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 Three War Games

The story so far:

Living in a world where tastes and actions, even thoughts, are tightly controlled, Alanee lives in constant fear of being punished for her non-compliance; so it is no surprise when High Councillors from the City arrive at her village to censure her.  An aerotran, a flying machine used by the Council, has arrived to take her away.

Meanwhile, in the City, child supremo Hasuga is about to embark upon a game of war, one which will have tragic consequences if the Lady Ellar cannot prevent it…

The elevator doors slide open, admitting Hasuga and Lady Ellar to the games theatre at the heart of the City’s Inner Sanctum.  This is an oval, echoing space, an amphitheater some two hundred feet long, with raised terraces around its sides for spectators.  A few interested individuals are already gathering, for word that Hasuga is about to play one of his epic games spreads fast, and to be invited to participate would mean preferment at court.  Forethought has reminded many to bring cushions, because the seating is hard, and rugs because the theatre is cold.  Around grey stone walls hang flags representing all the nations of the land, and below them the brightly coloured pennants of their principalities, stirring gently in the circulating air.  Some fifty feet overhead a vaulted ceiling supported by stone arches is criss-crossed with stout wooden beams, from which hang the ropes that will support any scenery Hasuga demands.

Mother stands alone in the arena, calling orders to a court servant precariously straddling one of those beams.  He is ‘spotting’ a series of ropes, lowering them until their ends dangle no more than six inches above the floor. They will support tall, painted screens or ‘flats’ representing (with uncanny accuracy, considering Hasuga has never been there) the mountain backcloth to Braillec City’s high fortress.   Before them will hang cut-outs of townhouses and streets, and before those, tiers of light synthetic bricks to simulate the City’s defensive wall.  All this will be achieved in the few hours since Hasuga first announced his ‘game’; such is the dexterity his demands can induce.

It is the force of this will that draws Ellar into the whirlpool of his enthusiasm, impeding her powers of logical thought, although, if the slaughter of thousands in the real city of Braillec is to be averted, she must find some way to stop this game.  Mother, who has seen her enter with Hasuga, comes to greet her beloved child, but he gives her little attention.  He runs gleefully to supervise the erection of his scenery, leaving the two women together.

On first appearances Mother is a warm, ample woman with apple cheeks and eyes that over-brim with the love of her calling; ‘Mother’ to Hasuga.  Her heart is completely his: it allows no space for doubt, though she and Ellar have identical immunity implants to help them handle the immensity of Hasuga’s mind.  Ellar knows her opposition to this game will not be shared.  Ellar also knows there is another side to Mother; passionate, jealous, and obsessive.

“Greetings Ellar-mer.  Is it not all quite splendid?”

“Absolutely magnificent!   You will play, of course?”

“Oh yes!  My sweet boy wants me to be a general! He is quite determined.  I am to lead the Proteian attack force.  Such valiant warriors!”

“See now, your parents come from Braillec, do they not?”

Mother does not answer, only smiles.

“Do they live there still?”  Ellar’s head is so ruled by the intrusion of Hasuga’s mental control she may barely ask the question.  Is this in itself a blasphemy?  It is a line she has trodden so many times she no longer knows.  Again, Mother gives no answer, but Ellar does not miss that tiny twitching at the corner of her eye.  Mother is aware that this childish play within the Sanctum walls will be played out for real five thousand miles west of here, in the homeland that was once hers.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, will die.  Her parents may well number among the dead.

“Hasuga, Sire.”  Ellar calls out.  “Who is to be the general of your army?”

“Mummy, of course!”  Hasuga calls back.  “I am her commander, Ellar-mer.”

“And me?  What would you like me to be?”

“Oh, you must defend the city!”

“So am I a general too?”

The painted screens are raised. Palace servants, drabs wearing the special burgundy and gold insignia on their epaulettes rush about, erecting walls, producing wooden weapons, swords and shields, while Hasuga supervises the building of a siege engine.  Within a frenetic hour a very passable facsimile of the real City of Braillec stands across the width of the arena.  By now the terraces are packed with expectant courtiers but Hasuga will not pick his armies yet:  no, first he must strut around his creation, seeking anything inconsistent with his dream.  He picks here, points there: this gate should have a window, these stones a whiter hue.  Then, when he is satisfied, only those servants or drabs needed to clear the ‘dead’ are permitted to remain.  He stands upon a wooden balustrade to select his armies.

“Mummy, this one is your lieutenant.  Use him well.”

“Ellar-mer, take these.”

Ellar watches Mother adjust to her role as general with a certain grim amusement.  Accustomed as the woman must be to Hasuga’s ‘games’ (and they are many), wars produce her least convincing performances.  Her ample bosom ill befits a tight breastplate, and her elaborately coiffured hair looks ridiculous in a helmet.  Those chubby fingers clasped about a wooden sword, competing with each other for space upon the hilt, grip it as though she is about to slice a loaf of bread.  She paces, obviously intending to look purposeful, but more resembles a matron indulging in a seaside paddle.  Nevertheless, her mind is utterly overtaken, so that in her head she is the epitome of a great soldier.

Ellar’s side is intended to lose:  all the fittest and youngest courtiers, eager to prove their prowess are assigned to Mother; they are given more weapons and are greater in number.  Those picked to defend the city feel piqued, sensing they are least in their young Sire’s favor.  At the end of the process Ellar is left with no more than a dozen dejected and aging troops, cynical retainers for the most part, whilst Mother has better than twenty.

Hasuga’s devouring mind surges over Ellar’s thoughts, feeding in his battle plan, showing her the details of her army’s defeat.  They will brook no delay – the game has begun.

The depression that Ellar feels concerning her side’s certain fate helps her to curb Hasuga’s implanted strategies for just a little while.  As he leaves the theatre floor to ascend to his ‘throne’ (a chair from his suite has been brought for him to use while he oversees his game) she summons up what fragments of mental strength her immunity chip provides.  As soon as she can trust her voice she calls up to him:

“Sire Hasuga, we face overwhelming odds but we will fight our hardest and best for our great city.  So I am remembered, may I pick my general’s name?”

Already deep in his part, Hasuga turns with raised wooden sword.  “It shall be so.  Choose, great general!”

“Thank you Sire, I shall.  History shall know me as General Ollamar!”  Later Ellar may profoundly regret this move, but for now her own mind can do no more.  Disguising inner mental collapse as best she can she raises her sword to seek the acclaim of her troops, who respond rather less enthusiastically than she would like.  They are anticipating a bruising experience, for even wooden swords can inflict a wound or two.

“Very well.  You are the valiant General Ollamar, and you shall not sell your life cheaply.”  Hasuga perches himself on his chair, eyes eager, leaning forward for the best view of the fray.  “Mummy, the city is tired and starving.  Begin your attack!”

Mother harangues her small army, doing her best to fulfil the images fed to her by Hasuga’s mind.  But all is not well.  Her speech does not reach its second sentence (“My brave soldiers, I lead you forth this day to certain victory and great slaughter…”) before her voice gutters and her whole body seems to freeze.  She stands with her gaze fixed upon the floor.  Yet there are no mutterings from within the ranks.  Everyone shares Hasuga’s expectation of victory.

“Not very good, Mummy!”  Her darling boy is unimpressed.

From the other side of her ‘city wall’  Ellar feels Mother’s pain as wave after wave of incitement emanates from Hasuga.  She is expected to lead the assault, but it seems she will not or cannot go on.   She raises quivering fingers to her temples as the demands from her darling ‘little boy’ scream in her head.  Her army waits expectantly.  All eyes are focussed upon her.  She staggers for a moment, kept erect by nothing but Hasuga’s insistence, then she crumples to the floor.

“Mummy!”  Instantly, the spell is broken,  Hasuga is on his feet and running to his beloved parent’s side.  “Mummy, whatever is wrong?”  He is distraught: his game, the others who surround him quite forgotten.  Only his Mother’s distress concerns him.  He weeps for her, wails piteously with her head supported on his arm, showering kisses on her pale cheeks.

Ellar, completely released from her role in the game, moves quickly.  She summons a doctor, motions for space to be created around Mother’s inert form.

