This is longer than I thought but here's an excerpt from "My Soul to Keep." I'd be interested in any feedback.
Thanks in advance.
Thanks in advance.
“My Soul to Keep”
There was a Door to which I found no Key;
There was the Veil through which I might not see:
Some little talk a while of Me and Thee
There was – and then no more of Thee and Me.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam of Naishápúr
It has been said that beginnings and endings are the most delicate of times. The slightest misstep at either point could destroy years of patient work. Caution is well advised but what are you to do when the beginning and the ending are the same point in time?
There’s an ancient saying that goes “those who forget the past are doomed to regret it”. It’s a warning to not forget the lessons learned over time or else run the risk of repeating the same mistakes. How can you do that if you don’t have a past to remember?
Except that’s not entirely true. We had a past. We just didn’t remember it.
That was the position we found ourselves in, five years before the end of the cycle. We had no memory of the past or thought of the future. We existed only for the moment. Unaware of the circumstances that brought us about, we lived in blissful ignorance, knowing nothing but the joy of being alive. How different would our lives have been if we had been known the truth?
The Tralamafan would say the truth, like everything else, is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the search for knowledge. That was why they created Coventry and why they took…
I’m getting ahead of myself.
There are some things you need to know first.
There’s a story I have to tell you…
“I know it hurts, Helena, but you must remember that this is the way of things.”
Isaiah’s voice was calm and quiet. Like the soft carpeting, thickly padded furniture and muted colors of the large room, his words were meant to soothe her.
It wasn’t working.
Helena Troy glanced at Isaiah, sitting next to her in one of the Sleep Center’s Waiting Rooms. The look of sympathy on the Magistrar’s soft, round face barely registered with her as she tried to push aside the sadness and loss that filled her mind.
It had been an hour since she had accompanied Joseph Damon to the Sleep Center. An hour since he had settled into the sarcophagus and told her he loved her for the last time.
An hour since had had been put to sleep.
It had been an hour spent trying to come to terms with the knowledge she would never again hear his voice, never again feel his gentle touch.
Knowing that this was the way of the world and that in five years she would be in the same position did nothing to ease her mind.
Helena tugged at her thick, waist-length brown hair and closed her eyes. “I know this is the way of things, Isaiah,” she said. “On the turn of the fortieth year comes eternal sleep. One sleeps, one awakens. Coventry remains in balance. Perfectly, simply logical. But it doesn’t address those left behind.”
Isaiah nodded, leaned close and put a hand on her shoulder. “Yes, that’s true. Remember, Ashk’rhaya puts no burden on us that we cannot bear. Of course, this would weigh heavily on you. You and Joseph were regular, yes?”
“For the last three years, yes.”
Helena’s eyes lowered and her memory stirred. For a moment, she saw herself and Joseph walking along the shore of the Lake. She saw his smiling face as they lay to share passion. She sighed as she felt his hands glide down her back.
The memory faded, leaving only sadness.
Helena took a deep breath, stood and stepped away from Isaiah. She looked around the Waiting Room and watched Attendants mill around the altar and sarcophagus, making sure it was ready for the next citizen. A misplaced thought drifted through her mind and she wondered why she had never seen Isaiah or the Attendants in the Restaurant or the Entertainment Center.
“Is there anything else to be done, Isaiah,” she asked.
He stood and walked over to her. “No, Helena, there’s not. Attendants will be by Joseph’s residence overnight to collect his belongings. If there’s anything you want to keep, make sure you get it before you go to sleep.”
“I will, Isaiah. Thank you.”
Helena sighed and tugged t the hem of her short dress. She considered the bright floral pattern of the fabric and smiled. Joseph always liked this dress, she thought, almost as much as he liked taking it off me.
The Waiting Room faded into darkness and silence closed in on her. There seemed to be a voice in the distance but she couldn’t make out what was being said.
“Helena? Are you alright?”
Helena blinked. Isaiah stood in front of her, a look of concern on his face. She looked around the Waiting Room and blinked again.
“Isaiah? What happened?”
He smiled. “It looked like you were asleep. You didn’t answer when I spoke to you.”
She massaged her eyes and shook her head. “I don’t think that’s happened before.”
“It could be a matter of circumstance. When was the last time you accompanied someone to the Sleep Center?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe a few years ago.”
“I’m sure you weren’t as close to that citizen as you were to Joseph.”
“No she wasn’t. I don’t think I’ve been as close to anyone as I was to Joseph.”
