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?”
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!
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.