Continuum – Episode Nine. Journeying

The story so far:

Following her rift with Sala, Alanee tries to conquer her loneliness in the big City and focus upon thoughts of escape, but focussing is hard.  She is offered help by a mysterious bystander called Celeris, and having been unable to contact Dag, her trans pilot friend, spends her evening in his company.

Meanwhile, Cassix the Seer has broken news of a devastating event in Dometia province to the Council,and the fear of what it may mean hangs over all in the City.

Alanee has not slept well.  Despite her experiences of the evening, she went reluctantly to bed and lay awake well into the early hours, her mind a turmoil of emotions and memories.  She is beginning to learn more about the Consensual City, and in doing so something more about herself.

Within her home village of Balkinvel there were, for all the mysteries and trappings of government rule, no doors closed to her.  The village Domo’s home would always welcome her, and Paaitas himself was approachable, if a little confused sometimes.  She would have free run of the Terminal, there were no hidden rooms, no cloistered apartments or glittering palaces there; whereas here the City’s boundaries are so many, the nobles impossibly aloof, their  rules stringent and mysterious.  But here, threaded through the gilded tapestry of lore and establishment there are strands which, in her country home, would set rumours screaming; make disgrace certain.  She remembers Shellan, her neighbour and her friend.  She remembers how they would laugh together, find jokes from their world that no-one else could see.  How, often, they might share a thought or a smile so intimately, or hug away tears, but never did that woman she had known since she was a little girl seek her lips with Sala’s passion; never would the Makar’s licentious hand, old devil that he was, have touched her as the Music Man did!

In that tragic summer when Alanee-meh her husband died; after some frantic solitary moments of grief she would prefer to forget, Alanee consigned her sexuality to unending sleep.  She locked it in a cupboard, put it from her never to be let out.  Balkinvel was a small community and a single woman of child-bearing age a threat, so she could not allow desire, could not dwell in male company.  Her friends were women, their husbands were out of bounds.

Is it this place that arouses her?  Is it Dag’s empathy, or Sala’s invitation, or the enigma of Celeris that stirs these things from their slumber?  Or was it the hand of the music man?  Last night when Celeris left her, she watched his parting with regret.  She tells herself her feelings were just those of one who needed companionship, that she liked talking to Celeris, that she would have talked on into morning.  But is this honest?  In the lonely dark she goes again and again to that locked cupboard knowing that she holds the key, and frightened of the self she might find inside.

Her summoner is insistent – a plangent tune.  When did she fall asleep?  She does not remember.  The hour on the summoner’s little window speaks of morning.  ‘Lady Ellar’ flickers in time with the rhythm of its music.

“Lady?”  Her voice is thick with sleep.  She does not know Ellar well at all.  They have met just once, in the company of the High Council.

“Alanee-mer, may I call upon you – say at ten-thirty?”

By the appointed hour Alanee has bathed and dressed in the robe Sala gave her.  To her surprise, Lady Ellar does not simply enter her apartment as Sala has done, but waits to be admitted.  This unexpected courtesy hints at the many contradictions in the Mediant:  that all the power she exerts she will not use, even when, sometimes,  necessity points the way.  But she is tall, and Alanee believes her future is clasped in the palm of her hand.  These things alone are enough to make Alanee afraid of her.

Alanee offers drinks, they are accepted.  They sit opposite one another upon the soft couches that furnish the apartment.  Is Alanee well?  Are her arrangements as she would wish?  Is she learning about the City?  Alanee replies politely and honestly, still unaware that these questions are no more than formalities, that every move she has made since she arrived here has been meticulously watched.

“Now my dear, it is time to begin unfolding the mystery.  You are about to set out upon a journey…”

Still misted with sleep, lulled by the gentle persuasion of her drink, Alanee struggles to understand: mystery?  Journey?

Ellar sees Alanee’s confusion and smiles.  “Your task , no, even that is a bad description, the life we have planned for you is not a job, in the accepted sense.  So there is no description, neither is there a schedule of work you must follow.  Instead, you will be guided through it stage by stage, experience by experience carefully and thoroughly.  You will not lack guidance.  It is…a journey; neither more nor less.”

This does nothing to improve Alanee’s understanding.  She says so.

“That will come.  This is the start point – here, this morning.  From this moment on you will be known as the Lady Alanee.  You have the status, to begin, of courtier, though for now you will live here, rather than within the Palace.  There are good reasons for that, which we need not go into now.  You will have an allowance of two thousand credits a day…”

At this Alanee is wide awake.  She sits bolt upright.  “Two thousand a day?”  In her work as assistant manager at the Balkinvel Terminus she was paid ninety credits a cycle!

“Two thousand a day, that’s right.  Now, I know you are short of money, so I made certain your first payment was lodged this morning at credmarket opening.  In addition you will enjoy clothing expenses commensurate with your position and certain special allowances.  There are details of these in your personal file.”  Ellar still wears that benevolent smile.  “I understand this is outside your experience, Lady Alanee.  You probably feel as if you have been given free run of the cherry orchard.  But please be clear on this:  in the society you will keep certain standards of etiquette and dress are mandatory.  If you are to succeed on your journey you must know them and follow them utterly.  You cannot do this alone; you will need a guide.”

“She’s told you!”

“Sala has mentioned something, yes.  We really thought you would become firm friends, you see, and Sala’s knowledge of courtly manners is second to none.”

“As upon the subject of underwear.”  Says Alanee drily.

Ellar looks mystified, or pretends to.  “I am sorry you quarrelled.  We shall have to find you someone better suited to your tastes.”  The Mediant leans forward as though she would grasp Alanee’s knee, but holds short; her hand reaching, not touching.  “There are many aspects of life here that are strange to you, Lady Alanee.  Many, I’m sure, will seem difficult or even offensive at first.  I hope as you learn you will not judge us too harshly.”

Alanee sees she is being chided.  She bridles instantly:  “I am mistaken, then?  I never considered morality a matter for judgement.”

Instead of responding immediately, Ellar lets the retort drop into a meaningful, silent eddy.   She studies Alanee with the intensity she might devote to a zoological specimen.  Then her face breaks into another smile, this time a smile of indulgence.  “Yes, possibly you are.  After all, different societies have different moralities, do they not?  Interesting, though, how passionately you feel these things.  Village life, I suppose – so straightforward, so…so…”

“Provincial?”

