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.
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