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   Chapter 9 No.9

Captives of the Flame By Samuel R. Delany Characters: 12268

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Clea Koshar had been installed in her government office for three days. The notebook in which she had been doing her own work in inverse sub-trigonometric functions had been put away in her desk for exactly fifty-four seconds when she made the first discovery that gave her a permanent place in the history of Toromon's wars as its first military hero. Suddenly she pounded her fist on the computer keys, flung her pencil across the room, muttered, "What the hell is this!" and dialed the military ministry.

It took ten minutes to get Tomar. His red-haired face came in on the visiphone, recognized her, and smiled. "Hi," he said.

"Hi, yourself," she said. "I just got out those figures you people sent us about the data from the radiation barrier, and those old readings from the time Telphar was destroyed. Tomar, I didn't even have to feed them to the computer. I just looked at them. That radiation was artificially created. Its increment is completely steady. At least on the second derivative. Its build-up pattern is such that there couldn't be more than two simple generators, or one complexed on ..."

"Slow down," Tomar said. "What do you mean, generators?"

"The radiation barrier, or at least most of it, is artificially maintained. And there are not more than two generators, and possibly one, maintaining it."

"How do you generate radiation?" Tomar asked.

"I don't know," Clea said. "But somebody has been doing it."

"I don't want to knock your genius, but how come nobody else figured it out?"

"I just guess nobody thought it was a possibility, or thought of gratuitously taking the second derivative, or bothered to look at them before they fed them into the computers. In twenty minutes I can figure out the location for you."

"You do that," he said, "and I'll get the information to whomever it's supposed to get to. You know, this is the first piece of information of import that we've gotten from this whole battery of slide-rule slippers up there. I should have figured it would have probably come from you. Thanks, if we can use it."

She blew him a kiss as his face winked out. Then she got out her notebook again. Then minutes later the visiphone crackled at her. She turned to it and tried to get the operator. The operator was not to be gotten. She reached into her desk and got out a small pocket tool kit and was about to attack the housing of the frequency-filterer when the crackling increased and she heard a voice. She put the screw driver down and put the instrument back on the desk. A face flickered onto the screen and then flickered off. The face had dark hair, seemed perhaps familiar. But it was gone before she was sure she had made it out.

Crossed signals from another line, she figured. Maybe a short in the dialing mechanism. She glanced down at her notebook and took up her pencil when the picture flashed onto the screen again. This time it was clear and there was no static. The familiarity, she did not realize, was the familiarity of her own face on a man.

"Hello," he said. "Hello, Hello, Clea?"

"Who is this?" she asked.

"Clea, this is Jon."

She sat very still, trying to pull two halves of something back together (as in a forest, a prince had felt the same things disengage). Clea succeeded. "You're supposed to be ... dead. I mean I thought you were. Where are you, Jon?"

"Clea," he said. "Clea-I have to talk to you."

There was a five-second silence.

"Jon, Jon, how are you?"

"Fine," he said. "I really am. I'm not in prison any more. I've been out a long time, and I've done a lot of things. But Clea, I need your help."

"Of course," she said. "Tell me how? What do you want me to do?"

"Do you want to know where I am?" he said. "What I've been doing? I'm in Telphar, and I'm trying to stop the war."

"In Telphar?"

"There's something behind that famed radiation barrier, and it's a more or less civilized race. I'm about to break through the rest of the barrier and see what can be done. But I need some help at home. I've been monitoring phone calls in Toron. There's an awful lot of equipment here that's more or less mine if I can figure out how to use it. And I've got a friend here who knows more in that line than I gave him credit for. I've overheard some closed circuit conference calls, and I'm talking to you by the same method. I know you've got the ear of Major Tomar and I know he's one of the few trustworthy people in that whole military hodge-podge. Clea, there is something hostile to Toromon behind that radiation barrier, but a war is not the answer. The thing that's making the war is the unrest in Toromon. And the war isn't going to remedy that. The emigration situation, the food situation, the excess man power, the deflation: that's what's causing your war. If that can be stopped, then the thing behind the barrier can be dealt with quickly and peacefully. There in Toron you don't even know what the enemy is. They wouldn't let you know even if they knew themselves."

"Do you know?" Clea asked.

Jon paused. Then he said, "No, but whatever it is, it's people with something wrong among them. And warring on them won't exorcise it."

"Can you exorcise it?" Clea asked.

Jon paused again. "Yes. I can't tell you how; but let's say what's troubling them is a lot simpler than what's troubling us in Toromon."

"Jon," Clea asked suddenly, "what's it like in Telphar? You know I'll help you if I can, but tell me."

The face on the visiphone was still. Then it drew a deep breath. "Clea, it's like an open air tomb. The city is very unlike Toron. It was planned, all the streets are regular, there's no Devil's Pot, nor could there ever be one. Roadways wind above ground among the taller buildings. I'm in the Palace of the Stars right now. It was a magnificent building." The face looked right and left. "It still is. They had amazing laboratories, lots of equipment, great silvered meeting halls under an immense ceiling that reproduced the stars on the ceiling. The electric plants still work. Most houses you can walk right in and turn on a light switch. Half the plumbing

in the city is out, though. But everything in the palace still works. It must have been a beautiful place to live in. When they were evacuating during the radiation rise, very little marauding took place...."

