1997 - 2006
March 12, 1997 Version 2.02
Revision Date: 05/20/2006
In the Light of Others' Expectations
Howard stood next to his pallet, naked and beginning to feel increasingly self-conscious, when a male Dirhal approached and spoke to Aarrl, his eyes repeatedly glancing at the Human. Ripley recognized him by the five gold rings in his ear as Raall.
After a moment, Aarrl turned to relay the PackCaptain's message. "Raall bids you attend EndCycle prayers." This wasn't spoken as a request.
Howard briefly considered asking to be excused on account of his total lack of attire, but Aarrl quickly sensed his thoughts.
"To go otherwise would be a grave offense. What would you conceal from God?"
Aarrl delivered these last words with his head tilted slightly to the side, staring intently, as though scrutinizing the Human for some hidden moral defect.
Even without Aarrl's rejoinder it would have been impossible for Howard to refuse as over forty pairs of Dirhal eyes watched him, expectantly, as though they alone were privileged to some inner secret hidden from him.
Howard's dilemma was resolved when Raall, pointing with one clawed finger, indicated that he was to proceed across the corridor to the room opposite. Without looking back, Raall turned and led the way. Howard followed as Aarrl and the remaining Watchers proceeding single file behind, their toe-claws clicking in time to their steps on the smooth wooden deck.
As he entered the room, Howard was struck by its austerity. The walls, rather than being painted the ubiquitous pale yellow-green, where covered from floor to ceiling with tatami-like reed mats, in a manner reminiscent of a Japanese ceremonial tea room. The floor was of bare wood, unpolished, with a curious weather-stained look, almost as though it was the salt-encrusted deck of an ancient sailing ship. This condition was in sharp contrast to the well-tended floors evident on the rest of the vessel. Aside from the wall-mats, the room was completely empty, save for a large, fractured piece of worked stone on a low pedestal and an ornately carved wooden framework, which held a multitude of scarlet cloth strips. Each strip bore an inscription in an alphabet of comas, dots and lines, stitched in silver thread.
Raall came to a stop next to the rack, and beckoned for Howard to approach. As he did, the Dirhal gently placed a hand on the Human's chest, bidding him to stop. Removing a scarlet strip from the rack, the PackCaptain tied it about Howard's head, so that the inscription was centered on his forehead with the ends trailing down his back.
Aarrl, who was standing behind Ripley, bent to explain. "These represent the forty and nine Names Of God."
After applying Howard's ribbon, Raall placed his left hand behind the Human's right shoulder, leading him to the front of the chamber and indicated that he should stand with him on a low dais, rising about ten centimeters above the stained wooden floor. As Raall turned the Human to face the door, Howard watched the others filing in one at a time, each in turn taking a ribbon from the rack as they passed.
Standing naked and alone beside Raall on the dais, Howard felt very vulnerable and out of place. He looked questioningly at Aarrl. The Ursine's reply was accompanied by a palm-up gesture of his right hand. "It is proper that you do so. For you are the S'Challh."
The way the last word was delivered sent a chill down Howard's spine. He couldn't help feeling that, in some way, what control he had over his life was slipping away. Inexorably, he was being pushed toward a goal not entirely his own. Howard desperately wanted to ask Aarrl what the strange word meant, but knew it wasn't the proper time. Biting his lip, he remained silent.
After another minute, the remaining Dirhal had filed in to take their places, standing in three ranks, curving slightly about the central dais, scarlet cloth in sharp contrast against gray fur. There were three remaining ribbons on the rack. Idly, Howard wondered to himself, what were the three remaining Names Of God?
All those assembled stood quietly for a moment. The silence was total, there were none of the nervous coughs and shuffling common in any waiting group of Humans. The silence was complete until Raall held out his hands at waist height, palms down, his muzzle agape, raised high as though in a silent howl. With the quiet susurration of fur against fur, all those present duplicated his posture. Taking his cue from Aarrl, Howard did the same.
All held that position through silent minutes, the downward palms indicative of Nothing Asked For. The silent howl symbolizing the soul-felt Hymn of their revered Wolven Ancestors.
At first, as the silence penetrated his consciousness, Howard could think of nothing but the totally fantastic situation in which he found himself. That these creatures were somehow bound to The Dream was obvious, but how? Also, he was deeply disturbed by Aarrl's reference to him as 'S'Challh', The One. The One What? What did it mean? Who was the unnamed other that was also a prisoner of his Dream? How could his Dream have any impact on another person? In which case, was it even his dream?
As Howard meditated in silence, his mind cleared and his self-centered thoughts faded away. Soon his thoughts turned to the 'Other'. With a sharp and unexpected pang of longing, it became clear to him that it wasn't the *place* depicted in The Dream he longed for. 'God,' he thought, 'how could I have been so blind!' Somehow, across the immensity of space, it was his fellow prisoner to whom his soul called out… Who called out to him! How was this possible? Resolution coalesced and the Human knew then that he would answer the call, no matter what it took!
Howard's wretched past flowed before his mind's eye. All those years! So much pain. Such loneliness! The failures of his life haunted and hurt, each in succession cutting a bit deeper.
It became so clear! For most of his adult life, Howard, like every other Human Being, longed for, needed, someone who would feel the same for him. But he could never find her. For the past eleven years, all of his relationships had been empty failures… Meaningless… Insignificant before the power of The Dream. Now, standing before him were the agents of his rescue! Aarrl had meant it, literally, when he said that they had 'come for him'!
Howard now understood the Dirhals' look of expectation. To them he had always been 'The One' and they were waiting for him to make that self-discovery. Somewhere, he thought, someone was confident enough of that fact, to have launched an interstellar expedition to come looking for him!
Slowly, the Human became again aware of the others around him, who had apparently completed their prayers a short while previously and now intently watched him. As he stood arms out, palms down, tears of intermingled joy and burning regret ran down his cheeks.
Becoming more aware of his surrounding, Howard self-consciously lowered his arms. He felt light-headed and his knees were rubbery. Aarrl must have detected his distress, because immediately the Ursine's massive form was at his side, one huge hand under his arm. It took a long while for Howard's dizziness to subside, giving him more time to contemplate his experiences of the last several minutes.
Not being a religious person, it was hard for him to attribute his feelings to Divine Intervention, but something has nudged his consciousness toward the true source of his longings. Howard now felt he had some direction in his life; a goal to strive for; a reason to believe he wasn't going insane!
As the Human and Aarrl joined the others leaving the chapel, he removed his ribbon. This was Howard's first oportunity to examine it since receiving it from Raall. It was made of silk, so fine it almost felt weightless. The workmanship was exquisite, the stitches so intricately done as to be invisible. The individual symbols were embroidered in a style that made them look like small, silver tongues of flame, dancing upon the scarlet cloth. Before he returned it to Raall, Howard held the ribbon out to Aarrl, across his palms.
"Which Name is this?" he asked.
Aarrl stood silently for a moment, his head tilted to the right, lovingly tracing the silver glyphs with one black claw, his muzzle slightly agape in a Gashka smile. His answer, when it came, was but one softly spoken word:
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