Satan’s Rock

Part Eight

A Revealing Breakfast

Breakfast was a substantial meal in the Cartwright household, for which Peter was grateful in spite of himself:  the after-effects of his doped lunch at St. Benedict’s House and his turbulent visions had ruined his appetite for a while, but abstinence was not natural to him.   The smell of sausage, bacon and eggs that greeted him on the stair wafted strongly as he opened the kitchen door, so he was surprised to see his mother and father sitting at a bare table.   His father looked up with what was meant to pass as a woeful expression while his mother tried not to appear too bored.

“Sorry, old chap, but there isn’t any breakfast this morning,.” said his father, with a peculiar snort.

“Oh, Dad, you’re going to tell me the pig got better,” Peter said.

“Yes!  Yes!”   His father collapsed into giggling laughter; “How did you know?”

“You told me the same joke last week; twice, and once the week before and several more times since Christmas.  I think you got it from a Christmas Cracker.” 

Mrs. Cartwright set three plates of food on the table.  “Your father likes it,” she explained.  “He doesn’t know many jokes.”

“Dad,” Peter asked, as his father underwent a sniggering and very moist recovery,  “do you remember when we did a family trip to London?”

Bob Cartwright mopped his face with a tea towel.  “Yes.   Yes I do.   Dinosaurs!”

Peter raised an enquiring eyebrow.  “We went to the Natural History Museum,” his mother reminded him, “Have you forgotten?   I suppose you have; you were only five, after all.  There was an exhibition of actual sized dinosaur automata.   You thought they were real and you were absolutely obsessed, not frightened at all. It took us ages to tear you away.”

Yes, Peter remembered.   He often, still, made drawings to recapture  those images.   “Where else did we go?”

“Oh, everywhere!  We went to the tower of London, saw the Palace…”   Lena recollected.  “What makes you suddenly ask about London now, I wonder?  It must be at least ten years ago.”

“Almost exactly,”  Bob Cartwright chipped in,  “It would have been April 25th.  That’s the date today, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”  Peter was noncommittal, “It’s just curiosity.  I seem to recall enjoying it, that’s all.”

“You did, darling.   Well, apart from one bit.”

His mother’s remark seemed to resonate with something Peter could not quite find in his own memory.  “How do you mean, mum?”

“Bless you, you don’t remember The Tube, do you?   Well, maybe that’s a mercy,” 

“No,”  Peter prompted her:  “Tell me?    Was there a problem?”

“Somewhat, Pete,” his father reflected. “It wasn’t very pleasant, that’s all.  It was my fault, too; all my fault, really.”

His mother gave one of those gentle smiles she so carefully stage-managed and saved for ‘deep family moments’. “Your father worried we wouldn’t get back to Waterloo in time for the train, you know?    So we took The Tube – The Underground.”     She went on:   “Everything went swimmingly until we got to the top of the escalator (it was one of the deeper stations) and then, well…..”

“All hell broke loose.”  His father cut in.  “You screamed, you fought, you scratched.   You were terrified of the thing for some reason.”

“I carried you.”  Lena went on.  “You were so frightened I thought you were having some sort of fit.   You kept shouting about falling, and towards the bottom you were struggling to breathe.  It was just a panic attack, I think; though I was really, really worried for a while!”

“You soon got over it once we were down, though.”  Bob said.  “You liked the tube train.”

“Where was this, mum?  What’s the Tube Station called?”

“Hyde Park Corner, darling.”   Peter’s mother regarded him with concern.  “We had spent some of the afternoon in Hyde Park, you see, because the memorial is close by – for the Australian Forces.”

“That was the reason for the trip,” his father explained.  “Paying respects, you know?  I had an Australian college friend whose father died in the war.  I don’t know if they still hold a ceremony every April 25th, but I recall the date well – Anzac Day.”

As he readied himself for college, Peter’s mind was racing.  Falling – drowning – things which seemed to fit the feeling in his dream.  Hyde Park Corner was not a street, though.  It was a junction of several streets.  

He explained this to Mel as they walked together, but she seemed to have tired of the subject.  “That’s a fa-a-a-bulous pic you sent me.  It’s so absolutely you!”  She enthused.

Peter frowned.  “It isn’t that special.  Have you been photo-shopping me again?”

“Might have been – a little,” Mel smirked.  “Did you ever consider what life might be like…”

“Oh, what?  What did you do to me this time?”

“As a female?”   She laughed out loud at the ill-timed swipe of a school bag which missed her by a foot.  “Pathetic!”

“You’re bringing it to college, aren’t you?  Making me a laughing-stock all over again?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that.  All right, I did – once.  I was stupid and I’m sorry.”

“So where is it?”

“It’s at home, somewhere.  I did a print-out and I was going to show it to you, but I couldn’t find it this morning.  The window was open so maybe the draught blew it under the bed, or something.  I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“You leave it at home, I’ll feel safer.”

Mel asked, after a pause:   “all those soldiers you saw marching – were they in modern uniform?”

“Battledress, why?”

“Describe it to me.”

