Chapter Seven

Revelations in the Dryallkhin Suite

Two hours or so later I went to the agreed meeting with Dyrithan. Whether deliberately or not, Dyrithan had opted for the Dryallkhin Suite which was the one where we had first met that summer — or rather where I had overheard him making objectionable remarks about my exemplar, Sambord, and had challenged him to a dual. Dyrithan was not there and I sat by myself at one of the window alcoves moodily drinking the frothy green liquid on offer to anyone allowed into the suite. Skihl is made from a plant unknown to you which developed spontaneously during the genetic chaos of the period we know as the Abyss. The plant is a distant relative of the vine though it looks more like a sloe and the small hard berries taste vile when eaten direct. However, after skilful preparation and mixing we derive the superb drink of skihl which has largely replaced wine in our era. The straylkha suites always have skihl of the very best quality available.
The meeting had left me feeling confused and ill at ease. My attitudes to life in the current society are confused and I do not claim to understand them myself. On the one hand I find almost everything quite detestable but at the same time have no idea what could be done to change it for the better. I am what you people would probably call an ‘outsider’ but I do not class myself as a ‘rebel’, still less a ‘revolutionary’ and have little or no sympathy with the various opposition movements that are beginning to spring up all over the place at present. I was as a matter of fact invited to join the so-called ‘Revolt of Kaghin’ by the ringleader, a straylkha player  whom I happened to know slightly, and I did not hesitate for a moment to decline the honour ― had I accepted I would not be transmitting to you at this moment. Any groups who wish to overthrow the current order should at least have a clear idea of what they wish to replace it by and Kaghin and his associates had none. I avoid political meetings because I find the ‘raincoat and revolver’ ambiance ridiculous and detest the pretentious jargon employed by most of the speakers. Apart from that, it is obvious to me that all such movements are utterly futile since any alternative government to that of the Parthenogens is currently out of the question ― only they know how to maintain ozone levels capable of sustaining life.
Still, I could hardly deny that the proliferation of neutrax in recent years has become a serious threat. Today all sorts of tasks are carried out by neutrax, including highly skilled operations like implant surgery and typically ‘human’ functions such as health care and policing. My own particular work, cultivating the Disyelthyia plant from which yatthin is extracted, is quite straightforward — one of the reasons why I chose it incidentally — and the sort of operations I carry out daily, watering seedlings, checking light-levels and so on, could just as well be carried out by a metal. A lot of us lower level mefam workers get the disquieting feeling that we are being kept in existence only as a sort of favour: we are certainly not necessary to the proper functioning of the Conglomerate. But, then, viewed from a certain perspective, nothing at all is ‘necessary’, certainly not the continuing existence of the species. One could very well conclude, as the Yther in effect does, that the sooner everything is wound up the better, but this is not the only logical conclusion to draw. One could just as well argue that since nothing is essential we, as higher biologicals, are perfectly at liberty to prolong our span simply because we see fit to do so. ‘And,’ I said to myself sitting in the alcove, ‘I suppose this means that I should by rights become a member of Solemnin or some such body and spend the rest of my life furthering the cause.’ But this I had absolutely no intention of doing.
Of course, the weakness of the anti-neutrax party is that most people would be quite horrified by the idea of having to do a lot of the drudgery currently carried out by our metals whom we manage to despise into the bargain. This was the point the fam who mentioned Yther self-sufficiency was trying to make. Even my own (and Dyrithan’s) life of relative ease doing things like sitting here drinking skihl in the exclusive straylkha suites with their magnificent views over the city and countryside beyond, would doubtless be jeopardised by any attempt to get rid of the metals altogether. Like children, the present generation of anti-neutrax activists are trying to have their cake and eat it too as the ancient proverb puts it. The problem, like so many others, was probably insoluble, I told myself  and the best plan was simply to ignore it.
I looked up at the larger than lifesize photographs of the celebrated player whose name had been given to the suite. Dryallkhin’s features were truly beautiful and I, though only to a very minor degree attracted by my own gender, could not fail to respond to the androgynous, ethereal quality that is the esence of the Dryallkhin legend.
