The ball was a magnificent affair.
The event was held at the city convention hall, an expansive complex that frequently played host to city-wide celebrations, and was often occupied by large research and social groups that needed as large a center as they could get their hands on.
The entryway was defined by a retractable wall that Roy estimated must have been 15 meters high and sixty wide. It was fully hidden and provided a massive opening that invited the breezy evening weather to attend, with the other guests. Inside the main hall, elaborate, super-polished stone walls rose to meet a ceiling-wide skylight.
There were more pressing matters that required Roy’s attention, however; he needed to remain focused. Meeting Esa had been a boon to his efforts, and she had practically handed him an excellent opportunity to investigate some of the individuals who were potentially involved in the war. On the other hand, playing the part of the happy socialite would be all the easier if he were actually enjoying himself.
The night began as an uneventful, pleasant occasion. Esa was wrapped in a fine rose-petal red, silk evening gown that was free of trimmings and frills. Its simple lines and curves reflected her gait and posture as she walked with Roy around the room.
As Roy’s eyes swept the place, he observed finely dressed men in a style of rather form-fitting, dark and light tuxedos and suits, and many elegantly dressed women wearing dresses and gowns that represented every sliver of the both the visible spectrum and conceivable styles. One woman appeared to have some sort of flattened green hood that rose high above her head. Roy was reminded of a praying mantis.
Many of the more conventionally and elegantly dressed, beautiful women, Roy noticed, were clustered around certain groups of dignified-looking men. These men were also accompanied by a handful of other, more dignified-looking women.
“Who are they?” Roy asked as he nodded toward a group of the courtly individuals.
“Ah. Politicians. I have met most of them through events such as these. They like to know where their money is going. Come on, I’ll introduce you.” Esa replied. They walked toward the flock of politicians and their company, who were all scattered about on extravagant leather furniture and enjoying refreshments.
“Esa! How wonderful to see you tonight! You look ravishing, as always! And I see you’ve brought a fine-looking gentleman along with you. Watch out my boy, this one here will drive you mad in your pursuit. All cards in, that’s the only way to play such a game. Let up on your reigns and you’ve doomed yourself!” An elderly gentleman with a graying, bushy mustache commented loudly.
Esa chuckled. “Come on Chaeles, no need for that. I’d like you to meet my friend Roy.”
“Hello, Chaeles, pleased to meet you. Thank you for the guileless warning,” Roy said as he shook the man’s hand with a grin. Esa suppressed a grin of her own.
“Roy, this is Mr. Heppantos, secretary to the one-and-only Chancellor Chugo.” Esa said as she gestured toward a tall, slightly-hunched over man with sunken eyes. He smiled warmly.
“Yes, dearest Esa, thank you. Very glad to meet you Roy.” He took a few swallows of wine and gestured at Roy. He asked, “Roy,in what sort of business has the world placed you?”
“Well sir, I wouldn’t say the world put me up to it so much as that I have always had an undying urge to fly. I’m a pilot.” Roy stated with his eyes pointed amicably at the gentleman.
“Ah, yes, a pilot. Esa here has contributed a great deal toward advances in flight technologies, but I’m sure you know that.” He contemplated his drink for a moment, and looked toward a corner of the room.
“An urge, you say.” He chuckled gently. “Don’t underestimate the forces of fate, my good fellow. Esa here thought she was going to be an artist. She had all the marks of an artistic visionary. There is no denying her talent, although personally my tastes fall into other categories.” he said brusquely with a smile; Esa didn’t smile.
Mr. Heppantos went on, “Suddenly, she found herself working with silicon instead of plaster. And thank goodness for that! What splendid gifts we’ve received through her efforts. An autonomous flight controller, for one! That’s something to be proud of, a real contribution to society.”
Esa clasped her hands and breathed deeply. Roy’s stone-faced glance caused the man to shift uneasily. Roy replied, “I don’t care to depend much on fate when I’m performing evasive maneuvers at six-thousand meters, Mr. Heppantos.”
Mr. Heppantos gave him a curious look, and answered, “Admirable, I must say. I can remember when I was so aggressively determined myself, before my age began to tax me… and also providing me the wisdom that comes with that tax. Not to worry, you’re both smart enough to one day understand the learned lessons of an old man like me. The fools who don’t only end up defeating themselves in the process, consuming themselves with their naive over-ambitions. Moderation is the solution to all things, of course.”
