Continuum – Episode Twenty-Nine: Time to Choose.

In the previous episode:

Acting upon Hasuga’s demand that she remove a book from the City’s Inner Library, Alanee takes the elevator deep into the rock below the city, where she finds the sanctuary of the Book of Lore guarded by Karkus, aged progenitor of  The City itself.   In stealing the book she is discovered by the leacherous Portis, who tries to compromise her in the privacy of the elevator in return for his silence.  She tricks him by summoning Ellar to call the elevator,and escapes, leaving Portis to explain himself to the Mediant.   Now read on…

Alanee knew she had only a few minutes lead on events.  While she put as much distance as she could between herself and the elevator, Portis would, with difficulty, be persuading the Ellar the Mediant of his innocence and of hers, Alanee’s, culpability – he may not succeed on either count, but Ellar, meticulous as she was, would want to cover herself very quickly, so swift pursuit with the object of investigating any possible theft was inevitable.

Later, were she given time, Lady Ellar might review these events and wonder.  Why had Alanee’s summoner message, tapped out blindly:  “Help call lib elev”, reached her rather than any other member of the Council?

  She might wish that it had not.  She will not know that Alanee’s inexpert fingers hit her call-button purely by chance, because beneath the folds of the robe that seconds later she would shed she could neither see what she wrote, or to whom she addressed it.  It was only essential that someone should call the elevator, bring it up to the high corridor.

The Book?  Ellar never saw the book.  It was beneath Alanee’s robe when she recovered it, concealed from sight as she clasped it to her, running away through the scattering of nobles who frequented the corridor at that time.

Later, Ellar might discover these things.  Just as she might investigate Portis’s frantic claim, made while he sought to cover himself:

“It is a device Lady!  She has stolen a book!   Detain her, for Habbach’s sake!”

She might believe him.  Anyone witnessing this scene in the corridor might, if Portis’s habits were not well known, if his tastes were not public knowledge and if the physical evidence were not so compelling.  It is a balance of probabilities, as all things are, and it weighs in Alanee’s favour for just long enough.

Alanee bursts into Cassix’s chambers, where Sala awaits her. Saucer-eyed, Sala takes in her friend’s undressed state.  “Je-Habba!  What happened to you?”

“Sire Portis got a little too fresh for his own good.  I’m all right, ba, don’t worry, or I will be as soon as I get some sensible clothes.”  She senses Sala’s nervousness,  “But you’re upset, aren’t you?  Is there something the matter?”

In the bedroom, Alanee throws her robe and the book upon the bed, quickly slipping into a Hakaani-style tabard she had commissioned from the dressmaker.  She shudders:  “I wish I had time for a bath, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this soiled.”

Sala stands in the doorway.  “What’s that?”  Her eyes have rested upon the book.

“I’ve no time to explain right now.  I’ve a head start on the guards, I think: no more than that.”

Sala’s stares at the little locked volume: her eyes follow it as Alanee picks it up and slips it into her clutch bag.  Alanee reads her thoughts.  The friends both pause in shared significance.

“Is that from the…?”

“From the Inner Library?”  Alanee is tying the thongs which secure the sides of the tabard;  “Yes, it is.”

Sala’s summoner is blaring:  she stabs at it, holds it up to the light.  “It is the Lady Ellar.”

“Don’t answer it!”

“Alanee, she’s my patron!”  Sala protests; “But it doesn’t need an answer, darling.  It’s an order.”  She displays the read-out for Alanee to see.  The message says:   “KEEP HER THERE.  You stole that book, didn’t you?  Alanee, they kill you for that!”

The pair exchange looks.  Alanee says:  “So, now.  Your patron or your friend?  Time to choose, ba.” 

Sala nods solemnly.  “That’s a choice I’ve already made.  I won’t keep you, but have you seen the mirrors?” Alanee is making for the door, intent upon completing her mission by placing the book in Hasuga’s hands; “Take a minute to look at this first.  Please, ba?”

