KASSI AND THE CITY by Ste Whitehouse
 
Day One: The Boy
 
‘The Pipe-world, Ah’kis, is five thousand miles long and just over ten miles in diameter. It was one of a dozen Arks sent out from Earth to populate distant planets; each meant to journey a mere 200 years at one third light speed. But some accident knocked Ark Six from its course and now 10000 years have passed. Kassi seeks her brother, who has been kidnapped by ‘demons’ and now travels north to the end of the world. She is accompanied by Sebastian, a sentient bot of dubious origins with whom she can communicate telepathically. That ability seems to set her apart from the rest of the world’s population.’
 
 
It was hard to tell when B’Jing actually started. It seemed to Kassi that they had entered a small village on the outskirts and yet they never essentially left. Small wooden dwellings gave way for the occasional modern glass fronted office block. Farmers—or at least people dressed as farmers—gave way to the odd robot and even a sentient Troll. Powered vehicles happily wove between groups of school children dressed in smart uniforms. It appeared as though the backward fields outside blended smoothly into the sophisticated urban world of the City. B’Jing; Ah’kis’ greatest and only city.
 
Of course it was not the only urban landscape to encircle the pipe. The Ring, a smallish town one hundred miles south, claimed that title also. Although it seemed to Kassi that the string of dwellings at Ring were mostly stretched along a barren roadway and in fact, if you didn’t know better, you could actually see it as three or four separate villages barely nudging each other. B’Jing though; now this WAS a City. Ten miles south to north, bordering the Circled Sea and priding itself on being civilised. In a good way. Kassi had met many ‘civilised’ people who appeared to have only taken the cutty, stabby part of enlightenment and melded it too a philosophy which frankly set out to judge any that was not THEM. In Kassi’s experience she was always NOT THEM.
 
The Seam, the large open road that ran along the length of the world, was to their left, and looking almost across she could see the black tarmac swirling with people and vehicles. Sebastian had suggested they enter here, slightly off the beaten track and he had been correct. Not that she was about to tell him that any time soon. They came to a street almost as wide as the Seam which led up towards Prince’s Mount. A slab of granite a thousand feet high upon which somebody had planted a castle.
 
For a structure not erected by the Builders it was amazing. Great blocks of stone and brickwork rising up towards the sunline five miles overhead. Dark glassless windows tall and narrow looked down on the City. She followed Sebastian up the wide street until they stood at the highest point besides the castle overlooking B’Jing. Along the Prince’s Mount tenements stood nine or ten storeys tall; narrow buildings cluttered around thin dark alleyways and wynds—a local name for narrow streets. Beyond the City’s edge lay the south and her village. The end of Ah’kis was shrouded in mist and cloud, impenetrable. She had travelled over two thousand miles and still had three thousand to go. A thousand over water.
 
Looking down on the City though Kassi saw metal and glass gleam in the sunline. Tall buildings, towers, clustered around the docks and further clockwise rows of neatly spaced houses spread outwards. The day was clear and Kassi could almost imagine seeing through the glare of the sunline and looking down on the City above her. The mount was set a little off the north south Seam, a smudge of granite amongst the vastness of the world. Standing on it though made Kassi feel like a giant looking down on a world of ants. She breathed in deeply tasting the salt in the air. Kittiwakes and terns circled overhead their distinctive calls echoing among the tall towers of B’Jing. Beyond a ring of steel grey water rose up and around. The Circle Sea.
 
She turned back to face the slope down Prince’s Mount. It was said that you could find whatever you needed within the warren of buildings and she sensed Sebastian’s anticipation, could taste his joy as he hefted the large bag of Teflon/Kevlar armour excitedly.
 
“Go on then. Off you go,” she said eventually, no longer able to contain his impatience.
 
“Will you be alright, lass?” he asked with concern. “This is a big city.”
 
Kassi laughed. “I think you’ve managed to install SOME manners into me over the years. I’m NOT that much of a barbarian.”
 
“That was not what I meant. It is just leaving you to your own devices often leads to...” He tried to phase it nicely.
 
“Death? Destruction? Villagers with pitchforks and torches?”
 
The robot splayed a hand which Kassi knew indicated a shrug.
 
“I will be fine.” She held the mechanoid’s ‘face’ in her hands and looked deeply into his white and blue lenses. “And after all. This is a civilised place. Why would anyone WANT to run at me with a sword?”
 
Sebastian could think of at least three hundred and twenty four reasons but he kept quiet.
 
“Go! At the worst I’ll find an ale house and get roaring drunk.”
 
He amended his concerns to 325. “Okay. But at the first sign of any trouble.”
 
