Travelling what kinda show?

Shunned
by David Pilling ©2010

Hasan al-Asim was a murderer. He murdered on a professional basis, for money, and he only murdered those whom he personally had a grudge against. Since he was a member of an ethnic group despised, hated and exploited by almost everyone in the Western Kingdoms, this included a lot of people.

He had arranged to meet his latest clients in an alley not far from the tiny ghetto where he and his people, the Shunned, were forced to live. His clients were five men, tall bulky Westerners in drab cloaks and hoods. Their leader was a powerfully built man stinking of wine and garlic who introduced himself as the Baron. Hasan judged him to be a typical Western lord, arrogant and cruel and bigoted.

For their part, the Westerners were confronted by a short dark-skinned man with a narrow face marked by deep lines of suffering and privation. Hasan wore loose robes made of cheap dyed wool with the sign of the Shunned, a circle within a circle, sewn in black thread on the sleeve of his right arm.

“I received your message” said Hasan, uncomfortably aware that the Baron’s followers had surrounded him. “How can I be of service?”

“Speak when you are spoken to, filth” snarled one of the hooded men. The Baron impatiently waved him into silence.

“There is a man I wish you to kill” he said in a deep voice used to command “He is rich and well guarded. I am not proud of having to resort to the likes of you, but needs must”

Hasan forced a smile. “Please to explain” he asked.

“I have heard that you people are skilled in bringing death by…dishonourable methods”

You people. The Baron’s contemptuous tone irritated Hasan and he dug his nails into his palms, forcing himself to keep calm.

“Yes” he said softly “we are skilled murderers, rapists and child-killers. Or so they say in the ballads and chapbooks”

“I am not here to chop words with you” the Baron hissed “here is payment. Accept it or walk away”

One of his followers unfastened a pouch hanging from his belt and tossed it at Hasan. It landed by his feet and spilled open, disgorging bronze and copper pennies onto the dirty flagstones. There was just enough money to feed him for a month.

“A king’s ransom” said Hasan “now I have two choices. I can take the money and risk my life attempting to kill your enemy, or I can refuse and be stabbed in the back by the man standing behind me”

There was silence for a moment. Hasan waited. He could feel hot breath on his neck and knew he was one signal away from death.

It didn’t come. “You have my word” the Baron said irritably “if you refuse the job then you will leave here unharmed. It is in your nature to be suspicious, but I am a gentleman”

Hasan suppressed some bitter comments about his past experience of ‘gentlemen’, and knelt to scoop up the pouch of money.

The Baron nodded. “Good” he said “we have a bargain. My men will give you the details”

Hasan watched in amusement as the Baron turned and hurried away, followed by all but one of his followers. He was plainly keen to get away as fast as possible, propelled by disgust of both Hasan and himself for doing business with such a person.

Hasan was briefed by the man that stayed behind. Their master had invited his enemy to dinner at his castle in a week’s time. Why he had done so was none of Hasan’s concern. He would be taken to the kitchen while the feast was being prepared. The food intended for the target would be pointed out to him and then he would do the rest.

“I fail to see why your master needs me to poison his rival” remarked Hasan “poison is not difficult to obtain, or failing that a sharp knife on a dark night can do wonders”

“Poison? Knives in the dark?” exclaimed the hooded man “my lord would never stoop to such methods!”

“Yet he is happy to pay me to do his dirty work for him”

“You do not count. You are Shunned. What you do is not important. Thus my lord can employ you with a clear conscience”

Hasan smiled. “I will bear that in mind”

The hooded man told him to come to the alley again at dusk, from whence he would be taken to the Baron’s castle. Then he slipped away, leaving Hasan alone with his money.

On his way back to the ghetto a group of children yelled abuse at him and started to throw stones. Hasan turned on them, baring his teeth in a savage grin and half-drawing his curved dagger from its sheath. They fled, wailing in terror. Shunned he may be, but Hasan was no target. The Baron’s castle was unimpressive, nothing more than a small square keep atop a mound encircled by a timber stockade. It skulked among the flat marshy plains a few miles west of the city, clinging to the drab landscape as though afraid someone might steal it.