Peter dredged in his memory for the marching figures in his vision, their empty faces grey, staring ahead.   His head filled with their despair, their hopelessness, their pain.  “Hats, trench coats, boots.  You know.”

“Hats, not helmets; like bush hats?”

Peter nodded as the lightbulb, always glimmering, flared brightly. “Anzacs!   They were Australian soldiers, yeah?   And the big man, the dark man, he could be, like, Death, or something!” 

“Right!”  Melanie crowed.  “Whatever’s on Vincent’s mind has to do with that memorial, my little possum!    Quick!   Find your ‘phone!”

#

By the time Vincent managed to contact Alice the morning had advanced another hour.

“How are you, sweetness?”

“Look, Vince, I’m busy.  I don’t have time for social calls.”  The day had not improved since some idiotic man had interrupted her morning jog.  “Have you got anything else for me?”

“I have.  It’s about the Aussie War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.  Oh, an’ he thinks there’s a lot of deadness involved.”

“The kid gave you this?”  Vincent’s words put Alice’s mind in turmoil:     “How the hell could he know?”  

“It is on the itinerary, then, is it?”

“I…no point in pretending…yes, it is.    Anzac Day.  Expressing solidarity with the Australians – honouring their part in the conflict, and all that.  Our boy’s laying a wreath there this morning.”  She checked her watch.   “Christ, he’s leaving the American Embassy in five minutes, and it’s only a couple of blocks!  Vince, you’d better be right!”

Alice had to consider carefully what she should do.  An anonymous tip-off on her personal ‘phone had begun all this.  Something distinctive in the caller’s voice had convinced her of its authenticity, and it was this disquiet she had shared with Vincent.  Then Vincent had validated it a little further by producing the boy, and inducing the boy’s disturbing response.  But he was still just some unknown youth in a distant seaside town, who should not have even known the Very Important Person was in the country!  Did she believe him?  

With the motorcade already on its way it seemed pointless to try to stop it.  She could already hear their derision when she told them a student psychic had predicted an assassination attempt.   Eventually, she would have to explain the inexplicable to someone, but right now… She tapped out numbers on her ‘phone.

“U.S. Embassy, please.”

Hal Bronski was already in the car when an operative from within the bowels of Grosvenor Square called:

“Are you serious?”

“Sir, she recommends you abort.”

“Son, we only abort for earthquakes and tidal waves.  This is British Security again isn’t it?”

“Yes sir.  I had no choice but tell you.  She insisted I log the call.”

“Well, son, you tell those loons that we don’t listen to crank calls.    If we did, we’d never go any damn place.   Oh, and son?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Be sure to log the call.”

From the foremost limousine in the small motorcade that swung out into Park Lane, Hal linked to the Very Important Person’s car.  His man should always be told of any irregularity, and Hal never failed in his duty.

“Sir, we have been advised of a possible situation.  We’ll be going to code amber.”

“Is it serious, Hal?”

“Sir, it’s amber.  We take everything seriously.  But this is filtered through British Security, so I wouldn’t worry.  We’ll just close the cordon a little, that’s all.”

“’O.K. Hal, you know best.”

From his vantage point overlooking the large, tree-fringed island in traffic that encircled the memorial to Australian forces dead, Salaiman Yahedi watched as the Very Important Person’s police escort  scythed through London traffic, clearing a path into the heart of the island. There, beside an arched monument to the Duke of Wellington the limousines rested, and Yahedi knew at once that someone had warned of a threat for, instead of alighting as he normally would, the Very Important Person remained in his car until a human shield formed; then, when he emerged to greet the Australian Ambassador, they stayed much closer than was usual.   Yahedi was unconcerned.   Had he not been at a window with such an advantage of height he might have been worried; but at all times, even now, he had a chance of a clear head shot, and the range, though not inconsiderable, was nothing to a shooter of his ability.   Not yet, though,: not yet.  Yahedi waited patiently, watching the Very Important Person make his way through a small band of dignitaries, staying back from the window to avoid the sharp eyes of the security cordon, and those of the rather more untidy bunch of British agents.

The ceremony was brief.   Someone presented the Very Important Person with a wreath and he stepped forward, away from his security yoke, to lay it at a strategic point before the long wall of tablets which formed the memorial.   Then, with heads bowed, the Very Important Person and the Ambassador stood side-by-side, remembering the sacrifice of those whose names adorned the wall.   Yahedi still waited, his target hidden for this minute of silence by the security cordon.  There would be a moment, a time when the party retreated from the wall, turned in that half-military fashion politicians always try to adopt, to walk back to their cars.   He gave the mechanism of his rifle a final check before slipping its muzzle through the hole he had made in the window.    Carefully, methodically, he took aim.

The Very Important Person stepped back from the memorial, turning on his heel.

As he did so, a  sheet of paper floated right past his nose.  He dodged it instinctively.

Thwack!     A single bullet snicked off the pavement, cracked against the concrete barriers, and whined away into the trees.

Even as the spent bullet ricocheted, Hal was running, wrapping his Very Important Person in a chest high-high hug to cover him with his own body.  In a few seconds his team had gathered in a protective shield as Hal rushed him back to his car.

“Stay down sir.  Are you hit?”