Kassi sighed and almost rolled her eyes. {I will ‘call’ you ... mother!}
 
He walked away dodging through a procession of other robots and a number of Trolls. One Troll was actually arranged as a vessel for transport and Kassi was tempted to pay her fare and just ride around the City taking in its sights. But then she thought of the dens and gambling halls and other nefarious joints hidden within the Prince’s Mount and walked haphazardly allowing the crowd to push her first one way and then another.
 
It had barely been ten minutes when she felt the hand reach for her money bag. Whomever it was, they were good, after all they had managed to get their hand IN before Kassi had noticed, but her own hand caught the thief’s and she held it up with a slight twist. A young lad, no more than ten or eleven, gasped in surprise and pain. He had a golden face, round with youth and large brown eyes, heavy lidded. His hair was jet black and folded over his shoulders in waves of ebony. A row of small uneven teeth were bared in pain.
 
Kassi copied the humourless snarl and said. “I thought we should talk. After all you have your hand somewhere quite intimate for a lady; her purse.”
 
The boy tried to wriggle free but Kassi had his wrist in a firm grip. He looked sullen and tried to kick out at the warrior but she was already ahead of him. One sweep of her leg and he was on his arse, his arm twisted even further around.
 
“We can dance all day, lad. I’ve plenty of patience. I just wonder how much arm you have.” She gave it another little tweak.
 
He stopped struggling and finally said in heavily accented common. “I am Sin.”
 
Kassi was unsure if he had said Shin, Chin or actually Sin but told him her own name. She released him and sat next to him as he ruefully rubbed his arm.
 
“Yemánren are not usually so competent; honoured Miss.”
 
Kassi let the ‘honoured Miss’ ride. “Who are you calling barbarian?”
 
The boy shrugged. “You wear the armour of a Yemánren and certainly the swagger of one. Normally they are so intent on finding a good brothel they do not notice my little fingers.” He held up his hands as though to emphasis them. “I should have known that a woman would not be focused on...” He ran out of words or concepts.
 
Kassi let that pass also; she did NOT want to get into discussions about sex with a ten year old boy. “So. You do this for a living?”
 
The boy smiled. “I like to keep my own hand in, but I employ two other boys. I am an on-tra-pa-neur.”
 
“An entrepreneur eh? I bet you know all the other pick pockets in the city?”
 
He nodded. “All the GOOD ones Miss.”
 
Kassi had her knife to his throat so quickly that the S sound was still hanging in the air. “Then pass on a little message for me. Anyone comes near they lose a finger.”
 
The boy gulped—gently.
 
“Do we understand each other? Because the ONLY thief I know in this city is you. And I’m pretty sure I can find you again.”
 
The boy nodded again as Kassi hid the knife.
 
“I heard of a mighty warrior-woman who defeated the world’s greatest swordsman,” he said in awe. “And I had my hands upon her purse. What honour.”
 
Kassi was unsure how to take that and was about to say something to the lad when he bounded off saying. “I must tell them. I, Sin, almost robbed the mighty warrior-woman and still have all of my fingers left.”
 
The lad ran away, dodging in between the crowd of visitors and tradesmen. Kassi waited barely a second before following. She had nothing better to do that afternoon and the lad intrigued her. A group of urchins making a living by pick-pocketing the visitors to the world’s greatest city. Now THAT was a tale she wanted to hear. So she kept an eagle eye on the youth as he dodged artfully through the crowd before taking a narrow side alley to the left.
 
She followed with surprising ease. It’s remarkable how swiftly people move out of the way of a six foot warrior encased in tempered leather armour and a very large broadsword, and reached the alley just as the lad dodged right. The pebbled pathway led downwards. Looking up Kassi could just about see a slice of pale sky. Turning right carefully, she noted the lad turn abruptly left and vanish.
 
Hurrying to the place where Sin had gone she found only a brick wall which, upon testing, appeared solid enough. Kassi felt the bricks at just the right height for a child. Kneeling slightly she finally found a small brick which depressed. A section of the wall swung inwards softly and she stepped in without thought. The wall closed silently behind her. She paused for a second to allow her eyes to grow accustomed to the dim light. Pale washes of light dotted the stairs which led downwards; islands in the stygian darkness.
 
Still unafraid, Kassi continued to follow Sin downwards. She could hear his distant footfalls as he hurried down the stone steps unaware that he was been followed. The steps were slick with moisture and slippery with green algae but were used often enough for furrows to be stamped out. The staircase spiralled to the left giving any right handed men ample means to protect themselves. Of course Kassi was left handed and so descending also aided her; if needs be.
 
