When the Customers Don’t Count at All…

For once, I’m at a loss to know where to begin!   Where DO I begin?

Let’s start with this.  A couple of weeks ago I was rushed to hospital after suffering severe blood loss, which eventually needed a transfusion to stabilize.  The treatment was calm, assured, and apparently successful because, buoyed up by all your good wishes (thank you so much!) here I am.

BUT while I was being admitted I was given a ‘test’ for the COVID virus.   It was done in Admissions, and it consisted of a long ‘cotton bud’ thrust through my mouth into the back of my throat.  It barely made contact with its target, only serving to induce a gag reflex.   No nasal swab was taken.

Since then I have done a little research and from all I have read it appears to me I was given a PCR test, one reliant upon nasopharyngeal sampling.  Really?   I have also learned that this test method is subject to a wide margin of error – when it is done correctly.  I don’t believe mine was.

Twelve hours later I was informed my test had proved positive, on the basis of which I was transferred to the hospital’s isolation ward.  This set in train a minimum of ten days of self-isolation for myself and fourteen days for my wife.   

Neither of us has exhibited any symptom of the virus

There’s probably a very good reason for that.  We weren’t – aren’t, in all likelihood – infected. Apart from a couple of proprietorial SMSs reminding me I was infected and it was my ‘duty’ to self-isolate, I’ve heard from no-one since;  Sylvia, however, received three ‘phone calls checking up on her.  

Maybe it’s because we are over seventy and ‘retired’ we are expected to have nothing better to do than wait for the next communication from the Thought Police.  Maybe we are expected to take whatever the system decides to deal out to us and remain docile.   Maybe that is why it is okay to give us such a flawed procedure, because we won’t have a means for complaint.

Ungrateful, am I?  No.  My emergency was dealt with efficiently.  I had a real illness and that was brought under control.  

Irresponsible, am I?   Again,, no.  I did self-isolate.  Although I never felt ill, I did undergo the marginal worry that catching something like this would almost certainly imply a death sentence.

Worried much more because there are figures being thrown about the media which are founded upon data produced by this test, and no-one seems to care.  When, in the hospital, I asked about the efficacy of the test, I was told it was ‘the best we’ve got’.

It isn’t.

Last week, testing was made available to all the citizens of Liverpool.  On the last figures I heard, out of 90,000 people tested, 336 returned a positive result – that’s 0.37%, considerably less, I imagine than would have been revealed by similar testing for say, influenza, or pneumonia.   The differences?  A different test,   known as the Viral Particle Test which, without going too much into ‘the science’, is much more accurate.  What is more, the sampling was conducted by the military, who, we are told, ‘are much more accomplished at these things’!

So, yes, I am very worried.   We are being told (not asked, told) to accept flawed data that affects our lives.  Small businesses are being starved of their life-blood and employees are being sacked.  People who have worked hard for years, towing the ‘duty’ line and saving to buy overpriced houses are likely to be forced onto the streets, their relationships broken, their children’s growing years disrupted irreparably, and why?

No matter how many times we are told otherwise, the horrible truth keeps revealing itself: we are all incidental to the grinding, merciless imperviousness of the establishment machine. We are sources of finance, no more than that. Only when that sources dries up, do we become important.

In the business of the United Kingdom (and probably of the United States, too), the customers come last.  

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 Ten Experiments in Fear

The story so far:

Alanee, missing her friendship with Sala and learning her aerotran pilot, Dag Swenner, is believed dead, feels isolated and afraid when Ellar the Mediant tells her that her work in the City is about to begin.

Alanee seeks out Sala to renew their friendship, and guided by a mediator called Seil, the pair pursue a route that takes them well below the foundations of the Palace to an ancient door.  Before she has a chance to protest, Alanee is seized by a giant guard and thrust inside…

No time to struggle; no hope of resistance.  The giant man propels Alanee through that heavy door and slams it with an oaken crash in Sala’s face.  A second pair of brutal hands clasps Alanee’s arms, raising her feet from the floor to carry her, throw her, turn her.  A cold slab of stone at her back, cold iron clamped about her wrists:  her arms hoisted above her head so she is almost hanging and she cries out with the pain; manacles clasp her ankles.  Her captors step back.

