Continuum – Episode Fourteen: Emanation Games

The Story so Far:

While Ripero is struggling in the wilderness to get help for his gravely wounded companion,  Alanee, far from her home beneath the eternal sun of the Hakaan, is coping with a northern winter in the City, as much as she is dealing with the man-child Hasuga’s strange whims; so when he invites her to his garden, she is shocked to find not an ice-bound outdoor winter scene but bright summer, apparently laid on for her benefit…

“No, No!  You are an infantryman and I am a dissident.  You march past me while I am hiding in the bushes, see?”

“Alright.”  The sun is a warm blessing so badly missed: bees and birdsong, the things of summer.  Alanee would stretch out on the warm grass, accept them.   “Can’t we just enjoy your garden for a minute?”  She has endured ten minutes of marching up and down to Hasuga’s increasingly complicated commands, making him laugh at her comic contortions.  Now she is hot: she would rest.

“You’re not being a proper soldier.  Proper soldiers don’t enjoy gardens!”

“I’m sure some of them must.”

“You’re like ‘Mother’.  She gets tired quickly.  I used to get tired, but I don’t now.”

“I’m not tired, I’m hot.  It was mid-winter last time I looked.”

Surely – surely not?  The cool breeze across her cheek just then would have to be coincidence, wouldn’t it?  She looks at Hasuga, catches his artful smile.

“I’ll do my best.”  She says.  “You’d better hide.”

The grass is so inviting; verdant and soft as swan’s-down.  These performances, Alanee tells herself, are just the things a mother might do for her child, were the child to have every bit of his own way.  This child?  Well, this child would be certain to have his own way!  Ludicrous as her position feels, she had better get used to it.  She waits at the far end of the garden while Hasuga pretends to hide behind a rhododendron, then begins to walk as a soldier, she imagines, might walk.

“No!”  Hasuga hisses from behind his bush. “You’re a soldier.  March!”

Obediently, stifling her laughter, Alanee goose-steps.  But why is it so hard to keep her feet?  Her balance feels confused …

Ripero has been working his way south, following the river valley, for some eight hours now and he is tired.  By turns he has stumbled among the great stones that line the water’s edge, or clambered higher to beat his way through the trees:  whichever route he chooses the going is difficult, near to impossible at times.  He is fairly certain there are wild creatures in the woods; many, by their sound, he would not like to meet – yet the trees offer cover, and cover offers safety.  So he uses them when he can, remembering his father’s dire advice when they hunted the pack-wolf together:  “You never hear the one that kills you.”

The sun is low in the western sky and the valley deep in evening shade.  Soon Ripero will need to find a place to sleep.   His first intention, to travel both by night and day, is unfeasible:  the way is too dangerous; he might injure himself in the darkness.  Besides, the promise he gave when he left Dag by the river side, was empty.  He knows, knew by the look of the man that he was dying.  By now, perhaps, it is mercifully over

At first she thinks she must be drunk – but how?  She has taken nothing this morning that would make her so.  Can this child-thing get inside her body, affect her equilibrium?  She falls; climbs to her feet – and as quickly falls again.  It is as if the ground beneath her is sometimes there, sometimes missing, like stepping into space…

Tomorrow, he tells himself, he might try the ridge – climb out of the valley on its western side:  he is pondering this when he hears the noise.  Somewhere, not too far ahead, something is scrambling towards him along the bank.  At the moment it is beyond the next bend, but approaching rapidly.

Fearing a wild animal (but no animal, surely, could sound so clumsy?) Ripero hastens over the rocks that separate him from the trees.  Here wild rhododendrons offer a good hiding place:  he climbs the steep bank into their midst, and when he is sure he is no longer visible from the river, he crouches down to watch, and wait

From around the bend there emerges into view an improbably slight male figure dressed in the olive fatigues of a soldier.  More improbably still, this soldier is attempting to goose-step parade-ground style, with his gun at slope and arm swinging.  It is a preposterous task over such boulder-strewn terrain and he falls repeatedly, banging helmeted head, arms, legs, every part of him against the rocks.  At the bend he even falls in the water; yet rises again, blunders on once more in military stride, with a look upon his face so confused he might be a stringed puppet rather than a real person.

