Continuum – Episode Eleven Introduction to the Man-Child

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?”

“Do what?”

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!

But then…..

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.

Continuum – Episode Ten Experiments in Fear

The story so far:

Alanee, missing her friendship with Sala and learning her aerotran pilot, Dag Swenner, is believed dead, feels isolated and afraid when Ellar the Mediant tells her that her work in the City is about to begin.

Alanee seeks out Sala to renew their friendship, and guided by a mediator called Seil, the pair pursue a route that takes them well below the foundations of the Palace to an ancient door.  Before she has a chance to protest, Alanee is seized by a giant guard and thrust inside…

No time to struggle; no hope of resistance.  The giant man propels Alanee through that heavy door and slams it with an oaken crash in Sala’s face.  A second pair of brutal hands clasps Alanee’s arms, raising her feet from the floor to carry her, throw her, turn her.  A cold slab of stone at her back, cold iron clamped about her wrists:  her arms hoisted above her head so she is almost hanging and she cries out with the pain; manacles clasp her ankles.  Her captors step back.

A trickle of blood runs down her right arm.  Such is the agony in her arms and shoulders she has to force her eyes to open, seeing her assailants through furious tears.  Both are mighty creatures garbed in black leather jerkins and loin-cloths.  Their muscle-bound forms as immutable as the granite that surrounds them, they stand with their backs to her, one on each side of the room’s only feature, a table of crude construction upon which are arrayed a long black whip, an iron mask with inverted spikes, thumbscrews, and pliers.

Granite walls, granite floor, flickering and guttering in the poor light from torches lodged in brackets on each wall.  In the further wall are two doors, both closed.  The one which admitted her, and another, smaller door to its right.  So this, to an innocent country girl, is how a torture chamber looks.  She might never describe the black despair of this moment, the realisation that all her worst nightmares were, in the end, so inadequate; for nothing could have prepared her for this.  By comparison imprisonment would be a blessing now; all those promises, the treachery of Cassix, of Ellar, of Sala, all leading to this.  At last she knows why those who are taken by the State are never seen again.  Their blood washes walls such as these – their end is unremarked and all memory of them wiped away.

“I think the mask!”  A voice from somewhere beyond her range of vision:  a cold, high voice which whines like winter draft in a casement.  “Try it to see if it fits.”

The pillar of masculine flesh to Alanee’s left seems moved to obey.  He lifts the spiked head-piece from the table and turns towards her.  His sinewy frog-like face creases into a sadistic grin.  He comes towards her, raising the fiendish instrument over her head.  She sees how the spikes upon the inner side of its lid, the long, long spikes, are set in such a way that one will pierce each of her eyes, two others each of her cheeks, another her mouth.  Her heart raises a wild beat, terror quakes through her – she is gibbering – knows it – mouthing words meaninglessly:  “Let me down – let me go!  No!  NO!  NO!

“This is hysteria, isn’t it?”  That high, unpleasant voice sounds at once delighted and a little curious.  “How strange!  I have never seen that.”

Now the rough helmet is being fastened about her neck, that lid swinging unheeded back and forth, its spines threatening any moment to dig into her skin.  Her eyes!  No, pray Habbach, not her eyes!  Alanee is in the grip of a fear more consuming than any she has known, but yet she cannot go to her death without some riposte, some sort of struggle.

“Does it please you, then?”  She strives to find a voice.  “Feeds your fucking perversion, does it, you loathsome toads?”

The lid at last swings too far:  a first spike touches the flesh of Alanee’s cheek, reducing a string of invective to a strangled scream.

“It doesn’t fit my picture.”  The voice has altered in timbre, lost its edge.

Across the room that smaller of two doors is opening.  Through it enters a figure who, even in this dim light, defies Alanee’s last vestige of belief.  She sees a young body of athletic build, richly garbed in a toga edged with precious stones that glitter in the torchlight.  This is indisputably a male figure, one which emanates assurance and power.  A face perfectly featured, somewhere between that of a child and a man – pale-skinned, almost colourless – but framed by a head such as none Alanee has ever seen.  For he has no skull at all:  instead, a near-transparent membranous globe that seems to grow from the creature’s forehead and cheeks, extending to twice the size of any normal cranium and so unwieldy it must be supported by two substantial sapling-like buttresses (she can think of no other word to describe them) which grow from his shoulders and attach where, in more usual human circumstances, ears should be.  From there, these growths reach out to each other; encompassing the apex of the globe as if offering some kind of restraining scaffold, from which fronds of external structure spread and curl, like the branches of a vine.

