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Moorish Arches
Alexander Besher

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Alexander Besher


by Alexander Besher

Sri Lanka, 2032

“Welcome back to Sri Lanka, Dr. Brumel, sah!” the wizened old doorman of the once elegant Glasse Face Hotel shivered as he opened the door to the bullock-pulled taxi and I stepped into the chill air of Colombo, one of the coldest warmest places left on earth.

“Rohan, it’s so good to see you again!” I exclaimed as I took a quick glance at this decaying testament to the luxury of the British Raj with its miles of empty verandas and overzealous Moorish arches that once mocked the arabesque shadows cast by the patriarchal sun. 

I had known Rohan for years since our society had selected the Glasse Face as the annual meeting place for our para-climatologist conference. This year’s theme had been chosen carefully, “The Future of Hope Based on Reintegration with the Myth of Ecological Renewal.”

Rohan was dressed in his usual crisp white hotel uniform and turban, but there was a freakish spiderweb streak of grey in his beard as if one of the subcontinent’s nano-monsoons had become entrapped in his follicles.  He noticed that I noticed and wagged his head in that affable South Asian manner, then shrugged it off. 

“I call it Mohan,” he grinned with his gap-toothed smile as he stroked the living organism.  “We get along now, at least until it reaches Category 3 levels, then I get to spinning around like a whirling dervish and all kinds of mischief happens.”  He wagged his head again.  “As long as it doesn’t happen at work.  Then management complains.”

I was about to ask him if he had considered surgery to have it removed, but then thought better of it. 

Of what use were medical procedures if the world’s last attempt at robotic satellite surgery had failed to stitch together the hole in the ozone layer?  Another hare-brained scheme of the Russians. They had turned the stratosphere into their version of a samovar pouring ultra-violet beams into the earth’s molten atmosphere.  Tea bags of radiation fell on our heads.  Sales of Soyuz Sunscreen skyrocketed, followed by the usual conspiracy theories that declared climate change to be an East bloc marketing ploy that marked the return of Communism. 

At least, the ultra-right fundies couldn’t call it the “Cold War” anymore.  Their mode of prayer had changed, too, since kneeling too long was likely to cause third-degree burns.

“May I take your luggage, sah?” Rohan extended his hand to grasp my single suitcase.  I noticed that his hands were trembling and instinctively drew back.  I intended to tip the man, not give him a coronary.  I believe that I had inadvertently caused the deaths of at least ten people during the course of my long flight from Cincinnati to Sri Lanka.  Involuntary manslaughter these days was a meteorological offense punishable by the equivalent of a parking ticket.

“No thanks, I can manage,” I protested cheerfully.  “It’s really nothing.”

A sullen expression crossed his face for a moment, a reminder perhaps that things were no longer as they were, if they ever had been.  How else to explain the migration of a hundred million Chinese into Siberia, the civil wars that had broken out in the EU after the Netherlands disappeared under the North Sea, the veneration of the sacred match-stick that was all that remained of the Amazon rainforest, the gridlock and multiple collisions of various eco-Noah’s Arks skirmishing for space on the sea lanes, and the relocation of the Haj from Mecca to Atlantic City? One hundred and fifty thousand faithful Muslims made the pilgrimage each year since the earth’s population had plummeted from 9.6 billion to 500 million in 2018.

“Is everyone here for the conference?” I steered the subject away from the physical reminder of our mutual decrepitude.  Rohan was in his mid-thirties.  I was in my fifties.  But I’m sure that to his eye, I had aged as well.  That was another sign of the times, an irrevocable one, but nonetheless disconcerting.

“As usual, sah, you’re among the early birds.  Of course, the usual advance teams are setting up the booths and displays, but—” he paused.  “Not many of the weather pandits have arrived yet.  I presume today, or by tomorrow, we shall have a full house.  At least I hope so.”

As we walked up the stained white marble stairs of the hotel, I noticed the razor wire barricades that separated the grounds from the thousands of miserable Sri Lankans who huddled on the other side of the beach that fronted the former Indian Ocean, now one-quarter of its original size.  What a difference a year makes, I thought.

Inside the spacious lobby, I couldn’t help but notice how rundown the place looked.  The electricity was off, of course.  The houseboys were busy lighting scores of tapers on the pitted walls. 