She is giggling helplessly now.  Her ineptitude is comical – arms and legs everywhere – trying to stand, let alone walk – but nothing works.

Ripero adjudges the interloper mad and therefore dangerous, because he has no doubt that the weapon he carries is real and what can be more dangerous than a madman with a gun?  He resolves to remain hidden until this demented creature has tumbled from view.  All the same he is curious to know why the soldier is here, why he behaves as he does.  Whether it is this curiosity that makes him lean forward or just the weakness of the branches that hold him is uncertain.  That his cover should give way from beneath him with a splitting sound, is unfortunate; that the soldier should look up at that particular moment – that will be fatal.

Alanee, her balance gone, lies helpless and not entirely uncomfortably upon the grass.  She turns as she hears the ‘dissident’ Hasuga rushing from the rhododendron bush to attack her:  she points two fingers in imitation of a gun.

“Erm…..bang?”  She says, a little timidly.

The blast takes Ripero full in the chest.  He is dead before he falls.

Hasuga finds his balance almost miraculously.  Alanee, after a moment of sheer terror when she sees him stumble – she wonders again what her fate would be if he came to harm in her charge – laughs in relief.

“I got you.  You’re a dead dissident!”  She sits up:  “One more blow for the free world!  What,” she ventures an impudent poke at one of those strong shoulders, “don’t you like to lose?”

“You weren’t trying!”  He accuses her.  “You were – what did you call it – sunbathing?”

“No, I fell over.  I couldn’t keep my feet for some reason – it was so weird!  Sunbathing is when you lie like this and let the sun warm your skin.”  She draws her robe up to her thighs and stretches back on the grass, grinning up at him wickedly.  “Anyway, I still won.”  She catches sight of the long finger of the watchtower high overhead, stabbing at the sky.  “And you’re overlooked.  Do they spy on you?”

He is looking down on her with an expression of intense interest.  She thinks she is being examined, but not in a way that makes her too uncomfortable, though she does tug self-consciously at the edge of her robe.

“Yes, perhaps you did win.”  Hasuga acknowledges.

“No ‘perhaps’ about it.  Bang!  Right in the chest!”  She raises the ‘gun’ hand and blows across its imagined muzzle.  “You’re dead.”

“So I am.”  He sits beside her, feels his chest with probing fingers, as if the hole were really there, smiles beatifically.  Yet in his eyes there is distance, as if he is considering some deep, essential equation.  Then he says:  “I have waited a long time for this game.”

“Are you sure?  It seemed pretty lame to me.  Better than your last attempt, but not very imaginative – not brilliant, do you think?”

“It was not Braillec, but it will suffice.  I suppose you could do much better?”

“Braillec?”  There is some serious undercurrent to this conversation which does not complement Alanee’s mood.  She decides to try her feet again.

I suppose,”  She discovers she can stand without trouble, so she begins to walk back towards the Palace interior:  “I suppose we are both getting too old for games.”

“Childhood games?”  He tags along beside her, his expression mischievous.  “Can you offer alternatives?”

The question stops her in her tracks.  “Is that what I am really here for?”  She asks quietly.

“What do you mean?”  Hasuga’s riposte has a startling innocence that puts her at ease.  He actually is a child, then: has no-one explained the changes that are happening to him?

He walk with his curious prancing stride saying nothing.  Alanee knows that inside that giant dome he is finding his own answers.

At Hasuga’s instigation, they return to his room.

“I sleep at this time.  Mother puts me to bed for an hour. Mother isn’t here.”  He says, this time with affected innocence:  “Would you like to put me to bed?”

His inference is unmistakeable.

“No.”  Alanee is abrupt.  “At two thousand, you’re old enough to put yourself to bed.”

