American Phoenix

- a novel -

by Joel A. Wendt


Chapter Six

                             A Time For Decisions


"What do you think?" Agnes asked Valentine. "Are you willing to dream the dream again."

Her tone of voice had a quality of worry to it. Valentine could feel this. He tried to remember the dream, and found, again to his dismay, that it all was right there, the whole thing, just as intense as before. This shocked him and he started to cry. He couldn't help himself, it was all just too much.

His mother got up and moved toward him. He saw her coming, and shook his head, no he didn't need any help.

"I don't need to dream it again." he said, choking back the tears, "I can remember it any time I want, except I don't want to remember it."

This last was said with a note of defiance. How dare they ask this of him. There was a long silence. No one could think of anything to say. Finally he broke the silence himself.

"I'll go." he said, "I have to. I know I have to."

Then he spoke some more, the knowledge of what he spoke of just coming into his mind in the moment of the speaking. Somehow they were the same act.

"There are three others going with us. Teller of stories, Ayree and some outsider, some person not of Sanctuary, someone from the Cities."

His mother squeaked, so strong was her intake of breath. His father's jaw dropped. He saw the truth in his son's words and had no response, his heart torn in two by the injustice and the cruel necessity of it all. Miss Irina's face got a surprised look on it. Others were shaking their heads. Grandmother Agnes just smiled, as if she had not been surprised at all.

He stood.

"I need to talk to Miss Irina and Grandmother Agnes alone. Could everyone else leave? Please?"

His mother looked even more shocked, if that was possible. His father was now angry.

"Tom, Jean". It was Agnes speaking. "He needs some independence now, he needs to try his wings. He's too young, I know. But if we question his insights, we'll just undermine him, and make him dependent. He's not cutting you out, he just needs to define himself in some new ways."

Valentine sighed deeply. At least someone understood him, even if he didn't understand himself. His parents came over and touched him, each in their own way. No words could be said and they had the grace not to say them. When everyone else had departed, he sat down again, staring at his feet. He felt empty, he needed to talk to these two, but he had no idea what to say. In his heart, feeling the wind move around him and rustle the leaves of the trees, he wanted, more than anything to be somewhere else, to be alone, on a hill, flying a kite.

*

Ayree laid down and after a time realized that if she just did her usual exercises, the strangeness of the last moments of the day would recede. This being so, she began her regular nighttime routine, the daily review, followed by Step IV Bardon work, condensing the elements in the body. Even though she already knew the Bardon rites, she also knew that continued exercise was important, as well. She soon became tired, stopped exercising and, after a few prayers, fell asleep.

Teller of stories did not sleep at all. He seldom did. After leaving his body and setting a few wards to watch over the situation and the others, he went mental traveling. First he checked on the situation at Center, which seemed to be proceeding with good balance under the usually fine stewardship of Agnes. Sanctuary itself continued inviolate. The Captain's crew had returned to their redoubt near the great plains megacity. The red haired priest was back at work. T' did not draw near or even give attention to the shadow in the cave. They would be confronting each other soon enough.

She of the Tower could see him. As usual she only watched. Certain that the general situation of the Balance there was in order, T' traveled next to the Great Kiva at Hotevilla. There he joined the katchina beings, watching the preparations for the next day's ceremonies. Some of the more awake priests noted his presence, but knowing he supported their work, they simply went forward with it, instructing new initiates in the renewed cycles of Hopi ceremonial life. It was a good thing the broken stone tablets had been rejoined before the Catastrophe. The Balance needed very much the working of these plain spoken and simple people.

His more earthly duties complete, T' prepared himself for a journey to higher spheres. Whether he would be received there he did not know. Having bound himself to the Path of the Elements, his options had became limited. The Highest Beings, his one time brother Elohiem, were not always able to sustain the denseness of harmonies which contact with him required. He could only reach so far up, and they could only reach so far down. Even so, he much needed to be nurtured by the presence of their sublime and holy natures. Each being has the foods it needed to nourish its spirit; his were rare and refined, and far too often of late he had to carry things out on his own, without the companionship of the higher worlds. He knew he had chosen this loneliness, and knowing this helped him carry out his responsibilities, but this did not mean his existance was without suffering.

