Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Phone Call

            Freya could not stop thinking about the sword. She had left it behind in the mad rush to get away from the DFO. It was possible, of course, that it had survived – though only if the fires had not warped or melted the blade.
            But as of yet, there was no real plan for how to go back. She had brought it up with Azjar, but he had only meekly shrugged, just as much in the dark as she was. They had gotten that strange blue man to his people, and the djinn had been accommodating, but Freya’s questions were numerous.
            Tessa had called the djinni “Mr. Flow,” which sounded like the name of a jazz musician. She gathered that that was not his real name, but Tessa had still not explained just who he was or why he came to them.
            Someone had made a supply run back to Towatki to get human – what the djinn called “jengu” – groceries, but Freya did not understand why they had not gone back with them, to return to Arizradna and talk to law enforcement.
            Is this one of those times when you need to act on your own?
            Even over a week later, Freya felt like she was in a daze. She wanted to go back. She wanted to call home and reassure her family that she was fine. Already they would be worried sick about her, maybe even mourning her. But Tessa and Jack were acting as if the crisis had never ended. They were hiding out, laying low.
            Who the hell are these people?
            She worried about the sword – not so much because she cared about it as a family heirloom (though she did) – but because she had utterly failed to show the kind of valor in battle that would be expected of her.
            She was certain that her parents would not come down too harshly – none of them had ever been in a real battle. Freya came from the soft south of Sardok, untouched by the monsters in the north. “National Pride” per se had fallen out of favor long ago in Sardok, at least in its most explicit expressions. But there was still a tradition that valued the arts of the warrior, if not the application of those arts.
            The sietch was comfortable – surprisingly cool for people who had always lived in the deserts. Freya had heard of the djinn before, but it only occurred to her now that she had never seen one, even in photographs, before Mr. Flow had arrived at the observatory. She could almost imagine that she had heard they had all died out, though perhaps that had been an exaggeration. Kapla Furnace was not large, exactly, but it was large enough to feel like a real location – not some tiny town out in the countryside that served more as a hub of commerce for farmers than a real home for anyone. Kapla felt like a home. There were children who left the sietch in the morning to go to school in one of the other buildings. There were shops built into the sietches – in fact, if one squinted, the whole place might look like a shopping mall, but there wasn’t the same attempt to present itself as sterile.
            She had spent the days there exploring the various sietches. The inner-most ones were actually connected by tunnels, but as one pressed out to the exterior buildings, they became more isolated.
            Freya spoke with a woman named Yakka, whose Standard was broken and heavily accented, who indicated that this structure was typical of a Furnace Village – the furnace at the center provided power, and new buildings would be constructed in radiating shells as the village grew.
            Freya asked if the old Djinn Cities had been built in a similar way, but Yakka grew quiet and shrugged, claiming not to know and then taking her leave.
            “Admittedly, that’s a little odd,” said Azjar, after she told him. “Maybe it’s a taboo to talk about the cities?”
            Freya sat down in a comfortable chair in their apartment’s living room. “I really know barely anything about them. I mean, they seem perfectly nice. Frankly they’re more hospitable to us than we deserve.”
            “Well, we did save one of their people. I imagine that would earn us some good favor.”
            “Have you called home?”
            Azjar frowned. “No. I should.”
            “I haven’t either. That’s weird, isn’t it?”
            “Do they even have a phone here? “
            Freya gave it some thought. They could clearly communicate between the sietches, but there had not been anything like telephone lines leading there. The day they had arrived was now coming into clearer focus. They had been exhausted and thirsty when they arrived. Kapla Furnace Village had appeared out of the desert like some strange mirage.
            Freya had the disturbing thought that this was all an illusion, and that she was dying of thirst in the desert. She took a deep breath, felt the wall next to her as carefully as she could, taking note of its texture and the distinct smell of mild incense covering up some sort of cleaning solution.
            If this was a hallucination, it was a particularly effective one.
            They had driven so far out, though, and over so many days, and when Freya thought back, she realized that they could not have had any water with them. Their panicked flight out of the DFO had been so rushed.
            She brought this up with Azjar.
            “Hm. That is strange,” he said.
            “Strange? That’s miraculous, isn’t it?”
            “We’re in the Sarona Desert now. I think it will behoove us to think in less strictly logical ways,” said Azjar as he yawned and finished off a piece of baklava he had been working on for several minutes, a treat that the djinni man named Chaffi, who Freya understood to be Councilor Marada’s secretary or assistant, had brought for them.
            “Less strictly logical ways?” asked Freya.
            “It’s different here. In Ganlea, things are more solid, more… rational or something. My people have always had a kind of reverence for the Desert, because it’s not just a desert. It’s… our tradition is that it’s the heart of the universe. The Path of Aeoes shoots right into it, as if reality itself is radiating out of it. And if that’s really what is happening, then maybe the Desert’s version of reality isn’t exactly fully formed. It’s like the soft skull of an infant.”
            “Is there evidence for all of that? That theory?”
            “It’s not a theory. It’s a myth. But it’s one that holds up pretty well.”

