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 The Disciples of Apollo
a short story by Eric Brown


I wrote the following story in two sittings on the 1st of October 1987, something of an achievement as until then I'd always taken at least three or four days to complete a story, no matter how short. "The Disciples of Apollo" was one of those rare gifts that come to a writer all too infrequently, the story that writes itself. I'd had the central idea - the element that makes the story science fictional or fantastical - for a year or so, and as is always the case needed the solid bedrock of human interest on which to found the story. The character of Maitland (Levine in the original draft) came from somewhere within me, as do most of my characters. I wanted to write a story about someone who realises, too late, that his life to date has been a waste, an emotional blank, and I also wanted to write a story of redemption. Maitland's predicament seems hopeless - his past is a source of regret, his future non-existent: it is an irony of the situation that his salvation, his love for Caroline, allows him the bittersweet realisation that he might never have achieved fulfillment without being terminally ill.

The first draft did not contain the section beginning, 'Between the time of diagnosis...' through to the break. I finished the draft and filed it away, dissatisfied. I liked the story, was happy with its style and resolution, but felt that something was missing. Perhaps six months later I found myself writing a passage of text in a notebook from the point of view of someone suffering a terminal illness. Only days later did I realise that this passage was the section missing from "The Disciples of Apollo". I inserted the long paragraph and the story came to life. Maitland became more sympathetic and believable.

I sat on the story for a while. It was like nothing I had written before, and as it was not overtly science fiction, or really horror, or fantasy, I was unsure as to where I might submit it. Then Other Edens III, edited by Christopher Evans and Robert Holdstock, opened for submissions, and I realised that "Disciples..." was an Other Edens tale. Fortunately, so did the editors. "The Disciples of Apollo" was published in Other Edens III, Unwin Hyman, 1989, and reprinted in my collection, Blue Shifting, Pan Books, 1995.

It remains one of my favourite stories, along with "The Time-Lapsed Man" and "The Inheritors of Earth". It is about characters I care for, contains images and descriptions I still find arresting, and a core idea which I hope is original. As to what kind of story it is - SF, fantasy, or psychological horror... I'll leave that for the reader to decide.

The Disciples of Apollo

"I'm sorry..."

"How long?"

"At least six months, perhaps even as many as nine."

"How will I know when...?"

"For two days beforehand you'll feel drowsy, lethargic."

"And pain?"

"I can assure you that your condition is quite painless."

"I suppose I should be thankful for small mercies."

"There is a retreat for sufferers of the Syndrome. Because of the highly unusual nature of the disease, you are advised to spend your final weeks there. Of course, you can go before then, if you wish. Your family will be able to visit you-"

"I have no family."

"In that case Farrow Island might be perfect."

Between the time of diagnosis and the actual realisation that he was going to die, Maitland passed through a period of disbelief. There is a difference between the intellectual knowledge of one's eventual end, and the sudden sentence of death. Grief came one morning when he awoke and knew that his awakenings were numbered, and as he watched the dawn he realised that soon the sun would rise without his continued presence to witness it; grief filled his chest with nausea and suffocated him, and he turned like a loner in a crowd for someone on whom he might unburden his anguish and regret. There was no one, and this compounded his pain. At times in the past Maitland had managed to convince himself that he could do without the usual human involvements that most people took for granted. Yet now, with the imminence of his extinction, he realised that no one could live - or die - without having shared in some experience of affection, even love. He cursed himself for so aloofly denying down the years the inner voice that had cried out for human contact, cursed the coward in him that had shied from the trauma of new experience with the excuse that he had existed for so long without it... It came to him with the intensity of an cerebral scream that now it was too late. He had no chance of finding in six months that which had eluded him for a lifetime. He would die alone, as he had lived, and whereas to live alone was easy, to die alone, with so much guilt and remorse, and yearning for a somehow altered past, he knew would be beyond endurance.

Then, however, he passed through this phase of anger and entered a period of passive resignation, and he saw his death as the inevitable consequence of a life lived as he had lived it. He would gain nothing from regret, he told himself; his former self was a stranger whose actions he had no way of changing. He could only accept his fate, and anticipate anything that might lie beyond. He recalled the doctor's recommendation, and made arrangements to leave.

In the following weeks Maitland said goodbye to his colleagues at the university, making the excuse that he was taking a short vacation. He sold his house and all his possessions, his books and his classical record collection. He felt a buoyant sense of relief when at last his house was empty. Since the diagnosis, he had been troubled at the thought of his material possessions remaining in situ after his death, mocking him; it was as if the acquisitions of a lifetime somehow circumscribed the parameters of his physical existence, and would bear mute testimony to his non-existence when he died.