While his companions were occupied with thoughts he could not yet, in fact might never be able to imagine, the Captain struggled with his own confusion. He called back to mind the last interview with She in the Tower. He did not want to call it back, but things were not going the way he had anticipated and he seemed very much to need to be certain of what she had said, and what it meant. It was clear he would be going back; this he did not doubt. Knowing this, he also knew that what was yet to be accomplished had to please her.

This was his memory of the encounter.

He had been ordered to central core from his redoubt at the western most edge of Prime, the megacity centered in the western high plains of the former United States of America. He had immediately taken one of the new scout cars, and was able to be waiting in her outer rooms within the half hour.

When she entered, he made the usual sign of obeisance. He rose from his knees when she made a small gesture. He knew she didn't really care about the rite, but at the same time he also knew she expected immediate and unquestioned obedience to all her commands, that a painful death awaited those who thwarted her will. Another gesture indicated he was to take a seat.

"You are to take a file to Sanctuary, cross the border and encounter an earth ranger. If you survive this meeting", she was being sarcastic now, "you are to seek a meeting with one known as Teller of Stories."

She paused, gazing at him in that very predatory way, which was her usual mode of facial expression.

"This is a very dangerous man. Do not expect to be able to deal with him at all. Tell no lies, keep no hidden thoughts. He sees into your mind as if into clear water. Everything you think will be transparent to him. When the moment comes, I expect you to be able to know what to do. When that moment comes, don't think, just act. Failure in this is not an option."

She rose and turned to leave the room. As he started to kneel again, she made a dismissive gesture with her hand, don't bother it meant. In another hour he was back at the redoubt, organizing the mission, when the final message came, saying no women were to be members of the file.

The fire crackled and looked about to die. His thoughts came back to the present moment. He looked over to where Ayree slept. Nothing had changed his condition of confusion. All he could do was wait, but that didn't mean being idle. He might as well learn more about these rangers. They were the enemy, in a way, and their mysterious reputations needed to be explored and confirmed or denied. This woman could be surprised, but she did not fear him. Who really knew what would happen were it to come to a matter of combat, of whatever kind or nature.

*

Jon approached the inceptor booth with no small trepidation. His shift had gone by without a problem, but now that it was his down time, he knew hardly what to expect, given recent events.

When he finally linked up his fear was confirmed. A red light started blinking and the mechanical voice told him "to wait, while your status was being established". Then he was told: "insert your hypercard". He assumed this must be the black card he had been given, which he then placed in the indicated slot. Again an interval. He fought with his imagination over what might be going on behind the pauses and the irregular responses.

Then a voice, this time not from the speaker. The dragging stone voice from the room with the rabid woman. "Take a vacation, visit your friends." Then silence, and the inceptor link disengaged and retracted. Only by habit did Jon rise from his seat. No sleeper has been given, no stimulant, no instructions. Nothing.

Standing outside the booth Jon is void of course. He is tired, but he has been given no numbered coffin to sleep in. Confused and dazed he wanders in the direction of the coffins, more by habit then by thought, until he finds himself standing in front of an empty one. Next to the palm reader, where he would normally place his hand to gain admission he notices something he knows has always been there, but which he has never used before: a card slot.

Taking his black card out he inserts it. Directly the door to the coffin opens and admits him. Climbing in Jon lets himself fall into a troubled sleep. Rest first and then he'll try to figure out what to do next.

*

A breeze rustles the leaves of the arbor. Miss Irina and grandmother Agnes sit quietly, giving Valentine time to think, if that is what he could be said to be doing. Thoughts are present, but he is more dreaming the thinking. The silence stretches out, first anxious, as if demanding something be done or said. But after a time the silence becomes a peace, empty of need, serving only being. Finally Agnes speaks.

"We do have practical decisions to make. When to leave, where to leave to, what to take, who to go with, what to do before we go, when and how to say goodby."

Again silence. No need to answer these questions yet. Just acknowledge them.

