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   Chapter 6 No.6

Captives of the Flame By Samuel R. Delany Characters: 20631

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The Duchess of Petra said, "Now, your first direct assignment will be ..."

* * *

Then, the sudden green of beetles' wings; the red of polished carbuncle; a web of silver fire; lightning and blue smoke. Columns of jade caught red light through the great crack in the roof. The light across the floor was red. Jon felt that there were others with him, but he could not be sure. Before him, on a stone platform, three marble crescents were filled with pulsating shadows. Jon Koshar looked at them, and then away. There were many more columns, most broken.

He saw a huge break in the sanctuary wall. Outside he could look down on an immense red plain. At a scribed line, the plain changed color to an even more luminous red. Near the temple a few geometrical buildings cast maroon pinions of shadow over the russet expanse. Suddenly he realized that the further half of the plain was an immense red sea, yet with a perfectly straight shore line. Calmly it rippled toward the bright horizon.

At the horizon, filling up nearly a quarter of the sky, was what seemed to be a completely rounded mountain of dull red. No, it was a segment of a huge red disk, a great dull sun lipping the horizon of the planet. Yet it was dim enough so that he could stare directly at it without blinking. Above it, the atmosphere was a rich purple.

Then there was a voice from behind him, and he turned to the triple throne once more.

"Hail, hosts of Earth," the voice began. The very shadows of the room were like red bruises on the stone. "You are in the halls of an extinct city on Creton III. Twelve million years ago this planet housed a civilization higher than yours today. Now it is dead, and only we are left, sitting on their thrones in the twilight of their dying, ruddy sun."

"Who are you?" demanded Jon, but his voice sounded strange, distorted. As he bit the last word off, another voice broke in.

"What do you really want from us?"

Then a third voice.

"What are you going to do with us?"

Jon looked around but saw no one else. Suddenly another picture, the picture of a world of white desert where the sky was deep blue and each object cast double shadows, filled his mind. "This isn't the world you took me to before ..." he exclaimed.

"No," came the quiet voice, "this is not the world we took you to before. Listen. We are homeless wanderers of space. Our origin was not only in another galaxy, but in another universe, eternities ago. By way of this universe we can move from star to star without transversing any segment of time, unless we desire. Thus we have dwelt quietly in the dead cities of myriad suns till now. We have never tampered with any living species, though there is something in us that yearns for the extinct cultures.

"Recently according to our standards, though still much older than your solar system, a dark force has come into the universe. It has evolved similarly to us, and also leaps among galaxies in moments. Yet it holds no culture sacred that it finds, and has already tampered with a score of civilizations. It is younger than we are, and can only exist in one individual at a time, while our entity has three lobes, so to speak. This rival thinks nothing of completely changing the mind of its host, giving deadly information, even new powers. We are bound only to ride with your minds, warn you, guide you, but changing your body before your minds, and that only to keep you from death. So it will be your own greed, your own selflessness that will eventually win or lose this battle. Therefore it will be won or lost within the framework of your own civilization."

"Then tell us this," came a voice that was not Jon's. "What is on the other side of the radiation barrier?"

"But we have told you already. And you have guessed. Toromon is at war with an economic condition. Beyond the barrier is a civilization which is controlled by the Lord of the Flames. He is only in one member of their number, and any time he may move to another, although it is not likely."

"Are they our enemies?"

"Your only enemies are yourselves. But he must be evicted none the less. To do that, all you must do is confront the individual who is bearing him, the three of you together. But you must all be within seeing distance of him at once. For we work through your minds. What you cannot perceive, we cannot affect."

"How will we do this?"

"One of you has already been made immune to the radiation barrier. So will the rest of you when it becomes necessary. This is what you will do for us, and it will also remove the threatening element of the unknown that distracts Toromon from her own problems."

"But why our planet?" a voice asked.

"Yours is an ideal experimenting ground. Because of the Great Fire, your planet has many civilizations that are now completely isolated from one another; many, however, are on a fairly high level. The radiation barriers that lace your planet will keep you isolated from them for some time. When the Lord of the Flames is finished with one empire, he may wish to try a different method on a basically similar civilization. For all your isolated empires had the same base. Marinor, Letpar, Calcivon, Aptor-these are all empires on your planet of which you have never heard. But your first concern is Toromon."

"Will we remember all this?" Jon asked.

