Images & Words: Void the Light – Part 10


Neal Ulen

When : Where
259 DE (2569 CE) : Terra / Techspire / The Tangle/ Amaranth Bazaar

This is approximately 1/3rd preivew of a first draft novella entitled Void the Light (tentative title) which takes place in the Infinispace Universe.

The novella is set about 30 years before the events of Infinispace: Deception and is ~50,000 words in length. It will be posted in serialized format.

0 - Prologue
1 - Martos
2 - Integrators
3 - The Rat...
4 - ...In The Cage
5 - Benize
6 - Taria
7 - Meetings
8 - Direction
9 - Lost
10 - Challe
11 - Fixer
End of Preview
Preceded by Void the Light – Part 9.
Wake up, Martos.”

He was unconscious, but his breathing and heart rate had returned to near normal. Taria moved her hand from his neck to his cheek, and gently caressed it, keeping her eyes directed toward the faint light trying to push its way into the darkness from the top of the stairwell. Far below, somewhere in the catacombs deep under the streets, she heard scratching, tapping, and chittering. Unnatural noises that begged to trigger an ages-old genetic flight response. She wanted nothing more than to drag Martos up the stairs and back into the light and breathable air, but she held her ground. Unpleasant things were said to live in the underbelly of the Tangle. Her previous encounter, presumably with a ghol, was still fresh in her memory and she had no desire to repeat it. Darkness was said to be their element, and she was all but blind waiting for Martos to come back to her.

His head began moving side to side as if he were trying to swim out of the depths of his unconsciousness, and his warm breath feathered her cold hand resting on his chest. Minutes later Martos let out a light groan. She could feel him try to sit up on the steps and prop himself against the wall.

“What happened … how long was I gone?” he asked.

Taria leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. “For well over an hour after you grabbed your head and collapsed.”

“I was pulled into another unavoidable confrontation with my keeper.” He shifted weight and positioned himself more comfortably on the stair. “Where are we? I can’t see a damn thing, and it smells like … decay.”

“I dragged you down this stairwell to hide, it’s the only place I could find after I fended off a ghol,” Taria replied. “Where these stairs lead, I don’t care to find out.”

“A ghol? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one, then again I haven’t been this deep in the Tangle for a long time either. Are you alright, did you have a problem with it?”

“It seemed a fairly weak one, more a frightened bag of skin and bones than anything … but I’d rather not stick around to meet any of its friends,” she pointed to where she thought the stairs descended, forgetting that Martos likely couldn’t see. “I’m fine. I’m more concerned with how you’re feeling.”

“Well, aside from the world beginning to crumble around me and a head that feels like it’s in a vice … I feel fine,” he replied with a modicum of sarcasm.

“Good, but tell me a little about this confrontation.”

“There’s not much to tell. My zookeeper made another offer.”

“And it was …?” She asked.

“That we leave the Tangle and become slaves to the Spire. I flatly refused of course. We have twenty-four hours until we are Uncitizened. Like I said, not much to tell. It only reinforces that we need to get to the bazaar and find Challe. It’s our only lead, a razor-thin one at that.”

“Martos … ,” she said impatiently.

“What?” He could sense her stare in the darkness. “Do you seriously believe we should consider such an offer? It was vague. For all I know it was just a ruse to get us to show our faces so we could be killed and thrown into a pit to rot. It only made me realize nothing has changed for us.”

“Of course, it’s just that … I’m desperate.”

“We’re both desperate, and that’s exactly what they’re counting on, but we’re not that desperate … not yet,” Martos growled.

“Are you up to moving yet?”

“Yes, but one more thing. What were we hiding from? Not the ghol, sounds like you chased it off.”

“No, not that. You said ‘They’re coming.’ Then I heard strange sounds coming from one of the passages above. I didn’t have the luxury of time, I just panicked.”

“Hmmm, what were the sounds from, did you see anything?”

“No, but whatever it was passed us by. It made a humming sound, low enough in frequency that it felt like my brain might liquify. It was like nothing I’ve ever heard before.”

There could be only one explanation, but Martos didn’t want to admit it to himself.

“I’ve heard it before, another Integrator. But how was my mind pulled into the Spire without it melding with me like the first time? I don’t understand.”

Taria began groping around in the darkness trying to locate their bags. She pushed one into Martos’ lap while slinging the strap of the other blindly over her head.

“Martos, I’m beginning to believe there’s nothing to understand anymore. There’s no way to rationalize what’s happening, there’s no sense trying to comprehend the technology they’re using, or why two lowly Citizens are so important to them. Control and compliance is their only concern. Why? I don’t know, and I don’t think we’ll ever know. Here, let me help you up. We need to get moving again.”