Then Valentine had a thought, a new joyful one, something to look forward to. It was not a great thought, but just a boy's wish by which to make something larger and more unpleasant seem smaller and more managable. He spoke.

"Do you think Ayree will let me ride Skree?"

All three laughed at that thought and the images provoked, although there was a brittle edge to it all. Each in their own way held back a tear. The fear and sadness of their task, and the impossibility of truly comprehending it, made these surface emotions a poor expression of the true feelings in their souls.

*

The Captain made camp that evening without direction. To Ayree it was clear he had been carefully observing all her trail craft, for he went briskly about the business, doing many things only she had been doing so far.

After they had eaten T' again went off, to do whatever he did, leaving Ayree and the Captain sipping the hot cocoa T' had found somewhere in the pockets of his coat. Aryee knew that those pockets had produced many things over the years, delighting adults and children alike. It was so usual a thing, so ordinary and common place that no one every really remarked upon the improbability of it all.

Ayree had the sense the Captain was getting ready to do or say something; he had a certain kind of intensity in his movements.

"The Old man has said we are going somewhere together, possibly into danger. I need to know what you can do and not do if we are to end up fighting side by side."

It was a statement and a question. Ayree was surprised by the assumptions it contained. But she was not dispossed to talk about what rangers could and could not do. She returned the interest with her own question.

"Are you a cyborg? I don't see anything, but I mean, you are one of the numbered and you do have bio-mechanical things attached to you, don't you?  I can see that the tip of your little finger on your left hand is missing.  Did something used to be there?"

At this the Captain stood and began to undress. At first Ayree thought to protest and turn away, but glancing at his face she could see the determination in it. He was calling her bluff, and saying, not in a sexual way, "I'll show you mine and then you'll have to show me yours".

After a short time it was clear that the Captain was not a cyborg. As he put his clothes back on Ayree considered how to answer his challenge. When she did think of something a smile lit up her face in a way that made the Captain, who could not help but notice it, feel more than a little wary.

"Whatever happens next", she said, "Don't move, or run or do anything. Just continue sitting there. Nothing will happen to you."

Now came Ayree's special gift. She felt in a way she was showing off, yet at the same time there was a rightness to what she was doing, although she could find no reason for thinking this. Her parents first noticed this gift when she was still sleeping in their great family bed, at about the age of three, when they woke one cool late fall morning to find a number of unusual vistors snuggled up to their still sleeping child.

Ayree sat cross-legged before the fire, across from where the Captain sat. She closed her eyes and begin to hum a tuneless song to herself, and to rock back and forth ever so slightly. For about fifteen minutes nothing seemed to happen, and then the first one appeared, its dark colors hidding it in the grasses by her feet. In about five minutes there were a good dozen of them, silently sliding over and under her feet and legs, somehow moving in time to the rhythm of her tune and motion. Then she changed the tune, and slowly stopped moving, and the congregation of snakes, of various shapes, sizes and deadly potential, slithered off into the darkness of the evening.

When the last one was good and gone, Ayree looked up at the Captain, who let out his long held and controlled breath almost explosively.

"You can control snakes?" he asked, somewhat needlessly.

"No." she said. "I am their friend and protector. Not their controller. They come of their own will, to honor the relationship so long lost in the great distances of time. Of all the animal kingdom, they are the farthest away. You saw T's friend Clyde, the hawk? The birds are next in fear of man. Most of the mammals have spirit friends in Sanctuary; more than one. Nature is redeemed here, not raped and murdered."

The Captain starred at her, quietly. She could see the questions moving beneath the surface of his face, as well as the new and strange respect. He had thought to find something of the fighting abilities of rangers, but confronted instead a much more perplexing reality. Not just this girl was full of surprises, but so was the world as well.

*

Jon awoke. He remembered waking up early, from some unknown and dark dream, very frightened. It had taken him quite some time to orient himself, and to recall how he came to be there and how he was free of the usual work schedual. He had lain there thinking about what it meant and what to do, and then fallen back asleep.