She urges Alanee around the mysterious and, to her, a doorless wooden edifice, guiding her into the leather chair before the trio of mirrors.  They are alive with reflections; reflections of carrion birds circling, people racing blindly as deer before a forest fire; dying people with terror, mortal terror in their faces, muscles taut as steel hawsers, drooling mouths and bulging, sightless eyes.  There are thousands, the running and the dying, thrown into stark relief by flashes of brilliance from a furious sky.

‘Have you seen?’  Hasuga is in Alanee’s head again.  ‘Do you understand?’  Alanee does.  Now, before these images, she understands it all.  ‘Bring me the Book.  I must have it in my hand, Alanee.’

Fighting her fear, she tells Sala.  “The book must be returned to whom it belongs.  I have to take it to him.  If you believe in me you must wait for me here, ba.  Do you see?  I will return.”

Sala calls after her:  “This.  All this.”  She waves towards the mirrors.  “It isn’t real, is it?  It’s just necromancy, witchery.”

Alanee smiles kindly.  “Is that what you want to believe, ba?   No, the mirrors speak truly.  That is the Continuum, and our time has run out  Be patient now, I won’t be gone for long.”

“The guards will come.  Ellar will come!”

“Tell them you tried to detain me, but I fought you off.  Stay here if you can, darling.”

Since her arrival, Alanee has not had opportunity to explore the links from her high station to the lower city, and she knows of just one route to the Palace.  By winding her way through back alleys, past drinking halls and night club areas that are sweeping up from the business of the night before, she hopes to evade any troop of guards Ellar or Portis may send in her pursuit.  She loses herself twice before a chance diversion delivers her onto the forecourt of the great palace building.   Taking a deep breath and concealing the book as best she can, she steps into the open.  Although she may feel a hundred eyes boring into her back, she is safer than she expects.  In the event most of the city’s elite are about their daily tasks and word of her little drama with Portis has not yet reached this level.  Any remarks she overhears refer to her status.

“I believe that is Lady Alanee, our new Seer!”

“So young!  So young!”

“Exquisite!  Quite exquisite!”

When she steps into the Great Hall of the Palace, however, the atmosphere is quite different.  Here the hustle and bustle of the day is in full swing and seemingly more frenetic than its usual pace.  She is recognised here too.  A few greet her, some ignore her, all look curiously at her disrespectful form of dress.  When she reaches the private elevator that rises to Hasuga’s high rooms, this becomes an issue.  A royal drab steps across her path.

“Lady?  What business have you here?”

“I’m appointed to meet with Sire Hasuga.  You know who I am?”

“You are the Seer, Lady.  But your clothes are inappropriate to the inner sanctum.”

“The matter is urgent.  I had no time to change.”

“Nevertheless…”

“Step aside, man.  Lady Alanee has Sire Hasuga’s full authority.”  She identifies that voice immediately, spins around in some confusion.

“Celeris?  But how…?”

His smile is as placidly beautiful as ever.  “Lady, I am always at your service, surely you know that?  You must forgive our over-zealous friend here:  the place is in turmoil.  There is a rumour that Sire Portis is under arrest, and Sire Trebec is to be brought to trial for genocide.  The High Council is in utter disarray.  It is what you might describe as a ‘bad morning’ really.”

He steps closer, so she can inhale the sweet scent of his breath, whispers to her.  “You see?  Even a hologram has its uses.  Actually, my dearest memory, this is the last time we shall meet.  Be well, Alanee.”

The elevator doors are open behind her.  Before she has time to protest or give tongue to her anger, (or would it be love?) Celeris walks away, vanishes in the hubbub of the crowd, leaving behind him an emptiness of parting.

As the doors close and the pod of the elevator raises her to Hasuga’s royal apartments she tries to confront the riddle of Celeris.  Who, or what, was he?   Substantial enough, this she knows:  no ghost, no apparition.  Then what – a part of her that she might summon in times of hopelessness or hope?  How could a life be brought to existence purely by her need, then cease until next she needed it?  How could space be created in time for such a materialisation, and what would be left each time it departed?  The process of deduction begun before the mirrors is developing and each new revelation is another shock, another open mineshaft into darkness.