“No, I don’t think so, Hal, I think I’m all right.  By the way, I never got to ask you….?”

But the conversation, if there had ever been one, was over.  Doors slammed.  The motorcade, with its Very Important Person safe inside, left at speed.

Mayhem followed, as police bristling with firearms moved in to cut off traffic on the adjoining streets.  Amongst the howling sirens, the rushing to and fro of those who had come too late, and the frenetic departure of those who had stayed too long, the only static figure was that of a stubby and slightly sweating Jeremy Piggott, British Security, who could be seen examining a piece of paper which had somehow saved the Very Important Person’s life.   It was a sheet of A4 Copy printed with a curious picture of a boy’s head, superimposed upon the body of a woman wearing a skimpy evening dress.   He looked at it cryptically for a while, then at the sky whence it had apparently come.

“Do you believe in divine providence, Jeremy old son?”  He asked himself:  “No, you do not.”

He flagged down a passing member of his team.   “I want to know who this is, and I want to know soon.”   He said, passing on the sheet of A4; adding:  “The top bit, of course, not the body.”

Across the road in that third-floor room Salaiman Yahedi patiently and carefully cleaned the gun and window glass before he returned to his own suite on the first floor. The gun was left behind on the third-floor, in the room which bore ample evidence of occupancy, by someone with a false name and passport who booked it the previous week.

            Yahedi knew the bullet had missed; was upset, of course, that so carefully constructed and expensive a plan had failed; but he knew also that there would be another time, and another plan.  Now, though, he was booked into this hotel for a further two days.   Yahedi liked London, and enjoyed the company of the woman his employer had sent to act as his wife during his stay.   He resolved to spend those few days learning more about both.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  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 Seventeen: Whispers in the Dark

Previously:

Alanee joins in the City’s celebrations greeting the dawn of spring.  She encounters children in the City for the first time and prohibited from speaking to them.  After hours of drinking and dancing in one of the main squares she finds Celeris again, and in a somewhat drunken attempt at seduction appears to frighten him away…

Alanee wakes not knowing what hour it is, only that she has spent a day, or misspent one.  Her stomach gives her a sharp reminder, sending her weaving to her rest place where she stays for another while, rebuking herself for her brazenness and fervently wishing the world would go away.

At last she discovers (in her kitchen between doses of stomach grieve and tsakal) that it is early evening.  Below her living room window the courtyard of the palace, now free from snow, is littered with detritus of a more human kind.  Drabs move discreetly among figures in various stages of prostration, cleaning up.

Turning her back on this unappetising scene she slouches on the sofa, sipping her tsakal and observing the dap fishes’ serene ignorance of occasion as they swim around their tank.  Thus another hour passes, until darkness comes and she returns to her bed for a sleep that will take her to morning.

Her summoner buzzes.  It is Sala.  “Well?

“Well what?”

“Well, that gorgeous young man.  Did you?”  And, before Alanee can reply, “And don’t say ‘did I what?’ You know what I mean!”

“I might have.”  Why is she so defensive?

“That means you did, or – or, oh Habbach, you were so drunk you can’t remember!  Ba!  I’m am ashamed of you!”

“Believe me, drunk or not, I’d remember.”

“Then you didn’t?  What was wrong with him, he must have been at least seven feet tall!”

“Delfio?  Ah, no, he was boring.  I didn’t stay with him.”  Alanee changes tack.  “Enough about my evening, Sala-ba, how was yours?  I saw you with at least three different hunks.  How did you fare?”

“Oh ba!  I’m still faring!”  Sala’s voice is treacle-rich.  “He’s in the rest-place rebuilding his strength.  I think I’ve worn him out, poor boy!”

“So who is he?  Or haven’t you been introduced?”  As she talks on her summoner, Alanee’s fingers probe absently at the tooth-bites she made in her pillow after Celeris’s dramatic departure.

“Naughty!  His name is Vel, and he is a merchant:  he’s tall and he’s blond and he’s a perfect darling.  I think we might just stay in bed forever!  You’re very good at changing the subject!  If not the Hakaani, who did you end up with – not alone, surely?  Tell me you didn’t go home on your own Alanee!”

Her fingers pick at the stuffing of the pillow, drawing it out through the ruptured cloth.  “No, not alone.”

“Oh, thanks be!  And after I abandoned you, too!  My guilt would follow me to my grave!”

The stuffing is fibrous.  It is mostly soft and yielding.  Mostly.  But some is wire; very, very fine wire.

“I met Celeris.” Alanee says.

“Who?”

“Celeris?  Don’t you know him?”

“If there was a Celeris in the City, ba, I’d know him.  Must have given you a false name, the rat!  It goes on all the time.  Is he a rich rat?”

“Don’t know.  I think so.”  Alanee replies absently.  The wire seems endless.  “Listen, Sala-ba, I’ll call you later, yes?”

She goes to her kitchen, where there are knives.  She puts the pillow on her cutting block, then attacks its cover.  It resists her stoutly; the material, though thin, is far from flimsy, but at last she succeeds in slitting it from end to end, so the stuffing inside is exposed and she sees how it is interwoven with an intricate web of bright metal joining onto what was a tiny central capsule; was, because in her anger at Celeris’s flight her teeth have bitten it almost in two.

