Alanee has survived her mortal combat with Hasuga’s former ‘Mother’ and found the key to the wooden chamber’s secret door, by which she and Sala escape the City before its final collapse. The pair discover a boat moored on the River Balna and entrust the current to take them clear of danger.
Although Sala strives to help her, Alaneee succumbs to her wounds. With her whole world destroyed, Sala opts to end her own life and seeks an ending in the deepest part of the river.
Now read on:
It is the Hour of Spirits; a time for ghosts to rise, a time of angels. It is first morning, and Alanee is there. In her hands the xuss, wheaten bread of the Hakaan, the wide plain she loves so well. Upon the road before her, the long dirt lane that leads down the hillside from the village that is her home, between hedges grown high with wildsweet and the white weed, old Kaasa’s horse labours. Steam rising from its sweating flanks, breath in bellows-blasts from deep capacious lungs it pulls a richly-laden cart – fresh fish from Hikarthay, flour from Baldar Mill. An aged engine and its aged engineer; who more aged could there be, who more redolent of forever? Across the swathe of mists a red dawn is breaking, and it is morning in Balkinvel. Alanee, xuss clasped in her hand, in the summer of the land she loves.
Where was she when the darkness came? When did the flame, the tiny spark she had nurtured so carefully into fire, gutter and die? And by whose refulgence does she see, now that her own sweet light of memory has gone?
Deeper dreams, explanations: ‘I am here. I am always with you’.
Stirring. A sweet touch that must be Sala’s touch, for in life there is no touch sweeter – then another. Unwilling eyes, unready eyes – open, they can see nothing more lovely or more perfect than the dream – sleep is all these eyes, this body craves. Rest is all this heart can ask.
But the touch is insistent: it comes to her and leaves her at once, like a drift of breeze, or a sweetness of honey on her tongue. It calls her. She might turn away, but something, some kernel of heat within the white ash of her psyche asks it of her.
Open – wake – and so, as one who has returned from a great journey; as one who has seen the far distance and knows it for itself, she does.
Those eyes that meet her eyes are gentle. They speak to her of safety; they invite her in. It is not important, at first, that they are not human eyes, or even those of beasts she may recognise. They are there, and there is a world behind them.
She who looks down upon her, she is not Sala, or even close to Sala. She is not human, in a way Alanee knows. A creature, though: a beast – no, she will not call it so – a being. A being she saw in a picture once, with golden hair that cascades about its body in a flaxen mist: a being that smiles to see her eyelids flicker open, a being whose excited chatter is so close to speech she feels she might almost understand it, if only that speech was slower, closer to her need for understanding. She smiles in return, and the being cries for joy.
In the subdued light (she is within the shelter of some large hut, or house) there is food; fresh fruit, some fish, some green-stuff, and there is rest again. Darkness and light, sadness and happiness. A host of little faces greet her, a gallery of those strange, near-human smiles, mellifluous sounds, all glad that she has wakened, happy she is with them. In the cradle of their care she sleeps. And come the morning, wakes once more.
As some of her strength returns, Alanee tries to raise herself and look around her. The wounds to her leg and arm have been stitched with a fine, green thread and she is laid upon a bed of fresh hay-grass which has been somehow contained within a coarsely-woven sack resembling a mattress. The same hempen substance covers her. It is both comfortable and sweet-smelling, though a light dust tickles her nose. A roof of reeds, supported by a central pole, rises maybe twelve feet to its peak above her head, and extends to a circular red mud wall. Apart from her bed the only furniture, set against this wall, is a rather curious-looking jar upon a wooden stand. The only opening, which serves both as entrance and window, has a rush hurdle propped beside it to act as a door. Bright sun beams in onto a clay floor and outside there are sounds which, were they human in origin, would be like those of children playing. She can see little against that strong, glaring light.
