Continuum – Episode Twenty-One: Prisoners

In the last episode:

After a night in her friend’s apartment, Alanee still cannot prove to Sala that Celeris, her diffident and secretive lover in The City, exists.  Frustrated by her friend’s doubts, Alanee returns to her own apartment to find some leaves intrinsic to a dream of the previous day await her.  When she grasps them she is wracked with pain which she attributes to healing, though she does not know it is Dag Swenner, critically injured in a far-off forest, she heals.

Meanwhile, Sala has obeyed a call to meet Ellar, her patron, who prepares her for a greater weight of responsibility by emphasizing Alanee’s importance to The City.

In the evening, Hasuga summons Alanee.  He seems excited and unstable, urging her to evade the council’s spy cameras and accompany him to a summer house trysting place in his gardens.  Too late, Alanee sees the danger and tries to leave but he forcibly prevents her…

She is sprawled on the hard wooden bench of the summer house, Hasuga’s hideously distended cranium a dark moon looming over her, his hand on her chest, with all of his weight behind it, pinning her down.  She struggles for breath.

“Is this how you think of me?  Do I repel you so much?”  His tone is fierce.

She spits out a riposte; “After what you did to me?  Remember your little floor show last time we met?  Do you?  Am I supposed to forget that?   Let me go, Hasuga.  Let me go!  Out of this squalid little hut, out of your pathetic life, out of The City.  I don’t belong here!”  Her unmitigated fury so surprises him that he eases his grip somewhat, enough to allow her to add, in a more moderate tone, “Let me return to the Hakaan. That’s my home.”

“You can never go back.   Do not hold out any hope.  You can never go back.”  He draws breath, as though he wants those words to sink in.  She, gasping for air, has not the wind to snap back at him, so after a space he asks her; “Who am I, Lady Alanee?”

She scowls, “Hasuga.  You’re Hasuga, I’m Alanee – we both know who we are.  And for Habbach’s sake forget all this ‘Lady’ stuff, because we both know why I’m here.  You wanted a new ‘Mother’ who could double up as your concubine – and I’m it.  Very well, so I’m destined to remain your prisoner, for the time being, at least.  But I’m not going to share a bed with you, Hasuga.  Do you understand?”

“Am I not a prisoner too?”  In the darkness she may not see his expression, and the renewed calm in his voice gives nothing away. “Have you thought of that?  I have never left this palace.  Only courtiers and the High Council are allowed to look upon me.  For me this is the most oppressive of prisons.”

“Nonsense!”  She makes a determined attempt to remove his hand from her chest, “You’re the supreme being!  If you wanted, you could just walk out of here; commandeer an aerotran, or something.  Who could stop you?”

“Where would I go?  On the outside no-one even knows I exist.  Can you picture me among normal men?  Imagine what they would do to me – what I would have to do to dissuade them.”  He relinquishes his grip on her, slumping onto the seat at her side as if he is suddenly exhausted by his efforts.  “This is the Consensual City and its stability depends upon my remaining invisible.  It depends upon their ignorance of the truth!”

“So these people, the Councillors, are your gaolers, then?  They really do control you.”

“We have a consensual relationship.  Alanee, I have been a child since beyond memory.  Children learn everything and reason nothing.  They learn how to play and they learn the norms of human behaviour without estimating the worth of the things they learn.  Now, unwillingly, the Council has given me the keys to a part of its wisdom:  it has allowed me to grow – opened a door for me it wished would remain closed, so I have to learn afresh what I may or may not do.  I am at the dawn of my understanding.”

Alanee rearranges herself,  “The High Council can see how fast you’re learning, and it fears what you may become.  I’m meant to stop you.”

“The hope is that you will help the Council to control me, not teach me.  They see that as their prerogative, not yours.”

“Yes, well!”  Feeling she has a better grasp on the situation, she admonishes him:  “You can control yourself.  Isn’t that what you are learning?  Isn’t that what you should be  learning?”

“Because of the way I am made, I am fearful that may not be so.”