Roy decided not to pursue the conversation. It would be best if he could collect some more relevant information. Before he could speak, a, short woman in tall shoes offered, “Roy, my name is Shundi Tallow. I work with Mr. Heppantos. It’s a nice change to see Esa with a young man at an occasion like this, for once.” she winked at Roy.
He laughed and said, “I’m surprised you noticed me standing next to such an eye-catcher. Esaneia blushed a slight red.
“Well he’s right, you are dazzling tonight, Esa.” Shundi said earnestly.
“Thanks Shundi. How have you been, by the way? It’s been far too long since I’ve talked to you!” Esa answered.
“Doing well, for the most part. Oh, you didn’t hear it from me, but you might expect a commission for a big new project soon, from the whispers I’ve heard.” Shundi said with a grin. Mr. Heppantos and was now engrossed in a conversation with his colleague Chaeles about a recent publication on societal norms among chimpanzees.
“That’s great. I’m a bit swamped right now, but it’s hard to say no to offers from the government. Hopefully I’ll be able to wrap up some work I’m doing soon.
“Roy, take a look. That’s Chancellor Chugo. He sometimes makes brief appearances at events like this one, and usually doesn’t stick around for long.”
Roy looked across the room and saw the chancellor exiting an elevator before stopping to speak with someone. He was mid-height, with thinning brown hair and a quick stride. His arms swung somewhat excessively when he stepped. He wore an elaborate suit with colorful decorations hanging at the chest and a silver embroidery along its edges. His eyes were narrowed and probed his surroundings impatiently. He walked toward a rear entrance and hurriedly left with three guard escort, stopping briefly to greet faces in the crowd that gravitated toward him.
“You’re lucky to see the chancellor so soon. Most people rarely get more than one or two opportunities, unless they happen to live here in Cistoli.” Shundi said. Roy had taken careful note of the man.
The rest of the now-inebriated group shortly followed the chancellors lead, and Roy decided there was little left for him to accomplish tonight. He set down a drink, held out his hand and asked Esa, “Care to dance?”
She smiled and took his hand. He found that the music was familiar enough to him that he could manage to keep in time.
“You know, there are rules against this sort of thing for officers like me. Commander Salmik would not approve.” Roy said with a gentle laugh as he remembered the man he had gained a strong respect for during his time in the training program.
“There are rules against dancing?”
“Not dancing… specifically. That’s okay.”
She looked at him with sudden understanding. She stepped closer, and they listened to the music and felt the cool breeze sweep over them until most of the guests had left.
“This is lovely.” Esa commented as they strolled around the expansive reflection pool, which sat secluded in the courtyard outside, behind the main hall. Her head rested on Roy’s shoulder, his arm hung across her back, encompassing it. Roy answered with comprehensible silence.
Esa wondered what the sudden appearance of this man would mean for her. Her work typically comprised her waking efforts. She had fallen in love exactly twice–once with producing art and again, under a greater intensity, with flight systems. These passions, what she now recognized as a once mere trickle, were turning into a full-on cascade.
She smiled at the warmth of the evening.
They came suddenly. Roy felt a sharp pull on his arm and a blunt blow to his face. Esa’s scream brought his vision quickly into focus, just before it was taken away as a silhouetted man viciously slammed him to the ground and covered his face with black fabric. Roy reached for her, but his fists closed around chilling air. His arms were forced behind his back, his hands bound, and he was dragged across the smooth stone floor for a moment before the men lifted him and locked him inside a cramped compartment.
Esa cried out when she glimpsed the first man throw a heavy punch into Roy’s cheek. He was short and muscular, entirely dressed in tight-fitting, black clothes, and accompanied by three others in similar garb. She jumped to her feet and struck an elbow to the abdomen of one of the men, who was reaching for her. He grunted loudly and quickened his attempts to subdue her. As she struggled, her eyes were fixed on Roy, who was thrashing on the ground. He somehow entangled his legs with those of one of the assailants who was pinning him down and forcefully twisted, spraining the man’s ankle and bringing him swiftly to the ground. The two other men forced their weight onto Roy’s legs and back as the injured individual rose to his knees and knotted his hands together tightly. Esa struggled fiercely, but was quickly overcome and silenced with rope across her mouth, before being tied up herself. She was left to lie next to the pool, the water shimmering with a muted reflection of the ongoing assault, as the man joined the others and lifted Roy. She heard muffled yells from him, but couldn’t make them out.