The elephant god figure of Ganesh occupied his usual spot in the corner between thick white Doric columns, now cracked with age.  The bust of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, one of the hotel’s more prominent guests in its heyday, projected both the greatness of the man and the shortsightedness of his vision of mankind’s rosy future.  Still, he rated a stick of incense that one of the boys was currently lighting in front of his noble figure.  I recognized its fragrance immediately.  It was a vintage copy of the 1976 mass market edition of one of Clarke’s more famous novels, Childhood’s End.  Now that was prophetic.

Darjuna, the hotel receptionist, handed me back my passport after I checked in and signed the guest book.  “We’ve reserved your favorite room overlooking our last flowering garden, No. 28, is it not?” he smiled.  “Enjoy your stay, Dr. Brumel.  Who knows, one of these days you may very well be our last hotel guest.”

“I hope that day never comes,” I said solemnly.  “Miracles come in test-tubes and centrifuges these days.  We’ve still got plenty of those left.”

Darjuna nodded at a plodding figure dressed in a warm woolen overcoat who was crossing the deserted hotel lobby in our direction.

He pinged the bell on the counter.  “Professor Olafsen has been inquiring about your arrival ever since this morning.  Here you are, Professor!  And here is Dr. Brumel.  Old friends meet again!” 

Professor Hans Olafsen, senior climatologist from the University of Copenhagen, shook my hand warmly.  “George!  I was worried you might not make it.  There will be some surprises this year.  I can feel it in my bones.  Some kind of breakthrough is imminent.”
Hans was rotund, in his sixties, and the shock of white hair that sprang from his woolen ski cap gave him a somewhat comical aspect.  It reinforced his reputation as being one of the world’s leading cranks in the arcane field of multi-dimensional Greenhouse Effect Asymmetry. 

He proposed that global warming was, far from being Apocalyptic, a natural stepping-stone to a different form of ecology that lay just around the corner, if only we took the trouble to recalculate the negative emissions of solar radiation and recontextualize its aperiodic fluctuations. Beyond the global barbecue pit lay the green gold of El Dorado!  Needless to say, he didn’t have a big following.

Hans leaned forward on the heels of his hobnailed rock-climbing boots.  “Is it too early for a hot toddy for you?  We could go to the Checker Bar. There are some things on the program we need to discuss.  Fine-tune the agenda a bit.” He elbowed me gently.  “Besides, we’ve got some personal catching up to do, eh?”

“I wouldn’t mind at all,” I agreed heartily.  “Warm the bones, reenergize the brain.  Say hello to the house cobra.  Is Walid still mixing the drinks?”

Hans paused and sniffled.  “Walid is no longer with us.  I believe he took his family with him and headed south. Entirely the wrong direction, I would say.  He should have stayed put.”

“Like us?” I jibed.  “People think we’re crazy, you know.  To fly all this way to exchange our latest follies and theories.”

“Theories never hurt anyone,” Hans frowned. “It’s all in the approach.  Without the right execution, they’re mere  . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? . . . . Shambles and delusions.”

Hans may have been a crank, but he possessed a sixth sense like no other academic I knew. That’s why I liked him.  Because if he had a sixth sense, there was the distinct possibility that he might have a seventh waiting to be discovered.

“Hit the floor!” he bellowed and I followed his instructions to the letter.  We both landed on the marble floor with a thud.  Even Darjuna ducked behind the hotel registry counter.  A moment later, a middle-aged Sri Lankan woman who was standing nearby, both of her forearms clinking with elevator levels of gold bangles, her petite frame draped with at least nine yards of pure silk sari, exploded like human fireworks. 

The hotel boys, barefoot and apparently well experienced in this sort of phenomenon, rushed over with a fire extinguisher and let her charred figure have it before the flames got out of hand. 

As we rose to our feet, we could see that all that remained of her was her ruby nose-ring.

“My gosh!” Darjuna’s head appeared above the counter.  “That’s the third time it’s happened this week!”

Hans glowered menacingly.  “Don’t you know that silk is the supreme conductor of orgone energy?  Have you never heard of Tesla?  Of course not.”