Alanee has worked at her village Terminus for many years.  Although her remit was transport she gained a working knowledge of electronics, but this device is not within her compass, nor does she have equipment to study micro-circuits as tiny as those the capsule contains.  She must resort to educated guesses, the most seductive of which would be a form of transmitter – the wires could be an aerial, the capsule some sort of speaker – though one so tiny could scarcely be heard by the human ear.  Puzzled, she returns to her bedroom.  Three pillows remain:  did she find the ‘wired’ one by chance, or are they all the same?

This investigation might have taken wings at the expense of three further pillows, if her summoner were not buzzing insistently.  The name that flickers up at her from its screen will brook no denial.  Lady Ellar wishes her to attend the High Council Suite.  Could she please come at once?

#

High Councillor Trebec stands within the aperture to a high, gothic window, a fissure in walls so thick four of his girth might fit within this space and not intrude an inch into the room behind him.  From its glass he may overlook a rolling aspect of northern land which will lead, should he be able to see far enough, to his beloved City.  “Is it never warm here?”

“Sir?”  Commander Zess is preoccupied.  He has not heard.

“Does the sun never permeate these confounded walls?”

“Maybe in summer…”  Zess says.

“The work is done, then?”  Trebec expects an affirmative answer.  A final aerotran of crack troops landed an hour since.  His own transport is waiting to whisk him away from this cold Braillec Castle with its frigid stone and its accusations.  Who was it who said you can never turn your back on guilt?

“Yes, Sire Trebec, almost.” 

“Almost?”

“An end to tie up, Sire, that is all: the aerotran pilot from the City hasn’t been found.  His aerotran has, but not him.”

Trebec wears a frown to make the highest commander in the forces tremble at the knees.  “Was he not burned with the rest?”

“No, Sire, I don’t believe so.  I mean, yes, there are so many bodies we can’t account for because they were just burned to powder, but this flyer didn’t reach the incident itself.  He got caught in the magnetic storm it created.  He survived long enough to leave his pod.  He’s vanished.”

“He can’t just vanish!  You have heat-seekers, you have bio-trace, you have Habbach-damned extro-visuals.  Find him!”

“We’ve tried them all, Sire.  They sought out everybody else, all the other dissidents, but not him.  I’ve requested a field search strato-craft from the City:  when I get that I can pan the whole country if I have to.  We’ll find him.”

“See that you do.”  Trebec does not like the Commander’s solution:  it is inconvenient that a strato-craft crew from outside should have to be brought in on so covert an enterprise.  “Make sure they take the oath before you brief them.”

“It is already done, Sire Trebec.”

“Very good.”   The land beyond the window seems so innocent of wrong; impervious to judgement.  “They are out there, aren’t they?  How many?”  Trebec asks.

“We buried ten thousand, Sire.  As to those totally consumed, who can say?”  Zess shrugs,  “The census will reveal all, in time.”

Trebec catches sight of a tear that runs unwarded down his commander’s cheek.  “Never doubt, Zess.  Do not question.  What is done is done in the name of the State.  And, harsh though it may be, the State invariably affords us the best answer.  You have followed orders, no less and no more.”

“Yes, Sire.”  Zess’s voice is expressionless.

Trebec turns away again, casting a final look across those tranquil hills.  “I am flying back to the City.  I take ten thousand ghosts with me, do I not?  Sleep soundly, my friend.”

“Farewell, Sire.”

Zess watches the High Councillor leave, seeing in his broad back the incredulity, the sheer unbelief on thousands of faces that, thinking they were rescued, suddenly realised they were about to die.  Privately he knows he will never sleep soundly again.

#

The Lady Alanee, Ellar would have to admit, has learned how to make an entrance.  Remembering the gauche, slightly angular figure of a woman who entered the City no more than a cycle since she cannot help a reflective smile: how the place has changed her – and how quickly!  Not only has she learned to adopt the court robe as formal dress, but she has learned how to move in it, how to accentuate the natural grace of its lines.  Her golden cascade of hair disguises shoulders that might otherwise seem rather wide, and frames a face of unfathomable mystery.  Her eyes challenge.  This woman, Ellar thinks, is no longer afraid of anyone.

“Lady Ellar, greet you.”  Alanee is formal, cool.  “Sire?”  She cannot remember Sire Portis’s name.  She recalls he was one of those who questioned her on her first day here.  She also remembers how his stare never left her chest. 

“Lady Alanee, this is Sire Portis.”  Ellar says.

“Greet you.”  Alanee responds, tugging at the hem of her robe where it crosses her bosom, a move which does get Portis to raise his eyes to her face, though only for a moment.

“Please, sit down.  Shall we request drinks?”

Alanee dismisses this with a wave of her hand.  She has had sufficient alcohol in the past twenty-four hours to sustain her for a cycle, at least.

“Why am I here?” She keeps her voice as level as she can.  This stateroom is the one where she was first introduced to members of the High Council, but she does not remember a book resting upon the sideboard that dominates one wall of the room.  It is a very old book.

