At the Turn of the Cycle
Stark stands on the rocky cliff and gazes out at the sea. He likes to come to this lonely spot, equidistant from the spires of the new Eidolon settlement and the empty crater that was the old one. There's a symbolism in it that appeals to him: a balance point between past and future, destruction and rebirth. He sees it reflected here in the contrast between brown cliff and blue sea, between the ever-moving water and the calm and empty sky.
He will leave this planet soon. In the last cycle, he has helped the Eidolons all he knows how, though the information he has been able to provide them on the Scarrans and the Peacekeepers seems like such a small thing beside the inner peace that Yondalao's dying legacy brought him and which Yondalao's heirs have taught him how to keep.
Part of him does not want to leave this beautiful world, this peaceful place where he is accepted as an equal among beings he once fell to his knees and worshipped. But there are tasks awaiting him yet in this universe, people he's promised to see again. He knows this may well be the last time he stands here, watching the endlessly-renewed waves lapping against stone and listening to the still-new silence of his mind. But he, of all people, knows that endings are to be cherished as well as mourned.
Lifting his face to the sky, he offers up a prayer, multiple prayers: A Delvian hymn of oneness with the Goddess who is the universe, an Eidolon blessing, an untranslatable Banik chant celebrating life and death as equal gifts. His eyes close, Arnessk's sun warms the still-tender new tissue of his face, and for a moment he feels again the sense of transcendence he first knew so many cycles ago as an acolyte and has only recently learned to recapture.
It is an inalterable fact of the universe, of course, that such moments cannot last. When Stark lowers his head and opens his eyes, he is aware -- through which sense, he does not know -- that someone is standing behind him. He turns.
It's Scorpius. He stands there, utterly still, as if he is part of the rock, or the sky. As if he belongs here. "Hello, Stark," he says.
Stark does not scream. He does not cower, or whimper, or snarl. He can feel the memories churned up by that face and that voice pounding on the inside of his skull trying to make him panic, but he calms them, smoothing them gently down until they are only memories again. He feels a moment of quiet pride, that he can do even this, and it allows him to look Scorpius in the eye.
"What are you doing here?"
"I came to meet with the Eidolons, of course. What other purpose is there? Peace must be maintained." It's hard to tell with Scorpius -- every word he utters carries a potential labyrinth of meanings behind it -- but Stark thinks perhaps he detects a note of bitterness there.
"Yes," he says.
Scorpius smiles, his sharp blue eyes scanning Stark's face. "You're looking well," he says, lightly.
"No thanks to you," says Stark. Inside, part of him is trembling, but it doesn't reach his flesh.
"Do you think so?" Scorpius smiles again. "You're a figure of some fame and significance now, Stark. More than that, a free man, and, if I may say so, considerably more stable than at our first meeting. One could argue that none of that would have happened, were it not for me."
"Moral sophistry," Stark says. He meets Scorpius' gaze steadily with his own. "It's not an excuse. Not for anything that you did."
There's a glint in Scorpius' eyes that might be appreciation at the retort, or might be amusement. "Do you believe I feel the need for one? Come, Stark. We know each other better than that."
"That's partly true," says Stark. "I know you better than I'd like to. But you don't know me at all." One of his hands rubs against the other, an old habit that he's beginning to realize he'll most likely never be rid of. "Your Chair never saw anything I didn't want it to."
"Oh, I am fully aware of that," says Scorpius. He pauses for a moment, and Stark knows he's noticed the movement of his hands and makes a conscious effort to still them. "You never told Crichton what it was you were hiding from me." It's not a question, not quite. "Not all of it. He thought it was merely the location of Katratzi."
"Most of it wasn't mine to tell," he says, thinking of alien memories, sacred mysteries. "And the rest of it... Crichton had enough burdens to carry without adding my own."
"Very noble of you," says Scorpius, as if nobility is a concept he even understands.
Stark fights down a surge of anger, but the spike of fear that replaces it is more difficult to conquer, perhaps because it isn't irrational at all. "Is... Is that why you've come here? You want to try again?" The words rasp out through lips gone suddenly dry, and Stark thinks -- surprisingly calmly -- that if he acts quickly enough he might be able to throw himself over the cliff before Scorpius seizes him.