“Puritanical was the word I had in mind.  This is neither here nor there, I will find you someone you like better as your guide.  Now, Lady Alanee, begins the first step of your journey.  This afternoon an encounter has been arranged, in which you must take part.  You will be called for at three.”  Ellar rises to her feet.  “Thank you for the drink.”

“Wait!”  Alanee is shocked at her own boldness.  “Encounter – encounter with what?”

“Rather with whom, Lady Alanee.”

“Well whom, then?  I mean, what am I supposed to achieve in this encounter? What is supposed to happen?”

“That, my dear, we none of us know, nor is it for us to say.  That is what I meant when I described your task here as a journey.  It’s a journey for us all.”  Lady Ellar turns towards the door.  “Now I really must go.”   At the threshold she turns, as if struck by an afterthought:  “Oh, and by the bye; I believe last night you were enquiring after the pilot who brought you here, one by the name of Swenner?  I have some sorry news I’m afraid.  Master Pilot Swenner is missing, believed dead.  His aerotran crashed over the wild regions of Dometia yesterday afternoon.  The desk should have been informed.”

Ellar would not admit to the slight satisfaction she feels as she sees Alanee’s face crumple at her news.  Walking away, back into the world she knows, she has the faint sensation that she is leaving quite another world, one that Alanee has created within that apartment:  not with any accoutrement other than those that have been bestowed upon her and not with the assistance of anyone, but just by the force of her own personality, by the Habbach-forsaken freshness of that Hakaani air.  The smell of wheat-chaff is almost palpable!  She sees now what so attracts Sala to this girl:  she could be tantalised herself, if the girl was not so opinionated, even dissident, did Cassix not perceive that?  She begins to understand the Domo’s reservations; the nightmare scenario as it may be played out.  And once it begins, who may stop it?

Not you, Lady Ellar, Mediant, not you!

#

Heaven and earth are one, partnered, dancing with each other in flickering light.  Wind comes in rushes that blast anything still standing; scouring to the very bone.  It should be day.

The pod of the aerotran remains intact: that, Dag is sure, is all that saved him.  Yet the pain at the base of his spine assures him he did not escape entirely and he may not move without experiencing massive static shocks.  The carcass of his shattered vehicle moans in the excesses of the gale, crackles at every gust.  It was this tangible electric web that he could not fly through, which brought him tumbling helpless to the earth, and now it would drown him, blocking out his communicator, robbing him of instruments to such degree he does not even know which way he faces.  Slowly it will usurp his mind.  He cannot focus, cannot conjure the most basic thought.  He should escape, not sleep – yet all he wants to do is sleep.  He should try to keep breathing, but all he wishes is not to breathe……

A tree has transformed into a maniacal tumbling thing, torn from its roots, flayed into a skeleton of twigs and all but its trunk reduced to the thickness of wire.  Bowling before the storm Dag sees it coming, cannot do anything to avoid it.  The blow as it strikes the aerotran’s Pod throws him sideways, erupts his back in an agonising spasm, wakes him and at once extinguishes what light he has.  Sleep, if sleep it is, comes quickly and with mercy.

#

“Oh, sweet Lady!”  Taccata’s face positively radiates joy:  “How utterly delightful to see you again!”

Alanee accepts the kiss on her hand.  “Is she here?”

“But of course!  It is her hour…..”

“And alone?”

Taccata gives that slight assent of the head which is his manner:  “She is, my dear.  Come, now, we know our way, don’t we?”

Nevertheless he leads Alanee through the jungle of drapes and hangings, through to the place where the whole valley of the Balna forms one of the walls, to Sala languid among the cushions.  Sala who looks up to welcome her coming with solemn eyes…..

After Ellar left her Alanee retreated to her bedroom, throwing herself upon her bed.  She grieved for Dag in noisy tears which were as much for herself as they were for the man she had never really known.  She beat upon the pillows with anguished fists, she swore to the unhearing heavens; she wailed her fate to the echoing walls.  Thus for an hour, or maybe less.  Then, wearied by these exertions, she slept.  But not for long.

She awoke with a decision.  She reached for her Summoner and touched Sala’s call-button.

“Can we talk?”

The message which came back was short.  She could almost hear Sala’s clipped tones: “See you at Tocatta’s.”

And here she is.  And she has no idea what to say.

“Sit by me, Lady Alanee?”  Sala’s eyes are reproachful.  “Try this beverage, I believe you might like it.”

“Sala…”  Alanee starts to speak, then seizes up.

“I know.”  Sala’s tone consoles her.  “I know.”

“I was…you took me by surprise.  I wasn’t expecting…..”

“And I was impatient; desperate even.  Oh, I was so clumsy, Alanee-ba.  The fault is all mine!”

Alanee has come prepared to remain aloof, to keep a distance between herself and this beautiful woman:  now she is here, though, now she sees how small Sala looks, how she quivers with repressed emotion, almost at the edge of tears  – she throws her arms impulsively around her friend and hugs her.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, Sala-ba.  I’m so sorry!”  And now they are close, a breath apart.  This time it is Sala who seems uncertain, caught between desire and fear; her distress is in every fibre of the body Alanee presses to her breast.  It takes little courage, so great a step, little or none at all.  It is natural to kiss those wanting lips, to touch with tenderness; even to experience a wanting of her own.  It is a kiss brimming with awakenings.  It lingers.

Alanee whispers:  “I am so glad we are friends again:  so glad!”

They are forehead to forehead for a while, consumed with each other until the ridiculousness of the position reduces them both to laughter.  Then Sala returns the kiss, a second brief taste.

“Enough!  Now I must restrain myself!  Tell me, ba, when is this great occasion to take place?”

“You know of it?  Can you tell me what it’s about?”

“Whoa, whoa!  I know something of it.  But I cannot tell you more than you already know.  When does it happen?”

“In…..”  Alanee fumbles for her summoner:  “In….Oh Habbach!   In an hour!”

“Then we must shop!”

At the door of Alanee’s apartment stands Seil.   Seil is a large-boned woman of uncertain age who is clearly not given to patience.  By the time Sala and Alanee return she has been waiting for half an hour, and she is vexed.

