Continuum – Episode Twenty-Two: An Eyeglass to Infinity

In the previous Episode:

Alanee has pacified Hasuga after what she thinks was a sexual attack, and learned that he wants her to steal one of the High Council’s sacred books for him.  Sensitive to her own danger, she has discussed Hasuga with Sala, who tells her Cassix the Seer is very ill.

When she returns to her apartment, Alanee gets a summons to the watchtower…,

 The arched entry to the watchtower is flanked by a pair of rampant stone lions at least three metres in height.  A planked oak door bars the way.  Alanee knocks, a latch creaks and the door elbows itself out of its jamb.   A face fills the gap thus created.

“Ess?”  The questioner is in military uniform.  He has the blunt head of a Proteian, the missing consonants of an Oceanic, and the hostile look of one who is unappreciative of being disturbed.  “Ess ‘Ady?”

“I have come at Sire Cassix’s bidding.”

“Ave ‘ou now?  He’d be ‘sleep I think.”

Alanee persists.  “He called me less than half an hour ago.  I believe he might be quite annoyed if he learned you’d been difficult.  Let me past.”

“Ess,”  The Proteian with Oceanic tendencies acknowledges:  “’e would.”

“Well?”

“Ess,”  The Proteian concedes:  “Go on, ‘en.”

Alanee shuffles warily past the bulk and odour of the sentry, to embark upon the first of  seven flights of stairs.  Worn stone treads punish her sandaled feet as she climbs, cold walls induce her to shudder in spite of the warmth of her exertions.  By the time she reaches the top she will have counted one hundred and forty steeply raked, sparsely lit stairs.  She will have risen high above the roof of the City.

Her breath is short when at last she ascends into an unfurnished hallway.  Lights made to resemble burning brands are bracketed to naked stone walls, the furthest of which is broken by another door as dauntingly uncompromising as one Alanee remembers all too well, in the vaults below the palace on the day of her introduction to Hasuga.  But this one answers to her hand upon the iron ring of its latch; it creaks open to reveal a few last steps, and what lies beyond would, if she had any left, take her breath away.

The observatory of the watchtower is not large, an area no more than a dozen paces to either hand, a dish, in simple terms, the rim of which is around three feet in height.  The rest; roof and upper walls, is one transparent dome, an eyeglass to the night sky.  And such a night!  A black starscape in which each galactic smear, each delicate pinpoint of light has perfect integrity.  No moon, although she might imagine the brighter planets to be almost as bright, no earthly interference – just heaven, in absolute and utter majesty.

There is little artificial illumination within the watchtower to guide her.  So she hears him first.

“Come here.  Join me.”

That clear, crystalline voice has a resonance she remembers, and it speaks slowly, brittle with pain.

“Sire Cassix?”  A cluster of textiles is heaped on a mattress at the centre of the floor.  Around it, the basic essentials of living:  chairs, a shelf with plates and drinking bowls, a ewer.

“Lie here.”

Closer now: standing over him; her eyes accustoming themselves to the dim light, seeing the muddle of fabrics resolving itself into a shrunken ghost of the man she met in Balkinvel, skin pale, lips cracked, hair in soiled disarray.  Is there nothing left of him?

“My heart, Alanee, has failed the test.  As you see, I am not well.”  A weakened hand pats the mattress at his side.  “Join me, please?”

She does as she is bid, arranging herself so that laid upon her back with her head next to his she must look up into the marvellous vista of night; and this a night she is part of, at one with, floating amidst. 

“Wonderful!”

“Is it not?  Eternity.  Depthless, endless:  distance and time beyond our knowing.”  Cassix shifts his body laboriously.

“You should be in a warmer bed, Sire.”  She tells him.

“This is warm enough, warmer at least than my next bed.  And here I may contemplate the voyage to come.  There is very little time to prepare.  So I called you at this hour.   I hope you are not too annoyed with me?”

“Annoyed with you?”  Alanee replies with a trace of irony,  “How should I be that?  Anyway, I asked to see you, did I not?  Lady Ellar passed on my message?”

“Ellar?  No.  I summoned you for my own reasons.  Tell me now, how do matters proceed with Sire Hasuga?”

She sighs.  Her answer will displease him, she supposes, but there is no point in denying the obvious.  “He is not to be placated, Sire.  I see no way he can be controlled by me.  He is young and set upon asserting his manhood.”

“Of course.”

“You aren’t angry?”  She is surprised by Cassix’s mild reaction.  “I am not succeeding in the task you set me.”

“Really?”  Cassix shifts himself once more.  “I wonder, Alanee, could you fetch me a little water?  The ewer is full.  My lips and mouth are so dry….”