Alanee decides it is safer to change tack.  “Ellar believes you can’t direct my thoughts.  Is that true?”

“You doubt it, don’t you?  So do I.”  Hasuga raises his hands to his immense bowl of a head, as if he needs their support to keep the weight that bears down upon his body from crushing him.  “I wish it was otherwise, but I am able to read them, at least.”

“I thought as much.  Alright: if I can get over how intrusive that is; and, yes, come to think of it, how insulting that is; it must seem pretty good to you.  Why do you wish it was otherwise?”

“Because of who you are.  I do not want to manipulate you, although I need to learn about you.  Cassix believes he knows who he has brought to me, I do not – not yet.  It was so easy to give you power, Alanee – too easy.  It was no trouble at all.”

 “What you want from me doesn’t tally with the High Council’s idea of my role, either, does it?”  Alanee reasons.  “This is beginning to sound as though you want me to conspire with you against the Council.  They wouldn’t let that happen.”

“We are already conspiring.  They can’t stop it.  Can you not sense that?”

She shakes her head.  “I can understand how you must hate them, keeping you cooped up here for longer than I can even conceive, but…”

“Hate is a human frailty.  I do not hate.”  Hasuga grips her hand, and she because she no longer feels threatened by him, she does not resist; “Your psyche compliments mine –  if we worked together our collective will would be insuperable.  This is more exciting than any game!”

 “The Council might not be able to stop our collusion, Hasuga, but they can stop me.  I’m only flesh – I don’t have your gifts.  A knife-stroke will be all it takes, believe me.”

“And so you must be careful, for a while.  Until, perhaps, you grow stronger.  But what an adventure, Alanee!”  He slaps his elongated palm on his knee.  “We must make a start.  Now you know of The Book, I want you to get it for me.”

Get it for you?

“Steal it.”

“Habbach, no!  The Book of Lore?  You can’t want me to risk that!”

“No, not the Lore Book, I learned every sentence of that before I was two hundred.  The book I mean is one you have only seen in your mind.  This book has no name.”

“With a red cover, locked so I may not open it?  Yes, I have seen it.  You want me to steal that?  Where is it kept?”

“Where could it be but in the Council’s Inner Library; where they have tried for years to x-ray it, to rifle it, to persuade it to open, but never succeeded?  I will succeed.  But first I must have it in my hands.  Bring it to me.”

“Oh Hasuga, how?  I won’t be allowed anywhere near the High Council’s library.  Sire Portis even stopped me from taking a peek at the Book of Lore, and that wasn’t the original, either.  How will I do it?  I can’t do it.”  Alanee decides.  “Ask me something else.”

“You will not try?”

“No!   I’ve no appetite for conspiracy!”  She may not mean to snap back at him again, yet the anger inside her must express itself.  “Hasuga, you are using me. You say you learn from me, you don’t want to manipulate me?  But you don’t care how much you hurt me, how deeply you humiliate me, how small and wretched you make me feel.  Collusion, deception; danger, it’s all a game to you:  why should I put myself at hazard for that?  The High Council have given me my duties, I am here to look after you.  If I do that as they wish, even though it tears them in half, they will have no excuse to dispense with me.  You want me to steal from them?  I won’t do that – I won’t!”

 “Very well.”  Hasuga has studied her curiously throughout this tirade.  Now he nods.  “You agree I am to some extent inside your mind and your thinking, and you will remember that I am unwilling to manipulate your thoughts, although I could.  I would rather you reconsidered, and for that you will require time.  Time is limited, Alanee.  Do not take more than is due.”

He stands.  “Come, we should return before our absence gives concern.  When you are ready to speak of this again, we will meet.  I will be waiting.”

Alighting from the elevator on the ground floor of the Palace, Alanee nearly collides with Ellar, who is obviously on her way to Hasuga’s apartments. 

“Lady Alanee!”  the Mediant’s voice sounds starched.

“Lady Ellar, greet you.  Were you missing me?”

