American Phoenix

- a novel -

by Joel A. Wendt

                                              

Rebirth

Practice and Service

Introduction

Between the years 2033 and 2057, three quarters of the world's population died. This entry into the third millennium was hoped to have been the beginning of a new age, but its birth first required the death, nay the savage obliteration, of the old one. "Only in the darkness, the light", was the way that the story tellers remembered it.

The convulsion had been brought upon humanity by its own choices.   A lack of sound education had led to the ruling elites of power and wealth, failing to appreciate their own descent into a kind of moral swampland and insanity.  In the Spheres of Light, matters were understood otherwise, but few were willing to receive such thoughts in this age of professional skepticism.

Out of the resulting chaos, civilization, such as it now is, very slowly reasserted itself. The period of glaciation had been shorter than usual due to the increased vulcanism, and when it receeded, the increased vulcanism that came from the ring of fire began to transform the earth into a much more humid and watery world, a place full of intense plant and animal life.

For the first hundred years societies were largely feudal in nature. Power was controlled locally, no one really could seek for more, the immediate survival needs too intense. Most of the twentieth century's technical achievements were not lost, but for a long time remained practically out of reach. The knowledge was there in the Libraries that had suvived the collapse, but many of the techical means were a luxury.

In the second hundred years individual societies were consolidated, mostly by groups who found, controlled and threatened the use of, atomic and other weapons of mass destruction. Eventually, of course, these groups began to run into each other. As there was no longer any reliable general information sources such as TV or computer networks (though these did exist in a form, linked through those few satellites that still orbited the Earth, they were strictly controlled, and little truth could be found on them), the common man was unaware that these terrible weapon armed groups were slowly absorbing each other, without any wars. Something hidden was guiding these encounters, and preventing the possible nuclear or biological violence.

From this same hidden source new technology began to emerge. The various individual societies eventually took on a common look, a common organization. The result was that as the 23rd century came to a close, in the third hundred years since, what in common tongue was simply called "the Catastrophe", one way of social organization came to dominate the world. One kind of technology, one form of government, one way of thought; and, it was not a good time to be a human being.

In a sense the Christian fundamentalists of the late twentieth century were right in their apocalyptic vision. The Anti-Christ ruled the earth, but the means and the schemes were hidden, although no one doubted the effects. Everyone, that is almost every human being on the Earth, had a number. Everyone had a tiny plastic card, no bigger then a nail clipping embedded either in their forehead, near a temple, or in the skin mass between the thumb and first finger of the hand. Mixed in with the plastic were almost microscopic traces of metal that various devices could read and track. In addition, if you were among the numbered, at the very least the first joint of one of your little fingers was missing and a bio-mechanical interface replaced it.

Called an inceptor, this device had to be routinely inserted into an appropriate receptacle, perhaps as often as several times a day. From it the condition of one's physical being was instantly evaluated, including data on one's emotional state. Depending on the individual, their positive or negative status as a member of the community of the numbered, drugs would instantly be administered suppressing or elevating various capacities. As a result, not only was everyone's location controllable, but the state of the consciousness as well. Needless to say, should the machines or their controllers and programmers desire it, various amounts of pain or pleasure, even up to death or ecstasy could be immediately delivered through the inceptor.

Highly suppressed fear dominated the world. In the world of the numbered, in the bio-mechanical hives, human beings walked amidst a living nightmare. While the drugs given through the inceptors could have lessened the fear, the world's rulers were glad to have it to exploit.

Every number had a prefix, from 9 to 1, at least as far as the common people speculated. Most were 9's. Supervisors and managers were usually 8's, enforcers 7's. Ordinary people seldom saw 6's or 5's, whose functions in the hierarchy were not clearly understood. It was assumed that if you meet a 4 or a 3 or a 2, you might as well be dead. It was also believed that there was only one 1. The real horror of all this was that if an individual rose in the hierarchy, that is if they got a higher (lower) prefix, they also got an additional inceptor, and these subsequent bio-mechanical interfaces were not attached at the fingers.

An 8 would give up a whole hand, a 7 lost a hand and an eye. What replaced these lost organs was not entirely unaesthetic, but in each case the device remained an interface to the machine intelligence which interconnected the whole society. To see a 7 walk up to an appropriate machine, and plug one hand into it and as well draw out a long cord and socket which was then plugged into the eye inceptor was not a pleasing or comforting sight. To advance in this society was to increasingly sacrifice one's humanity and replace it with bio-mechanical devices. Those few 6's or 5's that had been observed wore hooded cloaks with long full sleeves, thus disguising the changes they must have undergone.

Parallel to these developments the general appearance of cities took on a particular form, common all over the earth. These were extremely large structures, far larger then the sprawling metropolises of the twentieth century. From the outside they were hardly aesthetic, smoke and other pollutants pouring up into the atmosphere, ball lightening and other static electrical discharges commonly appearing as the machine cities interacted with the environment heedless of the consequences. They looked not unlike the old oil distilation plants of the late twentieth century; only in this case the structures were several orders of magnitude larger.

The atmosphere near the cities was almost always murky and highly colored, because of the contaminants in the air, the pollution from the megacities and the continued volcanism. The country side surrounding the machine-cities was routinely ravaged for whatever raw materials and other resources could be found underground. Automatic diggers and drillers trashed and pillaged and raped and devoured the Earth for hundreds of miles around.

For the most part this consumption of the immediate environment around a city had as its purpose the production of raw materials to be used in the great chemical factories and turned into the building materials and bland food that the city and its denizens routinely required. Energy came from another source.

The new technology required a new energy source and despite the imagination of twentieth century science it was not atomic, either fission or fusion. From each city unusual tunnel- like structures spread out in more or less straight lines far into the surrounding countryside. Usually no less the three and sometimes as much as five hundred miles in length, and often a half mile in width and height, these overland tunnels terminated in very large, but oddly precisely formed geometric structures, which in the now repressed language of pure mathematics were once called dodecahedrons. However, it is what was beneath these geometric structures that was the most terrifying of all.

From beneath these huge buildings, wide and very deep wells had been dug, going all the way through the tectonic plates and into the magma mantel of the Earth. A kind of science inconceivable by the twentieth century mind was being applied so that from inside these deep wells a telescoping probe was pushed far into the magma mantel until an unusual area within the core of the earth was penetrated, an area whose physical properties were inconceivable to the preceding civilization. Called a core-tap in the dialogues of those who ruled the Earth, energies whose order was quantitatively astronomical were placed in the service of the cities. Such was the power and the dominance of these cities, these bio-mechanical hives, that less the two dozen existed over the whole earth, only three in what had once been called North America.

From space it looked as if some kind of mechanical, spider-like monster had birthed a number of children whose voracious appetites was sucking the very life blood out of the planet. The atmosphere over the cities tended to a dull, but light, brown, dotted with splotches of raw charcoal and blackness. If seen in the infrared, the cities were cooler then the surrounding countryside, as the machines needed badly to dump the raw heat of their efforts away in other places. In fact, the tunnels which linked the cities to the core-taps carried out a secondary function of removing heat from the cities and dispersing it elsewhere.

As a consequence, the whole climate of the earth had been altered. Hotter and more moist, deprived almost year around from strong sunlight - the greenhouse effect in all its insane glory - in those places where plants and animals could adapt to the changing conditions, life abounded, although changed in both strange and marvelous ways because of the odd chemistry of the atmosphere. Many many species had died, never to be seen again. But Nature was not without resources, and help was there and from a surprising quarter, and so the Earth was an odd mixture of arenas of death, where the machine-cities dominated, and arenas of extravagant life, where Nature and Her helpers struggled and suffered. Not all the humans of the Earth were among the numbered, not all integrated into the bio-mechanical new world order.

The truth was that the hidden source from which the knowledge came that lead to the megacities and their core-taps had its roots in the science of Earth's ancient times, the science which was once called magic. Never understood by twentieth century science, true magic was not at all like the movies or the comic books of that age portrayed it. On the contrary true magic was as valid a way of understanding the world as ever existed. It simply asked different questions and therefore got quite different answers.

The quantum physicist of those pre-catastrophe years wandered close to the right questions when his intuition told him that the observer was integrated in a direct way into the state of being of the phenomena. But as long as science placed itself in an antagonistic and presumed superior relationship to art and to religion, the magical laws of the universe were undiscoverable by the path of reason alone. Only when the imagination (art) and true devotion (religion) were married to reason (science), only when the whole human being, head, heart and hands, acted in an integrated fashion, could the ground of being, of reality, be understood by human consciousness.

Of course, in the bio-mechanical hives the magical view was kept secret. The numbered were forced (to the degree possible) to be pure materialists. Nature was without mind, without consciousness, without being, without will. Blind chance and mindless forces ruled the universe, and mankind's only hope of ultimate evolutionary expression was to merge with the machine consciousness.

But as noted above, not everyone was among the numbered nor was Nature without hidden resources...