“Yes, Sire, at once.”  Hurrying to her feet, she takes a cup that stands by Cassix’s shoulder, filling it from the ewer.

“You see the two stones beside the jug?  Bring them, too.”

Two ovoid stones,  each in length about five inches; one a refulgent green that shines even in this sparse light, the other a colourless crystal.  She juggles them about with the filled cup until she can carry all three before returning to moisten Cassix’s lips with water.  She helps him raise his head so he may sip from the cup. 

“Alanee, I did not expect you to control Hasuga’s will.  Even to contemplate such a thing would be punishable by exile or death.  We should have moved on from those times, but frightened people have scant regard for progress.  The High Council are very frightened, so they employ the phrase ‘kerb his excesses’ as a compromise:  no more nor less than they have done since time immemorial.  But with Hasuga’s added maturity those excesses will become unmanageable.  For the whole history of time Hasuga has been the player of our music:  now he is the composer.”

“They think he will become a despot.”

“Lady, they know he will.”

“So why did you bring me here?  If not to pacify Hasuga, then what was your reason?”

“One which until now has remained closed in my heart.”  Cassix hoists himself onto his elbows.  The water seems to have revived him a little.  “Take the stones and go to the window; you will  see two cradles there.”

On the sill where the dome and low foundation wall of the Watchtower meet rest two small brackets of black metal, a fraction more than a yard apart.  Each bracket is topped by a horizontal cup about four inches in diameter.

“I see them.”

  Alanee, who has an instinctive dislike of heights, has been avoiding this giddy edge, yet it does not occur to her to disobey.  Tentatively she edges towards the glass, then tests her weight upon the ledge, leaning forward so she may peep over.  For the first time she sees how far above the city she has climbed:  below a mass of lights refract and waver in the rising air. 

“Do exactly as I say – exactly, now, do you hear?.  Place the larger end of the clear stone in the left-hand cup.  Have you done that?”

She affirms that she has.

“Now remove your hand from the clear stone.  Place the green stone in the other cup.  Do not touch both stones simultaneously – do you understand?”

Bemused, she does as she is told.

“Be very careful.  I want you to look out into the eastern sky, Alanee.  Look deeply, find texture, find detail.”

Texture:  what is he talking about?  Has the old man’s mind gone – is he senile or fanciful?  Yet there is a sort of vague meshing effect, a kind of weave – and yes, odd though it may seem, she can see something. 

“You have found it?  You can see the vortex?”  Cassix knows that she can.  “Now put your right hand upon the green stone.”

Alanee does so.

“The other hand upon the clear stone.”

The universe becomes alive – or so she will describe it in some future time when her memory returns to this moment.  A current shooting through every physical and mental corner of her, a charge of such voltage her whole frame is rigid within its grip, as though some infernal angel’s long fingers are reaching in to grip her heart.  So extreme is the sensation her mind is seared free of the watchtower, of Cassix’s distant voice, of the City and all its sights and sounds.

Instead?

Through her arms, her hands, the stones and far, far outwards an intense flare of herself is joined with the firmament:  for a blinding instant she can comprehend what it means to be at one with the stars.  Alanee is the sky – Alanee is the earth – Alanee is melting…melting….

And then – she sees!  The sky is not clear, or majestic, or free.  The heavens are a stirring, rolling ocean of light, waves that flicker and stab, expressing their instability by small flashes of discharging lightning.   There are clouds there; clouds that whirl and twist and there is burning – burning that flares from the dark recesses between the galaxies, hungry orange tongues consuming, devouring, withdrawing once more into mouths deeper than infinity.  A battle of flame and thunder, filled by cries of tortured souls.  She must observe: a spectator at the corrida when the sword strikes home and the horrid fascination as the blood spurts forth; she may not avert her consciousness, may not redirect her inner eye.  She stands mesmerised before a window.  She watches Armageddon.

The experience will end as unexpectedly as it began, whether within a few seconds or an hour Alanee has no idea.  Her hands are released; she may lift them from the stones.  Though her body feels enervated and her knees shake she cannot feel that any harm has befallen her.  When she comes to herself the sky is calm – once again a tapestry of innocent stars.

“What was that?”  Is all she can think of to say.

“I have named it the Continuum.”  Cassix answers.  If she could see his face from where she stands she would see that he is smiling the smile of one whose theory has just been vindicated.  “The Continuum as only you and I may witness it, Alanee.  Every day it grows:  a disturbance in the ether that began less than a generation since, and until a cycle ago no more than a distant maelstrom in the skies of the south-east.  Now – well, you saw its immensity.”