“What book is that?”

Portis answers,  “It is an extract of the Book of Lore.  The Book is always present if a meeting of High Councillors constitutes less than a quorum, so we do not forget the higher cause.”

“I’m not just here to talk about the Spring Rising, then?  Why am I here, Sire Portis?”

“Ah, now that is the question.”  Portis says.  “And taken in its most limited sense, that is why you are here; to answer that precise question.”

Alanee looks perplexed,   “A riddle, Sire?”

Portis sighs.  “No, Alanee, an answer; though not, I suspect, a solution.  Lady Ellar, would you like to proceed?”

Ellar leans forward, as she is wont to do when she is about to speak, though not before Alanee has detected the chill between these two nobles.  They have their differences.  “Lady Alanee, when you first arrived I told you that you were about to embark upon a journey.  As matters stood then, it was thought better that you find your own way:  now, however…..”  She pauses for breath.  “Now you have met Sire Hasuga.  It is time you learned a little more of your duties here.  It is time you learned who Sire Hasuga is.”

Ellar relates the tale of the City and its history.  Alanee listens to it open-mouthed, for history in any form (memory beyond the human span) does not exist within the culture of the State.  No-one speaks of the past beyond a generation or two.

In Alanee’s head it is as if a book were being opened; her thoughts fly to the book on the sideboard.  Her inner self flicks over pages of manuscript written in old characters, a forgotten tongue.  And when she comes back to the cover it slams shut and locks, and will not admit her again.  She would see its title, but that too is hidden from her.  She rises suddenly; walks across to the book intending to open it physically.

“Do not touch The Book!”  Portis snaps.  “Lady Ellar!  I will not have her near it, I warn you!”

His command stops Alanee in her tracks.  She shrugs, then says, without knowing what she is saying, or why she is saying it:  “It’s alright.  That’s not the book I’m interested in.”

She returns to her chair.  Ellar is staring intensely.  “Lady Alanee; which book are you interested in?”

“It has a lock, that one has none.  It is very old, with a cover of red and gold leather.  The words inside are in some strange language or other.  I was reading it. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”  She comes to herself, to see Ellar’s face, drained of all colour.

“You’ve seen inside this book?”

“Yes, just now.”

Portis cuts in.  “Young woman, have you been listening to anything the Lady Ellar has been saying?”

“Intently, Sire Portis; as I have been observing the chemistry between yourself and Lady Ellar while she was saying it.  I take it you don’t approve?”

“You take it correctly.”

“Of me?  Never mind, don’t answer that.  So, if I have listened to your satisfaction, let me be sure I’ve understood.  Sire Hasuga’s mental powers are so strong that his thoughts and whims reach all of the nations.  When he wants honey-cakes, everyone eats honey cakes.  When he wants a war in a certain region, that region goes to war.  Somehow you’ve managed to conduct affairs for two thousand years on the basis of childish caprice.  And now he’s gone and growed up!”

Portis nods.  While she is speaking, Alanee’s eyes do not shift from the book on the sideboard.  She finds herself searching deep within it, as though there is something specific she must find.

“And now he wants different stuff; not quite so innocent anymore, eh Sire? You’re afraid you can’t control him:  he might go mad, get everybody killing each other, or – you know -making babies?  You can’t blame him, can you?  He’s just being a boy, isn’t he?  One thing though, I don’t quite follow:  there are lots of essential functions needed to run the State that are a bit more important than honey cakes.  Plant more wheat this year because the granaries are low; discourage child-bearing in the Hakaan to keep the population stable, and so on.  Not the things a child would think of.  How do you get the meaningful stuff done?”

The answer falls to Ellar.  “Once it was just as volatile and unformed as you describe.  We learned, we had to learn, to manage Sire Hasuga’s thoughts.  We discovered a way to interrupt the thought-stream and channel it, without Sire Hasuga’s knowledge.  The High Council could add necessary edicts to the stream as it was being broadcast.  It needed a more predictable system of distribution, but once it was achieved, we could conduct affairs of State effectively.”

“So you can shape his will?   Isn’t that – to coin your word – blasphemy?”

“No.  Think of his stream of thought as a real stream, or river if you like.  We can add water to it; we can apply a sluice to restrain it.  But we can’t stop it or fundamentally alter Hasuga’s part of its composition.  In the end, his message must reach the people as the water must reach the sea.”

“And you do that here, in the City?”

“Yes.”

Across the room and out of Lady Ellar’s and Sire Portis’s range of vision, Alanee is making the ancient book rise a few inches from the sideboard.  Satisfied, she allows it to settle again, quietly.  She thinks to herself ‘I don’t know how I did that’.  Portis’s fixation with her breasts is becoming profoundly irritating.

“And this river flows out to the people each night as they sleep – through a little speaker concealed in their pillows.”  That reaches you, doesn’t it, Sire Portis!  That makes you lift your eyes!

Ellar nods,  “Yes.”

“Whispers in the dark.  The reason it is only possible to buy a replacement pillow from a state-owned emporium.  And now your system is breaking down?”