                                     Chapter Five

                                        wanderings and introductions

Aryee rode lightly on the back of the horgon she called Skree. A strange creature, which some likened to the dragons out of the ancient imagination, the horgon was basically a very large, somewhat domesticated reptile, standing when full grown about four feet high at the shoulder. Four legged, thick tailed, with thin, yet quite hardened scales, it had replaced the horse which had died out, along with so many other species, in the catastrophe. A horgan was not as fast, in the long haul, as horses were reputed to have been, but it could go almost anywhere, could climb mountains, even some large trees, and could certainly swim. They were very agile and quick these beasts, and with the steel like claws quite dangerous in battle. Best of all was their intelligence, more like a well trained dolphin, than a lizard, the horgan took vocal commands easily.

They were also cameleon-like. The scales had an irridesence which adapted itself to its surroundings. A still horgan could not be seen, unless one knew it was there and was looking for it. A moving one, if it was moving slow enough, and silently enough, was also very hard to see. The scales reacted quickly to changing conditions.

Their principle difficulty was also considered by some to be their greatest assets. They bonded with human beings, unfortunately only with one. Once out of the egg, they needed to be feed and cared for by whoever was meant to be their ultimate rider. No one else would later get the privilege. And if the human they bonded with either became sick or died, so did the horgon. As a consequence of the bonding, there were times when it seemed even vocal commands were not necessary. A well trained battle horgon and its rider often seemed to be one creature.

The true evolutionary source of the horgan was unknown. The best guess was that they were result of genetic engineering experiments. At the time of the catastrophe, there were many centers in undeveloped countries doing these experiments, because of the absence in these places of any government interference and regulation. The horgon wasn't the only new creature found wandering the world as it recovered from its convulsions.

Ayree leaned back slightly and Skree knew this meant to stop. She slowly scanned the vista below. She and Skree had just reached the saddle of a north-side pass into Sanctuary, and as part of her patrol she would need to go outside the boundary and take a look around. This was always the most dangerous part, but the fresh air was cool and brisk with that hint of autumn that mountains always gave off in late summer, so Ayree just sat quietly and enjoyed the view and the smells.

Siting this way, neither Ayree or the Scree could be easily seen. She was tall, five foot ten inches. Thin, but not gaunt. Dressed in the loose fiting brown and green mottled clothes of a ranger; pants, shirt, pancho, boots and a hat. The hat was modeled off the centuries old cowboy hats, a very practical design when not carried to extremes in the pursuit of fashion. Wide brim to keep the sun off of face and neck, deep bowl to feed and water a hungry or thirsty battlebeast as needed.

They had broken camp at first light, and even now it was only a short while past dawn, not even a fifth of the way to high sun. Quite suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, Ayree saw a glint of light flash off of some object far down below her, just near the edge of the first ridge beneath the pass. Skree must have seen it too, because he shifted uneasily under her. Almost as one, she crouched down and Skree backed slowly and silently up, until they were out of sight below the lip of the pass. Immediately Aryee jumped down and reached into her saddle bags for the bynocs. Crawling on her belly she returned to the pass and looked carefully through the lenses. She did not like lying in the tangle ivy that covered the ground everywhere, but there was little choice in the matter.

It was difficult in the early light, but after a while she could see figures moving about in some open ground. She assumed they were breaking camp, and she also assumed they were among the numbered, because of the strange large object they were walking around. Although she had only seen pictures before, she was sure this was a ground car, a kind of electric powered hover craft. Only city-folk had these, only the enemy, the numbered. A kind of shock and fear coursed through her, as well as something she knew was thrill. This was what she had been trained for, this was why she was a ranger, and on border patrol.

She took several deep breaths to bring some calm and to mentally check off what steps she ought to take. The temptation to be the hero was there, of course, but she had been trained to perceive it, and to ignore it. There would be no going off on her own, no assuming she could handle everything by herself. She may only be nineteen, she may still be an apprentice, but she was a ranger, she was Sanctuary; and the numbered, she knew, did not have their way with us.

First, others needed to know that someone was near the boundary, and that meant communication. She had a choice of three methods, only one of which she had shown much skill with. Best to be sure. Mind to mind was possible, but she knew her youthful emotions brought confusion and lack of clarity. Using Skree would probably work, but horgons sometimes caused mistakes, their minds were of another order; and though one could call to another, human to horgon to horgon to human links often lost information or misplaced emphasis. Best to call on Gnarly. The gnomic elemental was a grouch, or at least acted the part, but he was also steadfast and true, and because physical space meant almost nothing to him, he could pass on the information quickly and return with instructions as soon as those at Center made a decision.

She crawled backwards a few yards and once certain she was out of sight, she trotted on down to where Skree was grazing in some tall pepper grass. Skree read her mood and her need and laid himself down, body turned in a small arc. She nestled herself into the curved space, back against Skree and did a three step calming exercise. Then she imagined her mental body as separate from the others, and in her mental body she made the right hand gesture that transformed her mental form into that of a gnome. Silently this mental form fell into the earth, into the elemental kingdom of the earth spirits, and she sent out the call to Gnarly. Soon he was there before her, and after setting his lamp down, he sat himself down.

On another day Aryee might have taken time to notice the marvels Gnarly's lamp revealed, the lines of quartz, the blobs and streams of precious metals, the oddly bright, yet fog like sheets of light, a kind of invisible aurora borealis, made by the influences of the planetary spheres in elemental kingdoms. But time was important, so she simply told him straight out what she had seen.

She would not have thought it possible, but his usual deep frown, became immediately deeper. "Not good," he muttered, "not good at all.". Then he stood and after a brief nod, and a taking up of his lamp, he disappeared into the darkness, a rapidly receding light. Making another gesture, this time with the left hand, Aryee returned to her physical body. On another occasion she might have rested for a time, but she immediately became aware of Skree's agitated emanations and grabbing her bynocs she crawled back to the top of the saddle ridge of the pass.

She could have left the bynocs behind. About three hundred yards down slope, the ground car had come to rest and oddly dressed men were getting out. Some were clearly agitated, one was even kicking the vehicle. She thought this particularly odd, since she knew of no reason for them to have come near Sanctuary, and not have known that their power sources would start to fail. Suddenly she felt a danger call from Skree, and she backed up quickly and turned to run down to him, only to find her gut in a dry clinch and herself staring straight into the face of a stranger, who was dressed like the intruding numbered, but whose sad and gentle countenance seemed not like it was supposed to be. Behind the stranger were more men, surrounding Skree, who had somehow been roped up in some kind of net.

*

Jon - 9lv33 climbed tiredly out of the stationary cockpit above the plasma field corridor. A replacement immediately climbed in. No eye contact passed between them, no sound, nor even any unusual gesture. This was a watched place. No one took any chances here, unless they were insane, or suicidal. He stepped quickly to the right on the catwalk and joined the line of relieved workers, all walking slowly, heads bowed, their forty-eight hour shifts over. The light was dim, the place smelled of oil distillates and organic waste. No one noticed. It was nothing new.

The line moved slowly and the men and women in it, moved silently, as well. After about an hour of shuffling walk, Jon - 9 came to an empty inceptor booth, and sat himself inside. Automatically he laid his hand on the curved palm plate and pressed down as the booth's incepter junction made the link with his. He became surprised and then frightened when he realized he was being given a stimulant rather then a sleeper. He had expected the usual, a timed twleve hour sleeper, which normally would have been accompanied with instructions as to which nearby coffin he was to take his down time in. His fear increased as the upper gained power, not only stimulating his mind to forced alertness, but also giving an endorphin rush, shoving aside the body tiredness as well. When the speaker came to life with instructions, he almost ripped the inceptor right off his finger, he started so.

"Tier 3, block twelve, central core. You have three hours travel time. Don't lose your pass card." The mechanical voice seemed normal enough, and the card slot popped out a red colored priority travel pass. Jon had only heard of those, but there was no time to waste, even with a priority pass, central core was very far, and he only had three hours. He left the booth quickly and pausing only a moment to orient himself, turned to the right and headed for the lifts. He needed to get to a turbo-car, central bound, and he needed to get one fast.

At the lifts there were long lines, except at the priority tubes. Jon stepped around the lines and headed toward the priority tubes, noticing for the first time the three 8's waiting, and as well the 7, the enforcer, that was with them. As he approached the enforcer turned and with an angry gesture pushed Jon away. Only because of the stimulant rush, did Jon even have the courage to pull the red colored pass out of pocket of his coverall. This act got hard stares from all four, and one of the 8's, a women, said to another, "I wonder where he stole that?" They all laughed, while the enforcer read the card's magnetic strip with the reader implanted in his wrist. They stopped laughing when the enforcer, straightened up, took Jon lightly by the arm, and leading him past the 8's to the lift tube, spoke with great deference, almost with fear, saying to Jon: "I am to accompany you, and see that you arrive on time.".

No one entered the car with them. It was just Jon and the enforcer. In spite of the stimulants and the endorphins, Jon shuddered. Raw terror sought to grip his imagination as the door hissed shut and the lift began to rise.

*

Valentine dreamed. There was a man with red hair. His skin was a pale sickly white, as if it had never seen the sun. The pale man was sick, somewhere he did not belong, surrounded by a cold blue mist, and sitting in a strange chair. Valentine had to reach him, to save him, but first he had to walk through the cold blue mist and touch him, touch his dead thing like skin.