Yet it is not this organic cage that transfixes Alanee’s horrified stare, but the sight of all that lies within; because the globe is filled with a cloudy bluish fluid through which are visible a multitude of fine mucosa strings of darker hue.  Though each of these strands may be no more than a few millimetres in diameter, their constant, rapid peristalsis is obvious: they move among themselves; what is more, they link to something deep and unseen at the centre of the globe – something which flickers with a light of its own.  Amongst this skein of tubular flesh pigmented cells dart from place to place, not in a random manner but with targeted rapidity, like tiny water-boatmen she remembers from days of summer by the farmyard pond.

The sight of this mutation, atop all her other terrors and humiliations, is too much for Alanee.  Her vision spins.  She hears and sees nothing more.

#

There is a tapping.  Dag is not sure when he becomes aware of it, but he knows it is there.  Insistent – tap, tap, tap.  He does not want to wake up because his dream is a good one.  He does not want to leave the bed he shares with this girl.  She is warm and vibrant in his arms with her long limbs wrapped about him and he thinks he could stay here forever, if it were not for that tapping.

“Alanee?”  He must wake her.

“Hmmm?”  Her sleep-drowned face, those incredible blue Hakaani eyes.

“I have to wake up, ba.”

“Must you?”  She is fading,  “Must you?”

He comes to himself with a start.  He is in the aerotran, and he has crashed.  He remembers that.

There is a drumming, and the drumming is rain.  It makes jewels and rivulets upon the window of the pod.  But the rain is not the cause of the tapping sound.  The human shape draped upon the window is.

Little by little all sensation returns, from the pain in his back to the drunken angle of his machine, making him realise that the figure knocking on the glass must be almost lying on top of the aerotran’s safe cell.  The figure belongs to a swarthily-featured young man dressed in the habiliment of a Dometian peasant, a simple shift which, unsurprisingly given the conditions, is extremely wet.  He is mouthing something.

Dag’s first thought is that help has arrived.  After all, he must have been on the ground for some hours now.  But further consideration casts doubts:  this is not a suited rescue service operative, with mask and gloves. 

He presses the release button.  The hatch behind him slides back.  “Who are you?”  He calls out.  “Can you help me?  I think I’m damaged.”

The rain is blowing into the aerotran now.  From outside he thinks he hears the young man’s reply as:  “Look to your right!”

“What?”

“Don’t move!  Your right – look to your right!”

Dag moves his head carefully and is thankful to find his neck, at least, is unbroken.  Oh, Habbach save us!

To the right of his aerotran the view is uninterrupted.  That is because there is nothing but empty space.  He hangs above a canyon, balanced on a vertical cliff over a dry river-bed some hundred metres beneath.  The fulcrum point is so finely placed that just the act of breathing seems to set the aerotran rocking dangerously.

“Any ideas?”  He shouts out as loudly as his state permits.

“The problem is the wind.”  Comes the reply.  “If I get off here I think you may be blown over the edge.”

“So?”

“I’m going to work my way towards the tail if I can do it without getting off.  The further back I go the better the weight is distributed, I think.  The trouble is I keep slipping, it’s so wet!  Don’t try to move yet.”

“Not sure I can.  There’s something wrong with my back.”

“Well, we’ll see.  Stay still for now.”

With this the young man slides his right hand across the glass.  The aerotran sways.

“Habbach!  Be careful!”

“I’m trying!”  He moves a foot.  More swaying.  His body slithers after it.

Dag calls out:  “What’s your name?”

“Ripero.  Is that important right now?”

“I just wanted to know who I was going to say goodbye to.”

Inch by inch Ripero manoeuvres himself towards the rear of the aerotran’s pod until he has vanished from Dag’s view.  More than once there is a cry as a foot slips, a hand loses grip.  Then, quite suddenly, a foot appears in the hatchway.  Moments later Ripero is fully inside the door.

“Hi!”  He says.  “Now it’s your turn!”

Dag tries moving to his left.  His back screams a warning, but he persists, forcing his body to lever him up the drunken slope of the floor.  The blinding agony he first feared, the total incapacity of a broken back, does not come.  With mobility if anything the pain is eased.  He is able to crawl around the footings of the co-pilot’s seat and into the rear of the aerotran.  Ripero’s weight stabilises the back end of the machine, so every move he makes in the same direction should bring greater safety, yet it does not feel like that.  Ripero’s urgent shout confirms his anxiety.

