First contacts

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The following extract is from the first chapter of The Starless Square, the third book of The Storyteller’s Quest. The staff of the Theosophy Department have been convened by Mae, the young secretary of the Department, in the absence of Prof. Rafter, Head of the Department, who is gravely ill, to discuss last minutes changes of plan for the weekend festivities to promote their work.

(…) The seminar room was just big enough to seat the twenty members of staff now crowded into it. Mae hesitated on the threshold, trying to gauge the atmosphere. Professor Greenacre, the oldest of the professors, was complaining to Martina.

“… I thought we’d got the programme fixed,” he said, shaking his head, making his long white hair sway from side to side. “I don’t see how we can possibly change things at this late stage. It starts tomorrow.”

Martina, who was professor of occult sciences, didn’t agree. “What we had planned was rather fad. Surely even you can appreciate that, Wolf?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against change, Martina. It’s just that we need time to do things properly, especially if they are new. And we have no more time.”

Gavin Trundle sided with Greenacre, patting his friend knowingly  on the shoulder, while Chris Dryman supported Martina, laughing as he did.

Mae had heard enough. She stepped into the room and wove her way between those people still standing, encouraging them to be seated, till she reached the computer at the front. Flipping the switch to turn the machine on, she faced the assembled staff and greeted them.

“I’m so glad you could all attend at such short notice.” She glanced at Greenacre who nodded in agreement, presumably at the lateness of the convocation. “As I mentioned to some of you, Professor Rafter will join us only tomorrow for his talk.”

“Can we know why he can’t be here now?” Lyra asked.

“I won’t hide the news from you, although it would be better if no one outside this room were to know. Professor Rafter has been taken ill and is undergoing treatment.”

“How serious, is it?” Lyra asked, alarmed.

Mae hesitated a moment, fighting back the tears that threatened to flow. “It is extremely grave. There seems little chance of recovery.”

A worried hush fell as Mae bowed her head, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand. “He will give his talk as planned tomorrow…” her voice broke and she was forced to stop for a moment “… but otherwise he will not be present. He has asked me to oversee the organisation of the event.”

A buzz of conversation rippled through the room as people speculated on the implications of the Head’s illness and absence.

“Colleagues. Friends,” Mae called out, using Rafter’s own words to address them. “The Professor would not want us to spend time discussing his health. He would want us to make a resounding success of this weekend.”

The talking ceased and all heads turned towards Mae. Seeing that Chris Dryman was seated next to the door, Mae asked him to open it. “We are to receive unexpected and very valuable help in our work,” Mae continued as Sally and her friends filed into the room and came to join her, “from a group of young people some of whom you know.”

She waited till all were settled then pursued.

“The people you see before you have just returned from a voyage that has taken them to places that most people could hardly imagine, even in their dreams.”

“Don’t underestimate dreams,” Professor Lettrot interrupted.

Everybody laughed. Professor Liam Lettrot taught dreams and dream travelling.

“We don’t all dream like you,” Chris Dryman joked.

People laughed again. They need to laugh, Mae thought. This is going to be very hard for them.

“Let me introduce them to you,” Mae suggested. “Sally you all know,” she began, adding as an after thought: “or you think you know.”

She saw Lyra smile. Yes my friend, Mae thought, many things have changed. Not just me. “What I am about to tell you must be kept a secret. If any of you have difficulties with that, I ask you to leave now.”

Nobody moved.

“You will probably know that Sally took part in an experiment financed by a Swiss entrepreneur that involved travelling to the dream realm. I won’t go into the details of that mission which turned out to be extremely dangerous and from which Sally was lucky to escape with her life. The outcome was that all the people standing here before you, including myself, journeyed to another world called The Reaches.”

Several people gasped, others looked incredulous. So much for their extensive experience in the transcendent and the occult.

“And in the course of that journey many of us have developed skills that we can put to good use to make the coming weekend a resounding success.”

Mae paused for a moment, expecting people to challenge or question what she’d said. And sure enough, Prof. Greenacre cleared his throat and spoke, addressing his colleagues rather than her.

“Here we all are, worried about our public image and trying hard to do something to improve it. But I can’t help wondering what people will think when they know that it is a secretary who is coordinating these festivities. Shouldn’t it be a professor?”

A number of the professors looked at each other, ill at ease, as if they had been found guilty of an unforgivable oversight.

