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   Chapter 12 No.12

Captives of the Flame By Samuel R. Delany Characters: 16065

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


In the laboratory tower of Toron, the transparent bubble above the receiving stage brightened. In shimmering haze on the platform, the transparent figures solidified. Then Alter and Tel slipped beneath the rail on the stage and dropped down to the floor (Alter still wore the hospital robe and the cast on her left arm) while Arkor, Jon, and Petra used the metal stairway to descend. A battery of relays snapped somewhere and the scarlet heads of forty-nine switches by the window snapped to off. The globe faded.

"A bit more explanation," Petra was saying. "Hey, kids, keep quiet."

"Well, as far as the Lord of the Flames goes, on Earth anyway, it's more or less trivial and irrelevant," said Arkor. "You're still right. This war is in Toromon, not outside it."

"My curiosity is still peaked," Jon said. "So give."

"From what I gathered while I saw scanning the minds of those two who came out of the generator building with the Lord of the Flames (I should say the host of the Lord of the Flames), there's a tribe behind the barrier which resembles more or less what man might have been forty or fifty thousand years ago. Physically they're squat, thick-boned, and have the elements of a social system. Mentally they're pretty thick and squat too. The Lord of the Flames got into one of them just about when he was at age four. Then he gave the kid about sixty thousand years worth of technical information. So he began building all sorts of goodies, forcing his people to help him, using some equipment from a ruined city that dates from pre-Great Fire times behind the barrier. That's how the generators and the anti-aircraft guns got constructed."

"Our war is still going on," Jon said.

"Well, the Lord of the Flames is no longer with us," said Petra. "We've chased it to the other end of the universe. Now that we've removed what external reason there was for the war, we've got to think about the internal ones."

"What are you going to do immediately about the kids?" Jon asked.

"I think the best thing for them to do is to go off to my estate for a little while," Petra said.

"It's on an island, isn't it?" Tel asked.

"That's right," Petra said.

"Gee, Alter. Now I can teach you how to fish, and we'll be right by the sea."

"What about Uske?" Arkor asked. "You can either walk into his room and interrupt an obscene dream he's having, and present your case and be arrested for treason, or you can leave well enough alone at this point and wait till the opportunity comes to do something constructive."

Suddenly Jon grinned. "Hey, you say he's asleep?" He turned and bounded for the door.

"What are you going to do?" Petra called.

Jon looked at Arkor. "Read my mind," he said.

Then Arkor laughed.

* * *

In his bedroom, Uske rolled over through a silken rustle, opened one eye, and thought he heard a sound.

"Hey, stupid," someone whispered.

Uske reached out of bed and pressed the night light. A dim orange glow did not quite fill half the room.

"Now don't get panicky," continued the voice. "You're dreaming."

"Huh?" Uske leaned on one elbow, blinked, and scratched his head with his other hand.

A shadow approached him, then stopped, naked, faceless, transparent, half in and half out of the light. "See," came the voice. "A figment of your imagination."

"Oh, I remember you," Uske said.

"Fine," said the shadow. "Do you know what I've been doing since the last time you saw me?"

"I couldn't be less interested," Uske said, turning over and looking the other way.

"I've been trying to stop the war. Do you believe me?"

"Look, figment, it's three o'clock in the morning. I'll believe it, but what's it to you."

"Just that I think I've succeeded."

"I'll give you two minutes before I pinch myself and wake up." Uske turned back over.

"Look, what do you think is behind the radiation barrier?"

"I think very little about it, figgy. It doesn't have very much to do with me."

"It's a primitive race that can't possibly harm us, especially now that its-its generators have been knocked out. All of its artillery it got from a source that is now defunct. Look, Uske, I'm your guilty conscience. Wouldn't it be fun to really be king for a while and stop the war? You declared war. Now declare peace. Then start examining the country and doing something about it."

"Mother would never hear of it. Neither would Chargill. Besides, all this information is only a dream."

"Exactly, Uske. You're dreaming about what you really want. So how does this sound: make a deal with me as your guilty conscience and representative of yourself; if this dream turns out to be correct, then you declare peace. It's the only logical thing. Come on, stand up for yourself, be a king. You'll go down in history as having started a war. Wouldn't you like to go down as having stopped it too?"

"You don't understand...."

"Yes, I know. A war is a bigger thing that the desires of one man, even if he is a king. But if you get things started on the right foot, you'll have history on your side."

"Your two minutes have been cut down to one; and it's up."

"I'm going; I'm going. But think about it, Uske."