“The bloody wind’s shifting it!  Come on, hurry!”

Abandoning all thought of safety, Dag struggles to his feet, launches himself towards Ripero, who shoots out a big hand and grabs him, throwing him out of the hatch and into the teeth of rain and wind.

Dag lands in a groaning heap upon a slick of wet ash, hearing the thud as Ripero’s body grounds beside him.  Together, the two men grasp the land as if it might escape them if they did not hold it down while somewhere behind, with an almost inaudible sledging sound, the aerotran pod disappears from sight.  Above the wind they can still clearly hear a crump of contact far below upon the canyon floor.

Ripero clambers to his feet, looking ruefully down at himself, plastered as he is with black mud.

“These were my best clothes.”  He laments.  “Never mind!  Now I’ve rescued an aerotran pilot they’ll let me have a proper suit I expect!”  He holds out a hand to Dag.  “Be careful, it’s very slippery here.”

Free of the immediate danger of the doomed aerotran, the pair are in peril of being washed into the canyon by the force of wind and beating rain.  Beneath them a viscose slick of black ash offers no purchase – to stand is to become a sail before the storm – a storm which, though abated somewhat, has ample force to blow them before it, skating helplessly, into the abyss.  Only when they have crawled, scrabbled, staggered to a safe margin of bare rock may they stand fully upright.

“I’ve found shelter nearby!”  Ripero shouts above the clamour.  “You can walk, yes?”

“Yes I can walk!”

Dag walks.  He walks because there is no alternative other than to stay here and die.  He walks though the pain in his lower back feels as if it will cut him in half at every step, and other pains that have lain undiscovered before, deep and lingering, warn him of further injuries.  Although he has not far to go, this is the longest walk of his life.

#

Braillec’s fortress castle stands like a signpost to the stars.  Atop the highest rock of the Southern Mountains its towers can be seen from every aspect for twenty miles.  Even in first light, before the sun has raised its head over Kiilar Dan in the east, it speaks of its history.  The ghosts are always walking here, amid tales of ancient life, of walls that date back to before the Conflict, of wars and murders and royal intrigue.  It is a magical place.

Nowadays the fort itself is centrepiece to a celebration cake of a town.  Terraced streets wind their way around the rock, or climb at impossible angles straight up its precipitous sides.  White stuccoed buildings – houses, emporia, libraries and small industries, cascade like frosting from every level, glittering beneath street light candles that glow eerily in the mists of morning.

In this dawn haze the citizens of Braillec move like cats towards their day; emerging from their homes to step where no normal man would have courage to tread, descending or ascending as freely as mountain goats in their vertical world.  They are a quiet people who talk with each other in hushed tones, as though afraid that ghosts might hear them.  The castle is their father and a strict one too.  They live in his awe.

High Councillor Trebec is cold.  He is also angry – well, no, perhaps ‘irritable’ would be a better word – at being dragged from his bed at this early hour.  The spectacular mountain vista does nothing for his constitution, though, if pressed, he might concede that it is impressive: he is discomfited, and he is abominably, freezingly, cold.  From his parapet view he sees a very different aspect of Braillec, for, in the deep valley that lies between the fort and Kiilar Dan,( a valley once glacial, in the days before the Conflict) a honeycomb of man-made caves permeate the old mountain’s eastern face.  Before each cave a transport aerotran waits, and beside each aerotran a squad of soldiers.

“We are ready to embark, sir, on your word.”  Says the soldier who stands beside him.

Mission Commander Zess has been placed under Trebec’s orders.  Zess harbours his own opinions of Sire Trebec, which, were the High Councillor to hear them, would not please him, but he never will, of course.  When he, Zess, was told he would be required to lead a rescue mission into Dometia he was surprised.  When he investigated the reason he was alarmed:  yet he would never question his orders.  The order he is about to receive, however, will test that particular discipline to its limits.

“The terrain is sufficiently stable, then?”  Trebec asks.  He looks towards the black threat hanging over the southern sky; a sight that has drawn his eyes continually since his arrival here.  Even now he can see the dance of distant lightning.

“There are signs of remission, sir.  I intend to get as close as I can.  If the storm continues to abate at this pace we should be able to move in a few hours.”

Trebec nods.  “Then you have your order.”

