Tuesday, May 5, 2015


            The battery on the car was basically dead when they got there. Mr. Flow was hot on its heels. Kapla Furnace Village was not very large. The buildings were all gleaming, though, with great bottle-green glass roofs that sloped downward. They had been able to spot the village from many miles away, as a plume of black smoke rose from a large smokestack at its center. The buildings were all fairly similar, only a single floor, and shaped a little like a horseshoe crab without a tail, with the round part facing outward. There was no road, but the desert floor was flat here, and smooth as a recently paved highway. When they stopped, a group of djinn men, all blue-skinned and wearing dark sunglasses, approached the vehicle. Jack turned the engine off.
            “He told us to come here,” Jack said to the group once he had rolled down the window.
            One of the men, middle-aged and wearing a light linen robe, stepped forward. He looked down at Mr. Flow and his mouth opened with shock. “Soka!” He opened the door and knelt down beside Mr. Flow.
            “Soka, sanate mi, ok? Soka?”
            Mr Flow groaned. “Ti kanata. Iy beo, Kelbe, mut na sarona.” His voice was weak.
            “What’s going on? Do you speak Standard?” asked Azjar.
            The man kneeling next to Mr. Flow nodded. “We need to get him the doctor.” He turned to the group of onlookers. “Zute, comase Askata!”
            One of the men in the crowd bolted. The djinni put his hand on Mr. Flow’s forehead. “What happened?”
            “He was shot…,” said Tessa. “It happened days ago, and he showed us how to cauterize the wounds, but he’s taken a turn for the worse since then.”
            “Ok,” and he turned to Mr. Flow. “Soka, ti comasar medi.”
            Mr. Flow nodded weakly.
            The man tapped another one of the teenagers in the crowd on the knee. “Jaru, luke sio,” he said, pointing to Mr. Flow. “Mi dohru clac ot jengu-set.” The man stood up and allowed the teenager to take his place while he gestured for the four of them to step aside with him.
            A tall, striking woman carrying a doctor’s bag strode out to the car and watched as the young men who had gathered put Mr. Flow on a stretcher, carrying him into the village. The man watched them move him before turning his attention to Tessa.
            “Thank you for bringing our brother here. Though I am somewhat surprised he was willing to return, even in his condition.”
            “Will he be ok?” asked Tessa.
            “Askata is a good doctor, but I don’t know yet. Soka looked weaker than I ever remember seeing him.”
            Freya and Azjar both looked exhausted. Jack was fairly tired himself, so Tessa did the talking. “He told us how to get here. We’ve had a pretty rough couple of days.”
            “Well, you are welcome to rest in our village. We will do our best to accommodate you, though we are not accustomed to having jengu visitors. We do have some water, but we will have to send out to the Arizradna for… uh… wet foods.”
            “Thank you for your hospitality,” said Tessa.
            “You have brought our brother back to us. You are honored guests for that. Still, I think that it would be best if we took you to meet with our councilor. Soka has led a complicated life, and we only wish to ensure that our community is not in danger. My name is Kelbe. Soka is my flame-kin, and so I thank you deeply from the heart.” Kelbe put his palm on his chest and bowed his head.
            They walked between the buildings toward the center of town. Looking through the glass half-domes, Jack realized that they were only seeing the tops of the buildings, and that they could be far larger underground. Looking closer, the glass was not a uniform bottle-green as he had originally thought. Instead, small panels of varying colors were held together in a copper lattice, and so, close-up one could see that each building was a unique pattern of many different colors. The impression of green from a distance seemed to actually be some kind of iridescent illusion.
            “Your buildings are beautiful,” said Tessa.
            “They are called sietches,” said Kelbe. “They are far larger once one goes downstairs.”
            Unfortunately, it was extremely hot and dry. It was late afternoon, so thankfully the sun would be setting soon, but all the accumulated heat of the day was radiating out of the desert floor.
            Jack dreaded what it might be like inside the sietches. These were a people who didn’t even drink water, and so as they came to the councilor’s sietch, he worried that he would effectively be walking into an oven.
            A blast of cool air as the door opened shocked him, and as they walked inside the building, Jack actually found himself shivering, more out of surprise than actual discomfort.
            It was darker inside than he expected it to be. The glass dome overhead shaded the sunlight, and they descended a flight of stairs as soon as they entered. The lower levels of the sietch were impeccably clean and illuminated with recessed lighting. Its walls were made of smooth grey stone, and to Jack’s surprise, the doors were dark, lacquered wood. He felt as if he were in a luxury hotel rather than some tiny village out in the desert. Beneath the stairway that led down from the glass dome, one could look down on a large plaza four stories below them, with shops and apartments and beautiful stone and glass sculptures. He had originally gotten the impression that this was a tiny village, but he realized now that it was actually a fully-fledged town, which must have had at least a few thousand people.
            They walked down a grand staircase to the floor of the plaza and followed Kelbe to a rather important-looking doorway with the words “Jenda Vizier” engraved on it.
            Kelbe opened the door and brought them into a rather large office. An older woman was sitting at a desk facing the door. She was busy with some kind of paperwork, but she came to a stopping point and looked up.
            She was not wearing sunglasses, and for what he suddenly realized was the first time, Jack saw a djinni's eyes. The eyes shone brightly, the irises the exact color of flame. In fact, Jack realized, they did not merely look like flame, but they truly glowed, and the flames in her eyes danced just as one would expect a campfire to do.
            Kelbe stepped forward.
            “Jenda Marada, Tos-set de jengu ash arvunti. Sius savuntus Soka ag.”
            The woman's eyes widened. “Soka? Se es? Yo fama?”
            “Sio sukati. Sio clacati. Askata sio luku.”
            “Askata? Jiy Askata sio luku? Jo se?”
            “Na sarona. Se bejurek. Se shotti, mut se beo, pojiu sius-set,” replied Kelbe, gesturing to the four of them on this last phrase.
            The woman stood. She was rather short, and thin of frame, and appeared to be quite old, but she moved with a confident grace. She walked toward them and extended her hand. “I am Marada, the councilor of Kapla Village.” She spoke with a far thicker accent than the other djinn they had encountered.
            Tessa took her hand and shook. “I’m Tessa Olanis. This is Jack Cart, Freya Jorgensen, and Azjar Al-Acoma.”
            “Kelbe tells me that you have brought our Soka back to us. That you have saved his life. We are dearly grateful for this. But it does complicate matters in some ways.” She looked to Kelbe, who bowed his head and walked out of the office.
            Marada gestured to some chairs and a sofa for them to sit. She took her position back behind her desk. “We know that Soka has been involved with dangerous people. He was always too restless to stay in the village. We have not seen him here in almost twenty years.”
            Tessa nodded. Jack found himself entranced by Marada’s eyes. No wonder they wear those sunglasses.
            “How did he… how do you know Soka?” asked Marada.
            Jack considered this. Would it be prudent to simply tell her the whole truth? The djinn were clearly isolated, but how isolated could one be from the intrigue of the House? Was it safe here? Was anywhere safe from the faceless men?
            “We don’t, really,” said Tessa. “Several days ago… how long was it, Jack? It feels like it’s been months.”
            “About a week, I think,” said Jack.
            “He came to our house a week ago in that car. He had already been wounded. Some men attacked us. Soka fended them off, but we barely escaped with our lives.”
            “You had never seen him before?” asked Marada.
            “No, never,” said Tessa.
            She lies with the truth, thought Jack. He realized that, as he had grown more fond of Tessa, the fact that she was a House agent more easily faded to the back of his mind. Even now, he could see the great link still attached to her, as if it were the after-image of some bright light followed by darkness.
            “Where was this house?” asked Marada.
            “Well, it was at the Deep Field Observatory, several miles outside of Towatki.”
            “And did you not contact the Arizradna police?”
            Tessa hesitated. Jack cut in. “Our phone lines had been cut. We worried that the attackers might follow us if we went into the city.”
            Marada nodded. If she suspected anything, she had an excellent marker face.
            Jack had been a law enforcement agent. And in Narcia, at least, that meant being honest and open, at least when it came to keeping people safe. His instinct was to tell Marada the whole story – to clear the air and move forward without carrying the complicated baggage of the House’s addiction to cloak and dagger.
            Yet there was another impulse to simply let things fall as they would. If the djinn were willing to put them up after their long journey, with no further questions, then perhaps they should not try to rock the boat.
            Marada scanned Jack’s face, and he became suddenly self-conscious. Had she somehow read some of his concerns in his facial expressions?
            “I am sorry to keep you here. I can see by looking that you are very tired. We must find you a place to sleep. We can speak more when you are feeling rested.” Marada pressed a button on her desk phone. “Chaffi?” she said.
            “Is, Jenda?” said a voice on her intercom.
            “Comase deran gessan ot derun chambus ko… An chambusi sha hova ko Sietch Shamba?”
            “Is. Drey chambus tos hova esa.”
            “Comase sius esa.”
            “Siu doashi puru.”
            A young djinni who appeared to be in his late twenties walked in, his eyes covered with sunglasses. Marada gestured to him. “This is Chaffi, my secretary. He will bring you to your rooms. When you are rested, please feel free to explore our village. We do not often have visitors. I am sure many of our people will want to meet you.”

