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.

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.

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.

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.

Continuum – Episode Six A Place of Secrets

The story so far:

Alanee is settling herself into her first day in the City, encouraged that prospects of punishment for her failure to observe the law seem distant, but unaware she is being observed by key members of the City Council.     Her mentor, Sala, introduces her to the City markets and Toccata’s Tsakal House, where she can see out for the first time to the country beyond the walls.

Sala and Alanee have parted for the night and Alanee is left alone in her new home, where she lingers before her mirror and wonders at herself, made splendid by the burgundy of her new robe.

Does she imagine the haughtiness in her pose?  Has she changed so soon?  This place with its myriad rules and conventions, monstrous though it doubtless will turn out to be, and assuming it does not elect to punish her, might be very hard to leave.

With great deliberation, she folds the robe and puts it aside, dressing in a silk shift Sala bought her at the Bazaar this morning.  Alanee is a woman of the city now.

She will be long into sleep so she will not know when the late aerotran arrives.  Were she to see the flint-grim faces of High Councillor Cassix and Proctor Remis as they alight, she might feel rather less secure.

Early the next morning, her summoner wakes her.  “What?”

Sala’s voice:  “Get up, ba.  We’re going to the palace.”

There is barely time to rise and shower.  Sala looks grave.  She fusses about Alanee, fiddling at her clothing.

“The robe must be just so.  It must cross your body in this way, you see, like mine?  This clasp will help.”  She slips a bracelet of gold cast in the shape of a serpent over Alanee’s wrist.  “Wear this beneath your sleeve.  Only show it if you are challenged.  Now, of this I am unsure.”  With thumb and forefinger, Sala produces one final item from a gold purse at her waist.  It is so small Alanee can barely see it.  “I have never done one of these before, but I know you will be unable to cross the palace threshold without it.  I brought some tape – maybe you could tape it to you somewhere – perhaps beneath your hair?”

Tiny and black, with short, thin wires protruding from it, the object resembles nothing so much as a common or garden ant.  The wires tickle.  Alanee sticks it to her shoulder.  “What is it?”

“A limiter.  This is the first time I’ve seen one.  All who enter the palace have them implanted, you see?  Mine was done years ago, when I began my training.”

Alanee doesn’t see, although she is sufficiently affected by Sala’s obvious nervousness not to argue.  Beyond her window it is a grey and ferocious morning, a blizzard of hurricane proportions all but hiding the Palace’s imposing façade.

“We’re going out in that?”  She asks, rightly thinking that these minute preparations will be laid waste in seconds by the storm.

“No.  There is another way across.”

#

Among green hills far from the snows of the Consensual City; far, too, from the wide flat infinity of the Hakaan, a thousand miles, almost, from the great walls that defend the Fortress of Braillec, there is a village.  It is a small, tight community of Dometian citizens, and it is quite unlike Balkinvel, Alanee’s former home.  There is no Terminal here.  Instead, five miles beyond the village, at the head of the Kaal river valley, a great foundry smokes and grunts about its business;  for the people here are smiths – forgers of metal.  Upon their efforts run the wheels of civilization, the engines of the land.

In early spring the hills above Kaal-Takken are lush with infant grass and graceful trees offer sanctuary from a bold sun.  Nights are studded with fire-flies; tyke beetles whistle their constant song.  On warm evenings, even in the first quarter of the year, families sit outside on their porches eating and trading gossip.  The younger men spend their rest days in the hills hunting, while the women gather by the river, swimming or fishing, or both.  Young girls learn how to catch the fat dappal fish:  it is a skill they exhibit with pride, and often the second rest-day of a cycle will be a feast of their catch.

Last cycle, the first when winter relinquished its grip, Ripero spent an hour seated upon a bluff above the Kaal, admiring the fluid grace of Saleen’s body as she flashed through the icy water, twisting and turning in pursuit of a large dappal.  Saleen’s friends, of course, had seen him, so she was not surprised when, on their way to work next day, he invited her to a picnic in the hills.  And so they come to be sharing food Ripero has brought to a secluded glade in the Kaal-Del forest where, surrounded by flowers of the ancients, they regard one another with nervous apprehension, each afraid to speak.

“It is a good day.”  Ripero mumbles at last, conscious of how weak his voice sounds.  He has so many speeches planned, words to say, all confounded by Saleen’s fragile beauty.

Saleen’s eyes challenge him.  “So warm,”  she agrees.

She will not yet confess how she approves of Ripero.  His arms are strong and his face is well-featured, his mind agile.  Her friends would give their mortal souls to be where she sits at this moment.  She was overjoyed when he invited her – why is she so tongue-tied now?

“You have picked this place well.”  She tries to say, her words almost strangled to a whisper.  She clears her throat, quickly.

His face lights in a smile.  “Did you catch your fish?”

“Oh!  You were watching me?  (She feigns surprise) You shouldn’t have been spying.”

“I know.  I couldn’t help it.  You are so lovely.”  He blurts out the words, but they have their effect.  A pleasing blush colors her cheeks.

“But still…”  He has her at a disadvantage:  he has seen her naked, albeit in the water, albeit from a distance.  He would not have been so brazen as to stay and watch her rise to the bank, would he?  She blushes deeper.  She thinks how it would be if they were to swim together, and this gives her a tingling feeling inside.

“I’m sorry.”  Ripero is aware that this is his time:  ungainly though it will be, he must move closer, negotiating the obstacle of the picnic basket which stands between them.  “I was spellbound.”

He cannot get to his feet in case his undisciplined feelings should be revealed; so he shuffles himself across to her, making her laugh.  She says: “So you do like me then, a little?”

And it is his turn to blush.  “I like you very much.”

The sound comes first.  Neither distant nor near but everywhere, faint to begin; low in pitch to begin.  Ripero and Saleen, who might be lovers in only a little while, both hear it – both feel it.  It is louder, closer with every moment.  Above their heads frightened birds erupt from the trees; in the woods wild creatures cry their fear.  Now it is all-consuming, as total as a tidal wave, as shrill and wrenching as a Banshee scream.  Then comes the Banshee herself.

There is a fleeting second, a slice of a breath when Saleen knows she is about to die.  Ripero has just that flicker of time to read her utter horror in her face.

Then she is gone.  The wall takes her.