“Perhaps.  Lord Valtor claims he summoned you several hours ago.”

“Hasuga needs someone to look after him.  That’s not me, at least for the moment.  Why does his ‘Mother’ not attend him?”

Sire Hasuga is in your charge, Lady.”  Ellar reminds her, dryly.  “You can cook, can you not?”

“I can, but I’m sure his drabs are feeding him sufficiently well.  I asked to see Sire Cassix:  did you relay my request, Lady?”

And Ellar replies, shortly:  “No.”  then steps into the elevator, returning Alanee’s questioning look with a stony stare, until the doors close.

Outside the palace, is the evening breeze in the courtyard suddenly a little stronger, a little colder?  If not, why does Alanee feel a prickle of winter on her neck?  Around her, courtiers and servants wander in couples and threes, taking in the spring air.   Many wear robes of a lighter fabric, socialites intent upon an evening in the city dressed as gaily and as briefly as the season permits.  In those islands of greenery the drabs have created, ornate stone troughs and planters that break up the void of the yard, are early flowers, buds, promises of growth.

Alanee badly needs someone with whom to share her concerns, someone untouched by the fears and jealousies of those around her, yet the buttons on her summoner provide no answer, even though, mysteriously, Celeris’s name has reappeared; why could she not find it before?

As she walks back towards the city, preoccupied with her thoughts, she pays no heed to the young man who cuts through the sprinkling of late promenaders with determined stride.  She does not see how unerringly he heads in her direction, how his hand is now reaching, gripping, beneath his robe.  At the last, the very last second she looks up – is faced with the cold intent in his eyes, the hand that has found what it seeks and is returning to view, clasping something, turning it in her direction and she almost screams…

And he has passed her, a file of papers filling his hand and now pressed against his chest.  In his wake, Alanee’s knees come near to failing her.  Her lungs once again are forced to gasp for air, a tear finds its way to her cheek.  She snatches up her summoner, stabbing upon Sala’s name.  This time Sala answers.

Tocatta is effusive:  “Darling Lady Alanee; so gorgeous you look!  Such radiance!”

Before visiting Tocatta’s intimate café, Sala’s favourite haunt, Alanee has stopped briefly at her apartment to change into one of the outfits she had made for her in the city; a well cut, svelte version of a side-laced Hakaani tabard in white shot silk with an emerald braid.  Sala eyes her a little enviously.

“For once the old fraud isn’t exaggerating.  My Habmenach, Alanee!”

They wait until Toccata has brought Tsakal with the perl chasers Celeris taught Alanee to enjoy.  When he has withdrawn and in the protection of the sound-deadening hangings, Alanee at last feels she can speak.  With her gaze firmly fixed upon their reflections in the glass of the big window (for the blackness of the night beyond is impenetrable) she says:  “I need a friend.”

She feels Sala’s hand on hers.  “You know you have that.”

“There are things I have to tell that friend, things she might get into trouble for.”

Sala does not say anything for a while.  They sip at the heat of their drinks in desultory fashion until they are ready to look at one another.  When Alanee meets Sala’s eyes they are solemn.

“There are friends, if they are true friends, who will take that risk.”  Sala says.

“Can we be overheard?”

“Perhaps.”  Sala presses the buzzer that will summon Toccata.  When he appears, she asks:  “Are there cameras here?”

Toccata smiles his understanding.  “No, Lady Sala, I clean these curtains daily.”  He withdraws.

So, with hesitant beginnings, and always watching Sala’s face for an expression that might deter her, Alanee tells her tale.  She tells Sala of Hasuga, all she knows about the reasons she was brought to the city and her relationships with Hasuga and the High Council.  Only the mission Hasuga has set her escapes mention, not because she mistrusts her friend, but for fear of the danger that knowledge may bring her.  Sala doubts at first – this, after all, is a Hakaani girl she has known scarcely longer than a cycle: a girl with an imaginary man-friend:  yet she has long suspected the existence of an entity like the one Alanee describes, and now, as the explanation develops, Sala finds the pieces and clues of a puzzle that has thwarted her all her life falling into place.  When Alanee concludes her account she cannot find words for a while, but stares into her tsakal as she assembles the finished image in her mind.

