The Death of Christopher Marlowe
They had been walking London all day and Marlowe’s feet were killing him. The other three men were used to gravity but Kit had been away a great deal recently, and the long stints in space had begun to tell on his joints and muscles. Each return was harder than the last. He recalled what it had been like to see the globe of Earth “above” and then to rise into that pit of gravity, ascent becoming descent, as what had looked like heaven turned into hell. He swore to himself that he had taken that plunge for the last time. One more journey outward, at the completion of his current mission, and then no earthly power could draw him back again.
“There’s what you need, Kit,” said young Nick Squires, pointing at a small garden inn along the avenue. Tables and chairs sat out in the warm purpling shade, where quiet wealthy couples laughed and whispered, sipping iced drinks and inhaling colored smoke. “Get yourself a tall cool ginseng.”
“Ginseng,” scoffed Bob Poley. “What Kit needs is a tall cool woman. Massage those tired calves, eh?”
Marlowe forced himself to laugh.
“Not here,” said the fourth of the company, Graham Frazier, a tall, lank man of forty-odd years whose brown curls showed silver in better light. “I know a place more suited to our friend. A place where we can talk freely. I think you will agree that the time has come for a decision?”
Marlowe nodded. “I have enjoyed the excursion, but admit to some weariness. We’d best settle down to business before I fall asleep.”
“You’ll have plenty of time to rest when we’re finished,” said Frazier, as if Marlowe were the one who had suggested the day-long ramble, when they could just as easily have done their bargaining in the morning. But there had been things Frazier wished him to see that day: “Things the Queen wants you to keep in mind.”
Looking back on the day’s excursion, Marlowe could see no point to it. Their walk had been without purpose, completely aimless, a mere test for his weakened muscles and a challenge to his respiratory system. And Frazier’s comments had been particularly senseless. He might point out a stretch of new homes along the river here, a building slated for demolition there, but always with the air of conducting a tourist around a town that the guide considered utterly tedious and worthy only of contempt. Frazier had kind words for nothing and no one.
However, his accomplice Mr. Squires had leavened the mood somewhat; the two were nearly opposite in temperament. Nick continually spouted trivialities, things that meant nothing to Marlowe, although he enjoyed listening to the man’s voice.
Squires was a perpetual optimist, finding some beneficient quality or opportunity in almost every sight their walk had presented.
Then there was Robert Poley. The man was a tag-end, of humanity as well as of this party. Several times during the day, Marlowe had received the impression that Frazier would have liked to be rid of Mr. Poley, but their companion had the brave, selfless tenacity of the stupid. He proclaimed himself a great admirer of Marlowe’s and then proved to know none of his programs except the most popular, which one would have had to be entombed in an asteroid to have escaped seeing. Poley spoke with a grandiloquence that perfectly suited his insensitivity. His comment about tall cool women, for instance, had been cleverly phrased but fundamentally unsound. Marlowe had assumed his preferences were better known than even The Jewess of Malfi, Tim Verlaine or The Lamentable Comedy of Dr. Goethe. He was at first amazed, then delighted, to find someone who had not been exposed to television, which after all was the one form of information that cost nothing, traveled freely, and could be readily grasped by even uneducated minds. This could only mean that Poley was out of the mainstream, dwelling in a world almost entirely of his own creation, which gave him a certain appeal in Kit Marlowe’s eyes. He realized that despite these faults, or because of them, he liked Poley best of the three. It was refreshing to meet someone who had not already formed notions of Marlowe based on his occasional appearances on Shakespeare’s Late Night.
“And what exactly is it that you do, Bob?” Marlowe asked as Frazier led them on through streets where lamps were flickering to life in the gloom. The question was asked in jest, as Poley obviously had no real interests of his own; he was most likely the recipient of some yearly dividend skimmed from the top of an ancestor’s wise investment. Marlowe expected nothing like the reply he got.
“I am an inventor,” he said, as if jesting himself. “Some might say a scientist.”
“Some, but not many,” Graham Frazier growled.
