The Web of Aoullnnia – Chapter 4


I first became associated with Xinthia because of an absurd incident.

A curious feature of inter-gender relations during the present era is hand-concealment. In this case, there is no doubt at all that the origins of the practice go back to the time of the Amoeba Plague. The virus was very easily transmitted and one could catch the (originally fatal) disease simply by shaking hands with someone. Consequently, fam in particular took to wearing gloves at all times in mixed company since mefam were far more susceptible to the disease. And so, inevitably, the sight of the naked female hand — simply because it was so rare — became invested with erotic significance and aroused mefam much as the sight of naked breasts does in your era.

These attitudes are still with us today, even though the Ameoba Plague is now no more than a distant species memory. Young fam, especially those from the select clusters, still conceal their hands when in mixed company, though the custom is not nearly so widespread as it once was. And if a subdominant deliberately shows her bare hands to someone when they are alone together, this is to be interpreted as an invitation to intimacy. Otherwise, when in the presence of mefam, subdominants wear arm-guards, sort of long gloves reaching almost to the shoulder and which often include wrist-fans, circlets of lace or plylth enclosing the wrist and which can be inflated or deflated rather like the crests of certain lizards. Many subdominants wear large and highly ornate wrist-fans which they embroider themselves with the insignia of famous devilion-fighters or Sky-tracers, or again with their own initials or those of a current admirer. Most arm-guards are not all of a piece, so that it is possible to slip off the lower section, including the wrist-fan, while leaving the upper section in place. More serious fam or those beyond a certain age do not wear this type of arm-guard.

If, during one of the Festivals, a young fam slips off her wrist-fan and throws it at the feet of a passing mefam, this means that she has an interest in him, though it is not quite a direct proposition to exchange (our term for intimate relations).

Usually, though not always, the owner of the wrist-fan disappears at once into the mêlée, and the recipient has to try and find her even though he may well not have seen her features. Fam wearing only one wrist-fan are conspicuous but the recipient has to run the gauntlet of approaching the wrong person and receiving a sharp rebuff. Mischievous subdominants simply replace the discarded wrist-fan with an identical spare one but such behaviour is regarded as bad form and, if discovered, is penalised by the Arbiters of Etiquette of the Festival — the offender might be barred from attending further Festivals, for example. The recipient of a wrist-fan is supposed to go around minutely examining the design of all single wrist-fans until he thinks he has come across one that matches, and all this without making it too obvious what he is doing. As one can well imagine, the custom affords a good deal of amusement, at any rate to young fam.

It is in general easy to commence a relation with a subdominant at Festivals (but not otherwise) since fam today are subject to a seasonal, rather than a monthly, cycle of arousal, and many persons attend festivals in places like Lunkod and Gabellyia precisely for this purpose. Also, in our era, fam many times outnumber mefam on Sarwhirlia: cynics have even suggested that the purpose of the whole wrist-fan ritual is to give unattractive subdominants ‘a sporting chance’.

Once one has identified the owner of the wrist-fan, one is not obliged by the Rules of Good Conduct (which are posted up in various public places) to necessarily pursue the matter to the point of exchanging unless this is mutually desired, but the mefam in question is expected to nonetheless accompany the subdominant to some event and generally to make himself agreeable to her for the space of an evening or afternoon. The whole business becomes tiresome and time-consuming if one’s principal motive for attending the Games is not exchanging but straylkha or Sky-tracing, and the Straylkha Confederation has been lobbying for years to get the practice stopped.

Maybe, I should not have gone back to Lunkod at all during the year that followed my strayll-sri, but, drawn back I suppose by my bitter-sweet memories of the summer, I did put in an appearance at the Winter Games though I declined to participate in any contests much to the relief of my team since a player under darstillya is supposed to bring bad luck to his fellow competitors. I have myself spent some unforgettable moments in the sumptuous Hymen-bowers that are available free of charge at Lunkod to anyone who requires one, but after my strayll-sri I did not feel any inclination to get involved in intimate relations — this is a typical reaction while the period of darstillya is operative. I was thus more annoyed than flattered when a purple and white wrist-fan — white and purple are, remember, the strayll-sri colours — fluttered in the air and fell at my feet as I walked up the magnificent spiral staircase towards the Straylkha Suites. A band of very young subdominants was walking away, tittering slightly I fancied, but they were all hiding their hands so I had no means of knowing who the owner of the fam was. Before I could follow them, they quickened their pace and disappeared into a Make-up Room (which no mefam is allowed to enter.)

