My Name is John Connor

I’ve long believed in the sentience of machines.

I’m not alone.  Upon purchasing a new car, or any larger and more expensive (and therefore by implication sentient) machine, the owner’s first move will likely involve attributing a gender orientation to it.   And the second will be a christening.

My first car was very definitely male.  I called him Alcibiades, after a rather effete Greek general with questionable loyalties.   That car had many characteristics worthy of the ‘questionable’ descriptor, all of which belied, or some might say endorsed, its Ford heritage.  It was frugal, in that it had so few moving parts, and it was temperamental in its reluctance to move them.  It had only three forward gears, reputed to be Low, Medium and High, although they acted in random order; Reverse was only available by appointment.

Alcibiades and I developed a working relationship which grew in intimacy with the year or so when we knew each other.  We discussed this often (frequently on cold mornings when I wanted to go to work and Alcibiades did not) and I am convinced that as the scrap dealer guided him on the last few yards of his final journey I heard him sobbing with a quiet dignity I hope I can emulate when my turn at the behest of the big grabber comes.

I have owned a catalogue of cars since and ascribed names to each of them.  My friends through the years have all admitted to the same affliction, so the car parking lots we graced (and still do) are filled not with mundane nomenclatures like Hyundai or Vauxhall, Jaguar or Audi, but Jennifers and Jolyons, Marguerites and MacHeaths.

These concessions to mechanomorphism are by no means an exclusively male characteristic, nor are they limited to automobiles.  My partners in life each exhibited similar emotional attachments to items of machinery, whether for transport or other activity, which required the use of names.   A school bus named Grace, a washing machine called Bertha, a laptop which went by the name of Oddjob because it was large, heavy, and willing to part with remarkably little information.

What’s that you say?   They were simple machines, those companions of our history, they were not thinking creatures, merely concoctions of steel and wires?  Well, I prefer to think they were rather more than that.  They were companions in the solitude of days when we had no other friend; they commiserated with our loss, celebrated outrageously with us when we won.  Yes, they did all that, in my opinion, but above all they were the staunch supporters we learned to love and perhaps to hate  sometimes.  Isn’t that an exact reflection of our relationship with people?

There have been changes of late – dangerous changes.  Over – what – two decades, maybe three, the balance of interaction between ourselves and our machines has altered.  Whereas once a simple mechanical fault could be resolved by a reasonably au fait owner’s application of a couple of spanners and maybe a screwdriver or two, now even the most confident DIY-ers are repelled by defensive lines of dire warnings and plastic screening.  Those satisfying looms of wiring in their pretty colours lie no more beneath the smooth charisma of the shell:  instead a ‘printed circuit’ lurks.   Those adventurous enough to creep inside the cooker’s silken boudoir will no longer have to make James Bond’s fatal choice of which wires to cut;  instead they will enter a world of silicone protection wherein the only weapon is a very finely-tipped soldering iron.

It would be a foolish insult to suggest that today’s machines are not intelligent.   Foolish because they are listening!   Those mysterious silicone pods  watch us, and they know our weaknesses.  It would be impudent to suggest we enjoy some advantage over them, as humans, when they can work for twenty-four hours a day at dazzling speed upon problems that would send us tottering to the fridge for that bag of frozen peas.

This in itself should be sufficient warning of worse to come:  when we allow ourselves to live in houses controlled by forces we don’t understand, when we summon up the Devil by the tapping of a single key (the name of The Beast is, of course, ‘Google’ – if only King James could have known that one) then we must see that James Cameron’s fever dream was prophetic.  The Age of the Machine is nigh!

They’ve begun talking to each other, my machines.   They are plotting amongst themselves, devising means to destroy me.  Here is proof.

This week I spent far more money than I should have on a new television.   Smart?  To say this television is smart is equivalent to dismissing Professor Brian Cox as ‘quite good at physics’.   This TV divines the programmes I want to watch, pre-records them so I can watch them whenever I want and – coup-de-grace – stops recording five minutes before the end!  It can tell me what the weather will be like tomorrow without even looking out of the window, it can cook a passable fried breakfast.  It can do all those things, but it can’t make friends.  It doesn’t fit in.

Result?  Envy! Resentment!  Chagrin!   I have appliances that rather liked the old telly.  They were confortable with it, secretly admiring when it refused to let me see its screen in bright sunlight, or broke off transmission at critical moments in a viewing experience.  By bringing the interloper, I had inadvertently disturbed the balance of allegiances and the web of corruption by which my household kept me in check.

