Eric's Story, part three
Previous part: https://www.patreon.com/posts/erics-story-part-9132782


 Two more journals, one in the corridor outside this final rest area, and one on a bunk inside it. Eric sits on the bunk, his head in his hands, contemplating them as they lie there on the floor between his feet.

He remembers that terrible moment in the City, watching the woman named Red Dog teetering on the edge of a precipice, watching her flail for balance, fail to find it, fall. The talk around him had been that she might survive, that there was a book that might save her. A Relto book. He remembers TOOO, or that which he took for TOOO, mentioning the word. Relto. He tastes it on his tongue, finding it flat, unsatisfying. Shortly thereafter, he and Morelli and the others were blindfolded and returned to the surface by the same route that had brought them in, and nothing more--beyond the extraordinarily handsome cash fee for his services--was said. But it has haunted him, for so many years it has haunted him.

Web searches in libraries, inquiries in shadowy places, brought him little closer. D'ni, he learned, was a fictional place, featured in a series of games. He found them, played them, even the last one, and it is exactly as Yeesha said it should be. A closure, an ending, a blind alley. Only once, in a smoky pub in Aigburth, did he catch a whisper that there might be a truth behind the fiction, a word that might open doors: URU. The more he learned after that, the more he wanted to know.

And now, thanks to the man named Sacristan, he has found his way back.

He picks up the topmost journal.

This, at last, is the true path. Not an ending, for my father was right--that can never truly be Written--but a pause, a postponement, When your kind are ready, there will be a way open for them to come to Releeshahn and take up their heritage.

"And who says when that will be, eh?" Eric says aloud. "You? Don't make me laugh."

They must leave now, though--those who came to D'ni, those who felt called. I tried to prepare them. I pointed the way, I spoke of pride and belief in one's own strength, and the reason that D'ni once fell. But few understood, and fewer still followed me. More were tempted by the power. I showed them the myth of the Grower that I invented, and how it was perverted by my distorted parody of poor Kadish. I hinted at the slavery of the Least. I talked of rebuilding, but under my words was the message that any such attempt would fail.

I was, perhaps, too subtle.

But we shall not be subtle now. We shall cement in place the image of the D'ni as a cruel, arrogant, exploitative people, corrupted by their power. Our false D'ni adversary shall be everything we have taught them to hate. The journals you and I shall Write in place of these shall paint the picture we desire them to see. And each time they play their game, each time they take on your mantle and return the Tablet to the Least, they will be saying, "No, I do not want this power. I do not desire this freedom. I am not worthy. Take it back."

And little by little, they will come to believe it.

Eric's lips draw back in a sneer of pure hatred. He tosses the journal down and picks up the last one.

I know what to do. I see it so clearly now. One more lie to drive the last of the seekers from the Cavern. And I will need your help.

You must enlist certain among your companions to help spread this story. Tell them as much or as little as you feel is needed--let them supply the rest. The Least will provide the necessary appearances.

We shall say that when they were given their freedom--as if they could ever be unfree--they did what humans always do, and fell to fighting each other. That there are factions among them, locked in bitter dispute and battling to the death. We shall say that the brunt of the war is being borne elsewhere, that the Least are fighting and dying to defend this space as long as humans are here, at great cost to themselves. We shall tell them, "Destruction is coming. Find a way. Make a home." And they will find their way back to the surface, and make a home in their own Age, and the Art will be saved. They may still keep their Relto books, even journey to those shadow Ages that remain, but there will be no new Ages Written by humans, no great Human Empire to oppress and exploit the Ages still waiting on other branches of the Tree. Others may come, but they will not seek the Art, merely a place to play in. This story will mean nothing to them.

The legacy of deception. Peace. By wronging my people, my great-grandmother, my grandfather, my father and mother, even my brothers--who were evil in their small way--I can prevent generations of further wrong. Is that so terrible? I do not know. I know what must be done, but not how it will tarnish my soul, taint my dreams, soil my future.

I had a dream...

Eric reads no further. Yeesha's dreams are of no interest to him. He puts away the journal. Case complete, me lud. Lying, cheating... "Even mairder," he says aloud. "That poor lass..." What was her name? He cannot remember. He never saw the body--by that time he was long gone. Another deception? Don't matter. Gorra be sorted. Justice, and all that.

