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Muezzinland: prelude

an extract from the novel
by Stephen Palmer


Muezzinland is set in a transformed Aphrica of 2130. A hundred and thirty years into the future much has changed: the aether is a telepathic cover scancyberspace, with all ground-based electromagnetic radiation long since departed. Instead, a global optical network has circumnavigated the world, the hub of which has leaped from the downfallen West to the nations of the Pacific Rim. Biograins are implanted inside heads to create auxilliary brain lobes that allow the aether to be directly perceived. Aether aerials broadcast the new electromagnetic ocean. Symbols, even concepts can be dangerous...

In the land of Ghana (one of thousands of tiny Aphrican lands in this decentralised world) rules the heartless and vile Empress Mnada, and she has two daughters, one--who looks remarkably like she does--called Princess Mnada, and one called Princess Nshalla, who is unlike her. It is Princess Nshalla who provides the main viewpoint of the novel. Despite the terrifying control that the Empress exerts over her family and servants, Princess Mnada has run away; and so has Princess Nshalla, leaving a note to say she is following her sister to find out what has happened. The adventures and discoveries of Nshalla and her tribal friend Gmoulaye constitute the first part of the book. Later, the Empress closes in on them, and there is a seat-of-the-pants chase to reach the fabled land of Muezzinland.

This novel could perhaps be described as a cross between William Gibson and Laurens Van Der Post. There is a free mix of tribal African custom and high-tech--for example the scene where a chicken-slaying haematomancer consults the transputers of the aether. But at heart it is the story of two women whose lives have been manufactured by their mother, and who undertake a phantasmagorical journey to understand themselves and to bring about a symbolic reckoning.

Muezzinland is available in a variety of formats from infinity plus ebooks, priced $2.99.

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The following extract is from the beginning of Muezzinland.

Twenty Seven Years Ago...

The Empress of Ghana awaited the creature of bioplas and metal who was her most feared servant, I-C-U Tompieme, the red and white one, the android of the aether trusted with her most important secrets. It was dusk. Outside the Accra palace she heard the chittering of monkeys and the soft tumble of fountains splashing coconut-water to the breeze. Venus shone low on the horizon. Higher up, the quartz lamps of stratostations monitoring the ozone layer flashed white.

There was a click at her door, and in he stepped. I-C-U Tompieme was two metres tall, with polished black eyes, flashing teeth, and a hairless piebald skin that spoke of one accident too many in the gene barrels of the undercity. The Empress smoothed her dress of blue silk, then sat back into the cushioned luxury of her chair.

"So my transputer shaman," she said in her deep voice, "how blow the winds of the aether today?"

This was a code question designed to ensure that nothing external had hacked into his source machines. He replied, "Like the vultures, endlessly circling."


I-C-U Tompieme flashed his sabre-smile. "And so to the business of the day, your majesty."

The Empress could not hide the savage glee she felt at the report she was about to hear, for something deep within her scheming mind told her that success was hers today. "Tell me all," she whispered.

"It is as we suspected. The aether has reached a level of complexity sufficient for it to reorganise itself. The reports of virtual people are true. Transputers across the globe are being forced to remake themselves into the equivalents of personality, so that they may cast themselves in coherent form across the electromagnetic ocean. Soon these virtual people will cause us difficulties, and eventually endanger us, for they will organise themselves along cultural lines. Some at least will be aggressive."

"These virtual people cannot be controlled," said the Empress. It was not a question. But the fact was the focus of her plans for the future.

"Indeed not. But one does not control a termite nest by trying to direct each individual insect. One reaches for something larger."

"And that is what we will do," said the Empress, excitement making her stand to confront her servant. "Soon the virtual people will create their own gods, and it those deities who we will control. Such gods will be the symbols of vast architectures of software. To direct them will be to direct the civilised world."

"Your majesty has the virtue of vision."

The Empress nodded, her eyes glistening with joy. "Yes, my transputer shaman. But at the moment I am just one of five equals. I must become the first amongst equals, and then--who knows, maybe in just a few decades--the undisputed first."

"So it shall be," said I-C-U Tompieme, respectfully inclining his head to the ground.

There came a voice from the corridor outside her door. "Is that him?" the Empress asked, suddenly reduced to the stature of a middle-aged woman.

I-C-U Tompieme glanced at the door. "It is him. I shall report tomorrow on the progress of my analysis. Enjoy yourself tonight, your majesty." He grinned, and the Empress shivered at the humanity shown by this inhuman.

