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The Ravages Of Age
by Orakio of the Domes

I examined the curiously morbid malachite figure mounted on the door and knocked twice. Those noises resounded throughout the spacious house, and I waited patiently for someone to greet me, humming casually to myself. A moment later, Tina was at the door, unspeakably huge grin smeared across her face as always. "Well, hello!" she exclaimed. "So glad that you could finally come."

"Hello yourself," I replied with a hint of a smile on my face. I stepped into the room and was immediately awestruck by the air of antiquity it carried. Everything -- the staircase, the floor, the paintings on the wall -- looked to be very old, and fragile, as if the slightest nudge would cause it to shatter.

Tina saw my wandering eyes. "Ya like the whole scheme of things, Amy?" she asked.

After being dumbfounded temporarily, I shook my head and murmured, "It's great." It really was. I had always heard that my friend Tina was heiress to a priceless home handed down generation after generation in her family, but all the rumors (which I thought were quite exaggerated) proved to be true and nothing could have prepared me for its grandeur.

Tina had told me about a little party she was getting together about a month ago, in that same vibrant voice she used with anyone, whether it be an obnoxious insurance salesman or a little child. "There's really no point to it," she had told me. "I just wanted to celebrate the last few days of summer."

Ah, yes, the summer of AW 1283 was drawing to a close, and soon, autumn would grace its cold winds and bitter storms upon Mota's surface. I ran my hand on a dark mahogany coat rack absently as I slipped off my shoes. Wasn't there supposed to be a party? I could see no decorations or other invitees.

Just like she read my thoughts Tina said simply, "Everyone's in the yard. I thought that it would be a great place to have this whole shindig, so I got my cook to have a li'l barbecue or something." She glanced from side to side furtively and chuckled nervously. "I gotta go, Amy. Gotta entertain the guests. Later!"

She dashed out of the room faster than I could imagine and I was left alone in the musty, ancient home. I wandered my way across the carpeted living room and into the kitchen, from which a door to the back porch and the yard beyond lied. I joined the rest of the company outside for a carefree night away from the hospital.

Work had been getting to me recently; there was always so much to do in Oputa! Prescribe this, check that, explain this...the list was endless. This little getaway, however, would let me relax for the first time in months. The party lasted well into the morning hours, and was real fun. There was no music at this party -- pleasant laughter was a great substitute.

The barbecued chicken made my tongue quiver every time I ate it, and was a great contrast to the moist and cool salad that was also available. There were plenty of drinks, but I decided to avoid the alcohol tonight; no good waking up tomorrow with a hangover. Instead, I tried something that Tina called ambika. "It's traditionally a Dezorian drink," she told me enthusiastically. "but I find that us Palmans enjoy it just as much, if not more!"

It was indeed great. The ambika was served from large pitchers, and was a clear liquid -- almost like water. It had a slight sweet tang to it, and had an earthy but not unpleasant aftertaste. Summer temperatures were still around, of course, so mosquitoes buzzed constantly around our ears or circling above our paper dishes. No one seemed to mind them tonight, though. We were having too much fun.

The crickets' chirping and the bullfrogs' clunky countersong droned on in the background, but the voices of our company smothered them like a fresh paint on a wall. I didn't know anybody at the party except for the hostess, but I still felt fine. I got a chance to talk with a lot of interesting characters.

"What do you do for a living?" asked one blue-haired woman, several hours into the night. She had a pair of eyes that sparkled in the starlight.

"Oh, I'm a doctor," I replied nonchalantly. "From Oputa."

The woman smiled and said, "Forgive me, but I don't know where that is. I'm not really from around here." She let her hands drift up in the sky and pointed at one large sphere that looked like countless interwoven cyan and sea-green strings in a ball of yarn. "I'm just visiting Tina temporarily. My true home's on Palm, specifically Camineet." She put a finger to her lips and made a "shhh" sound. "I got a ride from a certain someone whose cloaking devices are advanced enough to escape Mother Brain's technology." she whispered.

My eyes widened. "Wow! Who's this person?"

She nodded. "You might have heard of him -- the legendary space pirate Tyler. I pulled a few strings to get ahold of him -- costed me a bunch, too, but I have something very important to do here." The two of us were quiet for a while, and then: "What did you say your name was again?"

"Amy Sage." I extended a hand in greeting. "Nice to meet you, er..."

"Laya." she finished for me. "My name's Laya."

We chatted on for a long time, and it was really nice to get a chance to talk to someone who actually listened. I told her about how stressful work was, and she nodded again in agreement. It turned out that Laya was a biologist, and came to Mota to help do some more research concerning the accident that occurred at the Biosystems Lab about a year and a half ago. "It's really a mess," she said, sipping at her drink. "Data's all screwed up. It'll take forever to restore, and they need all the help they can get."

