The Price of the Elite

(c) 2000 Simon Challands

Chapter 1 - Discovery and Consequences

     Heat. And cold. One for the day, one for the night, and wind, near constant wind, whipping up scouring sandstorms. An atmosphere thin enough for severe temperature extremes and thick enough to blow the sand.
     Get lost in that and you were dead. The man with the tatters of cloth drawn over his face felt he was dead, but if he was back in his room, or anywhere else in the village, his life would already be over. For the sake of vague rumours he had fled, ill-equipped, into the desert, fleeing for his life in panic. His stolen beast of burden was already buried in the sand, far behind him, and now his turn had arrived.
     His compass pointed vaguely north, wavering uncertainly in his unsteady hand and the weak magnetic field. He cursed the thing as best as he could with a parched, dust-clogged mouth, wishing for the sophisticated electronic device he had spurned in fear of it being used to track him. As if that would matter now.
     Despite the lack of a certain direction, and with the certainty that he was probably nowhere near his course, he stumbled on for a few steps more until his exhausted legs collapsed beneath him. The sand gave way beneath his hands as the man tried to push himself back to his feet; he was left sprawled on the ground.
     Eventually the sand covered him.
     Two bulky creatures crested a dune and started to make their cautious way down it. The storm had abated, and the evening's sun was glowing through the dust. On each creature two squat humanoid forms were mounted; one of them halted its beast and peered into the sunset, a hand sheltering its eyes. The figure clucked at its beast. It started forward again and slid down a little way before suddenly stumbling, bellowing and sending its passengers crashing down onto the sand.
     The second beast stopped nearby. The figures jumped down to help their companions to their feet, but as they were doing so one of them caught a glimpse of something just up the slope, where the creature had tripped. The humanoid scrambled up the side of the dune, then jumped in alarm. The others came up after it.
     A booted foot stuck out of the ground, on the end of a leg covered in tattered cloth. For some time they eyed it in disgust, and started chattering urgently. Eventually a decision was reached, and they began to extricate the corpse.
     A tall, lean body, by their standards, roughly clothed, clutching a primitive compass in one hand. A bag had been slung around one shoulder but it was empty of anything of interest. Around the neck, and somewhat caught up in the ragged beard, was a thin chain which disappeared into his rags. One of the group carefully pulled it out, and barked sharply. From the wince on the face of another it could be guessed that this was a curse of some kind.
     Hanging from the chain was a yellow-coloured metal disc, about an inch across, with a pair of holes in rim, clogged with sand. On the front was engraved a logo, a pair of wings on an inverted triangle, with five characters across the middle. Someone asked a question; the reply was snapped, leaving the questioner looking frightened.
     The being who had discovered the disc grabbed the chain in both hands and pulled sharply, snapping it. The disc slid off, and was pocketed somewhere in squat creature's clothes. It spoke again, ordering the others. They slid back down to their beasts, and hauling themselves up they quickly set off back the way they had come.
     The body was left where they had found it, undiscovered by anything else other than the few tiny forms of life that lived around. Eventually another set of bones graced the desert.
     They travelled with haste through the evening and the early part of the night, their beasts sure-footed in the pitch darkness and they themselves sure of their direction. When they stopped it was only to rummage around in their packs for some food, which they ate on the move.
     After several hours a tiny moon rose, casting a feeble glow over the dessicated landscape. In the distance, in their direction of travel, the horizon could now be seen to be made of jagged hills; there was a far away rushing sigh, sometimes louder, sometimes almost silent.
     The hills were stark rocks thrusting out of the desert like the wreck of a mountain, a random jumble of small peaks and rough, narrow canyons. The noise was occasionally clearer now, whenever they passed a gorge sloping down in a certain direction, a low rumble, a long sigh, fading out before repeating. The sound of an unseen ocean.
     The beasts and their riders picked their careful way through the valleys, walls of shattered rock towering above them and often casting them into impenetrable shadow. Guidance of the beasts was unnecessary - they knew their path well, and their snuffling suggested they were following a trail of scent.
     One final passageway opened out onto a flat area which ended in a drop, beyond which was the ocean. From the cliff face above them lights shone. The riders jumped to the ground, leading their mounts towards the hillside.
     Two rough walls, invisible against the natural background until they were up close, met at the point they headed for, the right hand one passing behind the left, allowing someone to slip between them. Passing into this gap, and turning sharply around the end of the left wall, they walked through an open iron gateway and into the narrow flat of land between the wall and the cliff above them. Cave openings led into the cliff, many of them clearly of artificial construction, or at the least opened out by unnatural means. One of the four riders led the two beasts to stable in one of the caves; when it rejoined them they all made for another tunnel.
     Gloomy lamps cast a dim light over the rough cavern. The floor had been crudely levelled, although a couple of tracks had been worn smooth by the frequent tramp of feet. These tracks led to stairs, one set to the left of the entrance and one to the right, both illuminated with the same lamps. The four climbed up the right hand steps, which curved slightly away from the outside wall.
     A long landing stretched away at the top of the stairs, running parallel to the cliff face. Doors set in alcoves lined either side, some of the openings covered only in cloth hangings, whilst a few sported sheet metal on hinges. It was to one of the latter, at the far end of the landing, that they passed.
     Besides this door there was a rectangular niche in the rock, around which wave patterns had been carefully carved, and in which lay a plain iron rod. That this doorway was of some importance was further apparent by its construction. Instead of the roughly hacked alcoves they had already passed this one was a neatly formed arch, adorned by parallel grooves climbing up the sides and over the top. The metal of the door itself was smooth and unmarked by rust patches.
     The being who had discovered the pendant removed the rod from the niche and struck the door once, straight in its centre, producing a dull clang that spoke of solid but not very thick metal. The rod was carefully replaced.