“Oh, Ellar-mer, is Mummy dead?  Is my Mummy dead?”  Hasuga is inconsolable.  “What have I done?  What have I done?”

Ellar frowns.  “No, I do not think that Mummy has died.  But war games are dangerous, Sire Hasuga.  People do die, you see?”

“Yes, yes I see.  But I never thought they would be dangerous to my Mummy!”

The Doctor arrives and Mother’s consciousness is regained.  Hasuga, restrained by Ellar’s gently persistent hands, is not witness to those few moments when, still mentally asleep, Mother is likewise free of his dominance and able to murmur:  “Make him stop….make him stop!”

Caring servants lift her onto a litter.  As she is borne from the hall with her distraught child dancing anxiously beside her, Mother catches Ellar’s eye.  The look she gives her is not pleasant.

In the dull hollow Hasuga’s departure has left in her brain Ellar would like to lie down herself, but there is work to be done.  She instructs the court servants to remove all evidence of their young master’s game; walls, scenery flats, wooden weapons, everything.  She knows she did not misread the glare that Mother gave her, just as she knows that by morning she may not have the power to order anything at all.  She has committed one of the more grievous crimes considered blasphemy, and she has done it very publicly.  If she is to survive, she must rely upon Mother’s understanding and her silence.  Mother must in effect play along, for if she ever lets on to Hasuga that Ellar deliberately chose Ollamar as her general’s name, she is lost.  Ollamar, you see, is Mother’s family name.  Within the game, Mother knew she was to be asked to act out with her wooden sword the slaying of her own father, an action that would be faithfully reproduced five thousand miles away by a real general with a real sword.   The sheer psychological torture might be hard to forgive, no matter how worthy the cause.

#

Alanee has never ridden in an aerotran before.  When Kalna, her husband, was flown to matches in other provinces she remained at home, so the fastest she has ever traveled is in a land transporter.  This is much, much faster.  After the initial thrust, during which she is sure a part of her insides are left behind, and despite her qualms – her terror even – at the great black hole where her future should be, Alanee’s curiosity and sense of awe begin to get the better of her.  Settling back into the comfortable hide of her seat she gazes from the window to watch her village vanish from sight, see houses and people diminish to toy-like proportions, and the Hakaan rush beneath her as though she were looking down upon a map.

The pilot has been watching this concerned figure in his passenger mirror.  He has had less attractive payloads.  “First time in one of these?”

He is rewarded.  Her pale, worried face lights up in a smile. “Yes.  You must be very skilled to drive so fast.  I’m Alanee. What’s your name?”

“Dag.  They call me Dag.”

“Do you know where I am to be taken, Dag-meh?”  Alanee studies her aspect of Dag’s reflection.  A pair of dark eyes, a smooth, coppery skin; the rest concealed by a shiny gold dome of a helmet.

“I do.  I’m not allowed to tell you, though, I’m afraid.”

“I am to be punished, you know.”

Dag eyes her reflection curiously:  “You don’t say?  Whatever for?”

Alanee settles back in the cushioned seat, drops her head.  “That’s just it.” She stares at her lap.  “I wish I understood why.  I don’t.”

“Alanee-mer,” Dag’s voice is deep and kind. “you are in a PTA, a Personal Transport Aerotran of the High Council.  My normal passengers are Proctors and Councillors.   If you were going somewhere to be punished you’d be in an ox-cart, not up here in this.  I can’t tell you where you are going, but wherever it is, it can’t be for punishment.  So if I were you, I’d start enjoying myself.”

Dag delights in delivering this explanation, observing how Alanee’s face transforms from wan to radiant in its short space.  When she smiles this way she really is a very lovely woman!  Then he reflects that he might occasionally chauffeur one other class of passenger, a courtesan.  The thought of that is more sobering.

“There are drinks in the cabinet.  Help yourself – not too much, mind; I don’t want to have to carry you out when we get there.”  In his imagination, though, he would.  He snaps his concentration back just in time to stop the aerotran from doing an unscheduled turn.  Surreptitiously he adjusts the mirror so he may see a little more:  how Alanee’s body moves as she relaxes a little and those smooth limbs stretch in unaccustomed luxury, her bare toes clasping at the thick carpet.  Dressed in simple, provincial clothes of course, not with the sophistication he is used to, but the soft, pliant warmth of her cannot be concealed; full breasts, almost fluid skin.  He allows himself to dream and nearly loses control of the aerotran again.

Beyond the windows day has turned to night.  Far, far below humanity is reduced to twinkling stars, stars that line up into streets, ring large buildings, parks or a lake.  How long have they been airborne, an hour, two hours?

Alanee is entranced, and Dag finds her entrancement entrancing.  “I never lose the magic.”  He says at last.

“Such a way to see a world!  I cannot imagine how anyone could dislike flying.  Oh my!  What’s that?”

Alarmed, Alanee grips the seat arms, sits rigidly upright.  A sudden upsurge of sound above the lulling hum of the motors, a palpable kick that sends her stomach to visit her hips.

“It’s nothing.  We’re climbing.”

“Habbach!  Weren’t we high enough already?”

“No.  We have to go over mountains.”  Dag grins.  She likes the little creases that form at the corners of his eyes when he does that, and she has noticed long since how he has turned the mirror so he may see more of her.  “No, I can’t tell you which mountains.  Wait and see – you’ll like them!”

The climbing continues.  “We’re going to bump about a little.  Don’t worry, we’re passing through some heavy cloud.  Incidentally, the rest-place is behind you if you want it: through that door.  But hang onto something, or you might get thrown around.”

Alanee is thankful, for the nervous hours have been troubling her, and she has felt shy about admitting her need to this very masculine stranger.  To the rear of her seat there is a space, upon one side of which is the access door, the other a further door.  The rest-place proves as sumptuous as everything else about her transport, if a little bit turbulent.  She is reluctant to leave it without sampling each of its soaps and lotions, and by the time she returns the aerotran’s ride has leveled off.

Dag notices her return.  “See – mountains!”

What she now sees draws the breath from her body.  The aerotran is flying  high, she cannot imagine how high, above the cloud-base, bathing in the silver of a bright moon.  Rising from a mist so substantial she might believe she could walk upon it are mighty granite knives, reaching up and around the aerotran on all sides, their white-edged blades a ghostly blue in the moonlight.  In all her life she has never seen such things: she has rarely traveled far from her village, certainly never further than the Hakaan, so the Southern Hills are the limit of her experience and they, beautiful though they are, cannot rival the solemn majesty of these great sentinels.

The aerotran flies alongside the higher slopes, giving Alanee a close view of snow-laden ridges and glistening ice-falls as it follows a pass between the highest peaks.

“Look ahead!”  Dag instructs her.  “This is the Kess-ta Fe, tallest in the range.  It was climbed for the first time last year.”

The line of their flight affects to take them around a corner formed by the steep slope of a minor peak.  Kess-ta Fe waits for them just beyond this turn, rising high above their heads.  And whereas every other mountain slope is picked out in tracers of white snow, this great massif is sheer, its face black and brooding.

“Kess-ta Fe: in the old language, Demon-Home.  It’s a touch less than six miles high.  Impressive, huh?”  They are passing alongside the mountain now.  “Imagine yourself climbing that, Alanee-mer!”

“Imagine wanting to.”  Alanee rejoins.  Though the atmosphere within the aerotran is rigidly controlled, she feels light-headed and she sinks back into her seat.  What is happening to her?  Where is she being taken?  Far, far from her home, this much she knows.  By the sun when the aerotran first set off, she believes she has been flying north; for how long; two, two and a half hours?  Aerotrans, she always believed, fly at prodigious speeds: it certainly seems that this one does; the foot-games her man attended were never more than an hour or so away.  What awaits her?  How is it that she has been plucked from her life in this way:  if not as punishment for wrong-doing, then for what?

“Better wake up now, Alanee-mer!”   Dag’s voice surprises her out of fog.  She does not remember sleeping.  “We’re about to dock!”

© 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 Two Aerotrans

The Story so Far:

In his eyrie high above the City, the young Hasuga begins a snowy morning by building a snowman, while his mother bakes some honey cakes, while in the watchtower that is even higher than Hasuga’s home Soothsayer Cassix watches a threatening sky with grave concern.  His colleague and friend Ellar discovers him there and gives him the news that Hasuga, already tired of his outdoor pursuits, wishes everyone to join him in a game of war.