Isaiah nodded. “Your sadness must have overcome you. I would suggest spending some time in the Chapel.”
She blinked again and nodded. “Yes, of course you’re right. I’ll make sure I go through Joseph’s belongings before resting tonight. I’ll have to ask Isaac to help me…”
Her cell phone rang. Helena excused herself, slipped the phone from the pocket at her waist, checked the screen and picked up.”
“I was just thinking of you, Isaac.”
He laughed. “That’s good to hear. Is it finished?”
“It is. Joseph has been put to sleep. Can you help me get some things from his residence?”
“Of course. We’ll take care of it after dinner. Are you going to be much longer?”
“No. Meet me at the Restaurant.”
“See you there.”
Helena hung up and returned the phone to her pocket. “Thank you, Isaiah. Until later.”
Isaiah smiled. “Until later, Helena. And remember, yueo goshk’hya arh Ashk’rhaya.”
Helena bowed her head and gave the traditional response. “Ashk’rhaya enoyh sra.” She turned and left the Waiting Room.
Outside, Helena stopped and looked around. The sight of the cut grass, sculpted bushes and tall trees that surrounded and concealed the gray lines of the Sleep Center brought a smile to her face. She looked to the east, passed Isaiah’s office building, toward the white shape of the Nursery and Education Center. She watched citizens walk in and out of both buildings and her smile grew.
“One sleeps, one awakens,” she whispered. “Perfectly, simply logical.”
Helena took a deep breath and stared walking east toward the Restaurant. The feel of the grass against her bare feet eased her mind. She looked at the blue tinted metal sky, into the bright glow of the sun-sphere and felt a sense of calm come over her.
“Ashk’rhaya enoyh sra,” she whispered.
Walking at a brisk pace, Helena reached the Restaurant a short time later. She looked over the large, crystalline building and smiled when she saw Isaac Poole by the entrance, talking to a group of younger citizens. He spotted her, waved and walked toward her.
“Joseph went to sleep easily,” he asked.
“Yes. He’s sleeping with Ashk’rhaya now.”
They kissed and hugged. “Too soon to talk about being regular,” Isaac asked as his hands slid down her back.
Helena smiled, kissed him again and ran her fingers through his short dark hair. She had known for some time of Isaac’s wish to be her regular partner. It was something she had thought about more as Joseph’s time drew closer.
“We’ll talk about it later,” she said and stepped from his embrace.
Isaac nodded. “Okay. I understand. Later.”
As they walked to the Restaurant, Helena nodded toward the group Isaac had been talking to. “What did they have to say?”
“We were just discussing philosophy. They were wondering why Ashk’rhaya doesn’t show himself.”
Helena laughed and spread her arms. “Ashk’rhaya does show himself to us. He created Coventry, he created us. Every blade of grass, every leaf is the face of Ashk’rhaya. He doesn’t need to show himself to us. Each of us is Ashk’rhaya.”
“I told them that but they still have questions. They’re all sixteen. Everyone questions when they’re sixteen. I remember your favorite question was, why?”
“And your usual reply was, why not?”
They both laughed. “I suggested they spend some time in the Chapel. A few hours of quiet contemplation will clear their minds. It certainly worked for you.”
Helena’s eyes lowered and she thought back to the Waiting Room. “Isaiah suggested I spend some time in the Chapel, too.”
“Oh? Why? You’ve grown into a well-grounded citizen.”
“Something happened in the Waiting Room. Just before you called it seemed like I was asleep on my feet.”
Isaac frowned. “Strange. Have you been feeling alright?”
She nodded. “Isaiah thought it could be sadness.”
“You’ve been to the Sleep Center before.”
“But never with anyone I was regular with. Isaiah suggested that because Joseph and I were, his going to sleep affected me more.”
Isaac considered for a moment then shrugged. “Possible, I guess. We’ll spend some time in the Chapel before going to Joseph’s.”
Helena smiled and took his hand. “Thank you.”
Hand in hand, they walked into the crystalline dome of the Restaurant. Helena looked up through the tinted crystal panels at the blue metal sky and smiled. She pushed the sadness she felt over Joseph going to sleep and the uncertainty over what happened in the Waiting Room to the back of her mind. Out of the corner of her eye, she glanced at Isaac and wondered how it would be to be regular with him.
As they crossed the open, multi-level dining room, heading for the serving counter along the back wall, Helena again glanced at Isaac and her head bobbed.