I examined the wrist-fan carefully. It was of a rather unusual type, much larger than the normal ones and was beautifully embroidered with what looked like initials in dark violet on white lace. It clearly belonged to a subdominant from one of the select clusters.

I decided to start trying to find the owner of the wrist-fan immediately so as to get the matter over and done with. After considerable trouble I did espy a small, very young subdominant with a mane of flaming red hair stiffened with lacquer talking and laughing excitedly with a group of other subdominants in a dining-suite, and she seemed to be taking pains not to show her left hand. Moreover, her right wrist-fan, seen from a distance at any rate, seemed to match the one I held.

I could not decently approach her while she was amongst friends according to the rules and had to waste my time waiting for the group to split up instead of going to watch a devilion contest that interested me. I observed the young subdominant from a neighbouring table without making it too obvious what I was doing. The group was speaking Sarwhil Katylin as I anticipated which showed they were from one of the more exclusive clusters, and the red-haired subdominant, who was strikingly pretty, seemed to be holding forth on the subject of straylkha. She was, I decided, one of those pretentious hot-house products of the elite clusters who take a passing interest in the game without knowing the first thing about it. I cursed my luck as I would doubtless have to accompany the wretched creature to some contest and put up with her fatuous comments on the style of play.

After keeping me hanging around for most of the morning, the red-maned subdominant minced off to the Lynstol (W.C.) and did not reappear — presumably she used the exit on the other side. This was really too much and I was tempted to simply get rid of the wrist-fan — one can sometimes barter it with some mefam who is smitten by the fam in question, or even hand it in at the desk, but by doing this one risks an enquiry. Once one has gone through the wrist-fam procedure and spent some time with a subdominant, one has the right to wear a badge which effectively makes one exempt from the obligation to accept any further offers, so I still kept to my original idea of going on to the bitter end. I scoured the sort of places where I expected young subdominants to be and eventually found the person in question sitting with a different uni-gender group on the south shore of the Mintar Lake. Once again she seemed to be concealing her left hand. At one point her companions moved off a little, leaving her alone, and I took this to be my cue. I came forward, inclined myself slightly as etiquette demands and formally presented the wrist-fan which seemed to match perfectly the one she was wearing on her right wrist. She looked up at me with a haughty expression and without saying a word took out her left hand from under her stole and held it in front of me. It was enclosed in a full arm-guard complete with wrist-fan. Her companions, noting my arrival, hastened back as if she were being annoyed by someone, and this naturally added to my discomfiture.

This time I really was tempted to throw the wretched wrist-fan into the lake, but it was as if a hidden hand had reached out to stop me — I simply could not get rid of the object. Much later, during the same miserable day, I came across by chance a subdominant of about the same height as the earlier one but with short-cut black hair instead of red and once again she seemed to be concealing her left hand while wearing a right wrist-fan that matched the one I was holding. I was absolutely sure this time that I was not mistaken and I also noted that she was ensconced in a window alcove and was waving her hand to some acquaintance in a manner that suggested she wanted to be alone. I went through the whole performance again, presenting the wrist-fan at a suitable moment. Once again the subdominant looked up enraged and revealed her left arm which, as before, was enclosed in a full arm-guard. I was so infuriated that I slung the wrist-fan half-way across the room and, turning aside, began to break into tears — in our era it is acceptable for mefam to relieve their feelings in this way though it remains fairly uncommon nonetheless. I am someone who is very sensitive to being made a fool of in public, and I was particularly incensed since, as stated before, I had not the slightest inclination to exchange with this or any other subdominant at this particular moment.

The subdominant – who was of course the same as the earlier one, the red hair being a wig — must have decided that the joke had been taken too far, for she followed me at once as I left the suite, and even gripped my arm with her right hand which was now bare (for she had torn off her wrist-fan and glove). I shrugged her off but she kept her grip.

‘Excuse,’ she said, ‘I Ryaltia niece. Summer last Yilkin ignore Xinthia. Xinthia no-like. Demand punition! Now overmuch. Forget please.’

(I should perhaps explain that those who normally speak Sarwhirl Katylin, which is a very condensed language without articles or tenses somewhat like your Mandaryn, tend to speak Andirax in this extraordinary fashion which is variously regarded as ridiculous, charming, erotic or maddening.)