Entering the Great Hall, Ellar brushes white snowflakes from her gold and burgundy robe, clothing she must wear as one who attends the Inner Sanctum.  Hasuga is waiting for her.  It amazes her how tall he has grown.  His shoulders are wider, there is determination in his face, yet his voice, though deeper, is still a child’s voice, his words still those of the little boy he has left behind.  And in his haunted eyes the same frailty that is window to the churning leviathan of his mighty, intimidating mind.

“Ellar!  Ellar-mer, we are going to play a war game!  Hurry up!”  Hasuga skips ahead of her to the elevators.  “We are going to attack a fortress!  Come on!”

The elevator rushes them skywards.  Already, Ellar is feeling the limitation of her immunity chip, the implant in her brain which is all her Sanctum membership will allow as a control.  She is becoming enthused – yes!  A fortress!  That would be so much fun!  A battle at the walls, siege engines, storming the gates!  Kill them all!

No!

Hasuga’s games have consequences: such are his psychokinetic powers the game he plays here, in the safety of the city, will be reflected in reality somewhere else.

“Which fortress shall it be, Hasuga?”  Ellar concentrates hard to keep her thoughts in train.

“Why, Braillec City, with its great high walls!”  Hasuga’s look infers that she is stupid even to ask.  “The Proteians are going to attack them!”

Ellar thinks of the people of Braillec (how many in that city, three, four thousand?) who are going to be slaughtered for no better reason than they have high, medieval walls.   And Hasuga is taking possession of her mind so swiftly she will be powerless to stop it happening.

#

Alanee’s morning is dominated, as she anticipates, by discussion of honey cakes.  Soon after the Makar’s departure, she leaves her house to join the general migration of village women to The Terminal at the hub of their community.  As she closes her front door – she need not lock it – Malfis the old bell-ringer is admiring the heap of mud he has piled in his garden, and Merra, from the bakery, compliments him upon it.

“Fine work, Malfis.  Always the craftsman!”

Alanee struggles:  “What is it?”

Merra, never shy of expression, rewards her with a look bordering on disdain.  “Of course, you not having a man…”

“I may not have a man but I do have a memory.  There was nothing I recall that looked like that about my man.  It’s a lump of mud!”

And Merra replies:  “Now remember my husband….”

Alanee giggles,  “That’s so unfair!  Where are the men?  Did they start work early today?”

“Arms training!”  Merra makes a face.  “It’s long spears this time, apparently.   Habbach knows where we are going to keep that!”

The Terminal is busy.  There has been heavy snow in the north, blocking a number of major arteries which, as her village is one of the group of communities responsible for co-ordinating transport, particularly affects Alanee’s work.  She is assistant to Carla, the manager, a responsible job for one so young.  Paaitas the village Domo is watching her progress with interest.  It was he who secured her early promotion and there are those who snidely suggest that his attention is not entirely focussed upon her abilities.  Alanee accepts the jibes with equanimity.  She is a good motivator, broadly liked, though not always understood – for example, in her open distaste for honey cakes.

“They are wonderful, Alanee!”  Carla is a bouncing, vital woman with enthusiasm enough for the entire village.  “I’ve been looking forward to baking them all year!”

From their nest at the top of the circular building they look down on the ring of women workers at their stations, each making their separate input to the mainframe which fills the centre of the Terminal floor like a huge, flat drum.

“I’m concerned about Namma, Carla-mer.”  Alanee says (each has their protégé, and Namma is hers).  “She seems distracted today.”

“I should not tell you this, perhaps.”  Carla leans a hand on Alanee’s shoulder:  “She has had her proc request turned down again.  The word came this morning.  She was in tears earlier. I think she despairs of ever having a child.”

“How so?   In Dometia they are begging for more fertiles.  If the rumours are correct the one-child edict has been lifted there.”  Alanee shakes her head.  “It seems so cruel!”

Carla does not reply, and Alanee thinks of Namma-meh, who is desperate to be a father.

And so the morning passes.

At mid-meal Alanee and Shellan walk home together.  The five children of the village pass them by.  After their morning at the seminary they have eaten early and are on their way to work in the potato field.

“Good day, Widow Kalna!”  They greet Alanee with respect.  She tries to smile in return, although just the sight of them revives the pity she feels for Namma.

“A fine boy, the Domo’s son, is he not?”  Shellan-mer suggests; and Alanee admits that Pattan, a sturdy-looking child now so near to youth, is all a father could want.

In Malfis’s garden the mound has gained a ball of clay for a head, a hat of woven straw and some button eyes.

“It is a man!”  Shellan crows her delight.  “Don’t forget now, you are coming to tea today!”

In the day’s heat Alanee draws out an awning that is stored above her kitchen door.  There she sits in its shade upon her step, pecking at a salad as she watches sun-mist shimmer over the Hakaan.  Dreams come easily in such all-pervasive peace.

These are times when she remembers her childhood on the plain, the farm with its bright white gate and penn-fowl in the yard.  Her father’s walk; the way he clumped his boots into the soil as though they tasted it, his rough skin as real as dry clay, the smell of the land in every crack and fissure.  Her mother’s tired eyes, the love in her smile, dust in her hair; and how she worked, and worked, and worked, yet still had time, always, for the impudent girl-child her husband had prayed would be a son.

Although every childhood has its joys they were not such happy days, in those growing years.  And a future of labour, the endless demands of sowing and reaping, the constant disappointment: yes, that may well have engendered her rebellious spark.  So that when, at seventeen, she chanced to meet a foot-player at a local dance, she did not hold back.  She set her cap at him, poor Kalna, quite outrageously, and it was not for love, not then.  Love came later, love grew.

Alanee thinks of Namma in her pain and reflects that she too might have been a mother once.  Her thoughts drift to a memory of Kalna-meh, that constantly quirky grin of his: the things they would do together, the games they would play, the touch of his lips on her neck when he wanted her and, yes, those pleasures too.  Then, always at the height of these reflections the sudden words upon the screen, just as they were on that dire evening:  ‘Foot-player fatally injured.  Hideous tackle kills Hakaani hero’.

One chance, one man, and the knowledge that by decree there can never be another.  Three years ago.  Three lonely years.

Deep in reminiscence she does not hear the aerotran at first.  Only when it is passing, almost overhead, does she look up to see the teardrop shape of the flying machine, with government colors of black and gold striping its sides.  Even then it does not concern her greatly: an official, probably, delivering some new mandate to the village Domo.  The sky is cloudless; there is no breeze to dissipate the fire of the sun.  Wearily, Alanee gets to her feet, ready for the drudgery of her afternoon.

On the street all talk is of the visit from the aerotran, which is now perched on the landing pad atop The Terminal like a watchful hawk.  The Village Domo’s colours hang there too, a white and blue ensign draped above the doors of the building.

Who can this be?  Why is Domo Paaitas here?

“Now I bet you wish you ordered that honey!”  Shellan shouts above the whistle of the aerotran’s engines.  It is an intended joke, but Alanee, already nervous, shrinks inside.  Has the Makar reported her?

Her feeling of timidity is reinforced when she gets inside the Terminal.  Her name is on the entry board, with an instruction to go to the manager’s office.  Now her heart begins to pound, for her duties in the afternoon normally would keep her on the floor of the Terminal, with her workers.

“Will you look after the floor while I am gone, Namma-mer?”  Namma accepts her briefing board with a surreptitious smile.  She knows something, Alanee thinks!  What is going on?

At the head of the stairs she knocks nervously upon Carla’s door.  This rewards her with a pause, while male voices from within confer in subdued tones.  If there were somewhere to run to, she would run with pleasure now.  Carla, her face serious, opens the door.

“Come in Alanee-mer.  These people wish to speak to you.”

There are three men in the room, only one of whom, Paaitas the Village Domo, Alanee recognizes; the other two, she must suppose, arrived with the aerotran.  But what could they possibly want with her?