Without waiting for a riposte, she leaves him there.  Whatever her fate as a result, she is sure there is one path she does not want to take, and she will not give him the satisfaction of seeing her blush.  In the elevator as she returns to the Palace lobby, his voice follows her:  “I could make you come back!”

“You could;” She replies:  “but you won’t.”

#

Calling the Inner High council to emergency session has driven Valtor the Convenor to the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“Sire Trebec sends his apologies.”  He announces to those he has managed to assemble in the Inner Chamber.  “Affairs in Braillec demand his presence.”

“Sires greet you.”  The Lord High Domo says, immediately Valtor has withdrawn.  “Let us dispense with formalities.  Lady Ellar?”

Ellar takes a deep breath.  “In what order may I take this?”

“Chronologically is usually best.”  Portis advises. 

“Very well Sire.  Two days since, we introduced Lady Alanee to Sire Hasuga.  Hasuga chose to make it a game (without either my own or the Mother’s prior knowledge)  in which he tortured her to a dangerous degree.  Proctor Remis knows the ramifications…”

“Reports of serious abuse are still coming in,” the Proctor interjects. “especially from the Hakaan, There may have been several deaths.”

The Domo grimaces:  “The usual filters?”

Portis says:  “Did not work, My Lord.  Either because the emanations were very strong and compulsive – much larger than anything we have experienced hitherto – or because we were taken by surprise: a little of each, I suspect.”

The Domo:  “Very well.  Go on, Lady Ellar.”

“Yesterday I received a constant stream of distress signals from the Mother. I obtained an intervention order to bring her out last night.  She is in my chambers now.”

The Domo raises a slow eyebrow:  “In your Chambers?”

“I did not know where else to take her, My Lord.  She is quite possibly beyond recovery.  Sire Hasuga has…”  Ellar bites her lip.  “forgive me, Sires, if I utter any perceived blasphemy.  Hasuga has been questioning her in a quite specific manner; questions she has never been programmed to answer.”

Cassix intervenes:  “Then forgive me too, for I heard this story first.  Put simply, Hasuga was asking about copulation.  As you know, those groomed to be the Mother have traditionally been taken as innocents from their community.  He probed her brain for knowledge she does not have.”  .

“He has scourged her mind,”  Ellar explains.  “Raked every thought from her – left her with no more than a shell of her former intelligence.”

“Who is looking after Hasuga now?”  The Proctor asks.

“No-one.”  Ellar replies.  “Hasuga is effectively looking after himself.”

“And what emanations have we had from Hasuga today?”  The Domo’s voice has lowered.

“Mercifully few.”  Portis replies.  “An extremely strong one this morning, product we believe of a game involving himself and Lady Alanee, but it was directed, and we cannot trace its outcome.  Otherwise…”

The Domo wears his most brooding of frowns. “‘Otherwise’?  Go on, Portis, please?  Let us know our fate.”

“Otherwise a constant stream of inquisitive thinking about sexual issues, very little of which can get past the filters, fortunately.  His mind seems focussed.  I understand this evening he has summoned his physician, for whatever reason.  One hopes that will lead to a diversion.”

The Domo nods.  “Very well, we must deliberate.  Lady Ellar, please withdraw.”

Cassix, who sits by Ellar, places a restraining hand on her arm.  “Sires, I would like to move Lady Ellar’s election to High Council.”

This gains a startled look from Ellar and an arrowed glance from Portis:  “Out of the question!  Election to High Council requires study of certain books and articles – years of learning.  We can’t just promote someone upon an impulse!”

“Desperate times require desperate measures, Sire.  Lady Ellar has proved her gifts for intercession in our relationship with Hasuga on several occasions.  In order to speak freely on these matters she has to share our immunity to the limiter; and with respect I suggest we need her contribution.”

Ellar feels the Domo’s stare:  “It is a substantial break with tradition.  Lady Ellar, is that your wish?”

“I had not thought of it, My Lord, but my limiter is a constant burden, it is true.  Any assistance I can render, of course… I would be honoured…”  Ellar stumbles to a halt.