Is it a wall?  What is it that rushes past him blotting out all vision, so cold, so clinically precise?  What sound rips the hearing from his ears and reduces his world to silence?  What is it, this thing that takes Saleen, who would have been his woman – his wife?  The screech without no longer heard, becomes a screech within.  When his heart will no longer bear the writhing of demons, when his chest must burst, blackness comes.  Sleep comes

#

“In short, then you have brought us just one?”

There are six people in the chamber, of whom Ellar the Mediant is the only woman.  The great stump of the Domo occupies a chair at the center of the table, the Sires Portis and Trebec on his either flank.  Proctor Remis and High Councillor Cassix face them from chairs upon the other side.  The question is Trebec’s, Cassix its recipient.

“In short, yes.”  Cassix is in no mood to be bullied by Trebec.  “There were two further possibilities.  One is an obvious replicant.  We’ve had her arrested.”

“The only acceptable course!”  Portis interjects.  “Amazing how they still spring up from time to time.  And the other?”

“A girl with a psychological malady.  We had no time to precisely diagnose it, I’m afraid, but obviously completely unsuitable.”

“So we are left with a single candidate, if that is the word.”  The Domo rumbles.  “I like this less and less.”  He glances up to Ellar, who stands at the end of the table.  “You’d better bring her in.”

Outside in the ante-chamber, Sala is still fussing.  “It’s a committee of the High Council, the greatest authority on the planet.  Address them as ‘Sire’, it’s the safest way.  My patron should be here, too – the Lady Ellar.  Oh, Habbach!  Here she is!”

The door of the Chamber opens and Alanee’s heart jumps as an imposing woman in middle-age dressed in a gold-trimmed robe of silk emerges quietly.  Thick floor foam everywhere here deadens sound.  She beckons to Alanee, and as Sala also makes to advance, stills her with a warding hand.

“You must wait out here, Sala.”  Ellar is very tall, her bearing and step masculine and purposeful.  Yet the hand that takes Alanee’s is kind.  “Do not fear us, dear.  We intend you no harm.”

In truth, Alanee is astonished at her lack of fear, although voices in her head, which have been with her since she emerged into the Great Hall of the palace, trouble her slightly.  Before she knows it she is through the door and it has closed behind her.  The figures in the room, two of whom she recognizes as her interrogators upon that terrible last day at the Village, look up as she enters.  Cassix has turned in his chair.  He introduces the others then waves to a chair at the end of the table.

“Please, sit down.”  She does so.  Ellar sits at the table’s further end.

No-one speaks.

All study Alanee.  She is instantly in awe of the Domo, whose eyes are barely visible behind his rolls of fat, suspicious of Sire Portis who does not directly meet her gaze and who seems more interested in her chest.  Proctor Remis, whose lean looks so scared her the first time she encountered them, appears less threatening now.  Only Sire Trebec really disturbs her.  His florid face speaks of temper, his scowl radiates disapproval.

At last she feels compelled to break the silence.  She ventures:  “You summoned me, Sires?”

To her surprise Trebec grunts and nods almost approvingly.  Cassix’s face breaks into one of his steel-eyed smiles.

Sire Portis speaks.  “How old are you, Alanee?”  He does not use the courtesy ‘mer’.

“I am twenty-six, Sire.”  Alanee cannot remember who this is.  Surely, they know so much about her, they must know her age?”

“And you were paired to a…”  Portis studies a sheaf of papers he has before him:  “Hakaani foot-player, is that right?”

“Yes, Sire.  He died.”  Why, after all this time, does she still have difficulty with those words?  She has to force herself to say them.  How the voices in her head irritate her!  “All of three years ago, now.”

“It was a close pairing; you miss him still?”  Portis recognizes the regret in Alanee’s voice.

“Yes, Sire.”  She shrugs.  “But he’s never coming back, is he?”

“When you were together…”  The thin tones of the Proctor, now:  “did you not notice how he was motivated by certain innocent desires, needs that would change from time to time?  On the third day of the summer quarter in 3039, for instance, did he express a wish to go rock-climbing in the Southern Hills?”  The Proctor, too, is studying notes.  “The following week, was he not overtaken by a need to embark upon a pilgrimage?”

“Yes, both those things.  That was the year of the great pilgrimage to the Shrine at Dolca.  I recall it.”

“You did not go with him?”

“No, Sire.  There was no need.”

Trebec’s eyebrows raise.  He speaks for the first time.  “You felt no need?”

“No Sire.  Why should I?  I don’t like heights!”

“But your village emptied on those days, did it not?  Didn’t that strike you as odd?”

Cassix chips in:  “Not necessarily for the rock-climbing.  That was an elective pursuit.”

Alanee answers.  “Sire, a lot of things have always struck me as odd.  I have learned to live with the sudden passions of others, their strange likes and dislikes.  I think I am different, in some way, but I don’t know how.”

From the mighty mouth of the Domo comes one word, laced with irony:  “Unique.”

Cassix spreads his hands.  “Therefore is she not sent?  Alanee, do you know how we are ruled; why your world lives in peace and harmony for most of its time?”

“Why, by yourselves, Sire.  The High Council:  the Consensual City.”

Portis nods.  “That is good; as it should be.  Alanee, this committee of the High Council wanted to meet you, and now we have, and now we must go into private session.  We have a thing in mind, which, should we agree upon it, will become your mission in the time to come.  You will be well rewarded, and your life with us, no matter what we decide, will always be a comfortable one.  Thank you for being so truthful with us.  Lady Ellar?”

Ellar nods, rises gracefully, beckoning to Alanee.  The meeting is closed.

Cassix waits until the women have left.

“Is she not sent?”  He repeats.  “There is no-one like her.”

“There used to be many.”  Says the Domo, who has spoken very little.

“Not, High Sire, with her blend of passivity and nonconformity.  She does not question:  though she knows she is different, there is no rebellion in her.  She has no wish to shake the State like dissidents of the past!  I insist, this woman is sent to us.  She is the perfect solution.”

The Domo shakes his head.  “This matter, Cassix, is of great moment.  I wish I shared your certainty.  Oh, no blame falls upon the woman, and I am sure she is all you say.  That isn’t what concerns me.  What does concern me is the hinge in our destiny upon which this matter hangs.  It makes me afraid.”  He rises to heavy feet.  “However, it begs our decision.  We must take it before the full Council.  Gentlemen, we adjourn.”