Why wait, she thought. Joseph wouldn’t want me to. He’d want me to be happy.
After being served bowls of clear broth and cubes of soft protein, along with a tall bottle of orange wine, Isaac looked around. “Where do you want to sit?”
Helena nodded toward one of the secluded tables on the far side of the dining room. “Over there, where we can be alone.”
As they started across the dining room, Isaac asked, “Not that I mind but why do you want to be alone?”
“There’s something I want to discuss with you. Something personal.”
Isaac’s eyes widened and a look of surprise crossed his face. One corner of his mouth twisted into a lopsided smile. “I thought you wanted to talk about that later.”
Helena smiled. “It is later.”
“Yes it is.”
They sat side by side at the secluded table and Isaac poured wine. Helena took a sip and held up her right hand, fingers spread.
She said, “Isaac, my dearest friend since childhood, I ask you with all my heart. Will you consent to be regular with me?”
Isaac took a deep breath and pressed his left hand against Helena’s. “Helena, who I have known my whole life, my dearest friend since birth. It would be my honor to be regular with you.”
They leaned close and kissed. After a moment, Helena leaned back and smiled. “Thank you.”
Isaac bowed. “Thank you. Do you still want to go to the Chapel?”
Helena nodded and turned to her meal. “Yes. I’m still little bothered by what happened in the Waiting Room. Not for long, though. I want to get to Joseph’s residence before the Attendants arrive.”
“Will you keep mementos from my residence after I’m put to sleep?”
Helena’s head tilted to one side. “I was born in third month. You were born in fourth month. I’ll be asleep before you.”
“I’ll make sure to keep something from your residence.”
“I’m sure you will.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Helena began to feel more relaxed, at ease with her decision to become regular with Isaac. She picked up her wine glass but stopped when she saw movement out of the corner of her eye.
Turning to the crystal wall on her right, Helena saw a dark shape that hadn’t been there moments earlier. It looked like nothing she had ever seen in Coventry. The dark shape resembled a mound of soft plastine, sagging under the sun-sphere’s light. Lines of light flashed across the translucent surface. There was a large area of shiny black near the top of the shape.
Helena’s eyes widened as she stared at the shape. The sounds of the dining room faded to silence. The silence lingered for a few minutes until she heard a man’s voice whispering in the back of her mind.
“The cycles will repeat,” the voice said, “as they have repeated in the past. The fires will cleanse and the cycle will repeat again.”
A different voice said, “No. Change is inevitable. The cycles will end.”
The scene faded to darkness and the second voice spoke again. “You will not repeat this to the others. They are not ready.”
Helena blinked, turned back to her meal and wondered why she was staring out the window.
She sipped her wine. “So Isaac, now that we’re regular, are you going to sit for me?”
“You want to sketch me?”
“I sketched Joseph many times. That’s what we’re getting tonight.”
“I hope you’re not thinking about sketching tonight. That’s not what I had in mind.”
“No. I’m not sketching tonight. And I know just what you had in mind.”
They are in silence for a few minutes and Helena began to feel more at ease. The sadness had faded, replaced by the joy of being regular with Isaac. The confusion over what happened in the Waiting Room still lingered. She was sure time spent in the Chapel would clear that up.
She only wondered why she had been staring out the window.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been here,” Isaac said as he and Helena walked into the Church of Ashk’rhaya, more commonly known as the Chapel. “Maybe I should come by more often. A little contemplation couldn’t hurt.”
Helena looked around the dimly lit interior of the Chapel and sighed. The reclined chairs, arranged in fifteen rows, filled two-thirds of the angled space, providing seating for all of Coventry’s citizens. She lo9oked toward the narrow front of the room, where a glowing sphere of light, the symbol of Ashk’rhaya, hovered above the raised altar.
“I’ll be happy to not sleep on my feet again,” she said as they walked down the aisle between rows of chairs. “It only happened once. I don’t want it to happen again.”
They selected chairs in the middle of the aisle and sat Helena stared at the glowing sphere again and closed her eyes. She felt her body relax as she began to pray.
Praise be to Ashk’rhaya. May I continue to serve him through the remainder of my life.
As she repeated the prayer, Helena began to feel as if she were falling. She tried to open her eyes but couldn’t. she began to worry that what had happened in the Waiting Room was happening again.
From the darkness, she heard Isaiah’s voice.
“Helena? Can you hear me?”
