The Third Sdhlain: Sdhlai 3
It was still dark when I
regained consciousness, so I couldn't have been out for long. As I
stood I felt a jolt of pain from my ankle, but it didn't seem to be
a fracture, or even a major sprain. The numbness had worn off and
the nausea was gone. Despite losing yet another resting place, I
could not complain. Above all, I was still free, and I began to
make my way through the alleys.
I had only half expected to be captured by now. Despite
appearances and the ever-present propaganda, I had learned that
things were not nearly as organized as it might seem, and as most
Someone or something else was clearly the target of the arson, as
no one outside of the government who wanted me dead would have been
so sloppy about it, and the government itself didn't, as far as I
knew, have evidence that I was dangerous enough to resort to such
extreme and indirect measures. But I wondered what faction it might
have been to take such a risk. As I pondered this, I realized that
I was quite surrounded by dark figures.
"We'd like the melter, please. Don't bother pretending not to have
it or trying to escape. We know who you are, where you've been, and
what you are capable of."
I took a small step back, and the circle tightened around me. "I
don't suppose there's any chance of your telling me who you are or
who you represent before we make this transaction, is there?"
The speaker nodded slightly over my shoulder, and something struck
me hard on the shoulder, almost driving me to my knees. "You aren't
talking your way out of this, either. I'm--"
I had seen the two searchers enter the alley ahead of me just
before I went down. I imagined there must be one behind me as
"No," said my captor.
Rifles appeared in the hands of each member of the group.
"C, D. Watch him!" the leader shouted. "The rest of you!" With
that, he took a shot at one of the searchers. I dropped as yellow
flashes pulsed around me. I heard searcher arms clicking out and
one hitting the ground. There were also several thuds of humans
joining me on the street. Were they after me, or this group? Or
Another searcher struck the ground. I looked up to see one pass
over my head. Its paralysis charges were, of course, invisible and
silent, but I saw another man drop his gun and collapse awkwardly.
The searcher gleamed yellow and glanced off an iron balcony
railing. It, too, fell to the ground. The skirmish seemed to be
over. No one was standing, but I didn't know how many others may be
feigning paralysis. I quickly crawled toward a basement window and
kicked it in.
"Hey, you stay where you are," I heard from the center of the
alley. As I lowered myself feet-first through the window, I saw
that "C" or "D"--whichever this was, had no use of his limbs.
My mind and heart raced together for a long
There were too many variables--the melter malfunctioning, the
arson, the mysterious faction mob, the searchers that, perhaps inadvertantly,
engineered my escape. And the Democratic searcher, waiting for
me at the safehouse. It seemed too much to grasp.
After a time, my heart slowed, and while my thoughts still
ran a klick a second over the web of intrigue in which I found myself snarled,
I could spare a glance around the basement.
Large machines squatted in the dark, rusting bastions of a
former era. A lone 'escent lit the low cavernlike room from
the centre, casting deep shadows in regimented circles spreading
like ripples from the ancient metallic beast sitting directly
under the light.
It took me a few moments to realize what it was, and a few more to
wend my way across the room. It was a mass-producer; a few yellowed
magazines lying on the floor near the machine belied its purpose.
A propaganda machine.
I do not remember how long I held my breath. Mass-producers such
as there were not unheard of; most of them had been melted down for
the constituent metal many years ago, after the Democracy won the
war and began its sweeping "reforms" which made it seem more and more like
the totalitarian regime it had replaced.
I picked up a pamphlet from the floor absently, flipping through
the pages, not so much reading as remembering.
I could recall the then-new government's self-congratulatory pronouncements
about how the coup had been bloodless (well, nearly bloodless,
but who wants to ruin a good speech with such ambiguous phrases?) and
how the coming reign of Democracy would usher in the Golden Age that
we all believed had been lost forever.
I had been one of their most fervent supports, back then. I had helped
distribute propaganda like this, extolling the virtues of Democracy,
convincing the people to rise up against the regime and become as one,
a frenzied mass of retribution for the terrible things incurred upon
It only took the new government a couple of years to realize just how
easy--just how profitable--it could be to take advantage of
the nation's temperament. We are a people easily led, easily swayed,
easily convinced that the painful changes are for the better.
And here I was, fighting the existing regime again. Perhaps even
half-convinced that this time, this time, the new government
would be able to do the right thing. The city could be washed clean,
the poor sheltered, and the world turned right again.
I looked around and found the stairway up and out of the basement.
Climbing the rickety metal structure with caution, I tested the
door handle. It resisted for a few moments, then gave way with
a deep rough rumble.
The building was deserted, as most were. The basement's entrance
stood on a long hallway. I spent a few moments looking into the
rooms, long since stripped of anything of value, but I had seen
enough deserted buildings in my lifetime to fill a hundred others.
As I crossed the hallway again, looking for the exit, I wondered
why the machines still stood down there when the rest of the
building had been picked clean. A glance at the door to the
basement told me why--despite the broken lock, the door's frame
was made of solid steel, and I could see the paint flaking off
of the surrounding metallic frame. It would take a major effort
to dismantle the walls enough to get the machines out, but the
construction begged a question--how had the machines gotten
down there in the first place? No matter--there were more
pertinent things to consider.
I approached the front doors with a mix of fear and excitement;
were the mysterious attackers waiting outside, prepared to grab
me again as soon as I left the building? Were searchers, of
whatever allegiance, waiting to floor me with their paralysis
I could not waste time. I paused, then kicked the door open
and leapt out, prepared to face what met me.
The street was deserted.
Relieved, I started to pick my way down the road, dodging
debris, resisting the urge to call up a holomap. We did
not believe that the Democracy had ever cracked its secrets,
so it should not be able to detect its usage, but I decided
that safety was more important than convenience.
It looked to be a long night.
Return to The Third Sdhlain
Last Updated: 2003.01.16.1910