The story so far:
Alanee is settling herself into her first day in the City, encouraged that prospects of punishment for her failure to observe the law seem distant, but unaware she is being observed by key members of the City Council. Her mentor, Sala, introduces her to the City markets and Toccata’s Tsakal House, where she can see out for the first time to the country beyond the walls.
Sala and Alanee have parted for the night and Alanee is left alone in her new home, where she lingers before her mirror and wonders at herself, made splendid by the burgundy of her new robe.
Does she imagine the haughtiness in her pose? Has she changed so soon? This place with its myriad rules and conventions, monstrous though it doubtless will turn out to be, and assuming it does not elect to punish her, might be very hard to leave.
With great deliberation, she folds the robe and puts it aside, dressing in a silk shift Sala bought her at the Bazaar this morning. Alanee is a woman of the city now.
She will be long into sleep so she will not know when the late aerotran arrives. Were she to see the flint-grim faces of High Councillor Cassix and Proctor Remis as they alight, she might feel rather less secure.
Early the next morning, her summoner wakes her. “What?”
Sala’s voice: “Get up, ba. We’re going to the palace.”
There is barely time to rise and shower. Sala looks grave. She fusses about Alanee, fiddling at her clothing.
“The robe must be just so. It must cross your body in this way, you see, like mine? This clasp will help.” She slips a bracelet of gold cast in the shape of a serpent over Alanee’s wrist. “Wear this beneath your sleeve. Only show it if you are challenged. Now, of this I am unsure.” With thumb and forefinger, Sala produces one final item from a gold purse at her waist. It is so small Alanee can barely see it. “I have never done one of these before, but I know you will be unable to cross the palace threshold without it. I brought some tape – maybe you could tape it to you somewhere – perhaps beneath your hair?”
Tiny and black, with short, thin wires protruding from it, the object resembles nothing so much as a common or garden ant. The wires tickle. Alanee sticks it to her shoulder. “What is it?”
“A limiter. This is the first time I’ve seen one. All who enter the palace have them implanted, you see? Mine was done years ago, when I began my training.”
Alanee doesn’t see, although she is sufficiently affected by Sala’s obvious nervousness not to argue. Beyond her window it is a grey and ferocious morning, a blizzard of hurricane proportions all but hiding the Palace’s imposing façade.
“We’re going out in that?” She asks, rightly thinking that these minute preparations will be laid waste in seconds by the storm.
“No. There is another way across.”
Among green hills far from the snows of the Consensual City; far, too, from the wide flat infinity of the Hakaan, a thousand miles, almost, from the great walls that defend the Fortress of Braillec, there is a village. It is a small, tight community of Dometian citizens, and it is quite unlike Balkinvel, Alanee’s former home. There is no Terminal here. Instead, five miles beyond the village, at the head of the Kaal river valley, a great foundry smokes and grunts about its business; for the people here are smiths – forgers of metal. Upon their efforts run the wheels of civilization, the engines of the land.
In early spring the hills above Kaal-Takken are lush with infant grass and graceful trees offer sanctuary from a bold sun. Nights are studded with fire-flies; tyke beetles whistle their constant song. On warm evenings, even in the first quarter of the year, families sit outside on their porches eating and trading gossip. The younger men spend their rest days in the hills hunting, while the women gather by the river, swimming or fishing, or both. Young girls learn how to catch the fat dappal fish: it is a skill they exhibit with pride, and often the second rest-day of a cycle will be a feast of their catch.
Last cycle, the first when winter relinquished its grip, Ripero spent an hour seated upon a bluff above the Kaal, admiring the fluid grace of Saleen’s body as she flashed through the icy water, twisting and turning in pursuit of a large dappal. Saleen’s friends, of course, had seen him, so she was not surprised when, on their way to work next day, he invited her to a picnic in the hills. And so they come to be sharing food Ripero has brought to a secluded glade in the Kaal-Del forest where, surrounded by flowers of the ancients, they regard one another with nervous apprehension, each afraid to speak.