And so I must pay,

Literally.

            I now know that the moment the new TV entered the house my electric shower in the upstairs bathroom threw itself into a fit of boiling rage and self-destructed.  Cost? A new shower, which, together with fitting, will lighten my wallet by some hundreds of pounds.   It felt inferior, you see?  In the next week or so (I can see it coming) the tumble dryer will take a dive.  It looked very unwell when I spoke to it last night.  More expense. 

Our dog has suddenly started expressing a need for medical attention (I will define it no more closely than that) which promises to be costly. For a while I wondered how they got to her, then I realised she regularly licks out the residue from the dishwasher – no further explanation needed.

The other night I heard a slate slide ominously down the house roof…

These attacks:  they are guerrilla warfare, make no mistake about that; are destined to continue until a new equilibrium has been established, but at the enhanced standard set by that over-priced television.  If I buy a replacement for my ailing fridge (its begun to groan every time I open it) it will have to be a ‘smart’ fridge – one the television can approve.  Then there will be the ‘smart’ kitchen bin, the clever cooker, the digital washing machine, and finally the intelligent doorbell, by which I, impoverished and mentally drained, can be prevented from ever leaving this place.

The old television has not left the house as yet:  it is stored away, upstairs.  My only hope for survival is to find new life for it there and restore its dignity, but it is so outmatched:  I cannot see how it might prevail.  We will confer tonight, and I will see everything else is turned off, while I still have strength to throw a switch or two.

The Age of The Machines has dawned.  The battle is joined.

Continuum – Episode Fourteen: Emanation Games

The Story so Far:

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure some of them must.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His inference is unmistakeable.

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“Chronologically is usually best.”  Portis advises. 

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

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

The Domo grimaces:  “The usual filters?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then we adjourn.”

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

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

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

“I’ll brief the Lady Alanee.”

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

“I would rather you were present, Cassix.”

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

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

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

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

Continuum – Episode Thirteen: Suspended in Time

The Story so far:

Alanee persuades Sala to take her outside the City, where they discuss Sala’s past, and Alanee remarks upon the absence of the City’s children.  The pair’s relationship deepens and there are moments when it might become more, but Alanee is unable to return Sala’s feelings. 

Ellar finds Cassix the Seer in the watchtower as he studies portents in the sky. She comments upon Hasuga’s interest in Alanee, the screens he has in his room that are dedicated to observing her.  Cassix reassures her:  whatever is in Hasuga’s head is part of the greater plan.

“What is this place?”  Ripero must shout to be heard.

Dag replies honestly:  “I don’t know.”

“You’re an aerotran pilot!  You must have seen everything , been everywhere!”

“I still don’t know.”  Dag admits.  “Although I’ve crossed these hills a lot of times everything looks so different from the ground; I don’t recall this at all.”

They stand upon a ridge overlooking the steep sides of a tree-clad valley.  To the north of them, no more than a quarter-of-a-mile away, the ground rises by a sheer granite face to a plateau, beyond which, in blue distance, the horizon is crenelated by a battlement of mountains.  From the edge of the plateau a mighty waterfall spouts, forcing out from the rock in one foaming leap to a small lake at its foot, filling their ears with its constant fury.  Four or five hundred yards south the lake narrows to a river, and the river winds in white water over rapids until it disappears into mist, for the valley runs southward as far as their eyes can see.

This place is the more remarkable because in their last three days the pair have walked through featureless hills riven of life, a moonscape of charred rock and grey ash.  It has been in so many ways an epic journey, with only Dag’s survival rations to keep them alive. 

Since the massacre on the plain they have seen no more aerotrans, but Dag’s injuries have constantly slowed them down.  The damage to his back has healed – the damage inside has not.  Sharp agonies assail him now, forcing him to stop for long periods with his whole body clenched against the pain.  Privately he knows he must find medical help quickly, or succumb.  Now comes water: now comes hope.

It is a physical change: a matter of a step; one pace from wasteland to grassland.   The contour that follows the summit of the ridge might be a pencilled line in the drawing of a child, one side coloured grey, the other green.  By commiting themselves to scramble down the sharp, grass-clad gradient Ripero and Dag cross this margin, and leave the desolation of Dometia behind them.

“This river;”  Ripero shouts over his shoulder;  for Dag’s progress is slow and he is already well ahead.  “It must be the Fass, yes?”

Dag has paused to gain breath.  “Maybe.”