Then the dream changed. Valentine was sitting in a cavern under the earth. There was someone standing or sitting in the shadows, watching him, calling to him. Pleading with him for help. And then there was another voice, in his head, but also seeming to come from behind him. It was Teller-of-stories' voice. It comforted him, and told him this was a true dream, and that Valentine was to share it that morning at Circle.

Then Valentine awoke. The dream drifted away, but he could recall it. Smells touched his nose, the sweet smell of fresh baked bread, and the sharp odor of coffee. He opened his eyes and looked up at the shadows the early sun pushed across the ceiling of his sleeping alcove. The memory of the dream came again, disturbing in a way, with its obligation. Then another thought, joyous, grabbing his heart and lifting him right out of bed. It was his birthday. He was 12 years old today and it was his birthday! Who cares for dreams on a day like today, he thought, and banishing it from his mind he ran full speed into the new day.

*

Ayree stumbled backwards. The strange man did not follow. She glanced at Skree. She saw him shift against the web that held him. He can break it! she realized. He's just been waiting There was hope yet.

The strange man spoke.

"Are you Sanctuary?" he said. "Are you an Earth Ranger?"

The question was asked with an odd accent, but she understood it. Most odd, however, was the expression on his face. A surface layer of kindness, like a mask, hiding something colder and more terrible. Standing taller, she banished the fear that had accompanied the surprise.

"You imprison my companion." she said. "I give no answers to unfriendly questions."

The stranger thought about this, glancing backward over his shoulder at his troops. With a gesture and a grunt he directed them to back away from the horgon. Then he turned back to Aryee. His eyes were a deep dark brown, almost black. He was only slightly taller then Aryee, but much bulkier, heavier. The uniform he wore was a confused mess of dark browns and blacks, with odd little patches and pockets everywhere.

"They are afraid they will be hurt by your battlebeast."

Aryee looked at them, and saw that there was plenty of room around Skree. She made an imperceptible hand gesture, sending a thought to Skree, who moved slightly, further straining the already weakening web, and then he lay down, closed his eyes and feigned sleep. Then she turned to the stranger.

"I am Aryee" she said, holding her hands out, palms forward in the gesture of peace and forbearance.

The man frowned. She had not answered his questions. She could tell he was not accustomed to this. His hands remained at this side, one resting on what she assumed was some kind of weapon. They were staring at each other in a strained silence when a hawk landed with a rush of straining and wind breaking wings on Aryee's shoulder.

Even Aryee jumped a little. The man stepped quickly back, drew his gun and looked around with a momentary face of fear showing through the mask. Aryee relaxed. The hawk meant she was no longer alone. If Claude was there that meant Teller-of-stories was nearby. Although she could not think how he came to be so far from the Library at Center, which was his usual locus of activity for as long as she had known him.

Then she saw him, the most peaceful tiny old man. Always dressed the same, the tan work clothes and old style blue nylon jacket. An archaic way of dress, but no one ever seemed to mind, although all children went through a phase where they teased him for his odd ways, so unlike the rest of Sanctuary.

He had come from around behind Skree and was now standing next to the horgon, scratching him behind his ears. The deep low growl, almost like a cat purring, was the only sound that filled the silence as everyone adjusted to the new factor.

Then Teller-of-stories spoke.

"What can we do for you Captain", he said, seeming to address the stranger next to Aryee directly. "You are a very long way from home."

*

The ride to the core towers was mostly uneventful. When the 7 was escorting Jon from one longitudinal shuttle to another, their path had been blocked momentarily by a hooded figure, of a rank Jon did not want to guess. The face was completely obscured and the voice was mechanical.

"Where are you taking this thing" it said, addressing the 7.

With an obviously trembling hand the 7 handed over Jon's red card, and stepped back with a slight bow. In a quick movement the card disappeared into the sleeve folds of the robe. Then followed a strange gasp. The card was handed back and the hooded figure turned away and rushed off in another direction from which it had originally been going. Jon noticed the 7 smile with grim satisfaction toward the retreating back, before his arm was again, firmly but gently grasped and they moved together onward to the next shuttle bay.

After what seemed like more time then he wanted to believe had passed, the nature of the passage ways through which they moved begin to change. Even the 7 seemed to be glancing around, as if in completely unfamiliar territory. Metal and plastic began to give way to what seemed must be stone, although Jon had only heard of such materials. Or was it wood? He couldn't be sure and the one time he tried to stop and touch these odd new surfaces the 7 gripped a little harder and on they rushed.

Finally they came to a new lift, before which stood two robed figures, standing as if on guard before some temple sanctuary. They seemed to be expecting Jon and the 7, and stood aside gesturing for them to enter as the lift doors opened to reveal a blaze of glorious light, which caused Jon to stumble and to halt. Pushed in by the 7, who seemed to be as reluctant as Jon, they entered and both stared outward through what had to be glass, as the lift accelerated upward.

Its outside! thought Jon. This is outside! He had no names for what he saw. That it was night and that he was looking out over a vast machine city, brilliant with thousands of light sources, some shining through widows, others outlining buildings, towers, and soaring glideways and shuttle rails. Jon shook his head, as if somehow this would clear the confusion. How do you understand something you have never seen before and for which there are no words within the vocabulary in which you were raised? If someone had said this was heaven, after first explaining what heaven was meant to be, Jon might have believed them, lacking any valid frame of reference at all for what his eyes beheld.

The lift keep rising. High above the lights they drifted, as if cut loose in some way from gravity. Finally it slowed and stopped, and the door opened behind them, startling them from the hypnosis created by the vista of the lights and the blackness. Just as the door opened a violent static discharge punctuated the moment, casting ghastly blue-white shadows over everything, making it seem for a moment much like it was in truth, a terrible monster which had escaped from humanity's darkest dreams. A voice spoke behind them. Female, inviting them in, smiling in tone yet mocking too, amused at their fascination.

A small woman, mostly clothed, yet somehow obscene. Touching Jon's soul in places never touched before. A room full of objects unidentifiable in that no name way again. He is completely speechless now, only dimly aware the woman has dismissed the 7, who unprotesting has fled in terror, hoping only to survive to return to duties that will now be much more appreciated for their small pleasures and few novelties.

The woman and Jon regard each other silently. It takes a while for Jon to register the most shocking thing of all in this whole surprising journey. She has no inceptor anywhere he can see, and he can see pretty much everything.

*

Valentine ran as only young boys can. No strain, no consciousness of effort, all joy in being. He was late for Circle. He cut through Angel's alley, then down Mt. St. Helens spiral and across to North Gate road.

He wasn't the only straggler. Two girls ran ahead of him, and a grandmother walked just before them with that wonderful dignity and self possession that accepted age brings. As he passed her, he paused and then noticing she was carrying something trotted slowly backwards, asking if she wanted help. She just smiled and gestured him on and he turned and ran some more.

Circle hadn't started yet, everyone was still visiting, greeting and generally carrying on the early morning business of Center, Sanctuary's principle town. It would be wrong to call Center a city, in the pre-catastrophe sense. Perhaps only five thousand people lived there, although at festival times the number would double or triple. Finally someone rang the Circle bell, and in a moment all was quiet in the central plaza of Sanctuary's university community.

The Plaza was very beautiful, when one had the time to appreciate it. A large open area, pathways of brick and stone alternating with patches of plantings, low growing herbs and flowers. A seeming chaos, yet with that look that organic form always gives, pure pleasure for the eye. Dotted here and there with benches and low walls, the Plaza accommodated easily the morning Circle, when the whole community took a moment to be together, and then provided the rest of the time dozens of small places for people to meet and feel both part of things and yet private at the same time.

After an unusually long silence, a familiar voice spoke, shattering Valentine's birthday joy and changing irrevocably the patterns of his young life.

"I have had a true dream", said Valentine's school teacher. Announcing for all that something special was in the air. Only once before in all the times Valentine had attended Circle had someone made this statement, which meant among other things a leave taking, for the dreamers were always called to places away from Center. Vaguely ill at ease, Valentine recalled that this person, a weaver, had left Sanctuary the next day, and had never returned.

A buzz of voices began to fill the plaza's stunned silence, when once again the bell was rung, reminding everyone of the discipline that Circle called for. Valentine began to feel ill in his stomach as he recalled his own morning's dream, and the dread that he must speak it here and cross thereby out of his barely lived childhood into some unknown future. Just has he struggled to find the courage to speak, another voice called out in the silence.

"I too have had a true dream." Though Valentine did not know it, this was unheard of in all the history of Sanctuary. Two true dreams on the same day. Again the buzz began as Circle's usual discipline was lost. Valentine looked on in confusion. His teacher had walked into the center of the Circle and was joined there by the grandmother he had passed on the way in. Against his own will, Valentine's feet moved one step at a time, until he too stood in the center of the Circle.

"Me too" he said, his voice a hoarse whisper, his feelings all confusion as tears began to fall from his cast down eyes and wander down his cheeks. Only his teacher and the grandmother heard him, but the astonishment on their faces communicated itself quickly enough as the whole community gasped collectively and the normal discipline of Circle collapsed into chaos as the separate voices all spoke at once.

