The story so far:
Living in a world where tastes and actions, even thoughts, are tightly controlled, Alanee lives in constant fear of being punished for her non-compliance; so it is no surprise when High Councillors from the City arrive at her village to censure her. An aerotran, a flying machine used by the Council, has arrived to take her away.
Meanwhile, in the City, child supremo Hasuga is about to embark upon a game of war, one which will have tragic consequences if the Lady Ellar cannot prevent it…
The elevator doors slide open, admitting Hasuga and Lady Ellar to the games theatre at the heart of the City’s Inner Sanctum. This is an oval, echoing space, an amphitheater some two hundred feet long, with raised terraces around its sides for spectators. A few interested individuals are already gathering, for word that Hasuga is about to play one of his epic games spreads fast, and to be invited to participate would mean preferment at court. Forethought has reminded many to bring cushions, because the seating is hard, and rugs because the theatre is cold. Around grey stone walls hang flags representing all the nations of the land, and below them the brightly coloured pennants of their principalities, stirring gently in the circulating air. Some fifty feet overhead a vaulted ceiling supported by stone arches is criss-crossed with stout wooden beams, from which hang the ropes that will support any scenery Hasuga demands.
Mother stands alone in the arena, calling orders to a court servant precariously straddling one of those beams. He is ‘spotting’ a series of ropes, lowering them until their ends dangle no more than six inches above the floor. They will support tall, painted screens or ‘flats’ representing (with uncanny accuracy, considering Hasuga has never been there) the mountain backcloth to Braillec City’s high fortress. Before them will hang cut-outs of townhouses and streets, and before those, tiers of light synthetic bricks to simulate the City’s defensive wall. All this will be achieved in the few hours since Hasuga first announced his ‘game’; such is the dexterity his demands can induce.
It is the force of this will that draws Ellar into the whirlpool of his enthusiasm, impeding her powers of logical thought, although, if the slaughter of thousands in the real city of Braillec is to be averted, she must find some way to stop this game. Mother, who has seen her enter with Hasuga, comes to greet her beloved child, but he gives her little attention. He runs gleefully to supervise the erection of his scenery, leaving the two women together.
On first appearances Mother is a warm, ample woman with apple cheeks and eyes that over-brim with the love of her calling; ‘Mother’ to Hasuga. Her heart is completely his: it allows no space for doubt, though she and Ellar have identical immunity implants to help them handle the immensity of Hasuga’s mind. Ellar knows her opposition to this game will not be shared. Ellar also knows there is another side to Mother; passionate, jealous, and obsessive.
“Greetings Ellar-mer. Is it not all quite splendid?”
“Absolutely magnificent! You will play, of course?”
“Oh yes! My sweet boy wants me to be a general! He is quite determined. I am to lead the Proteian attack force. Such valiant warriors!”
“See now, your parents come from Braillec, do they not?”
Mother does not answer, only smiles.
“Do they live there still?” Ellar’s head is so ruled by the intrusion of Hasuga’s mental control she may barely ask the question. Is this in itself a blasphemy? It is a line she has trodden so many times she no longer knows. Again, Mother gives no answer, but Ellar does not miss that tiny twitching at the corner of her eye. Mother is aware that this childish play within the Sanctum walls will be played out for real five thousand miles west of here, in the homeland that was once hers. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, will die. Her parents may well number among the dead.
“Hasuga, Sire.” Ellar calls out. “Who is to be the general of your army?”
“Mummy, of course!” Hasuga calls back. “I am her commander, Ellar-mer.”
“And me? What would you like me to be?”
“Oh, you must defend the city!”
“So am I a general too?”
The painted screens are raised. Palace servants, drabs wearing the special burgundy and gold insignia on their epaulettes rush about, erecting walls, producing wooden weapons, swords and shields, while Hasuga supervises the building of a siege engine. Within a frenetic hour a very passable facsimile of the real City of Braillec stands across the width of the arena. By now the terraces are packed with expectant courtiers but Hasuga will not pick his armies yet: no, first he must strut around his creation, seeking anything inconsistent with his dream. He picks here, points there: this gate should have a window, these stones a whiter hue. Then, when he is satisfied, only those servants or drabs needed to clear the ‘dead’ are permitted to remain. He stands upon a wooden balustrade to select his armies.