“Without going into a long debate about the relative merits of professors and their status in universities,” Lyra responded, “it is clear that the organisation of these festivities requires skills and leadership that only one person in this room possesses. And that person is Mae.”

“You may be right, Lyra” Gavin Trundle conceded, “but as Wolf said, it’s a question of image and the continuing status of professors.”

“I was not aware we were talking about the status of professors,” Martina put in, not bothering to conceal her irritation, “but about the organisation of an event, which I remind you Professor Rafter himself delegated to Mae.”

A tense silence filled the room, broken only when Sally stepped forward and spoke: “We all work in the Department of Theosophy. We study and practice transcendence, the occult and healing, amongst other things. If you want to question Mae’s credentials you should know that in addition to her brilliance in organisation she has the gift not only to travel between the worlds, but she can also transport other people between the worlds. She saved the lives of a whole town in the Reaches by using her gift to transport the women, children and elderly as well as many of the men to safety. How many of you could transport thousands of people solely by the power of your mind?”

“Wow!” Lyra exclaimed.

“Amazing!” Martina added, so excited at the idea that she was unable to sit still.

“Professor Greenacre, Professor Trundle and any of you who may have had doubts, are you prepared to accept Mae’s leadership for this weekend of festivities?” Sally asked.

“I accept,” Professor Trundle hastened to agree.

“So do I,” Greenacre added. “And I apologise for bringing this matter up, although I am glad I did because now we know what talent we have amongst us.”

“The Theosophy department is really special,” Lyra pointed out, a broad grin on her face. “If we were in any other university department, someone like Mae would never be entrusted with such a responsibility.”

Mae laughed, relieved. “Thank you for your confidence,” she said. “But I warn you, Professor Greenacre, you haven’t heard the last of the unexpected talents that are in this room today. When I mentioned Sally earlier, I didn’t tell you what she could do. Apart from the ability to travel and to transport people between the worlds, she has developed a way to transform the world around us so as to reveal the forms it once had. That was why I suggested she work with you, Professor Trundle, when you take people on a guided tour of the historic sites in and around Avan.”

“Of course, we’ll have to figure out how far to go and how much people will be able to take without panicking,” Sally put in.

Mae made no mention of the other things Sally could do. Nor did she mention Vee, the mysterious voice in Sally’s head that accompanied her and guided her. It wasn’t necessary and probably wouldn’t be wise.

“Let me introduce the others to you,” Mae continued. “Most of you will know Keira who is already quite a celebrity with her singing. She used to work at the Avan library.”

“So that’s what happened to her,” Chris commented, chuckling. “So much for the reliability of the press.”

“In the Reaches she has been working on the use of singing and sound for healing. It may mean little here, but she is an honoured member of the Sisterhood of the Stones. She’s also worked intensively on developing simples and potions. She will give a concert at the Arena on Saturday evening singing songs in Gran, the dialect in Granwich, a town in the Reaches. And she will celebrate the rising sun in the circle of standing stones at dawn on Sunday.”

Keira bowed theatrically, grinning.

Mae almost expected people to applaud but they all seemed in a state of shock. Couldn’t blame them really.

“Brent, you may also have met in Avan. In the Reaches he worked on transformations, being able to take on several different forms. He also underwent the rite to become a fully-fledged shaman, but that’s another story. Rest assured that we won’t be demonstrating transformations during the weekend.”

“We must talk,” Chris Dryman said, gazing intently at Brent.

“Think you’ve found a fellow soul?” Martina asked, grinning.

“But the most important gift that Brent has is story telling,” Mae told them.

“His stories are so captivating,” Sally told them, “that his listeners have the impression they are really living the story.”

“We thought we might have a session of story telling during the weekend, but we haven’t decided when to put it yet,” Mae explained. Brent made no comment, apparently embarrassed at being the centre of attention. Sally had told Mae that he was still having difficulties adjusting to being a young man again after a prolonged period as a little girl.

Mae continued. “Martin and Fran you may have already met around the Department this week. Martin is Swiss and Fran German. In the Reaches they learnt the art, or should I say ‘magic’, of cooking and have been working with Lyra’s students to prepare a giant buffet for Sunday midday. Before that they’ll hold a workshop on the use of herbs and wild flowers in cooking.”