He slipped through a secret door, seconds before a maidservant knocked, entered, then announced the presence of the Empress' husband.

"Have him meet me at my boudoir," she replied.

Walking the short distance to her evening suite, the Empress checked her appearance in the many mirrors that graced the walls, until at a low door of plain wood she paused, listening. From inside came the sound of boots upon marble. After a moment's hesitation, she hastened in, her dress hissing as she did.

"My darling," she said.

There he stood--her husband of two weeks, Ruari Ó Bráonain, a lord of the west who had made it to Lagos in Nouveau-Nigeria, where he had settled to become a musicologist. Her husband. The man who would help her make a child.

"Darling," he replied, his accent not so thick that she could not understand what he said. "My true love." Oh, he was in love all right, despite the match being one of opposites. But that was how it had been planned. "Darling, I missed you yesterday."

"And I missed you."

"Tonight!" he said, pulling a sachet of champagne from his jacket pocket, and grinning lasciviously. "Look what I found. Moët!"

"Only the best for us," the Empress remarked.

"Well, we have to get in the mood," he said. "Tonight we make our first child."

The Empress laughed, not out of amusement or excitement, but to release the tension she felt at this most crucial time in her plans. "My red headed lover," she whispered.

"Our first child."

"Our daughter," she corrected him.

He seemed not to be listening. "And what shall we call your heir?"

The Empress was not expecting this question, but after the briefest pause she replied, "We will name her Nshalla."


Nshalla stood yawning on a hilltop a kilometre north of Accra, as the sun rose pale above perfectly still banks of mist. Below her, the steeples and aether aerials of the city poked up through haze blankets, the steeples bearded with dew soaked moss, the aerials clanking as chittering monkeys swarmed up and down them. Far off, an elephant trumpeted.

Nshalla checked her backpack. Her dress, clashing green and yellow silk, was thin, allowing the pack straps to bite into her shoulders. She fidgeted. Again she scanned the dusty track leading up from the city. No sign of Gmoulaye. Surely her best friend would not desert her now?

The first rays of the sun struck her. It had changed from white to yellow. Into a cloudless sky it rose, as Nshalla fretted and checked the time on her belt transputer.

A song. She could hear a tribal melody sung in a woman's voice.

Gmoulaye approached. She was taller even than Nshalla, and built like a warrior. Naked except for an array of cloth belts slung like sashes over her shoulders, she approached, teeth glinting as the sun caught them. Her skin, dark even for a Ghanaian, was beaded with sweat, dusty below the hip, and her breasts were like empty triangular water bags.

With a cry she greeted Nshalla. "I am here. Wait for me."

"I wasn't going to run off," Nshalla replied.

They hugged one another. Nshalla appraised her friend. Attached to the belts were curious items, Nshalla presumed related to the journey they had agreed to undertake. Apart from the usual transputers, their matte screens black as a beetle's back, Nshalla noticed amongst other sundries a small djembe drum and an mbira with steel tines, various food gathering tools, and a roll of cloth. This latter would be her bed. Gmoulaye was a woman of the land.

"Shall we go now?" Gmoulaye asked. "Your mother will be after you."

Smiling, Nshalla shook her head. "She's still in Lagos with the Queen of Nouveau-Nigeria. It'll take some days for her entourage to come back--because it's a state visit, they're walking all the way. We've time enough to make Ashanti, and then we'll be out of her grasp."

Gmoulaye glanced down at the shrouded city. "Out of her personal grasp. But her agents?"

"We'll recognise them."

Gmoulaye laughed, and her earrings glinted as they shook. "What are those jewels?" Nshalla asked.

Gmoulaye pointed north-west. "Walk! Ashanti City is two hundred and fifty kilometres away." They began to walk, adopting a casual pace. Gmoulaye continued, "These are my sister's earrings. She gave them to me."

"She knows where you're going?"

Gmoulaye hesitated. "I have not broken our secret, but I had to explain that I was making a trek. It was only a half lie."

"And the earrings?"

"One is my bank, the other is a database. Nine hundred terabytes."

Nshalla whistled. The earrings were spheres, pearly white, each held in a silver vulture's claw: optical memory on a vast scale.

They walked on, but as the morning progressed heat began to make them wilt; Nshalla's plaited headband became sweat soaked. Clouds of flies gathered around Gmoulaye since her djembe skin had recently been cured in cow dung. She sprayed the instrument with a herbal insect repellant. "I had to bring the djembe," she explained, "else be struck dumb."