“Is that your master’s stronghold?” said Hasan to the men who had brought him there. “In my homeland it would barely qualify as a watchtower”

Someone cursed and struck the back of his head. Hasan staggered theatrically. “Careful” he grinned at the one who had hit him “don’t handle me too roughly, else I might break. Then your master would have to do his own poisoning”

The man cursed again and reached for his knife. One of his comrades laid a warning hand on his arm and spoke softly to him. He nodded and subsided, breathing hard.

“When this is over” he said, pointing at Hasan “I shall come to your filthy ghetto and seek you out. My name is Sir Brasco. Remember me”

“I look forward to our meeting. Now lead on”

Without further argument they took him towards the castle, leading their horses at a walk. As they got closer Hasan heard faint strains of music, pipes and drums, drifting on the night breeze from the direction of the keep. Drunken singing and hoarse shouts of laughter mingled with the din. The Baron’s feast was underway.

After clambering through the ditch, no easy task in the dark, they emerged in the shadow of the stockade. A postern gate was cut into the frame of the drawbridge and one of Hasan’s escorts knocked softly on the timber. A spyhole shot open, whispered passwords were exchanged and the gate creaked open to admit them.

Hasan was bundled through the door and confronted by a lean thin-lipped greybeard with a group of men-at-arms behind him.

“I am the Baron’s steward” said the greybeard, looking at Hasan with an expression of extreme distaste “while you are here you will follow my instructions. Understand?”

Hasan nodded. The gate swung shut behind him and the steward moved away towards the keep, beckoning the men-at-arms to bring Hasan with them. The kitchen was a cavernous chamber with a high arched ceiling on the lower floor of the keep. One entire wall was taken up by a massive hearth, inside which roared a blazing fire. Half a dozen spits loaded with meat were placed over the flames, turned by kitchen boys protected from the roasting heat by straw targets soaked in water. Iron, bronze and clay pots full of bubbling stews were positioned inside smaller fireplaces. Everywhere was heat and noise and a cloying abattoir stench.

To Hasan, whose creed forbade him from eating red meat six days out of every seven, the kitchen seemed like an imitation of Hell. He noticed that most of the kitchen staff paid him no heed. Any who gave him a second glance had to cope with the basilisk glare of the steward and quickly turned back to their work.

Hasan was taken to a side-table, upon which was a silver dish piled with steaming slices of mutton, pork and beef covered in a thick brown sauce.

“This is for our master’s guest” said the steward. Then he turned and disappeared into the throng, leaving Hasan to wrestle with his conscience.

It was a short battle. Hasan had no qualms about poisoning Westerners, even complete strangers. On the ring finger of his left hand was a bronze ring adorned with a crimson brooch. He flipped back the brooch, which was hollow inside and filled with a fine white powder, and emptied most of the contents over the meat. The powder quickly sizzled and dissolved.

Hasan glanced around for the steward and saw him standing beside the archway that led out of the kitchen. The man was glaring at him suspiciously, so Hasan nodded to signal that his task was done and began to make his way through the heat and bustle to join him.

As he pushed and weaved a path through the milling cooks, varlets and kitchen boys, he noticed another silver dish lying on a bench to his right. The dish was piled high with the best cuts of meat atop a thick trencher of wheat bread, and beside these was an amphora of rich claret.

Hasan could guess who the dish was meant for, and wasn’t about to waste such an opportunity. As he slid past the bench he palmed a speck of white powder, all he had left but enough to poison a roomful of Barons, into the claret. The poison was a slow-acting one, slow enough to give Hasan enough time to be escorted back to the city and dumped at the gates without a word of thanks. Slow enough for him to make it back to his squalid quarters in the ghetto before the Baron and his doomed guest began to complain of stomach cramps.

The Baron knew what had happened to him and that nothing could rescue him from Shunned poison. He tearfully ordered his steward to be flogged to death for negligence, but the man’s shrieks were small comfort to him as poison wracked and ruptured his body.

His rival, a petty lord with whom he had been engaged in a dispute over territory, suffered the same fate but in a much more confused state of mind. Their followers accused each other of treachery, swords were drawn and blows exchanged, and the two lords died in agony amid bloodshed and chaos and the ruin of both their houses.

The news of their death quickly spread to the city and it wasn’t long before the rumours reached Hasan’s ghetto. The Archpriest who ruled the ghetto gravely digested the news and then summoned Halakka, the private court that was one of the few Shunned privileges and allowed them to judge their own without outside interference.