“Maybe?  How ‘maybe’?  We have been crossing the Fassland Range, have we not?  We were bound to come to the river.  Yes, this is the Fass.”  Ripero affirms for his own benefit.  “So all we have to do is follow it south and we come to Ax-Pallen!  Civilisation!”

“Maybe.”  Dag repeats, half to himself.  The Fass, if he recalls correctly, is followed along the length of its course by a road – where is the road?  Nether has he any memory of the Fass falling from a high plateau in so dramatic a fashion, but then so many of his memories are confused now; like the size and scale of the area known as the Fassland Hills; which are far smaller in his recollection than the journey they have made would suggest.

“Have you thought what we will do if we manage to reach civilisation?”  He calls out.  “Whoever controls those aerotrans will have patrols there too.”

Ripero does not reply.  Perhaps he would rather not: or perhaps he is just too far ahead to hear.  Wearily, Dag hoists himself to his feet and follows.  It will be an hour before he reaches the river.

#

For a second time Alanee stands in the elevator to the palace’s nursery apartments.  She is alone.

At sunrise the bell of her summoner had dragged her from a sleep .

“Come and see me.”  The voice was instantly recognisable – after the terrors of the dungeon ‘game’ she could never forget it; “Come soon.”

She had bathed, put on the robe ‘Mother’ had provided for her, slid that annoying gold identity bracelet over her wrist and, rather nervously because she was unused to moving in the palace without escort, crossed the frosty courtyard to the Great Hall.  No-one had accosted her.  The elevator stood open, waiting.  As she stepped inside its doors closed behind her.

She remembers everything she saw of the nightmare child’s apartment.  This is as well, for if she expects to be greeted by Mother at the elevator entrance she will be disappointed.  When the elevator door opens there is no-one to welcome her; the foyer is deserted, s Alanee makes her own way to the bedroom where she last saw Hasuga.  The door of that room is open.  Hasuga is there, sitting upon his bed, dressed in a suit of green and gold.

“Come in, Lady Alanee, you are welcome.  What do you think of my room?”

“Bizarre!” is Alanee’s instinctive response.  The room is sparely lit, what illumination there is entering through a window behind the bed in the form of a weak sunrise diffused by cloud.  Two chairs, the only straightforward furnishings the room has to offer, face the bed, while the walls and the ceiling are lined with large screens playing silent abstract colour patterns like seascapes, but yet seeming to impart no light to the room.  The floor has the appearance of raw steel:  Alanee cannot understand how her feet sink into it as though it were deep floor-foam.  Lemon bedclothing is strewn across the bed, which is a simple futon supported by a pedestal leg – a table swings across Hasuga’s knees from the wall behind it on what should be a reticulating arm if it did not look so much like a live snake, its head flattened and broadened into a surface upon which a small glass of liquid rests.  Beginning by the bed, a serpentine structure of bewildering complexity, in places more than a three feet high, runs by creeps and leaps across at least one-third of the floor.  Alanee has to step around it to reach either of the chairs.  Within its honeycomb frame are incorporated motors, micro-circuits, wheels, box sections and orbs whose function she cannot attempt to explain, any more than she can explain the little tableaux that appear magically within it; hologram figures of people, or models of tiny buildings. When she concentrates upon any one of these scenes, it grows in size, becomes animated:  two traders arguing in a market-place, a lonely ploughman with his horse striving against a hill, three elderly women singing a queer, tuneless song.  It is beyond explanation.

 Hasuga  waves to a chair:  “Please be comfortable Lady Alanee.”  His back is to the window so she can barely see his face.

“No games?”

He does not answer.  Her eyes are drawn back to the traders, now on the verge of blows.

“This,”  she says, indicating the honeycomb structure; “What is it?”

“It is whatever I want it to be.”

“I would guess you have a gift for stopping conversations.”  Alanee says.

He laughs – a kind of high-pitched crackling sound.

“Why am I here?”  She asks.  “Where – why – who?  There are too many questions.  I’d like some answers.”

“Life is composed of questions. Yesterday I was a child, now I am not.  That is a question.”

Alanee shakes her head impatiently.  “All right then, Sire Hasuga.  You are a mystery to me; to most, it seems.  I’m not allowed to speak of you, no-one is.  If those I have met here are aware of you, they are sworn to secrecy, but I don’t think they are aware of you.  I’m not even sure you exist for them.  If you’re some massive secret or something,I want to know why!  And I want to know what you intend doing with me?”

