The Web of Aoullnnia – Chapter One

The Interdiction

I looked up, sensing that I was being observed.

The tiny black eyes of the reception-guard of the Yther Sanctuary of Mortalysium met mine. She was standing at the middle of the glass and plyne partition that divides the Sanctuary proper from the Waiting Hall, the sacred from the profane.

“Tirr Cykarthyia will see you now,” she announced coldly.

“What is this?” I asked in some surprise as she handed me a piece of black cloth and one end of a brass rod.

“A mask, of course,” she replied. “Put it on at once and take hold of the end of this rod.”

“But why?”

I had not been warned of any ritual observances or ceremonies.

The guard did not deign to answer.

“What’s it for?”

“To deprive you of your sense of sight, obviously. It is essential to prevent the plan of these most hallowed precincts from being memorised and subsequently divulged to the profane.”

The official paused to let this sink in.

“Alternatively, I could spray your face with blinding fluid.”

“Are you being serious?”

“I certainly am.”

“But you have checked my skin-data already and you know that I am neither an informer nor a news-gatherer.”

“That is irrelevant. It is a question of principle. These are serious times: we stand at the threshold of unimaginable events.”

“So we do at any moment.”

“Do you intend to put on this mask or do you want me to spray your eyes?”

I decided I had better comply with the wishes of the guardian if I wanted to see the Praesidian that afternoon.

“My excuses. Naturally I will comply with any precautionary measures you see fit to impose.”

“In that case, shall we proceed?”

* * * * *
Once in the presence of the Praesidian I was allowed to remove my mask.

Cykarthyia was tall and thin and had the high forehead and narrow cheeks of a Southern Majentian, her skin being pale brown (not dissimilar to my own incidentally though I am from Central Territory). Like all Third Degree officials, she wore a simple white linen robe reaching to her feet with a dark blue sash around her waist. Her hair and forehead were concealed within a hood of the same colour. I knew from hearsay and picto-histories on memorial that all Third Degree officials had their heads shaved to about the middle of the crown, the hair at the back being left uncut and tied into an elaborate knot called a quiya. Her hands, I noted with astonishment, were completely bare though the robe covered her arms. But then I remembered that Awailyia, the founder of the Yther movement, disapproved of hand-concealment. In any case, I told myself, a Sanctuary Yther official would normally only ever meet other initiates. I had never been in an Yther Sanctuary before and, like most mefam, had scarcely ever come into contact with members of the sect.

I consider myself a good judge of faces and I was impressed by what I saw. Cykarthyia’s face gave an impression of keen intelligence combined with great strength of character. She must be, I judged, somewhat over sixty years of age but her face retained a certain austere beauty though to the average Sarwhirlian it would appear horribly ravaged. The Yther, of course, like the followers of Aruella — but for completely different reasons — refuse Rejuvenation.

“Do not trouble yourself further, Dorlonia. And above all see that we are not disturbed.”

“And if WV-617 calls, Tirr Cykarthyia?”

“In that case — but only in that case — you will inform me at once. I thank you again, Dorlonia.”

The reception-guard made a slight inclination, hands clasped together, and withdrew looking at me with intense suspicion.

“I deeply regret the difficulties you have encountered on your way here,” said the Yther Tirr courteously. “Our members are sometimes over-diligent — they mean well but there are times when their devotion can be embarrassing. Stand, sit or recline as you wish.”

Cykarthyia’s history was vaguely known to me. She had entered the Yther relatively late, having in her youth been engaged in Hyper-themistric studies — what you would probably call Pure Mathematics — and she had at one time been a candidate for Interdominancy though she never in fact took the necessary controls. She visited the Major Conglomerate in pursuit of her studies and was for this reason cast off by her family — for Majentians consider, probably rightly, that their only hope of remaining a distinct entity is by avoiding everyone else in the Conglomerate and foregoing the use of all foreign technology. Cykarthyia was, however, reinstated when she entered the Yther, since Majentians view it as part of their culture even though Awailyia was not a Majentian and was brought up in North Europyia.