He is where he always sits, upon his bed.  The room is empty.  The serpentine machine is gone, the screens are still and lifeless.

“You have the book.”  It is not a question.

Alanee takes the book from her bag, offering it to him, arm outstretched.

“No, not yet.”  Puzzled, she steps back.  How pale he looks, how thin and drawn!  The mighty complex of his brain that always seemed to pulsate with inspiration is unillumined now, as if some part of him has already left his body.

“I thought you wanted it, you said you could open it, read what’s inside.  Now you don’t?”

“I know what is inside.  As do you.  You read it when you took it in your hands, and yes, you must give it to me, but not before you know its name.”

“It doesn’t have a name – not on the spine, not on the cover – look!”  She proffers the volume, and almost at once she wishes she could retract her words, for there is a name – embossed in gold letters, where before there was nothing.  In some wonder, she reads the title aloud.

“The Holy Bible.”

Hasuga says simply:  “We are done here.”

“You make no sense to me. This makes no sense, none of it.  There is some plan, some scheme.  If I am a part of it, shouldn’t I be told?”

“Alanee my dear one, I have said to you not once but many times that I am learning.  All the knowledge I have gained is in your head too, though you may not countenance it yet.  I do not know what will happen to you next, only that if you are given the opportunity, you will also learn.”

Hasuga rises to his feet and steps closer to her, so she may see his eyes, and the conviction within them, as never before.  “It is all there in your mind – all the history, all the reality.  As you need it and if you need it you will find what you seek, dredge it out.  Think of your mind as a great library filled with books , all of which you could not possibly find time to read.

“So, what now?”  His smile is suddenly so reminiscent of Celeris.  “Well, that is the next great discovery.  When my hand closes around that book, a circle is completed.  Then we shall both discover the truth.”

Hasuga extends a thin left hand, clasps her free hand within it.  “We shall not see each other again.  Go now.”

And with his other hand, he takes the book from her grasp.

The heavens scream.

Long ago, when Alanee was very young, the earth shook itself as a dog does when it clambers from the water.  Her mother pronounced it a ‘tremor’ and dismissed it, but to Alanee it was a fearful episode; a profusion of falling plates, rocking furniture, cracking plaster from the walls.  She remembers it.  So the feeling of the palace in motion beneath her feet is familiar, and were it not for the time and place, she might dismiss it as her mother did.  But there is a greater wrongness within it that speaks to her, something that demands she run.

“Quickly, Sire!  We must get away!”

Hasuga only smiles:  he smiles, then, like Celeris in her chambers, like Saleen before Ripero’s outstretched hands, he is gone.  The room is gone.  The apartments, the entire palace is fragmenting, with no cry, with no thunder of masonry or spike of flame – without any blinding fog of dust:  just a distant whine of something coming;   something absolute …..

Filled with horror, Alanee turns towards the door:  but there is no door, there is no wall.  For a fraction of a second the great hall of the palace is in its place (how is she here, rather than three storeys above?) but then that, too, disappears:  Toccata’s tsakal house materialises with Toccata standing within it, his face a white mask of despair.  His expensive hangings are falling in a whirlwind, yet he still reaches out to her, mouth moving in a soundless greeting.  In turn the ante-room to the council chamber, then the palace courtyard fly about her head – images of places she knows, faces she remembers, shuffling like cards in a deck.

Somehow she is running, she knows that, though her feet do not seem to move; passing through the courtyard, the Grand Park, the malls, her old apartment, all with the desperate desire to find her way back:  back to Sala.  The one thing, the one person vital to her.  She must rescue Sala.

Is it her?  Is she in some kind of dream?  Only that unremitting sound, growing steadily, seems real.  The City has lost its order, its structure:  it is coming to pieces.  Nevertheless somehow she is finding her way.  Something in her psyche guides her, makes sense of the moving maze in such fashion that she finds direction when all direction has been lost.  A thread within her follows a thread through the mayhem and that should be sufficient – would be – were it not for Mother.