Spring came and Maitland left the mainland on the ferry to Farrow Island. On the crossing he attempted to determine how many of his fellow passengers were also suffering from the Syndrome. As far as he knew there were no outward, physical symptoms of the disease - the physiological debilitation was taking place on a sequestered, cellular level. Nevertheless, Maitland convinced himself that at least a dozen other passengers, of the twenty or so aboard the ferry, were making their way to the hospice. Their despondent postures and sapped facial expressions spoke to him of moribund futures, bitter presents and only guilt and regret in retrospect. He realised, as the ferry approached the island, that they were mirror images of himself.

A car was awaiting him on the cobbled quayside of the small fishing village. He was greeted by Dr Masters, the woman with whom he'd corresponded.

"Aren't we waiting for the others?" he asked as he climbed into the rear of the car.

"Others?" Dr Masters regarded him with a smile. "The other passengers are Islanders. You are my only new resident this week."

The hospice was a sixteenth-century mansion set in wooded parkland on a clifftop overlooking the straits. Dr Masters conducted him around the workshops and recreation rooms, the library and dining hall. She told him that the residents could take their meals in their rooms, if they wished, and that the recreational facilities and group therapy sessions were optional.

Maitland was thus reassured. The thirty or so residents he had seen so far in the mansion had about them a collective air of apathy, as if the fact of their ends had reached back and retroactively killed them in both body and in mind.

In contrast, Maitland had briefly glimpsed a few lone individuals in the grounds, striding out resolutely across the greensward, or posed in isolation on the windy clifftop. Maitland fancied that he detected something heroic in their lonely defiance in the face of death, and ultimately sad and tragic also.

As the weeks passed and Spring turned gradually to Summer, Maitland imposed his own routine on the identical days that stretched ahead to the time of his death in the New Year.

He would rise early and breakfast alone in the hall before setting out on a walk around the island that would often take him three or four hours. He would speak to no one, not because he wished to be rude or uncivil, but because no one ever spoke to him. He was a stranger on the island and therefore an 'inmate' up at the mansion, and the locals viewed the victims of the Syndrome with suspicion, sometimes even hostility.

He would take lunch in his room and eat it slowly, sometimes taking an hour to finish. Then he would sit by the window and read, or listen to the radio, until the gong announced the evening meal at seven.

This meal he did take with the other residents in the main hall, though he rarely joined in the conversation, which he found inane and self-pitying. There were constant debates as to the reason for the disease, and the only conclusion ever arrived at by the residents was that they were the chosen ones of their God, Apollo. These people, in Maitland's opinion, were as irrational as the madmen who could no longer live with the thought of their deaths, and had to be removed to psychiatric units on the mainland.

One night, over coffee, Maitland decided that he had heard enough. He threw down his napkin and cleared his throat. The dozen residents at the table, the people Maitland considered to be the hard-core of the hospice's strange religious movement, until now debating among themselves, fell silent and stared at him. They sensed his long-awaited contribution to the discussion.

"There is," Maitland said, "no reason for what we have. It's a freak, an accident, a cellular mutation. We are just as likely to be disciples of the Devil as we are to be the chosen ones of your God. In my opinion we are neither."

Later, as he stood by the French windows and watched the sun fall behind the oaks across the river, he sensed someone beside him. "But how can you continue, Mr Maitland? How do you manage to live from day to day if you believe in nothing?"

Maitland could not reply, and retired to his room. He often wondered the same thing himself.

Summer gave way to Autumn, and the sunsets beyond the stand of oak turned the golden leaves molten. Maitland struck up an acquaintance with a fellow resident, a retired major who bored him with stories of his army life. The only reason Maitland tolerated his company was because he played a passable game of chess, and they would spend the long Autumn afternoons in the library, intent on the chequered board between them. They rarely spoke; that is, they rarely conversed. Maitland tried to ignore the major's monologues, for he was contemplating - in contrast to the old soldier's full and eventful life - the arid years of his own brief existence to date, his time at university, both as a student and later as a lecturer, and the missed opportunities he told himself he did not regret, but which, of course, he did.

The major's going came about on the third week of their acquaintance. The old man had been complaining of headaches and tiredness for two days, and his concentration had often wandered from the game. Maitland realised what this meant, and he was unable to say whether he was shocked by the fact of the Major's approaching death, or at the realisation, for the first time, that his own life too would end like this.

On the third day the major did not arrive, and Maitland sat alone by the window, his white pawn advanced to queen's four in futile anticipation of the challenge.

He took to playing chess against himself in the empty afternoons that followed the major's death. Winter came early that year, impinging on the territory that the calendar claimed still belonged to Autumn. Maitland found it too cold to enjoy his walks; the wind from the sea was bitter, and it often rained.

