Roquana


by
Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying a book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
Auksford 2013

© Copyright Robin Gordon, 2013

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Book III: New Jackrusselham
***
Chapter 8: City of the Apostle

    Even from the outside New Jackrusselham seemed noisy to Roquana. Many of the farm-workers had personal music players, and, while these were common in Beddleham, there was there a generally accepted practice of using headphones to listen, so that only those near at hand were disturbed by tinny buzzing.  In New Jackrusselham there seemed no conception that other people might be inconvenienced, and no idea that mutual consideration might be beneficial. Loudspeakers clipped to belts, jackets or shirts were universally popular, each turned up as loud as possible to drown out the rival music of people nearby.  It seemed bad enough outside. Once through the city gates Roquana found her ears assailed by a hideous cacophony.
    First came the building sites where housing was expanding into the newly annexed areas of former farmland, and here every builder had his personal player pumping out his favourite songs.  Just occasionally all the workers on one site had agreed, either by majority vote or through the dominance of one bossy individual to listen to only one player, so that it was briefly possible to identify a single tune.
    Beyond the building sites the narrow streets, all flanked by tenement buildings, were crowded with shacks and shanties, hovels, stalls, tents and makeshift shelters, leaving only a narrow roadway between, just about wide enough for one of the extravagant carriages affected by the lords and monsignors, though even there there were occasional blockages, temporary stalls or barrows or just wares spread out for sale on the ground.
    Crowds pushed and jostled through the narrow spaces, each man, woman, boy, girl or little child equipped with a music player, all competing with different favourite tunes.  Roquana found it all very unpleasant, and even I, though my work had often taken me into the plebeian areas of New Jackrusselham and I was therefore to some extent accustomed to the din, could never be entirely inured to it, for the salubrious south-western slopes, where the governing classes and their functionaries live, is very different from the proletarian cacophony endured by the ordinary settlers.
    Occasionally we saw a gang of hoypyu swaggering along the streets, all their personal players pumping out the same tune, the gang’s anthem or identifying music, but as, for the most part, they were never quite able to synchronise their players exactly, this merely introduced yet another element of dissonance into the general melee: several versions of the same tune that were just slightly out of time with each other, inducing thereby a feeling akin to vertigo.
    At one point two gangs clashed in a brief scuffle, then the smaller group fled, splitting up and disappearing through the narrow alleyways among the shacks and stalls – all except for one unfortunate who was seized by the victorious gang, deprived of his music player, then stripped of his trousers by his whooping and jeering assailants.  The victors then stormed off in triumph, waving their trophy, while the embarassed victim slunk away in confusion.
    So crowded were the streets that it was not until we emerged in the cathedral square that we could see at all the magnificent Pantheon, the great cathedral of the city of New Jackrusselham.  Here are worshipped all the gods of the Commonwealth, but, as is fitting, the cathedral itself is dedicated to the Lord Grommet, the dog-headed god, who descended from the heavens long ago, when humanity was confined to its long-lost and ever lamented home planet, and taught the first farmers the art of making cheese.
    Though never entirely forgotten, the Lord Grommet might have been lost among the pantheon of lesser gods were it not for his apostle, Saint Jack Russell, after whom our capital city is named.  This man, the greatest of all the saints, and one who is never portrayed except accompanied by a dog, opened his gospel, as everyone knows, with the words: “Thus saith the Lord Grommet, Blessed are the Cheesemakers”, and so, above the main portals of the Pantheon are inscribed those very words: BLESSED ARE THE CHEESEMAKERS.
    Roquana had never seen the Pantheon except on television.  At the inauguration of President Bananas the great square had been seen cleared of all the shacks, shanties and shelters that clustered now across the centre and even up the magnificent flight of marble steps that led up to the main entrance.  Even surrounded by squalor and cacophony it was a magnificent sight that could not fail to impress, so she and Tommuz stopped in the middle of the square and gazed up at its great dome, its towers and spires, and the high bell-tower where hung the colossal bronze bells that called the people of the city to prayer.