Mother, cheated by her beloved child and screeching out her loss in a paroxysm of fury:  Mother with hyena-teeth bared and long knife aloft comes whirling from the mists of confusion with one thing only in her contorted mind; to take the life from the one who took Hasuga from her – Alanee’s life.

Before she can defend herself Alanee is thrown to the moving ground with time to no more than twist away from the first strike – the second she cannot avoid.  It plunges deep, it strikes like an rod of fire into her thigh and instantly her blood starts pulsing through the wound.  This is death!  She takes the third strike on her arm, catching the raw blade enough to turn it on itself.  With a strength born of mortal peril she thrusts the demented woman from her, grabs the hand that has the weapon in its grip.

Now a real struggle begins.  Mother has the knife, would thrust it into Alanee’s heart, but Alanee holds her by the wrist and is forcing it back.  Mother is finding her feet, trying to rise.  Alanee feeling her strength flowing freely from the gash in her leg has too little time.  It must be now!  The woman’s hand is pushing this way, her balance is swaying that.  Going with her movement, going against her poise, one thrust.  The knife goes where the knife chooses, and it chooses Mother’s throat.  The woman who devoted her life to care of the Hasuga child ends it by her own hand, by Alanee’s guidance.  Her windpipe severed and emitting bubbles of blood, Mother sinks to the floor, thrashes there for a second or two before dying.

Alanee’s rising vomit would choke her.  With no time for ceremony, she snatches Mother’s robe, using the bloodied knife to rend a strip from it.  She binds her leg tightly, so tightly she has to suppress a cry of pain.  Aghast at the pool of her own life that has already formed upon the switchback floor, she limps forward:  still hoping, still searching.  She promised she would not be long.  She promised she would return for Sala.  Her leg is ruptured, the muscle in her arm is slashed, disabled by the same knife; but she must find Sala.

The task is insuperable, random scenes passing before her so fast she can achieve no sense of direction.  In neither light nor darkness, she does not know where she is going, she cannot find anything constant to cling to.  The noise which pursues her is incessant now, an animal, an all-devouring thing.  People are scattering everywhere:  Ellar flits by, Trebec, the Domo.  And all the while her strength ebbs.

Utterly despondent, she ceases to try.  The hopelessness of her state, the certainty she will die before she ever reaches her friend overcomes her.  Whatever is happening to the city will consume her too.  There is no redemption, no answer.  There, amidst a rolling barrel of destruction Alanee drops to her knees and submits to fate.

Behind her the Continuum roars louder, a focussed beast sensing prey.

© 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.

Image credit: Kristen from Pixabay

Continuum – Episode Twenty-Five: Apparition

In the last episode:

Alanee, now officially the city’s Seer, is introduced to Cassix’s old apartment, and its peculiar array of wooden structures, artefacts, and mirrors.  She is sad to discover how her promotion has altered her relationship with Sala, who makes it plain she must act as Ellar’s eyes and ears.   In the midst of her depression, Celeris visits her, raising her mood, and they spend the night together.

Meanwhile, beside a river far away…

Dag Swenner’s body is healing well; a heat that spreads within him brings balm to each organ and limb, making each torn place whole, as though by needle and thread it is stitching him back together.  Although he was on the brink of death, by some mechanism he cannot understand he is no longer dying:  He has felt stronger, true, but minute by minute his vitality grows.

The stench has been intensifying, drifting upriver on the wind for more than a mile now, so the discovery of Ripero’s remains, though hardly recognisable from the scavengers’ touch, comes as no surprise to Dag.  His first instinct would be to seek a burial place, but here among rocks and tree-roots, lacking any appropriate tools, he would find none:  so he comforts himself with the evidence that Nature will take his rescuer to herself.  All he can offer is a prayer for a soul already departed and this he does. He clambers by, greeting the new air thankfully.