Three of the golden people (yes, she may call them that) stand watching. Erect bodies sheathed in long, silken hair. She extends a hand and one, she whose eyes first met her own on waking, accepts it. Alanee wonders at her dark skin, the ribbed nails, hardened knuckles, yet in its way her grip is sensual, warm and comforting. There is such a sweetness, such an open frankness in her wild smile, such a soft music in her chuckling pleasure that Alanee is instantly compelled to love her.
One of the onlookers comes forward bearing water in a hewn wooden bowl, offering it nervously. Alanee is glad to drink. Expectancy! She feels its twang upon the air.
A shadow falls across the floor. A dark being stands framed within the doorway. “We thought we had lost you.”
That deep voice! That is the voice! Unsure if she can speak, and fearful lest she be wrong she hesitates to say the name; but she hopes; she hopes so, so much!
“None other. You remember me, then?”
Remember! Just to hear his voice as it resonated time upon time within her dreams, though she hardly knows him, has scarcely really seen his face, is all she could want. Oh, Dag! He walks towards her, as tall as she remembers, and the golden creature respectfully withdraws.
“Of course I remember you!” Alanee can hardly restrain herself, tears welling into her eyes, and weak though she is laughter plays about her lips as she waits for him to turn to the light, for a glimpse of the face she once kissed in gratitude. “Let me look at you!”
He sits beside her on the edge of her bed and she sees at once how well his image matches the one that has found space in her heart. Those eyes so fathomless and dark, the tiny creases as he smiles – a wide smile across his long, slightly haggard face; featured with sufficient flint to make a man. ‘Yes’ Alanee’s inner voice murmurs: ‘you are all I remember you to be.’
“Who designs your clothes?” She asks aloud, finding an excuse to give vent to a laugh that is proving irrepressible. He is dressed in an ill-tailored smock which looks to be made of wool. It is coloured, very patchily, by some sort of red vegetable dye that has not quite taken.
Dag grimaces. “In all honesty I rigged this up last night out of two of the curtains the Miroveti use for insulation. They aren’t particularly strong on clothes around here. They don’t see much sense in them. I’ll have to do better now you’re around, though. I’m boiling in this thing!”
“So normally you don’t wear anything?”
“Don’t look so worried! They cleaned and kept your clothes for you, and we’ll rig up a loom, or something.”
“Dag, who are they, these creatures?”
“I’m glad you said ‘who’ and not ‘what’. I wish I knew. I asked the one I call Pasc – he brought me here – and the nearest we both understood was Miroveti. It will do, anyway. They’re even less strong on names than they are on clothes.”
A ripple of tiredness washes over Alanee: her newly regained strength is ebbing. She sinks back on the bed. “Sala.” She says: “Is Sala here?”
Dag asks: “Who is Sala?”
Sleep saves her.
When Alanee re-awakens the sun has travelled another course, and she feels renewed. Despite anxious solicitations from her kindly nurse she rises and discovers the tabard dress she was wearing when she left The City neatly folded beside her bed. It is clean and crisp: it feels cool against her skin.
Supported at first on one silky arm, then taking some steps on her own, she ventures unsteadily out into sunlight, only to be nearly knocked from her feet by a milling throng of Miroveti children. They gather about her legs, pushing and jostling and clamouring for attention so insistently she surrenders; sitting down in their midst to laughingly submit as curious fingers touch her hair and her face. Dag discovers her here, twenty minutes later, with a fascinated young Miroveti on her lap toying with her lips, ears and curls.
“You’ve been unconscious for four days,” he tells her later, as they wander down towards a wooden jetty at the river edge. He has swapped his vast, heavy blanket for a more reasonable loin-cloth of animal hide. “You were alone in the boat when they found you. I’m sorry.”
There is the boat, lashed at last to a calmer mooring. Though Alanee explores it carefully, she finds no evidence of her friend.
“She must have thought I was dead; struck out on her own.”