“Isaiah? What’s happening? It feels like…”
“I know, and I’m sorry. I tried to do this in the Waiting Room but your conscious mind was too active. That’s why I directed you to the Chapel. This will also get me around the monitors.”
Helena felt confusion in the back of her mind. “I don’t understand. What’s going on?”
Isaiah was silent for a moment. “Did you feel that?”
“I didn’t feel anything.”
“Good. I’m sectioning off part of your memory so the Tralamafan won’t be able to scan it. There’s information I have to give you so you’re ready for what’s to come. I can get into a great deal of trouble for doing this but I have no choice. I’ve stood by long enough, a willing participant even though I knew what was being done was wrong. The Tralamafan have used you all as test animals for hundreds of years…”
The confusion began to grow in her mind. “What does that mean? What’s a tral…tralama…”
What felt like a wave of warm air came from the darkness and surrounded her. A moment later, the confusion faded.
“Don’t worry about the Tralamafan right now. You’ll learn about them soon enough. I don’t want to overload you with too much information at one time. It’s my nature as an AI to do things methodically.”
“Don’t worry about that, either. You’ll learn who and what I really am soon. I must ask you to trust me.”
“I do trust you, Isaiah. What’s going on?”
“You are the hope for the future, Helena. Through you I will set you all free. Make sure you come back here on a regular basis. At least once a month should be sufficient. You won’t remember any of this, of course. Not consciously, at any rate.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Soon you will, Helena. I’m glad you’re regular with Isaac.”
“You know about that? How?”
“It’s my function to know, Helena, and to anticipate. However, I didn’t expect you to become regular so soon.”
“Joseph wouldn’t want me to be alone. It felt right.”
“That’s why I chose you. You have good instincts. Now rest.”
For what seemed like only a few minutes, Helena lay still. She took a deep breath, opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling of the Chapel.
Praise be to Ashk’rhaya. May I continue to serve him through the remainder of my days.
Next to her, Isaac sat up, ran his hands over his face and said, “That was very refreshing.”
Helena took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes it was. How long have we been in contemplation?”
Isaac took his phone from a pocket and checked the screen. “Almost an hour. How do you feel?”
She smiled and stretched. “I feel much better. We should do this more often.”
“That a very good idea. How often do you want to come by?”
“Once a month,” Helena said as she stood. “More frequently and people will think we’re getting lost in our meditations.”
“What’s wrong with meditation? Ashk’rhaya conceived of Coventry while meditating.”
“That is very true. Now come on. I want to make sure we’re finished at Joseph’s residence before the Attendants show up.”
Helena leaned the last of the paintings against the wall, took a step back and considered the pieces she had brought from Joseph’s residence. Each piece was filled with life expressed in bright colors, conveying the joy she had felt during the three years she had been regular with Joseph.
She looked from one painting showing Joseph reclining on the grass by the Lake, to another portraying them sharing passion. Helena closed her eyes as she felt someone standing behind her. She felt a hand brush hair away from her neck then a gentle kiss. She took a deep breath as she felt a hand caress her breast.
A voice whispered, “The cycles will soon end and will soon begin again.”
Helena whispered, “No. The cycles will end. I will save us all.”
A different voice whispered, “You will do so much.”
Helena blinked, looked around the residence and wondered where she was going to put the sketches, paintings and sculptures she had brought over. All the display stands and tables were filled and there was little uncovered wall space.
The door phased open and Isaac walked in, carrying two sculptures. “These are the last two, Helena. Where are you going to put all these?”
She looked around the residence again. “I don’t know. I’d talk to Isaiah about getting some more display stands and tables but I’m almost out of floor space. I’ll take care of it in the morning.”
Helena watched Isaac walk to the sitting area and set the two sculptures on the triangle shaped table. He stepped up to the large windows that looked out to the east, toward one of the amphitheaters. She watched him then crossed to one of the two storage cabinets that stood between the door and the sitting area. Helena too out a bottle of orange wine and two glasses, and joined Isaac at the window.
“Are you sure this is what you wanted,” she asked as she filled the two glasses.
Isaac took one glass and frowned. “You asked me. Are you having second thoughts?”
“No, I’m not. You could’ve declined.”
“Why would I decline what I’ve always wanted?” He took her hand and turned to the window.
They stood in silence for a few minutes. Helena watched the lighting dim as the sun-sphere finished its daily transit across the sky. Her eyes went to the horizon, where the moon-sphere was just staring its nightly journey. She took a deep breath and leaned on the window sill.
