Face to face with the psychotic Murdan, Julia’s first impulse is to run. Fast. Get out of there. But he’s a Brictan and, like Dannyn, can rummage around in her thoughts and memories. And she knows, at all costs, he mustn’t know about her and his cousin.
Episode 57 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
I still was shaking long after the ‘pod grabbed me. Of course Fliss noticed, though she let it pass without comment. She said nothing the next morning either when, during out shared Watch, I had to rush off to be sick. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Well, yea, Dave could have been there; he’d have picked at it and worried it like a dog with a bone. Fliss merely looked at me, laden with loathing. And it wasn’t the first time either.
I’d been sick while at Destination, about an hour after waking. The aldliks of Buktalha’s Isle had made a cutting remark about it. Unlike Eblan Murdan, she didn’t take me for a supernatural being. Neither did she fall for me being an East Alsime eblan. She, herself, was of the East Alsime people and I didn’t have the right ‘burr’ to my voice.
“I don’t know the truth of you—and anyways eblan, your doings is none of mine. But I tell you this, if it’s there in your belly you can’t run away from it.” That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, four and a half thousand years from home, and feeling wretched. And until then I’d been trying to deny it but . . . like it or not it was there.
It. Did I think to distance myself by calling it it. Did I think it wouldn’t then be a problem? I could visit the GP, ask for termination. All over and done, as if it never had happened. But I couldn’t do that. Everything in me screamed loudly No!
And over all this was the memory of Murdan. That encounter continued to bedevil my thoughts and distract me. I had become a mirror to him, calling to mind every tale I had heard of him. Filling my head with the images: His inspired rings at Hegrea’s Isle; his setting of the Kerdolak stones within the Old Isle of the Dead; his campaign against the Kerdolan; his massacre of them and how he then treated them; his rout of the remaining granary-keepers and trader at His Indwelling.
I thought if I filled my head with that he wouldn’t see beyond it. Fool! Fool. Only later did I realise what I’d done.
His stare seems to last for all eternity. I try not to think how he must see me, garbed not as the Alsime, not as the Kredese or Kerdolan. Not knowing what this strange vision. Yet for all that I’ve filled my head with visions of him, there arises a fleet memory of Dannyn saying he took me first to be his Eblan Mistress Inspiration. And Eblan Murdan has found it.
He drops to his knees—there in the stone-riddled gulley—drops first to his knees then down to his belly. I half-expect him to slide back down, so steep the incline. But it strikes me at once what has happened—maybe I receive such insight from him? The mighty—psychotic—Eblan Murdan believes me a divine. Were it a scene in a movie I’d probably laugh.
“Alsalda,” he breathes the name in utter awe.
But . . . he hasn’t taken me to be his Mistress Inspiration? Perhaps it’s the colour of my hair. Not blonde as it should be if I’m his Mistress Inspiration, the Spirit Sun. Instead, Chocolate Cherry; more in keeping with Alsalda Bear-Mother. I don’t know how he’s reasoned away my army surplus fatigues. Perhaps he takes them for the Bear’s camouflage now she’s taken human form.
All this I try not to think; holding fast to the received visions of him. One in particular comes fast upon me, and keeps on repeating, that of the children at Hegrea’s Isle running and screaming into their mothers at the very sight of him. Jeez, but he does look a mess. And he reeks worse than any tramp I’ve ever encountered.
Another thought worms its way into awareness, though I doubt it’s him found it and teased it out. Here he takes me to be Alsalda, the Ancients’ indwelling spirit who’s to task him regarding the Kerdolan. So might I then stop the slaughter, turn him for it? Yet how? I could tell him the true origin of Alsalda’s tumun (likely at the hands of the Kerdolan). But that would shatter his every illusion and I don’t want to think of the effects upon him.
Besides, if diverted from his course, what then will happen? There’ll be no Sapapsan’s Granary at His Indwelling; no haven for he-I-must-not-mention; no place for him to escape his cousin’s constant hammering.
My thoughts ride on, barely breaking the subconscious barrier. There’ll be no election to Eblan Head Man for he-I-must-not-mention; no Sun Tower, no Processional Way, no closing of Kara’s Cave. To divert Murdan’s course would be to drive our two worlds yet further apart.
No. I can’t interfere. What will be, will be. Haven’t I proclaimed that as the time-travellers’ creed? So instead I continue to show him his future in the glorious Technicolor of my imagination. And he, prone on the rubble in that gulley, eagerly sups of it.
I pray that the ‘pod will grab me, take me out of here, despite it’s not due. Instead, I must subtly disengage myself, hoping now I’m cast as Alsalda he’ll fear to look directly at me.