“No, you’re right there. My peers find my methods somewhat wanting; but then, I’ve no interest in reproducibility. I seek unique cases. Unique although continually recurring.”
“Really? And what is your area of research?”
Nick Squires laughed giddily, unnerving Marlowe, and Frazier gave him a silencing look. There was a twinkle in Poley’s eye as he said, “Death.”
“Death?” Marlowe repeated.
“Aye, death. The quickest step to transcendence. We’ve seen into every dimension except one, which is before us all the time.”
Marlowe felt himself on ground turned suddenly marshy and alien. He had not expected to breach such subjects even philosophically with Mr. Poley—let alone discuss them on scientific terms. Not that he was uncomfortable with science.
He had spent plenty of time picking the brains and records of engineers, technicians, and pure researchers in the offworld colonies, the floating continents.
“And you have found a way to investigate…Death?”
“Yes I have,” said Poley. “Or I believe I have.”
“What’s more, the Queen believes him!” Squires cried.
“Enough,” said Frazier, gripping his man by the shoulder and squeezing till his laughter turned to a shriek.
“Hey, Graham, I didn’t say nothing! Nothing Kit here couldn’t figure on his own.”
“Shut up. At least until we get inside.”
Which comment quieted Marlowe also, although now he watched Poley with cautious respect, and began to search his memory diligently for some sign of the pattern that might lie buried in their day’s random progress. How many of the sights along the way had prefigured or echoed this theme? They had passed several mausoleums with cryogenic coffins stacked up twenty stories and more inside them, awaiting the Second Coming and restoration of their souls, but there was nothing unusual in that, and none of the men had made the slightest comment on them. Most of their time had been spent wandering down garden paths or along the river’s edge. Patternless. How could any of it have been the Queen’s business? And what did the Queen’s business have to do with Death, aside from the obvious utility of an assassination here and there? And of greater importance, what did the business of Death have to do with him? He had never yet been asked to kill for the Queen’s sake. He was an industrial spy and no more; under the guise of research for his plays, he had been able to speak with various experts who would have been unreachable to others. Marlowe’s reputation as a screenwriter allowed him to ask specific questions for the sake of poetic verisimilitude, even to the point of scrutinizing high security work—although this latter was done without anyone’s knowledge or consent, once his initial interviews had familiarized him with an establishment.
But Death never entered into any of this, unless it were the constant risk of his own, were he discovered.
Now Frazier was leading them down a short flight of stairs to a cellar shop. The evening was warm, but there was a damp breeze coming up from the river, and Marlowe was grateful to get inside. He shivered near the furnace for a few minutes after entering, then Squires called him to a private room in the back of the shop, where the other men were already seated at a long wooden table, Frazier and Poley drinking coffee, Squires pouring himself and Marlowe draughts from a long-necked bottle of violet glass. Marlowe sipped brandy and pulled his cloak tighter around him, sweat starting from his brow. He was light-headed, his heart thundering in his ears, and the voices of his companions darted senselessly through a conversation in which he took no part. Wanted no part. He wanted only to sleep—to sleep in the high places, drifting, spinning, free of gravity’s constant nagging. He was tired of talk, weary of thought itself, all forms of reason. Only dreams interested him now.
The thought that they had drugged him came unbidden, but he knew that it was baseless. He had felt this way before, but the disorientation and exhaustion had never been so persistent. To leave Earth—that was all he wanted, and that was what the Queen had promised. It would mean an end to espionage, for which he was thankful. No more shuttling from vacuum to vapors, no more encoded reports. He could pursue his own interests for once. He would live not in luxury (which would have raised too much suspicion) but comfortably, according to his royal patron’s provisions.
He realized that Poley was speaking to him. “You’ve an interest in Death?”
“Who hasn’t?” said Nick Squires.
“An interest?” said Frazier. “He’s obsessed with it. Look at Dr. Goethe—there’s morbidity for you.”
“Death,” Marlowe said, hearing his own speech slurring.