“So, it’s what:  a kind of solar storm, or some form of illusion?  It’s gone now.”

“It is no illusion, and no, it has not ‘gone’- though few can see even a small part of it and none at all without the presence of a Seer, it is real enough:  it is a prophecy.  You saw it:  how did it speak to you?”

“I believe it cut across time.  I don’t know whether I was watching the present, the future or the past.  Is that an answer?”

“A part of an answer.”  Cassix acknowledges.  “The rest will come.”

“I must watch it again?”

“And again, and again and again.  Alanee, now do you see why I brought you to the City?  Do you see what the High Council has missed, what is so far above their heads both physically and conceptually they could never hope to understand?”

“No, Sire.”  Alanee is mystified.  She is sure any reasoning so obscure as to defeat the learned Councillors must be incomprehensible to her poor brain.

“No-one in the City has this gift; no-one attuned to Hasuga’s huge telepathic powers can follow me.  He is in my head now, wrenching, tearing at my inner vision.  You – you can resist that, give him the clear balance he needs and, as we both just witnessed, you have the gift of sight.  Alanee, you are my successor:  you are the next Seer.”

Alanee staggers, almost loses all sensation in her legs.  “Me?  Sire, I am honoured, but….”

“Please do not consider this an honour!”  Cassix’s voice rises.  “There is no honour in this!  There is a great task, a momentous task that comes upon us quick as thunder and neither of us has time to ponder it as we should.  You must accept it and meet it alone.

“The Continuum and Hasuga are associated – linked – one and the same.  I am certain of that.  He must be shown what it will do to the City, Alanee.  It is destruction and it is upon us!”

“Sire I cannot…”

“Don’t try to say no.  You have no choice.  Even from this lofty perch I see the cauldron stirred by those poor, frightened colleagues of mine.  They are not pleased with their new Hasuga, Alanee, and they are equally displeased with you.  Whereas they are compelled by Lore to suffer one, they can dispense with the other.”

Cassix’s voice now has a tired finality. His strength is failing.  “I knew when I first met you:  I knew you were the only possible way forward.  I had planned to take so much longer in training you, in showing you ways through The Lore to grow in your craft.  But Hasuga would not have it so, and my health is forfeit.  You must study the Lore for yourself and you will learn as he wants you to learn, which is how it should be.  Now go. Take the stones, for although you will not always need them you must keep them close to you.  I have to use what time remains to me to ensure your election.”

She would stay, protest further, but one look at that ashen face is enough.  She quietly takes her leave, and with feet scarcely finding the treads and sometimes clinging to the rope that serves as a rail Alanee makes her way down from the sick-room in the sky.

“’Een un then?”  She passes the sentry without noticing, or smelling, his presence – back into the city.

Watching her pass, the sentry scratches himself reflectively, wondering what business so beautiful a woman can have with a sick old man in the early hours.  As she disappears into the bright maw of the Avenues he settles to his nocturnal routine, the pacing discipline which is all that will keep him awake through the watches of the cold hours.  A visitor on this shift is an event: at least now the stillness has returned and he can attune his ears once again to that distant music from the bazaar – music which always plays, no matter what the hour.  The night has not long to go, now.  There should be no more such interruptions.

But out there in the official residences and the resplendent salons of the High Councillors, Altor the Convenor is busy.  Behind the superficial calm a rising tumult; summoners buzzing; mighty heads stirring from their sleep.  Before much longer the sentry’s night will become very eventful indeed.

#

 “You have done what?”  The Domo’s face is purple with anger.  Actually it is also purple with expended effort; the protracted climb to the Watchtower is one he rarely makes, and then always with the assistance of two drabs.  He is not alone in his reaction.  The others present have also vented their disbelief.

“I have nominated the Lady Alanee as my successor to the office of Seer.”  Cassix has been propped up so he may face the assembled gathering, though he is so weak his head can hardly support itself.  “It is my duty and my right.”

“NO!”  Portis cries.  “Seer is an office of the High Council, for Habbach’s sake!  Sire, what on earth possesses you?”

For Trebec the climb has also been an arduous one, and now, in the presence of so many High councillors in so small a space, the heat is stifling.  “This is intolerable.”

“Really my Lord, why?”  Though weak, Cassix’s words command attention.  He has prepared for this battle.  “She alone among you can see The Continuum for what it truly is.”

“This Habmenach-forsaken bloody Continuum again!”  Such expressions of intolerance from the Domo are rare.  “You are not well, Cassix.  You realise we must question your mental state?”

