Managed to get this chapter out amongst doing work for work, making bread for work and making cakes for Sue's work. Work work work. At least this was self-inflicted. Anyway, it's ten past late o'clock in the evening. Bedtime for tired writer/teachers.
Trip lay down the quill and sighed. It was going to be a long process, and he was only three days in; he stared down at the page he had just finished and read the first few lines over.
“Your handwriting is remarkable for someone your age,” Ahnia said, suddenly behind him. Trip jumped; a moment ago all had been silent.
“I had a lot of time to practice,” he replied. “My job at the monastery was copying the texts which had reached the end of their lives.” He slid off the stool and stretched. “That way their knowledge was kept with as little expense to the trees as possible.”
“It sounds exhausting.”
“It could be boring, more than anything. Another six months, though, and I would have been training with the older monks.”
“We have very few young here in Gargoria,” Ahnia said, grabbing a nearby chair and sitting in it. Trip twisted, feeling the bits of his spine clicking back into place, then sat down again.
“Matron Yohloh said you live a very long time,” Trip said.
Ahnia nodded. “It has its benefits. We have developed through science what men have sought for ages past, but we cannot share it with the world. It is both our curse and our prize.”
“How does it work?”
Ahnia pursed his lips and looked around on the desk. “How to explain it…”
Trip sat forward, interested despite his lingering distrust of the man. Sabir came and rubbed against his legs and he picked her up.
“Ah, perfect!” Ahnia said. He grabbed Sabir and showed her to Trip. “See Sabir, yes? She is a cat, with a cat’s thoughts. Mostly.” He grinned, his teeth yellow in the lantern light. “Anyway, watch what happens as I pick her up.”
Putting his arms around her middle, Ahnia lifted Sabir into the air. Her body stretched out, feet reaching to touch his knees, and her front paws stuck straight out in front of her.
“Gargorians are like this cat. She is stretched out; her feet still just about touch the floor; she has all the same drives and thoughts as another cat, though perhaps,” he added ruefully, “I am adding thoughts of scratching me into the mix.” He lowered her back down and began to stroke her. Before long, a deep and satisfied purring came from the animal.
“Gargorians are like that. We are the same, but stretched out. We have two or three children in our lives, but their births are spread over many years. It is not unusual to have a baby well after a hundred years have passed between this and the last one.”
Trip sat back, astounded. This was truly a complete change to the way of life for ordinary people.
“Is it something that you can do to people? Or do you have to be born Gargorian?”
Ahnia studied his face for a moment, then shook his head. “At the moment, you have to have Gargorian blood in you for it to take effect. There are undoubtedly some exceptions, bloodlines from other countries that are adaptable, but we have so little opportunity to garner test subjects.”
“I’d be a test subject,” Trip said, the whole of his life suddenly extending in his head. His mind raced as he thought of all the things he could do, learn, see. When he focused on Ahnia again, the man was shaking his head, the small golden trinkets sewn into his robes tinkling as he did so.
“No, young one. Imagine those around you growing old while you stay young. Your loved ones dying while you still look like a child. And before you ask your next question, this is not something we want to inflict upon the world. Man already squanders the resources of the planet in his short life span; imagine if he had infinite time to do what he willed.”
Trip fell silent, watching the big man stroke his cat. Sabir was still purring, a deep and strangely melodic sound. He picked up the page he had been working on and placed it on the pile of similarly completed pages.
“What about Sabir? Is she… long-lived?”
The purring stopped, though Ahnia continued to gently run his hands over her sleek black fur.
“One day she will die. It is our way, to train small animals to hunt with us. Sabir was chosen by me as a kitten; she has never known what it is to be apart from me for long.” Ahnia smiled again, and Trip couldn’t help seeing the echoes of a proud parent in his face. “She is quite the skilled accomplice, as you no doubt remember.”
“What did she do to Anila, back in the palace?” Trip asked, then began to answer his own question. “Sabir jumped on Anila’s face; Anila stumbled, fell over. Some sort of poison? You said something about paralysis… something painted on her claws that can be put into cuts?”