“Have you ever wonder what’s beyond the sky,” she asked.
Isaac sipped his wine and turned a questioning look toward her. “Beyond the sky? All that’s beyond the sky is the realm of Ashk’rhaya. From there, he watches over us.”
He held up a hand, touched a finger to her lips and silenced her. “Do you really want to have this conversation now?”
Helena smiled and kissed his hand. “No, of course not. My artistic curiosity got the better of me.”
They leaned close and kissed. Helena felt her heart begin to race as Isaac’s arms embraced her. Her hands slipped under his shirt, gliding over the contours of his back. She lifted the shirt off and dropped it to the floor. She kissed him again and again across his broad chest.
Isaac’s hands brushed aside her hair and released the hook-pile fasteners at her shoulders. The dress slipped off to her waist, caught by the elastic waistband. He tilted her head back and kissed her neck and breasts. He nodded toward the bedroom on the other side of the residence and smiled.
“Come on.” He started away but stopped as Helena held his arm. “What?”
“Let’s not go to the bedroom yet. Let’s stay here for now.”
He looked around, puzzled. “Here? You want to stay in here?”
Helena nodded toward the empty floor in front of the windows. “Yes. Right here.”
Isaac looked around again, noting the absence of pickups. “No one will be able to watch us. We can watch sensies on the entertainment center but…”
Helena smiled and slipped her arms around him. “I don’t want to watch sensies right now. I don’t feel like being watched, either. All I want is you.”
She kissed him again and knelt down.
CYCLE 4 - YEAR 135
SEQUENCE 217 END
234 – ACTIVE
366 – STAND BY
ALL ENVIROMENTAL SYSTEMS ACTIVE
WETWARE CORRUPTION DETECTED
UNAUTHORIZED SOFTWARE DETECTED
SUBJECT HT72125141 – OPERATIONAL SOFTWARE CORRUPTED
SUBJECT DESIGNATED FOR REPROGRAMMING
DELETION AUTHORIZED BY
LOCAL SYSTEM ISH9191918
The dreams started as she was drifting off to sleep.
Helena wasn’t sure how long she and Isaac spent laying on the floor of the sitting room, sharing passion. All she knew, all she cared about, was how much she enjoyed being intimate with Isaac. That he seemed to feel the same heightened her pleasure.
Some time during the night, Isaac picked her up in his arms and carried her to the bedroom. They continued to share passion, their images carried to the other citizens by the eyes mounted on the walls and ceiling.
They soon drifted off to sleep, their bodies entangled.
She ran through the ruined buildings, searching for shelter, hoping to find concealment from their pursuers. The air was thick with smoke and the smell of burning wood. The light of the sun-sphere was nothing more than a diffuse glow.
Matron Sabine followed close behind, casting frequent glances back the way they came. Like Helena, Sabine’s robes were torn and covered with dust. Sweat beaded on her shaved head and ran down her face.
“We have to get out of here,” Sabine said, her breath ragged. “We won’t be able to stay ahead of the Patrons much longer.”
Helena looked back, seeing her own fear reflected on Sabine’s face. “We’ll get away. They’ll be busy at the Cloister.”
An image flashed through Helena’s mind. She could see the twenty tall men, dressed in gray coveralls and armed with an assortment of blades. Of the twenty Matrons in the Cloister, only she and Sabine had managed to escape. Their sisters, she knew, would be desecrated multiple times or harvested.
She pushed the image aside. “We just have to get to the Safe Zone in North Sector Four. It’s not far.”
“Not far? You’ve been saying that since we escaped the Cloister!” Sabine looked back over her shoulder, stumbled and fell.
Helena stopped then ran back. “Sabine! Are you alright? Come on! We can’t…”
Sabine pushed herself up onto her hands and knees then shook her head. “Why bother, Helena? We can’t outrun them. We should just wait and let the darkness come.”
“We can’t give up now,” Helena said as she knelt in front of Sabine. She caressed her friend’s head, hoping to calm her down.
“It’s too far,” Sabine whispered. “We’ll never be free of this war. We’ll either be desecrated or harvested.”
“Don’t say that. We can survive. Coventry can’t remain at war with itself forever.”
Sabine looked into Helena’s eyes, reached up and caressed her own shaved head. “This war has been going on longer than any of us can remember. It’ll never end.”