He sniffed at the scorched remains on the floor, obviously detecting some etheric scent.  “Aha!” he declared victoriously.  “She was wearing jasmine oil.  That’s the very worst combination with silk, like mixing methane with other highly flammable gases.  Jasmine’s chemical constituents include methyl anthranilate, indole, benzyl alcohol, linalool, and skatole which occurs naturally in coal tar and gastrointestinal disorder, in case you didn’t know.  That’s what happens in mining disasters.”

Darjuna shook his head, pleading ignorance.

“If you don’t want this sort of thing to happen again, especially in these incendiary times, I suggest you post a sign prominently at the entrance.  ‘No silks or extracts of jasmine oil permitted on the premises.’ On pain of suttee.”

“Very well, sir, I shall attend to it immediately.”  Darjuna imperiously snapped his fingers at the hotel boys and hissed an order.  “A mini-generator operated vacuum cleaner and a dust pan immediately.”

He bowed graciously to Hans.  “I can’t thank you enough, Professor. Thank you, thank you. And do forgive us.  Madam,” he scowled at the figure that lay on the floor.  “Will be checking out promptly.”  He glanced at his watch.  “At four o’clock.  After her next of kin have settled her bill.”


Hans and I settled comfortably in one of the upholstered cubicles at the Checker Bar across the hotel lobby.  He studied the drinks menu with its photographic depictions of Sri Lankan brews and cocktails.

“A hot toddy for me,” he tapped his finger on one of the illustrations on the menu. “Make that a Hill Country toddy with the juice of the kilkul palm.”  His order was instantly transmitted to a screen above the bar.  “And for you?”

“A vodka martini at 70 degrees Celsius.  That should warm me up.”

“A wise choice.” His finger coded my specifications and transmitted the order.  He studied the disconsolate expression on my face.  I couldn’t forget that poor woman’s expression before she blew up.

“Come, come, it’s not as bad as all that,” he said.  “There’s still room for some frivolity and pleasure.  For hope.  That’s what makes us human, that’s what makes all this . . . .”  He waved his arms around.  “Worth saving.” 

Within a few minutes, an attractive robot waitress with an Intel bindi beauty mark on her metallic forehead brought us our drinks.  She gave us a namaste greeting with both hydraulic palms pressed together, then left us to our conversation.

I took a sip of my drink. Perfect temperature, I thought.  “That was some pretty fancy footwork back there, Hans,” I said.  “But something is bothering you.  This isn’t about that breakthrough you alluded to earlier.  Go on, you can tell me.”

Hans’ euphoria took a sabbatical.  He gave me a crafty look.  “I always suspected you had a sixth sense, George.  We’ve been friends a long time.  Very well, but please keep this confidential.  How is your olive, by the way?”

I grunted.  “Well done as it should be.  Now out with it.”

He leaned across the cocktail table and whispered.  “Lately, I’ve been having these thoughts.  Yes, the weather is changing outside.  But is that the only place?”  He tapped his forehead.  “What if it’s changing inside us, too?  George . . . Up here, in my brain, I’ve noticed . . . .”

I stared at him amazed.  I’d been having the same thoughts myself, but had no one to share them with.  I suspected that I wasn’t the only one to have noticed this new shift of the climate change paradigm.

“I seem to have internalized the monsoon season,” Hans cleared his throat.  “There are two of them actually.  The Southwest Monsoon that lasts from May to August.  And then there’s the Northeast Monsoon that arrives in October and lasts until January.  That one brings a lot of flooding.  Of thoughts,” he added anxiously.

I nodded.  “I know exactly what you mean.”

“You do?” He seemed relieved.  “Perhaps this is the beginning of the next stage.  I’m speaking in evolutionary terms, of course.  Perhaps there’s a new form of Nature manifesting in our Collective Unconscious.  Perhaps Jung, without realizing it, was a pioneering climatologist.”

“Well, it does seem odd,” I acknowledged.  “Who would have believed ten years ago that global warming would have see-sawed into global cooling?”

“Exactly,” Hans excitedly pursued the point.  “It’s a proven fact that rapid heating has turned into rapid cooling as if they were both mirror reflections of each other. One and the same, almost.  Just look at the recent studies indicating how the Atlantic thermohaline circulation is capable of rapid reorganization resulting in temperature shifts either up or down by as much as 10 degrees Celsius in a matter of decades.  What a shock that revelation was!  We’re on a roller coaster ride, if you ask me.  But it’s still all up in here,” he tapped his head again.  “That’s the breakthrough, in my opinion.  It’s all about consciousness materializing and dematerializing.”