Cassix assents:  “I do.  In a total absence of precedent, though, should you even try?  I have already published my intent and taken the required test for my sanity.”  He nods towards a screen that has been set up beside his pallet.  “The whole city knows, My Lord Domo.”

There ensues one of those pauses wherein no-one feels free to speak, yet such a volume of thoughts fills the space that whole philosophies are wordlessly exchanged.  At length the Domo breaks the silence.

“Well then, we must ratify your choice, Sire Cassix.”

Trebec sounds as if he might explode:  Remis grunts, Ellar says softly:  “Oh, Cassix!”

“It is the Lore.”  The Domo says.  “We must observe the Lore.  Clearly, this is Sire Hasuga’s wish.”

“And where is that wish to take us?”  Ellar demands, ignoring Portis’s warning glance.  “Where?”

The Proctor cannot ignore this.  “Lady Ellar, you are guilty of a blasphemy!”

“Sire Remis!”   Cassix intercedes:  “The lady is a High Councillor elect!  Of course we should – no – we must question where Hasuga is leading us!  I am no longer able to fulfil a role which is vital to us all; a role Alanee can play.  She will show you Hasuga’s intentions Ellar, if you let her.  She might even be able to moderate them, though maybe not in the way you wish.  I repeat to you:  I nominate Lady Alanee as my successor.  She shall be Seer to the High Council.”

There is no more to be said, and if there were Cassix no longer has breath to say it.  His task complete, he sinks back into the cushions that prop his torso erect for this meeting, deflated, spent.  The sight of his decrepitude affects the Domo especially, who lumbers across to him, placing a gentle hand on his forehead with the quiet words:

“It shall be done.  Goodbye, old friend.”

For the others, too, this obvious sign dispels any further wish for argument and each in their turn pay their respects to the great man who has served with them for so many years.  Ellar, last to come to him, feels his touch upon her arm.  Sees, rather than hears him whisper:

“Stay?”

So she waits, listening as he does to the receding quarrels as the rest of the High Council makes its laboured descent back to the City.  Then she sits upon the floor beside him, cradling the man who has loved her, in his patrician way, ever since she met him in the womb of the Palace so many years ago.

“My Lord?”  She asks him softly.

For a moment she thinks he has already embarked upon his journey, but behind the parchment skin a candle of life still flickers.  After a while he speaks.  “Lady.  Take care of Alanee.  You alone.  Understand?”

“That will be hard, Sire.”

“You disapprove of her.”  It is not a question.  He has not time or energy for questions.  “She will need you.  The world will need her.”

“If you wish it, I will do all I can.”

Cassix allows a ghost of a smile to play across his dry lips.  “I know you will.  Ellar?”

“Yes, my Lord?”

“You’ll stay, won’t you?”

“Cassix my dearest, I’m with you always.”

With her arm about his shoulders and her hand clasped over his, Ellar sits with him to wait for the sunrise.  And in the first warm rays of morning, Cassix dies.

© 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: Pexels from Pixabay

Continuum – Episode Nineteen: Wagoner’s Leap

From the previous Episode:

Alanee is summoned to Hasuga’s presence once again, and she finds him in unpleasant mood.  He forces her to watch a grotesque hologram performance of her intimate moments with Celeris, and shows  her in life-size detail the accident that caused her husband’s death.  Reeling from the repugnance she feels she seeks solace in the quietness of the gardens by the River Balna.  She is contemplating a plunge into the icy waters when Celeris finds her.

“There has been a crisis.”  Over the summoner Lady Ellar’s voice is dry and abrupt.

Sala drags herself upright in her bed, pushes her hair back from her face.  “Alanee?  Why, what’s gone wrong?”

“Don’t concern yourself with that.  Just find her.  And Sala?”

“Yes, Lady?”

“You may acquire certain knowledge.  Try to stem any indiscretions, but if necessary special status will be given to you.  You need not fear repercussions if you bring the things you learn directly to me.  To me alone, do you hear?”

“Yes Lady.”

Sala closes the connection before she punches the pile of bedclothes beside her.  “Come on big boy, time you went home!”

#

From the fortress town of Braillec there is a road which unites that great bastion with its fiefdom and, ultimately, with the outside world.  This thoroughfare links the ten villages that are the Braillec nation and which, by the sweated labour of their slightly proportioned yet physically very tough citizens, supply iron and precious metals to the Consensual City itself.

It is, therefore, a road of some consequence:  its paving is conscientiously tended, its length rigorously patrolled by Braillecci police.  Convoys of wagons pass through constantly, vying for space with transporters, bicyclists and animal herds in an unceasing cacophony of shouts, hoots and bellowing rage.  There is no remission in winter or summer, night or day.