An hour before noon they took shelter under a baobab tree. Nshalla gazed out at the parched woodlands. Copses greened the brown land, the boles of the trees wizened and black, and between them swayed giraffes, chewing leaves. Far off amid cacti clumps there was a waterhole; Nshalla heard the faint echoes of thirsty plains animals, and she saw a column of dust, and in that a pair of spiralling vultures. She scanned the land north-west. Ten days away lay ancient Ashanti City, and there a certain library resided.

"Why do you think Mnada made for Ashanti?" Gmoulaye asked, in between spitting out fragments of the root she was chewing.

"It's the obvious place to go," Nshalla replied. "Tsevie in Togo would be too dangerous because Togo is friendly with Ghana. Dzigbe in the Red Republic is dangerous because of bandits disguised through the aether as goatherds. No, she'd make for Ashanti. Besides, she wanted to find Muezzinland. She didn't think it a fable, she really believed in it."

"And the fables say Muezzinland is in the far north."

"The north. Let's not depress ourselves."

Gmoulaye looked askance at her friend on hearing this remark. Some time later she said, "I wonder why Mnada just left? It was so sudden."

Nshalla did not answer. Silence descended.

Gmoulaye tried a third question. "What exactly did you tell the Empress?"

Nshalla pressed a button on her holographic ring, causing a sheet of green text to appear in the air. It read:


TO THE EMPRESS OF GHANA. Dear Mother, I'm truly sorry that I can't tell you this in person, but once you've heard this letter you'll understand. I can't just let Mnada vanish into nothingness. I've got to find her. I wish you could have done something. Perhaps you have, and already your servants are scouring Ghana, or perhaps you have other plans. In any case, they do not involve me. But Mnada is my sister and so I've got to follow her. All I know is that she went north, looking for Muezzinland. I'll follow her and find her. I feel it's the least I can do even though a few weeks have passed since she disappeared. Please don't try to stop me. Your people need your full attention. I'm sure you'll let me go unopposed. I promise to bring Mnada back to Accra, and then we can all celebrate! We can all be a family once again. Always your respectful and loving daughter, NSHALLA.

When the afternoon shadows lengthened, they departed the baobab tree. With the heat of midday gone they were able to walk with a firm tread, pausing only to refill their waterskins in a stream that had not yet dried up. Nshalla's analytical transputer indicated that the water was not polluted enough to harm them.

As evening came Nshalla found that the rhythms of the day had brought a feeling of calm to her, as if, merely by walking twenty five kilometres, she had rejuvenated her body. Although she was the Empress' unimportant daughter, her life had still been focussed upon Accra, and too rarely did she step outside. She felt that this great venture could somehow create a new Nshalla, as if the Aphrican air, its water, even its dusty red soil, could infuse themselves into her body and replace pungent city grime and smelly sweat.

But there was another aspect. She looked at Gmoulaye, walking hip-sway style a few metres ahead. Gmoulaye was a woman of the earth, no puffed-up city dweller. Though Gmoulaye, like everyone, had a biograin augmented brain, her central character was fixed by tribal culture. The scarred and dusty image Nshalla saw was reality. The aether did not warp it. Nshalla realised that this was why she had been so sure of choosing Gmoulaye for a companion, for in Accra it was impossible to be certain of anybody's image, and therefore character. The electromagnetic ocean that was the aether made sure of that.

As the sun set they decided to make camp in fern trees. While Gmoulaye gathered firewood Nshalla lay on her back, gazing at the stars as they emerged.

A friendly foot shoved at her shoulder. "You think fires light themselves?" Gmoulaye asked.

Nshalla smiled. "I was just watching."

Gmoulaye glanced upward. "No one shows a child the sky," she said.

Nshalla knew that Akan proverb. "But I'm not a child," she complained.

"You are young. Onyame is up there, he is everywhere."

Nshalla jumped to her feet and began to stack the wood. "I don't believe in him. I don't worship tree trunks. If I did, the aether would make my skin as dark as yours." She paused. "No, I'll remain me. Whoever I am."

Gmoulaye made a face. "It can't be that bad being you."

Nshalla shrugged, and with a gas lighter started the fire. Gmoulaye bent to pick up stones, which she threw at a number of bats in nearby baobab trees, halting only when every last bat had been driven off.

"Why did you do that?" Nshalla asked.