Back in Alanee’s apartment, she and Sala calm themselves with a drink.  Sala seems quite different, almost hysterically relieved that the ordeal is over.

“Was it very nerve-wracking?”

“No.  they just asked me..”

Sala cuts in quickly:  “You must not tell me what they asked you.”

Alanee protests:  “Why ever not?  They questioned me abo….”

No!” It is the first time Alanee has heard Sala shout and it makes her jump.  Her companion immediately recovers herself.  “I’m sorry Alanee-ba.  I’m so sorry – I don’t mean to scare you.  Whatever you discuss with High Council must always remain secret.  No-one outside the Chamber can ever know, you understand?”

“But there’s no-one else to hear except you,” Alanee protests feebly:  “Is there?”

“Of course not.  This is a place of secrets, ba, some of which are wonderful to share, but some of which are dangerous.  Whatever happened in there, the knowledge of it would be dangerous to me.  You wouldn’t want anything to happen to me, would you?”

“Well, I’m getting out of this!”  Making for her bedroom, Alanee slips the bracelet from her wrist, unfastens the clasp that holds her robe ‘just so’.  She changes into the silk shift that feels so comfortable on her body.

Sala, who has followed her to the bedroom, laughs.  “You wear so many underclothes!  Are you cold?”

Something hidden beneath the apparent innocence of the question puts Alanee on the defensive.  “No. I just wear them, don’t you?”

Sala’s face betrays a momentary flash of mischief, which as quickly passes.  “Not a stitch,” She says, seriously.  Then, a little coyly, she murmurs:  “I feel such heat, don’t you? Would you come and bathe with me if I begged you?”

Green eyes, suddenly imploring -Alanee blushing purple, taken completely by surprise!  The shock – the stammered refusal – Sala fingers running across her shoulders, down her arm to take her hand.  “Come on, my ba! There are many new things you must try.”

“No!”  Alanee’s answer is instinctive.  Snatching herself away, she retreats to the living room. Hands shaking, she pours herself a second drink and stands by her window, staring out at the snow as she collects her thoughts and curses herself, perhaps, for her naiveté.  She feels Sala’s hand stroke her back.

“Must I apologise, my ba?”  Sala’s voice is almost tearful.  Turning, Alanee sees she does seem to be near to crying.

“Why?  No.  I mean, what for?” She feels awkward, almost threatened.  “You surprised me, that’s all.”

“I am too forward.  I should not have frightened you.”  Sala seems emboldened, her eyes imbued with an intensity that leaves no room for misunderstanding.  Her arm has closed about Alanee’s waist, drawing her near, Alanee flinches in momentary revulsion.

Sala sees it.  “Oh, you are so – so provincial!”  She releases her grip impatiently, wipes at her eyes with angry strokes.  “You know nothing!  Nothing!

Alanee shakes her head, unable to encompass this.

“How long has your man been dead; two years, three years?  Three years!  In all that time, have you never…”  Sala pauses, words choking in her throat.  “How do you manage, Alanee?  Don’t you ever need to be touched, to be…loved?”

“You mean…?”

Sala blazes at her.  “Yes, I mean!

Before Alanee can stop her, Sala has snatched up her purse and made for the door.  There is no protest that will detain her, and in a handful of seconds she is gone.  It is a moment in which Alanee experiences illogical fury, so she slams her fist onto the glass table, sending her dap fish scattering in terror, before she slumps onto the couch.

“I’ve known you for just one day!”  She protests to the wall. The wall’s only answer is an echo, but if, inside her mind, it could speak, it would remind her that without Sala’s advice she will be defenseless against those stern councilors with their devious eyes.  She will be vulnerable and alone.

All at once the very thought of facing the Consensual City terrifies her.  And her first instinct is to escape…

 

© 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.

 

Continuum – Episode Five         The Dream of Karkus  

The Story so Far:   Alanee, widow of a successful sportsman, has been transported from her village to the seat of the High Council, the Consensual City.  Believing she is to be punished because she does not follow her village friends’ slavish conformity, she finds herself installed in a luxurious apartment and mentored by Sala, a beautiful Mansuvene woman.

The day after her arrival Sala tells her she must wear a ceremonial robe, for she is to be employed in the City Palace.

“Suppose,” Alanee says slowly;   “I do not want this work.  Will I then be free to go home?”

Sala knows the shock her answer will induce.  “No, my dear.  No-one ever leaves the Consensual City.  This is where you will live for the rest of your days.”  She sees that Alanee’s is close to tears:  “Oh come!  That’s not so bad!  Life is very good here – especially when summer comes!”

She pats Alanee’s knee. “Enough despondency.  We have a city to explore, you and I.  But first, we need to dress you in one of those robes, I’m afraid.”

#

“Laskali!”  High Councillor Trebec glares at the screen, his cheeks flaring purple outrage.  “Is that the sort of language we must expect from our mediators?  What manner of woman is this Sala?”

The Lady Ellar protests mildly.  “You would be hard put to find a woman anywhere within the court circle who has not at least experimented, Sire.”  She catches the look in the florid old general’s eye.  “Oh, yes, even me.  Sala is a very accomplished mediator: the best, perhaps, of my current brood.  The woman Alanee could not be in better hands.”

Four are gathered in Lady Ellar’s office, viewing live cameras that display Alanee’s apartment on screens; High Councillor Portis, a tall man of middle years, not always fragrant, his iron-grey hair slicked back to streamline a pointed nose and the pinched features of one immersed in life; Trebec the campaign-hardened soldier and Ellar herself are three.  The fourth, impressive for his sheer size is the Domo, or leader of the High Council.  Together they observe as Sala helps Alanee to shed her personal clothes before dressing her in a formal tunic and robe.

“How think you, Portis?”  Trebec asks.  “Does she please you?”

“She is certainly a temptation.”  Portis acknowledges.   “Cassix has a discerning eye.”

“Also the opinion of Proctor Remis, I believe,”  Trebec says.

Portis concedes with a nod.  In this august company he will not profess his weakness.  It was he who tussled with Ellar concerning the placement of the concealed cameras that spy on Alanee now.  Ellar prevailed, so none are trained upon the rest-places in the apartment.  Alanee has that much privacy at least.