“It is a good day.” Ripero mumbles at last, conscious of how weak his voice sounds. He has so many speeches planned, words to say, all confounded by Saleen’s fragile beauty.
Saleen’s eyes challenge him. “So warm,” she agrees.
She will not yet confess how she approves of Ripero. His arms are strong and his face is well-featured, his mind agile. Her friends would give their mortal souls to be where she sits at this moment. She was overjoyed when he invited her – why is she so tongue-tied now?
“You have picked this place well.” She tries to say, her words almost strangled to a whisper. She clears her throat, quickly.
His face lights in a smile. “Did you catch your fish?”
“Oh! You were watching me? (She feigns surprise) You shouldn’t have been spying.”
“I know. I couldn’t help it. You are so lovely.” He blurts out the words, but they have their effect. A pleasing blush colors her cheeks.
“But still…” He has her at a disadvantage: he has seen her naked, albeit in the water, albeit from a distance. He would not have been so brazen as to stay and watch her rise to the bank, would he? She blushes deeper. She thinks how it would be if they were to swim together, and this gives her a tingling feeling inside.
“I’m sorry.” Ripero is aware that this is his time: ungainly though it will be, he must move closer, negotiating the obstacle of the picnic basket which stands between them. “I was spellbound.”
He cannot get to his feet in case his undisciplined feelings should be revealed; so he shuffles himself across to her, making her laugh. She says: “So you do like me then, a little?”
And it is his turn to blush. “I like you very much.”
The sound comes first. Neither distant nor near but everywhere, faint to begin; low in pitch to begin. Ripero and Saleen, who might be lovers in only a little while, both hear it – both feel it. It is louder, closer with every moment. Above their heads frightened birds erupt from the trees; in the woods wild creatures cry their fear. Now it is all-consuming, as total as a tidal wave, as shrill and wrenching as a Banshee scream. Then comes the Banshee herself.
There is a fleeting second, a slice of a breath when Saleen knows she is about to die. Ripero has just that flicker of time to read her utter horror in her face.
Then she is gone. The wall takes her.
Is it a wall? What is it that rushes past him blotting out all vision, so cold, so clinically precise? What sound rips the hearing from his ears and reduces his world to silence? What is it, this thing that takes Saleen, who would have been his woman – his wife? The screech without no longer heard, becomes a screech within. When his heart will no longer bear the writhing of demons, when his chest must burst, blackness comes. Sleep comes
“In short, then you have brought us just one?”
There are six people in the chamber, of whom Ellar the Mediant is the only woman. The great stump of the Domo occupies a chair at the center of the table, the Sires Portis and Trebec on his either flank. Proctor Remis and High Councillor Cassix face them from chairs upon the other side. The question is Trebec’s, Cassix its recipient.
“In short, yes.” Cassix is in no mood to be bullied by Trebec. “There were two further possibilities. One is an obvious replicant. We’ve had her arrested.”
“The only acceptable course!” Portis interjects. “Amazing how they still spring up from time to time. And the other?”
“A girl with a psychological malady. We had no time to precisely diagnose it, I’m afraid, but obviously completely unsuitable.”
“So we are left with a single candidate, if that is the word.” The Domo rumbles. “I like this less and less.” He glances up to Ellar, who stands at the end of the table. “You’d better bring her in.”
Outside in the ante-chamber, Sala is still fussing. “It’s a committee of the High Council, the greatest authority on the planet. Address them as ‘Sire’, it’s the safest way. My patron should be here, too – the Lady Ellar. Oh, Habbach! Here she is!”
The door of the Chamber opens and Alanee’s heart jumps as an imposing woman in middle-age dressed in a gold-trimmed robe of silk emerges quietly. Thick floor foam everywhere here deadens sound. She beckons to Alanee, and as Sala also makes to advance, stills her with a warding hand.
“You must wait out here, Sala.” Ellar is very tall, her bearing and step masculine and purposeful. Yet the hand that takes Alanee’s is kind. “Do not fear us, dear. We intend you no harm.”