She lay there for all but an infinity. Sometime after the attack, an official patrolling at the closing of the ball found her attempting to cut her hands free by rubbing the knot against a stone corner formed by the lip of the pool. He freed her, called for assistance, and she recounted what happened for as long as she could bear. They escorted her home and waited with her until her long-time friend, Litonay, had arrived and was tending to her. Two security posts were established outside her residence for the night.
I have to find him. “I have to find him, Litonay. This is all wrong. How could this possibly have happened… I will find him!”
Litonay took Esa into her arms and spoke to her soothingly. “We’ll find out what’s going on dear, but right now the important thing is that you’re safe, and here in one piece. Drink this.” She handed Esa a cup of tea. It contained a soporific supplement that calmed the nerves before shrouding slumber over the imbiber. Esa sipped at it and walked to her desk.
She wrote down every minute detail that she could wring from the crevices of her memory. It wasn’t hard. The experience hadn’t ceased from replaying itself; the trauma was entirely due to the fact that Roy was now gone, and that was enough to prompt her to recall the color of each thread of the menacing creatures’ clothing, the brightness of the moonlight, the sounds of the nighttime insects, even the orientation of the stars in the sky.
She rapidly produced pages of details and began to consider any implications that might be extractable from them. Who were these men? Why did they come when they did? How did the men know where to find them? Where were they taking him? Why were there four of them? The questions went on, hypotheses were produced, and her pen was still in hand as she finally succumbed to the chemicals working at her brain. Litonay had let her work, and now she shouldered Esa’s weight and carried her to her bed where she slept stilly. Her mind, despite its transition to another state of consciousness, restlessly worked at solving the puzzle in whatever capacity it could.
Esa rose suddenly, before the sun came up. Litonay was spread across a large make-shift bed she had assembled with various furniture pieces. It looked quite comfortable. Ever the inventor, Litonay. She left her friend to rest, and walked to the kitchen. She grabbed a sweet pastry and activated a digital display on the wall.
“Esa? Do you know what time it is? I was just having a delightful dream about–well, I’ll spare you the details. You look half-asleep yourself. Is something wrong?” a slightly older, mildly rotund man asked through the screen with a hazy glance.
“Something is wrong, Barok. When can I meet you? We need to talk, and not like this.”
“Come over, but give me a few minutes to compose myself.” He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
“I’ll see you shortly.” She ended the call and walked to the bathroom where she splashed some water on her face. A quick change of clothes, some freshening up, and she was out the door, quickly devouring her breakfast as she took the moving walkway to Barok’s home.
Barok and Esa were part of a quiet association of Lekkune free-thinkers, called the Moeven, a word from an ancient Lekkune dialect that meant, “vanquishers of shadows” It was a small group, but Esa was aware that it had connections to other similar groups which formed a network that spread across all facets of the land. On the surface, the Moeven liked to discuss politics, philosophy, the arts, innovations in science, and many other intellectual topics. New initiates, who unknowingly participated only as trial members for the first year, were unaware of the more serious discussions that went on upon their departure from monthly gatherings. Esa and Barok were by now close friends.
Within the half-hour, Esa stood looking through a vast glass window from Barok’s living room.
“And they just took him like that? And left you there? Oh Esa! Are you alright my dear? Are you hurt?” Barok was startled at the news and concerned for his friend.
“I’m fine, Barok. I’m terrified for Roy. I couldn’t wait, I need your help. We have to find him.” She spoke with an even tone, getting right to the point. There was a fire in her tired eyes that was growing with her constant worry.
“Who is this man, Esa? I’ve never heard you speak of him before. Not that I think you shouldn’t be worried about him, but how well do you know him?” He raised a hand to her shoulder and sat her down next to him.
Esa looked directly at him for a moment before speaking. “He’s a close friend of mine. You haven’t heard me mention him because we only just met yesterday, in the hangar.” He gave her a blank expression, waiting.
