Authors: Michael Moorcock
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Science Fiction; English, #SciFi-Masterwork
THE DANCERS AT THE END OF TIME
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15 In Which Jherek Carnelian and Mrs. Underwood find Sanctuary of Sorts, and Mr. Underwood Makes a New Friend
The silver lips of lilies virginal,
The full deep bosom of the enchanted rose
Please less than flowers glass-hid from frosts and snows
For whom an alien heat makes festival.
The cycle of the Earth (indeed, the universe, if the truth had been known) was nearing its end and the human race had at last ceased to take itself seriously. Having inherited millennia of scientific and technological knowledge it used this knowledge to indulge its richest fantasies to play immense imaginative games, to relax and create beautiful monstrosities. After all, there was little else left to do. An earlier age might have been horrified at what it would have judged a waste of resources, an appalling extravagance in the uses to which materials and energies were put. An earlier age would have seen the inhabitants of this world as "decadent" or "amoral," to say the least. But even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time some unconscious knowledge informed their attitudes and made them lose interest in ideals, creeds, philosophies and the conflicts to which such things give rise. They found pleasure in paradox, aesthetics and baroque wit; if they had a philosophy, then it was a philosophy of taste, of sensuality. Most of the old emotions had atrophied, meant little to them.
They had rivalry without jealousy, affection without lust, malice without rage, kindness without pity. Their schemes — often grandiose and perverse — were pursued without obsession and left uncompleted without regret, for death was rare and life might cease only when Earth herself died.
Yet this particular story is about an obsession which overtook one of these people, much to his own astonishment. And because he was overtaken by an obsession that is why we have a story to tell. It is probably the last story in the annals of the human race and, as it happens, it is not dissimilar to that which many believe is the first.
What follows, then, is the story of Jherek Carnelian, who did not know the meaning of morality, and Mrs. Amelia Underwood, who knew everything about it.
Dressed in various shades of light brown, the Iron Orchid and her son sat upon a cream-coloured beach of crushed bone. Some distance off a white sea sparkled and whispered. It was the afternoon.
Between the Iron Orchid and her son, Jherek Carnelian, lay the remains of a lunch. Spread on a cloth of plain damask were ivory plates containing pale fish, potatoes, meringue, vanilla ice-cream and, glaring rather dramatically, from the centre of it all, a lemon.
The Iron Orchid smiled with her amber lips and, reaching for an oyster, asked: "How do you mean, my love, 'virtuous'?" Her perfect hand, powdered the very lightest shade of gold, hovered for a second over the oyster and then withdrew. She used the hand, instead, to cover a small yawn.
Her son stretched on his soft pillows. He, too, felt tired after the exertions of eating, but dutifully he continued with the subject. "I'm not thoroughly sure what it means. As you know, most devastating of minerals, most enchanting of flowers, I have studied the language of the time quite extensively. I must possess every tape that still exists. It provides considerable amusement. But I cannot understand every nuance. I found the word in a dictionary and the dictionary told me it meant acting with 'moral rectitude' or in conformity with 'moral laws' — 'good, just, righteous.' Bewildering!"
He did take an oyster. He slid it into his mouth. He rolled it down his throat. It had been the Iron Orchid who had discovered oysters and he had been delighted when she suggested they meet on this beach and eat them. She had made some champagne to go with them, but they had both agreed that they did not care for it and had cheerfully returned it to its component atoms.
"However," he continued, "I should like to try it for a bit. It is supposed to involve 'self-denial' " — he forestalled her question — "which means doing nothing pleasurable."
, body of velvet, bones of steel, is pleasurable!"
"True — and there lies our paradox! You see the ancients, mother, divided their sensations into different groupings — categories of sensations, some of which they did not find pleasurable, it seems. Or they did find them pleasurable and therefore were displeased! Oh, dearest Iron Orchid, I can see you are ready to dismiss the whole thing. And I despair, often, of puzzling out the answer. Why was one thing considered worth pursuing and another not? But," his handsome lips curved in a smile, "I shall settle the problem in one way or another, sooner or later." And he closed his heavy lids.
She laughed softly and affectionately and stretched across the cloth to slip her slender hands into his loose robe and stroke his warmth and his blood.
"Oh, my dear! How swift you are! How ripe and rich you are today!"
And he drew himself to his feet and he stepped over the cloth and he laid his tall body down upon her and he kissed her slowly.
And the sea sighed.
When they awoke, still in each other's arms, it was morning, though no night had passed. For their own pleasure someone had doubtless been engaged in rearranging time. It was not important.
Jherek noticed that the sea had turned a deep pink, almost a cerise, and was clashing dreadfully with the beach, while on the horizon behind him he saw that two palms and a cliff had disappeared altogether. In their place stood a silver pagoda, about twelve storeys high and glittering in the morning sun.