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Pathology

Another from the vaults! A story written some years ago, revamped for this blog, and all the better for having lost a little weight. I hope you enjoy it!

Hugo Albricht paused over his work for a moment, arching then straightening his back; so forcing the young man who had been standing close behind him to step backwards quickly, to avoid a collision of heads.

“You realize you are breathing on my neck?”  Hugo tried to sound as mild and agreeable as he could.   “Do I take it you are interested in pathology, Detective …er..?”

“Sergeant, Doctor.   Detective Sergeant Sims.”  The young policeman wanted to apologize for inconveniencing the pathologist.  “Sorry.”  He said, lamely. 

“Ah, so young to be a Detective Sergeant.  You must be very diligent, I think, to volunteer for this task so late in the day. Most of your colleagues would have chosen to leave by this time.”   He pointed to space at the other side of the table.  “You can watch from there, you know.  Your view will be much better.  ”

“Thank you.  Yes, I’m interested, Doc.”   Paul Sims moved around the table, brushing against the bare white feet of the corpse, and positioned himself opposite Albricht.  “Poor old bugger.  He hasn’t an ounce of flesh on him, has he?”

“Age is very cruel, young man.   Yet it comes to us all.  How was he found, this poor old – bugger – as you call him?  Do you have a proper name for him?”

“Not yet.  He was in bed, or on it.  A small bedsit up the road in Bayswater, but there was no information about him there, no letters, no plastic, not even an oyster card.  No relatives as far as we can find out, no-one else in the block knows him.  He could have laid there for months, had that young woman not made the discovery.  She was doing a pamphlet round and she said she just felt something was wrong.  Women, eh?”

“A very clever woman.  Very intuitive.”  

“Yes.  Unusual name, too.  Eladora – suppose it’s Mexican, or something.”  Sims did not mention how the black hair and emerald eyes of Eladora had intoxicated him, or how flirtatious she seemed, once the shock of discovering the old man’s body had passed. 

“The door was open – on the latch.  I just pushed, and there he was.”

 Sims had given Eladora his phone number.  He was certain they would be arranging a date before the week was out.  

“You’ve opened the chest, Doctor.  I thought this one was routine?”

Hugo smiled indulgently.  “In pathology we avoid terms like ‘routine’, Detective Sergeant.  We leave such words to middle-ranking policemen with a high case-load.  This is an autopsy, certain rules must be observed.  However, everything here would indicate natural causes.  

Paul Sims sighed:  “Just that old age thing, then.  How old must he be?  Ninety?”

“Ah, who can say?”   Hugo surveyed the parchment-thin, wrinkled flesh of the specimen lying before him.  “I believe more.  Yes, I believe a little more than ninety.

“Well, you may be the night-owl if you wish, but I have to leave this for tonight.”  The Pathologist said.  “Let me see, what is it you need to know – is it a suspicious death?  I will run further tests, of course, but in my preliminary opinion what we see here is just the work age or dementia, sometimes does.  Starvation killed this man.  With no-one to look after him, he did not eat.  See?  See how the stomach is shrunken, the heart muscle so weak and thin?  His body has been eating itself because he has taken no nutrition in weeks, even months maybe.  But this is still a natural process, so heart failure is my most likely conclusion.  We shall put our mystery friend back into his new one-bed apartment and I’ll finish off in the morning.  The report will come through the usual channels, yes?  It is not urgent, I take it?”

“Fine Doc.  No rush.”

“By the way, young man:  not ‘Doc’.  I am a consultant pathologist, not a Doctor.  I do not mind the error, but there are those who might.”  Albricht smiled.  “And may I say well done, Detective Sergeant Sims.  You remained resolute when many an intern would have been flat on the floor by now.  It was a privilege to meet you!”

The consultant pathologist shepherded Sims to the door and watched the young policeman’s retreating form as it departed along the corridor outside, smiling to himself as he thought of the enthusiasm of youth.  Then he returned to his office to remove his scrubs and prepare for the evening.  His phone was waiting on his desk, vibrating in spasmodic fury.

 “Yes, dear?”

As his wife vented her impatience over a dispassionate ether, Albricht waited stoically.  “Yes, my dear.  I worked late, you see?  No, no.  Just an everyday thing, but tomorrow I would like to be free in time for the conference, so…

“Yes I am finished now.”  

“The Ferguson’s, eight-thirty, yes, I remember”

“Just a minute, my dear, there’s a knocking on my door.  I’ll call you back.   No, no, I will.  I promise.  I must deal with this now.   I’ll come straight home.”

The young man who stood in the mortuary doorway was tall with regular features and of Mediterranean extraction, as Albricht guessed. “Mr Albricht?”   His voice had a soft, melodious lilt.  “I’m so glad I caught you!”

Albricht frowned.  “Yes, you caught me, indeed.  I was just leaving, in fact.  How can I help you?”  Hugo Albricht felt he should know the face in front of him, yet he could not quite recall..”.  

“I wouldn’t trouble you, but I’m on something of an urgent errand:  I’m from the Coroner’s office – in Helmesford?  I have some ID.”

The man held his green Identification card up for Hugo to inspect.

“Mr Pulman.  You’ll forgive me, Mr Pulman.  My errand is also somewhat urgent.  Could this not wait until morning?”

“I would rather get it over with, if you don’t mind.  A simple matter of identification.  An elderly male brought here this afternoon?  We believe the man in question is the subject of one of our open files.”

“You want to see the body?  I was just working on it, this last half-hour.  It isn’t really prepared for an identification…”

“That’s all right, Mr Albricht.  I’m used to this sort of thing.  As long as the face…”

“Yes.  Yes,, of course.   The face.  Come, I’ll show you the gentleman.”  Albricht led the way back into the mortuary.  “A quite straightforward case.  Natural causes is my preliminary finding.”

Pulman nodded.  His eyes were keen and bright with knowledge, a quality that aroused Albricht’s admiration.  This was a very clever man, he decided.  “This death may not be as straightforward as it appeared to you, Mr. Albricht.”  Pulman said.

“Well, well.  We gave him this room for the night, at least.”  Albricht opened the cabinet door he had closed for the night, not twenty minutes earlier, and rolled out the shrouded form of his mystery cadaver.   “You are sure you are ready for this?”

“Yes, Mr. Albricht.”

“He is very old of course.”

“Yes.  About two thousand years.”

Albricht thought; ‘this is the second man to stand too close and breathe on my neck tonight.  Why?’  He pulled back the shroud.  There was nothing beneath.  Although the shape of the cadaver was faithfully traced by the shroud, the space that should have been occupied by the body was empty.

“Two thousand years?”  He said, slowly, as his understanding grew.  “I have heard of you people, but never believed.  Why here?”

“A game we play from time to time, my familiar and I.  Once every century or so I have to rejuvenate, and I need younger blood.  A mortuary – where is better?  And when we have feasted on the dead, there is always one in attendance who is not dead – something warm to round off the evening.”

#

They sat side by side on a bench in the park, Harald Sims and Eladora, and anyone could tell by the way they gazed into each others’ eyes they had found love.  Around them, the town descended into night and amidst this green interruption to its star-spangled life they spoke of the feelings in their hearts.

“A policeman.”  Eladora sighed.  “Who’d have thought?”

“You don’t mind?”  He asked earnestly, squeezing her hand.

“Of course not!”  Eladora’s  emerald eyes flashed adoringly.  “I feel so – protected!”

They laughed together at this.  “I know it’s right, the two of us!  I just know it!”  He insisted.  “The moment I saw you!”

“And so strange we should meet where we did!”

“A chance in a million, my darling.”   Harald enthused.  “A spark of attraction fanned to flame in a seedy flat in Bayswater – such good fortune!  And in circumstances, I would normally consider sad…”

“That poor old man!”  

“Ah yes,  that poor old man.”   

A sombre moment, perhaps, yet Eladora could not help the smile that came to her lips – those full, tempting lips.  “Speaking of flame….”  She left her sentence unfinished:  “Do I have to say it?”

“No, no.  I will.   Your place or mine?”

“Yours.”  She said.  “That’s my choice.  I want to see yours.”  Her hand passed gently across his shoulders and slipped beneath the open neck of his shirt, stroking his shoulder, feeling the warmth of his neck.  “Perfect!”  She said.

He was about to rise.  “What a strange thing to say!  How is my neck perfect?”

“Such vibrant arteries.”

It had been an evening beyond any possible dream of success.  Dinner at the finest restaurant Harald could afford was after sunset, in deference to Eladora’s habit: “I’m a night person.   You wouldn’t see the best of me in daylight…”

The cuisine was unparalleled.  

“You don’t eat very much.”  He accused her kindly.

“I have a spider’s appetite.”  She wrapped her smile around him; “But I enjoy my wine.  Besides, you have hardly touched your food either.”

“It’s you.  I’m so besotted with you I can’t seem to eat.”

“Well, there you are then…”

The way was open for a sharing of fantasies.  Each confessed to having thought about, brooded over, dreamt of the other in the impatient days between this and their first meeting, against the grim backcloth of that Bayswater flat.

“I couldn’t wait to be with you again.  Really, I don’t know how I kept from going insane.  Is it wicked to talk like this?”

Eladora smiled, and said ‘no’.  She was equally distracted, it seemed.

So, at the dreamlike conclusion of a very special evening the pair rose from their trysting place in the park and strolled, arm in arm, along the pathway that led to Harald Sims’ Spartan little home, and it may be that they shared a kiss now and then and some murmured if meaningless conversation.  He made her laugh childishly.  She enticed him, teased him, caressed his neck.  

At the gates to his home, though, she froze, profoundly shocked.  “No!  But I live here, too!”

“Really?  Which one?”

“The third on the right!”

“And I’m in the one with the marble frontage, over there!”  He said.  “I’m trying to get that angel statue moved.”

“So the policeman thing is just the day job.” She shuddered.  “I hate marble, don’t you?  Granite is so much warmer.”  Then, slowly:  “We have more in common than I thought.   Of course, you must be of the European family.”

“And you are from South America. I wonder how we have been such close neighbours and never met.  Very strange.”

“Well…”  Eladora murmured philosophically;  “Now we know we really are together for eternity, I can confide in you, my dearest.  I am very hungry.”  She nodded towards a young couple who were walking towards them along the path where the park bordered the city cemetery.  “Would you care for supper?”

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

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Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts: Part Two.

Prince Fuisal was something of a disappointment to Rowena:  she had anticipated a thobe of flowing white, a ghutra and a beard.  Instead she got a rather affable young man in a business suit, with very little hair at all.  Nevertheless, she caught herself curtseying as he greeted her.

“Your Highness!”

“Ah yes.  This is – what is the expression – ‘the little woman’.  Is that correct, Mr. Parfitt?”

Needless to say, Rowena did not immediately take to the young Prince; not that it mattered, since from that point onwards he scarcely acknowledged her existence.

When Julian had finished choking, he invited his guest to the house for tea.

The Prince was unenthusiastic.  “Tea.  Yes, of course. Tea.  Lead the way, Parfitt!”

As soon as tea was served (by Rowena, naturally) the Prince seemed eager to get down to business.

“Tell me your proposition, Parfitt.”

“Well,”  Said Julian;  “What I suggest is this….”

The Prince’s hand restrained him.  With a regal nod, he indicated Rowena.  “You wish to discuss business in front of your woman?  How quaint.”

“Oh, no, don’t embarrass yourself!”  Said Rowena:  “I’ll be in the scullery scrubbing the floor if you want me, husband.”  And she left, closing the door with a violence that set the remains of her dinner service wobbling perilously on the dresser.

Rowena did not meet the Prince again.  She heard his laughter as Julian unfolded his plans, then the front door closing as he departed.  Within an hour of its arrival, Prince Fuisal’s launch was bearing him back out into the bay.  That evening the ‘Xanadu’  gracefully and silently slipped its moorings.  By the morning of the following day, it was as if the third in line to the throne of Al Flaberri had never visited.

For another week Julian’s island basked peacefully in pale Scottish sunshine.  Rowena so loved this place with its moody climate and magnificent scenery that she soon forgot her ill humour, even to the point of forgiving Julian.  She preferred not to know what his discussions with the Prince had entailed, and certainly Julian was not eager to tell her, so she began to revive her daily routine and pursue her own interests.  She fed the hens, milked the cow and the goat Julian had insisted they buy (though neither of them had any background in animal husbandry) and worked at the well-nigh impervious garden.  The wind riffled through her hair, her skin bronzed in the subtle sun, she breathed the richly oxygenated air and felt glad to be alive.  For a while she almost made herself believe that the natural gas resources had sealed themselves up and the whole thing was forgotten; but of course it wasn’t.  On the seventh day, insidious hell oozed in from the ocean.

Boats chugged quietly into the bay late on Saturday night: by morning they were gone.  Along the shore a camouflage net covered the equipment they had left behind, and the accommodation for the workers who came with it.

These were riggers, whose intrusion was neither subtle nor brief.  They were possibly most remarkable for their ability to turn a simple portacabin upon the jetty into a thriving public house, which sprang into life at seven p.m. (just after the heavy machinery which littered the island had shut down) and did not acquiesce until well into the following morning.  During the day they worked under cover, with the extensive use of camouflage netting and disguised vehicle movements; a mystery to Rowena, one which Julian seemed reluctant to explain.  They came, they gave their hosts six weeks of unremitting torment, and they left.  Peace descended once more, but it was a gurgling, vibrant peace.  It was the peace of pipes laid and lying idle, of machines which did not turn, of vehicles which squatted covertly in hollows and caves.  It was a peace waiting to be breached.

Rowena slipped meekly out from beneath the ice-pack she had adopted as a permanent night-time companion.  Frequently of late she had found it necessary to remind herself of the day of the week; even, in stormy interludes, whether it was day or night.  This morning, she was certain, was a Wednesday.  She would remember, later, that it was a Wednesday.  Sun-glow bathed the little bedroom where she often slept alone now.  She dressed quickly, for the advancing year brought a fresh, invigorating bite to the breeze.

It was Rowena’s habit, in the early day, to don her biggest sweater and stomp the upward mile to the summit of Ben Adderhochie, from whence it was possible to see the mainland afar off in one direction, and to imagine the Americas, half a world away, in the other.  This sense of space and freedom excited her so much that she would make a little dance for herself at times, and, miles from sight of any other human, cavort around the top of the Ben like Julie Andrews on speed.  The breeze was exceptionally fresh that morning – that Wednesday.  Rowena had already become familiar with the long jetty Julian’s riggers had built, probing out from the north shore for nearly half a mile – but this Wednesday…..

Julian was already up and making coffee when Rowena, white-faced, threw the door open.

“Steady, old girl!  You’ll have the hinges off!”  He said.

“Have you – do you know what’s out there?”  Rowena stammered.

“Er – no, dear?”  Julian played along.

“A tanker.  A big, gigantic, huge, no – not just huge – massive tanker!”

“The Al-Rasheed, I believe she’s called – this one.”

“THIS ONE!  How many are there??”

“Well, we’re scheduled to accept six.  Although, if the weather breaks, of course….”  Julian waved his hand vaguely.  “Coffee, dear?”

“Yes please, one sugar.”  Rowena slumped into a chair at the big breakfast table.  “I suppose it’s a silly question, but what exactly is a super-tanker doing anchored so close to our island?”

“Oh, loading with gas.”  Julian replied mildly.  “They – we – have equipment to condense it: that way we can send it anywhere in the world.”

“We?”

“The Shahiree-Parfitt Corporation:  Prince Fuisal owns the Shahiree half, of course, but he can’t admit to that, being royal – wouldn’t be ethical.”

For some while now, Rowena had been sensing a growing weight upon her shoulders.

“Julian; are you quite mad?  Have you any idea what is going to happen when the mainland finds out about this?”

“Oh, they already have.  I told them yesterday.  They were asking about the jetty.”

“My god!  We’ll have the police, customs, the bloody British Army here.  Julian,” Rowena took a decision;  “I’m leaving you.”

“Are you dear?”  Julian responded mildly:  “You’ll need a passport.”

“A passport?  A boat to the mainland, that’s all I need, Julian.”

“No dear.  Sorry, but they won’t let you in.  You see, as of yesterday, you became a citizen of the Republic of Aga.  We’ve got our own flag, and everything.”

“You’re insane.  They’ll murder us!”

“No.”  Said Julian.  “No. they won’t.  The Republic of Aga has declared itself to be under the protection of the Kingdom of Al Flaberri.  Now the King of Al Flaberri (Fuisal’s dad) is a great mate of our Royals, and his country is strategically important to Britain in the Middle East.  He buys lots of planes, and things.  This is his son’s pet project at the moment.  If the British try to interfere, Flaberri will order them out of their naval base in the Gulf.  Very knotty problem, that, for the British.  Oh, and by the way, we also declared an alliance with Iran.”

Rowena burst into tears and ran from the room.  Ten minutes later, she returned.

“It won’t work.”  She said.

“Yes, it will.  Not for very long, but for long enough.  After the initial enquiry, the diplomatic counterpoint, a court case, an appeal, then another to the European Court (we’ve applied for membership of the Community) and the final settlement – I’d say a year, at least.  That’s a minimum of twelve tankers, even given the worst weather.  After expenses that will yield about a hundred and sixty million.”

“You said ‘settlement’”

“I did.  The ultimate answer will, of course, be for the British to buy the island.  With mineral rights, I’d say another two hundred and fifty million or so?  With a bit of skilled negotiating, we should be able to retain royalties.  We need a good estate agent.”

Throughout this explanation Rowena’s mouth had been dropping slowly open.  Her knees felt quite unsteady.  “Then what happens to us?  Poor old Aga’s going to be not much more than a slag heap.”

“I’m negotiating for a different Island; somewhere warmer.  The South Pacific, actually.  I think you’ll like it.”

“Come to bed!”  Said Rowena.

“Oh, one thing I did forget to mention.  It may be necessary to convert to Islam.”

“Come to bed, husband!”

At this point the relationship between Julian and Rowena might have turned something of a corner:  there is no more effective bandage for a wounded marriage than a seven-figure bank statement, especially if the draft constitution of your newly-adopted nation makes no provision for divorce.  Besides, as First Lady of the Republic of Aga, Rowena had duties to perform and an image to live up to.  The reason their relationship did not, in fact, improve, we shall now relate.

The fledgling republic got off to a nervous start. Constant over-flying by Royal Air Force jet fighters was nothing more than they, as residents on a Scottish island, had come to expect.  However, now the gloves were metaphorically back on the hat-stand these aircraft flew lower and with considerably more menace.  Helicopters kept appearing over Ben Adderhochie, a reconnaissance plane droned constantly in the background.  When, the next morning, a Royal Navy destroyer anchored off the bay, Rowena suggested that maybe Julian’s fabulous plan was not working.

“It’s OK,”  Julian said.  “I sent a warning against trespassing in Republic of Aga airspace.  They’ll desist very soon.”

And they did.

Anthony James Poulson was staring contemplatively at his bag of golf clubs one Friday morning when his senior, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, stuck his head around the door.

“A word, AJ?”

“Certainly!”  said Poulson affably.  “Albatross.  Will that do?”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Not at all – that’s a very nice word:  better than eagle, for example, or birdie?”

“I’m being serious, old man.”  The under-secretary drew up one of A.J’s rather comfy leather chairs.  “It concerns this chap Parfitt.”

“Oh god, no.  What’s he done now?”  Poulson’s tantalising vision of the fifteenth at sunset began to fade.

“Well, it isn’t so much what he’s done, as what we haven’t – if you’ll forgive the grammar.  It’s been a month now, during which time he’s managed to turn around six tankers-full of high grade natural gas, and we don’t seem to be doing anything.”

AJ spread his hands.  “What can we do?  It’s a complete stand-off, as far as I can see.  Faisal’s slaughtering birds on some very choice grouse moor with our beloved Prince even as we speak.”

“There must be something.  Where is he selling all this gas?”

An awkward silence ensued.  A.J. Poulson seemed to have something in his eye.  “Well, to us, actually.”

“I must have misheard you,” the under-secretary said slowly:  “For a moment I thought you said ‘to us’.

A.J. coughed.  “Auchterwootie Refinery is just eighty miles south of Aga.  He gets an excellent price, and the trip for the tankers is so short they can run a shuttle service.  It works very well.”

The under-secretary looked as though he was about to explode.

“Well, it’s not our refinery;”  A.J. defended.  “It belongs to Swell PB.  We can’t stop them.”

There was a considerable interval while the under-secretary recovered from this piece of information.  At last he said:  “Do you have any idea – any idea – how ridiculous this makes us look?”

“Absolutely, under-secretary.  The King of Flaberri is having a bit of joke, I think, at our expense.  Whenever I put in a call to suggest a solution I get the distinct impression he’s laughing at me.  Usually he limits himself to one-sentence answers, and the sentence almost always includes the words ‘British Aerospace’.”

“You know the PM’s all for taking the gloves off and sending in a couple of battalions?  This Parfitt fellow wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on, now would he?”

“Well….”

“Oh, come on!”

“Parfitt claims he has documentary evidence that Aga was not included in the Act of Union.  He says the last people to take up residence there were the Danes, in about 740 AD.  The island’s not part of any of the recognised groups, it’s never been named anywhere; and, at thirty miles, it’s outside British territorial waters.”

“That would stand up?  I mean, legally?”

“Parfitt is ready to test it in the courts.  The problem is, there’s just an outside chance that the European Court might uphold it.  Then we really would be in the soup.  Parfitt did come up with one solution.”

“Which is?”

“A pipeline.  It would get us over the natural gas issue.  The trouble there being, Parfitt wants a lot of dosh for it, and he has no intention of relinquishing his sovereignty claim.  He’s a curious chap,” A.J. mused; “He has friends in The City who are doing very well out of this, but I would like to know what he’s after.  I don’t think it’s just the money.”

“And a pipeline’s the best we can offer?  The PM is absolutely hopping about this, A.J., and your entire department is bankrupt of ideas?”

Poulson thought for a moment, acutely aware that his apparent lack of a solution was endangering his booking for the first tee at 3pm.  “Well, maybe there is a sort of a possibility:  it depends rather on just how underhanded you’re prepared to be.”

“Underhanded?  Dear boy, this is the Home Office – since when were we anything else?”

“Well then,”  A.J. picked up the telephone;  “Let’s see what we can do.”

Some days elapsed before this interview at the Home Office could bear fruit.  The fruit concerned, in the person of one Willoughby Lightfoot, had required transport from inaccessible foreign parts where he was found deep in some allegedly impenetrable jungle, half-way across an uncrossable swamp.  Willoughby was not too upset by the call to his mobile phone – after all, the crocodile he was wrestling at the time was, as crocodiles go, too small for his purposes.

In London, Lightfoot needed a day or two – to be briefed by A.J; to restore his hair, which was long and flaxen, and to manicure his nails.  A further twenty-four hours later he reached Scotland, where he made a few enquiries, looked up a few contacts.  Now he stood on the foredeck of a local trawler, looking across the one remaining mile of choppy sea which separated him from the Republic of Aga.

“Is he expecting you – the Parfitt man?”  a deckhand asked.

“He’s expecting someone.”  Willoughby shouted back against the wind.  “He’s not expecting me.”

Willoughby Lightfoot entered Aga’s small harbour poised atop the trawler’s bow like a figurehead, his hair flying about his face, his startlingly blue eyes focussed upon the little welcoming committee gathered on the quay.  A long leather coat streamed behind him in the evening breeze.

His reception, six strong, fell way below his own exacting standards.  In declaring Aga a Republic, Julian had needed security guards for just such purposes as these, recruited from those places on the mainland with the highest unemployment.  Even unemployed men with any self-worth had proved hard to procure – the working conditions were less than desirable, the pay wasn’t desirable at all.  Finally, Julian had approached a hostel for the homeless in Glasgow, discovering those who would consider anything if it included a roof to sleep under, regular meals and an unlimited source of booze.

Amongst such as these, Willoughby was Gulliver before the Lilliputians.

“Right, chappies – which way to the boss?”  He enquired, assuming Julian would not be one of the ravaged creatures who accosted him.

“I need ye’re paasspoort!”  said a slightly bent man with a hawk nose and a drip.

“Fine.”  Willoughby produced it from his shoulder bag.  “Now,” he said, watching the document disappear into the folds of the bent man’s uniform; “which way?”

“No’ so fast.”  A stout Glaswegian with an astonishing lack of neck chided him.  “There’s procedures.”

“Right-ho.  Proceed away!  What shall we do next?”

“The strip search.”  

If, at this point, Willoughby began to regret that he had made this appointment with Parfitt as a diplomat from the Home Office, he did not show it.  Instead, he regarded the little group of security guards with a look of amusement.

“Oh, you silly boys!”  He chided them gently.  “Why didn’t you just ask?  Now – who wants to be first?”

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

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To a Friend

It was a yard, a concrete yard, nine years, ten years ago.  The people, the back-paw walkers, they will tell you my memory is not that long, but I remember.  High walls, a shelter against the rain and Ben, my companion.

We shared so many dreams, Ben and I – of the wild things whose scent we could test as it floated past us in the wind, but never see.  We talked of how we might chase them together one day, and what sort of world it could be, on the Great Outside.

The back-paws came to us with food, sometimes spoke or petted us, but mostly we were alone and afraid.  We had each other.  We were friends.

I remember the day the stranger came, and how he talked to us as back-paws will, and how I could not fear him, even when he put me in the metal  Box-That-Roared.  I saw the panic in Ben’s eyes as I was taken away, and I cried out for him, somehow knowing I would never see him again.

And then it was there!  The Box-That-Roared showed me what the Great Outside was like – flashed through it, scene after scene before I had time to smell its secrets.  I was alone and so frightened, with no idea what was happening to me, but then the Box-That-Roared brought me here.

All that was long, long ago, when I was young.  I live in the Great Outside now, and it is much as we imagined, Ben and I: my mistress, the female back-paws takes me daily to update my favourite scents, and for that generosity I guard her.  I have concrete to lie on when I am hot, although most of the time I favour the back-paws’ big shelter with its thick walls, warm places, and my allowance of three soft beds! My master, who is older and unsure, looks after me with food, some scratching when I need it, as well as giving his voice to break my silence.   For those services, I must guard him, too.

Let me warn you, guarding two back-paws is complicated because they will not behave properly, like a pack!  They are virtually helpless; they have no sense of smell and precious little hearing, yet they keep separating!  Sometimes my master takes the Box-That-Roars away for hours to places I can only learn about when it returns by sniffing the fat rubber rings on its feet.   Now and then my master and mistress both go away to those places and leave ME behind!  I fret because I cannot protect them then, or persuade them of the peril they are in.   All I can do is pull the kitchen towel off its rail.  I believe they understand. 

When they are here in our shelter I do my best to keep them safe. Guarding them both, making sure I constantly position myself so I can rush to the aid of either of them, is a full-time task and a very stressful one, but I think I manage, by and large.

And there it is – my life!   I am old now and less inclined to run and be foolish, but now and again when the silence threatens I remember my friend Ben, and I think of all the tales I might tell him of riding in the Box-That-Roars to wild places, and the new scents I discovered there.  Sometimes when the air is like crystal I imagine I hear him calling me, whether from that yard we shared or, as I hope, some better place.

My name is Honey.   There is much I wished for, but never found.  All-in-all, I think I am happy.

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Omnia Caelum Studios Valencia…A Conversation…

A rich celebration of colour and form from Francisco Bravo Cabrera’s blog, and his fascinating story. Do visit!

Omnia Caelum... Poetry, Art, Music

(“En el mar azul”, acrílico sobre lienzo, Omnia Caelum Studios Valencia, Derechos Reservados)

I painted this small painting, 50 cm x 40 cm, back in 2006, I think…

But it really does not matter if I recall the exact year. It was during the period between 2003 and 2008. That was my first most prolific period. During those years I was exhibiting constantly and also participating in all the festivals I could get to all over. I was living in Miami, Florida, USA and I travelled all over the East Coast of the United States.

Well, not really…I did exhibit in Sarasota and Bradenton, Florida, as well as in the South Florida area, which is composed of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach, those three counties, which are the largest…and in my opinion…the most important in the state. Miami-Dade county alone has over 5 million people, counted, and many more…

View original post 645 more words

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Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts

I try, within my limited abilities, to offer a variety of stories, thoughts and whimsies on this blog, so, if this is a bit of a romp I hope you will forgive me.  It’s a four-part story, which may not be for absolutely everybody, but it has been great fun to write!

(Incidentally, ‘stories, thoughts and whimsies’; so much better than that ugly word ‘genre’, don’t you think?)

It was Julian’s brother Freddy who made the discovery.  Julian, in commodities, had bought the island after a particularly successful season’s trading (he saw it advertised in The Times under ‘Property for Sale: Estates and Other’).  Freddy, staying in the house as Julian’s guest – a flamboyant, noisy one at that – was in the habit of taking walks in the early morning. This was how the discovery was made.

The Island of Aga was six miles from north to south, a mere mile across:  much of the terrain was naked rock, impassable without climbing experience.  Its few navigable paths were strewn with sudden descents and precipitous drops which made walking hazardous. The best morning stroll the island could offer led to the top of its highest point, Ben Adderhochie, from where, on a clear day, you could see the Scottish mainland, then down through a deepening series of rifts and clefts to the little Skaeflint’ae Beach. This beach was the stuff of legend, the cliffs around it permeated by tiny caves where smugglers were said to have hidden contraband which lay there still, along with its attendant ghosts.  There was a path to the beach, but Freddy was never one for paths.  He was slipping and sliding off-piste as it were, down the side of a little granite gorge when he made the discovery.

At first, when the bird flew past him and headfirst into the rock, Freddy thought it was just one of those hideous accidents which sometimes overtake our treasured wild creatures.  When a second one did more or less the same, he put it down to coincidence – but a third?

On the stony floor of the gorge he discovered a quite liberal scattering of little wild things, many of which appeared to have suffered the same fate as the birds.  Perplexed, Freddy sat down upon a user-friendly rock to try and make sense of all this.  That was when he heard a gentle hissing sound, and began to sniff the air for himself.

Rowena Parfitt was Julian’s wife and a woman of principle who, when she had taken Julian for better or worse had freely accepted that Freddy was the worst of the worse.  She tolerated him, but with a suppressed, implacable hatred; which was why, when he burst in through the kitchen door at seven o’clock in the morning yelling at the top of his voice:  “Eur-eeee-ka!!  You-bloody reeka!”  It was more than a woman of principle could bear.

Rowena picked up the heaviest plate she could find and threw it at Freddy.  The plate missed.  It spun out into the back yard, shattering against a gatepost (to the mild chagrin of the goat that happened to be tethered there at the time).

“Oh, good shot!”  Cried Freddy.  “Eureka, me little darlin’!  Get Julian!  Come and see what I’ve found!”

An hour later Julian and Rowena stood at the top of the little gorge staring down at Freddy as he alternately lifted and lowered a sizeable flat tablet of stone.

“On – off.  On – off!  It’s like a blasted stove, my loves!  Natural gas!  Find of the century, I’d say!”

At such moments of supreme accomplishment (and it is fair to say he may have been a little heady with his find), it was always Freddy’s custom to extract one of his largest Cuban cigars from his top pocket and light up for a deep, luxurious inhalation of that unique tobacco.  In spite of earnest entreaties from the top of the cliff, this morning would not be an exception.

Only after he had telephoned the coroner did Julian fall to some careful thinking.  By the time the local doctor arrived on a boat from the mainland to issue a death certificate, he and Rowena, not without difficulty, had borne Freddy’s mortal remains back to the house, laying him out informally on their dining room floor by a large open fire.

Rowena plied the doctor with some of her best amber nectar.

“The boat journey would be very cold at this time of the season, Doctor Creggie.”  Julian suggested, joining his wife in the kitchen.  “Have you much work around the islands at the moment?”  He topped up the good doctor’s glass.

“Aye, aye.”  Creggie affirmed.  “A great deal too much, ye ken?  All ye city folks gannin’’ tae the back o’ beyond and no experience of what a winter can be like, ye ken?”  It was very good Scotch.  He willingly took a second glass, stayed on for some excellent conversation and a third, generous measure.  At last he said:  “Well, now, I must’nae miss the tide.  Where is the puir man?”

“Oh, he’s in the dining room where he fell – terrible thing.” Julian said.  “I suppose you won’t have seen many cases like this?”

“Ye ken?”  Rowena added helpfully.

“Cases like what?”  Creggie enquired, attempting to cock a quizzical eyebrow and missing by several millimetres:  it really was exceptionally fine whisky, and if it was not quite good enough, Rowena had augmented it with a little something of her own.

“Spontaneous combustion:  our family is prone to it, unfortunately.  There was my great uncle Herbert, wasn’t there darling?  Oh, and my niece Jasmine.  Went up like a torch, poor dear.”

Rowena chipped in:  “Didn’t your grandfather…?”

“It was always suspected: although medicine was not as advanced then.  They didn’t have Doctor Creggie’s skills, did they, Doctor?”

Doctor Creggie, though mellowed by alcohol, was still dubious about recording a death as ‘spontaneous combustion’, but when he saw poor Freddy, who was in a very derelict state, and he thought of all the problems with obtaining a second opinion in this remote location, he finally concurred.  Besides, Rowena’s little ‘addition’ to his drink was taking effect:  “Now I must awa’ back tae the boat.  Ye’ll need tae make arrangements for the puir man.  He can be buried here, of course, but I’ve nae doubt his nearest and dearest’ll want him hame.  Meanwhile, I would put him somewhere a little cooler, ye ken.  Er…could ye direct me to the lavatory, now?”

Julian and Rowena watched, hand in hand, as the government boat with Doctor Creggie safely wedged aboard sailed back towards the mainland.

Rowena, whose hatred of Freddy extended even after death, insisted they remove his carcass to the back of the woodshed.  There they left him, propped between some bags of cement and a rusty plough of the horse-drawn variety, which Julian had pledged to restore when he had time.

“Right,” said Julian.  “I have things to do.”

A retired commodities trader has friends in curious places:  one of Julian’s was the disaffected son of a wealthy Nigerian land-owner, whose nefarious stock market activities had been a source of entertainment in the past.  Mwabe Mbabe Junior had been quiet of recent years, producing little to match his past triumphs:  “Diamond Concessions of Nigeria”, the “Mbabe International DNA Modification Corporation” and the briefly meteoric “Global Mall Shares Limited” had all long since become unhappy memories, their investors wiser, poorer men.  These days Mwabe Mbabe busied himself with begging letters on the internet and finding ways to leverage non-existent companies using the mythical backing of his father.  Julian ‘phoned him.

“Julian, my darling!”  Mbabe was effusive:  “What do you have for me?”

A few days after the undertakers came to scoop up Freddy and return with him (along with a bag of cement to which he had become inseparably attached) to the mainland, a dark, smartly suited figure stepped off the island-hopping boat.  He brought a considerable amount of luggage.  One or two of the suitcases rattled suspiciously as the boatman hove them ashore.

“Will ye want me back this year?”  The boatman enquired:  “Or at all?  Are ye moving in?”

The man was a seismologist whose speciality was discretion, whom Mwabe Mbabe had employed once to survey certain portions of his father’s estate when the old man was on a business trip to Europe.  His suitcases were stuffed with equipment.  He was tall and swarthy, with bright eyes and a haunting smile, and when Rowena saw him her heart leapt.

After settling in, the man (his name was Mahadis), accompanied Julian to Freddy’s gorge.  Mahadis was  impressed.

“I will check this out.”  He said.

For the next several days Mahadis busied himself setting up his experiments.  The island terrain was not the friendliest he had ever worked in, nor was the necessary secrecy easy to maintain, as that crowning glory of offshore living, the Royal Air Force, seemed to revisit every ten minutes at several hundred cacophonous miles per hour on a level at which, if the pilot could not see what Mahadis was doing, Mahadis could see what the pilot did.

Then came one of those days when the normally brisk breeze became a host of screaming demons.  On such a day the drops of endemic rain were freezing darts.  In such a gale two people were needed to push the front door closed.  Julian had gone to the mainland to replenish supplies, so the two people pushing together were Rowena and Mahadis.

“He won’t come back tonight,” said Rowena.  “Do you need more blankets?”

Two days elapsed before the seas moderated and Julian was able to return, by which time Rowena had supplied Mahadis with many more blankets.  Such affection was impossible to entirely disguise:  it betrayed itself in a multitude of little touches and covert looks, which Julian, no fool, could scarcely avoid noticing.  He needed Mahadis, however, so nothing was said.

Nothing, that is, until the seismologist’s work was complete.

“This is my report;” said Mahadis over breakfast one morning while Rowena gazed rapturously at a mole on his neck.

Julian riffled the wedge of manuscript.  “Difficult to visualize.”  Was his verdict.  “Come on, let’s get our boots on and you can show me.”

From the summit of Ben Adderhochie they could see the entire Island.  To the west, the mountain dropped in sheer cliffs many hundreds of feet to the sea:  they could look down upon the backs of gulls and Shearwater wheeling in the wind eddies far below.  To each of the other three main compass points, the island descended more gradually:  back to the house in the north, towards South Beach and Freddy’s Gorge, and more steeply towards the distant mainland (which could be seen on a morning as clear as this) in the east.

To Julian’s initial surprise Mahadis paused here, rather than continuing the descent to Freddy’s Gorge.

“Over there,”  Mahadis said, waving in a northerly direction;  “Beyond the house on the north shore, three places with substantial natural gas reserves that may be easily drilled.  I have put down markers.  Over there: (this time a gesture towards Freddy’s Gorge) another two, in addition to the one you have found.”

Julian’s eyes had been widening with this:  he said:  “Really?  Six places.”

“Six.  From at least two separate subterranean sources.  You are rich, my friend.”

“Wow!”  Said Julian.

“So, my work is done.  Now I will leave.  There is the matter of my account?”

When you tell a man he owes you forty thousand dollars, especially if you have been intimate with his wife, it is best not to do so at the top of a very high cliff.  The gulls and Shearwater in their wheeling flight parted politely to let Mahadis through.

As he walked back to his house, Julian was having a re-think:  rich, after all, was something he already was; a man of his intellect, of his imagination, should not just content himself with riches.  No, there was more to be gained.

Indoors, he lost no time.

“Mwabe;”  He told the telephone:  “We need another partner.”

“Ah!”  Said Mwabe Mbabe,  “I knew you would say that.  I have just the fellow!”

This was the moment, Julian decided, to take out insurance.

“Mwabe.  You wouldn’t think of double-dealing with me, now would you?”

“My dear chap!”

“Because I still have contact with a Mr. Luigi, you see?”

Mr. Luigi was a powerfully connected gentleman who had been persuaded to invest heavily in ‘Global Mall Shares Limited’.  Mr. Luigi had never found out how his millions had been mishandled, although he continued to investigate.  Should he ever discover Mwabe Mbabe’s part, there would be nowhere for the Nigerian trickster to hide.  The Luigi affair was a major contributor to Mbabe’s decision to take early retirement.

“My dear sir!”  Protested Mwabe again, his voice higher by a semi-tone.

Satisfied, Julian rang off.

Julian’s relationship with his spouse now entered a fairly volatile phase:  Julian’s explanation that Mahadis had left by sea very suddenly, though true in itself, gained only limited credence.

“He’s taken none of his equipment.”  Rowena pointed out.

“He won’t be needing it.”

“I didn’t see the boat.”  Said Rowena.

“I didn’t say anything about a boat.”  Replied Julian.

“Bastard!”  Said Rowena, secretly wondering why she could not stifle a shiver of admiration which vied with the grief in her throat.  Later, when Julian had exited to seek out Mahadis’ markers, she reduced the family crockery by twelve very good quality plates.

From this point on, matters proceeded apace, so fast that Rowena’s agony passed unnoticed by Julian, although it was to return to haunt him later.

A small group  of ‘fishing boats’ arrived at the island, their crews, all of olive-skinned appearance, staying long enough only to cap the six natural gas vents Mahadis had discovered.  They were, for the most part, uncommunicative, although Julian (never one to pass up an opportunity) managed to sell them the better part of Mahedis’ seismographic equipment.

Shortly after the departure of the ‘fishermen’ there hove onto the horizon a much larger vessel.  The ‘Xanadu’ was long, and elegant, and gleamed white in the late summer sun like some marvellous visitor from another world; which, in its way, it was.  Far too large to approach the little jetty which welcomed visitors into Julian’s domain, the ‘Xanadu’ anchored in deep water.  A launch which served as the yacht’s tender beetled across the gap from ship to shore, to be steadied against Julian’s jetty as the master of ‘Xanadu’ disembarked.

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

Picture Credit: MW from Pixabay

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Boston is Silent

This morning, at an extraordinary hour in the UK, ‘Boston Calling’ fell silent.

This excellent program, looking at the world and its attitudes to American culture, has been a feature of the BBC World Service for eight years and some 400 episodes.  In the UK at least, its wisdom will be heard no more.  I have no doubt its reputation in The United States was similarly high – not least because it would have found its audience at a more wakeful hour!

A sad event, then, and one which brought to my mind another great radio milestone when the late Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letters from America’ came to an end.  Cooke was among the last of the old school of journalists, greatly respected in Washington, and I value the CD collection of his broadcasts that sits on an undershelf no more than a couple of feet from this keyboard.

Yesterday I took delivery of a new laptop.  Now this will seem to you a complete disconnect, until I tell you it follows a trend of most new machines in omitting a DVD drive.  To play my Alistair Cooke CDs I must now resort to my older laptop (which has been commandeered by the Memsa’ab, incidentally), or this PC, which is in itself what is now referred to as a ‘traditional machine’.

Museum pieces!  Or so they will become when they have served their time, and our new machines have only a card slot for s substitute.  In less than a generation, a plethora of technical innovations has come and gone, at faster and faster pace.  Old information technology is succeeded by new, and the circle of obsolescence closes in.

Exaggeration?  Who among us still owns floppy disks, tapes or cassettes, and where can you read them if you do?

1600 years ago the last of the great ancient civilizations reached a stage in its dilapidation where it withdrew from, rather than threw innovation into, the greater part of its former empire.  The Roman presence in its satellites and client kingdoms did not end dramatically with the sacking of Rome, rather it diminished, whilst retaining its exclusive influence in one key aspect of power; the written word.   Once a pillar of all Roman culture, transcription became restricted to the gospels, which were painstakingly copied by monks in their role as specialist scribes.  Their language, Latin, devolved into a preserve of the learned and a complete mystery to the common man.  