    While Roquana and her companions were staring at the marble edifice a sudden commotion broke out close at hand.  A woman had fallen heavily, tripped by a couple of hoypyu girls, her shopping lay scattered on the ground, and while she lumbered to her feet the girls and their accomplices scooped it up and made off into the maze of passages between the stalls.  The woman lamented loudly and others clustered around her, commiserating and heaping imprecations on the heads of the young thieves, though one fat cow-like creature, I noticed, did not scruple to pick up a packet the girls had missed and slip it quietly into her own bag, while all the time yammering that it was a disgrace to treat a poor woman like that and the authorities ought to do something about it.
    Nearby there was a group of people carrying rucksacks and cases, people who had obviously just arrived on the latest spaceflight, been bussed to the city, and now were feeling rather lost in all the clamour and bustle.  One young man and a girl who was probably his newly married bride stood gazing up at the sparkling domes and spires, when a couple of hoypyu suddenly charged into them, knocked them off balance, ripped the girl’s handbag out of her grasp and took off across the square.  Without thinking the young man shot after them, and instantly the rest of the gang surrounded the girl and hustled her off among the shanties while their girls seized the couple’s luggage and dragged it away.
    Hearing his wife’s screams the young man abandoned his pursuit of the handbag thieves and scrambled after her abductors, only to be challenged by another two lads from the gang who wrestled him to the ground and held him there while more of the girls began stripping off his clothes.
    “I’ll buy his shoes,” lowed the fat bag who had snaffled the package lost by the recently robbed housewife.  “They’d just fit my Olbirt.”
    One of the girls accepted and handed over the shoes in return for cash, while the other stripped off the young man’s coat and trousers.
    Then, suddenly, the bronze doors of the Pantheon crypt swung open with a heavy crash and the crowds surged back and away as a team of eunuchs charged out swinging truncheons.  Two of them helped the half-naked young man to his feet and led him way into the crypt.  Then the truncheon-swinging thugs retreated and the doors swung shut behind them, as murmurs of outrage rose from the crowd.
    Roquana clung to Tommuz, quite shocked by the bustle and the casual crimes that no-one seemed to think at all out of the ordinary.
    “We should move on,” muttered one of the Tohu lads.  “It’s not safe to hang around too long,” but, just as they began to move towards the edge of the square, there came the boom of a gong, the bronze doors opened again, and the crowd surged towards them.  Roquana and Tommuz clung to each other to avoid being separated and were swept into the crypt, where they stood among the crowd facing a brightly lit platform.
    The young man who had been attacked was led in by his rescuers, blinking vaguely and looking as if he neither knew nor cared much where he was and had no idea that he was naked.  He was obviously drugged.
    The eunuchs helped him to lie down on a bed, then one began to murmur into his ear, causing him to giggle in delight.
    “I’m going to give you an electric shock,” said the eunuch, and did so.
    The young man’s body jerked in spasmodic pain.
    “You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” said the eunuch, and the young man agreed.
    “Again?”
    “Yes,” said the young man.
    “Yes, please,” the eunuch corrected him.
    “Please,” the young man begged, and again his body was convulsed by an electric shock that would normally have had him screaming with pain, but the drug – and it must have been roquanine – transformed the experience into one of pure delight.
    Over and over again the eunuch hurt the boy: electric shocks, punches, scratches with the point of a knife, nips and twists to various parts of his body – and each time the victim begged for more.
    Then, after this had been going on for some time, the eunuch said to the young man “Now I’m going to give you the most wonderful experience of your whole life.  I’m going to take this knife, and, instead of just scratching you, I’m going to cut your balls off.  I can only do it if you want me to, you have to ask.  Do you want me to castrate you?”
    “Yes, yes,” the young man sobbed in a kind of ecstasy.
    “Are you sure?” the eunuch demanded.
    “Yes … yes please.”
    The eunuch brought the knife down to the young man’s groin and took hold of his testicles.
    “Shall I cut them?”
    “Yes, yes!” sobbed the young man, and with a sudden quick movement the eunuch castrated him.
    He held up the severed scrotum
    “Another member is initiated into the Guild of Eunuchs,” he said.  “The ceremony is over.  Go!”
    The bronze doors opened and the crowd shambled out, muttering that such things should not be allowed.