Hasan was ordered to attend and speak in his own defence. He entered the crumbling hall that served as a courtroom wearing the black and crimson robes of his castle, along with his curved dagger and tulwar. Shunned society was divided into strict castes that defined a person’s role in life. Hasan was one of the few Shunned left alive who had been born into the Warrior caste.

The men assembled to judge him were not such an impressive sight. There were thirty of them, including the Archpriest and his two sub-priests, and they represented the men of the Shunned community. Hasan thought they looked a shabby broken-down crew, prematurely aged by the constant terror of persecution and anxiety over where their family’s next meal was coming from.

The Archpriest himself, a fragile white-bearded figure wrapped in fraying black robes of office, held up a thin hand for silence. The low murmur of conversation stopped and his wavering voice filled the silence.

“Two men have died. Important men” he announced “if the rumours can be trusted, they were both poisoned. I have summoned Hasan al-Asim here to answer for his guilt in their deaths”

“Why am I suspected?” Hasan demanded.

One of the sub-priests stepped forward. “You were observed meeting and accepting money from a group of strangers. You did not report this to any of us and you were not in your quarters last night. Finally, members of your caste are known to have knowledge of poisons and skill in administering them”

Hasan spread his hands. “Am I spied upon, then?”

The Archpriest sighed. “We are obliged to watch you” he said “we know that you hate the life you are forced to endure in the ghetto, and hate the treatment we are forced to endure from Westerners. As a Warrior your natural reaction is to fight back any way you can”

“Very well, then” Hasan shrugged “I admit it. Why not? I accepted money from one lord to poison another, but gave the poison to both. The world is better off without them”

“And did you think what the harvest would be? The Shunned are the first to be blamed for anything. We are an easy and popular target. Whenever there is a war or a failed harvest or a plague, we are blamed. If it should emerge that one of us has deliberately murdered two Western noblemen, the people of this city will tear us to pieces”

“Let the bastards come” snarled Hasan, tapping the hilt of his tulwar.

“Don’t be a fool. Do you mean to fight the entire city?”

One of the watching jury, a worried-looking tradesman, spoke up. “I will not see my family butchered just because of this idiot’s pride” he cried “let us give him up to the city authorities. Then they might leave us alone”

This met with murmurs of agreement, but the Archpriest shook his head. “I will not throw one of my own people to the wolves” he said “besides, the city governors would almost certainly execute him. The sight of Shunned blood on the scaffold might give the mob a taste for more”

“What is to be done with me, then?” asked Hasan.

The Archpriest coughed and looked directly at him. “You cannot stay here” he said “so it must be exile. You are banished from our community and must leave before nightfall”

Hasan had guessed that this would be the sentence, but even so it filled him with horror. For the Shunned, exile meant being cast out into a hostile world, cut off from friends and kin. The jury was silent. Few of them sympathised with Hasan, but the sentence was a terrible one and there was room for a little pity.

The Warrior caste demanded that its members never showed any fear, and so Hasan channelled his into contempt. “Cowards” he spat “all of you. You deserve to be treated like slaves, for that’s what you are”

Still no one spoke, and now only the Archpriest looked upon him with any kindness. Hasan wanted none of it and stalked out of the room. He did not wait until nightfall to leave but was gone within an hour of the sentence being passed. He had few possessions and no living family and left without a word of farewell.

Shortly after he was gone a troop of heavily armed horsemen thundered into the ghetto. They were led by an enormous knight with the image of a red dragon sewn onto his green jupon. He wore full mail and carried a sword and shield as though riding to war, and his fleshy face was red with perspiration and anger.

“Where is he?” he roared “bring him out, you filth, bring him out if you value your lives”

The people of the ghetto hid inside their miserable tenements, and only the aged Archpriest had the courage to go out and face the newcomers.

“My lord” he quavered, bowing his head “who is it that you seek?”

“My name is Brasco, you decrepit worm. I want the one who murdered my master – Hasan, he called himself”

“I”m sorry, but we have no one of that name living here. Perhaps I can offer you some refreshment?”

The knight responded by smashing his mailed fist into the Archpriest’s face. Cries of horror and alarm arose from the surrounding tenements and some of the Shunned rushed out to help the old man, who had dropped lifeless to the ground. The knight ignored them and turned to his followers.

