Quartet for the End of Time

By Charles Matthias

This story is based loosely on the piece of music of the same name by Olivier Messiaen.

Day number ten. Yes, it was day number ten, and Paul had been sitting here for ten days. Well, not sitting here, more like pacing actually and peering up through the cracks in the bars over his head, hoping in some small way that he had even a chance of escape. No good, this was one of the best facilities the enemy had, specifically designed to keep rodents such as him locked up tight. The entire cell was encased in metal with only a toilet in one corner to sit upon. The cell itself was eight feet in height, much too tall for him to have even a prayer of escaping through the cage bars itself.

Of course, that didn't stop Paul from trying. He could manage to grab the bars if he jumped up high enough from the toilet seat, but the bars were too slick, and he only fell back down to the ground. He still had a bruise between his ears from where he had landed the first time he'd tried it. Needless to say, he wasn't going to be trying that again unless he had a very good reason. So far, that reason had not come to him. He had to kick himself internally, even if he did manage to hang from the bars, he still had to pick the lock, and trying that while the guard dog was walking about was pointless.

Ten days, Paul had been locked here for ten days. Ten days in this God forsaken place, this prisoner of war facility. He sniffed at the air again, only the stale scent of himself, the two mice in cells next to his, and the guard dog came back to him. They were obviously underground, which to him seemed a stupid idea if one was going to be housing rodents. However, there was no way he or anybody else could get through those metal walls. They were too strong and too thick. Even if he did still have his claws he would not be able to get through that wall.

He rubbed his fingertips together. They were looking better now; the ugly brutish scars a reminder of day number four. Day number four had been when they had interrogated him. Paul shuddered at the memory, as they had whipped him, drugged him, and then finally with pliers had forcibly removed his claws on both his forepaws and hind legs. He had thought nothing could be worse than when they had cut a foot off his tail -- it was still a good two feet in length, but the stump did occasionally bleed when he wasn't careful -- but tearing out his claws one by one had been the most painful thing he had ever experienced. However, in the end, he had won.

They wanted to know everything about his country. His enemy sought forbidden knowledge, something about some project that his own countrymen were developing, some weapon to destroy the enemy. Who cared who the enemy was, as long as they were dead, it didn't matter. Come to think of it, he didn't know who had captured him! His plane had gone down in the middle of the battlefield. He vaguely recalled lying there in the wreckage, head cocked to one side, the dull light of the sun shining down on him. His blearied vision recalled seeing figures over top of him, staring down at him, pulling him out of the twisted cockpit that he had become locked in. Amazingly enough, he was uninjured, only slightly sore, but the ones who pulled him out were not his friends.

Paul lay down on the cold floor, feeling its icy chill creep up through his fur and skin into his very bones. He so wanted something to chew upon. He felt the need overwhelming him, driving him crazy, but there was nothing that would give to his teeth. About all he could do was stare at the toilet lid, about what he had tried to do on the third day when it finally had gotten unbearable. He vividly recalled his shock to find that the toilet lid was also unyielding. He had suspected it, but it was a dull sort of pain, not something he could fully describe. He had on day seven tried it again, this time spending at least five minutes before he gave up, his jaw terribly sore.

It was now day ten, and except for day four when he had been interrogated, it had seemed like forever since last he had heard the sound of another living voice. Another reason to hate his enemy, he was locked here in this cell as if he were alone in the world. Of course, every now and then he would see a guard dog walking by, but that was not quite the same thing. He knew that there were two mice in cells next to his, but he could not talk to them. He had tried to ask them their names his first day here. That was the last day he had tried talking. They did not even bother to respond to him. The guard dog of course had taken his time to make sure that Paul never uttered another word. He was just glad that they hadn't cut his tongue out.

The welts on his back were almost healed by now, but he still had pain anytime he stretched. It was a miserable life, that was for certain, but it would come to an end someday. Someday he would be freed from this prison, free to see the sky once more. He liked the sky; it was nice to look at. His parents thought he was crazy for wanting to fly in the war, his brothers and sisters before him were all ground troops. He was going to be the first rat to fly, and fly he did, very well in fact. He thought back to the day when he had earned his wings, a cheery sight, his parents watching from afar, tears in his mothers eyes, his father's black orbs stolid, unmoving; they were a firm foundation that he would always remember.