Cykarthyia was soon promoted to Second and Third Grade, her functions being those of a mortuary official, and it was as such that she was sent to Mortalysium, the artificial orb where most funeral rites are performed. At this time the Yther Sanctuary on Mortalysium was under the direction of Alcilthyia. Like her Praesidian, Cykarthyia was one of the most outspoken opponents of the use of DETP (Dark Energy Transformation Processing) and so she was, from the beginning, embroiled in the bitter dispute about the use of this new technology. When Alcilthyia was recalled to Sarwhirlia (what you call the Earth), she appointed Cykarthyia to succeed her, the two fam having been on extremely amicable terms. This was some six months before I made my appearance on the funeral orb to attend the last rites of a certain A.C. Slithyan, a straylkha player from my cluster whom I knew as well as anyone though I would not say we were ever exactly intimate. While waiting for a Sky-drift to take me back, I thought of asking to see someone from the Yther Sanctuary and to my surprise Cykarthyia sent back a cordial message, inviting me to visit her.

“Can I offer you nutrients? Fluids?”

“Do you have yatthin?”

“Of course! We have some that you have certainly never tasted since it is infused from locally grown plants reserved for members of the Community. I shall be most interested to have your opinion — for, if I am not mistaken, you are yourself engaged in yatthin production back in Sarwhirlia. Allow me to prepare some for you.”

I watched with approval as the Yther official screwed up the dried leaves with her long fingers in the prescribed manner and heated some fresh water in a pan over a charcoal burner. Yatthin-weirth — that is, connoisseurs — believe that water for an infusion of yatthin must be heated over a bare flame, preferably from a wood-burning source.

My hostess reached up for a plain earthenware pot and, after heating it, tossed in the withered leaves, pouring the boiling water on them. It is customary not to speak while yatthin is infusing. After a few moments Cykarthyia passed me an earthenware bowl and poured some of the pale amber liquid into it.

I tasted it critically. It was excellent. Somewhat on the bitter side but I prefer that type of yatthin. There was the right density and even a hint of that special quality incommunicable to non-yatthin drinkers known as ‘distancing’. I do not mean a neural effect: certain types of yatthin can be used as mood-changers but true yatthin-weirth despise them considering that the refinement of the taste is more than sufficient in itself.

Cykarthyia raised her eyebrows slightly to ask my opinion.

I smiled politely and nodded in approval. She poured out a bowl for herself and sat opposite me.

“You say in your transmission that you are interested in our doctrines and wish to learn more. But are there no peritoi in your cluster or neighbouring ones?”

“No, there are none.”

Peritoi are persons sympathetic to the Yther movement but who are not initiates. In Majentia most people are in some sense peritoi: all the traditional folk religions are penetrated with Yther ideas and most of them venerate Awailyia, the founder of the movement, as a deity — something which would have horrified her. The Yther proper is restricted to celibate fam initiates who live in closed Sanctuaries and have very little contact with the rest of the Conglomerate: the movement grows its own food and is largely self-supporting. There are extremely few peritoi in mefam clusters of the Major Conglomerate: I have only met a dozen or so during my entire life and they all came from remote areas like Glaciolyia.

“And the Temenoi?”

“They are empty. No one goes into them any more. They are like relics from a lost civilization. They are maintained but that is all; they have no place in our daily life. As you know, the policy of the Magnatte is not to intervene in matters of religious belief.”

“Is there, then, no awareness of Aoullnnia in your cluster or neighbouring ones?”

“None. We are entirely absorbed in such things as straylkha, devilion-fighting, skihl, Extasense, exchanging… (* straylka is a sort of ‘game’ ; devilion-fighting is similar to your boxing; skihl is a green-coloured frothy alcoholic drink; Extasense is a kind of drug ; exchanging is our way of referring to ‘intercourse’ between genders.)

We have no interest in anything else. Perhaps a few age-advanced individuals who attend meetings of the Sythana.”

“That is entirely different,” said Cykarthyia frowning. “It is as we have been told. But you — why are you here, then?”

I spoke of my sensations on the sands of Azerynn and on the freighter watching the waves rising and falling. How I had felt at such moments that all matter and thought as well were just froth on the surface of an invisible ocean. How, when eventually I returned to my cluster, everything — my friends, work, previous interests — all this seemed to concern someone else, a relative or antecedent of Yilkin I. Isellyion but not the person himself. I am not a fluent speaker and in my younger years even suffered from a slight impediment, but I had no difficulty in explaining what I felt to Cykarthyia, the words came out by themselves.

Cykarthyia listened attentively and nodded from time to time.

“It is clear from what you have told me,” she said when I had finished speaking, “that you are in the throes of what, within the Yther, is known as the Great Departure.”