“Mummy, this one is your lieutenant. Use him well.”
“Ellar-mer, take these.”
Ellar watches Mother adjust to her role as general with a certain grim amusement. Accustomed as the woman must be to Hasuga’s ‘games’ (and they are many), wars produce her least convincing performances. Her ample bosom ill befits a tight breastplate, and her elaborately coiffured hair looks ridiculous in a helmet. Those chubby fingers clasped about a wooden sword, competing with each other for space upon the hilt, grip it as though she is about to slice a loaf of bread. She paces, obviously intending to look purposeful, but more resembles a matron indulging in a seaside paddle. Nevertheless, her mind is utterly overtaken, so that in her head she is the epitome of a great soldier.
Ellar’s side is intended to lose: all the fittest and youngest courtiers, eager to prove their prowess are assigned to Mother; they are given more weapons and are greater in number. Those picked to defend the city feel piqued, sensing they are least in their young Sire’s favor. At the end of the process Ellar is left with no more than a dozen dejected and aging troops, cynical retainers for the most part, whilst Mother has better than twenty.
Hasuga’s devouring mind surges over Ellar’s thoughts, feeding in his battle plan, showing her the details of her army’s defeat. They will brook no delay – the game has begun.
The depression that Ellar feels concerning her side’s certain fate helps her to curb Hasuga’s implanted strategies for just a little while. As he leaves the theatre floor to ascend to his ‘throne’ (a chair from his suite has been brought for him to use while he oversees his game) she summons up what fragments of mental strength her immunity chip provides. As soon as she can trust her voice she calls up to him:
“Sire Hasuga, we face overwhelming odds but we will fight our hardest and best for our great city. So I am remembered, may I pick my general’s name?”
Already deep in his part, Hasuga turns with raised wooden sword. “It shall be so. Choose, great general!”
“Thank you Sire, I shall. History shall know me as General Ollamar!” Later Ellar may profoundly regret this move, but for now her own mind can do no more. Disguising inner mental collapse as best she can she raises her sword to seek the acclaim of her troops, who respond rather less enthusiastically than she would like. They are anticipating a bruising experience, for even wooden swords can inflict a wound or two.
“Very well. You are the valiant General Ollamar, and you shall not sell your life cheaply.” Hasuga perches himself on his chair, eyes eager, leaning forward for the best view of the fray. “Mummy, the city is tired and starving. Begin your attack!”
Mother harangues her small army, doing her best to fulfil the images fed to her by Hasuga’s mind. But all is not well. Her speech does not reach its second sentence (“My brave soldiers, I lead you forth this day to certain victory and great slaughter…”) before her voice gutters and her whole body seems to freeze. She stands with her gaze fixed upon the floor. Yet there are no mutterings from within the ranks. Everyone shares Hasuga’s expectation of victory.
“Not very good, Mummy!” Her darling boy is unimpressed.
From the other side of her ‘city wall’ Ellar feels Mother’s pain as wave after wave of incitement emanates from Hasuga. She is expected to lead the assault, but it seems she will not or cannot go on. She raises quivering fingers to her temples as the demands from her darling ‘little boy’ scream in her head. Her army waits expectantly. All eyes are focussed upon her. She staggers for a moment, kept erect by nothing but Hasuga’s insistence, then she crumples to the floor.
“Mummy!” Instantly, the spell is broken, Hasuga is on his feet and running to his beloved parent’s side. “Mummy, whatever is wrong?” He is distraught: his game, the others who surround him quite forgotten. Only his Mother’s distress concerns him. He weeps for her, wails piteously with her head supported on his arm, showering kisses on her pale cheeks.