“Lady Alanee this is impossible!  You have twenty minutes!  We need to prepare you!  Did not Lady Ellar acquaint you with the importance of this meeting?”

“Oh, it’s a ‘meeting’ now, is it?”  Alanee is in no mood to be outfaced; “It was an ‘encounter’, now it’s been elevated to the status of ‘meeting’.  Very well, twenty minutes.  I need ten.”  She spots the tiny package Seil holds in her left hand.  “And I’m not going to wear that.”

Seil protests, but not too insistently.  Ellar has warned her of Alanee’s aversion to the limiter.  Yet she is unprepared for Alanee herself.  Growing in confidence, the Hakaani girl feels equal to anything the City can throw at her now.  She is beginning to understand the politics of power, something Celeris has already given to her.  She knows she holds that power over Sala.  Sala wants to be her lover; and at that moment when Seil allows her to walk away without the limiter, she recognises she has status of another sort, too.

In her bedroom, alone, she prepares herself in her own way.  She has innate knowledge of her natural assets, her smooth skin, the way her bones subtly enhance the bloom of her cheeks.  The downy wildness of her hair, insubstantial as mist; her inviting body over which the thinner and much more richly gilded robe Sala has just persuaded her to buy falls in an essay of temptation.  No make-up, no enhancements.  She wears the simple sandals of her homeland on her feet, ruffles her explosion of hair, turns once before the mirror.

Radiant, Alanee frames herself in her bedroom doorway.  “Ready!”  She says brightly.  She feels herself capable of anything.

It is a mood that will not survive this journey.  The elevator she enters with Seil and Sala is small, a dark chamber with no seating, no cheerful colour or feature to augment its walls.  It goes down and down, descending through level after level – and though she misses the look of fleeting concern on Sala’s face Alanee’s heart descends with it.  When at last it stops, a cold draught seeps through its opening doors, and the grey stone-walled chamber beyond does nothing to lift her spirits.

It is into the dungeons of the Palace they go:  through labyrinthine passages, narrow defiles, dark alleys of stone.  Though Alanee tries to remember, their path quickly confuses her.  She glances towards Sala, but her friend appears to be as mystified as she.  Seil clearly has instructions that have been imparted to no-one else.

The dim light casts their fleeting shadows on walls of stone, old, old stone worn by the passing of countless shadows.  No floor-foam here, but flags that echo to their tread.  Little heating either:  Alanee’s arms are raised with goose-bumps.  Though she calculates she must be beneath the palace at least by now there are no voices, no sounds at all inside her head.  Perhaps the cold has seeped in there, too. The further they walk, the more her skin is crawling with fear rather than cold as she begins to wonder:  Are her original convictions to be confirmed and do these people indeed intend to put her in a prison?  A thought given weight by the heavy timber doors they pass, each one the bearer of a grim, rusty lock.

“Where are we going?”  She enquires, in a hushed tone.  “I should have worn a fur.”

“No further, Lady!”  Seil’s voice is strident.

They have turned a corner in a stone corridor.  Before them is a short flight of steps, at the head of which a black, forbidding door stands ajar.

Sala protests:  “No!”  She tries to intervene for Seil is suddenly behind Alanee, heavy hands on her shoulders, thrusting her forward.  But the element of surprise is too great, and Sala is no match for her stalwart colleague.  As she stumbles against the steps the door swings wide, and Alanee smells as much as sees the grim form of a huge man in leather clothes standing there.  His great hand reaches down, taking her robe by the shoulder to hoist her bodily through – she hears the rich fabric tear as its securing clasp rips through it and she cannot suppress the scream of horror that escapes her lips.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Continuum – Episode Six A Place of Secrets

The story so far:

Alanee is settling herself into her first day in the City, encouraged that prospects of punishment for her failure to observe the law seem distant, but unaware she is being observed by key members of the City Council.     Her mentor, Sala, introduces her to the City markets and Toccata’s Tsakal House, where she can see out for the first time to the country beyond the walls.

Sala and Alanee have parted for the night and Alanee is left alone in her new home, where she lingers before her mirror and wonders at herself, made splendid by the burgundy of her new robe.

Does she imagine the haughtiness in her pose?  Has she changed so soon?  This place with its myriad rules and conventions, monstrous though it doubtless will turn out to be, and assuming it does not elect to punish her, might be very hard to leave.

With great deliberation, she folds the robe and puts it aside, dressing in a silk shift Sala bought her at the Bazaar this morning.  Alanee is a woman of the city now.

She will be long into sleep so she will not know when the late aerotran arrives.  Were she to see the flint-grim faces of High Councillor Cassix and Proctor Remis as they alight, she might feel rather less secure.

Early the next morning, her summoner wakes her.  “What?”

Sala’s voice:  “Get up, ba.  We’re going to the palace.”

There is barely time to rise and shower.  Sala looks grave.  She fusses about Alanee, fiddling at her clothing.

“The robe must be just so.  It must cross your body in this way, you see, like mine?  This clasp will help.”  She slips a bracelet of gold cast in the shape of a serpent over Alanee’s wrist.  “Wear this beneath your sleeve.  Only show it if you are challenged.  Now, of this I am unsure.”  With thumb and forefinger, Sala produces one final item from a gold purse at her waist.  It is so small Alanee can barely see it.  “I have never done one of these before, but I know you will be unable to cross the palace threshold without it.  I brought some tape – maybe you could tape it to you somewhere – perhaps beneath your hair?”

Tiny and black, with short, thin wires protruding from it, the object resembles nothing so much as a common or garden ant.  The wires tickle.  Alanee sticks it to her shoulder.  “What is it?”

“A limiter.  This is the first time I’ve seen one.  All who enter the palace have them implanted, you see?  Mine was done years ago, when I began my training.”

Alanee doesn’t see, although she is sufficiently affected by Sala’s obvious nervousness not to argue.  Beyond her window it is a grey and ferocious morning, a blizzard of hurricane proportions all but hiding the Palace’s imposing façade.

“We’re going out in that?”  She asks, rightly thinking that these minute preparations will be laid waste in seconds by the storm.

“No.  There is another way across.”