“Yes, I have an interest. I look forward to it as the only certain experience. Though I believe it more a non-experience, the extinction of sensation and all physical consciousness.”
“What makes you so sure of that?” asked Robert Poley. “What evidence do you have?”
Marlowe shifted his buttocks on the hard wooden bench and drew at his brandy. Why did Poley no longer play the fool? Was it because they were on his terrain now, and he need no longer feign an interest in Marlowe’s territory?
“Poetic evidence,” he replied. “Do you suppose I have explicit knowledge of all the subjects in my programs? Or that I have experienced every emotion or event my characters survive or succumb to? Not so. Poetry is a path to transcendence, as surely as Death. It is a meditation, a way to knowledge. One follows the precise logic of language until one encounters the paradoxes that hold it as in a frame; and by standing back one comprehends all that lies within the frame, one sees the frame itself upon a wall: one goes beyond actual experience, the country of words, into a sublime realm…a realm of knowing. It is from this that I understand Death.”
“So you do not fear it?” Poley asked.
“No more than I fear life. Or poetry.”
“Or the Queen?” said Frazier, with rare humor—in this case sardonic.
“What has this to do with the Queen?” Marlowe asked. “What has this errand—the walk, the talk—what has any of it to do with me? You mentioned business this morning, Frazier, and since that time there has been no further talk of it. Nothing but idle chatter, aimless strolling—”
“I thought you’d appreciate a look around the city. A breath of air, a few choice views, some working of the muscles.”
“Why should that matter?”
“You’re leaving Earth soon, Kit.”
“Of course I am.”
“For the last time.”
“And that’s what this is all about? You’ve given me some precious memories to take along with me, is that it?”
Frazier inclined his head. “It was the Queen’s wish. She would not like you to think her cruel. It’s important that you remember the beauty of her works.”
“I know their elegance all too well, but I am like an architect who’s spent too long inside the cathedral he designed and built. I’m sick of the graceful plans, sick of the entire lovely scheme. I’d prefer the long view for once. Observation without participation.”
“That’s what she wants for you as well,” Frazier said. “Your abilities as an agent aren’t exactly what you’d call refined.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means you made some errors, Kit. On your last errand.”
Marlowe looked quickly sideways at Poley, who watched him darkly over the rim of his mug.
“Don’t worry about Poley,” Frazier said. “He won’t hear anything he doesn’t know.”
“Errors,” Marlowe said, leaning across the table toward Frazier.
“Your powers of observation, they’re as sharp as ever. But you must have been tired, Kit. You left tracks. You opened yourself to exposure—and worse than that, you implicated the Queen.”
“Be more specific, damn you!”
“Ah.” Frazier lifted his eyebrows. “There I’m afraid Poley does get in the way. I wouldn’t want to endanger him with the knowledge.”
“Then why is he here?”
“Why indeed. Because the Queen selected him. He’s got your next assignment.”
At Nick Squires’s reckless laughter, Marlowe turned to silence him, and as he turned the young man stabbed him in the eye.
“Here’s a job for you, Kit Marlowe,” Squires whispered, serious for once.
His left eye tried to make sense of what his right could no longer see: Nick’s arm extended, gripping an object with a silver handle whose cold length was buried in the right hemisphere of Kit’s brain like a needle-thin sliver of ice.
Then it was dark and they were digging around in there.
They had lodged some solid weight behind his right eye and were sawing away, sometimes scraping the bony rim of the orbit.
Marlowe gave their voices a dramatist’s attention: Frazier’s snarling, Squires’ laughter, Poley’s terse commands. They were well cast for the parts, but it was Poley’s voice in particular that caught and held him, kept him from following his natural inclination toward darkness and sleep.
“Scoop cleanly, as I showed you,” Poley was saying. “Damn it, shall I do it?”
“Stop laughing, Squires!” Frazier shouted. “I’ll pull the tongue out of your head.”
“Cleanly, cleanly, now. Yes. The seat of consciousness. An ego such as his should have fixed into a coherent pearl.