Ellar, completely released from her role in the game, moves quickly. She summons a doctor, motions for space to be created around Mother’s inert form.
“Oh, Ellar-mer, is Mummy dead? Is my Mummy dead?” Hasuga is inconsolable. “What have I done? What have I done?”
Ellar frowns. “No, I do not think that Mummy has died. But war games are dangerous, Sire Hasuga. People do die, you see?”
“Yes, yes I see. But I never thought they would be dangerous to my Mummy!”
The Doctor arrives and Mother’s consciousness is regained. Hasuga, restrained by Ellar’s gently persistent hands, is not witness to those few moments when, still mentally asleep, Mother is likewise free of his dominance and able to murmur: “Make him stop….make him stop!”
Caring servants lift her onto a litter. As she is borne from the hall with her distraught child dancing anxiously beside her, Mother catches Ellar’s eye. The look she gives her is not pleasant.
In the dull hollow Hasuga’s departure has left in her brain Ellar would like to lie down herself, but there is work to be done. She instructs the court servants to remove all evidence of their young master’s game; walls, scenery flats, wooden weapons, everything. She knows she did not misread the glare that Mother gave her, just as she knows that by morning she may not have the power to order anything at all. She has committed one of the more grievous crimes considered blasphemy, and she has done it very publicly. If she is to survive, she must rely upon Mother’s understanding and her silence. Mother must in effect play along, for if she ever lets on to Hasuga that Ellar deliberately chose Ollamar as her general’s name, she is lost. Ollamar, you see, is Mother’s family name. Within the game, Mother knew she was to be asked to act out with her wooden sword the slaying of her own father, an action that would be faithfully reproduced five thousand miles away by a real general with a real sword. The sheer psychological torture might be hard to forgive, no matter how worthy the cause.
Alanee has never ridden in an aerotran before. When Kalna, her husband, was flown to matches in other provinces she remained at home, so the fastest she has ever traveled is in a land transporter. This is much, much faster. After the initial thrust, during which she is sure a part of her insides are left behind, and despite her qualms – her terror even – at the great black hole where her future should be, Alanee’s curiosity and sense of awe begin to get the better of her. Settling back into the comfortable hide of her seat she gazes from the window to watch her village vanish from sight, see houses and people diminish to toy-like proportions, and the Hakaan rush beneath her as though she were looking down upon a map.
The pilot has been watching this concerned figure in his passenger mirror. He has had less attractive payloads. “First time in one of these?”
He is rewarded. Her pale, worried face lights up in a smile. “Yes. You must be very skilled to drive so fast. I’m Alanee. What’s your name?”
“Dag. They call me Dag.”
“Do you know where I am to be taken, Dag-meh?” Alanee studies her aspect of Dag’s reflection. A pair of dark eyes, a smooth, coppery skin; the rest concealed by a shiny gold dome of a helmet.
“I do. I’m not allowed to tell you, though, I’m afraid.”
“I am to be punished, you know.”
Dag eyes her reflection curiously: “You don’t say? Whatever for?”
Alanee settles back in the cushioned seat, drops her head. “That’s just it.” She stares at her lap. “I wish I understood why. I don’t.”
“Alanee-mer,” Dag’s voice is deep and kind. “you are in a PTA, a Personal Transport Aerotran of the High Council. My normal passengers are Proctors and Councillors. If you were going somewhere to be punished you’d be in an ox-cart, not up here in this. I can’t tell you where you are going, but wherever it is, it can’t be for punishment. So if I were you, I’d start enjoying myself.”
Dag delights in delivering this explanation, observing how Alanee’s face transforms from wan to radiant in its short space. When she smiles this way she really is a very lovely woman! Then he reflects that he might occasionally chauffeur one other class of passenger, a courtesan. The thought of that is more sobering.