Gmoulaye grunted and began to place mud jacketed sweet potatoes around the crackling fire. "They were Sasabonsam. We are travellers, aren't we, away from the safety of the city lamps? Sasabonsam is evil, preying on the likes of us, ready to unroll its legs and grab us by the armpits, then take us away to its lair."

"Really?" Nshalla shivered. She tried to remember when she had last been out of Accra at night. Ten years ago? Fifteen? And then she had been a child with attentive servants.

"You are lucky I am here. Nothing gets past my wisdom. Sasabonsam is in league with abayifo witchcrafters."

Already night had fallen, as if a cosmic eyelid had been shut. Insects stridulated. Twigs in the fire popped and cracked as the sap boiled. Waiting for her potatoes to cook Gmoulaye made music, alternately singing a plaintive lament for peace and playing her mbira. Nshalla watched the wrinkled fingers dance from tine to tine, listening to the hypnotic buzzing resonance of the instrument... and then an especially loud crack made her start.

"Sleepy head," Gmoulaye muttered. In a can she had boiled a little millet porridge, which she served in a calabash with the sweet potatoes. Nshalla, head still muzzy, snorting out acrid smoke from her nostrils, wondered if she was imagining the honey set to one side. She picked up her spoon.

"Honey?" she said.

"A hive half a kilometre off," came the nonchalant response.

They ate their meal, then settled down. Gmoulaye produced a dagger and an Okinawan stun-gun from her capacious belts. Her stomach squeaked and growled as she digested the meal she had eaten; Nshalla's was likewise noisy, but later it settled.

Gmoulaye said, "Can you hear any animals?"

Quickly Nshalla sat up. "No. Can you?"



"What did you bring, metal-wise?"

Nshalla glanced at her backpack. It lay under her dress, which she had flung away; now she sat wrapped in her bedroll. "A dagger, like you, but mine's stubbier. And a dart pistol. And plenty of refills."

Gmoulaye nodded. "Wise of you. Things might get frightening further north, depending on how far we're going..."

Nshalla heard the query in the remark. "Muezzinland can't be impossibly far, else Mnada would never have heard of it. It's no further than Ouagadougou."

"How can you be sure?"

"Ouagadougou is the worst of all possible worst cases, there's no doubt."

"So you say," Gmoulaye said, "but we cannot be certain of anything in this fragmented world."

Nshalla thought she understood what Gmoulaye was feeling. "You just don't want to leave Ghana. I understand that. But we'll have to. I expect it won't be far."

"What a peculiar mix of optimism and pessimism you are," Gmoulaye remarked, eyeing Nshalla as she did.

"We've known each other almost a decade. Don't tell me you're having second thoughts."

Gmoulaye shook her head. "My mind wanders."

Nshalla shrugged. She held up a transputer. Its screen glowed orange as it responded to the warmth of her hand, and lines of pictsym scrolled across its layered screens. "This can be a guide," she told Gmoulaye. "I can access maps, so we won't get lost."

"Inaccurate maps."


Gmoulaye grunted. "We have little ground knowledge. This is a trek into the unknown. Once we are north of Ashanti we will be like two termites lost and far away from their nest. Any wandering anteater or chimp will just lick us up."

"Now you're being pessimistic."

Gmoulaye seemed to jerk out of her mood. "Yes. Time to sleep. I'll play you a sleeping rhythm. Goodnight."

"G'night, Gmoulaye. And thanks for coming."

"It is a change for me. Now sleep well."

Nshalla lay back, piling up a hillock of earth under the small of her back, wriggling until the side of the bedroll warmed by the fire covered her chest and legs. A pattering rhythm began. Gmoulaye's fingers tapped against the djembe skin, two notes repeating in polyrhythmic unison, until, at the junction of waking and sleep, Nshalla could see hypnagogic images against her eyelids, coloured motes, each a drum note. They spread into a matrix... or was it aether static received by the biograin hierarchies embedded in her brain? As the question came to her, sleep arrived too.

West Aphrica 14-03-2130

The Empress of Ghana awaited I-C-U Tompieme in her private study. He entered like a cat, timidly at first, then with a hint of confidence. The Empress made sure that her face remained as frozen as a mask.

"So my transputer shaman," she said, "how blow the winds of the aether today?"

He replied, "Like the vultures, endlessly circling."

The Empress paused, for she still could not quite believe the news. "Well? Is it true?"