Uske switched off the light and the ghost went out. A few minutes later Jon crawled through the laboratory tower window, buttoning his shirt. Arkor shook his head, smiling. "Well," he said. "Good try. Here's hoping it does some good."

Jon shrugged.

* * *

In the morning, Rara got up early to sweep off the front steps of the inn (windows boarded, kitchen raided, but deserted now save for her; and she had the key); she swept to the left, looking right, then swept to the right, looked left, and said, "Dear Lord, you can't stay there like that. Come on, now. Get on, be on your way."

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"For pity's sake, woman, you can't go around cluttering up the steps of an honest woman's boarding house. We're re-opening this week, soon as we get the broken windows repaired. Vandals didn't leave a one, after the old owner died. Just got my license, so it's all legal. Soon as we get the window, so you just move on."

"I just got here, this morning.... They didn't tell us where to go, they just turned us off the ship. And it was so dark, and I was tired.... I didn't know the City was so big. I'm looking for my son-not so big! We used to be fishermen back on the mainland. I did a little weaving."

"And your son ran off to the City and you ran off after him. Good luck in the New Land; welcome to the island of Opportunity. But just get up and move on."

"But my son...."

"There are more fishermen's sons down here in the Devil's Pot than you can shake a stick at-fishermen's sons, farmers' sons, blacksmiths' sons, sons' sons. And all of their mothers were weavers or water carriers, or chicken raisers. I must have talked to all of them at one time or another. I won't even tell you to go down to the launch where they take the workers out to the aquariums and the hydroponic's gardens. That's what most of the young people do when they get here ... if they can get a job. I won't even tell you to go there, because there're so many people that work there, you might miss him a dozen days running."

"But the war-I thought he might have joined...."

"Somewhere in this ridiculous mess," interrupted Rara, her birthmark deepening in color, "I have misplaced a niece who was as close to me as any daughter or son ever was to any mother or father. All reports say that she's dead. So you just be happy that you don't know about yours. You be very happy, do you hear me!"

The woman was standing up now. "You say the launches to the factory? Which way are they?"

"I'm telling you not to go. They're that way, down two streets, and to your left until you hit the docks. Don't go."

"Thank you," the woman was saying, already off down the street. "Thank you." As she reached the middle of the block, someone rounded the corner a moment later, sprinting. He brushed past the woman and ran t

oward the door of the inn.

"Tel," whispered Rara. "Tel!"

"Hi, Rara." He stopped, panting.

"Well, come in," she said. "Come inside." They stepped into the lobby of the inn. "Tel, do you know anything about what happened to Alter? I got a weird story from General Medical. And then you disappeared. My lord, I feel like a crazy fool opening this place. But if somehow she wanted to get to me, where would she go if I wasn't here? And then, what am I to do anyway. I mean I have to eat, and-"

"Rara," he said, and he said it so that she stopped talking. "Look I know where Alter is. And she's safe. As far as you know, you don't know where she is, if she's alive or dead. But you suspect she isn't alive. I'll be going to her, but you don't know that either. I just came to check on some things."

"I've got all her things together right here. They gave me her clothes at the hospital, and put them all into a bundle in case we had to make a quick getaway. We had to do that once when we were working in a carnival where the manager suddenly took a liking to her and made himself a pest. She was twelve. He was a beast. Maybe you should take-"

"The fewer things I take the better," Tel said. Then he saw the bundle on the table by the door. On top was a leather thong to which a few chips of colored shell still clung. "Maybe this," he said, picking it up. "What shape is Geryn's room in?"

"The place has been ransacked since they took him away," she said. "Everybody and his brother has been picking at the place. What about Geryn, how is he?"

"Dead," Tel said. "What I really came about was to burn his plans for the kidnaping."

"Dead?" Rara asked. "Well, I'm not surprised. Oh, the plans! Why I burned those myself the minute I got back into his room. They were all over the table; why they didn't take them all up right then, I'll never-"

"Did you burn every last scrap?"

"And crumbled the ashes, and disposed of them one handful at a time over a period of three days by the docks. Every last scrap."

"Then I guess there's nothing for me to do," he said. "You may not see me or Alter for a long time. I'll give her your love."

Rara bent down and kissed him on the cheek. "For Alter," she said. Then she asked, "Tel?"

"What?"

"That woman you brushed by in the street when I saw you running up the block...."

"Yes?"

"Did you ever see her before?"

"I didn't look at her very carefully. I'm not sure. Why?"

"Never mind," Rara said. "You just get on out of here before.... Well, just get."

"So long, Rara." He got.