It’s not till I sit by the hearth at Buktalha’s Isle that I realise what I have done. Cast as Alsalda, I’ve become Alsalda, and given him his mission. Everything he does from this moment on is because I have shown it to him. I feel sick at the thought, nauseated by what I have done. And all to protect Dannyn.
The guilt of it, the remorse, regret, wrapped heavily around me—which Fliss mistook for something other.
“It’s Kenneth’s, isn’t it?” she suddenly asked me.
“Say again. What’s this about?” I tried to play it down though I knew full well what she meant.
“You’ve been screwing, the pair of you, away from here. On that little Bohemian boat of yours.” Her face almost was puce; when she tutted her mouth boiled with saliva. “I knew it—from the moment he said to invite you in. Once a biker, always a biker; once a hippy—”
“Fliss, you have it all wrong.” On top of everything else I didn’t need this.
“Have it wrong? Wrong? I think not, Jules-darling. All those little meetings—you think I don’t know of them? You think I don’t know the number of miles between here and your little love nest? You think I don’t know the cost of petrol? Too many unexplained journeys, Jules-darling. But it’s all revealed now.”
It was pointless to argue with her. Her head was sealed tighter than an alchemist’s hermetic flask. I would have to give her the total story before she’d start to see truth. And that meant she’d pull the project, and this wasn’t mine to do alone.
My stomach turned queasy, this time not with morning sickness. It was all about to come crashing down. As surely as I’d killed those mariners by not breaking Murdan’s delusion, so with my pregnancy I was about to kill my best friend’s baby. For that’s what the project was to her. This was not a good day.
The ‘pods flipped open in perfect unison. Dave as usual jumped out, stepped back, allowed Ken the floor to report on his findings. But Ken saw at once the situation.
“It’s time we told her,” I said.
But Fliss allowed us no time. She jumped at him. I thought she was about to leap out of her chair. The way her arms stretched out, her hands seeming to grope for Ken’s throat, I thought her capable then of killing him. Maybe had she not been disabled, confined to that chair . . . “You cheating, deceiving, dilly-dipping bastard,” she screeched at him.
Ken, dumbfounded, shook his head. “What’s this about?” he asked me.
“I’m pregnant.” It was the first time I’d said it out loud. The horror of it, everything collapsing because of it. It made no difference what I did about it, termination or no. It was already effecting a total destruction.
“I knew it,” Dave said.
I ignored him, turning instead to Ken. “She’s convinced it’s yours. It’s time we told her the truth.”
“Huh!” Fliss scoffed. “So you’ve concocted some story to cover. No, I don’t want to hear it—pathetic lies.” She turned her chair, its high gothic back a statement towards us. And whirred out of the ‘pod-room.
Ken looked at me. I deserved him to hate me, causing disruption between him and his wife. Yet his face, his eyes, showed only concern for me. “Is it true?”
“But whose?” He glanced at Dave.
Dave held up his hands. “I wish.”
“Dannyn’s,” I said.
“Your shaman-guide?” By his tone, I’d say Ken wasn’t at all surprised.
My nod was more of a defiant up-tilt of chin. I tried to smile. I was expecting Dannyn’s child, but I never would see him again. This was turning out to be a very bad day.
“Drats!” as Ken’s first reaction. “But we couldn’t lid it much longer. You okay? You don’t look good. Would you rather lay down? Let Dave and me handle it.”
“When I’m the one with the evidence?” I tapped the pocket where I kept the recorder, though the relevant tape and the transcript were back in my room. Dave came with me to fetch them. Meanwhile, Ken tidied up in the ‘pod-room. Conscientious mechanic to the last.
“Sit,” Ken bid us when Dave and I joined him in the Priory’s cavernous den.
I looked pointedly at Fliss. Not that I could see her, only the high gothic back of her wheelchair. She had literally distanced herself from us at the far end of the room. But if she thought her act of intently browsing the books in that section of broken library was credible, she was mistaken. She looked like a child, sulking.
“Felicity?” Ken tried to fetch her attention. “Look, this is important. We must speak to you.”
She made no reply and made no move, though any facial or body expression was effectively screened by the chair.
“Look, Fliss,” I said, “if it helps, I’ll have it DNA tested. To prove Ken isn’t the father. But I can’t tell you whose baby it is till first we’ve explained this to you.”
I thought I heard a sniff. If so it was theatrical. When she turned her chair her face betrayed not a tear. Though its previous puce had drained to a spectral white.
“Explain what to me?”
“Felicity, please . . .” Ken tried. Then spread his hands in helpless gesture, a glance at Dave that pointedly didn’t include me.
“There are things we need show you,” I said. “It’s easier if you’re sitting here with us.”