Paul knew that no matter what the enemy did to him, they could not take away his memories. That was at least comforting. He sat back on his haunches and looked back up out the top of his cell. The ceiling in the room above him looked to be another ten feet up. After feeling the freedom of the sky, this felt so confining. Of course, he had spent much of his life in cramped quarters before; he never realized how it really was. To taste the sky, and then to have it taken away was a very subtle pain that he hadn't even realized until now. Whoever his enemy was, they would pay.

As if on queue, the earth suddenly shook, and there was a very loud rumbling that seemed to come from every direction at once. Paul put his paws over his ears, and crouched on the ground, shaking with fright. The sound settled into only a slight murmur, but the rumbling kept up for a bit longer. After a moment, the lights flickered and went out, only to be followed by the emergency lighting to engage seconds later. The earthquake had been sudden, but it had not been fatal for them. Nor had it damaged the structural integrity of their cells. He looked up in dismay at the bars to see that they were still intact. No nicks or cracks in any of the plating along the walls or floors. Despite the trembling of the very earth, they were still trapped here.

He smirked half-heartedly to himself; day ten would be one that he could not forget. Hopefully his days in this cell would not be numbered much more than ten, but he had a suspicion that he was going to be spending a long time here. Paul idly felt the stump on his tail again, cringing at the size of the scab, and the dull throbbing pain that he still felt there. Although it had been more painful when they had pulled his claws out one by one, the pain in his fingers was much quicker to subside. He tried to turn his thoughts back to his days before the war, back when the world was at peace, and there was no struggle to see who could kill the other first. Those were happy days, and he imagined that one-day, they would return, but he could not see it happening in his lifetime.

Suddenly, he heard a scampering form above. The door to the room was opened in a rush, and the voice of the guard dog could be heard. Paul almost immediately smelled something quite foul and hideous, and his nose and whiskers shrank back in revulsion. "What happened to you! Your fur it's..."

The response was from another, a rather weak voice, but one that Paul recognized nonetheless, his interrogator, "I know... I'm going to die. They killed us...they dropped a bomb....everything is gone....everything."

Paul shook in stunned silence. They had done it; the project had been a success. He had heard of it because rumors were rampant that they were going to have his squadron actually be the ones to make the fly by to drop it. However, it had been dropped on him instead. He did not know what that bomb could do, but it was apparently powerful enough to level the entire city or wherever it was they were being held. He waited to hear if anything else was going to be said, but he heard nothing but the whimpering from the guard dog as Paul's interrogator died there in the room above them.

Paul finally could stand it no longer. He was a rat, as such was not used to having to be quiet for so long. Though he could go without it, he liked to socialize, and now that his enemies were dead, what did he have to lose? "Hey!" he called out in a voice that he had not heard for many days. "How bad does it look out there?"

The guard dog was on him instantly, glaring at him down through the cage. He had some muck along his breastcoat, and his eyes were livid with rage, his muzzle growling and snapping at him as he stood over him. Paul's eyes strayed automatically to the ring of keys at the dog's belt. How he would like to have that in his own hands. He then would have a chance of getting out, of course, out to what? A lifeless plain? Surely if he just traveled far enough, perhaps only even an hour or two, he would find himself in the lush forests that he enjoyed so much in the free days of his youth.

The guard dog was so angry, that it could not say anything to him, but Paul was not going to be intimidated, not when there was little that they could do to him anymore than he cared about, "Oh come on! This place is dead, your superiors are dead, let me talk!"

The guard dog of course was loyal to a fault, and would never break his duty if he could help it. Paul didn't care though; this was day ten, of who knew how many more. If he was going to die in here, he was going to die happy and among friends. "Look, you might as well as go sit down, there is nothing you can do about it."

"Your people did this!" the dog barked, pointing his gun at Paul through the cage bars. Paul smirked; the bullet would probably deflect off the iron poles and ricochet across the room. He was most certainly not in any danger from the dog and his gun.

"What will shooting me do?"

The dog finally stormed off back the way he'd come. Paul climbed up on the toilet seat, and sniffed at the air. That repugnant odour was still fresh in the air. It smelled like burnt flesh, but only ten times worse. He could hear the dog emit a low whine in mourning for a friend. In a way, Paul had to admit that even the enemy had friends, even they had lives, and even they were people too. He had trouble feeling sorry for his interrogator or his captor, but he was moved by the dog's sorrow.