He appeared a lonely figure in the library, bent over the chessboard, apparently rapt in concentration but often, in reality, devising for himself an alternative set of events with which he wished he had filled his life. He repulsed all offers to challenge him, not with harsh or impolite words, but with a silent stare that frightened away would-be opponents with its freight of tragedy and regret.

One afternoon, during a storm that lashed and rattled the windows, Dr Masters joined Maitland in the library and tried to persuade him to take up her offer of group therapy, or at least counseling. They had experts who could...

He wanted to ask her if they had experts who could revise his past, give him the happiness he should have had long ago, but which had passed him by. He stopped himself before asking this, however. He knew that he had only himself to blame for the emptiness of his life.

Dr Masters said that she thought he should mix more with the other residents. Didn't he know that, even now, nothing was so important or rewarding as human relationships?

And Maitland replied that he needed nothing, and never had, of human relationships.

One week later he met Caroline.

He noticed her first one Sunday at the evening meal. She was at the far table by the blazing fire, and it was more than just her youth that set her apart from the other diners; she was alive in a way that none of the others were. Something in her manner, her movements, told Maitland that she could not be dying. Then he experienced a sudden stab of grief as he realised that her dynamism might be just a facade, an act to disguise her despair.

Later it came to him - with a sweeping sense of relief - that she was related to one of the residents and down here on a visit. Relatives came so infrequently - like the Islanders they saw the victims of the Syndrome as bizarre and freakish, as if the disease were some kind of curse, or could be transmitted - that it hadn't occurred to him that this was what she was, the daughter or grand-daughter of one of the afflicted.

She excused herself from the table and Maitland watched her leave the room. Seconds later he saw her again through the window. She crossed the patio and ran across the greensward towards the clifftop. She wore moonboots, tight denims and a chunky red parka, and he guessed that she could be no more than twenty-five. Maitland had almost forgotten what it was like to feel such yearning, and to experience it now served only to remind him of his wasted years and the fact of his premature death.

In the morning Maitland went for a long walk through the wind and the rain. He returned, showered and ate lunch in his room and, feeling refreshed and invigorated, went downstairs to the library and played himself at chess.

In the middle of the afternoon he sensed someone beside him. He turned and saw the young woman.

She smiled. She was dressed as she was last night, with the addition of a yellow ski-cap pulled down over her ears, and mittens. Evidently she too had just returned from a walk.

"Can I give you a game?" she asked, indicating the board. Despite himself, Maitland smiled and began setting up the pieces.

They played for an hour with only the occasional comment, and then she looked up, directly at him, and said: "You're not like the others. You've not given in..."

He wanted to tell her that he had surrendered long ago, that his resolution now in the face of death was nothing more than the cynicism that had fossilised his emotions years before.

Instead he smiled.

"I mean it," she said, as she toppled her king in defeat. "There's something about you..." She gestured. "The other fools have given in, one way or another - gone stark staring mad or joined that crackpot cult."

She mistook his cynicism for valour, seeing him through eyes of youthful enthusiasm, and Maitland hated himself for the charlatan he knew himself to be.

He felt a sudden sympathy, then, with the residents who had taken to religion, or madness, as protection against the inevitable. At least they had had full and worthwhile lives against which to measure the futility and horror of their deaths.

"Perhaps if you were in the position of these people, facing death, you might give in too. Don't belittle them-"

Something in her eyes made him stop.

She began collecting the scattered pieces, placing them in the wrong positions. "But I am a resident here," she said. "Another game?"

They played all day, but Maitland gave little attention to the games. During the hours that followed he found himself intrigued by the young woman, who introduced herself as Caroline. He opened up, talked about himself for the first time in years. He wanted to turn the conversation around, to ask Caroline about herself, her life before the hospice but mainly her life since the diagnosis. Most of all Maitland wanted to know how she could remain so overtly optimistic with the knowledge of what was to come.

But she parried his questions and kept the conversation trivial, and Maitland was happy to join her in the exchange of banalities he would have found intolerable at any other time.

Over the next few weeks Maitland and Caroline sought each other's company as often as possible. They went on long walks around the island, and spoke guardedly of their respective pasts. Maitland was attracted to Caroline because of her courage, her optimism and disregard for the proximity of her death; she perhaps was attracted to Maitland for what she saw as similar qualities. It hurt him to deceive her - he often wanted to tell her that you could not fear death if you had never really lived - but as time went by he became too attached to her to tell her the truth.

Their liaison stopped short of physical intimacy, however, and it was as if this was a tacit agreement between them. For his part, Maitland could hardly conceive that intimacy might be possible, much less how he might react emotionally to something he was yet to experience. Perhaps fear prevented him acceding to the desires of his body, as if to consummate what he felt for Caroline would bring home to him the fact of how much he had come to delight in life of late, and consequently how much he had to lose.

