Continuum – Episode Twenty-One: Prisoners

In the last episode:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it for you?

“Steal it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You will not try?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we be overheard?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is?”

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

“Feed him, flatter him, fuck him.”

“In essence.”

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

“There are measures…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Continuum – Episode Fifteen: The Spring Rising.

The Story so Far:

While the High Council’s misgivings concerning Alanee’s relationship with Hasuga grow, Alanee is beginning to realise their worst fears as she finds the embyo of a friendship with him.  She joins Hasuga in his ‘games’, blissfully unaware of the mayhem they can cause.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the wilderness, Dag Swenner, her aerotrans pilot friend, is injured and close to death.  Ripero, the Dometian who saved him from the wreckage of his aerotrans has left him, hoping to find help but only to be killed in a bizarre confrontation with a lone soldier…

After her morning encounter with Hasuga, Alanee’s day has been spent idly, wandering through the gardens and bazaars of the City.  Affairs of the last two days have relieved many of her worst fears: whatever the City wants from her, she no longer believes she will be punished for her misdemeanours in the years at home in Balkinvel.  Although she remains the little girl in wonderland, she is gaining some grasp of the realities around her.  She is free to notice the brightly-coloured birds that flit between the trees in the Grand Park, the way the illumination from hidden places in the roof above the park ‘travels’ across its firmament in imitation of a real sun, and how the tiny mechanical mice that scuttle about the paving, gathering up rubbish then vanishing with it into carefully disguised slots at the grass’s edge even squeak like real mice.  She sees that those who attend the Palace do not always wear those dreadful, formal robes.  A woman whose face she recognises from the courtyard passes her, clad in a lemon halter dress of fine chiffon.  Men commune in togas around the drinking house doors – other women walk about in elegant slacks, light blousons, skirts and dresses of different hues.  There are still robes of course – they are everywhere – but there is room for variety, too.

With this in mind Alanee seeks out a little dress-maker’s emporium among the fashionable shops on the East side of the Grand Park where she commissions three outfits in her choice of fabrics and designs;  then, with her shopping hat jammed firmly over her ears, she launches into a minor frenzy of purchasing.  She is not without a plan – everything she orders will go towards the remodelling of her apartment – but it is the thrill of spending in a volume she could never have dreamed of, of running her fingers through soft silks, abundant satins, rich woollens, that enthuses her.  It is an orgy that continues long into the evening, and when she finally returns home she is exhausted by it.  Scarcely troubling to eat, she falls into a deep sleep.

She is dreaming of a jungle, thick undergrowth tangled around her arms and legs: she launches forward, striving against her bonds.   Birds screech in the canopy, snakes hiss and slither about her feet, great bugs squat, shiny black, upon the trunk of every tree.  An odour of decay, a sweet death-smell clings to her throat and clogs her breathing.  She must go on, she must never turn because what follows her, she knows, is worse than in front.  It is dark, becoming darker.  Tired, so tired.  The light is dying in her soul.

She will not hear the cougar:  suddenly it is there!  It crouches on a tree bough within a leap of her head; long teeth yellow and dripping, crimson hate-eyes glowering.  It wants her, it will spring!

A bow is in her hands.  An arrow is drawn.  Pull!  Pull until the string hums, until her arms have no strength left to pull.  Let it snap!  Hear the hiss of the flight, the spit of death!  See it, the hate-thing, as it springs, see its claws flash towards her face:  hear her arrow’s cleaving thud – the gasp of failing breath, the bubbling  black blood from a ruptured heart – and see it fall.

Alanee awakes in her own echo, knowing she has screamed.  Perspiration drenches her, hair wet, clinging to her scalp, the silk of her shift clammy on her skin.  Why is Dag’s image in her head?  She must pause to grieve for him, though she did not know him well.  Someone has to be there to remember, her mother had told her, the week after Kalna-meh, her man, was taken from the earth.  That is what death really is; the journey from life into memory.