#

Among green hills far from the snows of the Consensual City; far, too, from the wide flat infinity of the Hakaan, a thousand miles, almost, from the great walls that defend the Fortress of Braillec, there is a village.  It is a small, tight community of Dometian citizens, and it is quite unlike Balkinvel, Alanee’s former home.  There is no Terminal here.  Instead, five miles beyond the village, at the head of the Kaal river valley, a great foundry smokes and grunts about its business;  for the people here are smiths – forgers of metal.  Upon their efforts run the wheels of civilization, the engines of the land.

In early spring the hills above Kaal-Takken are lush with infant grass and graceful trees offer sanctuary from a bold sun.  Nights are studded with fire-flies; tyke beetles whistle their constant song.  On warm evenings, even in the first quarter of the year, families sit outside on their porches eating and trading gossip.  The younger men spend their rest days in the hills hunting, while the women gather by the river, swimming or fishing, or both.  Young girls learn how to catch the fat dappal fish:  it is a skill they exhibit with pride, and often the second rest-day of a cycle will be a feast of their catch.

Last cycle, the first when winter relinquished its grip, Ripero spent an hour seated upon a bluff above the Kaal, admiring the fluid grace of Saleen’s body as she flashed through the icy water, twisting and turning in pursuit of a large dappal.  Saleen’s friends, of course, had seen him, so she was not surprised when, on their way to work next day, he invited her to a picnic in the hills.  And so they come to be sharing food Ripero has brought to a secluded glade in the Kaal-Del forest where, surrounded by flowers of the ancients, they regard one another with nervous apprehension, each afraid to speak.

“It is a good day.”  Ripero mumbles at last, conscious of how weak his voice sounds.  He has so many speeches planned, words to say, all confounded by Saleen’s fragile beauty.

Saleen’s eyes challenge him.  “So warm,”  she agrees.

She will not yet confess how she approves of Ripero.  His arms are strong and his face is well-featured, his mind agile.  Her friends would give their mortal souls to be where she sits at this moment.  She was overjoyed when he invited her – why is she so tongue-tied now?

“You have picked this place well.”  She tries to say, her words almost strangled to a whisper.  She clears her throat, quickly.

His face lights in a smile.  “Did you catch your fish?”

“Oh!  You were watching me?  (She feigns surprise) You shouldn’t have been spying.”

“I know.  I couldn’t help it.  You are so lovely.”  He blurts out the words, but they have their effect.  A pleasing blush colors her cheeks.

“But still…”  He has her at a disadvantage:  he has seen her naked, albeit in the water, albeit from a distance.  He would not have been so brazen as to stay and watch her rise to the bank, would he?  She blushes deeper.  She thinks how it would be if they were to swim together, and this gives her a tingling feeling inside.

“I’m sorry.”  Ripero is aware that this is his time:  ungainly though it will be, he must move closer, negotiating the obstacle of the picnic basket which stands between them.  “I was spellbound.”

He cannot get to his feet in case his undisciplined feelings should be revealed; so he shuffles himself across to her, making her laugh.  She says: “So you do like me then, a little?”

And it is his turn to blush.  “I like you very much.”

The sound comes first.  Neither distant nor near but everywhere, faint to begin; low in pitch to begin.  Ripero and Saleen, who might be lovers in only a little while, both hear it – both feel it.  It is louder, closer with every moment.  Above their heads frightened birds erupt from the trees; in the woods wild creatures cry their fear.  Now it is all-consuming, as total as a tidal wave, as shrill and wrenching as a Banshee scream.  Then comes the Banshee herself.

There is a fleeting second, a slice of a breath when Saleen knows she is about to die.  Ripero has just that flicker of time to read her utter horror in her face.

Then she is gone.  The wall takes her.

Is it a wall?  What is it that rushes past him blotting out all vision, so cold, so clinically precise?  What sound rips the hearing from his ears and reduces his world to silence?  What is it, this thing that takes Saleen, who would have been his woman – his wife?  The screech without no longer heard, becomes a screech within.  When his heart will no longer bear the writhing of demons, when his chest must burst, blackness comes.  Sleep comes

#

“In short, then you have brought us just one?”

There are six people in the chamber, of whom Ellar the Mediant is the only woman.  The great stump of the Domo occupies a chair at the center of the table, the Sires Portis and Trebec on his either flank.  Proctor Remis and High Councillor Cassix face them from chairs upon the other side.  The question is Trebec’s, Cassix its recipient.

“In short, yes.”  Cassix is in no mood to be bullied by Trebec.  “There were two further possibilities.  One is an obvious replicant.  We’ve had her arrested.”

“The only acceptable course!”  Portis interjects.  “Amazing how they still spring up from time to time.  And the other?”

“A girl with a psychological malady.  We had no time to precisely diagnose it, I’m afraid, but obviously completely unsuitable.”

“So we are left with a single candidate, if that is the word.”  The Domo rumbles.  “I like this less and less.”  He glances up to Ellar, who stands at the end of the table.  “You’d better bring her in.”

Outside in the ante-chamber, Sala is still fussing.  “It’s a committee of the High Council, the greatest authority on the planet.  Address them as ‘Sire’, it’s the safest way.  My patron should be here, too – the Lady Ellar.  Oh, Habbach!  Here she is!”

The door of the Chamber opens and Alanee’s heart jumps as an imposing woman in middle-age dressed in a gold-trimmed robe of silk emerges quietly.  Thick floor foam everywhere here deadens sound.  She beckons to Alanee, and as Sala also makes to advance, stills her with a warding hand.

“You must wait out here, Sala.”  Ellar is very tall, her bearing and step masculine and purposeful.  Yet the hand that takes Alanee’s is kind.  “Do not fear us, dear.  We intend you no harm.”

In truth, Alanee is astonished at her lack of fear, although voices in her head, which have been with her since she emerged into the Great Hall of the palace, trouble her slightly.  Before she knows it she is through the door and it has closed behind her.  The figures in the room, two of whom she recognizes as her interrogators upon that terrible last day at the Village, look up as she enters.  Cassix has turned in his chair.  He introduces the others then waves to a chair at the end of the table.

“Please, sit down.”  She does so.  Ellar sits at the table’s further end.