Helena looked around, more to avoid Sabine’s eyes than anything else. She didn’t want ot admit her own uncertainties. She kissed Sabine’s forehead and smiled.
“It’ll end someday, Sabine. Ashk’rhaya may be a vengeful god but even he will get sick of eternal war.”
Helena looked around again. Not far away was a small cabin that looked to be intact. She watched it for a moment, making sure there was no sign of life. She kissed Sabine’s forehead again and helped her to her feet.
“We’ll hide in there for a little while. We can rest and pray to Ashk’rhaya for protection and salvation.” Sabine looked at the cabin and nodded.
Helena led her to the cabin, keeping watch for any sign of an ambush. Seeing no sign of recent activity began to raise her spirits. Maybe if we stay here and stay quiet, she thought, the Patrons will lose interest in us.
Helena found the front door unlocked. She stared into the darkened interior and waved Sabine in. She checked the area around the house again then followed Sabine in, closing the door behind her.
Lights came on as she heard the male voice. “Told you we didn’t hafta search. We wait and the Matrons will come to us.”
There were six of them, each one tall and muscular, wearing dark gray coveralls belted at the waist. Each one was armed with two long knives. One was positioning a light globe at the center of the ceiling. A second held Sabine by the neck.
One stepped up to Helena, a wide smile of crooked yellow teeth splitting his face. “First one is harvested, the second is desecrated.”
Helena shook her head, not believing how she had failed. “No, please, we’re not…I’m sorry, Sabine.”
The first one reached up and traced a fingertip over Helena’s face. “Harvest that one’s heart and get it fed to this one. The rest is for us. And be quick about it. This one’s ready for the six of us.”
Helena screamed as the six Patrons laughed.
“I don’t care what the citizens believe. We have our traditions and I will see that they are maintained.”
From her place on the dais at the front of the Audience Chamber, Dynast Helena surveyed the assembled advisors, attendants and citizens. It was a daily ritual she reveled in, representatives of the people and her court gathering to share the adulation of the populace.
Today had been different.
Rather than bring adulation, the assemblage had brought complaints and a list of demands. Most of the complaints were easily dismissed and the demands ignored. One she could not put aside.
Helena ran her hands through her long brown hair then over her smooth, bare skin. Her brown eyes were narrow as she looked out over the audience. “So the people are saying they wish my pets and myself to dress? They would want my beauty hidden beneath clothing? Unthinkable! Am I not the most beautiful woman in Coventry? Have I not been blessed by great Ashk’rhaya? Should my beauty not always be on display?”
Behind her, reclining against the front wall of the chamber, her pets laughed. Helena glanced back at them, admiring the men and women laying there. Her eyes lingered on them for another moment before she turned back to the audience.
“My pets are so pretty. Why would anyone want to cover them up? Tell me this is a poor attempt at humor.”
Her senior attendant looked uncomfortable and glanced to one side. “Sadly not, Dynast. It would seem some of the citizens are starting to have thoughts about how things should be.”
“I see. Who ever told them they were allowed to think? Are any of them here?”
“Yes, Dynast. Two representatives are here. They’re young. The young always want to change things to suit them.”
“Indeed. Bring them forward.”
The senior attendant waved toward the audience. The crowd parted, moving away from the young man and woman. Despite her anger and annoyance, Helena smiled as they shuffled forward. Both were young, fit and attractive. Her mind began to turn to other things.
As they knelt in front of her, she said, “Names.”
The man glanced at the woman and said, “I’m Anthony, Dynast, and this is Hayley, my wife.”
“And she has no voice of her own?”
Hayley nodded and said, “I do, Dynast.”
“Good. Now tell me. Why do you want to change things? Through the long line of Dynasts before me, none have ever been clothed. I am the most beautiful of them all. You would deprive the people of my beauty?”
Anthony swallowed. “You are the rule of Coventry, Dynast. You should be an example for our children. They should strive…”
“They should strive to please me! What more is there to attain? What other nonsense have you come up with?”
Hayley exchanged a look with Anthony and said, “We want privacy, Dynast.”
Helena reached over and caressed Anthony’s face. “Very pretty. Privacy? You want privacy? How amusing. Why?”
“There are eyes in every room of every building, Dynast. Even in our houses. We’re always watched, even when we’re trying to sleep.”
“I have no interest in watching people sleep.”