I pushed Xinthia away so hard that she actually fell over, but she got up and followed me, now herself in tears and in her exasperation tore off her second wrist-fan as well, hurling it to the ground. We had by now attracted a good deal of unwelcome attention from passers-by, most of whom, seeing a young and pretty subdominant in tears with her hands bare following someone who pushed her away roughly, at once assumed that I was the criminal in the situation. Xinthia, however, angrily told everyone to mind their own business and left me to exit alone. By the standards of our society this was a dreadful humiliation for a high-ranking subdominant as she clearly was and in the normal way of things would have earned me a sanction. I did, in fact, receive a reprimand from the Arbiters of Etiquette the following day, though they added that, since no formal complaint had been registered, no action would be taken on this occasion.

As far as I was concerned this was the end of the affair. I saw Xinthia once or twice at the Games in passing but she no longer made any attempt to contact me, except to look briefly in my direction with a contrite expression on her round face. I noted that she was always alone. I now remembered who she was and had to admit that my conduct that summer had not been faultless though her reaction was, to say the least, excessive. I was myself becoming a little curious about her but I did not see how I could meet up with her now without appearing weak and foolish.

Around the middle of the (shorter) Winter Games period, a straylkha player friend passed me one morning a photo-message. The missive had on the outside the same purple and black symbols that had been embroidered on the wrist-fan, and I realised that they were decorative initials, namely X-L-R. Opening the message I read:

‘Xinthia demand see Yilkin. Possible? Xinthia leave Games morrow. Year next Xinthia no-come, perhaps never. Test Interdominant. Wish see Yilkin one time. Go south pagoda Mintar noon 4 today. Trust come. Xinthia.’

At the bottom was a photo-signature, a round face with piercing green eyes and a sad expression.

* * * * * *

Intergender relations are so different in our era that you would find them scarcely comprehensible — but yours appear equally strange to us. Most people today (except in Majentia) live in uni-gender clusters and one’s essential bond is to one’s cluster, and not to the individual of the opposite gender. Family life as such does not exist. Also, fam within the Major Conglomerate do not become fertile naturally: they have to undergo treatment if they wish to have personal offspring and in principle must obtain permission to do so from their cluster. However, if they travel to the natal orb, Naroube, which many subdominants do today, the special atmosphere makes them fertile at once. Reproduction does not proceed by inter-gender exchanging — except in Majentia, a voluntarily backward region.

On Sarwhirlia separation between the genders is thus normal and there is little mixed socialisation outside festal occasions (though like practically everything else it is not expressly forbidden). Indeed the close proximity of genders in your society appears to us bizarre and ‘unnatural’.

At places like Lunkod varied exchanging is not in the least disapproved of, provided it is carried out in private — but this, of course, does not mean that admirers of a particular fam or mefam are necessarily immune to jealousy. Beautifully decorated locales known as ‘Hymen-bowers’ with the usual trappings such as mirrors, a tiled bathing area and so forth are available to anyone who wants them, apart from the private rooms allocated to visitors. In this respect our society is egalitarian enough.

A few vastly successful sporting or artistic figures sometimes succeed in maintaining ‘stables’ of young fam subdominants, but any fam who agrees to be a member of one is deemed to be lacking in distoya and is treated with disdain by members of her own gender. Such a person will most likely never find a cluster that will accept her again. Even apart from co-habitation, excessive dependence on specific mefam is disapproved of. Offspring incidentally are brought up by the (fam) parent and cluster though there is a complicated system by which a mefam can become the ‘adoptive father’ of a child who has exceeded a certain age. In such a case the adoptive offspring spends a certain part of the year with the ‘father’ in the latter’s cluster. The system works tolerably well though it obviously does not suit everyone.

The term ‘l***’ which I do not transcribe though it is not quite taboo, is never applied to relations between adults: in certain contexts it has been replaced by the Katylin term erloyll which means much the same thing but has a far stronger connotation of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’. The word ‘erloyll’ incidentally designates on the one hand the state or feeling and the afflicted person or persons: this is typical of words borrowed from Katylin since the latter, as I have explained, does not have any very clear separations between grammatical categories such as ‘nouns’, ‘verbs’, ‘adjectives’ etc. which are such a feature of Andirax and related languages — Andirax is based on your English.

Erloyll between genders is discouraged and feared, though at the same time intensely desired: this attitude is by no means as unreasonable as it doubtless appears to you, for we live in a society where adhesion to the social group is the important thing, whilst erloyll pairs care nothing about the group or society in general. Also, we in the Age of the Parthenogens, belong to an order where crimes of violence are rare and we are prepared to put up with a fair number of inconveniences in order to maintain that state. As it happens, the greater part of the violent crimes actually committed are carried out either by erloyll who think themselves rejected, or by individuals who are susceptible to the affliction — people who are not content with the fairly extensive legitimate satisfactions offered by society. At the same time it is obvious that there is something in the neural make-up of the species which inclines it to fatal passions, otherwise there would be no need to discourage erloyll in the first place.