“Tear down this pigsty and kill everyone in it” he ordered “a gold sovereign goes to the man who brings me the head of the one named Hasan”

He stared grimly into the distance as his men eagerly set about their bloody work. The Baron had been Brasco’s cousin as well as his master, and he had sworn an oath upon his cousin’s body to find and kill Hasan or die in the attempt. Hasan left the city where he had been raised and did not look back. He had no plans to seek out other communities of Shunned that might take him in. In his bitterness he considered them all to be the same, isolated groups of cowards and traitors who would happily sell out one of their own in exchange for a quiet life. Deep down he knew he could not blame them, for to live in peace and raise a family was no more than most men wanted.

Hasan was different. As the Archpriest recognised, his actions were dictated by his caste. All his life Hasan had been trained to respond to aggression with aggression, and it was a minor miracle he had survived to adulthood. His caste also forbade him to have a wife and children, for it held that a Warrior who might be killed at any time should be free of such responsibilities.

Full of rage and sick at heart, Hasan decided to travel to the far north, where there was nothing but mountains and endless skies. There he would live alone, free from distractions and able to commune in peace with the stern gods that ruled his caste. One day, when he was sure that they would welcome him into the afterlife, he would come back south and slake his anger in Western blood until he was killed.

The journey north took months, months in which he wandered ceaselessly, never staying two nights in the same place. His money soon ran out and he turned to begging or stealing food as necessary. Many times he was almost caught, and he lost count of the number of times he was obliged to hide or flee from the angry mobs of farmers and watchmen who came running or riding in hot pursuit of the elusive Shunned thief.

At last, weary, footsore, gaunt and scarred, Hasan came to the end of civilisation and reached the lonely wilderness that he craved. The flat plains of the West had steadily given way to rolling hill country with a jagged line of purple mountains in the far distance. Weeks of painful footslogging brought the mountains ever closer, and then one day he found himself wandering through rocky terrain with high peaks all around him and knew he had reached his goal.

How he was going to live in such a barren place was not something Hasan had devoted much thought to, nor did he care. Either his gods would provide or they would let him die.

It was a simple philosophy and led to an obvious result. Within a few days of entering the mountains his food ran out and he began to starve. There was nothing to hunt, save a few hawks circling high above, and Hasan lacked the means or the energy to hunt them. The likelihood was that the birds would feast on him instead.

In the end it was no god that saved Hasan but a slender black dart that suddenly imbedded in his thigh as he trudged, exhausted, through a narrow gully.

Hasan knew he was done for as he felt the bitter throb of what he assumed to be poison in his veins. He pulled out the dart but then his strength left him and he sagged to his knees.

The last thing he saw before toppling into darkness was a man emerging from cover at the far end of the gully. He appeared to be some kind of soldier, though an unusual one. The man was tall and wore a white bowl-shaped helmet with no visor and a neat green uniform of a cut and cloth Hasan didn’t recognise. Nor did he recognise his weapon, which looked like a long crossbow without the cross-piece and was made of some oily black metal.

It didn’t matter who or what the man was. Hasan’s vision blurred and faded and he swirled down, down into nothing. He woke up to searing white light that threatened to burn his retinas. Screaming, he shut his eyes against the awful radiance but could not shut out the two calm voices with strange clipped accents that echoed around him.

“My God, he stinks”

“Of course he stinks. They all stink. What do you expect from a bunch of quasi-medieval savages?”

“The professor won’t like you talking like that”

“To Hell with the professor: this whole project is crazy. It should have been abandoned decades ago”

“I guess as long as the politicos are willing to fund it…look at the state of him. He must have severe malnutrition. Where was he found?”

“He was wandering in the Dead Zone. One of our scouts shot him with a tranquilizer and brought him in…hang on, look, he’s woken up”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, but he’s trying to hide it. It’s no use, buddy, you can’t fool us. Give him another shot”

“Ok, coming up…”

Hasan was aware of a brief stabbing pain in his right arm. He tried to struggle but found that he couldn’t move. The anxiety receded as his veins began to throb again and he drifted back into peaceful darkness. He woke up, again to a painful white light but not quite as unbearable as before. There were no voices this time. Slowly, he opened his eyes, waiting until they adjusted to the light.