"Your majesty, a disaster has struck us." I-C-U Tompieme projected Nshalla's message on the white wall to their side, waiting until the Empress had read it, then erasing it.

A series of contortions crossed the face of the Empress as she struggled with the violent emotions aroused by the message. At length, in a low voice that was almost a hiss, she said, "We will deal with this disloyalty."

"Without fail, your majesty."

"It was bad enough losing Mnada. Now the other one has gone."

I-C-U Tompieme said nothing, as again the Empress struggled with herself. After a few minutes she reached for a syringe and injected something into her bloodstream. Her voice was energised by passion as she said, "Mnada has capabilities Nshalla does not. Because Nshalla is ordinary you can send out agents to locate her and bring her back. The details I leave to you. Ensure a minimum number of palace staff know about this."

"I will consider my strategy immediately."

I-C-U Tompieme departed the study. Outside, in the empty corridor, he stood still for a minute. A concealed observer might have noticed his polished jet eyes vibrating as if under the influence of a superspeed muscular tic, and they might have seen ten fine ceramic fingernails changing colour, as if to the beat of an artificial bloodstream. Otherwise, the android stood like a statue. Then he walked off into the western wing of the palace, and a bare room of his own.

In ten minutes, three agents stood before him.

I-C-U Tompieme surveyed them, walking up and down before them like a military officer on inspection. At first he spoke to the air before him, never once glancing at the agents.

"This is a crucial mission. It cannot fail. What I am about to tell you is of the utmost secrecy and must never be revealed to anybody. These are absolute conditions that I am setting. No discussion is permitted. The facts are these. While the Empress and our party were away in Nouveau-Nigeria, Princess Nshalla escaped the palace, leaving just a note to say that she was going to hunt for Princess Mnada. You may have heard palace gossip to the effect that Princess Mnada has not been seen recently. She also has escaped, owing to some malfunction of her personality."

He paused, glancing in turn at the three agents. "Your job is to find Princess Nshalla and return her to the palace. You are not permitted to fail."

He stopped before the first agent and handed over a parcel wrapped in raw silk. "This is from the Pacific Rim. You know how to use it. If you are captured for any reason, note that there is a code word which will cause it to self destruct." I-C-U Tompieme handed over a scrap of paper. "There it is. Do not speak it unless you have to."

The first agent said, "And what if, gods willing, we happen across the estimable Princess Mnada?"

"You won't. Princess Mnada cannot be found or captured by ordinary means. We are dealing with her inutility through alternative technologies." He paused, then added, "However, if you do come across rumour of her, let me know immediately."

He took two steps and examined the second agent. "You," he said, "should use your abilities for the same end. You are required not to work with your colleagues, unless circumstances in the field demand it. Those circumstances must first be relayed to me."

Then he walked to the third agent. "You should also use your abilities to locate and return Princess Nshalla."

From the mouthparts of the third agent a curious stream of clicks and tinkles emerged.

I-C-U Tompieme concluded his lecture, once again walking up and down before them and addressing the air. "My final instructions are as follows. Communication is essential. However, the likelihood is that you will be leaving Ghana, and hence the optical web of Greater Accra. Since you will be required to communicate with me, I have had these prepared." He took from his pocket a box containing pale chips arranged at random, like a collection of fishing maggots. "These need to be inserted into the extension ports of whatever transputer devices you happen to be using. Since your messages are top secret, these chips will create virtual servers that exist only for the duration of the message. Never communicate by any other means. Each of you will have a hundred chips. They only work once. If you expend ninety, use the remaining ten to manufacture a fresh batch of a hundred. You may depart immediately."


For the next seven days Nshalla and Gmoulaye walked on, seeing nobody except distant tribespeople herding goats, an occasional Eurasian in an electric buggy, and heliograph operators perched on hilltops owned by local solar cults. Once Nshalla thought she spotted a technician dismantling a particularly large aether aerial, but the figure was too distant to make out. Many days they saw nobody. Ghana this far out from Accra was empty of settled human life, with even villages absent.

The rhythm of travel began to seep into Nshalla's consciousness. Away from the continuous hubbub of people that she had endured in Accra, she found herself able to look at her country with new eyes. It was as if she had wiped a dewy morning window with the sleeve of her kente dress to look out at a clear world. The aether affected people's impressions of one another: Aphrica itself remained unaffected. All this came to Nshalla as a minor revelation.

To Gmoulaye nothing was unusual. She dug for roots, collected aubergines and mangoes, set up insect nets when one night they camped by the River Afram, sang many songs and told many tales.

