KASSI AND THE CITY by Ste Whitehouse
 
‘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.’

Day Two: The Man
 
The Avenue was wide. Massively wide. Wide enough to place whole buildings within. Even a small hamlet could fit into the expanse between the two sides. Either by design or chance a number of impressive structures had arisen along its length until it had become an attraction all to itself. The Avenue was the place to go when visiting B’Jing, and Kassi had no intention of missing it. Neither had anyone else, which was why it was heaving with people and bots and Trolls even at seven in the morning. So many people, so much traffic, that it was, in effect, pedestrianised. What vehicles in sight were mainly Trolls, loaded with MORE goods to sell and slowly weaving their way through the crowd.
 
That was the surprising thing to Kassi. As far as she could tell almost everything on sale was tat. Trinkets and clay models of the more famous buildings and statues; clothing adorned with hearts and silhouettes of the same structures. Sebastian had already talked her out of three tea towels and a stylish hat that he said would be shapeless the first rainfall. At present she was shifting through a series of ceramic figures set onto magnets. Sebastian sighed—loudly—to allow the girl to hear his displeasure. She just ignored the bot even as he reared up on his back two sets of legs and waved his other appendages as four arms.
 
“Do you really think that putting Sirius, god of metalwork, on your sword is such a good idea?” Sarcasm dripped from his words but Kassi just smiled brightly at him.
 
“I was thinking of placing it here actually.” She placed a finger between the bot’s two sensors. “It would look good.”
 
Sebastian folded his upper arms and struggled not to say he was actually a ceramic alloy and so the magnet would not stick.
 
“And do not Harrumph me!” the woman added.
 
“I did NOT harrumph!”
 
“I {heard} you.”
 
They fell into silence, wandering like any other tourists. Taking in the sights. To their left was a tall, thin building, allegedly the tallest this side of the Circled Sea, and before them gardens set out in a regular pattern of squares with fountains and lakes nestling in between. There they found a low, squat structure that looked older than anything Kassi had ever seen. It had a curved roof of clay-baked tiles in tiers that almost glowed red under the sunline, and on one side the edge of the lower roof was held up by a series of red pillars. The building was awash with paintings and edged with finely cut carvings. At each end of the high, vaulted roof stood a stylised dragon. There was a sense of timelessness enveloping the building; a silence. A hushed reverence given to only the most sacred of places.
 
“The Palace of Heavenly Purity,” Sebastian whispered.
 
“It’s beautiful.”
 
“The Eastern Pacific Nations wished to bring something from their lands. A reminder of who they had been.” He stared in reverence. “It was over six hundred years old BEFORE the Ark even left!”
 
Then Kassi saw a figure walking unsteadily amongst the large crowd. S/he was tall, over seven feet, and wore a greying bulky overcoat. His/her movements were jerky and almost mechanical, and at first Kassi thought it to be some humanoid robot, but then she caught a glimpse of skin as black as ebony and knew.
 
“An Elf!”
 
The smell of burnt charcoal reached her and she realised that the ‘overcoat’ was in fact a steam powered mechanism used by the elf to walk. A hiss of mist was exhaled by the machinery and she could just make out the sound of gears and levers much like the sound that Trolls made. S/he came close but even then Kassi could not decide whether the Elf was male or female, so fine were its features. Smooth black skin was taut over high cheek bones and delicate fingers. Their eyes were as jet with no whiteness to be seen at all, the head hairless.
 
She recalled what Sebastian had told her. Elves lived atop the Spike, a tall structure over four miles high, reaching up almost to the sunline. There, gravity was low and the power of the sunline great. According to the bot they had originally been human, but over the thousands of years had adapted to their new home; much like the dwarves had—but with differing results. Because of the disparity in gravity they rarely descended to Ah’kis’ floor. Yet here was one only a hand span away. It turned to glance her way before moving on. Its expression unreadable.
 
“The suit is there to support them under the greater gravity,” Sebastian said, almost in as much awe as the girl. “I wonder where they gather charcoal from. The Spike is surely bare at that height.”
 
“We see an actual ELF and THAT’S what comes to mind!”
 
Sebastian raised an appendage, a sign that Kassi knew meant he was shrugging. “What can I say; I’m pedantic.”
 
“If that means effortlessly annoying, infuriating and exasperating then I concur.”
 
Sebastian was enormously pleased with her vocabulary but was—pedantically—about to correct Kassi but stopped. The telepathic link they shared had told him that something was troubling the woman, and had been all morning. Instead he allowed her some space. After all; she would tell him eventually. In order to encourage her to share he thought to reveal some of his own misgivings. “I fear that I may not be able to assist you for any length of time.”
 
“What!?” Kassi looked at her friend in horror. “Aren’t you supposed to drip feed me bad news instead of dropping a shitload of stuff like that?”
 