“That’s something of an exaggeration.”  Ellar’s smile is grim.  “True, Sire Hasuga’s emanations are ever more powerful, and – well, you’ve already cited a few undesirable consequences.  Lady Alanee, you are apparently immune to Sire Hasuga’s control.  You can get close to him; you can treat with him, in ways his Mother never can.”

“Then Hasuga is right.  I am his next ‘Mother’.”

“His Mother is ill at the moment.”  Portis interjects.  “When she recovers we would, of course, like you to work with her.  Look, this can be either be very simple, or very difficult:  we (the High Council) will issue you with a list of target behaviours to pursue in concord with Sire Hasuga.  This list will be with you in a few days.  All that is needed is to moderate some of the temporary excesses of his pubescent stage.  If you follow the list you will discharge your duties satisfactorily.  It shouldn’t be beyond you.”

Alanee visualises what she suspects will be item one on that list.  “You can’t give teenagers ‘lists’.  It’s their nature to rebel.”

“Sire Hasuga is no ordinary teenager, and you seem to have a detachment none of us share.  You can guide him Lady Alanee.  For the stability of the State, for the sake of all our futures, this is a responsibility you must accept.”

“I’ll do it, because I have no choice.”  Alanee senses the interview is over.  “Whether it will work as smoothly as you say, is another matter.”  She gets to her feet.  “In the meantime, please will you remove all the cameras from my apartment?  I don’t think you need to spy on me now.  I could always find them myself…”  She adds helpfully.

Portis is looking questioningly at Ellar.

“She dissected one of her pillows.”  Ellar explains.  Then, to Alanee: “How did you know there were cameras?”

“I didn’t until now; although I suspected as much.”  Alanee replies.  “You just confirmed it.  So from now on, Sire Portis, whenever you want to stare at my body you’ll have to ask me in person.”

Alanee bridles, ready for Portis to flare back at her, but the councillor merely replies, with icy control:  “You are a presumptuous and wilful young woman, Alanee  Have a care what you say.”

“Oh I will, Sire.  Now, can I ask to speak to Sire Cassix?”  She has no idea where the question came from, or even why she should ask it.  From the beginning of this interview, Alanee has felt distant and detached:  it is as though something other than herself is controlling her tongue.

Portis looks at her sharply:  “Cassix?  Why?”

“I think he can help me.”  Without waiting for a reply, Alanee leaves.

Ellar and Portis stare after her.

Ellar says:  “Tell me I did not dream that?”

Portis says:  “The impudence of the woman!”

Lady Ellar smiles:  “You were caught out, Sire.  You do stare at women’s chests; even mine.  More importantly, how did she – how could she – know of The Book?”

“As importantly, perhaps;” Portis’s tone is dangerous:  “How do you?”

© 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.

Surpassing Time

Stopping the machine is simple.  One physical switch and the world outside the capsule resolves itself in anticipation of a landing.  Chronometer figures flicker into a discernible sequence, then they, and the world, stutter to a halt.   Out there in the silence of evening a green pasture prepares for sleep.  To my left a little row of houses, red brick and sash windows glimmering with dim illumination against gathering darkness   All is quiet.  I have chosen my location well.

I verify the figures on the chronometer with my backup instrument.  2211946.  17.42.  Day, month, year, hour, minute.  The 22nd January 1946.  5.42pm.  Exactly as planned.

The climb over a low back wall is easy.  The green back door yields to gentle pressure.  Mary is in the kitchen.

“Hi!”  I try to imitate an American accent.  “Is Michael Harris around?”

Mary looks askance at my uniform, but does not seem unduly surprised by my arrival.   “Mikey?  Yes, he is.  He’s upstairs.   What’s he done now?”

“Thanks.   Nothing to worry about, lady.  Just checking everyone for tomorrow.”

“We do have a front door, you know.  And a knocker.”

“Oh, yes.  Sorry!”

At the door of the bedroom I pause for a moment or two, listening as the young man inside moves about, busying himself with some activity I imagine must relate to packing.  Then I walk in.

“What the hell?”  Mikey is in his undershorts.  He is marginally less pleased than Mary by this stranger’s entrance.

“Hello Mikey.”  I drop the accent – it sounds phoney anyway.  Why bother?  “Putting your stuff together?”

“What are you doing here?  I ain’t done nothing!”

“You mean the MP uniform?  It affects a lot of people that way, doesn’t it?  We’re just keeping a check.  We want to make sure everyone reports tomorrow.”

“Sure!   700 hours sharp.  We’re shipping out, aren’t we?  I wouldn’t miss the chance to go home, Sarge.  No way!”

“That’s good.”  I nod approvingly.  “You’ll be going out tonight?”

“Are you kidding?   Last night in UK?  Last opportunity to show the locals how to party?  Of course I’m going out!”

“You’ll be meeting Rose, then.”  (My research is always thorough – that is something Xerxei, my arch-rival, has always grudgingly admired).

“How’d you know about Rosy?”   I have let the name slip as Mikey is folding a pair of pants ready to stow in his kitbag.  He pauses.  “Oh, right!  I guess you guys keep tabs on everything, huh?  Well, don’t worry – I’ll be on base tomorrow.  I’m doing nothing wrong.  Rosy’s a great girl!”