No-one speaks.

All study Alanee.  She is instantly in awe of the Domo, whose eyes are barely visible behind his rolls of fat, suspicious of Sire Portis who does not directly meet her gaze and who seems more interested in her chest.  Proctor Remis, whose lean looks so scared her the first time she encountered them, appears less threatening now.  Only Sire Trebec really disturbs her.  His florid face speaks of temper, his scowl radiates disapproval.

At last she feels compelled to break the silence.  She ventures:  “You summoned me, Sires?”

To her surprise Trebec grunts and nods almost approvingly.  Cassix’s face breaks into one of his steel-eyed smiles.

Sire Portis speaks.  “How old are you, Alanee?”  He does not use the courtesy ‘mer’.

“I am twenty-six, Sire.”  Alanee cannot remember who this is.  Surely, they know so much about her, they must know her age?”

“And you were paired to a…”  Portis studies a sheaf of papers he has before him:  “Hakaani foot-player, is that right?”

“Yes, Sire.  He died.”  Why, after all this time, does she still have difficulty with those words?  She has to force herself to say them.  How the voices in her head irritate her!  “All of three years ago, now.”

“It was a close pairing; you miss him still?”  Portis recognizes the regret in Alanee’s voice.

“Yes, Sire.”  She shrugs.  “But he’s never coming back, is he?”

“When you were together…”  The thin tones of the Proctor, now:  “did you not notice how he was motivated by certain innocent desires, needs that would change from time to time?  On the third day of the summer quarter in 3039, for instance, did he express a wish to go rock-climbing in the Southern Hills?”  The Proctor, too, is studying notes.  “The following week, was he not overtaken by a need to embark upon a pilgrimage?”

“Yes, both those things.  That was the year of the great pilgrimage to the Shrine at Dolca.  I recall it.”

“You did not go with him?”

“No, Sire.  There was no need.”

Trebec’s eyebrows raise.  He speaks for the first time.  “You felt no need?”

“No Sire.  Why should I?  I don’t like heights!”

“But your village emptied on those days, did it not?  Didn’t that strike you as odd?”

Cassix chips in:  “Not necessarily for the rock-climbing.  That was an elective pursuit.”

Alanee answers.  “Sire, a lot of things have always struck me as odd.  I have learned to live with the sudden passions of others, their strange likes and dislikes.  I think I am different, in some way, but I don’t know how.”

From the mighty mouth of the Domo comes one word, laced with irony:  “Unique.”

Cassix spreads his hands.  “Therefore is she not sent?  Alanee, do you know how we are ruled; why your world lives in peace and harmony for most of its time?”

“Why, by yourselves, Sire.  The High Council:  the Consensual City.”

Portis nods.  “That is good; as it should be.  Alanee, this committee of the High Council wanted to meet you, and now we have, and now we must go into private session.  We have a thing in mind, which, should we agree upon it, will become your mission in the time to come.  You will be well rewarded, and your life with us, no matter what we decide, will always be a comfortable one.  Thank you for being so truthful with us.  Lady Ellar?”

Ellar nods, rises gracefully, beckoning to Alanee.  The meeting is closed.

Cassix waits until the women have left.

“Is she not sent?”  He repeats.  “There is no-one like her.”

“There used to be many.”  Says the Domo, who has spoken very little.

“Not, High Sire, with her blend of passivity and nonconformity.  She does not question:  though she knows she is different, there is no rebellion in her.  She has no wish to shake the State like dissidents of the past!  I insist, this woman is sent to us.  She is the perfect solution.”

The Domo shakes his head.  “This matter, Cassix, is of great moment.  I wish I shared your certainty.  Oh, no blame falls upon the woman, and I am sure she is all you say.  That isn’t what concerns me.  What does concern me is the hinge in our destiny upon which this matter hangs.  It makes me afraid.”  He rises to heavy feet.  “However, it begs our decision.  We must take it before the full Council.  Gentlemen, we adjourn.”

Back in Alanee’s apartment, she and Sala calm themselves with a drink.  Sala seems quite different, almost hysterically relieved that the ordeal is over.

“Was it very nerve-wracking?”

“No.  they just asked me..”

Sala cuts in quickly:  “You must not tell me what they asked you.”

Alanee protests:  “Why ever not?  They questioned me abo….”

No!” It is the first time Alanee has heard Sala shout and it makes her jump.  Her companion immediately recovers herself.  “I’m sorry Alanee-ba.  I’m so sorry – I don’t mean to scare you.  Whatever you discuss with High Council must always remain secret.  No-one outside the Chamber can ever know, you understand?”

“But there’s no-one else to hear except you,” Alanee protests feebly:  “Is there?”

“Of course not.  This is a place of secrets, ba, some of which are wonderful to share, but some of which are dangerous.  Whatever happened in there, the knowledge of it would be dangerous to me.  You wouldn’t want anything to happen to me, would you?”

“Well, I’m getting out of this!”  Making for her bedroom, Alanee slips the bracelet from her wrist, unfastens the clasp that holds her robe ‘just so’.  She changes into the silk shift that feels so comfortable on her body.

Sala, who has followed her to the bedroom, laughs.  “You wear so many underclothes!  Are you cold?”

Something hidden beneath the apparent innocence of the question puts Alanee on the defensive.  “No. I just wear them, don’t you?”

Sala’s face betrays a momentary flash of mischief, which as quickly passes.  “Not a stitch,” She says, seriously.  Then, a little coyly, she murmurs:  “I feel such heat, don’t you? Would you come and bathe with me if I begged you?”

Green eyes, suddenly imploring -Alanee blushing purple, taken completely by surprise!  The shock – the stammered refusal – Sala fingers running across her shoulders, down her arm to take her hand.  “Come on, my ba! There are many new things you must try.”

“No!”  Alanee’s answer is instinctive.  Snatching herself away, she retreats to the living room. Hands shaking, she pours herself a second drink and stands by her window, staring out at the snow as she collects her thoughts and curses herself, perhaps, for her naiveté.  She feels Sala’s hand stroke her back.

“Must I apologise, my ba?”  Sala’s voice is almost tearful.  Turning, Alanee sees she does seem to be near to crying.