“Anju you may recognise. She’s Professor Outman’s granddaughter. She accompanied him for his conference about Chaos Theory here in Department a while ago. With her friend Dieter, who comes from Germany, they have developed spectacular forms of unarmed self-defence, that were tried and tested in real life combat in the Reaches.”

No need to tell people that Dieter was a former police inspector who had investigated a mass murder, one of the dead being Tyrell, Professor Rafter’s late assistant.

“It’s more like an aerial dance, that is very effective in combat,” Anju explained, full of enthusiasm.

“Anju invented it all,” Dieter put in, chuckling. “I’m just one of her students.”

Anju playfully pummelled his shoulder then slung her arms around him and pulled him in a tight embrace.

“They’ll be giving a demonstration followed by a master class at the end of the afternoon Saturday,” Mae explained.

“Jenny is an artist from Switzerland. In the Reaches she discovered she has a talent for earth magic. She can rebalance the energies of the earth and encourage plants and trees to grow. She also works with the earth’s energies to anchor people and heal them.”

Jenny beamed. “It’s a bit like painting. Just as Sally works with musical vibrations to transform the world around her, so I work with the colours and forms I perceive in the energies.”

“Wonderful!” Lyra exclaimed. “You must teach us how to do it.”

“I’d love to,” Jenny said with her delightful French accent. “But that will have to wait. We all have to return to the Reaches straight after the weekend.”

Mae glanced around the room. She had the impression that all these weathered academics looked like a bunch of children being told a fairy tale and Brent hadn’t even used his magic on them, yet.

“Jenny will give a workshop about earth energies to farmers and amateur gardeners on Sunday morning,” Mae told them. “And last but not least, meet Tom, Jenny’s boyfriend. He was a journalist in Switzerland. In the Reaches, he was working on what you might call surveillance techniques, but a terrible accident almost took him from us.”

Tom adjusted his wheelchair as he turned to Jenny and held out his hand to her.

“It was the combined efforts of Jenny, Keira and our dear friend Ma’gina that saved my life,” he told them. “My spine was broken but they managed to get it to knit back together.”

Mae could see that Lyra was bursting with excitement at the prospect of such healing abilities. “Tom has been in contact with press here and abroad, organising coverage for our event this weekend,” Mae concluded.

“So there you have it. I have prepared a revised programme for the weekend…” and she lent over the beamer to switch it on and project the programme on the screen. It was then that the door opened and an old lady sauntered in.

“I’m sorry lady. This is a private meeting,” Chris said, about to lead her by the arm back out the door.

Mae had no idea who the woman was, but apparently Sally did because she burst out laughing. “Let her in, Chris. She’s with us.” Sally continued to chuckle. “You really know how to make a spectacular entrance,” she said to the woman. Then turning to the others she presented the woman. “Meet my sister An from the Reaches.”

Well that will put the cat amongst the pigeons, Mae thought. Here was a woman from the Reaches, who, in addition, Sally claimed was her sister.

“Excuse me,” Professor Trundle, said perplexed. “But judging from this woman’s age, she can’t possibly be your sister.”

Others seemed to agree with him.

“One of An’s abilities,” Sally explained, taking An by the arm, “is to transform into different shapes. This is not her usual form.”

“May I?” An asked Sally.

“Only if you’re good,” Sally giggled.

An transformed into the young girl she often was. Several people gasped. Professor Trundle fainted into the waiting arms of Martina. Keira went swiftly to his side and administered a small quantity of a liquid from a vial she extracted from her pocket.

“Extraordinary!” Trundle muttered as he recovered his senses.

“So you two are sisters?” Martina asked.

“Half sisters,” Sally clarified.

“We have the same mother,” An added.

“So you lived in the Reaches?” Martina pursued. “I didn’t know that?”

“Neither did I!” Sally laughed. “Apparently I spent the first few years of my life in that world. So my mother told me.”

“Excuse my curiosity,” Martina went on. “It’s just that I’d heard you were an orphan.”

“That’s what I thought too till quite recently.” Sally sounded embarrassed.

Mae could see that Martina was full of questions but this was neither the time nor the place.

“OK. Now that the show’s over,” Mae joked, “we need to get down to some serious work.”

An stopped her. “There is one more thing. I caught sight of a tall, thin man with a black moustache snooping around your offices.”

“Frick!” Mae gasped, suddenly feeling weak at the knees. The man was a plague she couldn’t seem to shake off. (…)

Read more about The Starless Square.