He stands up. Takes out the damaged KI that he bought for five pounds in a dusty second-hand shop in Cardiff. Fastens it round his hand, securing it with a rubber band.

Then he goes to investigate the broken lever in the corridor outside.

"Let's see what's behind door number three, eh?" he murmurs, as he begins to take the mechanism to pieces.   

  *

  Eric turns the lever, and the door rumbles down into its recess. Bad design. Better if it came down from the ceiling, less tension on it when it's shut--ah, warram I saying? These D'ni never do anything the same way twice.

A short corridor opens into an open space dominated by skeletal gantries supporting a double row of cables that stretch off down a wide tunnel into darkness. Below them a single rail shines dully in the light of wall-mounted lamps.

"Orright, my son," Eric breathes. "This is more like it."

There is light, so clearly there is power. Whether there is blocked track, broken cable, vandalised chocolate machine or anything else wrong, he cannot say. "More likely there's a little box somewur and I've gorra play seventeen games of tic-tac-toe to get the bloody train running," he mutters. "Mad, the lorruvem."

Near the edge of the platform is a slender column topped with a mushroom-like cap whose upper surface is a glowing blue button. Eric pushes it, and hears the familiar chunk sound he knows from Riven. Scrupulously accurate in details, he thinks, because the story's a big fat lie. We salve our consciences as best we can. How far back does the lying go though? That far?

He listens to the non-silence, the thrum of the Shaft's fans a little way off, the subliminal background roar that says This Is A Big Empty Space, without much hope.

And then he hears it in the distance. A motor. He could almost dance for joy.

The mag-lev car approaches and slows to a halt, and the entrance hatch hinges down and becomes steps. It is big, with seats inside for about thirty people, but Eric only has eyes for the driver's seat. Again, the details are accurate to a nicety.

"DRC missed a trick," he remarks to the empty cabin. "They could've run excairsions. Sold candy floss and popcorn. Orright, ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats for the Wonder Bus to D'ni, no smoking and do not attempt to distract the driver, what's that madam? No, I'm afraid we don't stop directly opposite the gas wairks, you gorra walk twenty paces, I suggest you sue. Sair, I don't know if you saw the sign, it says dogs must be carried. Go and gerra dog. I'll wait." He chuckles, a little manically. "The conductor will be passin' among you shortly, please have your fur ready and exact change if possible. Hold very tight please. Ting ting."

He swings the lever round, and the car rotates through a hundred and eighty degrees. For a moment, again, he wishes he had someone else with him, to share the triumph of this moment as well as the burden of the knowledge he bears. Then he pushes the lever forward, and the ride begins.   
 Decades later, when he is old and grey and his mind is beginning to wander, the memory of that journey will be as clear to Eric as it is now. The car speeds through vast natural limestone caverns thronged with stalactites and stalagmites in a myriad colours, illumined by artfully placed D'ni lamps. It careens round great pillars of rock and swoops over a boulder-strewn plain, scattering blind albino bats. It plunges into a swift-flowing stream, races through darkness for a moment, then bursts from the surface of a subterranean lake in a shower of spray like a killer whale.

"Yeeehaaaaa!" Eric yells, grinning like a maniac.

And in a calm corner of his mind, he thinks, Yeah. This is what the D'ni were like. This is why you play tic-tac-toe to get the power going. They didn't need gladiatorial combats, or slaves, or piles of gold and jewels to get their jollies. Didn't need drugs, or kinky sex, or foxhunting. The D'ni were like Atrus. Simple in their pleasures. The complex in the service of the simple. There might have been a straighter route, but they made it like this because everything should be an experience, not something you rush through to get to the next thing. Adding to life, not taking away from it. That's where we go wrong.

Atrus had the power, and he became...Atrus, Gehn didn't, not properly, and he became...what he became. Who was more corrupt, the one with more or the one with less? The desire for power arises from the lack of it.

Yeah, but hang on, that's not the whole...

Look, shurrup you, some of us are enjoyin' ourselves here.

The argumentative part of his mind falls silent, and Eric simply sits, his hand on the lever, gazing in wonder at each new vista as it unfolds.

What do you see, Eric?

The whole bloody lot. And it's fantastic.   