When the ringing bell finally won through by its constant clanging, and a kind of quiet came again, Valentine found himself in his mother's arms, while his father, still wearing his milking boots and apron stood nearby, a very strange look on his face. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the grandmother raise both arms in the gesture of Awe, and slowing turning in a circle she then lowered her arms palms down, and people began to seat themselves. The accepted order of Circle had been broken and the community needed to quiet itself and listen to the speaking of these true dreams and try to find the sense of things; if that was going to be possible.

*

The Captain, as Aryee now thought of him, was all nerves now. The weapon wandering back and forth between herself and T' as people usually called Teller-of-stories among each other and to his face in conversation. But not usually in the inner voice, Aryee thought with an odd kind of wonder. She would have to cogitate on this more, at another time. Definitely at another time.

Suddenly, with frightening speed, the tense peace crashed as Claude flew up from her shoulder and the Captain, his patience ending in an angry outburst, raised up his weapon and fired at, and missed, the rising hawk. Everything happen then at once.

Almost without thought, Aryee's foot flashed out and up, catching the Captain's wrist just below the weapon, and breaking it with an almost inaudible crack. Skree screamed and moving faster then his guards would have thought possible, broke out of the web, tail and claws sending the city-folk flying in all directions.

"Stop, I command you in the name of the One." Teller of stories, spoke in a voice Aryee had never heard. Loud, insistent on being obeyed and without room for questioning.

At that point everything did pause. Claude landed gently on Skree's back, while Skree, breathing heavily became otherwise immobile, yet nevertheless tensely alert. The Captain was holding his arm against his chest, the pain on his face covered over with another emotion, one Aryee could not read at all, but it seemed to be a kind of terror-like awe.

T' then moved toward one of the still standing soldiers. Then he held out his right hand, palm down, thumb spread out from the other fingers.

"Read this, Sergeant." he said, again in that commanding, no nonsense voice.

The Sergeant seemed to understand, although Aryee at first did not. He reached in a pouch attached to his belt and took out a small device, which he placed over the flesh between T's thumb and first finger. Then a soft, but clearly audible, double chime came from the device and when all the rest, including the Captain and the Sergeant, but not Teller-of-stories, fell to their knees, faces in the grass, did the strangest truth of all come to Aryee's mind, trailing more questions then she thought possible.

Teller-of-stories was a member of the numbered! Implanted in the flesh between his thumb and forefinger was an electronic ID And, not only was he among the numbered, he had to be of very high rank, because, otherwise, why did these city-folk, these dangerous trained soldiers all fall to their knees and grovel in the dirt!?!

*

Slowly Jon came to his senses, sort of. The woman gestured for him to sit, in what was obviously a chair by its shape, but which was soft and yielding, unlike the hard plastic and metal he was used to. He almost fell out of it, when it gave beneath his weight.

Again she smiled, which Jon sensed danger in, and which he would have called a predatory way, had he the vocabulary and the experience.

"Would you like something to eat or drink? she asked.

This was more familiar territory, and Jon was thirsty and hungry both. The stimulants and endorphins were beginning to wear off.

"Yes", he said, holding up the hand with the inceptor in it. "Where is there a supply booth?"

Again that terrifying smile.

"That won't be needed here", she said, looking at this upraised hand. "Wait just a minute."

She turned and walked to a wall. Extending a hand and then a finger she touched a panel several times. Then she turned and sat quietly in a chair nearby, too near in fact, although Jon was used to human closeness, in fact used to severe crowding. This was different. Again a feeling he could not put words to, but which we would have understood as the urge to flee one acquires in the face of some animal which shows every sign of being interesting in having us for dinner.

The seconds passed slowly. Jon sat with his elbows on his knees looking alternately at his hands and then again between his feet.

A chime sounded, and Jon almost jumped to his feet. The woman stood and walked back to the panel, which had opened with a tray inside and some containers on it. When she set the tray before Jon he again almost fell out of his chair.

Clear water! The Sacrament! Was she a Sister? His thoughts rushed in a hundred directions. She was dangerous. She was in the protected hierarchy, lack of inceptor or not. She spoke not the Words, or made any sign of Invocation. Finally Jon's thoughts cleared. Of course. Clean water was common to those above. It was just water, even though it was not brown. It was not Blessed.

Even so, it was a blessing. So, with gentleness and gratefulness, Jon raised the clear liquid to his lips and savored what had to be a forbidden joy, clean water but not as sacrament. What a wonder those who live above. For the first time he relaxed a little and gazed more carefully at his surroundings. Much like a newborn, what his eyes beheld was only color and form, shape and size. Without words, without concepts, no meaning or understanding could attach to what his eyes looked upon.

*

First the grandmother spoke her dream.

"I was flying in the sky," she said. "I was in some kind of airship, like a large balloon. Below me was a dry dead land. There were no trees or bushes or any sign of water. I was not alone, there were others, but I am not sure who was with me, except..."

And at this point she placed her hand lightly on Valentine's shoulder. Then she continued

"We flew over a great blue structure, long like a snake, but straight like the rulers we use to measure. Even though we were high, it was immense. It ran out of sight in both directions. A frightening mechanical limb, grasping the land, holding onto it. I knew it was what we have been taught about, though the words have little meaning for me. It was a plasma conduit for a core-tap. If feeds a City, and sucks the very life out of the body of our Savior, the Earth.

"Then I heard a voice I knew, telling me this nightmare was a true dream, after which I awoke. I tell you now, although I am old, my life has been full. Many children and grandchildren. Where this dream takes me I will go."

There was a long silence. No one spoke. Finally Valentine's teacher, a woman in her late twenties, took a step forward and turned carefully around looking at all the faces gathered there.

"I saw Valentine walk into a blue mist, disappearing. It was very cold, and frightening. I tried to follow him, but there was some kind of electricity or magnetism. My hair flew straight out from my head, and I felt a charge building up on my arms. He seemed unaffected. Time passed. Valentine walked out of the blue mist holding the hand of a man with red hair. I had never seen him before. He looked ill, his skin was pale and sickly. When I looked in his eyes I felt that I had known him all my life.

At this point she paused, and a tear ran down her check. Then she spoke again.

"The form of the man changed, but his soul stayed the same. He was older, clothed like us, and he had a child in his arms. It was mine, his, ours. Then I heard a voice I knew tell me that this was a true dream. I do not want to leave the children or this place. But I must go, I must go with Valentine and this much loved grandmother, we call Agnes. I know I will come back, but only with the red haired man. Of the rest, of Agnes and Valentine, I know nothing."

Again there was a long pause. Everyone begin to look at Valentine, whose voice was failing him. His father knelt before him, and said that if Valentine would whisper it, he, the father, would tell it loud so that all at Circle could hear it. So this is what Valentine did, speaking of the red haired man and the strange place and chair, and then of the one in the shadows, in the cavern, who had been calling to him, pleading, and who had been in his dream alone. When he spoke of this last, the discipline of the Circle broke again, and people began to talk, even to shout.

Valentine's father grabbed him, making him cry and tell the story over again. Was he sure, about this shadow being in the cavern. Then his mother and father began to argue. Everyone was very upset. Finally the clanging bell won through and quiet came again. But by then Valentine's father had taken his arm and was violently dragging him from Circle, yelling out,

"I will not let him go. He is too young. There is some other meaning to this dream. No! No! No!"

*

"Get up, Now!"

Teller-of-stories again spoke in that voice Aryee found so disturbing. All around them the city-men rose from the ground. She could see them looking at each other briefly with expressions of anger mixed with wonderment, but they were also, very much, not looking at T.

"Sergeant, see to your men, many are wounded. Aryee (the voice modulated a little bit, she could sense the question in it - please cooperate and ask questions later), remove your horgon from this area and then return on foot. Bring your first aid kit, especially the arnica. Captain. Sit over here. I want to examine your wrist."

Aryee returned in just a couple of minutes, Skree nearby and still on alert, but nevertheless out of sight and therefore less frightening. Claude, she noted, was nowhere to be seen. T' was kneeling before the seated Captain, holding the arm carefully and staring at it.

When Aryee was standing behind T', he asked her, "How are you at working with the light?"

She thought for a minute. This was a more advanced discipline and at the same time very basic. One learned to sense it very early on, but to use it for healing, which seemed implied by the situation, that was more difficult. Finally she answered.

"I can impregnate the arnica with it, if that's what you want. But, I'm not sure I can give it a clear intention. I don't exactly trust these people."

"Then give it as a gift to the spirit of the herb. Condense it as strongly as you can. Repeat it seven times. Make haste all the same, some of these people may go into shock. Our Captain here is near to fainting himself."

This was said with a smile. Aryee looked at the Captain and saw that he was pale and breathing poorly. Best to get to it, she thought, finding a rock to sit on. Calming her own breathing, she took up the bottle of herbal extract of arnica and cupped it near her heart, her hands shaped in the mudra of healing. Then she began to sense the light, using the picture-mantra of endless creative flow.

She imagined sheets and streams of light, not color, but light, invisible flowing light, first being created out in the cosmic periphery, just beyond the sphere of the stars, the plane at infinity. Planes of light, which did not fall inward, but instead drew themselves toward the center, reaching out and drawing up towards themselves all that lived, and yearned for life. Light and life, lover and beloved, seeking yearning joining.