In practice society’s attitudes towards erloyll are contradictory — but so they seem always to have been. An erloyll pair will experience severe difficulties if they insist on living together, but of course such difficulties will, in a sense, be precisely what is required since it is well known that obstacles increase motivation. No normal cluster will accept such a pair and they will have to go voluntarily to frontier regions where criminals are often sent, or migrate to the new pleasure cities such as Lunkod or Gabellyia. Out of season these cities are rather desolate and tend to become the haunts of disreputable individuals, those precisely who have been excluded from their clusters or have found none that will accept them. Erloyll pairs may find themselves obliged to live in run-down vicinities and carry out menial tasks to survive. But social attitudes are not rational: though subject to serious inconveniences which might even be classed as mild persecution, erloyll pairs are at the same time admired and respected because they have voluntarily opted for a more demanding and intense way of life. In fact erloyll are not so much debarred from clusters because they are disapproved of as because they are thought to bring with them darstillya or ‘bad luck’, a concept very prominent with us. I have already noted that strayll-sri players are given a wide berth, at least for some time, for the same reasons.

It was thus with some misgiving that I eventually went to the proposed rendez-vous, for I realized that the image of Ryaltia’s niece was having a disquieting effect on me. I had largely avoided erloyll in my life so far, doubtless in part because of my commitment to straylkha. Moreover, to judge from the meagre data given in Xinthia’s letter, I could hardly have chosen a less suitable person to get fixated on, since by all accounts she was shortly to undergo the Higher Technical Controls and was thus a candidate for Interdominant status. Interdominants live entirely apart from everyone else and take vows to have no relations with the opposing gender.

Xinthia was sitting alone on a block of stone beside the Mintar Lake. She was wearing a very simple dark blue dress, had a violet shawl over her shoulders and wore long arm-guards without wrist-fans such as older fam wear. Sitting there like that she did not look at all beautiful: her round face gave her a somewhat comical air, like that of a clown, and, on arrival I burst out laughing. This was taken as a sign of truce and her expression changed immediately. I sat down on another block in silence. There was no one around as the day was overcast and there was some important event taking place which everyone was attending, I forget what exactly. Looking at me enquiringly, she unlaced her arm-guards and took them off completely with a shy expression. She had beautiful small white hands which she crossed on her lap.

It soon started to get chilly and we returned to the city itself, Xinthia replacing her arm-guards. We went directly to one of the large buildings that offers Hymen-bowers. I selected one at random: the number was, I think, 153. The fam behind the desk looked at us both very strangely.

* * * * *

Once inside Xinthia appeared so nervous that it actually crossed my mind that she was staryll but she smiled and said it was not that. It seemed out of the question to commence relations at once, so I suggested we go to the bathing area at the back of the lavishly decorated suite. In the steam-bath area there were highly erotic coloured murals as there often are in such places, this one representing centaurs and satyrs disporting with pubescent nymphs. Some of these mosaics are off-putting — one can choose the sort of décor one wants in advance by consulting a tableau but I had not bothered to do this. The mosaic here was, however, prettily done; it amused us and provided a diversion. Xinthia pointed at certain details, giggling.

All the same I found that this mosaic had a rather negative effect on me. These half-animal figures, satyrs and centaurs, revelling in the life of the senses had a sort of splendour about them and their partners, charming pubescent nymphs, retained grace and ‘innocence’ even as they adopted the most lascivious postures. Well and good. But why were we not rolling around on the grass of one of these woodland glades instead of looking on at tiled paintings in the heart of the vast, anonymous city of Lunkod? Of course, I told myself, it had never been like that even in ancient times: woodland glades were full of snakes and annoying insects — these mythological scenes were from the very beginning fantasies, just as artificial as the virtual realities of today. Yes, but this was a completely unsatisfactory conclusion…