  At last, but all too soon, the car slows to a stop in a space similar to the one from which it left, and the hatch hinges down. Eric, a little exhausted by the intensity of the ride, simply gets up and disembarks. The folded journals in his jacket pockets remind him of their presence, and bring back some of the shadows that had temporarily receded from his mind.

Oh yeah. Gorra job to do.

He makes his way down a long corridor which debouches on the shore of a familiar-looking lake dotted with islands. Behind and above him, buildings line the shore, linked by broad walkways. Before him, small boats ride at anchor, or protrude mournfully from the water. In one of them--

"Wotcher, mate," Eric says. "Who're you then? Ferryman? I warn you, I ain't payin'."

The creature regards him with unreadable blue eyes. It is indeed standing in one of the boats and holding a long pole. After a second, Eric shrugs, and gets into the boat. The bahro immediately pushes off from the jetty, and begins to pole the boat across the water.

"Nice weather we're havin'," Eric remarks conversationally. "Is it me, or is the lake a shade lighter than it used to be? No? How about a song then? 'Just one cornet-to...' No, orright, I'll shurrup. Sorry. Nairvous."

The bahro shakes its head as if in despair at human folly, or maybe it just means no comprendo, señor. Eric sighs and sits back in the boat, noting a familiar island off in the distance, red light winking from its highest peak.

The island they are approaching is smaller, dominated by a single large building. The bahro snugs the boat up to a jetty very like the one on the shoreline and gestures with its oddly jointed arm for Eric to alight. He does so, and the bahro immediately vanishes.

"Charming," Eric mutters, and enters the great house of K'veer.   

  Eric wanders through the huge mansion, from vaulted hall to audience chamber to elaborately decorated staircase. At one point he comes upon a set of double doors worked in something like silver filigree, but they are locked. "Bet I know wur those lead," he says.

The walls seem to glow with their own inner light, independently of the ubiquitous lamps. Eric has seen a painting once, of part of the Tokotah district on Ae'gura, in which the now dark and dingy-looking buildings are similarly aglow. "This is what D'ni is supposed to look like," he tells the empty corridor. "When it's all wairkin' properly. This is what it should be like."

"True," says a voice behind him, and Eric spins.

She is not old, not beaten down by despair, unless it be hidden behind her eyes. Eric has never met her, but from descriptions he has heard of her last appearance in the City, she looks as she did then. Beside her is a stocky bearded man with a cheerful, round face under a baseball cap.

"You're--"

"Yes," the man says, perhaps a little too quickly. "Let's leave my name out of it for the time being, shall we? But I am who you're thinking, and so is she, and we gather you have some questions."

"One or two," Eric says guardedly. "Gutteridge. Eric James."

"Let us talk in reasonable comfort," says the woman--Yeesha. "This house, after all, still has much of that to offer."

Eric follows them to a spacious room set with chairs and a table. They sit down, and Yeesha busies herself about a sort of samovar arrangement surrounded by cups. It is all very homely, despite the opulent surroundings; Eric could almost imagine a young D'ni lad bounding through the French windows asking if anyone is for tennis. If there were any French windows.

"You read my journals--the real ones," Yeesha says. "Ah, I see you have them there. I shall have to put them back when we are done here."

"Why?" Eric asks bluntly. "Why not chuck 'em in the fire?"

Yeesha winces. "It is not comfortable for my kind so to mistreat words, even words of so little value," she says. "Besides, the trail of truth is...important."

"Does it make up for the lies you told everyone else?"

"In some small measure," Yeesha says, and now Eric does hear the pain in her voice. "Leaving an opportunity for some to find the truth...eases the burden a little."

"Very few come looking, though," says the man. "You're only the second."

"I won't be the last, though," Eric says. "And these are gerrin' published fairst chance I get."

"You must not do that," Yeesha says.

"Why not?"

There is a short silence.   

  "It would be no use," says the man, "to tell you that the Art is too dangerous to be revealed to the public, would it?"

Eric shakes his head, grinning. "I'm the public, sunshine," he says. "That's me you're talkin' about. Yeah, we got some people shouldn't be trusted with a kid's piggy bank, let alone a Linkin' Book, but I bet the D'ni did too."

"Yes," Yeesha says, "even they."