Cykarthyia directed my attention to a small memorial lying on a table and flicked it on by shaking her right hand. There were a few shots of the Sea of Scisterl and a coral reefed island where a small boat without a sail, apparently very much the worse for wear, was being drawn up a tropical beach by two Majentian fam. Then nothing except a text in the beautiful running script used to transcribe Sarlang Katylin which most members of the Yther understand (but never speak). The screen switched abruptly to Andirax, the commonest language in the Conglomerate.

“The actual events of our founder’s solitary voyage which resulted in the formation of the Yther movement need not concern us at this moment. The essential point is that we find in this story an allegory of the painful process of self-discovery with which the Yther movement is above all concerned.

This process is in the first place a lived experience: it is not something that can be learned from records or memorials. This experience involves separation and estrangement from everything that is familiar to the senses and the mind. This is symbolized by our founder’s solitary voyage out of sight of land. Her disorientation during the storm signifies the uselessness of all second-hand knowledge — everything that pertains to ‘life on dry land’ that the adept has now abandoned for ever. And the storm itself represents the violence and confusion of the initiatory experience during its early stages.

All knowledge is ultimately based on experience and awareness of Aoullnnia, or rather of the ‘Aoullnnia of Aoullnnia’ is the most fundamental sensation we have. All sentient beings have an innate knowledge of Aoullnnia — though in the majority of cases it is no more than a fugitive and elusive memory — because it is from Her and Her alone that we have all come. This knowledge does not come from the mind, nor from the five senses: it is first-hand knowledge. By being, so to speak, ‘lost at sea’, drifting without bearings at the mercy of processes over which we have no control, the individual, in order to survive, is forced to rely on that unsuspected store of direct knowledge that everyone in fact has….”

Cykarthyia flicked off the memorial.

“In the normal run of things,” she resumed, “I would recommend that you consider entering the movement as a novice. However, there are difficulties. You are doubtless aware that our revered founder wished entry to the Yther to be available to all beings who had innate knowledge of Aoullnnia irrespective of origin or gender. It was only because of widespread opposition to the idea, that she reluctantly postponed the founding of mefam Sanctuaries to a time when the movement was more settled. But since then there has been little demand from your side and there are numerous traditionalists — so they conceive themselves — within our ranks.

But we shall not leave you without assistance and counsel: even it may be I will cite your case as a reason to re-open the debate. At present, however, there are questions which, in the view of many of us, loom larger, and I cannot hold out any hopes of admission within the immediate future.”

At this point Cykarthyia abruptly broke off and asked me to excuse her. Looking up, I saw that there was a small memorial suspended from one of the metal ribs above us and that it was flashing rhythmically. Cykarthyia drew it towards her and turned her back to me. I moved to the other end of the ‘conservatory’ we were sitting in — so you would call it — not wishing to intrude. But I could not avoid hearing a staccato announcement made in Alcytran, a language derived from Katylin that the Yther employ amongst themselves. I could pick out a few words and was torn between curiosity and respect for my hostess’s privacy. Soon Cykarthyia switched to personal mode and I heard no more except a few brief replies made in Alcytran. I heard Alcilthyia’s name mentioned several times, also the Cleoi, a mixed electronic/biological type now coming into prominence. The exchange seemed to be rather acrimonious as far as I could make out.

I forced myself to move completely out of earshot. The area where we had been sitting was a node, or local centre-piece within the intricate geometrical plan of the Sanctuary. Running off in all directions were covered walkways and arcades, all of glass and plyne; the walls were clear but the roofs had amber, green and purple sections covered with a feathery white pattern. An hour ago I had been painfully walking along one of these arcades clutching the end of a metal rod. At the time, helpless and blindfolded, led by the antipathetic official to an unknown destination, I could not help thinking that I ought to have brought along with me a spool of thread like Thyzeus in the ancient mefam story. Then I remembered that Awailyia, in her remarkable autobiographical script composed shortly before her extinction, Voyage towards the Known, mentions the tale of Thyzeus, interpreting it as a metaphor for the mystic quest, since the path towards union with Aoullnnia necessarily involves loss, disorientation, confrontation with monstrous beings, imprisonment…

The arcades radiating out from the central area where I was standing were, I noted, almost but not quite regularly spaced; also, if one looked closely enough, one noted that the walkways were not perfectly straight either. There was enough order and harmony to satisfy a casual glance and yet, no matter where one looked, there was always some detail that was not quite right. Having set one’s mind at rest as to the cause of a perceived irregularity, one would then most likely find some other, tinier error — and so it would go on. Most people find this aspect of Yther architecture irritating but it has a fascination of its own and I was beginning to understand the reason for it.

