Featured

Continuum – Episode Twenty: A Garden Meeting

In the previous Episode:

While Alanee is making love to Celeris in his apartment she is hidden from Ellar the Mediant who, fearful what Alanee can do when she is not on her radar, sends Sala to search The City for her.  Sala discovers her friend in the Grand Park in an apparently drugged state and takes her to her home so she may rest.

In Braillec, Commander Zess, deeply  affected by the genocide of thousands of Dometians has abandoned his post, to seek expiation at the merciless hands of robbers on the highway, a fitting death sentence, as he feels, for his actions in the chain of his command.   The robbers will throw his body into the canyon below Wagoner’s Leap.

Meanwhile, the one escapee from Zess’s purge lies helpless and dying on a forested riverbank, watched by scavengers eager to devour him… 

Dag Swenner has lain motionless for many hours now, while the carrion creatures move ever closer.  That drip of water which found its way to his pale lips ceased long since:  the warmth from his body is all but gone.  Cold is a friend, for it admits the sleep of death with quiet dignity, and this is neither a quiet nor a dignified place to die.

The snapping and snarling amongst those closest to the feast, wild dog and serval, tree rats and hyenas, is unceasing.  The big cat is long dead, the man beside it defenceless: the bravest might rip an arm from him and be gone without fear, yet no creature will touch him.  They sneak and creep in the cover of the woods, afraid of something, some other presence lurking there, something unseen.  It is this way until morning comes, when first light dapples through the trees.

#

In Sala’s northern bed, Alanee stretches herself in sleep, dreaming of something – something she will not remember in the morning; of a forest, far away.  And in that forest the eyes of a dying man blink open.

Day is well advanced when she wakes.  A thought has entered her head that she would share, so she shakes Sala to consciousness.

“Celeris!”

Sala groans.  “Him again!”

“I can prove he exists.  Of course I can!  He left his number on my summoner the other day.”

She jumps from the bed and searches through her jumbled clothing, producing the instrument triumphantly.  “Here, see?  Stop looking!” She throws her robe about herself to avert Sala’s hungry stare.  Giggling, she stabs buttons.  The giggling stops.  “Only I can’t seem to find it?  Sala – what can have happened to it?  Could it be erased?  Who could have erased it?”

Sala shakes her head sadly.  “I’ll get us some breakfast.”  She slides from the bed and then the room, not troubling to put on a robe for herself.

“No.  I’m not hungry, really.  I must get back to my apartment.  There are some new clothes there I have to try on.”

Sala’s expression conveys her belief that this is the lamest excuse she has ever heard.  “In front of those cameras?”

“Maybe they’ve gone.  I told Lady Ellar I wanted them taken out. I have to think.  This afternoon perhaps we could look for a new place?”

Sala contacts Ellar as soon as Alanee has left, a loyalty she owes her patron.  But Ellar’s reply to her summoner – “Say nothing now.  We will meet in the gardens.”- is a surprise.

The gardens beyond the city walls greet her with the bright optimism of spring.  Ellar, formally attired in her court robe, waits where a bridge of weathered redwood crosses one of many brooks which feed the ornamental ponds as they descend, step by step, to the river. 

“You discovered her, Sala.”  Not a question:  just a statement of fact.  “Is she stable?”

This choice of adjective takes Sala aback.  “She seems well enough, Lady.  We stayed together in my apartment last night.  She left just before I called you.”

“Where was she?  How did she evade us?”

Again, that curious choice of phrase;  “Evade, Lady?”

“Come Sala!  You know very well how closely she must be watched.  Where was she?”

“She was with a man.  A man she claims she has been with before; at the spring celebration.”

“Who?  With whom?”

“A bit of a rogue by her account.  He upset her.”

“Who, girl?  Who?”  Ellar’s impatience is not typical of her.

“He called himself ‘Celeris’.  I checked.  No such person.  Whoever he is, he’s using a false name.  If we could catch him we could charge him with that offence at least, but in that perverse way of Alanee’s she seems inclined to defend him.  And she was vague about where he lives, or what he does in The City.  Very strange.”

 “Merely a liaison, then,” Ellar sounds relieved, “She is found.  That is good.  I will investigate this ‘Celeris’.”

Both stare down at the water.  “Sala, you hold a position of great trust.  Greater than you know.”

“Yes, Lady.”

“We meet here so we are not overheard; our words may never be repeated, you understand?”

“Yes.”

“In my work, child, I have to constantly reconstruct a bridge – just like this bridge – between two worlds; The City on one side, The Land on the other.  And whether I like it or not, Alanee has become the pier upon one side of the water: she holds the stability of the city in her thrall.  My difficulty, but at the same time my great relief, lies in her ignorance of her true position.  My fear is that she may, unwittingly, put all of us into danger.

“So, you are her friend:  are you her lover?  No, I thought not.  But you are her confidante.  Encourage this, Sala:  talk to her, elicit her thoughts, lend her your arm, your shoulder, whatever she may want from you.  And bring all you learn back to me, do you understand?  All.  It is vital, Sala.”

“No more than is my duty, Lady.  Of course I shall.”

Shocked by Ellar’s evaluation of Alanee, Sala’s thoughts fill with the memory of a figure.  He sits across a desk – a big, pedagogic desk of shiny red burr-cherry upon which he plays a little table game among his papers with sticks and a ball.  Professor Leitz, a small, rotund man with a short white beard and kind grey eyes has gone now, died some years ago, but his image and his words never leave her.  Today, as he sits behind that desk, his stubby fingers running thoughtfully through the white hairs at his neck, she is eighteen, ready to leave the Porstron for the greater world.

“Sala my dear you always had a penchant for the divisive, didn’t you?  Argue, argue, argue!  Passion, too, I shouldn’t wonder.  So why do you choose to train as a Mediator?  The challenge to your intellect, I suppose.  Well, you have that challenge:  you will be constantly forced to make the choice between loyalty and love when the two should be on the same side but aren’t:  you will sacrifice friends, colleagues, everything to the cause of expediency.  Is it for you, do you think?  Should you devote your life to betrayal, simply as an exercise?  Think profoundly, Sala.  Think long.”

Well, she did think long.  She accepted her challenge, and it has come to stab her through the heart time after time.  Now Alanee; so is she, should she be, intrigued by the importance Ellar places upon her friend – or is Alanee just another knife?  Whatever the truth, she sees her role has changed.  She must take care.

Ellar watches her turn back towards the City with a new weight upon those graceful shoulders, feeling reasonably content because she knows Sala is her best, the recommendation of Professor Leitz all those years ago, and because the girl’s inspired excellence was honed to perfection by her own hand.

Ellar could not define precisely when her feelings concerning Alanee began to change, only that they are very much changed.  Reports reach her hourly, tales of excitable activity from Hasuga:  wild thoughts so dominant and inviolate the customary filtration process of The City can no longer moderate them.  Alanee’s influence is surely responsible for most.  Out there (she looks towards the distant horizon of the mountains) the people are paying her price.  Whatever follows, Sala’s abilities will be put to the supreme test.

Alanee neither knows nor understands why she has to be alone that morning, only that it must be so.  The compulsion to take leave of her friend has its own momentum, as if she is driven by some force outside herself.  The clothes she collected from the dressmakers the day before have no bearing upon it:  they are just the excuse Sala supposed them to be, but something makes her run through the blocks of the city until she reaches her home avenue, and that same insistent impulse overcomes her revulsion at any thought of spying lenses.  Still she pauses within her street door, to read a terse note that is pinned above her mirror in the foyer.

‘All cameras removed.  By order of Lady Ellar, Mediant’.

The clothes are much as she left them, hanging on the wardrobe wall.  Someone has moved them, but they are all there.  Her bedclothes, her furnishings, though slightly altered in arrangement, are clean and tidy.  Although everything has been disturbed, nothing is missing, nothing is soiled; unless she considers the small pile of leaves lying upon her coverlet an exception – the same leaves she gathered at the riverside the day before!  The very same leaves she has dismissed as a dream, exactly as she dreamt them, still damp from the rain!

Not a dream, then, but how did they come to be there? 

They are real enough.  She picks up each of them delicately and in a sequence.  From where her guidance comes she has no notion; any more than she understands why she must press the foliage to her as she did at the river.  The urge is fierce, undeniable.  Immediately, a fire ignites inside her; a flame so intense she must respond by pressing the poultice to herself harder and yet harder, as if to extinguish it.  The heat expresses itself in dart-like needles, sparks that fly about her body, burning sharply, deeply.  Not today the gentle permeating warmth of the afternoon before – this is agonizing, searing, cauterizing:  though all the while, through each torso-wrenching lance there is an otherness, a separation.  That feeling alone keeps Alanee from screaming aloud, for although her flesh is tortured she is certain the damage is not hers, and somehow her strength will heal another’s wounds, though she does not know who, or where, that other may be.

For a writhing hour the pain consumes her.  Morning becomes afternoon before the effort of healing abates: until, in a bed soaked with her perspiration, she may sleep, exhausted, for much of the remaining day.  In this time Sala will call and receive no answer:  Lady Ellar will page her insistently; but Alanee will not stir.  Only when Valtor the Convenor’s insistent buzz wracks her inner ear will she wake, and only to Hasuga’s summons will she answer.

#

“Are you stronger now?”

Hasuga sits with his back to her in his bedroom, his misshapen silhouette distinct against the evening light from his window.  Around him, the machine has grown again and Alanee is more than a little nervous of it:  she has seen what Hasuga can make it do.

“Stronger?”  She no longer addresses him as ‘Sire’ for she does not respect him.  Ascending through the Palace to this place she has wondered how she will face him, after his cruelty.

  “The task you have performed requires strength and fortitude,”   He turns to her swiftly; “You will have been tired, weakened.” 

“Explain.”  She can outface him, she feels:  “What ‘task’, Hasuga?”

“Healing is a task.  To heal others you must first experience their pain, share their wound, take it upon yourself.  That weakens.  Now you must share the recuperation.”

“Truly?”  Alanee returns his scrutiny blankly, “So you think I was healing someone?   How would you know?  I told Ellar I wanted the cameras out – are you still spying on me?”

“I do not need cameras, although they are fascinating, I admit.  I do not like the ‘spying’ word.  I have to learn, Lady Alanee.”

 “About me?”  Alanee snaps bitterly, “You’ve stripped me bare.  I’ve no secrets.  No secrets and no dignity.”

Hasuga manages a wan smile, “The things I have to learn about you are things you do not know yourself.  Come.”  He reaches for her hand.  She snatches it away. “Let us walk outside.”

“If you command it I suppose I must,”   She will not disguise the loathing in her voice:  “Just don’t touch me!”

She follows Hasuga’s loping stride through the marble-pillared room with its colourfully decorated murals.  They still warm the chill heart of this immense space, though there are subtle strokes of an artist’s brush here and there, hints of incipient change.  The fantastic machines have grown in majesty, high of gantry and noble of spire.

Those animals so cosily humanised when last Alanee saw them are pure now, their anthropomorphic features over-painted with fleet, graceful features that depict their own natural beauty.  They run, rest, or feed on landscapes so brilliantly real she feels the breeze from distant tempura mountains upon her cheek, even thinks that once or twice those sleek antelope heads lift to watch her pass.

But it is within the body of the room that the greatest alterations have been wrought.  No more the dolls houses, models and toys of a few days since:  now the basic furniture plays host to a bizarre collection of ephemera more suited to Hasuga’s student phase.  There are several anatomical models, including a human skeleton which reclines upon the chaise longue with its metacarpals riveted convincingly about a wine-glass.  A flight simulator for an aerotran occupies one corner, exercise machines that would be the envy of any private gymnasium and a climbing frame scatter randomly about amid antique instruments, shards of broken pots, diagrams and print-outs of illimitable complexity.

The garden, by contrast, is no longer bathed in the summer heat of her last visit.  The plants have returned to their proper cycle, as yet only budding themselves for the coming summer, while the fountain plays into a chill spring sky where sunset is already fading.  Alanee cannot suppress a shiver.

“Must we be outside, it isn’t exactly warm, is it?”  She growls, “Or are you going to perform your summer garden trick?”

“No.  That would attract notice.  If we do not draw attention to ourselves we may speak more freely here.  But there is a warmer corner; we can talk there, if you wish.”

Beyond rows of immaculate borders where crocuses and sun-daisies are already shutting up shop for the night, and past newly-planted beds towards the lower end of the lawns, in a corner of the garden’s high wall, there is a summer house, a small, hexagonal wooden hut with lead glass windows and a pagoda roof.  Hasuga invites her to sit within it: its benches are hard, worn and devoid of paint, but its shelter, Alanee will admit, does offer warmth.

“We are unobserved in this place.”  He explains, and Alanee thinks she detects a leer in his voice.  “In the city everybody watches everybody.  Now you have insisted upon the removal of your cameras they must find another way to observe you:  they will do it.  In the meantime you – we – have some space.”

“Why do we want space?”  It is dark in the summer house; she can hear his breathing though she cannot clearly see him.  “Why don’t you want them to see us?”

“Because there are things – intimate things we must speak of together.”  His breath is strong and rapid.  He has moved closer in the darkness.

Where does it come from, this sudden feeling of threat?  And why does she feel powerless to resist it?  Is she so tired?  She should not have answered his summons, not tonight.  “You said you wanted to talk,”   she reminds him, coldly.  “I don’t want you close to me, Hasuga.  Do you understand?”

“Am I so repulsive in your eyes?  If I asked your forgiveness would you…”

She cuts him off.  “Cold or not, I think I would rather be outside!”  Her heart is pounding and her words come in a rush.  She is on her feet moving purposefully towards the door when his arm shoots out, detaining her.  “Let go of me, Hasuga!  What are you doing?”

His grip is invincible as steel and she is being drawn back into the gloom.  For the first time in his company she can feel the pulsing heat of his flesh pressed to hers, hear the feverish excitement in his sharp command.   “Sit down!   Now!”

#

Upon a wooded river bank far away a hyena has waited patiently for a day and a night.  It is characteristic of her breed, this persistence which has no quality of stillness and is by no means restful for the beast.  She has cubs to feed.  Pacing, whimpering, yapping, she has passed the hours in a torment of indecision:  should she attack or should she flee?  And now it seems both the sources of meat in front of her are lifeless and cold, why does she still hang back?  Why do the hairs on her brindled spine bristle with fear?  What is wrong?

The dogs, the wild cats, the rats – they all sensed it.  In the night they slunk away, seeking other game.  But that is not the hyena’s way.  Where there is meat….

The smallest creatures of the forest are aware of it too.  Although an unmoving demi-corpse, a massive hulk of protein lies across their path they have contented themselves with just the cougar’s carcass.  No leach has attached itself to pale human flesh, no worm or louse has found a path of entry:  the man-figure that lies so motionless beside the cat is somehow inviolate, in the protection of something unseen.

The hyena decides the time has come.  Hunger draws her forward, terror holds her back.  In distant cries of her cubs far away, the demon hunger wins the battle round by round, step by step.  Snarling, snapping yellow teeth inches now from Daag’s face, stale dog-breath hot on his cheek – ready for the bite, the ripping, tearing bite…..

Perhaps the hyena has not seen the corpse’s fingers move, or its hand close around the gun; or perhaps it moves as she moves, when she is already committed to the lunge.  She hears the explosion, though, feels the missile searing through her scrawny chest.  And before she expires she sees the food she should have spurned glare with flaming eyes down upon her, as Daag Swenner, reborn, rises from the floor of the forest.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit: Mana5280 on Unsplash

Featured

Holding Hands

Reblogged from:  https://leavingfootprintseverywhere.wordpress.com/2020/04/02/full-circle/

A bittersweet, poignant and honest confession of feelings we can all relate to in these troubled days.

|छाप|

It’s just peculiar how time can turn tables and reverse roles for suddenly some day, you could go from being daddy’s lil girl to his sole support system and might need to safeguard the man that has sheltered and basked you in the safety of his warmth, half your life.

It’s weird how heartaches and bruises seem painful only until the day you see needles and tubes relentlessly pricking and puncturing his skin which sure can just split your heart in two and each drop of his blood can feel like kerosene dripping on the cut. It’s quite enough to soak all your breath to see life catapult before the man who forms your spine and who has always fixed it for you since it’s just beyond him to twist the constellations for his own ends.

Reality kinda stings you when the hospital administration asks you to sign on the…

View original post 217 more words

Featured

Take Care How Little You Care…

The malady that faces the First World today is not the Corona virus:  it is Society itself.

In a UK hospital a few days since a thirteen-year-old boy lay dying.  His parents were not permitted to be near him at the end.  He died alone.

A terrified child, almost certainly aware of what course events would take, died alone.

At the same time, on station platforms throughout the overcrowded South-East, commuters were packing into trains without a breath of space between them.   At the same time, planes from America and Europe (including Italy and Spain) were landing at UK airports, disgorging passengers to go where they wished without regard.  At the same time, workers on construction sites were doing their non-essential work as usual, in the name – as I understand it – of ‘keeping the economy going’.

The UK does not have anything like enough respirators to treat the anticipated surge in COVID-19 over the next few weeks, even though the National Health Service warned four years ago that if there was an outbreak of this kind they would be short of essential equipment.  The equipment was thought too expensive.  Like the jeeps the British Army was forced to use despite their vulnerability in Afghanistan, but were too expensive to replace.  Even now, in the throes of a pandemic, I am prepared to bet the reason UK has insufficient testing kits for the virus has something to do with price.  Somebody is skimping.

For years, the system of privilege in UK has protected itself with ‘rules’ intended to stifle a public voice.  It can afford to ignore almost everybody, including the press it has not yet succeeded in buying.   The moment the heir to the throne coughs he is isolated, cossetted and respirated.  Being seventy-one seems to have been no obstacle for him, he was better in a few days, yet in the country half of those diagnosed in his age group are dying.

No-one can blame those people on the station platform.  If their bosses insist they go to work they must go because every spare penny has been bled from them by the system and they face homelessness or worse if they dissent.   What is missing is the man from the Treasury at the station entrance ready to hand out subsistence money to anyone who agrees to turn around and go home.  Everyone should blame the inhuman cypher who prevented those parents from comforting their child.   Everyone should blame the government that, in defiance of all good sense, does not close the airports.

It is time and past time for the financial plutocracy to pause, and show genuine sympathy for the common man.  It is time someone actually, really, genuinely cared.  Because, if you are reading, we built your castles, and one day, if you are not very careful, we will tear them down.

Featured

Continuum – Episode Nineteen: Wagoner’s Leap

From the previous Episode:

Alanee is summoned to Hasuga’s presence once again, and she finds him in unpleasant mood.  He forces her to watch a grotesque hologram performance of her intimate moments with Celeris, and shows  her in life-size detail the accident that caused her husband’s death.  Reeling from the repugnance she feels she seeks solace in the quietness of the gardens by the River Balna.  She is contemplating a plunge into the icy waters when Celeris finds her.

“There has been a crisis.”  Over the summoner Lady Ellar’s voice is dry and abrupt.

Sala drags herself upright in her bed, pushes her hair back from her face.  “Alanee?  Why, what’s gone wrong?”

“Don’t concern yourself with that.  Just find her.  And Sala?”

“Yes, Lady?”

“You may acquire certain knowledge.  Try to stem any indiscretions, but if necessary special status will be given to you.  You need not fear repercussions if you bring the things you learn directly to me.  To me alone, do you hear?”

“Yes Lady.”

Sala closes the connection before she punches the pile of bedclothes beside her.  “Come on big boy, time you went home!”

#

From the fortress town of Braillec there is a road which unites that great bastion with its fiefdom and, ultimately, with the outside world.  This thoroughfare links the ten villages that are the Braillec nation and which, by the sweated labour of their slightly proportioned yet physically very tough citizens, supply iron and precious metals to the Consensual City itself.

It is, therefore, a road of some consequence:  its paving is conscientiously tended, its length rigorously patrolled by Braillecci police.  Convoys of wagons pass through constantly, vying for space with transporters, bicyclists and animal herds in an unceasing cacophony of shouts, hoots and bellowing rage.  There is no remission in winter or summer, night or day.

The Braillec Highway, for so it is known, is no easy route.  All of Braillec but a few paltry square miles to the Country’s east is mountainous, so of necessity the Highway must be mountainous too, with high passes, precipitous cuts along canyon walls, dark tunnels and hairpin turns that constantly challenge the senses: gradients so sharp the summits are provided with winding engines for the heaviest loads, that in a matter of minutes can turn into glacier or river in winter snow or spring rain.  The steeper reaches of that section of road which rejoices in the name of ‘Wagoner’s Edge’ are littered with shrines to departed travellers whose bodies are never retrieved, so deeply unreachable are the canyons through which it must pass.  At intervals along the way the ten villages, often clinging to slopes little better than a rocky scree, with their houses or businesses carved into the mountainside, or perched on precarious trestles that may have defied centuries but threaten every day to be their last, offer rest and refreshment.

There is, in truth, little of either to be had.  The citizens of these snake-and-ladder townships are of mining stock, gritty moles who burrow in rock for ten-hour shifts and whose morals are subject to erosion by night, daylight or liquor  Their diet of wheat-porridge and mutton is not to everyone’s taste, nor is their hobby of nocturnal thieving.  Whoever stays in one of the wayside inns that lie in wait beside the Braillec Highway should bring his own lock for his door and never ever turn his back upon it. 

Small wonder, then, that all who can travel by air when they enter or leave Braillec.  Only the poorest, the bravest and the most foolish take the land route.  No women travellers use the Highway, though there are women on it, women who make their living from it.  And the men who choose to hazard their fortune on the journey do so for their own reasons.  Which is why, perhaps, on this afternoon at the height of the spring rains Commander Zess is to be found in Turkalar, fourth of the ten villages, slumped over a bar known as Kapper’s.

Kapper’s with a hole in the roof which leaks; water on wood:   “Drip – drip – drip.”

“Who are you, my friend?”  The barman is wiping out a glass with a towel that has wiped too many glasses.

“I?  My name is Zess.  Commander Zess.  I am a Commander, you know?”

“Oh certainly!”  The barman smiles.  “The stamp of authority is unmistakeable.  The moment you fell through the door, I knew.”

Drip – drip – drip.  Rainwater; gathering on the pinewood bar-top, seeping through a split  in the wood.  Ebbing away; all thought, all feeling, all future.  Drip – drip – drip.

“I am the Commander!”

“Yes Sah!”  An old man with a glass eye and glassier stare from his good eye does his best to snap to attention.  Two younger men in leather porters’ aprons further down the room laugh loudly.

“Take ne notice of Pashi, Commander-sir.  He don’t know his chair from his arse.”

Drip – drip –drip.

Zess eyes these jesters through his misted lens of cheap perl.  The stuff of the ranks.  Proteian whippets both:  lean of sinew, receding foreheads befitting those who have no need of brain. Neither clean, nor soiled, but blackened by life:  one with a livid scar like a lightning strike across his cheek; the other with lips plastered against his face, thick and flat, as though applied by a coarse inexpert brush.  Strange that these should be his chosen:  strange, but right.  They will not know how carefully he has picked them – they have not mind or sight for that:  but that does not matter.  They are chosen.

“’Spect you’ll be sleepin’ here tonight?”

Until now the enigmatic young woman has not spoken.  She was there when he entered an hour since, seated at the bar, watching idly the contents of her glass, swilling the reflections so they stir to fire once in a while, then taking a sip – one sip.

Black hair in a thick fringe, a wig fringe.  White skin, glossy lips, dressed to undress, fabric straining about full breasts, fuller hips.  Red shoes – he will remember the red shoes.

“Want company?”

An offer that is simple, direct:  a woman not accustomed to negotiation – not among the herders of oxen, the wagoners, the drivers of sheep.

“You’ll think me brazen.”  Dying eyes raised to his.  “I’m not a fool, Commander.  I was not born to be here.”

“I know that.”

“Do you?  Do you know?”  She moves in.  “Manda.  That’s my name, Mr. Zess.  I was a courtier once.”

This brings a cynical bray of laughter from the other end of the bar.  Manda ignores it.  “Buy me a drink?”

The drink she holds is unfinished.  This is a ritual: an enunciation:  by this drink I thee procure:  to have and to hold for a period not exceeding eight hours and subject to such further fees as shall be accrued in representation of services rendered…..Zess accepts the contract with a glance, signs his name by a purchase.

“What are you drinking, Manda?”

“Sumthin’ to cure the spots that weep!”  Says the thick-lipped Proteian, and the barman laughs:  but neither misses the wad of credits Zess produces from his pocket.  “Oh, the’s picked a good ‘un here, Manda!  Treat un’ special tonight an’ you’ll be able to retire!”

“Aye!  Start that seafood business you been plannin’ fer.”

“Seafood?”

“Crabs.”

“Oh.  Ah.”

“Where’s your place?”  He asks.  He would not delay.

“Come on.”  The jesters exchange glances; nod.

The deed is done.  In Manda’s professional grasp Commander Zess is led to the street where sentence will be carried out.  Those he has selected as his executioners will follow distantly at first, like hyenas; pacing, vulpine.  In dark shadows, under dripping eaves where none may see Manda steps aside:  the blow is fell and merciful.  The last sight with which Zess departs his world, the exculpation for the ten thousand souls he has sent before him, is a pair of red shoes.

It is a dark night, and long.  A profitable one, for two young men in leather aprons and a nervous, hungry woman with ashen face who stares disbelieving at the badge concealed beneath Zess’s coat.

“Je-Habba!  He really is a Commander!  ‘Tis only Commander Zess, that’s all!”

“The’s jokin’!”  The thick-lipped man glares at the body with linx-like suspicion.

“No I aren’t.”  Manda shows him the evidence; “Oh Habba – Habba -Habba meh!  We’re done for now!”

The scarred man is counting Zess’s credits.  “In Braillec he was Commander.  Here he’s just a mark.”

Manda’s eyes are wild with fear:  “What to do?  What to do?  There’ll be a manhunt!”

Unperturbed, or seeming so, the scarred one offers her a share of the Commander’s wealth but she shies away.

“I’m not touchin’ that!”

“Don’t be a fool to yerself!  Look at me!  Was he ever here?  Was he?  Them in there won’t say nowt, not if the’ dun tell ‘em.”

Manda falls silent, trembling.

“Strip ‘un!”  The scarred man says.  “Strip everythin’ from un an’ burn it in yer grate tonight, girl.  Will the’ do that?”  He takes her shoulders, shakes her roughly.  “Will the’?”

She nods, struck dumb by terror.

“Ah.  An’ us’ll get Passa’s old cart and have ‘un up to Wagoner’s Edge.  Wor’ll throw ‘un in the canyon:  ‘E’ll never be found girl.  Never.  An’ you’ll say nothin’, do the’ hear?”

#

A frantic Sala has called at Alanee’s apartment to find the door ajar.  A squad of City Service drabs are working, mysteriously, upon the tiles of Alanee’s bedroom ceiling.  “What are you doing?”

“Official work, Lady.”  The gang leader is non-committal.

“Where is the lady who lives here?”

“Don’t know.  Haven’t seen her.”

Alanee has no limiter, therefore she cannot be tracked.  Sala calls her summoner several times – it does not answer.  For an hour she probes the main avenues, but there is no sign of her friend.  She attends Ellar in her surveillance suite.  The screens for every camera in the city are displayed before them.

“She walked to the river this afternoon, before I learned there might be a problem.”  Ellar tells her.  “I know she returned to the City, but since then I haven’t been able to find her, she doesn’t appear anywhere.”

“I imagine the Grand Park is too obvious?”

“There it is.”  Ellar waves a hand at a dozen separate screens.  “No sign of her.  She seems to have completely disappeared.”

#

“Oh, Celeris, this is beautiful!”

They are together in his rest-place and he is bathing Alanee’s wounded knuckles, his delicate fingers smoothing healing comfort into her livid flesh.  And each stroke brings a tiny shiver of pleasure as she imagines those soft hands caressing all of her body.  Too soon he is finished, towelling her gently dry, and that sets her imagining, too. 

“Come, I will show you your room.”

How had Alanee imagined Celeris’ apartment would be?  Small and intimate, or vast and echoing?  As warm as his touch, or as cold as his eyes?  It is neither.

Beyond the door of one of those characterless lobbies that seem to be shared by all apartments in the City is a mezzanine overlooking an elliptical room.  Steps lead down, following a wall hung with pieces of expensive graphic art.

The living space is furnished with formal seating dressed in vivid colour.  Art dominates: handmade furniture ornamented by vases and figurines that are perfect exemplars of the potter’s craft; tiny holograms add movement to the static feast, a green fish lazily swimming in its own ghostly mist of ocean about the floor, a dancer cavorting with balletic grace upon a high table at the far wall, three white gulls making noiseless circles overhead.

Portals lead to bedrooms, a rest-place, a kitchen, a darkened passage.  Windows are high up:  they afford no view, only light.  Even now, although Alanee knows it must be dark outside, they beam down in an imitation of setting sunlight, bathing everything with the tranquil ambience of dusk.

“You must be exhausted!”  He exclaims.

The room to which he leads her is so perfectly attuned to her taste she feels almost as though she were back in her Hakaan homeland.  Two imposing terra-cotta vases stand each side of a wide, grey bed, its covers trimmed with rich damask.  Furniture – a dressing table, chairs, a side table – in silvered blue arrayed against corn-yellow walls.  Projected white clouds drifting lazily across a ceiling of summer sky lift her depression from her like a veil, such that she finds herself laughing with sheer delight.

“You are pleased?”

“How could I not be?  It’s just so…it’s magical!”

She kisses him chastely on the lips, thinking perhaps the kiss will be lost in the spontaneity of the moment.  Those mysterious eyes betray his thoughts as he lets his finger-tips gently play across her mouth.  They linger close.  His breath is so sweet, almost honeyed, that she cannot resist tasting it once more; this time for much longer.

Celeris draws back hastily, “I will, of course, give you every privacy…”

With a finger to his lips, Alanee stills him.  “No.”

He is awkward, apprehensive, “Some drinks perhaps?”   Resting her forehead to his she can feel the tension in him, the trembling of instincts more powerful than he can understand.

“No.” She tells him kindly, “Thank you, ba, but no.”

“Then I must leave you!”