“High Sire; may we know your thoughts?”  Ellar asks.

“Thoughts, Ellar-mer?”  The Domo speaks with jaws so fleshy they follow rather than accompany the movement of his small mouth, like wavelets around a sinking stone.  His voice is deep and resonant – the voice of one who can command attention with a word, for all that his weight suggests.  “I have no thoughts at this time.  I have reservations; I have severe doubts.  No thoughts.”

“By all accounts she is a remarkable woman?”  Trebec ventures.

“She is dissident, and by no means unique in that regard.  Cassix interviews two more such today.”  The Domo says.  “Once, we would simply have dispensed with her.  Now…”  He heaves a shrug from the mighty yoke of fat about his shoulders:  “Severe doubts.”

The others wait until his cheeks stop moving, lest they should interrupt.

“She received the Word last night?”  Portis enquires.

Ellar answers him.  “Yes.  She has received the Word all her life.  It has no detectable effect on her.”

The Domo raises two stubby hands.  “A dissident, then.  There is no more to be done here.  We wait for Cassix and Remis to return.  Tomorrow we shall interrogate this young renegade and see where our future lies with her, or whomsoever else they bring us.”  He labors to his feet.  “Sires; go well with you.”

One by one the distinguished company depart, until Ellar is left alone to watch as Alanee moves before her, a figure on a screen – two dimensions, without reality, without a soul.  A dissident.  How brutal was the Domo’s choice of phrase?  “Once we would simply have dispensed with her…” and how harshly truthful; the icy heart behind the fondant warmth of ‘The Dream’; the steel blade that sleeps beneath.

How else could it work, this Utopian world of theirs?  Once, just once, she has seen the world’s cold heart; the Book of Lore, where Cassix left it opened upon a table.  A chance acquaintance and a brief one, for the Book is only open to the High Council.  Outside their aegis, few even know of its existence.  Yet that book rules them all, from courtiers to drabs, from the towers of the fortress of Braillec to the smallest Proteian village thousands of miles away.

Did Cassix know what jar he opened when he left her with the Book for an hour one autumn afternoon?  How he had also opened a window in her mind?  Did he foresee how quickly she could learn?  Was it his intention that she, Ellar the Mediant, should join those honored by the truth?  Well, she had learned.  She had gained the gift of history:  she knew how the world turned, now, and was the richer for it.

The Book of Lore described a time when it had seemed the world might end; when humanity was imbued with an arrogant, aggressive spirit that drove it close to its own destruction.  She read how belief in a super-being and peculiar differences of opinion as to how this being must be defined had drawn men close to self-destruction; how they had devoted their lives and their minds to inventions for the sole purpose of killing.  And when they finally succeeded…

Out of the ashes had risen a very few Chosen People.  Burned and molded in the furnaces of death these creatures (you could barely call them men) foresaw a better future.  But of all who survived, they were least equipped to implement any future at all:  they were stunted and weak.  It took the vision of a normal one, an unscathed survivor, to see how their gifts might transform his world.

Christophe Carr-Villoise had risen from the fire itself.  Before the Great Conflict, he had been no more than a hill-farmer; a mountain man.  In the barren world created by The Conflict, so legends tell, he found a fertile valley where his skills raised green crops from barren soil.  He taught those who followed him to live from the land, and they, in turn, gave him their allegiance.  He rose to prominence through new follies of skirmish and conflict, but he was wise.  He sought a better way, and in the Chosen Ones he found it.  He saw how these pathetically mutated beings spoke without words among themselves; sometimes even communicating their unuttered will to him.  He saw how slowly their own world turned and how they lived to great age:  yet because they could only rarely reproduce themselves he saw how, in the end, they were doomed.

A captain with a high purpose does not always have a ship to sail.  Fortunately, however, among the Chosen there was one who shared Carr-Villoise’s vision.  The creature history would remember as Karkus unified The Chosen behind a cause – a dream he, together with Carr-Villoise, would draft into the Book of Lore.  They would work upon The Chosen’s slow mortality, they would develop those telepathic powers so from their ranks when the time came a child imbued with the essence of all their strengths might be created,.  When he came, such a child would rule them all – all the peoples of the world – with unblemished innocence.

In a hot Arcanian summer two millennia since The Dream became reality. Hasuga was born.

Ellar sighs.  Why had Cassix wanted her to know all this?  By reading the pages of that ancient book she had become privy to first principles Carr-Villoise and Karkus had composed five centuries before Hasuga’s birth.  Both those great visionaries would be dust and Carr-Villoise’s original valley consigned to myth long before their dream was realized.  But their predictions were clear and the High Council they set up for their perpetuation did its work.  Knowledge of those edicts was a privilege shared by very few, because the first principle was incorruptibility.

Knowledge of the child shall be kept among his wards:  never should the people know how, or by whom, they are ruled.

The second principle:

The child must be protected as a child, his innocence must be inviolate.

And the third:

The Word of the child must reach all of the people, and all of the people must live according to The Word of the child.

Success was gradual.  Although the High Council had long years of waiting in which to prepare, Hasuga’s birth marked a beginning, rather than a conclusion.  At first the distribution of his Word was clumsy, ineffective.  Where today there is the merest scattering of dissidents, then there were battalions of them, far from complacent at having their minds occupied by infantile occupations such as the building of snowmen or feasting on honey cakes; people not given to unquestioning obedience, with no understanding of how they were being manipulated.  Those were fierce, bloody times.

Stabilization took a thousand years, but when it came, as Karkus had foreseen, a population whose consciousness was shaped by a young unblemished mind no longer sought aggrandizement or power; and meanwhile, the High Council was promulgating the fourth, most vital of the principles written on that first page of The Book of Lore.

Production and consumption shall remain in balance.  Maintenance of this level shall be the High Council’s responsibility alone.  The words ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ are blasphemy.  Those who espouse them must be dissuaded or removed.  This is intrinsic to the Lore.

It was a good principle, maybe the key to the comparative success of the last millennium.  Out there in a world united in purpose the citizenry goes to work each morning and returns each night with no thought of any but the most menial of ambitions.  To become foreman, or to be elected as Domo of their community, these are the highest pinnacles to which anyone can aspire.  And it brings happiness.  Broadly, there is balance.