“Why?  No.  I mean, what for?” She feels awkward, almost threatened.  “You surprised me, that’s all.”

“I am too forward.  I should not have frightened you.”  Sala seems emboldened, her eyes imbued with an intensity that leaves no room for misunderstanding.  Her arm has closed about Alanee’s waist, drawing her near, Alanee flinches in momentary revulsion.

Sala sees it.  “Oh, you are so – so provincial!”  She releases her grip impatiently, wipes at her eyes with angry strokes.  “You know nothing!  Nothing!

Alanee shakes her head, unable to encompass this.

“How long has your man been dead; two years, three years?  Three years!  In all that time, have you never…”  Sala pauses, words choking in her throat.  “How do you manage, Alanee?  Don’t you ever need to be touched, to be…loved?”

“You mean…?”

Sala blazes at her.  “Yes, I mean!

Before Alanee can stop her, Sala has snatched up her purse and made for the door.  There is no protest that will detain her, and in a handful of seconds she is gone.  It is a moment in which Alanee experiences illogical fury, so she slams her fist onto the glass table, sending her dap fish scattering in terror, before she slumps onto the couch.

“I’ve known you for just one day!”  She protests to the wall. The wall’s only answer is an echo, but if, inside her mind, it could speak, it would remind her that without Sala’s advice she will be defenseless against those stern councilors with their devious eyes.  She will be vulnerable and alone.

All at once the very thought of facing the Consensual City terrifies her.  And her first instinct is to escape…

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

Continuum – Episode Five         The Dream of Karkus  

The Story so Far:   Alanee, widow of a successful sportsman, has been transported from her village to the seat of the High Council, the Consensual City.  Believing she is to be punished because she does not follow her village friends’ slavish conformity, she finds herself installed in a luxurious apartment and mentored by Sala, a beautiful Mansuvene woman.

The day after her arrival Sala tells her she must wear a ceremonial robe, for she is to be employed in the City Palace.

“Suppose,” Alanee says slowly;   “I do not want this work.  Will I then be free to go home?”

Sala knows the shock her answer will induce.  “No, my dear.  No-one ever leaves the Consensual City.  This is where you will live for the rest of your days.”  She sees that Alanee’s is close to tears:  “Oh come!  That’s not so bad!  Life is very good here – especially when summer comes!”

She pats Alanee’s knee. “Enough despondency.  We have a city to explore, you and I.  But first, we need to dress you in one of those robes, I’m afraid.”

#

“Laskali!”  High Councillor Trebec glares at the screen, his cheeks flaring purple outrage.  “Is that the sort of language we must expect from our mediators?  What manner of woman is this Sala?”

The Lady Ellar protests mildly.  “You would be hard put to find a woman anywhere within the court circle who has not at least experimented, Sire.”  She catches the look in the florid old general’s eye.  “Oh, yes, even me.  Sala is a very accomplished mediator: the best, perhaps, of my current brood.  The woman Alanee could not be in better hands.”

Four are gathered in Lady Ellar’s office, viewing live cameras that display Alanee’s apartment on screens; High Councillor Portis, a tall man of middle years, not always fragrant, his iron-grey hair slicked back to streamline a pointed nose and the pinched features of one immersed in life; Trebec the campaign-hardened soldier and Ellar herself are three.  The fourth, impressive for his sheer size is the Domo, or leader of the High Council.  Together they observe as Sala helps Alanee to shed her personal clothes before dressing her in a formal tunic and robe.

“How think you, Portis?”  Trebec asks.  “Does she please you?”

“She is certainly a temptation.”  Portis acknowledges.   “Cassix has a discerning eye.”

“Also the opinion of Proctor Remis, I believe,”  Trebec says.

Portis concedes with a nod.  In this august company he will not profess his weakness.  It was he who tussled with Ellar concerning the placement of the concealed cameras that spy on Alanee now.  Ellar prevailed, so none are trained upon the rest-places in the apartment.  Alanee has that much privacy at least.

“High Sire; may we know your thoughts?”  Ellar asks.

“Thoughts, Ellar-mer?”  The Domo speaks with jaws so fleshy they follow rather than accompany the movement of his small mouth, like wavelets around a sinking stone.  His voice is deep and resonant – the voice of one who can command attention with a word, for all that his weight suggests.  “I have no thoughts at this time.  I have reservations; I have severe doubts.  No thoughts.”

“By all accounts she is a remarkable woman?”  Trebec ventures.

“She is dissident, and by no means unique in that regard.  Cassix interviews two more such today.”  The Domo says.  “Once, we would simply have dispensed with her.  Now…”  He heaves a shrug from the mighty yoke of fat about his shoulders:  “Severe doubts.”

The others wait until his cheeks stop moving, lest they should interrupt.

“She received the Word last night?”  Portis enquires.

Ellar answers him.  “Yes.  She has received the Word all her life.  It has no detectable effect on her.”

The Domo raises two stubby hands.  “A dissident, then.  There is no more to be done here.  We wait for Cassix and Remis to return.  Tomorrow we shall interrogate this young renegade and see where our future lies with her, or whomsoever else they bring us.”  He labors to his feet.  “Sires; go well with you.”

One by one the distinguished company depart, until Ellar is left alone to watch as Alanee moves before her, a figure on a screen – two dimensions, without reality, without a soul.  A dissident.  How brutal was the Domo’s choice of phrase?  “Once we would simply have dispensed with her…” and how harshly truthful; the icy heart behind the fondant warmth of ‘The Dream’; the steel blade that sleeps beneath.

How else could it work, this Utopian world of theirs?  Once, just once, she has seen the world’s cold heart; the Book of Lore, where Cassix left it opened upon a table.  A chance acquaintance and a brief one, for the Book is only open to the High Council.  Outside their aegis, few even know of its existence.  Yet that book rules them all, from courtiers to drabs, from the towers of the fortress of Braillec to the smallest Proteian village thousands of miles away.

Did Cassix know what jar he opened when he left her with the Book for an hour one autumn afternoon?  How he had also opened a window in her mind?  Did he foresee how quickly she could learn?  Was it his intention that she, Ellar the Mediant, should join those honored by the truth?  Well, she had learned.  She had gained the gift of history:  she knew how the world turned, now, and was the richer for it.