A trickle of blood runs down her right arm.  Such is the agony in her arms and shoulders she has to force her eyes to open, seeing her assailants through furious tears.  Both are mighty creatures garbed in black leather jerkins and loin-cloths.  Their muscle-bound forms as immutable as the granite that surrounds them, they stand with their backs to her, one on each side of the room’s only feature, a table of crude construction upon which are arrayed a long black whip, an iron mask with inverted spikes, thumbscrews, and pliers.

Granite walls, granite floor, flickering and guttering in the poor light from torches lodged in brackets on each wall.  In the further wall are two doors, both closed.  The one which admitted her, and another, smaller door to its right.  So this, to an innocent country girl, is how a torture chamber looks.  She might never describe the black despair of this moment, the realisation that all her worst nightmares were, in the end, so inadequate; for nothing could have prepared her for this.  By comparison imprisonment would be a blessing now; all those promises, the treachery of Cassix, of Ellar, of Sala, all leading to this.  At last she knows why those who are taken by the State are never seen again.  Their blood washes walls such as these – their end is unremarked and all memory of them wiped away.

“I think the mask!”  A voice from somewhere beyond her range of vision:  a cold, high voice which whines like winter draft in a casement.  “Try it to see if it fits.”

The pillar of masculine flesh to Alanee’s left seems moved to obey.  He lifts the spiked head-piece from the table and turns towards her.  His sinewy frog-like face creases into a sadistic grin.  He comes towards her, raising the fiendish instrument over her head.  She sees how the spikes upon the inner side of its lid, the long, long spikes, are set in such a way that one will pierce each of her eyes, two others each of her cheeks, another her mouth.  Her heart raises a wild beat, terror quakes through her – she is gibbering – knows it – mouthing words meaninglessly:  “Let me down – let me go!  No!  NO!  NO!

“This is hysteria, isn’t it?”  That high, unpleasant voice sounds at once delighted and a little curious.  “How strange!  I have never seen that.”

Now the rough helmet is being fastened about her neck, that lid swinging unheeded back and forth, its spines threatening any moment to dig into her skin.  Her eyes!  No, pray Habbach, not her eyes!  Alanee is in the grip of a fear more consuming than any she has known, but yet she cannot go to her death without some riposte, some sort of struggle.

“Does it please you, then?”  She strives to find a voice.  “Feeds your fucking perversion, does it, you loathsome toads?”

The lid at last swings too far:  a first spike touches the flesh of Alanee’s cheek, reducing a string of invective to a strangled scream.

“It doesn’t fit my picture.”  The voice has altered in timbre, lost its edge.

Across the room that smaller of two doors is opening.  Through it enters a figure who, even in this dim light, defies Alanee’s last vestige of belief.  She sees a young body of athletic build, richly garbed in a toga edged with precious stones that glitter in the torchlight.  This is indisputably a male figure, one which emanates assurance and power.  A face perfectly featured, somewhere between that of a child and a man – pale-skinned, almost colourless – but framed by a head such as none Alanee has ever seen.  For he has no skull at all:  instead, a near-transparent membranous globe that seems to grow from the creature’s forehead and cheeks, extending to twice the size of any normal cranium and so unwieldy it must be supported by two substantial sapling-like buttresses (she can think of no other word to describe them) which grow from his shoulders and attach where, in more usual human circumstances, ears should be.  From there, these growths reach out to each other; encompassing the apex of the globe as if offering some kind of restraining scaffold, from which fronds of external structure spread and curl, like the branches of a vine.