Finally she breaks her silence.  “As it appears to me, you walk a very thin line indeed.  Nobody knew what to expect when Sire Cassix brought you to the City, and now they are finding out. 

“Alanee-ba, not everyone likes Cassix.  Seers are never popular, though they are very powerful and their will is respected.  Right now it seems there is a faction, Cassix’s faction, who would let matters proceed naturally, and there is everyone else.  Everyone else probably subscribes to my patron’s opinion.”

“Which is?”

“You will get this list of targets she has promised you which I’m sure will clarify the picture, if clarification is what it needs.”

“Feed him, flatter him, fuck him.”

“In essence.”

Alanee puts her head in her hands.  “And what if the worst should happen?  It’s unthinkable!”

“There are measures…”

“Of course there are.  I like him, I really do.  I can’t exactly explain why, after everything he’s done, but sleep with him?   Oh, Sala-ba, you haven’t seen him.  I can’t do that.  I just can’t!”

Sala nods, and her face is pale.  “Then, oh my darling, you had better be ready to run.  You were probably an experiment very few of them wanted to try in the first place.  It would be good to know where the Domo stands in this, but I imagine everyone is thinking of damage limitation, and only the Cassix faction preserves you.  I suppose the real issue is how your presence affects Sire Hasuga’s ability to rule, if that is really what he does.  It’s such a pity Sire Cassix is so ill…”

“Ill?  Is he?   Oh Habbach!  Now I have to get to see him!  What do you mean ‘if that is really what Hasuga does’?”

“Well, from your description it sounds as though the High Council use Hasuga’s telepathic strength to keep order.  That’s rather different from ‘ruling’ in the regal sense.”

“But he sees, he hears.  From that apartment up there on the top of the Palace, (and he never leaves it) he can see and hear the whole city.”

“Including ourselves then?”  Sala says seriously.  “Bless you, Alanee, for that.”

“He will be listening, I suppose.  Somehow though, I don’t think he could object.  He seems to want to gain my trust.  And if they were able to use him before, I don’t think they will for much longer.  Every time I meet him he has grown in power.  Today he seemed so confident, so self-assured:  a young man, in fact.  I don’t know who I will meet tomorrow.”

“Alanee…”  Sala collects herself.  “Alright, look: you were brought here; why?  Because the High council saw what was happening to Hasuga and they knew they couldn’t control it.  What did they think you would do?  Because of this gift of yours to resist telepathy and because you’re such a nice, undemanding sort of girl they believed you would calm him down, help him to a maturity he does not yet have.

“All they want is for Hasuga to continue to rule as he has before.  Show them you are doing the job they selected you to do, and they’ll leave you alone.  Persuade Hasuga to resume his old role – see if you can placate him?”

“I’ve already tried.  I can’t see it happening.  He’s rampant.  He has schemes, dreams of change, and all the time I am with him I can see those schemes take shape. They’re right, Sala, I am part of the problem.  I fuel him.  I make him grow.”

The pair talk this through for a while, turning over the same essential issues.  In the end, as Alanee perceives, their discussion has no merit; for Sala does not have any more answers than she.  With resignation in her heart she bids her friend goodnight and wends her way to home and bed.  She will not have long to sleep.

The hectoring of the summoner is like a blare of a bugles lashing through the early morning stillness.  Alanee gropes for it, swears at it, slaps it down in front of her on a pillow she has not bothered to scrutinize, intent upon switching it off.  The name that flickers green on its display stops her.  ‘Cassix’.

“Sire?”  She offers little more than a sleepy murmur.

“Lady Alanee?  Come to the watchtower.  Come now.  Tell no-one you are coming.”