In whispers, “Not this time.”

Her mind is filled with music, as undeniable and compulsive as the Music Man’s song.  “Help me to forget, my ba. There are things I have seen today, dreadful, cruel things.  If I go to sleep with them in my head they will be with me forever.  I need you to drive them away.”

“To my shame…if I stay here longer…” Celeris’s voice drops to a timbre of despair.  “When I am near you…”

Alanee does not let him run from her, not this time.  “I know, darling. Yet you shouldn’t be ashamed.  You don’t understand, do you?  Let me help you learn.”

“Learn.”  His voice has suddenly steadied.  “Learn to suppress what I feel?”

Alanee grins wickedly, “No, no – rather the reverse.”

Alanee guides him to the bed, where she sits, cradling him in her arms as she might a child, and child he becomes, mewling in infant parody, curling into her, so needing comfort that she would hold him to her breast if she could, but as manhood swiftly overcomes the child she cannot resist his impatience.  Everything inside him is triggered to explode in one climactic act and, with resignation that the lesson will be brief, she contents herself with gentle guidance.

The time for restraint is past.  Everything is past almost before it has had time to begin and yes he has cried out in ecstasy and pain and yes, he was clumsy – a little too self-indulgent maybe – a little too rough: a little too proud in conquest, his black-eyed face a mask of triumph.  Alanee has not seen it, though.  Whether act of love or desperation, she could only feel – her eyes closed, her back arched, she has taken to herself a seed as hot and electric as its sower, while her head dreamt of the Hakaan Plain and birdsong in the summer sun.

When they have surfaced from their dreamt-of union and Celeris is lying beside Alanee while her fingers are playing light as eider-down over his pale cheeks; as her sweet mind-music fades, she seeks a promise: “Never leave me?”

He responds:  “I won’t.”

Alanee holds his shoulders, so he must look at her.  “I mean it.  Don’t die on me Celeris!  Never die!”

And he replies with all the honesty in his being:  “For you, Alanee, I will never die.”

But now, in the silence after the music has gone, the honesty she doubts is her own.  What did she truly seek; protection, care, even love?  A few seconds of fulfilment and a falling back, contentment on the sheets, away from the cruelty, the artifice of The City?  Is that worth words like ‘never’?  The years of slumber have vanished from her, the closet of her desires has opened to him, but the nagging guilt remains stubbornly inclosed.    Because of a dead man’s memory?  No, because despite her determination, she cannot forget.

       Celeris turns his head, speaks:  “Now that is a very, very good game.”

The words take time to permeate,   But they do.

“A good game?”

She stares, almost doubting whose form she will see lying at her side. 

  A very, very good game. 

Alanee takes a few seconds to gather herself, telling herself that nothing should shock her anymore.  Then, sighing, she slips from the sheets, feeling his eyes on her back as she goes naked to the rest-place.

In the shower she knows he is watching, as she dries herself, too.  As she dresses his eyes never leave her, yet she does not feel threatened by him.  His look expresses curiosity, not hunger.

 “You are going?”  He sounds surprised.  “Have I not pleased you?”

Alanee manages a smile.  “Almost too much, ba.” 

He does not ask when he might see her again.  He does not even say goodbye as she drifts aimlessly from his door.

Sala finds her in the Grand Park, dawdling by the water where ornamental birds roost.  Dark little shadows in the artificial blue of a moon-orb that tracks across the domed roof, they scuffle and cluck annoyance at her pale, intruding feet,

“Alanee-ba, thank Habbach!  Where have you been, my darling?”

Alanee greets her concern with vague surprise.  “You’ve been looking for me?  Why?”

“You just went missing.  I mean, vanished!  Everyone’s been going mad looking for you!”

“Ah yes.  I’m not meant to vanish, am I?”

Sala looks at her curiously.  “Someone has done something to you.  Alanee, are you hurt?  What happened, ba?”

“Nothing I shouldn’t have expected, I suppose.  I was with Celeris, in his apartment.”

“Celeris.  Celeris the non-existent,” Sala says, frowning.  “Alanee, there is no such person. I looked through the census.  There is no Celeris listed in the City.  Now, where does he live, this man?”

‘Over there’.  Alanee is about to say, to wave with an airy finger at the avenue by which she has just returned, but she fails to recognise it in the darkness.  “Somewhere over there.”

She cannot focus.  Sala is gripping her shoulders with a fierce expression.  “You’ve been drugged.  Habmenach!  I am too trusting of this place!  I should never have left you to its mercies.  Come now, ba; we’ll get you home.”

“Not to my apartment.  No.  Not my apartment.  Cameras.”

If Sala finds the remark odd she does not question it.  “Then mine.  You must rest.”

This night Alanee finally spends in Sala’s bed, nestled in the arms of her friend who, despite her pain, asks nothing in return.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

Why we Ignore the Warnings?

Australian beaches packed with sunbathers, English parks crowded with walkers taking in the fine March weather, packed tube trains and Sunday markets brimming with bargain seekers, supermarket shelves stripped of merchandise…

On the face of it, the populace seem intent upon ignoring the dire warnings of government:  the virus is dangerous;   we must self-isolate, we must protect ourselves – so why?

Essential mistakes have been made:

The health gurus suggest that only older people or those with underlying health problems are in mortal danger, so the young and fit, if the odds are no higher than the chance of getting a rather severe dose of flu will be tempted to gamble.   The possibility of passing on infection matters relatively little to those who, for the most part, live at a distance, physically and emotionally, from their elders.  Besides, we are being advised to exercise, aren’t we?  In a city, the streets aren’t safe, so where else can that happen but in the parks?

In UK anyway, the National Health Service is continually crying wolf.  Every winter the population is treated to threats of inadequate staffing, long waiting times and tragic outcomes, that somehow omit to mention the prevalence of expensive agency staffing and the manner in which specialists apportion their time between NHS and private practice.  Are most of us unaware of these inconvenient truths? And then, of course, there is personal experience, which largely runs counter to the media blast.

UK consumer credit is at an all-time high, so I can only imagine the pressures upon those who are nominally ‘self-employed’ or who work in the ‘gig economy’.  Living costs in big cities are phenomenally high and millions live at the absolute limit of their means, or beyond.  A government loan is no answer for them – it is simply additional debt.  They need to work or face homelessness.

Finally, there is an issue of trust.  It is no surprise that Australia, whose Prime |Ministers’ chances of dying in bed equate to those of medieval British Kings, should regard sententious warnings from politicians with cynicism.  Nor is it likely, so hot on the heels of the Brexit debacle, that the British should be easily persuaded of sincerity in a politician.  Throughout most of the First-World, the press is the willing bedfellow of those with the most power to deflect it, propaganda is rife and there are no steadying voices.  All journalism is sensationalist, all journalists will sacrifice truth for a story.

Few aboard the rusting hulk of ‘democracy’ feel in a position to trust the rudder.  The idealistic young, aboard the fleet yacht of simple solutions have delivered their verdict, and unless the statistics hit blitzkrieg proportions, as they have in Italy, who’s to say that they are wrong?

Personally I am in favour of quarantine (I will not use that rabble-rousing and etymologically incorrect term ‘lock-down’);  but then, I am over 70 with underlying health issues, so I would be, wouldn’t I?   Even so, threatening me with fines or arrest if I raise my head above the parapet is hardly likely to win my heart.

Featured

Continuum – Episode Eighteen: Venom

In the previous episode:

After her drunken attempt to seduce Celeris at the Spring Rising, Alanee accidentally stumbles upon a tiny speaker concealed within her pillow.   Portis and Ellar summon her to a meeting in which she learns some of the City’s history and discovers The Book.  She asks to meet Cassix, the Seer.

Meanwhile, in his vantage point at the edge of the Dometian disaster zone Councillor Trebec, discusses the genocide of those Dometians who escaped the destructive wall, and learns from his commander, Zess, that one aerotrans pilot is still missing…

In the deep forest a steady rain falls.  Dag Swenner has lost all sense of time, lying where he fell when he could no longer cling to the tree bough that had been his refuge for a while.  Beside him, cheek by jowl, the monster that so nearly took him from the world; his adversary then, companion now on his lonely road to death.    His ancestors are gathered in his Heaven, sombre-faced, waiting to welcome him home. 

He knows he cannot not keep them waiting long.

High in the canopy of the forest a raindrop finds a leaf and runs its length, following a vein until it ends, then drips and falls to a blue, serrate leaf  that waits below, and thence downward over half a hundred different shapes and colours on its descent to the forest floor.  From each leaf it takes a little substance, a savor so delicate and subtle it will look unchanged, taste unaltered.  It falls finally upon the lips of the man who lies dying, and its moisture comforts him.

#

Alanee is in the ante-rooms of the High Council Chambers when Valtor the Convener intercepts her.  Valtor is a small, pallid Protean with a confidential air.

“My Lady.”  He treats Alanee to a sweeping bow, making her take two surprised backward steps.  “He would grant you an audience.”

He?”

“Yes, Lady.  He! Great Sire Hasuga.”  Valtor articulates these words in a reverent whisper.

“Oh, him.  Tell him to give me an hour.  I’ve got to collect some clothes in the City.”

Such colour as Valtor has leaves his face and his jaw drops open.  His hands, effete at best, fly to cover his ears.  “Lady Alanee!  I did not hear that!  I did not hear that!  He is the Great Sire Hasuga; our sovereign benefactor!  If I take such a reply back to him my life will surely be forfeit!”

Alanee leans in towards him.  “Mister whoever you are, if he is the Great Sire Hasuga you say he is, he already heard it.  No harm will come to you or him in waiting.”  She turns on her heel and heads for the Courtyard, leaving Valtor speechless in her wake.

In her defiance of Hasuga, Alanee is not merely being self-willed.  She needs time before she confronts the strange, unnatural boy, time to assimilate all she has heard and learnt.  Ellar’s few simple explanations that should have been all she needed to join the pieces of the jigsaw her life has been, that made everything fit so neatly, will now throw up a multitude of new questions.  How in the name of the Great Habbach is it possible?  How can the deeds and actions of mankind be decided by the thoughts of a small boy?  Yet she sees it to be true, just as she sees The Book, and all the thousands of lines of unreadable language that now rest somewhere in her head, has provided her with answers – if only she could read them.

A riddle, then; but not the most confusing riddle, Alanee thinks.  How did she move The Book, lift it from its place, and why, when she did so, had she the feeling that its progenitor, its ancient father, belonged to her?  From the moment in that chamber when her eyes rested upon The Book she felt an insipient presence, another mind, another knowing, melding with her own.  It had left her now, as precipitately as it had come – where did it originate?  In The Book?   She knows she was not alone in her mind while it was with her, possessing her.  In fact, a part of her wonders if she was there at all?

She calls Sala.

Sala’s voice is ragged:  “Oh, Ba, I swear I could sleep for a year!”

Alanee says:  “I’m going to see the demon child.”

“Who?”

Then Alanee remembers.  Sala will never have heard of Hasuga.  She does not know that he exists.

#

“I have made you powerful, haven’t I?”  Hasuga is perched upon the edge of his bed, his little face creased in a leer.

Alanee stares.  “Powerful?  How?”

“You have learned about The Book.  Ellar cannot resist you now, Portis cannot match you!  I have given you power.”

“Are you telling me it was you inside my head, in that room?”

“Did you enjoy the sensation?”  Hasuga asks.  There is a vibrancy about him that is unpleasant.  His young features are twisted in a way that no longer speaks of innocence, but of bitterness and pain.  His bedchamber, too, is greatly changed.  The complex machine which consumed so much space last time she was here has grown yet more.  Rampant, it spirals about the room.  There are no street scenes to augment its composition now, it is a structure of obsession, a homage to Hasuga’s apparent fixation with snakes.

Alanee prods it.  It is cold and unyielding.  “What does it do, this thing?”

“What I want.”

“Yes, you said that last time.  It occupies most of your room, so it does something important.  What can this ….”

Hasuga cuts her off. “Watch!”  With one tendrilous finger he points.  As if his spark has given it life, the machine  transforms instantly into a serpent, a boa constrictor of whipping tail and rainbow colours that rears its head to heaven then glares down upon Alanee with cold yellow eyes.   Jumping back, for a frozen second she fears its strike, but it plays a different game.  In a rasp of friction its endless body wraps and wraps again into a tightly-wound coil at Hasuga’s side.  

Alanee’s heart rediscovers its rhythm.  She forces herself to look up at the snake’s broad head which regards her evilly, wearing an expression very like a smile.  The smile of the Music Man and his gently inveigling tune, with an enticement only the eyes of a serpent can bring.  What is within its protection?  What do those coils hide from her?  She is consumed by a wish to see what it holds within.  And as if in answer to her wish the image of the snake that was only ever in her mind fades.

Two life-sized figures materialise in its stead, each so real she might reach out to touch them and be met by flesh; and this is the more disconcerting because one of the figures is herself, her partly-clothed image engaged in some awkward, almost mannerly form of dance.  So mortified is she by this violation she does not at first identify the other figure; a man clad in a robe, as Celeris.  Celeris grotesquely aroused   For a moment she believes he might actually be real, so substantial does his image appear. He is dancing too.  The images are close to one another, almost touching.  It is clear that Celeris is in distress; as if he is in a vortex from which he cannot escape: his face is puckered, tears roll down his cheeks; he tries repeatedly to cover himself, to hide his shame.

“Stop it!”  Alanee rounds angrily upon Hasuga, “It’s disgusting!  Switch it – turn it – whatever you do – off!”

“You do not like Celeris?”  Hasuga has been watching her with what she will remember as his ‘dungeon face’; enquiry, curiosity, absorption, an utter lack of compassion. The images vanish.

“My feelings concerning Celeris have nothing to do with – with that!  That was voyeurism, exploitation.  You’ve been watching me, haven’t you?  You’ve seen me with him!”

Hasuga does not answer.  Those first emanations of malice seem to have dissipated.  Once more she believes he is emotionally uninvolved, that he sees her reaction as nothing more than a missing piece of information.  He says quietly, his voice a sibilant hiss:  “Then perhaps this will better please you.”

Beneath her feet the grey texture of the floor is altered to green.  Her toes touch the cool inquisitiveness of grass.  All around her a crowd, roaring and hungry and from somewhere – from nowhere – an agile figure in red and black appears; her man!  Kalna-meh, across the years, so real she might grab him now and hold him, stop the moment she already sees must follow; but no.

Hand-springing upwards upon muscular arms to catch a disc of 12 inches diameter between his feet, her husband’s arm eludes her as he turns to deliver the perfect pass, a thrust that will send the disc up-field where a second identically-clad figure waits, plucking it from the air then ducking as an opponent in blue and brown-striped clothes flies above his head.  With a sweeping movement of his foot, the red and black figure launches the disc so it spins with awesome speed towards two posts in the distance.  The crowd-sound reaches a crescendo.  A foot-game is in full swing.

Now the whole field is opened up for her to see.  Feeling the gorge rising in her throat Alanee chokes out in her fury:  “No!  Don’t do this!  NO!”

She stands amidst it all.  The twenty players in their contrasting strips, the vast banks of humanity that watch them,, the green of the pitch, the blue disc that never falls to earth unless a player pins it there.  And there he is, in the red and black of his Hakaani team, his dear features set in that deep, concentrated stare she knows (knew) so well!  As the disc is re-launched he is running, leaping, twisting to intercept.  He takes it on the catch-stud at the tip of his right foot, already poised for the answering shot, not seeing the blue-striped adversary who has committed to the same target, the same position.  Mid-air, mid-twist they meet foot to head, and her beloved Kalna crumples and falls to earth like a doll made of rags.  The crowd is reduced to stupified silence.  The rag-doll twists and twitches for a few last seconds in the grass, then is still.  The scene is lost in misted grey, fading until the room is normal once more..

Alanee cannot speak.  In white horror she just stares at the place which showed Kalna-meh’s final moments.

“He was your coupling?”  Hasuga’s eyes have never left her.

“Yes.  How did you…?”

“I am Hasuga.”

“You are a bastard.”  Alanee says, with gravitas.

“I know the meaning of that word.  I am not a bastard.”

“Alright then, you’re a ghoul, a monstrous little fiend!”  Alanee cannot restrain her tears.  “I loved him.  Do you understand ‘love’?  Like your love for your Mother, but much deeper, much more personal, and – and how could you show me that?  How?”

“I am Hasuga and I am learning.”  His voice remains completely dispassionate. “Go now.”

“Go?   Leave?”  Alanee can think of no riposte, no revenge she can wreak upon this creature, though she would take his evil machine and twist it around that scrawny neck if she could.  So she forces her embittered soul to execute an elaborate curtsey and drags the ruins of herself from his royal presence.

In the elevator, then later in the gardens beyond the city where she can be alone, she might weep, and does, for the images she has been shown will last with her, perhaps for all of her life..  But although the gardens are busy with the first miracles of the coming summer, no fresh green shoots can lift the djinn of grief from her soul.  Her footsteps lead her by the riverside, where few City-dwellers will see her hammer and hammer furious fists upon the guardrail until her white flesh is bruised and broken; or hear her wounded soul declare itself at one with those great white floes which snarl like wrestlers in the fast-running current.  In the maelstrom below the bridge a luckless boat left loose-moored by its painter, a workers’ boat, no more than a skiff probably used to dredge for crayfish when summer comes, is punched and crunched against the bank.

There is little enough, Alanee feels, to distinguish her own fate from that of the tiny craft.  A farmer’s girl untutored in the ways of the big city, tossed and turned as she clings to a slender thread that must at last give way…..

There is a marble bench where she sits, seeking an answer in the deep black waters, until late in the afternoon.  There were times in the hours and days that followed Kalna-meh’s death when she had thought about the value of her continued life.  If the mucous jaws of the melting river should open to invite her in, is she tempted?  Who would see?  The rail is low: the desired result is certain.  A minute, no more, in that frigid gateway to better things beyond, to a place where Kalna-meh’s open arms wait to greet her.  And Dag – is Dag there, too?  Her thoughts are confused.  Grieving, she stares into the turbulent darkness and dreams of home.

Is she sleeping?  There is a leaf – just there – upon a tree that overhangs the water:  one she has not given credence before.  A tree made peculiar by gnarled and tangled branches as though it stood upon a windswept moor.  She plucks the leaf, toys with it in her hands, not questioning how she reached it without moving from her seat upon the bench.  Then another strand of foliage, much different from the first: she takes this frond from a fern-like source at the riverside.  Then more:  she sees each leaf, each plant minutely, she knows what each will bring to her, their proper sequence.  A blue serrate example – surely out of season?  Three – four – five – six – soon twelve contrasting samples of spring growth rest within her grasp.  Such is the depth of her knowledge she can remember them all.

Now the rain; a heavy beat upon her back.  When all the leaves she holds in her cupped hands are wet from the downpour a sudden compulsion makes her clutch them to her stomach and hold them there. Although the evening air is chill a radiant warmth rises like a vapour around her

“Lady Alanee?”

The voice at her shoulder stirs her.  Instinctively she glances down at her hands, resting empty on her lap. They are – she is – dry.  No rain falls.  Was it really just a dream?

“Lady Alanee you look unwell!”  Celeris is there.  Celeris, a mirror of concern; his clear brows puckered, eyes a-brim with anxiety.

“Celeris!  Oh, Celeris it is so good to see you!”  Alanee’s delight is undisguised.

“I could not pass by.”  His hesitancy reminds her of the awkwardness of their last encounter.  She reassures him.

“I am glad you didn’t. Come, please, sit with me?  Talk to me?”

“Talk. Of course, I will try.”  He sits beside her on the bench, and the careful way he arranges the hem of his toga lifts her heavy heart.  “What shall we talk about?”

“Oh, of the coming of spring, of life and stuff – just talk!”

“Very well.  The coming of spring is very – regenerative.”

Alanee cannot help laughing.  “Lots of plants and flowers; you know, growing things.”

Does he colour just a little?  “I suppose so.”  Then he notices:  “Your hands!  What have you done to your hands?”

“Oh nothing.”  She has already forgotten the bruising she inflicted upon herself.  “They don’t hurt me.”  Unspoken, the words:  ‘Only people can hurt me’ bring forth a truth.  Physical injury is a consolation, a way to expiate the pain inside.

The gardens are quiet.  A few older couples idle on the bridge while an odd drab or two can be seen beavering among flower-beds on the hill. 

“You know, back in the Hakaan when I was a girl, spring was a season for new friendships.  After the winter rains, just to come outside and sit on a riverbank like this, maybe with a boy you’d not really talked to before, was a great adventure.  You might see something in his eyes that you liked, and he’d be shy, and neither of you could find much to say at first.  But there’d be that instant when your arm might brush with his, and your hands might touch….”  Scarcely aware of what she does, Alanee takes Celeris’s hand in hers…  “Then you might turn and find your lips were close to his, and it would be so easy to kiss; but of course….”  She turns, offering the invitation, then corrects herself swiftly, “This is not the Hakaan, and such behaviour in the Consensual City would be completely inappropriate, wouldn’t it?”

“Lacking sophistication.”  He agrees.

“Quite uncouth!”  Finally, with a laugh:  “Are your eyes really black?”

“I do not know.”  Celeris murmurs, his eyes seeming to get even blacker.  He returns his gaze to the racing river.  “The things you describe sound very attractive to me, Lady Alanee.”

For a while neither speaks.  Alanee cradles his long, sensitive fingers in her hand. 

They are alone.  Even the drabs have shouldered their tools and departed for the evening.  Her mind has a gentle music.  She thinks of the treasures she might discover were she to delve deeper into her affinity with this enigmatic man; of the secrets she might find; the pleasures she might teach.  At last, sighing, he asks if she has eaten: she shakes her head.

“I’m not hungry.”

Nodding as though he is conscious of the gravity of this moment, Celeris says: “Then I shall escort you to your door, Lady.”

“No.” Alanee declines.  “I can’t go back there.  There are cameras spying on me.  I can never go back there again.”

Celeris registers no surprise at this – which Alanee can forgive:  after all she imagines voyeurism is probably common practice in this loathsome place.  He says quietly:  “Very well; but you must have somewhere to sleep.  The hour is late.  Could I….dare I ….offer you my hospitality?  I would not intrude.”

“Aren’t there cameras in your apartment too?”  She reasons:  “They’re everywhere, aren’t they?”

“My poor Lady!”  His eyes are mirrors of her sadness.  “You would be my honored guest.  You have my word no-one will observe you!”

How quickly Alanee’s expression alters to one of open gratitude!  “Then I would be honoured, Sire Celeris.”

“The honour, Lady, is all mine.”

“Ba.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Not ‘Lady’ – ‘ba’.”  Alanee takes his hand firmly, to be rewarded instantly by his powerful, confident grip – so much in contrast to the diffidence and uncertainty in the man – as he leads her back into the City.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo credit: Jan Kopriva on Unsplash

Featured

Continuum – Episode Seventeen: Whispers in the Dark

Previously:

Alanee joins in the City’s celebrations greeting the dawn of spring.  She encounters children in the City for the first time and prohibited from speaking to them.  After hours of drinking and dancing in one of the main squares she finds Celeris again, and in a somewhat drunken attempt at seduction appears to frighten him away…

Alanee wakes not knowing what hour it is, only that she has spent a day, or misspent one.  Her stomach gives her a sharp reminder, sending her weaving to her rest place where she stays for another while, rebuking herself for her brazenness and fervently wishing the world would go away.

At last she discovers (in her kitchen between doses of stomach grieve and tsakal) that it is early evening.  Below her living room window the courtyard of the palace, now free from snow, is littered with detritus of a more human kind.  Drabs move discreetly among figures in various stages of prostration, cleaning up.

Turning her back on this unappetising scene she slouches on the sofa, sipping her tsakal and observing the dap fishes’ serene ignorance of occasion as they swim around their tank.  Thus another hour passes, until darkness comes and she returns to her bed for a sleep that will take her to morning.

Her summoner buzzes.  It is Sala.  “Well?

“Well what?”

“Well, that gorgeous young man.  Did you?”  And, before Alanee can reply, “And don’t say ‘did I what?’ You know what I mean!”

“I might have.”  Why is she so defensive?

“That means you did, or – or, oh Habbach, you were so drunk you can’t remember!  Ba!  I’m am ashamed of you!”

“Believe me, drunk or not, I’d remember.”

“Then you didn’t?  What was wrong with him, he must have been at least seven feet tall!”

“Delfio?  Ah, no, he was boring.  I didn’t stay with him.”  Alanee changes tack.  “Enough about my evening, Sala-ba, how was yours?  I saw you with at least three different hunks.  How did you fare?”

“Oh ba!  I’m still faring!”  Sala’s voice is treacle-rich.  “He’s in the rest-place rebuilding his strength.  I think I’ve worn him out, poor boy!”

“So who is he?  Or haven’t you been introduced?”  As she talks on her summoner, Alanee’s fingers probe absently at the tooth-bites she made in her pillow after Celeris’s dramatic departure.

“Naughty!  His name is Vel, and he is a merchant:  he’s tall and he’s blond and he’s a perfect darling.  I think we might just stay in bed forever!  You’re very good at changing the subject!  If not the Hakaani, who did you end up with – not alone, surely?  Tell me you didn’t go home on your own Alanee!”

Her fingers pick at the stuffing of the pillow, drawing it out through the ruptured cloth.  “No, not alone.”

“Oh, thanks be!  And after I abandoned you, too!  My guilt would follow me to my grave!”

The stuffing is fibrous.  It is mostly soft and yielding.  Mostly.  But some is wire; very, very fine wire.

“I met Celeris.” Alanee says.

“Who?”

“Celeris?  Don’t you know him?”

“If there was a Celeris in the City, ba, I’d know him.  Must have given you a false name, the rat!  It goes on all the time.  Is he a rich rat?”

“Don’t know.  I think so.”  Alanee replies absently.  The wire seems endless.  “Listen, Sala-ba, I’ll call you later, yes?”

She goes to her kitchen, where there are knives.  She puts the pillow on her cutting block, then attacks its cover.  It resists her stoutly; the material, though thin, is far from flimsy, but at last she succeeds in slitting it from end to end, so the stuffing inside is exposed and she sees how it is interwoven with an intricate web of bright metal joining onto what was a tiny central capsule; was, because in her anger at Celeris’s flight her teeth have bitten it almost in two.

Alanee has worked at her village Terminus for many years.  Although her remit was transport she gained a working knowledge of electronics, but this device is not within her compass, nor does she have equipment to study micro-circuits as tiny as those the capsule contains.  She must resort to educated guesses, the most seductive of which would be a form of transmitter – the wires could be an aerial, the capsule some sort of speaker – though one so tiny could scarcely be heard by the human ear.  Puzzled, she returns to her bedroom.  Three pillows remain:  did she find the ‘wired’ one by chance, or are they all the same?

This investigation might have taken wings at the expense of three further pillows, if her summoner were not buzzing insistently.  The name that flickers up at her from its screen will brook no denial.  Lady Ellar wishes her to attend the High Council Suite.  Could she please come at once?

#

High Councillor Trebec stands within the aperture to a high, gothic window, a fissure in walls so thick four of his girth might fit within this space and not intrude an inch into the room behind him.  From its glass he may overlook a rolling aspect of northern land which will lead, should he be able to see far enough, to his beloved City.  “Is it never warm here?”

“Sir?”  Commander Zess is preoccupied.  He has not heard.

“Does the sun never permeate these confounded walls?”

“Maybe in summer…”  Zess says.

“The work is done, then?”  Trebec expects an affirmative answer.  A final aerotran of crack troops landed an hour since.  His own transport is waiting to whisk him away from this cold Braillec Castle with its frigid stone and its accusations.  Who was it who said you can never turn your back on guilt?

“Yes, Sire Trebec, almost.” 

“Almost?”

“An end to tie up, Sire, that is all: the aerotran pilot from the City hasn’t been found.  His aerotran has, but not him.”

Trebec wears a frown to make the highest commander in the forces tremble at the knees.  “Was he not burned with the rest?”

“No, Sire, I don’t believe so.  I mean, yes, there are so many bodies we can’t account for because they were just burned to powder, but this flyer didn’t reach the incident itself.  He got caught in the magnetic storm it created.  He survived long enough to leave his pod.  He’s vanished.”

“He can’t just vanish!  You have heat-seekers, you have bio-trace, you have Habbach-damned extro-visuals.  Find him!”

“We’ve tried them all, Sire.  They sought out everybody else, all the other dissidents, but not him.  I’ve requested a field search strato-craft from the City:  when I get that I can pan the whole country if I have to.  We’ll find him.”

“See that you do.”  Trebec does not like the Commander’s solution:  it is inconvenient that a strato-craft crew from outside should have to be brought in on so covert an enterprise.  “Make sure they take the oath before you brief them.”

“It is already done, Sire Trebec.”

“Very good.”   The land beyond the window seems so innocent of wrong; impervious to judgement.  “They are out there, aren’t they?  How many?”  Trebec asks.

“We buried ten thousand, Sire.  As to those totally consumed, who can say?”  Zess shrugs,  “The census will reveal all, in time.”

Trebec catches sight of a tear that runs unwarded down his commander’s cheek.  “Never doubt, Zess.  Do not question.  What is done is done in the name of the State.  And, harsh though it may be, the State invariably affords us the best answer.  You have followed orders, no less and no more.”

“Yes, Sire.”  Zess’s voice is expressionless.

Trebec turns away again, casting a final look across those tranquil hills.  “I am flying back to the City.  I take ten thousand ghosts with me, do I not?  Sleep soundly, my friend.”

“Farewell, Sire.”

Zess watches the High Councillor leave, seeing in his broad back the incredulity, the sheer unbelief on thousands of faces that, thinking they were rescued, suddenly realised they were about to die.  Privately he knows he will never sleep soundly again.

#

The Lady Alanee, Ellar would have to admit, has learned how to make an entrance.  Remembering the gauche, slightly angular figure of a woman who entered the City no more than a cycle since she cannot help a reflective smile: how the place has changed her – and how quickly!  Not only has she learned to adopt the court robe as formal dress, but she has learned how to move in it, how to accentuate the natural grace of its lines.  Her golden cascade of hair disguises shoulders that might otherwise seem rather wide, and frames a face of unfathomable mystery.  Her eyes challenge.  This woman, Ellar thinks, is no longer afraid of anyone.