Behind her, the door has closed. Carla is no longer at her shoulder – must have withdrawn, Alanee assumes.  She quickly detects her own anxiety reflected in the face of her Domo, who is really a shy and reclusive man only picked for high office because of his very individual scribing talents.  His heavy brows are set in a downward scowl, and his lips work constantly, as though he were chewing upon something with an acid taste.  To his right a thin figure with a raptor’s nose and brown teeth who is tall even when seated, to his left a much older man whose eyes are young: they glint like wet steel.  Both visitors are richly dressed in silken burgundy robes, and have a great distinction about them, as though they were set upon a high purpose.  She is overawed.

“Alanee-mer, come, sit down,”  Paaitas mumbles, by way of introduction.  He waves at a chair.  “These are very special visitors, Alanee-mer.”  He introduces the thin man to his right as Proctor Remis, he who sits to his left as High Councillor Cassix.

A Proctor and a High Councillor?  To see her?

“You have snow in the north, Sires.” Alanee murmurs, her voice barely above a whisper.  “How was your journey?”

The one her Domo has introduced as Cassix smiles, though his eyes are unchanged:  they bore into her, so she thinks that they are hurting her head.  “Our journey was untroubled, Alanee-mer.”  His tone is rich but stops just short of familiarity.  “You live in a much friendlier climate, do you not?”

She nods, dumbly.  Her knees are shaking.

“Now we must ask you questions, and you must answer them with honesty.  Will you do that?”

“Of course, sir.”

The Proctor’s voice cuts the air, sharp and dry as a knife.  “You did not order honey on your mand-card today, did you?”

His words fall like blows from a hammer.  Now Alanee’s heart really sinks!  Her mind races through all the punishments that are meted out to those who fail their citizenship requirements, most of whom are never heard from again.

“No, sir – Sire.  I did order it, though, when the Makar reminded me.”

“Will you use it?”

“Yes Sire.”  She answers without thinking – a reflex.

“You were warned of the necessity to be truthful, Alanee-mer.”  Remis clips his words.  “At the beginning of the year you ordered Kell Water (after the Makar reminded you) and that is still on your mand-stock; as is the wholemeal cereal you ordered last month.  I could quote you any number of items in a similar vein.  You have the largest mand stock in the whole region. I frankly wonder that your chill room is large enough to accommodate it all.”

So that is it!  The Makar said they would be watching her, and the Makar was right.  Alanee feels the tears coming, bites down on her lip.  “What should I do, Sire?”

“Why, eat it – drink it, one supposes.”  The Proctor replies.  “Do you feel no need to do that, Alanee-mer?  Are you not tempted by today’s honey?”

“No Sire.  I don’t understand.  I have never liked these things, even though it seems everyone else does.”  Alanee strives hard to keep the sob from her voice, but despite herself, her eyes are filling.

Cassix cuts in.  “Alanee-mer, last year you missed The Gathering, did you not?”

So they found that out, too, did they?  Oh, Habbach!  “I was forgetful.”

Remis and Cassix are exchanging glances.

“You had to remember?”  Cassix asks.  “Nothing…inspired you to go?”

Alanee is mystified.  “No sir – I mean Sire!”

For a moment it seems as if Remis will ask more, but Cassix raises a hand and, with a nod to Paaitas, says:  “Very well, Alanee-mer that will be all.  Thank you for your honesty.”

She quells an urge to run from the room, to put these three weighty visages behind her before they reduce her to tears.  What should she be feeling – relief?  The Domo’s next words explode upon her like a thunder flash.

“Go to your home, Alanee-mer.  Namma will take your responsibilities.  You should pack a bag of belongings for your immediate needs.  Leave by the cargo door.  Speak to no-one.”  His voice is lowered, severe.

She knows now.

Somehow her feet find their way to the door; her shaking hand turns the latch.  There, she must turn back, because it is pointless to hide the tears:  “Please….tell me what I have done wrong?”

The one she knows as Cassix smiles at her.  His eyes do not alter their incisive brilliance, yet it is not an unpleasant smile.  “Sometimes, it is better not to know reasons.  Go now.”

Beyond the door, a uniformed guard in the colours of the High Council is waiting to takes her arm.  The upturned eyes of every woman in the village follow her as she is led, gently but insistently, along the gallery to the cargo doors.  Everyone can see how freely she is weeping.

As soon as he is confident that Alanee is beyond earshot, Remis turns to the Domo.

“You are sure the usual inspections have been done?”

The village Domo nods.  “Every month, Sire, according to law.  We have a very good inspectorate.”

“And they found nothing wrong?”

“Nothing.  Her house is clean and well-kept, despite her widowhood.  The censors described the usual features.  She is an exemplary worker, extremely intelligent and a manager in waiting.  I just don’t understand.”

The walk; how she will always remember this walk!  The silent street, everyone at their work, the guard at her shoulder, the desire to run – run anywhere, get away!  She might hide among the poor people of the plain, find work as an illiterate, change her hair, her clothes…but the guard remains close behind her, and he is armed.

It is late afternoon.  Alanee has packed those few things she possesses which must travel with her.  Then she has waited.  No armed squad has come to drag her away, the guard is expressionless, and beside essential communication, deaf to her questions.  Now the sun is low over the hills and soon the workers will return.  She stands at her kitchen door  (that favourite place)  for what all her instincts insist will be the last time, one last cup of tsakal warm in her hand.

“Your view is exquisite.”  The voice surprises her.  She turns to find that High Councillor Cassix has entered.    He says gently.  “You must be sorry to leave it.”

“I am to be taken away, then?”  Alanee is no longer afraid of him.  Acceptance has come.

“Yes.”

“Where?”  She has her back to him, drinking in that last vision of the Hakaan.

“That I cannot say.”

All at once she feels like crying again.

“We are waiting for an aerotran to transport you; it should be here soon.  We would use ours, had we not another person to interview in a village south of here.  We shall be detained until tomorrow, I fear.”

As if by his command, a rushing sound in the eastern sky foretells the second aerotran’s coming.  Alanee, who has no way of knowing how transgressors are removed from their communities, has expected maybe a horse-wagon of the type the stonemasons use, or an older, more primitive flying machine; not this.  The aircraft which stoops earthwards to the street shares the  livery of the High Council.  It is small, no more than an air-taxi, but its approach is rapid.

“Time to go.” Cassix says.  “I will escort you.”

He supports her arm much as the guard has done, leaving that individual to follow at a respectful distance as he guides Alanee from the home that has been hers for all of her adult life.  At her street door she pauses, resisting him, overcome by the enormity of the moment.  The aerotran waits, its squat black nose pointed to the dust of the street, engine subdued to an unobtrusive hum.  To Alanee’s right all the women of the village stand in ragged silence, detained upon their homeward walk from the Terminal by the landing of this beast.  A double line of eyes all watching, all accusing; all she thought were friends, who treat her as a stranger now that she is dangerous to know.  Merra is there, Carla, and Namma, already wearing the Managers Assistant tag that Alanee has lost.  Shellan too, though she shows Alanee no sign of recognition.

“Come,” Cassix prompts;  “This is best done quickly.”

Alanee nods, takes a firm grip upon her small bag of effects, and steps forward.  “I should lock my door.”

“No.”

© 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.

 

The Making of Joe Palliser – A Writer’s Notes.

These studies seem to interest my long-suffering followers, and if they are not too boring I will try to do more of them.

I am referencing Hallbury Summer because I have just completed the revised version and the character is still fresh in my mind, and, hopefully, in some of yours.

So why this article?

I make no exaggerated claims for my writing ability; however, I sense from the feedback I receive that the believability of my characters is one of my strengths, so I thought I might explore the ‘method’ with you here?   I wonder how my practices compare with your own?

First, can we agree there has to be a ‘method’?  I learned early in my theatre school training that inspiration is very nice when you can get it, but if you are sitting in front of a keyboard at six o’clock in the morning with a raging headache, it is likely to be beyond your grasp.  For all the many mornings like that, you need a method.

In establishing that ‘method’ I’m not ashamed to admit that I call upon Stanislavsky, either.  Although ‘An Actor Prepares’ must be out of print by several decades it still has much to say to us.  At the very least, an ability to ‘talk myself into’ a character is an asset.  I use it habitually.