So theatrical, our Fliss. She rolled her eyes, an upwards glance, a heavy sigh. Yet she directed the chair towards us. Though she stopped it at a standoffish distance.
“This had better be good. And yes, Julia Cannings, we will have that DNA done.”
“Fine,” I said. “But do you mind if we wait till the baby’s born. I’m not very far gone.” To be honest, I didn’t know how far. Though later, when I’d a chance to work it out, turned out I was only then five weeks pregnant.
She stared at me a good long while. Then slowly she shook her head. “No, that won’t do. You expect me to wait? You’re to do it as soon as able—no matter what your cobbled tale. And Kenneth, if it turns out you’re the father, you are castrated. You understand?”
“Dammit woman, just listen will you,” Ken said now loosing his tolerance. “You have it wrong, the entire shebang. Julia, you got the tape? Then play it for her. Maybe that will penetrate her refusenik head.”
Fliss regarded me with icy eyes, following my every move as I set up the tape and switched it to play. And again, there was Eldliks Arskraken of Bisaplan’s Isle telling the story of Murdan’s Kerdolak Trap, the slaughter I had, just two days previously, ensured would happen when I could have stopped it.
“What’s this?” Fliss asked. She sounded confused, not knowing what to make of it. Her eyes searched out Ken, then Dave. Neither answered her. “Well?” she prompted with an edge of panic.
“Would you like the transcript?” I offered her the bound booklet produced by Siobhán. “It’s the English translation.”
She scarcely scanned it before she slung it back at me. “I don’t want this. This tells me nothing. Will someone explain. Kenneth? What’s this about? Why this strange jabbering man?”
“His name is Arskraken,” Ken said, a glance at me to be sure of the name. “He’s a head man—head of his family. He’s of the River Alsime.”
She stared at him. “And? Relevance? Kenneth, woeful presentation. I thought I trained you better than this.”
“The Alsime are the people at Destination,” I said. “It’s to their land we transport in your time-pods.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” she snapped at me. “You have never quite got it into your head, have you. You. Go. Nowhere. It’s all memories held in the water.”
“No, Fliss,” Dave said. “It’s for real where we go. We go to a real world. That man, speaking on that tape, lives there. He’s Alisime.”
She was quiet a very long while. And we allowed it. She needed time to digest, to shuffle, to rearrange her ideas. The technology she had developed with Ken wasn’t what she’d thought it was. It was something more, something infinitely better. I could see the progression of her thoughts. It wasn’t merely a memory accessed through the medium of rock and water; those ‘pods transported, physically, through time.
She seemed to like the idea. My inconvenient pregnancy forgotten, a smile spread slowly. Her tongue flicked over her lips. Oh, think of the kudus, think of the fame. Her name indelibly attached to the technology, there forever throughout all history.
“You actually time-travel?” she said at last, a voice loaded with awe.
Then Ken had to spoil it. “Not quite.”
“What do you mean?” Fliss snapped at him. “Either you do or you don’t.”
“Well, yea, we do travel—”
“Four and a half thousand years,” I said.
“But not into our past,” Ken completed.
Fliss frowned. She looked from Ken to me, from me to Dave, and back to Ken. “What do you mean? Kenneth Freidman, you are making no sense.”
I said, “The ‘pods transport us to another world.”
“To a parallel universe,” Ken said.
“No, Ken,” I had to disagree. “It’s a divergent world. I’ve worked it out, I’ll explain it later, but it has to be. It would have developed into this world but that the Immortals have set it off course.”
I’d said too much. Fliss gave me one of her shrivelling looks. I half expected to be sent to my room till I’d learned to behave. I sat back, and vowed to keep quiet. Ken could handle it.
But Ken couldn’t.
Fliss screeched. Her pale face again blazed red. She was a child in a temper, throwing a tantrum made worse by her paralysed legs. She slapped her hands down hard on the gothic chair’s arms. But no satisfaction there, the arms were padded, and that angered her further. Her anger mangled her words. Yet at intervals came clarity—as in her fierce refusal to accept Ken’s offer of ‘this ridiculous notion of a parallel universe’, and my ‘stodgy steamed pudding of a divergent world’.
“It’s piffle! Drivel! Pap! You take me for an imbecile? It was my legs that drunken driver damaged, not my brain. Dimwits! Think to offer me fairy tales to cover your blatant adultery.”
Dave motioned for me to leave Ken with it. “I’ll take you home,” he whispered once we were out of the room.
The last I heard was Ken saying of the bronze dagger he’d made, a copy of what he had seen. “Ask Jules, she’ll tell you. At Destination it’s far too early in our world to have alloyed bronze.”