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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