He gazed at the ceiling with sudden intensity.  “Look, there’s a gecko up there. Do you see it?  Or is it just me?”

I glanced upwards.  There was no gecko.  “Of course, I do,” I replied, not having the heart to upset him.  “A gecko.  The lizard of choice for our lethargic age.”

“Thank God,” Hans sighed.  “I’ve been seeing that damned thing everywhere.”

He daubed at his mouth with a napkin.  “I’d better be off.  I’ve got some work to do.  Polish up the old presentation.  I’ll see you later.”

After Hans had left, I glanced up at the ceiling again.  Goddamn, there it was.  The gecko.  How could I have missed seeing it earlier?  It hadn’t moved an inch.  But then neither had I.  I looked at both of my hands.  The left one was missing.


After an early dinner, I killed some time before turning in by strolling around the nearly empty hotel.  Strange, none of the conventioneers had arrived and the conference was scheduled to begin first thing in the morning.

The houseboys had lit more tapers.  It appeared that the night had more light and brilliance than the daytime.  The sinuous shadows on the walls assumed majestic proportions as if they had been transplanted from some ragged Kindle copy of the 1,001 Arabian Nights.

Soon I became lost in the long narrow hallways that spilled maze-like throughout the Victorian mausoleum of the Glasse Face Hotel. It was part of the hotel that I was unfamiliar with. The place had been built in 1864 for globe trotting royalty.  Perhaps I had stumbled into one of the old wings that was now unused by the staff or the guests.  I smiled to myself, What guests?

I was doubly shocked, therefore, when a couple appeared from around the corner.  The English gentleman was bewhiskered and dressed in a dark tail coat and trousers with a wide cravat fastened with a stickpin.  He swung an ebony cane.  The lady by his side, her arm entwined in his, wore a evening dress of hooped crinoline, a short overjacket with wide pagoda sleeves, a high neckline, and a string of pearls.  Her hourglass figure underscored the fact that she was as corseted as any Egyptian mummy might have been if they had been fluent in upper class English.  She had a nosegay of flowers pinned to her waist.  A pity that they were dried and shriveled.

The Englishman doffed his top hat as we passed each other and she nodded a greeting. His eyes were dark and hollow.  Hers were as grey as the fog on the heath.  “Good evening, sir. Enjoying Ceylon, are we?  Except for the ghastly rains?” he murmured with a gaunt face that was pale white and almost colorless. That struck me as odd in this sun-drenched climate.  I’d barely been here a day and was already sun burnt, the skin peeling on my brow.

Before I had an opportunity to reply, they moved ahead into the shadows and were out of sight.  What century were we in?  Perhaps there was a costume ball in progress, a period piece, but I hadn’t heard anything about it.  Not too damned likely.  I made a mental note to inquire at the front desk. The Glass Face Hotel was full of surprises.

As I advanced deeper into the maze, the air became mustier and more difficult to breathe.  I noticed the ghostly figures of a few conference vendors who were putting up low-tech displays featuring this or that latest miracle gizmo or piece of revolutionary climate change technology.

I paused in front of one exhibit but I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was on offer.  I found myself looking at shelves that were stocked with miniature potted plants.  They looked like stunted bushes with twisted limbs.

“Go ahead and pick one up.  Hold it close to your chest as if you were embracing it,” a young woman’s voice whispered into my ear.

Startled, I whirled around and found myself staring into the deep blue eyes of a young Danish woman with curly golden hair and a beaded outfit.  She was a nomad hippie, judging from her attire.  A traveling roadshow of Gaia consciousness.  Hippies, I decided, would be like the cockroaches who would survive any cataclysm.  A million years from now, they would still be smoking joints.

“What is it?” I inquired skeptically.

“Don’t be afraid,” she insisted.  “It will change your life.”

“If you insist.”  Reluctantly, I accepted the pot that she offered me and pressed it against my chest.
Sure enough, I felt a warm glow begin to course through my body.  She noticed the change in me immediately, the charged particles that illuminated my face.  “See,” she said triumphantly.  “It works.”