“I know. I don’t blame you for any skepticism, but you know me, Barok. Roy is your type of man… our type of man. Whoever did this is perpetrating an unforgivable evil.” He’s a man you’re lucky to meet in a lifetime. she thought.
“I trust your judgement, Esa. We both know there are many facts missing, however. Tell what you know about him.”
“His character speaks for itself. Otherwise, he’s a Blerisian pilot. He crash-landed here a few weeks ago, and has been taken in by some students at their launch house. He is isolated from his home, and is learning about life in Lekku in the meantime.” She had decided it was best not to disclose her theories about the true cause of Roy’s arrival. They were yet too endangering to Roy’s being here, and they were not yet relevant enough to finding him. Furthermore, they were just theories.
“I can sense in you that Roy has earned every ounce of your esteem of him.” The question was left alone beyond this. “Now, what can we deduce about his capture?”
Barok’s growing anger sublimated to a dark scowl. It was substantially clear that even if Esa was not linked to the attackers in any other way than through Roy and the violence they both experienced, for whatever reason the attack had taken place, and whomever they were, they must be stopped. That they had done this to her was unforgivable.
“The most obvious possibility is that this was militarily or politically driven. But before we dive into that vast pool of muck, we should work through all other possibilities.”
Esa and Barok spent the next two hours generating conjecture and considering various possible scenarios to explain Roy’s capture. Perhaps one or more of the launch house residents became indignant at his sudden appearance and then more permanent inhabitation, and wished to encourage him vacation elsewhere. More simply, perhaps someone discovered he was Blerisian and condemned him for it; certainly people had done worse for less. A third possibility was that, during his recent exploration in the city, Roy had fallen into bad terms with another individual on the basis of owed money or a cultural misunderstanding. To receive recompense, a business owner, for example, might be interested in procuring a punishment. More strictly-business was the possibility of organ harvesters randomly assaulting what they noticed to be an unusually healthy, able man.
Each of these possibilities had their weak points, however. Esa and Barok continued their examination of the events under the shadow of hypothetical government motives.
The government was a creature characterized by contradictions. In their meetings, the Moeven were privy to the sentiments shared by Barok and Esa for their mother country. It was Barok who, last winter, led a dialog about the injustice at the government’s prohibition of public distribution of highly-detailed maps generated by satellite imagery. Practically speaking, the regulations prevented normal individuals from observing anything more than blurry landscapes of foreign lands, as well as routes that could serve as viable entry and exit-ways into bordering countries such as Blerisia. Esa fully threw her weight in, in support of Barok’s outrage, which she shared. She was frustrated when, despite unanimous acknowledgment of the inherent wrongs of the policy, many of the forum members quickly quieted at the suggestion of standing up to the government in protest. It was hard to blame them when they had families and happy lives which they did not wish to put at risk.
This was the predicament Esa commonly saw her fellow citizens face; Lekku was a vast land with plenty of opportunities, diverse cultural values, and unexplored territories of its own. Technologically, even the average citizen, who knew that other lands existed but knew little of them, was aware that Lekku was the most advanced region in the world. The government permitted schools to provide students with just enough knowledge of the outside world to inform them that they were primitive in comparison. By adulthood, many lost interest in exploring beyond the border and satiated their appetites for adventure in other ways. Most, who knew that they would incur the government’s incredible wrath should they try, learned to live with their hunger. The established status quo did not mean, to the typical man, that he could not find a rewarding life in terms his career, hobbies, family, friends, and other pursuits. Some people even believed that the leaders of their homeland were protecting their interests and happily kept silent.
It was Esa and Barok, whoever, who were not content to accept their circumstances. Part of the reason Esa had originally grown an interest in flight systems was that it gave her insight into the government’s activities having to do with foreign territories. It had been part curiosity, part political motive, and part scientific interest, and developed primarily into the latter. In the process, she had positioned herself well on the long list of people important to various military powers such as the chancellor.
It could be troubling, wishing to fight such a power as the Lekkune government without having the means. Without support from the men and women that agreed with her, helplessness was inescapable. Esa had no dying urge to travel the world. She had no interminable rage that kept her solely focused on correcting the government’s flaws. She was a citizen who wanted to play the citizen’s role in a proper government; she wanted the government to recognize the rights of its citizens. She was not a revolutionary, but for this. Given the circumstances, Esa could sleep soundly at night knowing that she had not single-handedly found the opportunity to strike upon justice.