“She’s very fond of you!  Does she know you’re leaving tomorrow?”

A veil of sadness clouds Mikey’s face.  He doesn’t answer.

“Well, does she?”  I insist.

“I guess not.  See, Sarge, it’s so hard to tell them, you know?

“To tell ‘them’?”

“The Limey girls.  You’re right, she is kind of set on me.  But – hell, I wouldn’t stay even if I could.”

“She’s asked you to?”

“Yeah.  I mean, though – this damp, cold country?  Rosy’s fun; yep, she is fun.  Listen, I get it right, it’s gonna be a long night tonight.  Know what I mean?”

“Oh yes, I know.”  I assure him.  “You’ll get to sleep with her tonight, I’m thinking.  Yes?”

“Hey!   Let’s not get too personal, friend.”

“But you will.  The innuendo was yours – that was what you meant, wasn’t it?  Although ‘sleep’ is probably a euphemism.  You’ll screw her in a back alley somewhere and you won’t let anything come between you, will you, Mikey?  There are no rubbers in those deep pockets of yours.”

“On my last night?  I should eat my orange with the peel on?  Com’on!”

“No, of course not!   After all, tomorrow you’ll escape, won’t you?  What about the address you gave her to write to?  It isn’t yours, is it?”

Mikey chuckles.  “Or anybody’s, far as I know.  If it is, they’re in for a helluva surprise. Wait a minute!”  His face darkens.  “Look, I’ll give you a phrase, yeah?  ‘Spoils of war’, Okay?  There’s no crime, here, mister MP, all the guys would do the same if they could, and I’ll guarantee you a lot of them are.  A payment on account, against the danger, and the pain.  Now see, this conversation’s over.   I’m going to meet Rosy, and unless you want to arrest me for something, I suggest you leave.”

He’s right; the conversation’s over.  I already have more than enough.  I draw my Destructor from beneath my jacket.   Mikey pales.  “What the hell is that?”

By way of explanation I sight on his half-packed kitbag and vaporise it, then, in case he should react unexpectedly, I turn the sight on him.  Horror-struck, he stares down at the precise white X where it settles on his chest, and looks up to meet my eyes.   His death is in my face and he can read it plainly.  “Jesus!”  He says.  In a ghost of a voice he asks:   “Why?”

“You’re in my game.  You are a three hundred and twenty point target.  Sorry.”  I must stop these reflex apologies, which are becoming a mannerism.  I have no sympathy for him.  He seems incapable of speech, so I fill in the spaces.   “Let me give you a date, first.  We like dates.  19th October, Mikey, does that mean anything?  All right, maybe not, but it’s a special day, or it will be.  It’s the day, later this year, when your son is born.  Heaven knows why, Rose will name him Michael.   She’ll still be in love with you, you see – even when she knows you deserted her.”

Mikey looks, for a second or so, as if he has been punched in his stomach.  “You – you can’t know that.  How can you know that?”

“Oh, trust me Mikey, I know.  She’ll take your name, Harris, and tell everybody you died in the war.  She won’t say you were a stores clerk.  If you’re interested, you were shot down in a raid on Bremen.  After a few years, Rose will start to believe it herself.”

Mikey starts to rise to his feet.   “This is bullshit! What do you think you are?  Some sort of fortune teller, or what?  One thing’s for sure, you’re no Military Policeman.”

“You’re right, I’m not.  If you look through that window you’ll see the Tracer that brought me here, waiting in the field.  A Tracer is a TDT, a Trans-Dimensional Traveller – you might call it a time machine:  I fed it your coordinates and it brought me straight to you.   Where I come from I’m a chemical engineer, if that’s important to you.  Thing is, I’m in The Game.   I’m very good at it, too.”

My target, for such he is, edges to the window, aware my Destructor’s X is following him.   I know the materiality of the Tracer will be enough to reinforce my explanation, because it will be unlike anything he has ever seen before, or dreamed about; a silvery-white disc sitting on the vaporous edge of his dimension, transcendent and waiting.  “You ride in that.”  He murmurs.  He is silent for some time, then, and I let the minutes pass, watching his face as he slowly assimilates the reality of the TDT and a harsher truth the Destructor implies.  Eventually he is ready to speak again.  “Okay, this ‘Game’ of yours – how much do I pay to buy out of it?”

“I come from a time when your currency has no value.  In less than a thousand years when over-population has become critical, atmosphere toxic, supplies of water and food unsustainable, although there is no wish to resort to your primitive solution of war we have still to reduce our numbers to manageable levels.  Our solution is The Game.”

Mikey says, dully:  “The ‘Game’.  Sounds great.  Explain.”

“I was about to.  In The Game every living human is a ‘Passive’ or a ‘Player’.   Mostly, Passives just live normal lives waiting for something to happen; if they’re lucky, nothing ever does.  There are a select few, though – regulated by The Association – who become Players.   If you’re a Player you research the histories of the Passives looking for ‘Targets’, those whose ancestors behaved badly or immorally, and if you find one and if the Association doesn’t veto it, you can use a Tracer to travel back across time to make a correction.”