Except in the hands of a narrow elite written records almost disappeared.   Looking back upon this time we call it the Dark Age – when few were sufficiently literate or wealthy enough to have access to writing.   Only with the invention of the printing press in 1440 did the dam to that reservoir finally burst. 

Now, as we approach the end of the present cycle of civilization, as the influence of the current major powers liberalizes and begins to turn upon itself, I see troubling similarities to the plight of those abandoned in the changing fortunes of Rome.  Step by step we are turning our backs upon our most reliable method of recording knowledge and our most effective way of teaching others.   Pamphlets or books have been available to all of us constantly – easily attainable, relatively inexpensive.  But this is not certain anymore.   The printed word is under threat; fewer and fewer books find their way to press.  And those same words committed to the hard drive, to the memory card or to our tablets cannot be trusted to be readable in forty years’ time, let alone four centuries.  Recording them, transcribing from one medium to another is possible, of course, and will in all probability remain so, but their availability will diminish.  Furthermore, it places responsibility onto the shoulders of our modern ‘monks’, the specialists in the world of algorithms and code:  a new elite.

In times of change, some things must remain inviolable.  Curation of the book and the languages that free us all from the tyranny of ignorance must be entrusted to those who would spread knowledge, rather than use it as power.  

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The Cabinet of Jarvis Poulter

Another short story ‘sprung’ from the archives – I hope you will like it (I am writing more stories, BTW, they just take a while).  In the meantime, if you like these, there are many more to be found on ‘Black Crow Speaks’ – click on the cover picture on the right, here, to visit those  little darlings at Kindle who are just waiting for your call…

Jarvis Poulter studied the ancient cabinet carefully, the two ornately carved doors in the upper part, three gracefully slender drawers beneath and taloned feet which snatched fiercely at the saleroom floor. Olive wood or cedar, it was undeniably scruffy, its corners knocked and cracks showing here and there, but Middle-Eastern in origin and utterly in keeping with the theme he planned for his bedroom.   He measured it, squinting through half-moon spectacles at the small figures on his tape.       Just a little alteration would make of it a wardrobe, and the drawers below were ideal for his meager collection of sweaters and his nightwear.  Yes, perfect.

Poulter positioned himself so he might be seen from the rostrum.

“Lot 421, a cabinet, believed to be Moroccan.   Fifty for it?”  The auctioneer asked.

Silence.  Rows of inattentive heads, noses buried in catalogues.

“Forty then.  Twenty!  Come on, must be worth that?”

Silence.

“Alright.  Last chance.  Ten.  I’ll not go any lower…”

“Five.”  Piped Poulter in his thin nasal voice.

“Got to be ten.  Want it?”

Poulter sniffed.  “Alright.”

“Ten then.  Anybody?”  Catalogues shuffled uncomfortably.  “Ten it is.  Sold.”

Poulter was pleased with the price.  He told the auction porter this, as he helped maneuver the cabinet onto his pick-up truck.

“Well, you certainly got a lot of tonnage for your money.”  The porter grunted, from the heavy end.

 Poulter would not enjoy his drive home.  Never a natural driver, other traffic terrified him so the quiet roads, before rush hour really started, were a blessing.  He felt uneasy, though, because something, somewhere, was knocking.

Was it a wheel bearing?  His mechanical sense was no better than his road sense, but someone had told him once that a worn one of those would make a knocking noise.  So – was it a wheel bearing?  He looked down towards the place where he thought the noisy wheel might be.  It could be.  It would be another repair bill!  His local garage-man would rub his hands together with ill-concealed glee – Poulter was his most gullible customer.

Corner!  CORNER!

Preoccupied was he with the wheel Poulter had forgotten the road entirely, and the road, with a justifiable dislike of being ignored, sought retribution.

Panic!   Hauling on the wheel, Poulter managed to yank the old pick-up back into line.  It skidded; it slewed. 

It bounced.  

With crunch and thud Poulter’s prized cabinet unshipped itself and crashed onto the road.  He drew to a halt with a heartfelt groan, hardly daring to confront the consequences of his foolishness by looking in the mirror.  When he did, the sight offered little consolation; for there was the cabinet, lying drunkenly upon the tarmac:  it was not the cabinet which drew his eye, though.  It was the prostrate figure lying half-pinned beneath it!

“Oh, my Sainted Aunt!”  Exclaimed Poulter.  (Poulter often summoned his Sainted Aunt in times of crisis).   “I’ve killed someone!”

‘Someone’, however, was still moving.  By the time Poulter reached him, his victim, uttering a stream of invective, was wriggling free of the wooden tombstone.  A small man of apparent middle age in working overalls, he shouted angrily at Poulter:  “Bloody hell!  What d’ye think ye’re doing, yer old fool?  You bloody near slaughtered me then!”

“I’m sorry.  I’m really, really sorry!”  Poulter jabbered as he dabbed at tears of relief behind a grey handkerchief.  “Are you – are you badly hurt?”

“Dunno.”   To Poulter’s amazement his victim was clambering to his feet, dusting himself off.  “Nay, no harm done, lad!  Don’t upset yerse’n, now.  But lissen, next time brake before the corner, right?  Drive into it, don’t try and brake ‘alf-way round!”

“Yes, yes.”  Humbled, Poulter tried to make amends.  “Look, can I give you a lift anywhere?  Are you going far?”

The little man stared at Poulter intensely for a moment, as if a decision was needed.  “Aye,” He said.  “Awreet.  But first we’d better get this big coffin of your’n back on t’ truck.  Back up, will ye?”

For so small a figure the little man was surprisingly strong.  Together he and Poulter managed to restore the cabinet, distressed but entire, to its place in Poulter’s pick-up truck.  

“Now tie it down tight, lad!”

Poulter drove away with his new passenger breathing rather heavily beside him.   A horn sounded its impatience.

“Call me Albert.”  Said the little man.  “What’s tha name, lad?”

“Oh, I’m  – please call me Jarvis.”  Poulter rarely revealed his Christian name, but there was something very easy and familiar about  Albert.  Could he have found a new friend?  Jarvis Poulter had few friends.  In fact, he reflected as he pulled out onto the main road, he had no friends.

A squeal of brakes; angry shouts; things which happened to Poulter a lot, and for reasons he didn’t entirely understand.

“Bloody Stephen!”  Said Albert.   “Yer a right twaddy of a driver, Jarvis!   Yer nearly mashed that poor lad!  He wouldn’t mind so much if ye got going, but ye’r that slow!”

“I am, aren’t I?”  Poulter agreed.  “I wish I could do it better.”

“Sorry?”

“I said I wish I could drive quicker.”

Albert tightened his seat belt.   All of a sudden, for some reason, Poulter’s foot slipped across to the pick-up’s clutch.  His hand flicked down to the gear lever and he dropped a gear.  His right foot tweaked the accelerator just enough, and the pick-up answered him with a throaty roar.   As his speed in the new gear increased, Poulter eased his steering to the right and pitched into the bend in front of him.   The back of the vehicle, notwithstanding the weight upon it, drifted gently.  The tyres sang.  Ahead, evening traffic was gathering. 

“What’s happening?”  Poulter cried.  His hands, his feet seemed not to belong to him.  He was a marionette on mysterious, unseen strings, his limbs dancing over the controls, his balance perfectly attuned to the pick-up’s new-found vigor.  “I can’t stop!”

Fifty, sixty, seventy miles an hour, lanes of traffic on each side, yet somehow a path – a snaking, narrow path – between.  Eighty, ninety!   Now weaving an impossible course, touching gas, brakes, opposite lock on the corners, controlled drift through swerving lane-changes.  Sirens, blue flashing lights behind him at first, then receding.

“Lost ‘em!”  Albert said triumphantly.

“Help me, please!”  Screamed Poulter. 

“Nay, lad!  Tha’s doing awreet by tha’sen.”

Cars, lorries, buses, traffic great and small flashed by as Poulter, gibbering, clung to the wheel.  Traffic lights turned green in fright at his approach, open-mouthed pedestrians and protesting cyclists parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses, and in a matter of moments the pick-up had come to rest outside Poulter’s home.   The engine switched itself off.  Frozen in horror, Poulter stared through the windscreen as overheated metal ticked back into shape.

“What have I done?  What have I done?”

Albert glanced about him.   “Well, I think yer’ve driven ‘ome.  This isn’t my ‘ouse, so it must be your’n.”  He undid his seat belt.  “Right, let’s get this cabinet off t’ back and inside, then ye’d better take the truck soomwheer and park it.”   Poulter seemed incapable of movement.  “Coom on, son.  The filth’ll be round in a minnit!”

“The police?  Oh my god!”  (Somehow Poulter’s Sainted Aunt was just not adequate on this occasion).  “But they’ll trace me!   Their computers…”

“Aye, they’re bloody fast nowadays.  So it’s a good job y’ reported it stolen yesterday, in’t it?  But if yer think about it, t’ thieves aren’t likely to have brought it back to your house, so yer’d better take it soomwheer they might ha’ left it.”

“No!  I mean no.  You see, I didn’t report it stolen!”  Poulter shook his head helplessly.

Albert ‘s leathery face creased in a slow smile.  “Aye, lad.  Yer did.”

Much later, when Poulter’s cabinet was safely indoors and after the police had visited him with the news they had recovered his vehicle (‘Joyriders, probably sir. You should get it back in a couple of days’) Poulter faced Albert across his kitchen table.   With the help of several pills his mood had recovered.  “What was it?”  He demanded.  “You did that to me, didn’t you?”

“I don’t see how yer can say that!  You were driving!”  Albert replied.  “Yer made a wish, didn’t yer?  Yer got yer wish.”

Poulter’s laugh was a particularly abrasive, braying sound.  “Wish?  What wish?  Absolute nonsense!  You crossed the road without looking!  I had to swerve to avoid you.  After you collided with my cabinet I was unnerved – and then you were rude and aggressive about my speed.   I reacted.  That’s why I drove so irresponsibly!”   Though this version of events had scant regard for the truth, he rather liked it.  It would do no harm to reapportion some of the blame.

“Nay, lad!”  Albert said quietly.  “Ah weren’t hit by t’cabinet.  I were inside it.”

Poulter sniggered.  Poulter guffawed.  Finally, Poulter snorted. 

Albert said:  “Ah’ve been trapped in theer, lad, I have.”

 “Don’t be ridiculous!”  Poulter snapped.  “You simply can’t be serious!”

But Albert was serious.  And the sincerity written on his face was sufficient to convince.  “Yer moost ‘ave heard me knockin’, lad.  Yon’ cabinet’s got a false back, see?  T’crash loosened it, otherwise there’s no way out.”

Poulter shook his head.  “ Oh, really!  When did you get in?  How long were you in there?”

“Oh, about four hundred year this time.  That’s if yer stick to t’Gregorian calendar, o’ course.”

A long silence.  Eventually,  Poulter began to cackle, a noise that was, if anything, even more unpleasant than his snigger, or his guffaw, or his laugh.  “Four centuries?  Wishes?  You’ll be telling me you’re a genie next!”

“Aye lad.  Ah don’t like the word, but tha’s what I am.  That’s me.”

“You really believe this, don’t you?”  Poulter sneered.  “Alright, so, if I were to wish for a royal banquet to appear before us on this table, right now, you could make it happen, I suppose.”

“I wouldn’t mind sommat to eat, if tha’s offering, but I won’t do that, no.”

Can’t do that, you mean.”

“Won’t.  See, there’s a lot of competition amongst us genies, and I’ll not waste points lowerin’ me’sen to grantin’ that kind of wish.  I like a challenge!  Then again, tha knowst how it goes.  Yer only get three wishes, don’t yer?  Be careful what yer wish for.  Yer got two left.”

Poulter was of a mind to make a further derisive comment, but something prevented him.  After all, the events of that afternoon defied explanation.  “Are you really telling me you can grant wishes?  I mean, was it you who fixed it so the police thought my pick-up had been stolen?”

“Aye, that were me.  Now, ‘ave yer or ‘ave yer not got sommat to eat?  My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut!”

It was the least Poulter, convinced though he was that he had a madman for a house guest, could do to oblige, so he sought out some eggs and potatoes in his kitchen and began preparing a simple meal.  As he worked, he called through the opened door:  “How old are you, Albert?”

“I don’t rightly know.  Age doesn’t come into it really.  I live life in both directions, y’see – sometimes forwards in time, sometimes back.   T’earliest client I can remember were near on two thousand year ago.”

“Really!”  (worth another snigger)  “Who was that?”

“Why, it were soom chap who had a big speech t’make.  There were about five thousand in t’audience and they was all starvin’.   Honestly, I didn’t want to do it, not many points in it, see?  But he wished for me to feed ‘em.  Five thousand fish suppers, he said.  Think o’ theet!”

“And you did it anyway?”

“Aye, I had to.  They would have killed me!  He told ‘em I were t’catering manager.”

Poulter nearly set fire to his frying pan.  “What else did he wish for?”

“‘E wished for a couple a’ things – used oop his three, any rate.  He were a talented lad, ‘im, mind. Could do quite a bit o’ it for hisself.”

“Amazing.”  Poulter said drily.  “Any others I might know?”

“What d’yer want, bloody references?   There were that big fat chap; you might ‘ave ‘eard o’ ‘im.”

“Fat chap?”

“Aye, called ‘isself Henry, or sommat.  Wore soom right glitzy clothes but ‘e stank sommat awful.   Not easy for a lad like that to pull.”

“King Henry the Eighth?”

“That’s the chap!  He wanted a bootiful Queen, he said.  Ah sorted ‘im out a right tasty lass, but ‘e couldn’t hold onto ‘er.  Sliced ‘er ‘ead off in the end.  See, here’s the thing:  you got to be so careful what you wish for, or it turns out bad.  Ah daresn’t tell you what ‘appened to the fella wi’ the fish suppers!”

Poulter’s culinary efforts, rudimentary though they were, formed the foundation for a very pleasant evening.  By the time Albert and he had concluded their meal, cleaned up (Albert proved almost as fastidious as Jarvis himself), and gone on a tour of the feast of collectables in Poulter’s upstairs room, it was late.  Feeling hospitable, he offered Albert a bed for the night.

Albert surveyed the made-up bed in the spare room.  “Aye, that’ll be grand!”  Albert said.

After his day’s adventures sleep evaded Jarvis Poulter.  Preposterous though his house-guest’s claim to status as a genie was, he could not entirely wipe the idea from his mind.  The driving incident was still fresh, and would remain so for some time.  So, as he often did, he read from one of the many art volumes piled upon his bedside table and, as he often did, paused to admire a picture of a favorite sculpture, that of Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’.  His eager eyes devoured the graceful curves of the woman cradled in her lover’s arms and he thought how wonderful it must be to own such a perfect work:  how magnificent it would look, as the centerpiece of his upstairs collection.  How he wished…

So close to the edge of sleep, Poulter might not have noticed the first ominous creaking from his bedroom ceiling, but he certainly noticed the splintering explosion of timber and plaster that followed.  He certainly saw the plummeting progress of what appeared, in flashing past, to be a large white boulder which would be impeded not at all by the floor of his bedroom, nor by the floor of the kitchen below that.  Only God’s good earth stopped it, with a house-shuddering crash, on the concrete floor of the basement.  There it rested, obscured by a veil of dust.

“By ‘eck, lad!”  Albert exclaimed as he and his host stared into the crater.   “Tha’ needs stronger floors than theet.  Yon’ lump weights better than a couple a’ ton, tha’ knows.”

Jarvis, speechless, watched as the dust below them cleared.  Broken in two by its fall, Rodin’s masterwork was still clearly recognizable.    “But I didn’t wish for this!”  He wailed.

“Well, yes, lad.  You did.  One left now, mind.  Use it carefully, like!”

Poulter greeted the morning through fingers which clasped his head in abject despair.  His newspaper’s headline, concerning a mysterious ‘Theft of the Century’ from the Tate Gallery, could do nothing to improve his mood.

“What do I do now?”  He asked Albert, plaintively.  “My house is ruined, and I have a priceless stolen artwork shattered in my cellar.  Oh, my Sainted Aunt, what on earth am I to do?”

“I won’t lie to thee, lad.   Yon sculpture’s goin’ t’ be missed.  An’ the police’ll be wanting to know about things as go bang in the night, if you catch my drift.  If I were thee I’d make meself scarce for a while.”  Albert advised.  But then he added:  “O’ course, yer do still have one wish left…”

“Right now,”  Poulter admitted.  “I wish I could hide somewhere no-one would ever think of looking for me.  But I don’t suppose that’d be possible, even for you.”

#

The auction house porter groaned as he saw a familiar old pick-up, with an equally familiar Moroccan cabinet aboard, waiting by the saleroom doors.

“Not again!”  He said to the wiry man in overalls who emerged from the vehicle.

“’Fraid so.”  Said Albert.  “He wants it put in for t’next sale.  Gi’ us a hand, will thee?”

“Why is it so heavy?”  Complained the porter.

“Well built, lad; like me!”

After much labor the cabinet was restored to the saleroom. 

“I’ll get the paperwork.”  Said the porter.

“Aye.  You do that.”  Agreed Albert.   He had already seen the large Chinese urn which stood a little further down the aisle.  As soon as he was sure the porter’s back was turned he took the lid off the urn and wriggled down inside it, pulling the lid back after him. 

With no-one to sign for it, the auction house agreed their best course was to sell Jarvis’s cabinet, and to donate the proceeds to charity if its owner was never traced.   The following week’s sale saw the cabinet depart at a bargain price to a new bidder, much to the porter’s satisfaction, because thereafter that strange, troublesome knocking sound in the echoes of the saleroom would finally cease.

After a few years Jarvis’s deserted house would be sold off to a developer, when the remains of the marble sculpture would finally be discovered.   It was recognized instantly, of course, but the demolition man, fearing publicity and delay, set about it with his rock spike and reduced it to hardcore.

As for the Chinese urn, it would change hands many times.  Valuable as it was, no-one seemed anxious to keep it for long, and eventually it would find its way back to China where, inexplicably, its owner threw it off a cliff.  

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

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Continuum – The Final Episode: The Valley of Carr-Villoise

Alanee has survived her mortal combat with Hasuga’s former ‘Mother’ and found the key to the wooden chamber’s secret door, by which she and Sala escape the City before its final collapse.  The pair discover a boat moored on the River Balna and entrust the current to take them clear of danger.

Although Sala strives to help her, Alaneee succumbs to her wounds.  With her whole world destroyed, Sala opts to end her own life and seeks an ending in the deepest part of the river.

Now read on:

  It is the Hour of Spirits; a time for ghosts to rise, a time of angels.  It is first morning, and Alanee is there.  In her hands the xuss, wheaten bread of the Hakaan, the wide plain she loves so well.  Upon the road before her, the long dirt lane that leads down the hillside from the village that is her home, between hedges grown high with wildsweet and the white weed, old Kaasa’s horse labours.  Steam rising from its sweating flanks, breath in bellows-blasts from deep capacious lungs it pulls a richly-laden cart – fresh fish from Hikarthay, flour from Baldar Mill.  An aged engine and its aged engineer; who more aged could there be, who more redolent of forever?  Across the swathe of mists a red dawn is breaking, and it is morning in Balkinvel.  Alanee, xuss clasped in her hand, in the summer of the land she loves.

Where was she when the darkness came?  When did the flame, the tiny spark she had nurtured so carefully into fire, gutter and die?  And by whose refulgence does she see, now that her own sweet light of memory has gone?

Deeper dreams, explanations:  ‘I am here.  I am always with you’.

Stirring.  A sweet touch that must be Sala’s touch, for in life there is no touch sweeter – then another.  Unwilling eyes, unready eyes – open, they can see nothing more lovely or more perfect than the dream – sleep is all these eyes, this body craves.  Rest is all this heart can ask.

But the touch is insistent: it comes to her and leaves her at once, like a drift of breeze, or a sweetness of honey on her tongue. It calls her.  She might turn away, but something, some kernel of heat within the white ash of her psyche asks it of her.

Open – wake – and so, as one who has returned from a great journey; as one who has seen the far distance and knows it for itself, she does.

Those eyes that meet her eyes are gentle.  They speak to her of safety; they invite her in.  It is not important, at first, that they are not human eyes, or even those of beasts she may recognise.  They are there, and there is a world behind them.

She who looks down upon her, she is not Sala, or even close to Sala.  She is not human, in a way Alanee knows.  A creature, though: a beast – no, she will not call it so – a being.  A being she saw in a picture once, with golden hair that cascades about its body in a flaxen mist: a being that smiles to see her eyelids flicker open, a being whose excited chatter is so close to speech she feels she might almost understand it, if only that speech was slower, closer to her need for understanding.  She smiles in return, and the being cries for joy.

In the subdued light (she is within the shelter of some large hut, or house) there is food; fresh fruit, some fish, some green-stuff, and there is rest again.  Darkness and light, sadness and happiness.  A host of little faces greet her, a gallery of those strange, near-human smiles, mellifluous sounds, all glad that she has wakened, happy she is with them.  In the cradle of their care she sleeps.  And come the morning, wakes once more.

As some of her strength returns, Alanee tries to raise herself and look around her.  The wounds to her leg and arm have been stitched with a fine, green thread and she is laid upon a bed of fresh hay-grass which has been somehow contained within a coarsely-woven sack resembling a mattress.  The same hempen substance covers her.  It is both comfortable and sweet-smelling, though a light dust tickles her nose.  A roof of reeds, supported by a central pole, rises maybe twelve feet to its peak above her head, and extends to a circular red mud wall.  Apart from her bed the only furniture, set against this wall, is a rather curious-looking jar upon a wooden stand.  The only opening, which serves both as entrance and window, has a rush hurdle propped beside it to act as a door.  Bright sun beams in onto a clay floor and outside there are sounds which, were they human in origin, would be like those of children playing.  She can see little against that strong, glaring light.

Three of the golden people (yes, she may call them that) stand watching.  Erect bodies sheathed in long, silken hair.  She extends a hand and one, she whose eyes first met her own on waking, accepts it.  Alanee wonders at her dark skin, the ribbed nails, hardened  knuckles, yet in its way her grip is sensual, warm and comforting.  There is such a sweetness, such an open frankness in her wild smile, such a soft music in her chuckling pleasure that Alanee is instantly compelled to love her.

One of the onlookers comes forward bearing water in a hewn wooden bowl, offering it nervously.  Alanee is glad to drink.  Expectancy!  She feels its twang upon the air.

A shadow falls across the floor.  A dark being stands framed within the doorway.   “We thought we had lost you.”

That deep voice!  That is the voice!  Unsure if she can speak, and fearful lest she be wrong she hesitates to say the name; but she hopes; she hopes so, so much!

“Dag?”

“None other.  You remember me, then?”

Remember!  Just to hear his voice as it resonated time upon time within her dreams, though she hardly knows him, has scarcely really seen his face, is all she could want.  Oh, Dag!  He walks towards her, as tall as she remembers, and the golden creature respectfully withdraws.

“Of course I remember you!”  Alanee can hardly restrain herself, tears welling into her eyes, and weak though she is laughter plays about her lips as she waits for him to turn to the light, for a glimpse of the face she once kissed in gratitude.  “Let me look at you!”

He sits beside her on the edge of her bed and she sees at once how well his image matches the one that has found space in her heart.  Those eyes so fathomless and dark, the tiny creases as he smiles – a wide smile across his long, slightly haggard face;  featured with sufficient flint to make a man.  ‘Yes’ Alanee’s inner voice murmurs:  ‘you are all I remember you to be.’

“Who designs your clothes?”  She asks aloud, finding an excuse to give vent to a laugh that is proving irrepressible.  He is dressed in an ill-tailored smock which looks to be made of wool.  It is coloured, very patchily, by some sort of red vegetable dye that has not quite taken.

Dag grimaces.  “In all honesty I rigged this up last night out of two of the curtains the Miroveti use for insulation.  They aren’t particularly strong on clothes around here.  They don’t see much sense in them.  I’ll have to do better now you’re around, though.  I’m boiling in this thing!”

“So normally you don’t wear anything?”

“Don’t look so worried!  They cleaned and kept your clothes for you, and we’ll rig up a loom, or something.”

“Dag, who are they, these creatures?”

“I’m glad you said ‘who’ and not ‘what’.  I wish I knew.   I asked the one I call Pasc – he brought me here – and the nearest we both understood was Miroveti.  It will do, anyway.  They’re even less strong on names than they are on clothes.”

A ripple of tiredness washes over Alanee:  her newly regained strength is ebbing.  She sinks back on the bed.  “Sala.”  She says:  “Is Sala here?”

Dag asks:  “Who is Sala?”

Sleep saves her.

When Alanee re-awakens the sun has travelled another course, and she feels renewed.  Despite anxious solicitations from her kindly nurse she rises and discovers the tabard dress she was wearing when she left The City neatly folded beside her bed.  It is clean and crisp:  it feels cool against her skin.

Supported at first on one silky arm, then taking some steps on her own, she ventures unsteadily out into sunlight, only to be nearly knocked from her feet by a milling throng of Miroveti children.  They gather about her legs,  pushing and jostling and clamouring for attention so insistently she surrenders; sitting down in their midst to laughingly submit as curious fingers touch her hair and her face.  Dag discovers her here, twenty minutes later, with a fascinated young Miroveti on her lap toying with her lips, ears and curls.

“You’ve been unconscious for four days,” he tells her later, as they wander down towards a wooden jetty at the river edge.  He has swapped his vast, heavy blanket for a more reasonable loin-cloth of animal hide. “You were alone in the boat when they found you.  I’m sorry.”

There is the boat, lashed at last to a calmer mooring.  Though Alanee explores it carefully, she finds no evidence of her friend.

“She must have thought I was dead; struck out on her own.”

“With the ‘dead’ part I can empathise; I thought you were myself until the Miroveti fed you with some of their amazing herbs.  They are marvellous physicians, there’s nothing they don’t know about natural medicine.  Now here you are, just five days later, walking around as if nothing has happened.”

“Not quite.”  Although the wounds are healing, they still hurt her.  The muscle in her leg tightens with each step, forcing her to walk with a limp.

He covers her hand with his own.  “There was a robe, a very fine courtier’s robe, though it was the worse for wear:  part had been torn off to make a bandage the Miroveti found on your leg wound; the rest of it was in the bottom of the boat.  We thought it was yours.  Maybe it wasn’t.”

She forces herself to breathe calmly.  Sala would have had to remove her robe if she were to swim ashore, she tells herself.  Sala was strong, so much stronger than she.

“What did happen, Alanee?”  Dag asks.

She perches on the edge of the jetty, dangling her feet in the water.  He sits beside her, and the river moves past them with stately invincibility, brown and wide.  The opposite bank is a forest that extends to higher ground, and which in turn becomes foothills to mountains beyond – a forest a-flutter with wild creatures revealed in brilliant flashes of plumage, dark leaves, ruffled gently by a warm wind.  Behind them the Miroveti village pulsates to its own rhythm of life: laughter and wailing of children, cackling of old ones, mewing and clucking excitement of females, mature grunting males.  A collection of huts of mud and straw built by half-human hands in a clearing in the woods.

Alanee tells Dag of the fate of the Consensual City; of her adventures there, and how she owes her life to her friend.  It is not a short tale, for Dag, like Sala, knew nothing of Hasuga or his power. 

When she is done, he says gravely:  “That explains a lot of things; and poses questions for a great many more.  Alanee, you drifted down this river, but it is not the Balna.  You were discovered up-river no more than a mile away, and further up there are falls: great waterfalls where the river drops a hundred feet or more.  You can’t have come that way.”

The library of her mind contains all the history she needs, so she tells him of all she found while idling in the sanctuary of death.

“This is Carr-Villoise’s valley.”

Dag looks blankly at her, so she goes on. “Carr-Villoise saved this small patch from the final conflict.  With Karkus he protected and fed the last mutant humans here while they developed Hasuga.”

She relates the story Lady Ellar had only begun to learn, left alone with that Book of Lore: how once, long ago, doomed mutants genetically engineered an almost ageless child, a biological computer whose brain could encompass all the knowledge they hoped he would need to eventually rebuild their species.  “So his body could survive they gave him this valley.”

Dag looks puzzled.  “Like a garden?”

“I believe so.  When Hasuga ate his real food came from here. This, the village, the river, the forest, this is all real.”  Alanee rests her chin on her hands, looking at the reflections on the water.  “And he was real.  Everything else…”

Alanee pauses for a while, watching carp, bass and eels darting among the reeds.

“Hasuga constructed a virtual world of his own.  He was lonely.  He wanted a mother so he created one.  Then, through the emanations of that great brain he made a palace to live in, a virtual city and a civilisation around it.

“The city, the outer lands and the people who lived in them, even those who ‘cared’ for him, he made by the power of his mind, structured over time into something so complex and substantial it might just as well have been real.  Oh, there were limits:  he could only sustain so many people or players within it– he played out little games of war, thought up plagues, all sorts of natural disasters, simply to control numbers.

“But computers, even organic ones, finally wear out.  So his purpose was always to recreate flesh – to re-establish a natural cycle of birth and death; people like the unsullied predecessors of those who created him.  There were a lot of failed experiments, like the children in the city:  I thought they were so vacuous and characterless, and now I see they were merely failures, unsatisfactory clones.  But there were successes too.”

“The Miroveti?”

“I guess so.  Simple creatures he created to be his gardeners who became his chemists.”  She smiles reflectively, “Far from simple!”

“Anyway, his final task was to regenerate humans.  His starting point for that was a slightly aberrant player from amongst his population and I was it.”  She spreads her hands demonstratively; “Far away from The City, see?  His message wasn’t so strong, out there in the Hakaan.  Oh, Habbach, was the Hakaan even real?”

  “Were you even real?”   Dag grins.  “You look pretty three-dimensional to me!  What you’re saying is, he was shaping you to be first of his new species inside the virtual world of The City?  So you can’t be real?”

“Let me explain.  He had to brief me first, make sure I was completely ready, that I had enough power, enough knowledge. Once he was certain of that his mission was complete.  All that was left for him was to shut down. He had to do that so I could get free.”

“Shut down – what, everything?”

“By gradual stages, yes.  We saw it as impending disaster – the Continuum.  It was Hasuga throwing switches:  he’s a very orderly and organised sort of being.  He had to prime himself to be sure there wasn’t a total failure before he was prepared.”

“So how do you become flesh and blood through all this?  When does it happen?”

Alanee speaks slowly and gently soothes his hand with her own.  “Dag, it already has.”

“Oh, for sure?  And how do either of us know the difference?”

“A secret that was kept by The Ancients.  The final key to my transition, if you like.  Hasuga didn’t understand it, It was incorporated it in the switch he was programmed to use to shut himself down.  A book that told of a magic made long, long ago. We had to hold it in our hands to make a final link: I was to die.”

Dag pales,  “But you didn’t…”

“Yes, I did.   Hasuga’s ‘Mother’ made the process more straightforward, actually;  I was dead when your wonderful Miroveti found me.” 

“|They brought you back from the dead?”

“So it seems.  They recovered my tiny piece of Hasuga’s program, if you like.  He modified me so I could survive without him.  I had to be shut down and restarted; and that made me real.”

For a long time Dag says nothing, staring deep into the water before he will ask the question he would almost prefer to leave unanswered;  “What about me?  I haven’t ‘shut down’, have I?  Are you saying that to be like you, I had to die, too?”

 She remembers the compress of leaves, the morning of her pain.  Her words are carefully chosen.  “I know you did.”

He stares at her:  “My healing – was that you?”

Alanee does not answer.  She has said enough.

Leaving Dag alone to reflect, she walks back up the slope from the river.  She will not tell him, yet, what their work together must be, though it might be that he knows; perhaps she senses the resentment he will feel, and can see how carefully she has to tread if ever he is to love her.

For herself Alanee will never lack comfort, never have to act alone.  In her mortal lifetime Hasuga will always be close at hand, though in no form she can touch.  He has left the burden of his imprisoned form behind, substituted flesh for a less substantial presence.  Yet he speaks to her still.

She has only a small part in the first chapter of the book she brought Hasuga on that fateful morning; a book that begins with a story of a garden.  And when she is gone, the book will help him with all that comes after.

“One thing, Hasuga – one thing I do not understand.”

In a day to come when she is alone, perched upon a rock above the valley, watching Dag and their children playing in the meadow below, she will ask the question, speaking aloud as she often does when she speaks with Hasuga:

“If the fatal flaw in the human race was, as the book tells us, begun at the very first; how different are we?  One man and one woman – we cannot begin a perfect race, can we?  Isn’t this just the same mistake, all over again?”

And he will reply, inside her head.  ‘Is perfection what you truly seek?’

Alanee may ponder this for a while, seeing how one of her two boy children always harasses and bullies the other, even in play.  Something in her mind must give an affirmative answer, for Hasuga responds to her.

‘There is more for you to know.  Have faith in me.’

Alanee’s answer is not, as she may suppose, so far away:  for hers is not the only home upon the banks of this river.  There is another.  It is kept by a woman deeply in love with a man who found her and pulled her from the water’s clutch, a handful of years ago.  While Alanee rests, this woman sows corn in a little plot she has created, her Mansuvene hands once so soft now hardened by labour, but with a happy heart, because despite misgivings she has always harboured, she is joyfully certain now that she is with child.

This afternoon she will break her news to her man, when he returns from his expedition along the shore of the river, and though she chided him for his false hopes, some part of her has faith too.  Maybe he has found the others he says he is sure are there.

After all, he is a man of  perception, and her trust in Commander Zess’s judgement is absolute.

The End

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

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Blackpool Rock

This is another short story from my archives, one I particularly like because although the story is not my own, it contains one or two personal references, an indulgence I rarely claim. I hope you will like it (or possibly remember it)!

Had he expected it?  The open fields poppy-red where he had played, half a century ago, unchanged?  The lake in the disused quarry, the village hall at Benton crossroads, with flagstone roof and walls of Victorian brick, still standing?   Looking rejuvenated, if anything, in the bright afternoon sun.

He drew up beside the wooden notice board nailed to its double doors, grey-pasted with faded parish notices, and still hanging at that slightly misjudged angle, almost exactly as he remembered it the summer before university.  He let his mind take him back, through those peeling doors that were just as he had thrust them open one Tuesday night, so many years before, and he remembered his dread as he sidled into the old brick building, oozing the furtive reluctance of youth, feeling the embarrassment of his tight, badly-cut jeans.  Village hall melees were not for him, not then.  Saturday night dancing was for him; local tribute Eddy Cochran (Ronnie Blass, baker’s assistant) tying himself in agonized knots on a creaking wooden stage.  Three-four time – not always on time, but loud.  Primal and wild.

Not the Women’s Institute.

They were all so old.  Portly ladies in portly clothes; teacups and nudges, secret buzz.  Contralto bees.

“What d’you want, love?”   Annie Riley, her enormousness bulged beneath rose-print on white.  “Did your mum send you?”

“Leaflets.”   He had muttered unintelligibly.

“You what, dear?”  Sherry Harbottle, as thin as Annie was fat.  Shrunk shank beneath a black frock that hung about her like a shroud.  “Oh, bless him!  He’s shy!”

Beetroot soldiers shinning up  their siege ladders.  He could not stop them.

“Oh, he’s blushing now!  Bless him!”  

“I want the leaflets.”  He said, oozing defiance.  “My ma says I’m to deliver them tonight.”

“Oh, them!”  Annie was already turning away.  “I left ’em in the kitchen.  Out there.”   She waved at the door of a tiny room from which trays of tea were known, periodically, to erupt. 

His path to the kitchen was long and circuitous because, like Kipling’s dormouse, he followed the wall, afraid to step into the middle of the room.  He plunged through its closed door like a mariner abandoning a stricken submarine.   Eyes glued to the floor, he took a moment to realise he was not alone.

“Oh goodness!   Excuse me!”  The owner of an exposed thigh hurriedly brushed her dress down to cover a refastened suspender.  A young woman; a plain blue dress.  She glared at him.  “Couldn’t you knock, or something?”

“Sorry!  Sorry!”  He spluttered, vermillion rising.  “I didn’t know… I got to take the leaflets, see?”

Severe eyes pinned him for long enough to be satisfied of his mortification.  “That’s them.”  She nodded towards a neat pile on a shelf.

“Thanks.”  He made to take possession of the leaflets.  

“I was making the tea.”  She gestured towards a huffing industrial-sized urn.  “Don’t drink it, whatever you do.”

“No, I won’t.  I can smell it.”  He glanced at her face, his skin alive with embarrassment.  He looked long enough to see a strong jaw, a wide, rather thin mouth, and pale cheeks.  Horn-rimmed spectacles disguised frank but nervous eyes.

“I got to deliver them, see?”

“What, the teas?”  Her voice was edgy, quite deep.

“No, them.”  He waved the leaflets.  Then, in a moment of bravery:  “What’s your name then?”

“Me?”   She seemed genuinely unsure if there was someone else in the room;  “I’m Mary.   I make the tea.”

“Yeah?  Hello Mary!”  He felt suddenly confident.  “Are you one of them, then?”  He nodded at the door.

“Yes, I joined.  The Women’s Institute’s a good way to get to know people.”  She recited.

“I’m Malcolm.”  He introduced himself.  “I don’t remember seeing you around the village.”

“I don’t get out, much.”  How old was she?  She might be twenty-five or six; but she had the naiveté of a seventeen year old, and she was painfully shy.  Two little pink blots had appeared on her cheeks.  But then she had cause, he supposed.  He had seen more of her underwear than was polite.

“You’re staring!”  She accused.

“Sorry, Mary.  So, how are you getting on with the old….with the ladies of the WI?”

“They asked me to make the tea. This is my third meeting and I’ve made the tea each time. That’s all they seem to want me to do.   I think you’re leaning against the biscuits.”

“Oh sorry!”  He said again, blenching at his oft-repeated apology.  “Custard creams, eh?”

“They’re allowed one each.”

“Would you come out with me Thursday?”

She was waiting outside the little whitewashed cottage when he had called for her, blinking through those thick glasses, mousey brown hair drawn back in a modest bun, champagne-coloured frock and little brown handbag clasped before her.   He spent the last of his weekly pay on a movie.  Afterwards, as they walked back the mile from the late night bus, he had ventured to put an arm around her shoulder. She neither resisted nor broke her stride.   At her door their eyes shared a silent moment.

“Well, thank you very much.”  She said. 

“Can I see you again?”

She seemed a little astonished.  “If you like.”

Mary almost ran, slipping indoors by the doorjamb as if she was frightened to fully open it.  The lock clicked behind her.

And this was the place.  That was the door.  As he had driven from the village hall another four hundred yards to her home the sky clouded over and rain began quietly.  Wind-blown, it flecked the windscreen like tiny splinters.   Malcolm tapped the wiper switch impatiently, as though to lose sight of those white cottage walls with their solemn brown front door even for a second would be too important.   In his head he recounted each detail as if he defied it to be altered.  It was not.

Sighing, he repeated a question he had asked himself so often down the years: why had he  persisted in his pursuit of Mary, that summer when he was seventeen?   And why had he never forgotten her?  Was it the sight of a graceful leg that began an obsession in him?  No, despite the gaucheness of his tender years, that was not the image of her that dominated his mind.  It was the memory of a day, and a look.

They dated sporadically at first.  His friends teased him.

“Did I see you out with your mum again last night, Malc?  I can let you have a paper bag if you want one.”

At each meeting he learned a little more about her.  She lived with her father, she spoke of her home life often.  She told him about her cat, of the flowers she loved to grow.   Were it not for the wooden set of her expression and a hint of cynicism in her voice he might have thought her happy in her world, but something nagging at his brain had persuaded him otherwise.

One hot sunny afternoon as they sat on a grass bank above the lake he turned his head to kiss her.  She did not resist, nor did she respond.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because I wanted to.   I still want to.”

Mary stared at her knees.  “How old are you?”

“I’m – nineteen.  How old are you?”

“You shouldn’t ask a lady her age.”

Thereafter a kiss became part of their ritual which they observed, routinely, whenever there was a private moment.  As summer passed Malcolm became bolder until once, on the evening bus, he ventured to put his hand on that familiar leg.  She seemed unmoved by his gentle grip, yet she allowed it.  They walked the final mile to her home.

“My Dad’s going away on Wednesday.”  She said suddenly.  “Do you want to come round?”

By the Wednesday afternoon his hand was shaking so much he could hardly press her doorbell.  She answered in her dressing gown, taking his hand to draw him into the subdued light of a living room heavily decorated in green patterned wallpaper and bluntly furnished.  A fat, comatose cat stretched out on the windowsill, head against the nets.

“I don’t really know much about this.”  She confessed, as if she was addressing a task – a challenge she had set herself.

In her tiny upstairs room with afternoon sun beating on the coverlet he taught her the little he knew.   They were students in a shared experience, inexpert and mercifully brief; yet afterwards she clung to him as if he were life itself.

The rain on the car roof became a rhythm, a cascade of memories in heavy drops splashing, a milky mist rising from the warm road.  Malcolm’s car’s wipers swept the windscreen in regular gestures.   That had been the first time.  Up there.  The casement window above the brown front door.  After so long, could those curtains really be the same?

When, as now, his imagination took him back to that summer he remembered it as a time of joyful nakedness and entanglement, of thirst and gratification.  Only in times of sadness could he regret how few were those bejewelled afternoons when Mary’s father, a man he never got to meet, was away.   And when their physical union happened it was frequently awkward, mannerly and restrained, but reflection had persuaded himself otherwise.  He had always been ruled by passion, so the lie was important to him.

“Why do you like me so much?”  Mary asked him once, on one of those glittering days.

“Because – because you’re beautiful.” He let his eyes feast on the slenderness lying beside him, because it was a question he had to answer in himself.  “You’re just – beautiful.”

She reached for her spectacles from the bedside table, so she could see him better. She would squint without them.  “I’m not beautiful.  I’m plain.  I’m ugly.”

The self-loathing behind the words shocked him.  “No!  No you’re not!  Not to me.”  He tried to kiss her, and she turned away.

“You’re seeing someone who isn’t there.”  She told him. 

“She’s there.”  He insisted.  “She’s buried deep, where maybe not everyone can see her.  But I can; and when she’s happy and she lets it show – then her eyes shine like raindrops in the sun, and all the beauty spills out.  Some people paint beauty on themselves each morning, but they’re really twisted and hideous underneath.  Not you.  You have loveliness written right through you.”

“Like a stick of Blackpool rock!”  She laughed a rare laugh, then kissed him with rare spontaneity.  “Remember you said that.  Even if you didn’t really mean it, don’t ever forget it, alright?”