Two days south of Ashanti City they began to encounter villagers. They were not harassed. Gmoulaye calmed the occasional boisterous child with gifts of crystallised honey inside eggshells from which she had sucked the yolks, and in this manner they were able to garner local knowledge from the parents. The villagers spoke a bewildering mixture of Akan, Twi and Fante tongues. Nshalla tried to disguise her heavy city accent, but mostly failed. Looking in a mirror she noticed that some subconscious fear--perhaps of discovery--had made her skin darken just enough to be noticeable, as the aether modulated her self-image. But the locals treated her at worst as a curious nobody. They did not recognise her. This in itself made Nshalla aware of the immense distance she had already journeyed, for in Accra not one person could fail to know who she was.

On the ninth day they began to follow the dirt track leading up to the city. They were still in woodland, but the plains were here lightly covered. The liberal influence of Ashanti was clear; amongst the trees and bushes grew permaculture thatches, great tangles of beanplants, dika trees heavy with mangoes, cocoa patches, and a variety of root plants, including potatoes. Nshalla sniffed but caught nothing of the odour of pesticide that she automatically associated with neat Accra gardens. She did see blood on the earth where fowls had been sacrificed to the earth goddess Asase Yaa. But strangest of all, nobody seemed to be tending these food sources.

"It is best to work with the land, not against the land," Gmoulaye pointed out.

Nshalla gazed north. A day off lay Ashanti City. Already they were walking on Ashanti Free Republic soil. Long ago the city had been fabulously rich, dripping with gold and scented palm oil. Now she hoped to find more gold, the Golden Library, and there some clue as to the location of Muezzinland. Perhaps her long journey was almost over.

They hoped the tenth day of their walk would end at the gates of Ashanti City. They followed the dirt track, passing local farmers and girls with water pots on their heads, resting at noon under a baobab tree. Along the road lay an endless row of eyes, the universal interface of the optical age, attached to bundles of fibre-optic cables laid underground by automoles.

As they prepared for their afternoon walk, a man approached them. He was gloriously dressed in yellow breeches, an orange sun-jacket and a straw hat in which a metal feather gleamed. From the satchel at his side he plucked a roll of goods, which he proceeded to talk up in a patois sited some way between Accra and Ashanti. "Much memory, ladies? Terabytes and terabytes to spare. Transputer disks? Collapsible aether aerials, grow into the ear, very discreet?"

"We do not want anything," Gmoulaye said.

The man seemed to be waiting for a response from Nshalla. She said, "I don't either. Be on your way."

They passed him. He favoured Nshalla with a grin, but the gleam in his eyes seemed full of malice.

Seconds later the storm hit.

The electromagnetic ocean received by Nshalla's biograin hierarchies fragmented into rainbow static. A blast of white noise struck her ears and she felt cold. She could see little behind the static, arranged in precise rows like television lines before her eyes, so she staggered towards a black shape that she thought might be a tree--and it was. She hugged it. She prayed to Ataa Naa Nyongmo that the disturbance, which she felt must emanate from a static-box, would not bring her to the point of sensorium crash.

A voice whispered in her ear. "Run away from the tree! I will guide you. Run now!"

Not knowing what else to do, Nshalla ran arms outstretched.

"Left, left... now straight on. Quickly!"

The static was receding. Her own senses were returning to her conscious mind. She stopped, panting, bent over.

"A few more steps and you'll be out of range."

She hobbled a few paces, then sank to the ground. The static vanished. Birds twittered, the wind soughed in the trees, and the sun warmed her skin.

She looked around for the source of the voice, but saw nothing.

She dared not venture back. Static-boxes, prohibited by the Aetherium across the globe, could cause permanent damage. Gmoulaye might this minute be a gibbering wreck under some bush. Torn between fear of the chaos she had experienced and a desire to search for her friend, she stood and, wincing when chaotic impulses twinged the edges of her senses, tried to follow the periphery of the static-box's range. But Gmoulaye was nowhere to be seen.

After five minutes she realised the box had been switched off, a subconscious thought brought on an electromagnetic wavecrest telling her so. She ran back down the road to where they had met the seller, but he and Gmoulaye were gone, only twisted footprints in the dust left to tell of the incident. "Gmoulaye! Gmoulaye!" she shouted.

Seeing a shadow staggering in a copse off the road, she ran. There was Gmoulaye.