Beyond the river bend the valley widens, where hills to either side sweep back, and tree cover is forest no more, but tranquil woodland.  There is no tread of civilisation yet, but Dag expects it will not be long before he finds ground given to fields, a trodden path, the creatures of domesticity:  he wonders then what sort of welcome awaits him – whether those who slaughtered the Dometians on the plain are intent upon his death, too.  Whose company may he safely seek?

#

Alanee’s disappointment at waking to find Celeris’s space in her bed unoccupied is brief:  after all, he was with her into sleep and she is sure he honoured his promise.  She has slept late upon her draught of paia and loving contentment – now there are the challenges of a day to be met.

Tsakal in hand, she taps out the bookseller’s number on her summoner.  He sounds chagrined.  “Lady, you are a hard task-master.  Yes, it is ready, but the glues must dry and the lock must be added.  I shall have it completed by three.”

“Very well – thank you.  Please place it in a plain box, then wrap it and have it sent up to the Seer’s chambers.  No-one must open the wrapping or discover what is inside.  I want it as a surprise for my coupling.”  She knows this last excuse sounds lame, but she despises the need for artifice and is beginning to be careless of it.  Besides, with Celeris so fresh in her thoughts, Hasuga’s schemes have suffered something of an eclipse.

Thus, with the matter of the faked book in hand, Alanee has time to reflect upon her night with Celeris.  The warmth of his memory remains with her:  his way of touching her, his consummate skill as a lover – how quickly he has learnt!    A door chime disturbs her reverie.  Sala stands outside.

“Are you going to admit me this time?” 

“Yes, I’m sorry.  Do come in, ba.”  Alanee adds, defensively,  “He isn’t here.”

Sala nods, dourly,  “I know he isn’t.”

“You know?  You saw him leave?  I thought we agreed there were no cameras in here!”

“There are none in the chambers.  But there are several in the corridor outside and one cannot move about the upper levels without surveillance. That’s nothing new – simply the way it’s always been.”

“I see.  What time did he go?  I wasn’t awake.”

Sala is looking at her curiously, as if she is trying to apply reason to something that doesn’t quite fit.  All the evidence before her is of a woman who has passed a night with a man; and yet….

“He hasn’t left.  He hasn’t left because he never came.”

Why does the cheap response in Alanee’s head make her want to smile?  She avoids it.  “Well, I’m sorry you missed him then…”

“I reviewed the surveillance after you turned me away and again this morning.”  Sala puts her hands on Alanee’s shoulders; “Shortly after I left yesterday, you came to the door again.  You opened it, but you did not step outside.  You shut it.  Later, drabs came – to clean for you, I assume.  They left two hours before midnight.  Meantime you had food delivered from the Caldeg Restaurant down the corridor.  Then I came to see where you were and you shut the door in my face.  No-one else has been here, and nobody has left.  I’m the first one through that door since the drabs left you last night.”  Sala exhales, as though she has expended all the breath in her body.  “Now I’ll have a cup of your tsakal.”

Alanee cannot resolve the confusion in her mind.  In the kitchen, she stumbles around clumsily as she puts the tsakal together, unable to think.

“That can’t be,”  She protests:  “Celeris was here.”

“Alanee!  The truth?”

“Why would I lie to you?  He must have some way – he must be able to deflect the cameras. The drabs: ask the drabs:  they saw him here.  The food delivery man; ask him.”

“Yes, we did ask him.  You accepted the food at your door:  he saw no-one else.”

“But Celeris was standing right behind me…”

“As for the drabs, there is something odd there, I admit.  They were all personal servants of Sire Hasuga, not normally the grade of worker assigned to cleaning duties.”

“Did you ask them?”

“We can’t.  They’re nowhere to be found.”

“What?”

“They’re Sire Hasuga’s own complement, so he may dispose of them as he wants.  He seems to have – well – disposed of them.  We can’t track them down anywhere in the city.”