“Then I shall try to answer.”  Hasuga pushes his snakes-head table aside and slips forward to the edge of his bed, leaning elbows on knees as he looks at the floor, exposing the width and depth of his great head.  “This – this is what I am.  This has grown for over two thousand years, because that is my age.”  Alanee does not hide her incredulity.  “Yes, it is true. Not such a child now, am I?  Though that’s what I was, a child suspended in time, until I became so ill I had to change.

“I have lived here, eaten, slept, played games for two thousand years.  I do not know why.  Those who look after me are kind and loving, and I understand the concept of love, but can you imagine what my life is like?  I am never permitted to go outside, further than my private garden and you are right; other than the High Council, my courtier friends of the Inner Palace, the drabs who help me construct my games and now you, no-one is allowed near me.  I ask, often, believe me.  We are both prisoners, Lady Alanee.

“They brought you to me.  They bring you and as to why I am no wiser than you at first; but yesterday I began to see.  The treatment they used upon me to induce my next stage of growing is working great tricks within this (Hasuga taps his head with a long finger) and there is a lot that is new.  You are new – very new.”

Alanee is puzzled.  Can he really have no idea why she has been brought into his life – and if he doesn’t, who does?  “Who pulls the strings?”  Did she mean to say the words aloud?

“Oh, the High Council.  I’m sure of that.” Hasuga looks up, eyes sparkling.  “I’m glad they brought you.  I’m bored with questions now.  Can we play a game?”

“Game?”

“I wouldn’t hurt you again.  I wouldn’t!”

“Alright then, in a minute.”  Alanee finds herself talking to him as she would a child.  She cannot help herself.  It has a surprising effect upon Hasuga, who draws back, looking quite alarmed.  “Before we do, one more question.  How am I ‘different’?”

“I cannot answer that now.  I can’t rationalize it, even to myself.  When I find out I will help all I can, I promise.  Now, would you like to be my Mummy?”

This sets Alanee’s mind into a complete panic.  As she stumbles to find an answer, Hasuga adds:  “It’s just a game, of course!”

“Where is your mother?”

“I don’t know – she went away this morning, or last night, or something.  She hasn’t come back.  Anyway, she isn’t really my mother; I have had countless ‘mothers’.  I’m bored with her.  I think you are going to be my next one.  I think – I don’t know – that’s the plan.  Would you love me?”

“Until you get bored with me?”  Alanee mutters acidly.  Is that really the plan?

“I don’t think I’d get bored with you very soon.  You are….”

“I know,  I’m different.”

“I was going to say you are very nice to look at.  I thought about you all last night.”

And I thought about you, Alanee responds, but not aloud.  She would keep that information to herself.  Had she any idea of the significance of the screen above Hasuga’s habbarn she might have said more.  “Let’s just play your game, and get it over with.  Now, if I am to be your Mummy, what would I do?”

“Yes!  Yes!   You are my lovely Mummy!”  The room is lighter now.  Alanee sees the artful look on Hasuga’s face.  “You could take me into the garden!  We could play soldiers in the garden!”

Alanee regards the frosty air beyond the window dubiously:  “I’m not sure that would be a good idea.  It looks a lot too cold for little boys.”  Repulsive as she finds Hasuga, she does not relish explaining to the High Council how their two thousand year old museum exhibit froze his toes off in the snow.

Hasuga’s voice undergoes instant change.  “I want to go into the garden.  I am not a little boy!”

“If it were summer that would be different.”

“Come to the window.”

Stubborn as she feels, Alanee sees no reason not to comply.  She joins Hasuga at the window.  What she sees takes her breath completely away.

Hasuga says, in that innocent child voice again:  “Do you like my garden?”

They are at the top of the palace, this Alanee knows:  yet Hasuga’s garden, and its size must exceed an acre, is almost level with his window.  It must be possible to step straight outside.  A wall surrounds it, this space, with views beyond to the Pearl Mountains and Kess-Ta-Fe, the great needle’s summit wreathed in mist.  That should be problematic enough, for by the rules Alanee knows such a big area at this height on the palace’s structure would involve massive engineering, but she scarcely dwells upon that aspect at all.  No, it is the nature of the garden which confounds her.  It is the way the weak sunlight of early spring is suddenly the glare and intensity of high summer, the way all trace of snow is gone, and in its place are fountains, grasses, jasmine, hollyhock, rose and camelia; all the flowers of all the seasons in ebullient display.  There is no roof she can see, no protection from the elements, yet she is looking upon a summer garden, and her head cannot believe what her eyes are witnessing.