The bot sighed. “What I meant is that there was some troubling information that came out of me replacing my lens.”
 
“You actually don’t have a positronic brain?”
 
Sebastian’s formless exterior somehow managed to convey annoyance. “No. What was found is troubling and may affect how we proceed. You are aware of my designation.”
 
“Surface Engineering Bot A5T1. Seb A5T1. I mistook how you wrote it and called you Sebastian.”
 
“Yes. Well. In case we were ever partially destroyed, all parts of our framework were marked with the same designation. We could then be identified, you see.”
 
“So all of you is SEBA5T1?”
 
“In theory, yes.”
 
“Ahh.”
 
“Correct. When the technician removed part of my outer head casing the numbers inside did not match. I have been placed within a new body. Someone else’s body.” He shuddered inwardly at the thought. His earliest memories were from outside the Ark, where he and his brothers all swarmed to help maintain the exterior of the long pipe-world, and also to break down the huge ion engine at the south end and take it up to the north end where it was to have been fired some two hundred years later.
 
Sebastian recalled an impact which had dislodged a number of his brothers and trapped him out on the cold surface. Days turned to years, turned to centuries, turned to millennia. The stray nuggets of cosmic energies which found their way past the Ark’s forward Ionic shielding laced his spongium with new pathways, new thoughts. At the same time he now recalled his body, twisted and broken, slowly destroyed by the very energies that gave him new ideas. He trembled at the lost memory of loneliness and desperation as he felt his physical body break down little by little until his mind faded. Until he awoke facing a young human girl and felt...?[1]
 
As an Engineering bot he was a work horse and nothing more; and yet he had such feelings for Kassi and mankind as a whole. He had always wondered if these feelings had been set by those who awoke him. Wondered if he had been programmed like any machine to love, or was there some other, ethereal reason? Was he truly different from his brothers or just running a different programme? Until now he had felt secure in his abilities, but now that he knew that his positronic brain had been taken from his original body he felt less assured. Could whoever had done this to him also be able to make him do other things? Things he would hate; like betray Kassi?
 
Kassi placed a hand gently across his back and said as though understanding his thoughts clearly. “You haven’t let me down yet.”
 
“It is the yet part I find uncomfortable. What if I am programmed to... to... ” Words failed him.
 
Kassi knelt and faced him, taking his ‘head’ in both hands. “Then we will face that event, IF it ever occurs.”
 
“I may not be able to stop whatever occurs,” he replied.
 
“I have scars aplenty because we could not stop something or other. Why waste a good worry on a future that may not happen?”
 
At the thought of how much damage the woman had sustained Sebastian felt a deep twist of emotion. If he could cry he would have.
 
“Besides.” Kassi stroked his lenses lovingly. “You’ve also had your fair share of scars.”
 
Somehow the mass of the crowd seemed to fade and it was as if they stood alone in the city. Despite the pandemonium surrounding them, Sebastian thought that he would hear a pin drop at that second. Kassi looked away, sad. She appeared to struggle within herself.
 
Finally she spoke. “I also have doubts. Not about you but about myself. My role in this quest to save Kaze.”
 
“Your brother.”
 
“I... We were never that close. Not always. Not when it mattered.”
 
“I have learnt that biology does not always bind one to another.”
 
“I guess I always felt... second. Not only as a girl but as a sibling. All the others had died, two girls and a boy, either stillborn or dead before they were three, and there was so much time separating me from Kaze. His name means Spirit of the Wind and he certainly knew how to blow hot and cold; how to work his way into every crack, every cranny, and provoke you.”
 
Sebastian refrained from telling her that he had spent years observing her relationship with her family. Years in which he had seen both good and bad. Instead he replied:
 
“And your name means Spirit of the Fire. Most apt.”
 
Kassi smiled, preoccupied. “Perhaps my parents did somehow see our spirits. Anyway. I tried at first to be with him, to follow him around. That was why I insisted on going to the dig in the ice[2]. Why dancing was never enough. Eventually if I couldn’t join him then I wanted to be his equal. Perhaps to be better than he was. And still... ”
 
Sebastian could feel her pain but waited, afraid that if he spoke her train of thought would be broken. He knew that it was important for her to speak; to unburden herself. He recalled the years he had spent with the young girl as she tried to be the child her parents wished for; the hours she spent meticulously grooming herself or mastering a task only for a new, even more distant, goal to be added. The frustration she felt. Her feelings so visible even before they were joined by their telepathic link.
 
“Sometimes I felt like they really understood me; do you know? That they could see that I needed to roam free, and that was why they eventually allowed me such liberties, but at other times it felt like they were punishing me by just ignoring me. ‘Who cares what the kid wants; let her go away, we don’t need her here.’ How can freedom feel so liberating and yet so claustrophobic at the same time? And through all of this Kaze was the son, the heir, the one-that-mattered. I was a fluke, a mistake. Gods, I don’t even LOOK like my parents! Do you remember that summer I thought that I was somehow the daughter of the Brackenwood Doge? I spent most of August hanging around her Palace, hoping to be ‘discovered’.”
 
