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 believed.

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 well.

"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 both?

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 while.

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 them.

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 charges?

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.


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Last Updated: 2003.01.16.1910