“Sir, if I might?”  Something troubles Zess.  “We have made no arrangements in the City for refugees, sir, or for the injured.  Should we not ask the Almoner to begin an evacuation plan?”

Trebec turns from his view to engage the Mission Commander’s eyes.  He takes a long breath.  “There will be no refugees, Zess, do you understand?  No injured.  No survivors – is that clear?”

“Sir, half the population of Dometia is out there!”

Trebec knows.  How can he explain?  People whose brainwaves have been liberated by the interference of the electrical storm, people who have not received The Word for two days now.  What else can he do?

“No survivors, Zess.  None.”

“Then all these men are….?”

“A front, Zess, nothing more.  At the Dometian border set them down as your mission dictates, let them believe they are making camp for the wounded, field hospitals, that kind of thing:  the aerotran crews will do the rest.  They are my picked men.”  Trebec catches the horror in Zess’s face.  “Do you think I like this?  Do you think I slept last night?  It is duty, Zess.  It is a necessary thing.  The responsibility, the torment; that is all mine.”

#

Iron spears that press into the flesh of her cheeks, into and through:  the distinctive ‘pop’ of yielding skin, the hot pain of rough iron boring in,her eyes!  Oh, Habbach her eyes are gone, she knows it!  Soon they must reach the threshold of the brain….soon the agony will cease…..soon it will be over.  Please, Sire Habbach of my soul, let it be soon!

Hands on her shoulders: gentle light; a kind face that smiles down upon her; is this what it is like?  Is this the after-life no-one believes in?

“Be still, my dear!”  Says the kind face – like her mother’s face – be still, my Alanee-tes, my ba!-  but not, no, not her mother; an angel; an angel’s face.  “It is all over now!  All over!”

She tries to see about her, sees everything veiled as in a fine haze.  Only the sweet face is clear to her, and all that she sees makes her really think she might be in heaven.  Yet there are things…..  Alanee raises her arm so she may inspect her wrists and, true to her expectation, red wields testify to the cruel grasp of manacles.  Her shoulders ache, too.

“Where am I?  Why can’t I see?  Who are you?”  Her lips are dry, making the questions tumble over one another.  “My head!”  A confusion of voices is growing inside her brain  – a sound that is not so much heard as experienced – voices indistinguishable as words or song.

“You are in the upper rooms of the Palace.  We brought you here.  You were very, very frightened my dear, so I gave you a little draught; a sort of sedative, if you like.  Then I bathed you, replaced your robe with another, and we left you to sleep.  You have been asleep for five hours, Lady Alanee:  your fear must have exhausted you.”

Alanee’s vision is clearing – she is already coming to herself.  She catches the scent that anoints her body, feels the fresh robe upon her skin, the comfort of soft bedding beneath her.

“Is she awake, Mother – is she better??”  A voice she knows, from somewhere:  a sound vaguely familiar, yet not.  If only the inner waterfall of noise would go away!  It is much louder now, beginning to express itself as pain.

“Yes, darling.  I think you can talk to her now, if you want.”

© 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.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Six The Tragedy of the Commons

The Story so Far:   Emma Peterkin has separated from Joe’s best friend Tom, and she has slept with Joe.  Although found out by Tom, Joe is still able to enlist him in a final visit to the Parkins’ home, where they are just in time to see a fire-raiser put it to the torch.  Beating the flames, the pair discover a hidden room laden with pagan artifacts, and the decomposed body of a child.

Meanwhile, Charker Smith has been stirring himself into an alcohol-driven rage against Joe, inspired by the machinations of journalist Jennifer Althorpe, for whom the confrontation will make an excellent story.   Charker has a gun.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked, as the Parkin house blazed behind them..

Joe shrugged, shooting needles of agony through his burnt shoulders.  “I  can’t leave now.”  He said.

“Well, you better be ready for ‘un, ‘cause there he is.”  Tom indicated over his shoulder back along the bridle path that followed the northernmost margin of Wednesday Common.  Three figures, one of whom was entirely appropriate to the path because he was as large as a horse, were discernible in the reflection from the fire, standing some two hundred yards distant.  They too had seen Constable Hallett’s police car.  Joe guessed they would come no closer until Hallett had gone.

Dave Hallett, of course, would not go, not once the tiny wrapping that lay on the lane had been explained to him: and with every minute the villagers were gathering, drawn from their homes by that red flower in the sky.  Their vigil was conducted in awed murmurings and sober looks, a reverential congregation before a burning altar.  How many knew what kind of altar was burning there, Joe wondered?  Was the sinister life of Violet Parkin common knowledge or something shared only by a chosen few?