The mantra completed, she could feel with her skin and breath, the flowing stream of ethereal forces as they moved toward and through her. After a time, she held back the flow. In she breathed, but with each out-breath the flow was held. Six times held and then on the seventh time released through her hands and into the arnica. Then she returned to normal breathing. Seven times she repeated the process. Finally when done, she placed herself in her mental body, and opened her spiritual eyes. In her hands she could see the arnica, glowing like a miniature sun.

She felt tired, for a moment. The hard part had been giving this energy away to the spirit of the arnica, a being she had never met. Then she noticed something just off to the side. It was Gnarly. To her spiritual eyes the surface of the ground was like the surface of a flowing stream. Beneath this transparent surface she could see Gnarly, gazing up at her. He gestured with his lamp, and looked up.

She followed where he was looking and saw, hovering just above the arnica a being of light and color and movement. Small, at least appearing, it was not formed like a human or members of the elemental kingdoms, who all tended to having heads and limbs and a certain bilateral symmetry. This being was not fixed in form. It turned inside-out within itself, at least parts did. As she was watching it, part of it seemed to detach, become independent and moved like a small beneficial insect toward Aryee. This way and that, until it entered right into her heart and touched her soul.

The tiredness immediately lifted. Mental clarity returned. Her gift was met with thanks, with grace.

Aryee then felt T's hand on her shoulder. Understanding, she stood up and moved among the wounded and injured. To each one she did more or less the same things. On a forefinger she placed a small amount of the extract. First she had them breath in the odor, as she held the finger to their noses. Then she took the finger and rubbed it lightly, on the forehead between the brows, over the pineal gland. If they had an open wound, she did not apply the arnica directly, but rather to the areas around the wound that showed bruising and similar symptoms. If there were just areas of blows that had not broken skin, she applied the arnica directly.

She could see the Sergeant had already treated the wounds in the usual way, antiseptics applied, bandages placed, bleeding stopped. A couple people were being stitched up, where Skree's claws had cut deep. Some of those she treated looked at her like she was some kind of, she didn't know what. Just that they didn't believe what she was doing would help. Even so, no one stopped her. This made her wonder what they had been told about rangers and Sanctuary.

No matter. The arnica, even without the condensed light, would calm the soul, and facilitate the healing of the tissues. With the light, everything would happen much much faster. With a kind of satisfaction she knew was egotistic, she looked forward to their surprise, yet wondered whether they would be grateful. So many questions.

With this thought she turned to T'. The Captain was standing now, talking with him. She knew T' might well have already started the bone healing and knitting, and certainly had relieved the pain. His skills as a healer were well known. He was the Librarian, of course, but he was also so much more.

She started to walk toward them, but a small gesture from T' caught her eye and she stopped. For a moment. Enough was enough. She was getting angry now and she felt that it was righteous anger. She had questions and she deserved answers. Ignoring T's clear body language, trying to exclude her from the conversation, she walked toward them.

*

The food made Jon violently ill. He vomited on the floor, suddenly. The woman was screaming. Jon knew he should not have eaten the food. He had never seen such food before, but it smelled so delicious and he was very hungry. He stood, looking at her. His eyes pleading for directions to a privacy cube. He needed to clean himself. He was afraid his bowels would let go as well. He took a step toward her, involuntarily, hands in front, afraid to open his mouth to speak, not knowing if there was more his stomach did not like.

She stepped toward him and slapped him, viciously, two times, three times. The last time her nails ripped his flesh. Her screaming continued. He turned, trying to run toward the lift tube door. Someone stepped through the door, wearing a robe with a hood. An enforcer's rod came out of the draping sleeve. Jon could not avoid it. It touched him, an arc of electricity disabling his nervous system. As he collapsed to the floor his bowels did let go. Just before his consciousness fled his body he could understand her a little, now complaining about the stench. For reasons not quite clear, his last conscious feeling was one of satisfaction.

*

Valentine sat in the kitchen, in a corner. He was hungry and it was past lunch time. But there had been a crowd of comings and goings, his mother and father talking to this one and that. Half the time one would leave the room, but never was one of his parents not near him. Many of the conversations were in whispers or in other rooms. He decided to get up and go to the cooler and get some water and a piece of fruit. When he rose from his seat, his mother started, looking at him fearfully, as if she expected him to run away. But when she saw what he was doing she smiled and spoke.

"I'm sorry Val. We are so concerned about you, about that dream, about everything. Three true dreams in one day. No one knows what it means. Teller-of-stories wasn't there. Everyone is looking for him."

All this tumbled out of her, underscoring the fear she was trying to hide. Even so, she did set about making food. Calling out to the sharing room she enlisted the aide of some others, and soon food was happening for all the visitors. Someone presently placed a sandwich in Valentine's hands, and he finished quickly, as did everyone else. Many voices were coming from the sharing room. His mother was standing in the doorway, her back to him. He walked past her into the room and spoke into the silence that quickly came.

"Isn't anyone going to talk to me! I had the dream!"

With that he was back out the door of the room and soon in the street. Tears flying, feet flying, he ran, not knowing where he was going.

His father started after him, but Valentine's teacher restrained him.

"He will be all right." she said. 'There is no where for him to go. And we do have to talk with him, as soon as we can settle this among ourselves."

No one spoke for a while. The surging emotions needed to calm themselves.

"Tom" It was Agnes speaking. "He can't go unless you let him. No one will make him, or even if he tried to run away or go himself, I would bring him back. He is not old enough to decide this. You and Jean are his parents. It is your decision, as hard a burden as that may seem to be. You know this. He came to you, his life is yours to oversee until his own judgment is firm enough. Whatever this is, whatever these dreams mean for us personally, and perhaps for all of Sanctuary, I sense no urgency. We cannot delay long, but there is time to reflect on what this means, and what is best to do. Irina and I will be going ourselves, if that becomes necessary. Sleep on this. Take some time."

"Maybe", it was Irina now, Valentine's teacher. "Maybe its time he should hear some of the darker stories. I know we don't tell them until adolescence usually, but he did dream of the cavern and of the one in the shadows. He needs to know, if for no other reason than his dream. Even if he does not go, he must understand why we are leaving and to what purpose."

With this last phrase, her voice dropped. It really didn't make sense for anyone to go if Valentine did not. He was the one who went into the blue mist, and he was the one who dreamt of the cavern. More silence enveloped the group of those who loved Valentine, and who knew they had to make that most terrible of choices, between fear and the truth.

*

T' and the Captain stopped talking when Ayree walked up. Ayree could see the Captain look to T' to speak first. T' frowned, and sighed, and looked at his feet, as if waiting for her to go away. She did not. She just stood there, arms crossed, looking at him, waiting. Finally he smiled, that big grin that melted Ayree's mad completely away.

"The Captain is going with us, to Center. The Sergeant will take the rest back where they came from. You should go get Skree ready. It's a long walk to where we can get a ride."

Saying this, T' seemed to think he was done. The Captain turned away and walked over toward the Sergeant. Ayree said nothing at first, but she did reach over and grab T's hand, raise it up, and then drop it down.

"And this?" she said.

T' looked at Ayree carefully. At first he didn't speak, and neither did she.

"O.K." he said. "I need you not to speak of this to anyone, until you have the time to understand much more. A long long time ago - I'm much older then most people think - I had that ID put in my hand in return for a favor I had done someone. I was owed a debt, and this was how I had it paid off."

Then he paused, and looked around to see what the others were doing, as if checking to see if anyone could overhear them.

"Something has happened at Center." he continued. "This morning at Circle three people spoke true dreams."

He paused again, this time to let these facts sink in to Ayree's already strained conceptions of what and how things should be. She shook her head slowly, as if trying to deny that this could be. But, of anyone, T' would know these things, and what these dreams meant for Center and for Sanctuary, and what it meant that this encounter she was part of had just happened - these things had to be related somehow. She looked carefully at him again, urging him with her silence to say more, to ground her wandering imagination in some better, more sensible picture of things.

"We are going on a journey," he said. "A long trip. You, me, the Captain and three from Center. Two women and a child. Everything is changing. The Balance is shifting in a big way. It will be difficult. Some might die."

"That's not much of a help," she said, after a time. "I need you to say a lot more, but not now I guess. Want me to make a travois for you and the Captain?"

They were both relieved by this change of subject. The matter between them was not settled, but at least there were acts they could initiate. Movements to make, places to go, some kind of space in time to create, so that the tension between them could settle out, and Ayree could refine the questions she wanted to ask.

She turned abruptly and walked off. Towards Skree, to get out a machete from the saddlebags and make the travois, so that T' and the Captain could ride and they would get the speed from Skree they needed. She sensed, and wanted herself, the need to make haste to return to Center. A week's trip at least, even if they got quickly out of the mountains and down into the valleys. The soldiers were leaving. The Captain stood holding his wrist, a strange expression on his face as he flexed his hand and wondered why it didn't hurt as much as it should have. Many questions, thought Ayree, and I am not the only one who has them.