So, what does Joe Palliser look like?  I don’t know!   He is my lead character, therefore whether I am writing about him in the first or third person, he is ‘me’.  No, he doesn’t necessarily share any of my personal peccadilloes or conform in any way to myself, but for the purposes of the book I am inside him looking out, and unless I am obsessed with mirrors, I don’t need to know what I look like.   Let me explain why that’s important.  I want my reader to treat Joe in just the same way – to see the world from his POV.   If I tie readers down by a description he becomes a chessboard figure.  They will be better satisfied by developing their own picture.

In fact, I need to know remarkably little about Joe:  his backstory, for instance, is very limited.  He was in the care of a babysitter when his parents were involved in a fatal car accident.    Apparently his parents were moderately comfortable financially, but do I need to know if they were doctors or dockers?  No.  Only the car accident is important, because it orphaned him and may or may not have some bearing on his personality (this in contrast to his younger brother Michael, who was in the car at the time and physically as well as mentally damaged).

From my first introduction of his name my reader is building up an image of Joe in their minds.  It is my job as author to develop that image by introducing the third dimension –lifting him from the page – and the greatest tool at my disposal for that is dialogue.

Dialogue: do you know what I really hate?  The self-indulgent author who cannot resist making his character bombard the reader with his personal opinions, or who feels compelled to give a history lesson in the midst of a piece of dialogue!   Nothing disrupts a readers’ enjoyment more:  in life no-one will accost you on the street with a two or three hundred word vent.  It just doesn’t happen, and if it ever should, I suggest you run.   I guess my recommendation would be if you feel you have something to say, choose the subtlest (and briefest) manner of saying it, and reserve it for the author’s voice, not the voice of a character.

Dialogue should, in my opinion, be rounded and natural.  Don’t edit out the monosyllabics, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of everyday speech, just for the sake of a word count.  Speech should be reflective, a mirror to the way normal people speak to each other; it should flow, taking the plot forward or setting up a third party character.  To me, using a dialect for my lead character is a big stonking ‘NO’, but that doesn’t apply to ancillary characters for whom dialect, in its broadness and sophistication, can be a useful personality guide.  However, this proviso must remain:  I must describe my other characters as Joe sees them.

If I were to wax further upon my treatment of characters that surround the lead I would tell you how I often make sketches of them, and certainly talk to them as if I were Joe.  They join me in my room as I introduce them, and if they are interesting enough to Joe, they stay.

You see, the great joy of writing and its mystery is that moment of magic between the fingers and the page – the undeniable ‘something’ that happens.to make Joe, or my other central figures come alive.  Are they good or evil, weak or strong?  I don’t know.  Let the reader decide.  Are they real in the reader’s eyes?   That is a question only the amber spyglass can answer.

But I had fun, didn’t I?

The revised version of Hallbury Summer is now available in both eBook and paperback versions.   You can find it  here, or by clicking the cover image in the sidebar.

If I can be of assistance by sharing experiences with other writers, aspiring or otherwise, please contact me.

Smokedogs (A Short Story)

Science fiction?  I admit I don’t pass this way often these days, so just for a change…a big one, this, but splitting it doesn’t seem to be an option, so I cordially invite you to make a night of it – bring a friend, if you want?

“We’re in for a storm.”  Jaca says, absently rubbing the fur behind Quietus’s ear with her long fingers.

From the observation platform we have a perfect view, an uninterrupted vista of the Great Plains.  Beyond the ascending wisps of haze from Smokedog fires I too have seen the dark sky, clouds building before the Periclean sun.

I draw Jaca to me, engaging her in a kiss.  We are alone on the platform and I want more, but she desists gently, hands on my chest.

“Not now, Malcor.”  She murmurs, forehead against my own.  “We have things to do, yes?”

I agree reluctantly.  We have things to do.  Before evening there are insect nets to bring inside, outdoor experiments to cover.  Jaca turns from me, stares towards the sunset; pensive, reflective, remote.

“Ixce arrives tonight.”  Her voice is almost a whisper.

“So he does.”  I will not look at her.

Yes, Jaca my love, we are in for a storm.

I call Quietus to me:  he obeys, of course, tail wagging, brown eyes bright.  Together we leave Jaca to her thoughts, descending the circular stairway which leads into the Spartan crew quarters of Periclea Settlement J8.

Periclea is our sun star, a tiny part of the constellation of Orion, a mote in the eye of The Hunter only visible to those who seek her:  the unromantically-listed J8 is her only habitable planet, with just one research station:  this one.

It was not always so.  When you speak to the Silusians of J8 they will submerge their small sharp features into their big fleshy necks and pretend they have not heard.  Only the Mariaca will talk of the place; the legends, the tales.  In their Gordian tones they will tell of times when the sunlight floods the plains in a blood-red hue; when a million ghosts of a doomed Palataian race rise to walk their forgotten world, and all who dare to stand upon its sacred soil tremble in fear of that sight.

I?  I do not listen to such tales.  Nonetheless, when I was asked to come here I hesitated:  for a young geologist J8 was hardly a career move.  It was only when they told me that the senior archaeologist was Jaca Icindae that I agreed.

During my university days Jaca moved at the margin of my world.  In the year above mine, this graceful, elusive girl with her soft curves and softer voice had seemed beyond the reach of my dreams.  I loved her from afar with that desperate, unrequited longing that is the tragedy of youth;  knowing she was not for me, seeing her walk hand-in-hand with another, the man with the greatest intellect that had ever graced our college.

So J8’s forgotten space in the universe became somewhere to be.  A small settlement, a research station really, no more.  And I would like to say the geology is interesting, but the only interest here, for me, is warmer and more alluring than any rocks: Jaca.  When one loves someone enough it is perhaps only gratitude, or loneliness, that will make them love you in return, yet for those of us without pride that will be enough – until Ixce comes.

Ixce: that great mind:  Ixce – Jaca’s first love.

Our crew are in the communal area, lounging around as usual at this time of day.  The games plates are all live, their hologram superheroes thrashing through rituals of conquest and slaughter.

“Now you are mine, Jacoranda!”

“Die, Mastachian dog!”

“Seek the sacred keys of Morcal!”

I pass through, warning of the storm, reminding them they too have duties to attend.

The passage to the airlock is lined with our ‘outdoor suits’ – light self-contained clothing we wear whenever we pass beyond those bland steel doors to the outside.  I slip one over my uniform, grip the air-lug between my teeth.  The doors open with a sibilant wheeze.  Quietus follows: he needs no suit.

Nor do I, if truth be told.  I stand with Quietus in the vestibule, waiting patiently while the system stabilises so I may walk outside, knowing that the atmosphere beyond the doors is not toxic, or even mildly debilitating.  For our species it is breathable; just not in quite the ideal balance.  So we follow this ritual each time we go out without any real need.  This mystifies Quietus, and maybe slightly amuses him:  he sits watching me, head to one side, then trots after me as the doors close.

I work quickly, packing, folding, and retrieving the little pods of data as I shut down the machines.  All the while I watch the western horizon, half-expecting a lander with Ixce aboard to soar into view, even though I know it is not due for hours yet.  And as I watch the sunset turns the land as red as blood, and the Smokedog fires glow like tiny lanterns from their lairs on the Plain.

Smokedogs:  wild wolves of the Plains, the Mariaca say; enigmatic beasts hunting the Kessa deer in packs with an intelligence and guile that has never ceased to fascinate me.  We have known them so long, yet we know so little about them.  Those fires, for instance: we know the dogs create them but we have never seen one created.  We do not know how, or why; although one of our more humorous colleagues once suggested that perhaps they liked their meat cooked?

Approach the fires and they extinguish:  by the time one draws close, the dogs are gone – ash, hot ash is all that remains.

Quietus nuzzles my hand, reminding me that he never makes fires.  Ah, I didn’t mention, did I?  Quietus is a Smokedog.

My predecessor, whose name was Dev, discovered that certain of the Smokedogs were attracted to our settlement.  They would gather outside in the night just sitting patiently, staring up at him on the observation deck.

“Not all of them, you understand?  Those out on the Plains, they’re wild, untameable creatures – vicious, probably.  But these, the ones with the darker eyes, they seem to like us.”

