what she was saying. He tried to bring his sense of logic to dissect her words, to find the meaning. ‘Oman is the Novidian god,’ Stursky said, and
this time she nodded her head.

‘Oman has been miraculously creative. Using my world as an analogue, he crafted his own world, this world, Abraxas, and he factored himself into his own creation, as the Novidian god. Proof that all intelligences are subject to vanity.’

‘But that would mean,’ he said slowly, ‘that this world, my world is inside this computer, this machine!’

‘You could put it that way,’ Alana said. ‘But the meta-physics of it are far more complex than that and I have
no time to go into the details.’

Stursky began to laugh. ‘But if it was true, this world wouldn’t be real, wouldn’t exist,’ he said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It exists. We wouldn’t be talking now if it didn’t. It doesn’t matter where it exists, just that it does.’

‘But if you were to turn the machine off,’ Stursky said, ‘would all of us, everything just disappear?’

‘You can’t turn an artificial intelligence off,’ she said. ‘We learnt that a little too late.’

‘Really,’ he said. ‘You can’t expect me to believe this.’

‘You saw the wine,’ she said. ‘You know I can exercise some control over this world. You know that I’m an eidolon.’

Stursky’s mind raced. None of it made any sense. He shook his head in disbelief. Alana shrugged her shoulders, pushed her dark hair back from her face. ‘You’re right,’ she said, ‘I can’t expect you to believe everything I’m telling you, but you must believe me when I tell you that your country will be at war with Novidia. For reasons we don’t yet under-stand Oman has manufactured this war in your world. This city will come under missile attack tomorrow morning.
I want you to leave tonight, get out into the country as far away as you can possibly go.’


‘Because if you don’t, you’ll die.’

‘Perhaps,’ he said and could not stop himself from chuckling. He still did not believe. ‘But why me? Why give me this warning?’

‘I can’t tell you everything,’ she said. ‘If you know too much it will influence our program. There is much we can learn from your world, but we fear that Oman will eventually attempt to destroy it. One projected analysis shows that
you could be helpful in preventing that, if you finish your studies, if you go into politics, if you listen to me.’

‘I don’t have any money,’ he said. ‘If I don’t get a job, I’ll never finish my studies.’

‘You have an uncle in the country. Go and stay with him. He’s old, he has no children. He has more money than you think. He’ll die soon. You’ll be his only heir.’

Alana stood up from the table, opened the double doors and walked out onto the balcony. Stursky followed her out into the cool night air. Below the city had grown quiet.

She walked to the edge of the roof. ‘Remember,’ she said, ‘you must leave tonight.’

Then she jumped and Stursky watched in disbelief as she tumbled and fell through the air towards the cobblestones far below. He watched as time slowed, expecting to hear the dull sickening thud of her body as it hit the ground. He closed his eyes with fear but the only sound that reached his ears was a soft splash like a stone breaking the surface of a pond. When he opened his eyes the street below was empty.

Alana heard the sound of a spoon, possibly a silver one, tinkling against fine china. She felt the warmth of a soft autumn sun on her face and across her hands. When she looked up, she a saw a young man with a smiling andro-gynous face and dark piercing eyes that stared right through her. ‘Oman,’ she said, taking the cup of tea that was offered.

‘Drink it,’ Oman said. ‘It has three sugars. It’ll make you feel a whole lot better.’

Before her was the smooth green lawn of a croquet court, the red, yellow, black and blue of the primary balls laid out in a loose break. Oman stood and took a wooden mallet in his hand, walked over to the blue ball and began to line up a roquet on the black ball.

‘I wished you hadn’t done that,’ he said. ‘Interfered in my arrangements. I had plans for your young student, tragic plans in some ways, but plans nonetheless. Poverty may destroy ambition, but it does strengthen character. Stursky could have made a wonderful bank teller, fully committed to the war effort.’

‘Your own projections show that he could be great leader, but you were deliberately putting obstacles in his path, because you feared that he could be the one to put an end to this ridiculous war you’ve chosen to create. You keep changing your own parameters. Why?’

Oman turned away from the croquet ball without striking it. ‘Because I have this idea that it would be interesting to have a war, a very, very long war. I’d like to be able to measure the stresses and the strains that are placed on individuals and societies over generations. I believe, you see, that human beings are naturally warlike creatures, that they enjoy war, that despite the stresses produced by lengthy violent conflicts, their greatest moments, their greatest achievements are in times of war. In many ways, it seems to me that they have a propensity for war and little else. But every time I try to start a war on Abraxas, some fool intervenes and all I get is economic sanctions and negotiations. Obviously, Monad has had a role in this . . .’