* * *

Not so high as the towers of the Royal Palace of Toron, the green tile balcony outside Clea's window caught the breeze like the hem of an emerald woman passing the sea. There was water beyond the other houses, deeper blue than the sky, and still. She leaned over the balcony railing. On the white marble table were her notebook, a book on matter transmission, and her slide rule.

"Clea."

She whirled at the voice, her black hair leaping across her shoulder in the low sun.

"Thanks for getting my message through."

"This is you," she said slowly. "In person now."

"Uh-huh."

"I'm not quite sure what to say," she said, blinking. "Except I'm glad."

"I've got some bad news," he said.

"How do you mean?"

"Very bad news. It'll hurt you."

She looked puzzled, her head going to the side.

"Tomar's dead."

The head straightened, the black eyebrows pulled together, and her lower lip tautened across her teeth until her jaw muscles quivered. She nodded once, quickly, and said, "Yes." Then, as quickly, she looked down and up at him. Her eyes were closed. "That ... that hurts so much."

He waited a few moments, and then said, "Here, let me show you something."

"What?"

"Come over to the table. Here." He took a handful of copper centiunit pieces from his pocket, moved her books and slide rule over, and arranged the coins in a square, four by four, only with one corner missing. Now he took a smaller, silver deciunit and put it on the table about a foot from the missing corner. "Shoot it into the gap there," he said.

She put her forefinger on the silver disk, was still, and then snapped her finger. The silver circle shot across the foot of white marble, hit the corner, and two pieces of copper bounced away from the other side of the square. She looked at him, questioningly.

"It's a gambling game, called Randomax. It's getting sort of popular in the army."

"Random for random numbers, max for matrix?"

"You've heard of it?"

"Just guessing."

"Tomar wanted you to know about it. He said you might be interested in some of its aspects."

"Tomar?"

"Just like I monitored your phone calls, I overheard him talking to another soldier about it before he-before the crash. He just thought you'd be interested."

"Oh," she said. She moved the silver circle away from the others, put the dislocated copper coins back in the square again, and flipped the smaller coin once more. Two different coins jumped away. "Damn," Clea said, softly.

"Huh?" He looked up. Tears were running down her face.

"Damn," she said. "It hurts." She blinked and looked up again. "What about you? You still haven't told me all that's happened to you. Wait a moment." She reached for her notebook, took a pencil up, and made a note.

"An idea?" he asked.

"From the game," she told him. "Something I hadn't thought of before."

He smiled. "Does that solve all your problems on-what were they-sub-trigonometric functions?"

"Inverse sub-trigonometric functions," she said. "No. It doesn't go that simply. Did you stop your war?"

"I tried," he said. "It doesn't go that simply."

"Are you free?"

"Yes."

"I'm glad. How did it come about?"

"I used to be a very hardheaded, head-strong, sort of stupid kid, who was always doing things to get me into more trouble than it would get the people I did it to. That was about my only criterion for doing anything. Unfortunately I didn't do it very well. So now, still head-strong, maybe not quite so stupid, I've at least picked up a little skill. I had to do something where the main point wasn't whether it hurt me or not. They just had to be done. I had to go a long way, see a lot of things, and I guess it sort of widened my horizons, gave me some room to move around-some more freedom."

"Childhood and a prison mine doesn't give you very much, does it?"

"No."

"What about the war, Jon?"

"Let's put it this way. As far as what's on the other side of the radiation barrier, which is pretty much out of commission now, there's no need for a war. None whatsoever. If that gets seen and understood by the people who have to see and understand it, then fine. If not, well then, it isn't that simple. Look, Clea, I just came by for a few minutes. I want to get out of the house before Dad sees me. Keep on talking to him. I'll be disappearing for a while, so you'll have to do it. Just don't bother to tell him I'm alive."

"Jon...."

He smiled. "I mean I want to do it myself when I come back."

She looked down a moment, and when she looked up he was going back into the house. She started to say good-bye, but bit back the words.

Instead, she sat down at the table; she opened the notebook; she cried a little bit. Then she started writing again.

* * *

THREE AGAINST INFINITY

The Empire of Toromon had finally declared war. The attacks on its planes had been nothing compared to the final insult-the kidnapping of the Crown Prince. The enemy must be dealt with, and when they were, Toromon would be able to get back on its economic feet.

But how would the members of this civilization-one of the few that survived the Great Fire-get beyond the deadly radiation barrier, behind which the enemy lay? And assuming they got beyond the barrier, how would they deal with that enemy-the Lord of the Flames-whose very presence was unknown to the people among whom he lived?

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