“But what is it?”

“It’s a dwarf pine, one of the few left, grown in Moldavia.  Now listen—” she hurried her spiel as she saw the look of disbelief cross my face.  “You can develop a personal relationship with it.  Be in communion with it.  You will hear pure nature talking and whispering to you.”

“Really,” I said as I returned the plant to her.  “How would I water it? H2O being scarce.”

“It’s been specially bred to be watered by your tears.”

I couldn’t tell if she was pulling my leg or not so I nodded solicitously.  “All my tears have long since dried.”    

Not ready to give up on a potential customer, she handed me another shrub.  “Try this one.  It’s a rare variety.  It will listen to your troubles and give you personal advice tailored to your needs. Romantic, financial, or ecological.”

“Thank you, but I really don’t think so.  I’m beyond personal advice except from my attorney.  And he’s passed away.”

I handed it back to her and fled down the corridor, but not before I heard her final exhortation.  “Have you hugged your bonsai today?”

Deeper and deeper I advanced into the labyrinth of the Glasse Face Hotel’s old wing until I heard It calling. By my name or by my DNA, what difference did it make? The frieze of shadows were like dakini goddesses that guided my path. Ultimate faith is ultimate will power, but both are helpless against the onslaught of the Unknown because the Unknown is the ultimate traffic light in a world where there is no movement or need for movement.

It was the sound of the flute, faint, and yes, its fluorescent glow, that beckoned me.
I couldn’t believe my eyes, or the heart that beat within my eyes, when I arrived at my destination.  “Rohan!”  I was beyond dumbfounded.   The figure that stood before me was the doorman to the Glasse Face Hotel, the very same Rohan who had greeted me upon my arrival at what was sure to be the last conference of our shrinking society of para-climatologists.

Only instead of his usual hotel uniform, he was clad in the white robe of a traditional snake charmer.  Without his turban, his long oiled black hair hung down to his waist.  He wasn’t impersonating the common street variety of entertainer, but the holy man, the healer, the magician, whose origins dated back thousands of years when the island was known as śrī Lamkā or the“Venerable Island” before the first Arab traders arrived and renamed it Serendib from which the term “serendipity” derives its origin.  Before the British Raj subsequently renamed its colony Ceylon.

Rohan’s eyes gleamed at me as he kept blowing his flute at the wicker basket at his feet.  Mesmerized, I watched the lid prop open and the head of the King Cobra emerge as it spread its hood and began to hiss the mantra of  its breed, the Naga, so celebrated in the ancient Indian epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. 

With its faint yellow cross bands, its cream-colored belly, and smooth scales on its powerful yet sinuous body, this cobra was a perfect specimen of the mythical Nagas that were considered nature spirits and protectors of all rivers, lakes, springs, wells, and oceans.  Bringers of rain and fertility, they were protectors of the earth until they became imprisoned in the baskets of their handlers, all for a few rupees that would be spent on a bowl of rice or hydrocarbons that would pollute our living planet.

There was only one problem with this cobra’s head.  It was a miniature version of my own, complete with the birthmark on my cheek, but with a single variation.  It wore a monocle on its left eye, yellow-slitted and dangerous with its venomous vision.  Otherwise, it would have passed for the holographic image of my passport photo.

I couldn’t believe it.  I looked up at Rohan who kept playing his flute, then nodded at me with unspoken instructions.

“Are you me?” I asked the cobra as it writhed and danced to the music.  “Am I you?”
In my bowed position, both of my hands on my thighs at cobra-level, I was an easy target.  Cobras are known not only for the poisonous venom of their fangs, but for spitting. This one was no exception.

It spit at me, all right.  I should have known better.  Only instead of spitting its venomous spray at me haphazardly, I was bowled over by the impact of its monocle attaching itself to my left eye-lid.

At first, I felt a burning sensation.  Then blindness.  Then the milky quartz light of quantum universes that dissolved into my cornea and finally pulsed into my bloodstream.

My skull was on fire.  I was certain that I would be dead within minutes after painful paralysis set in.