The Book of Lore described a time when it had seemed the world might end; when humanity was imbued with an arrogant, aggressive spirit that drove it close to its own destruction.  She read how belief in a super-being and peculiar differences of opinion as to how this being must be defined had drawn men close to self-destruction; how they had devoted their lives and their minds to inventions for the sole purpose of killing.  And when they finally succeeded…

Out of the ashes had risen a very few Chosen People.  Burned and molded in the furnaces of death these creatures (you could barely call them men) foresaw a better future.  But of all who survived, they were least equipped to implement any future at all:  they were stunted and weak.  It took the vision of a normal one, an unscathed survivor, to see how their gifts might transform his world.

Christophe Carr-Villoise had risen from the fire itself.  Before the Great Conflict, he had been no more than a hill-farmer; a mountain man.  In the barren world created by The Conflict, so legends tell, he found a fertile valley where his skills raised green crops from barren soil.  He taught those who followed him to live from the land, and they, in turn, gave him their allegiance.  He rose to prominence through new follies of skirmish and conflict, but he was wise.  He sought a better way, and in the Chosen Ones he found it.  He saw how these pathetically mutated beings spoke without words among themselves; sometimes even communicating their unuttered will to him.  He saw how slowly their own world turned and how they lived to great age:  yet because they could only rarely reproduce themselves he saw how, in the end, they were doomed.

A captain with a high purpose does not always have a ship to sail.  Fortunately, however, among the Chosen there was one who shared Carr-Villoise’s vision.  The creature history would remember as Karkus unified The Chosen behind a cause – a dream he, together with Carr-Villoise, would draft into the Book of Lore.  They would work upon The Chosen’s slow mortality, they would develop those telepathic powers so from their ranks when the time came a child imbued with the essence of all their strengths might be created,.  When he came, such a child would rule them all – all the peoples of the world – with unblemished innocence.

In a hot Arcanian summer two millennia since The Dream became reality. Hasuga was born.

Ellar sighs.  Why had Cassix wanted her to know all this?  By reading the pages of that ancient book she had become privy to first principles Carr-Villoise and Karkus had composed five centuries before Hasuga’s birth.  Both those great visionaries would be dust and Carr-Villoise’s original valley consigned to myth long before their dream was realized.  But their predictions were clear and the High Council they set up for their perpetuation did its work.  Knowledge of those edicts was a privilege shared by very few, because the first principle was incorruptibility.

Knowledge of the child shall be kept among his wards:  never should the people know how, or by whom, they are ruled.

The second principle:

The child must be protected as a child, his innocence must be inviolate.

And the third:

The Word of the child must reach all of the people, and all of the people must live according to The Word of the child.

Success was gradual.  Although the High Council had long years of waiting in which to prepare, Hasuga’s birth marked a beginning, rather than a conclusion.  At first the distribution of his Word was clumsy, ineffective.  Where today there is the merest scattering of dissidents, then there were battalions of them, far from complacent at having their minds occupied by infantile occupations such as the building of snowmen or feasting on honey cakes; people not given to unquestioning obedience, with no understanding of how they were being manipulated.  Those were fierce, bloody times.

Stabilization took a thousand years, but when it came, as Karkus had foreseen, a population whose consciousness was shaped by a young unblemished mind no longer sought aggrandizement or power; and meanwhile, the High Council was promulgating the fourth, most vital of the principles written on that first page of The Book of Lore.

Production and consumption shall remain in balance.  Maintenance of this level shall be the High Council’s responsibility alone.  The words ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ are blasphemy.  Those who espouse them must be dissuaded or removed.  This is intrinsic to the Lore.

It was a good principle, maybe the key to the comparative success of the last millennium.  Out there in a world united in purpose the citizenry goes to work each morning and returns each night with no thought of any but the most menial of ambitions.  To become foreman, or to be elected as Domo of their community, these are the highest pinnacles to which anyone can aspire.  And it brings happiness.  Broadly, there is balance.

There have been flaws, crises when fears for Hasuga’s life sent scientists into furious huddles of activity, frantic searches for a missing component, a slight adjustment, a life-saving inspiration.  Hasuga is not quite immortal.  In just this last year, the High Council has been forced to concede to his puberty.  After a thousand years as a child he is child no longer.  Karkus had foreseen all this.  What else had he foreseen? The Chosen Ones are long gone now, rendered extinct by their own biological failings.  Must Hasuga, their last progeny, eventually fail?  If so, what lies beyond?  What will happen to The Dream?

No surprise then, that Ellar is troubled, watching Alanee move about her new world.  Ellar believes Cassix harbors the same concern and he wants her mind focussed as he is focussed, upon answering that question.  Cassix is a Seer, a great one, honored within the Court.  His gift gives him the ability to detect a breeze unfelt by others, and the panache to sail close to it when he has the inclination.  She believes such an inclination may be guiding him in this.

The Mediant’s curiosity concerning Alanee is exhausted.  She turns off the cameras that spy upon the Hakaani girl.  Sala’s body-language as she drapes the formal robe over Alanee’s form has not escaped her notice, but she treats it philosophically:  after all, one can never stop laskali.

#

“Try these!  You must try these!”  Sala, insistent.

“Oh no!  No, I can’t!”  Alanee – shocked.  Although she has known Sala only a few hours, already they giggle as if they have been together for years.  “It’s – it’s disgusting!”

There is no mistaking the shape of the candy Sala has dropped into her hand.  “Come, you’re only offended because you’ve never seen a blue one!”

“I have!”  Alanee protests.  “On a cold night!”

“Bite the end!”

“What…?.”  The vendor is watching Alanee, leering all over his face.  She feels a blush rising in her cheeks. “No!”

“Alright…you!”  She waves dismissively at the vendor.  “This is personal.  Look the other way.”  She bites, as Sala looks on suppressing a rising gale of laughter.  A hot flood of intense methol flavor explodes into her mouth.

“Oh Habbach!” At the change in Alanee’s expression, Sala all but collapses with mirth.  “Now is that realistic, or not?”

“It tastes better.”  Alanee confides when she has finished choking, out of the vendor’s earshot.  “How much are they?”

“Oh, Alanee-mer!  Shame on you!”  Sala turns to the vendor:  “She’ll take twenty.”