“How do you do that?”  She finds her voice.

“It is part of our game.  Can we play now?”

#

Should we be wondering where High Councillor Portis can be found, on this extraordinary morning?  Should his malign presence, deep in the bowels of the Consensual City, be of concern to us? A shift is on duty here, in a large manufacturing suite that is known to only a very few – the members of the High Council, Lady Ellar, and the operatives who work and live here.

 A shift is always on duty, for the work is endless:  tired eyes straining over desks, tired fingers probing the tiny receptors they assemble, the receivers that turn Hasuga’s will into a collective will, and which whisper in the night from every pillow to every ear throughout the world.

Portis, in the company of the department’s director, is examining one such receptor.  It lies before them, dismantled, on the director’s desk.

“There can be no electronic fault?”  Portis asks again, though he knows the answer.

“None.”  The director shakes his head.  “It is perfect.  Not only is it functioning as it should, but it is the most powerful model we have the capability to make.  Respectfully, High Councillor, if you tried it for more than a couple of nights it would send you mad.  This is a long road, you see, with this woman:  ever since she was a child:  five inspections, five replacements, each a little more powerful than its predecessor, the results always negative.  She is genuinely impervious to mind control.”

“And this was the one you took from her house at the end of last cycle?”

“When the house was demolished, yes.  We suspected a materials failure – heat is always an issue you see, with so much power – but no: it was working perfectly well when we took it out – as you see it now.”

“There is no alternative explanation?”

“None, Sire Portis.”

The High Councillor says nothing, though he has words enough to say.  For he knows there may yet be one explanation, if he can countenance it.  Safe in his apartment he might voice it, over and over to himself, just as he will admit, in his own confidence, to the rising disquiet he feels.  His City, the whole of his finely balanced world is at stake and this woman is suddenly at the hub of power, in the presence of a pubescent Hasuga; partnered by Hasuga – in league with Hasuga?  Although Cassix may have performed the service, by whose will other than Hasuga’s can she be here; and now she is, is there no button he or anyone can press that will constrain her?  The rebellious youth and the experienced, manipulative woman; together, what might they not do to the world?  He makes a private resolve, a very personal one, concerning this.  He will not, must not let it happen!  His limiter screams at him, but he cannot turn off that thought.  It will be with him until he can depose the woman, and he may not have too long to devise the means.

#

Still as stone, the hind watches.  For half of an hour now the curious animal with two legs has lain inert, its hooves – or are they paws? – motionless, its strange salty odour strong on the wind.  Her inquisitiveness has brought her ever closer, stepping down through the trees towards the river that is, after all, her regular drinking place.  As always on this journey she is poised for flight, for there are enemies in these forests that would kill her if they could.  This animal, though, does not number among those she recognises as predators and it seems that it is injured – she senses pain.  Perhaps, after all, it cannot move?

Dag sees the deer’s decision, each faltering step towards the water.  Just two paces more and it will be within range of his weapon – another five for a certain shot.  It is a pitiful little thing, this pistol from his emergency kit with just energy enough for one shot, but he hopes it will be enough.  He aims with exaggerated care, tilting the small stub-barrel in its resting place upon his forearm, waiting.  The deer moves soundlessly, descending towards him without so much as the disturbance of a twig.

Soon, very soon.

The click of the safety is unavoidable – so quiet it is veiled entirely by the merest rustle of branches in a waft of breeze – or so Dag thinks.  Yet the deer hears it.  Spring and run – hiss and crack: Dag looses off a desperate shot, but the wild thing has gone, its dappled hide vanishing into the sun-splashed undergrowth.  Despairing, the aerotran pilot sees his last hope of sustenance go with it.  For the first time in his struggle for survival, he is moved to tears.

A day has elapsed since he and Ripero discovered the river basin.  In that time they have travelled perhaps a dozen miles, following the torrent downstream as it winds between slopes of deep forest.   Progress has been slow, not just because of Dag’s injuries, but because there are no tracks – no evidence that human beings have ever reached this place.  This morning, after a night of troubled sleep, Dag has woken to reality.  The agony in his stomach and side is such that he cannot rise to his feet.  His best effort is to roll sideways enough so he can urinate, and this produces almost pure blood.

It is clear Dag can go no further, so the survivors’ best hope is for Ripero to go on alone, to bring help as soon as he finds it.  An hour after sunrise Dag watched the tall figure of the young man who once rescued him receding along the river’s edge until he disappeared from view.  He knows he will never see Ripero again.

© 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.