Scorpius actually looks surprised. "Risk antagonizing the Eidolons for an infinitesimal chance of gaining information I would never be permitted to use?" He makes a tsking sound. "And I thought you were currently meant to be sane. Although your faith in my capacity for perseverance is somewhat flattering. A cycle ago, I imagine it would have been justified." His eyes grow vague, unfocused, wandering from Stark's face to gaze out across the sea as he speaks. Stark finds it strangely frightening; he doesn't believe he's ever seen Scorpius this way. "No, Stark. As I said, I am here to meet with our guarantors of peace, as required by treaty."
"Then," says Stark softly, "why are you here?" This particular place, he means, this lonely sea-cliff spot. Is it possible that Scorpius, too, finds some meditative calm, some measure of beauty, in the sea and the sky? Is there room for such things in his soul?
Scorpius is quiet for a moment. When he replies, his voice is as precise and even as ever, but oddly distant. "This area is outside their sphere of psychic influence. I find that influence... unpleasant."
Stark's eyes widen slightly in surprise. "I've seen you under the Eidolons' aura of peace," he says. "You always seemed..." He looks for another word, but there isn't one. "Peaceful."
"Yes." Scorpius says it as if that one, simple word were explanation enough.
Stark feels anger rising in him again. "The Eidolons have brought peace, real peace. They've saved us all, saved us from endless war, from unimaginable destruction. Even you should see that, should understand that!"
"I do," says Scorpius. His eyes remain focused on a point somewhere over the empty sea. "As long as the Eidolons continue to play their part, the truce should endure, for a generation or two, at least. It will almost certainly last longer than I. And I... I have allowed myself to be persuaded to accept this as a solution. Which, ironically, means that I have accepted my own failure. No solution can be truly permanent unless the root cause is eliminated, and if the peace treaty outlives me, the Scarran Empire does as well."
Stark's anger is beginning to fade, beginning to mutate into some strange, complex emotion he has no name for, but which surely is not sympathy for Scorpius. "I have as much reason to hate the Scarrans as you," he says. He notices he's rubbing his hands together again. "As much reason as I have to hate the Peacekeepers. There was a time when I think I would have been happy to see you obliterate each other from the universe. But peace is better than war. If only for the innocent people who are always caught in the destruction. It doesn't matter that it's not forever. Nothing is forever." He takes a step towards Scorpius. He isn't sure why, except that he feels less afraid of him, now. "I hope you don't expect me to regret seeing you fail."
"Of course not. My defeat is, in a sense, your victory." He turns back to look at Stark again at last, his eyes locking onto Stark's. "Tell me," he says quietly. "How does it feel to you to be under the Eidolons' influence? How does it feel when it stops?"
The question confuses Stark, but though he searches for a reason not to answer, he can't see one. "I feel... more whole. More like me. More in harmony with the Goddess, with the Universe, with myself." He bows his head for a moment, a gesture of reverence. "It is a great blessing."
"Hmm." Scorpius turns his face back to the sea. "It may please you to know, then, that you have had an entirely adequate revenge." His voice grows quiet, so that Stark has to strain to hear it over the lapping of the waves. "Pain means very little to me. Under the correct circumstances, I find it rather pleasant. And I am quite used to attacks both mental and physical. I have experienced the Aurora Chair. It holds no terror for me. But this, this insidious violation..." His voice trembles. It actually trembles. He pauses, draws in a slow breath. "Each time I leave their presence, I feel that less of me remains."
Stark has no answer for that. It's as if the rocks and the sky themselves had opened hidden mouths and confessed to mortal weaknesses. He simply stares at Scorpius, his lips parted in a tiny, silent "oh."
Scorpius laughs, a thin, sound that, in anyone else, Stark would think of as self-deprecating. He rakes his eyes one last time across the cliff, the horizon, and the Banik beside him. "Never mind," he says. "It's time I was getting back. They'll be looking for me soon. If you see Crichton, tell him..." He smiles, that familiar, horrible Scorpy-smile, but there's a strange, troubled sadness behind it now that somehow makes it both less horrible and more. "Tell him I said 'congratulations'."
Stark blinks and opens his mouth to say... something. He has no idea exactly what, and before a single syllable forms in his brain, there's a swirl of leathery darkness, and Scorpius is gone, across the rocks.
Stark stands there for a long time, silent. When, finally, he returns to his prayer, he surprises himself by saying one for Scorpius, too.