“Lady Ellar, greet you.”  Alanee is formal, cool.  “Sire?”  She cannot remember Sire Portis’s name.  She recalls he was one of those who questioned her on her first day here.  She also remembers how his stare never left her chest. 

“Lady Alanee, this is Sire Portis.”  Ellar says.

“Greet you.”  Alanee responds, tugging at the hem of her robe where it crosses her bosom, a move which does get Portis to raise his eyes to her face, though only for a moment.

“Please, sit down.  Shall we request drinks?”

Alanee dismisses this with a wave of her hand.  She has had sufficient alcohol in the past twenty-four hours to sustain her for a cycle, at least.

“Why am I here?” She keeps her voice as level as she can.  This stateroom is the one where she was first introduced to members of the High Council, but she does not remember a book resting upon the sideboard that dominates one wall of the room.  It is a very old book.

“What book is that?”

Portis answers,  “It is an extract of the Book of Lore.  The Book is always present if a meeting of High Councillors constitutes less than a quorum, so we do not forget the higher cause.”

“I’m not just here to talk about the Spring Rising, then?  Why am I here, Sire Portis?”

“Ah, now that is the question.”  Portis says.  “And taken in its most limited sense, that is why you are here; to answer that precise question.”

Alanee looks perplexed,   “A riddle, Sire?”

Portis sighs.  “No, Alanee, an answer; though not, I suspect, a solution.  Lady Ellar, would you like to proceed?”

Ellar leans forward, as she is wont to do when she is about to speak, though not before Alanee has detected the chill between these two nobles.  They have their differences.  “Lady Alanee, when you first arrived I told you that you were about to embark upon a journey.  As matters stood then, it was thought better that you find your own way:  now, however…..”  She pauses for breath.  “Now you have met Sire Hasuga.  It is time you learned a little more of your duties here.  It is time you learned who Sire Hasuga is.”

Ellar relates the tale of the City and its history.  Alanee listens to it open-mouthed, for history in any form (memory beyond the human span) does not exist within the culture of the State.  No-one speaks of the past beyond a generation or two.

In Alanee’s head it is as if a book were being opened; her thoughts fly to the book on the sideboard.  Her inner self flicks over pages of manuscript written in old characters, a forgotten tongue.  And when she comes back to the cover it slams shut and locks, and will not admit her again.  She would see its title, but that too is hidden from her.  She rises suddenly; walks across to the book intending to open it physically.

“Do not touch The Book!”  Portis snaps.  “Lady Ellar!  I will not have her near it, I warn you!”

His command stops Alanee in her tracks.  She shrugs, then says, without knowing what she is saying, or why she is saying it:  “It’s alright.  That’s not the book I’m interested in.”

She returns to her chair.  Ellar is staring intensely.  “Lady Alanee; which book are you interested in?”

“It has a lock, that one has none.  It is very old, with a cover of red and gold leather.  The words inside are in some strange language or other.  I was reading it. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”  She comes to herself, to see Ellar’s face, drained of all colour.

“You’ve seen inside this book?”

“Yes, just now.”

Portis cuts in.  “Young woman, have you been listening to anything the Lady Ellar has been saying?”

“Intently, Sire Portis; as I have been observing the chemistry between yourself and Lady Ellar while she was saying it.  I take it you don’t approve?”

“You take it correctly.”

“Of me?  Never mind, don’t answer that.  So, if I have listened to your satisfaction, let me be sure I’ve understood.  Sire Hasuga’s mental powers are so strong that his thoughts and whims reach all of the nations.  When he wants honey-cakes, everyone eats honey cakes.  When he wants a war in a certain region, that region goes to war.  Somehow you’ve managed to conduct affairs for two thousand years on the basis of childish caprice.  And now he’s gone and growed up!”

Portis nods.  While she is speaking, Alanee’s eyes do not shift from the book on the sideboard.  She finds herself searching deep within it, as though there is something specific she must find.

“And now he wants different stuff; not quite so innocent anymore, eh Sire? You’re afraid you can’t control him:  he might go mad, get everybody killing each other, or – you know -making babies?  You can’t blame him, can you?  He’s just being a boy, isn’t he?  One thing though, I don’t quite follow:  there are lots of essential functions needed to run the State that are a bit more important than honey cakes.  Plant more wheat this year because the granaries are low; discourage child-bearing in the Hakaan to keep the population stable, and so on.  Not the things a child would think of.  How do you get the meaningful stuff done?”

The answer falls to Ellar.  “Once it was just as volatile and unformed as you describe.  We learned, we had to learn, to manage Sire Hasuga’s thoughts.  We discovered a way to interrupt the thought-stream and channel it, without Sire Hasuga’s knowledge.  The High Council could add necessary edicts to the stream as it was being broadcast.  It needed a more predictable system of distribution, but once it was achieved, we could conduct affairs of State effectively.”

“So you can shape his will?   Isn’t that – to coin your word – blasphemy?”

“No.  Think of his stream of thought as a real stream, or river if you like.  We can add water to it; we can apply a sluice to restrain it.  But we can’t stop it or fundamentally alter Hasuga’s part of its composition.  In the end, his message must reach the people as the water must reach the sea.”

“And you do that here, in the City?”

“Yes.”

Across the room and out of Lady Ellar’s and Sire Portis’s range of vision, Alanee is making the ancient book rise a few inches from the sideboard.  Satisfied, she allows it to settle again, quietly.  She thinks to herself ‘I don’t know how I did that’.  Portis’s fixation with her breasts is becoming profoundly irritating.

“And this river flows out to the people each night as they sleep – through a little speaker concealed in their pillows.”  That reaches you, doesn’t it, Sire Portis!  That makes you lift your eyes!

Ellar nods,  “Yes.”

“Whispers in the dark.  The reason it is only possible to buy a replacement pillow from a state-owned emporium.  And now your system is breaking down?”

“That’s something of an exaggeration.”  Ellar’s smile is grim.  “True, Sire Hasuga’s emanations are ever more powerful, and – well, you’ve already cited a few undesirable consequences.  Lady Alanee, you are apparently immune to Sire Hasuga’s control.  You can get close to him; you can treat with him, in ways his Mother never can.”

“Then Hasuga is right.  I am his next ‘Mother’.”

“His Mother is ill at the moment.”  Portis interjects.  “When she recovers we would, of course, like you to work with her.  Look, this can be either be very simple, or very difficult:  we (the High Council) will issue you with a list of target behaviours to pursue in concord with Sire Hasuga.  This list will be with you in a few days.  All that is needed is to moderate some of the temporary excesses of his pubescent stage.  If you follow the list you will discharge your duties satisfactorily.  It shouldn’t be beyond you.”

Alanee visualises what she suspects will be item one on that list.  “You can’t give teenagers ‘lists’.  It’s their nature to rebel.”

“Sire Hasuga is no ordinary teenager, and you seem to have a detachment none of us share.  You can guide him Lady Alanee.  For the stability of the State, for the sake of all our futures, this is a responsibility you must accept.”

“I’ll do it, because I have no choice.”  Alanee senses the interview is over.  “Whether it will work as smoothly as you say, is another matter.”  She gets to her feet.  “In the meantime, please will you remove all the cameras from my apartment?  I don’t think you need to spy on me now.  I could always find them myself…”  She adds helpfully.

Portis is looking questioningly at Ellar.

“She dissected one of her pillows.”  Ellar explains.  Then, to Alanee: “How did you know there were cameras?”

“I didn’t until now; although I suspected as much.”  Alanee replies.  “You just confirmed it.  So from now on, Sire Portis, whenever you want to stare at my body you’ll have to ask me in person.”

Alanee bridles, ready for Portis to flare back at her, but the councillor merely replies, with icy control:  “You are a presumptuous and wilful young woman, Alanee  Have a care what you say.”

“Oh I will, Sire.  Now, can I ask to speak to Sire Cassix?”  She has no idea where the question came from, or even why she should ask it.  From the beginning of this interview, Alanee has felt distant and detached:  it is as though something other than herself is controlling her tongue.

Portis looks at her sharply:  “Cassix?  Why?”

“I think he can help me.”  Without waiting for a reply, Alanee leaves.

Ellar and Portis stare after her.

Ellar says:  “Tell me I did not dream that?”

Portis says:  “The impudence of the woman!”

Lady Ellar smiles:  “You were caught out, Sire.  You do stare at women’s chests; even mine.  More importantly, how did she – how could she – know of The Book?”

“As importantly, perhaps;” Portis’s tone is dangerous:  “How do you?”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

Who ARE these people?

Priti Patel is an elected politician.  More than that, she is the U.K. Home Secretary and a leading figure in the newly-elected Johnson government.   More even than that, she is charged with putting an immigration policy into action which will limit the migration of unskilled workers whose presence in UK is arguably a drain upon the economy – a responsible task requiring dedication and efficiency. 

So when her Permanent Secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, tendered his resignation and levelled an accusation of ‘bullying’ against Mrs Patel, he trained the media spotlight on an aspect of governing that counts for its very existence upon maintaining the lowest of profiles.   And to me, at least, that raises a number of questions the answers to which are long overdue.

What is the most important component of Sir Philip’s job description – I mean, aside from being the head honcho in the Home Office?  The word ‘Permanent’, because permanent is what he is, or was, had he not decided to throw in the towel so publicly.  His job was to answer directly to Mrs Patel and to lead his department in facilitating her brief.  He, and those beneath him, are Civil Servants. 

Civil Servants are not elected.  They do not have to subject themselves to public vote every five years.  They are career beavers who should form the engine room of policy for whoever is elected.  Their employment structure is secure, with retirement and a healthy pension at the end.  At their best, they are the steadying influence behind a volatile electoral system.  They make sure there are plenty of logs in the store.  But beavers have another use for logs: they build dams.  At their worst, Civil Servants are a stultifying, reactionary crew whose principle career ambition is to keep Friday afternoon free for golf.

Is mere reluctance to accept change at the root of Sir Philip’s quarrel with Mrs Patel? The speedy implementation of new regulations promised by the Johnson government is demanding and certainly not conducive to short working weeks or comfortable evenings at the club.  Or is there something more sinister here?  Lately, the stolid, wooden efficiency of the old Civil Service seems to have been supplanted by an altogether more media-aware and loose-tongued institution.   For example, almost every move by Mrs May’s cabinet was ‘leaked’ from somewhere in the system before it was announced, or even fully ‘fleshed out’.   Under Mr Johnson’s stewardship, there has already been a purge at The Treasury, with one member of staff having been almost literally ‘frog-matched’ out of Downing Street.  Did Sir Philip act pre-emptively?  Was the Home Office about to be similarly scoured?

Speaking personally, I am not particularly a fan of Mrs Patel.  For me, her public speaking fails to inspire.  She is, perhaps, determined rather than passionate; but that does not mean she is a bully, or capable of ‘ranting and shouting’ as her accuser claims.  Those at the top of the Civil Service, known these days as ‘mandarins’, are all male. Since 1983, the 12 Principal Private Secretaries to the Prime Minister have all been men; while women form 53% of Civil Service staff, none have reached mandarin status.  It is a male preserve that several female ministers claim to have found obstructive and critical.  Priti Patel is a British citizen of Ugandan Asian parentage – it shouldn’t, but does her ethnicity also have a bearing on this situation?

I find it distressing that at the heart of one of the most gender- and racially- tolerant nations in the world, at the seat of government that ought also to be a paragon of intelligence and the paradigm for equality, there is this arterial sclerosis of sexism and racism.  I have experienced communism festering in the wormholes of the ex-industrial towns of the north (more of this in another blog) but xenophobia rampant about the tiller of power?  Surely we should expect better?

Featured

Continuum – Episode Sixteen: Pale Knight

The story so far:

Alanee continues to revel in the luxury of her City wonderland, unaware how her interactions with Hasuga, or even her dreams can have consequences in other parts of the country. 

This morning, Sala has woken her with news of the first sunrise of Spring, and in their favorite haunt, Toccata’s, suggested there is a possibility that Dag, the aerotran pilot, may still be alive.  Now, Sala further suggests, might be a time to celebrate the portentous dawn.

Alanee cannot quite see what all the fuss is about.  She has seen the sun rise; not a sight she has too often greeted before, but just a sunrise, nonetheless.  But then, she reasons with herself, she is used to Hakaani summers, long hot days when often she might wish for snow; a change of colour; relief from the breath-sapping heat. Snow never comes to the Hakaan.  Winter is grey, winter is wet with monsoon rains that turn streets to rivers, every open space into a lake.  Those rains drive life into shelter, create their own kind of hibernation.  Yet winter is also short, so when spring emerges it is not so great an event: here though, in the Consensual City, she can see how they might welcome release from the bonds of snow.

She might also attune to a sense of gratitude, for this dawn has been a harp-string of superstition so taut the air itself twanged in its thrall.  And that has snapped now.

 Sala leads her along avenues lit by smiling faces, through tumults of greeting and exchange, past a rowdy queue of fur-swaddled young adventurers by the express elevator.  Their humour is infectious.  Alanee begins to join in.

The Grand Park bustles with people of all ages; more frivolous adults, in spite of the hour, gathered in groups around bars that have been set up on the pathways and already drinking freely.  And yes, there are children here too – the first she has seen in the city – maybe a hundred, boys and girls alike, parties of them dressed in yellow uniform  jackets and pants that finish just below their knees, singing and dancing in an area to the west side of the park.  Leaders in blue cat-suits watch them, accepting the admiring glances of the adults, but fending off any closer attention.  Clearly, there are boundaries.

“We would ask you not to speak to the children, Lady.”  An official-looking woman in blue steps deliberately between Alanee and a fair-headed boy who has strayed too close.

Alanee is struck by a sensation of wrongness; a hollow place behind the child’s eyes evincing not infancy but great age.  As he watches her, and he does, avidly, as though she has some special meaning for him, his face does not change expression.  He begins to join in with the words of a song struck up by some of his near neighbours, but even that fails to dispel the sense of utter void.

“Move along, Lady.”

The blue woman’s voice bears an authoritative edge.  Sala grabs Alanee’s hand.  “We’re not allowed to communicate with them, ba.  Come on, she’ll get upset.”

At the far end of the water that runs the length of the Grand Park the drabs have erected a structure like a great honeycomb resting on its edge.  It towers perhaps a hundred feet into the roof of the city.  If Alanee wonders at its purpose she is not kept waiting long.  While Sala gets drinks from a nearby bar she watches a young man emerge above the throng, stripping off his white toga as he begins to climb the symmetrical staircase of cells.  When he has reached about half-way he throws himself backward –  to loud cheers from a certain section of the crowd – probably his friends – and plummets, legs waving inexpertly, into the lake.  No sooner has he splashed from view than others take up his challenge, half-a-dozen naked forms both male and female, shinning like monkeys up the frame to dive, with greater or lesser grace.  The cheering becomes widespread.

“They’re mad!”  Sala shouts above the clamour as she hands Alanee a glass of green liquid. “Someone will get hurt – it always happens! This way!” 

Jostling and jostled, the friends push through the throng and out into the South Avenue, away from the Park.  Alanee is inclined to protest, but mollifies almost instantly when she hears music.

South Avenue, the communicating link between the higher level apartments of the residential city and the commercial area, is the conduit Alanee took the first time she ventured out alone.  Here she met the Music Man, and fears she might meet him again: the embarrassment of his intimate approach remains with her.  It is a highway with many tributaries, a maze of side alleys and twisting lanes that contain mysterious, un-coloured doors, blanked windows and precarious ladders.  Sala tows her into one of these alleys where the music – ribald, raucous, Mansuvene dance music – beckons loudest.

Carousing in this narrow passage is at its most advanced: Alanee suspects that for many citizens the dawn celebration started rather earlier than warranted.  Yet there is no disapprobation evident in the steady trickle of humanity moving through, over, and around various acts of debauchery that obstruct the length of this confined space.  All propriety is suspended.  Everyone, it seems, is enthralled by the music, in volume so intense it is almost physical.  Beyond a final corner they are confronted by an open square some fifty yards wide.  It is filled with people; young people, dancing people, people given over to rhythm.  On a dais at the centre of the square, beneath a small pavilion, a group of musicians are playing for all their worth.

“Dance, Alanee-ba!  Dance!”  Sala is already swaying to their fast, pulsating beat.  Glass in hand, Alanee joins her; hips bucking, head and soul surrendering to sound.  Around them are men and women, Mansuvene, Dometian, Proteian, Hakaani and many other races Alanee does not recognise, all on one mission of unselfconscious joy.

A hand from the crowd reaches out, takes Sala’s arm.  She turns and squeals a delighted greeting:  “Rabba!  Darling!”  to a slender Mansuvene man whose embrace is already too close for dancing.  “Alanee ba, this is Rabba!”

Alanee waves her glass, spilling most of its contents:  “Greet, Rabba!”  She drinks the rest.

Fingers close around her own forearm. She turns to find herself looking straight into the eyes of a tall, broad-shouldered Hakaani man with a smiling, strong face and body to match.  She allows her eyes to scan his full length.  “Wow!”

“Greet, Lady – dance?”

“Greet, …whoever you are.”   She dances.

He is Delfio, he is from the plains, he shouts above the din.

“Alanee – Balkinvel!”  She shouts back.

“Greet you, Alanee!”

“Greets you too, Delfio!”

He has a sense of rhythm – his body interprets the music.  His eyes are brilliant and kind.  She does not know him – she does not need to.  Everything about him calls to her and she is content to be within the moment, to indulge in the ritual.  Two people tugged by a single wire for a time – they dance on.

#

“It’s you.  I should have known it would be you.  You found me here.”

Lady Ellar looks down into Cassix’s eyes and smiles.  “You are the Seer.  Where else would the Seer be but in the Watchtower on such a morning?”

She kneels so her lap may support his head, cradling him.  She did, indeed, find Cassix here, but not leaning upon the sill of the great window gazing out into the firmament as she had expected.  No, she found him prostrate upon the cold flagstones of the floor with his face ashen and no sign of movement, none at all.

“Are you ill, my Cassix?  Is there a wound we may heal?  What is wrong?”  She cannot betray all the care she feels for the man:  it would be inappropriate, not only because of their high position in the State, but also because she is fairly sure he feels nothing in return.  He is a Seer, and that is all one human frame can absorb.  He has no space for the other things, the vin ordinaire of life.

He struggles to sit.  “No.  No, I have a thirst, no more than that.  I will recover in a moment.”  Yet so simple a struggle is almost too much for him; air comes to his lungs in gasps, veins throb in his temples.

Ellar sees how his eyes avoid the window; how he stares at the floor, or down into his own lap.  “The Continuum?”  She asks quietly.

He meets her look.  “Yes.”

“But it is a good spring dawn.  This will be a wonderful year, will it not?”

Cassix does not reply.

#

“Another drink?  Yours was Cassene, wasn’t it?”

They are edging towards the bar.  There have been several ‘another drinks’ and Alanee’s head is hazed with the alcohol.  She and Delfio have become much better acquainted.  He knows she was married once, a widow now – she, that he is a materials technician who works in the bowels of the City – one of those unseen protectors who keep wheels turning, cold from the door, light in the world.  He believes he once lived in Parnisfae, a village on the Plains some hundred miles from Balkinvel.   No, he has never seen her village.

When Alanee asked it he requested the band play the Talleh, national folk-dance of the Hakaan.  Its steady sledgehammer beat threw the whole crowd into a frenzy, not least Alanee herself, for whom the memory of the tune was so poignant she danced her heart out, and cried too – unashamed:  why not?  The words spoke of her home, the music the same she once danced to with Kalna-meh, on the night of their coupling.

Now, with another drink of impish green liquid in her hand, she is tired of Delfio.  She does not know why.  He is warm, and caring, and quite funny in his way.  She has kissed him three times; drunken, hungry kisses.  He realises, because she told him, that she can never re-marry (‘that’s the law, isn’t it?) so there can only be one course for their encounter to take.  In a way, a very present way, she wants that.  Her body is awake: her skin is moist with a heat she recognises, not just part of the effort of dancing.  But she is tired, and inebriated, and in another way she would be rescued, taken somewhere else.  Sala has passed her a few times, each time with a wave and a knowing look, each time in someone’s arms (not Rabba – he has been superseded not once, but twice to Alanee’s knowledge) and anyway she would not interrupt her friend.  With increasing desperation she casts about her – and sees him.

Like a pale cloud, Celeris moves through the thick of the revelry unsullied, apparently untouched:  white robe, white face, that astonishing albino hair.  He passes easily within her vision, so she could not miss him if she tried.

“Excuse me!  Someone I know!”  Alanee shouts – Delfio raises an eyebrow, though he recognised the signs some while ago.  “I’ll be right back!”  She lies.

He walks quickly:  the crowd divides for him, she struggles to make a path.  Before she can finally catch him he has left the square, striding down a side alley different to that which brought her here.

“Sire Celeris!”

He turns, his dark, dark eyes light up to see her,  “My Lady Alanee!  This is an unexpected delight!”

“Yes,” She says, “It is.”   Then, with humility:  “Sire Celeris, would you very kindly rescue me?”

He switches on his mischievous smile.  “Rescue you?”

Alanee shrugs:  “A true Lady should not admit that she is a little the worse for wear?”

“Ah!”  Celeris strokes his chin with long fingers.  “Tsakal, I think.  I know the very place.”

“You’re not in too much of a hurry?”

“For you, my Lady?  And on such a day?  Never!”

He comes to her, feeds a supporting arm around her waist and she, giggling at the difference in their heights, rests a hand on his shoulder, which, however poor in flesh is rich in understanding.  There is comfort there.

They find a café on the South Side, not far from Alanee’s apartment:  “It is a short distance to run, should the need arise.”

They sit on firm, Spartan seats.  The café is quiet, almost deserted, because everyone is out in the yards and squares of the City drinking.  He buys tsakal, placing a small shot-glass of perl beside Alanee’s cup.  Alanee looks at it doubtfully.

“A parachute, a soft landing.  I would not want you to feel miserable or ill.  Drink it slowly, take the tsakal at the same time.”

Conversation flows easily.  He had some business in the financial quarter, it could wait:  was she enjoying the Dawn Celebration?

“Yes, I am.  Parts of it I don’t understand, though.  Why does everyone seem so feverish?  It is only another spring:  it comes every year?”  She thinks she has explained herself badly:  “I mean, they act as if it was their last spring ever.  Or is it just me?”

“Parts of our history have been swathed in darkness.”  Celeris says mysteriously:  “There have been dark ages in our time when the sun never rose.  Although they were long ago, the mark of those times remains upon my people.  They never wake expecting a day, they are just grateful when it comes.”

Alanee shakes her head, sips at her tsakal.  The café overlooks South Avenue, with its constant movement of people:  people who are less purposeful now, stopping to hug one another and to renew acquaintanceships.  From above, this too is a form of dance, a passing of hands, a dignified, slow gavotte.

“Do you like it here?”

She has drifted away in her mind:  “Sorry?”

“Last time we met you were waiting to know your fate.  Do you know it now – is it a good fate?”

“I think so.  I really have no idea.”  She feels she is in a dream; a place from which she cannot return.  His presence is bewitching her somehow, she feels sure.  “Why are you so kind to me?” 

His laughter is sweet, a music in itself.  “How would I not be ‘kind’, as you put it?  Lady Alanee, surely you must comprehend – you are a very pleasing, very attractive woman.  All the world, I’m sure, would have you as their friend if they could!”

So flattered, she should blush, yet doesn’t.  “I don’t know anything about you!  Who are you?  What do you do?  Why do so few people know you?”

“Who am I?  I am Celeris.  You can call me Sire Celeris, if you wish, though I don’t wear my titles on my sleeve as some would.  What do I do?  Well, I suppose the answer must be nothing.  I conduct a little business to pass the time, though I do not need to; I read, I become very learned and I pass my days convincing myself I have a role to play in the City – which may or may not be true.  Why am I so little known?”  He pauses to breathe at this answer.  “Could it be I am not worth knowing?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean….!”

Celeris holds up a hand.  “I’m very sure you didn’t.  Believe me, Lady Alanee, I have a realistic view of my place in this world.”

“Call me ‘ba’.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“All this ‘Lady Alanee’ stuff.  I don’t want to be ‘Lady Alanee’.  Call me ‘ba’.”

He laughs, but he colours, too.  “All the drink….”

“Yes, and it may be I am a little the worse.  But I am never uncertain about these things.  Celeris, you are ‘ba’ to me.”

What does she see in his coal-black eyes then – amazement, puzzlement, wonder?  Her next words are quite deliberate.  “When I needed you, you came to my side.  When I think of you, I think of all that is good in a man.  I am tired now, Celeris my ba.  Take me home.”

Obediently, this pale young man guides her from the tsakal-house and along the avenue to her apartment.  They walk slowly, he supporting her waist, she with her arm about his shoulder as before.  At her door he would turn away but she restrains him with a persuasive hand.

“Don’t leave me here.”

“You live here.”

“Don’t leave me, ba.”

She draws him inside, leading him with her hands about his wrists.  She leads him thus through the inner door to her living room.  As the door slips closed behind them her arms encircle him, inviting him to kiss her but he does not respond, so she goes to him, taking those cool, thin lips in hers and making them open to her, and now he does respond, but clumsily, like a child.  Like the child in his face.

“Lady!”

“I’m sorry.  You must forgive me.”  She steps back, confused, embarrassed.  “I’m drunk.  I said that already, didn’t I?.”

Celeris’s hand detains her.  It is thin yet surprisingly strong.  “Please, do not apologise.  I am curious.  Would you….do that again?”

Curious?  Alanee returns to the kiss, this time with hands behind his head, draping the length of her body against his own spare frame.  And this time he responds willingly, almost expertly.  His kiss is as powerful as hers is compliant.

She draws back, a dark chuckle rising in her throat.  “Curious now?”

Her own boldness surprises her, and without the confidence of liquor she is sure she would not, should not be doing this, yet she needs him with every fibre of her being.  She scatters her message in kisses over his sallow cheeks, his brow, his eyes – returns to his lips, plying them, nipping, gently biting.   His breath is hot.  The arousal she seeks in him is beginning, begins.

Celeris’s hands grab her arms.  He wrestles her away – pushes so hard she almost falls.

“No!  NO!”  His face, normally so pale, is red as damask; his expression one of pure, open-mouthed horror.  He stares down at himself, sees Alanee’s eyes follow his, and turns quickly away.

The mood is shattered to a thousand shards and lies unswept.  Habbach!  Has he never…?  She wants to go to him, to explain something he clearly does not understand.  He will not afford her that chance.

“Lady, I have to leave!”

“Celeris….”

He is gone, through her door at almost a run.  Disarranged, she may not follow him.  Instead she can only stare at the empty space he has left.

Amazed, confounded, Alanee storms to her room and throws herself onto her bed where she pounds her pillow and kicks her mattress in frustration, then bursts into cynical laughter at the thought of Celeris racing through the City in so obvious a condition;  then screams and bites the pillow in fury once more.  Her teeth close upon something small that yields with a faint crunching sound.  She spins into sleep.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit: Levi Guzman on Unsplash

Featured

Delving in the Once Upon a Time

The other day I was searching for a short story, one I blogged in 2016.  Now when I’m writing a story I use a working title.  I dream up a more inspired title for the piece when I upload it, then file the original under its working title.  And forget about it.  I’m not proud of that.  I’m very badly organized.  I probably need help.

Anyway, the long and the short of it was I’d forgotten this story’s blog title, and I had to blow the dust off a lot of first pages before I found it.  There are so many items in this blog it is beginning to rival the British Library, which suggests a Spring Clean is necessary.

My attempt to become more organized:

I’ve removed all but the most recent short stories from the archive.  There will be more, of course, but just for now I’ll content myself with re-blogging one of the venerable ancients from time to time.  Meanwhile, if I have seriously deprived you of a short story ‘fix’ you can find most of my past efforts here in ‘Black Crow Speaks’ as a paperback or e-book on Kindle.  Simply click on the link on the right.

Here’s a first helping from that feast of older tales.  It’s called:

Melissa

This week, I am a man with a sore eye.

Not that I lack other defining characteristics; it’s just when you have conjunctivitis, you don’t think about them.  You just think about your sore eye.

So when Jorges tells me he’s hooked me up on a date, I don’t have many positive things to contribute.  In fact, only one negative thing.  “No.”

“Oh, come on Jules!   Three months without it, man!  What’s the matter with you?”

I should explain my relationship with Jorges is not exactly deep – we aren’t lifelong friends, or anything.  ‘Car share’ about covers the extent of our friendship, and even that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t discovered him kicking his broken-down vehicle one evening in the works car park. 

“Do you need a lift?”  I asked.  I was feeling charitable.

It all started there.

“Three months isn’t that long.”  I protest.  “Anyway, have you seen the state of my eye?  I look like the Phantom of the Opera.  No-one’s going to fancy me like this.”

“No, mate!   Mel isn’t like that.  She can see deeper than a few red veins.  Anyway, you two are made for each other!”

These are the consequences of offering a lift to a stranger.  You get into conversations, you confess things about your history; you let a little bit of the inside of you out; all because you can’t just sit in a traffic queue in silence for half an hour.  Sharing has to take place.

Time to stop sharing.  “No.”  I say.

You have to be resolute at times like these.  You have to draw a line in the…whatever it is.  

Otherwise…

Otherwise you end up like me on Friday night, facing this totally dazzling, effervescent female across a table in Hogan’s Bar with a stupefied smile on your face because she is absolutely, totally a knockout.

“Jorges told me you broke up with your wife?”  Her words flow like liquid gold into the cast – ingots for my memory to cherish.  “That’s so sad!   Were you very much in love with her?”

She’s not afraid of the personal approach.  I make my red eye look as pensive as possible.  “I suppose I was – perhaps I still am, in a manner of speaking.”  I say, preferring dishonesty to ingratiation.  ‘I hate the bitch’.  That wouldn’t do at all.   “But I have to move on.”

She nods – she has this way of playing with her hair – her ash-blonde star-burst of hair that knows no rules but its own.  “Three months is a long time.”   She touches my hand with her fingertips.

What is this obsession with three months?