“I will NOT!”

In the noise and bustle of the bazaar the pair move from stall to stall, sampling this, commenting upon that.  Sala’s infectious humor reaches through the shroud of Alanee’s depression and draws out the child beneath so effectively that soon she has forgotten where she was just a day before.  They stroll through avenues of fountain colors; bright cloth, facetted glass, tinted light.  Vendors bark for their attention, passers-by in the robes of court greet them. Alanee is introduced to a hundred names, may only remember a handful.  Morning passes into afternoon.

“Do you never eat?”  Alanee asks at last.

“Habmenah I forgot!  Oh you poor darling you must be famished!”  Sala cries, genuinely distressed,  “Come on, I know a really nice little place.”

Alanee has already learned that journeys between Sala’s ‘nice little places’ can be long.  This morning she has been led it seems forever through the labyrinthine fabric of the city.  Rarely outdoors (a couple of times they have braved the open air, shielded their faces to rush through snow) they have gone from ‘nice little’ emporium to ‘nice little’ emporium, stopping at a view of the Phoenix Square with its statue of Carr-Villiose above the central fountain, pausing to look up at the Watchtower’s lofty extended arm stabbing an accusing finger at heaven.  Alanee, footsore by now as well as hungry, will be glad if this ‘little place’ is not too far.

“Not far at all.  Just along here.”  Along here, up some stairs, around a corner, more stairs.  A door lit by rich green light.  “I do hope you will like it.  It is quite special to me.” Alanee will welcome anywhere she can rest.  Her brain is too befuddled to discriminate, but appearances do not suggest any more than a thousand other doors. A simple plaque above it says ‘Toccata’s’ and there are no windows to betray its purpose; so what will she find within?

Well, first is fragrance; the sweet tang of tsakal, a leaf so rich, a blend so strong she can almost taste it.  Then there is ambiance; deeper, darker, enriched by red hangings and brown shadow, flickering gently as tallow does when it plays upon a dim twilit room.  And next there comes the sound, a low plainsong of subdued voices, the falling inflections of earnest conversation.  Sala leads her between booths screened by silk or velvet.  Words waft out to them as they pass, laughter greets them softly.  Much of that human sound seems to come from nowhere at all.

“There’s a lot of red!”  Alanee whispers.  She is unsure why she is whispering.

“Why yes!”  Sala seems surprised.  “Do you not just love red?”

By a white counter stands a man of uncertain years, tall and erect of bearing.  As they approach his eyebrows arch to an expression of delight and he greets them, hands outstretched.

“Sala-mer my dearest; now who have you brought me today?”  His voice is not the voice of any man Alanee has known; his kiss upon her cheek a familiarity that surprises her.  “Oh, such bone-structure, such divinity!”  He whispers confidentially in her ear.  “You have the power to make old men regretful, sweet child.  Take care of your dear, dear soul.”

Sala has been watching this exchange with amusement.  “This is Toccata, Alanee-mer.  You be careful of him, he’s not as disinterested as he sounds.  Toccata-meh, we want my best table today?”

“Sala-mer, sublime one, it goes without saying.”  Toccata leads the way.  He walks with tiny steps through the forest of drapes which stir with his passing like willows in a breeze.

The café is quite small.  Ten effete paces later Toccata draws aside curtains of amber velvet, revealing a low bleached wood table between two over-stuffed settles.  Yet it is not the furnishing of this snug hideaway that draws Alanee’s breath, but the window it offers to the outer world; another spectacular view, within a more modest frame than that which dominates Alanee’s own apartment, but awe-inspiring nonetheless.

Sala sees her admiration. “The countryside beyond the City – the Balna Valley, and beyond, those are the Pearl Mountains.  On a clear day you can see Kess-ta–Fe, the great needle.  Magnificent, is it not?”

Toccata brings them tsakal with a platter of fruits and cheeses far stronger, and more piquant, than any Alanee has tasted.  And they fall into conversation about small things the day has brought them while snowflakes drift past the window, sometimes pausing, eddying by the glass, as though they would gaze inside.

“It is quite private.  These curtains are excellent for deadening sound, and we will not be disturbed unless we ask it.  That is why I like this place so much.”

An hour passes; maybe more.  As a second cup of tsakal comes and goes, the dark leaf works its magic:  does Alanee notice how Sala’s hand touches her – lingers a little longer with each touch?  Maybe she does, maybe she does not.  Everything is hazed and a little confused.  All except one thing.

Sala senses her mood:  how Alanee’s eyes are drawn back to a place in the far-off sky, somewhere beyond her own seeing.

“What are you looking at, Alanee-ba?”  When did she begin to use the familiar suffix to Alanee’s name?  “What do you see out there?”

Alanee smiles wistfully.  “It’s so hard to believe this is the same sky that looks down on the Hakaan.  I guess I’m just dreaming of home.”

“It will pass.”  Sala’s fingers brush Alanee’s thigh. “You have so much to discover, ba.”

Alanee nods.  She will not divulge the truth, that there is something in that sky which speaks of wrongness, something fearful in its menace.    There is a warning voice in her head – a whisper not for Sala’s ears to hear.

Instead:  “Do you never feel a longing, Sala-mer?  To go beyond these walls, walk to the river?  Play in the snow?”

At the formal use of her name Sala withdraws her hand.  “I have no taste for snow.”  She says primly. “But I do go out there, and so may you.  I hope we will, when spring comes.”

“I thought we were never to leave the Consensual City?”

“That’s true.  But the city boundaries extend across the Balna River, so we need no-one’s agreement to go there.  And we may wander further, even into the mountains, if we have permission.  We just have to promise to return.”

Alanee sighs, pleased to know her punishment, which she remains convinced awaits her, may not hold her a complete prisoner here.  What would she do if she knew?  How would she react, had she been among the little throng of villagers who gathered that day, curious to see the strangers in white overalls pulling her house apart, piece by piece – packing her possessions into sealed cases for transport?   And when it had gone, her house – all gone, every brick, every tile so there was nothing in the street but an empty space – would she have gazed at her precious vista of the plains with Malfis’s rheumy eyes for as many hours as he, or turned her back and walked away with the Domo’s heavy heart?

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.