Had he really meant it?  After summer was over and he had gone to his further education he frequently accused himself of using her, of blinding himself to truths she accepted only too easily.  At university he found love that gave itself more freely, that possessed greater beauty, yet was never so profound.  As other memories were made and afterwards faded, hers was constant.  And with the years, yes, even through the married years, it survived.

So here he was, forty-two years later, parked on the road opposite her door.  There, just there by the hollyhocks, they had said their goodbyes.   There, on that precise spot, his heart had filled with sorrow at their parting and he had said the three words.  One of a very few times in his life he had said them.

Mary had stared into his eyes with an earnest darkness that made his heart stop.   “We’ll love a memory then.  Keep it precious for us, yes?”

“I’ll write to you.”

“No, you won’t.”  She would have turned away without so much as a farewell kiss had he not insisted.  And he saw her reasons, saw the bitterness, the self-disgust – saw tears behind those heavy lenses.    He felt the sob in her throat.

Malcom eased himself to a more comfortable position in his car seat.  Rain thrashed the roof now.  Accusation.  A flagellation; a penance.  She was right, of course.  He never wrote to her, even when the nights were their longest and his loneliness at its most intense.  Oh, how fresh were the images in his mind – of that look, of those tears!  In all the time he had known her, she had been unable to give herself entirely to him.   Only when it was too late had those magic words breached  her defences enough to show how she had hoped, and striven, perhaps, to return his love. 

He had no family now; here, or anywhere close.  He thought of his wife, and the sad, lonely stone that was her final home.  He thought of his children in their nests at the far corners of the big world, and then he thought of Mary, and how much of life he had missed.  With a great sense of destiny, he opened his car door.

“Who the hell are you?”   The man on the threshold stared at Malcolm as if he somehow recognised that face, but with the darkness and the rain he could not place a memory.  “Do I know you from somewhere?”

“I wondered if Mary Marshalsea still lived here?”  Malcolm said.

“Mary?”  The man pushed anxious fingers through a thinning head of hair.  “You…you’re looking for Mary?”  His eyes met Malcolm’s.  How old would he be – about forty, or forty-two, maybe?  “Yes, she still lives here.  She’s not home, though, I’m afraid. I’m Mr Marshalsea – can I help?”

A silence dropped like a curtain between the two men.  Facing each other, each confused, surprised, a little frightened, each at the dawn of a truth in the raining night.   Malcolm picked his words carefully.  “You’re Mary’s husband?”

The man bridled. “Look, chap, I don’t know where you got your information.  I’m her son. There’s no other Mister Marshalsea, unless you’re referring to my grandfather.  He died about twenty year ago.” Indignant, he dredged up a few ingots of aggression.  “See here, I ain’t going to stand in my door no longer.  If you want my mother you’ll find her at the village hall.  She goes up there early on Tuesday evenings.   It’s Women’s Institute tonight, see?  She makes the tea.”

His heart beating a little faster, his mind crowded with possibilities, Malcolm turned his car and retraced the road to Benton crossroads.   Outside the village hall he drew to a halt.  In his mind he saw her, as she had been in that distant time, busying herself among the cups and the custard creams.  He saw the heavily rimmed spectacles, those earnest eyebrows, that firm, slightly too prominent jaw.  And he remembered.

“We’ll love a memory then.  Keep it precious for us, yes?”

He saw the peeling paint on the closed doors, the old notice board with its bleached messages.  He might have heard or imagined the faint clink and rattle of crockery from within. 

He slipped his car back into gear, and drove on.

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit: Philip Miles, from PIxabay

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Continuum – Episode Thirty: Flight

Continuum – Episode Thirty:      Flight

In the previous episode:

Alanee has completed Hasuga’s task, bringing the stolen book, which has revealed itself to be called ‘The Bible’, to place in his hands.   When she does so, the integrity of The City is destroyed and the Continuum moves in.  Hasuga is taken, images, places, people are stirred up and scattered like leaves.

Alanee strives desperately to find her way back through the ruptured dimensions to Sala, her friend, but Mother, Hasuga’s previous carer attacks her and in the fight Alanee is badly wounded…

Now read on.

Exhausted amidst the chaos of the collapsing City, Alanee is alone.  Hasuga has gone, taken by the demon that her predecessor, the old Seer, gave a name.  Celeris is gone in just the same way, stripped from her mind by Hasuga’s destruction and unable to fulfil a promise both had made.

‘I will never leave you’

So if it is help she seeks, it will not come.   If it is strength she needs, that, too is gone.  But Hasuga gave her his legacy and his faith that she can fulfil whatever purpose this monster, The Continuum, has.

“I have made you powerful haven’t I.”

Power that lies in the great vault of knowledge he has etched into her brain, which must offer the solution that will lead her back to Sala:  if she can only find it. Her head aches, her eyes hurt, yet she can still think.  She can still see.  Her injured limbs cry out their protest.  She was in the Palace Yard – is she now?

She should feel something outside herself – the stones of the pavement, the heat of the sun on her face, perhaps – but no.  Despite the great structures that fold into ruins all about her, no toppling statue seeks to crush her, no mighty boulder of construction does so much as scrape her flesh as it passes by.  Where is the dust?  The bookseller side by side with Ellar – she sees falling people and their fragmented homes, businesses, lives; people who are all familiar to her.  She sees them because she knows them.  If that is true then why does she not see Sala?

She focuses entirely upon Cassix’s chambers, that one location.  It is still intact!  The old stones, marked mysteriously by Cassix, are a spell she must break.  Cassix’s enchantment; his final defence!  She centres upon Sala in her mind, straining every brain-cell,  and instantly she is on the flags of the chamber with Sala standing over her, pale and scared.  “Alanee!  Oh, Habbach, Alanee?”

“My magic…stronger than Cassix…”

“Oh, ba.  What in the seven hells have you done?”

The old stone room is steady at the moment, although Alanee knows that will change.  In her joy at reuniting with Sala, she lets her thoughts shift away for an instant, and the floor begins to move away with them.  The noise, that insane roar, is close behind her.

 “We have to leave here, now, ba.”  She clambers to unwilling feet:  she must discover some means of escape, “We have to – to stay here is to die.”  It is all she can do to raise her voice above the demon’s clamour.

Sala steadies her arm.  The chambers are collapsing around them.  The great ball Alanee moved with such ease vanishes, the mirrors are melting into candle-wax cascades.  Only that metal disc remains, and it spins now beneath several searching lazer light needles.  In vain she tries to pin her thoughts to the elevator that leads down to the gardens, knowing even if they find their way to it, it will not work.

Frantic because she can feel her concentration fading, Alanee stares about her, seeking answers.  In all the turbulence, the heaving floor, the melting walls, that ancient wooden cabin remains as impenetrable as ever.  There is a door, she has seen it, but where is it now? 

“Look for a panel, or a handle – something!” She gathers her resources once more.

There is no response.

“Come on!”

She focuses again, makes a fresh demand of the wood, but no – the opening she saw in the mirrors, the place where the old one sat will not appear.

Cursing, Alanee musters one last mighty effort; all the suffering of her life, all her belief poured into a single vision of an open door, a way outside.  But still there is nothing; no movement, no sign that the door she has seen just once was ever there.  Once more the heavy cloud of defeat wraps about her; once more she drops to her knees, this time in certainty.  Her strength is gone, no answers have been found, she has lost.

Sala curls herself about Alanee’s hunched body, kisses her goodnight as she would a child, preparing them both for death.  Alanee can do no more than take her dear friend’s hand, to press it weakly in her own, to feel her flesh, the ring with the emerald stone she has always worn…

The stone!  The stones!

“What stones, darling?”  Sala asks. 

“The stones!  Find the leather chair!”

Sala’s reply is soothing and kind:  “The chair’s gone, Alanee-ba – everything’s gone!”

But hope, however unjustifiable, is returning.  “No.  No it hasn’t!  It’s still there, I know it is.  Fix your thoughts upon it:  fix all your thoughts on two stones – one on each arm of the chair.”

Sala shakes her head:  Alanee, don’t make me leave you, ba…”

“No.  You can do this.  You must do this.  Remember the chair, how it looked!  Use that memory!  Go to the stones.”

“For you.”  Sala sighs, dredging up a last strength of her own.  She will do as Alanee asks.

“Concentrate!   It was right there, remember?  It stood there!”

Unbelieving, the Mansuvene woman stares hard into a space that has no levels, references or form of any kind.  Her world, her whole world and every memory in it is whirling before her.

Alanee’s voice is suddenly powerful:  “The stones.  Bring them to me!”

Out of nowhere the old chair appears: standing solidly in the eye of the hurricane, and the stones, one upon each arm, waiting for her.  Wordlessly, Sala rises to her feet, strikes out; a few terrifying steps. 

Bring them!  The command is not spoken, for the dervish yell of the Continuum drowns all sounds but those inside her head.  Determined now, Sala turns to find Alanee on her feet, buoyed up by strength beyond her own.  She lifts the stones, passing them into Alanee’s extended hands.  An instant flash of raw power nearly throws her over, its blue plume of light bathing her friend in garish relief as she slams the stones against that obdurate wooden wall.  They explode – shatter into a thousand pieces that fly off, glittering, into infinity. Overawed, Sala is witness as, apparently from no visible place, a door springs open.

He is there.  Karkus sits within, just as Alanee saw in her mirrors, at the self-same desk.  With a grey-as-time smile across his thin dry lips he raises a hand, gesturing towards the interior of the cabin, and with Sala supporting her arm Alanee staggers inside.  Behind them, the door to The City closes and they find themselves standing together in the gardens, facing the path that leads down to the Balna river.

Sala is stupefied.  Her Mansuvenian superstition speaks to her of witchcraft, insists that this cannot be real: her body may have accomplished a descent of several hundred feet in less than a couple of steps, but her mind will not accept it.  “What deception is this?”

“It was a doorway, ba, a portal.  Cassix knew what would come and he provided himself with a means of escape.  He brought it from another place, an ancient place.  Or maybe it was here first.”

“The old man…”

“His job is done.  He can rest now.  Come, we must hurry”

Muttering prayers for their protection, Sala supports Alanee, shutting her ears to the devastating shout of destruction which rises once more behind them as they struggle down the pathway to the banks of the River Balna.  It is a painful journey and only when they have reached the river will Sala look back.  What she sees is beyond comprehension:  her city has gone.

There are no cries:  there are no escapees but themselves.  There is only the wall towering into the sky like a white fog – and now it seems to be gathering heat, moving so quickly it leaves no room for question, no margin for doubt.  Nothing will be left.

Unspeaking, the pair pause in homage to those they have known; Ellar, Trebec, Rabba, Delfio, the Domo – so many others.  Alanee urges Sala on:  “We must keep moving.  It will not rest there.  It will spread.”

She sees the emptiness in her friend’s face:  “Come on, ba.  There will be an answer somewhere, you’ll see!”

Alanee makes to move again, sending pain shooting through her leg and hip:  her head is beginning to spin, making each new step an unsteady agony.  By crippled stages, she and Sala make their way along the path beside the great river, but her blood loss is taking its toll.  By the time they reach the bridge, Alanee knows she can go no further.  “I’m finished.  You’ll have to leave me here.  I’m sorry, Ba.  I’m so sorry.”

Sala says:  “What about that?”

Clarity is fading.  Alanee mutters stupidly:  “What?”

Ignoring her cries of pain, Sala hoists her friend bodily to the rail, pointing down at the river.  “That!”

Moored by its painter, an old wooden skiff Alanee once saw braving the jostling ice-floes of the spring thaw, is still there.

Alanee’s impressions of what follows are patchy and confused.  Sala almost carrying her across that wide bridge, each move striking shudders through her quaking bones: half-stepping, half falling into the rocking boat, lying in the prow while Sala arranges some green-stuff from the bank behind her head and all the while the closing thunder of the Continuum:  these before darkness comes in merciful release; after that, only night.

Sala does not fear impending danger, nor does she particularly want to run from it:  For someone whose whole life is invested in The City the prospect of life without it seems more formidable than the quick death the Continuum offers; if she feels a compulsion to go on, it is only for Alanee.  Alanee is her lover after all, and now her only friend.  Nevertheless she has to prompt herself to loosen the mooring and commit them both to the mercies of the Balna.  The skiff lurches free of the mud, the river snatches, the river takes:  stern first, then wheeling around so swiftly Sala clings to the gunwales for her life as she is launched into the turbulent narrows downstream of the bridge.

For some hours the little craft faithfully follows the current, throughout which time the heat is intense; the water hot, almost boiling, the wall of the Continuum never far behind.  There are paddles, but these are rarely needed.  The skiff seems to know its way, and bustles about the weeds and tangles of the bank without ever becoming snagged or grounded.  Sala blocks her ears to the noise and her mind to the heat – busies herself by tying Alanee’s tourniquet more severely, using a hem of her own robe as bandaging for the wounds to both leg and arm.  Alanee drifts in and out of consciousness, though even when her eyes are open she barely recognises where she is.  Sala can see her friend is ailing, watches life seep from her in slow, unremitting drops. 

There comes a time – a bend in the river perhaps – when the furious pursuit of the Continuum fades, the steam from the water rises less freely; almost as though the monster has given up their chase and, its mission complete, drifted back into the sky.

Day drifts into night, thunder into silence.

In the darkness, a new distant rumbling from a fresh adversary: white water.  At first Sala believes the Continuum has returned; as the sound grows with each passing minute.  The boat gains speed, rocks perilously.  Then she is amidst cold spray and black rocks, unable to see and unable to steer if she could.  Is there a waterfall?  Cowering over Alanee’s inert form as the helter-skelter descends, Sala can only trust the boat to find its way, which it does.

It is midnight before they reach calmer waters.  The boat has taken on water she has no means to remove.  She knows Alanee’s body is lying in it and that cannot be good, but nameless terrors haunt her, the night-cries of beasts, strange rustling noises, the plunge and ripple of alligators sap her courage.  Sne will not go ashore in darkness.  

By fits and starts she learns to use the paddles.  Colder, wetter and hungrier than she can ever remember, Sala greets the dawn.  As soon as she has confidence enough she finds a place to land.

Child of The City that she is, Sala can remember nothing less certain than pavement beneath her feet.  She is not so naïve she does not know the boat must be hauled up, away from the current, its keel firmly grounded, yet when she clambers gingerly over the side mud lurking in the shallows clings about her legs to make her fall.  She rises to her feet with a city woman’s pettish anger, laments the ruin of her clothes, weeps for her hair, her nails.

Although the boat seems secure, she is nervous of leaving Alanee helpless inside it, fearful lest it should release itself to the river, leaving her stranded ashore.  It is heavy with water, yet she struggles and sweats and screams with it until she has the painter within length of a stunted bush where she may tie it off.  In the prow, at least Alanee now lies upon drier wood, though her clothing is sodden and her flesh cold.  The leg wound is weeping again, refusing to heal.

After this exertion Sala takes stock of her surroundings.  She settles on a ridge higher up the slope, close enough to run back to the water should that untrustworthy vessel take its leave.  Now she is ashore the deep cover of the forest seems closer than it did, and if the night creatures that serenaded her are asleep, they are still very active in her mind.  It is nevertheless an ideal place for her purpose.  A sward of green meadow-grass leads into the forest like a wide path.  Taking a deep breath, she follows it towards the woodland margins, starting like a hind at each unexplained noise, but hungry enough to overcome her fears.

The woods are full of berries, absolutely none of which she recognises.  Enticed by swarthy verdant scents and venturing ever deeper into forest, Sala picks experimentally, tasting as she goes, until she has found a small quantity of some she does not think too sour.  These she collects in the front of her robe, nearly dropping them when she is confronted by a squirrel-like creature the size of a cat clinging to a branch not three feet away.  Her squeal of alarm sends the animal flying for concealment in the upper branches, and serves to remind her that this may not be a friendly place.  With dignified haste she brings her gleanings back to the boat where she tries to induce Alanee to eat; but her friend is barely awake.  At length she gives up: the water in the boat must be bailed out and she has no vessel with which to achieve this.  Once again her robe suffices.  Thanking Habbach for a warm midday sun she takes it off, using it as part scoop, part mop for two long, laborious hours until the stern is emptied.  Then she dries it as best she may upon a rock until, with threat of the Continuum still in her mind, she casts off once more.  Her robe is still damp.  Thirty minutes later she throws up the contents of her stomach into the river.

So it is for the hours of this day, then another.  All the while the boat moves between steep, wooded banks with no sign of any people, anywhere.  On the third day the tree cover thins. Among marshy shallows and low, stony beaches Sala finds a place where she can haul ashore, gathering her courage for a longer expedition.  Throughout the night Alanee has been delirious, mouthing unintelligible sounds, shaking with fever:  this morning her condition is desperate, scarcely breathing, flesh clammy and cold.  Sala is certain if she does not get help today, her friend will be beyond recovery.  She decides she must climb the hills that skirt the valley, in the hope that from a vantage point she might see some sign of civilisation.  As soon as it is light she makes her friend as comfortable as possible and sets off.

Her shoes are not meant for such rigours.  Hunger has weakened her and the climb is arduous for limbs that, however fine, have never made any serious ascent.  Behind her and far below, in the green trough carved by a million years of flowing water, the little boat with its precious burden waits.  The sun beats from a cloudless sky and far away to the west she can see a rainbow low over the horizon where the white water runs.

  That is behind them now – what lies ahead? 

At noon Sala stands upon a high summit, her vision so clouded by tears she can scarcely see.  In every direction the prospect is featureless; an infinite desert of grey ash.  Only the lofty needle of Kess-Ta-Fe stands resolute, a distant marker to the ruined north.  The river valley, it seems, has escaped.  Otherwise, the Continuum has taken everything.  The world she knew has vanished.

That afternoon when she returns to the boat she tells Alanee all she has seen, while Alanee, of course, hears nothing.  Alanee has neither moved nor shown any sign of consciousness since before the dawn.

On day four Sala wakes late.  Although the boat drifts lazily she is too weak to leave it.  Constant vomiting has dogged her attempts to eat; the warmth she shares with her friend against the night-time chill has penetrated her own defences.  She checks Alanee and finds her stiff and cold.

Sala weeps bitter tears for her friend.  She watches over her, warding off those imagined demons that visit the Mansuvene dead.  When the morning is far advanced and there is nothing left to do or say, she gets to her feet.  Carefully stripping her robe from about her she waits until the boat reaches a part of the river where the water is deepest.  There, with a last smile back at her life she slips over the side.  In all her City years, Sala has never learnt to swim.

…don’t miss the final episode of this story…

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

Picture Credit: Matthew Wewering from Pixabay

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Nine: Time to Choose.

In the previous episode:

Acting upon Hasuga’s demand that she remove a book from the City’s Inner Library, Alanee takes the elevator deep into the rock below the city, where she finds the sanctuary of the Book of Lore guarded by Karkus, aged progenitor of  The City itself.   In stealing the book she is discovered by the leacherous Portis, who tries to compromise her in the privacy of the elevator in return for his silence.  She tricks him by summoning Ellar to call the elevator,and escapes, leaving Portis to explain himself to the Mediant.   Now read on…

Alanee knew she had only a few minutes lead on events.  While she put as much distance as she could between herself and the elevator, Portis would, with difficulty, be persuading the Ellar the Mediant of his innocence and of hers, Alanee’s, culpability – he may not succeed on either count, but Ellar, meticulous as she was, would want to cover herself very quickly, so swift pursuit with the object of investigating any possible theft was inevitable.

Later, were she given time, Lady Ellar might review these events and wonder.  Why had Alanee’s summoner message, tapped out blindly:  “Help call lib elev”, reached her rather than any other member of the Council?

  She might wish that it had not.  She will not know that Alanee’s inexpert fingers hit her call-button purely by chance, because beneath the folds of the robe that seconds later she would shed she could neither see what she wrote, or to whom she addressed it.  It was only essential that someone should call the elevator, bring it up to the high corridor.

The Book?  Ellar never saw the book.  It was beneath Alanee’s robe when she recovered it, concealed from sight as she clasped it to her, running away through the scattering of nobles who frequented the corridor at that time.

Later, Ellar might discover these things.  Just as she might investigate Portis’s frantic claim, made while he sought to cover himself:

“It is a device Lady!  She has stolen a book!   Detain her, for Habbach’s sake!”

She might believe him.  Anyone witnessing this scene in the corridor might, if Portis’s habits were not well known, if his tastes were not public knowledge and if the physical evidence were not so compelling.  It is a balance of probabilities, as all things are, and it weighs in Alanee’s favour for just long enough.

Alanee bursts into Cassix’s chambers, where Sala awaits her. Saucer-eyed, Sala takes in her friend’s undressed state.  “Je-Habba!  What happened to you?”

“Sire Portis got a little too fresh for his own good.  I’m all right, ba, don’t worry, or I will be as soon as I get some sensible clothes.”  She senses Sala’s nervousness,  “But you’re upset, aren’t you?  Is there something the matter?”

In the bedroom, Alanee throws her robe and the book upon the bed, quickly slipping into a Hakaani-style tabard she had commissioned from the dressmaker.  She shudders:  “I wish I had time for a bath, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this soiled.”

Sala stands in the doorway.  “What’s that?”  Her eyes have rested upon the book.

“I’ve no time to explain right now.  I’ve a head start on the guards, I think: no more than that.”

Sala’s stares at the little locked volume: her eyes follow it as Alanee picks it up and slips it into her clutch bag.  Alanee reads her thoughts.  The friends both pause in shared significance.

“Is that from the…?”

“From the Inner Library?”  Alanee is tying the thongs which secure the sides of the tabard;  “Yes, it is.”

Sala’s summoner is blaring:  she stabs at it, holds it up to the light.  “It is the Lady Ellar.”

“Don’t answer it!”

“Alanee, she’s my patron!”  Sala protests; “But it doesn’t need an answer, darling.  It’s an order.”  She displays the read-out for Alanee to see.  The message says:   “KEEP HER THERE.  You stole that book, didn’t you?  Alanee, they kill you for that!”

The pair exchange looks.  Alanee says:  “So, now.  Your patron or your friend?  Time to choose, ba.” 

Sala nods solemnly.  “That’s a choice I’ve already made.  I won’t keep you, but have you seen the mirrors?” Alanee is making for the door, intent upon completing her mission by placing the book in Hasuga’s hands; “Take a minute to look at this first.  Please, ba?”

She urges Alanee around the mysterious and, to her, a doorless wooden edifice, guiding her into the leather chair before the trio of mirrors.  They are alive with reflections; reflections of carrion birds circling, people racing blindly as deer before a forest fire; dying people with terror, mortal terror in their faces, muscles taut as steel hawsers, drooling mouths and bulging, sightless eyes.  There are thousands, the running and the dying, thrown into stark relief by flashes of brilliance from a furious sky.

‘Have you seen?’  Hasuga is in Alanee’s head again.  ‘Do you understand?’  Alanee does.  Now, before these images, she understands it all.  ‘Bring me the Book.  I must have it in my hand, Alanee.’

Fighting her fear, she tells Sala.  “The book must be returned to whom it belongs.  I have to take it to him.  If you believe in me you must wait for me here, ba.  Do you see?  I will return.”

Sala calls after her:  “This.  All this.”  She waves towards the mirrors.  “It isn’t real, is it?  It’s just necromancy, witchery.”

Alanee smiles kindly.  “Is that what you want to believe, ba?   No, the mirrors speak truly.  That is the Continuum, and our time has run out  Be patient now, I won’t be gone for long.”

“The guards will come.  Ellar will come!”

“Tell them you tried to detain me, but I fought you off.  Stay here if you can, darling.”

Since her arrival, Alanee has not had opportunity to explore the links from her high station to the lower city, and she knows of just one route to the Palace.  By winding her way through back alleys, past drinking halls and night club areas that are sweeping up from the business of the night before, she hopes to evade any troop of guards Ellar or Portis may send in her pursuit.  She loses herself twice before a chance diversion delivers her onto the forecourt of the great palace building.   Taking a deep breath and concealing the book as best she can, she steps into the open.  Although she may feel a hundred eyes boring into her back, she is safer than she expects.  In the event most of the city’s elite are about their daily tasks and word of her little drama with Portis has not yet reached this level.  Any remarks she overhears refer to her status.

“I believe that is Lady Alanee, our new Seer!”

“So young!  So young!”

“Exquisite!  Quite exquisite!”

When she steps into the Great Hall of the Palace, however, the atmosphere is quite different.  Here the hustle and bustle of the day is in full swing and seemingly more frenetic than its usual pace.  She is recognised here too.  A few greet her, some ignore her, all look curiously at her disrespectful form of dress.  When she reaches the private elevator that rises to Hasuga’s high rooms, this becomes an issue.  A royal drab steps across her path.

“Lady?  What business have you here?”

“I’m appointed to meet with Sire Hasuga.  You know who I am?”

“You are the Seer, Lady.  But your clothes are inappropriate to the inner sanctum.”

“The matter is urgent.  I had no time to change.”

“Nevertheless…”

“Step aside, man.  Lady Alanee has Sire Hasuga’s full authority.”  She identifies that voice immediately, spins around in some confusion.

“Celeris?  But how…?”

His smile is as placidly beautiful as ever.  “Lady, I am always at your service, surely you know that?  You must forgive our over-zealous friend here:  the place is in turmoil.  There is a rumour that Sire Portis is under arrest, and Sire Trebec is to be brought to trial for genocide.  The High Council is in utter disarray.  It is what you might describe as a ‘bad morning’ really.”

He steps closer, so she can inhale the sweet scent of his breath, whispers to her.  “You see?  Even a hologram has its uses.  Actually, my dearest memory, this is the last time we shall meet.  Be well, Alanee.”

The elevator doors are open behind her.  Before she has time to protest or give tongue to her anger, (or would it be love?) Celeris walks away, vanishes in the hubbub of the crowd, leaving behind him an emptiness of parting.

As the doors close and the pod of the elevator raises her to Hasuga’s royal apartments she tries to confront the riddle of Celeris.  Who, or what, was he?   Substantial enough, this she knows:  no ghost, no apparition.  Then what – a part of her that she might summon in times of hopelessness or hope?  How could a life be brought to existence purely by her need, then cease until next she needed it?  How could space be created in time for such a materialisation, and what would be left each time it departed?  The process of deduction begun before the mirrors is developing and each new revelation is another shock, another open mineshaft into darkness.

He is where he always sits, upon his bed.  The room is empty.  The serpentine machine is gone, the screens are still and lifeless.

“You have the book.”  It is not a question.

Alanee takes the book from her bag, offering it to him, arm outstretched.

“No, not yet.”  Puzzled, she steps back.  How pale he looks, how thin and drawn!  The mighty complex of his brain that always seemed to pulsate with inspiration is unillumined now, as if some part of him has already left his body.

“I thought you wanted it, you said you could open it, read what’s inside.  Now you don’t?”

“I know what is inside.  As do you.  You read it when you took it in your hands, and yes, you must give it to me, but not before you know its name.”

“It doesn’t have a name – not on the spine, not on the cover – look!”  She proffers the volume, and almost at once she wishes she could retract her words, for there is a name – embossed in gold letters, where before there was nothing.  In some wonder, she reads the title aloud.

“The Holy Bible.”

Hasuga says simply:  “We are done here.”

“You make no sense to me. This makes no sense, none of it.  There is some plan, some scheme.  If I am a part of it, shouldn’t I be told?”

“Alanee my dear one, I have said to you not once but many times that I am learning.  All the knowledge I have gained is in your head too, though you may not countenance it yet.  I do not know what will happen to you next, only that if you are given the opportunity, you will also learn.”

Hasuga rises to his feet and steps closer to her, so she may see his eyes, and the conviction within them, as never before.  “It is all there in your mind – all the history, all the reality.  As you need it and if you need it you will find what you seek, dredge it out.  Think of your mind as a great library filled with books , all of which you could not possibly find time to read.

“So, what now?”  His smile is suddenly so reminiscent of Celeris.  “Well, that is the next great discovery.  When my hand closes around that book, a circle is completed.  Then we shall both discover the truth.”

Hasuga extends a thin left hand, clasps her free hand within it.  “We shall not see each other again.  Go now.”

And with his other hand, he takes the book from her grasp.

The heavens scream.

Long ago, when Alanee was very young, the earth shook itself as a dog does when it clambers from the water.  Her mother pronounced it a ‘tremor’ and dismissed it, but to Alanee it was a fearful episode; a profusion of falling plates, rocking furniture, cracking plaster from the walls.  She remembers it.  So the feeling of the palace in motion beneath her feet is familiar, and were it not for the time and place, she might dismiss it as her mother did.  But there is a greater wrongness within it that speaks to her, something that demands she run.

“Quickly, Sire!  We must get away!”

Hasuga only smiles:  he smiles, then, like Celeris in her chambers, like Saleen before Ripero’s outstretched hands, he is gone.  The room is gone.  The apartments, the entire palace is fragmenting, with no cry, with no thunder of masonry or spike of flame – without any blinding fog of dust:  just a distant whine of something coming;   something absolute …..

Filled with horror, Alanee turns towards the door:  but there is no door, there is no wall.  For a fraction of a second the great hall of the palace is in its place (how is she here, rather than three storeys above?) but then that, too, disappears:  Toccata’s tsakal house materialises with Toccata standing within it, his face a white mask of despair.  His expensive hangings are falling in a whirlwind, yet he still reaches out to her, mouth moving in a soundless greeting.  In turn the ante-room to the council chamber, then the palace courtyard fly about her head – images of places she knows, faces she remembers, shuffling like cards in a deck.

Somehow she is running, she knows that, though her feet do not seem to move; passing through the courtyard, the Grand Park, the malls, her old apartment, all with the desperate desire to find her way back:  back to Sala.  The one thing, the one person vital to her.  She must rescue Sala.

Is it her?  Is she in some kind of dream?  Only that unremitting sound, growing steadily, seems real.  The City has lost its order, its structure:  it is coming to pieces.  Nevertheless somehow she is finding her way.  Something in her psyche guides her, makes sense of the moving maze in such fashion that she finds direction when all direction has been lost.  A thread within her follows a thread through the mayhem and that should be sufficient – would be – were it not for Mother.

Mother, cheated by her beloved child and screeching out her loss in a paroxysm of fury:  Mother with hyena-teeth bared and long knife aloft comes whirling from the mists of confusion with one thing only in her contorted mind; to take the life from the one who took Hasuga from her – Alanee’s life.

Before she can defend herself Alanee is thrown to the moving ground with time to no more than twist away from the first strike – the second she cannot avoid.  It plunges deep, it strikes like an rod of fire into her thigh and instantly her blood starts pulsing through the wound.  This is death!  She takes the third strike on her arm, catching the raw blade enough to turn it on itself.  With a strength born of mortal peril she thrusts the demented woman from her, grabs the hand that has the weapon in its grip.

Now a real struggle begins.  Mother has the knife, would thrust it into Alanee’s heart, but Alanee holds her by the wrist and is forcing it back.  Mother is finding her feet, trying to rise.  Alanee feeling her strength flowing freely from the gash in her leg has too little time.  It must be now!  The woman’s hand is pushing this way, her balance is swaying that.  Going with her movement, going against her poise, one thrust.  The knife goes where the knife chooses, and it chooses Mother’s throat.  The woman who devoted her life to care of the Hasuga child ends it by her own hand, by Alanee’s guidance.  Her windpipe severed and emitting bubbles of blood, Mother sinks to the floor, thrashes there for a second or two before dying.

Alanee’s rising vomit would choke her.  With no time for ceremony, she snatches Mother’s robe, using the bloodied knife to rend a strip from it.  She binds her leg tightly, so tightly she has to suppress a cry of pain.  Aghast at the pool of her own life that has already formed upon the switchback floor, she limps forward:  still hoping, still searching.  She promised she would not be long.  She promised she would return for Sala.  Her leg is ruptured, the muscle in her arm is slashed, disabled by the same knife; but she must find Sala.

The task is insuperable, random scenes passing before her so fast she can achieve no sense of direction.  In neither light nor darkness, she does not know where she is going, she cannot find anything constant to cling to.  The noise which pursues her is incessant now, an animal, an all-devouring thing.  People are scattering everywhere:  Ellar flits by, Trebec, the Domo.  And all the while her strength ebbs.

Utterly despondent, she ceases to try.  The hopelessness of her state, the certainty she will die before she ever reaches her friend overcomes her.  Whatever is happening to the city will consume her too.  There is no redemption, no answer.  There, amidst a rolling barrel of destruction Alanee drops to her knees and submits to fate.

Behind her the Continuum roars louder, a focussed beast sensing prey.

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

Image credit: Kristen from Pixabay

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An Air of Putrifaction

Here’s a bit of a challenge to distract you from the mayhem of this week.

If you are a Believer (upper case ‘B’ intended) you live in a world created by your God, do you not?  Everything you stand upon, every miracle of birth that happens in the secret nests of the birds or the dens of the animals, or even in the comfy dens we create for ourselves, is His work.  The essential stuff of life you owe to Him.  The air you breathe is a wonderful balance of poison and balm He and Nature have created together.

The water of the spring that rises from the rocks in the high hills is as pure and perfect.   It has a story of thousands of years filtering through the ground beneath you before it finds its way to the sun.   And as it begins its journey to the sea it is tuned and moderated by natural things that add to its character, making it worthy to contribute to Ocean in the end.

Until it gets to you.   You, personally.

You – the processes of manufacture, the treatment of soil to force unnatural growth, the effluent and detritus you create every time you load your washing machine with powder or your dishwasher with a tablet, every time you discard a wrapper or kick away a tin, add chlorine to your pool, bleach your bathroom, dye your hair?

From its first encounter with our civilisation, all the way to the sea, our stream’s joyous natural run becomes a gauntlet of dead water from ‘purifying’ plants, poisons that have evaded purification, rubbish and other profanities, all of which together will at last ensure the ocean itself will become blighted. 

And yet – here’s that challenge bit; you knew I’d get to it eventually – we each of us pursue a life that gauges our worth upon ‘growth’ and ‘success’  – bigger house, more exotic food, larger car, more travel – all of which together make the journey that stream has to undertake so much worse!

Alright, none of this is new.  You can maybe excuse yourselves by insisting you do all the token stuff – recycling, saving water, only buying organic, etc..  But brothers and sisters, the beat goes on.  You may lessen your impact, but you still make one.  In your quest for that elusive ‘success’ you always will.

What if you’re making the biggest mistakes of your Earthly lives?  What if, when you of faith arrive at your Pearly Gates, Peter assesses your eligibility not on the worthiness of your life but purely upon how little damage you’ve done?  What if church on Sunday didn’t matter a jot; just a huddle of people having a sing and uttering a few platitudes to assuage their guilt?

What if there was really a trap door that felt sort of warm to your feet, and a lingering smell of sulphur in the air?

No, I’m not a Thunberg disciple or even a Christian.  So I’m not espousing a yurt-ish lifestyle or a composting toilet, nor am I likely to give up my small, economical car.  All I’m saying is COVID has given us this chance to re-think and we should take it.  We shouldn’t simply emerge from under in a panic and re-commence our harem-scarem chase after a pinnacle of success we can none of us ever reach.  We should give the philosophers and the meritocrats a chance.

Consider this for a moment as you drain your Jacuzzi or your bath with all those oils, or your kitchen sink, or discard that plastic bottle as you seek your personal target on your morning run.

Or perhaps revise your religious views?  Ask yourself:  what does He really think of you? 

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Eight: Caverns old and Caverns Deep

Warning:  this episode has some erotic content.

In the previous episode:

Despite the Domo’s attempt to exclude her, Alanee is summoned to a meeting of High Council, where she predicts the burning of Balkinvel and converts many of the Councillors who did not believe in her.

Triumphant, she returns to her chambers to celebrate, and spends the night there with Sala…

Alanee has risen early.  To avoid disturbing Sala, who sleeps sweetly and deeply, she has extracted her fake book from its hiding place and paged Altor the Convenor.  They meet in the corridor outside her Chambers, from where, the book concealed beneath her courtier’s robes, she is guided to that elevator which last night transported her to the High Council.  This time, however, the elevator is programmed for a different destination:  it plunges deep; deeper, Alanee feels, into the soul of The City than she has ever been.  She remembers when Dag first brought her to The City through a tunnel less deep in the rock than this.  Counting the seconds, she endures Valtor’s stream of effusive flattery as they descend.  The gardens, perhaps even the mighty Balna River, will be many feet above her now.  She is in the bowels of the mountain, confined, perhaps trapped, beyond sight or hearing of the outer world.

She need only emerge from the elevator to see how limited is her means of escape.  She steps into a small foyer with the usual couches that typify ante-rooms or waiting areas in The City.  Other than the elevator by which she has arrived there is only one door – and such a door!  She had expected grandeur, perhaps – timbers made mighty by age, ornate iron hinges, carved devils and hobgoblins in ancient oak.  Not so.

The door before her is completely circular and fashioned from steel.  Its central capstan is clamped in place by chromed stanchions thick enough to deter the most ardent assault for a month.  The wall into which it is set is also steel, undecorated but for two staves which rest in brackets to either side of the door.  These, or rather their illuminated heads, provide what little light the foyer has –imbuing it with a severe, mournful atmosphere.

Altor turns a mechanism at the locking point of the stanchions through a ritual of numbers before spinning the capstan.  With a grudging hiss, the door releases, and by the humming effort of an electric motor somewhere, yawns reluctantly open.

“Lady, I may not pass through here.  I am a poor Convenor, I lack your greatness or worth.  You must proceed alone.  I will await you.”

Alanee peers through the thickness of the steel aperture the door has left.  She can see little beyond, but a narrow stair descending into gloom.  “I’ll need time to study.  I may be here all day!”

If Altor is at all discomfited by this, he shows no sign of it.  “Then I shall wait all day.”

Alanee can be equally stubborn.  “I don’t need you to stay.  You’re the Convenor – you may be required elsewhere.  Can’t I find my own way back?”

Altor’s face is set.  He has clearly been instructed to wait.

Is there something in the demeanour of this obsequious man that should toll a bell of warning?  Has he had other instructions too?  She will learn nothing more from him, however, so with a shrug that says there is no more to be done, Alanee steps through the aperture.

The way is almost – but not quite – dark.  This flight of steps is lit by torches at intervals along the walls.  At each footfall an echo returns, speaking to her of great mass and weight.    Here, deep in the bedrock, she is sure even the thoughts of Hasuga would be hard put to reach.

‘Did you think I could not hear you?’  The words flash inside her mind, and this time she greets them warmly, because she feels lonely and afraid.

‘Yes.’  Her mind replies:  ‘I should have realised, shouldn’t I?”

‘I am always near.’

A glow spreads through her, a sense of protection and – almost – friendship.  If he were physically near she might even be moved to kiss that grotesque head in sheer gratitude.  ‘Don’t go away, then.  This was your idea.’

Steps winding downward, on and on; Alanee feeling sure she is becoming closer to something, some indefinable thing that stirs inside her: in truth a descent probably no more than thirty feet or so before it ends.  Here; another open space, another door.

This time there are no seats to regale the weary climber.  The walls are rough-hewn from the very mountain itself.  There is no colour here other than grey, yet the lighting is brighter:  several stars of pinpoint light sparkle from above her head.

He sits in the corner, the man in the hempen smock she recognises because she has seen him before, in the wooden room that squats doorless within Cassix’s chambers, the room that will only open with mirrors.  And he, hunched in the earnestness of prayer, is just as she remembers.

He speaks:  “Lady Alanee?”  His voice is of dry leaves trodden.

“Yes Sire.”  She has no thought to address him by other than a regal title, though she has no notion how he might aspire, meanly dressed as he is, to any noble birth.  His skin is as crimped as rough linen and he is of the parchment wherewith the books he guards are made.  He is Karkus, as old, and as wise, as they.

“Pass, Lady.”

“Thank you, Sire Karkus, I will pass.”  Hasuga, how do I know his name?

Because you are who you are.  Yours is the knowledge of all things.

This time a simple door of planks is all that must swing open to admit her:  beyond, an archway, and beyond the arch a hall – a hall so unexpected by comparison with its ante-room that it takes Alanee’s breath away.

A perfectly circular chamber paved in white marble, it is lit by crystal white radiance from a high ceiling.  Around the continuous white wall are arrayed books; thousands upon thousands of volumes neatly shelved ten layers high.  At the very centre of this great library, upon a plinth of black granite, a tome larger than all the others lies open – its rich vellum spread flat by the weariness of use, its illuminated script greyed by age.  Alanee recognises this though she has never seen the original until now: it is the Book of Lore.

Here she might pause; stay for a moment to read truths so very few of the chosen ones have seen: yet she does not go to the Book of Lore.  Instead she moves toward a glazed case at the far side of this splendid repository, led straight towards it by the book that cries like a secret child beneath her robe.  She passes over the myriad of titles that stand protected by the glass, some in languages she does not understand and some she does:  though still a mystery to her because she has never read a book for its sake – ‘Catcher in the Rye’, ‘To Have and Have Not’, ‘Faustus’, ‘Endymion’, ‘A Jew of Malta’, Ulysses’.

 Alanee is drawn only to a single, untitled volume.  There, central upon a central shelf, the exact facsimile, the likeness.  Its door of defensive glass should be locked – is locked – yet it yields to her as if her touch is expected; without effort, without complaint.  She takes the one, puts the other, from its concealment in her robe, in its place.  All the while behind her, in the doorway, the ancient guardian watches, but does nothing.  When she turns towards him, a volume old as time within her grasp, his parched lips crack in a smile.

And when she takes the book in her hand, what happens then?  What vision consumes her?  It is as if the mysterious lock has no meaning, as if all the text of the work she grips so tightly is in her head without so much as turning a page, every word the instigation of a dream, a new story, a separate plot.  Passing before her are peoples she has never met, tribes cast out, cruel persecutors, gentle victims.  There are women faithless and faithful, engaged in their own pursuit of dreams, men generous and devious, wise and foolish, builders and slayers, workers and idolaters, wealthy and poor.

She does not mark her own progress, or see how she mounts the stairs once more; reaches the mighty door that has kept these truths so deeply buried for all the years; passes through.  She feels the eagerness of Hasuga with her in the text and he is reading as fast as or faster than she.  She feels the words bleeding out of her, to be re-joined by the millions already in his giant mind.  She feels….

“Lady Alanee!”

The elevator door stands open.  But it is not Valtor the Convenor who awaits her. It is High Councillor Portis.  She comes to herself, finding she holds the book openly in her hand.