He looked at the phase moniter on the side of the coffin. It was the middle of a shift. He pushed open the door with his feet and crawled out. There was no one about as he went to the comfort station and the food outlet. He passed by several inceptor booths, but did not enter them.

He thought about his friends. A few might be at monthly recreation, so he went up two levels and stopped before the entrance. There was a card slot next to the palm reader. He inserted the hypercard and the doors slid open, just as he had hoped, and feared. He was not sure at all that he liked this apparent freedom.

When he walked into recreation he noticed something very strange. Not only were there more 9's present then usual, but there were three other priests of the hidden rites, and several of his own flock. They all glanced quickly at each other, unable to hide the anxiety that was felt by all. Everyone held the same thought - they had been discovered and something terrible was about to happen.

*

Valentine watched while his mother and father and Agnes packed his clothes and various other things in a very large backpack. Much of the gear had been checked out from Center's main stores, and was clearly the best kind - the kind that Rangers got to use. In spite of his fears, Valentine could not help being very excited.

Periodically his mother would look at him, trying to hide her conflicting emotions. His father had twice now thrown something down and walked away, only to come back five minutes later. Agnes was very good at calming them both, and kept up a kind of chatter about how, when she had been a Ranger (something Valentine had known but forgotten), that three times she had gone outside Sanctuary on some erand, twice with Teller of Stories. The images Agnes was creating were of adventure and rich new experiences and of how important this work had been. Once it had been to accompany a dreamer, someone who had a destiny outside Sanctuary.

Agnes gestured to them all to sit and rest for a while. She was going to tell a story - the story of this dreamer and where he had been taken.

*

In the morning, as they broke camp, T' suggested to Ayree that they go around the valley in which Center nestled and approach it from the East. This would take two extra days, and Ayree did not like it, but at this point she just added it to the lengthening list of matters to seriously discuss with T' when the time and opportunity came.

When they started to set up camp that night, T' stayed and helped out, instead of going off like he usually did. After dinner they sat around the campfire, and T' began to speak to the Captain.

"The world is not like you expected, is it my friend", he said.

The Captain glanced at them both for a moment and then nodded, remaining in his usual self contained silence.

"Do you know of the idea of God?", T' continued.

For some reason this disturbed the Captain. Ayree could see the emotions play beneath the surface of his face. After a moment he seemed to reach a decision.

"My best friend from creche became a priest of some forbidden rites.", he said, and then paused for a moment, as if trying to gather some strength for what he had to say next.

"In order to get my first promotion, the one that made it possible for me to take the path outside the inceptor rites, to avoid more and more becoming mechanical, I had to arrest him, try him and execute him."

Ayree let out a small gasp. She could see the hint of a tear in the corner of one of the Captain's eyes. A thousand questions poured into her mind, but a brief glance at T' made it clear that silence was the best response to this confession.

After several minutes, the Captain spoke again.

"Yea, I know of the idea of God, but I can't see its ever done anyone any good - ever."

Finally Ayree could not hold herself back any more and spoke.

"What ideas do you have of Sanctuary? What did you expect to find here? What stories are told in the Cities of what we do here and who we are?"

The Captain stared for a while at the fire, saying nothing. But Ayree was getting used to the silences, and understood that the inner process going on inside him was important. In fact, it finally dawned on her that this was precisely why T' had diverted them from entering Center more directly.

Again, after the silence had become free of any tension or need to speak, did the Captain begin. This time he had a lot to say.

"There are things I have been told in training. Classes given by individuals who have come here. There are also the official doctrines, what most people are told. Then there are myths and rumors, the wild tales as they are sometimes called.

"Most people don't even know you exist. They have no idea of Sanctuary. At the same time they have myths, stories they pass among themselves, of places that are not metal and plastic and noise and smell, where there are animals and birds and grass and trees and mountains and streams. But they do not even have pictures of these things, and do not know what they might look or sound like. It is kind of like a part of the God idea, the idea of heaven to them. They never see a window. None of the terminals that they can access have data or pictures of outside. Their whole life is as part of the Machine.

"Some, like myself, have to know other things, to know more. But we are tested like I was with my friend. We have to be ... ", he paused, as if seeking for a word, "...corrupted first."