There have been flaws, crises when fears for Hasuga’s life sent scientists into furious huddles of activity, frantic searches for a missing component, a slight adjustment, a life-saving inspiration.  Hasuga is not quite immortal.  In just this last year, the High Council has been forced to concede to his puberty.  After a thousand years as a child he is child no longer.  Karkus had foreseen all this.  What else had he foreseen? The Chosen Ones are long gone now, rendered extinct by their own biological failings.  Must Hasuga, their last progeny, eventually fail?  If so, what lies beyond?  What will happen to The Dream?

No surprise then, that Ellar is troubled, watching Alanee move about her new world.  Ellar believes Cassix harbors the same concern and he wants her mind focussed as he is focussed, upon answering that question.  Cassix is a Seer, a great one, honored within the Court.  His gift gives him the ability to detect a breeze unfelt by others, and the panache to sail close to it when he has the inclination.  She believes such an inclination may be guiding him in this.

The Mediant’s curiosity concerning Alanee is exhausted.  She turns off the cameras that spy upon the Hakaani girl.  Sala’s body-language as she drapes the formal robe over Alanee’s form has not escaped her notice, but she treats it philosophically:  after all, one can never stop laskali.

#

“Try these!  You must try these!”  Sala, insistent.

“Oh no!  No, I can’t!”  Alanee – shocked.  Although she has known Sala only a few hours, already they giggle as if they have been together for years.  “It’s – it’s disgusting!”

There is no mistaking the shape of the candy Sala has dropped into her hand.  “Come, you’re only offended because you’ve never seen a blue one!”

“I have!”  Alanee protests.  “On a cold night!”

“Bite the end!”

“What…?.”  The vendor is watching Alanee, leering all over his face.  She feels a blush rising in her cheeks. “No!”

“Alright…you!”  She waves dismissively at the vendor.  “This is personal.  Look the other way.”  She bites, as Sala looks on suppressing a rising gale of laughter.  A hot flood of intense methol flavor explodes into her mouth.

“Oh Habbach!” At the change in Alanee’s expression, Sala all but collapses with mirth.  “Now is that realistic, or not?”

“It tastes better.”  Alanee confides when she has finished choking, out of the vendor’s earshot.  “How much are they?”

“Oh, Alanee-mer!  Shame on you!”  Sala turns to the vendor:  “She’ll take twenty.”

“I will NOT!”

In the noise and bustle of the bazaar the pair move from stall to stall, sampling this, commenting upon that.  Sala’s infectious humor reaches through the shroud of Alanee’s depression and draws out the child beneath so effectively that soon she has forgotten where she was just a day before.  They stroll through avenues of fountain colors; bright cloth, facetted glass, tinted light.  Vendors bark for their attention, passers-by in the robes of court greet them. Alanee is introduced to a hundred names, may only remember a handful.  Morning passes into afternoon.

“Do you never eat?”  Alanee asks at last.

“Habmenah I forgot!  Oh you poor darling you must be famished!”  Sala cries, genuinely distressed,  “Come on, I know a really nice little place.”

Alanee has already learned that journeys between Sala’s ‘nice little places’ can be long.  This morning she has been led it seems forever through the labyrinthine fabric of the city.  Rarely outdoors (a couple of times they have braved the open air, shielded their faces to rush through snow) they have gone from ‘nice little’ emporium to ‘nice little’ emporium, stopping at a view of the Phoenix Square with its statue of Carr-Villiose above the central fountain, pausing to look up at the Watchtower’s lofty extended arm stabbing an accusing finger at heaven.  Alanee, footsore by now as well as hungry, will be glad if this ‘little place’ is not too far.

“Not far at all.  Just along here.”  Along here, up some stairs, around a corner, more stairs.  A door lit by rich green light.  “I do hope you will like it.  It is quite special to me.” Alanee will welcome anywhere she can rest.  Her brain is too befuddled to discriminate, but appearances do not suggest any more than a thousand other doors. A simple plaque above it says ‘Toccata’s’ and there are no windows to betray its purpose; so what will she find within?

Well, first is fragrance; the sweet tang of tsakal, a leaf so rich, a blend so strong she can almost taste it.  Then there is ambiance; deeper, darker, enriched by red hangings and brown shadow, flickering gently as tallow does when it plays upon a dim twilit room.  And next there comes the sound, a low plainsong of subdued voices, the falling inflections of earnest conversation.  Sala leads her between booths screened by silk or velvet.  Words waft out to them as they pass, laughter greets them softly.  Much of that human sound seems to come from nowhere at all.

“There’s a lot of red!”  Alanee whispers.  She is unsure why she is whispering.

“Why yes!”  Sala seems surprised.  “Do you not just love red?”

By a white counter stands a man of uncertain years, tall and erect of bearing.  As they approach his eyebrows arch to an expression of delight and he greets them, hands outstretched.

“Sala-mer my dearest; now who have you brought me today?”  His voice is not the voice of any man Alanee has known; his kiss upon her cheek a familiarity that surprises her.  “Oh, such bone-structure, such divinity!”  He whispers confidentially in her ear.  “You have the power to make old men regretful, sweet child.  Take care of your dear, dear soul.”

Sala has been watching this exchange with amusement.  “This is Toccata, Alanee-mer.  You be careful of him, he’s not as disinterested as he sounds.  Toccata-meh, we want my best table today?”

“Sala-mer, sublime one, it goes without saying.”  Toccata leads the way.  He walks with tiny steps through the forest of drapes which stir with his passing like willows in a breeze.

The café is quite small.  Ten effete paces later Toccata draws aside curtains of amber velvet, revealing a low bleached wood table between two over-stuffed settles.  Yet it is not the furnishing of this snug hideaway that draws Alanee’s breath, but the window it offers to the outer world; another spectacular view, within a more modest frame than that which dominates Alanee’s own apartment, but awe-inspiring nonetheless.

Sala sees her admiration. “The countryside beyond the City – the Balna Valley, and beyond, those are the Pearl Mountains.  On a clear day you can see Kess-ta–Fe, the great needle.  Magnificent, is it not?”