Yet it is not this organic cage that transfixes Alanee’s horrified stare, but the sight of all that lies within; because the globe is filled with a cloudy bluish fluid through which are visible a multitude of fine mucosa strings of darker hue.  Though each of these strands may be no more than a few millimetres in diameter, their constant, rapid peristalsis is obvious: they move among themselves; what is more, they link to something deep and unseen at the centre of the globe – something which flickers with a light of its own.  Amongst this skein of tubular flesh pigmented cells dart from place to place, not in a random manner but with targeted rapidity, like tiny water-boatmen she remembers from days of summer by the farmyard pond.

The sight of this mutation, atop all her other terrors and humiliations, is too much for Alanee.  Her vision spins.  She hears and sees nothing more.

#

There is a tapping.  Dag is not sure when he becomes aware of it, but he knows it is there.  Insistent – tap, tap, tap.  He does not want to wake up because his dream is a good one.  He does not want to leave the bed he shares with this girl.  She is warm and vibrant in his arms with her long limbs wrapped about him and he thinks he could stay here forever, if it were not for that tapping.

“Alanee?”  He must wake her.

“Hmmm?”  Her sleep-drowned face, those incredible blue Hakaani eyes.

“I have to wake up, ba.”

“Must you?”  She is fading,  “Must you?”

He comes to himself with a start.  He is in the aerotran, and he has crashed.  He remembers that.

There is a drumming, and the drumming is rain.  It makes jewels and rivulets upon the window of the pod.  But the rain is not the cause of the tapping sound.  The human shape draped upon the window is.

Little by little all sensation returns, from the pain in his back to the drunken angle of his machine, making him realise that the figure knocking on the glass must be almost lying on top of the aerotran’s safe cell.  The figure belongs to a swarthily-featured young man dressed in the habiliment of a Dometian peasant, a simple shift which, unsurprisingly given the conditions, is extremely wet.  He is mouthing something.

Dag’s first thought is that help has arrived.  After all, he must have been on the ground for some hours now.  But further consideration casts doubts:  this is not a suited rescue service operative, with mask and gloves. 

He presses the release button.  The hatch behind him slides back.  “Who are you?”  He calls out.  “Can you help me?  I think I’m damaged.”

The rain is blowing into the aerotran now.  From outside he thinks he hears the young man’s reply as:  “Look to your right!”

“What?”

“Don’t move!  Your right – look to your right!”

Dag moves his head carefully and is thankful to find his neck, at least, is unbroken.  Oh, Habbach save us!

To the right of his aerotran the view is uninterrupted.  That is because there is nothing but empty space.  He hangs above a canyon, balanced on a vertical cliff over a dry river-bed some hundred metres beneath.  The fulcrum point is so finely placed that just the act of breathing seems to set the aerotran rocking dangerously.

“Any ideas?”  He shouts out as loudly as his state permits.

“The problem is the wind.”  Comes the reply.  “If I get off here I think you may be blown over the edge.”

“So?”

“I’m going to work my way towards the tail if I can do it without getting off.  The further back I go the better the weight is distributed, I think.  The trouble is I keep slipping, it’s so wet!  Don’t try to move yet.”

“Not sure I can.  There’s something wrong with my back.”

“Well, we’ll see.  Stay still for now.”

With this the young man slides his right hand across the glass.  The aerotran sways.

“Habbach!  Be careful!”

“I’m trying!”  He moves a foot.  More swaying.  His body slithers after it.

Dag calls out:  “What’s your name?”

“Ripero.  Is that important right now?”

“I just wanted to know who I was going to say goodbye to.”

Inch by inch Ripero manoeuvres himself towards the rear of the aerotran’s pod until he has vanished from Dag’s view.  More than once there is a cry as a foot slips, a hand loses grip.  Then, quite suddenly, a foot appears in the hatchway.  Moments later Ripero is fully inside the door.

“Hi!”  He says.  “Now it’s your turn!”