She and her colleagues had been working non-stop for nearly a week now, and she came to Tina's little gathering with the same intent I had -- to loosen up a bit. The night air grew colder, but the atmosphere of the party didn't. For once in my life, I could connect with someone that had shared experiences, and shared struggles. "Here's to all career women out there," I said, raising my glass with a smile.

"But of course," replied the blue-haired woman, and met mine with a small cling. Sometime after midnight, I felt my eyelids drooping a little. Laya had gone off to get some more refreshments, and I was sitting by myself at a modest table on the back porch. I was really getting tired, and put my head down to rest. I think I actually fell asleep for a few moments, but I was awakened by Tina.

"Hey, c'mon!" she said, patting my back teasingly. "Don't quit on me now!" She handed me another cup of ambika. "Here, have this. It'll wake you up."

I smiled and shook my head weakly. "Actually, if you don't mind," I said with a yawn. "Could I go in and take a quick shower? I am positively down for the moment. Good thing tomorrow's a weekend!"

She smiled and said, "Sure, go ahead! Do you know where the bathrooms are?"

By this time, I was already opening the door to the house. "I'll find my way there," I said sleepily. The door closed and drowned out the noises of the party behind me.

*     *     *     *     *

The house was still silent, the hum of the air conditioner being the only noise-maker besides me. Eerily, it seemed that time had stood still within here while I was outside. The only light that was present was from the huge lamps outside -- an absurdity, but Tina had insisted on it. I fumbled for the light switch in the kitchen and a moment later, a dull white light covered the room.

I really hadn't expected this bewildering warren of quiet passages and doors opening on either side of the hall when I said I'd find the bathroom by myself, but I guess it was too late now. A person could get lost and starve to death in this house! I thought with a smirk. As I paced calmly, I let my eyes drift across the various artifacts on display.

A beautiful ceramic bowl here, a necklace that seemed to give off its own light there...I began to wonder how much the mansion was actually worth. All the while, I was opening doors and poking my head in to see if it was a bathroom.

After searching for almost a half hour, I finally found one. I walked in calmly, and then jumped back when I saw something move to my right. I turned my head slowly to see what it was and realized that this bathroom was joined to another bedroom via a small hall, and the bedroom's keeper was still inside!

A bent form from the shadows hobbled towards me, and I saw that it was an old man. Okay, nothing to worry about here. It still struck me strange, however, that this old man was secluded here, as if he was in a different world and didn't realize that there was a party going on not far from him.

As he approached me, I cringed reflexively. Something about him didn't seem right. His eyes were sunken and red, his facial expression confused, and his breathing labored and obviously. I felt uncomfortable in his presence. "Oh, I'm sorry," I said. "I need to use the shower. Could you point me to where I can find another one?"

He stared at me blankly, still getting closer. I felt an insane urge to run out of the room screaming. "Sh-shower?" he mumbled. His small beady eyes observed me, as if watching me intently to detect any fear.

"Er...yes, I need to use a shower." I repeated. "Could you point me to where I can find another one?" He looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language.

He blinked, and a gnarled hand reached out. I backed up, and prayed that he didn't come any closer. "Yes, shower," he said in a hoarse voice. "Go!" He pointed me in the direction of the door, and slowly began to take off his shirt, preparing to take a shower himself. What...?

I stumbled outwards, dazed, but relieved to be away from there, nevertheless. The old man had really given me the creeps, that tingling in your spine that eventually spread throughout your entire body. Am I going to end up a crumpled, senile bag of bones like him? It wasn't a nice thing to say, or even think, but it was very true. The ravages of age had made their mark on him, and I knew I would have nightmares about it.

Tina found me lost in thought a few moments later, and I noticed that I had walked quite a distance down the hall. "Have you found the shower yet?" I shook my head. "Silly me. Guests can never find any rooms without precise maps in this house!" She took me by the arm and led me past the old man's room -- from which no light came, nor any sound, disturbingly -- winding around and turning corners, and finally up a staircase.

I never mustered up the courage to ask her about the old man. It didn't seem appropriate while she was finding this shower for me walking at a frenzied pace. The man in the room was probably her grandfather or something, but I really didn't want to know why he was closed off from the house, the party...the world. The shower wasn't necessary to wake me up -- my encounter with the old man did. When I went back outside again, Laya was waiting for me. I tried to spark a conversation again, but found that I could never really get my full attention on that.

Just a crumpled, senile bag of bones.

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