    “That poor young man,” sobbed Roquana, “He will be distraught when the drug wears off – and his poor wife.  What will become of her?”
    The Voice could have told her, but I chose to keep silent.  The girl would already have been raped by several of the hoypyu and might have no other possible recourse than to join the gang and become a thief and a casual sex-partner for any of the boys who wanted her.  As for the boy, he would awake hating the eunuchs and hating the world in general, but after the Guild had worked on him, brainwashed him, taught him the lore of their cult, his whole being would be focussed on hatred of all whole men and his greatest desire would be to serve the Guild by capturing further unwilling recruits.
    Sunday, with its reputation for an ethos of purity, honesty and cleanliness, attracted nice, innocent immigrants looking for a world where they could live in safety – and all too often they found themselves thrown into the maelstrom of underclass life in New Jackrusselham, conned out of their money by rapacious stall-holders, robbed by gangs of professional beggars, victimised by the hoypyu, cheated by apparently honest citizens seeming to come to their help, and, in extreme cases, forcibly recruited into hoypyu gangs or the Guild of Eunuchs.  I had, of course, heard of such things, though they tended not to make it onto the daily newscasts lest the reputation of our wonderful pioneering planet be sullied in the eyes of the rest of the Commonwealth, but it was not until I had seen New Jackrusselham through the eyes of Roquana that I had realised just how bad matters had become.
    Roquana and Tommuz, still clutching each other firmly by the hand as they looked for their Tohu companions, drifted round to the main steps of the Pantheon, where they were assailed by a mob of blind and crippled beggars.
    “I have nothing,” said Roquana, piteously.  “I would give you money if I had any, but I haven’t.”
    Still they clamoured for alms, till it became apparent that none were forthcoming, then they turned away to surround someone else.  Roquana and Tommuz drifted on, past the steps and round the Pantheon to the other side of the square.  It was deserted.  A wide empty space patrolled by guards separated the Pantheon from a set of black railings topped with gold spikes, and beyond them stretched a broad square with handsome buildings.
    “Look!” said Roquana.  “That’s the President’s palace.”
    She set off across the deserted piazza, but was stopped by a guard.
    “No plebs this side of the Pantheon!” he snapped.
    “Oh, please,” said Roquana.  “Could you tell me if it’s possible to make an appointment to see the President.”
    “What would a pleb like you want with the President?”
    “It’s private.  I’ve got information that might interest her.”
    “Too bad.  Plebs never get beyond them railings, not unless the Inquisition comes for ’em – and I don’t like to think of a pretty girl like you falling into the hands of the Inquisition.  Course you could come into our barracks over there.  We might let you look through the window into the Government Quarter for a little kiss or two.”
    “Leave her alone!” Tommuz burst out.
    “Oooh!” the guard mocked.  “Is this little boy with you, miss?  You don’t want to waste your time with a little cissy like him.  Government Guards are real men.  We can give you a proper good time, we can.” – and he laughed as Roquana and Tommuz hurried away.
    “I can’t see how we can ever get to the President,” said Roquana.
    “I will try to arrange something,” I said.  “Find your friends and wait by the steps of the Pantheon every day at noon.  If I can arrange it, a car will come and pick you up.  Not one of those extravagant carriages, no dragons, no winged horses, no hippogriffs or centaurs, just a plain grey car such as a shop-keeper might have.  It will be driven by an old man.  You may recognise him.  If I can’t arrange it I’ll come back to you.”
    I left her then, returned to my office in the Palace of the Inquisition, regained my own body, ate and drank a proper meal for the first time in many days, and then contacted the President’s secretary.  Plebs might not have access to Government officials, but no-one, not even the President herself, would refuse to meet a member of the Holy Inquisition.
    The following day, at noon, a nondescript grey car drew up at the bottom of the Pantheon steps, and Roquana moved towards it.  The Tohu warned her to be careful, and Tommuz kept tight hold of her hand.
    “Get in, my dears,” said the old man who was driving.
    “You!” said Roquana as she recognised the muddled old codger she had last seen in Beddleham when she had helped him gather his meagre possessions after his fall.
    She and Tommuz got into the rear seat, the car moved quietly across the deserted half of the square, and, at its approach, a pair of gates swung open to admit it to the Government Quarter.



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