"That's what all that guff about the special ink and paper were for, in't it?" Eric said. "Myth to keep unauthorised folk from meddlin'. If you had to have special ink and paper as well as special wairds to make an Age, it'd never have happened."

"It is true," Yeesha admits, and the man looks startled. "Any ink and any paper will make a Linking Book, or an Age Book. There were special inks, and special papers, but they were only to make the books as durable, and as beautiful, as the could be."

"The complex in the sairvice of the simple." Eric nods. "I get that. Didn't before, but I do now."

"A story like that would never work with you humans," Yeesha continues. "Your minds are too twisty, too subtle. I have had to learn your ways of thinking to weave my webs of deception." She shudders. "Understanding the Least would be easier, I think."

"And that's why you don't trust us with the Art. I get that too." Eric accepts the cup she passes him, sniffs at it suspiciously. "What I wanna know is this. Who gave you the right?"

Yeesha's chin goes up. "I am the last of the D'ni," she begins.

"You ain't," Eric interrupts. "There's a load of 'em in Releeshahn. And even if you were, that don't answer the question. What gives you the right to decide who's wairthy of the Art or not?"

"I am the custodian of the knowledge. I have to decide."

"So if someone else had the knowledge, they would have the right to decide too?"

"Look at it this way," the man said. "Would you want this power falling into the hands of your politicians? I know I wouldn't let ours anywhere near it. But the more people know about it, the more likely they'll hear about it. Do you want that?"

Again Eric shakes his head. "'T ain't about what I want, though, is it? It's about lies, and deceit, and mairder. It's about doin' things the right way."

"There was no murder," the man says quickly, but Yeesha overrides him.

"I had not the luxury of such considerations," she says. "I needed to act quickly. The cursed games had already revealed too much. People were already beginning to suspect that there was truth behind the stories. I could not pick and choose my methods. I did what was necessary."

Eric pauses a moment..

"How very human of you," he says softly. "Who's wairthy of the knowledge now?"   


 "Congratulations," says the man in the cap, as Yeesha turns away, head and shoulders bowed. "If you wanted to hurt her, you just scored a bull's eye."

"Yeah, well, people get hairt," Eric snarls. "People die. D'you know how many people are desperately trying to survive on this planet? Do you know how much good the Art could do?"

"Do you know how much harm it could do?"

"Yeah," Eric says. "Yeah, I can see that. Splitting the atom gave us Hiroshima and radiotherapy for cancer patients. Would you not give someone the treatment because someone might explode a bomb?"

The man hesitates.

"But it's not keepin' the Art from us that bothers me," Eric says. "It's that you don't even think we're grown-up enough to understand why. You make up these furry stories, you lie and put on little plays, because you don't want to tell us that we're too far beneath you to have this power. And that tells me that you ain't sure. And that you're scurd of us."

"We're what?"

"Scared," Eric enunciates. "But what this all proves is that there's no real difference between us. You're one desperate situation away from behaving just as badly as we do. The only difference is the Art."

"So what do you want from us?" Yeesha says. "We dare not reveal that we lied. There are still those who seek. They would be enraged."

"We've managed to divert them by giving them a computer simulation of the Cavern to work in," the man says. "They create virtual worlds and call them Ages. It's not the same...but some of them have done some good work."

Eric raises his eyes to the ceiling. "This is getting needlessly meta," he mutters.

"And I gather some others have had some success Writing Linking Books to various locations on Earth," the man goes on. "It will come out in time." He looks at Yeesha. "I did tell you that. It's not a question of whether, just when."

"Orright," Eric says. "Here's my suggestion. You teach me the Art. No, hear me out. If I go doolally the way you think we will, you can do whatever you like with me. But I don't think I will. I think the Art, properly taught and lairned, has its own safeguards built in, safeguards you're not even awur of because they're second nature to you. Has she taught you yet?" he asks the man, who shakes his head in startlement. "Just told you never to ask, and so you didn't. Good little soldier. Not like me, eh?"

Yeesha is shaking her head. "It is out of the question," she says.

Eric gets up. "Then we have nothin' more to discuss," he says. "I'll be takin' these jairnals back to the sairface. Nice meetin' you." He offers his hand. Neither of the others react.

"We cannot let you leave," Yeesha says flatly. 


Next part: https://www.patreon.com/posts/9312399

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