The Domo glances around the table.  Seeing no dissent, he nods.  “We will put it to full Council.  In the meanwhile, please stay as a witness.  Portis will arrange restriction of your limiter.”  He turns to Cassix:  “Reassure me, Seer, that my worst fears are not realised?”

Cassix spreads his hands:  “We all knew that when we advanced his age we would enter this pass, yet without the advancement we would have lost him altogether.  None of us could foretell…”

“You are the Seer, Cassix.”  Portis interrupts curtly.  “Is that not your task?”

“You levelled that barb at me before, Sire.  I gave you my answer. No-one, not even a Seer, may predict Hasuga’s path.  To do so would be blasphemy:  I am not a blasphemer.”

The Domo raises his hand.  “Matters are as they are.  We have lost our influence upon Hasuga’s emanations, and there it is.  He may play with the people in a completely ungovernable way now, and all we may do is watch – is that our position, because that is very much my dread?  Lady Ellar, you seem disposed to speak?”

“My Lord, we never had that influence.  All a Mother could ever do was contain the wilder aspects of it.  All we could ever do was hone the result.  Our problem is more in the nature of the emanations, and there we may have far greater leverage, if that is a permitted word, than ever before.”

The Domo glares at her.  Portis’s look is nothing short of baleful.  “The woman Alanee you mean; the great experiment?  Now we have her in place I see her as the author of most of our troubles, and very far from being their solution.”

Ellar persists.  “The Mother system that served us through the age of innocence cannot function now without some other support.  All adolescent children are sexually inquisitive, all adolescent children rebel.  A ‘Mother is not equipped to deal with either, I have testimony to that sleeping in my chambers now.  But the evidence would suggest this Alanee woman can have enormous influence.  In that respect I think our experiment is a success.  Hasuga spends a great deal of his time watching her.  He unquestionably favours her.”

“And the type of influence you advocate is blasphemy!”  Portis’s anger explodes.

“Could it be;” Ellar murmurs quietly; “the time has come to re-define our interpretation of that word?”

Portis’s response is very like a harrumph.  “Bold sentiments for so new a High Councillor!”

“We all have to adapt somewhat.”  Cassix reasons:  “Hasuga to puberty, ourselves to the management of his powers in a new way.  The ‘Mother’ system may need to be re-programmed, but let us not forget how we all rely upon Hasuga’s will reaching the people.  If we introduce the right influences that may happily continue:  if we do not; if we hesitate or choose another way…”

“Yes, what then, Cassix?” The Domo’s tone is dangerously low.

“Then we shall have failed the people.  I ask you to consider: allow the Lady Alanee full knowledge, so she completely understands what she does.  Then let her fulfil the natural role Hasuga will plan for her.  That was, after all, our intention.”

Remis raises a sceptical eyebrow.  “Was it?  Give him a concubine, you mean? And invest her with enormous power.  Power over us all, I dare say.”

“No, no; that’s extreme.”  Portis demurs.  “She is mortal.  She can always be stopped.”

“Who knows where it will lead?  I doubt even Hasuga does at this stage.”  Cassix draws a sharp breath from one or two around the table.  “This is destiny, Sires.  As far as we can tell, the woman is unique:  her force of personality is much too strong to allow Hasuga to use her as you infer.  Let her have that power.  See how she employs it.”

The Domo shakes a weighty head.  “Destiny!  Habbach preserve us from destiny.  And if this woman should lie with him?  What then?  What would a child of our Lord Hasuga be?  What might that bring?”

Cassix demurs:  “I’m informed she shows no physical interest in him.”

“Things have a habit of changing.”  comments the Domo.  “Very well, Cassix, let us ride your wagon.  But I greet this new age with a leaden heart.  Does everyone agree?”

Nods of assent come, reluctantly, from every side of the small gathering.

“Then we adjourn.”

The meeting, however, continues in the corridor outside:  Portis with Proctor Remis, in subdued tones, agreeing to contact Trebec urgently:  Cassix and Ellar also conferring quietly, not wishing to be overheard.