Portis asks:  “What do you intend doing with that?”  His suspicions are confirmed, his fears realised.  “That book should never leave its case, still less the Inner Library.  You have scarcely risen to prominence, it seems, before you choose to abuse your good fortune.  A grave mistake, my Lady.”  His summoner is in his palm, the buttons already being pressed.  “Guards?”

Ever since she accepted Hasuga’s challenge the possibility of discovery has been uppermost in Alanee’s mind.  Her script is well rehearsed. 

“Sire, the error is yours,” She speaks clearly.  “Sire Hasuga himself gave me his permission to borrow this.”

Portis colours.  “That is a palpable lie!  Sire Hasuga has no knowledge of the book.  How can he?”

“How can he?”  Alanee attempts a laugh, though it sounds more reminiscent of a bray.   “He is all-seeing, Sire.  He knows of all your precious books!  And…”  She picks out her consonants like cuts of sharp steel, “he sees you now.  He hears your every word.”

‘Hasuga!  Help me!’

“Guards.” Portis repeats quietly.  “You are required at the Council elevator.  Lady Alanee is to be placed under arrest.”

He beckons.  Where else should she go?  At least when the elevator returns to the higher levels she will be closer to Hasuga, nearer to his power.  So, heart pounding, she meekly follows the High Councillor into the chamber of the elevator.  She is inside.  The doors close.

Hasuga, oh, Hasuga!  Where are you?

Is this a trap?  Could Hasuga have deceived her?  Suddenly she feels cold, very, very cold.   

“I am curious, I admit.”  Portis murmurs, indicating the book; “What can you want with that?  I mean, to risk so much. You do know what you have done?”

She conjures a desperate reply, “I thought to take it back to my Chambers to study it, Sire.  I didn’t intend any wrong.”

“But the book is locked, woman!  It has been unopened for as long as anyone has memory.”

“I am meant to have the gift of sight.  What if this book should contain the solution to the Continuum?  What if I can unlock it?”

“Something you will never have the opportunity to discover. Theft from the sacred library is a capital offence, Lady.  A high price for your presumption, is it not?”

Fearful now, Alanee has to swallow back a rising gorge to meet Portis’s stare. “Sire, it is just a book.”

What does she read in Portis’s face?  What does that unopened book reveal?  Is there a flicker of doubt there; a hint at hesitation?

“And you should have examined it where we are each allowed to read, those of us who are honoured to have that high privilege.  There is no excuse, Lady.”

“I could not open it in there.  Hasuga…”

Sire Hasuga.  Sire Hasuga, Lady!”

“Sire Hasuga then:  he guided me to it.  I am to glean the knowledge he wants from the book, so together we can unravel the mystery of the Continuum.  But I can only open it within Cassix’s rooms.   Sire, you have been inside there?  You remember the mirrors?  The mirrors can open things that are sealed, like that big wooden thing without any doors; they can show me inside there, as I am sure they can show me inside this book.”

Together with Sire Hasuga?”  Portis’s voice does not disguise his incredulity or his own lurking doubts.  “Your arrogance, Alanee, defies belief!  To assume such a thing in your private thoughts is blasphemy; but to utter it aloud, before a High Councillor!”  He pauses then.  Alanee wonders why the elevator has not moved and Portis, whose acuity she could never question, reads her thoughts.

“Curiously, you might think, there are no cameras here.  Above us, in the city, they dog our every step. But within the library, and this elevator space, solely reserved as it is for members of the High Council, there are none.”

“Sire?”

“We are not seen, here, Alanee.”  Portis seats himself in one of the velvet upholstered chairs, leaning back into the rich cushions.  “We are not heard here.”

Alanee stares at him.  “So, you’re saying…”

“I’m saying that our conversation has been confidential.  I am suggesting it might remain so.”

“Might, Sire?”

“How have you covered the theft of the book?”

“With a facsimile; a blank that looks exactly the same.”

Portis allows himself a smile.  “Cunning!  Therefore there is every chance the volume will not be missed?”

“Every chance, Sire.  But the guards have been summoned, have they not?”

“Not.”  Rising to his feet, Portis waves his summoner:  “This is switched off.”

Alanee’s heart leaps with hope.  “Then you believe me!”

“I will not say whether I believe you or not.  But I am the only one who knows you stole that book.”

“What about the old man, the librarian?”

Portis studies her quizzically.  “There was no one else in the library, Alanee: we do not have a ‘librarian’.”

At this reply Alanee at last asks herself why she felt no disquiet when she realised the old man had witnessed her substitution of the book:  she had accepted his presence as though he existed on a different level.  She begins to see a pattern, a circle.  Karkus, a spirit from a distant past:  (how can she be so sure it was he?) is part of that circle.  He wanted her to take the book.

“Sire Karkus?”  Portis’s interjects, and she realises she was reasoning aloud.  “What do you know of Sire Karkus?”

“He was present, Sire.  I took him to be the Librarian.  Maybe in a sense that’s what he is?”

“Dead for more than two thousand years is what he is, Lady.” 

“In one frame of time, maybe.  In another?  A ghost, then, if it suits you.  He was there.”  And she adds helpfully:  “Probably still is.”

“Ghosts! Frames of time! Librarians!”  Portis snorts:  “You have a gift, young lady, I will concede that  But a gift for imagination rather than second sight, I think!”

Alanee challenges.  “I imagine, then, that a part of you does doubt, a little?”

“My thoughts are my own business.  You are a thief.  That is my view; but….”  He weighs his words:  “I believe you may not intend to be entirely dishonest.  Therefore I am to be persuaded.”

Her stomach sinks.

“You have a bargaining chip,”  Portis attempts a smile, achieves a leer.  “You are an extremely lovely woman, Alanee.”

“So?”  She says heavily. 

“You are so young.  You cannot apprehend how desperately we who are grown past our prime still want a share in such beauty.  How we watch you, need you, as you pass us by, while you ignore us, pretend we do not exist?  Our bodies may alter Alanee, but our needs do not.  Do you see where this is going?”

“Oh, I do.”  She does.  There is a price to be paid…..

“You said once – what was your wonderfully apposite choice of phrase? Ah yes; if I wanted to ‘stare at your body’ I would have to ask. Well, I’m asking now.”

She cannot prevent the colour rising in her cheeks.  She says slowly:  “And is that all you are asking?”

All?”  Portis repeats bitterly.  “No, Alanee, that is not all.”

Tears inside her; mad, affronted tears she will not shed:  not for him.  “And if I do what you ask?”

“Then no guards will be waiting.  I will merely go into the Library for study of my own.  You will keep your Book to do with it as you will.  Now;” He rises to his feet, “Come here to me.”

His eyes have a hunger she cannot avoid: yet still she hesitates, hoping against hope there is some higher sense of honour in the man.  “Do you not think, Sire, that a gift only has value if it is willingly given?”

“No, Alanee, I do not.  Come here.”

“A minute, Sire.  Allow me this one minute, I beg you?”  She turns away, gazes up to the roof of the compartment for salvation.  There is none there, no Hasuga with a thunderbolt of retribution, only Portis’s graphically buxom nude pouting seductively down at her from its place on the wall.

  Hasuga, help me? 

With her back to Portis she uses the minute he has granted her, steels herself.  Taking a deep breath, she releases the brooch at her shoulder, shuddering to hear his gasp of gratification as her robe drops away.  Now she turns so he may feast his eyes on her and with only the book to conceal her womanhood, she walks toward him.

Portis cannot stay the convulsive shaking in his hand as he reaches out for her, and Alanee has learned enough of men to know that control of the situation has passed to her at that moment.  She must be in command, or she is done.  She has arts, skills she can use.  He must be hers, in her spell for just long enough, she hopes, that he will not notice how the elevator has begun to move.

Is there some perverse pleasure in this: no pleasure of loving, or giving, but the not unpleasing sensation of power?  Portis it was, who controlled this scene; who wished it, dictated the terms:  but who controls it now?  Like a puppet, she can make him twitch or dance, hold or give forth, at the behest of a touch or a word.  Profound though her inner self-loathing is, she has never felt (do you hear this, Hasuga?) more powerful than now.

‘I hear it.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘Nowhere.  I am always with you.  Portis cannot match you – I told you that, remember?  You do not need me for this.’

Portis’s fingers would slip like fat worms, but this she will not allow.

“Not yet, Sire, not yet.”  Instead she takes his hand and guides it, counting the seconds inside her head.  “Come closer to me; let me tease you, just a little.  See?  We almost touch, yet not?  Does this excite you, Sire?”

“Yes, oh yes!”

He is breathing, sweating heavily and she is counting – still counting seconds.

“Oh, Sire!  No!”  His touch is more aggressive now, his desire expressing itself in porcine grunts.  He has her at a disadvantage.  She has let herself be cornered.  His lips are pressing roughly, biting, hurting her.  She tries to thrust him away. “No Sire!  NO!  Leave me alone, Sire!  Get your hands – off – me.  NO!  NO PLEASE!  NO!”

Before Portis has noticed his change of fortunes the elevator door is open.  Lady Ellar stands before it, open-mouthed:  “Sire Portis!”

“Keep him away from me!”  In purple fury, Alanee snatches up her robe to cover the book, and with both gathered to shield her she runs naked from the scene. 

Ellar is too shocked.  She does not try to stop her.  Alanee’s summoner, with whose urgent fingers Ellar’s pager button was activated in those thoughtful seconds before she shed her robe, lies forgotten upon the elevator floor.

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

Photo credit: Art Tower, from Pixabay

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In Which Dominic Goes to Durham…

One of the symptoms of caste identity in United Kingdom society is innate suspicion of people with names like Dominic.

By their arrogance shall we know them, we of the Trevor, Fred and Bill world; and, to be honest, after so long an exposure to our quaint Royalist culture, we expect nothing less.  Little over a century past a time when we were expected to stand aside and tug our forelocks, when we were not even owed an explanation for the actions of our masters, it should be no surprise that their accounts of, not to say excuses for, their imperious behaviour should be faltering, at best.

Hence, I have tried to stand back from what will inevitably become known as Durhamgate.  Explanation for those not ‘in the know’:   In March Dominic Cummings, ‘advisor’ on Government policy here in UK, drove from his London base a distance of …..miles, flouting, some will maintain, the quarantine rules.  He was exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 at the time, and his objective was to remove his four-year-old son to his family home in Durham, where other relatives were available to care for the child should he and his wife both fall ill.

In the subsequent media frenzy various other accusations have stemmed from ‘reliable sources’ of ‘drives to Barnard Castle’ (a town about thirty miles from Durham) and ‘stops to refuel’ etc. but again I refuse to become exercised by these, as the gutter press (in which I include the BBC) are known nowadays for inventing whole tranches of ‘news’ when the occasion suits them.   By and large, the press objective is to obtain a Resignation to complete their current witch hunt before they move on to the next one.

Personally, I have no extreme feelings one way or the other.   Why?  Mr Cummings is not a politician, but he has fallen in with the bad crowd.   Whether he likes it or not, his has become the broad back the EU remainers have picked for their blame game, and any trick or device to discredit him is therefore fair.   Secondly, there are two views that attach to Boris Johnson, one that accepts him as a decisive leader, another that dismisses him as a bungling fool with a Churchill complex – if the latter be true, any steadying hand within the machine of government must be welcome and necessary – disruption must only serve a political agenda. Not the health and safety of the country.

The police view is that our Dominic did nothing wrong.  I won’t comment further on that because we have all, at one time or another, been subject to the vagaries of our wonderful boys in blue.    Dominic, however, is a good Catholic name which at once implies honesty and explains the depth of his love for a small boy (I refer to his son, of course).   

It is also worth bearing in mind the goldfish bowl that London life offers any public figure.  I was struck by the monumental hypocrisy of the press behaviour as they scrupulously observed ‘distancing’ rules when Dominic gave a press conference on the Downing Street lawn – distancing rules that are conspicuously absent whenever he should be unwise enough to emerge from his London home to undergo the daily gauntlet of aggressive cameramen and garrulous ‘interviewers’ who block his path and invariably stray within inches of his face.

‘Not our responsibility’ the press insist.  Very convenient, considering how many of those pictures appear in their newspapers.

I can wholly understand that not all the weight of personal decision for making that trip to Durham was borne by Dominic himself,   Without making any detailed judgement of character his wife, Mary, does not look like a woman to be trifled with:  I can see how she would want her infant son protected from the media coyotes, and would be heavily in favour of finding solace and space.

So, these being the reasons for my ambivalence; should Dominic Cummings stay in post, or should he go?   On the one hand, something needs to end this media culture that states if you put your hand on someone’s knee in 1999, or said something contradictory ten years earlier, you are to be humiliated, ruined, and driven from public life.  On the other, did he really break the rules seriously enough, or raise questions in the mind of the idiot public that are sufficient to confuse ‘the message’ of distancing and self-isolation (whatever those rules really are).

On balance, I think he should stay.  I may not doff my cap the next time he drives past on his way home, but neither do I think he should apologise, because that implies fault and his position is that he did nothing wrong.   I do think his role in shaping government policy should be examined closely, and that is a process that may well now happen under cover of Downing Street in the middle of the night – something at which British politicians excel.

We are all too po-faced when it comes to pillorying the behaviour of others:  let him who is honestly without sin cast the first stone…

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Seven: The Relief of Balkinvel

In the previous Episode:

Ellar doubts Sala’s loyalty, as the mediator seems unable to elaborate upon her encounter with Celeris.  Alanee employs a friend of Toccata’s to ‘remodel’ Casix’s old chambers.  Finally left to herself, she is able to study the mirrors.  They reveal a doorway to the wooden room and an ancient figure sitting within it, then show images of her home village, ruined and deserted.  Before she can turn away, they force her to witness reflections from an apocalypse in which thousands die.

While the High Council meets to discuss Trebec’s report in The City, Dag finds civilization in the river valley, only to be captured…

Trebec’s report has been heard in solemn silence.  While the High Council ruminates, The old General himself sits contemplating the fold of his fingers across his ample belly.  At length, the Domo asks:  “How many?”

“Ten thousand,”  Trebec mutters into his chins.

“Ten thousand.”  Leaden words.  “And the injured, the unhomed?”

“None survive.”

The Domo murmurs, “It is dispensed with, then.  Let the matter rest.” 

“Sire!  No, Sire!”  Carriso’s protest echoes among the vaulted hammer beams of the Council Chamber:  “This can never rest!”

“Carriso,”  The Domo soothes.  “It is all that could be done.”

“They were people!  They were injured, burned, deformed by grief, and we slaughtered them like pigs!  That is a crime of unforgivable immensity!”

Trebec raises eyes in which each blood vessel may be traced, like distributaries of an arcuate delta.  “You, Carriso, you have no blame in this – it is my sleep that will be sacrificed, not yours.”

Carriso snaps back.  “Aye – but my people, not yours, who were condemned.”  He rounds upon the Domo.  “How do we justify this deed; how?”

Remis intercedes.  “If a citizen is deprived of Word even for a day his loyalty will be affected.  For a cycle…”  He shrugs his shoulders.  “They were irretrievable, Carriso.  Nothing could be done.”

Carriso is far from placated.  “Nothing? How should I accept ‘nothing could be done’?  We must ‘accept’; always, always ‘accept’.  Death is a price we pay, in our thousands and tens of thousands, for our unquestioning acceptance!’.”

Trebec shakes his head.  “If it consoles you at all, and I know it won’t, those who died by our hand were few in comparison with those eradicated by the actual event.  This evil, whatever it was, turned the whole of the North Dometian Plain and the Kaal Valley into a wasteland, a grey desert.  I cannot imagine how anything will ever thrive there again.”

Selech, who Cassix once named the ‘Continuum Dissident’, asks.  “Was it a volcanic event, an earthquake?”

 “Cassix would say, indeed Cassix did say, it was the Continuum,”  Calvin the Ancient challenges:  “We have a new Seer, do we not?   Why is she not here?”

The Domo says; “She is too fresh in her position to be of value.  We need not trouble her with this.”

“But if the affair concerns the Continuum?”

Continuum, Continuum, Continuum!”  Selech vents his frustration.  “Has anyone apart from Cassix seen this damned Continuum?  Or is his departed word all we have to vouch for its existence?”

Ellar says quietly:  “I have seen it.  Cassix showed it me.”  She rises to her feet.  “It does exist, sires; and in Cassix’s last days he was deeply concerned at its growth, both in size and strength.”

“This Hakaani stripling….”  Trebec returns to the conversation.  “Was Cassix delusional, or does she have even a fraction of his gifts?”

“I do not know, Sire.  She certainly appears to have visions.”

“And we must be content with that.”  The Domo says, with an air of finality. “She is not here, so we must move on.  Are there any other matters concerning Sire Trebec’s report?”

“Yes.”  Carriso has been tapping his frustration upon the edge of the Council table. Now his anger bursts out in speech.  “I ask that Sire Trebec’s conduct be investigated by the Criminal Court.”

The Domo nods.  “I expected no less.  Your charge?”

“Genocide.”

Trebec looks up sharply. The Domo draws a breath.  “Very well.  A little strong, though, sire, wouldn’t you say?”

“What else was it?”  Carriso asks.  “And to you, sire….”  This in Trebec’s direction:  “For your crime against my people, I withdraw the hand of friendship.”  He turns back to the Domo:  “I also demand that the Seer be summoned.  There is no precedent for a meeting of High Council without that office, and I suggest it is dangerous.  She may be able to prevent another similar tragedy.”

The Domo sighs.  He has no choice.

Valtor’s nervous buzz is a surprise to Alanee, though not entirely an unwelcome one:  four glasses of paia and the arrival of Sala have raised her mood to a point where she would entirely erase the manner of her friend’s last departure from her mind, yet Sala is unresponsive to her acclamation of Prinius’s improvements; “See how much he has done already!” and after waving at the obstinately hideous wooden ‘shed’ “Even he can’t think of anything to do with that!” she is lost for words.  Sala’s conversation stares like an old blade – monosyllabic replies, devoid of reactions. 

“They want me at the High Council.  Oh, Habbach, now what have I done? Sala-ba, you will have to take me.  I don’t know the way!  You know it, don’t you?”

“Valtor will come for you.  You should wear the robe.”

Alanee rushes to the bedroom.  She calls through: “You don’t want to be here, do you?”  And when Sala doesn’t respond: “They’ve instructed you to be here.  To watch me, yes?”

“Yes.”

The door chime sounds.  Alanee returns, her robe hurriedly thrown about her.  “Do I look alright?  No, don’t answer that.  Sala, while I’m away, dearest, get drunk, will you?  Paia there, look?  Get horribly, revoltingly drunk and when I come back we’ll talk.  OK?  Love you!”

She breezes out into the obsequious gale of Valtor.   “May I say, Lady, how wonderful it will be to have a lady as our Seer?  We are truly blessed by Sire Cassix’s percipience,  although I lament his passing; I do, of course.  Of course, very sad.  A great loss.  So noble…”

“Yes, Valtor dear.  You can stop now.  We’re all very sad.”

The Convenor leads her deceptively quickly along softly carpeted corridors to an elevator the interior of which is as lavishly appointed as any wealthy noble’s reception room.  Gilt-framed chairs upholstered in plush blue velvet, a series of masterfully executed graphics depicting rural scenes around its dark red walls, subdued, honeyed light.  The only mild surprise is an artistically drawn and very buxom nude on the rear wall (Alanee thinks she can guess at whose wish that was included).

“Sire Portis?”

Valtor nods in a manner which contrives to look as if he is bowing.  “The picture was of his selection, yes.  The others show each of the great nations:  Mansuvenia, there; there Braillec…”

Alanee stops listening.  After a brief descent, the elevator passes beneath the courtyard of the palace; and ascends once more.  The doors open directly onto the council ante-chamber.

“Lady, are you prepared for their Sire-ships?”

Sire-ships?”   Alanee tries to dispel the image that instantly forms in her mind of the Domo as a galleon in full sail, but she is still stifling laughter as the Convenor throws open the doors of the Council Chamber, and sixteen expectant faces turn in her direction.  At the sight of the seated Domo looking exactly like the prow of a large ship her laughter breaks through.

“Sires greet you.”  She splutters helplessly.  “You…oh, Habmenach!  You sent for me?”  Behind her, Valtor has disappeared.  The doors have closed.

A murmur returns to her from the assembled Councillors.  The Domo tacks in her direction.  “Greet you, Lady.  You find us amusing?”

“Sire?  Oh, Sire, no:  it was him – Valtor.  He cracked a joke.  I’m sorry.”

Sixteen unconvinced faces:  perhaps contemplating the unlikely idea of a joke from Valtor.

“I’m sorry.”  She repeats.  “How can I help?”

The Domo rumbles:  “Lady Alanee, you are of the High Council now.  You are a ‘Sire-ship’ too.”  Discovered, Alanee blushes.  The Domo nods to an empty chair at the far end of the long table.  “Please, take your place and be welcome.”

It is an upright chair worked in gold gesso, with well-padded seat and arms of red brocade.  She treasures the moment, feeling some pride at her reception into that somewhat severe, privileged place.  When she is seated, the Domo continues.

“Lady, there was an incident in Dometia recently concerning which, I am given to understand, you may have some knowledge.  Do you know what I am talking about?”

Alanee feels the stares turned upon her.  She feels the paia in her head, relentlessly working.  In a moment they will discover her – she is drunk.  No; no, not drunk, but light-headed, certainly.  She replies with as much gravitas as she can muster:  “I know something has happened, Sire.  The aerotran pilot who brought me to the city crashed there, and there are stories; but what exactly it was; no, I don’t know that.”  Then she adds brightly:  “I suppose if I am a good Seer I should, shouldn’t I?”

Trebec grunts expressively.  It was the wrong thing to say.  Nervous, stupid:  tongue running away with her.  All at once she finds herself badly needing a friendly face at that august table.  No-one wants her here:  Cassix’s choice was not popular here, either, and she will find no sympathy in these hostile stares.  To this worthy gathering, who once called the old Seer their friend, she is a bumpkin from the plains of the Hakaan – a worthless dullard without any contribution to make.  Their collective look is one of disdain.

Yet?

Yet.

No, not so High, my lords of the High Council:  not immune to the baser instincts of normal men.

“I suppose;”  Alanee says slowly, and with great deliberation:  “It must be a change for you all, seeing me with my clothes on?”

“Young woman!”  Portis expostulates.

“Especially you, Sire.”  Alanee knows what she is saying:  she no longer cares for the effect it may have.

“Gentlemen!”  To her surprise it is the dark rumble of the Domo’s voice which cuts across a rising clamour:  “Lady Alanee has cause to be offended with us.  The blame for the animosity we all feel does not lie with her.  Sire Carriso, you demanded the Seer’s presence?  Would you care to proceed with the explanation?”

“If you wish.”  The aggrieved Councillor begins nervously, reluctant to put his tragic story into words:  “Lady, many lives…”

As soon as he starts to speak, Alanee’s eyes are drawn to Carriso, seeing at once he is a Dometian:  hearing instantly the emotion in his voice.  From that point, from his first few words, she gains all she needs to know, though what within her has nurtured this kernel of knowledge is a mystery to her.  Hakaan in the mirrors – it has happened!  It happened to Dometia!

“How many?”  She cuts across Carriso’s tale before it is begun, though she hardly knows what part of her speaks.  “How many died?”

The cynicism of the High Council floats away like a cloud.  The eyes that turn to Alanee now share an altered expression.  Taken completely aback, Carriso murmurs:  “All those of my people who lived in the valley of the Kaal, Lady.”

Dust, empty streets:  the Terminus in unattended flames:  that was why!

“The same!”  The unsourceable voice that inhabits her cries:  “The same for the Hakaan.  Balkinvel, the northern uplands; the same.  Get the people out, Sires!  Save them now!”

Those stares that fix upon her face!  They might well dismiss her words as drunken raving, ridicule her, scorn her, but they do not.  For her face is pale and possessed, her eyes not the eyes of a Hakaani widow. They are those of a Seer in the throes of a vision. 

“Sires!  They must run!”

The gathering is dumbfounded.  No-one speaks for seconds that seem to stretch into minutes.  Trebec breaks the spell:  “You have seen this? Is this true?”

“I have seen it.”  Alanee answers to herself as much as to the gathering, as if she must affirm her own belief in her gifts.  “And yes it is true.”

Carriso rises to his feet:  “If no-one else will….”

The Domo recovers himself.  “Yes:  Yes. Carriso, you see to it, will you?  Evacuate the whole area!  Sire Selech, will you organise Word and camps for the displaced population?  The Council will excuse these Councillors?”

The Domo delegates these tasks without moving his eyes from Alanee’s face.  “Lady, can you answer me a question?”

“Sire?”  She is barely aware of him; all of her thoughts are with Shellan-mer, with Carla, Paaitas, old Malfis.  They must be saved!  Yet a calmer part of her inner self is saying they will be, that she has done her work.  Balkinvel’s streets will be as she saw them and though she might grieve for her friends’ loss of their homes, she must rest content.

“Have you seen the Continuum?”

“Yes, sire.  Cassix showed it to me first.”

“What is it, Lady?  Do you know?”

“No.  I know it isn’t important, of itself.  The important thing is behind it, hidden.  When something happens to that, the skies are thrown into some kind of fury.  It isn’t anger, though:  more like pain – agony….”

“And this ‘thing’, can you describe it for us?”

“A white light.  A white light that floods everything so brightly your eyes can’t look at it.”  Alanee replies:  then she adds, though she can’t put a meaning to what she says:  “It isn’t now.”

Portis clears his throat.  “Explain?”

“I can’t, sire.  It has no place in time.”

“It seems;” Sire Calvin says quietly:  “That Cassix chose well.”

“But what is the meaning of it?”  Vast and ungainly as he is, Alanee sees and hears: the Domo is pleading with her.  He is no longer fearsome, no longer in control:  beneath the vast exterior of this calmly authoritative man boils a ferment of superstition and doubt.  He is like a great bird feeding from her hand.

“I do not know.”  She says with truth.  “I must study the Lore.”

The Domo nods.  “It shall be arranged.  Valtor will take you to the Inner Library in the morning.  Perhaps you might persuade him to tell you one or two more of his jokes?  We will convene again tomorrow afternoon.  In the meantime, thank you, Lady Alanee.”

The Council moves to disperse, each with their own agenda (for evacuating the population of an entire region is no minor task), each with their own message in their hearts.  In the elevator Alanee finds herself in the company of Trebec; though he offers little conversation, standing apart with fists clenched as if he would beat himself in the intensity of his rage.  Alanee, who was not present at the earlier part of the meeting does not understand this, but despite her instinctive dislike of the man she feels his guilt and an honesty; a vulnerability she can respect.

Sala is sprawled upon Alanee’s new couch, her white silk shift in disarray and stained with pink paia.  By the half-emptied carafe she clutches to her chest Alanee can see at once that her friend has obeyed her orders to the letter, but inebriation does not seem to have lifted her spirits; in fact, she guesses that Sala has been crying.

Without a word, she takes the carafe from Sala’s grasp to pour a measure for herself; then goes to the kitchen to brew a mug of strong, treacly tsakal. 

“Oh my; we have worked fast, haven’t we?”  Alanee says gently.  She places the tsakal in Sala’s hands.  “Try and drink it, darling.  Do you know, I made quite an impression tonight?  I believe I may even have made an ally or two.”

For a while that is all that is said.  The pair sit in silence, sipping their drinks while rarely meeting each others’ eyes. At last Sala says, in a voice quite clear and succinct:  “I met Cassix a few times, you know?”

“What did you think of him?”

“I liked him.”  Sala glances inside herself:  “Yes, I liked him.  Strong personality – steady, commanding eye:  artistic hands….I’ve always been rather impressed by men with artistic hands.  And he was a Seer, you know – a Seer.”

“Yes.  Yes, I do know.”

“One of the best the City has had, they say.  Now…”  Sala places her mug of tsakal down upon the table with elaborate care,  pressing her finger-tips together.  “Where was I?”

“Best the City…”

She gazes up at Alanee helplessly.  “He never made a lover appear out of empty air; not’s far as I recall.  Never.  I didn’t know him that well, you see?  Alanee – what are you?”

Alanee sighs:  “I wish I knew, ba.   I know who I thought I was; before Cassix saw a part of me I hadn’t dreamed of.  All that time I was just living my life and they were watching…”  She pauses.  “This I know.  I am your friend; no matter what you think of me.  I need you; I really do.  All this other stuff” She gestures at empty air, “It isn’t anything to do with you and me.”

Sala does not speak; not immediately; because within her the clockwork is grinding to a stop, the mechanisms of her training and dedication are breaking down as the gentle fingers of alcohol pull at those strings which still tie her, loosening the bonds, exhuming the entombed.  “And suppose…”  She picks up the words one by one, little pieces that shattered and are lying there waiting:  “Suppose I still needed you?”

Alanee grips her hands:  “That would be wonderful, ba!”

But Sala shakes her head.  “No.  I mean needed you, Alanee.  Putting aside all my ‘stuff’, suppose I was an insecure, emotional child who has just by chance met the one person I could selflessly love, only to find she doesn’t love me – love me, Alanee.  Suppose I wanted you so badly and I couldn’t turn and walk away because of my work and my…..”   Sala pauses:  “Because of my bloody work.   Suppose that, my darling.  Suppose that.”

Hopeless, helpless, more than a little drunk, what else can she say?  Sala turns her head aside, knowing tears will come again and not wishing, this time, to be caught. Alanee, who perfectly comprehends, will not let Sala hide herself.  This much she can do for her friend.

“Oh my dearest!  Come with me, ba.”

Taking her, raising her, holding her: embracing her as only a lover would, or could: leading her to bed, accepting no protest, laying with her in a sacrifice of love: who is to say what Alanee wants or feels tonight?

Perhaps in the lyricism of a very private music she finds a harmony that is new to her, perhaps she does not.  For this night, for this person – for Sala – it doesn’t matter.  To see a smile on the face of an angel, a smile the innocence of which has been interred for so long, is all she could ever ask.  And to hold so closely one who means that much to you, as together you drift above the lapping waves of sleep, is all anyone in any life should desire.

For tomorrow, all things must change…

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

Photo credits:

Council Chamber roof: Ron Porter, Pixabay

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Another Story from the Archives:

I wrote this originally in 2012.  It’s is a long one, so I hope you will enjoy it.

NB.    This story was not included in my volume of short stories, ‘Black Crow Speaks’, the icon for which is showing on the right-hand side of this page.  Why not click through to Kindle to see the contents list and the full array of those that were?

The Harp

Delphinia Morgan-Jett was mildly vexed, which would explain her tone as she reached the top of a call centre staircase of numbers and a real voice enquired thinly:

“Can I help you?”

“He is there again.”

A pause at the end of the line:  “I’m sorry.  Who, exactly?”

Mrs Morgan-Jett tutted dangerously.  Acquaintances feared that ‘tut’ as a postman might fear a Dobermann’s snarl.  “Young man; it is not my habit to repeat myself.  I have telephoned concerning this vagrant at least a dozen times.  Kindly deal with it.”

“Ah.”  The thin voice took on a deeper timbre of understanding.  “You’re Mrs…” – a further pause – “Morgan, that right?”

“Morgan -Jett.”

“Yeah, whatever.  And this is about the bloke on the corner of Christminster Avenue – him with the brolly?  So he’s there again, then?”

“Was that not the substance of my initial remark?”

“Right.  Look, Mrs Morgan, is he is actually committing any offence?  I mean, is he doing anyone any harm?”

“He is loitering; he is a vagrant.  He is unpleasant and he is causing an obstruction!”  Delphinia Morgan-Jett was as close to seething as she could ever become.  “See to it that he is removed immediately!”

Sighing, the thin voice capitulated.  “We’ll get someone sent round.” 

Delphinia’s “Please do.” fell on the deaf ears of disconnection.   She carefully wiped her finger-marks from the white plastic of her ‘phone, then, morning sherry clipped between index and thumb, crossed to her ‘bureau’ window; one of two deep casements that overlooked Christminster Avenue.

This view, unchanging with the years, so appealed to Mrs Morgan-Jett’s sense of order and place that she often spent her morning seated here before her desk.  The building facing her on the other side of Christminster Avenue was identical in almost every respect to hers: a uniformity applied to a whole succession of avenues; rows of residential buildings, their stone five-step approaches leading up to polished wooden doors, their dignified porches spoiled only by security buzzers stacked on discreet panels behind an outer arch.  There were few such concessions to modernity – a deli in the basement of number fifty-two that struggled for survival, and the intervention of parking meters which, of course, brought the curse of the motor car – impatient growls and grunts, the bawling of ill-disciplined children desperate for all the things children were always desperate for:  toys, sweets, ice-cream, toilets, the sea.

In rare moments of tolerance, Delphinia might be forced to admit she found music in those discordant street noises.  Sometimes in early morning as she surveyed the deserted road from her high place she looked forward to the business of the day to come, because, for all its cacophony of sound it made a pleasing counterpoint to the draughtsman-like severity of those Georgian architectural lines.

Delphinia’s building,  number three on the east side of the avenue, placed her close enough to the seaward end to permit a corner of aquatic blue in her otherwise urban prospect while sparing her the vulgarity of the Esplanade and the full effect of the elements when winter came.  The sea started where the Esplanade stopped.   At high tide on occasional nightmare days angry waves broke right across the Esplanade, even reaching as far as the traffic lights at the end of Christminster Avenue, where the two roads met.    Those traffic lights, now busy with morning traffic, were the focus of Delphinia’s annoyance.

He was there again.

Tall and hunched beneath a voluminous beige mackintosh reaching nearly to his ankles, with a deerstalker jammed firmly over his long grey locks, thick horn-rimmed spectacles and a smothering brown scarf, this pedestrian was glaringly noticeable.   If anything could add to his ostentatious oddness, it was supplied by the picnic basket which he set carefully down at the corner of the street, and the large, folded, red and yellow golf umbrella he carried in his hand.   Ignoring the attention of bemused passers-by, he opened the basket to extract a thermos flask from which he poured himself a generous measure of tea.  Then he sat down atop his basket to drink. 

Delphinia watched this performance with distaste.   She had been compelled to follow the creature’s routine step by practised step, many times.  First, he finished his tea, then packed away his thermos and its cup.  Next he raised himself to his full height, drew his shabby coat about him, and stepped to the kerb at the very corner of the road.

What ensued was, depending upon perspective, either balletically comical or profoundly irritating.  Delphinia’s vagrant raised a commanding hand to the car nearest to him and stood in front of it.  Oblivious to a squeal of brakes, he turned his back upon its aghast driver to strut to the centre of the road junction where, with sweeping gestures from his furled brolly, he made it clear to the traffic on the Esplanade that he wished it to proceed.   He stood making these arms-length gyrations for some time – long enough to attract a rising chorus of horn-blasting protestation from a growing queue on Christminster Avenue – before motioning the Esplanade traffic to stop, and beckoning to those waiting in Christminster Avenue.

No matter his actions were reminiscent of a graceful dance:  or the order he imposed had a logic of its own, for his directions bore no relation at all to the sequence of the traffic lights.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of this reservation, given that when the lights favoured a certain stream of traffic he would almost always be in its way, and that after a while certain of the motorists under his influence started to obey him rather than the legal control.   The overall outcome was chaos.

This Delphinia witnessed with her accustomed fascination.   She quite forgot her intention to time the arrival of the authorities, waiting as she was for a grinding of metal and stream of obscenities which she was sure must come, but which somehow never did.  Those whose view was closer to events seemed to regard the man with humour and even booed when a harassed-looking policeman in a van turned up.

Normally at this stage of events the man would succumb to a few words of wisdom from a representative of the law and allow himself to be led away: normally, but not today.  He snarled his dissent; he wrapped his arms around the pillar of the traffic lights on Delphinia’s corner, and – she must have imagined it – he looked directly up at her; looked her straight in the eyes!

Delphinia took an instinctive backward step.  Those eyes had found her so quickly they must have known she was watching!   Her curiosity sharpened by unwonted guilt, she moved into view once more.  A policewoman had arrived to lend extra weight to the constabulary argument, a substantial presence in every way, but the umbrella man’s gaze was unswerving.  He stared fixedly at Delphinia’s window with an expression that left no room for misunderstanding: he was seeking her help!

Delphinia made a decision – one which she would be unable to explain to anyone sensibly, and certainly not one she would have confessed to her cocktail evening friends.  Snatching her coat from its stand in the hallway she hastened to the lift, and, finding it elsewhere, descended the stairs.  Spry enough for one of her years, she had no problem reaching the street just at the point when the vagrant was being bundled unceremoniously into the policeman’s van.

“Just one minute!  Officer, wait if you will, please?”

It was not a request.  The policeman, whose day was already becoming something of a trial, glared towards the source of this imperious voice, his right hand still securely clamped to the umbrella man’s collar.  He met the crystal stare of a woman accustomed to being obeyed.

“I shall take responsibility for this gentleman,”  Delphinia clipped her consonants precisely.  “You may deliver him into my care.”

“I’m delivering him to a nice comfy room in our detention suite.”  The policeman responded, although not too brusquely.  Delphinia’s upright bearing, immaculate coiffure and expensive burgundy suit flashed warnings he should not dismiss.  Such attire was consistent with that of a councillor’s wife, or maybe a member of the Watch Committee.

The woman constable was more sympathetic:  “Are you acquainted with this person, madam?”

“We received a complaint.”  The policeman said.  “We’ve had a number of complaints.”

“Yes, I know.  I am the complainant.”  Delphinia brushed this argument aside.  “And now I’m telling you I will be responsible for this – this person.  He will not repeat the offence.”  She fixed the person with her coldest, most incisive stare.  “You won’t, will you?”

The vagrant grinned three teeth from his top jaw, two from his lower jaw.  “No!  No offencing!  No!”

The woman constable seemed puzzled.  “You realise what you’re saying?”

“Of course I do.  I’m not senile.  You can release him into my charge!”

The two representatives of the law exchanged glances, and within their silent communication were all sorts of unsaid discussions about avoidance of paperwork and use of police time.  “Well, chummy;” said the policeman.  “It looks as if you’ve found yourself a friend.”

Delphinia waited patiently through a number of formalities.   When they were concluded, and the police presence was receding in a fog of exhaust, she said:   “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

The vagrant grinned those teeth again.  “Yes;” He said in a surprisingly cultured voice.  “Yes please!”

Throughout this process Delphinia Morgan-Jett had suppressed a desire to censure herself.  Why, in heavens’ name, was she doing this?  What was it about this eccentric man’s demeanour which drew her to him?  Pillar of the community though she was, such acts of charity were completely foreign to her.  As she guided the umbrella man to her front door, accompanied by muted applause from a small crowd, she wondered what insanities would visit her next?

“I am Delphinia. What is your name?”

“Tom.  I’m Tom.”

In her hallway she persuaded Tom out of his deerstalker and coat, revealing an Arran sweater from better years and grey trousers that were possibly even older.  Delphinia consigned the umbrella and box to a corner.  “You were looking at me as though you recognise me – do you?”

“No.  No, I don’t.”  Tom said abruptly; then, in gentler tone:  “These are nice.”

They were in the corridor which formed the spine of Delphinia’s apartment.  Its walls were lined with oil paintings, detailed landscapes and character studies lyrical in colour and brilliantly executed.  Their creator had a fine hand.  

“Do you like them?  My son was an artist.  This apartment was his studio.   He exhibited at the Royal Academy.”

“Studio?”

“Yes.  He adored the light; the reflections from the sea intensify it:  it inspired him.”

They had reached the kitchen and Delphinia was filling a kettle.   “He moved?”  Tom asked.  “Where’s he now?”

She did not answer at once.  She busied herself preparing a teapot, arranging two bone china cups and saucers on a silver tray.  “One’s children should survive one; that is what I do not understand.  Life is as it is, I suppose.”

“He died?”

“An accident – a complete accident.  In Rumania, of all places.  It is a lot of years ago now.”

“You’ve got his paintings.  You can remember him by them.”

Delphinia smiled sadly.  “Yes, I have his paintings.  Some of them, at least.   Shall we take tea in the drawing room?”

Tom smiled sympathetically in return.  “That would be nice.”  He said.

They sat upon brocade upholstered chairs watching the sun’s patterned progress across the floor; and they sipped at tea from those fine china cups, regarding each other in comfortable silence.  Tom, despite his somewhat unusual appearance, seemed to fit into Delphinia’s elegant backcloth in a way she would be at a loss to describe, but it was true she found solace in his presence. 

“It’s a nice apartment,”  He said.  “You must have a lot of money.”

Delphinia gave a ghost of a smile:  she never spoke of money.  “I have enough.” 

“That piano.  That’s a nice piano.”

“It is a Beckstein.  I believe Menhuin may have owned it once.”

“You play?”

“I do, but not habitually.  My favoured instrument is the harp.”

“Harp, ah.”  Tom nodded sagely.  “Where’s the harp?” 

“It’s downstairs – in another apartment.”

“Ah.  You’ve lent it to somebody?”

“Goodness no!  I would never dream…”  Delphinia bit back on her words.  She was going to castigate Tom for daring to imagine that an instrument so temperamental and so precious could ever be loaned to anyone!  Tom, of course, could not be expected to know such things.  “Harps are so sensitive to alterations in temperature or humidity, you see:  they do not live fulfilling lives with people.    I keep it in a separate apartment at exactly the atmosphere it requires for perfect tone.”

“So you’ve another apartment – like this – just for your harp?”

“Rather smaller actually.  But yes.”

“I think you must be very rich,”  Tom said.  Then:  “I’d like to see it.”

Delphinia responded with another of her faintly patronising smiles.  “Perhaps another time?” She said.

“I’d better be going.”  Tom suggested.

“Yes, of course.  Shall I arrange for a taxi?  Where do you live?”

Tom demurred.  “I Don’t get on with taxis.”

So, by fits and starts, began the most unlikely of friendships, a connection the existence of which neither party would accept, yet existed nonetheless.  Now, whenever Tom appeared with his traffic director’s accoutrement at the corner of Christminster Street Delphinia would hasten downstairs to ply him with tea, and Tom would accept, staying long into the morning in that warm, comfortable drawing room.  As time passed he pursued his role as traffic controller less and less:  instead, he would often arrive at her door, standing upon the threshold, his liberally greased hair plastered to his head with mathematical precision.  One  morning Delphinia showed Tom a very special room, behind a door at the end of her apartment.

“This is something of a shrine,” She said.   “It’s rather dusty, I’m afraid.”

