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Tales of Shadow City: Seeing Nowhere Through The Eyes Of A Lie – Chapter 5

Inside The Spire…

Sulthar was astonishing hard to impress. “And what does all this mean, then?”. he grumbled. “Have we won, or something?”

“I can operate the internal communications”, said Talona, “and some of the lighting – so my answer, I’m afraid, would have to be ‘no’ – not yet.”

“I think I can speak for all of us when I say that’s not quite what we had expected to hear”, added Symmarae. “Now, maybe we’ve come to expect miracles a little too readily…”

“Early days”, Talona responded. “We have a lot of research ahead of us – unless we can somehow restore the link…”

Talona went quiet, silencing herself in mid-sentence. Her eyes darted back and forth between the crystal display panels for a few moments, and none of the Skylance crew dared interrupt. In time, she looked back to her companions, and shared her thoughts with them.

“Perhaps that is what all this is about”, she said, pensively. “The new Gifts on Yafornis, the problem with Korthrem – this place wants to be explored, and understood. To do that, we may have to renew a long-forgotten relationship with these structures.”

“I… My Lady, I don’t understand”, said Symmarae. “I know that… devices such as this have appeared on Yafornis, rising out of the ground on one occasion, but… you seem to be saying that we have a longer history with such things. Excuse my ignorance, but what do you know that we do not…?

Talona had cornered herself. For so long, the Shadowfolk had simply not needed to know about their origins – but now, that truth was hammering on the door, demanding to be let in. For the Shadowfolk to harness the power The Spire represented, there was no choice but for them to embrace what their ancestors had been… what they would have to become again, in some form. “Our people were brought into being by others, a powerful race known as the Var”, she explained. “Ours… and the Tall Ones. Both existed to help the Var construct and maintain their many wonders – and then, our races outlived our creators, and went on to develop into independent species…”

“That – you… you can’t be saying that we are… related to the Tall Ones?“, spluttered Sulthar. “That’s… disgusting!

“I don’t know the full details of the matter”, responded Talona. “What I learned, I learned from a variety of sources – one being the Spires you mentioned, Commander Symmarae; devices that were accessed to bring about The Gifting.”

That was more than Talona had intended to share, but there no longer seemed to be much of a reason to hold anything back. This may be our path to destiny, she thought. There’s no sense in trying to walk it alone…

“So, the Gifts didn’t just happen“, said Symmarae. “You… you caused them?”

“It became necessary for the sake of all our people”, Talona answered. “We were in danger of being overwhelmed by the restless dead of the Tall Ones. Something had to be done to give us a chance to survive. The option presented itself. I acted upon it. We prevailed.”

Varu had said little all along, and she chose that time to speak out, her words laden with a sense of betrayal. “And now my brother is able to… to turn his stomach inside out, through his mouth, and – and…”

“Sovur – Operative Zero Two Seven”, said Talona. “I know him, and he has done great service to Yafornis under the supervision of The One-Thirteen Directive. It is true that some – a small proportion of the population – have either trivial powers, or abilities that we could call… unpalatable, or too awful to ever use, but they are playing a part in making our City better, stronger. Just as this Spire will do.”

The Mistress of Shadow City extended a gloved hand towards Sulthar. “But only if the children of the Var rise to the challenge”, she said. “Rise above all they are now, and become greater – just as I have done, all my life…”

A smaller hand than the one Talona expected met hers. “Do we become great enough to undo what you did to my brother?”, asked Varu. “Him, and all the others?”

“What these Spires have done, they can surely undo”, Talona answered.

Varu shook Talona’s hand with surprising firmness. “Then challenge me.”

…o O o…

Meanwhile, back in Shadow City…

Chiya was almost at the end of her daily session on The Shadow City Learning Network when, once again, her data terminal went funny, reporting

Unknown connection received…

A new view-panel popped up on the young girl’s table-top screen. In that box, there was a smiling face; different to those Chiya knew from her life in the City, but still welcome, all the same.

“Hello, Mandy”, said Chiya. “How are things in – what do you call it again – Ball-Tee-More?”

“Oh, okay, I guess”, the yellow-haired, rounder-faced girl sighed in reply. “I don’t think Dad’s too keen on the idea of me getting a puppy. He says we’ll only end up getting fleas all over the house.”

“A puppy – that’s a baby… dog, right?”

“Yeah”, said Mandy. “You really don’t have dogs where you are?”

“Shadow City doesn’t have a whole lot of anything”, Chiya told her new friend, who seemed to be not quite a Tall One. “Don’t forget, we’re surrounded by desert…”

…paused…

“There’s more of this?”

Elsewhere…

“Yes, General – at least twenty eight hours, courtesy of the Odysseus Network Sentinel”, said the computer analyst, his voice ringing around the subterranean chamber. “There’s no doubting it now – Mandy Atkins in Baltimore is in regular contact with a non-human intelligence.”