Hayley took a deep breath. “You watch us when we’re sexing. We should have privacy when…”
Helena leaned close to Hayley and her voice was an angry growl. “I am the only one in Coventry entitled to privacy! The people are mine to use as I wish, to do with as I please! This was decreed by great Ashk’rhaya! Besides, I like watching people sexing. It’s very entertaining, especially when I’m playing with my pets.”
Anthony took a deep breath. “It’s wrong for us to be watched at all hours of the day and night.”
Helena stared at him. “You’re lucky you’re pretty. I can’t stand such impudence from my citizens.”
She nodded toward the attendants. “Prepare him. I’ll be there in a minute. Maybe I’ll make him one of my pets if I enjoy him.”
Anthony looked at Hayley as he was led away. Hayley started to stand but Helena pushed her back down to her knees. “Stay where you are! Did you enjoy him, the way he made you scream as he finished? I certainly enjoyed watching you.”
She brushed her fingers over Hayley’s cheeks then took hold of her head. “You have such a pretty face. Oh, excuse me! I mean, you had such a pretty face.”
Helena tightened her grip on Hayley’s head and dug her fingernails into her skin. She dragged her fingers across her cheeks, leaving bloody scratches. As Hayley screamed, Helena stabbed her thumbs into Hayley’s eyes. She released Hayley and watched her drop to the floor.
Helena watched Hayley bury her bloody face in her hands then looked over her own hands. She shook her head in disgust.
“I got my hands dirty. Water!”
One attendant rushed out. He returned a minute later, carrying a bowl of water and a towel.
As Helena washed her hands, the senior attendant asked, “What should we do with her, Dynast?”
She dried her hands and dropped the towel to the floor. “Give her to my pets. I’m sure they’ll enjoy a new toy.”
Helena looked out over the audience, feeling amusement at the shock and horror on their faces. “Tell the people what you’ve seen here today. Coventry is run by my will. You exist only to serve me. You live at my discretion. There will be no more complaints or suggestions!”
She looked them over again and started out of the Audience Chamber. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have a new plaything to try out. I wonder how long it’ll take to break him.” She closed her eyes and felt her spirits soar.
Her eyes snapped open and panic hit her immediately. She had no idea where she was or how she arrived. All she could see was darkness broken by a faint glow coming from behind her. Her habit had been stripped off and she lay spread-eagle on something hard and cold. She tried to sit up but found she couldn’t move. She could only turn her head from side to side.
Helena stared into the darkness for another minute then squeezed her eyes shut. She tried to hold back the panic as she searched through her memory.
I left the convent to run some errands and pick up some groceries. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I was walking down the street…I felt dizzy…
Helena took a deep breath and opened her eyes. She looked into the darkness and called out, “Hello! Is anybody there?” The only reply was her own voice echoing through the darkness.
She tried to keep her voice steady. The cold was starting to work into her body and she started to shiver. “Is anyone there? Hello? Someone answer me! Please…someone…” She squeezed her eyes shut as tears began to well up.
What felt like a breeze blew across her bare skin. She heard the voice an instant later. “Subject HTSeven-two-one-two-five-one-four-one is conscious.”
Helena opened her eyes. To either side, the darkness seemed to twist and ripple, like water going down a drain. The rippling faded as two shapes came into view. They were tall, roughly cylindrical, reminding Helena of melting wax or plastic. What looked like flashes of light danced beneath their translucent surface. Near the top of the shapes were large black areas.
Her mouth opened and closed several times before she was able to speak. “What… what’s going on? What are you? Where am…where…” Panic overwhelmed her and her voice faltered.
The shape on the left turned so the black area was facing her. The flashing lights became more active and she heard the voice again. “Identify.”
Helena took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. “What? Identify? Identify myself? Is that what you mean?”
The shapes were silent. Helena stared at them then shook her head as realization dawned on her. My God…I shouldn’t have laughed at all those UFO stories I heard in college.
The shape on the right flashed and spoke in the same voice. “Identify.”
She took a deep breath. “My name is Sister Helena Troy, with Saint Bartholomew Church in San Diego. What are you going to do?”
Both shapes were silent for a moment. “Sister,” the left one said. “Rank? Military?”
“It’s not a military rank. I’m with the Catholic church.”
The right one said, “Religious order?”
The flashes of light on both shapes stopped for a moment. “Primitive. Touch. Sense.”
What looked like tendrils began to extend from the two shapes. The tendrils reached down and began to glide across her skin, leaving a growing tingling sensation. Her shivering became worse as tendrils slipped into her nose, mouth and ears. After a few minutes, the tendrils withdrew.