The Braillec Highway, for so it is known, is no easy route.  All of Braillec but a few paltry square miles to the Country’s east is mountainous, so of necessity the Highway must be mountainous too, with high passes, precipitous cuts along canyon walls, dark tunnels and hairpin turns that constantly challenge the senses: gradients so sharp the summits are provided with winding engines for the heaviest loads, that in a matter of minutes can turn into glacier or river in winter snow or spring rain.  The steeper reaches of that section of road which rejoices in the name of ‘Wagoner’s Edge’ are littered with shrines to departed travellers whose bodies are never retrieved, so deeply unreachable are the canyons through which it must pass.  At intervals along the way the ten villages, often clinging to slopes little better than a rocky scree, with their houses or businesses carved into the mountainside, or perched on precarious trestles that may have defied centuries but threaten every day to be their last, offer rest and refreshment.

There is, in truth, little of either to be had.  The citizens of these snake-and-ladder townships are of mining stock, gritty moles who burrow in rock for ten-hour shifts and whose morals are subject to erosion by night, daylight or liquor  Their diet of wheat-porridge and mutton is not to everyone’s taste, nor is their hobby of nocturnal thieving.  Whoever stays in one of the wayside inns that lie in wait beside the Braillec Highway should bring his own lock for his door and never ever turn his back upon it. 

Small wonder, then, that all who can travel by air when they enter or leave Braillec.  Only the poorest, the bravest and the most foolish take the land route.  No women travellers use the Highway, though there are women on it, women who make their living from it.  And the men who choose to hazard their fortune on the journey do so for their own reasons.  Which is why, perhaps, on this afternoon at the height of the spring rains Commander Zess is to be found in Turkalar, fourth of the ten villages, slumped over a bar known as Kapper’s.

Kapper’s with a hole in the roof which leaks; water on wood:   “Drip – drip – drip.”

“Who are you, my friend?”  The barman is wiping out a glass with a towel that has wiped too many glasses.

“I?  My name is Zess.  Commander Zess.  I am a Commander, you know?”

“Oh certainly!”  The barman smiles.  “The stamp of authority is unmistakeable.  The moment you fell through the door, I knew.”

Drip – drip – drip.  Rainwater; gathering on the pinewood bar-top, seeping through a split  in the wood.  Ebbing away; all thought, all feeling, all future.  Drip – drip – drip.

“I am the Commander!”

“Yes Sah!”  An old man with a glass eye and glassier stare from his good eye does his best to snap to attention.  Two younger men in leather porters’ aprons further down the room laugh loudly.

“Take ne notice of Pashi, Commander-sir.  He don’t know his chair from his arse.”

Drip – drip –drip.

Zess eyes these jesters through his misted lens of cheap perl.  The stuff of the ranks.  Proteian whippets both:  lean of sinew, receding foreheads befitting those who have no need of brain. Neither clean, nor soiled, but blackened by life:  one with a livid scar like a lightning strike across his cheek; the other with lips plastered against his face, thick and flat, as though applied by a coarse inexpert brush.  Strange that these should be his chosen:  strange, but right.  They will not know how carefully he has picked them – they have not mind or sight for that:  but that does not matter.  They are chosen.

“’Spect you’ll be sleepin’ here tonight?”

Until now the enigmatic young woman has not spoken.  She was there when he entered an hour since, seated at the bar, watching idly the contents of her glass, swilling the reflections so they stir to fire once in a while, then taking a sip – one sip.

Black hair in a thick fringe, a wig fringe.  White skin, glossy lips, dressed to undress, fabric straining about full breasts, fuller hips.  Red shoes – he will remember the red shoes.

“Want company?”

An offer that is simple, direct:  a woman not accustomed to negotiation – not among the herders of oxen, the wagoners, the drivers of sheep.

“You’ll think me brazen.”  Dying eyes raised to his.  “I’m not a fool, Commander.  I was not born to be here.”

“I know that.”

“Do you?  Do you know?”  She moves in.  “Manda.  That’s my name, Mr. Zess.  I was a courtier once.”

This brings a cynical bray of laughter from the other end of the bar.  Manda ignores it.  “Buy me a drink?”

The drink she holds is unfinished.  This is a ritual: an enunciation:  by this drink I thee procure:  to have and to hold for a period not exceeding eight hours and subject to such further fees as shall be accrued in representation of services rendered…..Zess accepts the contract with a glance, signs his name by a purchase.

“What are you drinking, Manda?”