"The radiation ..." began Clea.

Jon laughed, "Oh, that doesn't bother us. It's too complicated to explain now, but it doesn't."

"That's not what I meant," Clea said. "I figured if you were alive, then it obviously wasn't bothering you. But Jon, and this isn't government propaganda, because I made the discovery myself: whatever is behind the barrier caused the radiation rise that destroyed Telphar. Some place near Telphar is a projector that caused the rise, and it's still functioning. This hasn't been released to the public yet, but if you want to stop your war, you'll never do it if the government can correctly blame the destruction of Telphar on the enemy. That's all they need."

"Clea, I haven't finished telling you about Telphar. I told you that the electricity still worked. Well, most houses you go into, you turn on the light and find a couple of sixty-year-old corpses on the floor. On the roads you can find a wreck every hundred feet or so. There're almost ten thousand corpses in the Stadium of the Stars. It isn't very pretty. Arkor and I are the only two humans who have any idea of what the destruction of Telphar really amounted to. And we still believe we're in the right."

"Jon, I can't hold back information...."

"No, no," Jon said. "I wouldn't ask you to. Besides, I heard your last phone call. So it's already out. I want you to do two things for me. One has to do with Dad. The other is to deliver a message. I overheard a conference call between Prime Minister Chargill and some of the members of the council. They're about to ask Dad for a huge sum of money to finance the first aggressive drive in this war effort. Try and convince him that it'll do more harm than good. Look, Clea, you've got a mathematical mind. Show him how this whole thing works. He doesn't mean to be, but he's almost as much responsible for this thing as any one individual could be. See if he can keep production from flooding the city. And for Toromon's sake, keep an eye, a close eye on his supervisors. They're going to tilt the island into the sea with all their cross-purposes intrigues. All I can do is start you on the right track, Sis, and you'll have to take it from there.

"Now for the message. The one circuit I can't break in on is the Royal Palace system. I can just overhear. Somehow I've got to get a message to the Duchess of Petra. Tell her to get to Telphar in the next forty-eight hours by way of the transit ribbon. Tell her there are two kids she owes a favor to. And tell her the girl she owes four or five favors. She'll be able to find out who they are."

Clea was scribbling. "Does the transit ribbon still work?" she asked.

"It was working when I escaped from prison," Jon said. "I don't see why it should have stopped now."

"You used it?" Clea said. "That means you were in Toron!"

"That's right. And I was at your party too."

"Then it was ..." She stopped. Then laughed, "I'm so glad, Jon. I'm so glad it was you after all."

"Come on, Sis, tell me about yourself," Jon said. "What's been happening in the real world. I've been away from it a long time. Here in Telphar I don't feel much closer. Right now I'm walking around in my birthday suit. On our way here we got into a shadowy situation and I had to abandon my clothes for fear of getting caught. I'll explain that later, too. But what about you?"

"Oh, there's nothing to tell. But to you I guess there is. I graduated, with honors. I've grown up. I'm engaged to Tomar. Did you know that? Dad approves, and we're to be married as soon as the war's over. I'm working on a great project, to find the inverse sub-trigonometric functions. Those are about the most important things in my life right now. I'm suppose to be working on the war effort, but except for this afternoon, I haven't done much."

"Fine," Jon said. "That's about the right proportions."

"Now what about you? And the clothes?" She grinned into the visaphone, and he grinned back.

"Well-no, you wouldn't believe it. At least not if I told it that way. Arkor, the friend who's with me, is one of the forest people. He left the forest to spend some time in Toron, which is where I met him. Apparently he managed to accumulate an amazing store of information, about all sorts of things-electronics, languages, even music. You'd think he could read minds. Anyway, here we are, through the forest, across the prison mines, and in Telphar."

"Jon, what were the mines like? It always made me wonder how Dad could use tetron when he knew that you were being whipped to get it."

"You and I'll get drunk some evening and I'll tell you what it was like," Jon said. "But not until. When you're trying to convince Dad, bring that up about me and the mines."

"Don't worry," she said. "I will."

"Anyway," Jon went on, "we had to get through the forest without being seen and with all those leaves it was pretty dark. Arkor could get through because he was a forest man and nobody would stop him. But because they'd have seen me, I had to go most of the way naked as a jaybird."

Clea frowned. "I don't understand. Are you sure you're all right?"

Jon laughed. "Of course I'm all right. I can't really explain to you just yet. I'm just so happy to see you again, to be able to talk to you. Sis, I've wanted to be free for so long, to see you and Dad again, and-there's nothing wrong with me except the sniffles."

It welled up in her like a wave and the tears flooded her lower lids, and then one overflowed and ran down the left side of her nose. "You see what you're doing," she said. And they laughed once more. "To see you again, Jon is so ... fine."

"I love you, Sis," Jon said. "Thanks, and so long for a little while."

"I'll get your message out. So long." The phone blinked dark and she sat there wondering if perhaps the tension wasn't too much. But it wasn't, and she had messages to deliver.

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