Dag tries moving to his left.  His back screams a warning, but he persists, forcing his body to lever him up the drunken slope of the floor.  The blinding agony he first feared, the total incapacity of a broken back, does not come.  With mobility if anything the pain is eased.  He is able to crawl around the footings of the co-pilot’s seat and into the rear of the aerotran.  Ripero’s weight stabilises the back end of the machine, so every move he makes in the same direction should bring greater safety, yet it does not feel like that.  Ripero’s urgent shout confirms his anxiety.

“The bloody wind’s shifting it!  Come on, hurry!”

Abandoning all thought of safety, Dag struggles to his feet, launches himself towards Ripero, who shoots out a big hand and grabs him, throwing him out of the hatch and into the teeth of rain and wind.

Dag lands in a groaning heap upon a slick of wet ash, hearing the thud as Ripero’s body grounds beside him.  Together, the two men grasp the land as if it might escape them if they did not hold it down while somewhere behind, with an almost inaudible sledging sound, the aerotran pod disappears from sight.  Above the wind they can still clearly hear a crump of contact far below upon the canyon floor.

Ripero clambers to his feet, looking ruefully down at himself, plastered as he is with black mud.

“These were my best clothes.”  He laments.  “Never mind!  Now I’ve rescued an aerotran pilot they’ll let me have a proper suit I expect!”  He holds out a hand to Dag.  “Be careful, it’s very slippery here.”

Free of the immediate danger of the doomed aerotran, the pair are in peril of being washed into the canyon by the force of wind and beating rain.  Beneath them a viscose slick of black ash offers no purchase – to stand is to become a sail before the storm – a storm which, though abated somewhat, has ample force to blow them before it, skating helplessly, into the abyss.  Only when they have crawled, scrabbled, staggered to a safe margin of bare rock may they stand fully upright.

“I’ve found shelter nearby!”  Ripero shouts above the clamour.  “You can walk, yes?”

“Yes I can walk!”

Dag walks.  He walks because there is no alternative other than to stay here and die.  He walks though the pain in his lower back feels as if it will cut him in half at every step, and other pains that have lain undiscovered before, deep and lingering, warn him of further injuries.  Although he has not far to go, this is the longest walk of his life.

#

Braillec’s fortress castle stands like a signpost to the stars.  Atop the highest rock of the Southern Mountains its towers can be seen from every aspect for twenty miles.  Even in first light, before the sun has raised its head over Kiilar Dan in the east, it speaks of its history.  The ghosts are always walking here, amid tales of ancient life, of walls that date back to before the Conflict, of wars and murders and royal intrigue.  It is a magical place.

Nowadays the fort itself is centrepiece to a celebration cake of a town.  Terraced streets wind their way around the rock, or climb at impossible angles straight up its precipitous sides.  White stuccoed buildings – houses, emporia, libraries and small industries, cascade like frosting from every level, glittering beneath street light candles that glow eerily in the mists of morning.

In this dawn haze the citizens of Braillec move like cats towards their day; emerging from their homes to step where no normal man would have courage to tread, descending or ascending as freely as mountain goats in their vertical world.  They are a quiet people who talk with each other in hushed tones, as though afraid that ghosts might hear them.  The castle is their father and a strict one too.  They live in his awe.

High Councillor Trebec is cold.  He is also angry – well, no, perhaps ‘irritable’ would be a better word – at being dragged from his bed at this early hour.  The spectacular mountain vista does nothing for his constitution, though, if pressed, he might concede that it is impressive: he is discomfited, and he is abominably, freezingly, cold.  From his parapet view he sees a very different aspect of Braillec, for, in the deep valley that lies between the fort and Kiilar Dan,( a valley once glacial, in the days before the Conflict) a honeycomb of man-made caves permeate the old mountain’s eastern face.  Before each cave a transport aerotran waits, and beside each aerotran a squad of soldiers.