I should explain to you that in my era it is no longer possible to simply opt out of society and take to the woods even though there is no law forbidding one to do so (we have very few laws). Apart from the intricate web of social customs and approved behaviour there are more mundane constraints: today the atmosphere on Sarwhirlia is, in most areas, still not capable of sustaining human life — erloyll pairs who wandered off in search of ‘the life of the senses’ would simply expire through not being able to breathe. Apart from this, uninhabited areas of Sarwhirlia are full of mutant animals and insects, monstrous creatures thrown up by the vast climactic changes of the period we know as the Abyss (and which you are very soon to enter). ‘Nature’ is a word not much used today in Andirax and it has been largely replaced by the term Svaroya which has a much sterner sense — what you call ‘Nature’ has become something essentially menacing and hostile to human life. Outside the barriers that enclose the territory of inhabited clusters one hears the baying of scryclores, repulsive beasts the size of your elephants but with fangs like your wolves. These new species, which have less need of oxygen than the wild animals of your era, scarcely appear ‘natural’ even to us who are to some degree accustomed to them. Indeed, many of us, especially I think mefam, have a deep-rooted nostalgia for a long-lost ‘state of nature’ before all these aberrations and deformities came into existence, and I suppose, at bottom, this includes the Parthenogens themselves on whom we all depend though no one would dare to say this openly. If I express such sentiments here, it is only because I assume that none of this will be cognised by someone living in my own era.

I must stop following down this train of thought, I told myself. I ought to respond ‘naturally’ (as you would put it) to the present moment, to the delightful feminine form glimpsed through the clouds of steam.

We left the bathing area and returned to the bed-chamber. But there was still a feeling of mutual anxiety and tension. Tacitly, we decided to abandon the attempt to take things further for the time being and actually got dressed – Xinthia even laced on her arm-guards. She began to question me closely about my day to day life in the cluster, the sort of work I did, my friends, straylkha and so on. She asked me what the cluster was primarily concerned with and I replied that until recently it had been a solar energy station but that at present it was being converted into a DETP Research and Refuelling Station. She started when I said this and asked me if it was not the Y-57 cluster? I said that it was. She fell very silent after this and paid no attention to what I said from then on, so much so that I gave up the attempt to talk altogether and, somewhat put out, poured myself out a glass of skihl from the wall-hold.

A little later she insisted on looking into my eyes. Some people in our era, as I think also in yours, believe they can tell the future by examining the iris, though I was rather surprised that someone from a highly intellectual select cluster went in for that kind of thing. I told her not to tell me what she saw, that I preferred not to know. She asked me if I had the opportunity of going to another cluster. I replied that like anyone else I could put in a demand for a transfer but that meant I would have to find another cluster that would accept me. I added that though I did not especially like where I was, I felt sure I wouldn’t be much better anywhere else while I would have the trouble of getting myself accepted all over again. So on the whole I always decided it was not worth it: I might as well stay where I was.

I offered the latter day Cassynder a glass of skihl which she declined. Instead of drinking it she asked me whether I had ever been to Mortalysium. I was by now getting quite sick of this interrogation but I did admit that I had been once to the mortuary orb to attend the withdrawal rites of my exemplar, Sambord, and did not aim to go again if I could possibly help it until I was myself an unconscious floating essence. Xinthia asked me solemnly to promise that if I were given the chance to go there during the coming year I would take it. I said I couldn’t possibly do that but, to keep her quiet, I eventually said I would consider the idea if and when such an offer was made.

‘Go! Leave immediate!’ said Xinthia, suddenly standing up and pointing with her right arm (still encased in its black guard).

‘Go where? Leave what? My cluster, you mean?’

‘No. Leave now here! Go! Xinthia big danger Yilkin. Soon too late.’

She collapsed on the bed of crylth muttering something like ‘No-able say’.

But then, before I could take her at her word, she clutched my arm.

‘No-go. Xinthia need someone. No-leave Xinthia now.’

I cursed myself for having got into this absurd situation. The wretched subdominant was clearly demented: I even thought of ringing for a Health Attendant straightaway.

Added to this, Xinthia kept fidgeting about with her arm-guards, alternately taking them off and putting them on again. Looking up, I noticed with annoyance that the Aphro-acclimatiser was at Position 4 and I turned it to zero without making it too obvious what I was doing. But the scent in the chamber was already having a strong though rather unhealthy effect: I have a distaste for such artifices at the best of times since they affect the quality of the experience.

‘Listen,’ said the Xinthia tearing off both her arm-guards, rolling them into a ball and hurling them across the chamber. ‘Know Yilkin think Xinthia shilly-silly. Go quick find other subdominant. Xinthia give last warning – GO! Xinthia now enter steam-bath once gain. Advise Yilkin leave, depart, no-see Xinthia ever. Finish. BUT Yilkin still here Xinthia back come, choice you.’

With that she flicked her hands open in a gesture that clearly meant that she disclaimed all further responsibility and strode into the steam-bath area, pulling across the screen.

She left me plenty of time to make an exit — but I stayed. Why? Nascent erloyll? A desire to see things through? Who can say — maybe just curiosity to see what would happen next.

When she returned she was in an entirely different frame of mind.
‘Good. Know Yilkin stay. Now begin.’

