Continuum – Episode Three War Games

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.

Continuum -Episode Two Aerotrans

The Story so Far:

In his eyrie high above the City, the young Hasuga begins a snowy morning by building a snowman, while his mother bakes some honey cakes, while in the watchtower that is even higher than Hasuga’s home Soothsayer Cassix watches a threatening sky with grave concern.  His colleague and friend Ellar discovers him there and gives him the news that Hasuga, already tired of his outdoor pursuits, wishes everyone to join him in a game of war.

Entering the Great Hall, Ellar brushes white snowflakes from her gold and burgundy robe, clothing she must wear as one who attends the Inner Sanctum.  Hasuga is waiting for her.  It amazes her how tall he has grown.  His shoulders are wider, there is determination in his face, yet his voice, though deeper, is still a child’s voice, his words still those of the little boy he has left behind.  And in his haunted eyes the same frailty that is window to the churning leviathan of his mighty, intimidating mind.

“Ellar!  Ellar-mer, we are going to play a war game!  Hurry up!”  Hasuga skips ahead of her to the elevators.  “We are going to attack a fortress!  Come on!”

The elevator rushes them skywards.  Already, Ellar is feeling the limitation of her immunity chip, the implant in her brain which is all her Sanctum membership will allow as a control.  She is becoming enthused – yes!  A fortress!  That would be so much fun!  A battle at the walls, siege engines, storming the gates!  Kill them all!

No!

Hasuga’s games have consequences: such are his psychokinetic powers the game he plays here, in the safety of the city, will be reflected in reality somewhere else.

“Which fortress shall it be, Hasuga?”  Ellar concentrates hard to keep her thoughts in train.

“Why, Braillec City, with its great high walls!”  Hasuga’s look infers that she is stupid even to ask.  “The Proteians are going to attack them!”

Ellar thinks of the people of Braillec (how many in that city, three, four thousand?) who are going to be slaughtered for no better reason than they have high, medieval walls.   And Hasuga is taking possession of her mind so swiftly she will be powerless to stop it happening.

#

Alanee’s morning is dominated, as she anticipates, by discussion of honey cakes.  Soon after the Makar’s departure, she leaves her house to join the general migration of village women to The Terminal at the hub of their community.  As she closes her front door – she need not lock it – Malfis the old bell-ringer is admiring the heap of mud he has piled in his garden, and Merra, from the bakery, compliments him upon it.

“Fine work, Malfis.  Always the craftsman!”

Alanee struggles:  “What is it?”

Merra, never shy of expression, rewards her with a look bordering on disdain.  “Of course, you not having a man…”

“I may not have a man but I do have a memory.  There was nothing I recall that looked like that about my man.  It’s a lump of mud!”

And Merra replies:  “Now remember my husband….”

Alanee giggles,  “That’s so unfair!  Where are the men?  Did they start work early today?”

“Arms training!”  Merra makes a face.  “It’s long spears this time, apparently.   Habbach knows where we are going to keep that!”

The Terminal is busy.  There has been heavy snow in the north, blocking a number of major arteries which, as her village is one of the group of communities responsible for co-ordinating transport, particularly affects Alanee’s work.  She is assistant to Carla, the manager, a responsible job for one so young.  Paaitas the village Domo is watching her progress with interest.  It was he who secured her early promotion and there are those who snidely suggest that his attention is not entirely focussed upon her abilities.  Alanee accepts the jibes with equanimity.  She is a good motivator, broadly liked, though not always understood – for example, in her open distaste for honey cakes.

“They are wonderful, Alanee!”  Carla is a bouncing, vital woman with enthusiasm enough for the entire village.  “I’ve been looking forward to baking them all year!”

From their nest at the top of the circular building they look down on the ring of women workers at their stations, each making their separate input to the mainframe which fills the centre of the Terminal floor like a huge, flat drum.

“I’m concerned about Namma, Carla-mer.”  Alanee says (each has their protégé, and Namma is hers).  “She seems distracted today.”

“I should not tell you this, perhaps.”  Carla leans a hand on Alanee’s shoulder:  “She has had her proc request turned down again.  The word came this morning.  She was in tears earlier. I think she despairs of ever having a child.”

“How so?   In Dometia they are begging for more fertiles.  If the rumours are correct the one-child edict has been lifted there.”  Alanee shakes her head.  “It seems so cruel!”

Carla does not reply, and Alanee thinks of Namma-meh, who is desperate to be a father.

And so the morning passes.

At mid-meal Alanee and Shellan walk home together.  The five children of the village pass them by.  After their morning at the seminary they have eaten early and are on their way to work in the potato field.