"You will remember enough. Good-bye; you know your task." The red haze in the deserted temple pulsed and the jade columns flickered. Hands of blue smoke caught him and flung him through a lightning flash. Whirled through a net of silver, he dropped through red into the vivid green of beetles' wings.

* * *

Jon blinked. The Duchess took a step backwards. The green carpet, the rich wood-paneled walls, the glass-covered desk: they were in a sitting room of his father's house, again.

Finally Jon asked, "Now just what am I supposed to do, again? And explain it very carefully."

"I was going to say," said the Duchess, "that you were to get to the Prince, who is being kept at an inn in the Devil's Pot, and accompany him to the forest people. I want him to stay there until this war is over. They live a different life from any of the other people of this empire. They will give him something he'll be able to use. I told you I spent some time there when I was younger. I can't explain exactly what it is, but it's a certain ruggedness, a certain strength. Maybe they won't give it to him, but if he's got it in him, they'll bring it out."

"What about ... the Lord of the Flames?"

"I don't-do you have any idea, Jon?"

"Well, assuming we get beyond the radiation barrier, assuming we find what people we're fighting, assuming we find which one of them is carrying around the Lord of the Flames, and assuming we can all three of us get to him at once-assuming all that, there's no problem. But we can't, can we? Look, I'll be going to the forest, so I'll be closest to the radiation barrier. I'll try to get through, see what the situation is, and then the two of you can come on. All right?"

"Fine."

"If nothing else, it'll put me closer to the Lord of the Flames ... and my freedom."

"How are you not free now, Jon Koshar?" the Duchess asked.

Instead of answering, he said, "Give me the address of the inn at the Devil's Pot."

* * *

Going down the hall, with the address, Jon increased his pace. His mind carried an alien mind that had saved him from death once already. How could he be free? The ... obligation? That couldn't be the word.

Around the corner he heard a voice. "And now would you please explain it to me? It's not every day that I'm called on to declare war. I think I did it rather eloquently. Now tell my why."

(Jon remembered the trick of acoustics which as a child enabled him to stand in this spot and overhear his sister and her girlfriends' conversation just as they came into the house.)

"It's your brother," came the other voice. "He's been kidnaped."

"He's been what?" asked the King. "And why? And by whom?"

"We don't know," answered the official. "But the council thought it was best to get you to declare war."

"Oh," said the King. "So that's why I made that little speech in there. What does mother say?"

"It wouldn't be polite to repeat, sir. She was locked in her room, and very insulted."

"She would be," said Uske. "So, the enemy has infiltrated and gotten my silly brother."

"Well," said the voice, "they can't be sure. But what with the planes this morning, they thought it was best."

"Oh, well," said the King. There were footsteps. Then silence.

Coming round the corner, Jon saw the coat closet was ajar. He opened the door, took out a great cape and hood, and wrapped it around him, pulling the hood close over his head. He stepped into the foyer and went out past the doorman.

* * *

At the edge of the Devil's Pot, the woman with the birthmark on the left side of her face was tapping a cane and holding out a tin cup. She had put on a pair of dark glasses and wandered up one street and down another. "Money for a poor blind woman," she said in a whiny voice. "Money for the blind." As a coin clinked into her cup, she nodded, smiled, and said, "Welcome to the New World. Good luck in the Island of Opportunity."

The man who had given her the coin walked a step, and then turned back. "Hey," he said to Rara. "If you're blind, how do you know I'm new here?"

"Strangers are generous," Rara explained, "while those who live here are too frozen to give."

"Look," said the man, "I was told to watch out for blind beggars who weren't blind. My cousin, he warned me ..."

"Not blind!" cried Rara. "Not blind? Why my license is right here. It permits me to beg in specified areas because of loss of sight. If you keep this up, I'll be obliged to show it to you." She turned away with a huff and began in another direction. The man scratched his head, then hurried off.

A few moments later, a man completely swathed in a gray cloak and hood came around the corner and stopped in front of the woman.

"Money for the blind?"

"Can you use this?" the man said. From his cloak he held out a brocade jacket, covered with fine metal work.

"Of course," said Rara softly. Then she coughed. "Er ... what is it?"

"It's a jacket

," Jon said. "It's made pretty well. Maybe you can sell it?"

"Oh, thank you. Thank you, sir."