We have a nice evening, I won’t deny that – and I am given to understatement.  When it’s time to go home I am reluctant to leave it there, and I say so; and she smiles and kisses me chastely:   “Never on a first date?” 

So I have to wait until the second date.  A whole twenty-four hours relying upon just my imagination. 

On reflexion, I should have paid more attention to the bag.  A woman going out to dinner on a Saturday night doesn’t carry a bag of those ample proportions unless she has a sense of commitment – unless she is confident she will be spending a while away from home.  By breakfast time on Sunday morning that bag has already produced a nightdress we didn’t bother with, a change of clothing, a toothbrush and several necessary cosmetics.   After breakfast, when I suggest a walk in the park, it reveals one more surprise.   A support collar which Mel straps around her neck.

“I’m being watched.”  She tells me.  She doesn’t elaborate.

We’re sitting on a bench at the top of the hill near the old bandstand which was fenced off after last April when the Salvation Army Band fell through the floor, gazing out across the town, our eyes dewy with new love. 

“You’re lucky you’ve got the house.”  She says.  “Your wife running off like that.”

Apparently I have let slip more detail than I thought whilst car sharing with Jorges.

“He’s got a small mansion, the new bloke.”  I say.  “She won’t want for anything.”  

“So you haven’t lost too much?”

“No kids.  So, no, I don’t think so.  We’re still working things out.”

By this time I’m getting a bit bored with listening to the birds and I’m feeling passionate.  But it’s a bit awkward trying to snog a woman in a head restraint:  there’s this sort of under-or-over thing going on and there’s no rotation, if you see what I mean.  In the end I give up.

“Let’s walk back.”  I say.

“Yes, let’s.”

Hand in hand, we stroll back through the park.   “So the house is all yours?”  She says.

“Unencumbered.”  Actually, there I am gilding a mite; there is a small mortgage, but it’s only two hundred K and I manage that without trouble as long as get plenty of overtime.

 “Still,, it’s insured?”  She says, and I think:  ‘What a curious question’. “And that terrible old car – that’s yours, too?”

“It is.  And what’s wrong with it?”  I bridle – a few nasty little greenfly crawl across the rose-tints.  I’m proud of my old banger.

“Jorges said it isn’t exactly comfortable.  I’m afraid I agree with him darling.  It is a bit rubbish, isn’t it?”

Darling!  She called me ‘darling’.  You can be sure a woman’s really into you when she uses a word like  that, especially when you have one red eye.  The ground gets all spongy beneath my feet and before I know it I’m walking on the soft stuff.

“Well, maybe.”  I admit.

“Not maybe; definitely.”  She affirms.  “Anyway, I ought to get back.  I’m due round my mother’s at two.  Drive me home?”

“Of course, If you don’t mind riding in my rubbish car.”  I say, giving her a peek at my bruised ego.

“Brilliant!”

So Melissa’s in my car, and her bag is on the back seat, and I’m wondering why she’s pulled the sun visor down, apparently to study herself in the vanity mirror on the back, because she’s still wearing the neck support and it doesn’t do anything for those porcelain good looks.  I don’t comment.

“Let’s drive around a bit!”

“I thought you had to get back?”

“I do, but it’s not urgent.  Mum, you know, she won’t mind if I’m a bit late?  It’s such a nice day.”

We have the window open, listening to the traffic as we drive through the city.   She smiles, touching my hand, playing with my fingers on the gear lever.  I feel renewed, as if I’ve shed a dozen years by just sitting beside her, and I’m a boy again with all the commitments and the malice of my spoiled past wiped away.   I’m proud to be in the company of this flaxen-haired beauty with her large, deep blue eyes and, yes, her big surgical collar about her neck.

We’re stopping at traffic lights.  A gleaming Aston Martin has been following us for a few blocks now, and it would normally spark feelings of envy but not today.  Today I have found love.

Melissa’s hand is on mine.  My hand is on the gear lever.  Suddenly, and with surprising strength, Melissa has shifted us into reverse.  Her foot kicks my leg firmly off the clutch.  In my surprise I press down on the accelerator with the other foot.  We shoot backwards.   Metal meets superior steel with a gut-wrenching crunch.  Melissa screams.   Melissa does not, will not stop screaming, which, with the window open, certainly impresses passersby.

An elegantly dressed head and shoulders appear at my window.  “What on earth were you doing?”  The outraged driver of the Aston Martin demands.  Melissa gives me no chance to respond.

“What were we doing?  What were WE DOING?   You drove into us, you BASTARD!  Oh, god, my neck.  I’ve already bloody nearly broken it, now it’s worse.”  She’s in tears now, serious tears.  They’re making her collar all wet.  “My career, I’m going to miss another shoot.  Oh, Christ, what am I going to do? It’s all over.  ALL  OVER!”

At this last plaintive protest I believe I may hear a subdued ripple of applause.  We’re drawing quite a crowd. 

Now I would like to make a contribution at this point, but I am given no chance.  Beauty is in distress and I have already become invisible.  While her sports car driving Sir Galahad is rushing around the car to be at her side, Melissa makes time between screams to glare at me.   “Hold your neck and look injured.  This one’s got to be worth ten grand!”

I could elaborate further, but I think you get the picture.  It appears that when she picked out the Aston Martin in her vanity mirror, Melissa chose astutely, because her screams, interspersed with the information that she was a top model who would lose thousands because of her injuries, and her repeated demands first for an ambulance, then the police, galvanised our new acquaintance (I won’t call him a friend) into becoming very attentive indeed.  So attentive that he insisted upon driving her to his preferred private clinic himself in his still-driveable car.  I could only look on helplessly as Melissa left my life, draped in the arms of her new white knight, who seemed oddly reluctant to show his face.  Then I ‘phoned the AA.

On Monday, Jorge turned up to drive me to work, which was fortunate, considering I now had no transport.

“I heard.”  He told me.

“Funny, I thought you would.”  I told him.  “You’ve seen Melissa then.  Poor girl must be in a mess.”

“Melissa?  Nah.  Fit as a fiddle, mate.  Don’t worry.  It’ll all work out – sports car man’s looking after her, and you too, if we’ve got it right.  You’ll get a better car out of it, at least.  I’m guessing you’ll be getting a call, so keep stum for a bit.  If you have to claim on your insurance, be sure to mention the neck injury.  That’s worth a few thou.”

“But her modelling work…”

Jorge gave me an old fashioned look.  “Modelling work?  Melissa?  She pulled that one, did she?  No, she’s no model; though I get her the odd bit of glamour work on the side.”

“You ‘get her’ – what do you mean?”

“Didn’t I say?  I’m her agent, mate.  She’s a very clever girl, is Melissa.  Has a natural gift.  ‘Don’t worry, Jorgs’, she says to me.  See, that move she pulled on Sunday, that could so easily have gone wrong, couldn’t it?  But she has this knack of picking out the ones with something to hide.  We may never find out what it was, but Aston Martin guy had some reason to keep things quiet, and she knew it.  She could see it in his eyes, just by looking at him through a mirror.  Now, is that talent, or what?”

We are driving into the works car park.  Jorge says:  “Melissa was telling me about your house.  She reckons you’re struggling with the old mortgage a bit, doesn’t she?  Thought so, she’s usually right.  She’s booked until next month, but she reckons you might like to invite her to a fireworks party?  I know a place you can get some good Chinese rockets and stuff.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

Tuesday’s Addled Adage

Anyone who tells you the pen is mightier than the sword has never attempted to penetrate a publishing industry run by Starbucks-tippling grads who will only read your stuff if you’re a Chinese dissident or if you were in their college at Oxford…

Featured

Continuum – Episode Fifteen: The Spring Rising.

The Story so Far:

While the High Council’s misgivings concerning Alanee’s relationship with Hasuga grow, Alanee is beginning to realise their worst fears as she finds the embyo of a friendship with him.  She joins Hasuga in his ‘games’, blissfully unaware of the mayhem they can cause.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the wilderness, Dag Swenner, her aerotrans pilot friend, is injured and close to death.  Ripero, the Dometian who saved him from the wreckage of his aerotrans has left him, hoping to find help but only to be killed in a bizarre confrontation with a lone soldier…

After her morning encounter with Hasuga, Alanee’s day has been spent idly, wandering through the gardens and bazaars of the City.  Affairs of the last two days have relieved many of her worst fears: whatever the City wants from her, she no longer believes she will be punished for her misdemeanours in the years at home in Balkinvel.  Although she remains the little girl in wonderland, she is gaining some grasp of the realities around her.  She is free to notice the brightly-coloured birds that flit between the trees in the Grand Park, the way the illumination from hidden places in the roof above the park ‘travels’ across its firmament in imitation of a real sun, and how the tiny mechanical mice that scuttle about the paving, gathering up rubbish then vanishing with it into carefully disguised slots at the grass’s edge even squeak like real mice.  She sees that those who attend the Palace do not always wear those dreadful, formal robes.  A woman whose face she recognises from the courtyard passes her, clad in a lemon halter dress of fine chiffon.  Men commune in togas around the drinking house doors – other women walk about in elegant slacks, light blousons, skirts and dresses of different hues.  There are still robes of course – they are everywhere – but there is room for variety, too.

With this in mind Alanee seeks out a little dress-maker’s emporium among the fashionable shops on the East side of the Grand Park where she commissions three outfits in her choice of fabrics and designs;  then, with her shopping hat jammed firmly over her ears, she launches into a minor frenzy of purchasing.  She is not without a plan – everything she orders will go towards the remodelling of her apartment – but it is the thrill of spending in a volume she could never have dreamed of, of running her fingers through soft silks, abundant satins, rich woollens, that enthuses her.  It is an orgy that continues long into the evening, and when she finally returns home she is exhausted by it.  Scarcely troubling to eat, she falls into a deep sleep.

She is dreaming of a jungle, thick undergrowth tangled around her arms and legs: she launches forward, striving against her bonds.   Birds screech in the canopy, snakes hiss and slither about her feet, great bugs squat, shiny black, upon the trunk of every tree.  An odour of decay, a sweet death-smell clings to her throat and clogs her breathing.  She must go on, she must never turn because what follows her, she knows, is worse than in front.  It is dark, becoming darker.  Tired, so tired.  The light is dying in her soul.

She will not hear the cougar:  suddenly it is there!  It crouches on a tree bough within a leap of her head; long teeth yellow and dripping, crimson hate-eyes glowering.  It wants her, it will spring!

A bow is in her hands.  An arrow is drawn.  Pull!  Pull until the string hums, until her arms have no strength left to pull.  Let it snap!  Hear the hiss of the flight, the spit of death!  See it, the hate-thing, as it springs, see its claws flash towards her face:  hear her arrow’s cleaving thud – the gasp of failing breath, the bubbling  black blood from a ruptured heart – and see it fall.

Alanee awakes in her own echo, knowing she has screamed.  Perspiration drenches her, hair wet, clinging to her scalp, the silk of her shift clammy on her skin.  Why is Dag’s image in her head?  She must pause to grieve for him, though she did not know him well.  Someone has to be there to remember, her mother had told her, the week after Kalna-meh, her man, was taken from the earth.  That is what death really is; the journey from life into memory.

Her summoner tells her it is two in the morning.  Reminding herself that she has no way of knowing what family Dag might have to mourn him, she rises, throws the sweat-laden shift from her, and goes to her rest-place to bathe.   

A time-zone away Alanee’s home village, Balkinvel, is waking.  Shellan, her friend of many years, rises from her bed, shaking her husband’s shoulder into the world while she prepares for the Makar’s call.  She stands, as Alanee once did, on her back porch, tsakal between her palms to warm them, watching the hot sun rise over the Southern Hills.  The front door will slam as her man goes for his work – he is an agrarian, a worker of the land, and it is the time of sowing – when he has left, she will dress for work at the Terminal.

And all seems well – except that it is not.

As she dresses, Shellan avoids her mirror, for she knows what she would see.  Old Malfis, the bell-ringer; what hidden talents did he display, when he made the iron masks for all the village? The village men queuing up to take one, and her man, Shellan-meh, among the first.  She probes her face with reluctant finger-tips for wounds that have not healed, places where the spikes pressed home:  at least her eyes were spared.  Shellan knows how they must look.

The Makar’s call draws her to her door, Mak-card in hand.  The little man does not meet her stare, has no remark, no word.  He takes her card in silence, withdraws.  In the street, the migration to work has begun; the lame, wounded, disfigured women, making their way to the Terminal. Shellan, as one of the few with sight, leads a train of those less fortunate than she.  Malfis, a man with agony inside, watches as they pass.  How could he have done all this, yet still suffer the appetites he has?

They are fewer, these women.  They limp with damaged ankles and they massage livid, itching wrists compulsively as they walk.  They do not speak, either to old Malfis or among themselves – they dare not, lest they share the thoughts that ferment inside their heads.  A sharp breeze finds its way through the gap in the street where Alanee’s house once stood, ruffling unkempt hair, scratching unhealed skin with the Hakaan Plain’s red, unforgiving dust.  Here, where Carla walked, there will be a new manager now.  Here was Merra’s sister’s place before her man drove a spike through her brain.  They, with a dozen more, were buried in the dead-field last night-fall.  Namma alone lies unburied.  When her body was examined she was found to be pregnant, and that is a damning sin.  She will be exposed for the crows on the Terminal roof come evening.

This breeze can never again freshen heads clouded by fear, hearts besieged by doubt.  No-one who returns to their home tonight will go without turning to listen or watch as a little party of elders bear Namma to her rest, and no-one goes through their door to face their man without some measure of dread.  There will be no honey-cakes for tea.

#

Dag’s mind is wandering now, his pain dulled by the narcosis of hunger, he hovers in time.  Is it day or night?  There are raindrops on his lips which he drinks, though not knowingly.  He can then feel the roughness of the tree-bough upon which he lies, the stub of a minor branch in his back, probably impaling him, certainly keeping him from the terminal agony of a fall.  He can remember that somehow he hauled himself here, driven by a survival instinct he did not know he possessed, in the belief that the tree would keep him safe through the night.

He drifts.

His music.  He is dancing.  It is Celebration Dawn and he is dancing.  And she – the woman – what was her name?  She is opposite him, and she is going through her moves, following the choreography of attraction – hair about her shoulders, slow undulation of hips, arched back, fluid beneath a shift of thin, clinging blue; but she is bored, disinterested….at any moment she will move away, find another partner…

His eyes open sharply.  Dag is back, the pain is back, the present is back.  The memories are back.

Last night, when he thought to have been safe; after the anguish of labouring for an hour against his failing strength and the fire inside him; lying exhausted here, still no more than two metres above the ground, he had dropped into unconsciousness or sleep.

What slight movement, then, had stirred him?  When did he know he was not alone on that bough, that something large and heavy, with flaring red eyes and hot scentless breath shared it with him?

Wood is a tensile, living thing.  He can feel it flex and bend beneath another’s weight.  He felt it then, knew the creature behind those eyes was coiled to spring.  Moving his head he saw it, too, saw the fangs in the light of an unkind moon.  Fumbling for his knife: wet cloth of his pocket clinging to him, stopping him from drawing it cleanly, and the creature back on its haunches, front paws with their raking talons raised.  The bouncing release of the branch as it leapt – the end?

The merciful, the inevitable end?

A hiss and a thud:  reverberation of a taut string.  A great bestial yowl as an arrow took the life from the monster so powerfully and decisively it twisted back upon itself in mid-flight, then the brush of its flank as it crashed past him into the undergrowth below: sounds of brief convulsive moments on the journey to an afterlife, then stillness.

Trapped by his pain, Dag could only move his head enough to catch a glimpse of his saviour, the incongruous soldier figure at the foot of the tree.  By moonlight it was only possible to see an outline; epaulettes of a uniform, the bow that had delivered the arrow.  He had no voice for his gratitude and it seemed his saviour wanted none, for he turned and marched away with the stumbling ungainliness of a string puppet, the sounds of his blundering and crashing progress diminishing into the night.

And now it is morning.  He cannot move, or clamber from the tree: he cannot eat.  All Dag can do is stare up into the canopy and the grey skies beyond, listening to the roar of the river, the songs of the birds.  Everything around him is eternal.  Soon he too, will be a part of that eternity.

#

Alanee’s summoner drags her from a fitful sleep.  It is Sala.

“Alanee-ba.  Come and watch the Spring Rising!”

“The what?”

Still little more than half awake, she greets Sala at her door.

“Come on, ba, get dressed,”  Sala gives her a perfunctory hug, kisses her cheek.  “We must hurry, or someone will pinch our place at Toccata’s.”

Despite the hour (the sun has not yet risen) the corridors, the avenues, the squares of the City all seethe with a sort of industrial hum as people bustle to and fro in determined mood, their faces set between purpose and joy.  Passing couples fizz with expectant dialogue, muttered, earnest words which betray serious concerns.  In the Grand Park a screen has been raised, and comic short films are being shown to entertain a gathering crowd.

Sala explains:  “This is a very important time for the City.  The sunrise this morning is considered a prophecy for the year to come:  all the younger ones will turn out to watch.  It’s quite an event, if only because we never know when to expect it!  It is really early this year, Alanee-bah.  I’m not sure if that is a good sign or a bad one.”

“How do you know when it’s coming?”

“The temperature.  Last night the land did not freeze – the snow began to melt.  The Balna is almost in flood, apparently.   Oh, don’t worry!”  Sala says when she sees Alanee’s look of concern:  “It’s the same every year!”

They discover Toccata amidst a small riot of importunate clients.  He is beside himself and looking almost dishevelled:  “Oh darlings, you’re here!  Such relief!  I am being mobbed, my dears; mobbed!  At this Habbach-forsaken hour – I ask you!  Come quickly now – I kept you your seats, aren’t I a sweetie?”

They follow as he minces at speed among the curtained booths:  this place is as wired as anywhere in the City – there are burbling conversations from every direction and Alanee wonders how many covers Toccata can cram in.

“It’s much larger than it looks.”  Sala confides as they settle themselves before their window.  “I don’t know how he does it.”

Tsakal arrives, with perl chasers (Alanee’s tastes are growing in their sophistication), as promptly as ever.  Beyond the window the world is still in darkness, though a ribbon of blue lies across the distant mountains, harbinger of a rising sun.

Alanee tells of her nightmare.  “Really strange.  That terrible creature!  Somehow I know it had something to do with this aerotran pilot – the one who brought me here?  Dag his name was.  I don’t know why I dreamed of him, I really don’t know him very well at all.”

Sala looks grave.  “Dreams at a time of prophecy have great meanings, ba.  Dag Svenner, would it have been?  He’s missing, you know.  His aerotran crashed somewhere in Dometia.”

“Oh, he’s dead, I know.  I was sorry when I was told.  How did you hear about him?”

“The whole of the lower city is a-buzz with the story.  Something very odd is going on in Dometia, though nobody will say what it is.  I think I met Dag Svenner once at a party on the West Side.  Very handsome – a nice man.  You have good tastes, my ba.”

There is a reproachful note to Sala’s voice Alanee cannot miss.  She sips tsakal from her cup for a moment, then says, half to herself:  “It isn’t you, Sala-ba.  It honestly is not.  You are my friend, maybe the best friend I have had in all my life.  But I think I know now what laskali is, and I don’t think it is for me.”

Sala reaches over to clasp her hand.  “I do see that, Alanee.  I do.  Please, don’t be afraid of hurting me?  Love doesn’t always travel the same road.”  She pauses, unless a catch in her throat should give her away.  “Anyway, Dag is quite exceptional.  He would make a good coupling for you.”

“Well, he would.”  Alanee allows herself a cynical laugh:  “Being dead is a bit of a problem, though.”

“If he is.”

“If?”  Alanee’s heart misses several beats.

“He’s listed missing, not dead.  They discovered the wreck of his aerotran in a ravine, but he wasn’t inside it.  They’ve been looking for him – quite hard, as it happens: unusually hard.  Some ration wrappers were found, but then the trail went cold.  How do I know that?  Well, yesterday I was in the company of another rather nice man, the aerotran controller for the eastern sector.  I’m not a complete laskal, you see!”

“He’s alive!”  Alanee does not mean to let her face light up so obviously.

Sala laughs.  “So you are just a tiny bit interested?  I didn’t say he was alive, only that he wasn’t killed by the crash.  That was three days ago now, nearly four.  He could have been injured badly, in which case he wouldn’t survive long out there.  The place isn’t exactly hospitable.  This guy doesn’t hold out much hope.”

“Just how well do you know this aerotran controller?

“Somewhat better after last night – that’s all I’m prepared to say.”  Sala grins conspiratorially:  “Except perhaps that his areas of expertise are not entirely confined to aerotrans.”

“Can you find out more for me, I mean, like where he crashed?  I would like to know.”

“Darling, you’re asking me to lengthen what ought to be a blissful but brief relationship.  I’ll do what I can.  Still, now!  Dawn is coming!”

Both women direct their attention to the glass and the drama that lies beyond.  For between two eastern mountain peaks the sun’s livid hemisphere is creeping into view, scoring its first rays with a draughtsman’s certainty straight to the windows of the Consensual City.  In minutes a dawn mist cloaking the Balna valley is painted scarlet, within which the spectral silhouettes of treetops amid and beyond the gardens; elegantly dressed spruce, naked elm, plane, lime, slivers of acer and rowan spell out a message of Cyrillic mystery.  Finally the sun, fully risen, draws aside the curtains of mist to find the virgin snow of the meadows, painting them with a delicate blush.  The message here is brilliant and unmistakeable, for all who wait for new birth.  As it climbs higher above the mountains this bold sun declares its colours, shines through melting sheaths of ice that case each branch and twig, wakens the sap in everything that has hope enough to grow.  The sky is clear and, as yet, remains the ice-blue of winter.  But a warm prescription for the coming day is written upon it, and – not for the first time this morning – Alanee’s heart is filled with optimism.

Together the friends watch the coming; they do not speak.  They do not speak until the sun is too bright for their eyes, until their faces feel its touch upon them.  Then a consensual murmur of mutual relief rises among all of Toccata’s clients, and at last Sala can trust herself to pronounce the prophecy; “It is a good year.  Oh, Alanee-ba, it will be a wonderful summer!”  Her face is almost as radiant as the light itself.  “Celebrations!  Come on!”

“Celebrations?”

“Yes, yes, yes!  Drink up now and hurry, the party will be starting already!”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo credit: Janosch Diggelman on Unsplash

Featured

Continuum – Episode Fourteen: Emanation Games

The Story so Far:

While Ripero is struggling in the wilderness to get help for his gravely wounded companion,  Alanee, far from her home beneath the eternal sun of the Hakaan, is coping with a northern winter in the City, as much as she is dealing with the man-child Hasuga’s strange whims; so when he invites her to his garden, she is shocked to find not an ice-bound outdoor winter scene but bright summer, apparently laid on for her benefit…

“No, No!  You are an infantryman and I am a dissident.  You march past me while I am hiding in the bushes, see?”

“Alright.”  The sun is a warm blessing so badly missed: bees and birdsong, the things of summer.  Alanee would stretch out on the warm grass, accept them.   “Can’t we just enjoy your garden for a minute?”  She has endured ten minutes of marching up and down to Hasuga’s increasingly complicated commands, making him laugh at her comic contortions.  Now she is hot: she would rest.

“You’re not being a proper soldier.  Proper soldiers don’t enjoy gardens!”

“I’m sure some of them must.”

“You’re like ‘Mother’.  She gets tired quickly.  I used to get tired, but I don’t now.”

“I’m not tired, I’m hot.  It was mid-winter last time I looked.”

Surely – surely not?  The cool breeze across her cheek just then would have to be coincidence, wouldn’t it?  She looks at Hasuga, catches his artful smile.

“I’ll do my best.”  She says.  “You’d better hide.”

The grass is so inviting; verdant and soft as swan’s-down.  These performances, Alanee tells herself, are just the things a mother might do for her child, were the child to have every bit of his own way.  This child?  Well, this child would be certain to have his own way!  Ludicrous as her position feels, she had better get used to it.  She waits at the far end of the garden while Hasuga pretends to hide behind a rhododendron, then begins to walk as a soldier, she imagines, might walk.

“No!”  Hasuga hisses from behind his bush. “You’re a soldier.  March!”

Obediently, stifling her laughter, Alanee goose-steps.  But why is it so hard to keep her feet?  Her balance feels confused …

Ripero has been working his way south, following the river valley, for some eight hours now and he is tired.  By turns he has stumbled among the great stones that line the water’s edge, or clambered higher to beat his way through the trees:  whichever route he chooses the going is difficult, near to impossible at times.  He is fairly certain there are wild creatures in the woods; many, by their sound, he would not like to meet – yet the trees offer cover, and cover offers safety.  So he uses them when he can, remembering his father’s dire advice when they hunted the pack-wolf together:  “You never hear the one that kills you.”

The sun is low in the western sky and the valley deep in evening shade.  Soon Ripero will need to find a place to sleep.   His first intention, to travel both by night and day, is unfeasible:  the way is too dangerous; he might injure himself in the darkness.  Besides, the promise he gave when he left Dag by the river side, was empty.  He knows, knew by the look of the man that he was dying.  By now, perhaps, it is mercifully over

At first she thinks she must be drunk – but how?  She has taken nothing this morning that would make her so.  Can this child-thing get inside her body, affect her equilibrium?  She falls; climbs to her feet – and as quickly falls again.  It is as if the ground beneath her is sometimes there, sometimes missing, like stepping into space…

Tomorrow, he tells himself, he might try the ridge – climb out of the valley on its western side:  he is pondering this when he hears the noise.  Somewhere, not too far ahead, something is scrambling towards him along the bank.  At the moment it is beyond the next bend, but approaching rapidly.

Fearing a wild animal (but no animal, surely, could sound so clumsy?) Ripero hastens over the rocks that separate him from the trees.  Here wild rhododendrons offer a good hiding place:  he climbs the steep bank into their midst, and when he is sure he is no longer visible from the river, he crouches down to watch, and wait

From around the bend there emerges into view an improbably slight male figure dressed in the olive fatigues of a soldier.  More improbably still, this soldier is attempting to goose-step parade-ground style, with his gun at slope and arm swinging.  It is a preposterous task over such boulder-strewn terrain and he falls repeatedly, banging helmeted head, arms, legs, every part of him against the rocks.  At the bend he even falls in the water; yet rises again, blunders on once more in military stride, with a look upon his face so confused he might be a stringed puppet rather than a real person.

She is giggling helplessly now.  Her ineptitude is comical – arms and legs everywhere – trying to stand, let alone walk – but nothing works.

Ripero adjudges the interloper mad and therefore dangerous, because he has no doubt that the weapon he carries is real and what can be more dangerous than a madman with a gun?  He resolves to remain hidden until this demented creature has tumbled from view.  All the same he is curious to know why the soldier is here, why he behaves as he does.  Whether it is this curiosity that makes him lean forward or just the weakness of the branches that hold him is uncertain.  That his cover should give way from beneath him with a splitting sound, is unfortunate; that the soldier should look up at that particular moment – that will be fatal.

Alanee, her balance gone, lies helpless and not entirely uncomfortably upon the grass.  She turns as she hears the ‘dissident’ Hasuga rushing from the rhododendron bush to attack her:  she points two fingers in imitation of a gun.

“Erm…..bang?”  She says, a little timidly.

The blast takes Ripero full in the chest.  He is dead before he falls.

Hasuga finds his balance almost miraculously.  Alanee, after a moment of sheer terror when she sees him stumble – she wonders again what her fate would be if he came to harm in her charge – laughs in relief.

“I got you.  You’re a dead dissident!”  She sits up:  “One more blow for the free world!  What,” she ventures an impudent poke at one of those strong shoulders, “don’t you like to lose?”

“You weren’t trying!”  He accuses her.  “You were – what did you call it – sunbathing?”

“No, I fell over.  I couldn’t keep my feet for some reason – it was so weird!  Sunbathing is when you lie like this and let the sun warm your skin.”  She draws her robe up to her thighs and stretches back on the grass, grinning up at him wickedly.  “Anyway, I still won.”  She catches sight of the long finger of the watchtower high overhead, stabbing at the sky.  “And you’re overlooked.  Do they spy on you?”

He is looking down on her with an expression of intense interest.  She thinks she is being examined, but not in a way that makes her too uncomfortable, though she does tug self-consciously at the edge of her robe.

“Yes, perhaps you did win.”  Hasuga acknowledges.

“No ‘perhaps’ about it.  Bang!  Right in the chest!”  She raises the ‘gun’ hand and blows across its imagined muzzle.  “You’re dead.”

“So I am.”  He sits beside her, feels his chest with probing fingers, as if the hole were really there, smiles beatifically.  Yet in his eyes there is distance, as if he is considering some deep, essential equation.  Then he says:  “I have waited a long time for this game.”

“Are you sure?  It seemed pretty lame to me.  Better than your last attempt, but not very imaginative – not brilliant, do you think?”

“It was not Braillec, but it will suffice.  I suppose you could do much better?”

“Braillec?”  There is some serious undercurrent to this conversation which does not complement Alanee’s mood.  She decides to try her feet again.

I suppose,”  She discovers she can stand without trouble, so she begins to walk back towards the Palace interior:  “I suppose we are both getting too old for games.”

“Childhood games?”  He tags along beside her, his expression mischievous.  “Can you offer alternatives?”

The question stops her in her tracks.  “Is that what I am really here for?”  She asks quietly.

“What do you mean?”  Hasuga’s riposte has a startling innocence that puts her at ease.  He actually is a child, then: has no-one explained the changes that are happening to him?

He walk with his curious prancing stride saying nothing.  Alanee knows that inside that giant dome he is finding his own answers.

At Hasuga’s instigation, they return to his room.

“I sleep at this time.  Mother puts me to bed for an hour. Mother isn’t here.”  He says, this time with affected innocence:  “Would you like to put me to bed?”

His inference is unmistakeable.

“No.”  Alanee is abrupt.  “At two thousand, you’re old enough to put yourself to bed.”

Without waiting for a riposte, she leaves him there.  Whatever her fate as a result, she is sure there is one path she does not want to take, and she will not give him the satisfaction of seeing her blush.  In the elevator as she returns to the Palace lobby, his voice follows her:  “I could make you come back!”