It was a large, well-illuminated space, and around walls which had once been cream in colour were stacked canvases – hundreds of them.  Artwork was visible on some, not on others:  completed pictures against primed but naked canvasses, sketches against half-finished works.  Tom stood amazed, his eyes drinking in the profusion of colour and form.

“His studio.”  He breathed.

“His studio, yes.”  Delphinia did not mention that the contents of that room alone included thirty completed canvases, or that her son’s work, if an example ever reached the market, could command sums in excess of two hundred thousand pounds.  She lacked that much trust in Tom, at least for now.

Tom said the right thing.  “You must be very proud of him.”  He said.

Delphinia beamed.  “Yes, Tom.  I believe I am.”

The summer passed.  Tom came for tea once, twice, three times a week; and during those visits little was said, but much implied.    Upon one occasion Delphinia played a Chopin prelude on the Beckstein and Tom sat in a reverie so deep he seemed to be almost sleeping.

Then came a day in autumn when Delphinia, having passed a morning shopping, took her usual taxi home from the town centre.   She had taken advantage of the best of the day, for the last hour of fading daylight, which had been warning of things to come, was fulfilling its promise.  Rain hammered upon the taxi roof, bounced from the pavements.  Caught on the street, soaked pedestrians dashed or cringed beneath umbrellas, frozen moments of their discomfort brought into transplendent relief by sheets of lightning.   There was a queue of traffic building at the corner of Praed Street.   Delphinia’s driver muttered something.

“I beg your pardon?”  She enquired.

“I said, oh no not him again.”  The taxi driver repeated, “He needs sorting out, this one.”

Suspicion darker than raincloud filled Delphinia’s mind.  She strained her eyes against the gloom.   The arc of colour described by a golfing umbrella was unmistakeable.  “Tom!”  She sighed.   “Is he often here?”

“Know him, do you?  Lately, yes missus.  He used to be down your way, didn’t he – Christminster Street?  He’ll get himself arrested again, for sure.  A copper mate of mine reckons if they catch him again they’re going to get him sectioned:  you know, put away?  ‘Bout time, too.”

“Pick me up again at the lights, if I don’t come back to you.”  Delphinia instructed.  Once again in Tom’s case, she would act without thought for the consequences.  Fortunately she had the foresight to pack a brolly in her bag that morning, so she would avoid the full punishment of the elements, but the angry tea-tray shatter of thunder was warning enough as she hastened down the pavement to where Tom’s elegant ballet played to an unappreciative audience.

“Tom!  Come out of the road at once!”

Either ignored or unheard, she watched anxiously as Tom guided an ensnared car deeper into his trap.   Sirens whined in the distance.  The sound galvanised Delphinia into action and a determined Delphinia was not to be ignored, certainly not to be disobeyed.  She snatched Tom’s arm in a commanding grip, plucking him from the traffic and virtually frog-marching him, together with his picnic basket, back to her taxi.   The driver looked doubtful.

“He’s a tramp!  I don’t want him in my cab.”

Delphinia was in no mood to be diplomatic.  “He’s my guest, and I insist upon it.  Who should I report you to?”

Mouthing darkly, the cabby conceded.  “Keep him quiet.  I don’t want no trouble with the law.”

Outside, sirens were evolving into blue flashing lights.  A quick-thinking Delphinia thrust Tom’s signature brolly out of sight on the cab floor.  “Now remove that ridiculous hat!  It’s soaked anyway.”

To clear the pandemonium Tom had created took a little while, during which he twice tried to exit the cab and offer his assistance, each time to be restrained by Delphinia’s surprising strength.  Eventually the threat of police detention was behind them and the taxi got under way.

“Where do you live?”  Delphinia had never asked Tom this question before.

“Oh, not near here.”  Tom replied.

“He don’t live nowhere.”  The taxi driver had overheard.  “He gets into hostels from time to time, but mostly he sleeps rough down by the stock sheds, don’t you, mate?”

Tom said nothing.  Delphinia scowled.  “Is this true?”  Tom said nothing.  “Very well.  Take us to Christminster Avenue, driver.”

For once, Delphinia was disposed to tip heavily.  As he unloaded her bags, the cabby warned:  “Don’t you let him take advantage of you, lady.  Be careful, alright?”

It was well-meant, but ill-received.  “My good man;” Delphinia snapped back; “do I look as if I am to be taken advantage of?”

By the time Tom had helped her to and from the lift with her bags, and she had helped him out of his dripping mackintosh, Delphinia had come to a decision. 

“I have ample room.  You must stay here, with me.”

Thus her relationship with Tom entered a new phase.   She never once questioned the motives which led her to buy him clothes, cook meals for him, or use all her powers of persuasion when he seemed disposed to return to his former traffic-organising life.  Although with time he became a trifle more erudite, they conversed very little.   It was as if she had found a role she was always meant to play; and whether memories of her deceased son had a part, or if she was motivated simply by loneliness, was a matter for others to question, not her.

Others did, of course.  Her friends were slow to accept the apparently retarded man with his unruly appearance.  Many stayed away, a few became true confidantes:  interested in Tom, concerned about his life, concerned, too, for Delphinia.

Tom kept pace with change without effort or eloquence.   He seemed to move easily whichever way the wind blew and always ended up ahead of events; untouched by them and splendidly untouchable.  The taxi-driver’s warning had been needless:  although he accepted kindness when it was offered, Tom never sought favours or money.  For large measures of his time he sought nothing at all:  he could be happy for hours just sitting on the edge of his bed staring at the wall, or in Delphinia’s drawing room gazing out upon the Avenue and its peepshow of the sea.   There was only one request he had to make, one which took a month of agonising to put into words.

 “The harp.  I want to hear you play.”

Delphinia looked into the eyes of her sanguine companion, who even in the most expensive clothes managed to look ill-arranged and dishevelled, and sighed.    “Very well.”  She agreed.  “This afternoon.”

 Several locks defended Apartment 3A, each of which Delphinia opened, using keys from two separate rings.   She led Tom inside:  “I had this temperature and humidity control system fitted,”  She explained, indicating a control panel in the lobby.  “Come through.”

A plain panelled door opened upon a light and airy room.  Thin hessian matted the floor, mint-coloured walls were hung with further examples of her deceased son’s exemplary art.  An intricate plaster frieze ran around the room at cornice height:   a crystal glass chandelier hung from a rose of immaculate design in a white plaster ceiling.

“My builder – Mr. Baxter – worked wonders: he disguised the soundproofing so effectively one would hardly believe it was there.  The acoustics leave a little to be desired, I’m afraid, but still…   Won’t you sit down?”

An accommodating blue sofa beneath a shaded window suggested itself, but Tom had missed Delphinia’s invitation, for his eyes were devouring the room’s centrepiece – a harp, tall and serene.

Delphinia saw the enthusiasm in Tom’s gaze.  “American, a Lyon and Healy.”  She took his arm gently.  “Sit down, won’t you?  I will play for you.”

Only when she sat, drawing the knee of her instrument to her shoulder did the import of this moment dawn upon Delphinia.   For so many years she had played her music alone here, in this soundproofed, closeted space.  No-one had heard, no-one had seen until now, and all at once an auditorium of years ago yawned dark and deep before her, the sounds of settling people, the suppressed coughs, the murmured words that always followed that first, polite applause, returned to her.  She played.  She played as she always did, her head lost inside the song, her eyes closed to all but the fleeting touch of the strings.

And Tom?  He listened in his own private rapture, solemn and deep, letting the sweet, quiet insinuation of harp music envelop him like a warm blanket.  Kessner, Parry and Pachelbel flowed over him as gently as sleep.  He did not know for how long she played, or the titles to all of the pieces he heard, although he knew many.  He only knew he was in the presence of hands of faultless eloquence.  He did not want it to end.

“Yes, I was a soloist, many years ago.”  Delphinia admitted as they ascended the stairs.  “When my husband was alive we travelled frequently, so it was not possible to pursue a career.  I was forced to give up eventually.”

“But you kept your harp.”

“Yes, I kept my harp.”

“You should go back to it again.  You play very well.”

Delphinia laughed a little musical laugh she had been cultivating of late.  “Oh, Tom, one can’t simply ‘go back’.  Anyway my dear, I’m too old.  I like to practice, though.  I enjoy the discipline.”

True friends who remained in Delphinia’s circle noticed a new intimacy in her manner, a softening of the autocratic glare.  She seemed well, she seemed happier.  This was attributed to Tom’s influence and by some to a very much closer relationship than was the case.  If Delphinia got to hear of this version she did not show it or resent it; and Tom?  Resentment was not part of Tom’s makeup.

Over years fast friendships must inevitably spawn a form of love.  More unlikely companions would be hard to find, yet Delphinia opened her life to this rumpled man, and he responded with unique sensitivity.  The balance between them was perfect; so much so that those around them quickly forgot Tom’s dubious past.  Delphinia quietly sequestered his golf umbrella and his picnic basket, hiding them from view.  When he discovered their absence, Tom paced the corridor mouthing his distress for a while, but he did not otherwise complain.

On a morning just before Christmas of their first year together,  Delphinia’s brother and his family appeared bearing gifts.  Geraint Morgan eyed Tom up and down.

“Who is he?”  He demanded.  “What’s he doing here?”

Delphinia’s response was icily controlled.  “Tom is my friend.  He is here by my invitation.”

Tom ambled forward with his best attempt at a smile much improved by Delphinia’s insistence that he visit a dentist, offering his hand.   Morgan deliberately ignored it.   “It’s strange time of day for him to be visiting, isn’t it?” He said.

“Tom isn’t visiting.  He is my companion.  He lives here.”

Rachel Morgan made her first contribution to the conversation, in the form of a derisive snort.

“Well!”  Said Geraint:  “Whatever would Robertson think of this?”

Delphinia pursed her lips:  “It has been many years now, Geraint.   If he was here, though, I believe he would thoroughly approve.”   The reference to Robertson Jett, her deceased husband, made her bridle.  “My decisions and actions are scarcely your affair, now are they?”

“We want to see you kept safe;” Rachel chipped in.  “We don’t want you taken advantage of by some dirty old man.”

“Tom is neither dirty nor particularly old!”  Delphinia snapped back.  “And I insist you stop referring to him as if he was not in the room!”

The visit was as brief as it was acrimonious.  Tom retired discreetly, only re-emerging after they had left.

“Don’t concern yourself, Tom.”  Delphinia soothed him. “My brother’s family always rather lacked the social graces.  They come once a year; I never hear from them otherwise.” She unwrapped the present Rachel had thrust into her hand and stared at it disparagingly.  It was a book.  “I find this woman such an uninspiring author.  Do consign it to the kitchen waste, there’s a dear, will you?”

The following morning Delphinia found a policewoman standing at her door.  Geraint Morgan had voiced his suspicion that ‘a helpless old lady was being victimised by a confidence trickster’, and although she was quickly able to allay those fears she took heed of the warning Geraint’s behaviour implied.  She went to see her solicitor.

For five years Tom and Delphinia pursued an idyllic existence, he a devoted audience for her playing whether upon the piano or the harp, she often bemused, sometimes amused, but always stimulated by his stilted conversation, his unpredictable ‘ways’.  Theirs was a very private life, one in which they rarely ventured out beyond the usual demands of shopping or a limited social round, though exceptionally in their second summer they spent a month in France, renting a small house Delphinia had visited in her younger days.  But she fretted when she was deprived of her instruments and Tom understood this better than any.

To all things must be an end, and the end came to Delphinia one spring morning.  Sitting opposite Tom at the breakfast table with a soft sun shining in at the window she suddenly leaned towards him:

“Dearest Tom…”  She began, trying to utter a sentence she would never complete.

A stroke.  That was the doctor’s verdict, when Tom found the presence of mind to call him.   Mercifully quick, was his medical opinion – she would have known very little about it.  Tom, he had his own opinion, and he grieved for Delphinia in his own, very silent way.  Then he went and recovered his box and his brolly (he had always known where Delphinia had hidden them) and he made for the door.

Cynthia Braithwaite met him on the stair.  Cynthia was Delphinia’s most intimate acquaintance outside her companionship with Tom, and she had readily agreed to take care of him if anything happened to her.  Tom was not to become homeless; he was to continue to live as the new tenant in Delphinia’s apartment, on condition he looked after her harp.  In the events that followed, Cynthia honoured her promise.

At the funeral (he was the only one of the solemn gathering to be kept dry by a brightly coloured umbrella) Tom wept; and at the reading of the will he showed very little emotion when he learned he was Delphinia’s principal beneficiary.  An annual income in trust and tenure of the apartment for life, with an additional allowance for the harp.  Cynthia was bequeathed twenty thousand pounds as a remembrance of her friendship and ‘patience with a cranky old woman’.  The Morgans were left three paintings of her son’s collection; they were to be allowed to choose which three.

The Morgans were outraged, of course, because they had seen the entire inheritance as rightfully theirs, and Tom had, in their view, stolen it from under their noses.  Without Cynthia’s Rottweiler-like tenacity Tom might still have been legally bullied out of his entitlement, but with her help he stood firm and survived the legal challenges which followed.

Finally, there came a day when Geraint and Rachel Morgan arrived at the apartment to select their choice of canvases.  Cynthia met them at the door and Tom was nowhere to be seen, but as they examined the pictures on the passage wall the gentle strains of the Leibestraum wafted out to them from the drawing room.  So well-known a piece might have passed them by, yet it had a divinity even they could not ignore.

“That’s a fine recording.”  Geraint commented.  “Wonderful tonal quality.  Who is the artist, do you know?”

Cynthia was standing at the end of the corridor, next to the kitchen door.  “Yes, I do.  This…” she waved towards a substantial canvas hung to take full advantage of the light; “…is his portrait.  I think it’s a true Jett masterpiece.  It captures a virtuoso at the height of his powers, don’t you agree?”

Geraint Morgan stared at the picture.  Cynthia went on:  “He would have been performing the Brandenburg at the Albert Hall that September:  the end of a triumphant world tour.  Then one day he just stood up and walked out of rehearsals.  He was never seen again – a nervous breakdown, maybe?  No-one knew.  Delphinia was the only one who did, and she found out just a few weeks ago, going through the paintings in Clarence’s old studio.  I’m sure she had a premonition.”

Rachel Morgan had joined her husband.  She read the appellation at the foot of the work aloud:  “Thomas Brabham DeVere, pianist.  Oh my god!  Isn’t that…?”

Geraint nodded.  Wordlessly he walked back to the drawing room door and opened it.  Tom looked up from the Beckstein, but he did not stop playing.

© Frederick Anderson 2014.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo credit: Mabel Amber from Pixabay

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Six: Reflections

In the previous episode:

Dag Swenner’s health is improving as he follows the wild river, seeking first signs of civilization.

Meanwhile, Sala’s insistence that Celeris is a figment of Alanee’s imagination has induced him to materialize, and Alanee learns that he is Hasuga, dressed in a form she finds attractive.  His appearance is too much for Sala, so Hasuga blanks her memory of their meeting.

Alone in her chambers, Alanee discovers her powers:  using telekinetic energy, she can move the heavy silver ball, and now the mysterious mirrors beckon…

“Well?”  Ellar settles an ebony statuette she has been examining on her desk.  “What is the explanation?”

“There is none, Lady.” Sala shrugs her shoulders.  “She insists the man she calls Celeris bedded her last night.”

They are in the part of Ellar’s apartments the Mediant calls her study, a small offshoot of her main reception area.  Here she spends most of her waking hours, working at a large oak desk and admiring the collection of effigies and small busts that adorn the walls.

“There was no man with her?”

“No, Lady.”

“So what conclusion may we draw?”   What ails Sala?  Ellar’s mediator stands sullenly before her, a recalcitrant schoolgirl called before her principal.  There is no flicker of challenge, no answer in her eyes.

“That she imagines him, Lady.”

“That is an explanation, then, is it not; an imaginary bedfellow?  The strain, one supposes.  She is under a great deal of stress.  She insists upon it?”

“Yes, Lady.”

“Very well.  Thank you Sala.”

“I may go?”

“You  may go.  Return to Lady Alanee later, say, at six o’clock.  Stay with her then, if you can.”

“Yes, Lady.”

“Oh, and Sala?”  Sala is already on her way to Ellar’s door. She turns.  “You are wise enough in the ways of the world, I am sure.  You would be able to tell if Lady Alanee had, in fact, spent her night with a man, wouldn’t you?”  Sala does not reply.  “Well, I am asking your opinion: did she?”

“I cannot be sure.”

Sala departs, with Ellar’s discerning eyes scrutinizing her every step.  The alteration in the young woman’s posture, her voice, even her look is inescapable:  where now to place her trust?  While Sala is watching Alanee (will that still be possible?)  who will be watching Sala?  These questions may not detain her:  Valtor’s insistent message on her summoner is calling her to High Council.  Sire Trebec, recently returned from his mission to wrap up the Dometian affair, has prepared his final report and she, as a member of the Council, must attend.  She does so with some misgivings, knowing that on the Domo’s recommendation Alanee has been excluded from this gathering, which is setting something of a precedent, for it will be the first time in history that a full Council has convened without a Seer.

Alanee, meanwhile, is occupied with matters far removed from her station as Seer.  She is quickly acquiring the trappings of a member of The City’s privileged inner circle.  Unable now to walk freely in The City and shop for herself, she has no difficulty in selecting a reputable interior designer to attend her.

Prinius, it transpires, is a friend of Tocatta – a very close friend, if Prinius’s perspective is to be believed.  And certainly everything about his manner and bearing would seem to confirm that perspective, for he is dressed with the same careful precision, the same elaborate care.  His perfume is intense, his eyes warm, their earnest stare almost hypnotic.  A crescent moon of long grey hair flies about the fringes of his red fedora, for he is not young, and his long nose is purplish in hue and inclined to drip:  yet he illustrates his suggestions with expansive, eloquent gestures and he motivates like a heavy rainstorm, so that within a very few hours the inexplicable white suits have gone from Cassix’s grim walls to be replaced by brightly coloured hangings, while druggets temper the severity of the flagstone floor.  A pair of comfortable red leather couches have discovered space for themselves, adjacent to a low table in warm rosewood, above which naked lighting has been sacrificed to something altogether friendlier and more responsive.

He can do nothing immediately for the stone walls themselves:  “All that writing to be scrubbed off, then plaster panels, my dear Lady, are absolutely essential!  I will attend to it.  And graphics – something rather pretty I imagine?”

Or for the more idiosyncratic furnishings of the room:  the mirrors:  “Oh my dear!”

The large spinning disc of undecipherable purpose:  “A certain brutal charm.  One could always persuade the unwelcome guest to recline there.”

The silver orb:  “Quite impressive, really, though I would imagine completely useless?”

– or the doorless wooden edifice that dominates the inner side.  “That!  Oh Habbach!  I couldn’t even begin!  One might cover it with something; a tent, perhaps?”

On the whole Alanee is sufficiently pleased: when she surveys the beginnings of Prinius’s transformation over a late lunch ordered in from an exorbitantly pricey restaurant, she feels a certain satisfaction: it may never look like a home, but at least Cassix’s old cave is a little less habitable to bats.

Left to herself once more, allowing the clouds of loneliness to close in, she greets a summons from her door chime as a welcome sound.  She answers it half-expecting Sala to be standing there, rather than a deferential young man with a parcel in his hand.  It is the book she ordered the previous day.

Alanee tips the young man for his trouble and thanks him.  When unwrapped, the book nestles cosily in her grasp; leather cunningly distressed into eloquent age, blank unlettered pages mellowed at the edge, roughly cut, a lock not rusted, but so convincingly worn it might easily trace its ancestry through two thousand years, all exemplars of the forger’s art:  a book which until now she has only seen inside her head, made manifest. It is so deceiving as to give her mission substance and purpose, and new hope for its success.  She conceals it beneath a chair in her bedroom for the moment, while she plots her next move.

Is it the book that draws Alanee’s thoughts back towards Cassix’s mirrors?  She is suddenly reluctant to sit on that ancient leather chair, to face the three angled reflections that fill one end of the wall.  Whether the three further, smaller mirrors behind the chair deter her, or whether there is some more obscure reason she cannot know.  Nevertheless she takes her place in their midst and once seated she can find no justification for fear.  The whole thing looks and feels like a museum piece – they are mirrors, no more, no less.  What were Hasuga’s words?  ‘Gain their trust.’  Without the slightest clue what that may mean, she studies the large centre glass.

At first, the images she sees seem no more than different aspects of the room created by angles in the glass; however, it crosses her mind that she is looking not at first-hand reflections, but deflections from the mirrors behind her.  Yet, if that is so, why does her own reflection not appear anywhere?  She is sitting between the smaller and the larger mirrors, so how can her image be missing?  The answer may never have come to her had she not chanced to direct her gaze upward to where, concealed by changes of level in the ceiling, are more mirrors:  not just three but a whole battalion of them!  So…. the reflections she sees are being thrown back and forth, up and down, between all of these surfaces.  It is a wonder after so many journeys that they bear any resemblance to reality at all!

‘Gain their trust.’

Half-consciously using her new-found kinetic sense she finds she can fractionally change the attitude of one of the glasses.  Instantly the images alter.  In one glass now she sees a reflection of the city gardens; in another Prinius’s new wall hangings show up perfectly, in the third the strange wooden room with no door appears.

Alanee alters the angle of one after another of the glasses, fascinated by the finesse she can achieve, and their effortless synchronisation.  In part she is playing, revelling in her new-found abilities: yet there is rightness in each adjustment, a process that seems to involve switches within her mind.  And something more…

 Her fingers stroke the old leather of the chair.  Does she imagine it or is there a worn indentation where her hands rest on each arm?  On a whim she goes to a bag of items the  drabs retrieved from the watchtower, selecting from among them those two stones Cassix gave her.  She seats herself with a stone beneath each hand.

There are no revelatory flashes of insight, no journeys to the stars; just a tiny white spot upon the spinning metal of the disc on the wall beside her, and the micron-thickness beam of light that creates it, lancing straight from the mirrors above her head.  In the third mirror before her, the wooden room appears.  One end of the room has somehow acquired a door, and the door (a whole carved panel hung upon great iron strap hinges) is opened wide.  So little should be distinguishable in the gloom of that windowless interior, but one thing clearly is.  Upon a simple chair inside the door sits a very old, very thin man in a hempen smock.  This man’s gnarled and twisted limbs speak of age as an old tree speaks – of weathered suffering; of the ravages of the seasons.  The sockets of his eyes are hollowed, his skin as dry as ash.  He is unmoving:  his bones of fingers clasped before him, his head bowed.

Shocked, Alanee turns to look directly at the wooden room.  There is no open door.  It looks as unassailable as ever.  So, the combination of stones and mirrors can transform their reflections and the stones provide the switch.   Setting her teeth, she tightens her grip upon the stones.

She does not instantly recognise what she sees.  The Balkinvel reflected in the glass bears little relationship to the village she once, not long ago, called her home.  And she does not expect to see such a picture – why should she?  She is several thousand miles from the Hakaan – it cannot be a true reflection.  Yet she sees it:  it is there.

The Terminal is there:  there and burning, with the roof half-gone where flames lick through and a pall of black smoke rising into the angry sky.

Look at the sky, Alanee!

No-one douses the flames:  there is no bucket-chain, no anxious crowd.  It burns unattended – it will burn to the ground.  A village street that might be deserted were it not over-run by rats, creatures not given to exposure yet so frightened they run in the open, running for their lives, and cottonweed everywhere, un-swept, neglected.

The gap where her own house once stood; the house of her friend Shellan, its windows broken and door swinging in the wind.  Old Malfis’s immaculate garden overrun with weed; so quickly!  Did the old man die?  House after house empty of life – where are they all?  The Makar, Carla, Paaitas, Namma?  A pain stabs at her heart.  Her village; her life, destroyed.  Why? 

“Hasuga!  Did you do this?”

“I?  No, Alanee, not I.”

Then, before eyes becoming attuned to horror, the curtain falls, if curtain it be.  Some veiled nemesis descending from that sky, spinning and purging as if culling a memory.  Alanee sees it in the mirror; sees what Ripero saw, in that second when the love of his life was taken from before his eyes.

Look at the sky, Alanee!

Do the mirrors move by the insistence of her thoughts, or upon some impulse of their own?  They tilt towards the heavens – not greatly, but enough;  dragging her awestruck eyes above that scything whirlwind, high into the atmosphere, through the jagged, ragged lightning and the black moil of rage into a calmness of the palest blue.  She sees the cloud-base as another country: white mountains with black anger at their base, rolling hills, pleasant valleys basking in a gentle sun.  And before the mirrors’ eye they take upon themselves a life, so for an instant she might be gazing down upon fields, rivers, brave little towns clinging to those insubstantial wisps of vapour as if they were real:  chimneys smoke, men go out with ancient tools to till the red soil, and children!  She has never seen so many children!  They play in the streets, follow the plough, shout and laugh among themselves as if they have no cares at all!

Only for an instant.

The white line begins as a livid dot of such intensity it burns her eyes, spreading laterally, a swinging blade to level everything, scythe everything away.  Its signature screech obliterates all other sound, drowns the cries of those who, in the seconds before the coming know it is the end of all things.  From its epicentre white death rises to a cone, a burning ball:  then silence.

Alanee can bear to see no more.  With all the force of her mind she snatches her grip from the stones, turns the mirrors back into her own world.  The white spot on the disc disappears.  Her heart is so full it can hardly stand the excess of compassion and pain exuding from the glass: the mirrors seem to have some kind of empathy, some sort of life-force of their own.  They seem to be regretful, but surely that cannot be?  She remembers that once as a child she believed inanimate objects such as carvings or even farming machines could feel and move.  They never did, until now.

For a while she paces, pours herself a drink, then two.  With every step she tells herself the things she witnessed cannot be true.  Balkinvel cannot have been destroyed so fast; the work of a thousand years undone in a few cycles.    She was in such a low state she saw predictions of doom.  If she can change her own mood, the predictions will become more optimistic too.  Alanee knows nothing of Ripero, or how his village and his life was wiped away.  So she has no precedent for the horror she has seen befall Balkinvel, and the cloud-land vision is so preposterous she must dismiss it as fancy.

With the aid of a couple more drinks, by the time Sala visits Alanee’s humour has changed completely.  Paia, she has decided, is a very acceptable spirit:  she applauds Cassix’s choice, not guessing that it was a choice made for very specific reasons.

#

A first citrus tint of sunlight feels its way across the valley, casting the spark that will turn the waters of the river into a necklace of gold.  In long shuffling shadows night creatures bury themselves, finding tunnels into wombs of safety.  Dawn is chill of a depth no other chill can match.  It sends icy tendrils into bone.

From his perch behind a veil of acacia Dag has a panorama of all the river basin spread out before him.  Last night he began to climb, having made a decision to leave the river and gain the summit of a hill that rises behind him.  When he first heard the voices, he had yet another thousand feet to go.

He has followed the river for days now; hunting or fishing for food.  In all that time he has seen no sign of occupation, though the land is fertile: there is no track, no tell-tale smoke haze in the sky; nothing.  Then, suddenly last night, pushing his way through a thicket of bracken on the green hill, he heard sounds, distant chatter, undistinguishable as any form of language, but certainly, as he thinks, human.  Remembering his fugitive status, the acacia became his inhospitable bed for the night.  Now, in the dawn, he listens; he watches.

Yes, the voices begin again with the rising of the sun.  Few at first, then a rising clamour.  Whoever these people are, they are obviously neither hunting for food nor afraid of discovery, whilst he, Dag, cowers behind his cloak of foliage suppressing shivers as best he can.  Here, the wide bowl of the valley is some six miles across with mountains to the further side, their snowy peaks already blushed by the rose of sunrise.  The trees no longer reach to the waterside, for the river has grown languorous.  It meanders now, lazy amid bogs of poppy-rich meadow grass and reed, host to fronds of willow, a footing too uncertain for the stalwarts of the forest.  Colour is everywhere; hydrangea and cyclamen, Acacia and tulip, rhododendron and cornflower.  And still of the owners of the voices there is no sign, no life other than that of a dappled deer on the opposite river bank, far away and oddly so much bolder than he, as it takes dancing steps towards the water’s edge.

Almost beyond Dag’s powers of sight, the river turns southward around a gentle hill which juts out into the widest part of the watercourse: a promontory topped by a random scattering of trees; a tulip or two, a walnut, an umbrella pine.  As the light of morning gathers it reveals some detail of this higher ground:  there are features there which, even from this distance, seem strange to Dag’s discriminating eye – the grass is more evenly spread, there are no bushes or rocks to break up the line.  He tries a simple trick:  closes his eyes, turns away, then turns to look again; and yes; there is a movement there, two far-off figures so small at this distance they are little more than dots!  They move as children might in play, to and fro about the grassy slope; running, perhaps?  They are minute, but not so little that he cannot distinguish the human touch.  People!  For better or worse, good or ill, he cannot avoid civilisation forever.  The time has come.

Glad of action, Dag thinks he will move closer: stay hidden until he learns more.  Who are they?  They should be Dometians, but he is unsure how far he might have travelled, whether he might have strayed into the higher valleys of Eastern Braillec.   Whoever they are they must have heard what happened to their fellow citizens, so they would know and understand whence he came.  And this is his concern, for with Ripero he saw too plainly the fate of those refugees on the Dometian Plain.  Though his heart would guide him back to the Consensual City, in his head there is a warning.  Does the City wish him dead?

He has no time to do more than form his plan before choice is taken from him.  From nowhere, it seems, a figure rises before him, a figure with bright feverish eyes tearing aside the branches of acacia.  From behind him other unseen hands snatch and pin his arms.  A loop of thick twine binds them into captivity.  By the strength of many he is thrust face forward into the sun.  And what he sees draws a cry of disbelief from his lips…

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

Picture Credits:

Arto Martinem from Unsplash
Stacey Gabrielle-koenitz-Roselle from Unsplash

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And This Will Not Work…

The governments of Western nations have, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, evolved systems devoted to treating their citizens en masse.   They have done so deliberately and persistently, neglecting the very obvious effects upon population and climate, even turning a blind eye to health, and Nature’s ineffable way of putting right everything they do wrong.

The results?    Bigger conurbations, bigger transport infrastructure, bigger shopping malls, bigger schools, bigger hospitals, and a vast jelloid mass of shifting population, dashing expensively hither and thither, regardless of damage caused.   In Nature’s terms, a sitting target.

If, now, we are sitting in our little hutches listening to the uncomfortable scratching sound of chickens coming home to roost, we have no-one to blame but ourselves.  It was always going to happen, because governments are too stupid to see beyond the edges of their desks…

If, after a token period of self-flagellation and noisy penance, we think our sins are forgiven and we can go back to doing things as before, we are just as stupid.

We have a chance to do things differently.  We have an opportunity to ditch the school system and establish one that uses home tuition and technology as its base; to finish off the daily dash to the city and adopt home working and video conferencing in its place, to recycle all the aeroplanes and trains the world doesn’t really need when oceans can be crossed with the tap of a ‘send’ button, to bring people back to their small, local communities and to provide them with a hospital that is nearby and doctors who actually care.

We can do it.  The technology is there!  All we have to sacrifice is the relentless drive for some obscure god we have invented, by whose edict we judge the success of our personal lives –

So, will we?  Sadly, no.

Instead we will fall back upon the only option we have courage enough to take – to re-open, to continue to construct, to herd our children into stockades to be taught, into mass wellness machines to be cured, and into mass graves when we die.

When we look at our existence through a tunnel of dead imagination, that is all we can see.

Footnote:

While we recoil in horror at the worldwide signpost of 300,000 Coronavirus deaths being passed, it is worthwhile remembering that more or less exactly a century ago Spanish Flu proved far more virulent for our ancestors:  deaths worldwide were certainly no less than 17 million, and probably as high as 100 million by 1921 – more lives than were claimed by World War One.

It was not the first ‘peak’ of that disease – in 1918-19 – that destroyed the vast majority of those lives, but the second.   In 1920-21.

Picture Credit: Mourning 51 from Pixabay

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Thin Ice – Another from the Archives…

There will always be dysfunctional people. Just as there will always be those who skate elegantly across the pond of life, so there will be those for whom life is a gauntlet of thin ice. I remember once, in discussion with a colleague about a stroke of misfortune that had visited a then-girlfriend, George remarking that ‘bad luck seemed to follow her around’.
This is a truth newly awakened in me each time (and there are many times) I find myself witnessing a disintegration in progress, and the absolute helplessness I feel before the relentless juggernaut of human nature. I can only watch as, in apparent slow motion, two irresistible forces match up to each other. I can do nothing to stop the explosion of destructive energy which follows.
From the shallows of old age, there is a morbid attraction for the tumult that forms about the thinner and cracking ice. To watch the inevitable and not to turn and walk away up the riverbank is dangerously close to schadenfreude, and I neither like myself nor respect my own history when I yield to that temptation. After all, these are scenes from my own past: I genuinely want to step between the protagonists and keep them apart. But I have no wisdom in this arena; and even if I had, wisdom has no part to play.

White Goods counselling

This was a few years ago. Tony was a generous man of nearly my own age, not in the bloom of health perhaps, but still walking in the sun when he found a partner younger than he, slim and apparently self-confident with a willing smile; a paragon of something not quite within the powers of description but mother to two adolescent children, a girl and a boy.
Within three months they found a house – a modest semi-detached with a garden – and moved in together; a course of action which might have seemed sudden, but the days grow short as you reach November, and it would be hard to criticize them for reaching out to grasp at happiness. To all appearances, this was the sort of consolation prize relationship many dream about but few attain, and all seemed well with Tony and Marian, his new-found friend.
Barely six months had passed before the first cracks showed. According to Tony, Marian’s expensive tastes did not match his modest income: she kept two horses, insisted upon her own car, and had a penchant for retail therapy. Two months later, again according to Tony, Marian drank heavily; Marian was bi-polar, Marian was ‘troubled by her nerves’. Marian suffered those slings and arrows stoically and made no accusations in return, but the outcome was inevitable.
Friends gathered around the two camps; battle lines were drawn. It was noticeable that of the two armies, Tony’s was much the smaller. They entered into skirmishes on his behalf with less enthusiasm and were conspicuously absent at key points in the fight. Like Custer at Little Bighorn, Tony stood tall; like Custer, Tony was too stubborn to realize he was hopelessly outnumbered.
No-one mentioned counselling.
Then, one Saturday morning as she hung out washing on their garden line, Marian announced calmly that she and Tony were not ‘getting on together very well’ and she was moving out. She had procured a new house locally, she told me, and would be gone ‘within the week’.
True to her word, as day seven dawned she and her children were to be seen loading boxes of possessions into her little car. They drove off and peace descended over the little house. A disconsolate Tony watched the remnants of his defeated army disappearing over the horizon. He stood alone.
For one day.
On the Monday morning at nine o’clock Tony went off to work. At nine-thirty Marian’s car drew up outside his house, where she stayed for the rest of the morning because her new accommodation had no washing machine and no garden. By midday she could be seen pegging out her washing on what now had to be regarded as Tony’s washing line. It was a temporary arrangement, she explained. It would be rectified as soon as she could procure the necessary equipment.
By Tony’s return in the evening Marian and her washing had vanished and the matter should have rested there – would have done, if Marian had fulfilled her intention to purchase her own washing machine and drier. Perhaps the temptation was too great, the answer too simple; or maybe with all her other commitments now she was single again new white goods were beyond her financial reach: whatever the reason, Marian kept coming back. Three times a week, her washing adorned Tony’s washing line, even to a point on one occasion when Tony’s own washing had to be deposed to make room.
Now Tony’s ear for bush telegraph was less than acute, but eventually this state of affairs had to come to light. You do not need to catch a rabbit red-handed to know it has trespassed in your cabbage patch. The evidence is provided by the cabbages. My choice of metaphor, by the way, is not accidental.
Marian had retained possession of a key. Her daughter knew its whereabouts. It was so available that one afternoon, in the grip of coital fever and desperately in need of privacy, she and her boyfriend let themselves into Tony’s house and thence into Tony’s spare bedroom. They were still there, deep in satisfied sleep, when Tony returned that evening.
I am unsure exactly what agreements the ensuing row produced, though a whiff of blackmail hangs in the air to this day. Suffice to say both Marian’s children spent the following weekend grudgingly treating Tony’s garden to a rather inexpert but well-intended makeover, and Marian’s washing forays no longer retained their clandestine nature. In fact, she often arrived with the basket before Tony had left, and on increasingly frequent occasions did not leave on the same day, or the next.
These events took place, as I have said, a few years ago. Tony is older now by double those years, and poorer by several more: but Marian, though she has still a house of her own, spends little time in it, and a lot of time in Tony’s, if only because of the volume of her washing. As far as I know, she never bought her own machine, and if she did, she never uses it.
The moral of this story? If there is one, it might point out there are many versions of ‘happily ever after’ which even within one partnership may not coincide. And a further point: as a bachelor in need of a life partner, your first consideration should probably be the purchase of a good washing machine.

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Five: Apparition

In the last episode:

Alanee, now officially the city’s Seer, is introduced to Cassix’s old apartment, and its peculiar array of wooden structures, artefacts, and mirrors.  She is sad to discover how her promotion has altered her relationship with Sala, who makes it plain she must act as Ellar’s eyes and ears.   In the midst of her depression, Celeris visits her, raising her mood, and they spend the night together.

Meanwhile, beside a river far away…

Dag Swenner’s body is healing well; a heat that spreads within him brings balm to each organ and limb, making each torn place whole, as though by needle and thread it is stitching him back together.  Although he was on the brink of death, by some mechanism he cannot understand he is no longer dying:  He has felt stronger, true, but minute by minute his vitality grows.

The stench has been intensifying, drifting upriver on the wind for more than a mile now, so the discovery of Ripero’s remains, though hardly recognisable from the scavengers’ touch, comes as no surprise to Dag.  His first instinct would be to seek a burial place, but here among rocks and tree-roots, lacking any appropriate tools, he would find none:  so he comforts himself with the evidence that Nature will take his rescuer to herself.  All he can offer is a prayer for a soul already departed and this he does. He clambers by, greeting the new air thankfully.

Beyond the river bend the valley widens, where hills to either side sweep back, and tree cover is forest no more, but tranquil woodland.  There is no tread of civilisation yet, but Dag expects it will not be long before he finds ground given to fields, a trodden path, the creatures of domesticity:  he wonders then what sort of welcome awaits him – whether those who slaughtered the Dometians on the plain are intent upon his death, too.  Whose company may he safely seek?

#

Alanee’s disappointment at waking to find Celeris’s space in her bed unoccupied is brief:  after all, he was with her into sleep and she is sure he honoured his promise.  She has slept late upon her draught of paia and loving contentment – now there are the challenges of a day to be met.

Tsakal in hand, she taps out the bookseller’s number on her summoner.  He sounds chagrined.  “Lady, you are a hard task-master.  Yes, it is ready, but the glues must dry and the lock must be added.  I shall have it completed by three.”

“Very well – thank you.  Please place it in a plain box, then wrap it and have it sent up to the Seer’s chambers.  No-one must open the wrapping or discover what is inside.  I want it as a surprise for my coupling.”  She knows this last excuse sounds lame, but she despises the need for artifice and is beginning to be careless of it.  Besides, with Celeris so fresh in her thoughts, Hasuga’s schemes have suffered something of an eclipse.

Thus, with the matter of the faked book in hand, Alanee has time to reflect upon her night with Celeris.  The warmth of his memory remains with her:  his way of touching her, his consummate skill as a lover – how quickly he has learnt!    A door chime disturbs her reverie.  Sala stands outside.

“Are you going to admit me this time?” 

“Yes, I’m sorry.  Do come in, ba.”  Alanee adds, defensively,  “He isn’t here.”

Sala nods, dourly,  “I know he isn’t.”

“You know?  You saw him leave?  I thought we agreed there were no cameras in here!”

“There are none in the chambers.  But there are several in the corridor outside and one cannot move about the upper levels without surveillance. That’s nothing new – simply the way it’s always been.”

“I see.  What time did he go?  I wasn’t awake.”

Sala is looking at her curiously, as if she is trying to apply reason to something that doesn’t quite fit.  All the evidence before her is of a woman who has passed a night with a man; and yet….

“He hasn’t left.  He hasn’t left because he never came.”

Why does the cheap response in Alanee’s head make her want to smile?  She avoids it.  “Well, I’m sorry you missed him then…”

“I reviewed the surveillance after you turned me away and again this morning.”  Sala puts her hands on Alanee’s shoulders; “Shortly after I left yesterday, you came to the door again.  You opened it, but you did not step outside.  You shut it.  Later, drabs came – to clean for you, I assume.  They left two hours before midnight.  Meantime you had food delivered from the Caldeg Restaurant down the corridor.  Then I came to see where you were and you shut the door in my face.  No-one else has been here, and nobody has left.  I’m the first one through that door since the drabs left you last night.”  Sala exhales, as though she has expended all the breath in her body.  “Now I’ll have a cup of your tsakal.”

Alanee cannot resolve the confusion in her mind.  In the kitchen, she stumbles around clumsily as she puts the tsakal together, unable to think.

“That can’t be,”  She protests:  “Celeris was here.”

“Alanee!  The truth?”

“Why would I lie to you?  He must have some way – he must be able to deflect the cameras. The drabs: ask the drabs:  they saw him here.  The food delivery man; ask him.”

“Yes, we did ask him.  You accepted the food at your door:  he saw no-one else.”

“But Celeris was standing right behind me…”

“As for the drabs, there is something odd there, I admit.  They were all personal servants of Sire Hasuga, not normally the grade of worker assigned to cleaning duties.”

“Did you ask them?”

“We can’t.  They’re nowhere to be found.”

“What?”

“They’re Sire Hasuga’s own complement, so he may dispose of them as he wants.  He seems to have – well – disposed of them.  We can’t track them down anywhere in the city.”

In Alanee’s mind there is a truth too awful to contemplate.  She is so preoccupied she fails to notice how Sala’s pallor, as she stands in the doorway facing her, has changed.  She does not see the mediator’s colour drain from her cheeks, or her wide, disbelieving stare.

A soft voice speaks from behind her left shoulder.

“You see me now.” 

For a second time in a day, Sala’s self-assurance fails her, as a young nobleman, dressed in all the formal regalia of the city, materialises from empty air.  At just this moment Alanee realises how she has brought Celeris to her: she, and someone else.  And that someone….

“It is you, isn’t it?”  She says.

Celeris answers:  “You already knew that.”