Dev adopted one, brought it inside, treated it as a pet.

“Curious thing.”  He told me:  “As soon as I allowed Quietus in, the others went away, as if he were a sort of emissary, or something.”

When Dev left at the end of his tour of duty, Quietus stayed behind.  Oh, he pined for a while, but I befriended him and he soon came around.  He gazes up at me now, those adorable, honest eyes set in the perfect symmetry of his little face, the image of unquestioning love.

“You are distressed.”

He could catch you like that.  He did me, the first time.  I had my back to him when he did it.

“Do I serve you?  Are you content with me?”  He doesn’t actually speak, of course – cannot, with those canine teeth and that elongated jaw; yet he can find a place in your head, and if you answer him with words, he seems to understand.  Sometimes I think he reads my mind, too.

“Me, distressed?”  I make a show of denial, but he can see right past that.

“Ixce.  Who is Ixce?”

“Oh, only the greatest biologist of our generation, that’s all.”

“A superior brain.”

“A superior brain.”  I acknowledge, thinking that Quietus is unusually interested in Ixce.  But he will recognise that Ixce is the cause of my disquiet, of course.

“And your woman will mate with him?”

I shrug.  This is a little too direct for my present depressed state.

“It is natural.”  Is all Quietus ‘says’.

I pat his head, gaining some comfort from the warmth of that thick, dense flesh.  If you tried to pick him up, Quietus would not object, but you would be in for a surprise.  A third my size or rather less, he is nevertheless heavier than me by several kilos.

“Yes. Natural.  Quietus – don’t you ever get homesick for your family?  You’re a pack animal, aren’t you?  This isn’t a natural way for you to live.”

“My pack is always with me.”  Quietus tells me in my mind.  “Do you want me to go back?  Are you content with me?  Do I serve you?”

“Yes of course; of course you serve me.”  Sometimes, when I feel already a little sad, just that gentle voice within me will make tears come.  “No, don’t leave me, Quietus.  I’d miss you like hell.”

I finish packing up the equipment, crying like a baby.

Back inside the settlement I leave Quietus to consume some choice comestibles from the galley while I go to our private quarters to change into more formal clothing.  Jaca is already there, already undressed.  She drifts about the cabin before me as insubstantial as a spirit, a naked wraith, knowing how I watch her and indulging me with a breathtaking vision of beauty.

“I’ll shower first.”  Jaca decides.

“We could shower together.”

She gives me an arch look.

“It might be the last time.”  I say, wishing instantly that I hadn’t said it.

Jaca does not reply, but gives me a quick smile, then closes the wet-room door upon me.  “Lock.”  She instructs.  The door does as it is told.

I remember how you looked in those first summers, when the bright Itake flowers were fresh on the bud and the sands of the Great Plains shone like burnished amber.  Five years now – five years knowing he is forever in your heart – five years of solitary grief for a love that is always on the edge of extinction.

Outside the storm is gathering:  thunder crackles, rain beats upon the skin of our little home.  Ixce descends from its epicentre like an avenging angel, his lander’s engines roaring out a trumpet call.

We all stand in the corridor to the airlock in orderly submission, awaiting the great man.  Jaca stands at my side, her skin glowing, the subtlety of her scent placing her intentions beyond doubt.

The hatch opens and  Ixce is among us.

“Jaca!  My darling, how gorgeous you look!”  And to me, curtly: “Malcor.  Nice to see you again.”

Oh, Jaca!  How easy you make it for him, this Gabriel of the fearsome look and the golden hair!  How you quake before him – how your eyes are alive now, the way they were when I first coveted you, the way they have never lived for me!

I turn away, the decisions of my life all made on my behalf.  I see at once a battle I cannot win, a mountain I can never climb.

Jaca returns to our quarters late this night.  I have been awake for hours when she steals in and undresses on tiptoe, sliding furtively beneath our coverlet.  I do not ask her where she has been.  I know.

And so it is, for the next few interminable days, while I rub along with Ixce as best I can, liaising with him as I am meant to do.  In so small a community our respective sciences converge and overlap in many ways.  He is interested in the Smokedogs just, I am afraid, as much as Quietus is interested in him.  For it is not only my girlfriend and love who has deserted me:  Quietus has too, fawning over Ixce quite disgracefully every chance he gets.  Now, while we discuss his kindred together he sits by his adored’s feet, head resting on Ixce’s knee as he dotes upon the great man.

“No-one knows what the fires are for.”  I tell Ixce.  “We’ve tried to find out, but it’s almost impossible to get near them.  Even Quietus won’t discuss it.”

“How do they breed, do we know?”

“Not really my field, although I must admit I’m curious.  Again, it seems to be a closed book.  Strange, though.  No-one’s ever seen a puppy.”

“Really?”  Ixce is intrigued.  “Well now, we must discover these things, mustn’t we, Quietus old chap?”  Quietus looks into his eyes with total devotion.  I am sure he is giving his reply – but not to me.

Over breakfast on the morning following our discussion Ixce proposes an expedition.

“Quietus is an impressive little mutt.  I rather fancy finding out a bit more about his country cousins.  Care to join us?”

This invitation comes as something of a surprise, especially since the ‘us’ includes Jaca.  But as soon as we set out I discover Ixce’s reasons for having me along:  I carry things.  Our two buggies are loaded to the gills:  Ixce’s with Jaca and Quietus, mine with everything else.  It turns out that Ixce’s lander is full of experimental surprises, nearly all of which weigh more than Quietus.

We bump over the untracked Plain, Ixce and Jaca side by side in the lead, Quietus next to Ixce on his other side.  Jaca frequently needs Ixce’s supporting arm to steady her as their buggy lurches:  he is quick to assist, but she does not appear to complain when his hand steadies her thigh more than it needs, or accidentally touches her breast.

My supporting arm is employed in a manner similar to Ixce’s, but the stray leg of a tripod has not the same frisson of allure.  The thing – I never do find out what it is and Ixce certainly never uses it – actually falls off the buggy once, so that I have to stop to retrieve it.

“Careful with that!”  Ixce reminds me.  He murmurs something and Jaca giggles foolishly.

We journey for rather more than an hour, down into the basin where the greatest intensity of Smokedog fires occur.  As if by some prearranged signal, Quietus suddenly jumps from his seat on Ixce’s buggy, at which Ixce stops.  I nearly run into the back of him.

Now we set off on foot behind Quietus’s eager rear, Ixce and Jaca in earnest conversation, I in my role as porter.  Upon a rise thick with tall grasses Quietus stops and lays down, his dark stare focused on the depression beyond.  As soon as I see the look upon Ixce’s face I know that my pet has been communicating with him – probably all the way from the settlement.

“Are you content with me?  Do I serve you?”

You treacherous little rat!

Easing my burden from about me while making as little noise as possible, I join my prostrate colleagues at the rim of the basin, cautiously parting the grasses enough to see down into the undergrowth below.

“A Smokedog den.”  Ixce whispers to me, indicating a spot where the greenery appears to have been flattened, trodden into a natural circular amphitheatre.

“Rather light on Smokedogs.”  I point out.

“Quietus thinks they’ll be here soon.”  Does he now?  “Get my cameras, there’s a good chap.” For an hour we wait, while the sun climbs higher in the sky and cloud-galleons sail across the ocean of heaven.

Ixce asks, to pass the time:  “There was a dominant species here, wasn’t there?  Some form of anthropoid?”

“There are remains, for sure.”  Jaca replies.  “Ruined cities, stone monoliths, graves and grave goods.  We have quite a lot of archaeology back at base.  They reached a state of advancement rather similar to the Incas on Earth, then they died out.”

“We have no idea why,”  I add.  “Why they disappeared, I mean.  A sudden episode of some kind, like a meteor strike perhaps – no idea.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Oh, recent; quite recent.”  Jaca shifts herself uncomfortably.  “No more than a thousand years ago.”

I lie there, half-listening as Ixce and Jaca’s conversation dribbles on, but more intent upon the grasses rippling hazily in the midday heat.  So beclouding is the haze I nearly miss a sudden, purposeful movement in some scrub to our left.