Her summoner tells her it is two in the morning.  Reminding herself that she has no way of knowing what family Dag might have to mourn him, she rises, throws the sweat-laden shift from her, and goes to her rest-place to bathe.   

A time-zone away Alanee’s home village, Balkinvel, is waking.  Shellan, her friend of many years, rises from her bed, shaking her husband’s shoulder into the world while she prepares for the Makar’s call.  She stands, as Alanee once did, on her back porch, tsakal between her palms to warm them, watching the hot sun rise over the Southern Hills.  The front door will slam as her man goes for his work – he is an agrarian, a worker of the land, and it is the time of sowing – when he has left, she will dress for work at the Terminal.

And all seems well – except that it is not.

As she dresses, Shellan avoids her mirror, for she knows what she would see.  Old Malfis, the bell-ringer; what hidden talents did he display, when he made the iron masks for all the village? The village men queuing up to take one, and her man, Shellan-meh, among the first.  She probes her face with reluctant finger-tips for wounds that have not healed, places where the spikes pressed home:  at least her eyes were spared.  Shellan knows how they must look.

The Makar’s call draws her to her door, Mak-card in hand.  The little man does not meet her stare, has no remark, no word.  He takes her card in silence, withdraws.  In the street, the migration to work has begun; the lame, wounded, disfigured women, making their way to the Terminal. Shellan, as one of the few with sight, leads a train of those less fortunate than she.  Malfis, a man with agony inside, watches as they pass.  How could he have done all this, yet still suffer the appetites he has?

They are fewer, these women.  They limp with damaged ankles and they massage livid, itching wrists compulsively as they walk.  They do not speak, either to old Malfis or among themselves – they dare not, lest they share the thoughts that ferment inside their heads.  A sharp breeze finds its way through the gap in the street where Alanee’s house once stood, ruffling unkempt hair, scratching unhealed skin with the Hakaan Plain’s red, unforgiving dust.  Here, where Carla walked, there will be a new manager now.  Here was Merra’s sister’s place before her man drove a spike through her brain.  They, with a dozen more, were buried in the dead-field last night-fall.  Namma alone lies unburied.  When her body was examined she was found to be pregnant, and that is a damning sin.  She will be exposed for the crows on the Terminal roof come evening.

This breeze can never again freshen heads clouded by fear, hearts besieged by doubt.  No-one who returns to their home tonight will go without turning to listen or watch as a little party of elders bear Namma to her rest, and no-one goes through their door to face their man without some measure of dread.  There will be no honey-cakes for tea.

#

Dag’s mind is wandering now, his pain dulled by the narcosis of hunger, he hovers in time.  Is it day or night?  There are raindrops on his lips which he drinks, though not knowingly.  He can then feel the roughness of the tree-bough upon which he lies, the stub of a minor branch in his back, probably impaling him, certainly keeping him from the terminal agony of a fall.  He can remember that somehow he hauled himself here, driven by a survival instinct he did not know he possessed, in the belief that the tree would keep him safe through the night.

He drifts.

His music.  He is dancing.  It is Celebration Dawn and he is dancing.  And she – the woman – what was her name?  She is opposite him, and she is going through her moves, following the choreography of attraction – hair about her shoulders, slow undulation of hips, arched back, fluid beneath a shift of thin, clinging blue; but she is bored, disinterested….at any moment she will move away, find another partner…

His eyes open sharply.  Dag is back, the pain is back, the present is back.  The memories are back.

Last night, when he thought to have been safe; after the anguish of labouring for an hour against his failing strength and the fire inside him; lying exhausted here, still no more than two metres above the ground, he had dropped into unconsciousness or sleep.

What slight movement, then, had stirred him?  When did he know he was not alone on that bough, that something large and heavy, with flaring red eyes and hot scentless breath shared it with him?

Wood is a tensile, living thing.  He can feel it flex and bend beneath another’s weight.  He felt it then, knew the creature behind those eyes was coiled to spring.  Moving his head he saw it, too, saw the fangs in the light of an unkind moon.  Fumbling for his knife: wet cloth of his pocket clinging to him, stopping him from drawing it cleanly, and the creature back on its haunches, front paws with their raking talons raised.  The bouncing release of the branch as it leapt – the end?