“Thank you for your recommendation.  Will the High Council truly count me among their number?”

“I shall see that they do.  Now, how do you intend to proceed?”

“I’ll brief the Lady Alanee.”

“It was a very loose agreement.  Were I you I would take Portis with you when you confront the woman.  Be sure you have agreed the format for the meeting, and everything that should be said.”

“I would rather you were present, Cassix.”

Cassix shakes his head.  “We are sufficiently factionalised as it is.  This one is a bridge we must build.  Take Portis; he is wise enough to see where his path lies.”

Cassix bids Ellar good night, walking away with the words of the High Councillors still rotating in his head.  And he wonders, in passing, how long it has been since anyone mentioned The Dream.

He would go to his bed, the Seer, with all the burdens he must carry:  but the Continuum calls him – that furious tumult in his sky grows with every hour now – so that he is drawn through the Inner Courtyard by some invisible thread.   The stairway to the Watchtower will be a long one tonight.

© 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.

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Eighteen.  Through a Glass Darkly

Jacinta Driscombe tapped a rhythm on the cover of a ‘Country Life’ that had settled on a corner of her Queen Anne table, turned a page or two with indolent, scarlet-tipped fingers.  They were pages she had read not once, but a dozen times.  Sighing, she flicked them closed, stepped elegantly to a cocktail cabinet by the blue drawing-room window, where she poured herself a generous measure of gin.  Sauntering in a rhythmic, gliding sequence akin to a dance Jacintha settled upon a long velvet settee in the centre of the room, draping herself over its blue cushions and allowing gravity to arrange her burgundy organza dress however it would.  She sipped her drink carefully, mindful of red lipstick that must not be smudged.

Footsteps emanating from the bare boards of the adjacent Music Room had never sounded more welcome – she called out in plaintive tones.

“Staffy darling, where in god’s name have you been?  Did I not insist we had to be there by eight?  Weren’t you even listening to me?”

Stafford Driscombe paused in his approach to observe from the doorway the woman he had taken as his wife, now a dozen years ago.  It was, as far as he could recall, the last time he had seen her sober.  “I see you’ve begun early.”  He said dryly.

“Well, you’re so bloody late, Staffy, aren’t you?”  Jacinta sniffed.  “You stink of dead rats or something, darling, and oh my heavens, what are you wearing?  You can’t possibly go dressed like that?”

Stafford looked down at himself.  His casual attire was the worse for harbouring little stringers of mud in its corduroy folds.  “No, I suppose I can’t.  It’s simply pouring down out there now.  Have to change.  I’ll just be a jiffy, old thing.”

Jacinta dismissed him with a shrug.  “Well hurry up!”  And she raised her voice sufficiently to be heard by his retreating back.  “What were you doing, anyway?”

“Something I had to attend to, dear, the new apple tree saplings for the upper garden; Bramleys, don’t y’know?  Tell Giles we want the car, will you?  I’ll be back before you know it.”

Jacinta raised herself from the couch gracefully, revisiting the decanter for a top-up before, on a whim, covering the distance to the east window and the telephone in a series of dance steps, a part of a routine she had learned in her West End run of ‘Salad Days’.

To be with Jacinta was to stand in awe of her flawless beauty: watching her decorous fluidity of movement, her faultless poise you could not imagine she was anything other than an aristocrat; a daughter of one of the old families, born to privilege.  There was nothing that might suggest she was the youngest of seven children born to a London Docks crane operative who raised her in Shoreditch.  Her early years were a well-buried mystery, allowed to remain so by a circle of society that might privately be aware her husband fell for her upon seeing one of her stage performances but would keep the knowledge to itself.  The Driscombes had considerable wealth, which brought influence of a kind that rendered such gossip dangerous if allowed to flourish.

As an actress, Jacinta Peyton had ability quite aside from her personal charms; enough, perhaps, to have supported a glittering stage career.  Hollywood had expressed interest in the young actress who had worked for twelve hours a day and then five hours every night to earn her fees for RADA.  She was among the youngest ever to gain membership of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and her Desdemona at the Old Vic displayed artistic maturity that belied her age.