With Taria holding one of his arms, Martos slowly rose to his feet with a few painful grunts.

Keep moving.

They stumbled back up the stairs to the dim alley, peaking their heads both ways to ensure no surprises awaited. Satisfied, they returned to the mazes of the Tangle trying to find one of many paths that would eventually lead them to the bazaar and the mysterious Challe. One path blended into another, every turn looked like the other, and every Citizen looked at them quizzically. Directions were queried, but residents immediately knew outsiders to their circle and few would respond. After an hour of stumbling through the claustrophobic maze, the ways began to widen. They bumped and jostled with an increasing number of Citizens. The entrance to small shops and eateries passed them by. The lighting became more pronounced and colorful. And more significantly, the stench was replaced by the smell of foods and relatively fresh air.

After rounding what seemed to be their thousandth corner, Martos and Taria stepped into a sea of waving bodies. They both stopped and stared at the intimidating mass. They’d arrived at Amaranth Bazaar.

Taria looked up at him. “Some shortcut.”

He frowned. “Hey, we made it. At this point, that’s all I can ask for. One step at a time. Let’s go.”

Taria instinctively grabbed Martos’ hand; he accepted it gladly.

“Hold on to your bag tight, and don’t get separated! Don’t let go!” Martos yelled over the roar.

Taria nodded and he pulled them into the sea.

Towering buildings surrounded the open-air bazaar, creating a deep light well with only a small square of grey at its top. At the bazaar level, it was eternal night from what Martos could remember. It must have started raining while they were lost in the deep recesses of the Fifth Circle, because the cobbles of Amaranth were slick with water, food, and filth, making footing precarious. Spiraling up the well between buildings, bright lights hung from hundreds of posts, railings, and pipes. The light they cast refracted off the fine mist and create a shifting, multi-colored fog that hung over the crowd. It was beautiful in its own right. The sound coming from the bazaar was deafening. With no means of escape, and hundreds of surfaces to amplify, the voices of thousands of citizens created a roar of white noise.

Towering buildings surrounded the open air bazaar, creating a deep light well with only a small square of grey at its top. Light refracted off the fine mist and create a shifting, multi-colored fog that hung over the crowd. It was actually beautiful in its own right.

They passed shops selling exotic off-world foods brought down the Spire’s lifts. There were stalls supplying mundane foods processed from the protein and carb factories in the Sixth Circle. Booths that repaired shoes, clothing, and mechanical devices of all varieties. Taria cringed in disdain at the wares hawked at medicinal booths. There were even sellers trying to push black market weapons, most of which probably didn’t even function efficiently … if at all. Martos eyed these with special interest until Taria pulled him along. At every turn of the head scam artists were working their games of chance and deception, and ever on the fringes were the prostitutes posing provocatively with their glowing tats and augmented wares, prepared to give similarly equipped customers the night of their lives … or an unconscious night in the gutter stripped of all they own. Spire presence was nowhere to be seen. Rarely did they descend in person to monitor or enforce their edicts, but that didn’t mean the crowd wasn’t being monitored. The Tangle policed itself when it came to petty crimes. Swift, and often brutal, neighborhood justice was a strong deterrent.

Suddenly Martos stopped.

“Taria, over there!” he pointed just ahead.

Just through the bodies she looked and could make out piles of rugs, blankets, and mats tucked beneath a protective awning. She nodded and began tugging him toward it.

When they arrived the grizzled proprietor leaning against a large, rolled-up rug simply stared at them with lifeless, disinterested eyes.

“We’re looking for Challe’s stall,” Taria said. “Is this it?”

“Do I look like a ‘Challe’?” he said in a bored tone.

“Ahhh, we don’t know, we’ve never met him, err, her,” Martos said. “Recommended by a … friend.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of them. But, perhaps you need a new covering for your cube?” he said, sweeping a hand over his stock. “We can deliver to anywhere in this section.”

“No thanks, but might you know of any other sellers of items such as yours?” Taria asked.

The man looked at them with contempt, then simply rolled his eyes and turned his attention to another potential customer.

“Probably not the best way to ask for directions,” Martos said.

Taria ignored his sarcasm and yanked him deeper into the bazaar.

They slowly made their way around the perimeter where the highest density of stalls were situated, often nestled up against the ancient stones of a building. By this time the mist had soaked their upper bodies, and it accelerated the fatigue setting in. Several times they stopped at appropriate sellers and inquired about Challe, and were always met with either a shrug or a sales pitch, sometimes both. Martos continued to plow his way through the crowd, shoving and elbowing his way to clear a path for Taria who was holding his hand so tightly that it ached. Occasionally he would be shoved in return or curses would be hurled in his direction. He paid them no heed.