“Good day, Widow Kalna!”  They greet Alanee with respect.  She tries to smile in return, although just the sight of them revives the pity she feels for Namma.

“A fine boy, the Domo’s son, is he not?”  Shellan-mer suggests; and Alanee admits that Pattan, a sturdy-looking child now so near to youth, is all a father could want.

In Malfis’s garden the mound has gained a ball of clay for a head, a hat of woven straw and some button eyes.

“It is a man!”  Shellan crows her delight.  “Don’t forget now, you are coming to tea today!”

In the day’s heat Alanee draws out an awning that is stored above her kitchen door.  There she sits in its shade upon her step, pecking at a salad as she watches sun-mist shimmer over the Hakaan.  Dreams come easily in such all-pervasive peace.

These are times when she remembers her childhood on the plain, the farm with its bright white gate and penn-fowl in the yard.  Her father’s walk; the way he clumped his boots into the soil as though they tasted it, his rough skin as real as dry clay, the smell of the land in every crack and fissure.  Her mother’s tired eyes, the love in her smile, dust in her hair; and how she worked, and worked, and worked, yet still had time, always, for the impudent girl-child her husband had prayed would be a son.

Although every childhood has its joys they were not such happy days, in those growing years.  And a future of labour, the endless demands of sowing and reaping, the constant disappointment: yes, that may well have engendered her rebellious spark.  So that when, at seventeen, she chanced to meet a foot-player at a local dance, she did not hold back.  She set her cap at him, poor Kalna, quite outrageously, and it was not for love, not then.  Love came later, love grew.

Alanee thinks of Namma in her pain and reflects that she too might have been a mother once.  Her thoughts drift to a memory of Kalna-meh, that constantly quirky grin of his: the things they would do together, the games they would play, the touch of his lips on her neck when he wanted her and, yes, those pleasures too.  Then, always at the height of these reflections the sudden words upon the screen, just as they were on that dire evening:  ‘Foot-player fatally injured.  Hideous tackle kills Hakaani hero’.

One chance, one man, and the knowledge that by decree there can never be another.  Three years ago.  Three lonely years.

Deep in reminiscence she does not hear the aerotran at first.  Only when it is passing, almost overhead, does she look up to see the teardrop shape of the flying machine, with government colors of black and gold striping its sides.  Even then it does not concern her greatly: an official, probably, delivering some new mandate to the village Domo.  The sky is cloudless; there is no breeze to dissipate the fire of the sun.  Wearily, Alanee gets to her feet, ready for the drudgery of her afternoon.

On the street all talk is of the visit from the aerotran, which is now perched on the landing pad atop The Terminal like a watchful hawk.  The Village Domo’s colours hang there too, a white and blue ensign draped above the doors of the building.

Who can this be?  Why is Domo Paaitas here?

“Now I bet you wish you ordered that honey!”  Shellan shouts above the whistle of the aerotran’s engines.  It is an intended joke, but Alanee, already nervous, shrinks inside.  Has the Makar reported her?

Her feeling of timidity is reinforced when she gets inside the Terminal.  Her name is on the entry board, with an instruction to go to the manager’s office.  Now her heart begins to pound, for her duties in the afternoon normally would keep her on the floor of the Terminal, with her workers.

“Will you look after the floor while I am gone, Namma-mer?”  Namma accepts her briefing board with a surreptitious smile.  She knows something, Alanee thinks!  What is going on?

At the head of the stairs she knocks nervously upon Carla’s door.  This rewards her with a pause, while male voices from within confer in subdued tones.  If there were somewhere to run to, she would run with pleasure now.  Carla, her face serious, opens the door.

“Come in Alanee-mer.  These people wish to speak to you.”

There are three men in the room, only one of whom, Paaitas the Village Domo, Alanee recognizes; the other two, she must suppose, arrived with the aerotran.  But what could they possibly want with her?

Behind her, the door has closed. Carla is no longer at her shoulder – must have withdrawn, Alanee assumes.  She quickly detects her own anxiety reflected in the face of her Domo, who is really a shy and reclusive man only picked for high office because of his very individual scribing talents.  His heavy brows are set in a downward scowl, and his lips work constantly, as though he were chewing upon something with an acid taste.  To his right a thin figure with a raptor’s nose and brown teeth who is tall even when seated, to his left a much older man whose eyes are young: they glint like wet steel.  Both visitors are richly dressed in silken burgundy robes, and have a great distinction about them, as though they were set upon a high purpose.  She is overawed.