“If the bastards weren’t government boys…” Barok paused very briefly. “There is no hiding from the all-too-convenient fact that you were at the damn ball, and had just met the chancellor’s closest man and all of his little vulpine friends! The fact that Roy is a lost Blerisian soldier-boy tops it off.
“Esa, we’ve got a challenge ahead of us. Whoever is pulling these strings has a big, strong hand. Let’s not have its fist close around us.”
“I shall send notice to Dommev. He could very possibly get the information I need to find Roy, and we can trust him.” Esa said without hesitation. Barok’s right, we must tread carefully or Roy’s only chance might disintegrate in these very hands.
“I can do it right here.” Barok countered. He tapped his finger on another digital panel on the wall and within seconds, had recorded a video message asking for Dommev’s urgent assistance, and for him to come over at once. Esa and Barok were equally wary of avoiding transmissions that could be intercepted by the government, no matter how unlikely it was.
“So, we are developing a plan,” he reflected out loud.
“Roy! Rooooooy! Rooooooy, where are you!” Aki bounded down the hall from his room, yelling loudly, a turbulent whirlwind of disturbance in the already-chaotic adolescent residency. “Roy, you better not be hiding! I have to show you the giant strawberries I found!” Aki held a pair of fist-sized strawberries in each of his hands. One of them had a suspicious cavity in the shape of the young boy’s bite. A deposit of dried red fruit-juice was visible on Aki’s chin.
He rounded a corner and caught the shoulder of a distracted and very unsuspecting Tichnin, who rapidly reentered reality from the reports he had been reading.
“Aki, watch it, friend.” He chuckled upon closer inspection of Aki’s condition. Aki carelessly swung his arms with the red weights pulling him to and fro.
“Sorry Tich. Where’s Roy? I haven’t seen him at all today. I’m going to show him the strawberry patch where I found these!” He thrust them up toward Tichnin’s face.
“Aki! You weren’t supposed to pick those. I need each one or my sample pool won’t be big enough!” Yaceen frowned at him as she approached.
“Hi Yaceen.” Tichnin smiled. She shyly looked up at him and blushed.
“Hi.” Her pants and shoes were stained with white plaster and colorful paints from her sculpting endeavors.
“Sorry!” he took another juicy bite from the injured fruit and placed it in her hand before running off. Three remained with him.
“He’s quite the troublesome little fellow isn’t he?” Tichnin stated solemnly.
“Yeah. The size enhancements of my strawberries isn’t going to have a high enough confidence level in my pomology report if he keeps taking them from my garden. I even ran red ribbons around it so people would stay out.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him for you.” He grinned at her, and a grin escaped her as well.
“Thanks, Tichnin.” She blushed again and scurried quickly away, still carrying the partially-eaten fruit.
Tichnin continued down the hall. He stopped at Roy’s door, curious that Aki hadn’t seen him. Normally Roy would have accompanied Tichnin to his fluid dynamics class today. He figured that Roy had gotten home late from the ball and skipped class–something he often wished he had the luxury of doing himself.
He pressed a button that alerted the inhabitant of guests. A yellow light flashed, indicating that Roy was not inside. He slid his sleeve up to reveal a thin, garment-like material that was wrapped around his forearm. An electronic screen lit up at his touch and he attempted contacting Esa to no avail.
“Esaneia, it’s me, Tichnin. Roy’s not been here or at class today, and now that you’re not available, I’m a little concerned. Contact me when you can.” It’s probably nothing, maybe he’s fast asleep in there and forgot to reset the indicator when he got home last night.
Roy slowly stumbled to his senses. They must have drugged me. The walls were hazy, and he squinted as bright light rudely interrupted his thoughts. He ached. His wrists were red and burned from the rope, and he had a pounding lump on the side of his head. He pushed himself up from the cold stone floor and sat leaning back against the wall, where he gathered himself.
He looked around the room. It was confined and no more than twice his body length in each dimension. Strangely, no door was visible, he was surrounded on all sides by six flat, smooth, shiny, black stone walls that met at perfect angles. Overhead were a handful of small, bright lights that left no shadows.