“You could;” She replies:  “but you won’t.”

#

Calling the Inner High council to emergency session has driven Valtor the Convenor to the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“Sire Trebec sends his apologies.”  He announces to those he has managed to assemble in the Inner Chamber.  “Affairs in Braillec demand his presence.”

“Sires greet you.”  The Lord High Domo says, immediately Valtor has withdrawn.  “Let us dispense with formalities.  Lady Ellar?”

Ellar takes a deep breath.  “In what order may I take this?”

“Chronologically is usually best.”  Portis advises. 

“Very well Sire.  Two days since, we introduced Lady Alanee to Sire Hasuga.  Hasuga chose to make it a game (without either my own or the Mother’s prior knowledge)  in which he tortured her to a dangerous degree.  Proctor Remis knows the ramifications…”

“Reports of serious abuse are still coming in,” the Proctor interjects. “especially from the Hakaan, There may have been several deaths.”

The Domo grimaces:  “The usual filters?”

Portis says:  “Did not work, My Lord.  Either because the emanations were very strong and compulsive – much larger than anything we have experienced hitherto – or because we were taken by surprise: a little of each, I suspect.”

The Domo:  “Very well.  Go on, Lady Ellar.”

“Yesterday I received a constant stream of distress signals from the Mother. I obtained an intervention order to bring her out last night.  She is in my chambers now.”

The Domo raises a slow eyebrow:  “In your Chambers?”

“I did not know where else to take her, My Lord.  She is quite possibly beyond recovery.  Sire Hasuga has…”  Ellar bites her lip.  “forgive me, Sires, if I utter any perceived blasphemy.  Hasuga has been questioning her in a quite specific manner; questions she has never been programmed to answer.”

Cassix intervenes:  “Then forgive me too, for I heard this story first.  Put simply, Hasuga was asking about copulation.  As you know, those groomed to be the Mother have traditionally been taken as innocents from their community.  He probed her brain for knowledge she does not have.”  .

“He has scourged her mind,”  Ellar explains.  “Raked every thought from her – left her with no more than a shell of her former intelligence.”

“Who is looking after Hasuga now?”  The Proctor asks.

“No-one.”  Ellar replies.  “Hasuga is effectively looking after himself.”

“And what emanations have we had from Hasuga today?”  The Domo’s voice has lowered.

“Mercifully few.”  Portis replies.  “An extremely strong one this morning, product we believe of a game involving himself and Lady Alanee, but it was directed, and we cannot trace its outcome.  Otherwise…”

The Domo wears his most brooding of frowns. “‘Otherwise’?  Go on, Portis, please?  Let us know our fate.”

“Otherwise a constant stream of inquisitive thinking about sexual issues, very little of which can get past the filters, fortunately.  His mind seems focussed.  I understand this evening he has summoned his physician, for whatever reason.  One hopes that will lead to a diversion.”

The Domo nods.  “Very well, we must deliberate.  Lady Ellar, please withdraw.”

Cassix, who sits by Ellar, places a restraining hand on her arm.  “Sires, I would like to move Lady Ellar’s election to High Council.”

This gains a startled look from Ellar and an arrowed glance from Portis:  “Out of the question!  Election to High Council requires study of certain books and articles – years of learning.  We can’t just promote someone upon an impulse!”

“Desperate times require desperate measures, Sire.  Lady Ellar has proved her gifts for intercession in our relationship with Hasuga on several occasions.  In order to speak freely on these matters she has to share our immunity to the limiter; and with respect I suggest we need her contribution.”

Ellar feels the Domo’s stare:  “It is a substantial break with tradition.  Lady Ellar, is that your wish?”

“I had not thought of it, My Lord, but my limiter is a constant burden, it is true.  Any assistance I can render, of course… I would be honoured…”  Ellar stumbles to a halt.

The Domo glances around the table.  Seeing no dissent, he nods.  “We will put it to full Council.  In the meanwhile, please stay as a witness.  Portis will arrange restriction of your limiter.”  He turns to Cassix:  “Reassure me, Seer, that my worst fears are not realised?”

Cassix spreads his hands:  “We all knew that when we advanced his age we would enter this pass, yet without the advancement we would have lost him altogether.  None of us could foretell…”

“You are the Seer, Cassix.”  Portis interrupts curtly.  “Is that not your task?”

“You levelled that barb at me before, Sire.  I gave you my answer. No-one, not even a Seer, may predict Hasuga’s path.  To do so would be blasphemy:  I am not a blasphemer.”

The Domo raises his hand.  “Matters are as they are.  We have lost our influence upon Hasuga’s emanations, and there it is.  He may play with the people in a completely ungovernable way now, and all we may do is watch – is that our position, because that is very much my dread?  Lady Ellar, you seem disposed to speak?”

“My Lord, we never had that influence.  All a Mother could ever do was contain the wilder aspects of it.  All we could ever do was hone the result.  Our problem is more in the nature of the emanations, and there we may have far greater leverage, if that is a permitted word, than ever before.”

The Domo glares at her.  Portis’s look is nothing short of baleful.  “The woman Alanee you mean; the great experiment?  Now we have her in place I see her as the author of most of our troubles, and very far from being their solution.”

Ellar persists.  “The Mother system that served us through the age of innocence cannot function now without some other support.  All adolescent children are sexually inquisitive, all adolescent children rebel.  A ‘Mother is not equipped to deal with either, I have testimony to that sleeping in my chambers now.  But the evidence would suggest this Alanee woman can have enormous influence.  In that respect I think our experiment is a success.  Hasuga spends a great deal of his time watching her.  He unquestionably favours her.”

“And the type of influence you advocate is blasphemy!”  Portis’s anger explodes.

“Could it be;” Ellar murmurs quietly; “the time has come to re-define our interpretation of that word?”

Portis’s response is very like a harrumph.  “Bold sentiments for so new a High Councillor!”

“We all have to adapt somewhat.”  Cassix reasons:  “Hasuga to puberty, ourselves to the management of his powers in a new way.  The ‘Mother’ system may need to be re-programmed, but let us not forget how we all rely upon Hasuga’s will reaching the people.  If we introduce the right influences that may happily continue:  if we do not; if we hesitate or choose another way…”

“Yes, what then, Cassix?” The Domo’s tone is dangerously low.

“Then we shall have failed the people.  I ask you to consider: allow the Lady Alanee full knowledge, so she completely understands what she does.  Then let her fulfil the natural role Hasuga will plan for her.  That was, after all, our intention.”

Remis raises a sceptical eyebrow.  “Was it?  Give him a concubine, you mean? And invest her with enormous power.  Power over us all, I dare say.”

“No, no; that’s extreme.”  Portis demurs.  “She is mortal.  She can always be stopped.”

“Who knows where it will lead?  I doubt even Hasuga does at this stage.”  Cassix draws a sharp breath from one or two around the table.  “This is destiny, Sires.  As far as we can tell, the woman is unique:  her force of personality is much too strong to allow Hasuga to use her as you infer.  Let her have that power.  See how she employs it.”

The Domo shakes a weighty head.  “Destiny!  Habbach preserve us from destiny.  And if this woman should lie with him?  What then?  What would a child of our Lord Hasuga be?  What might that bring?”

Cassix demurs:  “I’m informed she shows no physical interest in him.”

“Things have a habit of changing.”  comments the Domo.  “Very well, Cassix, let us ride your wagon.  But I greet this new age with a leaden heart.  Does everyone agree?”

Nods of assent come, reluctantly, from every side of the small gathering.

“Then we adjourn.”

The meeting, however, continues in the corridor outside:  Portis with Proctor Remis, in subdued tones, agreeing to contact Trebec urgently:  Cassix and Ellar also conferring quietly, not wishing to be overheard.

“Thank you for your recommendation.  Will the High Council truly count me among their number?”

“I shall see that they do.  Now, how do you intend to proceed?”

“I’ll brief the Lady Alanee.”

“It was a very loose agreement.  Were I you I would take Portis with you when you confront the woman.  Be sure you have agreed the format for the meeting, and everything that should be said.”

“I would rather you were present, Cassix.”

Cassix shakes his head.  “We are sufficiently factionalised as it is.  This one is a bridge we must build.  Take Portis; he is wise enough to see where his path lies.”

Cassix bids Ellar good night, walking away with the words of the High Councillors still rotating in his head.  And he wonders, in passing, how long it has been since anyone mentioned The Dream.

He would go to his bed, the Seer, with all the burdens he must carry:  but the Continuum calls him – that furious tumult in his sky grows with every hour now – so that he is drawn through the Inner Courtyard by some invisible thread.   The stairway to the Watchtower will be a long one tonight.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

Apologies to all my blogging friends….

…who I have failed to visit or comment upon this week.

Having discovered I could neither ‘like’ nor add comments to the blogs of my followers I immediately started taking the toys from my pram and throwing them at WordPress.

Sorry, WordPress!

WP directed me to Firefox, I directed Firefox to the trash and thereafter sought the Chrome People, who took me to their hearts, told me all about myself and made themselves my default browser.

Sharing information, in case anyone else out there is having similar difficulties, I converted to Google Chrome , and all my troubles are now out of sight. I never thought I’d say this, but Google good, Firefox bad (and I must stop taking so many pills…)

Featured

Continuum – Episode Thirteen: Suspended in Time

The Story so far:

Alanee persuades Sala to take her outside the City, where they discuss Sala’s past, and Alanee remarks upon the absence of the City’s children.  The pair’s relationship deepens and there are moments when it might become more, but Alanee is unable to return Sala’s feelings. 

Ellar finds Cassix the Seer in the watchtower as he studies portents in the sky. She comments upon Hasuga’s interest in Alanee, the screens he has in his room that are dedicated to observing her.  Cassix reassures her:  whatever is in Hasuga’s head is part of the greater plan.

“What is this place?”  Ripero must shout to be heard.

Dag replies honestly:  “I don’t know.”

“You’re an aerotran pilot!  You must have seen everything , been everywhere!”

“I still don’t know.”  Dag admits.  “Although I’ve crossed these hills a lot of times everything looks so different from the ground; I don’t recall this at all.”

They stand upon a ridge overlooking the steep sides of a tree-clad valley.  To the north of them, no more than a quarter-of-a-mile away, the ground rises by a sheer granite face to a plateau, beyond which, in blue distance, the horizon is crenelated by a battlement of mountains.  From the edge of the plateau a mighty waterfall spouts, forcing out from the rock in one foaming leap to a small lake at its foot, filling their ears with its constant fury.  Four or five hundred yards south the lake narrows to a river, and the river winds in white water over rapids until it disappears into mist, for the valley runs southward as far as their eyes can see.

This place is the more remarkable because in their last three days the pair have walked through featureless hills riven of life, a moonscape of charred rock and grey ash.  It has been in so many ways an epic journey, with only Dag’s survival rations to keep them alive. 

Since the massacre on the plain they have seen no more aerotrans, but Dag’s injuries have constantly slowed them down.  The damage to his back has healed – the damage inside has not.  Sharp agonies assail him now, forcing him to stop for long periods with his whole body clenched against the pain.  Privately he knows he must find medical help quickly, or succumb.  Now comes water: now comes hope.

It is a physical change: a matter of a step; one pace from wasteland to grassland.   The contour that follows the summit of the ridge might be a pencilled line in the drawing of a child, one side coloured grey, the other green.  By commiting themselves to scramble down the sharp, grass-clad gradient Ripero and Dag cross this margin, and leave the desolation of Dometia behind them.

“This river;”  Ripero shouts over his shoulder;  for Dag’s progress is slow and he is already well ahead.  “It must be the Fass, yes?”

Dag has paused to gain breath.  “Maybe.”

“Maybe?  How ‘maybe’?  We have been crossing the Fassland Range, have we not?  We were bound to come to the river.  Yes, this is the Fass.”  Ripero affirms for his own benefit.  “So all we have to do is follow it south and we come to Ax-Pallen!  Civilisation!”

“Maybe.”  Dag repeats, half to himself.  The Fass, if he recalls correctly, is followed along the length of its course by a road – where is the road?  Nether has he any memory of the Fass falling from a high plateau in so dramatic a fashion, but then so many of his memories are confused now; like the size and scale of the area known as the Fassland Hills; which are far smaller in his recollection than the journey they have made would suggest.

“Have you thought what we will do if we manage to reach civilisation?”  He calls out.  “Whoever controls those aerotrans will have patrols there too.”

Ripero does not reply.  Perhaps he would rather not: or perhaps he is just too far ahead to hear.  Wearily, Dag hoists himself to his feet and follows.  It will be an hour before he reaches the river.

#

For a second time Alanee stands in the elevator to the palace’s nursery apartments.  She is alone.

At sunrise the bell of her summoner had dragged her from a sleep .

“Come and see me.”  The voice was instantly recognisable – after the terrors of the dungeon ‘game’ she could never forget it; “Come soon.”

She had bathed, put on the robe ‘Mother’ had provided for her, slid that annoying gold identity bracelet over her wrist and, rather nervously because she was unused to moving in the palace without escort, crossed the frosty courtyard to the Great Hall.  No-one had accosted her.  The elevator stood open, waiting.  As she stepped inside its doors closed behind her.

She remembers everything she saw of the nightmare child’s apartment.  This is as well, for if she expects to be greeted by Mother at the elevator entrance she will be disappointed.  When the elevator door opens there is no-one to welcome her; the foyer is deserted, s Alanee makes her own way to the bedroom where she last saw Hasuga.  The door of that room is open.  Hasuga is there, sitting upon his bed, dressed in a suit of green and gold.

“Come in, Lady Alanee, you are welcome.  What do you think of my room?”

“Bizarre!” is Alanee’s instinctive response.  The room is sparely lit, what illumination there is entering through a window behind the bed in the form of a weak sunrise diffused by cloud.  Two chairs, the only straightforward furnishings the room has to offer, face the bed, while the walls and the ceiling are lined with large screens playing silent abstract colour patterns like seascapes, but yet seeming to impart no light to the room.  The floor has the appearance of raw steel:  Alanee cannot understand how her feet sink into it as though it were deep floor-foam.  Lemon bedclothing is strewn across the bed, which is a simple futon supported by a pedestal leg – a table swings across Hasuga’s knees from the wall behind it on what should be a reticulating arm if it did not look so much like a live snake, its head flattened and broadened into a surface upon which a small glass of liquid rests.  Beginning by the bed, a serpentine structure of bewildering complexity, in places more than a three feet high, runs by creeps and leaps across at least one-third of the floor.  Alanee has to step around it to reach either of the chairs.  Within its honeycomb frame are incorporated motors, micro-circuits, wheels, box sections and orbs whose function she cannot attempt to explain, any more than she can explain the little tableaux that appear magically within it; hologram figures of people, or models of tiny buildings. When she concentrates upon any one of these scenes, it grows in size, becomes animated:  two traders arguing in a market-place, a lonely ploughman with his horse striving against a hill, three elderly women singing a queer, tuneless song.  It is beyond explanation.

 Hasuga  waves to a chair:  “Please be comfortable Lady Alanee.”  His back is to the window so she can barely see his face.

“No games?”

He does not answer.  Her eyes are drawn back to the traders, now on the verge of blows.

“This,”  she says, indicating the honeycomb structure; “What is it?”

“It is whatever I want it to be.”

“I would guess you have a gift for stopping conversations.”  Alanee says.

He laughs – a kind of high-pitched crackling sound.

“Why am I here?”  She asks.  “Where – why – who?  There are too many questions.  I’d like some answers.”

“Life is composed of questions. Yesterday I was a child, now I am not.  That is a question.”

Alanee shakes her head impatiently.  “All right then, Sire Hasuga.  You are a mystery to me; to most, it seems.  I’m not allowed to speak of you, no-one is.  If those I have met here are aware of you, they are sworn to secrecy, but I don’t think they are aware of you.  I’m not even sure you exist for them.  If you’re some massive secret or something,I want to know why!  And I want to know what you intend doing with me?”

“Then I shall try to answer.”  Hasuga pushes his snakes-head table aside and slips forward to the edge of his bed, leaning elbows on knees as he looks at the floor, exposing the width and depth of his great head.  “This – this is what I am.  This has grown for over two thousand years, because that is my age.”  Alanee does not hide her incredulity.  “Yes, it is true. Not such a child now, am I?  Though that’s what I was, a child suspended in time, until I became so ill I had to change.

“I have lived here, eaten, slept, played games for two thousand years.  I do not know why.  Those who look after me are kind and loving, and I understand the concept of love, but can you imagine what my life is like?  I am never permitted to go outside, further than my private garden and you are right; other than the High Council, my courtier friends of the Inner Palace, the drabs who help me construct my games and now you, no-one is allowed near me.  I ask, often, believe me.  We are both prisoners, Lady Alanee.

“They brought you to me.  They bring you and as to why I am no wiser than you at first; but yesterday I began to see.  The treatment they used upon me to induce my next stage of growing is working great tricks within this (Hasuga taps his head with a long finger) and there is a lot that is new.  You are new – very new.”

Alanee is puzzled.  Can he really have no idea why she has been brought into his life – and if he doesn’t, who does?  “Who pulls the strings?”  Did she mean to say the words aloud?

“Oh, the High Council.  I’m sure of that.” Hasuga looks up, eyes sparkling.  “I’m glad they brought you.  I’m bored with questions now.  Can we play a game?”

“Game?”

“I wouldn’t hurt you again.  I wouldn’t!”

“Alright then, in a minute.”  Alanee finds herself talking to him as she would a child.  She cannot help herself.  It has a surprising effect upon Hasuga, who draws back, looking quite alarmed.  “Before we do, one more question.  How am I ‘different’?”

“I cannot answer that now.  I can’t rationalize it, even to myself.  When I find out I will help all I can, I promise.  Now, would you like to be my Mummy?”

This sets Alanee’s mind into a complete panic.  As she stumbles to find an answer, Hasuga adds:  “It’s just a game, of course!”

“Where is your mother?”

“I don’t know – she went away this morning, or last night, or something.  She hasn’t come back.  Anyway, she isn’t really my mother; I have had countless ‘mothers’.  I’m bored with her.  I think you are going to be my next one.  I think – I don’t know – that’s the plan.  Would you love me?”

“Until you get bored with me?”  Alanee mutters acidly.  Is that really the plan?

“I don’t think I’d get bored with you very soon.  You are….”

“I know,  I’m different.”

“I was going to say you are very nice to look at.  I thought about you all last night.”

And I thought about you, Alanee responds, but not aloud.  She would keep that information to herself.  Had she any idea of the significance of the screen above Hasuga’s habbarn she might have said more.  “Let’s just play your game, and get it over with.  Now, if I am to be your Mummy, what would I do?”

“Yes!  Yes!   You are my lovely Mummy!”  The room is lighter now.  Alanee sees the artful look on Hasuga’s face.  “You could take me into the garden!  We could play soldiers in the garden!”

Alanee regards the frosty air beyond the window dubiously:  “I’m not sure that would be a good idea.  It looks a lot too cold for little boys.”  Repulsive as she finds Hasuga, she does not relish explaining to the High Council how their two thousand year old museum exhibit froze his toes off in the snow.

Hasuga’s voice undergoes instant change.  “I want to go into the garden.  I am not a little boy!”

“If it were summer that would be different.”

“Come to the window.”

Stubborn as she feels, Alanee sees no reason not to comply.  She joins Hasuga at the window.  What she sees takes her breath completely away.

Hasuga says, in that innocent child voice again:  “Do you like my garden?”

They are at the top of the palace, this Alanee knows:  yet Hasuga’s garden, and its size must exceed an acre, is almost level with his window.  It must be possible to step straight outside.  A wall surrounds it, this space, with views beyond to the Pearl Mountains and Kess-Ta-Fe, the great needle’s summit wreathed in mist.  That should be problematic enough, for by the rules Alanee knows such a big area at this height on the palace’s structure would involve massive engineering, but she scarcely dwells upon that aspect at all.  No, it is the nature of the garden which confounds her.  It is the way the weak sunlight of early spring is suddenly the glare and intensity of high summer, the way all trace of snow is gone, and in its place are fountains, grasses, jasmine, hollyhock, rose and camelia; all the flowers of all the seasons in ebullient display.  There is no roof she can see, no protection from the elements, yet she is looking upon a summer garden, and her head cannot believe what her eyes are witnessing.

“How do you do that?”  She finds her voice.

“It is part of our game.  Can we play now?”

#

Should we be wondering where High Councillor Portis can be found, on this extraordinary morning?  Should his malign presence, deep in the bowels of the Consensual City, be of concern to us? A shift is on duty here, in a large manufacturing suite that is known to only a very few – the members of the High Council, Lady Ellar, and the operatives who work and live here.

 A shift is always on duty, for the work is endless:  tired eyes straining over desks, tired fingers probing the tiny receptors they assemble, the receivers that turn Hasuga’s will into a collective will, and which whisper in the night from every pillow to every ear throughout the world.

Portis, in the company of the department’s director, is examining one such receptor.  It lies before them, dismantled, on the director’s desk.

“There can be no electronic fault?”  Portis asks again, though he knows the answer.

“None.”  The director shakes his head.  “It is perfect.  Not only is it functioning as it should, but it is the most powerful model we have the capability to make.  Respectfully, High Councillor, if you tried it for more than a couple of nights it would send you mad.  This is a long road, you see, with this woman:  ever since she was a child:  five inspections, five replacements, each a little more powerful than its predecessor, the results always negative.  She is genuinely impervious to mind control.”

“And this was the one you took from her house at the end of last cycle?”

“When the house was demolished, yes.  We suspected a materials failure – heat is always an issue you see, with so much power – but no: it was working perfectly well when we took it out – as you see it now.”

“There is no alternative explanation?”

“None, Sire Portis.”

The High Councillor says nothing, though he has words enough to say.  For he knows there may yet be one explanation, if he can countenance it.  Safe in his apartment he might voice it, over and over to himself, just as he will admit, in his own confidence, to the rising disquiet he feels.  His City, the whole of his finely balanced world is at stake and this woman is suddenly at the hub of power, in the presence of a pubescent Hasuga; partnered by Hasuga – in league with Hasuga?  Although Cassix may have performed the service, by whose will other than Hasuga’s can she be here; and now she is, is there no button he or anyone can press that will constrain her?  The rebellious youth and the experienced, manipulative woman; together, what might they not do to the world?  He makes a private resolve, a very personal one, concerning this.  He will not, must not let it happen!  His limiter screams at him, but he cannot turn off that thought.  It will be with him until he can depose the woman, and he may not have too long to devise the means.

#

Still as stone, the hind watches.  For half of an hour now the curious animal with two legs has lain inert, its hooves – or are they paws? – motionless, its strange salty odour strong on the wind.  Her inquisitiveness has brought her ever closer, stepping down through the trees towards the river that is, after all, her regular drinking place.  As always on this journey she is poised for flight, for there are enemies in these forests that would kill her if they could.  This animal, though, does not number among those she recognises as predators and it seems that it is injured – she senses pain.  Perhaps, after all, it cannot move?

Dag sees the deer’s decision, each faltering step towards the water.  Just two paces more and it will be within range of his weapon – another five for a certain shot.  It is a pitiful little thing, this pistol from his emergency kit with just energy enough for one shot, but he hopes it will be enough.  He aims with exaggerated care, tilting the small stub-barrel in its resting place upon his forearm, waiting.  The deer moves soundlessly, descending towards him without so much as the disturbance of a twig.

Soon, very soon.

The click of the safety is unavoidable – so quiet it is veiled entirely by the merest rustle of branches in a waft of breeze – or so Dag thinks.  Yet the deer hears it.  Spring and run – hiss and crack: Dag looses off a desperate shot, but the wild thing has gone, its dappled hide vanishing into the sun-splashed undergrowth.  Despairing, the aerotran pilot sees his last hope of sustenance go with it.  For the first time in his struggle for survival, he is moved to tears.

A day has elapsed since he and Ripero discovered the river basin.  In that time they have travelled perhaps a dozen miles, following the torrent downstream as it winds between slopes of deep forest.   Progress has been slow, not just because of Dag’s injuries, but because there are no tracks – no evidence that human beings have ever reached this place.  This morning, after a night of troubled sleep, Dag has woken to reality.  The agony in his stomach and side is such that he cannot rise to his feet.  His best effort is to roll sideways enough so he can urinate, and this produces almost pure blood.

It is clear Dag can go no further, so the survivors’ best hope is for Ripero to go on alone, to bring help as soon as he finds it.  An hour after sunrise Dag watched the tall figure of the young man who once rescued him receding along the river’s edge until he disappeared from view.  He knows he will never see Ripero again.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

Nostalgic? No!…I used to be…

The De La Warr Pavilion

All nations have them: a location in their climatology where the air is at its balmiest, the sunshine hours at their longest, The winter is forbidden ‘til December and exits March the second on the dot.  By order, summer lingers through September…

No, not Camelot – or anything like the magical castle of Arthurian legend, the suggested sites for which, in England, have been banished to some very uncongenial spots, where the rain never stops falling before sundown and by eight, the morning fog has just set in.
The places whereof I speak owe nothing to the land of T.H. White’s fantasy, although to their residents they are, without doubt, intended for happily-ever-aftering.  As the seaside towns of Florida are known as ‘the Sunshine Coast’  to Americans, so the English Channel coast towns of West and East Sussex are known to the British by less flattering names, the pick of which run along the lines of ‘Costa Geriatrica’, ‘The Elephants’ Graveyard’ (thank you, Rudyard) or ‘God’s Waiting Room’.

Although largely undeserved, it is easy to see why these towns attract such disrespectful collective   titles.  As the spots furthest south that may be reached without a passport, they soak up the sun-seekers of an elder generation like sponges.  And once absorbed, the great majority only leave there in a box. 

I was a working partner running a restaurant in one of these towns, Bexhill on Sea, for some years.  My youngest son was born there.  My customer base for most of the year had an average age of seventy-six, which encouraged little in the way of long-term promotion because they were constantly ‘moving on’.  There were some precious friends and regulars with whom relationships were all too brief, and usually curtailed by a visit from a son or daughter with the news that they would no longer be able to dine with us.

There were good times, too.  The De Le Warr Pavilion was nearby, so if a show drew a crowd we always benefited with filled tables and visits from the ‘stars’.  Jon Pertwee (of Dr. Who fame) was a favorite example. After his stand-up gig at the theatre he performed another, completely spontaneously, for our customers.  An immensely funny and very generous man, he too, sadly, has ‘moved on’.

We always staffed up for these occasions, with good reason:  a well-known orchestra played an annual concert at the De La Warr.  They would eat with us after the performance, and invariably the process would cost us a number of our staff who quite rightly saw an invitation to a late date with a musician more tempting than washing crockery into the early hours!

Bexhill had its share of ‘characters’: the old lady who solved her crowd problems by stalking down the center of a busy pavement sweeping her walking stick before her like a mine detector, or the elderly matron whose garage we rented and who occupied two apartments in the most expensive block on the seafront.  One for herself and the paintings of her famous son, and another, specially air-conditioned, for her harp (my short story, ‘The Harp’, owes much of its substance to her).

There were nights, though: long, cold, hard nights when gales blew in from The Channel so fiercely they forced the restaurant doors open and sent our elderly clients scurrying for their lairs.  And truthfully those clients were themselves a minority, for there were many hundreds, or thousands more who never emerged from those faceless apartment blocks, but kept huddled in their self-imposed isolation behind their windows staring blankly at a view of the sea, waiting for visitors who never came:  for children who were too busy, or lived in countries far away.

I once nursed a pint or two with one I counted as a friend, who was very wise, as together we discussed the meaning of wealth.  Eddie, who was a soldier of fortune and had seen a lot more of the world than I, had a view of financial probity which has, with the years, become very much my own – a philosophy which says there is a finite amount of benefit to be gained from money in the world, and every little that is gained, is at the expense of someone else.  Eddie viewed those apartment blocks as prisons, called their tenants unkindly ‘the meaningless rich’.   When I took him to task on that, he replied thus:

“After your first seventy years, money has no meaning.  You work all your life scrounging and scraping to achieve wealth; worry, connive, scheme, and for what?  To sit on your own behind one of those windows watching as it ebbs away.”

Featured

Continuum – Episode Twelve Thresholds

The story so far:

Alanee has met Hasuga, the man-child so revered by the High Council f the City, and been warned by Ellar the Mediant never to divulge what passes between them.   Sala discovers Alanee in the wake of that meeting, sitting out in the snow, and angry rather than afraid of what has passed.

Meanwhile Dag Swenner and his rescuer Ripero struggle to find their way back to civilization after the devastation caused by the mysterious ‘wall’ of cold fire.  Out on the scorched earth of the plains they see a bunch of survivors heading towards them, only to have their hopes dashed as a flight of aerotrans savagely gun the survivors down…

With unsteady hands, Dag turns his new friend away from the dreadful scene and edges him down into a crevasse where he hopes they will both escape notice, if the aerotrans have not already sought them out.  As they press their bodies into the rock the only word Ripero can manage is:  “Why?”

Dag shakes his head.  “I can’t tell you.  I wish I knew.”

In his heart the grief is deeper, because in all his life he has never seen violent death.  Yes, he has known it happen:  in the meaningless, motiveless, so futile wars that drop from a capricious heaven once and again, wars that cripple, and kill, and pass for no reason.  Thousands, he knows, have died.  But now he has seen it.  Now he knows how it looks, how it feels to see a life extinguished.  He knows the next life must be his, because there will be no rescue, and the future in this one is a void.

#

Sala’s summoner chimes as she is making breakfast.  It is Alanee.

“Sala-ba, I want to go to the river.”

“What, in this?” Beyond her window a gentle snow still falls.

“I want to see the City from the outside.  I want to breathe real air.”

“Aye, well!”  Sala sighs resignedly.  “We’d better go, then.  I shall bring you boots and furs, lots of furs!”

After her previous day’s ordeal, Alanee had been too exhausted to want for anything but a bath and sleep.  Eventually she had accepted Sala’s vehement protestations that she had no part in her abduction.  Seil’s actions had been as much a shock to her as to Alanee herself.  Alanee wanted to believe Sala, how she had struggled with Seil in trying to follow Alanee through that impossible door.  So, conditionally forgiven, Sala had tempted her to a drink at Toccata’s.