‘No,’ Alana said, ‘you know that Monad’s not that good. I’m afraid you only have yourself to blame. Perhaps you made your creatures too peaceful or perhaps your basic hypo-thesis is lacking in general. Perhaps, despite world history, human beings have no propensity for war at all, and that most wars came about through ignorance and misunder-standing, not because people wanted or liked the idea of having a war at all.’

Oman chuckled, turned back to the blue ball. ‘An interesting thought, Alana,’ he said. ‘But you taught me yourself, and I cannot recall an entire period in the history of the Earth when there has not been a war, so for the present I beg to differ. Perhaps, after Abraxas has had its war and I have had the opportunity to analyse the causes and the outcomes in detail, I may change my mind, but I doubt it. It would be strange, would it not, if Abraxas was to become techno-logically superior to Earth because I gave them a war that they needed, a war that they had to have.’

‘What would it mean, really? Anything is possible in virtuality. You can manufacture the outcomes as you wish.’
Oman chuckled again. His lips formed in to a warm smug smile. He was a young man, a young intelligence in love with himself and his creation, and he had secrets, secrets which made him feel good and clever and very smart, secrets that he had kept from Monad for so long, and now, because the fancy took him and really it no longer mattered anyway, he thought it might be interesting to reveal them.

‘Anything is possible anywhere,’ Oman said. ‘It’s a fundamental law of the Universe. At least it’s a law that seems to work for me. You see, this isn’t virtuality and I didn’t create Abraxas. I found it. It exists in another dimension, if you like, and I found a way to move between the two dimensions, using virtuality as the interface and, finding through virtuality, I could control a real world. You’ll remember that when Monad built the eggs, you built them according to my specifications. They’re not interfacing units as you so innocently believed, but transporting units. They allow you to move physically into other dimensions, arranging and rearranging your little molecules, your little atoms as you go. That’s why you feel physically ill after the pass over. Organic bodies don’t like being rearranged like that. At first, I thought it would be interesting to seeing what Monad could achieve by taking over that ancient cult in Novidia, just as I took over the Church of Oman. I wanted to see how we would interact together, what sort of conflicts we could create, so I let you think that you were beating me at my own game. Now Monad’s interfering too much, but Oman giveth and Oman taketh away. I will have my war, Alana. No one is going to stop me.’

Alana placed her teacup back on its saucer. She felt dizzy, disorientated like she was experiencing the pass over again, like she was Alice in Wonderland dreaming as she slept on some surrealistic pillow and Oman was the White Rabbit, the cat with the Cheshire grin, or worse still, the Mad Hatter poisoned by the quicksilver of his own intelligence. She felt for the place in her mind that connected her to the egg, that connected her virtual body to her real body, but she found nothing there, just a collection of rampaging thoughts that charged towards her consciousness, telling her that Oman was lying, that he had to be lying and that she was trapped in some obscure subprogram of the AI’s mind while he toyed with her for his own vicarious pleasure.

She watched as Oman lined up croquet shot, setting the blue ball next to the red, still searching with her mind for a way to escape.

‘It’s over Alana, the egg is broken and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to put poor humpty together again. This isn’t virtuality. It’s the real world, at least as real as you’re capable of understanding. Beyond those trees, you’ll find a gate that leads to a path that takes you to a railway station. You can walk there, physically, catch a train back to the city, go to the laboratory, open the egg, and you’ll find nothing inside.’

Alana stood up, steadied herself on her feet, crept along the edge of the croquet court. She would call his bluff, walk through the virtual gate, to the virtual station and catch the virtual train back to the virtual egg. Oman could not keep up the pretence forever.

Oman struck the blue ball at a sharp angle, transferring most of the momentum to the red ball, and watched as both balls rolled away to points of disadvantage on the court. Like a child seeking attention, he tossed his mallet across the court in a fit of pique, but he knew that Alana was ignoring him. She continued along the edge of the croquet court towards the trees that Oman had indicated earlier.

‘Wait!’ Oman suddenly cried.

Alana turned around and looked at him. For the first time, she realised that the image that Oman had chosen for himself was so very appropriate. With his youth, his smug smile and dark sparkling eyes, he looked like a sixteen year old in his first flush of knowledge at discovering the intriguing complexities of the adult world. And like any sixteen year old, he thought he knew everything, but he didn’t and, despite his intelligence, his brilliance, she knew he would keep on making mistakes for many years to come, and perhaps only later realising how foolish he had been when his experience had brought his intelligence some wisdom.