The subtle irregularity and self-similarity of Yther buildings is, of course, intentional: it is designed to help the initiates in their life-long effort to distance themselves from the entire mental and physical universe in order to concentrate exclusively on the source of All That Is. The magnificent Temenoi of the Typhen era were joyful expressions of plenitude and abundance — rightly so since they were built during a time when Aoullnnia was at the point of Her maximum physical expansion. But, according to Awailyia, this apogee was now a thing of the past and all the works of the current era, according to her, should give a sense of incompleteness and falling away in accordance with the celebrated doctrine of ‘Withdrawal’ which gave the movement its name. For Yther is a Katylin term which means ‘holding back’, ‘withdrawal’, and, by extension, ‘the ebbing tide’. All rites, liturgies, artefacts and buildings of the movement were to be expressions of Aoullnnia-yther — the Withdrawal of Aoullnnia. Yther music, though carefully structured, is slightly dissonant (which makes it all the more haunting); the personages of Yther dramas are never entirely convincing; the complicated movements of Yther ‘Teachings without Words’ de-materialize the dancers and make them look like reeds bending in the wind; while in architecture the deliberate asymmetry has far-reaching mental effects, fostering a sceptical attitude towards everything material.

Cykarthyia had stopped speaking on the memorial and offered to make me some more yatthin which I refused. She seemed suddenly very preoccupied and I suggested that it would perhaps be better for me to leave.

“No, no,” she said quickly, “now you are here you must stay.”

“If you insist.”

“The cluster where you belong is a refuelling station for DETP, is that not so?” she asked me suddenly.

“Yes,” I answered. “Until recently we were a solar research station but now we don’t do much in that field. Mainly, we receive and distribute DETP.”

DETP, or Dark Energy Transformation Processing, is a relatively new process developed by the Cleoi. In your terms it is a means of harnessing the energy of the vacuum — but do not, above all, expect me to explain any advanced (or even elementary) scientific matters as I have nothing to do with that sort of thing and indeed instinctively distrust hyper-technology. I work in nutrient production, mainly cultivating Disyelthyia, the plant from which yatthin is made. As in most jobs these days, the work is not onerous and largely consists in tasting the stuff and suggesting improvements — my main interest in life is, or rather was, straylkha, a sort of game that I will describe to you in due course.
DETP already accounts for at least 15% of all energy consumption on Sarwhirlia. Giant centrals have been put in orbit and they are not only fully automated but self-replicating. DETP is by all accounts the most ambitious technical project since the construction of Mortalysium and Naroube — two artificial orbs situated in the asteroid belt and built during the brilliant Typhen era.

The Yther strongly object to DETP on religious grounds, considering it to be a means of extracting energy from the Unmanifest and using it for the benefit of matter and thought based entities such as ourselves — something they regard as utterly monstrous. Needless to say, the Cleoi, whose brainchild DETP is, deny this and maintain that DETP is not essentially different from any other energy-process except that it is a lot more convenient and labour-effective. Erudite disputes about the nature of DETP have been going on for at least two decades already and I for one am content to leave the decision to be taken by persons who consider they know what they are talking about (which I certainly don’t).

As soon as DETP became known, the ‘Five’, who are the supreme Yther authority, banned its use in all Sanctuaries and also banned the introduction of any articles whose manufacture involved the use of DETP. This was not at all difficult to put into effect since the Yther is a self-supporting movement anyway and does not depend on the present dominants, the Magnatte, except for ozone. Originally, nothing was said about the use of DETP by the normal population. However, at the Annual Concilium some six months ago there was a noted hardening of attitude on the part of the Yther. At the suggestion of Alcilthyia, Cykarthyia’s predecessor in this Sanctuary, the Yther issued a statement aimed at the Interdominants which warned them that if all DETP Centrals were not closed down within five years, the Yther would take ‘appropriate measures’ — though the text did not specify what these measures would be. To threaten the Interdominants, and by implication the Magnatte, is absolutely unheard of. Subsequently, the Five adopted a slightly more conciliatory tone, but the ultimatum — for that is what it was — has never been publicly disowned.

“Are there any people in your cluster who are opposed to the use of DETP?” asked Cykarthyia.

“Some, yes,” I replied slowly, not at all easy about the way the conversation was going. “But only for technical reasons. One or two people think that the self-replication of centrals in space could get out of control — it has even been suggested that DETP Centrals might eventually multiply as fast as viruses and blot out the light of the sun!”

I laughed out loud, highly amused by what struck me as a rather fitting end to humanity’s technological endeavours.