“There!”

Within seconds our depression in the landscape is brimming with Smokedogs;  rangy brutes more than half as big again as my unfaithful servant Quietus – who now lies next to Ixce in the grass, his head between his paws; for all the world as though he were asleep.

No domestic pets these:  their eyes are the yellow of the timber wolf, their fangs long and curved. They move and weave among one another, collisions resolving themselves with a quick snarl and a flash of saliva-slick teeth as they enforce their seniority in the pack.  At the centre of the meeting-place the elder, larger Smokedogs gather, while those less prominent in the hierarchy retreat to form an outer circle.

As the lesser dogs settle themselves, those nearer the centre of the basin form groups of three or four or five.  From time to time, a dog will break from one group to join another.   All stand head to head as if engaged in conversation.    Fascinated, we watch this process, our personal difficulties put aside:  we are the first humans to get close to a Smokedog parliament.

“They are interacting in social groups!”  Jaca whispers. “Malcor, does this remind you of anything?”

Then, as if upon some spoken command, all the Smokedogs lie down, old and young in two concentric circles, facing an arena which is now completely clear.

Silence.  No movement – not even a breath.

We wait.

From somewhere in the long grass to the east there rises a deep, resonant baying sound – a Smokedog giving tongue.   Every dog in the pack raises its head, stretches its vocal cords to give one united answer; rising and falling – a sound to chill the warmest heart, a threat of something more direful than doom itself.

I hear Jaca gasp.  Out into the clearing comes a lone dog, emerging from the grass with slow, uncertain tread – but such a dog!  Whether from great age or from disability (I cannot know) it is gnarled and twisted into a grotesque parody of its species:  lips drawn, tongue lolling, eyes closed.  Its pelt hangs from it in matted festoons of fur, its legs drag it along as if they might any moment give way beneath it.  But all these trials are as nothing by comparison with the immensity of its belly, which gives the animal the appearance of an obscenely bloated bladder with legs, so stretched and hardened that it looks as if it must burst at any second.

Reaching the centre of the arena this repugnant creature staggers and falls.  Around it, the mature dogs begin a gentle whimpering, while those younger bloods of the outer circle give vent to their excitement in yaps and yelps.

I know something of import is about to happen – I cannot possibly predict what.  Glancing at my companions I see similar expectation written upon their faces.   Jaca is first to understand.

“Oh my god it’s catching fire!”

A flicker of red flame has appeared, around the elbow joint of the dog’s front leg.  Tiny at first, it dips and dances in the wind – innocent, almost as though it has strayed there, quite by chance; a burning leaf perhaps, or some wraith conjured by spirits.  But within the wreckage of the creature a much fiercer heat is gathering – its flesh begins to ripple and crack.   Daggers of fresh flame escape, piercing skin, splitting joints apart with cushions of white heat; and yet it moves!

Ixce points to the paws, still probing feebly at the soil.  “It’s dead!  It must be dead!”  But it is not.

With a last despairing howl from its blackened mouth it rolls, exposing a stomach burned open by a forest of flame – and now its whole carcass is ablaze – a raging inferno of such heat that even with our gift of distance I feel compelled to shield my face.

“Spontaneous combustion!”  Ixce whispers, awe in his voice.  “Oh, look at this!”

The burning dog is now no dog at all.  It is a furnace, but a furnace with purpose.  For squirming and shaking itself in the midst of the flames a vague shape, a Smokedog shape, is forming.  No sooner has this creature found its feet than it leaps from the fire: naked of fur but unmistakeably one of Quietus’s brethren – nearly-grown and refulgent with flame!

The fiery creature stands before the inferno which spawned it – head low, white-hot eyes intent upon its mother’s remains.  At once all the dogs around the arena give tongue – a sound I have so often heard but never, until now, understood – then the outer circle of the pack parts to make room for its new member and it bounds through the space that is made, right to the very eastern rim of the basin, before turning to give a long howl in answer, a majestic, luminous miracle baying fire to the sky.  We look on, deprived of speech, as the newly born’s flesh seems to finally extinguish itself, gradually cooling.  Only when the hot fury of its cremated parent has diminished to more moderate proportions does it join the outer ring.  Two dogs move aside to provide space and it lies there, scorched, a haze of smoke hanging over it.

The pack stays for a while, its senior dogs conversing approvingly, we must assume, in their little groups, before drifting away, two by two, back into the long grass.  And their new comrade follows, leaving a smouldering carcass to burn on into the dusk.

That evening we gather on the Observation Deck, Jaca, Ixce, Quietus and I, ready with our assembled thoughts to explain what we have seen.

“Simple.”  Ixce says.  “We see dogs, we think puppies.  But Smokedogs don’t have fluffy little babies, they reproduce by fire.  It isn’t such an untenable concept:  the ancients believed that a certain breed of lizard – the Salamander – was born in a similar way.  We witnessed a pregnant female giving birth – now we have to develop upon the science surrounding it.”

“Awesome!”  Jaca breathes.  “One thing troubles me, though.  Did we, or did we not witness the behaviour of a dominant species today?  I mean, why have they never interfered with us?”

“They don’t see us as a threat?”  I suggest.  “One small settlement – a research station, really, nothing more.  Perhaps if we tried to expand it would be different.”

“I’m new here.”  Ixce interjects; “You’re the geologist, Malcor:  have we any reason to expand?”

“Possibly.  I’m finding evidence of ore, although no sign of deposits yet.”

“If we do,”  Jaca says,  “I think we should be very careful.  I can’t exactly explain why, but I believe those creatures were responsible for wiping out the Palataians.”

“And learnt from them,” I agree.  “That was just like a Palataian religious gathering today.    Their meeting-place was organised like a temple.”

“Wow!  Wild stuff!”  Ixce thumps the air with his fists.  “Come for a drink,  Malcor;  I want a word, if I may?  You stay here, Jaca my darling:” He gives my darling a meaningful look; “Keep Quietus company, will you?”

Jaca distracts Quietus, tickling his tummy in a way he finds irresistible as we leave together.  This is an unusual grouping and from Ixce an unusual request.  I confess myself puzzled.

“I needed to get us away from that damned animal.”  Ixce explains:  “Do you know, Malcor, the blessed creature has been picking my brains with mathematical and quantum theory questions all day?  It’s a dog, for god’s sake!”

“Anything you couldn’t answer?”  I ask mildly.

“That’s cheeky!  No.  But what a brain!”  He takes my arm.  “We’re on the edge of something very big, here, Malcor – very big!  I require your help.”

“How?”

“All the way back this afternoon I was worrying about a way to get hold of a specimen of these creatures, and then it struck me – we have one in our midst!  We have to dissect Quietus, old chap.  I’m going to need an extra pair of hands to subdue him.”

“Quietus?  You’re going to kill him?”

“Name of research, Malcor – we have to do these things.  I want to see how he works – understand that incredible density of his.  First thing after breakfast tomorrow, bring him to the lab.  Don’t be late!”

As it happens, I do not see Quietus again that night.

In the quarters we have shared for most of five years I find Jaca folding the last of her clothes into a travel bag.

“Malcor, my dear:  I’m so sorry.”

“You’re moving in with him?”

“We both knew….”

“Yes.”  I am plunging into some bottomless pit.  “I suppose we did.”

“We have to work together.  We mustn’t fall out over this.”

“No.  Mustn’t fall out.  Friends.”

I do not rise early the next morning:  for a while I lie in our bed, wondering whether to bother to rise at all.  When I get to breakfast I cannot really eat, but pick absently at my food – drink too much coffee; a lot too much.

I am alone.  The crew, who always start early, have finished and gone about their business.  No sign of Ixce – I try not to imagine him lying with Jaca – try not to picture them together:  but no sign, either, of Quietus.  Has he divined his fate with that perfect instinct of his and gone into hiding somewhere?

Jaca comes to the table.  We glance awkwardly at each other, I for my part half-expecting to see the flushed complexion of new love, but Jaca does not reward me:  if anything, she seems a little flustered.

It is a while before the silence is broken.  One of us has to do it.  Me.

“Where’s Ixce?  Sleeping late?”

Jaca mutters so quietly I cannot hear.