General Eugene Royston of the United States Special Defence Program frowned. “A being from another world – on another world?”

Analyst Greg Maples, an Air Force lieutenant, nodded. “Once the outside connection was picked up by Odysseus, we were able to track – and record – it, tracing it back to its origin; a point in space near the where the matter-energy stream enters our universe. That point is the opening of a micro-portal into a space outside of our own.”

“A portal to another universe, like those we’ve detected before, but only maybe a quarter of an inch in diameter, if that”, said the third man in the secure room, Colonel Hampson of the Air Force Radical Projects Workshop. “On the other side, there appears to be an Earth-type planet, with two intelligent species living on it. One like us – these ‘Tall Ones’ – and the species you saw in the recordings, with the ears. The ‘Shadowfolk’.”

“So a girl is talking on the internet to an alien”, the General summarised. “Sounds weird, but then we get a lot of that these days. One questions remains, however: why is this a matter requiring my attention?”

Hampson replied. “These rifts in space, which deposit alien materials and life-forms in our world – we believe it may be possible for materials and beings to transit in the opposite direction. Put simply, we feel these ‘Tall Ones’ may be people from Earth.”

“Is there evidence to support that theory?”, asked General Royston.

“Not so far, but we are awaiting clearance to attempt to probe the alien computer network”, replied the Colonel.

“We can do that?”, queried the General.

“They apparently don’t have hackers in ‘Shadow City’, so their security is pretty limited”, answered Analyst Maples. “It’s all more to do with ensuring data integrity, avoiding degradation across the network. I’m pretty sure we can access their files, download their data without alerting them to our activities.”

Royston was intrigued, but still had a whole haystack of doubts. “And you’ll be able to understand those files? Won’t they be written in, well, Alien?

“The Challenger has provided us with a wide array of translation equipment, amongst other non-military devices”, said Maples. “We shouldn’t have a problem.”

“Ah, but I still do, Lieutenant”, said the General. “This Atkins girl – does she have translation equipment, too?”

Hampson and Maples exchanged anxious glances. “We can’t determine what causes both ends to be able to understand each other”, offered Hampson. “It could be that the connection is… leakage from a communications satellite, possibly designed for interplanetary communication, and that may be equipped with the necessary systems. Shadow City appears to be on a comparable technological level to Earth, although they are somewhat ahead of us in some regards.”

“Does that include weapons technology?”, asked Royston. “Nuclear weapons, or worse?”

Hampson sighed. “We don’t believe they really need weapons, General. According to what this alien girl has told Atkins, the Shadowfolk have superhuman powers. All the Shadowfolk.

“Saints preserve us”, murmured the General, leaning forward and massaging the bridge of his nose anxiously. The General had been tasked with providing a defence against otherworldly incursions that did not depend on the masked super-hero known as “The Challenger”, and yet again, he was seeing how colossal a task that was likely to be.

“The Vice President himself has given us quite a broad mandate for our operations, gentlemen”, the General declared. “He feels we would be put at a definite disadvantage should we come to depend on this ‘Challenger’, who strides the world like a god, and seems to answer to nobody. Now, I’m not questioning the good this… boy has done, the world over, but this country, and this planet, are still in constant danger, and we should be ready to stand on our own against whatever is out there, looking at us through… holes in the sky.”

“Sounds like you’re expecting The Challenger to fail”, remarked Maples. “That, or you’re planning on removing him from the field of play…”

“If necessary, yes”, admitted Royston, “but there’s nothing wrong with preparing for the day, should it come, that someone or something else does that for us. For all his devices, his knowledge, he’s still just one man.”

The General got up, and walked over to the main view-screen, which filled most of one wall of the meeting room, where the images of the two girls remained frozen. “I hate spying on this girl”, he sighed, looking into the oh-so innocent and blameless face of Mandy Atkins, “but she gives us an excellent opportunity to learn about a potential enemy. Lieutenant Maples, you have the go-ahead to begin exploring the alien computer network. Learn all you can about them, but leave no trace, and don’t get them riled. The first rule of war is ‘know your enemy’, and let’s not fool ourselves, gentlemen – we are at war with the rest of the universe, and whatever other universes are out there…

…o O o…

The Tall One Residential sector, Shadow City…

“Selpen? Selpen dearest, are you all right in there?”

Selpen Rubest, formerly of The People’s Guard, shot a wary glance towards the door. Behind it, his wife Tarosh was calling to him, wondering what was keeping him from the dinner table…

“I’m… all right, my dear”, he called back. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

“We’ve been bonded twenty years, Selpen”, the woman replied, more sternly. “I know when you’re ‘all right’; and when you’re not – now let me in.

“There’s… nothing to worry about”, Selpen insisted. “Tarosh, please…”

“That’s it – I’m coming in, and to The Fires with your old-fashioned ‘man’s honour’”, growled Tarosh. “You almost never use my name – unless we’re either having an argument, or you’re trying to avoid one…!”