“A hologram!”  Sala snaps triumphantly.  “A bloody hologram!”

Celeris smiles.  He takes the cup of tsakal Alanee has prepared and brings it to Sala.  He offers it to her shaking hand, and when she seems about to drop it he closes his own hands around hers, steadying her.

“Can a hologram do this?”

Agape, Sala cannot speak.  She cannot look at him.  She sinks back against the jamb of the door, trying to find her legs.

Alanee says, quietly and levelly:  “Sala ba; greet Hasuga in one of his more attractive disguises.  He also does a Music Man, if you’ve ever met one of those?”  And of the beautiful man, she asks, stone-faced:   “How did this happen?” 

“You thought of me.  You are troubled.”

“I make you appear?”

Celeris’s smile is suddenly quite child-like. “You and I, together.  Part of me may be Hasuga, but Celeris is how you prefer to see me, so I am partly you.”

 “You found your way – into my mind?”

“We both knew it would be so.  Lady, I am The City.   No-one is immune, not even you.”

 “And so,”  Alanee voice trembles:  “You can turn my own mind against me?  You can just use me?  You can do that and I will just lie there and…and….you can violate me and nothing can stop you?  You can make flesh that isn’t real?”

“I am real enough.  You could have rejected me.  You did not.”

“This morning, you deviant, I was debating in my head how I might be in love – in love – with you!”  She spits out her words:  “You made me love a fake, you bastard.  From the fake bloody music in my head to the tailored-to-fit body to the marvellous bloody mind – all fake, fake, fake!

She hurls the tsakal cup that she has made for herself.  Celeris catches it calmly.  “You would not accept me in Hasuga’s body.  You are uncomfortable with that.  This body is defined by the image in your mind.  You chose it.  Do you know that for each of my thousands of years I have never once thought how my body must look, until these last two cycles?  Do you know how it feels to experience so many new sensations?”

Sala – where is Sala?  She has retreated.  She sits upon the edge of Alanee’s bed amid the ruck of unmade linen with head in hands.

In her kitchen Alanee is in full spate, somewhere between fury and bitterness, mortification and pure depthless misery:  “Oh!  And I’m meant to sympathise, am I?  I’m meant to understand?  Suppose all I see is the spoilt brat who gets what he wants? Who always gets what he wants?  A spotty adolescent who plies my heart with tricks because he can and because it doesn’t matter to him – I’m just another ‘good game’.”

Out of breath, Alanee has to pause, clutching at herself to squash the emptiness inside.  After all, how can you teach propriety to a child who has been pampered and spoilt for millennia?  Where do you begin?

The dark-eyed figure is of Celeris, but the words are clearly Hasuga’s.  He asks, without artifice:  “I have done wrong?”

Alanee replies in crystals of ice.  “I think that’s been the essence of the conversation so far, don’t you?  Hasuga, you deceived me!  You made me believe I could become close to someone again.”

“As in ‘love’?  That is some special thing?  My Mother often spoke of it.”

“No.  Not that kind of love.  Adult love;  mature love.”  Oh why is she explaining this?  What on earth difference can it make?

“Procreation, then?  That I understand.”  Something in his reply does not balance with the unfeeling expression on his face.  Alanee sees it.  Has she struck a chord at last?

“You know it’s more than that.”

But he shakes his head and turns away.  Perhaps to hide some manifestation of guilt, though Alanee cannot know it, and the moment, as so many of the great moments in her life since she entered The City, passes

Her fury has calmed, leaving a cavernous rancour in its wake.  She is probing through darkness she experienced once, three years ago, and which she had wished never to revisit.  Now it is here, closing around her, such that she cannot avoid the bitter edge in her voice.  “Well, at least Sala’s convinced of your veracity now, and she’ll not keep the information to herself.  How are we going to explain that away to my enemies in The City, Hasuga?”

“I am not Hasuga.”  Celeris insists.  “Hasuga is separate from me.  I am a creation of you and Hasuga together.  Hasuga may speak through me, and you may speak to Hasuga the same way, but we are not the same physical entity.”

“Somehow that seems to make very little difference.”

“Very well.  Sala will not remember me when she leaves here.  The memory remains yours alone.”  Celeris takes Alanee’s hand.  She snatches it away.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Is touching so abhorrent?”  He frowns.  “As you will.  This message, Alanee, does come from Hasuga.  You must bring him the book.  The matter is urgent.  If you do not believe this, see as only you can see.  Look at the sky.”

“The book!  The book!  All that matters, then, is that I bring him this book that he is not supposed to read.  If you can materialise as real people and blank Sala’s memory for her, why for Habbach’s sake do you need me to fetch your bloody book for you?  You can dream up a High Councillor to just walk into the Inner Library and take the thing, can’t you?  Or an army?  Why not an army?  You like war games, it should be simple for you!”

“No, not simple.  You, Alanee; you alone must bring that book to Hasuga.  When you do it, you will understand.”

Alanee says dully:  “There is nothing I understand any more.  Tell him…you…whichever you are, I’ll get the book.  As for Celeris, I’d like him to leave now.  I don’t want to see him again.”

She turns her back on him, unable to look at his innocent expression for another second.  When she turns again, he is gone. Inside her head, though, his image remains:  is it also still inside her heart?

She discovers Sala in her bedroom, seated on her bed.  She feels compassion for the woman who was briefly her friend, although she believes she may never cross the wasteland that separates them again, because Sala is clearly ruined in spirit.  Her incomprehension of what has passed haunts every word she speaks.

“Who – what was that?  Man, machine, what?   Have I just seen Habbach come to earth, Alanee?  Is that what I just saw?  I mean…”  She spreads her hands, lost for speech.

“You met with Hasuga, or a least a part of him.”  Alanee sits beside her, taking her cold hands in her own.  “Sala-ba, when you walk away from here you’ll leave the pain behind, but maybe, I don’t know, you’ll see how things are.  How they must be.  Maybe that, if you can retain it somewhere, will be just enough to persuade you to think better of me.  That’s all I can hope.”

Sala inclines her head, takes her hands away.  The distance is restored.  “My life is simple, Lady Alanee.  There are things I do not want to see.”

Sadness upon sadness, then.  Alanee nods, helps her rise, sees her to the door of the chambers.  There she stands to watch Sala walk away, wondering if Celeris’s promise can possibly come true:  after all she has heard and seen, will Sala remember nothing?

Left alone, she goes to the kitchen, needing the distraction of some functional thing to dissociate from thoughts that are not welcome, places in her mind she feels she may not go.  So she makes tsakal for herself, cleaning up the mess she created when she threw her original drink at Celeris, preparing xuss bread even though she has no appetite, and nibbling at it as if it were a comforter.  She makes her bed with fresh linen, takes the sheets she shared with Celeris into the kitchen.  There, she drinks her drink and she contemplates the soiled linen for a while, as though it might give her answers to those elusive questions loitering outside the gates of her consciousness.  Then she takes a knife and shreds the sheets methodically.

Returning to the forbidding, unfriendly reception room she ponders that silver orb upon its stand before the window.

‘Think of it as a sort of exercise for the psyche.’ Celeris had told her:  when she had commented on its extreme weight, he had said, ‘Not for you’.   But whose words are whose, now?  Are they her own, from some inner ear?  She does not want to go there:  instead, she sits before the ball upon one of those unyielding chairs.  She thinks of the Book of Lore at its station in the Council Room: how, merely for interest while Portis and Ellar were talking, she raised it from the surface of the table with just the power of her thoughts, then lowered it again.

“So now you.”

Without any particular effort of concentration, she makes the orb rise from its stand.  It hangs, suspended, as if waiting for her command.

“Easy.  Too easy.”  

Now she focuses her thoughts upon it.  She makes it spin.  Gaining in confidence, she moves it laterally, away from its resting place, across the room.  This is more difficult, as though some relationship exists between ball and stand that may not be easily severed, but she finds a thought – resentment of the misfortunes of the past hours – that releases it.  Of a sudden it flies, leaping high into the ceiling of the room, darting towards the window.

“Whoa!”  Alarmed, she shoots out a defending hand, making the orb stop instantly.  Another discovery:  the hand is a sensitive, precise tool; by pointing at the orb, she can make it obey.  Alanee guides it back to its stand and as it settles, the wood flexes beneath its weight.  Still she cannot believe what she has done.  She wraps her arms about the orb, tries to lift it physically.  It will not move.

“Was that me or you?”  She pokes the question at empty air, but she knows Hasuga will answer.  He does.

“It was you.”

The voice is so close, so immediate she glances around, convinced that Celeris has returned.  The voice, though, is unmistakeably Hasuga’s.  “You are here?  Where are you?”

“Wherever you want me to be.  We need not share the same room in order to communicate.”

It dawns upon Alanee that Hasuga’s replies do not come to her through her sense of hearing.  She says aloud.  “So now I can move things with my mind?”

“Telekinesis; a cheap party trick.  Nevertheless it took Cassix twenty years to achieve a fraction of your success.  That is just a beginning.”

“Oh, yes.  A beginning?  Where is this going Hasuga?  Am I learning from you, or are you controlling me?  Like the book in the Council Chamber?”

“You are learning.  I told you I had given you power, didn’t I?  Now you are gaining the knowledge you need to use your power.  Meanwhile I am learning from you.  You can have no idea how much I have to learn; or how little time there is to learn it.”

“Why such an obsession with time?”  Alanee, from the Hakaan, has never been disposed to rush.

“Look at the sky, Alanee.”

“I’m looking at it!  I’m just seeing sky.”  The view from the window is of grey cloud.  There are rain-flecks on the glass.

“Look in the mirrors.  Gain their trust.  I must leave you now.”

The feeling is of a switch being thrown inside her head.  Suddenly she is alone and aware of it, left with the room’s cold echoes.  The walls rise about her like the damp rock flanks of a deep chasm, a fissure in the construction of the City.  She might even imagine the scent of moss, or the rhythm of dripping water.

Freedom of choice; if she really has power she has the strength to step aside from the path they, Hasuga, the High council, Sala, even Cassix would have her follow.  She stares at the triptych of mirrors.  With great deliberation, she turns her back.

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

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And I Can’t Sail my Yacht…

How am I a lucky man?

I’m a natural ‘Lockdowner’ – an instinctive hermit!  It’s my nature to sit on the sidelines – it’s just that the sidelines are a little more to the side, these days.  Retired and retiring – that’s me!

Alright, time to stop gloating.  I wouldn’t presume to instruct anyone how to live their life, but if your toes are beginning to twitch and you’re picking fights with the dog, here are a few possibly helpful tips from an old head.

1.  Married Bliss:

If you’re young and in love, being in each other’s arms for every minute of every day will be wearing a bit thin by now.  If you have grown cynical with age, it probably never held a great deal of attraction for you.  Either way, avoid extremes: criticizing your partner as they go about their daily tasks will start to carp after a while, ‘constructive suggestions’ may induce violence.  If you must offer ‘advice’, pick upon activity with potential for a soft landing – when the blinds need to be drawn and when not will merely result in a broken blind; commenting on deficiencies in ironing technique could end in physical injury.

2. Give each other space.  When you agreed to live together you never agreed to twenty-four hours of actual proximity.   You were both working.  You met briefly,  morning and evening.  That’s all you ever agreed to.  Change that arrangement as little as possible.  If you can’t, plead ‘self isolation’ and go and live in the shed.

3.   Manage your space.   This is particularly difficult in the UK, as very few of us inhabit mansions or castles where sat nav is needed to find the bathroom.  For most, the standard three-bedroom house can still, with a little ingenuity, afford ‘office’ space for each grown-up.  Once achieved, that’s PRIVATE TERRITORY.     If you want to share, use the router.

4.  Manage the children.    You can’t manage children – don’t try.  However, if you have a household PET you can corral them together as much as possible (this works best with dogs and cats – Iguanas, tarantulas and snakes might yield less satisfactory results).

5.   Avoid ‘news’ as much as possible. 

In UK ten minutes twice daily is all that’s necessary to keep up with the latest rules.  The rest is mawkish repetition of slogans meant to subdue the most obtuse of us, and propaganda to persuade us we are doing everything better than everybody else (untrue).  

6.  Take the six-foot gap convention seriously.  Social distancing means a reappraisal of our subject matter, unless we can be sure our conversation with the added volume required won’t be overheard;

“Mervyn!”

“Fred!”

“How are yer, lad?”

“Fine now, like!”

“How are the warts?”

“Clearin’ up.  That ointment’s marvellous

“Helluva weekend, wasn’t it?”

Save conversations on personal matters for texting, or, if you prefer, confidential chats with your fridge, microwave, or dish washer (avoid discussions with the cooker, they tend to get overheated:  nudge, nudge).  I read of someone who was outraged to think he had started talking to his fridge – I couldn’t understand that:  doesn’t everyone talk to their white goods?   I’ve had some the best advice from my tumble-dryer down the years.  Try it!

7.   Keep yourself interested.  Read, but target your reading.  Research something you can learn from – become knowledgeable in the sleeping habits of the Pipistrelle bat, or study  Welsh, so the next time you go to Portmeirion, you’ll be able to discuss china with the girls in the shop. 

Remember, boredom is at the heart of this thing.   Boredom is more deadly than any virus.

Enjoy lockdown, and above all, STAY SAFE!

Picture Credits:

Sharon Mccutcheon on Unsplash

R.I. Butov from Pixabay

Omni Matryx from Pixabay

Banner: Omni Matryx from Pixabay

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Four: The Seer’s Lair

Newly elected as Seer to The City, Alanee finds she is the target of popular dislike.  Pursued, she takes refuge in a book store where she orders a very specific book to be made.

Lady Ellar advises her she must move to Cassix’s old apartment in the Upper City.  Accompanied by Sala, she arrives at the door of her new home…

Alanee looks about her with eyes ready to believe almost anything; open-mindedness, after all, is usually the key to understanding.  Somehow though, in this instance, it is not.  Whatever she had imagined Cassix’s chambers might be, the world which admits her by an unassuming blue door is in every way outside her experience and challenges her acceptance of Cassix’s sanity, because it is so out of character.  How could she have expected, for instance, that the cavernous reception room’s severe walls of dressed stone would be strewn with graffiti taking the apparent form of mathematical equations, or that these would be linked by arrows and speech-bubbles in a language she does not recognise?   How should she explain the overall suits in strange white fabric hanging each side of a window which does nothing to blunt the room’s austerity, albeit commanding a fine view of the Balna Valley?  What could prepare her for the grim wooden shed-like structure with its intricately carved strings of acanthus and frieze of demonic figures that occupies so much space to her left? Like a room within a room, she thinks, yet lacking, despite a maze of knobs and panels, a door by which it may be entered? 

To her right a triptych of mirrors, each higher than wide, focuses on the window.  An image projector and behind that a chair face the mirrors; and behind the chair, though less than one-eighth their size, three further mirrors reflect partially their larger brethren, partly the wall on their left.  This wall is dominated by a large, perfectly circular, black metallic plate.

In the centre of the room a polished silver orb rests upon a stand of very dark wood.  In diameter this orb is almost half Alanee’s height, and as perfectly reflective as the mirrors, so wherever anyone moves within the room it picks up and distorts their image.  Two chairs made from tubular steel with hard red plastic seats flank its either side.

There is nothing here consistent with the incisive, clearly-spoken man Alanee met so briefly in life.  There is evidence of the constraints of age: the flagstone floor is littered with discarded papers, the tiny kitchen with stale or half-eaten food, and a small cold-room reveals unnamed horrors.  A  light gauze of dust veils everything.

Alanee expresses her thoughts in terms she has learned from Sala:  “Oh my dear!  I believe a little remodelling will be necessary.” She enters the bedroom, instructing two melancholy-looking drabs who have brought her personal effects.  “After you’ve cleaned this, fetch the bed and bedding from my apartment,” and she waves towards jumbled grey sheets on Cassix’s Spartan pallet.  “Throw that out, please.”

Sala, her eyes completely lacking their usual iridescence, merely looks on.  She has spoken little since she collected Alanee from her guarded apartment and led her, together with substantial sentries and a sad little entourage of dejected porters, to the secure elevators that allow privileged access to the upper city.  The ride up, and the struggle through less familiar corridors, was conducted in silence.

As soon as they are alone, Alanee asks:  “Sala-ba, whatever is the matter?”  Her friend is visibly trembling.

The reply is strangely subdued.  “Why, nothing, Lady.”

Lady?  Oh, Sala!”  Alanee would hug her, but Sala steps away.  “Ba?  Don’t you turn against me!  You must tell me!  What’s wrong?”

Sala avoids her gaze, speaking slowly and carefully:  “It has been made clear to me.  I did not realise the true extent of your eminence. I was foolish, mistaken; I had no idea.”

“Eminent, me?  Sala, they think I slept with him.  The Council are convinced I’m Hasuga’s whore!  Everyone believes I seduced Cassix to get this job!  Hardly the stuff of eminence!”

“I am to serve you.”  Sala says as though she is repeating a mantra:  “I am to attend to your needs.”

“And?”  Alanee, suspicious, studies those austere stone walls with closer attention.  “Sala, my ba, who demands this of you?  Are we watched in here?”

“I am to watch you, and to report….”

“Ah, Ellar!  Not the more recognised form of servitude, then.”  Alanee casts about her forlornly.  “Are there any drinks in this tip?”

“I will see what I can find, Lady.”

“The ‘Lady’ stuff again!  Sala, stop this!  Just stop!

Expressionless, Sala goes to a cupboard that looks as though it might harbour alcohol.  Alanee goes on.  “I think I see; she dares not set up surveillance in a Seer’s chambers, so she wants you with me all the time, is that it?  And she’s prepared to reduce you to the status of a drab to do it?  What’s that?”

Sala holds up a bottle half-full of pink liquid.  She removes its stopper and sniffs.  “I believe it may be paia, Lady.  Drinkable.”

“Anything.  Are there glasses?  And enough of the ‘Lady’!”

“There are glasses,”   Sala holds aloft two small receptacles.  “But they are a little personalised.  I’ll wash them.”

“No you won’t.  Just bring the bottle.”

Sala brings it.  Alanee wipes the neck on a corner of her robe and says:  “You first.”

Sala demurs.

“I’m not drinking until you have.  You’re my food taster, if you like – if that’s what you want to be, ba.  Drink!”

But Sala hesitates even now.  She stands with the bottle at her chest, eyes downcast in utter discomfiture.  At last she drinks a very little of the paia, and passes the bottle to Alanee, who takes a huge swig which instantly chokes her.  She staggers back, laughing.  “Habbach!”  She exclaims when she can speak again:  “I think that may kill us both!”  A tear rolls down Sala’s cheek.  Oh, ba!”

Alanee can do no less than throw her arms about her friend, refusing to set her free and kissing her forehead and cheeks until at last she feels Sala’s rigid, trembling form relax just a little:  then she kisses her lips.

“You’ll never be servant to me, dearest Sala.  I wouldn’t let that happen to you.  I couldn’t!”

Sala says, between sobs:  “I’m so sorry; what am I to do?  You, I love; my work, I love.  Ellar has shown me how vital that work is, now you are Seer to the Consensual City!” 

“All Ellar wants is control,” Alanee growls.  “You are her eyes.  I am not the city’s most popular choice of Seer, from the evidence so far, and she wants to have a clear idea on which side of the fence she should land.  But it makes no difference to us, dear one.  We are friends, whatever our fortunes.  Now are you going to stop crying?  You’re embarrassing me!”

Laughing at herself, Sala wipes impatiently at her tears:  “I can be over-emotional, you see?”

“Darling, I never doubted it.”

 “But I am assigned to you as Mediator and governed by certain rules, especially about getting too involved with my project.  Ellar trusts me.”

“I know, ba.  I know.  And Lady Ellar does not trust me.  It is a field of brambles, isn’t it?  We can cut through them though, I’m certain.”

Together, the pair wash some glassware so they can drink together more elegantly.  Then, perched upon the two hard red chairs which are the only companionable seating in the room, they dispatch the remainder of the paia.  Alanee learns that, as part of her elevation to the status of Courtier, Sala has been moved from her apartment in the lower city.

“I have rooms next to you.”  She jabs a finger:  “That way.  They are a little more acceptable than these.”  And Alanee is immediately sympathetic, for she knows how much Sala loved her little nest.

“It doesn’t matter, I can soon get the new place into shape:  but poor you!”  Sala looks about her.  “What on earth?”

“I’m not meant to be comfortable here.  Although this…”  Alanee slides into the big leather armchair which faces the triptych of mirrors:  “Is homely, at least.  What do you think of the vanity set?  And the big metal disc; what’s that for?”

Sala studies the plate of dark metal.  “I don’t know.  It could be just hiding a hole in the wall?”  And she cannot resist a turn before the mirrors; a critical self-examination, an adjustment of hem, a pat at a rebellious curl, drawing a smile from her companion.

“Merciless, aren’t they?”

Then Alanee feels – sees – what?  Something else reflected there, something quite different.  For a few seconds she cannot speak, so unexpected is the image.  Then…

“Oh, Sala!”

“What?”  Sala thinks Alanee has seen something wrong with her appearance.

“Nothing.  It doesn’t matter.”  The reflection has gone.  “I’m tired:  it’s been the longest day.”

“Paia can be very tiring.”  Sala reminds her primly:  “If taken in excess.”

Alanee says nothing more; after all, she sees now only what Sala sees in those mirrors:  yet the image that came to her remains imprinted on her mind, for standing beside her friend was the figure of a military man, a leader of soldiers.  Not tall in stature, but great in presence, the man she saw was ill or in some kind of distress.  No matter: the moment has passed.

“ Sala-ba, I’m thinking.  Ellar wants you to spy on me, yes?  Well, that’s fine.  You can, but as my friend, not as my servant.  Tell her that.”

“She’s my patron.”

“And you have to do the work you are employed to do.  So I’m the one who has to be careful – I won’t divulge any of my discourses with Hasuga, or any other members of the Council.  That way there are no conflicts!”

Sala shakes her head.  “Lady Ellar is no-one’s fool.  If I can’t get some useful stuff….”

“All right then, let me think of some useful stuff you can give her!”

“Fictitious?”

“Well, maybe a little bit fictitious.”  Alanee frowns.  “I’ll think of something.”

Alanee does not reveal all of her thoughts to Sala, although she would, if the politics of The City were not already etched so deeply in her psyche.  She can see there are ways in which this channel for information can be useful; especially if she is selective in the titbits she allows to pass through.

The conversation ends there, as drabs return with fresh bedding from Alanee’s former home.  She instructs them to provide cleaners for Cassix’s chambers, which they promise to do immediately.

Sala takes her leave.  “Stay with me tonight, ba.  You can’t sleep in this mess.”

Alanee watches her depart in the certain knowledge she will report to Ellar, for Sala has made plain what Sala is and what Sala does.  Sala is firmly Ellar’s woman; has she, Alanee, any right to ask her to swerve from that loyalty?

In the cold stone loneliness after Sala’s departure she feels entombed, even a little panic-stricken.  The deep twilight of Cassix’s existence cloaks itself around her, so she imagines she can hear him pacing the floor in those sandaled feet, murmuring to her.

Breathy whispers: a draught, or something more?

Her summoner’s urgent buzz blares across the echoes like a trumpet call and she jumps so much she nearly falls over.

“Celeris!”  Just the sight of his face on the little screen makes her glad.  She asks, lamely:  “How are you?”

“You could find out.”

“How?”

“By opening your door.  I’m outside it.”

She is overjoyed to see him.  He has barely time to close the door behind him before she has thrown her arms around his neck, although her welcoming kiss is restrained, for she has learned his sensibilities;  and he rewards her with a gentle kiss of his own which might set her music playing, no matter how oppressed and uncomfortable she feels.

“You are Seer now, Alanee.  Do I congratulate you?”

“And you are a mystery.  How do you move so easily between the levels?  Oh, but don’t answer that:  I’m just so happy you’re here!  What do you think of my new abode?”

Does she expect a hint of bemusement in those black eyes?  There is none.  He almost shrugs off the contrast between this and her previous apartment.  “So this was Cassix’s home, was it?  I have never visited here.”

“It’s a nightmare!  It frightens me!  Look at it all – look at the writing all over the walls!  How will I ever live in this?”

“You are Seer now – you must learn the lessons your predecessor has left you.”  He almost glides across the room and Alanee is captivated by his grace:  a man – very much a man – with the felinity of a woman.  His attention has been drawn by the scrawling on the stone walls.

“Does it mean anything?”  Alanee asks.

“Of course!”  Is there a nuance of impatience in his tone?  Celeris points to a figure written in a bubble at the centre of a dressed stone.  “This is the weight of the block.  These arrows show the stresses it exerts upon the stones next to it and beneath it.  The calculation is the density of the stone.”

“Why would he go to all that trouble?”

“Cassix was an engineer.  Clearly he had a theory about how density of stone is affected by the weight placed upon it:  these values are just raw information; somewhere, no doubt, you will find the source calculations.  Those will probably lead to a conclusion concerning the stress placed upon The City’s foundations.”

“Those suits, then?”  Alanee nods to the white overalls hanging on the wall.

“Now they are interesting.”  Celeris says, as though the calculations really weren’t.  “There might be some form of headpiece somewhere.”

The door chimes toll.  Four drabs stand before the door in a listless semi-circle, cleaning implements arrayed about them.  She turns to Celeris helplessly.

“The place must be cleaned.”

“Certainly it must.  Do you wish me to leave?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”  Alanee feels like imploring him to stay, but she will not betray herself so completely.  “You can tell me about some more of this stuff.”

“If I may suggest…”  Celeris murmurs as if he does not want the drabs to hear him:  “Don’t let them throw any of these papers away.  They might be of use to you.”

Alanee notices the drabs each bear the insignia of Hasuga’s personal staff and are well chosen, because they set about their task efficiently.  One will pick up and tidy the strewn-about papers, the others dust and clean, change linen, virtually disinfect the kitchen and the rest-place.  Meanwhile Celeris explains:

“Cassix’s approach was concerned with logic and proportion.  The wooden room is the epicenter; the mirrors the key.  To get into the room you must first find the key.”

“It has a door then?”

“Without doubt.”

“What does the room contain?”

“That is for you to discover.  I cannot tell you.”

“And this?”  Alanee waves at the silver ball resting on its stand between the two chairs.

“Think of it as a sort of exercise machine for the psyche.  See how substantial that stand is?  Have you tried the weight of the ball?”

Together, they get a grip upon the ball and try to lift it, but it will not so much as move.

“It must be fastened down.”

“No, nothing is holding it.”

“Then it’s very, very heavy.”

Celeris says:  “Not for you.”

They pass the time together while the drabs perform their miracles.  Alanee studies the disc of dark metal and asks its purpose:  “An ornament, I suppose – some sort of wall decoration?  It’s in very poor taste, though.  Still, that would be no surprise, would it?”

Celeris smiles.  “Cassix was not a man given to ornaments.”  He takes up Sala’s discarded glass of paia and splashes the liquid at the centre of the disc.  Centrifugal force disperses it instantly.  “Something more than decoration.”

Alanee, wide-eyed, watches:  “How does it do that?”

“It spins.  It is spinning – very fast.  Yet it is so perfectly polished and balanced its movement is virtually undetectable – unless you lean your weight against it.”

The more Alanee sees of Cassix’s chambers the more she sees evidence of his madness.  What if he had accidentally tripped and touched the disc – what if she should?

Celeris makes a further examination.  “How is it driven, I wonder?  It is very heavy, certainly; a flywheel?   If so, for what?”

He appears to tire of unanswered questions, turning instead to Alanee’s welfare, reminding her she is hungry.  They send out for for food, and they dine together perched on the edge of her newly-installed bed.   Her new bedroom has an intimacy she would gather about her, the man is so near, so kind.  It is easy to share her fears.

“All this,” she gestures towards the open space of  the reception room,  “is distant to me, far beyond my horizon where I cannot ever hope to see it.  Why in Habbach’s name did Cassix want me to be Seer?”

Celeris replies seriously,  “Because you can see.  Cassix was wise:  he knew who he was choosing and he chose well.  Do not put yourself in his shadow.  He had his way of coming to prophecy:  you must find yours , if you haven’t already found it.”

“I wish we were alone.”  She finds herself saying.  His hand reaches out to hers.

“Aren’t we?  The drabs have finished and gone.”

She hadn’t noticed.  Inside her head that melody begins to play for her again and at last she understands the Music Man’s gift:  how it was not a one-time thing, a brief pleasure, but one that will always return to her when she has need.  And she is needy now.

A door-chime interrupts her song.  “Don’t move, Ba.”  She presses his thigh.  “I’ll be right back.”

The drabs have locked the door as they left.  Alanee opens it no more than a crack.  Sala is standing anxiously outside.  “Alanee, are you alright?  I was expecting you sooner.  I made food…”

“Sala, I’m sorry, ba.  I hope you can forgive me.  I won’t be coming tonight.”

Sala’s sixth sense is well primed.  “You’re not alone, are you?  You’ve got company.  Is it Celeris?”  Alanee’s silence is an affirmation.  Instantly Sala advances, makes to push past Alanee through the door:  “Can I meet him?  I’ve been dying to meet him!”

Although she does not entirely know why, Alanee resists.  “Not now, no.  I will introduce you, I promise, but not now.  He’s…”  By gesture she tries to suggest that Celeris is in some unfit state.  “Tomorrow, maybe?”

“Oh, Alanee!”

“Tomorrow.”  And Alanee closes and locks the door.

She returns through the museum of Cassix and his life to the man she knows will be waiting for her.  She takes his hands, raising him to his feet then helps him as he takes the clothes from her body in a way no man – no man at all – has ever done for her, then undresses him in her turn.

“Will you stay?”   She whispers, hoping.  He says that he will.

When she wakes the next morning he has gone.

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

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A Meeting in the Park – A Short Story Revival

Another example of anecdotal sludge snatched from the jaws of File Shredder in the nick of time.  I always liked this one:

“I think you’re very beautiful.”  Martin said.

Alana felt the hot scarlet of a blush as it crept up her graceful neck, the way it always did whenever she was surprised by a compliment, no matter how clumsily it was delivered or by whom.   “Thank you.  I wish I deserved that.”  She said with a shy smile.

“I saw you and I thought…” Martin hesitated, gathering his strength; “I thought I must speak.  I simply had to speak.  I often walk Rufus in this park, but I don’t remember seeing you here before.”

“No.  I don’t suppose you do.  I’m new here, you see.  We just moved in to the new apartments over there.  Your dog is very clever.”

“Yes.  You can pet him if you like.  He’s extremely gentle.”  

Alana crouched in front of the fair-haired Labrador, offering her delicate long fingers for Rufus to get her scent before she gently scratched his ear.  “You’re a clever boy!”  She praised him.  “Without you I would have lost my diary.  Thank you.”  And Rufus pressed his head against her hand, wagging his tail furiously.  She looked up at the young man.  “I wish I had a treat for him.”

“Oh please don’t worry.  He’s a natural retriever, you see.  It isn’t a trick to Rufus; he just can’t help himself.  He saw you’d left your book on the bench when you walked away and he went straight to it.  It’s what he does.”

“Well, I’m very grateful.”

“I wonder…” the young man was tongue-tied again.  “I wonder if someone as lovely as you would ever consider going out to dinner with someone like me?”

Alana smiled her demurest smile.   He was very uncertain of himself, this young man, and some might have thought him a little creepy, but she recognized the loneliness in him and understood.  He was good-looking, if you took away those heavy-rimmed glasses, made him trim those lank strands of black hair.  “I would love to.”  She said. 

They met at Sardi’s on the Quayside, where they feasted on lobster that had been landed that morning and drank white wine from Bourgogne.  He learned that Alana had an elder brother and they had arrived in town only a week ago.  She learned what she had first suspected:  that Martin lived alone in a small bedsit overlooking the park.  He was lonely, she decided. 

“You don’t have any relatives?”

“Not here.  They live up-country.”

“You don’t get to see them very often?”

“Scarcely at all.  My father and I, we argue every time we meet.”

“So when did you last see him?”

“Oh – years.”

Martin was a software engineer.  “I’m sort of freelance.  I don’t get much work these days…”

“I bet you’re very good…”

“Things move so fast – I don’t keep up so well.”

Alana smiled consolingly, placing her hand on his.  “Martin, I can help you.”

Martin walked her home, and by the time they reached her door he was clinging to her hand as though his life depended upon it.  He looked up to her windows to see there was a light shining there.  “Your mum and your brother – I expect they’re home.”  He said wistfully.

“I think they are.”  She said.

“Will I see you again?”

“What about tomorrow evening, when you’re walking Rufus in the park?  I’d love to join you then.”

He smiled, comforted by the knowledge she had not been bored by him, that his conversations surrounding the swift evolution of software had somehow entertained her.

As if she were reading his mind, she said:  “Thank you for a lovely dinner and your company Martin.  It’s been fun.”

He waited, expecting her to turn, disappear through the door.  She waited, filling his eyes with hers.   Impulsive?  No, he was never that. So she leaned towards him, and kissed him, almost chastely: almost, but not quite.  He walked away before he had to admit he was crying.  

The hours to the following evening passed very slowly for Martin.  They were punctuated by impossible hopes and dreams which floated around the ethereal image of Alana.  Alana in the blue dress she had worn last night, Alana in white wedding weeds, Alana in – he could only dare himself to peep – nothing at all.  Guilt consumed him, anxiety possessed him, and fear (that she would not keep their assignation in the park) almost drove him to distraction.

He reached his habitual walk early, with Rufus in enthusiastic tow, but lingered.  He positioned himself upon a bench with a view of the park gates while Rufus fidgeted at his feet, eager to be walked.  From where he sat he could see Alana approach, watching her even, faun-like stride through the railings.  The evening was warm enough for the short green skirt she wore and the street quiet enough for the click of her heels to be audible.

Martin spotted the man in the red bomber jacket almost before Alana did. The man was young, well built with a strong face and a bold, confident stride – everything Martin was not.   He was walking towards Alana, he knew her.  A thousand tiny needles of apprehension pricked at the back of Martin’s eyes as he watched them meet, as they performed a ritual of hand gestures in pursuit of their hum of conversation.  HE was someone she would want to be with; the kind of man a girl like that deserved.   HE would have a decent income, a regular job, property, a fast car…

Alana saw Martin as soon as she turned away from the man.  She gave a quick glance over her shoulder to see if the man was watching before she waved cheerfully.   “You’re early!”   She said as she hurried towards him.  “Come on, Martin, let’s walk!”

He gave her one of his bleakest, most defeated smiles.  But he did not ask her about the man.  He dared not.  Alana did not volunteer any information; instead she snuggled cozily into his side, her arm through his as though they were already lovers, while Rufus trotted faithfully behind.  For what seemed an hour neither would break the silence, each just happy to bathe in the other’s company as a red sun set slowly over the distant hill.  At last, resting on the memorial benches by the lake, Martin summoned up all his courage.  With shaking fingers he took her chin as gently as he could and turned her to him.  Then, trying not to breathe, he kissed Alana on the lips.

She sighed, saying softly:  “Not bad.  Now let’s try that again.”  And she returned his kiss.  And she taught him how mouths could explore, and hands excite.

After a while, when his first lessons had been learned, Martin’s disbelief would no longer let him remain silent.  He asked:  “What is it?”

Alana rested her head upon his shoulder contentedly:  “What is what?”

He hesitated because he knew it was a question he should not ask:  “You know what I see in you.  What is it – what can you possibly – see in me?

She turned her head to his, so close he could feel the warm waft of her breath on his cheek, hear the tremulous edge in her voice.  “Perhaps I see much more than you do.  There’s something about you – and Rufus.  Don’t forget Rufus.  Perhaps vulnerability turns me on.”  She squeezed his hand.  “Come on, my little man, I want to take you home.”

So they walked again, retracing the steps that had directed them to their tryst, consumed with laughter and promise.   At the park gates, Martin found himself pausing to look up at Alana’s apartment windows.   “They’re not in tonight.”  She whispered.   “It’s just you and me, Martin.   Come on, let’s hurry!”

Rufus caught his human companions’ mood and pulled them heartily on his leash across the road and along the pavement on the further side,  To his own amazement, Martin was no longer afraid of himself.  He matched Alana’s pace as they hurried to her door, and almost skipped beside her on the wide stone stairs.  Inside the lobby of her apartment he took her in his arms and made her laugh at his ineptitude as he rained kisses on her cheeks, her neck, her arms…  Rufus snuffled, Rufus whimpered, Rufus growled.

The room was dark inside – dark and warm.  A faint, sweet scent filled the air.

“Don’t.”  She whispered, very close.  “Don’t turn on the lights.”

It was Alana who shook now, whose hands were quaking in the grip of her desire, the certain knowledge of his need. 

“You can touch me, Martin.  Touch me darling – I won’t break.  Come on now, don’t wait….don’t, don’t wait.”

It was surprising, in no subtle way, the lance of warmth that pierced his heart.  It found its path with so little pain, so little resistance he scarcely knew it had happened.  Alana was trembling in his arms and crying out her ecstasy.  He was shaking in hers; but it was not joy that made him so.   Making his final, desperate clutch at life his eyes took in the room, now lit; the table he was being thrust back upon, the long, thin knife in Alana’s hand.  And he clattered down beside the saw, and died.

#

“Hi!”  Alana said, pleased despite herself.  “Isn’t it a little early to come calling?”

“You settling in OK?”  Asked the young man in the red bomber jacket.  “I’m kind of interested, being your upstairs neighbor and all.”

“Yes.”  Alana leant against her doorpost.  “I’m fine.”

“Got yourself a dog.”  Rufus, a little scared of the young man, was hiding behind Alana’s legs.  She felt, rather than saw or heard, his presence.

“Yes, got him yesterday.  Nice dog.   Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

“I’m from Glasgow.”  Said the young man.  “You can probably tell from my accent.  Forgive me stopping you in the street like last night, but I couldn’t help thinking I knew you from somewhere.  Then I remembered:  you used to have red hair, right?”

“No, I think you have me mixed up with….”

“No, I don’t.  I worked in Glasgow CID, you see, before I transferred down here, and we had a lot of photographs of you.   Never did find your mother or your brother, never could hang anything on you.  Always squeaky clean, always tidy.  There was a lot of washing and tidying going on down here last night, wasn’t there?”

Alana was becoming annoyed:  “Look, I don’t know who you have got me mixed up with, but you’re wrong.  Now will you go away – please?”

“Fine dog, isn’t he?  Good retriever.”

“They always are, this breed.”  Rufus had come to sit at her heel.  She reached down to pet his shoulder.  “So what?”

“So he’s brought you a shoe.”

“Oh Rufus!”  Alana scolded.  “Whatever am I going to do with you?”  She looked down.   And she added in quite a different voice:  “Put it back, Rufus.”

But Rufus trusted the young man and he wanted to give him the shoe as a gift.  First, though, he had to adjust his grip, so he put the shoe down and, to achieve better balance, he picked it up again, holding it by the leg that was still wearing it…

© Frederick Anderson 2015.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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The Continuum – Episode Twenty-Three: Impostor

From the previous episode:

Alanee has learned from the dying Cassix that she is to be Seer to the High Council, and she has been shown the Continuum that is Cassix’s greatest fear.  After she has left him, Cassix summons his fellow Councillors to tell them of his choice of successor.

Lady Ellar remains at the old Seer’s side until he dies.

After so emotionally exhausting a night, Alanee has slept only fitfully, beset by dreams.  She rises early to pump her veins with all the tsakal they can retain and dresses herself in her formal robe before venturing into the City.  She would slip anonymously through the shopping avenues to a small emporium she recalls noticing on the day of her first shopping adventure with Sala.

“Lady greet you in your good fortune!”

She has scarcely closed her door.

A woman in her forties confronts her, thrusting a face caked with makeup into hers:  “May I prevail upon you to consider my husband as your assistant?  He is so gifted!  You may remember him – he was….”  Alanee, ducking back to evade a gale of sour breath, does not catch the rest of the sentence.  A small bundle of blankets is stacked against her wall.  The woman has clearly been here for some time.

“I hadn’t thought…”  Alanee protests.

“I will not accept refusal; simply won’t accept it.  He has such talent.  And you will need him, my dear.”

There is a keen edge to the woman’s voice.  Gathering herself, Alanee realises she should have been prepared for encounters like this, but part of her still believes her meeting with Cassix last night was a dream.  Obviously word has already spread.

“I’m sorry, I’m not thinking of any assistance just….”  She is uncertain how to finish her sentence.  “But if you would like to give me your summoner tag, I will call you.”

“I urge you to give this your immediate attention, my dear.”

Now the woman’s voice has definite menace.  Alanee bridles:  “I’ll give it attention, then.  No, thank you.  I will not need your husband’s assistance.  Now, will you leave me alone?”

Like a viper the woman rounds upon her.  “Leave you alone?  No, Lady Alanee I will not do that.  No-one in the City will leave you alone – not now!  Every step you take, Lady!  Think well!”

The woman is glaring at her, snatching up her bundle.  Alanee is confused by this sudden ferocity.  Is the woman mad?

“Lady Alanee?”  From across the avenue comes a rat of a man with irregular teeth, scraping along on ragged sandals.  “Is this her?  Oh, Lady Alanee!  I can’t believe my eyes!  So exquisite a Seer the City has never known!  A pretty face, Lady!  An inviting body, eh?  How far can you get, do you think?  How long before the High Council finds you out?”

“Yes, this is her – the Hakaani peasant!”  The woman snaps.  “We can see it!  It doesn’t take a Seer!”

“Take a Seer to bed, more like!”

Alanee has turned away, walking down the avenue.  Behind her, others join the string of sotto voce comments that are yet just loud enough:

“Cassix’s whore!”

“Poor old man.  Too much for him, I shouldn’t wonder!”

There is studied casualness in Alanee’s step. 

“Look at that!  She even walks like a courtesan!”

“Busy night, I expect.”

Alanee increases her pace, and as the avenue opens out onto the Grand Park there is another shock awaiting her.  At the far end of the lake, The City has raised a painted portrait of her, a salacious facsimile in garish colour at least fifty feet high.  Across its upper edge a banner proclaims:

“The Lady Alanee – newly-elected Seer of the Consensual City”

Her first thought is for the artist who worked so dextrously through the early hours to produce this likeness, albeit a rushed and unflattering one.  Her second identifies Portis as its probable instigator, for she is depicted clad in a low cut dress unlike anything in her wardrobe.  Her lips are made to pout provocatively, her cleavage is heavily emphasised.

