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.
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?”
“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.