“Examination form ready,” the left shape said.
The right shape turned to one side. “Proceed.”
Above her, the darkness began to ripple and swirl. As it cleared, Helena saw herself, laying spread-eagle on a dimly glowing surface. On either side of the duplicate grew two large tentacles. From them grew smaller tentacles. The ends of the smaller tentacles changed to become an assortment of long finger-like constructs while others formed what looked like blades.
The duplicate watched the tentacles and shook her head. “Oh my God! What’re you… what’re you…”
One tentacle encircled her head and held her still. A smaller tentacle sprouted and held her right eye open. A second tentacle sprouted and formed what lo9oked like a pair of small spooks. Slowly, the spoons lowered and began to remove her eye.
“God help me! God help me!”
Other blades slide down her body, leaving trails of blood. The thinner tendrils slipped into the wounds and began to peel back the skin.
Helena stared in horror as the duplicate’s body was cut open.
…she woke up.
Helena stared into the darkness, eyes wide, heart pounding, breath burning in her throat. She sat up on the bed, closed her eyes, took a few deep breaths and waited for her heart to slow to normal. She ran her hands over her face, looked around again and reached for the small lamp on the side table. She kept the light dim as she turned on the lamp to keep from disturbing Isaac.
She looked around the bedroom and slipped off the bed. The room was unchanged but the feeling that something was wrong began to tug at the back of her mind. She looked at the pickups that circled the room, two on each wall as well as the ceiling, each one concentrated on the bed. A smile crossed her face as she wondered if anyone watched the sensie feed when she and Isaac moved from the living room to the sitting room to the bedroom. She wondered if the watchers were entertained as she and Isaac shared passion.
Helena stepped into the sitting room and the sense that something was wrong grew. She crossed to the windows and looked out across the dark skyline of Coventry. The sight of the darkened buildings in the light of the moon-sphere. She thought back to the dreams and sighed.
Dreams, she thought. Just dreams. Just an overactive imagination, stories that want to be told.
The sound of movement in the bedroom attracted her attention. Her smile grew as she walked back to the bedroom. It sounded like Isaac had awakened. Her heart began to race again in anticipation of continued passion.
Helena stepped into the bedroom and stopped, anticipation changing to shock and horror.
Isaac was sitting up but he was floating above the bed. His body was limp, head back, eyes closed, mouth open. What looked like a band of light surrounded his head. Every few moments, thinner beams of light reached out from the band and touched Isaac’s head.
On either side of him were the shapes she remembered from her dreams. Both shapes had extended tendrils that glided over his body and into his mouth and nose.
Helena backed up, to try and get out of the residence, to try and get help.
What felt like tendrils began to encircle her body, holding her still, twisting her legs and arms. She was turned around and saw two more shapes, the tendrils leading back to them. Helena was lifted off the floor as more tendrils sprang from the shapes. They glided over her skin, around her neck, over her face and into her mouth and nose.
The light flashes on one shape increased in speed and a voice sounded in her mind. “You should not be here,” it said. “You should not know this.”
Helena tried to scream but couldn’t. The tendrils began to wrap around her body and her head. The tendrils began to tighten…tighten…and…
…she woke up.
Helena raised her head and looked around the bedroom. In the dim light from the moon-sphere coming through the window over the bed, she could see the room was empty except for herself and Isaac. She glanced at him, sleeping next to her. She brushed her fingers across his cheek, smiled and snuggled close to him.
Dreams, she thought as she drifted back to sleep. Just dreams. Just an overactive imagination, stories that want to be told.
CYCLE 4 – YEAR 135
SEQUENCE 217 – TRANSITION – 218
000 – ACTIVE
600 – STANDBY
ALL ENVIRONMENTAL SYSTEMS ACTIVE
WETWARE CORRUPTION CONFIRMED
UNAUTHORIZED SOFTWARE DETECTED
SUBJECT HT72125141 – OPERATIONAL SOFTWARE CORRUPTED
SUBJECT DESIGNATED FOR OBSERVATION
ENGAGE OBSERVATION PROTOCOL BY
LOCAL SYSTEM ISH9191918?
BYPASS LOCAL SYSTEM CONFIRMED
ENGAGE OBSERVATION PROTOCOL BY SECONDARY SYSTEM?
ENGAGE OBSERVATION PROTOCOL BY
OBSERVATION PROTOCOL BY
SUBJECT IP91911316 ENABLED