She spoke as if she were talking about starting a meal that had been delayed because of a mistake in the order.

* * * * *

I shall not describe the details of what followed, at any rate the physical motions and emotions. You have all doubtless experienced such things and can in any case regard picto-images which are a good deal more stimulating than anything I could relate. As compared to you, to judge by what I have seen and heard, we are a good deal more interested in what you would call the ‘psychic’ aspects of exchanging though we do not neglect the purely physical aspect. I had, however, always been somewhat cautious in this respect. I had , for example, never been tempted to employ exchanging as a means to ‘anstr-siran’ (literally, ‘life-drift’) or as a means of accessing Rhewenia since several people who, reputedly, had done just this never returned — whether voluntarily or not is unclear.

I have already mentioned Rhewenia, or the Unfinished World, in these transmissions. Although originally a result of witr-consl (lit. ‘image construction’) it should not be confused with the landscapes and experiences of ordinary dreams (though both belong to the vast region we call the Manifest Non-Occcurrent). Over the course of time Rhewenia has acquired considerable autonomy and the flora and fauna to be encountered there are most definitely not to be trifled with : they can entrap, sting, obliterate. Many people claim that the land-masses of Rhewenia are more beautiful than those to be found in the Manifest Occurrent but the main attraction for people in our era is that Rhewenia is most definitely not part of the Magnatte Conglomerate and so is in no way controlled by the Parthenogens. People who seek frae-dein (‘freedom’?) at all costs are attracted to it like moths to a flame, also persons who want to strengthen the physico-emotional bonds between each other whether erotic or otherwise. It is claimed, I do not know how reliably, that the ringleaders of the ill-starred ‘Revolt of Kaghin’ took their vows and made their futile plans on an island in Rhewenia (where naturally they could plot without any fear of being overheard).

Exchanging can, by mutual consent, be used as a means of space-transiting but I have always prudently declined any such invitation on the rare occasions when it has been offered to me. In this case, however, it seems as if my consent was either not required or was considered to be given (because of the veiled warning delivered by Xinthia). Whether by accident or design,then, at the climax of our physical paroxysm which came fairly quickly, I found myself projected down a long tunnel which had, at its end, a flickering green light. The sensation was neither agreeable nor disagreeable and at this stage I did not feel any apprehension. It was not unlike travelling in the more normal way and the voice which I heard was similar to the recorded voices on underground platforms.

“Very soon you will be crossing the frontier into the Non-Occurrent”, it announced. “You will experience a certain lightness due to physical personality loss but this is entirely normal and you will soon become accustomed to it. You will be recalled automatically when your time has been used up and we advise you not to attempt to overstay the allotted period as this may prejudice further travelling in this region. We wish you a pleasant visit and look forward to seeing you again.”
I felt an acceleration and the pinpoint of green light suddenly became very close. Other objects swished past me, apparently sucked into the vortex as well, and the air pressure increased without becoming unbearably intense. All this happened in a very short space of time — time is perhaps not the right word.

I found myself standing on an enormously long but quite narrow beach. It curved round slowly on both sides as if about to meet up again and form a lagoon though in fact it did not quite do this. There was sand beneath the soles of my feet, or something very like sand at any rate. And there were waves coming in towards the shore, I could see the foam forming and subsiding. But strangely enough there was no water as such, nor was there any sun. The sky was a superb purplish blue shading off toward emerald at the edges. From time to time flares of brilliant yellow light burst against the blue like celestial fireworks.

At my feet half-buried in the sand was what I took to be a toy aeroplane. Looking at it more closely, I realised that it was not a toy aeroplane but a ‘real one’ which had been scaled down in size though there did not seem to be anyone inside. It was not a modern craft, more one from your era or earlier still, to judge by what I have seen on Past-View programmes. I had vaguely heard something about size being distorted on Rhewenia so that objects which in our world appear to be large become miniaturized and vice-versa. Also, since Rhewenia is not subject to the normal time currents, it is possible for objects and persons from completely different historical eras to coexist, if not harmoniously at least without too much discordance – indeed this is said to be part of the fascination of the place.

Behind us was thick vegetation which gave the contradictory impression of being at once intensely alive and entirely artificial. The flowers were absolutely enormous, their petals flimsier than those of poppies, one would have said that they were made of tissue paper. And the shrubs were tightly tangled together, forming compact bundles – it occurred to me that they could be used directly as ‘brooms’ without having to be tied together. I found myself staring right into a distant orange-coloured bloom a bit like your sunflower. It seemed to be blown forwards and backwards by a strong wind which was odd since there was not even the slightest breeze. I realized that the ‘flower’ was nodding to me and intimating that it knew all about my present and past life and the reason for my presence at this outlandish location. While I was wondering where this flower got its knowledge from, I felt a hand gently but firmly turning my neck so that I faced the non-existent sea.