At this point the Captain let out a big sigh. He was glad that She in the Tower had told him to be completely truthful. Somehow this confession felt good to him, gave a kind of release he had never felt before. Then he continued.

"In the beginning we are just slowly introduced to the idea that there is an outside. We work around the megacity, supervising certain categories of 9's who never mingle with others, so that the idea of an outside environment does not contaminate the rest. Then, depending on how we act, how creative we are in solving problems that come up, we can advance. I was very creative."

This word "creative" was spoken with a certain kind of odd emphasis, and Ayree understood it involved cruelty and other matters she would be best to never ask about in detail. Inwardly she was glad that she did not have to share this burdern in her own soul. Yet, with that last thought came another. Again her sense of the Captain and herself shifted suddenly, as if a major realignment was needed. At that moment she knew that she could in fact share this burdern. That her heart was open to the Captain in a way she could not imagine. She found she could no longer look at him as he continued to speak.

"At one point I was advanced and given new levels of access. I could roam the interface and put questions of a much wider scale. I knew that this was dangerous, because what ever questions I asked would be noted and analysed. I had to discipline myself, to contain my curiosity, and to only put questions that seemed a natural outgrowth of my work. Or, I could search wider, if it seemed I was indulging in some appetite, some kind of at least mildly depraved interest. So I cultivated certain interests, interests which those above me let me know they approved of.

"After a time it was clear that I had many indications of the real state of the world, because certain facts were always peripheral aspects of my 'interests'. Finally someone decided I was ready for wider responsiblities, and I became a member of an outside unit, a file as we call them. We patrolled far afield from our City. Investigating, killing, arresting, torturing, and indulging in all matter of acceptable perversions. I continued to be creative."

Then he paused, thoughtful again, as if some new insight was present, something he hadn't thought before, which had to be reflected upon and digested. Again, after a much longer time, he continued.

"Somehow I was always able to put some kind of distance between myself, between what I thought of as my inner core, and what I did. What I did, I did of necessity, not by choice. My conception of myself was of someone who is smarter than what was going on, and who could use this smartness to survive and perhaps prosper in some way. I didn't really take the pleasure that some others did. But I did learn to fake it somewhat. I did think alot about things, thoughts I never discussed with anyone else.

"With my ever higher access I learned more and more, but always incidental to work or to other 'interests'. Eventually I came to know that places like Sanctuary existed, pockets of people somehow outside of the power and control of those who ran the Cities. But there were limits that I ran into on a couple of my searchs of the interface. I made the guess that if I tried to find out too much, I would be in jeopardy, so I turned away from wanting to know too much.

"But I made guesses to myself, theories. Places like Sanctuary, and there seem to be several, have some kind of power of their own, some kind of power which is the opposite of the power of the Cities. I ran across a word once, the word magic, which the interface defined as a fantasy, a myth. But I suspect there is some truth to it, because of what I've seen with my own eyes since I got here.

"I knew that our machines didn't work near here. That we were told in some of my upper level training, but it was always in connection with anomalous metal deposits or the volcanos and things like that. But by then I always disbelieved what I was told. It always changed the higher I rose in my work, so it was just levels of bullshit, one after the other, with bits of truth stuck here and there. Some of my companions believed it all, and often fell behind at promotion time because they weren't flexible enough to wrap their minds around the new point of view.

"Once, in the interview for my captancy, I thought I had been found out. One of the questioners, who was a 4, one of the hooded ones that actually are free of inceptors too as I later found out, this one asked me about my creativity and my interests, probing for inconsistencies, seemingly trying to find a weakness in the picture of myself that I had created as to the nature of my corruption. But he wasn't as smart as he thought, and I caught on fairly quick. I was able to turn the tables on him and ask him if he wanted to partner with me, to join me in some of my creative interests. These, it turned out, were not to his taste, and he soon abandoned his examination."