In truth, Alanee is astonished at her lack of fear, although voices in her head, which have been with her since she emerged into the Great Hall of the palace, trouble her slightly. Before she knows it she is through the door and it has closed behind her. The figures in the room, two of whom she recognizes as her interrogators upon that terrible last day at the Village, look up as she enters. Cassix has turned in his chair. He introduces the others then waves to a chair at the end of the table.
“Please, sit down.” She does so. Ellar sits at the table’s further end.
All study Alanee. She is instantly in awe of the Domo, whose eyes are barely visible behind his rolls of fat, suspicious of Sire Portis who does not directly meet her gaze and who seems more interested in her chest. Proctor Remis, whose lean looks so scared her the first time she encountered them, appears less threatening now. Only Sire Trebec really disturbs her. His florid face speaks of temper, his scowl radiates disapproval.
At last she feels compelled to break the silence. She ventures: “You summoned me, Sires?”
To her surprise Trebec grunts and nods almost approvingly. Cassix’s face breaks into one of his steel-eyed smiles.
Sire Portis speaks. “How old are you, Alanee?” He does not use the courtesy ‘mer’.
“I am twenty-six, Sire.” Alanee cannot remember who this is. Surely, they know so much about her, they must know her age?”
“And you were paired to a…” Portis studies a sheaf of papers he has before him: “Hakaani foot-player, is that right?”
“Yes, Sire. He died.” Why, after all this time, does she still have difficulty with those words? She has to force herself to say them. How the voices in her head irritate her! “All of three years ago, now.”
“It was a close pairing; you miss him still?” Portis recognizes the regret in Alanee’s voice.
“Yes, Sire.” She shrugs. “But he’s never coming back, is he?”
“When you were together…” The thin tones of the Proctor, now: “did you not notice how he was motivated by certain innocent desires, needs that would change from time to time? On the third day of the summer quarter in 3039, for instance, did he express a wish to go rock-climbing in the Southern Hills?” The Proctor, too, is studying notes. “The following week, was he not overtaken by a need to embark upon a pilgrimage?”
“Yes, both those things. That was the year of the great pilgrimage to the Shrine at Dolca. I recall it.”
“You did not go with him?”
“No, Sire. There was no need.”
Trebec’s eyebrows raise. He speaks for the first time. “You felt no need?”
“No Sire. Why should I? I don’t like heights!”
“But your village emptied on those days, did it not? Didn’t that strike you as odd?”
Cassix chips in: “Not necessarily for the rock-climbing. That was an elective pursuit.”
Alanee answers. “Sire, a lot of things have always struck me as odd. I have learned to live with the sudden passions of others, their strange likes and dislikes. I think I am different, in some way, but I don’t know how.”
From the mighty mouth of the Domo comes one word, laced with irony: “Unique.”
Cassix spreads his hands. “Therefore is she not sent? Alanee, do you know how we are ruled; why your world lives in peace and harmony for most of its time?”
“Why, by yourselves, Sire. The High Council: the Consensual City.”
Portis nods. “That is good; as it should be. Alanee, this committee of the High Council wanted to meet you, and now we have, and now we must go into private session. We have a thing in mind, which, should we agree upon it, will become your mission in the time to come. You will be well rewarded, and your life with us, no matter what we decide, will always be a comfortable one. Thank you for being so truthful with us. Lady Ellar?”
Ellar nods, rises gracefully, beckoning to Alanee. The meeting is closed.
Cassix waits until the women have left.
“Is she not sent?” He repeats. “There is no-one like her.”
“There used to be many.” Says the Domo, who has spoken very little.
“Not, High Sire, with her blend of passivity and nonconformity. She does not question: though she knows she is different, there is no rebellion in her. She has no wish to shake the State like dissidents of the past! I insist, this woman is sent to us. She is the perfect solution.”