‘Some of the flowers here have hypnotic properties and it can be dangerous to look straight at them.’

I did not exactly hear these words : they were like emotional fragments exploding inside my head where they got immediately and automatically translated into a message. (This is why they did not have the staccato Katylin texture typical of Xinthia’s speech.) It occurred to me that this was the supposed origin of Whoirl, the Sarlang symbolic system which supposedly replaces advantageously both language and your mathematics.

‘The shrubs and plants in this part of Rhewenia are more predatory than the animals,’ the meaning-transmitter continued. ‘I am not sure how this came about. In any case it is not for this that we have come. Look into the emptiness before you — where you expect to see, but do not in fact see, water. For a long time you will perceive nothing but above all do not give up watching. Life-bubbles will eventually materialise drifting in from the Unmanifest. Your own life-sphere and mine will be amongst them, and you must will yourself inside it, I cannot do this for you.’

I was aware of my companion without looking at her directly. We were entirely unclothed but this was ‘normal’ since we had been anyway prior to our arrival. But the nudity had a completely different sense here. It was more as if we were animals who, of course, do not wear clothes. But at the same time I had the impression I could ‘imagine’ any sort of clothes I wanted, should I desire any. I wondered whether other people visiting Rhewenia were dressed or not…

‘Ssssh!’ whispered my companion. ‘Bubbles. Concentrate on the bubbles.’

For what seemed an eternity I was not able to discern anything in the emptiness in front of me except for the streaks of foam. At last, just when I was about to give up entirely, there was a sort of flickering and very far out to ‘sea’ small shining globes began to appear out of nowhere. Soon they were forming all around me, in the ‘air’ as well, becoming incredibly numerous and blotting out both the beach and the vegetation behind it.

‘Keep watching until you see one which stops right in front of you’. The ‘voice’ seemed to be coming from a very long way away as if someone were speaking down a flexible tube.

The shining bubbles continued to form, apparently out of nothingness, and after a while many of them burst, all in ridiculously slow motion. I found I could even see the minute tears and deformations in the sides of the bubbles just before they broke; I could even predict exactly where the next bubble would form and where it would eventually burst. I became utterly engrossed in observing these bubbles, forgetting completely what I was supposed to be watching out for. Each of the bubbles was, I realised, a miniature world, but one that did not concern me and never would. Then the process started speeding up : there were bubbles emerging from all sides, drifting about, colliding, bursting open with a faintly audible plop. There were literally thousands of them, hundreds of thousands, millions, everywhere, in every direction, globules of steam in an enormous pan of boiling water.

I was so absorbed that it was some time before I noticed that one of the bubbles was no longer moving and had stopped right in front of me. As I looked, the other bubbles moved away and gradually disappeared until there was only this one left. On closer scrutiny it turned out not to be a bubble at all but a sort of capsule : it was clearly an artifical construction. Inside it there were numerous white lines a bit like fibres criss-crossing everywhere, or perhaps like veins. The capsule also contained a substance that recalled mercury. Originally I conceived the bubble as being quite small, no bigger, say, than a soap bubble, but now I realized that it was enormous. It would for example easily contain a skilther or a small Sky-drift. As I gazed it grew larger still : there seemed in fact to be no upper limit to its size. (Alternatively, one could imagine that I and my companion were being miniaturized.) Although the other bubbles had by now completely disappeared, no sort of landscape or seascape replaced them. Also, I found I could no longer even see my own body, only sense its presence. There was nothing else but the capsule; it was growing so fast it threatened to engulph everything. It was the aullunn, the original unit in Sarlang arithmetic from which all numbers can be generated, or the piece in the game of that name which is worth all the others. But then, just as suddenly, it dwindled into insignificance, becoming no more than a grain of sand at my feet. It oscillated wildly for some time but eventually stabilized at about the size needed to take two persons of average size crouching together.

Up to this point I had been rapt and attentive without any real fear. But now the dreadful reality of what was happening came to me : we were part of an alien space probe. In a very few moments we would be sealed up alive in the capsule and put into suspended animation. The capsule would be ejected by remote control out of the local system and despatched in the direction of Alpha Centaurus. Alien intelligences would receive it and, in specially controlled conditions, open it : I could feel the sensors of these deadly creatures running over my body and puncturing my skin. I and Xinthia would be observed in our most intimate functions, would be weighed and tested for electrical discharges incessantly. Eventually, we would be made to exchange productively and her bodily transformation carefully monitored. Thus the insect-like aliens would know how life came about elsewhere within the galaxy. We were in effect a biological missive, culled by spies sent down to Sarwhirlia! Cold neutrax minds had planned the whole operation : the monstrousness of the scheme revolted me.