Ayree had returned to watching the Captain's face as he spoke. His eyes were still on the fire, and T' seemed to be watching her as much as the Captain. She could sense the strange strength beneath the surface of the Captain, who had survived in a world she could not imagine, by creating a false picture of himself as someone who liked to do many inhuman things. She did not know what to make of such a power in another human being, a power which could master, what to her, where natural feelings of sympathy for others - master such feelings and somehow remain human, as the Captain seems to have done. Ayree didn't know how to have such detachment. In fact, she realized, she didn't know how to live at all the life this man had had to have lived.

This mild reverie was interrupted when T' spoke again, asking another question of the Captain.

"What are you, Captain? Are you human, animal, machine, plant, what? Do you have theories about that?"

*

For awhile the various 9's moved about recreation in a kind of automatic daze. There was little hand talk. Everyone was assuming enforcers would soon come in the door. When nothing happened Jon decided to share what had happened to him. For reasons he wasn't certain of, he didn't use hand talk, just his voice. At this point he didn't think it would make any difference. Someone knew something about what many had thought was a great secret, and Jon had little hope any of them would survive untouched by the consequences.

When he was done relating his story there was a kind of panic, until one of the women, also a priest, asked a very intriguing question.

"Will that card work for us as well? Can you go places and take some of us with you? What are its limits?"

No one had an immediate answer. After a time, and a little discussion, it was agreed that one other person would go with Jon and the two of them would explore what the card could do. If later no one heard from either of them, then the worse would be assumed. The woman priest who had asked the question was the one chosen. Her name was Fay, and she had been a priest for many years; one of Jon's teachers in fact.

After a short glance between the two of them, Jon used the card to open the door and they both went out into the corridor. In a little while the others would dispurse and go back to their routines.

At Fay's suggestion they used the card in the lift, and tried to find out how many levels down they could go. Soon they were well beyond the levels they were familiar with, and at one point the lift no longer descended. When the door did open, the two, not really surprised, found themselves facing a medium sized room in which was a glassed in booth with three enforcers inside it, and several doors leading away to who knows where.

Jon and Fay didn't have much choice. They walked up to the booth, trying to avoid the provacative stares, and Jon presented the card without any comment. When the 8's placed the card in their reader, their expressions changed to a kind of confused fear, and one of them asked, in a voice not used to asking a 9 such a question: "How can we serve you?".

Again it was Fay who had the presence of mind and fearlessness to ask a question Jon would not of thought of.

"We have been sent on an investigative mission", she said, not regretting the partial lie, "and we want you to explain to us your function here and where these doors lead."

After a moment of silence, in which the 8's glanced back and forth at each other, Jon added, for reasons he did not really understand himself, but which was an attitude in instructers he remembered from his creche days: "You are being tested. All is not as it seems. Hesitate not; act."

*

Valentine was walking alone, near the old circle of trees and the stone. If he had been older, we might have thought he was lost in thought, but in his case it was more of a mood in which he swam, a mood that kept him from really noticing where he was. He stopped abrutly when his downcast eyes saw the feet appear in his field of vision, right in front of him.

"I thought you were going to walk right through me," Agnes said, with a laugh that helped Valentine realize that his mood did not disturb her. She continued:

"Come, let us go into the circle with the stone and you can tell me things you keep secret from others. But only if you like", she added, again with a lightness in her voice.

Valentine could not help but trust her. Her question was not a demand so much as an offer. And he certainly needed to talk. However:

"Not there", he said, pointing to the circle. "Somewhere else"

"Why" said Agnes, a gentle probe, the tone of her voice really saying that it might do him some good to share it.

So he did. He told of how the circle and stone made him feel. While he did this they walked around the circle of trees, outside it. Their pace was slow, their conversation moderate. Agnes asked a few questions, mostly to get him to say more, to elaborate the nature of his experiences. When he was done, she asked him what he thought it meant, a question he had not been directly facing himself. When you are twelve, thinking is not so easy, in part because the mind is not ripe enough yet, and in part because experience is absent that otherwise makes it possible to understand. At twelve, Valentine did not reflect very well, and Agnes understood this. But still, she knew he needed to try to reach, especially considering where they might be going.

After a time Valentine spoke.