Selpen reached for the door handle, but dared not touch it. He had no idea what might happen – and he was powerless to prevent his wife from entering, and seeing what he had been desperately trying to keep from her.

“Now, what’s all thi- Gods Above, what’s… your hand! It’s on fire!

Tarosh tore off her apron, reaching to smother the flames dancing around Selpen’s right hand with the stained fabric. The former guardsman stepped back, holding the flame-shrouded fingers away from her.

“Now, listen, woman”, he snapped. “I… I am not burning. I went to put some more wood on the fire, and… the flames jumped onto my hand. They are not consuming me – I feel some warmth, and… well, I’m not sure what. I feel the fire…”

“Oh Gods Above”, gasped Tarosh. “It’s a curse. Shadowfolk magic – they mean to turn us all into fire…!”

“If that were the case, would their fire allow us to live, unharmed – and do this?

Selpen held his hand out before him, and twitched a finger on his fire-wreathed right hand. The flames leapt, like a small blazing animal, into the palm of his left hand, forming a tightly-packed ball of crackling heat and light. “It is a Gift, dearest”, he declared. “A power like those the Shadowfolk possess. The Gods have sent this. They have chosen to give us powers to match those of our enemies!”

“Well, they certainly haven’t sent me any Gifts”, muttered Tarosh. “Apart from the Gods-given ability to put up with all your… nonsense…”

“I can’t be alone in this”, said Selpen, softly. “There have to be others – I have to find them. We have to find each other, and make ready – before… before they find us, and you know what’ll happen then. They will destroy us, Gifted or not, men, women – and children. They’ve been waiting for a reason, and here it is, in the very palm of my hand…”

“We-we’ll leave”, spluttered Tarosh. “We’ll take the children, and… and this ‘power’ of yours, and leave Shadow City forever. They won’t have any reason to harm anyone, if we’re gone…”

“They will learn of this, no matter what we do”, assured Selpen. “Whether I am here, or on the other side of the world. The Shadowfolk will have reason to fear us again – and we all know that what they fear, they will destroy. And I swear before you, The Gods, and those who were struck down by the Fire From Above, I will not allow that to happen.

…and the worlds edge ever closer…

Epilogue …
From The Journal of Lady Talona…

I will always remember that moment, when I shook Varu’s hand. That was how something wonderful was supposed to begin. Our “golden age” – but someone neglected to tell the forces of fate how it was meant to be. Looking back, maybe we were too optimistic…

In truth, all that was about to befall us had begun long before, and none of it could ever have been predicted. The cosmic forces reached down to the very bottom of their bag of tricks, and plucked out a handful of jewels of such exquisite perversity…

The near future…

“It’s time, my dear.”

Talona looked up from the view-screen, and into the two sets of eyes of the only friend she had left. “Yes, Abyss, I know”, she sighed. “Is there any word from the Earthers?”

“Their President is ‘observing events’, but they are not willing to commit forces to a battle that is not their own”, replied the monstrous Shadowpet. “I think they are still… what are the words they use.. ‘shell-shocked’ by what we did to them.”

“And their… hero, The Challenger?”

“Still no sign of him”, replied Abyss. “They think he’s dead.”

“Well, I suspect I’ll shortly be in a position to confirm or disprove that assumption in person”, Talona said wearily.

“You do not expect to survive this?”, asked Abyss’s other head.

Talona’s response was coldly brief. “I’m not sure I deserve to.”

The Mistress of Shadow City got up from her seat, and summoned her sword from its interdimensional place of storage. She did not bother to close down the data-terminal as she made ready to walk out to join her people for what she felt sure was going to be her final battle – and she prayed it would not be the end for her people. She would give all she had to make certain of that.

On the view-screen, the last words read:

No matter what anyone else may say after I am gone, I reassert this: I am Talona of Shadow City – should I live, it will be because I have reclaimed my existence from The Black Tide; should I fall, I have but one wish as death claims me – that my people, my true people, survive, and every once in a while, they remember me with kindness. Everything, always… it has all been for you.

Stepping out onto the balcony, Talona could see a sky either black with dense smoke, or alive with flames. Below, the forces of The Black Tide, anonymous in their jet black armour, were faced by an army unlike any other that had ever existed – Gifted Shadowfolk… the “Twice Blessed”… Abyss’s squadrons of Shadowpet Dracbrood… the independent Shadowpet Nation… even the Tall Ones…

She had never been so proud as she leapt from the railing, and dived into the ranks of the enemy. Wherever she ended up, she hoped dear lost Pussycat would be there waiting for her…

TSS-101-05

“(I’m) seeing nowhere through the eyes of a lie” from the lyrics of HOLE IN THE SKY, by BLACK SABBATH