"Did he die happy?" he called out.

There was no response from the dog, but he hadn't expected any. The dog did let out a low whimper, obviously it was not going to kill him for talking anymore. However, he did not feel like arousing its anger any further. He sat on the cold metallic floor of his cell again, feeling the back of his incisors with his teeth. They were getting a bit sore; he needed to chew on something before they hurt really bad. He wished there was anything that he could chew upon, but only the toilet seat stood there able for him to fit in his mouth the right way. And it mocked him with its resilience.

He sighed, and closed his eyes, trying to get what had just happened out of his mind. They had bombed this place; they would probably not be looking for any survivors. That was all right, he knew that he was probably dead once they had captured him. He let his body carry him into sleep. It was about that time anyway.

Day eleven. It was the eleventh day he had been confined. There was no new food in his cell, as was typical. He hadn't expected any in the first place. Of course, rescue was probably on its way, though if they weren't fast enough then it might not matter. Paul was not one to just die quietly however, and he certainly was not going to die here and now without at least knowing whom he was dying with. The others were probably awake, their stomachs making it impossible for them to sleep. They would get used to it in time though. The constant throbbing of his teeth was driving him crazy, and now to compound that was the dull sensation in his stomach. Water was never a problem; the toilet bowl provided plenty of that. It may have been an indignity, but it was better than dying.

He no longer cared what the guard dog did. "Hey!" he called out, finding his voice once more. IT sounded good to his ears, but the sound of other voices aside from the guard dogs would be better. "Hey, mice! You two still alive over there?"

"No talking!" the guard dog barked hotly. That was the problem with guard dogs, they were so predictable. They were loyal beyond a fault most of the time. As a rat, he felt a duty to those he lived with and served with, but when they were no longer alive, it was time to move on.

Paul decided to ignore him, "Hey you two! My name's Paul, what's yours?"

He could hear a slight murmuring from the other two cages, but the guard dog had stormed over to the cages, his eyes flaring, "No talking!"

"What can you do to us now? Kill us? We are beyond that my friend." Paul sniped. He was in no mood for an overzealous dog.

The dog stammered, nearly frothing at the mouth, his jowls flapping up and down and his tail wagging in frustration. It was obvious he wanted on the one hand to shoot Paul, but on the other knowing that it was a fruitless task. Finally, they heard the dog storming off. There was the sound of a door slamming, and then he was gone.

Paul sat for a few moments dumbstruck; the dog had left them. They were unguarded. Not that it would do them much good, as the dog had the keys. Still, he was gone, and for the first time since he had been brought down here, he was not under scrutiny.

"My name's Alex," came from one of the other cells. The voice was pitched a bit higher than normal; they had probably done some very painful torturing to the mouse. He seemed a bit timid about it, but he did speak. The other mouse was still silent. Paul formed a picture of Alex in his mind, short, squat, with a nice long furry tail, with two large ears, and a small head and muzzle, all of which would be slightly emaciated. He was probably climbing up the wall a bit, his whiskers twitching as he spoke.

Paul knew he was.

He wished that he could scramble up to the top of the cage and get out so that he could see what he really looked like. Of course, that was impossible. They only had each other's voices to go on. "Alex, it's nice to meet you. Wish we could have done so under better circumstances. How long have you been here?"

The voice from the other side was quiet. He could hear the shuffling of feet and the attempt to gnaw on something while he thought. "I don't know. I lost count so long ago."

"What season was it when they captured you?" Paul asked, hoping that he at least could remember the time before he'd been captured.

"Spring I think." Alex murmured.

"Why, its early spring now." Paul mused aloud, and then immediately regretted it.

"It was late spring when they caught me and killed my tank partners." Alex murmured quietly.

Paul felt like a fool, but there was nothing more he could do about it. "Do you mind talking about it?"

"I haven't talked about it in so long...."

"Please, I am really interested."