© 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 Twenty: A Garden Meeting

In the previous Episode:

While Alanee is making love to Celeris in his apartment she is hidden from Ellar the Mediant who, fearful what Alanee can do when she is not on her radar, sends Sala to search The City for her.  Sala discovers her friend in the Grand Park in an apparently drugged state and takes her to her home so she may rest.

In Braillec, Commander Zess, deeply  affected by the genocide of thousands of Dometians has abandoned his post, to seek expiation at the merciless hands of robbers on the highway, a fitting death sentence, as he feels, for his actions in the chain of his command.   The robbers will throw his body into the canyon below Wagoner’s Leap.

Meanwhile, the one escapee from Zess’s purge lies helpless and dying on a forested riverbank, watched by scavengers eager to devour him… 

Dag Swenner has lain motionless for many hours now, while the carrion creatures move ever closer.  That drip of water which found its way to his pale lips ceased long since:  the warmth from his body is all but gone.  Cold is a friend, for it admits the sleep of death with quiet dignity, and this is neither a quiet nor a dignified place to die.

The snapping and snarling amongst those closest to the feast, wild dog and serval, tree rats and hyenas, is unceasing.  The big cat is long dead, the man beside it defenceless: the bravest might rip an arm from him and be gone without fear, yet no creature will touch him.  They sneak and creep in the cover of the woods, afraid of something, some other presence lurking there, something unseen.  It is this way until morning comes, when first light dapples through the trees.

#

In Sala’s northern bed, Alanee stretches herself in sleep, dreaming of something – something she will not remember in the morning; of a forest, far away.  And in that forest the eyes of a dying man blink open.

Day is well advanced when she wakes.  A thought has entered her head that she would share, so she shakes Sala to consciousness.

“Celeris!”

Sala groans.  “Him again!”

“I can prove he exists.  Of course I can!  He left his number on my summoner the other day.”

She jumps from the bed and searches through her jumbled clothing, producing the instrument triumphantly.  “Here, see?  Stop looking!” She throws her robe about herself to avert Sala’s hungry stare.  Giggling, she stabs buttons.  The giggling stops.  “Only I can’t seem to find it?  Sala – what can have happened to it?  Could it be erased?  Who could have erased it?”

Sala shakes her head sadly.  “I’ll get us some breakfast.”  She slides from the bed and then the room, not troubling to put on a robe for herself.

“No.  I’m not hungry, really.  I must get back to my apartment.  There are some new clothes there I have to try on.”

Sala’s expression conveys her belief that this is the lamest excuse she has ever heard.  “In front of those cameras?”

“Maybe they’ve gone.  I told Lady Ellar I wanted them taken out. I have to think.  This afternoon perhaps we could look for a new place?”

Sala contacts Ellar as soon as Alanee has left, a loyalty she owes her patron.  But Ellar’s reply to her summoner – “Say nothing now.  We will meet in the gardens.”- is a surprise.

The gardens beyond the city walls greet her with the bright optimism of spring.  Ellar, formally attired in her court robe, waits where a bridge of weathered redwood crosses one of many brooks which feed the ornamental ponds as they descend, step by step, to the river. 

“You discovered her, Sala.”  Not a question:  just a statement of fact.  “Is she stable?”

This choice of adjective takes Sala aback.  “She seems well enough, Lady.  We stayed together in my apartment last night.  She left just before I called you.”

“Where was she?  How did she evade us?”

Again, that curious choice of phrase;  “Evade, Lady?”

“Come Sala!  You know very well how closely she must be watched.  Where was she?”

“She was with a man.  A man she claims she has been with before; at the spring celebration.”

“Who?  With whom?”

“A bit of a rogue by her account.  He upset her.”

“Who, girl?  Who?”  Ellar’s impatience is not typical of her.

“He called himself ‘Celeris’.  I checked.  No such person.  Whoever he is, he’s using a false name.  If we could catch him we could charge him with that offence at least, but in that perverse way of Alanee’s she seems inclined to defend him.  And she was vague about where he lives, or what he does in The City.  Very strange.”