“This sounds mad to me.”

“It is very effective!   Overall, in only five years The Game has reduced world population by nearly fifty percent.  By eliminating  just one transgressor before they act we can reduce the next generation by as many as thirty individuals, because without them there are children that are never born, incidents that never happen, and so on.  Advance another forty generations and the planet’s cleansed of two, maybe three thousand hungry mouths; sometimes many, many more.  No pain is involved – the Player makes the correction then they simply disappear.  What’s more, as we’re eliminating faulty or bad genes in our species, we grow in power and virtue.  We are few enough to find space on our world and our species is vastly improved.  Good, huh?”

“Dangerous: if you make a mistake you could be one of the disappeared.”

“Exactly!  Which is why we call it The Game.  The Association takes all the care it can, they’re very strict; but inevitably there are overlaps.  I’ve checked my history and I’m sure I’m clean, but there are more than a hundred of us doing this.  If I’ve got it wrong, or if someone finds a flaw in my ancestry I’m the one who gets eliminated.  According to Association estimates, no more than five of us will eventually win through.  It’s extremely exciting!”

“Well, who or whatever you are, if it’s all the same to you, I hope you’re not one of the five.”   Carefully, Mikey returns to his bed, perching on the edge, with one eye always on that X on his chest.  “I guess that thing you got pointed at me is what does the correcting?”

“Don’t worry,”  I tell him.  “the process is painless.”

I know he will make a play, he has no choice.  When he does, I will dispose of him.  Meantime, I am gaining some enjoyment from this.

Mikey deliberately puts himself in my eye-line, staring at me.  “Seems to me this Game of yours could be doing you a lot of harm.  You’re reshaping history for yourselves, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely!  There are bad things that never get done because those responsible are never born, and there are other benefits too.   You see, our recorded history means we can monitor the changes:  that’s how The Association’s points system works. Do you know that if I had not targeted you tonight your great grandson would have been implicated in the assassination of a Russian President?   More than that, your great, great grandson financed five big business centres in Marseilles that are about to disappear.  I know exactly what alterations your absence will make, so you’re worth lots of points.  I will be Player of the Month for finding you, Mikey!”

The move comes as I expected it.   A much-emulated twist to his left side (I’ve seen the tactic so many times) and the dive to take control of my Destructor hand.   It is pitifully slow, and my reactions have not lost their perfection.   My beam catches him in mid-leap:  he vanishes in mid-leap.  He is part of the air now, a mist that will quickly disperse but can induce a cough if I am careless enough to inhale it in the first thirty seconds or so:  which is why my smile of inner satisfaction must wait until I have left the room.

I meet Mary on the stairs.  “Is he going out yet?  I made his tea.”

“Not yet.  I’d give him a few minutes; he’s changing his pants.”

My escape involves nothing more than leaving as I arrived.  I slip back into my TDT, set my coordinates to rebalance and throw that switch.  All I have to do is watch as the chronometer begins to spin and the world outside loses first form, then colour.  Five minutes or so after my departure Mary will call Mikey to his tea, and he will not answer.  Later, maybe, she will open his room and find him gone: no kitbag, only a few clothes, nothing more. She might be angry that he has left without signing off his last week’s allowance, and when she cleans the room she might notice the film of dust is a little thicker than usual, but that will be all.   Somewhere out there, I tell myself, Rose is waiting for a man who will never show.

I cannot describe for you the elated feeling, knowing that as I thread my way back through time large slices of history – structures, people, events, even wars, are altering:   I wonder at what might be the landscape when I reach my home City – who is new to me, who will no longer be there?

“Cracen.”  The voice of my old adversary surprises me.  It is not unusual to get messages, especially on my return from a Correction:   I have quite a large fan base anxious to congratulate me; but Xerxei, whose playing skills might be said to equal my own?   What can he want?

“Xercei!   What a surprise!”   I say.

“Yes,”  Says the disembodied voice.  “It will be.”

“I’ve just scored a three-twenty.”  I tell him, trying not to crow.   “Which, I suggest, must be top of the rankings this month.”

“Actually no.”   There is an arrogant nuance to Xerxei’s tone I do not like.  Has he beaten me?  I am near to home, so I reach forward for the decelerator:  fast landings are not allowed in the City.

“A little addition to your research, Cracen; one you should have spotted, and didn’t.  A story for you – a short one, very short.”   Xerxei pauses.

“Well?”  I demand.

“Rose.   At around eight o’clock she got tired of waiting, so she sought solace in the arms of Michael Harris’s best friend.   She and Tom Walbeck had a really fun night.    You know Tom Walbeck, don’t you?  He’s on your personal ancestor list, Cracen; in fact, he’s right at the root of it.  It’s a pity you didn’t read up on him just a little more, and you would have found out that he deserted Rose, just as Michael would have, given the chance.   The child she named Michael was Tom Walbeck’s son.  Anyway, to cut this short – I couldn’t let our Mr. Walbeck go uncorrected, could I?”

Shocked into immobility, I can only watch those last seconds as the chronometer counts down.  This time, when it stops, my TDT will be without a pilot.

© Frederick Anderson 2017. 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.