Small groups of early morning walkers are staring up at her likeness.  As she passes, an agitator hurls a ‘bomb’ of green paint at the picture, quickly following up with further packages of red and blue, to onlookers’ encouraging laughter. 

The agitator sees her.  “There she is!  Habbach, there she is!  Nice going, Lady!”

Heads begin to turn.

“Sire Cassix’s lucky successor!”

“Successor!  That’s a new word for it!”

“Our Seer!  What do you see for us this morning, Lady?”

“Lady?!  Shouldn’t we consider a new title?”

Someone hurls a missile:  no more, perhaps, than a clod of earth from the Park, but it strikes Alanee heavily on her back.  She starts to run.  Something whips past her ear, smacks into the wall to her right; something harder and more injurious.  The taunts have given way to angry shouts.

In flight she has little time to think; all she can do is race for her original destination, a little book store on the Avenue De Grange, but to get there she must pass all kinds of emporia, and nearly every window displays that picture.

‘Lady Alanee – newly elected Seer to the Consensual City’.

On one picture someone has fancifully outlined her breasts, daubed with livid red nipples.  Another shows her with her pursed lips rendering an obvious service to a crudely sketched male appendage.  All the while her hostile pursuers are multiplying.

The little book emporium is so unobtrusive that by ducking inside Alanee hopes to shake off her pursuers.  Shutting the door to the avenue she leans back against its jamb to regain her composure.  The clamour from outside has dwindled briefly, giving her the hope her plan has worked.  Not for long.

A shout.  “There she is!”  The features of the agitator leer at her through the glass.  In moments there are a dozen faces – the banging begins.

“Get her!”

“Drag her out!”

“The door has bolts.”  The shopkeeper says.

He stands in a doorway at the far end of his shop, a diminutive male figure of considerable age, his bald head fringed by a disorderly tumble of white hair, eyes blinking behind rimless glasses.  His upper body is wrapped in a woollen garment so stretched and faded it might be as old as he: voluminous trousers drape his shrunken thighs.

Needing no second bidding, Alanee throws the big iron bolt in the centre of the door, a second before a first shoulder from outside charges the wood.  There are two further bolts above and below.  She slams them home.

“You excite them.  Come into the back room.”  The old man shouts to make his voice heard.

His emporium is as small (a single narrow aisle with high shelves of books to either side) as it is dark; its subdued light shrouding rows of upper titles in mystery.  Somehow, though, its warm smell of leather is comforting:  even rushing through it Alanee feels its assurance wash over her; quelling her fears.

Whereas the shop is of the books, the back room is of the man.  As she shuts its door behind her, putting a second barrier between her and the noise from the Avenue, she enters a space not much larger than the rest-place by her apartment kitchen.  The shopkeeper’s imprint is everywhere:  a muddle of shelves and tables with, at its centre, a leather armchair as old as any of the books outside.  Walls the colours of an apple, red and green, a ceiling with a single light.  Papers, books, boxes, wrappings, a few rudimentary tools, a stretcher, a guillotine:  items relevant to the bookbinder’s trade, strewn over any horizontal surface that will accept them, including the floor.  Many of these haphazard piles are teetering on the verge of collapse.  All are dusty, even the viewing screen (the room’s only other source of illumination) on a desk beside the chair.  Alanee, already deeply shaken, tries not to imagine the creeping things that might lurk in these neglected creases and ravines.

“A customer this early?  A fine lady too; and so many friends.”  The old man squints at her:  “You are a customer I trust:  or am I merely safe haven?”

Alanee has gathered enough breath to bid him good morning, at which irony hiss eyebrows knit so tightly it seems his whole face might shut like one of his books.  She is sure the odour of ancient parchment attaches itself to his wrinkled flesh.

“I came to you with a purpose.  All these people!”  She shrugs helplessly:  “I don’t understand how…”

“No?”  For all his years the old merchant’s eyes are too quick and bright for his spectacles to subdue them.  “But then you are not of The City, are you?  No, you wouldn’t understand,.  The wrath of the people is a tolerated instrument here, all too often:  tweaked strings, I shouldn’t wonder.  As to who tweaks them….”  It is his turn to shrug.  “You have an enemy, Lady, a puppeteer.  Now, we are able to talk, so how may I help you?”

“I thank you for that;” Alanee is regaining her composure.  “I want a book.”

A dry cackle of laughter.  “I have several of those.”  The bookseller leans forward confidentially, putting his weight on a precarious stack of papers and disturbing, Alanee fancies, a thin waft of dust:  “Few read books these days:  every year, fewer.  Any particular kind of book?”

“Yes.  A red book.”

“Does it matter what the book contains?”

“Not at all.”  She makes a shape with her hands:  “A book so by so, and of roughly this thickness.  It should be bound in old red leather, and secured with a lock.”

“Intriguing.  Do I know the title of this book?”

“It has none.  There should be nothing on the binding.  I want this book to be made, and its cover distressed to appear  ancient.  No-one ever need open it.”

“Ah!”  Sighs the old man:  “A shelf-filler.  Very well, would you demonstrate those sizes to me again?”

‘No, not just a shelf-filler: this book will be an impostor’,  Alanee thinks, as she repeats the dimensions.  In her mind she already sees it so clearly she is sure the bookseller must share her vision, and it appears he does, for he asks for no more detail concerning the volume itself;

“Now; the lock?”

“Old.  Do you have paper?”   Alanee draws a quick sketch.  

The bookseller nods.  “I know someone who can make me such a lock.   Let me be certain:  the pages may be blank, or printed in any fashion – it does not matter?”

“No.  It will not be opened.”

“Then it will be the more convincing, for I can use old pages from another source and rebind them. So many old pages are never opened.  I can have your book ready in three days, my Lady.”

“Tomorrow.  I need it tomorrow.  I’ll send someone to collect it.  Give me your number.”

This merits more blinking from those fevered eyes:  “I will do what I can.  It will be quite expensive, to make a book like that.  There will be window cleaning to be done, too, you know.  Very pricey, that is, in the city.”

“Yes.  Yes I know.  I will not forget your kindness.”  Alanee reaches in her purse, astounded at how sententious her own voice sounds.  She pulls out a wad of credits:  “Will this suffice?”

“Amply.”  The shopkeeper’s eyebrows arrive a short span from the top of his moonlike dome where they find further cause to remain, at the sound of a tooth-grinding siren from the Avenue.  “And here, right upon cue, as it were, is the cavalry.  Let’s see if they can afford you protection?”

#

Returned to her apartment, with a guard outside, Alanee can no longer hear the ribald invective from a throng who already view her as a source of entertainment.  They will not disperse until the same security squad that ensured her safe return put in another appearance, this time protecting Ellar the Mediant.  Alanee admits her, trying to disguise an episode of tears.  Successfully perhaps, for Ellar makes no attempt to commiserate.  Her news is starkly simple:

‘Sire Cassix is dead.  By his wish you are elected Seer to the High Council.”

So it is real.  In a few cycles of the sun she has been adopted by the fairy castle of her childhood dreams, and succeeded to one of its highest offices.  The Hakaani widow whose greatest ambition was to become manager of her Terminus and earn more than a hundred credit pay check is now a public figure.  The thought should make her swoon.  Why, then, is this cup so difficult to accept?  A thousand shouted reasons in the street; a million un-rebutted insults, insinuations and false claims?  Her tears express a yearning to return to simpler times when no-one but her neighbours knew her name.  The days before her are days she will face with dread.

“You must move to the Seer’s residence.” Ellar advises her.  “Although this initial hysteria will die down, you will suffer constant importuning from the citizens of the Lower City.  Only in the Upper Levels will you get any peace.”

Ellar is sitting stiffly across from Alanee on her living room couch, a drink clenched in her hand.  Alanee watches her with feline curiosity; for she recalls Hasuga’s words:  ‘Ellar cannot resist you now’, and she no longer fears this dominant, imposing woman.

“You should be aware,” Ellar warns her; “Your election is not a popular choice.  The majority of your fellow Councillors were very much against Sire Cassix’s decision.”

“If I am a Councillor now, where does that leave you?”  Alanee asks.

Ellar raises an eyebrow.  “In immense difficulty.  You see, I, too, wish he had chosen otherwise, but as Mediant my task is to intercede for you with the High Council.  Fortunately Cassix moved my election also; otherwise my position would be completely untenable.  Even so, it is not a task I relish.”

“Are you telling me you wish to step down?” 

“Can you convince me I should not?”

Alanee considers this.  “You are a good Mediant, I think.  I will need guidance.”

Ellar nods.  “I believe that your coming here was a bad idea.  I accept, though, it was not of your making.  I do not blame you, Lady.  Now Cassix has placed you where you apparently can see the shape of things to come:  however, he has also given you to Sire Hasuga.   Henceforward have no illusions as to who controls the fate of this City.”

 “Suppose I was the one to resign?”  Alanee suggests.  “Suppose I didn’t want to be your Seer?”

This draws a wry smile from Ellar.  “Yes, indeed – suppose that.  In a way it would be all we could wish, wouldn’t it?  Except that Cassix was a great Seer, and no matter how onerous your nomination must be for us all, you were his choice.”

“Which doesn’t stop me from taking my own decision?”

“No. The law of blasphemy does that.  Sire Hasuga has ratified your appointment; if you reverse it, he will not be pleased.”

“You make it sound as if it was really Hasuga’s decision.”

“Wasn’t it?  Sire Hasuga will have been uppermost in Cassix’s thoughts when he made his choice.”

“That’s it, then,”  Alanee sighs with the resignation of one whose fate has passed to other hands.  “You must work with me.  I have a great deal to learn.” 

“Work with you?  Work alongside you, perhaps.”

“What exactly is your price, Lady Ellar?”

Ellar takes a sip from her drink before placing the glass carefully on the table.  “Price?  Believe it or not, yesterday Portis and I completed the list of duties we saw as befitting your service to Sire Hasuga.  Oh, have no fear….”  She waves a hand airily; “I do not expect you will even read them now. 

“If Cassix planned this, placed me on the Council, made you his successor, it was because of your of immunity to Sire Hasuga’s will.  He had not that gift, and neither have I.  But as a Mediant I am not afraid to commit blasphemy in the City’s cause…

Alanee interrupts:  “I don’t see what ‘blasphemy’ means.  If it means you mustn’t question anything Hasuga does or says he can stampede all over you.  That’s never been the way, though.  You’ve always adjusted, filtered, altered his will in subtle degrees:  so where does that stop and blasphemy begin?”

Ellar allows herself to smile.  “Perhaps when it is stated out loud?  Alanee, my ‘price’ is this.  Now Sire Hasuga has the power to overwhelm those subtle adjustments of which you speak, persuade him it is still in his interests to maintain the wellbeing of this city, and I will help steer the Council to accept the best options you can negotiate.  We can work together – shall we say, as a team?”

“You think he has other plans for The City?”

“I fear he has.”

“Or suppose he is a child just growing to manhood who knows less than any of us where the future lies?  If we are on his side we can guide him, give him responsibility – work with him and we will all learn – maybe not at his pace, but we will learn.”

Ellar says grimly.  “We once mistakenly allowed an aerotran to enter the airspace above The City and Sire Hasuga saw it.  He played with it for an hour, throwing it about the sky like a toy.  Its pilot never flew again:  Beware of Sire Hasuga, Lady.  You have a tiger by the tail.”

Alanee is deflated for the moment.  She gives a dismissive shrug.  “Meanwhile, I have to move into Sire Cassix’s chambers, do I?  Can I view them?”

“Certainly.   I will send a guard with Sala to conduct you there.”

The retort is quick as a thrown knife.  “Has she clearance?”

Does Ellar betray her surprise ?  “Yes, her status has been raised.  She is now a member of the Inner Court.”

“A courtier.  So she knows of Hasuga?”

“She has not met him yet.  Will not, unless he desires it.”  Ellar replies without a flicker of expression, though Alanee cannot help but wonder if she knows from whom Sala first learned of Hasuga.

“And;” Alanee continues:  “I shall need to study, the Book of Lore, as well as any other histories.  That was Cassix’s wish.”

Ellar gives her a curious look, but merely assents.  “Of course.”

Both women will leave this meeting with something new.  Ellar has further developed her appreciation of Alanee.  In spite of her reservations concerning Cassix’s choice, she now sees a clearer picture of the adventure before her and comprehends its inevitability.  Meanwhile Alanee, tidying the debris of their meeting, senses she has within her grasp someone who can be both enemy and ally, foe and friend.  She has not lost her mistrust of Ellar, but she has opened a window deeper into the Mediant’s soul.  So she loved Cassix, did she?  That, at least, is something Alanee understands.

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

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Social Distancing is Relative

Anecdotal

It’s 2:30am and I’m in my office working.   Did I mention  I do peculiar hours?  That’s one of my ‘cures for the self-confined’.  More on that soon.

Anyway, it’s 2:30am and I’m working.  I have the window open so I hear the sound of agitated pacing clearly.   Around my neighbourhood, if you are out at that hour you are either drunk or a housebreaker, so I check this guy out.

Of course, there’s always a third possibility…

He walks twenty paces up the pavement, turns and sort of sashays his way back.   He is nervous, for one reason or another. Standard thieving duds, jeans, old trainers, hoodie pulled up.  But no.

My next-door-but-one neighbour is new, by which I mean he moved in a few months ago.  Our loiterer-with-intent seems focussed on his front gate, and on his next pass he pounces upon it and stumbles to my new neighbour’s door, rapping the knocker urgently.

“Toby!”

No answer.

“Uncle Toby!”

No answer.

I have seen Uncle Toby – he is old, older than me.  And he is none too well.

I lean out of my window:  “Maybe he’s out,”   I suggest helpfully.  “Or maybe he’s asleep?”

The hood is withdrawn a little as the nocturnal nephew stares vacantly up at me.  “He’s my uncle,” he articulates, as one to whom words give pain, and he taps on a window to reinforce his point.  “Uncle Toby!”

No answer there came from Uncle Toby, and eventually, mumbling a few lines from one of his walking dreams, his abject relative stumbled off into the night.  I went back to work.

When I made enquiries of another, genuine relative of ‘Uncle Toby’, I was able to ascertain, as I suspected, that he has no ‘nephews’ nearby.   He does, however, conduct a very discreet night-time trade.

There was a time when the next step would have been to report the incident to the police.  No more.  But from a personal perspective, I find myself thinking that for certain people – like Uncle Toby’s addicted ‘nephew’ – self-confinement must be so alien a concept as to make a total nonsense of ‘social distancing’.

Like the rats of the Black Death, they run unseen beneath our feet.  We can never inhibit them, never control them.

Photo credit: Philip Lanssing on Unsplash

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Two: An Eyeglass to Infinity

In the previous Episode:

Alanee has pacified Hasuga after what she thinks was a sexual attack, and learned that he wants her to steal one of the High Council’s sacred books for him.  Sensitive to her own danger, she has discussed Hasuga with Sala, who tells her Cassix the Seer is very ill.

When she returns to her apartment, Alanee gets a summons to the watchtower…,

 The arched entry to the watchtower is flanked by a pair of rampant stone lions at least three metres in height.  A planked oak door bars the way.  Alanee knocks, a latch creaks and the door elbows itself out of its jamb.   A face fills the gap thus created.

“Ess?”  The questioner is in military uniform.  He has the blunt head of a Proteian, the missing consonants of an Oceanic, and the hostile look of one who is unappreciative of being disturbed.  “Ess ‘Ady?”

“I have come at Sire Cassix’s bidding.”

“Ave ‘ou now?  He’d be ‘sleep I think.”

Alanee persists.  “He called me less than half an hour ago.  I believe he might be quite annoyed if he learned you’d been difficult.  Let me past.”

“Ess,”  The Proteian with Oceanic tendencies acknowledges:  “’e would.”

“Well?”

“Ess,”  The Proteian concedes:  “Go on, ‘en.”

Alanee shuffles warily past the bulk and odour of the sentry, to embark upon the first of  seven flights of stairs.  Worn stone treads punish her sandaled feet as she climbs, cold walls induce her to shudder in spite of the warmth of her exertions.  By the time she reaches the top she will have counted one hundred and forty steeply raked, sparsely lit stairs.  She will have risen high above the roof of the City.

Her breath is short when at last she ascends into an unfurnished hallway.  Lights made to resemble burning brands are bracketed to naked stone walls, the furthest of which is broken by another door as dauntingly uncompromising as one Alanee remembers all too well, in the vaults below the palace on the day of her introduction to Hasuga.  But this one answers to her hand upon the iron ring of its latch; it creaks open to reveal a few last steps, and what lies beyond would, if she had any left, take her breath away.

The observatory of the watchtower is not large, an area no more than a dozen paces to either hand, a dish, in simple terms, the rim of which is around three feet in height.  The rest; roof and upper walls, is one transparent dome, an eyeglass to the night sky.  And such a night!  A black starscape in which each galactic smear, each delicate pinpoint of light has perfect integrity.  No moon, although she might imagine the brighter planets to be almost as bright, no earthly interference – just heaven, in absolute and utter majesty.

There is little artificial illumination within the watchtower to guide her.  So she hears him first.

“Come here.  Join me.”

That clear, crystalline voice has a resonance she remembers, and it speaks slowly, brittle with pain.

“Sire Cassix?”  A cluster of textiles is heaped on a mattress at the centre of the floor.  Around it, the basic essentials of living:  chairs, a shelf with plates and drinking bowls, a ewer.

“Lie here.”

Closer now: standing over him; her eyes accustoming themselves to the dim light, seeing the muddle of fabrics resolving itself into a shrunken ghost of the man she met in Balkinvel, skin pale, lips cracked, hair in soiled disarray.  Is there nothing left of him?

“My heart, Alanee, has failed the test.  As you see, I am not well.”  A weakened hand pats the mattress at his side.  “Join me, please?”

She does as she is bid, arranging herself so that laid upon her back with her head next to his she must look up into the marvellous vista of night; and this a night she is part of, at one with, floating amidst. 

“Wonderful!”

“Is it not?  Eternity.  Depthless, endless:  distance and time beyond our knowing.”  Cassix shifts his body laboriously.

“You should be in a warmer bed, Sire.”  She tells him.

“This is warm enough, warmer at least than my next bed.  And here I may contemplate the voyage to come.  There is very little time to prepare.  So I called you at this hour.   I hope you are not too annoyed with me?”

“Annoyed with you?”  Alanee replies with a trace of irony,  “How should I be that?  Anyway, I asked to see you, did I not?  Lady Ellar passed on my message?”

“Ellar?  No.  I summoned you for my own reasons.  Tell me now, how do matters proceed with Sire Hasuga?”

She sighs.  Her answer will displease him, she supposes, but there is no point in denying the obvious.  “He is not to be placated, Sire.  I see no way he can be controlled by me.  He is young and set upon asserting his manhood.”

“Of course.”

“You aren’t angry?”  She is surprised by Cassix’s mild reaction.  “I am not succeeding in the task you set me.”

“Really?”  Cassix shifts himself once more.  “I wonder, Alanee, could you fetch me a little water?  The ewer is full.  My lips and mouth are so dry….”

“Yes, Sire, at once.”  Hurrying to her feet, she takes a cup that stands by Cassix’s shoulder, filling it from the ewer.

“You see the two stones beside the jug?  Bring them, too.”

Two ovoid stones,  each in length about five inches; one a refulgent green that shines even in this sparse light, the other a colourless crystal.  She juggles them about with the filled cup until she can carry all three before returning to moisten Cassix’s lips with water.  She helps him raise his head so he may sip from the cup. 

“Alanee, I did not expect you to control Hasuga’s will.  Even to contemplate such a thing would be punishable by exile or death.  We should have moved on from those times, but frightened people have scant regard for progress.  The High Council are very frightened, so they employ the phrase ‘kerb his excesses’ as a compromise:  no more nor less than they have done since time immemorial.  But with Hasuga’s added maturity those excesses will become unmanageable.  For the whole history of time Hasuga has been the player of our music:  now he is the composer.”

“They think he will become a despot.”

“Lady, they know he will.”

“So why did you bring me here?  If not to pacify Hasuga, then what was your reason?”

“One which until now has remained closed in my heart.”  Cassix hoists himself onto his elbows.  The water seems to have revived him a little.  “Take the stones and go to the window; you will  see two cradles there.”

On the sill where the dome and low foundation wall of the Watchtower meet rest two small brackets of black metal, a fraction more than a yard apart.  Each bracket is topped by a horizontal cup about four inches in diameter.

“I see them.”

  Alanee, who has an instinctive dislike of heights, has been avoiding this giddy edge, yet it does not occur to her to disobey.  Tentatively she edges towards the glass, then tests her weight upon the ledge, leaning forward so she may peep over.  For the first time she sees how far above the city she has climbed:  below a mass of lights refract and waver in the rising air. 

“Do exactly as I say – exactly, now, do you hear?.  Place the larger end of the clear stone in the left-hand cup.  Have you done that?”

She affirms that she has.

“Now remove your hand from the clear stone.  Place the green stone in the other cup.  Do not touch both stones simultaneously – do you understand?”

Bemused, she does as she is told.

“Be very careful.  I want you to look out into the eastern sky, Alanee.  Look deeply, find texture, find detail.”

Texture:  what is he talking about?  Has the old man’s mind gone – is he senile or fanciful?  Yet there is a sort of vague meshing effect, a kind of weave – and yes, odd though it may seem, she can see something. 

“You have found it?  You can see the vortex?”  Cassix knows that she can.  “Now put your right hand upon the green stone.”

Alanee does so.

“The other hand upon the clear stone.”

The universe becomes alive – or so she will describe it in some future time when her memory returns to this moment.  A current shooting through every physical and mental corner of her, a charge of such voltage her whole frame is rigid within its grip, as though some infernal angel’s long fingers are reaching in to grip her heart.  So extreme is the sensation her mind is seared free of the watchtower, of Cassix’s distant voice, of the City and all its sights and sounds.

Instead?

Through her arms, her hands, the stones and far, far outwards an intense flare of herself is joined with the firmament:  for a blinding instant she can comprehend what it means to be at one with the stars.  Alanee is the sky – Alanee is the earth – Alanee is melting…melting….

And then – she sees!  The sky is not clear, or majestic, or free.  The heavens are a stirring, rolling ocean of light, waves that flicker and stab, expressing their instability by small flashes of discharging lightning.   There are clouds there; clouds that whirl and twist and there is burning – burning that flares from the dark recesses between the galaxies, hungry orange tongues consuming, devouring, withdrawing once more into mouths deeper than infinity.  A battle of flame and thunder, filled by cries of tortured souls.  She must observe: a spectator at the corrida when the sword strikes home and the horrid fascination as the blood spurts forth; she may not avert her consciousness, may not redirect her inner eye.  She stands mesmerised before a window.  She watches Armageddon.

The experience will end as unexpectedly as it began, whether within a few seconds or an hour Alanee has no idea.  Her hands are released; she may lift them from the stones.  Though her body feels enervated and her knees shake she cannot feel that any harm has befallen her.  When she comes to herself the sky is calm – once again a tapestry of innocent stars.

“What was that?”  Is all she can think of to say.

“I have named it the Continuum.”  Cassix answers.  If she could see his face from where she stands she would see that he is smiling the smile of one whose theory has just been vindicated.  “The Continuum as only you and I may witness it, Alanee.  Every day it grows:  a disturbance in the ether that began less than a generation since, and until a cycle ago no more than a distant maelstrom in the skies of the south-east.  Now – well, you saw its immensity.”

“So, it’s what:  a kind of solar storm, or some form of illusion?  It’s gone now.”

“It is no illusion, and no, it has not ‘gone’- though few can see even a small part of it and none at all without the presence of a Seer, it is real enough:  it is a prophecy.  You saw it:  how did it speak to you?”

“I believe it cut across time.  I don’t know whether I was watching the present, the future or the past.  Is that an answer?”

“A part of an answer.”  Cassix acknowledges.  “The rest will come.”

“I must watch it again?”

“And again, and again and again.  Alanee, now do you see why I brought you to the City?  Do you see what the High Council has missed, what is so far above their heads both physically and conceptually they could never hope to understand?”

“No, Sire.”  Alanee is mystified.  She is sure any reasoning so obscure as to defeat the learned Councillors must be incomprehensible to her poor brain.

“No-one in the City has this gift; no-one attuned to Hasuga’s huge telepathic powers can follow me.  He is in my head now, wrenching, tearing at my inner vision.  You – you can resist that, give him the clear balance he needs and, as we both just witnessed, you have the gift of sight.  Alanee, you are my successor:  you are the next Seer.”

Alanee staggers, almost loses all sensation in her legs.  “Me?  Sire, I am honoured, but….”

“Please do not consider this an honour!”  Cassix’s voice rises.  “There is no honour in this!  There is a great task, a momentous task that comes upon us quick as thunder and neither of us has time to ponder it as we should.  You must accept it and meet it alone.

“The Continuum and Hasuga are associated – linked – one and the same.  I am certain of that.  He must be shown what it will do to the City, Alanee.  It is destruction and it is upon us!”

“Sire I cannot…”

“Don’t try to say no.  You have no choice.  Even from this lofty perch I see the cauldron stirred by those poor, frightened colleagues of mine.  They are not pleased with their new Hasuga, Alanee, and they are equally displeased with you.  Whereas they are compelled by Lore to suffer one, they can dispense with the other.”

Cassix’s voice now has a tired finality. His strength is failing.  “I knew when I first met you:  I knew you were the only possible way forward.  I had planned to take so much longer in training you, in showing you ways through The Lore to grow in your craft.  But Hasuga would not have it so, and my health is forfeit.  You must study the Lore for yourself and you will learn as he wants you to learn, which is how it should be.  Now go. Take the stones, for although you will not always need them you must keep them close to you.  I have to use what time remains to me to ensure your election.”

She would stay, protest further, but one look at that ashen face is enough.  She quietly takes her leave, and with feet scarcely finding the treads and sometimes clinging to the rope that serves as a rail Alanee makes her way down from the sick-room in the sky.

“’Een un then?”  She passes the sentry without noticing, or smelling, his presence – back into the city.

Watching her pass, the sentry scratches himself reflectively, wondering what business so beautiful a woman can have with a sick old man in the early hours.  As she disappears into the bright maw of the Avenues he settles to his nocturnal routine, the pacing discipline which is all that will keep him awake through the watches of the cold hours.  A visitor on this shift is an event: at least now the stillness has returned and he can attune his ears once again to that distant music from the bazaar – music which always plays, no matter what the hour.  The night has not long to go, now.  There should be no more such interruptions.

But out there in the official residences and the resplendent salons of the High Councillors, Altor the Convenor is busy.  Behind the superficial calm a rising tumult; summoners buzzing; mighty heads stirring from their sleep.  Before much longer the sentry’s night will become very eventful indeed.

#

 “You have done what?”  The Domo’s face is purple with anger.  Actually it is also purple with expended effort; the protracted climb to the Watchtower is one he rarely makes, and then always with the assistance of two drabs.  He is not alone in his reaction.  The others present have also vented their disbelief.

“I have nominated the Lady Alanee as my successor to the office of Seer.”  Cassix has been propped up so he may face the assembled gathering, though he is so weak his head can hardly support itself.  “It is my duty and my right.”

“NO!”  Portis cries.  “Seer is an office of the High Council, for Habbach’s sake!  Sire, what on earth possesses you?”

For Trebec the climb has also been an arduous one, and now, in the presence of so many High councillors in so small a space, the heat is stifling.  “This is intolerable.”

“Really my Lord, why?”  Though weak, Cassix’s words command attention.  He has prepared for this battle.  “She alone among you can see The Continuum for what it truly is.”

“This Habmenach-forsaken bloody Continuum again!”  Such expressions of intolerance from the Domo are rare.  “You are not well, Cassix.  You realise we must question your mental state?”

Cassix assents:  “I do.  In a total absence of precedent, though, should you even try?  I have already published my intent and taken the required test for my sanity.”  He nods towards a screen that has been set up beside his pallet.  “The whole city knows, My Lord Domo.”

There ensues one of those pauses wherein no-one feels free to speak, yet such a volume of thoughts fills the space that whole philosophies are wordlessly exchanged.  At length the Domo breaks the silence.

“Well then, we must ratify your choice, Sire Cassix.”

Trebec sounds as if he might explode:  Remis grunts, Ellar says softly:  “Oh, Cassix!”

“It is the Lore.”  The Domo says.  “We must observe the Lore.  Clearly, this is Sire Hasuga’s wish.”

“And where is that wish to take us?”  Ellar demands, ignoring Portis’s warning glance.  “Where?”

The Proctor cannot ignore this.  “Lady Ellar, you are guilty of a blasphemy!”

“Sire Remis!”   Cassix intercedes:  “The lady is a High Councillor elect!  Of course we should – no – we must question where Hasuga is leading us!  I am no longer able to fulfil a role which is vital to us all; a role Alanee can play.  She will show you Hasuga’s intentions Ellar, if you let her.  She might even be able to moderate them, though maybe not in the way you wish.  I repeat to you:  I nominate Lady Alanee as my successor.  She shall be Seer to the High Council.”

There is no more to be said, and if there were Cassix no longer has breath to say it.  His task complete, he sinks back into the cushions that prop his torso erect for this meeting, deflated, spent.  The sight of his decrepitude affects the Domo especially, who lumbers across to him, placing a gentle hand on his forehead with the quiet words:

“It shall be done.  Goodbye, old friend.”

For the others, too, this obvious sign dispels any further wish for argument and each in their turn pay their respects to the great man who has served with them for so many years.  Ellar, last to come to him, feels his touch upon her arm.  Sees, rather than hears him whisper:

“Stay?”

So she waits, listening as he does to the receding quarrels as the rest of the High Council makes its laboured descent back to the City.  Then she sits upon the floor beside him, cradling the man who has loved her, in his patrician way, ever since she met him in the womb of the Palace so many years ago.

“My Lord?”  She asks him softly.

For a moment she thinks he has already embarked upon his journey, but behind the parchment skin a candle of life still flickers.  After a while he speaks.  “Lady.  Take care of Alanee.  You alone.  Understand?”

“That will be hard, Sire.”

“You disapprove of her.”  It is not a question.  He has not time or energy for questions.  “She will need you.  The world will need her.”

“If you wish it, I will do all I can.”

Cassix allows a ghost of a smile to play across his dry lips.  “I know you will.  Ellar?”

“Yes, my Lord?”

“You’ll stay, won’t you?”

“Cassix my dearest, I’m with you always.”

With her arm about his shoulders and her hand clasped over his, Ellar sits with him to wait for the sunrise.  And in the first warm rays of morning, Cassix dies.

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

Photo credit: Pexels from Pixabay

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A Land Under Siege

To be absolutely clear, I am in favour of self-isolation or quarantine, if you prefer, where necessary.   I fully appreciate the efforts of the National Health Service in meeting the challenge of COVID-19.  I am desperately sad for all of those families who have lost loved ones, and I feel the pain of those thousands who are fighting for their own survival, either suffering the disease, or from annihilation by DEBT.

I think it is time to ask some questions.

In UK at the moment, there is no media coverage for anything apart from the virus, its effects, and ‘Our heroic National Health Service’ .  Presumably other things are happening in the world, but we do not hear about them.  The news media has a job.  It is to report the news.  It is not doing it.

Saturation-level propaganda is a bit of a speciality where the British Establishment is concerned, so whenever terminology like ‘The National Health Service’ is subtly adjusted to read ‘Our National Health Service’ we know we are being manipulated towards sympathetic patriotism.   ‘Our National Health Service’ is incomparable; it is the best in the world, and so on.

No, it isn’t.

It is better than some, it is worse than others.  It is streets behind the German equivalent, for example.  The heroes are the people on the ground who struggle with the limited tools they have been given, because ‘Our National Health Service’ only serves the poor bloody infantry.  Anyone who can afford it ‘goes private’, including those poverty-stricken doctors who quietly accumulate small fortunes from their private clientele.

Shutting a whole country has further, less publicised effects.  It all but eliminates small business, leaving the field clear for the better-padded moguls to move in.  And small businesses will fail to sustain an artificially low unemployment figure, because a lot of those people living on the margins will soon be forced to return to the ranks of the unemployed.

Debt and the inability to service it may be manifested in destroyed dreams, broken relationships and ruined lives.  Confinement to some is intolerable, especially to those who live alone, or those whose mental state is already disturbed.   A government’s task is clearly to walk a fine line between prudence in terms of the virus’s spread and preserving financial stability – or at least that is what it should be doing.  So when we are told a plateau in the number of those contracting the virus has been reached, only to have it dismissed as ‘the eye of the storm’ and be advised that quarantine will continue for a further three weeks, we are entitled to question.

Be a conspiracy theorist for a moment.  No-one doubts the authenticity of the virus, or the need for some response to it, but it is, in some ways, very convenient.  It serves, for example, those who would wish to further increase the funding and influence of the National Health Service.  Make no mistake, the British Medical Association holds our medical profession in an iron grip, and it advances the cause of doctors, their working conditions and their salaries, very well.   It serves the interests of those wishing to delay or reverse the process of Brexit, because nobody is talking about EU issues now; and it serves a Chancellor who prepared a huge giveaway budget that defied the basic rules of economics, and will now ‘have’ to be scrapped.

Hastened by COVID, in years to come High Streets will be rearranged, Malls closed, on-line marketing and working from home will become the norm.  If there is a future for small business in this country, and if we can continue to steer clear of the EU reef, and if property prices are forced to a realistic level, then it will have redressed some of its terrible cost.

If, however, it merely becomes a tool for the Establishment, a series of excuses for promises broken, the embryo of a police state and a vessel to sail back into the jaws of Federalist Europe many thousands of people will have suffered and died in vain.

I’m sure the conspiracy theories cannot be true.  No sovereign government or its organs would stoop so low as to use a profoundly dangerous virus to further its own ends…

Would it?

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We hope it will look seamless…

But we all know it rarely is…

Today with shaky fingers I cut my ties with frederickanderson.wordpress.com, packed everything into two small battered suitcases and migrated to

frederick-anderson-stories.org

I am assured by WordPress that those who love me will automatically follow me on my journey, but in case you don’t and you find yourself bereft, that’s the button to press.

This, of course, is what quarantine will do to a man: stimulate rash decisions, hasty moves, acts of extravagance. Nevertheless, here I am. If you are moved to pity I beg you, please visit me still? Just once in a while? You will find me

Lonely

and contrite…

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-One: Prisoners

In the last episode:

After a night in her friend’s apartment, Alanee still cannot prove to Sala that Celeris, her diffident and secretive lover in The City, exists.  Frustrated by her friend’s doubts, Alanee returns to her own apartment to find some leaves intrinsic to a dream of the previous day await her.  When she grasps them she is wracked with pain which she attributes to healing, though she does not know it is Dag Swenner, critically injured in a far-off forest, she heals.

Meanwhile, Sala has obeyed a call to meet Ellar, her patron, who prepares her for a greater weight of responsibility by emphasizing Alanee’s importance to The City.

In the evening, Hasuga summons Alanee.  He seems excited and unstable, urging her to evade the council’s spy cameras and accompany him to a summer house trysting place in his gardens.  Too late, Alanee sees the danger and tries to leave but he forcibly prevents her…

She is sprawled on the hard wooden bench of the summer house, Hasuga’s hideously distended cranium a dark moon looming over her, his hand on her chest, with all of his weight behind it, pinning her down.  She struggles for breath.

“Is this how you think of me?  Do I repel you so much?”  His tone is fierce.

She spits out a riposte; “After what you did to me?  Remember your little floor show last time we met?  Do you?  Am I supposed to forget that?   Let me go, Hasuga.  Let me go!  Out of this squalid little hut, out of your pathetic life, out of The City.  I don’t belong here!”  Her unmitigated fury so surprises him that he eases his grip somewhat, enough to allow her to add, in a more moderate tone, “Let me return to the Hakaan. That’s my home.”

“You can never go back.   Do not hold out any hope.  You can never go back.”  He draws breath, as though he wants those words to sink in.  She, gasping for air, has not the wind to snap back at him, so after a space he asks her; “Who am I, Lady Alanee?”

She scowls, “Hasuga.  You’re Hasuga, I’m Alanee – we both know who we are.  And for Habbach’s sake forget all this ‘Lady’ stuff, because we both know why I’m here.  You wanted a new ‘Mother’ who could double up as your concubine – and I’m it.  Very well, so I’m destined to remain your prisoner, for the time being, at least.  But I’m not going to share a bed with you, Hasuga.  Do you understand?”

“Am I not a prisoner too?”  In the darkness she may not see his expression, and the renewed calm in his voice gives nothing away. “Have you thought of that?  I have never left this palace.  Only courtiers and the High Council are allowed to look upon me.  For me this is the most oppressive of prisons.”

“Nonsense!”  She makes a determined attempt to remove his hand from her chest, “You’re the supreme being!  If you wanted, you could just walk out of here; commandeer an aerotran, or something.  Who could stop you?”

“Where would I go?  On the outside no-one even knows I exist.  Can you picture me among normal men?  Imagine what they would do to me – what I would have to do to dissuade them.”  He relinquishes his grip on her, slumping onto the seat at her side as if he is suddenly exhausted by his efforts.  “This is the Consensual City and its stability depends upon my remaining invisible.  It depends upon their ignorance of the truth!”

“So these people, the Councillors, are your gaolers, then?  They really do control you.”

“We have a consensual relationship.  Alanee, I have been a child since beyond memory.  Children learn everything and reason nothing.  They learn how to play and they learn the norms of human behaviour without estimating the worth of the things they learn.  Now, unwillingly, the Council has given me the keys to a part of its wisdom:  it has allowed me to grow – opened a door for me it wished would remain closed, so I have to learn afresh what I may or may not do.  I am at the dawn of my understanding.”

Alanee rearranges herself,  “The High Council can see how fast you’re learning, and it fears what you may become.  I’m meant to stop you.”

“The hope is that you will help the Council to control me, not teach me.  They see that as their prerogative, not yours.”

“Yes, well!”  Feeling she has a better grasp on the situation, she admonishes him:  “You can control yourself.  Isn’t that what you are learning?  Isn’t that what you should be  learning?”

“Because of the way I am made, I am fearful that may not be so.”

Alanee decides it is safer to change tack.  “Ellar believes you can’t direct my thoughts.  Is that true?”

“You doubt it, don’t you?  So do I.”  Hasuga raises his hands to his immense bowl of a head, as if he needs their support to keep the weight that bears down upon his body from crushing him.  “I wish it was otherwise, but I am able to read them, at least.”

“I thought as much.  Alright: if I can get over how intrusive that is; and, yes, come to think of it, how insulting that is; it must seem pretty good to you.  Why do you wish it was otherwise?”

“Because of who you are.  I do not want to manipulate you, although I need to learn about you.  Cassix believes he knows who he has brought to me, I do not – not yet.  It was so easy to give you power, Alanee – too easy.  It was no trouble at all.”

 “What you want from me doesn’t tally with the High Council’s idea of my role, either, does it?”  Alanee reasons.  “This is beginning to sound as though you want me to conspire with you against the Council.  They wouldn’t let that happen.”

“We are already conspiring.  They can’t stop it.  Can you not sense that?”

She shakes her head.  “I can understand how you must hate them, keeping you cooped up here for longer than I can even conceive, but…”

“Hate is a human frailty.  I do not hate.”  Hasuga grips her hand, and she because she no longer feels threatened by him, she does not resist; “Your psyche compliments mine –  if we worked together our collective will would be insuperable.  This is more exciting than any game!”

 “The Council might not be able to stop our collusion, Hasuga, but they can stop me.  I’m only flesh – I don’t have your gifts.  A knife-stroke will be all it takes, believe me.”

“And so you must be careful, for a while.  Until, perhaps, you grow stronger.  But what an adventure, Alanee!”  He slaps his elongated palm on his knee.  “We must make a start.  Now you know of The Book, I want you to get it for me.”

Get it for you?

“Steal it.”

“Habbach, no!  The Book of Lore?  You can’t want me to risk that!”

“No, not the Lore Book, I learned every sentence of that before I was two hundred.  The book I mean is one you have only seen in your mind.  This book has no name.”

“With a red cover, locked so I may not open it?  Yes, I have seen it.  You want me to steal that?  Where is it kept?”

“Where could it be but in the Council’s Inner Library; where they have tried for years to x-ray it, to rifle it, to persuade it to open, but never succeeded?  I will succeed.  But first I must have it in my hands.  Bring it to me.”

“Oh Hasuga, how?  I won’t be allowed anywhere near the High Council’s library.  Sire Portis even stopped me from taking a peek at the Book of Lore, and that wasn’t the original, either.  How will I do it?  I can’t do it.”  Alanee decides.  “Ask me something else.”

“You will not try?”

“No!   I’ve no appetite for conspiracy!”  She may not mean to snap back at him again, yet the anger inside her must express itself.  “Hasuga, you are using me. You say you learn from me, you don’t want to manipulate me?  But you don’t care how much you hurt me, how deeply you humiliate me, how small and wretched you make me feel.  Collusion, deception; danger, it’s all a game to you:  why should I put myself at hazard for that?  The High Council have given me my duties, I am here to look after you.  If I do that as they wish, even though it tears them in half, they will have no excuse to dispense with me.  You want me to steal from them?  I won’t do that – I won’t!”

 “Very well.”  Hasuga has studied her curiously throughout this tirade.  Now he nods.  “You agree I am to some extent inside your mind and your thinking, and you will remember that I am unwilling to manipulate your thoughts, although I could.  I would rather you reconsidered, and for that you will require time.  Time is limited, Alanee.  Do not take more than is due.”

He stands.  “Come, we should return before our absence gives concern.  When you are ready to speak of this again, we will meet.  I will be waiting.”

Alighting from the elevator on the ground floor of the Palace, Alanee nearly collides with Ellar, who is obviously on her way to Hasuga’s apartments. 

“Lady Alanee!”  the Mediant’s voice sounds starched.

“Lady Ellar, greet you.  Were you missing me?”

“Perhaps.  Lord Valtor claims he summoned you several hours ago.”

“Hasuga needs someone to look after him.  That’s not me, at least for the moment.  Why does his ‘Mother’ not attend him?”

Sire Hasuga is in your charge, Lady.”  Ellar reminds her, dryly.  “You can cook, can you not?”

“I can, but I’m sure his drabs are feeding him sufficiently well.  I asked to see Sire Cassix:  did you relay my request, Lady?”

And Ellar replies, shortly:  “No.”  then steps into the elevator, returning Alanee’s questioning look with a stony stare, until the doors close.