Ahnia nodded approvingly. “Your memory truly is what they say, and you have a keen mind. You underestimate our skill in altering the physical makeup of living tissue, though.” He picked up one of Sabir’s paws, which were languorously flopped over his lap, and carefully pushed the pad from underneath. A claw, clear and sharp, slid out.
“We treat our animals with the same respect we treat our own, and so certain… modifications are made. One of them is here. There are small glands implanted at the top of her claws; at a moment’s notice she can flood the claws with a small amount of a paralysing nerve toxin which will knock her victim unconscious within seconds.” He released the claw and let it slide back in. “She can do it at will; simply being clawed by her will not be enough, but we also lend our animal friends a certain intelligence. Sabir understands every word, even though she cannot respond in kind.”
Curled up in his lap, Sabir seemed to nod, her eyes closed. Trip narrowed his eyes, then shook his head. It was just what cats did when they slept, he thought.
“Can I see more of the cave?” he asked.
“Certainly. What would you like to see?”
Trip got off the chair and wandered back into the main area. Ahnia put Sabir on the chair and followed him. Past the circle with the captured Quinary the cave continued off into the darkness.
“What’s down there?” Trip said, pointing into the corridor.
“Far better to show you than to tell you,” Ahnia said, and he set off down the corridor.
Trip followed. “Won’t we need a lantern?” he asked, almost trotting to keep up with the man’s long stride.
“We’ll only be in darkness a moment, Trip,” Ahnia said. “Look ahead.”
The passageway ended abruptly in a dead end. “It’s blocked,” Trip began, then broke off. As he looked closer he could see a fracture, almost identical to the one that brought him to the cave. This one wasn’t attached to a machine, though; it seemed permanent.
“Pass through, Trip; there is no need to fear. This time it will be quite comfortable,” and so saying, Ahnia stepped into the portal.
Trip braced himself for the cold and reached out a hand, but rather than freezing prickles racing up his arm he found himself suffused with warmth, as if picked up and cradled. Suddenly it was over and he was stood in the middle of a tunnel which lead to what looked like a wide balcony.
“There’s no sickness,” he said, examining himself quickly.
Ahnia shook his head and smiled. “Only the temporary portals make us sick, and with practice you can reduce that feeling.”
Trip moved to the edge, careful to watch his footing; as he moved out of the small passageway the entire cavern opened up and he gasped.
They were stood in what appeared to be an enormous cylinder hollowed out of the ground; dozens, perhaps hundreds of tunnels lead off at all layers, connected together by looping paths of wood and rock. He leaned carefully over the edge and looked down, but the bottom was so far away as to be impossible to make out. The view upwards was equally stunning; an enormous sphere of light, not quite bright enough to force him to look away, crackled and roiled with twinkling stars of energy. It was as if he were staring into the world’s largest snowglobe, hanging inverted from the ceiling.
“It powers our city. This is Kyano, our capital.” Ahnia’s hand came to rest on Trip’s shoulder. “You are the first outsider in a very long time to set foot here, to see the Orb of Wonders, to experience our fast travel nodes. It is a great privilege.”
Trip nodded, suddenly feeling very small in the face of so much. He could see hundreds of men and women walking, running, carrying, climbing over the ropes that bound some of the entrances to the nodes together; one woman seemed to spot Ahnia standing there, wave and then pause, watching the boy. Ahnia waved back and she moved on.
“Come, we must go back,” Ahnia said, moving back towards the node. “There is work to be done.”
Reluctantly, Trip turned away from the wonders of Kyano and returned through the node. Ahnia was waiting for him on the other side.
“Now you see why we fight? Why we must survive? Your work is important, Trip, even though we cannot see how right now.” Ahnia began to slowly walk them back to Trip’s desk as he spoke. “We have not lived as long as we have passing up opportunities, and this is a perfect opportunity. There are other plans, but it would be irresponsible of us to neglect this one.”
“I understand,” Trip said, picking up Sabir who was still sitting on his chair. He passed her to Ahnia, who took her and cradled her in his arm. “I’ll try not to let you down.”
“I know you will, Trip,” Ahnia said, and as Trip sat down he moved away, taking Sabir with him. Trip picked up his quill and began to write again.