At the bottom of the spiral staircase a solid looking corridor branched and the distinct smell of sewage drifted in the still air. Narrow slits in the stonework above allowed slivers of sunlight in but the effect was mostly gloom with added shadow. Quickly Kassi glanced down each branch but they all ended in solid looking walls. Finally she came to the end of the corridor. Here water cascaded down through a large slot; spilling from ceiling to floor and beyond.
 
The warrior looked around, aware that there was nowhere else for the lad to have vanished. The lip of the slot was wet as drops spilled out like fine rain. There, almost imperceptible in the dim light, Kassi saw the fading print of a boot. A small boot as worn by a lad of around ten or eleven. She examined the area minutely. There was no way a boy would allow himself to willingly get wet; she recalled Kaze—her brother—and his protestations on bath nights. Finally she found a similar brick to the one on the street. She gently pushed on it and the waterfall opened up like a curtain. The slot was around four feet wide but almost central was a small step. With one leap Kassi was across.
 
The curtain of water closed behind her, the noise filling the narrow corridor she found herself in. Ahead a steady bright light glowed. Voices murmured softly and as she walked into the light she could see shadows flit across bare brick arches. The room was wide and high vaulted. A huddle of young children gathered around a brazier their backs shadows despite the phalanx of lamps that hung or clung to ceiling and walls.
 
As she waited Kassi felt a soft hand slip into hers and she looked down at a girl, no more than five, who looked up at her with brown eyes wide with excitement. Her ebony face was dusted with pale soot.
 
“Are you here to take us away?” she asked almost wistfully.
 
“No, lass,” Kassi answered truthfully.
 
At the sound of a foreign voice all the children turned to face her. Some went for their weapons but Kassi remained still, unmoving. She had no desire to face children nor to do them harm.
 
The boy Sin stepped forward and said. “You! You followed me?”
 
“Wanted to return you this.” She held up a leather purse finely embossed in lace work. Sin’s hand automatically went to his own side pocket as he looked at the purse in horror. “I have a bit of a talent in that area myself.” Although talent isn’t what Sebastian calls it. She smiled hoping the purse would be seen as a peace offering.
 
“It does not matter. If she had so wished she could have attacked you without warning.” The voice came from behind the children; oddly stilted and almost grating. It sounded like a series of great stones been dragged across each other. The children stepped away to reveal a robot; at least Kassi assumed it to be a robot for it was of a design she had never seen before.
 
There was a metal head that had been worked to look human sized and proportioned but it had none of the smooth flexibility of Sebastian’s. Instead its lower ‘jaw’ hinged as it spoke moving up and down as if to convey the concept of speech with as little effort as possible. Its eyes were bright diodes but the creature had to turn its head to focus on Kassi. If she moved it would have to shift its head. At first she thought that it sat within a cage but then realised that the framework that sat around the head was part of its body.
 
The body itself was square and about three feet in height. Perhaps it had once been smooth but now gears and chains whirled about in constant motion and Kassi could see deep within the machine an infinity of cogs and levers all dancing to some silent tune. Parts looked ancient whilst some of the gears shone as though new. A thick band of leather ran around three disks and Kassi caught the scent of burnt oil.
 
“Forgive me. I am a Formative Advisory, Guidance and Nurturing device. One of a dozen or so built after the Great Collision.”
 
Deep within the framework Kassi noted a twinkling of lights. Kassi bowed slightly and answered. “And I am Kassi Seishin of Shirô village far to the south.”
 
“Greetings Kassi Seishin of Shirô village. I welcome you into our home.” The machine rasped, a wheeze of gas escaping every so often as it spoke. “Sin. Please retrieve your collection. Debor, please prepare some tea for our honoured guest.”
 
A young girl hurried over to a low bench piled with ancient machines and new food. She poured water into an old steel kettle and placed it over a ring of fire. Sin meanwhile shuffled over to Kassi and took the purse reluctantly.
 
“She did not follow me. I was sure,” he said doubtfully to the machine.
 
An appendage, more a drive-shaft with a collection of fine pincers attached, waved imperiously. “It matters not, Sin. I am intrigued by this woman. Although I can see why you mistook her for a target.” The head turned from the boy back to Kassi. “I have tried to teach them skills with which to survive.”
 
Kassi smiled. “He is very good, probably one of the best I’ve ever come across. You have taught him well.”
 
The young girl brought over a delicate china cup full of dark tea. “We ‘ave this an’ nuthin’ else... miss. So’s that’s yer lot.”
 
She actually curtsied as Sin blurted out. “Dodger!” She ran away laughing.
 
“The children live down here?” Kassi asked.
 
The machine seemed to agitate for a minute before answering. “As I said, I am a device to offer advice, guidance and nurture. It is my function to provide these lost children with an education and skills with which to survive. Regrettably life is unsafe for such children above ground.”
 