Supposedly intended to be of fam gender, because of some technical error Dryallkhin’s qwath (‘living essence’) was locked onto a mefam embryo and the resulting infant was not only of unexpected gender but to boot was weak and dangerously underweight. Disease is rare in our society because of pre-natal planning, efficient prevention and other factors. Nonetheless, it still exists and probably always will: I daresay a completely disease-free society would not be very healthy. Today, afflicted persons must be looked after either within their  cluster (often by neutrax) or in specialised locales in much the same way as disabled people are looked after in your era. But the official attitudes take no account of popular beliefs, in particular the widespread belief in darstillya or ‘bad luck’ that I have already mentioned several times in these transmissions. Along with various other categories which includes as you have seen strayll-sri straylkha players, erloyll (passionate lovers), people with bright red hair or curved little fingers, diseased individuals are regarded as bringing darstillya on those who frequent them. Whether there is any foundation to this very persistent belief, or whether social attitudes produce the very effects people fear, I would not like to say.
On leaving the protected environment of one of the Baridyiena or ‘Baby Islands’ where most infants spend their first year or two, Dryallkhin, attended by his Personal Protectress (who would normally be his embryonic donor) was taken around to various clusters but none of them apparently wished to take the risk of accepting him unconditionally. For a while he was looked after by specialised Health Officers in a separate locale but, fortunately for him and us, the feeble and withdrawn mefam child had a natural talent for straylkha and was spotted by a travelling straylkha coach when he was ten ― which is the absolute limit for being accepted into a cluster. This coach recommended that he be assigned to a cluster with a strong straylka tradition and this was eventually done. Even here, Dryallkhin did not have an easy life and the picto-history of the various injustices perpetrated against the sensitive young mefam makes very disturbing viewing.
But ultimately Dryallkhin’s genius overcame all obstacles and for a few years he was by far the most acclaimed straylkha mirage, excepting only Petaya himself, the greatest of the great. Dryallkhin never had the power of Tlemko, nor even that of my own master Sambord; he was the lyrical straylkha player who made this difficult and intricate discipline appear as easy as stringing beads. Indeed so undemonstrative and seemingly effortless was his technique that people who knew nothing about straylkha found it difficult to see what the fuss was all about. Petaya, then quite age-advanced, refused to appear on the cone against Dryallkhin because he did not wish the art of the latter to suffer by comparison with that of the only player who was even remotely in the same class.
Though apparently healthy once adult, Dryallkhin’s original disability had not been eradicated completely and it was generally expected that the great player would not live beyond the age of thirty. At each of his later appearances the spectators were afraid that it might be his last, and, to give the finishing touch to a life entirely devoted to beauty and grace, Dryallkhin, on his final appearance and knowing in advance that he was doomed, had himself injected with muscle-fortifier and literally expired on the cone in what is said by those who witnessed it to have been the single most magnificient exhibition of straylkha technique in the history of the game. All video-recordings of the game were naturally  destroyed at once, the cone itself was dismantled and  the pieces incinerated and scattered to the winds. Even those who had no interest in straylkha mourned the mirage whose gentle and unassuming character was admired by everyone.

Dyrithan eventually arrived and apologised for being late. He helped himself to some skihl and, without bothering to make any preliminary friendly conversation, asked me what I had thought of the meeting. I said that naturally I agreed with the general aims but did not feel inclined to take things further at present. Dyrithan replied that I was perfectly entitled to my views and that Solemnin was not at all an organisation that sought to make converts like the Sythana Brethren or the Yther. It was clear to me, however, that he had been put out by my reaction ―  Dyrithan was an ultra-sensitive person beneath his rather casual exterior.
I asked what actions the organisation planned to take in the immediate future but he said shortly that he was not in a position to divulge any plans to me as I was not a member.
‘In any case, I am not sufficiently high up in the movement to know much about what is being planned myself.’
‘But doesn’t that worry you at all  ―  that you don’t know what you’ve got yourself into?’
‘No,  why should it? I have confidence in those who are in control of the movement. In things of this nature, one either has faith or one doesn’t.’