Nshalla had never before seen a real victim of sensorium crash, but she knew what to do. Childhood lessons came to the fore of her mind. Gmoulaye was an earthy, tribal woman who would respond to stimulation. At the moment her senses were dazed, creating their own static and over-riding her mind's ability to make a coherent picture, but Nshalla knew techniques that should restore at least something of normality.

She coaxed the half-conscious Gmoulaye down, and lay next to her, enveloping as best she could the trembling body, whispering nonsense rhymes into her ear and kissing her. She stroked Gmoulaye's forehead, pulled her belts close so they would rub over her skin, all the time hugging and patting. Soon Gmoulaye curled into a ball, whispering to herself, eyes shut, drooling, feet twitching as if running in some nightmare. Nshalla continued her tactics. By imposing a safe, warm physical environment she hoped to augment the ability of Gmoulaye's mind to make order from sensory input. It seemed to be working. As the hour passed, Gmoulaye began to stretch, flutter her eyelids, and speak a few words.

Nshalla had also been looking for the mysterious vendor, but she saw nothing of him. He had risked much with just one burst of static. He would not try that again, but she felt he was still around, still dangerous. Gmoulaye must be moved.

Encouraging Gmoulaye to her feet, she located the road and they walked over. On the road, she first gave Gmoulaye a drink of water, then encouraged her to walk. A few hours remained of the afternoon and she had to be in Ashanti City by sunset. With the sun descending to her left she struggled along the road, a few curious locals watching her with aloof expressions, a mangy dog following like a vulture that had spotted prey. Was that gleam up ahead the walls of the city?

She entered a valley, the road dipping to its base. The sun was low now, dusk only an hour or two away. The valley was gloomy, finches chittering in bushes, a baboon troupe shouting somewhere high up. The trees seemed cloaked in shadows. She and Gmoulaye were alone.

Suddenly two men stepped from behind a boulder. Nshalla gasped. They were armed with machetes.

She laid Gmoulaye by the side of the road and ran to a tree. The men, grinning and glancing at each other, followed, but they parted company and crouched behind cover when Nshalla reached for her dart pistol. Cursing, desperate, Nshalla could only think of drawing them away from the still dazed Gmoulaye, then maybe shooting them or losing them in the bush. She ran off, glancing over her shoulder to see if they were following. They were.

Ten minutes of the chase passed before Nshalla saw that one man was returning to the road. She cursed again under her breath, fear making her palms sweaty. And she was tired.

The other man was closing, his machete gleaming in the last rays of the sun. Nshalla thought of yelling for help, but knew that nobody would hear. She ran into a culvert, hoping her pursuer would follow.

She readied the dart pistol, but knew she would only have one shot. Reloading took precious seconds. The pistol would be effective at close quarters, but it had limitations. Should she allow him to get close, or remain at a distance? One thump from those meaty fists and she could be unconscious.

She heard rustling. He was following! She wondered if he was a local idiot. Perhaps there was hope...

Hiding under a bush, she waited. There he was. She squirmed, aimed, and shot.

He fell, hit in the shoulder. The knockout venom had him cold in seconds. Wailing with relief and fear for Gmoulaye, she ran back, losing her way, recognising a lightning-shattered tree, then, eventually, making the road.

The man was gone, but so was Gmoulaye.

There came a hiss and a voice at her right ear. Nshalla span, expecting to see a black and shining face. Nobody.

Again the voice. "Run along to those trees! See the long, elegant tree, run to that one."

Nshalla did as she was bid. Though frightened and shaking in response to the terror of the chase, she understood that some spirit of the aether was directing her, as it had during the static-box attack. Most likely it was a rogue transputer, of course, but it might be something more wholesome.

"Go to the bushes. Look underneath."

Nshalla did, gasping with relief when she saw a sleeping Gmoulaye, safe, secure, unmolested. She woke her, administered more water and kisses, then dragged her to the road.

It was empty. The pair stumbled on. Dusk was becoming night.

Gmoulaye had come round. The sleep must have helped, though she was somewhat vague.

"Ashanti's not far off," Nshalla said, hoping this was true. "We'll make it by nightfall."

"Good. Did the men go away?"

"I dropped one, and the other vanished. I thought he'd taken you."

"I crawled to bushes," Gmoulaye said.

"A voice in my ear told me where you were," said Nshalla, "and it saved me during the static-box-"

"A voice?" Gmoulaye said, stopping and gripping Nshalla's shoulders. "A voice saved you and told you where I was?"