“How so?”
 
“When Ark Six was struck almost one hundred years into its journey many of the crew travelled north to assess the damage. As time went on those who were left realised that life would change. The hopes and excitement of the journey’s end was replaced with the horrors of a life perhaps forever here within the Ark. Difficulties always create strains and fractures within families and it was understood that those typically at the ‘bottom’ of the hierarchy would be the most disadvantaged.”
 
“The children.”
 
 “Yes. So a group of engineers... I believe the word is ‘cobbled’ together a dozen machines to support children here in the City. After all; any child running away elsewhere would find fields and orchards aplenty. Here in The City though a million people first lived. A few parks were created but it was left mostly as an open sore circling the Ark.”
 
Kassi thought of her own childhood. She had no real problems with her parents but that was really because they allowed her to do what she pleased. She recalled summer days roaming wild and free across Brackenwood, nicking apples as she wished. Even before Sebastian came into her life she had been rebelling. She tried to imagine the stifling oppression the City would bring. They had walked for three hours enclosed on all sides by houses and shops. No tree grew anywhere and people were rushing madly about to some rhythm faster than she was used to.
 
The machine continued. “We were set up with ancient thinking machines called computers and not positronic brains as the ‘Builders’ had used with all the other machines. I believe that I may be one of the last still working.” The head turned to look at his children. “Still teaching.” He paused for a second. “One of my pupils became major of a district, and another went on to become an Admiral of the Fleet. Pick pocketing is but the first of many skills the children learn here. All can cook and read and write; and they have all learned the real history of the Ark. I have taught them who the true ‘Builders’ were; not gods but people like themselves.”
 
Kassi thought for a second. She never really believed the whole ‘Builders’ religion but then she knew so little of the world that these children were probably better educated than she was. She felt humbled.
 
“The stealing supports all the other works,” she said finally.
 
“Of course it is regrettable, but The City has no need for orphans or those disenfranchised. It would allow them to starve; or worse exploit them. I provide shelter and....”
 
There was a noise behind the machine. Movement; large heavy movements.
 
Kassi’s hand dropped to the hilt of her sword as the children huddled together.
 
“She brought the city guard!” one of the children cried but the machine just said flatly.
 
“No she did not. These men arrive from tunnel eight. She came with Sin from Tunnel Four.” His head swivelled taking in each child. “We meet at rendezvous Beta.” He stopped at Kassi. “We could have need of....”
 
She smiled, sword drawn. “I am ready. Send the children off. I will keep your ‘guests’ busy.”
 
She stepped forward as a dozen men in burnished metal armour with red feathery plumes strode with self-importance into the large vaulted room.
 
“You would protect these miscreants?” their leader demanded.
 
“They are children,” Kassi answered.
 
“They are thieves who steal from the rich.”
 
“Who no doubt can afford the loss of the odd gem. Consider it a tax.” Kassi had little knowledge of economics; all she understood was the disparity between the rich and the poor. She was happy with most things that evened that imbalance.
 
Two men on her right ran forward at her as their leader spat out. “Kill them all!”
 
Feeling freer than ever Kassi side stepped the first guard and swung low at the second. Blood splattered out from a wound in his thigh and he backed away. Three others ran forward and soon Kassi was covered in their blood. One lay dead and the other two injured. An arrow sped past her as she dodged to the left and then ran at, and up, a curved wall landing on two of the men heavily. Winded, they wisely stayed down as the warrior rolled onto her feet deftly and relived a man of his sword with the flick of her own. A heavy blow from a mace caught her right arm but she retaliated by flinging her special shield away.
 
It rotated in the twilight bouncing from wall to floor to ceiling before cutting across four of the men as they stood in line. They fell. Their leader, who had stayed back, snarled and ran forward inexpertly. His sword caught Kassi’s twice before she jabbed under his shield. He stood for a second startled before staggering backwards and calling for his men to retreat. Kassi did not follow them. Instead she looked at the damage wrought the machine. An arrow had found home deep within and one of the guards had managed to take a swing at it. Dials, cogs and bits of metal lay strewn across the floor. Deep inside no light flickered. Kassi sighed hoping that the children would find better sanctuary wherever they were heading. Resigned, but happy to have fought a good fight within The City, the warrior left the way she had come.
 
 
 
“A FAGAN? God, I did not think any could be left.” Sebastian exclaimed after Kassi had told him of her adventure.
 
“Fagan?” she asked.
 
“A Formative Advisory, Guidance and Nurturing mechanism. They were built by the second or third generation as he said to assist the rehabilitation of young offenders. He must have been close to 10,000 years old,” the bot said wistfully.
 