Toccata brings them tsakal with a platter of fruits and cheeses far stronger, and more piquant, than any Alanee has tasted.  And they fall into conversation about small things the day has brought them while snowflakes drift past the window, sometimes pausing, eddying by the glass, as though they would gaze inside.

“It is quite private.  These curtains are excellent for deadening sound, and we will not be disturbed unless we ask it.  That is why I like this place so much.”

An hour passes; maybe more.  As a second cup of tsakal comes and goes, the dark leaf works its magic:  does Alanee notice how Sala’s hand touches her – lingers a little longer with each touch?  Maybe she does, maybe she does not.  Everything is hazed and a little confused.  All except one thing.

Sala senses her mood:  how Alanee’s eyes are drawn back to a place in the far-off sky, somewhere beyond her own seeing.

“What are you looking at, Alanee-ba?”  When did she begin to use the familiar suffix to Alanee’s name?  “What do you see out there?”

Alanee smiles wistfully.  “It’s so hard to believe this is the same sky that looks down on the Hakaan.  I guess I’m just dreaming of home.”

“It will pass.”  Sala’s fingers brush Alanee’s thigh. “You have so much to discover, ba.”

Alanee nods.  She will not divulge the truth, that there is something in that sky which speaks of wrongness, something fearful in its menace.    There is a warning voice in her head – a whisper not for Sala’s ears to hear.

Instead:  “Do you never feel a longing, Sala-mer?  To go beyond these walls, walk to the river?  Play in the snow?”

At the formal use of her name Sala withdraws her hand.  “I have no taste for snow.”  She says primly. “But I do go out there, and so may you.  I hope we will, when spring comes.”

“I thought we were never to leave the Consensual City?”

“That’s true.  But the city boundaries extend across the Balna River, so we need no-one’s agreement to go there.  And we may wander further, even into the mountains, if we have permission.  We just have to promise to return.”

Alanee sighs, pleased to know her punishment, which she remains convinced awaits her, may not hold her a complete prisoner here.  What would she do if she knew?  How would she react, had she been among the little throng of villagers who gathered that day, curious to see the strangers in white overalls pulling her house apart, piece by piece – packing her possessions into sealed cases for transport?   And when it had gone, her house – all gone, every brick, every tile so there was nothing in the street but an empty space – would she have gazed at her precious vista of the plains with Malfis’s rheumy eyes for as many hours as he, or turned her back and walked away with the Domo’s heavy heart?

© 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.

 

 

 

Continuum – Episode Four Altered Circumstances

 

The story so far:

Alanee’s transportation in the aerotran has reached a conclusion.  She faces the immediate prospect of landing she knows not where.  Dag, her pilot, although kind and understanding, can offer no information about her future.

Alanee stirs blearily back to wakefulness, admitting to herself that the stresses of the day must have told upon her.  Far from refreshed by slumber, she feels exhausted.

The eyes in the mirror watch her:  “Now there’s a real morning person!”  Dag says.

The aerotran’s engines are different, they run in surges of sound.  Alanee feels that they are descending but by stages, as though dropping over a series of downward sills.  Dag is talking to someone on a communicator, being given instructions, she thinks.  Below the window and rushing past there is a bright tapestry, an almost distinguishable pattern although she cannot discern details; houses, maybe: or larger buildings – factories or offices.  Then suddenly all this is lost in darkness, and the sound of the engines is an echo, while the aerotran tracks a line of red lights which pass beneath it one by one.  It is difficult to guess its speed, but the nose is up and in another second there is light ahead, bright blue light that grows from distant dot to shining arc.  Almost immediately the aerotran is in the midst of that light, and forward motion has ceased.

“There we go!”  Dag says cheerfully.  “We’ve arrived!”

Arrived where?  From the window, Alanee sees only a solid grey wall.

“We’re on a lift-deck.”  Her young pilot explains.  “It’s a sort of elevator.  You are bound for…”  He glances at his console “….My, level five!  You must be quite important!”

Dumbstruck, Alanee stares at the grim, uncompromising wall as the aerotran ascends.  For a brief while she actually entertains an idea of diving back into the rest-place and locking herself inside.  Within this aerotran, this womb, within the care of the gentle Dag with his soft, deep voice she has gained solace to such a degree she now fears what may happen when she steps outside it:  after all, she has only the pilot’s opinion that she is not to face some form of punishment for being who she is. What if he is wrong?

Dag explains:  “The docks are all inside the hill.  The place they serve is built on the plateau above. So the lift-deck is taking us up to it.  We’re just about there now.”

As if at his prompting, a black number ‘one’ scribed on the wall slips into Alanee’s view, then passes beneath them, swiftly followed by numbers in sequence.  At ‘five’ the lift-deck’s upward motion stops.  There is a sensation of moving rearwards, a sudden emerge from entombment into soft ambiance.  She finds herself looking at a chamber as large, though more sumptuous by far than the ‘best room’ of her own house, with foam-carpeted floor, couches upholstered in red satin, a table and flowers.

A wood-panelled door on the further side of this space opens.  A woman of near her own age or a little older steps into view, a woman whose poise and elegance takes her breath away.

“Time for us to part,” Dag rises easily from his cockpit seat.  “Alanee-mer, can I say it has been a privilege to have met you?”

He is tall, so very, very tall.  She feels intense regret.  “Shall I not see you again?”  She asks.

He shrugs.  “If you need a pilot you might get me.  You might even ask for me.  If I am available I’m sure I would be permitted to fly you.”

Wondering at these words (why would she need a pilot?) Alanee nonetheless has presence of mind to say:  “You may be sure I shall.  Dag-meh, would you take your helmet off for me?”

Dag’s eyes give that smile again.  He removes the golden dome that has concealed his face, and what she sees makes Alanee’s heart shine.  Yes, she will remember this man.

“Thank you, Dag-meh, for looking after me.”  She leans forward on an impulse to kiss his cheek.

Dag slides back the door and the aerotran depressurizes noisily.  “Thank you for being such an unusually lovely passenger.  Be lucky, Alanee-mer.”

With reluctance Alanee steps out of the aerotran, leaving Dag behind in the cocoon that has been her sanctuary for a few precious hours.  Her feet are greeted by the soft warmth of deep carpet, and there is a scent of roses.  What sort of a world is she entering?