“This’d explain some things old Jack’s been ranting on about since we locked him up.”  Dave Hallett said, after Tom and Joe had told their tale:  “’The cursed house’ ‘e calls ut.  One thing for sure, we won’t get no more information out of there.”

The Parkin house flared and crashed through its last throes, each new collapse erupting a roman candle into the night sky, as efficient an incinerator as any guilty murderer could wish.  Who was the arsonist, Joe wonderd?  Who knew there was something in that house that must be eradicated completely?  He pressed the folder where he had concealed it beneath his shirt, anxious for the assurance it was still there, because maybe inside it, at last, he had the answers.

Far too late a fire-engine’s siren echoed up the valley.  P.C. Hallett looked beset, trying to control a curious audience of villagers who were drawn particularly towards the small covered mound lying on the lane, while conducting conversations over his radio.  Hallett had covered the child’s body with a sheet, at once disguising it and increasing its mystery.  What was it?  Everyone wanted to know.

Meanwhile, the ever-growing throng kept Joseph secure from harm.  Of Charker and his cronies, there was now no sign.

Joe drew Tom to one side:  “Can we get in the car?”  He asked, pulling a corner of the folder into view.  “I want to look at this.”

Tom nodded.  “I’ll stay here.  Sit in the passenger side, so Dave don’t think you’m tryin’ to drive off.  I’ll tell ‘un it’s alright if he gets panicky.”

So Joe effected a casual stroll towards the car – a pitiful effort at disguise:  his shoulders were hunched with pain, he stared at the ground.

Davy Hallett noticed.  “Joe Palliser!”

“Leave ‘un, Davy.”  Tom said.  “He’s shocked, see?  Needs to sit down for a bit:  be on his own.”

“All same…”  Davy grumbled.  But he made no move to stop Joe.

In Tom’s car, by candle-power from its interior light, Joseph opened the folder which did indeed supply all his answers. Close by, as Jack Parkin’s old home was engulfed, the fire engine engaged its audience anew – police cars were gathering, a van, an ambulance.  Briefly separate from the rapid re-establishment of a crime scene, Joe sat in a daze of disbelief.

Screens were being raised; Hallett was giving his account to a CID officer.  Busy shadows flitted around and Joe knew very soon faces would be turning his way.  His thoughts were in turmoil.  He sat, desperately looking this way and that, trying to make sense of the evidence in his hands.  He needed space –.

“So you saw the fire, Mr. Peterkin,” The young detective was briskly efficient.     “You entered the house to see if anyone was inside.  Did you find anyone?”

“No.  Only that.”

“Ah, the body.”  The detective cast about him.  “The PC first on the scene – is he here?”

Dave Hallett acknowledged the call.  The detective addressed Tom:  “This is an unexplained death so we need a full account of what happened here.  I’m going to ask you to stay nearby for the moment.  Constable, is everything as you found it when you arrived?”

“Yes Sarge.  Mr. Peterkin and Mr. Palliser were stood there, in the lane, with the remains on the ground.  I didn’t let nobody disturb nothing.”

“And where is Mr. Palliser now?”  The detective asked.

Dave Hallett glanced towards Tom’s car.  It was empty. He glared at Tom.  “Dunno Sarge.  I had my hands full, see, keeping the scene clear?”

“Mr. Peterkin?”

Tom glanced towards his car.  “Don’t see ‘im nowhere.”  He answered, truthfully.

“Constable;” Said the detective in a glacial tone; “Would you kindly find Mr. Palliser for me?  Now?”

In the intense activity surrounding the fire Joseph’s escape had gone unnoticed: by the time his absence had been discovered he was the better part of a hundred yards away, bent double as he ran like a dog through the bracken.  And Jennifer Althorpe was running after him.

Jennifer’s evening had been spent on licensed premises in Abbots Friscombe.  Here was the best place, since she had set a fuse in her interview with Mary Harkus, to keep tabs on Charker Smith, he whom she suspected would provide the spark.  Tonight she had watched with almost open-mouthed amazement as Charker and his peers consumed a prodigious volume of beer.  It was apparent the powder keg was about to blow, for Charker was declaring loudly that “Palliser’s number was up”  and he would “deal with ‘un tonight.”  When he left with two companions to fetch his gun, Jennifer followed them.  When they set off for Hallbury, she was not far behind.