            That night, Freya went to bed, still unsatisfied. She resolved to bring it up with Tessa in the morning. It was time to go home. She wanted to put all of this madness behind her.
            As she slept, she heard a phone ringing. She awoke in the strange bed, in the strange room. She knew immediately that it was wrong. There were no windows, and the bed was tucked away in the corner of the room.
            She stood up, now realizing that this was a dream. The phone continued to ring, but she still couldn’t determine where it was. She thought herself forward, as one does in lucid dreams, and she came swiftly out of the room and into a cavernous space. There were strange blue people out there who wore sunglasses despite the fact that she could see the night’s stars out through the great glass ceiling of the building.
            The ringing did not grow louder, yet somehow she was certain that she was coming closer to it. The dream logic suggested it, and she was willing to see this through. She climbed the stairs up toward the door and walked forward. It had to be a dream, because the sky was almost a bright purple, and a million million stars glittered above her. The Path of Aeoes was so bright that it looked like a solid tower made of cloudy white glass, extending up into the cosmos.
            Below the purple sky, the ground was orange-brown. It was beautiful, the way you would illustrate the desert night in a children’s book. It was dark, but somehow the darkness seemed only a function of the colors around her – her vision did not feel impaired at all.
            She walked forward, the Path of Aeoes acting as her compass as she left the village behind her. The ringing grew no louder, but clearer, and now there were strange shapes in the sky. They could have been letters or symbols, or maybe they were actually far-away planets, or celestial spirits high above.
            The land was incredibly flat, so it was quite strange that the phone took her by surprise.
            Yet there it stood, a telephone in a narrow, door-less booth. The booth was illuminated with a terribly bright light, and the receiver was positively rattling with the ringing.
            Freya stepped forward, and as she walked into the light surrounding the phone, she suddenly felt the intense rain that was falling. Mere seconds within the light and she was drenched. She ducked into the phone booth, shivering at the cold.
            She picked up the receiver and held it to her ear. “Dad?”
            “No. Not Dad,” said the voice on the other end.
            “You’re right,” said Freya. “This is just a dream. I need to call you when I wake up.”
            “You misunderstand,” said the voice. “This is not a dream.”

            The next thing she knew, Freya was in a rather uncomfortable cot. The air was hot and dry, and her skin was sore and sunburned. She seemed to be in a rough canvas tent, and she was grateful to find a big bottle of water next to her on a metal crate that served as a nightstand.
            The water was hot and tasted bitter with sediment, but it did the job as she downed what must have been a liter in a single extended quaff.
            “Ok, good, you’re up.”
            A man was standing in the tent – he must have been in there when she woke up, as she didn’t think he could have come through the tent’s entrance without her seeing him.
            The man had sandy brown-blonde hair and a thick lair of stubble. He was dressed in a long duster. He looked a bit thin.
            “You scared us. We’re glad we found you before you died of dehydration. There’s more water where that came from. Sadly not cold, though. This operation is a bit bare-bones, if you’ll forgive me.”
            “Where am I? I need to get back to… uh… Kap… Kapla Furnace Village.”
            “Soon. Once you’re rested up and healthy. Chaffi here will be able to bring you back there,” he said, indicating the blue man standing next to him with dark sunglasses. She recognized him from Kapla. “…And once you agree to help us out.”
            Freya’s eyes widened. She suddenly felt dread coursing through her veins. “What… what… what…”
            “Take a breath,” said the man with the sandy-blonde hair.
            “What do you want from me?”

            “We need you to bring your friends here.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)