Back in her apartment, having wished her friend goodnight, Alanee – she did not know why- had checked her summoner to see if Celeris had called her (and been piqued to discover he had not) before running herself the hottest, deepest bath and sleeping in it until it was cold enough to wake her, at which time she had crawled into her bed and slept again.  There her alarm found her in the morning.

“Your wrists!”  Sala exclaims, as she assists Alanee into a fur coat which is large and generous enough to make her apprehensive, lest she find the animal still inside:  “Who could damage you so brutally?”

Sala has not asked what happened to Alanee after she was pushed by Seil through that door, though she berated Seil afterwards:  “She’s on my unspeak list.  I never did like the woman.” – and Alanee is thankful, for she does not want her friend to be subject to Ellar’s threats.

“Come on!” She urges:  “Show me the way out of here!”

“Very unwillingly!  My skin will be ruined!”

Sala continues this gentle complaint along the length of two corridors.  At the end of the second she stops before a silver hemispherical door, a feature Alanee has seen and wondered at on her previous adventures.  “You press here, see?”

The door slides upwards, revealing a spherical pod with seats around its inner sides.  Straps hang from a rail above their heads.

“Sit down, hang on!”

“Wheeeee!”

In a single operation the sphere closes and turns through ninety degrees, then descends, not with the slow grace of an open elevator, but with the speed and fervour of a racing aerotran.  Alanee feels herself physically lifted from her seat by the rush.   Almost as soon as it has started it is over.   With a hiss of compressed air they are slowed, the doors slide open.

“There!  Five hundred feet in sixteen seconds!  Impressive, huh?”  Sala laughs at Alanee’s open-mouthed expression.  “Oh Alanee!  You aren’t going to be sick, I hope?”

It is not the rapid descent that has stupefied Alanee.  It is the view before her.   She has expected a hall of some kind, a foyer:  instead she is gazing out at the unfettered world beyond the City walls.  They have only to take a few steps to be walking in snow.  And such snow!  It drifts about them, soft, caressing flakes that idle in an irresolute breeze.  It crunches underfoot: it loads the trees that flank them as they walk; it clothes the entire world in bridal white.  A child of the Hakaani Plains has never seen this transformation, this sheer weight of nature.

Alanee is moved to skip:  Sala giggles fluffily from behind the concealment of her furs.  She takes Alanee’s first snowball in good part, her second as a call to battle.  Soon they are so smothered with the stuff they look like a pair of burst pillows and helpless with laughter, and Sala, hands clutched to her sides, begs for a truce.  Arm in arm the pair walk down terraces, using paths kept open by the drabs:  and drabs are the only life they meet:  two solemn men in habitual flannel grey, seemingly impervious to the cold, pushing snow-boards mechanically, repeatedly.  Neither young or old, happy or sad.

As she passes, Alanee sighs to see them so.  “Don’t they have something warmer to wear?  They must be frozen stiff!”

Sala shakes her head:  “Theirs is a punishment detail:  they will have done something wrong, like creating a blasphemy, or slacking in their normal work.  A punishment for them, and a punishment for me, Alanee, haven’t you had enough air yet?”

“You can’t be cold under all those furs!  I want to see the river.”

“The river?  Habmenach, that’s miles!”

It is perhaps half a mile.  As they walk, they speak of general things, of Sala’s life in the City, how she came to be a mediator for the High Council.

“I have always been here.  I am a city child.  I was educated at the Porstron, learned the classics – picked for higher office when I was sixteen.  Then university, some time as a probationer, and…”  Sala spreads her arms.  “Here I am!”

“So your parents – they live here, in the City?”

“No.  I’m a seminal.”

“A what?”

“When the elders want to fill a position in the City, they pick the best from the whole of the land; in the case of mediators, for example, they want good social skills, intelligence, beauty…”  She rattles off the attributes like a list, without conceit.  “So they select from all the population.  I was brought in from Oceana Levels, a Mansuvine child from some village or other, I don’t know which, when I was three or four years old.  I have no memory of my parents.”

“Oh my!  Doesn’t that make you sad?”

“No.  But your sympathy is sweet.  You have parents of course.”

Alanee tries to remember her parents; to recall a time so long ago now, and so far away.

“I had parents once.”  She turns so she may see the Consensual City from the outside for the first time.  Not for nothing does it stand upon a mighty spear of rock, high walls tinted by the pink of a weak winter sun:  they do not a prison make, yet now she knows it is a prison:  sumptuous, luxurious, well-padded, but a prison nonetheless.

Something she has wanted to ask for some days now.  She has wondered – where, in this vast place, are the children?  Sala provides her answer:

“In the Children’s Village.  There is a suburb to the north of the city where the children are taken.  I grew up in the Academy there, The Porstron for gifted ones.”

“We never see them; the children, I mean?”

“Oh, of course!  They are brought to us for socialisation.  It is quite an event, once every fourth cycle.  I think they are adorable, the little ones.”

“You’re talking about them as though they were separate from you, though:  almost as if you never mixed with them.”

Sala’s brow furrows:  “That’s true, we (the seminals) were always kept apart.  I suppose because we had to learn faster than they – we never questioned it.”

Alanee thinks to herself it might be time to ask a lot more questions, but she sees that Sala does not have all the answers.  She changes tack.

“Now, Sala ba, do you never wish that you had….?”

“Oh, Habbach!  Had a child of my own?  No, never!  Habbach!”

“You have never made a couple with anyone?  Never wanted to?”

Through these dribbles of conversation they stroll, kicking through the snow until  they reach the Balna River.  Here they lean upon a rail, gazing out over the wide, ice-locked water, listening to the silence.

“I have wanted to.”  Sala says:  “Yes, I have that.  Don’t please believe of me that I do not get on with men.  But it is not consistent with my work to couple.  My career, you see?”  She snaps a twig from a frozen branch and throws it so it slithers across the ice.  “Please, Alanee, can we go back now?  I think my toes are dropping off!”

Sala’s face is hidden, smothered by her furs:  Alanee cannot see, yet she can hear the break in Sala’s voice, as if somewhere beneath that sophisticated front a tear is waiting.

With a sigh, for she is happy here, in the freedom of this sharp air, Alanee turns away from the wide black water and the mystery of its further side, trying to imagine how life will spring from those frozen banks when spring comes.  She links arms with Sala, and together they begin the climb back to the immensity of the City.

#

It is early afternoon.  Alanee and Sala have lunched together at one of Sala’s favourite haunts, then walked and talked amid the flowers and trees of the indoor Grand Park.  Since they returned from the Balna their conversation has been stilted, bitty, conspicuous in the subjects it has avoided, rather than those it has embraced.  When at last they are ready to rest weary feet Sala invites Alanee to her apartment.  This is the first time.  Alanee has never seen Sala’s home.

Sala lives on the east side of the City, in a small two-roomed flat with outside windows that overlook the bend in the valley where the Balna stretches down to Farland Bridge, and the way to the river is rocky and steep.  This gives the view an added loftiness, a cliff-edge feeling Alanee imagines she could find uncomfortable, if she were reminded of it every morning.

Sala’s taste in décor is as close to perfect as Alanee could have expected, although there are touches of quirkiness, like the Arbaal tribal masks that adorn her bedroom wall.  There are deep, comfortable cushions everywhere, so many that a visitor might feel they could fall in any direction and always land softly:  colours are dark and warm.  There is a delicate scent of spice.

They lounge together in the declining winter light from the window – they take Absient, savour its peppery taste on their tongues, let its hot blessing warm their throats.  They say little.

In the long minutes between droplets of conversation Alanee wonders at their friendship.  She still knows so little, really, of Sala’s past and that she does know only confirms how different they are.

“What was it like, being one of a couple?”  Sala asks.

The question drops suddenly into the still pool, so that Alanee barely hears it until the ripples start to spread.

“Fine.  I mean, more than fine: wonderful, I suppose.”  From understatement to overstatement;  what does she really mean?  The question crosses the lines of difference, breeches Sala’s defence; she is unready for it, the subtle note of envy.  An image of the man from her library shelf of closed memories falls open: who was he, in fact, that person who came into her life for so short a time, who left so unexpectedly?  And what can she say that will possibly encompass such a space?

“He was moody once in a while.  He had a way of making life seem pointless sometimes, then other times he was the only thing that made it worth living.  He was funny, he was loud, he was…”  She tails off; she sees the futility of what she is trying to say.  It isn’t working: it isn’t a description.  Nothing could be, really.  “Then he died.  He just died.”

They stare through the window, watching long shadows as they creep across the valley.  Soon there will be only darkness beyond the glass.

Alanee asks:  “Have you ever….been with a man?”  Then she says quickly:  “Oh, I know; that’s a foolish question – I mean, with your job you must, I mean, sometimes…”  She would stumble on, but Sala’s touch on her arm stops her.

“Yes.  Not just because of my work, either:  sometimes through companionship, once even, I believe, because of love.”  Sala sighs. “Ah, the best stories are never told.”

“What happened to him?”

“He’s still here, in the City.  It wasn’t possible, you see?  Not possible.”

“And you still see him.  Are you friends?”

“We try to avoid each other when we can, but we are bound to meet sometimes.  This is not a large community.”

Sala’s fingers stroke Alanee’s arm and Alanee takes them between her own so they interlock.  Sala turns her hand to draw their arms together, flesh on flesh.

“Am I?”  Alanee says.

“What, ba?  Are you what?”

“Part of your work?”

She turns so she may look at Sala, her free hand brushing long hair back from her face.  Sala’s eyes are far off, gripped by something, and she is shaking, gently shaking.  She says in a tremulous voice, barely more than a whisper:

“No, Alanee my ba.  Oh, no.  When we first met, perhaps, but no longer.  No.”

Alanee tilts her friend’s head to see the real tears there, and kisses each one.  Then she takes her lips and kisses them too, in a joining that is deep and long.

The friends linger together at a threshold; in a stillness of time, touching and touching – cheeks, foreheads, fingers, lips.  Neither wants to make the step, but Sala must.  When she pushes back Alanee’s robe Alanee does not resist, and holds her hungry eyes until the moment Sala bends to take her nipple in her mouth.  She cradles Sala’s dark head against her breast as though she were a suckling child, feeling her own hunger rising in spite of herself, and at this moment is ready to accept the hand that slips so softly down:  but though she waits, and though she tries, there is no wild awakening, there in the twilight.  No fire, no insanity of need.  She reaches for her own desire and finds none.  Yet she would help her friend, ritualise a feeling she does not share, if Sala should wish it.  But Sala knows the truth.

After a while of futility, when the heat has subdued and they sit side by side once more, Alanee simply says:  “I’m sorry, ba.”

And Sala sighs with a fathomless sadness:  “It’s all right, my dear.  It’s all right.”

#

Any night in any city there will be those who cannot sleep:  those whose thoughts are troubled, who cannot fill the hours until morning.  Alanee, who has parted with Sala, wanders home with heavy heart.  The hours will be long before she rests.

Sala, meticulously tidying her little apartment, struggles to find the equilibrium she lost not an hour since. 

Sire Cassix, in the watchtower, gazes at the further sky, alone until Lady Ellar comes to interrupt his peace with her concerns

“He wants more screens; more screens all the time.”

Cassix would be taciturn.  “Then he must have them.”

Ellar demurs.  “The Nursery Apartments are full of them – screens on the walls, on the tables; there’s even one…”  She adds emphasis; “In the bedroom over his bed.  He’s obsessed.”

Cassix shakes his head:  “Twenty-four hours does not make an obsession.  This is normal; to be expected.”

“Normal ?  Well possibly, but desirable?  Can you imagine the sort of auto-suggestion that would have been transmitted today if we had not filtered it?  Can you countenance the behaviour of the populace if his emanations get too strong for us to contain?  Incidentally, he has tried to link with our young lady; tried quite hard, and I don’t believe she as much as noticed.  It is incredible.”  Ellar pauses.  “You look ill.  You must take more rest, Sire.”

Cassix’s features are drawn and pale.  His voice has lost a little of its edge.  He shrugs. “It will pass.  Ellar, Hasuga is monitoring his body’s changes far better than you or I could do.  It is just curiosity.  Again, though, let me remind you who is arbiter of what is considered normal?”

“Originally we weren’t going to let him have screens of her.”

“He would have demanded them.  The crux of the matter is whether we should have spied on her at all.  If Portis had not insisted… But I still think you are over-reacting.  We are seeing a passing phase, nothing more.”

Ellar’s shrug seems to say:  ‘Very well.  If you cannot see the dangers I see…’  But then, Cassix is the Seer – she should accept his analysis; and would, if he was not so impossibly benign at times.

“Can I at least address the issue of Mother’s concerns?  She is frantic.”

“I imagine she is.”  Cassix has turned his head and his mind back to the skies.  He knows there is something he should understand; that the upheaval in the heavens is telling him something, but he cannot grasp what it is.

Ellar follows his eyes, although she cannot see anything tonight.  Her skies are dark and unremarkable.  She sighs; murmurs: “I begin to sympathise with our honoured Domo’s distaste for this.  I do not have your gifts, Cassix, but with my untutored eye I foresee chaos.”

Cassix does not answer for a long time.  Perhaps his thoughts lie out among the stars.   At last he says, equally quietly:  “Deal with it, Ellar.  In our deliberations you are very much a part of the equation – the balance.  We stand often in your capable shadow.  But in dealing with it remember if you can:  maybe chaos is part of the equation too.”

   Mother, awake at the habbarn as her baby sleeps, exhausted at last.  Above his head the flickering mayhem of a screen, upon it Alanee’s prostrate figure, gazing down on him.  Any night in the Consensual City:  or anywhere – in any world.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

As We Are Mortal…

We have to accept it:  as we are mortal, so we are weak.

IMHO we shouldn’t hide our weaknesses – evolution has made a pretty good job of us, by and large.  No, we should embrace them; we should enjoy them, just as we should recognise that in women, and in men, they take different forms.

We don’t, though.  Between these two celestial bodies is an expanse of interplanetary space inaccessible to most of our species.   Those exceptions who do cross the Great Divide are regarded with suspicion, even thought to be slightly dangerous: although those who travel away from the Sun are more generously treated.  A woman on a Kawasaki Ninja SX may generate admiration, a man in six-inch heels sensations of a different kind…  These are generalities; I’m not saying either exception is ethically wrong, merely that we typical herd members have to think more carefully about how we strike up a conversation.

So the balance of traffic across the void is not entirely equal: the astronomically-informed will claim that’s because Venus is rather larger than Mars, whilst critics will point to an abundance of harmful gas.   Mars, by contrast, is drier and colder and, continuing the same analogy, anyone wanting to be nasty might suggest a lot smaller than it pretends.  To return to the subject…

Most of us do stay on our own side of the divide.  ‘Most’ women understand little about football, care for it even less.  ‘Most’ men (illogically) spurn the offer of a handbag, despite its obvious uses.  And it is well that it should remain that way – imagine the chaos if husband and wife were to fight over who wears the brogues.

The other point to make about these weaknesses is the total absence of logic that drives them.  The word ‘fetish’ gets bandied about quite liberally and with good reason.   How, for example, can you justify spending half a month’s salary on a pair of heels that prove so uncomfortable they cannot be worn for longer than half-an-hour?   How can I prove a case for buying a car that will reach sixty miles an hour in seven-and-a-half-seconds on roads where it is rarely possible to go faster than fifty?

In vain our SOs plead the case for car ownership as simple transport.  It’s all about luggage space, enough doors for the installation of kids, enough cubby holes for baby bottles, drinks cans, paper tissues (endless paper tissues), maps, magazines, and various motley items such as ice scrapers and medical supplies.

 Such justifications count for nothing with me.  I am male.  I do not choose a fresh car, the car chooses me.  The car that will be my companion in life sits on its car lot with paint brightly shining.  It teases; it flirts, it flutters its headlights demurely:  I fall in love.

There is nothing ‘fresh’ about it, actually.  It has a dent in the side – that can be beaten out.  When I steer, it resolves to take no notice.  How capriciously feminine is that?  It will stop – sometimes; but then, sometimes it won’t start.  There are moments of sheer joy, unparalleled elation when man and machine are as one:  they usually last ten minutes, before they end in a hedge or a pointless argument.

There have been many cars in my life, the greater proportion of which have been old.  Dignified antiques?  No.  Tragic basket cases?  Well….yes, I suppose.  And the more I think about it, the more I realise they compensate for the stability in my life and the happiness of my marriage.  The car is The Other Woman.  I have affaires – covert relationships as tempestuous as they are brief.  Wow!  That’s deep!

In case you live nearby and are worried, the car I have now is sensible, soulless and almost new.  The cars I describe above, well, they are from my past, and I have spent thousands down the years in making them safe, because I would never drive a weapon.

To conclude, I would like to attach this picture of my last Great Love.  A Volvo, as you see.  She is, sadly, no longer with us, having succumbed to a long illness – an incurable oil leak which left a series of Ronschach images on my driveway – my best and enduring memory of her, and, I firmly believe, her plaintive attempts to communicate.  She knew her pain..

Therefore let us all be proud.  Do not disguise your weakness, or bite back those spontaneous outbursts of emotion that visit now and then.  Having a friend for support, that is important; yet you must not lay blame upon them because they dragged you screaming away from that shop window, or frog-marched you, tearful, from that car mart.  They recognise, as do you, the great emotional harmonies of life, and one day you will be able to do the same for them.

Featured

Continuum – Episode Eleven Introduction to the Man-Child

For some days Alanee, widow of a Hakaani foot-player, has been resident in a luxurious City apartment, so it seems her fear of punishment for non-conformity is baseless.  Ellar, the Mediant of the City Council tells her she has a very important task, but gives little information about it.  She is much more forthcoming on the subject of Dag Swenner, Alanee’s aerotrans pilot friend, who is missing, presumed dead.

Dag is alive, however, and has joined forces with Ripero, a Mansuvene boy, in shared experience of a mysterious force that has wiped out Ripero’s village.  Unbeknownst to them the City Council has learned of this force, and has despatched one of its best generals to investigate.

Meanwhile, on a promise of beginning her ‘task’ Alanee has been chained and tortured in an underground dungeon, where she catches sight of her captor, an outlandishly disproportioned man-child.  She faints, and wakes in a bed, with her head filled by a cacophony of noise, at the root of which is a familiar voice, anxious to know she is better…

The noise in Alanee’s head stops!  Each individual component shuts down; switches off, extinguished like a candle-flame.  And now in the silence she knows exactly whose voice she hears!

With a dry shudder she draws herself up in the bed they have made for her.  There it is, her torturer, her persecutor, strange mixture of angel, child and nightmare, framed in a doorway just a few meters away.

Alanee cannot conceal the loathing in her voice.  “Don’t let that near me!”

Her reaction is instinctive, her words clearly taking effect, for the woman that the ‘thing’ addresses as ‘Mother’ withdraws from her as if shot.  A cry of horror escapes the woman’s lips; she rushes to the ‘thing’ as if to comfort it, but its youthful features do not display offence:  instead, the look it gives is much like a dog seeing a rabbit for the first time.  Curiosity, interest; even, perhaps, amusement.  It drops one shoulder and tilts its massive head to one side, as would a dog.  It smiles.

“Did the manacles hurt you?”  It asks innocently.

Immediately the soreness in Alanee’s right wrist flares:  she feels it as though it were being analysed, examined.  The sensation remains for less than a second before it moves to her left wrist, then her ankles in turn.

She manages to turn her wince into a scowl, “What are you?”

At this, ‘Mother’s’ eldritch cry is loud enough to reach the halls beyond the room and echo there.  “Guards!   Bring the guards!”  She is plainly outraged, and would have Alanee back in irons if she could, but the creature stills her.

“No, Mother.  This is well.”  It spreads well-muscled arms in greeting.  “I am Hasuga.”

“Oh, good!  Very good!”  Alanee knows how visibly she shakes:  “How do you do, Hasuga.  And I am terrified victim number – how many?  Can we move past the pleasantries, then; what do you intend to do with me this time?”  She thinks that if she gets a chance, this creature with its unwieldy, unprotected brain must be vulnerable to attack:  though she blanches at the thought, she tries to position herself so she can spring.

Hasuga is completely unperturbed.  He (or it) registers vague bemusement, as though there is some element of an equation he might not understand.  “Do with you?   Nothing.  We had a game.  It was fun.  I don’t want to play it again, although certain parts of it intrigued me.  I like the game you are thinking of: it would be interesting.  Mother, do you think she can fight?”

‘Mother’s’ face is grim.  Her withering glare speaks of all she thinks, but she adds one word:  “Blasphemer!”

“No, mother.  She is different.  She is as Ellar says she is.”

Alanee has never heard the description ‘blasphemer’ although from ‘Mother’s demonic expression she can imagine there is little in it that is complimentary.  However, she recognises ‘game’ well enough; and the mention of Lady Ellar reminds her of the Mediant’s peculiar description of this episode as an ‘encounter’:  is this what she meant?

Suddenly the most appalling chasm of a future opens up before her – one in which she becomes the subject of an eternity of such ‘games’:  the creature before her is clearly some purposely-constructed form of sadist, and she is intended to be its experimental toy.

Surely that cannot be why she was brought here?  Such a thing would be insane!  Her two protagonists are watching her in silence, as though waiting for her response.  Alanee thinks carefully.

“You like games that hurt people, Hasuga?”   It is the first time she has accorded him a name and he smiles with what she supposes to be pleasure.  “You enjoyed humiliating me, I suppose?”

“I like to play games, don’t you?”  Hasuga’s voice is bland. 

“Not when they hurt me.  May I return to my apartment now, please?”

“You don’t want to stay?  We could play another game!”  The man-child looks genuinely puzzled.

“No.  I don’t want to experience anything like that, ever again.  And I’m not sure I want to meet you again, either; at least not until you have acquired some manners!”

Throughout this conversation the woman Alanee knows as ‘Mother’ is becoming increasingly agitated.  She cannot quite discover whether it is anger or distress the woman feels, but Hasuga has sensed it.

“Leave, Mother.”  At this the woman is plainly aghast.  A look of complete tragedy crosses her face as though this is the last thing she wants to do, yet she cannot protest.   She is in such a dilemma Alanee fears she may faint.  “Now, please?”

Mutely, on reluctant feet, ‘Mother’ leaves the room.  Wondering at this sudden reversal of the normal relationship between mother and child, Alanee faces the prospect of being alone with Hasuga; however, her calculation, that if the events which brought her here were on the level of a game she might treat her protagonist merely as a naughty child, seems to have worked to this point.  Now she has no idea where the ‘encounter’ may take her.

Hasuga moves to a chair beside the bed.  Alanee recoils instinctively, but wondering why she does not feel more afraid.  He moves with a grace that belies his grotesque proportions, she thinks; those two supports which help to carry his great dome articulate so he may turn with ease, and there is a long elegance in the fingers he folds together as he clasps his hands over one knee.  He has no (has she expected it?) odor.  He says: “If I told you to leave….”

“I would go; happily.”

“I do not want you to.”

“And you are used to getting what you want, aren’t you, Hasuga?”  Alanee props herself into a sitting position.  “Well, if you want me to stay you will have to do better than you have so far.”

“I see that.”  He sits in silence for a moment, as though he would listen to her breath, which is audible in the oppressive peace of this place.  “When I do this…”  He pauses:  “Do you feel nothing?”

“Do what?”

Hasuga smiles.  “Yes, you are different.  Thank you, Lady Alanee.  I am sorry you did not enjoy my game.  Go now.”

And the creature, or youth, or child, whatever Alanee can make of him, rises swiftly, padding from the room.

For moments Alanee cannot come to terms with what has passed.  Then, overcome with the desire to escape, yet not without effort, she rises to her feet and walks unsteadily on sore ankles to the door.  She finds ‘Mother’ awaiting her in the corridor outside.

Despite clear agitation only a few minutes before, the woman now shows no emotion.  It is as though she has been switched to another mode.  She takes Alanee’s elbow gently.  “Come with me, Lady.  I will show you to the lower floor.  A guide will take you from there.”

Within a few yards the corridor has opened out to become a large open space with rose-marble pillars and floors of soft, deep foam.  Light comes from windows on one side, from some undistinguishable source between ceiling and walls upon the further side.  Such a place should be sombre, even forbidding by its sheer size and would be so, were it not for the paintings and reliefs which adorn its high walls:  pictures of animals humanised by smiling faces, fantastic machines, stylised landscapes of high mountains and green hills.  Some of these are quite endearing, like the little group of golden-haired apes gathered beside a river, and most appear to be ancient, the fruits of imagination older maybe than a thousand years – yet for all their mellowed colours they exude warmth and love.  There are children’s toys everywhere; a dolls house of generous proportions and complexity, a wooden fort, tricycles and pedal-along aerotran models, soft woofing bears and replicas of exotic animals.  Otherwise, furniture is scant:  a couple of settees, a chaise framed in gold.

To the further side of this immense nursery there is another corridor.  A door hangs open to their left and as Mother leads her by, Alanee cannot resist a peek inside.  She sees what is apparently a simple room, two chairs, a single gondola-bed, or habbarn, and Hasuga, seated on the bed with his back to the door, gazing from his window at the ever-present snow.  Although their passing is silent on the floor-foam and although he does not turn, or even move, Alanee is sure he knows they are there.

A stairway descends to an enclosed elevator.  Here, to Mother’s apparent surprise the guide who awaits is not a palace operative, but Lady Ellar herself.  Greetings between the two women are terse.  Alanee cannot miss the antipathy between them.  Mother accords Alanee a brief farewell and walks away with a pronounced turn of her back, as if she would do, or say, far more if she could.  As if she would be angry – if she could.

In the chamber of the elevator as they descend Ellar warns Alanee:

“Say nothing of what you have seen, or what has passed here.”

Alanee’s anger is seething.  “If I do?”

“Do not.  It will not be allowed.”

“You – you know what that…that thing and its gorillas did to me today?  You see these?”  Alanee waves her wrists.  “You condone assault in your precious Habbach-forsaken City?   Habmenach-Sech!  It is some kind of psychopathic mutant!  It should have been liquidated at birth!”

Ellar passes her hand across a censor in the elevator wall, bringing it to a halt.  “Lady Alanee!  No, I have no idea what happened, nor have I the right to know.  I warned you, didn’t I, that this would be a journey for us all?  Perhaps I didn’t lend sufficient emphasis to the fact.  It is a journey that must be made.  Neither you nor I can know how it will end, or what milestones we will pass along the way, but this I can promise you:  it will be a road we travel in secret.  No-one, absolutely no-one, must know of it except those whose work it is to make it happen.  Until you find out who those few people are, I advise you strongly to keep your mouth shut!  Do you understand?”

Alanee’s blood rises.  “And if I don’t?  What will you do to me, Lady precious Ellar?”

“You want to know?  Very well.  You seem to insist upon the unpleasant, so here it is.  Your mind will be neutralised until you remember nothing.  A similar fate will await those to whom you speak of this.  So for your own sake, and for theirs, please stay silent.”

Tears of fury fill Alanee’s eyes.  She bites them back, fighting the urge to retort.  Finally she says dully:  “Let me out of here.”

Ellar sets the elevator in motion.  Seconds after, the doors open onto the great hall of the palace and Alanee walks away, leaving Ellar to contemplate her retreating back with the reflection that it is never easy to be Mediant in such a complex place.  She does not blame Alanee for her rage – if she could she would tell the girl so much more – sometimes there are just too many requirements for silence, too many rules.  And no matter how she tries to insist to herself that the Lore is always right, there are times when she wonders….

Though Alanee knows the enclosed route back into the Consensual City now, she deliberately makes her way through the colonnades into the open courtyard, desperate for bitter air and the kiss of snow on her flesh.  There are few others willing to pursue her option:  those who do hurry past her more suitably clad in thick woollen capes or furs, casting amused glances in her direction from beneath shielding hands.  She does not care.  Out here she can scour all the subterfuge and intrigue of this society from her ears and eyes.  Here, seated upon a marble plinth beneath the stern effigy of some forgotten pedagogue  she can turn her face to the leaden sky, letting its small white emissaries cool her eyes, letting her mind empty. 

“Alanee-ba!  Where have you been?  Oh, ba, what has happened to you?”  A slight figure submerged in acres of fur hurries towards her.  Sala’s anxious eyes peep out from amid a diplomatic mission of impaled snowflakes.

Alanee steels herself:  she is positive – as sure as she could ever be – Sala was complicit in her betrayal. “That,” She replies grimly, shouting against the gale’s howl.  “I cannot tell you.”

#

As the day’s heat retracts, the evening sun is like a benediction.  Dag Swenner raisess his eyes to find Ripero looking back at him.

“You’re doing well,”  Ripero encourages him.

They have been walking in silence for most of the day, Ripero always leading.  Each footstep Dag takes wracks his whole body with pain.  Progress is difficult:  the previous night’s slick of ash and rain has caked in the sun but is still liquid beneath.  And all around them a featureless landscape glares in the heat.

“You haven’t told me what happened to you?”  Dag asks.

“I don’t know.”  Ripero shrugs.  “It was a wall of fire, yet there was no heat.  I felt nothing, while my girl turned to ashes not a yard in front of me.  I saw the flesh torn from her bones – I watched her bones charred into dust!  I could not rescue her, or touch her!”  Ripero nearly brings himself to tears as he describes Saleen, the girl he has lost, then admits.to his conviction that all of his family are also dead.  He waves vaguely towards the eastern horizon.  “My village; it was over there;  Kaal Takken.  It’s gone.  There is only rock burned to glass.  The river is dry.”

They walk on.  Although he feels Ripero’s sorrow, Dag does not know how to comfort him.  Ripero continues:  “To begin with, there was a firm margin, like the fire had consumed only what was within the wall and left everything beyond untouched:  like me.  That is how my girl was destroyed and I was not.  Then (I was further away by then because I ran) the untouched land began to sizzle and burn with a blue fire of its own.  It spread out and out.  I took refuge in the cave where we slept last night and, for some reason, it did not find me.”