In Alanee’s mind there is a truth too awful to contemplate.  She is so preoccupied she fails to notice how Sala’s pallor, as she stands in the doorway facing her, has changed.  She does not see the mediator’s colour drain from her cheeks, or her wide, disbelieving stare.

A soft voice speaks from behind her left shoulder.

“You see me now.” 

For a second time in a day, Sala’s self-assurance fails her, as a young nobleman, dressed in all the formal regalia of the city, materialises from empty air.  At just this moment Alanee realises how she has brought Celeris to her: she, and someone else.  And that someone….

“It is you, isn’t it?”  She says.

Celeris answers:  “You already knew that.”

“A hologram!”  Sala snaps triumphantly.  “A bloody hologram!”

Celeris smiles.  He takes the cup of tsakal Alanee has prepared and brings it to Sala.  He offers it to her shaking hand, and when she seems about to drop it he closes his own hands around hers, steadying her.

“Can a hologram do this?”

Agape, Sala cannot speak.  She cannot look at him.  She sinks back against the jamb of the door, trying to find her legs.

Alanee says, quietly and levelly:  “Sala ba; greet Hasuga in one of his more attractive disguises.  He also does a Music Man, if you’ve ever met one of those?”  And of the beautiful man, she asks, stone-faced:   “How did this happen?” 

“You thought of me.  You are troubled.”

“I make you appear?”

Celeris’s smile is suddenly quite child-like. “You and I, together.  Part of me may be Hasuga, but Celeris is how you prefer to see me, so I am partly you.”

 “You found your way – into my mind?”

“We both knew it would be so.  Lady, I am The City.   No-one is immune, not even you.”

 “And so,”  Alanee voice trembles:  “You can turn my own mind against me?  You can just use me?  You can do that and I will just lie there and…and….you can violate me and nothing can stop you?  You can make flesh that isn’t real?”

“I am real enough.  You could have rejected me.  You did not.”

“This morning, you deviant, I was debating in my head how I might be in love – in love – with you!”  She spits out her words:  “You made me love a fake, you bastard.  From the fake bloody music in my head to the tailored-to-fit body to the marvellous bloody mind – all fake, fake, fake!

She hurls the tsakal cup that she has made for herself.  Celeris catches it calmly.  “You would not accept me in Hasuga’s body.  You are uncomfortable with that.  This body is defined by the image in your mind.  You chose it.  Do you know that for each of my thousands of years I have never once thought how my body must look, until these last two cycles?  Do you know how it feels to experience so many new sensations?”

Sala – where is Sala?  She has retreated.  She sits upon the edge of Alanee’s bed amid the ruck of unmade linen with head in hands.

In her kitchen Alanee is in full spate, somewhere between fury and bitterness, mortification and pure depthless misery:  “Oh!  And I’m meant to sympathise, am I?  I’m meant to understand?  Suppose all I see is the spoilt brat who gets what he wants? Who always gets what he wants?  A spotty adolescent who plies my heart with tricks because he can and because it doesn’t matter to him – I’m just another ‘good game’.”

Out of breath, Alanee has to pause, clutching at herself to squash the emptiness inside.  After all, how can you teach propriety to a child who has been pampered and spoilt for millennia?  Where do you begin?

The dark-eyed figure is of Celeris, but the words are clearly Hasuga’s.  He asks, without artifice:  “I have done wrong?”

Alanee replies in crystals of ice.  “I think that’s been the essence of the conversation so far, don’t you?  Hasuga, you deceived me!  You made me believe I could become close to someone again.”

“As in ‘love’?  That is some special thing?  My Mother often spoke of it.”

“No.  Not that kind of love.  Adult love;  mature love.”  Oh why is she explaining this?  What on earth difference can it make?

“Procreation, then?  That I understand.”  Something in his reply does not balance with the unfeeling expression on his face.  Alanee sees it.  Has she struck a chord at last?

“You know it’s more than that.”