 “Merely a liaison, then,” Ellar sounds relieved, “She is found.  That is good.  I will investigate this ‘Celeris’.”

Both stare down at the water.  “Sala, you hold a position of great trust.  Greater than you know.”

“Yes, Lady.”

“We meet here so we are not overheard; our words may never be repeated, you understand?”

“Yes.”

“In my work, child, I have to constantly reconstruct a bridge – just like this bridge – between two worlds; The City on one side, The Land on the other.  And whether I like it or not, Alanee has become the pier upon one side of the water: she holds the stability of the city in her thrall.  My difficulty, but at the same time my great relief, lies in her ignorance of her true position.  My fear is that she may, unwittingly, put all of us into danger.

“So, you are her friend:  are you her lover?  No, I thought not.  But you are her confidante.  Encourage this, Sala:  talk to her, elicit her thoughts, lend her your arm, your shoulder, whatever she may want from you.  And bring all you learn back to me, do you understand?  All.  It is vital, Sala.”

“No more than is my duty, Lady.  Of course I shall.”

Shocked by Ellar’s evaluation of Alanee, Sala’s thoughts fill with the memory of a figure.  He sits across a desk – a big, pedagogic desk of shiny red burr-cherry upon which he plays a little table game among his papers with sticks and a ball.  Professor Leitz, a small, rotund man with a short white beard and kind grey eyes has gone now, died some years ago, but his image and his words never leave her.  Today, as he sits behind that desk, his stubby fingers running thoughtfully through the white hairs at his neck, she is eighteen, ready to leave the Porstron for the greater world.

“Sala my dear you always had a penchant for the divisive, didn’t you?  Argue, argue, argue!  Passion, too, I shouldn’t wonder.  So why do you choose to train as a Mediator?  The challenge to your intellect, I suppose.  Well, you have that challenge:  you will be constantly forced to make the choice between loyalty and love when the two should be on the same side but aren’t:  you will sacrifice friends, colleagues, everything to the cause of expediency.  Is it for you, do you think?  Should you devote your life to betrayal, simply as an exercise?  Think profoundly, Sala.  Think long.”

Well, she did think long.  She accepted her challenge, and it has come to stab her through the heart time after time.  Now Alanee; so is she, should she be, intrigued by the importance Ellar places upon her friend – or is Alanee just another knife?  Whatever the truth, she sees her role has changed.  She must take care.

Ellar watches her turn back towards the City with a new weight upon those graceful shoulders, feeling reasonably content because she knows Sala is her best, the recommendation of Professor Leitz all those years ago, and because the girl’s inspired excellence was honed to perfection by her own hand.

Ellar could not define precisely when her feelings concerning Alanee began to change, only that they are very much changed.  Reports reach her hourly, tales of excitable activity from Hasuga:  wild thoughts so dominant and inviolate the customary filtration process of The City can no longer moderate them.  Alanee’s influence is surely responsible for most.  Out there (she looks towards the distant horizon of the mountains) the people are paying her price.  Whatever follows, Sala’s abilities will be put to the supreme test.

Alanee neither knows nor understands why she has to be alone that morning, only that it must be so.  The compulsion to take leave of her friend has its own momentum, as if she is driven by some force outside herself.  The clothes she collected from the dressmakers the day before have no bearing upon it:  they are just the excuse Sala supposed them to be, but something makes her run through the blocks of the city until she reaches her home avenue, and that same insistent impulse overcomes her revulsion at any thought of spying lenses.  Still she pauses within her street door, to read a terse note that is pinned above her mirror in the foyer.

‘All cameras removed.  By order of Lady Ellar, Mediant’.

The clothes are much as she left them, hanging on the wardrobe wall.  Someone has moved them, but they are all there.  Her bedclothes, her furnishings, though slightly altered in arrangement, are clean and tidy.  Although everything has been disturbed, nothing is missing, nothing is soiled; unless she considers the small pile of leaves lying upon her coverlet an exception – the same leaves she gathered at the riverside the day before!  The very same leaves she has dismissed as a dream, exactly as she dreamt them, still damp from the rain!