“You find all this awfully confusing, don’t you?”  The woman, a slender, dark-haired creature with large green eyes and the bronze pallor of a Mansuvine, a race of seafaring people from Eastern Oceana,  steps forward to greet her.  Her resplendent gold and burgundy tunic drapes over her body so perfectly it must surely have been made especially for her, and she moves languidly within it as only one with the absolute confidence of privilege can move.  The ring upon her finger bears a large emerald that speaks of wealth, yet her smile is open, her greeting sincere. She clasps Alanee’s hands in hers.

“Come!  You are Alanee, are you not; from Balkinvel on the Hakaan?  Is it very hot there at this time of year?  My name is Sala, Alanee my dear.  We are to be companions, you and I.”

Alanee does not answer, fearing any reply she makes to that kindly smile will reduce her to tears.  Behind her, the aerotran has slipped quietly away, taking Dag and her last contact with any part of a world she knows with it.  Sala understands at once.

“You must be so tired!  Come, we can talk tomorrow.”

She leads Alanee through that paneled door into a brightly lit passage lined by graphics of aerotrans along each wall; then beyond that to join a wide, green-carpeted walkway with high walls of waxen cream bathed by concealed, gentle light.  They are amongst people now, some introspective and hurried, some entering or leaving doors of richly polished wood which are the only features of this thoroughfare, others idling or talking among themselves, men and women in equal measure.  Sala exchanges casual greetings with some as they pass.

“Good even, Sala-mer!”

“Greet-you, Fra Perris.”

Alanee is used to walking amongst Hakaani, but there are all races here, light-framed, bird-like Oceanics, swarthy Braillecci, taciturn Proteians, dark mysterious Mansuvene.  All, or nearly all, are richly dressed, and many wear Sala’s colour scheme of burgundy and gold.  The exceptions, dressed in fatigues of grey drab, seem subservient and rarely speak other than among themselves.  Alanee, feeling shoddily-dressed and unkempt, aligns herself with the grey ‘drabs’.

They walk a long way for weary legs, passing row after row of doors and arches for the most part in silence because Alanee is intimidated by Sala’s splendour, and overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of this place.  She has simply never imagined anything like it could exist.  What is waiting for her at the end of this walk?

“Where are we?  What is this place?”  She ventures at last.

“Oh Habmena!  Of course, they haven’t told you!  They couldn’t.  No-one may speak the name of the City outside its walls.  Such a stupid conceit!”  Sala chuckles sympathetically.  “My dear, this is the Consensual City, the seat of the High Council!  Not far now – see?  This is our door.”

At another anonymous doorway (Alanee is sure they must have passed a hundred), Sala touches a circular plate that exactly matches the size of her hand.  The door opens instantly, sliding back into a recess in the wall.

“Come!  You’ll be able to rest now, I promise.”

They enter a lobby area about ten feet square, impersonally decorated and furnished with full-length closets, a small table.  To their left a further door stands open, and beyond it a large room sumptuous in the extreme, high-ceilinged, its three inner walls hung with brightly-coloured tapestries and silks.    The fourth wall is wholly dominated by a vast, undraped window overlooking a courtyard some sixty feet below, and faces the front elevation of a great building which, lit by blue iridescence, seems to float in the darkness.

“Don’t be concerned,”  Sala reassures;  “It is one-way glass.  You can see out, but…”

Alanee feels her feet cosseted by thick floor-foam and her weary limbs tempted by long, low couches of soft hide.  A central table, edged by an ebony rail, is a fish tank filled with illuminated blue liquid.  Brightly colored Dap fish swim in the soft light that precisely reflects that of the stately mansion across the courtyard.   Alanee is dumbstruck at such opulence.   All this:  is this how people live in the Consensual City?

“This must belong to someone very important!”

Laughing, Sala acknowledges:  “Yes, I suppose one would think that.”  Then quickly sees how Alanee is overcome.  “Let me show you somewhere you can sleep.”

By another door then, to a bedroom, or at least a room with a bed, which by now is all Alanee can or would wish to see.  She is too tired to take in any more of her surroundings.  It is a wide bed – very wide – and comfortable enough: Sala leaves her to stretch upon it with the briefest of instructions:  “There’s a summoner” (a touch-panel on the wall) “if you need anything.  Call me on it tomorrow, when you’re ready.  There is no rush.  And that…”  She points to a pen-sized object which lies on a table beside the bed; “Is a homer.  If you go out exploring and are lost, activate this and it will guide you back here.  The door will know you, so never worry about getting locked out.  Sleep well and long, my dear.”

“I may go outside?”

“Of course; if your legs will carry you.  But first you should sleep, Alanee-mer.  You look completely worn out!”

So Alanee sleeps. And deep in dreams she is flying once more with Dag strong and safe at her side.  Below is the sun-mist on the Hakaan, and the plains stretch away on every side forever.  Together with the wild birds they swoop, hover, turn, climb and dive, companions upon the long, long journey into the mountains of morning.

When she opens her eyes again there is music somewhere, honey-sweet music.  Though she has slept fully clothed she cannot recall a time when sleep has been sweeter, or when she has felt more refreshed.  Poised on the edge of slumber she almost believes everything was a dream, that she will find herself back home again and making ready for work, in her own village, among the people she has known since she was born.

But no.

The air is sweet and vital.  She has woken in a bedroom with no windows to an outer world, that is yet filled with mellow daylight:  the décor that surrounds her is intensely feminine; smooth curves of furniture, tints of apple and white.  Her feet find soft rugs, that same deep floor-foam.  She is shocked that the rest-place, beyond an elliptical arch, is otherwise unprotected by any door – what if someone should see? She uses it quickly, shy of discovery; but then spies the pressure bath with its scents and toiletries, whereupon she reasons with herself that people rich enough to own a bedroom like this would not be so crass as to spy upon her, would they?  So she bathes for almost an hour, much longer than she intends, seduced by that unobtrusive music, drifting close to sleep.

At last she must rise from the water, throw a robe about her and venture out.  She puts a head shyly around the bedroom door: “Greet you?”