So why, at twenty-seven or twenty eight (the exact figure was uncertain;  Jacinta never discussed her age) she elected to turn her back on the glamour of her West End life was never really explained:  Stafford Driscombe was heir to the Driscombe fortunes, but otherwise an unremarkable young man, with a rather undershot jaw and big teeth that gave him a pronounced overbite.  He was tall, he had the assurance that his status gave, but it was difficult to believe Jacinta’s motive was true love.  Perhaps she was tired.  Perhaps she had that inner insecurity all true artists suffer, that she might not be equal to the image she portrayed.  Or perhaps she saw the prospect of her part as a gentlewoman in the highest echelons of society as the greatest acting challenge of them all?

Whatever the truth, it was certain she was always on stage.  Her bearing was impeccable, her accent impregnable.  Only once (Marvin, Stafford’s personal servant, swore in the privacy of the servants’ wing) was she heard to unleash a string of cockney invective.  That was at night and in the imagined sanctity of her bedroom, on the occasion of one of Stafford’s ‘visits’.

“Whatever he asked her to do, I don’t think she liked it.”

At most social gatherings Jacinta could rely upon an invitation to sing.  She might accept once in a while, though not too often, because she did not want to be thought of as ‘a common entertainer’, but when she did agree she had the voice of an angel.  Then, in lowered tones, one or two of those present might murmur the word ‘professional’, though no-one would expand upon their definition.

Tonight, despite Stafford’s distaste for her drinking, she would play her part flawlessly as usual.  Even though the gathering she was committed to attend was no more than a party for the Conservative members of Caleybridge Council, she would be at her best, as always.  And by gradual, tedious degrees she was raising her husband’s very moderate political profile to a day when she foresaw she might become a Prime Minister’s wife; and only from those giddy heights might she, at last, freely confess to her humble background.

Jacinta stared moodily out of the East Window as she raised the receiver from its cradle.  She had to press the sixth intercom button three times before she heard the click of a response.

“We need a car; I think the Bentley.  Bring it round, will you, Giles?  In uniform this time, please.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Rain beat upon the east window, a muffled tattoo not without its own music, be it as it may in a minor key.  Beyond the glass, out in a grey world that might have forgotten springtime for a day, wind ruffled the obedient biennial soldiers in their flowerbeds, and seeing a threat of trespass, stirred the ensign beeches into waving semaphore: only the three great oaks, their mighty generals, remained impassive.  A single intruder was of no interest to them.

Jacinta’s gaze picked him out; the figure of a man who stood alone upon the river’s further bank, huddled against the rain.  Through the distortion of raindrops upon the glass it was difficult to distinguish detail at such a distance, but she thought his eyes were raised in her direction.

“Staffy?”  She heard footsteps behind her.  “Staffy darling, there’s someone down by the water.  Just standing there in this weather!  What does he want, do you think?”

The footsteps didn’t yield a reply, so Jacinta turned.  “Oh, it’s you.”  She said.

#

Patrick, having discovered his father’s damaged Jaguar parked outside Karen’s apartment, wanted nothing more than to continue his hunt for Karen.  Instead, he was forced to kick his heels standing guard over the car until Jackson could be ferried into Caleybridge by Gwendoline.  There was no question of leaving the precious machine because its security had already been compromised by his girlfriend’s skilful manipulation of its ignition, and a couple of teenage boys were showing particular interest in it.   Their questions seemed perfectly innocent but it was evident they had enough knowledge to resume where Karen had left off, and Patrick was afraid the temptation might prove too much.

Neither was Jackson as prompt as his son might have wished.  He seemed to have his reasons for delay – there had been further conversations with the police, discussions with the vet that were necessary for Petra’s recovery, Amanda, who had taken the opportunity afforded by her expulsion to make herself scarce needed to be found and stuffed very reluctantly into the back of Gwendoline’s Citroen for the journey, and so on.  But Patrick suspected his father was using the situation to punish him a little, and maybe saw the hunt for Karen as less urgent than he.  Perhaps the police officer’s scepticism had placed a seed of doubt about Karen’s honesty in Jackson’s mind – could he really believe she had absconded?