“This way!” Martos yelled and abruptly yanked Taria to the left. Another potential target was in his sight.

A few shoves and bumps later and they were standing in front of even more piles of brightly colored rugs and blankets. Taria let go of his hand and slumped down on a low pile of mercantile. She was breathing heavily and shaking the sleep out of her hand.

“You, no loitering,” a high, razor-clear voice cut through the noise like a knife. But it wasn’t a shout, merely a statement.

As Taria stood up, a small-framed, middle-aged woman walked through the piles of stock and approached them. She was dressed in colors nearly indiscernible from those in her shop and neither of them had seen her standing not far away when they approached. Her long, jet-black hair was held in a ponytail by a large gold loop dusted with microscopic lights that twinkled a rainbow of random colors.

“I’m sorry, we’ve just been looking for hours,” Taria said.

“Oh? Looking for what? If it’s textiles you seek, it’s textiles you’ve found,” the woman slipped into her routine pitch as easily as one might slip into a comfortable pair of shoes.

Taria moved closer to Martos’ side as if sensing their search might be at an end.

“We’re not looking for textiles, we’re looking for a person,” Martos said.

“If you’re looking for a person, you’ve hit the jackpot. Take your pick!” she laughed and pointed behind them just as a burly man bumped into Martos’ back.

“We’re looking for someone named Challe,” Taria said, not reciprocating the attempt at humor.

The woman looked them both up and down, then suspiciously at the milling bazaar behind them.

“You’ve found her,” Challe said. “What do you want?”

There was an awkward pause, and the woman waited, standing silently. She shifted her gaze between both of them until she finally raised her eyebrows and hands simultaneously.

Taria jabbed her elbow into Martos’ side.

He looked Challe square in the eyes and slowly said, “Varga has sent us on an errand.”

All emotion drained from her face as the understanding settled in. It had been many months since Varga had sent Uncitizens her way, and she thought she was done with those affairs. Why now? Why these two? They looked so … ordinary. Not like the surly types she’d had to deal with in the past. It mattered not, she knew her obligations, and they couldn’t be ignored, no matter how much she wished they were at an end. Debts as severe and deep as the ones she owed never go unpaid, and how they are paid is never questioned when they come due. Her situation certainly couldn’t be more dire than what these two were about to experience.

Challe shrugged off the momentary self-commiseration. Without saying a word she abruptly turned her back to them and walked into the rear of her large stall, falling out of their sight.

“Hey! Where’re you going?! We were told to … ” Martos said.

“Shhhh!” Taria grabbed his arm. “I think it’s best to be quiet and only do as Benize told us.”

“But … ” he pointed into the stall.

“Let’s just wait,” she said, sitting down again on the pile of rugs. Feeling guilty for loitering was the least of her concerns.

A moment later Challe returned, looking as composed as she had before Martos made his statement. She approached Taria and looked down at her.

“I can see you’ve had a long day, but I must insist that you not loiter. I won’t ask again,” Challe smiled, holding out her hand.

Taria was too tired to argue and too wet to care. She accepted the offer of assistance and stood up. Her hand began to tingle with pinpricks as the grip intensified. Realization set in and her eyes widened as she looked at Challe’s face, then down at their intertwined hands. The blue, abstract tattoo on the back of Challe’s hand was alive and crawling down each finger, melting into Taria’s flesh. She could feel the sensation spreading through her hand.

“What have you done!” Taria gasped as she tried to pull away.

Martos dropped his bag and took a threatening step toward the pair.

“Don’t … move, until the transfer is complete,” Challe whispered. “It’s harmless.”

“Let her go damn it!” Martos growled.

“It’s done,” Challe said and dropped the grasp.

Taria held out her hand and watched as the amorphous shape crawled across her skin. She tried to rub at it, but there was no effect. It was part of her. It slithered downward and shifted into a tattoo of a chain, completely encircling her slender wrist. The tingling had subsided and Taria felt no ill effects of this violation.

“What the hell is this?” Taria pointed at her wrist.

“Go to the Arithon Square and wait,” Challe replied.

“What the hell is this? Wait for what, and for how long?”

Challe ignored the questions and turned away from them with a look of guilt as if they were suddenly irrelevant to her. She gave a momentary glance at her hand, then moved off to help a woman browsing through a pile of rugs.

“Wait for what, and for how long?!” Taria yelled.
Continued in Void the Light – Part 11.

Images & Words © 2022-2024, Neal Ulen.
Other images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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