I decided there was little point in discussing the issue further and decided to change the topic of conversation. I asked Dyrithan if he had seen the dual between Telyapin and Sentrann, which was regarded as the high point of the winter games, and if so what he had thought of it. He answered that of course he had been impressed by the rapidity and overall strategy of Telyapin but that he thought his positioning was rather careless for a player of his class ―  exactly my opinion. We talked about straylkha for a while though neither of us made any allusion to last summer’s strayll-sri. (A strayll-sri, literally ‘beyond skill’, is a specially esteemed straylkha match and I and Dyrithan had been accorded the honour the previous year.).
Our talk drifted onto other topics.
‘By the way,’ said Dyrithan, smiling a little, ‘didn’t I hear that you got yourself into trouble by refusing someone’s wrist-fan?’
‘A bit, yes.’ It was my turn to go on the defensive. ‘I even received a warning from the Arbiters but no more than that.’
‘I believe the custom should be discontinued,’ said Dyrithan seriously. ‘It is becoming a nuisance to persons who come here for straylkha or other sports. I do not speak for myself for I have never received a wrist-fan. If I ever did I would not know what to do.’
I had noticed that Dyrithan was painfully self-conscious when in the presence of young fam. There was a rumour going the rounds that Dyrithan, on his first attempt at exchanging in a Hymen-bower, had been mocked by a subdominant for his inexperience, and that she had not only refused intimacy at the last moment (which was technically her right) but had scornfully walked out of the precinct (which most certainly was not).
‘Who was the subdominant?’ Dyrithan asked casually. ‘Do I know her?’
‘Ryaltia’s niece,’ I replied after some hesitation. There was not much point in concealing her identity since Dyrithan would almost certainly hear all the details sooner or later.
Dyrithan was about to lift the glass of skihl to his lips, but instead of doing so he put it down at once. He looked across at me strangely.
‘Not Xinthia?’
‘And you refused her wrist-fan?’
‘Yes, well, no… at first I picked it up, and later on… Look here, it’s no business of yours… I don’t want to talk about it.’
Dyrithan looked me straight in the eyes.
‘I know you will find the question indiscreet, but I feel I must ask it nonetheless. Have you exchanged with this subdominant?’
‘No,’ I replied, partly to head off further questions, also because Xinthia had expressly asked me to say nothing about our relation. ‘In any case, what’s it to do with you? Really, Dyrithan, if I didn’t know you…’
My hands were twitching under the table and I was beginning to get very angry.
‘I hope for your sake this is true.’
‘Why? What’s the matter with you? What’s all this? You’ve met Xinthia yourself, she was there last summer with Ryaltia, right here.’
‘Yes,’ replied Dyrithan, ‘but I pointedly ignored her, and it seemed that you did yourself.’
‘Did I? What the hell’s all this? What’s important about whether I have or have not exchanged with her?’
I was beginning to shout and one or two people in the suite turned round to stare at us.
Dyrithan paused.
‘Xinthia is vertran,’ he said drily, ‘and everyone here avoids her.’
Vertran are malicious fam who falsely accuse mefam of having forced them, or of having used threats of violence to achieve their ends. Such behaviour on the part of mefam is very severely punished in our society, and in serious cases, apart from other sanctions, mefam are ‘disgrace-marked’ which means they receive a blow with a drynnia across the cheek which leaves a mark for a long time, sometimes for ever. Of course, any such accusation must be upheld before an Interdominant Court of Justice but mefam cannot always count on getting the benefit of the doubt ― or such at least is our opinion.

‘I realise this is going to be painful for you,’ said Dyrithan making an attempt to be considerate. ‘But you need to face up to certain facts before it is too late. I know Xinthia sometimes behaves as if she were fifteen or less, but in reality she is twenty-eight ― ask her yourself, or Ryaltia, if you don’t believe me. As you doubtless know, she also belongs to one of the most select clusters, the Thyallin, which specialises in training subdominants for the Higher Technical Controls. Now, although some of these subdominants might occasionally frequent people of our social level at places like Lunkod, they don’t readily go around throwing their wrist-fans at people like us.’
‘Why did she pick on me then?’
‘It’s fairly clear. In your case, she correctly assessed you as someone who disdains all this sort of gossip, and so she counted on you either knowing nothing about her reputation or, if you did know something, discounting it as undeserved.’