But he shakes his head and turns away.  Perhaps to hide some manifestation of guilt, though Alanee cannot know it, and the moment, as so many of the great moments in her life since she entered The City, passes

Her fury has calmed, leaving a cavernous rancour in its wake.  She is probing through darkness she experienced once, three years ago, and which she had wished never to revisit.  Now it is here, closing around her, such that she cannot avoid the bitter edge in her voice.  “Well, at least Sala’s convinced of your veracity now, and she’ll not keep the information to herself.  How are we going to explain that away to my enemies in The City, Hasuga?”

“I am not Hasuga.”  Celeris insists.  “Hasuga is separate from me.  I am a creation of you and Hasuga together.  Hasuga may speak through me, and you may speak to Hasuga the same way, but we are not the same physical entity.”

“Somehow that seems to make very little difference.”

“Very well.  Sala will not remember me when she leaves here.  The memory remains yours alone.”  Celeris takes Alanee’s hand.  She snatches it away.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Is touching so abhorrent?”  He frowns.  “As you will.  This message, Alanee, does come from Hasuga.  You must bring him the book.  The matter is urgent.  If you do not believe this, see as only you can see.  Look at the sky.”

“The book!  The book!  All that matters, then, is that I bring him this book that he is not supposed to read.  If you can materialise as real people and blank Sala’s memory for her, why for Habbach’s sake do you need me to fetch your bloody book for you?  You can dream up a High Councillor to just walk into the Inner Library and take the thing, can’t you?  Or an army?  Why not an army?  You like war games, it should be simple for you!”

“No, not simple.  You, Alanee; you alone must bring that book to Hasuga.  When you do it, you will understand.”

Alanee says dully:  “There is nothing I understand any more.  Tell him…you…whichever you are, I’ll get the book.  As for Celeris, I’d like him to leave now.  I don’t want to see him again.”

She turns her back on him, unable to look at his innocent expression for another second.  When she turns again, he is gone. Inside her head, though, his image remains:  is it also still inside her heart?

She discovers Sala in her bedroom, seated on her bed.  She feels compassion for the woman who was briefly her friend, although she believes she may never cross the wasteland that separates them again, because Sala is clearly ruined in spirit.  Her incomprehension of what has passed haunts every word she speaks.

“Who – what was that?  Man, machine, what?   Have I just seen Habbach come to earth, Alanee?  Is that what I just saw?  I mean…”  She spreads her hands, lost for speech.

“You met with Hasuga, or a least a part of him.”  Alanee sits beside her, taking her cold hands in her own.  “Sala-ba, when you walk away from here you’ll leave the pain behind, but maybe, I don’t know, you’ll see how things are.  How they must be.  Maybe that, if you can retain it somewhere, will be just enough to persuade you to think better of me.  That’s all I can hope.”

Sala inclines her head, takes her hands away.  The distance is restored.  “My life is simple, Lady Alanee.  There are things I do not want to see.”

Sadness upon sadness, then.  Alanee nods, helps her rise, sees her to the door of the chambers.  There she stands to watch Sala walk away, wondering if Celeris’s promise can possibly come true:  after all she has heard and seen, will Sala remember nothing?

Left alone, she goes to the kitchen, needing the distraction of some functional thing to dissociate from thoughts that are not welcome, places in her mind she feels she may not go.  So she makes tsakal for herself, cleaning up the mess she created when she threw her original drink at Celeris, preparing xuss bread even though she has no appetite, and nibbling at it as if it were a comforter.  She makes her bed with fresh linen, takes the sheets she shared with Celeris into the kitchen.  There, she drinks her drink and she contemplates the soiled linen for a while, as though it might give her answers to those elusive questions loitering outside the gates of her consciousness.  Then she takes a knife and shreds the sheets methodically.

Returning to the forbidding, unfriendly reception room she ponders that silver orb upon its stand before the window.