No-one answers.  She is alone.  Assuming her host must be otherwise employed, she slips hesitantly from the bedroom into the living area’s sumptuous space.    Here she must pause, losing all sense of herself, for the view through that transparent wall is beyond believing.  The mansion which was bathed last night in phantom blue is, by the light of day, an ornate building of great and blackened age with doors and walkways between forests of pillars at its lowest level. Two further storeys are punctuated by high, arched windows, balconies and statues of dignified pedagogues who pose in alcoves, impervious to the snow.  One of these (she cannot tear her eyes away) glares censoriously back at her, as though she was his reluctant pupil.  He carries a book beneath his arm and where his fingers clasp around it huddles a bird, tiny and forlorn, sheltering from the winter chill.  Alanee’s heart goes out to this little creature.  For all her uncertainty about her own future, his is no more certain.

Courtyard and walkways are busy with hurrying figures, clad in the same dark red robes so much in evidence last night.  Although Alanee can see that greetings are being exchanged no-one dallies, everyone has a purpose.  They move with an air of business to be done, importance, almost arrogance.

She has heard of The City, of course.  Throughout her growing up it has been the stuff of legend and in her dreaming it has always featured as a faery castle somewhere on high, frozen in a land of ice.

“It is a city where the sun never shines, Alanee–tes!”  Her mother had said.  “There live the Wise Ones who rule us, and keep us from harm.”

“Can we go there, Mummy?”

“No.  Neither you nor I will ever see it.  Few people even know exactly where it is, it is so closely guarded.  Those who dwell there are apart from us.  Their emissaries visit us from time to time, and you may see one.  That is as close as you can hope to get.” 

Oh mother, remember your daughter?  I am here!  I am inside the Consensual City! 

When Alanee has had her fill of the ancient building’s glory there are more discoveries to be made: across the living space and through a portal at its further end she discovers another rest-place (this time dignified by a door) and opposite, joy of joys, a kitchen!  But such a kitchen!  Gleaming cabinets, basins and faucets, spicers and mixers all in matching metal, all spotlessly kept.  The opulence of this alone should sap her credulity, were it not for a single touch: neatly set out on a counter adjacent to the hot plate are a tube of tsakal leaf crystals, a drinks-maker, and a mug.  Next to these, a packet of xuss mix is propped against a pat of Hakaani sil butter.

At first she does not consider this too deeply, beyond gratitude for Sala’s thoughtfulness in providing her favourite breakfast.  But after baking a pancake, idling as her tsakal brews Alanee begins to wonder.  Her morning meal is not typical of all Hakaanis:  these provisions cannot have been selected by accident or good fortune; does Sala perhaps share her taste, or is that too great a stretch of coincidence?  And where in this lavishly appointed space is the chill room, or a slot that might accept a Mak-card?  That or any other sign of the world she has left?

Plate in hand she completes her exploration by returning to the lobby, where the small bag of her possessions that she packed so hurriedly the previous afternoon sits as she left it.  Unaccountably, the sight of it makes her burst into tears.

“You haven’t unpacked.”  The apartment door hisses and Sala enters, responding to Alanee’s call on the summoner.  Alanee expects her to be dressed differently but no, she still wears the same coloured tunic.

“I didn’t think it worthwhile,”  Alanee responds.  “Not until I know where I’m going to end up, at least.”

Sala’s laugh is musical, as much a delight as her speaking voice.  “Oh, come; don’t be so tragic!  There are drinks in this cabinet, have you found them yet?”    A disguised cupboard in a side unit opens.  Arrays of glasses and decanters wait inside.

“I’ve just had tsakal!”  Alanee protests.

“Not tsakal.  I mean drinks.  Try one of these.”  Sala pours two measures of a yellow liquid.  “Come, we have nothing to do today, either of us.  And I’m here to answer your questions.”

She sits opposite Alanee, surveying her approvingly.  “Isn’t it so refreshing to see someone dressed differently?  (Alanee has donned clothes from her bag;  a tabard, calf-laced sandals, a bangle she likes)  Have you ever considered laskali at all, my dear?”

“What is laskali?”

Sala smiles.  It is more than a smile; it is at once mysterious and a confidence, an intimation of friendship.  “No matter.  You will find out in time.  Now, questions!”

The sweet and instantly warming drink dispels some of that latent dread, even inspiring a certain bravado.

“All right.  I was tired yesterday and very frightened.  Now I’ve recovered, where am I to be taken?”

“Alanee-mer, I’m sure I told you!  Maybe you were too overcome to listen.  You are going nowhere.”

“Nowhere?”  The word’s sinister implications  bring an onset of trembling.

“My dear, dear Alanee, you have nothing to fear.”

“I fear a lack of answers…”

Sala bites her lip and nods.  “I tend to be indirect, sometimes.  I admit I like the drama.  It is, shall we say, to my taste?  I am being obtuse.  Console yourself, Alanee-mer, you are not here to be punished, at least as far as I know.  This is your new home.  This is your apartment.”

Alanee is incredulous.  “I stay – here?”

“Indeed.  Make it your own.  There are merchants, traders, vendors who will supply you with any little favours you like.  Re-furbish it completely if you wish, within your means of course.”

“But I have no means?  At home, at my village I had work: I have nothing here unless there is work for me.  Am I to work here?  What would they have me do?”

“Tomorrow you will learn more.  I cannot tell you I’m afraid, that is not for me to discuss.  You will have means, Alanee-mer.”

Alanee has the feeling of being surrounded by doors:  each time she opens one, she discovers two more inside.  “Why me?  Why have I been selected to do this – this work?”

“Nor can I answer that question.  I simply do not know.”  Sala sees the despondency return to Alanee’s face. She stretches forth a cool hand to cover Alanee’s own. “Let me see, what can I tell you?  Well, Alanee-mer, you must have been brought here for a reason.  Rarely are new people brought to the Consensual City.  Those who are usually come in grey drabs (that is the uniform of the court servants); only a very few are accorded the robe.”

“The robe?”

“The robe of court, like mine.  You will be a member of the Sanctum.  Your work will take you within the Palace, I understand, so you must wear one.”

“What Palace?”

Sala waves airily at the window.  “Over there.  That is the Palace.”

Alanee follows her gesture, to be transfixed by the sightless eyes of the stone pedagogue, whose scornful expression withers her inside.  She feels instant dread.  What could she possibly offer within those walls?

The little bird has gone.

© 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.

Picture Credit:  Aaron Munoz on Unsplash