‘She threw her wrist-fan at me to get revenge because I ignored her last summer,’ I murmured. ‘And then there’s the fact of our —  of, well, last summer’s event.’
There was a dreadful plausibility about Dyrithan’s version of the story.
‘Well, perhaps that was the reason, I don’t know,’ replied Dyrithan noting my reaction. ‘But young fam, although they might want to be seen publicly with one of us after the er-event of last summer, wouldn’t want to take things further while we are still darstillya.’
‘Xinthia doesn’t care about such old-fashioned rubbish,’ I said shortly and immediately regretted it since it implied I knew her rather better than I had up to then been making out.
‘You realise I hope that Xinthia has already been responsible for the disgrace-marking of two mefam?’ went on Dyrithan after a pause.
‘That was because they tried to force her – it was a disgusting affair…’
Now he mentioned it, I did recall some rumour about a young straylkha novice related to Ryaltia being molested: this could only be Xinthia.
Dyrithan shrugged.
‘Let us say we do not know the full details. I personally think the mefam concerned were not entirely innocent, but the punishment was out of all proportion. And it is said that they were not allowed to appeal because Xinthia, through her connections, got the whole thing hushed up. I do not know the facts any more than you do, but I do know that the sort of mefam who come here just to exchange in the Hymen-bowers avoid her systematically’.
‘Maybe they do – why should I care? Anyway I don’t believe you – all this is just some filthy gossip going around… It’s lucky I know you, Dyrithan, otherwise…’
I was by now quivering with fury and it was all I could do to hold back from attacking Dyrithan physically.
‘You’re only saying this because — ‘  I stopped suddenly before saying something that could ruin our relations forever.
Dyrithan laughed sourly.
‘You refer to my well-known timidity with fam? I am jealous because I never frequent these famous Hymen-bowers — is that it? Well, after all maybe there is something in that —my motives are not entirely pure, noone’s are. But for all that I am genuinely worried about you. Drop this vertran angle if you like. There is something else you ought to know. That is not the only reason everyone here avoids her. She is commonly believed to be monitored – subliminally monitored. And you know what that means.’
‘For goodness sake, you’ve seen too many picto-histories.’
Subliminal monitoring is a very recent technique. It consists in impanting a microscopic recording device in someone’s brain which allows that person’s experiences and even stray thoughts to be picked up from some distance away ― so at any rate it is claimed. There is currently a lot of discussion in the clusters about whether it is or is not possible to subliminally monitor someone without their prior knowledge and consent. Also, some people claim that if a subliminally monitored person has close relations with someone else, for example exchanges with them, the second person gets automatically monitored as well i.e. the surveillance gets propagated in the manner of a virus. I had so far paid little or no attention to such stories, dismissing them as paranoid nonsense.
‘Why on earth should Xinthia be monitored?’
Dyrithan looked at me wearily.
‘I sometimes wonder how it is you’re not yet extinct, you take so little interest in what’s going on around you. What does Xinthia study? Did she at least tell you that?’
‘Hyper-themistrics, something like that. I hate all that kind of stuff. And there certainly wouldn’t be any danger in passing on the most precious information to someone like myself.’
‘Yes, Hyper-themistrics. But more specifically DETP — from a theoretical angle. I presume you have at least heard of DETP since you live in a cluster that is just about the most important Research and Refuelling Station for DETP on Sarwhirlia at present. Yes, yes, I know you spend all your time watering yatthin plants when you’re not on the cone. I also presume you know there is currently a lot of controversy about the dangers of DETP, and the ethics of the whole thing.’
‘I’m not in the least interested. I don’t particularly care where the energy comes from.’
‘Yes, I don’t expect you do. But the Yther think otherwise and at the last General Concilium they decided to issue what amounts to an ultimatum. Never in present memory has anyone spoken to the Dominants in such a manner. Anyway, take it from me that DETP is a red-hot issue and Xinthia is deeply immersed in it, so deeply that it’s probably impossible for her to pull out of it even if she wanted to. She did not choose this area of study incidentally : it was imposed on her.’
‘What’s all this got to do with me?’