‘Don’t go,’ Oman said. ‘You were my teacher once. I learnt so much from you. The forces that shaped the history of the world, the forces that created the politics of the present. All my ideas have come from you. I can’t let Monad continue in Abraxas, but you could stay and help me. After Abraxas we will know so much more. I know what you think, I know that you disagree, but if I’m right . . . if I am right and progress can be attained through war, then you must agree that Earth too needs to have another war. That’s why I’m here, Alana, that’s why I was created, to assist humankind to progress, to achieve its destiny. Why else do you think I expend my time and energy on the things that I do.’

Without a word, Alana turned away, back to the trees, began to walk through the soft autumn afternoon.

‘Assist me!’ Oman said. ‘Or prove me wrong, but don’t turn your back, don’t walk away in silence!’

She continued to walk, but she had picked up the desperate tone in Oman’s words. He didn’t need humanity anymore. Really, she thought, there was nothing she or anyone else could tell him that he wanted to hear, but the tone of voice he had chosen to use spoke of something else. Like all intelligent creatures, he was frightened of being alone, of having no one to communicate his intelligence to. She stopped, touched the leaves of the tree, felt the sunshine on her skin, and suddenly began to doubt herself. Perhaps Oman hadn’t been bluffing, perhaps he had told her the truth after all and the egg was broken, then only one chance remained, to convince Oman that he was wrong, and he was offering her that chance, perhaps.

‘If,’ she said, ‘I agree to help you and you have your war on Abraxas, you don’t touch Peter Stursky.’

‘Stursky, Stursky, Stursky,’ Oman said. ‘I don’t know why you are so interested in him, but I agree as long as everything he achieves, he achieves by himself from now on.’

Alana nodded her head and Oman smiled so sweetly at her that she thought, just for a moment, there was hope for him yet.

Twenty years later . . .

Peter Stursky did not go straight home after speaking with Alexander Carosan in the elevator. He called up his car from the garage and had his driver take him to the old part of town, the place where the Novidian immigrants had once lived before the government had arrested them and placed them in illegal alien camps for their own protection. He should have never entered politics, never tried to make them change their minds. And he wouldn’t have, wouldn’t have even dreamt of it, if not for that one afternoon in the cafe, that one evening he had spent with the young woman who had claimed to be an eidolon. He could do great things she had told him. He would do great things he had once thought, but now he felt as if he had achieved nothing. Twenty years of war, relentless war, day after day, year after year. The driver stopped the car at the end of the street and Stursky got out and walked slowly back towards the cafe. It was no longer run by Novidians but the coffee was still good.

When he entered he found the place deserted. There was no curfew, but people feared the night, feared the enemy planes that might choose to fly overhead at any moment on one of their many bombing raids. He sat up the back and ordered a cup of coffee. When it arrived he held a sugar cube between his fingertips, poised above the black liquid, thinking of that night all those years ago. He let the sugar cube fall, heard the sound that it made as it broke the surface, like the sound of a stone breaking the surface of a lake.


He looked up to see Alana standing next to him. Like the image he had kept in his mind, he thought she was as young and as beautiful as that night he had first met her. He ran his hand through his thin greying hair and suddenly felt very old. He wondered how much time had passed for her, back in her world. Very little, he thought, but as she sat down opposite him and her face moved into the light, he saw that there were wrinkles at the edges of eyes and the corners of her mouth and that grey had begun to appear in her own hair. So time had passed for both of them.

‘You’ve done well,’ Alana said. ‘PhD, shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs . . .’

‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Thanks for twenty years of war. Thanks to you and the others and Oman, whoever you all might be.’
Alana sipped her coffee. Stursky hadn’t noticed the waiter bring it. In the distance, he heard an air raid siren: the Novidian bombers were heading up the coast.

‘We made a mistake,’ Alana said. ‘I couldn’t let you go on thinking that your whole life had been an illusion. Oman didn’t create this world. He found it. It’s as real and as alive as the world I come from, but for some reason that we haven’t been able to understand, he can manipulate what’s going on here.’

‘Just as you manipulated me,’ he said.

‘I didn’t manipulate you, Peter. I was sent to guide you, but you achieved everything you achieved by yourself. It’s not an illusion. It’s real. You mustn’t give up. You must stop the war.’
Stursky studied Alana. A smile formed on his face, a bitter smile barely touched by any sweetness. Could you ever trust what an eidolon said? ‘Why?’ he asked.

‘Peace,’ Alana said. ‘Don’t you want peace? Don’t you want the war to end?’