"It was a bright day, hot, and we were moving through the fields near Kalas. I was the tank driver, and Phil was our gunner. He was happily talking about how many of those damn Kalasians we had pegged on the last foray. We were making lightning attacks; our superiors wanted us to flush out the enemy. We made a big mistake, we assumed that the same trick would work more than once. They were ready for us, and our tank was down and smoking before we knew what had happened. I still am not sure how they shot us to this day. We did the only thing we could; we bailed out of the smoking wreck. Phil was the first to go out, followed by Ronald. Ronald must not have heard Phil's cry of pain, as both were shot dead before I had even grabbed the ladder.

"I remember seeing the shock on Ronald's face as he lay there on the floor of the tank, his mouth hanging open. He had not even known the danger was there until he was already dead. I stayed where I was, knowing that it was probably more dangerous to do that then to run. They found me, and I thought for sure they were going to kill me, but they didn't instead they took me along, chained my wrists and ankles, and then they began to beat me. The hit me from every side, every angle, crushing my bones, hurting me. They smashed by manhood. I was a singer once, not anymore." There was no more pain in his voice; it was as if he were just a machine reciting the events of history. They happened, and it no longer mattered that they did.

"You used to sing? What sorts of songs?" Paul felt he needed to ask. Thinking about happier things was much more important in these days.

"Oh, nothing spectacular, just to my mate, and to the little mice that came along on the camping trips I used to do with my community. Folk songs really, nothing memorable."

"How long has it been since you even tried to sing?"

It was a few moments before he heard any response. Alex seemed to be shuffling about, as if trying to remember the words to a song he'd once sung in his youth. "I don't know. I never really thought about it. The guard dog was always here before, so I never tried."

"Why don't you try now." Paul, for some reason, just wanted to hear him sing something at least.

"I don't think I can." Alex mused pathetically.

"Well, if you won't I will." Paul declared. "I'm not that good, but I do know a few campfire songs." Paul lifted his head into the air, clearing his throat. He really didn't know what he could sing, he was a terrible singer, and he knew very few songs. However, he said he would sing something, and so he did.

"Row, row, row your boat,

Gently down the stream,"

Suddenly, as he got to the "Merrily, merrily, merrily" part, Alex chimed in, singing the first portion of the song as if in round. Paul faltered for a bit as he listened to that voice, that despite Alex's doubt sounded so divine and perfect. He wanted to just let Alex continue singing, but he was committed to his own song, and plunged on through it, slowly harmonizing with Alex so that not only did it sound good, it sounded better to Paul than anything he had ever heard before. That could have been because of his forced isolation, but he didn't care. Here he was making friends. Now if only the other mouse would join them.

Day eleven, he learns to sing, and learns the name of one of his cellmates. Alex, the tank driver, who was a singer in his hometown. Alex, a mouse who had been beaten to castration, who had survived nearly a year in confinement, had finally come out into the open.

After singing that a few times, both Paul and Alex felt much more comfortable, and Paul suggested that Alex start one, but then the door slammed again, and they could smell the dog coming back. They also smelled something burning and a rather peculiar odor that none of them could place. The dog stood then over their cages, with opened cans of food in his hands. He tossed them down through the bars, and then walked off to his post again. Paul sniffed the can, it was the usual stuff, and only this time it was left in the can. It smelled a bit odd, but not that much so. He ate it hungrily, and then drank from the toilet to wash it down. He could hear the others doing the same.

He tried to sing another song, but the dog laid into him again. The dog seemed furious about it somehow, and Paul let it rest a while, in time the dog would give up. Besides, they had gotten their respite, short as it may have been.

Day twelve. Two days after the city had been leveled. Still no rescue, but it should be here soon. There was no reason to worry about it, but he did wonder whether they were waiting for their land troops to reach this far in. Perhaps they had hit a snag somewhere, a pocket of resistance that was standing in their way. Whatever it was, it could not take them too much longer.

He sat silently contemplating the bars of his cage, thinking on his connection with Alex. It was something that had to be cultivated, but if that dog was going to keep yelling at them, then they were not going to be able to sing. He could talk the dog down; he could not sing it down. However, he was not feeling too strong at the moment, and a little bit more rest would do him good.

Suddenly, there was a terrible retching sound from above. He knew it to be the dog, from the way it hacked. Something was wrong; it sounded weak, ill. Perhaps there had been something in the food? He felt his own stomach, but had to admit that he felt fine, aside from a little wooziness that is. He climbed up the wall as far as he could go, and called out, his whiskers twitching, his nose drawing in the malodorous odor, "Are you all right."