“No, no,” said Cykarthyia frowning. “There are built-in safeguards — the replication rate slows down as numbers increase — negative exponentiality. I do not doubt that the Cleoi have covered all such eventualities. But I am not speaking of that. We are opposed to DETP in principle — do people in clusters like yours just view it as another energy source?”

“I’m afraid so. We have no religious objections because we have no religious feelings. As long as there’s enough power to work the Extasense machine, the majority aren’t in the least bothered where it comes from.”

Cykarthyia could hardly contain her distaste.

“The only issue,” I added, ” that disturbs the ordinary mefam is the neutrax* question. Is it true that the Yther makes absolutely no use of neutrax?”

“None are allowed within the bounds of an Yther Sanctuary, certainly,” said Cykarthyia at once. “Rule 157 of our Code states plainly that only beings capable of acquiring knowledge of Aoullnnia are to be allowed within the limits of an Yther building. We do not, as you see, have any animals or birds here and in most Sanctuaries the only plant to be seen is the asliolla tree, sacred to the Sarlang. Rule 157 is generally interpreted as meaning that all AEEs are to be refused entry. We do employ one or two in agricultural labours on our own land.”

Artificially Engendered Entities are very roughly developments of your r*b*ts — the latter term incidentally is considered extremely objectionable today and is never used though the popular term neutrax is still (just about) acceptable informally. AEEs have of late become quite common in the Conglomerate and, according to some people, already outnumber us biologicals many times over though officially they comprise no more than 30% of the population. During the early Parthenogenic eras, production of AEEs was non-existent or strictly curtailed and this trend continued right through to the end of the Slrynne era. But the Magnatte, who are much more technologically orientated, have turned Sarwhirlia into something of a Sci-fi nightmare (in the eyes of some people) because of the enormous quantities of AEEs being produced. Apparently, in Glaciolyia — your Russia — there are great cities with hardly a biological to be seen.

“Compared to DETP, the issue is insignificant,” resumed Cykarthyia.

“And you are not prepared to moderate your stance on DETP in any way?” I dared to ask.

“Certainly not,” declared Cykarthyia impatiently. “This energy process is infamous and if it is not banned we will put a stop to it.”

It was true then, I said to myself, what Dyrithan and others had told me about the seriousness of the situation. In the whole of the Conglomerate there was only one organisation that could conceivably stand up to the dominants and that was the Yther.

“But you are not prepared for….?” I did not dare to use the three-letter word since along with g*d and s*x it is strictly taboo.

“For conflict? Is that what you wish to say? In the old sense, clearly we are not prepared. To kill is an affront against Aoullnnia. But we are not sentimentalists. It may be that circumstances will arise when we must choose the lesser of two evils, even if it is an evil. We will not shrink from making such a choice. In any case, conflict in the present era will be very different from what it was in the distant mefam past. The era of hand-to-hand conflict is mercifully gone for ever. Power today depends on control of the atmosphere.”

“But,” added Cykarthyia, “the one thing we have in abundance is dedicated individuals: what all others fear is to us nothing. What is extinction but return to Aoullnnia, our true home? We shall in any case commence by attacking the Centrals: they are unmanned and so there will be no direct loss of life. Nonetheless, what holds us back even now is concern for you human non-initiates. We do not wish to involve you in this conflict. Yet it is inevitable that there will be repercussions throughout the Conglomerate — it is for this reason and this reason alone, that we have held our hand so far.”

“You talk as if the conflict had already started,” I said, thoroughly alarmed by what Cykarthyia was saying. “And why are you telling me this? I do not want to know….”

“It is too late already,” said the Yther Praesidian. “Look around you. Do you not notice anything different?”

At first I did not but then I saw that the clear-views, double-doors in transparent plyne, were down, effectively blocking off each of the arcades. Clear-views are emergency barriers put in place because of risk of fire or oxygen depletion; they are unbreakable and usually controlled from a central power point, in this case most likely from the vestibule. I had, it is true, heard a slight sound but at the time had paid no attention to it.

Cykarthyia pulled down a memorial hanging from the roof and clicked it on. An Interdominant with a grave expression on her face was saying something in clipped Alcytran but Cykarthyia immediately switched on the automatic translation into Andirax.


“I sincerely regret that you have been implicated in this affair,” said Cykarthyia. “If I had for a moment anticipated this development, believe me, I would have cancelled the appointment. But we have been overtaken by events and, for the moment, you are, like me, a prisoner within this Sanctuary.”

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