“With the ‘dead’ part I can empathise; I thought you were myself until the Miroveti fed you with some of their amazing herbs. They are marvellous physicians, there’s nothing they don’t know about natural medicine. Now here you are, just five days later, walking around as if nothing has happened.”
“Not quite.” Although the wounds are healing, they still hurt her. The muscle in her leg tightens with each step, forcing her to walk with a limp.
He covers her hand with his own. “There was a robe, a very fine courtier’s robe, though it was the worse for wear: part had been torn off to make a bandage the Miroveti found on your leg wound; the rest of it was in the bottom of the boat. We thought it was yours. Maybe it wasn’t.”
She forces herself to breathe calmly. Sala would have had to remove her robe if she were to swim ashore, she tells herself. Sala was strong, so much stronger than she.
“What did happen, Alanee?” Dag asks.
She perches on the edge of the jetty, dangling her feet in the water. He sits beside her, and the river moves past them with stately invincibility, brown and wide. The opposite bank is a forest that extends to higher ground, and which in turn becomes foothills to mountains beyond – a forest a-flutter with wild creatures revealed in brilliant flashes of plumage, dark leaves, ruffled gently by a warm wind. Behind them the Miroveti village pulsates to its own rhythm of life: laughter and wailing of children, cackling of old ones, mewing and clucking excitement of females, mature grunting males. A collection of huts of mud and straw built by half-human hands in a clearing in the woods.
Alanee tells Dag of the fate of the Consensual City; of her adventures there, and how she owes her life to her friend. It is not a short tale, for Dag, like Sala, knew nothing of Hasuga or his power.
When she is done, he says gravely: “That explains a lot of things; and poses questions for a great many more. Alanee, you drifted down this river, but it is not the Balna. You were discovered up-river no more than a mile away, and further up there are falls: great waterfalls where the river drops a hundred feet or more. You can’t have come that way.”
The library of her mind contains all the history she needs, so she tells him of all she found while idling in the sanctuary of death.
“This is Carr-Villoise’s valley.”
Dag looks blankly at her, so she goes on. “Carr-Villoise saved this small patch from the final conflict. With Karkus he protected and fed the last mutant humans here while they developed Hasuga.”
She relates the story Lady Ellar had only begun to learn, left alone with that Book of Lore: how once, long ago, doomed mutants genetically engineered an almost ageless child, a biological computer whose brain could encompass all the knowledge they hoped he would need to eventually rebuild their species. “So his body could survive they gave him this valley.”
Dag looks puzzled. “Like a garden?”
“I believe so. When Hasuga ate his real food came from here. This, the village, the river, the forest, this is all real.” Alanee rests her chin on her hands, looking at the reflections on the water. “And he was real. Everything else…”
Alanee pauses for a while, watching carp, bass and eels darting among the reeds.
“Hasuga constructed a virtual world of his own. He was lonely. He wanted a mother so he created one. Then, through the emanations of that great brain he made a palace to live in, a virtual city and a civilisation around it.
“The city, the outer lands and the people who lived in them, even those who ‘cared’ for him, he made by the power of his mind, structured over time into something so complex and substantial it might just as well have been real. Oh, there were limits: he could only sustain so many people or players within it– he played out little games of war, thought up plagues, all sorts of natural disasters, simply to control numbers.
“But computers, even organic ones, finally wear out. So his purpose was always to recreate flesh – to re-establish a natural cycle of birth and death; people like the unsullied predecessors of those who created him. There were a lot of failed experiments, like the children in the city: I thought they were so vacuous and characterless, and now I see they were merely failures, unsatisfactory clones. But there were successes too.”
“I guess so. Simple creatures he created to be his gardeners who became his chemists.” She smiles reflectively, “Far from simple!”
“Anyway, his final task was to regenerate humans. His starting point for that was a slightly aberrant player from amongst his population and I was it.” She spreads her hands demonstratively; “Far away from The City, see? His message wasn’t so strong, out there in the Hakaan. Oh, Habbach, was the Hakaan even real?”