The merciful, the inevitable end?

A hiss and a thud:  reverberation of a taut string.  A great bestial yowl as an arrow took the life from the monster so powerfully and decisively it twisted back upon itself in mid-flight, then the brush of its flank as it crashed past him into the undergrowth below: sounds of brief convulsive moments on the journey to an afterlife, then stillness.

Trapped by his pain, Dag could only move his head enough to catch a glimpse of his saviour, the incongruous soldier figure at the foot of the tree.  By moonlight it was only possible to see an outline; epaulettes of a uniform, the bow that had delivered the arrow.  He had no voice for his gratitude and it seemed his saviour wanted none, for he turned and marched away with the stumbling ungainliness of a string puppet, the sounds of his blundering and crashing progress diminishing into the night.

And now it is morning.  He cannot move, or clamber from the tree: he cannot eat.  All Dag can do is stare up into the canopy and the grey skies beyond, listening to the roar of the river, the songs of the birds.  Everything around him is eternal.  Soon he too, will be a part of that eternity.

#

Alanee’s summoner drags her from a fitful sleep.  It is Sala.

“Alanee-ba.  Come and watch the Spring Rising!”

“The what?”

Still little more than half awake, she greets Sala at her door.

“Come on, ba, get dressed,”  Sala gives her a perfunctory hug, kisses her cheek.  “We must hurry, or someone will pinch our place at Toccata’s.”

Despite the hour (the sun has not yet risen) the corridors, the avenues, the squares of the City all seethe with a sort of industrial hum as people bustle to and fro in determined mood, their faces set between purpose and joy.  Passing couples fizz with expectant dialogue, muttered, earnest words which betray serious concerns.  In the Grand Park a screen has been raised, and comic short films are being shown to entertain a gathering crowd.

Sala explains:  “This is a very important time for the City.  The sunrise this morning is considered a prophecy for the year to come:  all the younger ones will turn out to watch.  It’s quite an event, if only because we never know when to expect it!  It is really early this year, Alanee-bah.  I’m not sure if that is a good sign or a bad one.”

“How do you know when it’s coming?”

“The temperature.  Last night the land did not freeze – the snow began to melt.  The Balna is almost in flood, apparently.   Oh, don’t worry!”  Sala says when she sees Alanee’s look of concern:  “It’s the same every year!”

They discover Toccata amidst a small riot of importunate clients.  He is beside himself and looking almost dishevelled:  “Oh darlings, you’re here!  Such relief!  I am being mobbed, my dears; mobbed!  At this Habbach-forsaken hour – I ask you!  Come quickly now – I kept you your seats, aren’t I a sweetie?”

They follow as he minces at speed among the curtained booths:  this place is as wired as anywhere in the City – there are burbling conversations from every direction and Alanee wonders how many covers Toccata can cram in.

“It’s much larger than it looks.”  Sala confides as they settle themselves before their window.  “I don’t know how he does it.”

Tsakal arrives, with perl chasers (Alanee’s tastes are growing in their sophistication), as promptly as ever.  Beyond the window the world is still in darkness, though a ribbon of blue lies across the distant mountains, harbinger of a rising sun.

Alanee tells of her nightmare.  “Really strange.  That terrible creature!  Somehow I know it had something to do with this aerotran pilot – the one who brought me here?  Dag his name was.  I don’t know why I dreamed of him, I really don’t know him very well at all.”

Sala looks grave.  “Dreams at a time of prophecy have great meanings, ba.  Dag Svenner, would it have been?  He’s missing, you know.  His aerotran crashed somewhere in Dometia.”

“Oh, he’s dead, I know.  I was sorry when I was told.  How did you hear about him?”

“The whole of the lower city is a-buzz with the story.  Something very odd is going on in Dometia, though nobody will say what it is.  I think I met Dag Svenner once at a party on the West Side.  Very handsome – a nice man.  You have good tastes, my ba.”