Once reunited with his Jaguar, Patrick’s father demanded he assist in a roadside repair, dispatching Gwendoline and the ranting Amanda back to home and tea.  Then he was required to follow Jackson back to Radley Court in his own car, in case the Jaguar should break down or run out of fuel, which was very low.

The father was dismissive of his son’s manifest impatience:  “The girl’s got her reasons for doing what she has, boy.  Running around like a headless chicken won’t achieve anything.  Leave the searching to the police.”

Much of the day had passed before the headless chicken was finally able to get running; as soon as he could Patrick returned to Caleybridge; first to Karen’s office, just to ensure she was not there, then to a turning from some traffic lights in the West Town that became the Pegram road.  He drove fast on a road now almost deserted in the lea of the evening rush, knowing the start Karen had over him, and melting the miles beneath his Daimler’s eager wheels, but still twenty minutes would elapse before he was forced to slow, probing overgrown hedges for that inconspicuous finger which pointed into Nowhere Lane and Boulter’s Green.

The way was muddied from a day of intermittent rain.  If anything, the hedges were even more intrusive, the lane even stonier.  Patrick winced at every scrape from a straggling branch, every protest from his car’s suspension, each bang as a rock hit the car floor.  He nevertheless persisted for all of the first mile until he reached the place where Karen had parked when they visited the lane together, electing to walk the last, steeper mile of track down to the old gate where it ended, and a wild meadow separated him from the ruins of Boulter’s Green.

In the gloom and the rain he almost missed Karen’s car.  It had been driven hard against the hedge very near to the foot of the hill, not a hundred yards from the gate.  Then it had been smeared with mud and overgrowth from the hedge dragged across it, as though someone had intentionally tried to conceal it.  For ten minutes he struggled to part the festoons of beech and bramble to reach the handle of the nearside door, only to find that, like the driver’s door, it was locked.   The windows were clear enough to see within, but nothing had been left on its seats or floor to tell a story.

Patrick’s guess, or perhaps no more than a hope, was that Karen had left it here on a similar quest to his own, and she might return for the car later.  It was a slim chance, but enough to encourage him.  With rain blowing in his face he climbed the gate and set out through the wet grass, feeling the chill of its moisture weighing down his clothes and creeping through the leather of his shoes.

Did he expect to find Karen hiding here, crouched cold and miserable in the shadow of the ruins, waiting for him to rescue her?  He paused before the tumbled walls to call her name, then again upon the upper meadow at their further side, to be answered only by silence.  The wet stones stared blandly back at him:  he was an interloper, a disturbance to their aged peace.  He did not belong.

After several minutes during which he searched, fruitlessly, for any trace of Karen, he returned to the gap between the ruins, looking back to where her car was still parked, still waiting.  From this advantage he could see the trails that human feet had beaten through the grass – two trails:  one, of course, would be his own; the other…

So: he knew, now, she had been here, had walked across that meadow!  Had she gone further?  There were no tell-tale trails of trampled vegetation in any other direction, either across the fields into open country or towards the river, but he reasoned with himself that the grass was shorter, that it maybe kept its secrets the better for that, and set off towards the line where the river formed the boundary of the Driscombe estate.

The rain was a driving, relentless force.  It soaked Patrick’s clothes until they hugged his flesh in an embrace as cold and clinging as the earth of a grave.  He felt heavy with the over-bearing weight of it: rivulets that cascaded down his face, ran from his nose, from his chin.  The river ran red and angry with that same water.  The river roared.  Across its rushing, forbidding breadth, the bank on the further side was steep; cut intentionally to discourage; whoever had enough audacity to breach its waters might easily slide back into their embrace if they tried to mount the muddy slope, but no-one would cross that torrent.  At least for the last several days, no-one had tried.  The virgin grass that clung there had not been crushed or scored by human feet.  It was intact.