“Were you even real?” Dag grins. “You look pretty three-dimensional to me! What you’re saying is, he was shaping you to be first of his new species inside the virtual world of The City? So you can’t be real?”
“Let me explain. He had to brief me first, make sure I was completely ready, that I had enough power, enough knowledge. Once he was certain of that his mission was complete. All that was left for him was to shut down. He had to do that so I could get free.”
“Shut down – what, everything?”
“By gradual stages, yes. We saw it as impending disaster – the Continuum. It was Hasuga throwing switches: he’s a very orderly and organised sort of being. He had to prime himself to be sure there wasn’t a total failure before he was prepared.”
“So how do you become flesh and blood through all this? When does it happen?”
Alanee speaks slowly and gently soothes his hand with her own. “Dag, it already has.”
“Oh, for sure? And how do either of us know the difference?”
“A secret that was kept by The Ancients. The final key to my transition, if you like. Hasuga didn’t understand it, It was incorporated it in the switch he was programmed to use to shut himself down. A book that told of a magic made long, long ago. We had to hold it in our hands to make a final link: I was to die.”
Dag pales, “But you didn’t…”
“Yes, I did. Hasuga’s ‘Mother’ made the process more straightforward, actually; I was dead when your wonderful Miroveti found me.”
“|They brought you back from the dead?”
“So it seems. They recovered my tiny piece of Hasuga’s program, if you like. He modified me so I could survive without him. I had to be shut down and restarted; and that made me real.”
For a long time Dag says nothing, staring deep into the water before he will ask the question he would almost prefer to leave unanswered; “What about me? I haven’t ‘shut down’, have I? Are you saying that to be like you, I had to die, too?”
She remembers the compress of leaves, the morning of her pain. Her words are carefully chosen. “I know you did.”
He stares at her: “My healing – was that you?”
Alanee does not answer. She has said enough.
Leaving Dag alone to reflect, she walks back up the slope from the river. She will not tell him, yet, what their work together must be, though it might be that he knows; perhaps she senses the resentment he will feel, and can see how carefully she has to tread if ever he is to love her.
For herself Alanee will never lack comfort, never have to act alone. In her mortal lifetime Hasuga will always be close at hand, though in no form she can touch. He has left the burden of his imprisoned form behind, substituted flesh for a less substantial presence. Yet he speaks to her still.
She has only a small part in the first chapter of the book she brought Hasuga on that fateful morning; a book that begins with a story of a garden. And when she is gone, the book will help him with all that comes after.
“One thing, Hasuga – one thing I do not understand.”
In a day to come when she is alone, perched upon a rock above the valley, watching Dag and their children playing in the meadow below, she will ask the question, speaking aloud as she often does when she speaks with Hasuga:
“If the fatal flaw in the human race was, as the book tells us, begun at the very first; how different are we? One man and one woman – we cannot begin a perfect race, can we? Isn’t this just the same mistake, all over again?”
And he will reply, inside her head. ‘Is perfection what you truly seek?’
Alanee may ponder this for a while, seeing how one of her two boy children always harasses and bullies the other, even in play. Something in her mind must give an affirmative answer, for Hasuga responds to her.
‘There is more for you to know. Have faith in me.’
Alanee’s answer is not, as she may suppose, so far away: for hers is not the only home upon the banks of this river. There is another. It is kept by a woman deeply in love with a man who found her and pulled her from the water’s clutch, a handful of years ago. While Alanee rests, this woman sows corn in a little plot she has created, her Mansuvene hands once so soft now hardened by labour, but with a happy heart, because despite misgivings she has always harboured, she is joyfully certain now that she is with child.
This afternoon she will break her news to her man, when he returns from his expedition along the shore of the river, and though she chided him for his false hopes, some part of her has faith too. Maybe he has found the others he says he is sure are there.
After all, he is a man of perception, and her trust in Commander Zess’s judgement is absolute.
© 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.
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