“Sumthin’ to cure the spots that weep!”  Says the thick-lipped Proteian, and the barman laughs:  but neither misses the wad of credits Zess produces from his pocket.  “Oh, the’s picked a good ‘un here, Manda!  Treat un’ special tonight an’ you’ll be able to retire!”

“Aye!  Start that seafood business you been plannin’ fer.”

“Seafood?”

“Crabs.”

“Oh.  Ah.”

“Where’s your place?”  He asks.  He would not delay.

“Come on.”  The jesters exchange glances; nod.

The deed is done.  In Manda’s professional grasp Commander Zess is led to the street where sentence will be carried out.  Those he has selected as his executioners will follow distantly at first, like hyenas; pacing, vulpine.  In dark shadows, under dripping eaves where none may see Manda steps aside:  the blow is fell and merciful.  The last sight with which Zess departs his world, the exculpation for the ten thousand souls he has sent before him, is a pair of red shoes.

It is a dark night, and long.  A profitable one, for two young men in leather aprons and a nervous, hungry woman with ashen face who stares disbelieving at the badge concealed beneath Zess’s coat.

“Je-Habba!  He really is a Commander!  ‘Tis only Commander Zess, that’s all!”

“The’s jokin’!”  The thick-lipped man glares at the body with linx-like suspicion.

“No I aren’t.”  Manda shows him the evidence; “Oh Habba – Habba -Habba meh!  We’re done for now!”

The scarred man is counting Zess’s credits.  “In Braillec he was Commander.  Here he’s just a mark.”

Manda’s eyes are wild with fear:  “What to do?  What to do?  There’ll be a manhunt!”

Unperturbed, or seeming so, the scarred one offers her a share of the Commander’s wealth but she shies away.

“I’m not touchin’ that!”

“Don’t be a fool to yerself!  Look at me!  Was he ever here?  Was he?  Them in there won’t say nowt, not if the’ dun tell ‘em.”

Manda falls silent, trembling.

“Strip ‘un!”  The scarred man says.  “Strip everythin’ from un an’ burn it in yer grate tonight, girl.  Will the’ do that?”  He takes her shoulders, shakes her roughly.  “Will the’?”

She nods, struck dumb by terror.

“Ah.  An’ us’ll get Passa’s old cart and have ‘un up to Wagoner’s Edge.  Wor’ll throw ‘un in the canyon:  ‘E’ll never be found girl.  Never.  An’ you’ll say nothin’, do the’ hear?”

#

A frantic Sala has called at Alanee’s apartment to find the door ajar.  A squad of City Service drabs are working, mysteriously, upon the tiles of Alanee’s bedroom ceiling.  “What are you doing?”

“Official work, Lady.”  The gang leader is non-committal.

“Where is the lady who lives here?”

“Don’t know.  Haven’t seen her.”

Alanee has no limiter, therefore she cannot be tracked.  Sala calls her summoner several times – it does not answer.  For an hour she probes the main avenues, but there is no sign of her friend.  She attends Ellar in her surveillance suite.  The screens for every camera in the city are displayed before them.

“She walked to the river this afternoon, before I learned there might be a problem.”  Ellar tells her.  “I know she returned to the City, but since then I haven’t been able to find her, she doesn’t appear anywhere.”

“I imagine the Grand Park is too obvious?”

“There it is.”  Ellar waves a hand at a dozen separate screens.  “No sign of her.  She seems to have completely disappeared.”

#

“Oh, Celeris, this is beautiful!”

They are together in his rest-place and he is bathing Alanee’s wounded knuckles, his delicate fingers smoothing healing comfort into her livid flesh.  And each stroke brings a tiny shiver of pleasure as she imagines those soft hands caressing all of her body.  Too soon he is finished, towelling her gently dry, and that sets her imagining, too. 

“Come, I will show you your room.”

How had Alanee imagined Celeris’ apartment would be?  Small and intimate, or vast and echoing?  As warm as his touch, or as cold as his eyes?  It is neither.

Beyond the door of one of those characterless lobbies that seem to be shared by all apartments in the City is a mezzanine overlooking an elliptical room.  Steps lead down, following a wall hung with pieces of expensive graphic art.

The living space is furnished with formal seating dressed in vivid colour.  Art dominates: handmade furniture ornamented by vases and figurines that are perfect exemplars of the potter’s craft; tiny holograms add movement to the static feast, a green fish lazily swimming in its own ghostly mist of ocean about the floor, a dancer cavorting with balletic grace upon a high table at the far wall, three white gulls making noiseless circles overhead.