"I'm different from others. I don't like it, I don't like being different. It means, I guess, that I can do something others can't. Somehow the world and I are (and here he paused looking for a word to fit his newly created understanding), are integrated in some way. I am part of what lies behind, I am part of the invisible kingdoms."

He was quiet then. He tried to think about his education, what was taught in school about the elemental kingdoms, and about the light, the life or ethereal forces, that stood behind the world he perceived with his senses. He knew there was more, and that when he was older he would find his story, but now he didn't know enough, enough to understand his gift. He looked at Agnes and then at his feet.

She understood that she needed now to speak, but it was not clear what to say. If Valentine was older, more developed in his gift, then she could help, perhaps. The problem was that his gift was new, something brand new in the order of things.

She and T' had discussed this before. When Valentine was born, they both knew he was different. Agnes suspected T' knew more, but she also knew he always had very good reasons for not telling people things. Mostly it had to do with freedom. T' could know, but he had to act in such a way that people still made up their own minds about things. It was a delicate balancing act, to be able to know, and to help, but to not interfer in another's freedom. With this in mind she made a suggestion, hoping she was taking the right course.

"Perhaps you should explore your gift more, instead of running from it. Think of it like a horgan. You have to learn to ride it, to master it. But the only way to do that is by getting on it, by using it."

An expression of fear dance across Valentine's face, but just for a moment. This made sense to him, and who better to be with him while he did this, since T' was not around, who better then Agnes. So, without comment or word Valentine walked into the circle and placed his hands on the stone.

It was as before, a complex of sensations, of being part of some great thing. The Earth, the Stars, the Sun - all these where part of him and he was part of them. For a moment he wanted to turn away, as before, but instead he remained united. After a few moments the sensations lessened, became like a back ground breeze. He was in two worlds now, one united with the invisible inside of everything, and one in the circle of trees, his hands on the stone, Agnes nearby.

Then came a new feeling, a kind of potential, as if he could do something while he was this way. He wondered what this feeling meant, and while wondering, his undisciplined mind wandered a bit, and he thought of T' and of Ayree and of Skree, at which point he dissappeared and Agnes's jaw dropped, for one of the few times in her life. Valentine dissappeared, and she knew not where he had gone. A great fear grabbed her heart then, because she realized she may have made a very grave error.

*

The Captain was annoyed with T's question. It wasn't so much the nature of the question itself, but the fact of being questioned. The Captain was the one who asked questions, not the other way around. Still there seemed a point to it, so he gave it a try.

"Human, machine, animal, or what?" he said. "I'm not even sure I know what those words really mean. I know what we have been taught, or indoctrinated in, if that is how you want to see it. There is no "human" in us. We are just animals, evolving, going toward a goal - the goal being to become like the machine, like its perfection and beauty. We are flawed, capable of error, capable of death, capable of illness. The Machine is perfect, flawless, immortal.

"Of course most don't even have these ideas. They just have numbers and work and fear and order and regularity and service to the machine. The priests of the forbidden rites teach other things, a kind of faith in something else, but nothing in the cities supports such ideas. In my line of work, as I said, we get taught about the outside, about some history, some idea of evolution and of the goals toward which we serve. I don't buy it, and I don't disbelieve it either. My point of view seems irrelevant to my survival."

T' nodded as if the Captain had spoken wisely, and then asked: "But you, what do you think yourself? Have you never had moments of wonder about what was really true? What about dreams? What about books? Have you encountered or read any of the forbidden texts?"

The Captain sighed. This was hard work. To be honest as She had commanded, and yet somehow face questions he had laboriously avoided all of his life. Well, mostly avoided, because it was true that occassionally he reflected on the nature of things, within the given limits of his experience and imagination. He turned to T' and spoke.

"You know, sometimes I have questions. Not answers, just questions. I have thoughts, for example, what are those. They seem to be mine, to belong to me, to have their origin in me, but we have been taught that it is all chemistry and electricity. The brain is just an imperfect biological computer, prone to many kinds of errors. So what is going on when I watch myself think. There is a puzzle here, but nowhere in the interface is there a sense of anyone asking questions about these things. So I wonder sometimes, but I have no idea where to take it after that.