* * *

A few blocks later, a ragged boy, who looked completely amazed, was handed a white silk shirt by the man in the gray cloak. In front of a doorway two blocks on, a pair of open-toed black boots with gold disks were left-and stolen from that doorway exactly forty seconds later by a hairdresser who was returning to her home in Devil's Pot. She was missing the little finger of her left hand. Once the gray cloaked figure paused in an alley beneath a clothes line. Suddenly he flung up a ball of gray cloth, which caught on the line, unrolled, and became identifiable as a pair of dark gray trousers. A block later the last minor articles of clothing were hurled unceremoniously through an open window. As Jon turned another corner, he glimpsed a figure ducking into a doorway down the dim street. The man was apparently following him.

Jon walked very slowly down the next block, ambling along in the shadow. The hoodlum crept up behind him, then grabbed his cloak, ripped it away, and leaped forward.

Only there wasn't anything there. The mugger stood for a moment, the cape dangling from his hand, blinking at the place a man should have been. Then something hit him in the jaw. He staggered back. Something else hit him in the stomach. As he stumbled forward now, beneath the street lamp, a transparent human figure suddenly formed in front of him. Then it planted its quite substantial fist into his jaw again, and he went back, down, and out.

Jon dragged the man back to the side of the alley, fading out completely as he did so. Then he took the hoodlum's clothes, which were ragged, smelly, and painfully nondescript. The shoes, which were too small for him, he had to leave off. Then he flung the cape back around his shoulders and pulled the hood over his head.

For the next six blocks he was lost because there were no street signs. When he did find the next one, he realized he was only a block away from the inn.

As he reached the stone building, he heard a thud in the tiny alleyway beside it. A moment later a girl's voice called softly, "There. Just like that. Only you better do exactly as I say or you'll break your arms or legs, or back."

He walked to the edge of the building and peered into the alley.

Her white hair loose, Alter stood looking up at the roof. "All right, Tel," she called. "You next."

Something came down from the roof, flipped over on the ground at her feet, rolled away, and then suddenly unwound to standing position. The black-haired boy ran his fingers through his hair. "Wow," he said. Then he shook his head. "Wow."

"Are you all right?" Alter asked. "You didn't pull anything, did you?"

"No," he said. "I'm all right. I think. Yeah, everything's in place." He looked up at the roof again, two stories above.

"Your turn, Let," Alter called up.

"It's high," came a childish voice from the roof.

"Hurry up," said Alter, her voice becoming authoritative. "When I count three. And remember, knees up, chin down, and roll quick. One, two, three!" There was the space of a breath, and then it fell, rolled, bounced unsteadily to its feet, and resolved into another boy, this one blond, and slighter than the first.

"Hey, you kids," Jon said.

They turned.

Jon looked at the smaller boy. His slight blond frame, less substantial then even Alter's white-haired loveliness was definitely of the royal family. "What are you doing out here, anyway?" Jon asked. "Especially you, your Highness."

All three children jumped.

It looked like they might balk, and after that descent from the roof, he wasn't sure where they might balk to. So he said, "Incidentally, the Duchess of Petra sent me. How did you do that fall?"

His Highness was the only one to relax appreciably.

"And are you sure you're supposed to be outside?"

"We were supposed to stay on the top floor," Tel said. "But him," he pointed to his ragged Highness, "he got restless, and we started telling him about the tricks, and so we went up to the roof, and Alter said she could get us down."

"Can you get them back up?" Jon asked.

"Sure," said Alter, "all we do is climb ..."

Jon held up his hand. "Wait a minute," he said. "We'll go inside and talk to the man in charge. Don't worry. No one'll be mad."

"You mean talk to Geryn?" said Alter.

"I guess that's what his name is."

They started back out of the alley. "Tell me," Jon said, "just what sort of person is Geryn?"

"He's a strange old man. He talks to himself all the time," said Alter. "But he's smart."

Talks to himself, Jon reflected, and nodded. When they reached the door of the inn, Jon pulled his cape off and stepped into the light. A few people at the bar turned around, and when they saw the children, they looked askance at one another.

"Geryn's probably upstairs," Alter said. They went to the second floor. Jon let the children go ahead of him as they passed into the shadow of the hall. He only stepped up to them when Alter pushed open the door at the end of the hall and bright light from Geryn's room fell full across them.

"What is it?" Geryn snapped. And then, "What is it, quick?" He whirled around in the chair at the rough wooden desk when they entered. The giant was standing by the window. Geryn's gray eyes fidgeted back and forth. Finally he said, "Why are you out here? And who is he? What do you want?"