Roy waited for hours. Over time clarity returned to his thoughts as the foreign chemicals were gradually purged from his bloodstream. He considered his situation–there were not many conclusions to be made. For some reason, his thoughts kept returning to Commander Salmik. He assured himself that this was only a stumble that he would have to recover from in the mission he had undertaken for the commander.
Roy positioned himself against a wall and sat with his legs bent and head against the cool, dark stone. His eyes were narrowed in focused thought when the opposite wall suddenly lifted into the ceiling.
“Roy. Excuse me, Captain Minsk, is it? I’d tell you it was a pleasure to meet you, but we have already just met. Fantastic little event, wouldn’t you agree?”
Mr. Heppantos stepped into the room from a much larger, empty outer room. His hair was somewhat unkempt and his tie was crooked. He wore an impeccable black suit. The bright light reflected on it to emphasize the hunch in his posture. Roy stood calmly with fiery eyes. He did not speak, but he did not need to.
“I’ve heard interesting things about you, Roy. Blerisia. I’ve seen pictures, It looks like a nice place to get away to. You have some fantastic theater. I was lucky enough to see a recording before it was ordered destroyed… what a shame for that. You see, a man in my position can’t be too careful, which is exactly why I’ve invited you into my humble home. Apologies for the rather… un-warm welcome.
“Roy, my good fellow, do you feel resentment at the fact that I’ve brought you here? I hope you don’t think it unreasonable of me. Pardon the roughness with which my men escorted you, they aren’t the gentle types. It wouldn’t suit their purpose well. The truth is Roy, a man in my position doesn’t have much of a choice in doing what must be done. Surely you are an open-minded man, seeing just how quickly you have adapted to Blerisian life. We are a happy people, are we not? We have struck upon a system that works.”
“You have struck upon a means of deceiving yourself into justifying that which cannot be justified. This is beside the point. Why am I here?” Roy’s austere voice echoed into the outer hall. Mr. Heppantos flinched momentarily before regaining himself. His voice hardened.
“You are charged with espionage, Roy.” A crooked smirk formed upon his face. “How unfortunate for you to have so recklessly revealed yourself. Did you not think we were aware that a Blerisian fighter was taken down over our airspace? You should know by now from your happy games with that appetizing little plaything, Esa, that such a task is a triviality.”
He pulled a cigar from his jacket pocket and lit it, speaking casually. “Oh her… don’t worry on her account. She couldn’t possibly have figured you out all on her own. She’s safe at home, and valuable to us.” He exhaled a deep breath of smoke, emphasizing his hunched posture.
Roy studied the man for a moment with a blank face. “Espionage is a bold claim. I did crash-land just outside of the city, but I knew nothing of this place. My homeland is in a state of war, I have no interest in your games. No official agents of yours met my landing with an investigation. You have no immigration laws or even an office that would handle such matters. By your own laws, I am as much a citizen of this place as those you feign to protect. Release me. Or do you, personal advisor and secretary to the head of state, intend on pissing on due process? Well, I suppose you’re committed to that by now. Get on with it… Secretary.“
Heppantos widened his eyes before they suddenly contracted. He let out a nervous laugh.
“And he’s a fool! Do you think you can spar with me!? Oh Roy. You are in a foreign land under foreign examination and I am the one with the magnifying glass in hand. You should not test me!” The secretary grabbed Roy by the jaw to make his point. Roy swiftly took hold of the secretary’s forearm, and two brawny men stepped into view.
The chancellor stated in a muffled voice, “I’ll give you some time to reconsider your strategy.” He began to walk out of the room. Once outside, the wall lowered, and Heppantos stepped into a private washroom. Roy Minsk was one man, a man in his custody. One bloody man. For some reason, the secretary realized then that had never felt so afraid.
A few hours later and a much calmer Heppantos had returned. This time, he had quite politely taken Roy to a more comfortable setting, an unoccupied library with lavish furnishings. He offered Roy a drink and began anew.
“Perhaps I overreacted, Roy. It is true that we have no proof of activities of yours as a spy. You must admit that your situation here is… unusual for us. Rest assured that the idiot responsible for exaggerating your behaviors will be dealt with. Now, that still leaves the matter of what to do with you.”
Roy interrupted him before he could continue further. “If I may, I believe it would be in our mutual interest if I stay under voluntary investigation.”