That’s right, Squires, as I showed you, as you practiced. You’ve got the oyster there. Now give it “
Silence invaded the dark. He looked for the path he had glimpsed some moment or eternity before, the one leading off to sleep, but it was gone. He was immobilized, held tight in some lightless cell without obvious dimensions. At least there was no pain. He hated pain.
“There we are. Kit? Marlowe? Can you hear me now?”
It was Poley, but Frazier seemed to be fighting with him for the right to speak:
“You can’t get away from us, Kit, you understand that? Death’s no escape for you, and it won’t be till you’ve done the service the Queen requires. Your last assignment, just as promised. Then no more return to Earth. But first there’s something you must do.”
“Leave him be,” Poley said. “I told you, he’ll be disoriented, there’s no point telling him things that will only confuse him more. Your body is dead, Kit, yet you live on. Can you doubt it? Your consciousness should be proof enough.”
I am imprisoned, Marlowe thought. Perhaps in space—thus the feeling of weightlessness. I am in a dark cell with speakers carrying their voices to me.
“If that were so,” said Poley, “then how could we hear your thoughts?”
“Yes, Kit,” Frazier said smugly. “You’ll hide nothing from us now. You’ll tell all, hold nothing back. You’ll be a good agent, you will. I wish we could pick the brains of the living ones this well. It would mean an end to betrayal.”
“It’s a miracle, Kit!” Nick Squires said. “You’re dead, I killed you myself, but we can hear your every thought.”
Hear me now, Marlowe thought. I’m not fool enough to believe…
But he fell silent, staring at a face that had begun to grow luminous before him. It was the face of a young man, all innocence, not yet dismayed by experience or disappointment—an angelic, brilliant face, wide and pale as the moon with a high forehead and thin dark hair. It was a face of such beauty that he was robbed of thought. Instead, instantly, he rushed forward to meet it, to pour himself over it; he meant to caress the smooth cheeks, to climb inside that mouth if possible. The face was irresistable. He drew it over him as if it were a mask, and suddenly there was light in his cell, the impossible leaden light of an overcast sky seeping through thick panes of dirty glass in a room he had all but forgotten. He was still looking at the face, but it was dingy and flecked with tarnish, so he drew away from the mirror and went to the window that looked out over the schoolyard. There were boys crossing below, and he thought how young they were, younger even than himself, and how little any of them knew or would ever know. How little they would accomplish.
There was a sack on his bed; the last of his few belongings waited to be stuffed inside. In an hour he would leave this room forever.
High above the oppressive clouds, he heard the rumble of passing aircraft, and thought of the one that waited for him even now, the one that waited to carry him free of the Earth for the first time in his life. He had a scholarship. The Queen herself had paid his way. He would study the worlds above the world; he would be the first to find words for those things that only engineers and industrialists had seen. He could hear them at the edges of his mind, beautiful words with a rhythm all their own, intimating visions of what he would soon witness. He half mistrusted them, for they had a grace and logic all their own, one that he could not fit easily to real experience. He feared that they might create the things he went to investigate: that there might be nothing there unless he dreamed it, named it, set it down for others to recite.
But these fears were vague, themselves without description. And ahead lay a great journey that would certainly challenge his poetic powers and enlarge his capabilities beyond knowing.
As he stared up at the sky it began to split open, a seam of blackness widening as if the scream of jets were in fact the sound of its rending. Black space showed through, starless night blotted out the schoolyard, the room, everything.
He heard a familiar voice, characteristically angry: “I thought you said he’d be coherent!”
“Only if his death were coherent. How could I know what to expect?”
“What about the others? Did they ramble like this?”
“They were worse. The Queen knew as much. That’s why she chose Marlowe, isn’t it? For his scenarist’s powers, his innate coherence. But I begin to think that nothing is innate. It’s all contrived.”
“Then what we have is less a solid pearl of consciousness than…than a jelly.”
“Some decay is inevitable. Perhaps if your man had worked more quickly “
“It was slippery!” a third voice protested. “Not like the sheep at all.” Squires. Now he remembered each of them.