“Alanee-mer, come, sit down,”  Paaitas mumbles, by way of introduction.  He waves at a chair.  “These are very special visitors, Alanee-mer.”  He introduces the thin man to his right as Proctor Remis, he who sits to his left as High Councillor Cassix.

A Proctor and a High Councillor?  To see her?

“You have snow in the north, Sires.” Alanee murmurs, her voice barely above a whisper.  “How was your journey?”

The one her Domo has introduced as Cassix smiles, though his eyes are unchanged:  they bore into her, so she thinks that they are hurting her head.  “Our journey was untroubled, Alanee-mer.”  His tone is rich but stops just short of familiarity.  “You live in a much friendlier climate, do you not?”

She nods, dumbly.  Her knees are shaking.

“Now we must ask you questions, and you must answer them with honesty.  Will you do that?”

“Of course, sir.”

The Proctor’s voice cuts the air, sharp and dry as a knife.  “You did not order honey on your mand-card today, did you?”

His words fall like blows from a hammer.  Now Alanee’s heart really sinks!  Her mind races through all the punishments that are meted out to those who fail their citizenship requirements, most of whom are never heard from again.

“No, sir – Sire.  I did order it, though, when the Makar reminded me.”

“Will you use it?”

“Yes Sire.”  She answers without thinking – a reflex.

“You were warned of the necessity to be truthful, Alanee-mer.”  Remis clips his words.  “At the beginning of the year you ordered Kell Water (after the Makar reminded you) and that is still on your mand-stock; as is the wholemeal cereal you ordered last month.  I could quote you any number of items in a similar vein.  You have the largest mand stock in the whole region. I frankly wonder that your chill room is large enough to accommodate it all.”

So that is it!  The Makar said they would be watching her, and the Makar was right.  Alanee feels the tears coming, bites down on her lip.  “What should I do, Sire?”

“Why, eat it – drink it, one supposes.”  The Proctor replies.  “Do you feel no need to do that, Alanee-mer?  Are you not tempted by today’s honey?”

“No Sire.  I don’t understand.  I have never liked these things, even though it seems everyone else does.”  Alanee strives hard to keep the sob from her voice, but despite herself, her eyes are filling.

Cassix cuts in.  “Alanee-mer, last year you missed The Gathering, did you not?”

So they found that out, too, did they?  Oh, Habbach!  “I was forgetful.”

Remis and Cassix are exchanging glances.

“You had to remember?”  Cassix asks.  “Nothing…inspired you to go?”

Alanee is mystified.  “No sir – I mean Sire!”

For a moment it seems as if Remis will ask more, but Cassix raises a hand and, with a nod to Paaitas, says:  “Very well, Alanee-mer that will be all.  Thank you for your honesty.”

She quells an urge to run from the room, to put these three weighty visages behind her before they reduce her to tears.  What should she be feeling – relief?  The Domo’s next words explode upon her like a thunder flash.

“Go to your home, Alanee-mer.  Namma will take your responsibilities.  You should pack a bag of belongings for your immediate needs.  Leave by the cargo door.  Speak to no-one.”  His voice is lowered, severe.

She knows now.

Somehow her feet find their way to the door; her shaking hand turns the latch.  There, she must turn back, because it is pointless to hide the tears:  “Please….tell me what I have done wrong?”

The one she knows as Cassix smiles at her.  His eyes do not alter their incisive brilliance, yet it is not an unpleasant smile.  “Sometimes, it is better not to know reasons.  Go now.”

Beyond the door, a uniformed guard in the colours of the High Council is waiting to takes her arm.  The upturned eyes of every woman in the village follow her as she is led, gently but insistently, along the gallery to the cargo doors.  Everyone can see how freely she is weeping.

As soon as he is confident that Alanee is beyond earshot, Remis turns to the Domo.

“You are sure the usual inspections have been done?”

The village Domo nods.  “Every month, Sire, according to law.  We have a very good inspectorate.”

“And they found nothing wrong?”

“Nothing.  Her house is clean and well-kept, despite her widowhood.  The censors described the usual features.  She is an exemplary worker, extremely intelligent and a manager in waiting.  I just don’t understand.”

The walk; how she will always remember this walk!  The silent street, everyone at their work, the guard at her shoulder, the desire to run – run anywhere, get away!  She might hide among the poor people of the plain, find work as an illiterate, change her hair, her clothes…but the guard remains close behind her, and he is armed.

It is late afternoon.  Alanee has packed those few things she possesses which must travel with her.  Then she has waited.  No armed squad has come to drag her away, the guard is expressionless, and beside essential communication, deaf to her questions.  Now the sun is low over the hills and soon the workers will return.  She stands at her kitchen door  (that favourite place)  for what all her instincts insist will be the last time, one last cup of tsakal warm in her hand.