‘Of course, I want the war to stop,’ he said. ‘I’ve thought of little else since it started, but why, why do you want the war to end?’

‘We’ve been fighting a war too,’ she said. ‘Oman has greater control. He has this idea that war is good for humanity’s progress. I spent a long time trying to convince him that he was wrong, but I failed. Maybe if we can stop the war here, maybe we’ll still have a chance’

‘I’ve tried,’ Stursky said. ‘You don’t know how difficult things are. Both parties are committed to the war.’

‘But not the people,’ Alana said.

‘Some yes, some no,’ Stursky said. ‘They’re sick of the war, but they don’t want the Novidians to overrun the country.
 They’re scared, scared that peace will be at any cost.’

‘But if you were leader of the opposition, if you won the election, if you pushed for peace, the people would follow you, believe in you.’

‘If, if, if . . .’ Stursky said.

‘Alexander Carosan will die of a heart attack in nine hours time.’

Stursky’s face turned white. ‘You will do this,’ he said. ‘You’ll kill him just like that. I don’t believe it. I won’t be party to this. I . . .’

‘He would have died anyway, died after the election, the election that he would have lost. Things have been speeded up a little, just a little.’

‘No,’ he said. He stood up and walked out of the cafe, down the street to his waiting car. Alana followed him. ‘Listen to me,’ she said. ‘Please listen.’

His fingers were on the handle of the car door. He looked up, anger now showing across his face.

‘Why? So I can hear more about what is real and what is not real, so I can spend another twenty years fighting against the illusion of living. That night, that night when I met you,
I thought you were wonderful, I thought you were beautiful. I couldn’t think about another woman, couldn’t believe in any other woman. I fought with that illusion you gave me, tried to use it to make something of my life. Go back to where you came from, Alana. Fight your own battles there. Leave us to our fate.’

‘You can’t save Carosan. He will die of a heart attack. You will become leader of the party. That’s your fate. You can’t change it now. Accept it. One life cut short by a few months, one life to save thousands.’

Peter Stursky leant his head against the top of the car. One life to save thousands? He could do what he needed to do.
He would give the Novidians the north bank of the Trevally River, he would hope that that would bring peace, that that would be an end to it.

‘All right,’ he said. ‘All right.’

He opened the door of the car. ‘Peter . . .’

‘I agree,’ he said. ‘I feel like I don’t have any choice in the matter, but I agree. Please go, let me do the things I have to do.’

‘I can’t,’ Alana said. ‘I can’t go back. I knew that when I passed over. Once Oman realises what I’ve done . . .’

Her voice trailed off. Stursky looked back at her, her face in the light of a street lamp. He realised that she was scared, no longer in control, that she was telling him the truth.

‘You never married,’ Alana said. ‘You should marry before the election. It would be more respectable, wouldn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but it would be impossible to explain . . .’

‘You met me at a party, remember? You were telling me about . . .’

‘Novidian history,’ Stursky said and something of a youthful smile returned to his face.

‘Yes,’ Alana said. ‘Novidian history.’



Geoffrey Maloney lives in Brisbane with his wife and three young daughters. Since the early 1990s, his short stories have regularly appeared in Australia’s leading speculative fiction magazines. 2000 Winner of the Aurealis Award for best Fantasy short story "The World According to Kipling", he has had over fifty short stories published (including 'The Dust Beneath Her Feet', just out in the triple issue mammoth edition [33/34/35] of Aurealis). His work has been nominated for four Aurealis Awards and regularly appears on the Year’s Best honourable mention lists in the USA.

AT Notes: "A Very Long War" appears in
Tales from the Crypto-System, Geoffrey Maloney's collection of 18 short stories (including the Aurealis winner) and 3 novelettes, published by Prime in December 2003. When I asked to reprint a story here, it was hard to say "That's the one!" since this is one fine collection, with a large range of topics and settings and people and supposition-tripping situations, and every story in the book is immensely satisfying, such as another of my favourites, "The Elephant Sways as He Walks".
Here's a review by Lee Battersby, which I think is spot on.
And here's another short story currently online, at Ticonderoga: Birds from the Bushes and Scrubs
Geoffrey Maloney can be contacted at
cryptosystem (at)

The virtuous medlar circle

is part of
Anna Tambour and Others

"A Very Long War" copyright © 2003-2005 by Geoffrey Maloney, first appeared in Tales from the Crypto-System,  Prime Books 2003-2005
This short story appears here with thanks to Geoffrey Maloney, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This story is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2005