Portals lead to bedrooms, a rest-place, a kitchen, a darkened passage.  Windows are high up:  they afford no view, only light.  Even now, although Alanee knows it must be dark outside, they beam down in an imitation of setting sunlight, bathing everything with the tranquil ambience of dusk.

“You must be exhausted!”  He exclaims.

The room to which he leads her is so perfectly attuned to her taste she feels almost as though she were back in her Hakaan homeland.  Two imposing terra-cotta vases stand each side of a wide, grey bed, its covers trimmed with rich damask.  Furniture – a dressing table, chairs, a side table – in silvered blue arrayed against corn-yellow walls.  Projected white clouds drifting lazily across a ceiling of summer sky lift her depression from her like a veil, such that she finds herself laughing with sheer delight.

“You are pleased?”

“How could I not be?  It’s just so…it’s magical!”

She kisses him chastely on the lips, thinking perhaps the kiss will be lost in the spontaneity of the moment.  Those mysterious eyes betray his thoughts as he lets his finger-tips gently play across her mouth.  They linger close.  His breath is so sweet, almost honeyed, that she cannot resist tasting it once more; this time for much longer.

Celeris draws back hastily, “I will, of course, give you every privacy…”

With a finger to his lips, Alanee stills him.  “No.”

He is awkward, apprehensive, “Some drinks perhaps?”   Resting her forehead to his she can feel the tension in him, the trembling of instincts more powerful than he can understand.

“No.” She tells him kindly, “Thank you, ba, but no.”

“Then I must leave you!”

In whispers, “Not this time.”

Her mind is filled with music, as undeniable and compulsive as the Music Man’s song.  “Help me to forget, my ba. There are things I have seen today, dreadful, cruel things.  If I go to sleep with them in my head they will be with me forever.  I need you to drive them away.”

“To my shame…if I stay here longer…” Celeris’s voice drops to a timbre of despair.  “When I am near you…”

Alanee does not let him run from her, not this time.  “I know, darling. Yet you shouldn’t be ashamed.  You don’t understand, do you?  Let me help you learn.”

“Learn.”  His voice has suddenly steadied.  “Learn to suppress what I feel?”

Alanee grins wickedly, “No, no – rather the reverse.”

Alanee guides him to the bed, where she sits, cradling him in her arms as she might a child, and child he becomes, mewling in infant parody, curling into her, so needing comfort that she would hold him to her breast if she could, but as manhood swiftly overcomes the child she cannot resist his impatience.  Everything inside him is triggered to explode in one climactic act and, with resignation that the lesson will be brief, she contents herself with gentle guidance.

The time for restraint is past.  Everything is past almost before it has had time to begin and yes he has cried out in ecstasy and pain and yes, he was clumsy – a little too self-indulgent maybe – a little too rough: a little too proud in conquest, his black-eyed face a mask of triumph.  Alanee has not seen it, though.  Whether act of love or desperation, she could only feel – her eyes closed, her back arched, she has taken to herself a seed as hot and electric as its sower, while her head dreamt of the Hakaan Plain and birdsong in the summer sun.

When they have surfaced from their dreamt-of union and Celeris is lying beside Alanee while her fingers are playing light as eider-down over his pale cheeks; as her sweet mind-music fades, she seeks a promise: “Never leave me?”

He responds:  “I won’t.”

Alanee holds his shoulders, so he must look at her.  “I mean it.  Don’t die on me Celeris!  Never die!”

And he replies with all the honesty in his being:  “For you, Alanee, I will never die.”

But now, in the silence after the music has gone, the honesty she doubts is her own.  What did she truly seek; protection, care, even love?  A few seconds of fulfilment and a falling back, contentment on the sheets, away from the cruelty, the artifice of The City?  Is that worth words like ‘never’?  The years of slumber have vanished from her, the closet of her desires has opened to him, but the nagging guilt remains stubbornly inclosed.    Because of a dead man’s memory?  No, because despite her determination, she cannot forget.

       Celeris turns his head, speaks:  “Now that is a very, very good game.”

The words take time to permeate,   But they do.

“A good game?”

She stares, almost doubting whose form she will see lying at her side. 

  A very, very good game. 

Alanee takes a few seconds to gather herself, telling herself that nothing should shock her anymore.  Then, sighing, she slips from the sheets, feeling his eyes on her back as she goes naked to the rest-place.

In the shower she knows he is watching, as she dries herself, too.  As she dresses his eyes never leave her, yet she does not feel threatened by him.  His look expresses curiosity, not hunger.

 “You are going?”  He sounds surprised.  “Have I not pleased you?”

Alanee manages a smile.  “Almost too much, ba.” 