The scene which greeted Charker as he spotted Joe Palliser at the Parkin House, greeted Jennifer too.  Although Charker then made himself scarce, she decided the place to be was with Joe Palliser and steered clear of the crowd, focussed upon Joe.  He would not disappoint her.  Cloaked by darkness, she saw him scramble out of Tom’s car.  She could see he clasped something in his hand, and she was close enough to follow.

Of course, watching Charker Smith’s prowess in a public house meant that she, Jennifer, had also been obliged to consume a quantity of alcohol, an area in which she lacked a journalist’s expertise.  Now, bent double in her pursuit of Joe at his rather faster pace, she was, euphemistically speaking, very uncomfortable.  Fortunately the pursuit was brief – unfortunately, its conclusion was other than she expected.

Joe planned to hide the folder and its epic message.  The police, he reasoned, would want a lot more from Tom and himself.  They were likely to be searched – Tom’s car was likely to be searched.  A nearby clump of fern seemed large enough to offer safe hiding for the folder until he was free to retrieve it the following morning.

He heard Jennifer’s clumsy progress at around the same time he discovered his chosen clump of undergrowth was larger than he had supposed: sufficient, in fact, to conceal the person of Charker Smith.  Although his two sidekicks had fled at the very thought of police, Charker’s greater resolve had induced him to remain, hidden at a distance, hoping to get his chance at Palliser.  Even so, he could hardly have wished for a better result, for if he had not risen to his feet Joe Palliser would have tripped over him!

For Joe the jarring impact was as though he were stopped by a wall.  He hit Charker in the belly, head-first.  Charker did not even exhale.

“Now then, Palliser!”   Joe felt himself lifted like a puppy by the grip of one vice-like hand on his collar – small and delicate Charker’s hands might have been, but they packed all the power of the arms that bore them.

“Charker!  Not now!”

“Oh, aye.  Now will do, boy.  You had this ‘ere comin’ a long time, didn’t you?”

With no time even to catch his wind, Joe might well have surrendered to his fate, had he not felt his captor’s shoulders tense, and become aware that Charker was no longer looking at him.

“Hello dearie!”  Charker’s softer voice, on top of so much alcohol, was almost comical.  “Now who the f**k are you?”

“I’m Jenny, Charker.”  Jennifer Althorpe thrashed her way out of the bracken and, discomfited though she was, did her best to sound seductive.  “Remember, in the pub?  You were watching me, weren’t you?  So glad we’ve got to meet at last.”

The big man’s mental capacity was insufficiently flexible to deal with such vicissitudes of fortune.  His simple mission was to throttle Joe (which he was already in the process of doing – to the point where Joe was choking for air) and this added presence was an interference he could not quite take in.

“Well, you met me.”  Charker said, lowering Joe slowly to terra firma.  “Now what?”

“Now?  What now? What do you think?”  Jennifer was advancing, moving in passable imitation of a tigress.  “Now I’ve tracked you down I want to spend some time with you, Charker darling.  Don’t waste your time on Mr Palliser, hmm?  I think he’s holding something we both might need.    I think you have something a girl like me might need too, don’t you?”

If late, her intention to draw the heat off Joe showed some sense of decency – or fear of untimely attention from the police; but she had miscalculated.  Charker in matters of sexual attraction was a breed bull, slow to respond and brief in execution of the act.  As such, he was impervious to flirtation.   In his cups Jennifer, bedraggled by her encounters with nature and her charms blunted by darkness was merely an unwelcome distraction from his single purpose.  Her reference to Joe’s folder was lost upon him: it had no existence for him – all that did exist was Palliser’s neck.

Jennifer, shaking the bracken from her feet, approached within touching distance,

“You stay right there now.”

“Oh, come on, Charker!  You’re a big healthy lad, aren’t you?  I’m sure you are!  Why don’t we have a little fun; just you and I?”  She nodded towards Joe, “Have a little fun with him, if you want?”  Showing utter faith in her abilities, she took the last fateful step.  Charker stood with his left fist clenched on Joe’s neck, his twelve-bore cocked ready for use in his right hand.  Did he see her as a threat, or was he simply confused, addled by drink?  .  The gun discharged upwards into Jennifer’s stomach – a shot she felt much more than she heard.  As fire-arrows shot through her, Jennifer, her breath taken from her, could only utter a rather foolish “Oh!” of surprise.  Then came a deeper blackness.  Far off, at the sound of the gun, the shouting began.