By agreement, the pair are heading northward and a little to the west.  This because Dag knows it to be the direction of the Consensual City, although he does not divulge that information; content, rather, to let Ripero believe their best course is to aim for Ax-Pallen, a town in the lower reaches of the neighbouring Fass Valley.  There is an aerotran port there, and he hopes or believes the town might not have been affected.  As they progress, Dag describes how his aerotran was robbed of power by the event, and how the locating beacon which might have brought their rescue was long ago wiped out.

“I’m sure I travelled many miles off course before I crashed.”

“There will be a rescue, though.  There must be.”  Ripero reasons.

“I don’t know.  The electrical activity in the air may well stop any rescue, especially if the authorities think there are no survivors.  I wouldn’t rely upon it, if I were you.”

As the hours have passed Dag’s back has become more mobile, rather than less, while he chooses to ignore the deep distress in his left side.  The light is fading before they reach the foothills at the margin of Dometia Wilds, and begin to climb towards the Fassland Hills.  Thus far they have found neither water nor vegetation of any kind: the land is reduced to bare rock from which all life has been scourged, a worry that Dag cannot dismiss from his mind, for he knows Ax-Pallen is two days of walking from here, and they will not make it without gaining some sustenance.

Their path is frequently obstructed now by fallen rocks from frowning cliffs that hide the last beneficent sunlight and add chill to a freshening wind.   One such rock forces Ripero to pause, casting about him for a viable path as Dag stumbles up the slope behind him.  He looks back at the plain, and something makes him look again.

“There!  See there!”  He cries.

Dag focuses in the direction of his companion’s waving hand.  Yes, he sees them too: moving figures, perhaps a dozen or more.  Little larger than dots, they are in a group maybe a mile away, walking towards these same hills.  He takes his spy-glass from his pocket to see them better.

“There are men and women, Dometians, by their clothing.  Fourteen in all, carrying a litter with someone laid out on it.  And children, there are three children!”

“We should go to them!”  Ripero is already descending.

“No, wait!  I think they are coming to us.  I think they may have seen us.  One of them seems to be waving – see?”

He passes the glass to Ripero who snatches it up to his eyes, searching eagerly for some familiar faces.  “What if they are from my village?  What if my father and mother are there?

“Do you see anyone you know?”

“Yes.  No – maybe.  We must move closer!”

“As I said, they are coming towards us.”

With difficulty, Dag persuades Ripero to conserve his energy and together they perch upon a rocky promontory to await the little party.  Dag, though glad of an opportunity to rest, finds the management of his pain difficult, for which reason he is unaware of the drone from the southern sky until it is quite loud.  Aerotrans!  He scans the horizon quickly, using his glass:  yes – there!  A flight of five big transporters, flying low!

Excitedly, Dag raises Ripero to his feet, pointing out the rapidly growing dots in the sky.  Ripero’s heart is lifted.  He begins to wave.  The group upon the plain are also waving; rescue has arrived!

But then…..

Something makes Dag grab at Ripero’s waving hands, pulling them down to his sides:  he does not know what instinct guides him, perhaps it is something in the manner of the aerotrans’ line of flight, or the way the gaping access doors in their sides open so early, long before they are in position to land.

“No! Oh no!  Get down!  Ripero, hide!”

Ripero casts him an incredulous look, but such is the urgency in Dag’s expression and voice that he obeys.  Both draw back into shadow.  Through his glass Dag can see the uniformed figures of the Special Operations Squad outlined in those open doorways, their liquidators propped on tripods between their knees.

Upon some internal command the aerotrans wheel, each hovering so that together they form a semi-circle above the small group of Dometians, who dance in celebration – until they see what Dag has seen.  Then the dancing stops.

From this distance death is silent –arcs of tracer, a convergent flower.  It is quick.  In no more than a few seconds, the survivors on the plain survive no more.

 © Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

Winter Wanderlust…

For those of you who didn’t notice, or those who are uninformed, this news:  Blue Monday is behind us for another year.  Blue Monday is usually ‘celebrated’ on the third Monday in January as the most depressing day on the calendar

Celebrated?  That may not be the appropriate term:  endured, maybe?  Slept through?  Survived?  If you are still with me, then, welcome.  You are a survivor, and things can only get better!  If you aren’t, I presume it will be no flowers by request?  Unless, that is, you have a predilection for leaves, branches and berries.  There can be nothing worse than being borne upon your last winter journey into eternity amid a forest of teasels.

Oh, and if you have just joined me in expectation of an uplifting, life-affirming experience to begin your day, well, now you know the truth:  nevertheless, I feel I owe you an explanation for my dolorous state, and it is this.

Firstly, as a part of my New Years’ resolve, I am on a diet.   Actually, it started before the New Year, but I am happy to include it in my accounting, because it is a good diet.   Without injecting too much of a personal note, it has helped me to shed 42lbs, so far.  Grateful thanks to Rita Roberts, whose very interesting blog drew my attention to ‘Low Carb for Life’.  This is not so much a dietary regime as a lifestyle choice, and as such does not leave me wanting, as so many diets have.   Why am I miserable about it, then?   Because!   Because every time I pass a cream doughnut, every time I watch someone slurp from an ice cream Magnum, each morning I sit in my office nursing an alimentary canal porridgeburger I curl.   I have to put my head under a towel so I shall not be seen to weep!  That’s why!

Secondly, it’s official Winter.  The solstice may have passed, the mornings may be brightening as the sun moves north, but they’re not.  I’m not.   Beyond my window, the world has quietened, pulled its raiment tightly about itself and hunkered down to wait for Spring.  Leaden grey skies, baleful rain, imprisoning snow, all these things I can survive; it is the inaction, the stultifying boredom of these incarcerated hours I cannot stand. 

Oh, and then there are the Memsahib’s experiments with cryogenics.   After so many years of marriage I can hardly complain – when I popped the question (all three copies, one of which remains on file) I knew what I was getting, and for a woman whose immediate antecedents were raised on a Polish mountaintop in a house with no doors, a reluctance to regard central heating as more than an optional extra is understandable.   And I am understanding – more so than our dog, who moves to her outdoor kennel for the winter months on the basis it is warmer…

What message – what crumb of comfort – do I derive from my English Winter?  Watching the birds outside my window, their feathers fluffed against an icy blast as they chip away the fat balls my wife has hung from the holly bush I can reflect that I am more fortunate than they, although it is also true they are better fed.   ‘What sign of the Spring of the year, not a stir, not a shoot, not a breath…’ those grey skies seem to stretch into infinity; but they must end soon.  They must end somewhere, mustn’t they?   On a sunny Spanish Isle, perhaps, or a land where it is never cold, or damp;  where, in short, Blue Monday can only refer to the color of the sky…

Featured

Continuum – Episode Ten Experiments in Fear

The story so far:

Alanee, missing her friendship with Sala and learning her aerotran pilot, Dag Swenner, is believed dead, feels isolated and afraid when Ellar the Mediant tells her that her work in the City is about to begin.

Alanee seeks out Sala to renew their friendship, and guided by a mediator called Seil, the pair pursue a route that takes them well below the foundations of the Palace to an ancient door.  Before she has a chance to protest, Alanee is seized by a giant guard and thrust inside…

No time to struggle; no hope of resistance.  The giant man propels Alanee through that heavy door and slams it with an oaken crash in Sala’s face.  A second pair of brutal hands clasps Alanee’s arms, raising her feet from the floor to carry her, throw her, turn her.  A cold slab of stone at her back, cold iron clamped about her wrists:  her arms hoisted above her head so she is almost hanging and she cries out with the pain; manacles clasp her ankles.  Her captors step back.

A trickle of blood runs down her right arm.  Such is the agony in her arms and shoulders she has to force her eyes to open, seeing her assailants through furious tears.  Both are mighty creatures garbed in black leather jerkins and loin-cloths.  Their muscle-bound forms as immutable as the granite that surrounds them, they stand with their backs to her, one on each side of the room’s only feature, a table of crude construction upon which are arrayed a long black whip, an iron mask with inverted spikes, thumbscrews, and pliers.

Granite walls, granite floor, flickering and guttering in the poor light from torches lodged in brackets on each wall.  In the further wall are two doors, both closed.  The one which admitted her, and another, smaller door to its right.  So this, to an innocent country girl, is how a torture chamber looks.  She might never describe the black despair of this moment, the realisation that all her worst nightmares were, in the end, so inadequate; for nothing could have prepared her for this.  By comparison imprisonment would be a blessing now; all those promises, the treachery of Cassix, of Ellar, of Sala, all leading to this.  At last she knows why those who are taken by the State are never seen again.  Their blood washes walls such as these – their end is unremarked and all memory of them wiped away.

“I think the mask!”  A voice from somewhere beyond her range of vision:  a cold, high voice which whines like winter draft in a casement.  “Try it to see if it fits.”

The pillar of masculine flesh to Alanee’s left seems moved to obey.  He lifts the spiked head-piece from the table and turns towards her.  His sinewy frog-like face creases into a sadistic grin.  He comes towards her, raising the fiendish instrument over her head.  She sees how the spikes upon the inner side of its lid, the long, long spikes, are set in such a way that one will pierce each of her eyes, two others each of her cheeks, another her mouth.  Her heart raises a wild beat, terror quakes through her – she is gibbering – knows it – mouthing words meaninglessly:  “Let me down – let me go!  No!  NO!  NO!

“This is hysteria, isn’t it?”  That high, unpleasant voice sounds at once delighted and a little curious.  “How strange!  I have never seen that.”

Now the rough helmet is being fastened about her neck, that lid swinging unheeded back and forth, its spines threatening any moment to dig into her skin.  Her eyes!  No, pray Habbach, not her eyes!  Alanee is in the grip of a fear more consuming than any she has known, but yet she cannot go to her death without some riposte, some sort of struggle.

“Does it please you, then?”  She strives to find a voice.  “Feeds your fucking perversion, does it, you loathsome toads?”

The lid at last swings too far:  a first spike touches the flesh of Alanee’s cheek, reducing a string of invective to a strangled scream.

“It doesn’t fit my picture.”  The voice has altered in timbre, lost its edge.

Across the room that smaller of two doors is opening.  Through it enters a figure who, even in this dim light, defies Alanee’s last vestige of belief.  She sees a young body of athletic build, richly garbed in a toga edged with precious stones that glitter in the torchlight.  This is indisputably a male figure, one which emanates assurance and power.  A face perfectly featured, somewhere between that of a child and a man – pale-skinned, almost colourless – but framed by a head such as none Alanee has ever seen.  For he has no skull at all:  instead, a near-transparent membranous globe that seems to grow from the creature’s forehead and cheeks, extending to twice the size of any normal cranium and so unwieldy it must be supported by two substantial sapling-like buttresses (she can think of no other word to describe them) which grow from his shoulders and attach where, in more usual human circumstances, ears should be.  From there, these growths reach out to each other; encompassing the apex of the globe as if offering some kind of restraining scaffold, from which fronds of external structure spread and curl, like the branches of a vine.

Yet it is not this organic cage that transfixes Alanee’s horrified stare, but the sight of all that lies within; because the globe is filled with a cloudy bluish fluid through which are visible a multitude of fine mucosa strings of darker hue.  Though each of these strands may be no more than a few millimetres in diameter, their constant, rapid peristalsis is obvious: they move among themselves; what is more, they link to something deep and unseen at the centre of the globe – something which flickers with a light of its own.  Amongst this skein of tubular flesh pigmented cells dart from place to place, not in a random manner but with targeted rapidity, like tiny water-boatmen she remembers from days of summer by the farmyard pond.

The sight of this mutation, atop all her other terrors and humiliations, is too much for Alanee.  Her vision spins.  She hears and sees nothing more.

#

There is a tapping.  Dag is not sure when he becomes aware of it, but he knows it is there.  Insistent – tap, tap, tap.  He does not want to wake up because his dream is a good one.  He does not want to leave the bed he shares with this girl.  She is warm and vibrant in his arms with her long limbs wrapped about him and he thinks he could stay here forever, if it were not for that tapping.

“Alanee?”  He must wake her.

“Hmmm?”  Her sleep-drowned face, those incredible blue Hakaani eyes.

“I have to wake up, ba.”

“Must you?”  She is fading,  “Must you?”

He comes to himself with a start.  He is in the aerotran, and he has crashed.  He remembers that.

There is a drumming, and the drumming is rain.  It makes jewels and rivulets upon the window of the pod.  But the rain is not the cause of the tapping sound.  The human shape draped upon the window is.

Little by little all sensation returns, from the pain in his back to the drunken angle of his machine, making him realise that the figure knocking on the glass must be almost lying on top of the aerotran’s safe cell.  The figure belongs to a swarthily-featured young man dressed in the habiliment of a Dometian peasant, a simple shift which, unsurprisingly given the conditions, is extremely wet.  He is mouthing something.

Dag’s first thought is that help has arrived.  After all, he must have been on the ground for some hours now.  But further consideration casts doubts:  this is not a suited rescue service operative, with mask and gloves. 

He presses the release button.  The hatch behind him slides back.  “Who are you?”  He calls out.  “Can you help me?  I think I’m damaged.”

The rain is blowing into the aerotran now.  From outside he thinks he hears the young man’s reply as:  “Look to your right!”

“What?”

“Don’t move!  Your right – look to your right!”

Dag moves his head carefully and is thankful to find his neck, at least, is unbroken.  Oh, Habbach save us!

To the right of his aerotran the view is uninterrupted.  That is because there is nothing but empty space.  He hangs above a canyon, balanced on a vertical cliff over a dry river-bed some hundred metres beneath.  The fulcrum point is so finely placed that just the act of breathing seems to set the aerotran rocking dangerously.

“Any ideas?”  He shouts out as loudly as his state permits.

“The problem is the wind.”  Comes the reply.  “If I get off here I think you may be blown over the edge.”

“So?”

“I’m going to work my way towards the tail if I can do it without getting off.  The further back I go the better the weight is distributed, I think.  The trouble is I keep slipping, it’s so wet!  Don’t try to move yet.”

“Not sure I can.  There’s something wrong with my back.”

“Well, we’ll see.  Stay still for now.”

With this the young man slides his right hand across the glass.  The aerotran sways.

“Habbach!  Be careful!”

“I’m trying!”  He moves a foot.  More swaying.  His body slithers after it.

Dag calls out:  “What’s your name?”

“Ripero.  Is that important right now?”

“I just wanted to know who I was going to say goodbye to.”

Inch by inch Ripero manoeuvres himself towards the rear of the aerotran’s pod until he has vanished from Dag’s view.  More than once there is a cry as a foot slips, a hand loses grip.  Then, quite suddenly, a foot appears in the hatchway.  Moments later Ripero is fully inside the door.

“Hi!”  He says.  “Now it’s your turn!”

Dag tries moving to his left.  His back screams a warning, but he persists, forcing his body to lever him up the drunken slope of the floor.  The blinding agony he first feared, the total incapacity of a broken back, does not come.  With mobility if anything the pain is eased.  He is able to crawl around the footings of the co-pilot’s seat and into the rear of the aerotran.  Ripero’s weight stabilises the back end of the machine, so every move he makes in the same direction should bring greater safety, yet it does not feel like that.  Ripero’s urgent shout confirms his anxiety.

“The bloody wind’s shifting it!  Come on, hurry!”

Abandoning all thought of safety, Dag struggles to his feet, launches himself towards Ripero, who shoots out a big hand and grabs him, throwing him out of the hatch and into the teeth of rain and wind.

Dag lands in a groaning heap upon a slick of wet ash, hearing the thud as Ripero’s body grounds beside him.  Together, the two men grasp the land as if it might escape them if they did not hold it down while somewhere behind, with an almost inaudible sledging sound, the aerotran pod disappears from sight.  Above the wind they can still clearly hear a crump of contact far below upon the canyon floor.

Ripero clambers to his feet, looking ruefully down at himself, plastered as he is with black mud.

“These were my best clothes.”  He laments.  “Never mind!  Now I’ve rescued an aerotran pilot they’ll let me have a proper suit I expect!”  He holds out a hand to Dag.  “Be careful, it’s very slippery here.”

Free of the immediate danger of the doomed aerotran, the pair are in peril of being washed into the canyon by the force of wind and beating rain.  Beneath them a viscose slick of black ash offers no purchase – to stand is to become a sail before the storm – a storm which, though abated somewhat, has ample force to blow them before it, skating helplessly, into the abyss.  Only when they have crawled, scrabbled, staggered to a safe margin of bare rock may they stand fully upright.

“I’ve found shelter nearby!”  Ripero shouts above the clamour.  “You can walk, yes?”

“Yes I can walk!”

Dag walks.  He walks because there is no alternative other than to stay here and die.  He walks though the pain in his lower back feels as if it will cut him in half at every step, and other pains that have lain undiscovered before, deep and lingering, warn him of further injuries.  Although he has not far to go, this is the longest walk of his life.

#

Braillec’s fortress castle stands like a signpost to the stars.  Atop the highest rock of the Southern Mountains its towers can be seen from every aspect for twenty miles.  Even in first light, before the sun has raised its head over Kiilar Dan in the east, it speaks of its history.  The ghosts are always walking here, amid tales of ancient life, of walls that date back to before the Conflict, of wars and murders and royal intrigue.  It is a magical place.

Nowadays the fort itself is centrepiece to a celebration cake of a town.  Terraced streets wind their way around the rock, or climb at impossible angles straight up its precipitous sides.  White stuccoed buildings – houses, emporia, libraries and small industries, cascade like frosting from every level, glittering beneath street light candles that glow eerily in the mists of morning.

In this dawn haze the citizens of Braillec move like cats towards their day; emerging from their homes to step where no normal man would have courage to tread, descending or ascending as freely as mountain goats in their vertical world.  They are a quiet people who talk with each other in hushed tones, as though afraid that ghosts might hear them.  The castle is their father and a strict one too.  They live in his awe.

High Councillor Trebec is cold.  He is also angry – well, no, perhaps ‘irritable’ would be a better word – at being dragged from his bed at this early hour.  The spectacular mountain vista does nothing for his constitution, though, if pressed, he might concede that it is impressive: he is discomfited, and he is abominably, freezingly, cold.  From his parapet view he sees a very different aspect of Braillec, for, in the deep valley that lies between the fort and Kiilar Dan,( a valley once glacial, in the days before the Conflict) a honeycomb of man-made caves permeate the old mountain’s eastern face.  Before each cave a transport aerotran waits, and beside each aerotran a squad of soldiers.

“We are ready to embark, sir, on your word.”  Says the soldier who stands beside him.

Mission Commander Zess has been placed under Trebec’s orders.  Zess harbours his own opinions of Sire Trebec, which, were the High Councillor to hear them, would not please him, but he never will, of course.  When he, Zess, was told he would be required to lead a rescue mission into Dometia he was surprised.  When he investigated the reason he was alarmed:  yet he would never question his orders.  The order he is about to receive, however, will test that particular discipline to its limits.

“The terrain is sufficiently stable, then?”  Trebec asks.  He looks towards the black threat hanging over the southern sky; a sight that has drawn his eyes continually since his arrival here.  Even now he can see the dance of distant lightning.

“There are signs of remission, sir.  I intend to get as close as I can.  If the storm continues to abate at this pace we should be able to move in a few hours.”

Trebec nods.  “Then you have your order.”

“Sir, if I might?”  Something troubles Zess.  “We have made no arrangements in the City for refugees, sir, or for the injured.  Should we not ask the Almoner to begin an evacuation plan?”

Trebec turns from his view to engage the Mission Commander’s eyes.  He takes a long breath.  “There will be no refugees, Zess, do you understand?  No injured.  No survivors – is that clear?”

“Sir, half the population of Dometia is out there!”

Trebec knows.  How can he explain?  People whose brainwaves have been liberated by the interference of the electrical storm, people who have not received The Word for two days now.  What else can he do?

“No survivors, Zess.  None.”

“Then all these men are….?”

“A front, Zess, nothing more.  At the Dometian border set them down as your mission dictates, let them believe they are making camp for the wounded, field hospitals, that kind of thing:  the aerotran crews will do the rest.  They are my picked men.”  Trebec catches the horror in Zess’s face.  “Do you think I like this?  Do you think I slept last night?  It is duty, Zess.  It is a necessary thing.  The responsibility, the torment; that is all mine.”

#

Iron spears that press into the flesh of her cheeks, into and through:  the distinctive ‘pop’ of yielding skin, the hot pain of rough iron boring in,her eyes!  Oh, Habbach her eyes are gone, she knows it!  Soon they must reach the threshold of the brain….soon the agony will cease…..soon it will be over.  Please, Sire Habbach of my soul, let it be soon!

Hands on her shoulders: gentle light; a kind face that smiles down upon her; is this what it is like?  Is this the after-life no-one believes in?

“Be still, my dear!”  Says the kind face – like her mother’s face – be still, my Alanee-tes, my ba!-  but not, no, not her mother; an angel; an angel’s face.  “It is all over now!  All over!”

She tries to see about her, sees everything veiled as in a fine haze.  Only the sweet face is clear to her, and all that she sees makes her really think she might be in heaven.  Yet there are things…..  Alanee raises her arm so she may inspect her wrists and, true to her expectation, red wields testify to the cruel grasp of manacles.  Her shoulders ache, too.

“Where am I?  Why can’t I see?  Who are you?”  Her lips are dry, making the questions tumble over one another.  “My head!”  A confusion of voices is growing inside her brain  – a sound that is not so much heard as experienced – voices indistinguishable as words or song.

“You are in the upper rooms of the Palace.  We brought you here.  You were very, very frightened my dear, so I gave you a little draught; a sort of sedative, if you like.  Then I bathed you, replaced your robe with another, and we left you to sleep.  You have been asleep for five hours, Lady Alanee:  your fear must have exhausted you.”

Alanee’s vision is clearing – she is already coming to herself.  She catches the scent that anoints her body, feels the fresh robe upon her skin, the comfort of soft bedding beneath her.

“Is she awake, Mother – is she better??”  A voice she knows, from somewhere:  a sound vaguely familiar, yet not.  If only the inner waterfall of noise would go away!  It is much louder now, beginning to express itself as pain.

“Yes, darling.  I think you can talk to her now, if you want.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

Continuum – Episode Nine. Journeying

The story so far:

Following her rift with Sala, Alanee tries to conquer her loneliness in the big City and focus upon thoughts of escape, but focussing is hard.  She is offered help by a mysterious bystander called Celeris, and having been unable to contact Dag, her trans pilot friend, spends her evening in his company.

Meanwhile, Cassix the Seer has broken news of a devastating event in Dometia province to the Council,and the fear of what it may mean hangs over all in the City.

Alanee has not slept well.  Despite her experiences of the evening, she went reluctantly to bed and lay awake well into the early hours, her mind a turmoil of emotions and memories.  She is beginning to learn more about the Consensual City, and in doing so something more about herself.

Within her home village of Balkinvel there were, for all the mysteries and trappings of government rule, no doors closed to her.  The village Domo’s home would always welcome her, and Paaitas himself was approachable, if a little confused sometimes.  She would have free run of the Terminal, there were no hidden rooms, no cloistered apartments or glittering palaces there; whereas here the City’s boundaries are so many, the nobles impossibly aloof, their  rules stringent and mysterious.  But here, threaded through the gilded tapestry of lore and establishment there are strands which, in her country home, would set rumours screaming; make disgrace certain.  She remembers Shellan, her neighbour and her friend.  She remembers how they would laugh together, find jokes from their world that no-one else could see.  How, often, they might share a thought or a smile so intimately, or hug away tears, but never did that woman she had known since she was a little girl seek her lips with Sala’s passion; never would the Makar’s licentious hand, old devil that he was, have touched her as the Music Man did!

In that tragic summer when Alanee-meh her husband died; after some frantic solitary moments of grief she would prefer to forget, Alanee consigned her sexuality to unending sleep.  She locked it in a cupboard, put it from her never to be let out.  Balkinvel was a small community and a single woman of child-bearing age a threat, so she could not allow desire, could not dwell in male company.  Her friends were women, their husbands were out of bounds.

Is it this place that arouses her?  Is it Dag’s empathy, or Sala’s invitation, or the enigma of Celeris that stirs these things from their slumber?  Or was it the hand of the music man?  Last night when Celeris left her, she watched his parting with regret.  She tells herself her feelings were just those of one who needed companionship, that she liked talking to Celeris, that she would have talked on into morning.  But is this honest?  In the lonely dark she goes again and again to that locked cupboard knowing that she holds the key, and frightened of the self she might find inside.

Her summoner is insistent – a plangent tune.  When did she fall asleep?  She does not remember.  The hour on the summoner’s little window speaks of morning.  ‘Lady Ellar’ flickers in time with the rhythm of its music.

“Lady?”  Her voice is thick with sleep.  She does not know Ellar well at all.  They have met just once, in the company of the High Council.

“Alanee-mer, may I call upon you – say at ten-thirty?”

By the appointed hour Alanee has bathed and dressed in the robe Sala gave her.  To her surprise, Lady Ellar does not simply enter her apartment as Sala has done, but waits to be admitted.  This unexpected courtesy hints at the many contradictions in the Mediant:  that all the power she exerts she will not use, even when, sometimes,  necessity points the way.  But she is tall, and Alanee believes her future is clasped in the palm of her hand.  These things alone are enough to make Alanee afraid of her.

Alanee offers drinks, they are accepted.  They sit opposite one another upon the soft couches that furnish the apartment.  Is Alanee well?  Are her arrangements as she would wish?  Is she learning about the City?  Alanee replies politely and honestly, still unaware that these questions are no more than formalities, that every move she has made since she arrived here has been meticulously watched.

“Now my dear, it is time to begin unfolding the mystery.  You are about to set out upon a journey…”

Still misted with sleep, lulled by the gentle persuasion of her drink, Alanee struggles to understand: mystery?  Journey?

Ellar sees Alanee’s confusion and smiles.  “Your task , no, even that is a bad description, the life we have planned for you is not a job, in the accepted sense.  So there is no description, neither is there a schedule of work you must follow.  Instead, you will be guided through it stage by stage, experience by experience carefully and thoroughly.  You will not lack guidance.  It is…a journey; neither more nor less.”

This does nothing to improve Alanee’s understanding.  She says so.

“That will come.  This is the start point – here, this morning.  From this moment on you will be known as the Lady Alanee.  You have the status, to begin, of courtier, though for now you will live here, rather than within the Palace.  There are good reasons for that, which we need not go into now.  You will have an allowance of two thousand credits a day…”

At this Alanee is wide awake.  She sits bolt upright.  “Two thousand a day?”  In her work as assistant manager at the Balkinvel Terminus she was paid ninety credits a cycle!

“Two thousand a day, that’s right.  Now, I know you are short of money, so I made certain your first payment was lodged this morning at credmarket opening.  In addition you will enjoy clothing expenses commensurate with your position and certain special allowances.  There are details of these in your personal file.”  Ellar still wears that benevolent smile.  “I understand this is outside your experience, Lady Alanee.  You probably feel as if you have been given free run of the cherry orchard.  But please be clear on this:  in the society you will keep certain standards of etiquette and dress are mandatory.  If you are to succeed on your journey you must know them and follow them utterly.  You cannot do this alone; you will need a guide.”

“She’s told you!”

“Sala has mentioned something, yes.  We really thought you would become firm friends, you see, and Sala’s knowledge of courtly manners is second to none.”

“As upon the subject of underwear.”  Says Alanee drily.

Ellar looks mystified, or pretends to.  “I am sorry you quarrelled.  We shall have to find you someone better suited to your tastes.”  The Mediant leans forward as though she would grasp Alanee’s knee, but holds short; her hand reaching, not touching.  “There are many aspects of life here that are strange to you, Lady Alanee.  Many, I’m sure, will seem difficult or even offensive at first.  I hope as you learn you will not judge us too harshly.”

Alanee sees she is being chided.  She bridles instantly:  “I am mistaken, then?  I never considered morality a matter for judgement.”

Instead of responding immediately, Ellar lets the retort drop into a meaningful, silent eddy.   She studies Alanee with the intensity she might devote to a zoological specimen.  Then her face breaks into another smile, this time a smile of indulgence.  “Yes, possibly you are.  After all, different societies have different moralities, do they not?  Interesting, though, how passionately you feel these things.  Village life, I suppose – so straightforward, so…so…”

“Provincial?”

“Puritanical was the word I had in mind.  This is neither here nor there, I will find you someone you like better as your guide.  Now, Lady Alanee, begins the first step of your journey.  This afternoon an encounter has been arranged, in which you must take part.  You will be called for at three.”  Ellar rises to her feet.  “Thank you for the drink.”

“Wait!”  Alanee is shocked at her own boldness.  “Encounter – encounter with what?”

“Rather with whom, Lady Alanee.”

“Well whom, then?  I mean, what am I supposed to achieve in this encounter? What is supposed to happen?”

“That, my dear, we none of us know, nor is it for us to say.  That is what I meant when I described your task here as a journey.  It’s a journey for us all.”  Lady Ellar turns towards the door.  “Now I really must go.”   At the threshold she turns, as if struck by an afterthought:  “Oh, and by the bye; I believe last night you were enquiring after the pilot who brought you here, one by the name of Swenner?  I have some sorry news I’m afraid.  Master Pilot Swenner is missing, believed dead.  His aerotran crashed over the wild regions of Dometia yesterday afternoon.  The desk should have been informed.”

Ellar would not admit to the slight satisfaction she feels as she sees Alanee’s face crumple at her news.  Walking away, back into the world she knows, she has the faint sensation that she is leaving quite another world, one that Alanee has created within that apartment:  not with any accoutrement other than those that have been bestowed upon her and not with the assistance of anyone, but just by the force of her own personality, by the Habbach-forsaken freshness of that Hakaani air.  The smell of wheat-chaff is almost palpable!  She sees now what so attracts Sala to this girl:  she could be tantalised herself, if the girl was not so opinionated, even dissident, did Cassix not perceive that?  She begins to understand the Domo’s reservations; the nightmare scenario as it may be played out.  And once it begins, who may stop it?

Not you, Lady Ellar, Mediant, not you!

#

Heaven and earth are one, partnered, dancing with each other in flickering light.  Wind comes in rushes that blast anything still standing; scouring to the very bone.  It should be day.