"Yes. Come on!"

They stood at the top of the valley. Nshalla looked along the track and saw a lemon coloured glow, like a giant lamp at the edge of her vision.

"The city walls," she said. "Look, Gmoulaye, we've made it!"

She pulled Gmoulaye along the road, but her friend chattered on as if in a world of her own. "Don't you see?" she said. "We've re-enacted the tale of Anansi the Spider."


Gmoulaye gasped and puffed as she explained. "There was a fire on the savannah, and all the animals were desperate to escape. The antelope was trying to find a way out of the conflagration when she head a voice, saying, 'Let me sit in your ear, so we can escape together.' It was Anansi, and she dropped down without waiting for invitation, for she knew a way out. Now, some time later the antelope had a little antelope, which wobbled on its legs, and tried to hide in bushes. Then some hunters came. The mother antelope leaped around to attract the hunters' attention, and they followed her, but because they could not catch her they returned for the baby. But she was not there, and so they left. The mother antelope also could not find her little one, but then the voice of Anansi returned to her ear, directing her to bushes surrounded by a dense mesh of spider webs. Underneath lay the baby antelope, saved by Anansi."

Nshalla nodded. "I think I heard the tale when I was a child... but a re-enactment?"

"There are two possible explanations. A local spirit may have been in the aether, perhaps the spirit of the tree under which the attack began."

"Or a transputer of the aether," Nshalla pointed out. "Autonomous entities do exist in the aether, even though they're weeded out by local Aetheria."

Gmoulaye seemed not to hear. "The other explanation is stranger, but more likely. I once knew a shaman who had the ability for lucid dreaming. Suppose some local trance traveller was dreaming like this, controlling and yet revisiting the dream of Anansi the Spider? The aether nearby would be affected by such a dream, and the dreamer's reality would for some time become actual, its meaning transferred to the biograin hierarchies of anybody within range and thus lodged in their subconscious minds. You saved me and yourself through the metaphor of the spider."

Nshalla thought little of this. "Who'd be likely to dream in the afternoon?"

"Anybody in light sleep," Gmoulaye replied. "You can hardly claim that today's noontime heat gave rise to no siestas."

This was a fair point. Nshalla grunted a noncommital response, but then said, "I believe transputers navigate the electromagnetic ocean. Perhaps I've got a guardian spirit."

Gmoulaye stopped and stared ahead at the walls of the city. For a moment she seemed transfixed by the spectral yellow luminescence, now only minutes away, or perhaps she strained to see shadowy figures walking back and forth like termites in front of a lamp. But she shook her head, then carried on walking. "The lucid dreaming idea explains how a cultural event took place. You are a city woman, Nshalla, with little grounding in the significance of tales. A whole cultural meaning was radiated. We re-enacted an ancient drama. Some shaman was in the world of dreams, revisiting Anansi the Spider."

Nshalla found herself unsettled by such talk. To change the subject, she said, "We're forgetting we were attacked. That vendor under the tree must have had the static-box."

"Who might he have been? He must have wanted you, not me."

Nshalla agreed. But the walls of Ashanti City stood above them, and she paused before quietly saying, "Perhaps some agent of my mother's is following us." She considered this a little, then concluded, "No, we're too far away from Accra. We must have passed through quite a few countries already. She's not interested in me, it's Mnada she wants. Mnada is mother's heir."

Gmoulaye looked at Nshalla. In the jaundiced radiance her face seemed that of a wise woman from another planet, ebony skin highlighted lemon, eyes flashing, lips pursed. "You say static-boxes are illegal and difficult to obtain. That implies the person behind the attack is rich and influential." Gmoulaye left the remainder of her thoughts unsaid.

People were milling around them. They stood a pebble's throw from the southern gate, at their feet a line of sparkling eyes. Nshalla said, "Let's keep quiet, in case inquisitive ears are listening. It's time to find a hostelry in the city."

The gate welcomed them, but since it spoke only the Ashanti tongue, Nshalla, a Gan-speaker, understood little. Of course she had been educated and understood New-Oriental, but only a minority of Aphricans spoke that language.

The walls around them were covered with crinkly yellow plastic, a heat storage device it seemed. In the dark, these walls illuminated dusty tracks sprinkled with footprints. So they entered Ashanti City.

© Stephen Palmer 2002
Muezzinland by Stephen Palmer
Muezzinland is available in a variety of formats from infinity plus ebooks, priced $2.99.

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