There is a reproachful note to Sala’s voice Alanee cannot miss.  She sips tsakal from her cup for a moment, then says, half to herself:  “It isn’t you, Sala-ba.  It honestly is not.  You are my friend, maybe the best friend I have had in all my life.  But I think I know now what laskali is, and I don’t think it is for me.”

Sala reaches over to clasp her hand.  “I do see that, Alanee.  I do.  Please, don’t be afraid of hurting me?  Love doesn’t always travel the same road.”  She pauses, unless a catch in her throat should give her away.  “Anyway, Dag is quite exceptional.  He would make a good coupling for you.”

“Well, he would.”  Alanee allows herself a cynical laugh:  “Being dead is a bit of a problem, though.”

“If he is.”

“If?”  Alanee’s heart misses several beats.

“He’s listed missing, not dead.  They discovered the wreck of his aerotran in a ravine, but he wasn’t inside it.  They’ve been looking for him – quite hard, as it happens: unusually hard.  Some ration wrappers were found, but then the trail went cold.  How do I know that?  Well, yesterday I was in the company of another rather nice man, the aerotran controller for the eastern sector.  I’m not a complete laskal, you see!”

“He’s alive!”  Alanee does not mean to let her face light up so obviously.

Sala laughs.  “So you are just a tiny bit interested?  I didn’t say he was alive, only that he wasn’t killed by the crash.  That was three days ago now, nearly four.  He could have been injured badly, in which case he wouldn’t survive long out there.  The place isn’t exactly hospitable.  This guy doesn’t hold out much hope.”

“Just how well do you know this aerotran controller?

“Somewhat better after last night – that’s all I’m prepared to say.”  Sala grins conspiratorially:  “Except perhaps that his areas of expertise are not entirely confined to aerotrans.”

“Can you find out more for me, I mean, like where he crashed?  I would like to know.”

“Darling, you’re asking me to lengthen what ought to be a blissful but brief relationship.  I’ll do what I can.  Still, now!  Dawn is coming!”

Both women direct their attention to the glass and the drama that lies beyond.  For between two eastern mountain peaks the sun’s livid hemisphere is creeping into view, scoring its first rays with a draughtsman’s certainty straight to the windows of the Consensual City.  In minutes a dawn mist cloaking the Balna valley is painted scarlet, within which the spectral silhouettes of treetops amid and beyond the gardens; elegantly dressed spruce, naked elm, plane, lime, slivers of acer and rowan spell out a message of Cyrillic mystery.  Finally the sun, fully risen, draws aside the curtains of mist to find the virgin snow of the meadows, painting them with a delicate blush.  The message here is brilliant and unmistakeable, for all who wait for new birth.  As it climbs higher above the mountains this bold sun declares its colours, shines through melting sheaths of ice that case each branch and twig, wakens the sap in everything that has hope enough to grow.  The sky is clear and, as yet, remains the ice-blue of winter.  But a warm prescription for the coming day is written upon it, and – not for the first time this morning – Alanee’s heart is filled with optimism.

Together the friends watch the coming; they do not speak.  They do not speak until the sun is too bright for their eyes, until their faces feel its touch upon them.  Then a consensual murmur of mutual relief rises among all of Toccata’s clients, and at last Sala can trust herself to pronounce the prophecy; “It is a good year.  Oh, Alanee-ba, it will be a wonderful summer!”  Her face is almost as radiant as the light itself.  “Celebrations!  Come on!”

“Celebrations?”

“Yes, yes, yes!  Drink up now and hurry, the party will be starting already!”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo credit: Janosch Diggelman on Unsplash

Continuum – Episode Fourteen: Emanation Games

The Story so Far:

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure some of them must.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His inference is unmistakeable.

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“Chronologically is usually best.”  Portis advises. 

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

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

The Domo grimaces:  “The usual filters?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then we adjourn.”

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

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

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

“I’ll brief the Lady Alanee.”

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

“I would rather you were present, Cassix.”

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

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

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

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.