As for Caroline... They talked all day, and often into the early hours, but never about their relationship. Maitland was still in ignorance as to her almost blind, at times even childish optimism.

For days now the wind and the freezing rain had promised worse to come, and then one quiet night, with only two weeks to go before Maitland died, snow fell.

In the morning he awoke to find a pearly radiance filling the room. He dressed and drew aside the curtains and was dazzled by the brilliance of the white mantle.

He pulled on extra clothes with the enthusiasm of a child and met Caroline in the hall. They embraced, restricted by the bulkiness of their padding, and hurried outside hand in hand.

For as far as the eye could see, snow had covered the land with a perfect record of passage. They were the first residents abroad this morning, and they set off together away from the mansion. At one point, Maitland looked back at the building - its hard angles softened and upholstered in a thick, dazzling fleece - and he saw their footprints following them to their present position. He looked ahead at the virgin expanse of snow, and he shivered with what he told himself was nothing more than a sudden chill.

They walked through the woods and came out on the far side of the headland. They stood side by side and stared out across the shipping lanes, at the scimitar-shape of a tanker on the distant grey horizon. Then they moved towards the small pavilion where they often spent the afternoons, talking and staring out to sea.

As they made their way towards the open entrance of the small, stone building, Caroline pulled away from him, then bent double and screamed into her mittens. Maitland looked from her to the pavilion, and saw with revulsion that during the night a resident had chosen this place in which to die.

They returned to the mansion and for the rest of the day and all through the night they remained in bed and made love. This set the pattern for the following week. They would take a brisk morning walk and then seek the refuge of bed and the bliss of each other's body, as if making up for the weeks of wasted opportunity. Caroline said nothing about the obvious fear the sight of the corpse had instilled in her - instead it was as if she were trying to exorcise from her mind the fact of her death with the positive catharsis of sex.

Maitland, at last, found what he knew to be love, and he passed through the fear of the inevitable with the knowledge that he might never have found happiness were it not for the fact of his terminal illness. His only regret was that he had not found such happiness earlier.

One week later he felt himself going.

On the morning of the first day he felt too drowsy to accompany Caroline on their ritual stroll through the snow. He made the effort, though, but something about his lethargy as they walked side by side communicated itself to Caroline, and she was silent.

In the afternoon they went to bed, but Maitland fell asleep beside her within seconds. In the morning he felt vaguely ill, nauseous. He tried to hide this from Caroline, but it was impossible. She dressed him and assisted him downstairs to the library, where they played chess. Often Maitland slipped into sleep, and he would awake with a start to see Caroline crying quietly to herself at the far end of the room.

On the morning of his last day, Maitland awoke before Caroline and forced himself out of bed. He dressed with difficulty, then kissed Caroline on the cheek and slipped quietly from the room so as not to wake her.

He walked through the woods to the pavilion overlooking the sea. Already he was tired, as if the short walk had exhausted him, and he hoped he would be asleep when it happened.

Caroline joined him not long after, as he guessed, and secretly hoped, she would. "You should go back," he told her, but he knew it was a token protest. "You still have months to live..."

She ignored him; he sensed that she wanted to speak, to say something, but could not bring herself to do so without tears.

Later, for the first time, she mentioned the Syndrome.

"Years ago we wouldn't have known we were ill," she whispered, her breath visible in the air. "We would have... gone, suddenly, without all these months of-" And Maitland realised, then, that she was crying. "Why?" she said at last. "Why did they have to tell us?"

Maitland held her, shocked at her sudden capitulation. "Modern medicine," he said. "They can diagnose it now. They know when it's going to happen. Given that knowledge, they have to inform the sufferer. Otherwise we could go at any time, anywhere, endangering others besides ourselves. There are many more of us now. The Syndrome has reached almost epidemic proportions." He drew her to him affectionately. "I thought you were doing rather well," he said, and recalled that first Sunday weeks ago when he had wondered briefly if her vivacity had been nothing but an act.

"I was so scared, the only way I could stay sane was to pretend I wasn't affected. Being seen as unafraid by others gave me strength, confidence. Can you understand that? Then I met you and found someone who wasn't afraid..."

Maitland stifled a cry of despair. He convinced himself he could detect, in the frozen morning air, the odour of the resident who had died here before him. He felt grief constrict his chest, fill his throat and render him speechless.

Caroline laughed. "Do you know... do you know what they call us? The Islanders? Everyone else out there? They call us the 'Disciples of Apollo'-"

They held each other as the snow began to fall.

Then Maitland ignited and consumed her in his flame, uniting them forever in a mutual, carbonised embrace.

© Eric Brown 1989, 1997

This story appeared in Other Edens III, edited by Christopher Evans and Robert Holdstock, published by Unwin Hyman.

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