“Sorry?”

“I don’t know where he is.”  She says with a hint of bitterness.  “When I woke up this morning he had gone.  I think Quietus must be with him – he’s gone, too.”

An unwelcome presentiment prompts me to look inside the lab, but it is empty and as pristine as it was after cleaning last night.

When I return to the breakfast table, Jaca is still there, her head in her hands:

“Something happened, didn’t it?”  I ask her.

“No!  No, nothing….”

“Come on, Jaca.  I can read your moods well enough by now.  Tell me!”

“It was wrong!  I can’t explain it – he’s different somehow.  It’s as if his head is somewhere else – as if he’s almost forgotten who I am!  Then, when I woke up….  Look, I’m sure it’s nothing; nothing at all.”

“Sure.”  I can see the truth in Jaca’s eyes.  Right decisions, wrong ones.  We all make them.  “History doesn’t always repeat itself,”  I say, and she understands.

Slowly, the hours of morning pass.  We attack our work mechanically, going through our tasks with minds apart, thoughts too deep and personal to share.  Out on the plains the Smokedog fires burn.  I am outside with my seismic experiments, watching as one of the newer fires flares, and because of my greater knowledge closer to it than I have ever been.

At around midday, as I walk down the hill to check upon a malfunctioning receptor, I discover the blood.  There is a considerable quantity of it; dark and tacky, no more than twelve hours old.  The bushes around it are broken and trampled with struggle:  studying it more closely I begin to find particles of flesh and bone, shreds of cloth from an outdoor suit.  With churning stomach I extract slides from my kit, taking samples.

Jaca joins me in the lab, made fearful by my urgency.  Together we work to identify the victim, a deepening horror growing within us both.  There is no doubt.

When the final hammer falls, Jaca runs sobbing from the room.  I gather the crew together for a solemn announcement.

“Science Officer Ixce was attacked and most probably killed – either last night or this morning.”  I tell them. “We have to try and find him.  Draw arms from the secure cupboard and break out the armoured buggies.  We may have a fight on our hands.”

“Do we know what got him, Malcor?”  A security officer asks.

I shake my head.  “I only know of one predator on this part of the planet.  It has to be the Smokedogs.”

Then I ask, as an afterthought:  “Has anyone seen Quietus?”

No-one has.

It occurs to me that no-one has ever tried to shoot a Smokedog, and I wonder briefly how susceptible that thick, solid flesh will be to our primitive bullets:  we are, after all, a research station, unworthy of sophisticated weaponry.

Jaca joins me as I work over my gun, her features pale and strained.  “Ixce’s lander is fuelled up;” She reminds me:  “Wouldn’t it be useful as a scout?”

I shake my head.  “Too fast.  Not much in the way of censor equipment, either – it’s just a standard shuttlecraft.”

The crew are at the back of the settlement, starting up the three armoured buggies we use in a security alert.  I have no battle plan.  I am not a soldier.

“Let’s go and do it.”  I say.

We get no further than the communal area.

At first, the sight of Ixce’s naked form standing in the centre of the room refuses to register in my brain.  It is as if I am accepting an illusion; giving credence to a ghost.  Then, as the recognition that he is there slowly imposes itself, I can say or do nothing.  I find myself rooted to the spot.

Jaca’s strangled cry barely reaches my ears.  “Ixce!  Oh, Ixce!”

She starts forward as though she will embrace him, but somehow doesn’t:  a wall of doubt is there – science is there, saying no.  No, this cannot be.

“You – your blood.  Darling you must be hurt!  You must be!”

But you aren’t, darling, are you?

I find my tongue.  “Ixce.  You are supposed to be dead.”

Ixce cocks a quizzical eyebrow:  “Reports exaggerated?”

“No, my report.  You look extremely healthy for someone who must have lost at least eight pints of blood.”

He looks puzzled, really perplexed; as though he cannot fathom what either of us is talking about.

“Where have you been?  Where are your clothes?”  Jaca asks.

“Out.  I went out early. It’s so warm out there, and we all know each other’s bodies, don’t we?  I had to go back and have another look at those dogs, Malcor.  I told you I would, didn’t I?”

“No.  You told me something quite different.  Ixce – where’s Quietus?”

“How would I know?”

“Not certain, but I think somehow you do.”

Ixce shakes his head.  “Sorry, no bells ringing.  Now, I have to leave I’m afraid.  Everything finished here – all packed up!  If I’m prompt I’ll manage a rendezvous with the Silusia freighter:  get home quickly, eh?  Be nice to make Earth-fall again before summer’s over.”

“You’re leaving?”  Jaca cries incredulously.  “Just like that?  You said you’d stay – a tour of duty, you said.”

“Change of plans, Jaca dear.  Sorry.  Way things are, you know?”

I can only imagine the turmoil inside Jaca’s brain:  the scientist in her vying with the woman – the realist with the lover.  Yet it will take more than a psychological barrier to keep her from him now, her Gabriel, her Archangel.  She runs to him, arms wide to enfold him, heart bursting in her breast.  “Ixce darling, please?  You can’t!  You can’t!”

Before he can restrain her she has thrown herself upon him, arms around his shoulders, lips seeking his in a frightened, soulful kiss.  In that awful second he moans something, a word I cannot hear because the whole settlement is racked by Jaca’s scream.  She staggers back from him, arms akimbo, staring incredulously down at herself, her face frozen in shock.  She is burning, smoking, her flesh rising in blisters.  She stares at her hands:  “Ixce?  My god!”

Now for the first time I fix upon Ixce’s eyes – yellow eyes, slitted and angry:  I see his fingers, long and bent, the nails pointed.  I see the stoop of his flanks, full of spring and speed.  And I see the truth.

The last of our crew are coming back into the communal area, alerted by Jaca’s scream.

“Stop him!”  I tell them.  “Don’t let him get to the lander!”

Raising my own gun, I position myself between Ixce and the passage which communicates with our landing pad.  He advances.

“Worthless!”  His lip curls, his stare despises me.  “I was not for you, Malcor – I could never waste myself on you!”

I am backing off as I try to keep my gun trained upon him.  The malevolent yellow orbs of his eyes pierce my soul.

“So you waited, didn’t you?”  I am trying to keep my voice controlled, calm.  “You waited for a brain greater than any of the Palataians – the next step in your evolution – even if it had to come from another world.”

“We’ve waited years for this intellect – years!”  Ixce snarls.  “As it was with the Palataians, so it is with Ixce – consumed and reborn of fire!  Don’t try to stop me:  nothing can stop me!  You know that, don’t you, Malcor?  Don’t you!”

A hot hand, or claw as it may be, shoots out:  a vice grips my throat. I am held aloft, the flesh searing from my neck – spun around and flying, a helpless projectile aimed at the crew who do not scatter in time to avoid me.  In the melee of arms and legs I hear two shots fired before I black out.

By the time I come to the air is filled with the roar of the lander’s engines.  Quietus is right: nothing can stop him now.

Horribly burned, Jaca stands shaking with a rifle in her scorched hands.

“I fired twice,” she mumbles between swollen lips.  “I’m not sure if I hit him.”

And so it is.  I have sent a message to Starfleet, of course, but I am not believed – we none of us are.  Shortly after it was sent Jaca got her own confidential memo from them asking her to comment upon my ‘mental condition’.

I am packing now, taking a last look from the observation platform at the plains and the distant Smokedog fires.  Below me, a little semi-circle of Smokedogs sit, gazing up at me with looks which exude devotion.  I am of no use to them, of course.  Since Jaca confirmed my ‘apparent frailty’ I am bound for rehabilitation in the Betelgeuse system.  Realistically, I may be back at work within a year – maybe two.  Jaca and I speak rarely; we avoid each other most of the time – I doubt if she will even say goodbye.

And do the wires buzz with Ixce’s name?  Well no:  you see, shortly after Earth-fall he took a vacation with a very great friend of his, a political genius named Paka Sind.  When the hotel where they stayed caught fire only Paka Sind survived:  Ixce’s body has never been found.

Everyone speaks well of Paka and they say he will be Secretary-General one day.  Those who know him well remark upon his energy and the strange colour of his eyes……..

© 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.