"I'm from the Duchess of Petra," Jon said. "I've come to take Let to the forest people."

"Yes," said the old man. "Yes." Then suddenly his face twisted as if he were trying to remember something. Then shook his head. "Yes." Suddenly he stood up. "Well, go on. I've done my part, I tell you. I've done. Every minute he's in my house he endangers my boarders, my friends. Take him. Go on."

The giant turned from the window. "I am to go with you. My name is Arkor."

Jon frowned. For the first time the scarred giant's height struck him. "Why...?" he started.

"It is my country that we go to," said Arkor. "I know how to get there. I can take you through it. Geryn says it is part of the plan."

Jon felt a sudden knot of resentment tighten inside him. These plans-the Duchess', Geryn's, even the plans of the triple beings who inhabited them-they trapped him. Freedom. The word went in and out of his mind like a shadow. He said, "When do we go then, if you know how to get there?"

"In the morning," said Arkor.

"Alter, take him to a room. Get him out of here. Quick. Go on." They backed from the room and Alter hurried them up the hall.

Jon was thinking. After delivering Let to the forest people, he was going further. Yes. He would go on, try to get through the radiation barrier. But all three of them had to get through if they were to do any good. So why wasn't Geryn coming instead of sending the giant? If Geryn came, then there'd be two people near the Lord of the Flames. But Geryn was old. Maybe the Duchess could bring him with her when she came. Mentally he smashed a fist into his thoughts and scattered them. Don't think. Don't think. Thinking binds up your mind, and you can never be- He stopped. Then another thought wormed into his skull, the thought of five years of glittering hunger.

That night he slept well. Morning pried his eyes open with blades of light that fell through the window. It was very early. He had been up only a minute when there was a knock on his door. Then it opened, and Arkor directed the dwarfed form of the Prince into Jon's room, then turned and left.

"He says to meet him downstairs in five minutes," Let said.

"Sure," said Jon. He finished buttoning up the ragged shirt stolen from the mugger the night before, and looked at the boy by the door. "I guess you're not used to these sort of clothes," he said. "Once I wasn't either. Pretty soon they begin to take."

"Huh?" said Let. Then, "Oh."

"Is something wrong?"

"Who are you?"

Jon thought for a moment. "Well," he said. "I'm sort of a friend of your brother. An acquaintance, anyway. I'm supposed to take you to the forest."

"Why?"

"You'll be safe there."

"Could we go to the sea instead?"

"My turn for a 'why'?" Jon asked.

"Because Tel told me all about it last night. He said it was fun. He said there were rocks all different colors. And in the morning, he said, you can see the sun come up like a burning blister behind the water. He told me about the boats, too. I'd like to work on a boat. I really would. They don't allow me to do anything at home. Mother says I might get hurt. Will I get a chance to work someplace?"

"Maybe," Jon said.

"Tel had some good stories about fishing. Do you know any stories?"

"I don't know," Jon said. "I never tried telling any. Hey, come on. We better get started."

"I like stories," Let said. "Come on. I'm just trying to be friendly."

Jon laughed, then thought a minute. "I can tell you a story, about a prison mine. Do you know anything about the prison mines beyond the forest?"

"Some," said Let.

"Well, once upon a time, there were three prisoners in that prison camp." They started out in the hall. "They'd been there a long time, and they wanted to get out. One was ... well, he looked like me, let's pretend. Another had a limp ..."

"And the third one was chubby, sort of," interrupted Let. "I know that story."

"You do?" asked Jon.

"Sure," Let said.

"Then you go on and tell it." Jon was a little annoyed.

Let told it to him.

They were outside waiting for Arkor when the boy finished. "See," Let said. "I told you I knew it."

"Yeah," said Jon quietly. He stood very still. "You say the other two ... didn't make it?"

"That's right," Let said. "The guards brought them back and dumped their bodies in the mud so that ..."

"Shut up," Jon said.

"Huh?" asked Let.

He was quiet for a few breaths. "Who told you that ... story?"

"Petra," Let answered. "She told it to me. It's a good story, huh?"

"Incidentally," Jon said. "I'm the one that got away."

"You mean?" The boy stopped. "You mean it really happened?"

The early light warmed the deserted street now as Arkor came to the door of the inn and stepped into the street.

"All right," he said. "Come on."

* * *

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