The pod of the aerotran remains intact: that, Dag is sure, is all that saved him.  Yet the pain at the base of his spine assures him he did not escape entirely and he may not move without experiencing massive static shocks.  The carcass of his shattered vehicle moans in the excesses of the gale, crackles at every gust.  It was this tangible electric web that he could not fly through, which brought him tumbling helpless to the earth, and now it would drown him, blocking out his communicator, robbing him of instruments to such degree he does not even know which way he faces.  Slowly it will usurp his mind.  He cannot focus, cannot conjure the most basic thought.  He should escape, not sleep – yet all he wants to do is sleep.  He should try to keep breathing, but all he wishes is not to breathe……

A tree has transformed into a maniacal tumbling thing, torn from its roots, flayed into a skeleton of twigs and all but its trunk reduced to the thickness of wire.  Bowling before the storm Dag sees it coming, cannot do anything to avoid it.  The blow as it strikes the aerotran’s Pod throws him sideways, erupts his back in an agonising spasm, wakes him and at once extinguishes what light he has.  Sleep, if sleep it is, comes quickly and with mercy.

#

“Oh, sweet Lady!”  Taccata’s face positively radiates joy:  “How utterly delightful to see you again!”

Alanee accepts the kiss on her hand.  “Is she here?”

“But of course!  It is her hour…..”

“And alone?”

Taccata gives that slight assent of the head which is his manner:  “She is, my dear.  Come, now, we know our way, don’t we?”

Nevertheless he leads Alanee through the jungle of drapes and hangings, through to the place where the whole valley of the Balna forms one of the walls, to Sala languid among the cushions.  Sala who looks up to welcome her coming with solemn eyes…..

After Ellar left her Alanee retreated to her bedroom, throwing herself upon her bed.  She grieved for Dag in noisy tears which were as much for herself as they were for the man she had never really known.  She beat upon the pillows with anguished fists, she swore to the unhearing heavens; she wailed her fate to the echoing walls.  Thus for an hour, or maybe less.  Then, wearied by these exertions, she slept.  But not for long.

She awoke with a decision.  She reached for her Summoner and touched Sala’s call-button.

“Can we talk?”

The message which came back was short.  She could almost hear Sala’s clipped tones: “See you at Tocatta’s.”

And here she is.  And she has no idea what to say.

“Sit by me, Lady Alanee?”  Sala’s eyes are reproachful.  “Try this beverage, I believe you might like it.”

“Sala…”  Alanee starts to speak, then seizes up.

“I know.”  Sala’s tone consoles her.  “I know.”

“I was…you took me by surprise.  I wasn’t expecting…..”

“And I was impatient; desperate even.  Oh, I was so clumsy, Alanee-ba.  The fault is all mine!”

Alanee has come prepared to remain aloof, to keep a distance between herself and this beautiful woman:  now she is here, though, now she sees how small Sala looks, how she quivers with repressed emotion, almost at the edge of tears  – she throws her arms impulsively around her friend and hugs her.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, Sala-ba.  I’m so sorry!”  And now they are close, a breath apart.  This time it is Sala who seems uncertain, caught between desire and fear; her distress is in every fibre of the body Alanee presses to her breast.  It takes little courage, so great a step, little or none at all.  It is natural to kiss those wanting lips, to touch with tenderness; even to experience a wanting of her own.  It is a kiss brimming with awakenings.  It lingers.

Alanee whispers:  “I am so glad we are friends again:  so glad!”

They are forehead to forehead for a while, consumed with each other until the ridiculousness of the position reduces them both to laughter.  Then Sala returns the kiss, a second brief taste.

“Enough!  Now I must restrain myself!  Tell me, ba, when is this great occasion to take place?”

“You know of it?  Can you tell me what it’s about?”

“Whoa, whoa!  I know something of it.  But I cannot tell you more than you already know.  When does it happen?”

“In…..”  Alanee fumbles for her summoner:  “In….Oh Habbach!   In an hour!”

“Then we must shop!”

At the door of Alanee’s apartment stands Seil.   Seil is a large-boned woman of uncertain age who is clearly not given to patience.  By the time Sala and Alanee return she has been waiting for half an hour, and she is vexed.

“Lady Alanee this is impossible!  You have twenty minutes!  We need to prepare you!  Did not Lady Ellar acquaint you with the importance of this meeting?”

“Oh, it’s a ‘meeting’ now, is it?”  Alanee is in no mood to be outfaced; “It was an ‘encounter’, now it’s been elevated to the status of ‘meeting’.  Very well, twenty minutes.  I need ten.”  She spots the tiny package Seil holds in her left hand.  “And I’m not going to wear that.”

Seil protests, but not too insistently.  Ellar has warned her of Alanee’s aversion to the limiter.  Yet she is unprepared for Alanee herself.  Growing in confidence, the Hakaani girl feels equal to anything the City can throw at her now.  She is beginning to understand the politics of power, something Celeris has already given to her.  She knows she holds that power over Sala.  Sala wants to be her lover; and at that moment when Seil allows her to walk away without the limiter, she recognises she has status of another sort, too.

In her bedroom, alone, she prepares herself in her own way.  She has innate knowledge of her natural assets, her smooth skin, the way her bones subtly enhance the bloom of her cheeks.  The downy wildness of her hair, insubstantial as mist; her inviting body over which the thinner and much more richly gilded robe Sala has just persuaded her to buy falls in an essay of temptation.  No make-up, no enhancements.  She wears the simple sandals of her homeland on her feet, ruffles her explosion of hair, turns once before the mirror.

Radiant, Alanee frames herself in her bedroom doorway.  “Ready!”  She says brightly.  She feels herself capable of anything.

It is a mood that will not survive this journey.  The elevator she enters with Seil and Sala is small, a dark chamber with no seating, no cheerful colour or feature to augment its walls.  It goes down and down, descending through level after level – and though she misses the look of fleeting concern on Sala’s face Alanee’s heart descends with it.  When at last it stops, a cold draught seeps through its opening doors, and the grey stone-walled chamber beyond does nothing to lift her spirits.

It is into the dungeons of the Palace they go:  through labyrinthine passages, narrow defiles, dark alleys of stone.  Though Alanee tries to remember, their path quickly confuses her.  She glances towards Sala, but her friend appears to be as mystified as she.  Seil clearly has instructions that have been imparted to no-one else.

The dim light casts their fleeting shadows on walls of stone, old, old stone worn by the passing of countless shadows.  No floor-foam here, but flags that echo to their tread.  Little heating either:  Alanee’s arms are raised with goose-bumps.  Though she calculates she must be beneath the palace at least by now there are no voices, no sounds at all inside her head.  Perhaps the cold has seeped in there, too. The further they walk, the more her skin is crawling with fear rather than cold as she begins to wonder:  Are her original convictions to be confirmed and do these people indeed intend to put her in a prison?  A thought given weight by the heavy timber doors they pass, each one the bearer of a grim, rusty lock.

“Where are we going?”  She enquires, in a hushed tone.  “I should have worn a fur.”

“No further, Lady!”  Seil’s voice is strident.

They have turned a corner in a stone corridor.  Before them is a short flight of steps, at the head of which a black, forbidding door stands ajar.

Sala protests:  “No!”  She tries to intervene for Seil is suddenly behind Alanee, heavy hands on her shoulders, thrusting her forward.  But the element of surprise is too great, and Sala is no match for her stalwart colleague.  As she stumbles against the steps the door swings wide, and Alanee smells as much as sees the grim form of a huge man in leather clothes standing there.  His great hand reaches down, taking her robe by the shoulder to hoist her bodily through – she hears the rich fabric tear as its securing clasp rips through it and she cannot suppress the scream of horror that escapes her lips.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

Dream of Frogmore in the Spring Again…

This morning in UK (less so elsewhere in the world, I have to say) all the talk is of a royal fledgling leaving the nest – not just leaving it, but migrating to Canada; and I like to think of him flying with the wild geese, but I know better. The announcement that the staff of Frogmore Cottage, the Sussex’s UK home, are to be laid off confirms Harry’s intention to desert.

A stranger Royal has thrust a gaffing hook into the tightly-knit throng of the British regal family and pulled, an action not so damaging in itself, yet catastrophic in as much as it raises the ‘Royal Issue’ once again.

There is, our media declares nebulously, ‘enormous respect’ for The Queen.   There should be.  She has reigned for 67 years and she is 92 years old – she still works, if in a somewhat less strenuous role, and remains arbiter for a burgeoning family: some would say she acts as a constraint upon change that is waiting in the wings.   The burning question is relevance. 

Increasingly of late I find myself comparing the royal estates to the Vatican, each offering safe haven to a privileged few who are immured to the realities around them: poverty, social strife, political oppression, and so on.

When our present Queen finally has to give ground, her successor in the ‘male line’ will be well into his 70s.  Charles is a businessman, of a sort, certainly prudent in financial affairs.  The remit for contemporising his ever larger family will be a tough one, however, because for a lot of years the chicken has been free to run around with scant consideration for its head.

Does a twenty-first century Britain need a monarchy?  ‘They bring a lot of money into the country’ is the constantly conjured  counter to this   Yes, and they spend it as well.   Should the Commonwealth of Nations, if it has any meaning, find an entity as a trading relationship, unfettered by the stately pomp of a Queen as its head?  In an age of meticulous media scrutiny, the Royals’ capacity for finding unfortunate bedfellows, while not a recent trait, is more exposed.  A constant dribble of scandals may be titillating, but as tourist dollars go, they are less effective in that respect than the Kardashians.

The tourist dollar is, one supposes, the bottom line; until one asks exactly what it is the tourist comes to see?  If they travel in expectation of setting eyes on a Royal, they are doomed to disappointment, so is it the ceremonial, the sense of history, the buildings – none of which actually need a Royal as a focal point?

We could keep the ceremonies, the parades, if you like.  We could keep and maintain the buildings; Buckingham Place, Sandringham, Balmoral, and we could open them to the public as never before.  But we could release the assets of the Crown Estates.  1,960,000 acres of agricultural land and forest, large chunks of extremely valuable urban property, much of it in London, Ascot racecourse, Windsor Great Park – at last valuation these things together were said to be worth £14.1 billion.

Okay, I’m not a Royalist – never have been; but even I can see that a Royal line has kept UK on an even keel while all around us are listing heavily and blaming it on us.  It’s a function that has served us well for hundreds of years, and now it is very possibly time for it to step aside, or alter to a more progressive role.  I am a nationalist, passionate about my heritage and, like most of we British, resentful of those who accept our money then patronise us or dismiss us as archaic and quaint.    For this reason I lament the schism that is developing in the ruling class, because at least when they were united we knew where to throw the eggs.

NB:  It was interesting to me that the Queen, in her last reference to the Royal runaways, referred to ‘Harry and Meghan’, not the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.  So, will they be allowed to keep their titles?  If they are forced to become commoners on Vancouver Island, that will at least diminish the millions they might anticipate earning on the ‘personal appearance’ circuit.

Imagine how their popularity would suffer if their media hosts were deprived of the opportunity to interview them wearing their coronets and crowns…

Featured

Continuum Episode 8 – Celeris

The story so far:

Wth a clear notion she must escape the Consensual City, Alanee sets out into its nightlife, determined to find the aerotrans port and Dag, her friendly pilot.  She is unaware she is being watched, or of the plotting that surrounds her.In the throng on the avenues, Alanee finds her concentration ebbing.  A gift of music from a goblin creature elates her, then leaves her irresolute and alone.  A bystander, sensitive to her distress, asks if he can help her…

“Thank you.”  Alanee finds words “Could you tell me where I can find the aerotran port, please?”

The man who has introduced himself as Celeris does not hesitate.  “I can do better.  It would be an honor to guide you, Lady.”

What is it about him that disturbs her?  “You’re very kind, but I don’t want to break up your discussion.”

Celeris looks puzzled for a moment.  “No, no.”  He casts a glance over his shoulder at the assembly he has left:  “They won’t even realize I have gone, I promise you.  Come, please!”

The hand he offers seems so finely-boned and fragile Alanee is afraid to grasp it lest it crumble, but his grip is firm and surprisingly confident.  “I shall look after you.”

He leads her by avenues and gardens, away from the nightlife of the City.  He leads with a purpose, but Alanee notices that no-one greets him as he passes, or acknowledges her.  She feels almost as though she is elsewhere, afloat on a different plane.

 “And you are Lady…?”

“I’m not sure you should call me ‘Lady’.  My name is Alanee.”

Celeris stops instantly, “You are undoubtedly a lady.”  He declares.  “I am privileged to know you, Lady Alanee!”

They continue walking. “You are not from around here, are you?”

“Are you?”  She returns.

“I?   Very much so, yes – all  my life!”

“Why does no-one know you?  At least, they don’t greet you, do they?”

His eyes engage with hers, though he does not stop walking.  “I’ve noticed that, too.”  His smile is impish.  “What brings you to the City?  You are far too beautiful for this ravening horde – they can hardly be restraining themselves.”

“I was brought, but no-one will tell me why,”  Alanee replies.   They arrive at the platform of a large door-less elevator which, its sign declares, is ‘descending’, threading their way into some free space between a small huddle of passengers who mostly wear flyers’ uniforms, similar to that sported by Dag when Alanee met him last.  There are one or two gold helmets among the crowd too, but although Alanee scans their faces, she cannot see her erstwhile pilot amongst this group.

“They’re being mysterious about it, are they?”  Celeris nods.  “The High Council are like that.  They relish a drama, a bit of mystery.  Don’t stand for it, Lady Alanee: demand to know your fate!”

“How do you know the High Council have anything to do with it?  I didn’t say that, did I?”

“Why no, you didn’t have to!  It is only by the invitation of the High Council that anyone may enter the Consensual City.  Such invitations are rare, so you must be someone quite important, I think; don’t you?”

This is not the first such challenge to leave Alanee floundering.  She does not reply.

At a warning chime the elevator slips downwards; an angled descent of about thirty degrees, through levels of various decoration and population.

At the fifth such level the aerotran deck declares itself.  Five large High Council aerotrans pose in orderly file while drabs fuss around them – one is clearly ready to leave, forcing Alanee to suppress an insane urge to run in case this should be Dag’s aerotran – in case she should miss the dark pilot whose face remains so fresh in her thoughts.

Celeris shows Alanee that she need only follow the general throng, for almost all the passengers on the elevator have disembarked here, and there is a general migration towards a suite to the right of the deck.  Once inside this unimposing area, however, most disperse:  speaking quietly among themselves they take stairs to upper levels, or filter through doors, leaving Celeris and Alanee alone in a dingy foyer with rushes for a floor and lackluster paint on its green walls.  As bland as the décor, a clerk at a scuffed wooden desk barely acknowledges their approach.

“I want to talk to an aerotran pilot!”  Alanee breaks the silence boldly.  “His name is Dag.  Could you tell him Alanee would like to see him?”

The clerk is writing something.  “Dag?  What makes you think he works here?”

“He’s an aerotran pilot!  Isn’t this where aerotran pilots work?”

The clerk gives her a sour look.  “Don’t be funny!  There are cargo pilots, and there are official pilots – oh, yeah, and there are taxi pilots.  They don’t all work from here.”

“Let us assume this one does?”  Celeris, until now content to be in the background, advances, speaking in clipped tones.  “Lady Alanee would like to speak with him.  Now.”

It is as if somewhere within dark halls of the clerk’s mental anatomy a light has been switched on.  His tone lifts a half-octave.  “He may be in.  I’ll just check for you, Lady Alanee.”

A screen on the shielded side of the desk flickers into life.  The clerk scrolls with his left hand, tracking the lines of script as they pass with his right forefinger.

“Yes.  Yes, you must mean Master Pilot Dag Swenner.  I’m afraid Master Pilot Swenner is on outward flight at the moment, Lady.  He isn’t due back until the day after tomorrow.  Would you like to send him a message?”

No, Alanee sighs, no message.  A forlorn hope, anyway, she convinces herself:  why should a man who did no more than ferry her once be the salvation she seeks?  But still, she would have liked to see him, and the thought of him out there alone makes her sad.

“I’m sorry your friend is away.”  Celeris says as they take the ascending elevator.  “A master pilot, too.  You have excellent taste in friends.”

“Well, not my friend, really.”  Alanee admits; “Just someone to talk to.”

Celeris moves so he stands directly facing her, letting her have the full force of his incisive stare.  “Talk to me.”

She demurs, “Oh, you don’t…”

“But I do!  Lady Alanee, I want to know everything about you.  Come now, indulge me!”

And so Alanee does.  Shyly at first, she tells him of her home in Balkinvel, and the warm Hakaani plains that roll like an ocean swell in the morning mist, recalling the afternoon when she was lifted from everything she loved and knew to be brought to this strange place.  At the use of the word ‘strange’ Celeris laughs (a soft sympathetic laugh) and nods approvingly.

“Strange indeed!”

“Very.  I bought this dress.  It took every credit I had.  I thought it looked good but now I’m wearing it I don’t know.  Everyone stares at me.  It’s OK, apparently, if some revolting little monstrosity publicly tries to stick his hand on my breast, yet if I show any leg I’m a harlot or something….”

“Stop, stop!”  Her companion raises his hands defensively:  “You mustn’t heed the ways of the city, Lady!  Your dress perfectly frames your beauty:  it is that they stare upon.  They are filled with regret because after seeing you they will have to go back to their wives!”

He speaks over the throng (they have returned to the humdrum of the avenue where they met) “Lady Alanee, would you do me the honor of dining with me?  There is a diner near here where the food is superb, and I would really enjoy sharing it with you.”

Alanee would politely decline, but she is quite hungry; and this oddly child-like man makes a charming companion:  so she says:  “Why thank you, Sire Celeris!  The honor would definitely be mine!”   

So, behind another green door, in another honeycomb of warm, confidential spaces and comfortable upholstery she comes to be pouring out the rest of her story.  She tells it all, or nearly all, from her interview with Cassix and Remis at the Terminal through to the moment Celeris, appeared to her out of the crowd.  She withholds only two things, the details of her interview with the High Councillors (Sala has warned her not to discuss such matters) and the reason for her quarrel with Sala.

Food has been placed before them; a sort of spicy fish steak in a sauce so intensely flavored it takes Alanee’s breath away.  As they eat Celeris listens, nodding once in a while.  When she lapses at last into silence, her story done, he asks:  “And what do you think of our city?  Apart from ‘strange’, I mean?”

“I think it is a very grand city.  If I were a city girl, I would love it.”

“But…?”

“But I’m not.”

“So this Dag, he is your means of escape?  You hope he will take you back to your home?”

Alaneee bites her lip.  Should she confess?  He seems so kind, but what if this Celeris is some high official, who will turn her in?  “No!  No, Celeris, I see that I must stay here.  Perhaps when I understand what is being asked of me, things will feel better.  For now, I just need a friend.”

Celeris reaches across the table and rests his hand on hers.  Though his touch is cool the vibrancy of his whole being pulses within it.  “Would you consider me a friend?”

Alanee thinks of the one she had hoped to reach tonight.  She cannot help comparing Dag with this enigmatic creature.  Yet he is listening well, he understands.  Sometimes it is only necessary to be there.  “You’re very sweet.  I think you’re already my friend.”

Celeris radiates delight.  The squeeze of his hand is like a static shock that sends arrows of warmth through Alanee’s whole body.  “Thank you!  I know we shall be great, great friends!”

They eat and talk, talk and eat:  and the hours pass, and evening becomes night, and in no time at all it seems that midnight is upon them.  Celeris takes Alanee’s hand to walk her home.

“How will I find you again?”  She asks, adding hurriedly:  “If you want me to find you?”

“I will show you how this is done.  Have you your summoner?”

Alanee has long forgotten the miscellany within her clutch-bag.  She rummages.

“This?”

“Yes.  It’s your link to all who know you within the city.  If I press my finger upon this pad – so – I join that happy society.  There, see?  My name upon your screen.”

“I live here.”  Outside her door, Alanee does not want the talking to end, does not want to be alone.  Were she bolder she would invite Celeris in, just so they could talk some more; just so she is not alone…

“I’d better get to bed.  I’m sure they’ll want me early in the morning.”

“Of course.”  Celeris bows ceremoniously.  “Good night, Lady Alanee.  I have so enjoyed this evening.  I hope we will meet again very soon.”

He has taken her hand, brushed it lightly to his lips.  Alanee watches him go, striding along the avenue with a purpose that belies his stature.  Later, when she lingers at the door of sleep, trying once more to center her mind on the prospect of escape, she will realize that all the talking through the hours has been about her.  She knows nothing about Celeris at all.

#

Of the gathered High Council, only Trebec notices Portis as he enters the Council Chamber.  The florid man’s face is etched with care.

“Are we all present?”  Portis asks.

“We await Sire Calvin, I think…no!  Here he is…”  Trebec’s voice is strained.

“You know more than I, clearly – what’s amiss?”

“You will learn.”

The Council is called to order by the Domo.  Slowly, for these are men and women of advanced years, chairs around a vast polished mahogany table are occupied.  “Sire Cassix.  I believe you requested this summons?”

Cassix rises to his feet.  The Seer is not among Portis’s closer acquaintances:  to Cassix’s mind Portis always looks hungry, as though he is anticipating his next meal but knows he will have to negotiate to get it.  This evening he looks especially starved.

“I bring grave news.  Sire Carriso, I know this should have reached you first, as Councillor for Dometia, but such is the urgency I thought it best to deliver this report to the whole Council.  Please forgive me.”

Cassix draws breath, drawing his shoulders back, aware that all eyes are upon him.  “This afternoon a little after 4.00 pm I sensed a disturbance of immense size from the direction of the Kaal valley in central Dometia.   It was of such proportions I could not clearly define it at first, but upon checking, I discovered that the foundry at Takken ceased production at that time.  Shortly after, a distress call from Kaalvenbal, the principal town of the region, spoke of the River Kaal as ‘boiling’.  Subsequently, a high static electrical charge in the air began to burn the citizens of that town. Our last report, an hour ago, spoke of ‘buildings alight, people suffocating’.  Thereafter all communication ceased.  I have received no news from Kaalvenbal since then.”

A rising murmur of consternation threatens to drown Cassix’s voice.  He pauses to allow the substance of his report to sink in.

“How?”  Carriso asks, distressed:  “How has this happened?”

Cassix shakes his head.  “I cannot say.”

“You are the Seer.  If you can’t…”

Cassix’s heart goes out to the young Councillor.  “I know how you love your people, Carriso.  If I could comprehend this myself I would tell you more.  It’s completely outside my experience.”

Portis swallows hard:  “Do you have any ideas, then; any theories, Cassix?”

“Not as such.  You will recall I made reports last year regarding a disturbance in the eastern sky I have referred to as the Continuum.  There may be a connection.”

A suppressed ‘harrumph’ comes from Councillor Selech’s end of the table.  Selech heads a group Cassix calls the ‘Continuum Skeptics’.

Cassix continues; “Three days ago I became aware of a significant increase in the size and activity of the Continuum.  I mentioned this at our last gathering.  I have been diverted since then so I have not had an opportunity to check it again.”

This suggestion instigates a clamor of dissent.  The Domo raises his hand.  “Sires, let us have quiet.  Cassix, how large an area is affected by this event?”

“The only evidence so far is anecdotal:  an aerotran pilot delivering plasma supplies to Kaalvenbal called in:  he spoke emotionally of a ‘cylinder of fire without heat’ rising several thousand meters into the air.  He seemed to think its girth was at least forty miles, but…”

“But what?”

“He was overwrought, disoriented.  We lost contact with him afterward, and his aerotran does not respond to our sensors.”

“He’s dead, in other words,”  Trebec mutters.

The Domo’s fat fingers drum upon the table’s polished wood.  “Speculation avails us nothing.  We will send a second aerotran to survey the extent of this enormity.  Carriso, you must organize medical facilities; we will send the supplies and specialists the Dometians need.

“Trebec, make Braillec your base to prepare a surface expedition to the scene.”

Sire Calvin, most ancient of the Councillors, intervenes in his high, piping voice:  “Sire Domo: all this electrical activity….is it possible that for a while these citizens might be deprived of The Word?”

The Domo nods, casting a worried glance in Carisso’s direction.  The Dometian’s skin is drained of all pallor.  “Sire Trebec, maybe you should despatch a Legion from Braillec to escort your expedition, just in case?”

“NO! No, Sire!”  Carriso finds his feet, impassioned.  “You think I don’t see what you intend?”

Calvin tries to placate him:  “They are our people too, Carriso.”

For a moment no-one speaks.  Carriso, watched with pity and concern by every member of  High Council, stands motionless, then, with a sound akin to a sob, the Dometian Councillor rushes from the room.

The Domo sighs heavily:  “Gentlemen, that will be all for tonight.  We await more detail.”

Slowly, and by diminishing pools of earnest conversation, the High Council disperses.  In an antechamber, Calvin takes Cassix to one side.  He speaks quietly.

“Cassix, is it possible your thoughts add up to more than your lips divulge?”

The Seer nods.  “I am already considered eccentric by two-thirds of the Council, downright dangerous by the rest.  That does make restraint the wiser course.”

“Well, I consider you neither, so I am to be discounted.  Speak, man?”

“Very well.”

From across the room, Councillor Portis watches as Cassix and Calvin converse in low, confidential tones.  As words float between them, he sees the ancient Councillor’s parchment skin pale more than his years dictate.  When they part, he thinks he detects tears on the old man’s cheeks.

#

Nearly two thousand miles to the south and east of the Consensual City a malefic red orb of a sun is rising, glowering down upon the blackened valley of the River Kaal.  Its early glare flows across naked rock like fresh blood – the dark, arterial blood of departing life. 

No more the village, Kaal-Takken is nothing but charcoal twigs ready to topple in the first breeze:  no more the people, for they are gone – just gone.  And no more the river where the sweet Saleen swam in gentler light.  The river is dry.

#

By the habbarn where the child slumbers his Mother watches.  She gazes fondly upon his sleeping face, recalling happy hours of love and games so innocent they brought her own childhood again into her life.  And she grieves for those times, knowing they have passed.

The child is a man now, or soon to be.  His games have changed, their naive simplicity become more sinister, their nature destructive, their consequences far-reaching. 

Oh, she has missed none of the physical changes; longer face, broadening shoulders, bold, self-confident stance.  Although she may not undress him now, she is too close to him not to notice his obvious manhood, which frequently embarrasses him because he does not understand.  She would explain to him, he needs to know, yet this defensive wall growing between them somehow prevents her.

He called her ‘Mother’ tonight, not ‘Mummy’.  It was the first time.  And he would not permit her to tuck him up, or kiss his forehead as she always did.  This, she knows, is natural change:  the end of one thing, the beginning of another, but she hates it!  And when she looks into their future – her future, Hasuga’s future – she sees only fear.

Tonight the fear shall not be hers alone.  It will waft like a contagion through the splendid avenues, the trysting alleys, the tall trees and waters of the park.  Its insidiousness will seep into the greatest minds of the City, and the least suspecting; for all will succumb to that first shred of doubt.  Something a thousand miles away has served them notice, and it must not be ignored.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured

The Empty Nest …

Frogmore Cottage (Wikipedia commons)

Well, it looks like Prinny and Megs are likely to become the latest in UK’s very distinguished list of emigrants to favour the New World over the old; which induces me to wonder why?  Of all things Canada is, warmer isn’t.  And, I mean, bears, darlings!  They have bears – not nice, cosy, bovine tuberculosis-ridden badgers, or attractive dustbin-raiding urban foxes, but real, live bears.  Bear with attitude, bears that don’t just upset your trash, they lay claim to it.  They brook no argument, don’t bears.

It is true, domestically speaking, that Harry and Meghan will be taking up residence in an indoor environment that is temperature controlled, as opposed to one in which control of any kind is a constant battle.  To the virgin resident of a stately English pile like Frogmore (Cottage?) there can be a refreshing romance to an east wind that appears undaunted by the interruption of glass and blows so noisily through the TV room, but the gloss must wear thin, after a time.   There is no consolation, eventually, in acknowledging that this is the origin of the legendary British stiff upper lip – and the British stiff neck, and the arthritic hip, and that greatest of all national attributes, concealed alcoholism.

They leave behind two distressed grandparents – Frau Lizabet and Phil the Greek, at a critical time, a move in which I’m convinced Meghan’s showbusiness friends, with their penchant for the over-dramatic, must have had a say.  Personally, as long as she avoided French chauffeurs and the Holborn underpass, I think she would be all right.

The nub of this move, seemingly, is Harry’s desire to protect his wife…

“Harry, we’re moving!”

“Yes, dear.”

“NOW, Harry!”

“Yes, dear.”

…from racism and the ravages of the British Press.  We do have this thing about racism in UK, to a point at which most restaurant menus now exclude chicken and no-one is allowed to make a joke about Muslims.  “This Imam walked into a bar…”   See?    There’s a black van at the end of my street already…  Now maybe I’ve missed something, but I’ve never read, or heard a racist attack on Meghan.  Granted, the UK sports a small racist sub-class, and there are some people who would find racism in a church raffle; nevertheless, generally, the UK is one of the most racially tolerant nations in the world, so the royal couple may be missing something there.

The Press, though, is another matter:  newspapers in UK do not report news, they support opinions, usually those of their millionaire owners.  The government-sponsored media run whichever cause they espouse at a particular time mercilessly to ground, and having reduced it to grovelling in its den they harass it perpetually, never once allowing it to get free.

Spurious, biased, debased, puerile, vengeful …think of your own adjective.  And some of those rabid teeth found their way to assault Ms Markle, of that there can be no doubt.

So maybe Prinny and Megs are right to sever as many links as they can from the Royal whipping post.  I find it quite exciting – two upper-tier Royals wanting to support themselves; two members of the nobility the common tax-payer no longer has to finance.   I think they should take up farming – their father is quite expert in that department, and there’s nothing like growing your own to develop character.  Meghan and turnips, a marriage made in heaven!

Good luck to them!  I’d like to believe there is a hostelry somewhere at which our Greater and Gooder exports share conviviality:   Lewis Hamilton shoulder to shoulder with Reg Dwight, Sean Connery entertaining Sir Cliff Richard with an Irish joke or two,  Michael Caine insisting Daniel Day Lewis should only blow the bloody doors off…and in walks Harry Windsor, Duke of Sussex, shaking his collection box…

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.