She looked up at the sunline, this morning a dull glow amongst the corkscrew of clouds.
 
“When... When they took him. The demons. I didn’t know what to think. My first thought was ‘maybe mom and dad will actually be happy to see me for once.’ Maybe I won’t have to hear about Kaze and his sodding children anymore.”
 
A wave of guilt roiled through her mind and Sebastian, feeling all her emotions placed a ‘hand’ gently atop of hers.
 
She continued. “Then I thought, Shit! I’m going to have to rescue the prat. Can you believe that? My first thought was that now I’ve got mom an’ dad to myself, and then anger that I have to go save his arse. What sort of sister am I? What sort of daughter is happy that her parents are crying?”
 
Tears filled her own eyes as her emotions sharpened, catching even Sebastian by surprise.
 
“Even those fucking demons expected me to rush off to save him.”
 
“And you are, luv.”
 
“Under fucking duress! I wander around Ah’kis wishing I had more time to actually stay around and really help people. Those women from the Tower[3]. Those girls and their dragon[4]. Paying back those folks after that knight had cut a swathe through their lives[5]. All of them could have done with more time spent.”
 
“And Fyonne?” Sebastian added.
 
“Aye, and her too. I’ve lived this past year just rushing forward, and yet not truly rushing. I’ve been happy to meander; to ignore the urgency. What do we do when we get to wherever they’re keeping him? How many of these red demons are there? Why did they take my brother? Why me?”
 
She repeated the last two words over and over, crumpling into a heap of pain. Sebastian ineffectually rubbed her back. “Because despite what you say, I know that you love your brother and so do they. These things know that nothing will keep you from him.”
 
She wiped snot and tears with the back of her sleeve and took a deep breath.
 
 
 
They had wandered the wide streets and narrow alleyways without thought of direction, allowing their emotions to calm down. Ancient buildings erected by the Builders gave way to gleaming stone and glasswork. Office blocks, some almost forty storeys tall, stretched blindly towards the ever present sunline as its light changed from the deep yellow of day to a muted redness that all knew to be dusk—even if the word meant little to them.
 
A number of street lights flickered into life, casting a brittle brilliance across this section of the city. Magic filled the air. Here at least, those people who actually worked and lived in B’Jing swarmed endlessly out of buildings, heading for home and hearth. Bots were much in evidence and Sebastian was ignored, even though he differed from most of the mechanoids serving the citizens. It felt strange not to be the centre of attention, and Kassi, after her... discussion with Sebastian earlier, was thankful for the anonymity. It felt liberating, and she was actually smiling again when Sebastian halted, practically tripping her up.
 
“What!?” She almost scolded her friend but sensed his concern.
 
{There is a man. Up there.} The bot ‘thought’.
 
{So? It’s a tall building. Surely there are men everywhere. And women.}
 
{I mean there is a man on the OUTSIDE of the building, very high up. Dangerously so.}
 
Kassi looked up into the deepening gloom that had settled above the street lights. {I mean, it’s pretty high up there, so maybe window cleaners have to climb out?}
 
Sebastian gave her a look that dripped sarcasm.
 
“Okay. Okay. I’ll check it out. Which building and what floor?”
 
Sebastian thought the message to her even as she ran across the wide avenue. He followed behind and found a secluded part of the building to begin climbing upwards. Inside, Kassi was taking the stairs two at a time. The lifts looked rickety and modern and she was unsure how safe anything built in the last thousand years truly was. The man sat on the ledge twelve floors up—which, according to Sebastian, was still high enough to kill yourself—for which she was thankful. Thirty flights of stairs would have knackered her.
 
The ledge, when she found it, was surprisingly wide and ridged with a low stone lip, which only served to catch rainwater and bird shit. She walked carefully around the corner, feeling the wind suddenly pick up and surge across the edge. The man sat, legs dangling, ten feet from her. Below, Sebastian indicated that he was in place.
 
“Hi. This seems a strange place to have a quiet think. I mean, I totally get it, down there is bedlam. I could hardly hear myself think, but lazing around twelve storeys up seems a little... excessive?”
 
As she spoke, Kassi edged closer to the man. He looked to be in his early thirties, and was rake thin, with black hair tied back in a ponytail. He wore faded jeans and a white tee under a dark linen jacket. His feet were oddly bare. He looked at Kassi and smiled. No sudden jumps, no starts, no fearful looking around; just a steady look and broad smile—which suited him, Kassi noted.
 
He said something in a guttural tongue, some southern language from Brackenwood, but she could not understand him. His voice sounded pleasant, she thought, a wary shimmer of doubt rising slowly.
 