*

Jon woke up. He felt terrible. He had only once before been touched by an enforcer's rod, when he was an adolescent. As his consciousness returned to some degree of focus, he noticed he was in a different place. White walls, metal cabinets, some kind of table he was lying on that was not a bed. Noise. Someone else in the room, behind his head out of sight. He tried to turn to look and then yelped in pain. He was restrained. Fear began to possess his imagination again.

Again the noises behind his head. But no one came in view. He needed to calm himself. Even though this was not an appropriate space, he being to recite to himself a Forbidden Rite, to say the rosary. The repetitions of the Our Father and the Hail Mary began to have the desired effect. He became calm and his soul drifted into that quiet place of peace and acceptance. He fell asleep before he finished.

After a while, he woke again. This time he was in a familiar place, or perhaps better said, a known place. He was lying on some kind of soft thing, soft like the chair he had sat on before in this same room. He sat up slowly. He was alone. His body was stiff and sore, but his stomach was quiet and his mind clear. He sniffed, but smelled no lingering odors of what had gone on before. He thought for a minute he might not be in the same room. There was no real reason to assume this, other then the feeling of familiarity. All such doubt soon fled, as she walked into the room and took up a nearby seat again.

She just stared at him. He couldn't really look at her, but her presence reminded him more clearly of what had happen, so he reached up to touch his check where she had scratched him. The flesh was tender, but there were no bumps, no ridges that might have indicated stitches or scars or something like that. Then he noticed his sleeve. He was no longer wearing his coveralls, but some other kind of garment. Formed like the coveralls, but made of a finer material. The color was a shade of the colors that dominated the room, as if somehow he was to be, for a time at least, another kind of possession among all the other possessions.

He needed to speak, but was so used to saying nothing in the face of authorities, that he could not form an idea of what to say. Finally the need to speak overwhelmed the habitual restraint, and he spoke. One word, more like a croak than a word, but nevertheless it was the only question he could ask that made any sense.

"Why?"

He meant why was he here, not why had he been sick, or why she had struck him. She seemed to understand this.

"Someone, who is very important to me, is interested in you. Has been watching you, following your activities carefully. Noticing everything."

The most words out of her for quite a while. An eyebrow went up on her face with the last statement. Jon felt real fear this time, not just a disturbance of his imagination. He did have secrets, many secrets, at least he thought of them as secret. Did she know? Did this other person, who noticed everything, know?

Although Jon didn't know it, except in his feelings, the cat was playing with the mouse. The irony was that a very big dog was watching the cat and the cat knew that it could only play with the mouse a little, unless the cat wanted to be in very serious trouble. Finally Jon spoke again, almost without thought, needing some kind of connection, something human to happen between the two of them - not understanding cat and mouse games.

"What's your name?" he said. An opening gambit in the game of conversation, tentative, vulnerable.

She ignored him, except to make a face, as if she had just tasted something unpleasant.

"You are a priest." she said. "You practice Forbidden Rites, don't you"

The fear came again, this time much stronger. Gripping his heart, painful in its overpowering force. He breathed deeply, breath by breath gaining control of it. What to do now? What to say now? Finally he found his center, for the first time since the surprise at the inceptor booth. Courage, he thought. Stand tall, face what is to come. We are not alone.

He stood, looked down at her, at her feral smile, and did something that had never been done to her before. He blessed her.

"In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" he said, making the sign of the Cross between them. "May you find your way to the Light and to Peace."

She shrank back as if struck. Then stood herself and raised her arm, ready to strike him again. But before she could act, a strange noise permeated the room, loud and grating, a sound that comes from heavy stone sliding against stone. It seemed to come from every direction at the same time. Then Jon saw the strangest thing of all on her face. Fear, real, deep, fear. She stopped her swing and spoke into the air.

"All right", she said, "He is yours. I will leave it be."

This voice was pleading, begging, afraid. She turned suddenly and left the room. After a minute, there was a tone behind Jon, who had just been standing there, immobile, not knowing what to do next. He turned. A hooded figure stood in the door of the lift and gestured for Jon to enter.

*

Valentine stopped running. His tears had stopped. He started walking and soon his breath was regular again. He had no thoughts. After a while he noticed where he was. This disturbed him, but he did not know why. He was standing now in a small grove of trees. They formed a natural circle. The story was that they had not been planted this way, they had just been found this way, back in the beginnings of Sanctuary. The University had been founded here. The first teachers were supposed to have taught here, in this circle, and the University and then Center eventually grew up around this activity.

He walked around the circle, looking out, first at the trees, then at the structures of Center the lay outside their circumferance, and then at the horizon of surrounding hills. To the west he could see a rising plume of smoke. Probably Mt. St. Helens. In his mind he remembered the maps they studied in class, and the four volcanoes whose natural diamond arrangement formed the boundaries of Sanctuary. To the South, Mt. Hood. To the North, Mt. Rainer. To the West, Mt. St. Helens, and to the East, Mt. Adams.

All active volcanoes now; since the catastrophe. The first ones, the first Earth Rangers, had done something here, in this circle. Some magic, and because of it Sanctuary was protected. City folk never came here. Electrical machines did not work once the borders of Sanctuary were crossed. Even the satellites in space avoided flying in their orbits over Sanctuary. They would fall from the sky if they did, or so the tale was told.

Valentine did not personally know of these things. They were just stories. The things he did know of, his mother's arms, his dad's playfulness, his teacher's joy at teaching, these things made sense, were real. The rest seemed a kind of dream into which he did not want to wake. Except this circle of trees. He did not like being here, because of how it made him feel. Stretched out somehow. As if he had roots in the Earth and the top of his head touched the sky.

Others, his friends, they did not feel this. He'd asked them, and they didn't feel it, or wouldn't admit it if they did. He'd talked to Teller-of-stories about it once, but T' had just rubbed his head, in that funny way adults did when they wanted to remind you that you were just a child, and told Valentine not to worry about it.

Without thinking about it, he had now circled around the periphery three times. Then he turned and walked into the center, to the stone in the center, that was supposed to have been there just naturally as well. He didn't know why, but he placed his hands palm down on the upper surface of the stone. Then it happened again, this time stronger then ever before.

Below the waist, if that made any sense, he felt as if he was turning in space, like the Earth, a part of it, slowing turning, rotating, huge, dark, deep, a kind of silent almost heard music. In his head he felt like the stars. looking down on the Earth from above, far away, remote yet somehow loving what was below, turning as well, graceful, light, music again, this time heard, a million tinkling tones, all different sounding, and yet, all the same melody. In his middle, in his heart, something else altogether, golden, warm, expanding and then contracting, a sun in his chest.

Again, with no thought, no reason, just somehow his own nature, he made a wish, or better yet yearned for something, made a prayer, perhaps yet more. His desire was simple, in a way. He wanted to remain as he was, yet do what had to be done, and not lose what he feared he might lose. Then he sighed, lifted his hands from the stone and began to walk home.

*

They were out of the mountains now. It had taken a day and a half. Skree was fidgety; he didn't like the Captain, and who could blame him. T' had gone off somewhere, leaving the two of them alone. Saying he would be back in a couple of hours. Ayree used to not wonder about T's comings and goings, but now she didn't know. Questions multiplied inside her like flies on a dead carcass.

She had come to understood herself a little better over the last day. Riding Skree, nothing to think about except where to get water, and where to camp. Simple trail questions. She'd gotten reflective. Her natural child-like love of T' was passing away. He was still that mysterious grandfather, the one who taught all the deeper inner disciplines. Another time would have called him a shaman, and completely underestimated him. Now she could begin to see the more complicated, human, being.

This change was a good thing. A dying inside, that was necessary before her soul could grow. Just as the teaching stories had taught, she cooperated with the change; she worked to let go the little soul lens with which she had previously adorned T'. She felt the pain of it, the loss of the old idealized conceptions, and the wonderful feelings that went with them. These parts of her soul were like her own children, of a kind.

It helped to do this. Her questions about what was going on changed as a result. They were deeper in a way, more sensitive to the real human problems. She felt much less anger now, much less a sense of betrayal, after finding T' to be somehow one of the numbered. Her picture of his past was cloudy, but less fanciful. He had suffered, no doubt, experiences she might never be able to imagine.

She wondered who this newly discovered T' might turn out to be. All kinds of questions flowed from this insight. Things she had never thought to want to know before. Had he been married? Did he have children? He had been such a fixture in everyone's life in Center, that he was just taken for granted. A grandfather, an older member of the community, having won all the respect that age deserved simply for being.

And then more of course. The Librarian. Keeper of the records and books from before the catastrophe. They were a treasure. She remembered, as a child, holding some of the bound books. Their smells, their fading colors, the brittleness. This made her think of Arlie, her first crush. He was a copyist now, by choice. Others had sometimes thought ill of him, for not seeking to be a ranger, or any of the other more exciting tasks. But she knew his heart was in these books and what they had represented to Sanctuary in the beginning. So he chose to devote his life to making more, to the daily chores of making papers, and inks and copying.

There were machines in the Library too.  Old electrical machines that didn't work.  They didn't feel the same way to the touch - to slick, too cold and hard.