He does not ask when he might see her again.  He does not even say goodbye as she drifts aimlessly from his door.

Sala finds her in the Grand Park, dawdling by the water where ornamental birds roost.  Dark little shadows in the artificial blue of a moon-orb that tracks across the domed roof, they scuffle and cluck annoyance at her pale, intruding feet,

“Alanee-ba, thank Habbach!  Where have you been, my darling?”

Alanee greets her concern with vague surprise.  “You’ve been looking for me?  Why?”

“You just went missing.  I mean, vanished!  Everyone’s been going mad looking for you!”

“Ah yes.  I’m not meant to vanish, am I?”

Sala looks at her curiously.  “Someone has done something to you.  Alanee, are you hurt?  What happened, ba?”

“Nothing I shouldn’t have expected, I suppose.  I was with Celeris, in his apartment.”

“Celeris.  Celeris the non-existent,” Sala says, frowning.  “Alanee, there is no such person. I looked through the census.  There is no Celeris listed in the City.  Now, where does he live, this man?”

‘Over there’.  Alanee is about to say, to wave with an airy finger at the avenue by which she has just returned, but she fails to recognise it in the darkness.  “Somewhere over there.”

She cannot focus.  Sala is gripping her shoulders with a fierce expression.  “You’ve been drugged.  Habmenach!  I am too trusting of this place!  I should never have left you to its mercies.  Come now, ba; we’ll get you home.”

“Not to my apartment.  No.  Not my apartment.  Cameras.”

If Sala finds the remark odd she does not question it.  “Then mine.  You must rest.”

This night Alanee finally spends in Sala’s bed, nestled in the arms of her friend who, despite her pain, asks nothing in return.

© 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.

A Word in Passing

There are two places in my world where I would wish to be.

The first is a seashore, a mile of firm wet sand beneath my feet, a spray-loaded westerly gale in my face, and white-caps marching in military file upon the rocks. To stand before the might of nature and feel her snatching at my toes: to be for an instant at one with the primal power that speaks to us all, had we the ears to listen, these are the sights and sounds and sense of glory for me.

The second place within my heart is a quiet wood, among placid deciduous trees where tiny sunshine sprays of summer heat slip in between the leaves and birds provide quiet music to a percussion of breeze-stirred leaf and twig. A different perfection this, to sit upon some ancient bench beside a tripping forest stream, watching time drift past me into nothingness.

In either place, alone – for at the last Nature is our one true friend – I would gladly meet my fate. If I could my quietus make from earth to oblivion with such an image imprinted in my soul I would pass through the gate without fear.

When I watch the brief lives of our smaller cohabitants on this planet pass before me, expired in little more than a season, or a year, or ten, I reflect that the one true advantage we have gained over them all is comfort. Churchmen may sanctify life, politicians may play with it, but we normal mortals gain only by having food on our table, a place away from the snow, and the ability to express and resolve pain: and yes, it is right that we should bestow those gifts upon our brother species, and it is charitable to do so, where we have the means, so even when we feel the need to satisfy our carnivorous appetites we afford some dignity to the hordes we kill. If we count ourselves as ‘civilized’ we try to make death quick and painless, for every species but our own.

Somehow we have allowed ourselves to be persuaded by an argument that human life is different to that of the other animals that are forced to co-exist with us; that we are made ‘in the image of God’ and therefore a special case. We have taken the simple truth of death as an ending and made a science of an improbable land beyond it; and from that science derived a plethora of reasons why we should delay and protract our own death in a way that, if we observed it practiced upon an animal, we would denounce as gross cruelty.

I have my views about religion. It has been responsible for the genocide of millions yet we still espouse it in one or other of its forms, whilst I regard it as the greatest perversion of thought to be visited on mankind. Our greatest gift, on the other hand, is not a theoretical, but a real victory over death. We can end life, terminate it without pain. We should feel free to reject the sorrowful protestations of the former and joyfully sanction the latter.

If I wish it, and of course only if I freely wish it, I should be allowed my final hour without pain, dreaming of that seashore, or resting in that wood. Rejecting all peripheral arguments about family pressures and financial complications I should retain that essential right. By simply gaining agreement that medicine is primarily about mercy, at a stroke I would save treatments and bed-space needed for those with hope, rather than wasting them upon my losing battle. The timing would be mine. I would give my relatives peace, and leave my life as I have lived it.

I believe that, given a vote, an overwhelming majority would agree with me, and at last even the great and the good seem to be coming round to acceptance. After all, we take willingly all the other benefits medicine can give us – why not bestow the freedom upon us to use this last one?