“You’re always telling me that you’re 10,000 years old.”
 
“Yes but I was built back on Earth by those you call the Builders. These are second or third generation engineers.”
 
“Ginns?” Kassi asked.
 
“Yes. Engineers who built a machine that has lasted ten thousand years from the scraps around them. Amazing.”
 
They walked along the wall which led from the castle atop the Mount. It gave them a stunning view of the Circled Sea ten miles away as the sunline faded into night. Kassi was fascinated by the flatness of the vast thousand mile wide ocean. She was used to the undulating land of the Pipe-World. Such a flat mirror like a curved sheet appeared unnatural.
 
“I like your eyes,” Kassi said as she eat an ice cream, a novelty only found in B’Jing.
 
“Thanks.” Sebastian ‘blinked’ his two blue sensors at her. “We had enough coin left over so I had an expert roboticist replace my damaged lens[1].
 
“Shame he could do nothing about a personality replacement.” Kassi said with a smirk.
 
“I WAS thinking the same about you luv.” Sebastian replied.
 
The two friends continued to walk arm in arm, enjoying the end of the day.
 
 
 
Kyrk’Non-Loann made her way slowly into the large vaulted room that lay deep underground. No lamps remained lit but she had no need as her eyes were well adapted for infrared vision and to her the room was a wash of pale grey-tones. Her deep red fur appeared almost black and the hard keratin of her hooves caused echoes in the silence. Nervously she approached the mechanism that sat unmoving. Her cone like ears rotated picking up any ambient sound. She stood still, all four hooves firmly placed on the ground whilst her upper limbs, equivalent to a human’s arms and hands, reached out to the dead machine.
 
Across her shoulder she wore her plasticloth bag in which the nullifier lay silently. She had no wish to activate it this close to humans. Based on the quantum refractors they had found all it would do was render none telepaths unconscious but in such a confined space, and with such tall buildings surrounding her any such activation could well be deadly. As a Socio-Xenobiologist she wished no creature harm; as odd as these humans were they WERE sentient. Besides in such a place as this city someone would obviously notice an area where all were unconscious. Still she nervously fingered the nullifier. She had not been so close to humans for a long time, and then not those awake, and the thought of a chance discovery unnerved her.
 
“Did it work?” she asked softly.
 
For a heartbeat there was no change and then a dim light flared in the machine and Kyrk heard a number of cogs begin to spin into motion.
 
“Yes,” Fagan answered in its grating voice. “You were correct in your assessment. One of my pupils did attempt to pick pocket the woman.”
 
“And she was led back here?” Kyrk wished to be sure that her plan worked fully.
 
“She in fact followed the boy back. I then triggered the alert.” The machine turned its head to look at Kyrk. She could read nothing in its expression.
 
“Did anyone ...?” Her voice trailed off.
 
“Two of the guards were indeed killed and a number seriously injured. This woman appears more feral at times than any youngster I have taught. Perhaps it would have been better for her to be entrusted into my care.” The machine sounded petulant despite its monotone.
 
“No. The surface engineering bot was better suited psychologically,” she replied grimly; the thought of human deaths caused her a great deal of pain. “The guards will pursue her?”
 
“Yes. May I enquire why it was so important for her to leave B’Jing so swiftly?”
 
“There is a storm coming,” Kyrk replied absently. “At least a 94% chance of a squall settling over the Circular Sea for a month or two. I cannot have her waiting here. Things move too quickly.”
 
The machine accepted that. It looked around. “My wards?”
 
“I will arrange for you to be taken to them.”
 
It appeared satisfied with that answer. Slowly the diodes inside faded as it shut itself down.
 
Kyrk thought of the rise of Haol’Non-Welm and the Margind Caste. Their concerns were purely practical. Strip the Pipe-World of all resources, both physical and technical, and leave it to crash into Tau Mazjour; a red giant still some ten earth years away. Her own caste, the Majols, wished to save the craft and its people. The girl was prominent in that venture as the only genetically pure human capable of restarting the computers because of her telepathic abilities. They had even taken the girls brother to compel her northwards. But The Margind Caste grew in power and now threatened all. A month or two delay here could mean a year or two before the warrior girl reached the decks of this vessel in the far north. By then it may be too late. Again she wondered if the trauma of actually taking the girl would be worth it. But the psychic feedback may well dampen her telepathic prowess just when they needed it. This was by far the better way. Better but long-winded and frustrating. The red-furred alien stepped out of the vaulted room. The machine waited patiently in silence. In the City above life continued unaware of the coming danger.
 
CONTINUES NEXT MONTH

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