‘No, no, no!’ The words were not spoken by Xinthia but resembled more the ‘Voice Over’ we had heard on our entry into the Unfinished World. ‘There is no compulsion – it is entirely your choice. But whatever you decide, be quick. For the life-bubble will not remain in front of you for long.’

I got the impression that what I did next would have vast consequences and not only for myself. Either I would persist in my earlier existence and identity, or I would accede to a much more extended but at the same time much less definite one. All this was part of some plan which involved many more beings than just myself and Xinthia and the original idea had not come from her at all – she had indeed hinted as much in the Hymen-bower before our departure. Were the beings who had arranged all this benign or malevolent? There seemed no way of telling but I inclined to the former view.

All at once we were inside the capsule which closed around us. A viscous fluid trickled all over my skin : the touch was strange but not disagreeable. I could no longer see or hear anything : all I knew was that I was being connected up to the being alongside me in a very definite way. It was not at all an emotional experience, more like the assembling of a mechanical device — I was also reminded of diagrams of chemical bonds between differing substances. It occurred to me that I was withdrawing altogether but the thought was not at all frightening. Confused memories of my previous life rushed past me, replays of straylkha contests, episodes in the Y-57 cluster, meetings with Tarla and Asrynn, various fam I had exchanged with at Lunkod or other sites. Then I was in an enclosure with other mamling : high above us was a blue dome and the feet of a giantess straddling us like a tower.

A vast flood of turbid life-experiences surged through me like liquid in a tube being passed to another container. At the same time into my awareness came unintelligible sensations too quick to visualize, some exquisite, some hilarious, others frightening and repulsive. But before I could begin to integrate them I was overwhelmed by quite different sensations : it was as if the commotion had raised a layer of sediment from the lower depths of a pond. Life-forms long since extinct reached out to me like tendrils of climbing plants. Inside me were vast plains covered with grasses as high as trees, swamps heaving with enormous worms covered with yellow scales. Then I sank further back still, into a mucous submarine environment inhabited only by jellies and monstrous weeds. Even such sensations dissipated as, still connected to my companion, I felt myself passing beyond the limits of bio-form. We were before life, before history. Nothing of all that had yet been actualized : the Manifest Occurrent around us consisted exclusively of crystals and exploding gases. The capsule itself was ceaselessly being plunged into a sort of froth, at every moment it was shattered to a thousand pieces, only to emerge entire an instant later. I could feel this happening within me, but at the same time it was as if I were looking in from the outside : I could even make out my own features and those of my companion within the capsule. It was as if there was no longer a clear demarcation between inside and outside, this and that. Then there was no capsule, no stable forms at all, neither animate nor inanimate, because there was no persistence, only flashings emerging and receding, surface scintillations which from time to time exploded into the most magnificent patterns only to be dispelled as soon as they occurred. This was the sea of half-form, the ground from which the entire Manifest Occurrent comes. I and Xinthia were ourselves no more than slightly more persistent oscillations; we were being merged in the groundswell of existence and there was nothing now except these temporary patterns forming and dispersing. Nor was there need for more : this mode of being was entirely adequate and in fact beatific.

Suddenly I found myself stretched out on the sand; I could see the bubble moving away rapidly until it became no more than a distant speck indistinguishable from the lines of foam. An immense sadness swept through me: I was apart and alone as before. We lay there like two beached fishes, gills opening and closing. The sparse vegetation and sand gradually materialized and I became conscious of a dull ringing sound at the back of my mind, a sound which grew louder and louder, more and more insistent, making the whole landscape around me throb and shudder.

‘You have been here already for six hours and there are others waiting!’

A sharp-faced official with a raucous voice was bending over us, shaking us like two dogs while an alarm was sounding.

‘Degenerates! Scum! Half-neutrax! We do not tolerate space-trippers here!’ she screamed. ‘It is strictly forbidden by the regulations. Go to Rhewenia in your own precincts and never come back — what do I care? Here, what cluster do you come from?’

I waved my hand limply to reveal the implant on my wrist which gave my registration number and cluster.

She noted it down on a pocket memorial.

‘You can be sure that I will report this to the authorities. Now get dressed both of you and get out of here at once.’

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