“Your view is exquisite.”  The voice surprises her.  She turns to find that High Councillor Cassix has entered.    He says gently.  “You must be sorry to leave it.”

“I am to be taken away, then?”  Alanee is no longer afraid of him.  Acceptance has come.

“Yes.”

“Where?”  She has her back to him, drinking in that last vision of the Hakaan.

“That I cannot say.”

All at once she feels like crying again.

“We are waiting for an aerotran to transport you; it should be here soon.  We would use ours, had we not another person to interview in a village south of here.  We shall be detained until tomorrow, I fear.”

As if by his command, a rushing sound in the eastern sky foretells the second aerotran’s coming.  Alanee, who has no way of knowing how transgressors are removed from their communities, has expected maybe a horse-wagon of the type the stonemasons use, or an older, more primitive flying machine; not this.  The aircraft which stoops earthwards to the street shares the  livery of the High Council.  It is small, no more than an air-taxi, but its approach is rapid.

“Time to go.” Cassix says.  “I will escort you.”

He supports her arm much as the guard has done, leaving that individual to follow at a respectful distance as he guides Alanee from the home that has been hers for all of her adult life.  At her street door she pauses, resisting him, overcome by the enormity of the moment.  The aerotran waits, its squat black nose pointed to the dust of the street, engine subdued to an unobtrusive hum.  To Alanee’s right all the women of the village stand in ragged silence, detained upon their homeward walk from the Terminal by the landing of this beast.  A double line of eyes all watching, all accusing; all she thought were friends, who treat her as a stranger now that she is dangerous to know.  Merra is there, Carla, and Namma, already wearing the Managers Assistant tag that Alanee has lost.  Shellan too, though she shows Alanee no sign of recognition.

“Come,” Cassix prompts;  “This is best done quickly.”

Alanee nods, takes a firm grip upon her small bag of effects, and steps forward.  “I should lock my door.”

“No.”

© 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.

 

I Don’t Normally Give Book Reviews, but…

If I try to buy a Kindle book from Amazon.com (because I was linked to it there, or simply because I discovered it and liked the look of it) I am politely but firmly advised to make my purchase on the Amazon.UK platform.  Now I understand the probable necessity for this approach – it may have to do with taxation, or other legal restrictions – but it also occasionally means I cannot buy a book at all, because it is not listed in UK.  Most importantly, to me, I cannot give my feedback anywhere but the UK platform.  My review will not appear to buyers in US.

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Cusp of Night’, the first of three books in the ‘Hodes Hill’ series by Mae Clair.  It inspired me to give a five-star review, which subsequently appeared on the UK site, but not in the United States.  Now this is a great book and essentially a very American book, so I would say its international appeal is an added testimony to its accomplishment:  opinions influence sales from wherever they may come.

‘Cusp of Night’ does not need my approbation; it has already deservedly attracted 39 excellent reviews from its homeland, but for the sake of transparency Mae Clair’s readers should also be aware of a further five five-star reviews of her book from my side of the pond.   Here, in case you are in danger of missing the book, is my review:

The Most Exciting Action Finish I have Read in Years  

It may not be entirely a coincidence that Maya Sinclair, after a motor accident that so nearly took her life, elects to move to Hodes Hill; nor may it be just a quirk of fortune that she decides to rent the old brownstone house at the corner of Chicory and River Road, close to the alley where Charlotte Hode’s young life was so tragically ended, a century ago.  The house has ‘history’ her neighbour tells her; a truth the house itself is swift to confirm when the clock hits 2.22am.- The Cusp of Night.

Mae Clair’s book is the story of a town unwilling to forget – her heroine comes to live here at the time of the annual Fiend Festival when townsfolk commemorate Charlotte Hode’s death by dressing up as the fiend that butchered her.  But it turns out the butchering is not entirely consigned to history, for in the course of the celebrations a very fiend-like attack takes the life of at least one reveller.

Before she has time to unpack in her new home, Maya becomes involved in the complex affairs of the Hode family and the tragic story of Lucy Strick, the beautiful Blue Lady.

Mae Clair weaves a skilful and extremely readable tale of mediums and mayhem in a very frightened town.  She attacks the familiar totems of money and power with relish and leaves me wanting…well, I guess you’ll know the feeling, when a book is so absorbing you can’t bear reaching the last page, because you want it to continue just a little longer?   Like that.

Which is why I am about to begin reading the second ‘Hodes Hill’ book…