“There you are,” Poley said. “I told you he’d return. How are you, Kit?”
Strange, he thought. How strange it is to awake within a dream, and find that everything you thought real is illusory.
“It’s no dream, Marlowe, damn you! This is Graham Frazier, do you hear? You’re on the Queen’s business now, there’s no avoiding it.”
Voices from one of his programs they were, but not yet imbued with the rhythms he usually strived to create for them. They were not yet polished, not yet perfect. As rough characters they satisfied him: they lived, they breathed, but they had taken on too much of their own life.
“Damn it, Poley, get him back. You know how to do it—or you’d better know.”
“I’m trying, Frazier. You have no concept of the difficulty.”
“This is worthless, or worse. It’s misleading. And a waste of a good man.”
“I thought you hated him, Graham,” said Nick Squires.
Marlowe was glad to hear his voice, for every tragedy should have its clown, just as every farce should have its tragic figure.
“He was a great poet but a lousy spy,” Frazier admitted. “That’s why he pissed me off—and he’s doing it again. But not half as much as you, Poley, for talking the Queen into this wretched business.”
“It was her idea, Frazier. She’s the one who wants to know if death is a land she can colonize.”
“You fed her madness….”
Poley dissented. “Ariana was mad when I met her, drunk on herself. Queen of Earth and Heaven would be enough for any other, but she must be Queen of Life and Death as well.”
“What do you see there, Marlowe? Can you tell us anything?” Frazier sounded humbled, his speech rhythms softening with affection toward his creator. Kit decided not to cut him out of the drama. He and the clown were perfect foils for one another.
But was this merely one of his programs? If so, it showed a startling lack of imagination, of poetry. There must be more.
The Queen, he thought. Ariana, in whose service I—
And then inspiration struck with the force of full recall.
Death already has its Queen, he thought.
“Already has—” Squires choked on his own laughter.
And I am in her service, Marlowe improvised. I always have been. Even as I served Ariana.
“He’s a lunatic!”
“You betrayed us?”
I was on my Queen’s errand in your world. Costumed in flesh, to resemble one of you, to pass unnoticed through your world, to experience its sights and sounds, its river walks, the gardens and the paths between the stars; to taste and smell and hold them all within my memory; to carry them with me, home again, to my Queen.
“No, Graham: poet. He’s in a death-dream, don’t you see?”
And you are in a life-dream.
“I might have known,” said Frazier bitterly. “His imagination’s run away with him. Well, what next?”
“It’s your decision.”
“Let him go.”
“Free him?” said Squires. “But what a political prisoner, eh? We could torture him, get his state secrets. He could tell us how to get in, how to overthrow Death’s kingdom, he could—”
Sounds of struggle. “Get out, Squires. I’ll deal with you later. All right then, Poley, let him go.”
Marlowe thought: I’m sorry if you feel that I betrayed you, but my Queen has no intention of plundering your world. Her motives are entirely peaceful.”
“I know your Queen’s idea of peace. It’s eternal. Poley, cut him off.”
“He’s a rare one, Frazier. I hate to do it.”
“Do it. Or I’11 give you a chance inside your vessel.”
“Someday I may ask that favor of you. But all right for now. It’s your decision. You’re the one who’ll face Ariana. Goodbye, Kit.”
Farewell, friends, characters—whoever you are.
“Set down your pen, Kit.”
Ahead, he heard the hiss of breaking waves. A strong solar current had hold of him. He was rising through ever darker waters of space, away from the sun, toward a reef of metal rock. The starsurf pummeled him and left him gasping among high cliffs carved like ancient, noble faces.
Christopher Marlowe’s true Queen was there to receive him. Invisible, she took the encrypted message from its hiding place between his eyes, kissed him on either cheek, and laid him on a rock shelf in the silence of the void, his head at last emptied of voices, forever.
* * *
“The Death of Christopher Marlowe” copyright 2016 by Marc Laidlaw. This is its first appearance.
This one dates to sometime in the mid-1980s. I can’t recall much more about it.