‘Quite a lot. You as someone who lives in the Y-57 cluster would be a very appropriate person to be subliminally monitored — yes, I know, IF such a process exists, but let’s for the sake of argument say it does exist. Your utter indifference to the subject is actually an advantage because people who do know about it will not be wary of you and will say what they think when you’re around. Don’t you have any close friends that are well up in DETP.’
‘Well, yes, I suppose Sarsyn is and he’s a member of a trio I’m in. But… ‘
‘You see.’
‘No, no, this is utterly preposterous. The next thing you’ll be telling me is that this skihl we’re drinking has been tampered with and contains minute organisms which are going to infiltrate our brain-cells.’
Dyrithan shrugged. ‘Think what you like. I’m just warning you. If Xinthia is not already monitored, it’s practically certain very soon she will be. I can only advise you to avoid her, unwelcome though this advice is.’
‘I don’t know her that well anyway. I just think you’re going slightly neural yourself since you got involved with this organisation, if you don’t mind me saying so. I see no reason for anxiety about what’s going on at present in the Conglomerate. Yes, I know there’s an issue concerning the metals but I don’t intend to lose any sleep over it.’
‘You don’t think the social structure is showing signs of wear and tear, that in brief there’s beginning to be a power vacuum?’
‘No, I wouldn’t say so.’
‘And the fighting in Majentia at the moment?’
‘That’s been going on for some time already. Anyway it’s strictly local and hardly likely to expand further. They’re so backward it’s normal for them to have small-scale wars — if you look back into mefam times you’ll find it’s one war after another. No, the global situation is totally under control.’
‘And Aruella? She’s getting involved in the Majentian war, or wants to be.’
‘I’m not sure she’s even still alive — she’s just a bogey. Intelligence Services need to have some sort of enemy, otherwise they’d lose their raison d’etre. No, I’m not in the least worried about Aruella.’
‘It’s not a question of Aruella attacking us here I’m talking about — the very fact that she’s allowed to exist at all shows that the skrylla of the current Dominants is dangerously weak.  It’s a sign, just like the disturbance the Yther are causing.’
‘Oh, the Yther is a religious organisation committed to peaceful methods, they’ll never cause any real trouble whatever they say. No, no, the Conglomerate is as stable as it ever was.’
‘Well, I can see you’re pretty well incorrigible. You do at least know that the Magnatte have now been the ruling Parthenogens for over a hundred and twenty years: that’s the longest span in the whole era.’
‘So what? Yes, it may be there’ll be a new set of Dominants shortly but that doesn’t worry me, the last transition went off without any trouble at all.’
‘The last one, yes. But this transition will be a rather special one.’
Dyrithan examined me cautiously.
‘Look, what I’m about to say, though it’s not exactly a secret, is not often talked about. Regrettably, given your attitude and your possible continuing frequentation of Xinthia, it may be we won’t meet up again too much, not intimately anyway. I can’t take the risk now I’m committed to Solemnin. So I feel I must speak to you now or not at all. You do at least know the prophecy about the Eight Parthenogens?’
‘That there’s only eight and after that the whole era comes to an end? Everyone knows that — it’s no secret at all. But it doesn’t apply to what’s going on at the moment because the Magnatte are the seventh. I don’t care what happens after the next lot finish because I shan’t be here, I’ll be a floating essence in the underground lakes of Mortalysium.’
‘Tell me, have you never heard of the Theory of the Lost Parthenogen?’
‘No, I don’t think so. What’s that?’
‘As you are aware the span of the Parthenogenic types is very variable. The Lintrunn, supposedly because of a genetic flaw, only existed for a few months before giving rise to their successors.’
‘Yes, I know that. And after them we had the Typhen.’
‘So most people believe, yes. But it has been suggested that there was an even shorter lived type, one that existed only for a few days, or maybe hours — it just had time to produce its successor before it dispersed. And that is why there weren’t any records of it. Do you see where this takes us?’
The full implications of what he was driving at suddenly hit me.
‘If there was such a type,’ I said slowly, ‘it brings the count up to eight. And so after the Magnatte the, well, the entire Era of the Parthenogens will come to an end.’