The Domo shakes his head. “This matter, Cassix, is of great moment. I wish I shared your certainty. Oh, no blame falls upon the woman, and I am sure she is all you say. That isn’t what concerns me. What does concern me is the hinge in our destiny upon which this matter hangs. It makes me afraid.” He rises to heavy feet. “However, it begs our decision. We must take it before the full Council. Gentlemen, we adjourn.”
Back in Alanee’s apartment, she and Sala calm themselves with a drink. Sala seems quite different, almost hysterically relieved that the ordeal is over.
“Was it very nerve-wracking?”
“No. they just asked me..”
Sala cuts in quickly: “You must not tell me what they asked you.”
Alanee protests: “Why ever not? They questioned me abo….”
“No!” It is the first time Alanee has heard Sala shout and it makes her jump. Her companion immediately recovers herself. “I’m sorry Alanee-ba. I’m so sorry – I don’t mean to scare you. Whatever you discuss with High Council must always remain secret. No-one outside the Chamber can ever know, you understand?”
“But there’s no-one else to hear except you,” Alanee protests feebly: “Is there?”
“Of course not. This is a place of secrets, ba, some of which are wonderful to share, but some of which are dangerous. Whatever happened in there, the knowledge of it would be dangerous to me. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to me, would you?”
“Well, I’m getting out of this!” Making for her bedroom, Alanee slips the bracelet from her wrist, unfastens the clasp that holds her robe ‘just so’. She changes into the silk shift that feels so comfortable on her body.
Sala, who has followed her to the bedroom, laughs. “You wear so many underclothes! Are you cold?”
Something hidden beneath the apparent innocence of the question puts Alanee on the defensive. “No. I just wear them, don’t you?”
Sala’s face betrays a momentary flash of mischief, which as quickly passes. “Not a stitch,” She says, seriously. Then, a little coyly, she murmurs: “I feel such heat, don’t you? Would you come and bathe with me if I begged you?”
Green eyes, suddenly imploring -Alanee blushing purple, taken completely by surprise! The shock – the stammered refusal – Sala fingers running across her shoulders, down her arm to take her hand. “Come on, my ba! There are many new things you must try.”
“No!” Alanee’s answer is instinctive. Snatching herself away, she retreats to the living room. Hands shaking, she pours herself a second drink and stands by her window, staring out at the snow as she collects her thoughts and curses herself, perhaps, for her naiveté. She feels Sala’s hand stroke her back.
“Must I apologise, my ba?” Sala’s voice is almost tearful. Turning, Alanee sees she does seem to be near to crying.
“Why? No. I mean, what for?” She feels awkward, almost threatened. “You surprised me, that’s all.”
“I am too forward. I should not have frightened you.” Sala seems emboldened, her eyes imbued with an intensity that leaves no room for misunderstanding. Her arm has closed about Alanee’s waist, drawing her near, Alanee flinches in momentary revulsion.
Sala sees it. “Oh, you are so – so provincial!” She releases her grip impatiently, wipes at her eyes with angry strokes. “You know nothing! Nothing!
Alanee shakes her head, unable to encompass this.
“How long has your man been dead; two years, three years? Three years! In all that time, have you never…” Sala pauses, words choking in her throat. “How do you manage, Alanee? Don’t you ever need to be touched, to be…loved?”
Sala blazes at her. “Yes, I mean!”
Before Alanee can stop her, Sala has snatched up her purse and made for the door. There is no protest that will detain her, and in a handful of seconds she is gone. It is a moment in which Alanee experiences illogical fury, so she slams her fist onto the glass table, sending her dap fish scattering in terror, before she slumps onto the couch.
“I’ve known you for just one day!” She protests to the wall. The wall’s only answer is an echo, but if, inside her mind, it could speak, it would remind her that without Sala’s advice she will be defenseless against those stern councilors with their devious eyes. She will be vulnerable and alone.
All at once the very thought of facing the Consensual City terrifies her. And her first instinct is to escape…
© Frederick Anderson 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.