“We are ready to embark, sir, on your word.”  Says the soldier who stands beside him.

Mission Commander Zess has been placed under Trebec’s orders.  Zess harbours his own opinions of Sire Trebec, which, were the High Councillor to hear them, would not please him, but he never will, of course.  When he, Zess, was told he would be required to lead a rescue mission into Dometia he was surprised.  When he investigated the reason he was alarmed:  yet he would never question his orders.  The order he is about to receive, however, will test that particular discipline to its limits.

“The terrain is sufficiently stable, then?”  Trebec asks.  He looks towards the black threat hanging over the southern sky; a sight that has drawn his eyes continually since his arrival here.  Even now he can see the dance of distant lightning.

“There are signs of remission, sir.  I intend to get as close as I can.  If the storm continues to abate at this pace we should be able to move in a few hours.”

Trebec nods.  “Then you have your order.”

“Sir, if I might?”  Something troubles Zess.  “We have made no arrangements in the City for refugees, sir, or for the injured.  Should we not ask the Almoner to begin an evacuation plan?”

Trebec turns from his view to engage the Mission Commander’s eyes.  He takes a long breath.  “There will be no refugees, Zess, do you understand?  No injured.  No survivors – is that clear?”

“Sir, half the population of Dometia is out there!”

Trebec knows.  How can he explain?  People whose brainwaves have been liberated by the interference of the electrical storm, people who have not received The Word for two days now.  What else can he do?

“No survivors, Zess.  None.”

“Then all these men are….?”

“A front, Zess, nothing more.  At the Dometian border set them down as your mission dictates, let them believe they are making camp for the wounded, field hospitals, that kind of thing:  the aerotran crews will do the rest.  They are my picked men.”  Trebec catches the horror in Zess’s face.  “Do you think I like this?  Do you think I slept last night?  It is duty, Zess.  It is a necessary thing.  The responsibility, the torment; that is all mine.”

#

Iron spears that press into the flesh of her cheeks, into and through:  the distinctive ‘pop’ of yielding skin, the hot pain of rough iron boring in,her eyes!  Oh, Habbach her eyes are gone, she knows it!  Soon they must reach the threshold of the brain….soon the agony will cease…..soon it will be over.  Please, Sire Habbach of my soul, let it be soon!

Hands on her shoulders: gentle light; a kind face that smiles down upon her; is this what it is like?  Is this the after-life no-one believes in?

“Be still, my dear!”  Says the kind face – like her mother’s face – be still, my Alanee-tes, my ba!-  but not, no, not her mother; an angel; an angel’s face.  “It is all over now!  All over!”

She tries to see about her, sees everything veiled as in a fine haze.  Only the sweet face is clear to her, and all that she sees makes her really think she might be in heaven.  Yet there are things…..  Alanee raises her arm so she may inspect her wrists and, true to her expectation, red wields testify to the cruel grasp of manacles.  Her shoulders ache, too.

“Where am I?  Why can’t I see?  Who are you?”  Her lips are dry, making the questions tumble over one another.  “My head!”  A confusion of voices is growing inside her brain  – a sound that is not so much heard as experienced – voices indistinguishable as words or song.

“You are in the upper rooms of the Palace.  We brought you here.  You were very, very frightened my dear, so I gave you a little draught; a sort of sedative, if you like.  Then I bathed you, replaced your robe with another, and we left you to sleep.  You have been asleep for five hours, Lady Alanee:  your fear must have exhausted you.”

Alanee’s vision is clearing – she is already coming to herself.  She catches the scent that anoints her body, feels the fresh robe upon her skin, the comfort of soft bedding beneath her.

“Is she awake, Mother – is she better??”  A voice she knows, from somewhere:  a sound vaguely familiar, yet not.  If only the inner waterfall of noise would go away!  It is much louder now, beginning to express itself as pain.

“Yes, darling.  I think you can talk to her now, if you want.”

© 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.