Not a dream, then, but how did they come to be there? 

They are real enough.  She picks up each of them delicately and in a sequence.  From where her guidance comes she has no notion; any more than she understands why she must press the foliage to her as she did at the river.  The urge is fierce, undeniable.  Immediately, a fire ignites inside her; a flame so intense she must respond by pressing the poultice to herself harder and yet harder, as if to extinguish it.  The heat expresses itself in dart-like needles, sparks that fly about her body, burning sharply, deeply.  Not today the gentle permeating warmth of the afternoon before – this is agonizing, searing, cauterizing:  though all the while, through each torso-wrenching lance there is an otherness, a separation.  That feeling alone keeps Alanee from screaming aloud, for although her flesh is tortured she is certain the damage is not hers, and somehow her strength will heal another’s wounds, though she does not know who, or where, that other may be.

For a writhing hour the pain consumes her.  Morning becomes afternoon before the effort of healing abates: until, in a bed soaked with her perspiration, she may sleep, exhausted, for much of the remaining day.  In this time Sala will call and receive no answer:  Lady Ellar will page her insistently; but Alanee will not stir.  Only when Valtor the Convenor’s insistent buzz wracks her inner ear will she wake, and only to Hasuga’s summons will she answer.

#

“Are you stronger now?”

Hasuga sits with his back to her in his bedroom, his misshapen silhouette distinct against the evening light from his window.  Around him, the machine has grown again and Alanee is more than a little nervous of it:  she has seen what Hasuga can make it do.

“Stronger?”  She no longer addresses him as ‘Sire’ for she does not respect him.  Ascending through the Palace to this place she has wondered how she will face him, after his cruelty.

  “The task you have performed requires strength and fortitude,”   He turns to her swiftly; “You will have been tired, weakened.” 

“Explain.”  She can outface him, she feels:  “What ‘task’, Hasuga?”

“Healing is a task.  To heal others you must first experience their pain, share their wound, take it upon yourself.  That weakens.  Now you must share the recuperation.”

“Truly?”  Alanee returns his scrutiny blankly, “So you think I was healing someone?   How would you know?  I told Ellar I wanted the cameras out – are you still spying on me?”

“I do not need cameras, although they are fascinating, I admit.  I do not like the ‘spying’ word.  I have to learn, Lady Alanee.”

 “About me?”  Alanee snaps bitterly, “You’ve stripped me bare.  I’ve no secrets.  No secrets and no dignity.”

Hasuga manages a wan smile, “The things I have to learn about you are things you do not know yourself.  Come.”  He reaches for her hand.  She snatches it away. “Let us walk outside.”

“If you command it I suppose I must,”   She will not disguise the loathing in her voice:  “Just don’t touch me!”

She follows Hasuga’s loping stride through the marble-pillared room with its colourfully decorated murals.  They still warm the chill heart of this immense space, though there are subtle strokes of an artist’s brush here and there, hints of incipient change.  The fantastic machines have grown in majesty, high of gantry and noble of spire.

Those animals so cosily humanised when last Alanee saw them are pure now, their anthropomorphic features over-painted with fleet, graceful features that depict their own natural beauty.  They run, rest, or feed on landscapes so brilliantly real she feels the breeze from distant tempura mountains upon her cheek, even thinks that once or twice those sleek antelope heads lift to watch her pass.

But it is within the body of the room that the greatest alterations have been wrought.  No more the dolls houses, models and toys of a few days since:  now the basic furniture plays host to a bizarre collection of ephemera more suited to Hasuga’s student phase.  There are several anatomical models, including a human skeleton which reclines upon the chaise longue with its metacarpals riveted convincingly about a wine-glass.  A flight simulator for an aerotran occupies one corner, exercise machines that would be the envy of any private gymnasium and a climbing frame scatter randomly about amid antique instruments, shards of broken pots, diagrams and print-outs of illimitable complexity.