‘Think of it as a sort of exercise for the psyche.’ Celeris had told her:  when she had commented on its extreme weight, he had said, ‘Not for you’.   But whose words are whose, now?  Are they her own, from some inner ear?  She does not want to go there:  instead, she sits before the ball upon one of those unyielding chairs.  She thinks of the Book of Lore at its station in the Council Room: how, merely for interest while Portis and Ellar were talking, she raised it from the surface of the table with just the power of her thoughts, then lowered it again.

“So now you.”

Without any particular effort of concentration, she makes the orb rise from its stand.  It hangs, suspended, as if waiting for her command.

“Easy.  Too easy.”  

Now she focuses her thoughts upon it.  She makes it spin.  Gaining in confidence, she moves it laterally, away from its resting place, across the room.  This is more difficult, as though some relationship exists between ball and stand that may not be easily severed, but she finds a thought – resentment of the misfortunes of the past hours – that releases it.  Of a sudden it flies, leaping high into the ceiling of the room, darting towards the window.

“Whoa!”  Alarmed, she shoots out a defending hand, making the orb stop instantly.  Another discovery:  the hand is a sensitive, precise tool; by pointing at the orb, she can make it obey.  Alanee guides it back to its stand and as it settles, the wood flexes beneath its weight.  Still she cannot believe what she has done.  She wraps her arms about the orb, tries to lift it physically.  It will not move.

“Was that me or you?”  She pokes the question at empty air, but she knows Hasuga will answer.  He does.

“It was you.”

The voice is so close, so immediate she glances around, convinced that Celeris has returned.  The voice, though, is unmistakeably Hasuga’s.  “You are here?  Where are you?”

“Wherever you want me to be.  We need not share the same room in order to communicate.”

It dawns upon Alanee that Hasuga’s replies do not come to her through her sense of hearing.  She says aloud.  “So now I can move things with my mind?”

“Telekinesis; a cheap party trick.  Nevertheless it took Cassix twenty years to achieve a fraction of your success.  That is just a beginning.”

“Oh, yes.  A beginning?  Where is this going Hasuga?  Am I learning from you, or are you controlling me?  Like the book in the Council Chamber?”

“You are learning.  I told you I had given you power, didn’t I?  Now you are gaining the knowledge you need to use your power.  Meanwhile I am learning from you.  You can have no idea how much I have to learn; or how little time there is to learn it.”

“Why such an obsession with time?”  Alanee, from the Hakaan, has never been disposed to rush.

“Look at the sky, Alanee.”

“I’m looking at it!  I’m just seeing sky.”  The view from the window is of grey cloud.  There are rain-flecks on the glass.

“Look in the mirrors.  Gain their trust.  I must leave you now.”

The feeling is of a switch being thrown inside her head.  Suddenly she is alone and aware of it, left with the room’s cold echoes.  The walls rise about her like the damp rock flanks of a deep chasm, a fissure in the construction of the City.  She might even imagine the scent of moss, or the rhythm of dripping water.

Freedom of choice; if she really has power she has the strength to step aside from the path they, Hasuga, the High council, Sala, even Cassix would have her follow.  She stares at the triptych of mirrors.  With great deliberation, she turns her back.

© 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 Nineteen: Wagoner’s Leap

From the previous Episode:

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Lady?”

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

“Yes Lady.”

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am the Commander!”

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

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

Drip – drip –drip.

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

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

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

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

“Want company?”

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

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

“I know that.”

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

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

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

“What are you drinking, Manda?”

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

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

“Seafood?”

“Crabs.”

“Oh.  Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not touchin’ that!”

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

Manda falls silent, trembling.

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

She nods, struck dumb by terror.

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

#

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

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

“Where is the lady who lives here?”

“Don’t know.  Haven’t seen her.”

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

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

“I imagine the Grand Park is too obvious?”

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

#

“Oh, Celeris, this is beautiful!”

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

“Come, I will show you your room.”

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

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

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

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

“You must be exhausted!”  He exclaims.

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

“You are pleased?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then I must leave you!”

In whispers, “Not this time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He responds:  “I won’t.”

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

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

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

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

The words take time to permeate,   But they do.

“A good game?”

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

  A very, very good game. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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