“Ah! You understand the common tongue,” he said.
 
{Sebastian?}
 
{Not sensing anything untoward, but I agree, his commenting originally in Counters-wise Brackenwood suggests that he was expecting you to understand. Which in turn ...}
 
{Suggests that he is waiting here specifically for me.}
 
She spoke out loud above the stiff wind. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. You obviously know who I am but I don’t know who you are.” She smiled sweetly, her eyes scanning the rooftops across the broad avenues.
 
“Issyac. Johan Issyac. At your service.” He managed to mime a small bow, despite lounging against the thick concrete wall.
 
Kassi drew her sword. “I doubt that you’re here to service me.” She sensed Sebastian’s groan from four floors down even without their telepathic link. {It was the best retort I could come up with.} she insisted.
 
Issyac stood, a narrow dirk in his right hand.
 
There was a ripple in the dark shadows across the street and a number of windows suddenly held a Sigh, wand in hand.
 
{Shit! There are at least another two men with guns and a whole truck load of warriors running into the lobby downstairs.}
 
{Wait a second or two.} Kassi instructed.
 
“So, Johan Issyac. Do you wish to kill me or capture me? Be warned, neither is easy.”
 
“I would wish only to capture you, but my owners have no thoughts to either.”
 
Owners eh? Not masters?
 
“Such a shame,” Kassi replied with a widening smile that became less warm by the second.
 
“Because I end your crime spree tonight?” Issyac asked.
 
“No. Because you have such a pretty face that to damage it would be a true crime.”
 
He dashed forward but Kassi was already leaping up at the wall and pulling herself higher. She kicked off and expertly landed on the outer half inch ridge, catching her balance perfectly. Mrs Baxter, her dance tutor, would have been proud. Without hesitation, the man swung his small blade around. Kassi jumped, landed, and ran along the edge without looking down. Issyac followed close behind as wands sounded around her and slugs of hot metal tore into the ledge only inches behind her.
 
{The next corner, luv. The guns are only placed this side. Evidently they don’t know THAT much about you after all.}
 
The man followed recklessly; after all his own men were shooting at her and he was close enough to be hit—albeit accidently.
 
Someone had an extra brain synapsis or two; suddenly a hail of bullets rebounded from the wall ahead of her. There was no way to make the corner safely.
 
Kassi dropped, slid back, and caught the man’s legs in a sweep of her own. He lost balance and she stood, grabbing at his clothing quickly, hoping that his tee shirt was made from decent material and by a good seamstress. He swung out and in flailing lost his weapon. Kassi pulled him up, but twisted to one side keeping him off balance. Now if he was owned, as surely the shooters were, would they be willing to kill him to get to her or not?
 
{This is NOT a good idea, Kassi.} Sebastian admonished.
 
Silence settled around them.
 
{They’ve paused, haven’t they?} “Can you call them off?” she whispered in the man’s ear.
 
He nodded and made a shooing motion with his right hand.
 
“Now. I’ve barely been in your bloody city two days, so tell me what is it I’m supposed to have done to piss your owners off?” she snarled, releasing him.
 
“You killed some City Guards.”
 
“To prevent them killing children. Or is it B’Jing’s wish to kill a four year old in cold blood?”
 
The man hesitated for the first time and she saw a flash of doubt.
 
“So you were not told all, I see,” she said softly. “Perhaps there IS a peaceful way out of this.”
 
“You will still need to come with me, but I promise to intercede on your behalf. I will inform my owners of this... oversight.”
 
“Yeah. I can see how well THAT would go; coming from property. Albeit one that walks, talks and looks pretty.” They stood carefully. “Nah. Don’t think I’ll take you up on your generous offer. Ta.” She began to move away.
 
A shot rang out close to her head and others began to shoot their wands. Fortunately, all were terrible marksmen.
 
“Stop! STOP!” The man waved his arms. A bullet struck the ledge at his feet and suddenly it crumbled away. He fell forward into the black night.
 
Without a thought Kassi leaped after him. Caught him. Spun both bodies around and landed on a ledge three storeys lower. The wind was knocked out of both of them and Kassi was grateful that the angle from the Sighs above was restricted so they no longer had a clear shot at her.
 
“Look. I promise you that if you are telling the truth you will have nothing to fear,” Issyac said with a wheeze.
 
“I speak the truth but my answer remains the same.” Kassi stood, kissed him, then turned and stepped off the ledge.
 
The man cried out and tried to grab her before she fell, but was too late. It was only a minute later that he realised that there was a lack of commotion from the street below. By then Sebastian had carried Kassi fourteen blocks counterwise and northwards, swinging amongst the tall buildings and gently humming a tune. When her breath returned she had to ask him what tune he was humming; and then what a ‘spiderman’ was.
 
CONTINUES NEXT MONTH

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