"No talking." the dog called out weakly. Something was dreadfully wrong here. That was not the voice of a sick man; that was the voice of one dying. Paul felt a chill creep up his spine. Their captor was dying. That meant no food, though they could sing till their voices gave out. Still, in some part of him, Paul felt a bit of empathy for this man. He was not their enemy, at least not anymore.

"Will you be okay?"

"No." was all the dog could manage.

He sat still for a few moments, his skin tingling. His fur rippled in agitation, completely unsure of what to do. Alex had the perfect solution. He began to sing a dirge, but with his high pitched voice the words seemed somehow ridiculous. The feel was there though, and even though Paul did not recognize it, he harmonized with Alex, singing a wordless ah. It was a terribly sad sound, but the dog made no move to stop it.

Paul felt himself being transported away by the beauty of the singing, by the pungent quality of the words, by the strident discords that were wrought by his own voice added to the fray. They were off set by the most hideous moaning that he had ever heard coming from the other cell. The second mouse had joined in the chant; he had lifted up his voice, what was left of it to sing to the dog as well.

Paul felt his skin itch; his eyes go numb as he listened to all three voices in tandem. It was somehow escaping his reality, into another. This was not just a song; this was the last great hurrah of three rodents who were going to die in their cells. He was deluding himself if he thought he would be rescued. Nobody was looking for him, nobody cared.

To his shock, the fourth voice, that of the dog began to join in the song, his own weak tongue straining over each word, mouthing them and speaking them subtly as he continued to pass on. All four of their voices, a quartet, sung the dirge, led by Alex, harmonized by the other mouse and Paul, with backup by the dog, they sung, till the final chord drifted away into the stillness of the air. Paul could die happy now.

Paul sat silently, listening to the reverberations of their voices in the vaults of his mind. It was a heavenly chorus, the one that ushered the dead into the next life. It was greater than just the four singers were; it was greater even than the countries they each served. It was more than any song that had come before it. The words no longer mattered, the notes were intransigent. The tone and the emotion behind it, the passing of it to the next was what mattered. They had gone beyond art into the realm of reality with that song, and had created for the first time in all of history something concrete. Now, where time never ended, they had escaped from their imprisonment.

"What is your name?" Paul called out, "Mine's Paul."

"Rufus." the dog answered weakly. He could hear it crawling towards them, the clicking of its toes on the floor steady, repetitive, and sloth-like.

"And yours?" he asked the other mouse who had yet to speak. There was a dull moaning form the other cage.

"He can't speak to you." Rufus called out. "He had his tongue cut out rather than reveal information to an enemy."

Paul shivered no wonder he had moaned so hideously during the song. He heard a sharp intake of breath from Alex. Obviously he could not imagine loosing ones tongue either. What else could they do for him? Nothing, there was nothing any of them could do now, except to sing.

Paul started to offer up the quiet strains of a song he dimly remembered from his youth. Alex took it up, stronger, more virulently, while Rufus waited, still dragging his body towards the cages. The other mouse moaned a bit, calling out with his throat, trying to make some sound that would be musical. Paul let the song transport them into that other state. This song, unlike the one before it, was not sad, but instead a bright happy piece telling of the good things to come. He had not remembered all the stanzas, but as Alex sang on they each came back to him, one by one.

Paul watched up through the cage as he saw the form of the dog pass by. Rufus was in a terrible state, his flesh marked by lesions and all sots of odd growths. Most of his fur had fallen out in clumps, and he looked quite beyond any help whatsoever. He then toppled over, as his voice gave out, and he fell onto the bars of Paul's cage. Paul watched as the life left the dog. Rufus was dead. Paul, looked to the man's belt, and saw the keys. They were partially melted. Fate reminding him one last time, that they were not going to get away.

It didn't matter though, he kept on singing the happy tune, and the others singing as well, Alex in a superior fashion and the other mouse as best he could. There would be nothing, not even Rufus's death that could stop their quartet.

Day thirteen. There would be no day fourteen. Paul knew this quite well. His stomach was heaving about crazily, and his own fur was beginning to fall out. He listened to the songs again in his mind, letting their quartet sing him to gentle sleep. Alex and the other mouse would be sleeping soon as well, and they all would be happy at last.

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