            A week later, Chaffi was on his way back from Boss Man’s camp with the device he had been lent. Chaffi had been given a mission to discover if any of the people who had brought Soka with them were part of the House, something Boss Man seemed to think could be accomplished with the odd little contraption. The jengu – the djinn word for human – had settled in, and he was glad to see that the airship from Arizradna had brought not only their food, but also many of the supplies that the town had needed, including a new capacitor assembly for the power station.
            Boss Man had known all about Soka – designated within the House as “Mr. Flow.” Chaffi had not known Soka all that well – he had been a child when Soka left Kapla Furnace, and though it was a tight-knit community, it was still large enough that he knew the man more through reputation than any personal interactions.
            His return was troubling. The cold winds blowing in the desert had put everyone on edge, and somehow, Soka coming back after all these years felt like it was part of that. Chaffi began to wonder if Boss Man had somehow known that Soka would come back. Perhaps this was the very reason that the charismatic Narcian had approached him in the first place.
            He parked his car in the garage at Sietch Hondu and came up to the surface again rather than taking the tunnels so that he could watch the deep red sunset before he came home.
            Chaffi yawned as he rode the escalator down into Sietch Kessa. He walked to his apartment and opened the door. It was quiet inside, and he put the keys on the kitchen counter before hastily sliding the envelope with the device and the money between two bottles in the liquor cabinet. In the living room, his wife Nassa sat with his daughter Kura in her arms.
            “Wer yotus, Chaffi?” she whispered, careful not to wake the baby.
            “Standard, Nassa. Remember, we want her to learn to speak Standard first.”
            Nassa shrugged skeptically. “She is sleeping, Chaffi.”
            “She will still hear the words. It’s good for her.”
            Nassa nodded. There was a certain sadness and resignation in her acceptance. It had been his idea, but she had agreed with it after he had explained his reasoning. This way of life was dying out, and Chaffi hoped his daughter would go to school in Arizradna and eventually start her own family there – though not for a long time, of course. But Chaffi could sense that his wife was reluctant to let go of the past. He could not blame her for this feeling.
            “The question stands, though. Where were you?” asked Nassa.

            “Like I said when I left: I had to do something for work,” he said.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)