     All four stood silently, although two of them seemed to be fidgeting nervously. With a flick of its hand the first one gestured to the others to stand still.
     With no apparent cue another one of them removed the rod, struck the door, then set the bar back in its niche. Again they waited. A third strike and wait. When the last one hit, it hit four times and barked a single word, and held onto the rod.
     Apparently that was the final requirement, for the door immediately opened inwards into a large room, exactly in the cliff face, for the opposite wall held windows that looked out into the night, the view beyond drowned out by the unexpectedly bright lights. One side of the room rose a little in three small terraces, the centre was occupied by a large stone slab of a table. Across from the table the far end of the room had been partitioned off.
     The creature who had opened the door for them, a member of their own race, was dressed in plain but tidy cloth, and had a hand held out expectantly. The iron rod was passed over to it, and they conversed with it for a while, at one time bringing out the pendant to illustrate a point. The one who had been waiting in the room, a guard or gatekeeper, pointed at the curtained off area and departed, gently closing the door behind him.
     Behind the curtains there were ragged piles of cloth and animal skins in a small room with no window. Pottery containers of food and water stood neatly in one corner, into the other they tossed their packs. There was a switch from which a pair of wires lead up to the light in the ceiling; one of them flicked the switch, plunging the room into darkness whilst the rest settled down to sleep on the heaps of cloth.
     Their sleep was disturbed by shouting from the other side of the partition. Instead of the night's darkness the curtain was bright with natural light, enough of which passed through it for them to see easily. With sighs and yawns they slowly hauled themselves out of sleep and pushed themselves to their feet, helping themselves to the food and water from the pottery bowls.
     In the main room early morning sunlight was pouring through the window, and already the air was hot. The horizon over the sea met the sky in indistinct haze, shimmering nervously.
     A group of half a dozen was waiting for the freshly awakened, awaiting their appearance, standing between the window uprights out of the sun. When the curtain was pushed back they clapped their hands briefly and retired to the tiers. The four took up positions around the table.
     Everyone present in the room spoke briefly, then the metal rod from the niche outside the door was placed in the middle of the table. Each member of the group which had discovered the corpse spoke at length, in turn, uninterrupted by anyone else. When they had finished the pendant was brought forward and placed on the table, in front of the rod.
     One after another the half dozen came down from the tiers to examine the disc, some just looking at it, others picking it up and shaking it about. They retired back to their standing places, to further discussion. Voices rose and fell for some while, and at times several were raised in heated argument. The shadows moved slowly across the room.
     The debate was broken by a sharp cry. All turned to look at the one who had spoken it. The crier pointed at two of the assembly, one of those on the tiers and the one who had removed the disc from the body. They clapped in acknowledgement, and immediately departed the room.
     These two met again outside, in the gap between the walls. The discoverer was leading two of the beasts they had been using the previous day, one tethered to the other by a long rope. The second was loaded with baggage; they scrambled up onto the first.
     Instead of returning to the desert they turned left, at first picking their way through the tumbled hills, but gradually descending towards sea level. Before long they were down on a wide beach, and the animals lumbered up into a steady trot.
     This pace was kept up solidly, despite the burning heat. The broken rocks on their left remained a barrier to the interior, on the right the ocean heaved, wavetops flashing in the sun as it followed its path around in the sky.
     With the sun now straight ahead, and the temperature nearing its peak, both animals and riders were starting to feel the strain. They halted, and all drank from the ocean near at hand, an unwise idea for a human being but a sound one for creatures able to deal with the salinity.
     After they had refreshed themselves they left the open beach and took shelter from the sun in the rocks, eating provisions from the packs on the second animal. They rested only shortly before continuing.
     For several days this routine was repeated, always travelling during the day despite the easy path of the beach and the cool of the night, whilst the sea on their right and the hills on their left marched onwards. At length the rocky heights began to loose their definition, merging into a more undulating countryside. Sparse vegetation covered them and insect-like creatures began to buzz around, irritating both beast and rider.
     After a day's journey away from the rocks the coast started to curve away to the right, to the east. Stopping only to fill skin bottles from the sea, they left it behind and passed up a shallow valley that continued in their direction.
     The valley was straight, and gradually rose away from the shore. Stunted bushes were all over it, but not so close together so as to impede progress. Occasionally small creatures scuttled out of the way of the travellers into the shade and protection of these dry, spiky plants.
     At last the valley opened onto a plateau, overlooking both the now distant sea and desert. The sea shone as a silvery gleam, but a blur in the desert marked another sandstorm. Ahead the plants looked greener; there was another shimmer near the horizon.
     Sunset found them only a short way advanced on the plateau. Without the shelter of the rocks in which to sleep they erected small earth-coloured tents, becoming almost invisible as darkness fell. When it did there was still a dim glow in the air ahead of them.
     The next morning they began in a different fashion than before, walking instead of trotting. One of the pair removed a pair of optical binoculars from a pack and constantly scanned the barren scene whilst the other guided their mounts.
     They progressed, though. The ground sloped very slightly downwards ahead of them, affording something of a view in their direction of travel, now revealing the glimmer to be a large lake. As they closed on it a large cluster of buildings on the shore became apparent, around them were fields, their browned crops not that distinguishable from the surrounding land.
     A couple of miles from the buildings the humanoid with the binoculars barked suddenly. Its startled companion pulled the beasts to a halt, asking urgent questions. The binoculars were passed over. Emerging from the town, and rapidly closing on them, were small dust clouds, flung up from the wheels of a group of vehicles.

Chapter 2 - Passing the Burden
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