"I know the word human, but I forget where I first heard it. It just seemed as another way to speak of us -- as in the human animal. But you used it as if there was a difference, as if to be human meant somehow to not be animal. More puzzles, but I have no answers for you."

With this the three of them fell into silence. Ayree understood much of the dilemma. It was after all part of her education to be taken directly into these questions, and taught how to find out the answers for one's self. What was hard for her was to imagine what kind of consciousness, what kind of soul life one would have if no one could walk you up to these questions and help you answer them in a satisfactory way. Empty of this deep self reflective encounter people might well just see themselves as some kind of animal on its way to becoming a machine -- a machine in the sense of some kind of perfection.

With this she thought of the story, the story about the Shadow in the Cave. To only know self, and to only see self as unfinished, as somekind of error, somekind of wrongness -- this would be a terrible prison. She shuddered at this thought. She needed better company. Warm drinks and song. Comradeship. Closeness. For a second she wondered what it would be like to lie in the Captain's arms, but it was a picture she could not hold to. It was too frightening, too cold appearing.

She was ready to go to bed, when suddenly there was a scream, a child's scream and all three jumped up, not knowing what was coming next.

*

 Jon's bluff worked. The 8's looked at each other, a couple even could be seen making a swollow motion with their adam's apples, a clear sign of fighting down fear.

The senior one, as indicated by three scars on his check, spoke:

"This is gateway seven to the underground. Those two doors on the left are elevators, run from our boards here. The door on the right is a set of rooms for us, to eat and sleep and for recreation.

When he paused, Fay again took command, which Jon was more then glad to relinguish to her.

"This card grants us entrance. Two of you will accompany us and show us this "underground", explaining its purpose and function, and then why you have been failing at your duties as guardians of this gate."

Again the 8's looked at each other, fear and uncertainty dancing on their faces. The senior one made a decision.

"Yes madam, as you wish. Paul, you stay here."

He then gestured to them to follow and with the other 8 they all entered a small elevator. The ride was short and when the came to a stop the senior 8 outfitted them all with some kind of breathing apparatus from a compartment in the wall of the elevator. The doors opened onto a kind of balcony which ran around a large central tube that the elevators rode up and down in. The balcony itself was inclosed in some kind of heavy mesh screening and there was a locked and barred door beyond which were some steps leading to uneven rocky ground.

Very bright lights shown out into the surrounding darkness, illuminating the dark ground for several meters in every direction. Odd and misshaped objects seemed to litter the place, as well as what might have been understood as refuse, if Fay and Jon had had the words and ideas for what they say. But neither of them had every seen open ground, even in this kind of general darkness. It might have been alright if there had not been some identifyable objects about, bones, perhaps human bones, littered here and there among the debris and rubble.

There was a rather loud background noise, a loud hum mostly. Water moving noises as well. And worst of all, at the edge of the light, where darkness begin to dominate, there seemed to be movement. Something lived out there.

Fay slowly overcame her shock, and with her hands glasped behind her back, as if she was some kind of inspector, she walked slowly around the balcony finding another gate on the other side. She tried the doors and they seemed solid, but at one point she noticed a point where the mesh had been separated from the balcony floor, a small gap where one shouldn't have been. She stopped there, staring at the two 8's, whose obvious fear clearly increased. Jon was glad she had found something to justify their masquerade.

Jon was very grateful when Fay seemed satisfied by their explorations and indicated to the 8's that they were to return to the room above. Before Jon and Fay left the frightened men behind, Fay had one more thing to say:

"We will return. We will be accompanied by others. You will be prepared to take us into the darkness. At present no one else is to know of our investigations. If you can manage this, we may be able to overlook your failings."

On the tube ride up, Jon could not help laughing, but Fay he saw was crying.

"Why are you crying?"

"Oh Jon," she said, "don't you realize people live down there, live in that darkness. We've just been to Hell and will have to go back."

Jon crossed himself, and could find no words at all, to speak or even to think.
 

  *


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