The garden, by contrast, is no longer bathed in the summer heat of her last visit.  The plants have returned to their proper cycle, as yet only budding themselves for the coming summer, while the fountain plays into a chill spring sky where sunset is already fading.  Alanee cannot suppress a shiver.

“Must we be outside, it isn’t exactly warm, is it?”  She growls, “Or are you going to perform your summer garden trick?”

“No.  That would attract notice.  If we do not draw attention to ourselves we may speak more freely here.  But there is a warmer corner; we can talk there, if you wish.”

Beyond rows of immaculate borders where crocuses and sun-daisies are already shutting up shop for the night, and past newly-planted beds towards the lower end of the lawns, in a corner of the garden’s high wall, there is a summer house, a small, hexagonal wooden hut with lead glass windows and a pagoda roof.  Hasuga invites her to sit within it: its benches are hard, worn and devoid of paint, but its shelter, Alanee will admit, does offer warmth.

“We are unobserved in this place.”  He explains, and Alanee thinks she detects a leer in his voice.  “In the city everybody watches everybody.  Now you have insisted upon the removal of your cameras they must find another way to observe you:  they will do it.  In the meantime you – we – have some space.”

“Why do we want space?”  It is dark in the summer house; she can hear his breathing though she cannot clearly see him.  “Why don’t you want them to see us?”

“Because there are things – intimate things we must speak of together.”  His breath is strong and rapid.  He has moved closer in the darkness.

Where does it come from, this sudden feeling of threat?  And why does she feel powerless to resist it?  Is she so tired?  She should not have answered his summons, not tonight.  “You said you wanted to talk,”   she reminds him, coldly.  “I don’t want you close to me, Hasuga.  Do you understand?”

“Am I so repulsive in your eyes?  If I asked your forgiveness would you…”

She cuts him off.  “Cold or not, I think I would rather be outside!”  Her heart is pounding and her words come in a rush.  She is on her feet moving purposefully towards the door when his arm shoots out, detaining her.  “Let go of me, Hasuga!  What are you doing?”

His grip is invincible as steel and she is being drawn back into the gloom.  For the first time in his company she can feel the pulsing heat of his flesh pressed to hers, hear the feverish excitement in his sharp command.   “Sit down!   Now!”

#

Upon a wooded river bank far away a hyena has waited patiently for a day and a night.  It is characteristic of her breed, this persistence which has no quality of stillness and is by no means restful for the beast.  She has cubs to feed.  Pacing, whimpering, yapping, she has passed the hours in a torment of indecision:  should she attack or should she flee?  And now it seems both the sources of meat in front of her are lifeless and cold, why does she still hang back?  Why do the hairs on her brindled spine bristle with fear?  What is wrong?

The dogs, the wild cats, the rats – they all sensed it.  In the night they slunk away, seeking other game.  But that is not the hyena’s way.  Where there is meat….

The smallest creatures of the forest are aware of it too.  Although an unmoving demi-corpse, a massive hulk of protein lies across their path they have contented themselves with just the cougar’s carcass.  No leach has attached itself to pale human flesh, no worm or louse has found a path of entry:  the man-figure that lies so motionless beside the cat is somehow inviolate, in the protection of something unseen.

The hyena decides the time has come.  Hunger draws her forward, terror holds her back.  In distant cries of her cubs far away, the demon hunger wins the battle round by round, step by step.  Snarling, snapping yellow teeth inches now from Daag’s face, stale dog-breath hot on his cheek – ready for the bite, the ripping, tearing bite…..

Perhaps the hyena has not seen the corpse’s fingers move, or its hand close around the gun; or perhaps it moves as she moves, when she is already committed to the lunge.  She hears the explosion, though, feels the missile searing through her scrawny chest.  And before she expires she sees the food she should have spurned glare with flaming eyes down upon her, as Daag Swenner, reborn, rises from the floor of the forest.

© 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.

Photo Credit: Mana5280 on Unsplash

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.