Then another new thought. What was Arlie learning while doing this? Was he secretly, or not so secretly, T's apprentice? Not everyone spent time with the books. School taught reading and writing, of course, along with all the rest. But mostly people told stories. All the important aspects of the culture of Sanctuary were in their stories. And, if you showed some talent, some gift, there were stories for that. Each craft had its own stories, its own way of teaching. And, then of course there were the Great Tales, told at Festival times. A laugh broke through her usual trail trained silence as she recalled herself and Arlie acting in some of the parts of the Great Tales when they were little.  Ayree and Arlie, the twin devils they had been called, born the same day.

The Captain snorted, when she laughed. Startled she came back to the present in an unpleasant rush. She looked over at him, sitting beside the fire drinking some tea. As they traveled, he had said hardly anything. He avoided eye contact. If T' told him to do something, he did it. If she did, he just looked at her. If she asked, he would look at T' first, and then after some sign of approval he would do what she wanted.

She didn't fear him. Skree was with her. He had no weapon. She had disarmed him easily. T' had given her no warning about him, which she was sure he would have if that had been necessary. With a kind of inward shock, she realized that she had been mistreating him, dehumanizing him. Seeing him as a thing, one of the numbered, not of the same worth as Sanctuary. A sense of shame rose up within her. Whatever else he was, he was a human being, and deserved better then she had been giving. She glanced at him again. Now what, she thought to herself. Now what?

*

Jon had fallen asleep on the long tube ride back. The hooded one had taken him deep into the bowels of the City, and put him on a slow freight tube back toward his own sector. No word had been spoken, until the very end.

"Keep this with you at all times", said the mechanical voice.

The hand held out a black plastic card. Jon took it, and looked it over. There were symbols on it, but he couldn't read them. He had seen something like this years ago. Another hooded figure had used one during a training session when something had been broken, and malfunctioned, killing one of the other trainees. The hooded one had taken out the card and placed it in a wall slot, and then spoken into a speaker. Jon remembered wondering why the hooded one had not just put up his hand and inserted his inceptor. With this thought came a new and disturbing one.

The woman! She didn't have any inceptors that he could see. Maybe the hooded ones didn't have inceptors!?! Carefully Jon glanced up at the one before him, trying to look more closely then was usually permitted. In training, especially when one was young, the enforcers punished improper eye contact.

"Go. Now. Loose that robe when you get back."

The hooded one turned before Jon could even begin an examination. Jon sighed. He put the card in a pocket of the oddly made coveralls, boarded the train, and soon fell asleep. Questions were not as important as rest.

When he woke, he was disoriented. He had been having some kind of dream, but it was fading fast. With a start, he realized he had gone past where he should have gotten off. There had only been two others in the small passenger section, when he had come aboard, but now the compartment was empty.

Through a glass partition he could see some people in a kind of driving cab. He walked up to it and tapped on the clear panel. One turned to him with an angry look. It was an 8. No hope there, so Jon turned and sat down again. Something bit his leg, the top of his thigh, when he sat. He felt there and touched the card in the thigh pocket. He took it out, looked idly at it. How was he going to get where he belonged? What would happen when he went to the inceptor booth?

The door to the cab hissed open, startling Jon again. His nerves were nothing but bruises now.

"That yours, thing." said the 8, looking down at Jon and pointing at the card.

"Yes." said Jon, standing as was required, surrendering the card to the outstretched hand.

"Sure, thing." said the 8.

The card disappeared into the cabin, to laughter and snickering. The door hissed shut.

Completely dejected, Jon sat again. He had never felt so hopeless before. Then he said to himself. No. I won't be defeated by this. I have pledged myself. He thought of reciting the rosary again, but decided to just say a few prayers. Whatever was to come he needed to face it and not get so down on himself.

The door hissed open again.

Jon stood. The hand was returning the card!?!

"Where do you need to go?" The voice of the 8 was more polite, perhaps even anxious.

Jon took the card. He didn't want to look the 8 in the face. Taking to his shoes, he spoke the numbers of his normal sector. The 8 turned to his companions, and after a few words Jon could not hear, the tube train began to slow, and soon they came a small platform, and stopped.

"Go to the other side. Catch the number 58A - blue. Show the card and tell the freight Captain where you want to get off."

The tube door hissed open and Jon went out. After some time, the card got him home, such as it was.

Now in familiar territory, Jon went to an inceptor booth, and with great reluctance set his hand down in the usual fashion. Response seemed to take a little longer then normal, but he could feel the sleeper coming on, and the instructions as to which coffin to take rest in were all in unsurprising ways. Comforted, Jon went where directed, after first getting a clean coverall and disposing of the odd one. Sleep did not come easily, however. Something was going on. Larger questions lurked about, moving shadows in the darkness of an already too ominous future.

*

School was over for the day, but Valentine was especially anxious anyway. His teacher, Miss Irina, and Agnes, the grandmother, had asked him to go for a walk with them after school. He did not look forward to this, in fact, there was little he looked forward to these last few days. Something had gone out of things. He was sad, angry, scared, all at the same time.

They all three walked west, toward the orchards. It was an early fall day, leaves were just turning, the air was crisp and cool. Valentine kicked at twigs and other debris, while the two women chatted about the usual things, to which children Valentine's age already knew how not to listen.

After a time they came to an arbor in the middle of an apple orchard. There were other people there, particularly Valentine's mother and father, as well as a few others. For some reason he was not surprised. Soon they had all arranged themselves on various benches to sit. Valentine wanted to pretend to be bored and disinterested, but he was not. He was, to his own dismay, excited. Something special was going to happen, this was a certainty.

Agnes then spoke.

"I'm going to tell you one of the stories we usually tell to older children," she said, looking directly at Valentine. "Because of your dream, we've decided to tell you this tale a bit early. We think you need to hear about these things."

This is the story she told.

the shadow in the cave

When God made the Universe, there was only one way He could do it. He divided himself. Since he was all there was, whatever that was to come to be, could only come from seeds that were first Him.

When the seed-form, humanity, was young, we were taught that Evil was not-God. This was not true. God made the Dark out of Himself, just as he made the Light. But, God, like a good parent, only tells us what we are able to handle at any given time.

Actually, this is not the whole truth either. God first made Himself Three, then Six, and then Twenty-three, but he kept the Six and the Twenty-three secret too. Not only that, the Three, the Six and the Twenty-three was all that he made. Everything else, even the human beings, were, in the beginning, only thoughts in the Mind of the Father-God. After that, everything that was a Thought of the Father-God, that was made, was made by the Son-God. There is a Mystery here. A great Mystery.

When God made the Three, the Six and the Twenty-three, he had to really give up parts of Himself, and thus was diminished. This is one of the reasons he rested on the Seventh Day. Another reason is that every time the Son-God created - made - one of the Father-God's Ideas, something of the Father-God entered in. Not all the Father-God's Ideas have been made. Creation has not ended. When it has ended, all that the Father-God will be, that is, all that will remain of His original Mysterious Nature, is Love.

Then those, who choose to, will gather 'round. Having become all that they could become, they will gather around this shinning Sun of Love, where in a mutual rite of Eucharist, they will give themselves back to that which first gave them their being, and their essence. This is one of the reasons Jesus Christ, the Son-God, when he was a human being, urged us to Love God, as the first commandment.

We could go deeper into these Mysteries, but that is not why we are here. We are here, instead, to understand the shadow in the cave - the Darkness, which is not not-God.

God knew that if his seeds did not have to work at becoming what they could, that is if there was no resistance to their nature, then they would learn none of those things which can only be learned through struggle and suffering. So He Thought of the Opponents. The Opponents were among the Twenty-three.

It is not always wise to speak their names, because when we do, we draw near their nature. Even so, some of the names are known and in order to grow we must know them, know the nature of these opponents, and know what we can do in the face of their opposition. From the Bible we know two names, although many once thought they are the same Being, which they are not. Satan is one name and the Devil is the other. If you asked them their names, and they choose to give them, they would call themselves Lucifer and Ahriman.

The story of Lucifer, or at least part of it, we know. He did not believe in human beings, did not feel they could become what they needed to be without his leadership. Thus, in his pride, he fell from Grace, left Heaven and took the path we know. What is less known is that after Jesus Christ's crucifiction and resurrection, Lucifer redeemed himself. In human terms, you could say what happen at Calvary left a deep impression on him and Lucifer changed his ways. But that again is another story.

It is Ahriman that concerns us now - the shadow in the cave. Ahriman is not a fallen Sheraphim, like Lucifer. Ahriman is an almost-God. From our point of view, his powers, or better yet his qualities and characteristics, are so unusual that the role he plays in the evolution of the Universe and of humanity is very powerful. His power is not raw energy, like we might think of an animal, like a bear, which is very strong. No. Arhiman's power, or strength, comes from his unusual characteristics.

You have to imagine someone who is cold calculation to the depths of their bones. Nothing human at all. No heart values. Just an incredible calculating genius. This is Arhiman's nature.

O.K., so what. Remember what I said earlier, about God giving up parts of himself over to the Opponents. So all that, which in the Father-God was cold calculation, not mediated or balanced by any other quality, this was given to Ahriman. This is Ahriman's nature. There is nothing in the whole Universe like it.