Difficult to know if Charker realised the horror of what he had done – difficult to know if he was cognisant of anything at all.   Away to his right, bodies, torches flickering, pounded through the bracken towards him:

“CHARKER!”  Tom’s voice bellowed.  Tom knew whose gun he had heard.

Charker Smith stood like a colossus, motionless as Jennifer’s body crumpled against him before dropping like a discarded doll onto the heath.  At the clamour of urgent voices he said nothing, did not even move, save to crunch his fingers ever deeper into Joe Palliser’s throat.  Still weak from the smoke of the Parkin fire and pinned by those vengeful eyes, Joe was once more on the cliff edge of a struggle.  Too long it was before the mob could reach them, before shouting, grabbing human forms barged Charker down:  three or four of them, it took.  Big hands trussing him with handcuffs.  Joe, released, falling into capable arms…Tom’s arms.

And then silence…..unearthly silence.

#

At three o’clock in the morning Finsborough Town Hall was normally deserted.  The chairs and tables which rattled and scraped so busily now would be stacked away; the bare board floor a night-time desert across which wayfaring mice might wander fearlessly, with the odd small bug or two for their only company.  Just once in every five years might the lights be burning like this so early in the morning, the floor so heavily burdened by the rush and bustle of a crowd buoyed up on a heady ambrosia of renewed hope – rarely at any time of day or night would the atmosphere be so electric, the hum of expectation so vibrant.

For all the years of their marriage Ian and Caroline Palliser had maintained a single-minded dedication to The Party.  They had been challenging years.  Tonight, they would remain close to one another, and occasionally the girl from the Shires who had reached for the highest apple might sneak a hand into her husband’s; a reassuring squeeze, a hint of encouragement.  And Ian might respond, a little; though mostly these days it seemed he did not see her, or feel her touch at all.  She had reconciled herself to this.  The frantic round of engagements, political discussions – high-minded theory, low-minded cunning – had left them both so exhausted that she had very few moments to stop, to ask herself where her future was going, whether or not she would have taken this road?  Only here, tonight, dutifully beside her husband in her entirely empty role as a prospective candidate’s wife, had she time to properly contemplate that future.  Did she like the things she saw?  In marriage, she had been told, once the years of passion were gone, the years of deepening friendship were there to look forward to.  Had there ever really been passion?  Was Ian her friend?  Was she anything at all to him, other than the right wife to have, from the right family, the proper background?  So maybe those little gestures of reassurance were necessary indeed.  Not for Ian, but for herself.

Ian was deep in conversation with Laurence Montague-Hearst, his agent.  The clerk touched his shoulder.

“They’re almost ready, Mr. Palliser. It would be best to make your way to the stage now.”  The clerk, in trying to maintain a pretence of confidentiality amid noisy cheering from certain sections of the throng, managed to achieve something best described as a subdued shout.  “After the Presiding Officer has announced the result, you make your acceptance speech, sir.  Can you keep it to five minutes, if you would?”

Ian raised a hand to show he had heard, though he did not move to follow the shorter, stumpy figure of the clerk as it made its way through the crowd.  No, he would take his time, be sure he was last, or nearly last, to join the gaggle of hopefuls who shifted nervously and noisily around those boards.  His political hackles were up; his nostrils filled with a scent of plot.  By midnight the trend in the count had been blatantly clear: it was Palliser by almost a landslide – so why was Trimby Harris, his principle opposition, looking so buoyant?  When their eyes had met, as occasionally they must in so small a space on so long a night, there had been an odd twinkle there, not the disposition of a man who expected to come second.

He gave the Clerk another couple of minutes, then moved purposefully towards Harris with an extended hand.  The old man responded instantly; his strong clasp at once a gesture of friendship and confidence.

“Looks like you’ve won the count, dear fellow!  Shall we face the music?”

‘Won the count’?  Why not just ‘won’?  Mind buzzing, Ian accepted the big, guiding hand on his shoulder as it steered him towards the dais.

So……

At what point did he realise?  When did he see the two men – those two odd, misfit figures in their cheap clothes standing between him and the stage, between him and that symbolic climb?  Did he notice the small push by which Harris compelled him forward?

“You are Mr. Ian Palliser?”  The taller of the two addressed him deferentially.  “I’m Detective Inspector Royston, sir.  I wonder if we might have a word with you?”

 

© 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.