But I was mistaken.  If this was death, then it was also a new way of seeing life.  Rivers of life.  The future of rivers of life on the planet.  Ten thousand years passed in the blink of an eye.  The glaciers and condors were back.  The whales were humming Broadway musicals and operas by Verdi as well as their own Whale Gaga song.  Enormous tanker-ship sized rockets were importing massive cylinders of oxygen from oxygen-rich universes beyond our solar system to jumpstart seeds into rainforest and savannah-like tundras on Earth.  Our native sun was so bright that the geniuses at the U.N.’s IPCC had devised a geosynchronous sun umbrella to cut down on the glare.

I screamed, but the sound that came out of my mouth was the sound of spitting and lots of it.

I turned and ran.  Tomorrow I would wow the conference of para-climatologists when I passed my monocle around for everyone to look through at the naked truth of retro-reality.


I don’t know how I got there.  Perhaps the monocle contained some manner of built-in GPS system, but I didn’t care.  I was banging at Hans’ door like a madman.  Room 301, as I recall, on the third floor.

“Hans!  Hans!  Open up!  Wake up, goddammit! You won’t believe this!”

I knew him to be a light sleeper, practically an insomniac.  But there was no response to all my banging.  Only a deathlike silence that permeated the entire floor.

I was making such a racket that I was sure that everyone in the hotel could hear me.  Yet not a single guest cracked a door open to see what was causing all the commotion. There wasn’t even a houseboy around to ask what was the matter or if I needed assistance to get back to my room after a heavy bout of drinking.  It wasn’t like the Glasse Face Hotel at all.  Room service?  This was ruin service!

Finally, out of frustration I kicked his door in.  “Hans, where are you?” I cried out as I ran inside and then abruptly stopped in my tracks.

The room was empty and its mustiness made me cough.  I surveyed the scene.  No one had occupied it for years.  That much was obvious.  The bedposts around the king-size bed had rotted away and lay scattered like bones on the floor.  The mattress had no covers on it.  It sagged down to the termite-eaten carpet.  The smell of rot was everywhere.  It was the dampness and decay that was filled with life and not the other way around.

Where was my monocle?  I felt for it on my chest.  Perhaps I had dropped it along the way.

I had to get back downstairs somehow, navigate my way through the maze of the old wing, and demand an explanation from my head on that infernal cobra.

My head was splitting, but I persevered.  Somehow I made it downstairs, groping my way through the darkness. 

Tattered drapes hung from the walls in shreds.  There was not a living soul to be found in the famed establishment of the Glasse Face Hotel.  It was utterly deserted.  I could see from the dank interior that it had been shuttered up forever.  The glint of moonlight streaked through the louvered slats of rotting wood.

The place was entirely empty except for the last hotel guest.  I paused to glance at it. It was that damned gecko on the wall for whom checking-out was not much different than checking-in.

How was I to know, as I did now, what it felt like to cling to the wall with my lizard eyes slit shut, not a muscle moving, with barely a heartbeat throbbing inside my chest?

I flicked my tongue out at something.  Perhaps it was a fly.  The last item that was left on the menu of the world.
















“The Last Guest” is novelist Alexander Besher’s first foray into the realm of writing short stories. Born in China, raised in Japan by White Russian parents, currently living in San Francisco, he is the Philip K. Dick Award nominated author of his first novel, Rim (HarperCollins), first title in his Rim Trilogy that was followed by Mir and Chi (Simon & Schuster). In 2008, he released his alternative fantasy noir epic, The Manga Man, on the world’s first sentient multimedia T-shirt platform, accessible to anyone with a smartphone camera who snaps a picture of the QR Code, thus transporting the user into a universe containing the mobi-formatted novel, an original Indie short film, original music soundtrack, and hours of video. The Manga Man will be reissued in a second revised edition in February 2011.

Forthcoming novels include his supernatural suspense horror exorcism tale, The Clinging, first title in a genre he calls “Kabbalah noir.” It marks the first time that William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, has blurbed any novelist’s work in decades. Besher also launched a transmedia start-up called cloudzero which made its stealth debut at the Sundance Film Festival 2010, adopting the use of a brand new technology that “puts an entire film festival” into your pocket. Lately, he has been writing scripts for feature films and television.

Visit Alexander Besher HERE.

Learn about the trilogy HERE.

You can see all of Alexander Besher's books HERE.