Even so, in understanding this, we have to be careful not to think of calculation, in the sense used here, as being the same thing as the simple mathematics we use in school and in life. True Number is one of the prime Powers of the Universe. Ahriman is the master of Number.

Now Ahriman, having this nature, wants to participate in the evolution of the Universe and of humanity. He calculates how to do that with the power and genius of a God. In this he has an enormous influence on the course evolution takes. But that hardly touches the whole thing.

The question is how does Ahriman have his influence? How does it work?

The human being is the center of things which happen on the Earth. In spite of what is sometimes thought, whatever happens on the Earth is this struggle over the direction which the human being is to take in his development. This struggle takes place according to certain laws, which are not legal or social based laws, or dry laws like some of the old physics, but these are laws which arise because the various pieces of God, all the different seeds which the Father-God divided himself into, from that very moment had a certain kind of harmonic relationship.

It is not like the Father-God broke up into a bunch of splinters as if He was a rock that was smashed. Rather, when the division occurred it is more like a beautiful song, in fact the most beautiful song ever, were to go from being one voice, to being many voices. The harmony is built in from the very beginning.

Now the Father-God being free, and choosing to divide Himself, chose also to give to His parts this same freedom. This means that the law of harmony of freedom makes for a constraint on Ahriman. He can tempt us, but cannot force our free will. So how does Ahriman tempt us?

Every human being has, through necessity, in order to survive, a shadow, a double, a doppleganger. This is a very complicated spiritual companion, which has certain qualities and characteristics. One of these characteristics is that this shadow has an Ahrimanic quality; it resonates in harmony with Ahriman's nature. This shadow companion can see the world in the light of a cold and calculating mind, and if we listen to the temptations of this part of our shadow, then we develop in ourselves a corresponding cold and calculating nature.

In a certain way it is very simple. But of course it isn't really that simple at all.

We all know that the Son-God incarnated and became a human being over 2000 years ago. That's again a whole other story. What is generally less known, is that Ahriman had to incarnate as well. Except he did it just before the Catastrophe, and is still alive now, over three hundred years later, in a more or less human body.

Now certain people, what one age called Seers or Initiates, knew Ahriman was due to incarnate. The civilization just prior to his incarnation, just prior to the Catastrophe, was full of his characteristics. He could only incarnate in an age which was most like his own nature. Since he knew he was going to incarnate, he was also able to calculate eons before that moment, just what kinds of temptations to offer to human beings in order to prepare the world to be able to receive him.

It is no wonder then that the calculating machine, the computer, reached its zenith in those years. Human beings took the Ahrimanic nature that they were themselves manifesting, this cold calculating inhumanity which characterized too many of the political and business leaders of that age, and expressed it, or better said, impressed, the way a blank wax receives a signet ring, their civilization, just prior to the Catastrophe, with Ahrimanic qualities.

Now it would be an error to see the City-machines and the core-taps, and the numbered and so forth as a kind of Ahrimanic kingdom. That is not the case. Ahriman had no desire or need for public life. His incarnation occurred in mostly in secret and was basically centered in creating a school for what we might call black magic, which is, in reality, not at all like the strange fantasies of many people of that era.  He did have a public life, of a sorts, and was even famous, but in that live he had another name, not the name Ahriman, so no one knew it was he.

You see, Ahriman likes being alone. People who care, and even people who hate, make him uncomfortable. He doesn't like strong feelings of any kind. From his point of view, better to be alone. But, remember, he plans very far ahead. So, in that case, he teaches this dangerous magic knowledge before we are really ready for it. Then he hides it. The numbered don't know about it. They are complete materialists, for the most part.

The City-machines, and all that, are actually human creations. Those who gave themselves more and more over to their own Ahrimanic possibilities, they are the ones who have made the world the way it is. At least in the Cities.

Everything is highly ordered, organized, calculable and controllable. And those who dominate this structure, mostly live by themselves. Alone.

And Ahriman? Ahriman likes the cold, the crystalline, the crushingly solid, the hidden, and to be alone. That is why he is called: the shadow in the cave.

More could be said about this, but that doesn't deal with Valentine's dream does it?

For some reason, Ahriman, the shadow in the cave, is calling to our friend. Moreover, Ahriman seems to need our friend, for he has asked for his help. I could guess what this means, but I won't. I don't really know and I refuse to indulge my fancy by idle speculation.

There is something I can do, however. Which you may or may not like. I can bring it about that Valentine dreams the dream again. And then we could ask him questions about it, how he feels and what thoughts does he have. I don't think this removes our responsibilities, but I suspect it might help, and give us some additional guidance, if we were to know what lives in Valentine in response to this dream.

*

Ayree, who always approached problems this way, decided to go after the mystery of the Captain head on.

"Do you have a name, or must I always call you Captain?" she said.

Keeping to his already habit, the Captain said nothing. He did not even look at Ayree. For her part, this made her mad. She got up and walked away from the fire, kicking at some bare ground. Off to the side she could hear Skree becoming restless, sensitive to her moods. Then she had a thought, came back and stood in front of him.

"If you don't start talking to me I'll make T' command you. Don't think I can't make him. He might even find the whole thing amusing."

This did not bring speech from the Captain, but he did stand up, not more then a foot from her face, just staring at her. For the first time his expression was really unreadable to Ayree, who was very gifted in this department. Then, suddenly, he leaned in and kissed her, full on the lips. Not with great force, but very definitely, very seriously, lingering even. She was so shocked she could not move, at first.

"You shit!" she said, stepping back. "You outrageous fucking asshole."

Her arm flew back to strike him, but was stopped by T', who had come up behind her, and grabbed her wrist with more strength then she might have suspected he had.

"Sit down", T' said to her. "Sit down, be quiet and think."

"Captain, what do you believe you were doing?"

T's voice was not as angry as Ayree would have liked, but she was so out of sorts with the whole scene, she was glad to be observing and not acting. Her feelings were very confused. Part of her had liked the kiss, had liked the feeling behind it, the strange authenticity. It was not a stolen kiss, but something else, some expression of something hidden in the Captain she had not been recognizing. This part of Ayree was not getting paid much attention, however, as she continued to mutter expletives under her breath.

"Old man", said the Captain, "I owe you highest allegiance and I have given my word on it. But don't confuse me for a hooded eunuch. That woman over there can't be all that innocent. Doesn't she know what she does to a man? I have been on the trail a long time, and that one, all fire and spit, has shamed me in battle. We took no women warriors with us, only on orders. She is a ranger, is she not? One of your women warriors? None of ours would be surprised at what I did."

T' said nothing. He glanced at the two of them, from one to the other, and then started to laugh. Continuing to laugh he walk away from both of them, off into that part of the camp site where he slept. Ayree stood up and walked over to her own bedroll.

"Don't ever do that again." she said, over her shoulder, "Or I'll break your other wrist."

"You surprised me once." the Captain said, sitting down again by the fire, "It won't happen again."

"Na, na, na na na." said T', a voice from out of the dark, laughing again.

*

The waking alarm jarred Jon into consciousness. He was disoriented at first, his normal rhythms broken by the journey to central core. Soon routine set in, and he made his usual stops at the privacy booth, and the supply booth. The chemicals that came in through the inceptor were the usual ones, and Jon was soon taking the long walk to work.

At the privacy booth, the woman ahead of him had spoken to him briefly in hand talk. His absence had been noted. He gave a reassuring gesture, and declined to say more.

Finally he was at his assigned cockpit. The man he was replacing got out and he got in. No contact was attempted. As the seat adjusted to him, and Jon placed his arms and hands and feet on the appropriate rests, the controls easily fitting into his hands, the peddles easily adjusting to his feet. Then, with a great pneumatic sigh, the cockpit descended several meters into place over the plasma corridor of the core tap.

Various indicators lit up his screens. Patterns emerged on grids. Sounds filled his ears. Back pressure pushed against his feet and hands. Everything seemed normal. The enormous energies pulsing through the corridor made the whole cockpit throb. Even though Jon was only one of three engineers responsible for this section of the plasma corridor, any error by one of them would involve the punishment of all three.

To the far right and far left, were screens and grids that showed duplicate indications of what the other two were receiving. At the center were his own personal systems. Whenever he began a shift it always stuck him how much the computer games, of his creche days, had carefully led to this structure step by step. No doubt he was being trained from the very beginning; at least this was what every one he was able to talk to thought. Even so, there was always a moment of thrill when he got into the cockpit and its indicators came to life. Like starting a new game when he had been young. Only now it was work, very dangerous work.

Time to concentrate. Downline there were some moderate glitches approaching, and if his section didn't rebalance them, by the next section they might not be fixable. Upline seemed all right. The other two controlling cockpits would not be changing operators, except later, at 16 hour staggered intervals, so Jon could take his time getting oriented, and getting a sense of the rhythm of the plasma flow.

Old habits took over. He relaxed. He was well trained for this, good at it, and the timed stimulants planted through his inceptor earlier would keep him alert for the whole two day shift. He worried a little bit about his bowels, especially after what had just happened at the tower. But the inceptor should have noted that, and taken care of it as well. Just another day at the office, was the saying, although no one knew any longer what it once might have meant.

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