Upon the hill beyond the river the Driscombe Great House stood, its host of ancient chimneys proud and tall and its windows glowing with warmth and light.  A slender figure of a woman, tall and graceful, was standing behind a large mullioned frame of glass with something, a drink perhaps, clasped in her hand.  For a moment Patrick’s gaze was drawn to her, and he had a fancy that their eyes met.

She was not Karen.  But Karen had come back, as she had promised she would, to Boulter’s Green.  And she had gone no further, it seemed.  She was no longer there, and though he called her name again and again, she made no answer.  Reluctantly, unable to do more, Patrick returned through the wet meadow to where Karen’s car stood waiting.  There, saturated by the rain, he kept vigil until the dark and the cold overcame him.  Karen did not return.

 

Dark as night?  No, night was not dark enough.  Dark as blindness?  Again, no.  For blindness has no weight:  it deprives, yet has no substance.  Not like this dark.  Not like this blackness.  Not like the knowing, the certainty, the heavy, cold, sweat-excretive dread.  And the stench in the breathing air – an intense aroma not unknown to her.  A smell of age and something other.  Something near – very near.

This blackness hid the fingers from the hand, the hand from the arm;  the arm from the eye.  But there were fingers out there, Karen was certain.  Other fingers; another hand.  The hand of something, or someone.  It was – where?  Behind her?  Beside her?  Worse – was it even now just before her face, reaching, clawing: would it touch her?  Would it touch her now?

Karen bit back the scream.  There was no logic in this, no reason why she should be afraid – was there?  No reason to think she was other than alone?  If she sat quite still she might hear…

Very gradually, her senses attuned to the silence, the musty odour of earth.  Her shivering stopped.  Her quick, gulping sobs of breath began to steady.  Piece by careful piece, like unfired crocks she might array within a kiln, or dried flowers pressed in the leaves of a book, the past was returning to her.  She had followed a lead, a desperate strand that might bring her salvation – but when?  All so long ago; long, long ago.  She would never remember the hand that pressed a pad across her mouth or the precipitous drop into sleep.  And so she was here.  A couch, or a bed.  She had awakened, raised herself to a sitting position.  An inventory of herself would tell her she was alright, she was unhurt; so now, perhaps, she might try to move, to stand up.  But then, where would she move?  Forward?  Why not back?  What if that something, or someone, was behind her now?

Oh, if only she could SEE!  Her eyes struggled helplessly against a wall of absolute deprivation.  But at least she could hear, at least touch.  And here in the emptiness there must be some border, some wall or surface she could find.  You have legs to move Karen – move them!  She strove for co-operation from limbs which seemed no longer hers.  She stretched forward with a shaking, tentative hand…to nothing.  There was nothing.  Empty space.  Her hand paddled pointlessly at dank air.  A step then – there must be a wall there, or somewhere – a contour she could follow.  Get on your feet, Karen!

Memories flooding back.  She shifted her weight, balanced to stand up, shaking with apprehension and terrified to lose that small comfort of contact beneath her.  Gently, so gently, her fingers probed outwards – outwards – and forwards – and touched.  Touched flesh.  Oh shit!  Oh fuck!  Oh Jesus!  Frantically, she fell back, struggling against the alarm that had overset her.

She cried aloud:  “Don’t!  Don’t touch me!”

Above her a lance of light flickered as an angry wasp of a starter compelled an illuminated strip into life; and suddenly she was in a room with bare walls, a chair.  And a man.  The man.  The grey man.

He towered above her with his angry face glaring down.  A wet sneer drooled from his lips.

“Oh you’re mine now, Ducky, aren’t you?  So good of you to visit us.  So glad you came!” He spoke like a wood rasp, grinding, cutting.  And his hand came across her face like a horsewhip, cracking.  Her head exploded in a thousand coloured lights.  Karen screamed.  She kept on screaming.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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