“There are drinks in the cabinet. Help yourself – not too much, mind; I don’t want to have to carry you out when we get there.” In his imagination, though, he would. He snaps his concentration back just in time to stop the aerotran from doing an unscheduled turn. Surreptitiously he adjusts the mirror so he may see a little more: how Alanee’s body moves as she relaxes a little and those smooth limbs stretch in unaccustomed luxury, her bare toes clasping at the thick carpet. Dressed in simple, provincial clothes of course, not with the sophistication he is used to, but the soft, pliant warmth of her cannot be concealed; full breasts, almost fluid skin. He allows himself to dream and nearly loses control of the aerotran again.
Beyond the windows day has turned to night. Far, far below humanity is reduced to twinkling stars, stars that line up into streets, ring large buildings, parks or a lake. How long have they been airborne, an hour, two hours?
Alanee is entranced, and Dag finds her entrancement entrancing. “I never lose the magic.” He says at last.
“Such a way to see a world! I cannot imagine how anyone could dislike flying. Oh my! What’s that?”
Alarmed, Alanee grips the seat arms, sits rigidly upright. A sudden upsurge of sound above the lulling hum of the motors, a palpable kick that sends her stomach to visit her hips.
“It’s nothing. We’re climbing.”
“Habbach! Weren’t we high enough already?”
“No. We have to go over mountains.” Dag grins. She likes the little creases that form at the corners of his eyes when he does that, and she has noticed long since how he has turned the mirror so he may see more of her. “No, I can’t tell you which mountains. Wait and see – you’ll like them!”
The climbing continues. “We’re going to bump about a little. Don’t worry, we’re passing through some heavy cloud. Incidentally, the rest-place is behind you if you want it: through that door. But hang onto something, or you might get thrown around.”
Alanee is thankful, for the nervous hours have been troubling her, and she has felt shy about admitting her need to this very masculine stranger. To the rear of her seat there is a space, upon one side of which is the access door, the other a further door. The rest-place proves as sumptuous as everything else about her transport, if a little bit turbulent. She is reluctant to leave it without sampling each of its soaps and lotions, and by the time she returns the aerotran’s ride has leveled off.
Dag notices her return. “See – mountains!”
What she now sees draws the breath from her body. The aerotran is flying high, she cannot imagine how high, above the cloud-base, bathing in the silver of a bright moon. Rising from a mist so substantial she might believe she could walk upon it are mighty granite knives, reaching up and around the aerotran on all sides, their white-edged blades a ghostly blue in the moonlight. In all her life she has never seen such things: she has rarely traveled far from her village, certainly never further than the Hakaan, so the Southern Hills are the limit of her experience and they, beautiful though they are, cannot rival the solemn majesty of these great sentinels.
The aerotran flies alongside the higher slopes, giving Alanee a close view of snow-laden ridges and glistening ice-falls as it follows a pass between the highest peaks.
“Look ahead!” Dag instructs her. “This is the Kess-ta Fe, tallest in the range. It was climbed for the first time last year.”
The line of their flight affects to take them around a corner formed by the steep slope of a minor peak. Kess-ta Fe waits for them just beyond this turn, rising high above their heads. And whereas every other mountain slope is picked out in tracers of white snow, this great massif is sheer, its face black and brooding.
“Kess-ta Fe: in the old language, Demon-Home. It’s a touch less than six miles high. Impressive, huh?” They are passing alongside the mountain now. “Imagine yourself climbing that, Alanee-mer!”
“Imagine wanting to.” Alanee rejoins. Though the atmosphere within the aerotran is rigidly controlled, she feels light-headed and she sinks back into her seat. What is happening to her? Where is she being taken? Far, far from her home, this much she knows. By the sun when the aerotran first set off, she believes she has been flying north; for how long; two, two and a half hours? Aerotrans, she always believed, fly at prodigious speeds: it certainly seems that this one does; the foot-games her man attended were never more than an hour or so away. What awaits her? How is it that she has been plucked from her life in this way: if not as punishment for wrong-doing, then for what?
“Better wake up now, Alanee-mer!” Dag’s voice surprises her out of fog. She does not remember sleeping. “We’re about to dock!”
© Frederick Anderson 2019. 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.