Outside the palace, is the evening breeze in the courtyard suddenly a little stronger, a little colder?  If not, why does Alanee feel a prickle of winter on her neck?  Around her, courtiers and servants wander in couples and threes, taking in the spring air.   Many wear robes of a lighter fabric, socialites intent upon an evening in the city dressed as gaily and as briefly as the season permits.  In those islands of greenery the drabs have created, ornate stone troughs and planters that break up the void of the yard, are early flowers, buds, promises of growth.

Alanee badly needs someone with whom to share her concerns, someone untouched by the fears and jealousies of those around her, yet the buttons on her summoner provide no answer, even though, mysteriously, Celeris’s name has reappeared; why could she not find it before?

As she walks back towards the city, preoccupied with her thoughts, she pays no heed to the young man who cuts through the sprinkling of late promenaders with determined stride.  She does not see how unerringly he heads in her direction, how his hand is now reaching, gripping, beneath his robe.  At the last, the very last second she looks up – is faced with the cold intent in his eyes, the hand that has found what it seeks and is returning to view, clasping something, turning it in her direction and she almost screams…

And he has passed her, a file of papers filling his hand and now pressed against his chest.  In his wake, Alanee’s knees come near to failing her.  Her lungs once again are forced to gasp for air, a tear finds its way to her cheek.  She snatches up her summoner, stabbing upon Sala’s name.  This time Sala answers.

Tocatta is effusive:  “Darling Lady Alanee; so gorgeous you look!  Such radiance!”

Before visiting Tocatta’s intimate café, Sala’s favourite haunt, Alanee has stopped briefly at her apartment to change into one of the outfits she had made for her in the city; a well cut, svelte version of a side-laced Hakaani tabard in white shot silk with an emerald braid.  Sala eyes her a little enviously.

“For once the old fraud isn’t exaggerating.  My Habmenach, Alanee!”

They wait until Toccata has brought Tsakal with the perl chasers Celeris taught Alanee to enjoy.  When he has withdrawn and in the protection of the sound-deadening hangings, Alanee at last feels she can speak.  With her gaze firmly fixed upon their reflections in the glass of the big window (for the blackness of the night beyond is impenetrable) she says:  “I need a friend.”

She feels Sala’s hand on hers.  “You know you have that.”

“There are things I have to tell that friend, things she might get into trouble for.”

Sala does not say anything for a while.  They sip at the heat of their drinks in desultory fashion until they are ready to look at one another.  When Alanee meets Sala’s eyes they are solemn.

“There are friends, if they are true friends, who will take that risk.”  Sala says.

“Can we be overheard?”

“Perhaps.”  Sala presses the buzzer that will summon Toccata.  When he appears, she asks:  “Are there cameras here?”

Toccata smiles his understanding.  “No, Lady Sala, I clean these curtains daily.”  He withdraws.

So, with hesitant beginnings, and always watching Sala’s face for an expression that might deter her, Alanee tells her tale.  She tells Sala of Hasuga, all she knows about the reasons she was brought to the city and her relationships with Hasuga and the High Council.  Only the mission Hasuga has set her escapes mention, not because she mistrusts her friend, but for fear of the danger that knowledge may bring her.  Sala doubts at first – this, after all, is a Hakaani girl she has known scarcely longer than a cycle: a girl with an imaginary man-friend:  yet she has long suspected the existence of an entity like the one Alanee describes, and now, as the explanation develops, Sala finds the pieces and clues of a puzzle that has thwarted her all her life falling into place.  When Alanee concludes her account she cannot find words for a while, but stares into her tsakal as she assembles the finished image in her mind.

Finally she breaks her silence.  “As it appears to me, you walk a very thin line indeed.  Nobody knew what to expect when Sire Cassix brought you to the City, and now they are finding out. 

“Alanee-ba, not everyone likes Cassix.  Seers are never popular, though they are very powerful and their will is respected.  Right now it seems there is a faction, Cassix’s faction, who would let matters proceed naturally, and there is everyone else.  Everyone else probably subscribes to my patron’s opinion.”

“Which is?”

“You will get this list of targets she has promised you which I’m sure will clarify the picture, if clarification is what it needs.”

“Feed him, flatter him, fuck him.”

“In essence.”

Alanee puts her head in her hands.  “And what if the worst should happen?  It’s unthinkable!”

“There are measures…”

“Of course there are.  I like him, I really do.  I can’t exactly explain why, after everything he’s done, but sleep with him?   Oh, Sala-ba, you haven’t seen him.  I can’t do that.  I just can’t!”

Sala nods, and her face is pale.  “Then, oh my darling, you had better be ready to run.  You were probably an experiment very few of them wanted to try in the first place.  It would be good to know where the Domo stands in this, but I imagine everyone is thinking of damage limitation, and only the Cassix faction preserves you.  I suppose the real issue is how your presence affects Sire Hasuga’s ability to rule, if that is really what he does.  It’s such a pity Sire Cassix is so ill…”

“Ill?  Is he?   Oh Habbach!  Now I have to get to see him!  What do you mean ‘if that is really what Hasuga does’?”

“Well, from your description it sounds as though the High Council use Hasuga’s telepathic strength to keep order.  That’s rather different from ‘ruling’ in the regal sense.”

“But he sees, he hears.  From that apartment up there on the top of the Palace, (and he never leaves it) he can see and hear the whole city.”

“Including ourselves then?”  Sala says seriously.  “Bless you, Alanee, for that.”

“He will be listening, I suppose.  Somehow though, I don’t think he could object.  He seems to want to gain my trust.  And if they were able to use him before, I don’t think they will for much longer.  Every time I meet him he has grown in power.  Today he seemed so confident, so self-assured:  a young man, in fact.  I don’t know who I will meet tomorrow.”

“Alanee…”  Sala collects herself.  “Alright, look: you were brought here; why?  Because the High council saw what was happening to Hasuga and they knew they couldn’t control it.  What did they think you would do?  Because of this gift of yours to resist telepathy and because you’re such a nice, undemanding sort of girl they believed you would calm him down, help him to a maturity he does not yet have.

“All they want is for Hasuga to continue to rule as he has before.  Show them you are doing the job they selected you to do, and they’ll leave you alone.  Persuade Hasuga to resume his old role – see if you can placate him?”

“I’ve already tried.  I can’t see it happening.  He’s rampant.  He has schemes, dreams of change, and all the time I am with him I can see those schemes take shape. They’re right, Sala, I am part of the problem.  I fuel him.  I make him grow.”

The pair talk this through for a while, turning over the same essential issues.  In the end, as Alanee perceives, their discussion has no merit; for Sala does not have any more answers than she.  With resignation in her heart she bids her friend goodnight and wends her way to home and bed.  She will not have long to sleep.

The hectoring of the summoner is like a blare of a bugles lashing through the early morning stillness.  Alanee gropes for it, swears at it, slaps it down in front of her on a pillow she has not bothered to scrutinize, intent upon switching it off.  The name that flickers green on its display stops her.  ‘Cassix’.

“Sire?”  She offers little more than a sleepy murmur.

“Lady Alanee?  Come to the watchtower.  Come now.  Tell no-one you are coming.”

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

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Blue Sky Thinking

This weekend the churches in UK will remain closed.  The tradition of congregating for an Easter Sunday Service will not happen.  

Now I have no particular axe to grind, but something so earth-shattering that it hasn’t happened since the twelfth Century shouldn’t pass unnoticed.

The reason, of course, is COVID-19, and it makes perfect sense.  Congregations tend to draw their numbers from the age group still reckoned to be most vulnerable to serious attack from this virus, those for whom social distancing is particularly important.

Canterbury Cathedral

Closure of buildings, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York assure us, does not diminish the significance of the Easter weekend.   The church is inside those who believe, the worshippers, rather than the shelter within which they worship.  Communications have rather improved since the 12th Century, and the church is able to come to its congregation on-line.  

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, will lead the Easter Morning Service from his London home.  It will be broadcast on BBC Radio Four, and available live from the Church of England’s website:

https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/church-online

This is more portentous than a mere historical milestone.  It is a chance for the church to measure the response of its parishioners, because I am prepared to bet the Archbishop’s audience will far exceed the average 1500 who attend his cathedral.  Why?  Well, not because an act of prayer from one’s own home takes less ‘effort’, but because it is more accessible to those conscience would be pricked by the pollution of a journey and the fear of infection.

If any good is to come out of this benighted little bug that besets us, it is in the chances it offers to re-think many outdated concepts.  Up and down the land more businesses are learning new ways of working that do not involve the daily trek to an office; more retail groups and sole traders are using the enforced leisure to improve their presence online, more fatted calves of the communications industry are reassessing their schedules, and we ourselves are discovering a renewed blueness to the sky.  The air is fresher, sunrises can once again be seen from the cities.  The whole world is taking a very deep breath.

And no, the church does not escape.  As its ancient buildings get older, they become increasingly frail, while the cost of their maintenance escalates.  Their congregations dwindle.  Yes, group worship in a full church is an uplifting experience, but the sad truth is cold stone and empty echoes in chambers where the dead outnumber the living.  As the priesthood gets older, fewer young people seem eager to study theology.  You can’t get the staff nowadays!

So why not take the message of Coronavirus to heart?  Why not redirect the vast resources devoted to renovating old gargoyles or replacing lead on roofs to helping the poor and the disadvantaged?  Keep the few great cathedrals, yes, but why not subsidize housing on the rest of the church’s estates to provide homes for those just starting out in life, or those with special needs?

Every act which benefits the lives of others is a prayer.  Isn’t that the true measure of belief?   Isn’t that what a church should be for?

 ,

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Another Delve

As promised, I am revisiting some of my more ancient short stories:  I thought I’d try  to lighten the mood a little today, by reminding us all of the joy to be had where fantasy and reality meet!

After that, I feel the next sentence should begin with ‘Dearly Beloved’  so I’ll leave it there!

Goblins

It is the fate of some of us to live in a world peopled by dragons, unicorns and goblins. Yes, this is my opportunity and I will let my secret out: I am such a one (In my case an occasional pixie may also make a guest appearance, though rarely more than once, say, in every week; scarcely worth mentioning, the pixies).

Now generally speaking this is not an inconvenience.  The creatures of the Nether World do not exactly dominate my existence, no:  it’s just that from time to time, in certain phases of, say, the Moon, or when Jupiter aligns with Mars, they are especially active.  They come out to play.  And their celebrations, though so discreet as to escape general notice, are usually to my cost.  Allow me to give you a recent example.

On Monday morning I am late for an appointment in town, so my normally sedate but very even-tempered car is politely asked to hurry a little.   Nothing unsafe, you understand: just a brisk, business-like ten miles through traffic light-strewn suburbia.

Let me explain to those unfamiliar with our quaint British ways that we mount our traffic lights boastfully on posts over here.  We offer them up for admiration, for the bold, artistic statements they make – we don’t string them across the carriageway on wires, as, for example, in the United States – as we should, of course.  If we did it that way there would be no opportunity for goblins to make their homes within the hollow posts and I would not have a problem.

In the last twenty years or so whole families of goblins, reputedly from the Irish mini-travelling community or from Eastern Europe, have taken up residence in the poles of traffic lights throughout the land.  The system works, I suppose, effectively.   The head of the family is employed by the local council to operate the lights, throwing a simple switch to give best advantage to the traffic.   At least, that is how it should work.  But goblins being goblins…

From within the foot of the pole:  “Michael, me darling, who have ye got up there?”

Michael, from his lofty position by the switch:  “I t’ink that the auld writer-fella from the valley moight be on his way…”

“Well, that’d be grand!  Stop him for me, will ye?  I’ll get Fergal here to hitch a ride with him into town.  There’s a few things I need from the Goblin Market.  Fergal, are you list’nin’?  I’ll just be makin’ ye a list.”

I am close to making up my lost time and the road ahead is clear. The traffic lights at the intersection ahead are on green and there is no-one else in sight.  Happy in my universe I increase my speed a little (naughty!).  The traffic lights change to red.  I stop, grump, grump.

Michael, atop the post:  “Fergal, will ye hurry up man!  I’ll be havin’ to change them in a minute!”

Mrs. Michael, from below:  “Patience, Michael, I’ve not finished me list yet!  We’ll have not enough victuals for the Moon Feast.  Hold him up for a bit, will ye?”

My fingers drum the steering wheel: tap, tap, tap.  From a perfectly clear horizon to my left a large lorry suddenly appears, bearing down upon the lights from the road currently favored by a green.   Free to pass through, it enters the intersection intending to turn right and gets stuck, its driver unable to force his big machine through the turn.

My light changes to a green.  

The junction is blocked by the lorry.

I cannot move.

My light turns back to red.

By corrective maneuvering and a waved apology, the driver gets his massive charge under way, so with the next ‘green’ I am free to proceed, though not before I might think I hear the faintest, most barely detectable of taps upon my roof.  I may recognize it, but where’s the point?  I am late.  I drive faster.  Above me, Fergal clings to my radio aerial with his empty shopping bag streaming behind him in the wind, muttering complaints.

My appointment is at the top of the town, the Goblin Supermarket is at the bottom.  It is as I approach the lower end of town that my car’s perfectly maintained engine develops an ominous knock.  I stop to investigate.  I drive on.  The knock has vanished, and so, incidentally, has Fergal.

I am late for my appointment and there is an atmosphere I cannot dispel because goblin intervention is not accepted as an excuse for my tardiness.  When the meeting has drawn to a torrid conclusion I take my car to the garage.

“I was hearing this ‘knock’ thing.”

The mechanic takes it for a drive:  “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“Well, there was something.”

“There isn’t now.   Must be an intermittent fault.  If you hear it again…”

“I’m sure it was there…”  I persist, even though I know ‘intermittent fault’ is polite garage-speak for ‘you are imagining it’.  I am not prepared to admit the truth.

“Well it isn’t now.”

But I know it will be.  And sure enough, it returns, as soon as I reach the lower end of town on my way home.  This time, though, I am wise to its cause.  I ignore it.  It gets louder.

I continue to ignore it.  It becomes louder still.  Finally when I refuse to pull over and I am halfway down the valley road a set of traffic lights in front of me that has just changed to green changes instantly back to red and I am compelled to stop.   Let me emphasize, I do not actually see him, or any more than suspect his presence, but I know a very sweaty and out-of-breath Fergal has hauled himself back onto my roof.

When I drive away it is no surprise that the knocking sound has vanished, nor am I more than mildly pleased that every other set of traffic lights is green and I reach the last set – Fergal’s home set – in good time.  They, of course, will be red:  I expect it.

The lights are green.

There is more than a little of the Fergal within me.   I chuckle to myself because I know a mistake has been made.  Impervious to knocks from the engine, squeaks from the suspension, flashing LED lights and warning bleeps I increase my speed.  In twenty yards it will be too late to stop safely!   With fiendish grin I set my hands on the steering wheel, envisaging the panic inside that post as someone runs frantically up the little spiral staircase to lunge at the switch.  Too late! Ha ha! I am through!

I give way to laughter, to wild, demonic laughter!  There are no more traffic lights for two miles and the knocks and squeaks cannot intimidate me!  I throw the car through corners, imagining those little hands clinging desperately to my radio aerial, driving faster and faster; but then…

It dashes from a small paddock to my right; and once I have seen it, my eyes won’t let it go.  Brilliant white it flares, it flies, it flashes; it prances with strong neck arched and golden horn thrust forth like the sun-child I know it to be: it leaps the hedge, it bestrides the verge… 

Fearful I should hit something so royal and so fine I slam on the brakes,   My car drifts for a moment, collects itself, then convulses as another car with brakes not quite so sharp hits it from behind.

The impact is loud, the silent moment which ensues complete.  As the dust settles, a small, squat creature slithers through my window to stand before me on the dashboard and we meet, face-to-face, for the first time.  How do you describe ugliness so profound it defies description?  I shall not try, except to say a liberal quantity of mucus is involved.  Fergal leers at me, waving a stubby, bulbous finger in admonition.   Then he winks.  Then he goes.

Apparently the car which collided with me is a police car.  It seems I was speeding.  The officer writing out the ticket also thinks I stopped needlessly and dangerously.

“But I had to stop – I would have hit it!”

“Hit what, sir?”

“Why, the unicorn!”

“The…unicorn, sir?”

Yes, of course the bloody unicorn.  There it is, lying as statuesquely as any wild horse has ever lain upon the grass verge, watching as I am given a breath test.   But the policeman won’t see it; nor does he seem to notice that Stephanie, the girl who lives four doors down from me, is cradled against its chest, her long golden locks mingling with its soft white mane.  Now I do feel it might be being slightly misled in this regard, because I’ve seen the way she behaves with her boyfriend and he at least is less than celibate, I can tell you.   However…

At length the police car turns around and leaves.  I am reading my new batch of literature as it passes, but I do glance up in time to see Fergal, full bag of shopping on lap, seated comfortably amid its cluster of blue lights.  He gives me a cheery wave.

As for me?  Well, I drive home in a car which now has a genuine knocking sound, and count myself lucky that the fines will amount to less than a month’s wages.   From now until the end of this week (the end of Moon Feast) I shall only travel by taxi: my car is being repaired, anyway.

I feel it is time for all of us whose minds are open to creatures from the lower world to gather together and proclaim our beliefs.  What about you?  Have you any stories to tell about your encounters with pixies, or dragons, or maybe the odd Jabberwocky?

NB:   Some who read this post may accuse me of sizeism.  I wish to make it clear I have no prejudice against PORGs (persons of restricted growth) or their freedom of movement throughout the European Union, however ridiculous and misguided I may believe it to be.

© Frederick Anderson 2014.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Continuum – Episode Twenty: A Garden Meeting

In the previous Episode:

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

“Celeris!”

Sala groans.  “Him again!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?  With whom?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Lady.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

“Are you stronger now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Mana5280 on Unsplash

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Holding Hands

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

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

|छाप|

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

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

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

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Take Care How Little You Care…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Continuum – Episode Nineteen: Wagoner’s Leap

From the previous Episode:

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Lady?”

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

“Yes Lady.”

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am the Commander!”

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

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

Drip – drip –drip.

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

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

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

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

“Want company?”

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

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

“I know that.”

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

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

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

“What are you drinking, Manda?”

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

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

“Seafood?”

“Crabs.”

“Oh.  Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not touchin’ that!”

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

Manda falls silent, trembling.

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

She nods, struck dumb by terror.

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

#

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

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

“Where is the lady who lives here?”

“Don’t know.  Haven’t seen her.”

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

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

“I imagine the Grand Park is too obvious?”

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

#

“Oh, Celeris, this is beautiful!”

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

“Come, I will show you your room.”

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

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

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

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

“You must be exhausted!”  He exclaims.

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

“You are pleased?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then I must leave you!”

In whispers, “Not this time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He responds:  “I won’t.”

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

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

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

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

The words take time to permeate,   But they do.

“A good game?”

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

  A very, very good game. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why we Ignore the Warnings?

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

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

Essential mistakes have been made:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Continuum – Episode Eighteen: Venom

In the previous episode:

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

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

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

He knows he cannot not keep them waiting long.

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

#

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

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

He?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She calls Sala.

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

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

“Who?”

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

#

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

Alanee stares.  “Powerful?  How?”

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

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

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

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

“What I want.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  How did you…?”

“I am Hasuga.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lady Alanee?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lacking sophistication.”  He agrees.

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

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

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

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

“I’m not hungry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The honour, Lady, is all mine.”

“Ba.”

“I beg your pardon?”

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

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

Photo credit: Jan Kopriva on Unsplash

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Continuum – Episode Seventeen: Whispers in the Dark

Previously:

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

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

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

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

Her summoner buzzes.  It is Sala.  “Well?

“Well what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I met Celeris.” Alanee says.

“Who?”

“Celeris?  Don’t you know him?”

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

“Does the sun never permeate these confounded walls?”

“Maybe in summer…”  Zess says.

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

“Yes, Sire Trebec, almost.” 

“Almost?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is already done, Sire Trebec.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Farewell, Sire.”

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What book is that?”

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

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

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

Alanee looks perplexed,   “A riddle, Sire?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve seen inside this book?”

“Yes, just now.”

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

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

“You take it correctly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you do that here, in the City?”

“Yes.”

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

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

Ellar nods,  “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portis is looking questioningly at Ellar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellar and Portis stare after her.

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

Portis says:  “The impudence of the woman!”

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

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

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

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Who ARE these people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Continuum – Episode Sixteen: Pale Knight

The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Move along, Lady.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greet, Lady – dance?”

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

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

“Alanee – Balkinvel!”  She shouts back.

“Greet you, Alanee!”

“Greets you too, Delfio!”

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

He meets her look.  “Yes.”

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

Cassix does not reply.

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sire Celeris!”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not in too much of a hurry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you like it here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I didn’t mean….!”

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

“Call me ‘ba’.”

“I beg your pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t leave me here.”

“You live here.”

“Don’t leave me, ba.”

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

“Lady!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lady, I have to leave!”

“Celeris….”

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Levi Guzman on Unsplash

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Delving in the Once Upon a Time

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

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

My attempt to become more organized:

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

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

Melissa

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all started there.

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

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

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

Time to stop sharing.  “No.”  I say.

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

Otherwise…

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

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

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

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

What is this obsession with three months?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you haven’t lost too much?”

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

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

“Let’s walk back.”  I say.

“Yes, let’s.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, maybe.”  I admit.

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

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

“Brilliant!”

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

“Let’s drive around a bit!”

“I thought you had to get back?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I heard.”  He told me.

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

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

“But her modelling work…”

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

“You ‘get her’ – what do you mean?”

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

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

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

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Tuesday’s Addled Adage

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

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Continuum – Episode Fifteen: The Spring Rising.

The Story so Far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And all seems well – except that it is not.

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

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

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

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

#

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

He drifts.

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

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

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

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

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

The merciful, the inevitable end?

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

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

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

#

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

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

“The what?”

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

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

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

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

“How do you know when it’s coming?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If he is.”

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

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

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

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

“Just how well do you know this aerotran controller?

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

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

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

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

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

“Celebrations?”

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

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

Photo credit: Janosch Diggelman on Unsplash

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Continuum – Episode Fourteen: Emanation Games

The Story so Far:

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure some of them must.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His inference is unmistakeable.

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“Chronologically is usually best.”  Portis advises. 

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

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

The Domo grimaces:  “The usual filters?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then we adjourn.”

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

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

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

“I’ll brief the Lady Alanee.”

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

“I would rather you were present, Cassix.”

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

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

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

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

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Apologies to all my blogging friends….

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

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

Sorry, WordPress!

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

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

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Continuum – Episode Thirteen: Suspended in Time

The Story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dag has paused to gain breath.  “Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No games?”

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

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

“It is whatever I want it to be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Game?”

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

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

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

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

“Where is your mother?”

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

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

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

“I know,  I’m different.”

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

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

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

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

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

“If it were summer that would be different.”

“Come to the window.”

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There is no alternative explanation?”

“None, Sire Portis.”

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

#

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

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

Soon, very soon.

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

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

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

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

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Nostalgic? No!…I used to be…

The De La Warr Pavilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Continuum – Episode Twelve Thresholds

The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

“Sala-ba, I want to go to the river.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very unwillingly!  My skin will be ruined!”

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

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

“Sit down, hang on!”

“Wheeeee!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.  I’m a seminal.”

“A what?”

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

“Oh my!  Doesn’t that make you sad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened to him?”

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

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

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

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

“Am I?”  Alanee says.

“What, ba?  Are you what?”

“Part of your work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As We Are Mortal…

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

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

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

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

Most of us do stay on our own side of the divide.  ‘Most’ women understand little about football, care for it even less.  ‘Most’ men (illogically) spurn the offer of a handbag, despite its obvious uses.  And it is well that it should remain that way – imagine the chaos if husband and wife were to fight over who wears the brogues.

The other point to make about these weaknesses is the total absence of logic that drives them.  The word ‘fetish’ gets bandied about quite liberally and with good reason.   How, for example, can you justify spending half a month’s salary on a pair of heels that prove so uncomfortable they cannot be worn for longer than half-an-hour?   How can I prove a case for buying a car that will reach sixty miles an hour in seven-and-a-half-seconds on roads where it is rarely possible to go faster than fifty?

In vain our SOs plead the case for car ownership as simple transport.  It’s all about luggage space, enough doors for the installation of kids, enough cubby holes for baby bottles, drinks cans, paper tissues (endless paper tissues), maps, magazines, and various motley items such as ice scrapers and medical supplies.

 Such justifications count for nothing with me.  I am male.  I do not choose a fresh car, the car chooses me.  The car that will be my companion in life sits on its car lot with paint brightly shining.  It teases; it flirts, it flutters its headlights demurely:  I fall in love.

There is nothing ‘fresh’ about it, actually.  It has a dent in the side – that can be beaten out.  When I steer, it resolves to take no notice.  How capriciously feminine is that?  It will stop – sometimes; but then, sometimes it won’t start.  There are moments of sheer joy, unparalleled elation when man and machine are as one:  they usually last ten minutes, before they end in a hedge or a pointless argument.

There have been many cars in my life, the greater proportion of which have been old.  Dignified antiques?  No.  Tragic basket cases?  Well….yes, I suppose.  And the more I think about it, the more I realise they compensate for the stability in my life and the happiness of my marriage.  The car is The Other Woman.  I have affaires – covert relationships as tempestuous as they are brief.  Wow!  That’s deep!

In case you live nearby and are worried, the car I have now is sensible, soulless and almost new.  The cars I describe above, well, they are from my past, and I have spent thousands down the years in making them safe, because I would never drive a weapon.

To conclude, I would like to attach this picture of my last Great Love.  A Volvo, as you see.  She is, sadly, no longer with us, having succumbed to a long illness – an incurable oil leak which left a series of Ronschach images on my driveway – my best and enduring memory of her, and, I firmly believe, her plaintive attempts to communicate.  She knew her pain..

Therefore let us all be proud.  Do not disguise your weakness, or bite back those spontaneous outbursts of emotion that visit now and then.  Having a friend for support, that is important; yet you must not lay blame upon them because they dragged you screaming away from that shop window, or frog-marched you, tearful, from that car mart.  They recognise, as do you, the great emotional harmonies of life, and one day you will be able to do the same for them.

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Continuum – Episode Eleven Introduction to the Man-Child

For some days Alanee, widow of a Hakaani foot-player, has been resident in a luxurious City apartment, so it seems her fear of punishment for non-conformity is baseless.  Ellar, the Mediant of the City Council tells her she has a very important task, but gives little information about it.  She is much more forthcoming on the subject of Dag Swenner, Alanee’s aerotrans pilot friend, who is missing, presumed dead.

Dag is alive, however, and has joined forces with Ripero, a Mansuvene boy, in shared experience of a mysterious force that has wiped out Ripero’s village.  Unbeknownst to them the City Council has learned of this force, and has despatched one of its best generals to investigate.

Meanwhile, on a promise of beginning her ‘task’ Alanee has been chained and tortured in an underground dungeon, where she catches sight of her captor, an outlandishly disproportioned man-child.  She faints, and wakes in a bed, with her head filled by a cacophony of noise, at the root of which is a familiar voice, anxious to know she is better…

The noise in Alanee’s head stops!  Each individual component shuts down; switches off, extinguished like a candle-flame.  And now in the silence she knows exactly whose voice she hears!

With a dry shudder she draws herself up in the bed they have made for her.  There it is, her torturer, her persecutor, strange mixture of angel, child and nightmare, framed in a doorway just a few meters away.

Alanee cannot conceal the loathing in her voice.  “Don’t let that near me!”

Her reaction is instinctive, her words clearly taking effect, for the woman that the ‘thing’ addresses as ‘Mother’ withdraws from her as if shot.  A cry of horror escapes the woman’s lips; she rushes to the ‘thing’ as if to comfort it, but its youthful features do not display offence:  instead, the look it gives is much like a dog seeing a rabbit for the first time.  Curiosity, interest; even, perhaps, amusement.  It drops one shoulder and tilts its massive head to one side, as would a dog.  It smiles.

“Did the manacles hurt you?”  It asks innocently.

Immediately the soreness in Alanee’s right wrist flares:  she feels it as though it were being analysed, examined.  The sensation remains for less than a second before it moves to her left wrist, then her ankles in turn.

She manages to turn her wince into a scowl, “What are you?”

At this, ‘Mother’s’ eldritch cry is loud enough to reach the halls beyond the room and echo there.  “Guards!   Bring the guards!”  She is plainly outraged, and would have Alanee back in irons if she could, but the creature stills her.

“No, Mother.  This is well.”  It spreads well-muscled arms in greeting.  “I am Hasuga.”

“Oh, good!  Very good!”  Alanee knows how visibly she shakes:  “How do you do, Hasuga.  And I am terrified victim number – how many?  Can we move past the pleasantries, then; what do you intend to do with me this time?”  She thinks that if she gets a chance, this creature with its unwieldy, unprotected brain must be vulnerable to attack:  though she blanches at the thought, she tries to position herself so she can spring.

Hasuga is completely unperturbed.  He (or it) registers vague bemusement, as though there is some element of an equation he might not understand.  “Do with you?   Nothing.  We had a game.  It was fun.  I don’t want to play it again, although certain parts of it intrigued me.  I like the game you are thinking of: it would be interesting.  Mother, do you think she can fight?”

‘Mother’s’ face is grim.  Her withering glare speaks of all she thinks, but she adds one word:  “Blasphemer!”

“No, mother.  She is different.  She is as Ellar says she is.”

Alanee has never heard the description ‘blasphemer’ although from ‘Mother’s demonic expression she can imagine there is little in it that is complimentary.  However, she recognises ‘game’ well enough; and the mention of Lady Ellar reminds her of the Mediant’s peculiar description of this episode as an ‘encounter’:  is this what she meant?

Suddenly the most appalling chasm of a future opens up before her – one in which she becomes the subject of an eternity of such ‘games’:  the creature before her is clearly some purposely-constructed form of sadist, and she is intended to be its experimental toy.

Surely that cannot be why she was brought here?  Such a thing would be insane!  Her two protagonists are watching her in silence, as though waiting for her response.  Alanee thinks carefully.

“You like games that hurt people, Hasuga?”   It is the first time she has accorded him a name and he smiles with what she supposes to be pleasure.  “You enjoyed humiliating me, I suppose?”

“I like to play games, don’t you?”  Hasuga’s voice is bland. 

“Not when they hurt me.  May I return to my apartment now, please?”

“You don’t want to stay?  We could play another game!”  The man-child looks genuinely puzzled.

“No.  I don’t want to experience anything like that, ever again.  And I’m not sure I want to meet you again, either; at least not until you have acquired some manners!”

Throughout this conversation the woman Alanee knows as ‘Mother’ is becoming increasingly agitated.  She cannot quite discover whether it is anger or distress the woman feels, but Hasuga has sensed it.

“Leave, Mother.”  At this the woman is plainly aghast.  A look of complete tragedy crosses her face as though this is the last thing she wants to do, yet she cannot protest.   She is in such a dilemma Alanee fears she may faint.  “Now, please?”

Mutely, on reluctant feet, ‘Mother’ leaves the room.  Wondering at this sudden reversal of the normal relationship between mother and child, Alanee faces the prospect of being alone with Hasuga; however, her calculation, that if the events which brought her here were on the level of a game she might treat her protagonist merely as a naughty child, seems to have worked to this point.  Now she has no idea where the ‘encounter’ may take her.

Hasuga moves to a chair beside the bed.  Alanee recoils instinctively, but wondering why she does not feel more afraid.  He moves with a grace that belies his grotesque proportions, she thinks; those two supports which help to carry his great dome articulate so he may turn with ease, and there is a long elegance in the fingers he folds together as he clasps his hands over one knee.  He has no (has she expected it?) odor.  He says: “If I told you to leave….”

“I would go; happily.”

“I do not want you to.”

“And you are used to getting what you want, aren’t you, Hasuga?”  Alanee props herself into a sitting position.  “Well, if you want me to stay you will have to do better than you have so far.”

“I see that.”  He sits in silence for a moment, as though he would listen to her breath, which is audible in the oppressive peace of this place.  “When I do this…”  He pauses:  “Do you feel nothing?”

“Do what?”

Hasuga smiles.  “Yes, you are different.  Thank you, Lady Alanee.  I am sorry you did not enjoy my game.  Go now.”

And the creature, or youth, or child, whatever Alanee can make of him, rises swiftly, padding from the room.

For moments Alanee cannot come to terms with what has passed.  Then, overcome with the desire to escape, yet not without effort, she rises to her feet and walks unsteadily on sore ankles to the door.  She finds ‘Mother’ awaiting her in the corridor outside.

Despite clear agitation only a few minutes before, the woman now shows no emotion.  It is as though she has been switched to another mode.  She takes Alanee’s elbow gently.  “Come with me, Lady.  I will show you to the lower floor.  A guide will take you from there.”

Within a few yards the corridor has opened out to become a large open space with rose-marble pillars and floors of soft, deep foam.  Light comes from windows on one side, from some undistinguishable source between ceiling and walls upon the further side.  Such a place should be sombre, even forbidding by its sheer size and would be so, were it not for the paintings and reliefs which adorn its high walls:  pictures of animals humanised by smiling faces, fantastic machines, stylised landscapes of high mountains and green hills.  Some of these are quite endearing, like the little group of golden-haired apes gathered beside a river, and most appear to be ancient, the fruits of imagination older maybe than a thousand years – yet for all their mellowed colours they exude warmth and love.  There are children’s toys everywhere; a dolls house of generous proportions and complexity, a wooden fort, tricycles and pedal-along aerotran models, soft woofing bears and replicas of exotic animals.  Otherwise, furniture is scant:  a couple of settees, a chaise framed in gold.

To the further side of this immense nursery there is another corridor.  A door hangs open to their left and as Mother leads her by, Alanee cannot resist a peek inside.  She sees what is apparently a simple room, two chairs, a single gondola-bed, or habbarn, and Hasuga, seated on the bed with his back to the door, gazing from his window at the ever-present snow.  Although their passing is silent on the floor-foam and although he does not turn, or even move, Alanee is sure he knows they are there.

A stairway descends to an enclosed elevator.  Here, to Mother’s apparent surprise the guide who awaits is not a palace operative, but Lady Ellar herself.  Greetings between the two women are terse.  Alanee cannot miss the antipathy between them.  Mother accords Alanee a brief farewell and walks away with a pronounced turn of her back, as if she would do, or say, far more if she could.  As if she would be angry – if she could.

In the chamber of the elevator as they descend Ellar warns Alanee:

“Say nothing of what you have seen, or what has passed here.”

Alanee’s anger is seething.  “If I do?”

“Do not.  It will not be allowed.”

“You – you know what that…that thing and its gorillas did to me today?  You see these?”  Alanee waves her wrists.  “You condone assault in your precious Habbach-forsaken City?   Habmenach-Sech!  It is some kind of psychopathic mutant!  It should have been liquidated at birth!”

Ellar passes her hand across a censor in the elevator wall, bringing it to a halt.  “Lady Alanee!  No, I have no idea what happened, nor have I the right to know.  I warned you, didn’t I, that this would be a journey for us all?  Perhaps I didn’t lend sufficient emphasis to the fact.  It is a journey that must be made.  Neither you nor I can know how it will end, or what milestones we will pass along the way, but this I can promise you:  it will be a road we travel in secret.  No-one, absolutely no-one, must know of it except those whose work it is to make it happen.  Until you find out who those few people are, I advise you strongly to keep your mouth shut!  Do you understand?”

Alanee’s blood rises.  “And if I don’t?  What will you do to me, Lady precious Ellar?”

“You want to know?  Very well.  You seem to insist upon the unpleasant, so here it is.  Your mind will be neutralised until you remember nothing.  A similar fate will await those to whom you speak of this.  So for your own sake, and for theirs, please stay silent.”

Tears of fury fill Alanee’s eyes.  She bites them back, fighting the urge to retort.  Finally she says dully:  “Let me out of here.”

Ellar sets the elevator in motion.  Seconds after, the doors open onto the great hall of the palace and Alanee walks away, leaving Ellar to contemplate her retreating back with the reflection that it is never easy to be Mediant in such a complex place.  She does not blame Alanee for her rage – if she could she would tell the girl so much more – sometimes there are just too many requirements for silence, too many rules.  And no matter how she tries to insist to herself that the Lore is always right, there are times when she wonders….

Though Alanee knows the enclosed route back into the Consensual City now, she deliberately makes her way through the colonnades into the open courtyard, desperate for bitter air and the kiss of snow on her flesh.  There are few others willing to pursue her option:  those who do hurry past her more suitably clad in thick woollen capes or furs, casting amused glances in her direction from beneath shielding hands.  She does not care.  Out here she can scour all the subterfuge and intrigue of this society from her ears and eyes.  Here, seated upon a marble plinth beneath the stern effigy of some forgotten pedagogue  she can turn her face to the leaden sky, letting its small white emissaries cool her eyes, letting her mind empty. 

“Alanee-ba!  Where have you been?  Oh, ba, what has happened to you?”  A slight figure submerged in acres of fur hurries towards her.  Sala’s anxious eyes peep out from amid a diplomatic mission of impaled snowflakes.

Alanee steels herself:  she is positive – as sure as she could ever be – Sala was complicit in her betrayal. “That,” She replies grimly, shouting against the gale’s howl.  “I cannot tell you.”

#

As the day’s heat retracts, the evening sun is like a benediction.  Dag Swenner raisess his eyes to find Ripero looking back at him.

“You’re doing well,”  Ripero encourages him.

They have been walking in silence for most of the day, Ripero always leading.  Each footstep Dag takes wracks his whole body with pain.  Progress is difficult:  the previous night’s slick of ash and rain has caked in the sun but is still liquid beneath.  And all around them a featureless landscape glares in the heat.

“You haven’t told me what happened to you?”  Dag asks.

“I don’t know.”  Ripero shrugs.  “It was a wall of fire, yet there was no heat.  I felt nothing, while my girl turned to ashes not a yard in front of me.  I saw the flesh torn from her bones – I watched her bones charred into dust!  I could not rescue her, or touch her!”  Ripero nearly brings himself to tears as he describes Saleen, the girl he has lost, then admits.to his conviction that all of his family are also dead.  He waves vaguely towards the eastern horizon.  “My village; it was over there;  Kaal Takken.  It’s gone.  There is only rock burned to glass.  The river is dry.”

They walk on.  Although he feels Ripero’s sorrow, Dag does not know how to comfort him.  Ripero continues:  “To begin with, there was a firm margin, like the fire had consumed only what was within the wall and left everything beyond untouched:  like me.  That is how my girl was destroyed and I was not.  Then (I was further away by then because I ran) the untouched land began to sizzle and burn with a blue fire of its own.  It spread out and out.  I took refuge in the cave where we slept last night and, for some reason, it did not find me.”

By agreement, the pair are heading northward and a little to the west.  This because Dag knows it to be the direction of the Consensual City, although he does not divulge that information; content, rather, to let Ripero believe their best course is to aim for Ax-Pallen, a town in the lower reaches of the neighbouring Fass Valley.  There is an aerotran port there, and he hopes or believes the town might not have been affected.  As they progress, Dag describes how his aerotran was robbed of power by the event, and how the locating beacon which might have brought their rescue was long ago wiped out.

“I’m sure I travelled many miles off course before I crashed.”

“There will be a rescue, though.  There must be.”  Ripero reasons.

“I don’t know.  The electrical activity in the air may well stop any rescue, especially if the authorities think there are no survivors.  I wouldn’t rely upon it, if I were you.”

As the hours have passed Dag’s back has become more mobile, rather than less, while he chooses to ignore the deep distress in his left side.  The light is fading before they reach the foothills at the margin of Dometia Wilds, and begin to climb towards the Fassland Hills.  Thus far they have found neither water nor vegetation of any kind: the land is reduced to bare rock from which all life has been scourged, a worry that Dag cannot dismiss from his mind, for he knows Ax-Pallen is two days of walking from here, and they will not make it without gaining some sustenance.

Their path is frequently obstructed now by fallen rocks from frowning cliffs that hide the last beneficent sunlight and add chill to a freshening wind.   One such rock forces Ripero to pause, casting about him for a viable path as Dag stumbles up the slope behind him.  He looks back at the plain, and something makes him look again.

“There!  See there!”  He cries.

Dag focuses in the direction of his companion’s waving hand.  Yes, he sees them too: moving figures, perhaps a dozen or more.  Little larger than dots, they are in a group maybe a mile away, walking towards these same hills.  He takes his spy-glass from his pocket to see them better.

“There are men and women, Dometians, by their clothing.  Fourteen in all, carrying a litter with someone laid out on it.  And children, there are three children!”

“We should go to them!”  Ripero is already descending.

“No, wait!  I think they are coming to us.  I think they may have seen us.  One of them seems to be waving – see?”

He passes the glass to Ripero who snatches it up to his eyes, searching eagerly for some familiar faces.  “What if they are from my village?  What if my father and mother are there?

“Do you see anyone you know?”

“Yes.  No – maybe.  We must move closer!”

“As I said, they are coming towards us.”

With difficulty, Dag persuades Ripero to conserve his energy and together they perch upon a rocky promontory to await the little party.  Dag, though glad of an opportunity to rest, finds the management of his pain difficult, for which reason he is unaware of the drone from the southern sky until it is quite loud.  Aerotrans!  He scans the horizon quickly, using his glass:  yes – there!  A flight of five big transporters, flying low!

Excitedly, Dag raises Ripero to his feet, pointing out the rapidly growing dots in the sky.  Ripero’s heart is lifted.  He begins to wave.  The group upon the plain are also waving; rescue has arrived!

But then…..

Something makes Dag grab at Ripero’s waving hands, pulling them down to his sides:  he does not know what instinct guides him, perhaps it is something in the manner of the aerotrans’ line of flight, or the way the gaping access doors in their sides open so early, long before they are in position to land.

“No! Oh no!  Get down!  Ripero, hide!”

Ripero casts him an incredulous look, but such is the urgency in Dag’s expression and voice that he obeys.  Both draw back into shadow.  Through his glass Dag can see the uniformed figures of the Special Operations Squad outlined in those open doorways, their liquidators propped on tripods between their knees.

Upon some internal command the aerotrans wheel, each hovering so that together they form a semi-circle above the small group of Dometians, who dance in celebration – until they see what Dag has seen.  Then the dancing stops.

From this distance death is silent –arcs of tracer, a convergent flower.  It is quick.  In no more than a few seconds, the survivors on the plain survive no more.

 © Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.