Squinting painfully, Hasan looked about him. He was in a square room, somewhat like a cell but with spotless white walls, floor and ceiling. The only furniture was the hard metal chair he was sitting on, a white desk and two more identical chairs positioned behind the opposite side of the desk. The room was lit by thin glowing strips screwed into the ceiling and the harsh light they emitted made his head ache.

His wrists and ankles were securely tied to the chair with slender lengths of iron chain. Bound tight and unable to move, Hasan could do nothing except sit and wait. The poison in the dart, whatever it was, had made his brain sluggish and he found it difficult to order his thoughts.

Clarity was just returning when the room’s only door opened and three people entered. Two males and one female dressed identically in long white coats, square-cut grey hose and grey jackets. The obvious leader was a tall elderly fellow with a neat moustache, a curved beak of a nose and keen blue eyes. His companions were much younger, the man lean and darkly handsome and the woman a striking green-eyed blonde with her hair scraped back.

“How is our guest feeling?” enquired the older man, halting in front of the table and rubbing his hands as he gazed benevolently at Hasan. He spoke with the same oddly clipped accent that Hasan had heard previously and found difficult to understand.

“Well, thank you” replied Hasan, speaking slowly and carefully “but I am a prisoner, not a guest. Guests do not wear chains”

The old man chuckled. “A mere precaution, please don’t take offence. We happen to know that you are a very highly trained killer, and quite naturally you think we are your enemies. Until you accept otherwise, it is best you stay restrained”

Hasan didn’t like the man’s jovial manner. “Am I to believe that you are my friends?”

“In time you will. Let me introduce us. I am Professor Kendrick. My colleagues here are Doctor Joyce Stevens and Doctor Charles Rae”

“Hasan al-Asim” replied Hasan, bowing his head in greeting.

“Love his manners” said Rae, chewing gum as he spoke “damned if I would be so polite in his position”

“Don’t mock, Rae” frowned Kendrick “this is not the time for your sarcasm. Come, let’s not be so formal”

The Professor and his colleagues drew back the metal chairs and sat down. They stared intently at Hasan as though he was some kind of interesting specimen.

“Now then, Hasan” Kendrick said briskly “the first thing you should know is that we are scientists. It is not a profession you will be aware of. Think of us as people devoted to logic, learning and wisdom”

“I will do my best” replied Hasan, glancing sideways at Rae.

“The second, and this will be difficult for you to comprehend, is that your world is not what it seems. It is the result of a scientific experiment begun four centuries ago”

“He’s not getting a word of this” grinned Rae “he thinks we’re a bunch of lunatics, don’t you, buddy?”

“Rae, please…” began Kendrick, but was interrupted by Hasan.

“As a matter of fact, the Rae creature is wrong” he said “I believe that you are all quite sane. You look like Westerners, though I don’t know what you are doing so far north, but you evidently wish to torture me to death with nonsense. I will not be party to it. Kill me and have done with your mockery”

Rae laughed, Kendrick threw up his hands and Joyce Stevens smiled and smoothed her coat.

“This is an educated man” she said quietly “he will not believe a word we say without proof”

Kendrick nodded. “Then he shall have it. Excuse me for a moment”

The Professor got up and strode out of the room, leaving Hasan with the two young scientists and an awkward silence. For the next couple of minutes Hasan and Rae glared at each other with undisguised hostility.

Kendrick returned, followed by half a dozen soldiers wearing the same white helmets and green uniforms as the one who had shot Hasan.

“Pick him up, chair and all” Kendrick ordered them, pointing at Hasan “and be careful. He is a dangerous killer”

Hasan had never felt less like a dangerous killer as the soldiers picked him up and lugged him out of the room like a piece of furniture. The room opened onto a long white corridor, again lit by metal strips imbedded in the ceiling. The wall to the right was fitted with one continuous pane of glass.

“Set him down for a moment. Let him see” said Kendrick. The soldiers carefully lowered the chair.

The things Hasan saw through the glass threatened to challenge his sanity. On the other side was a huge chamber, larger than the interior of any hall he had ever seen, and completely open to the night sky. Soldiers, scientists and engineers hurried back and forth like worker ants on the vast floor. The chamber was full of machinery, constructs of shining metals that Hasan could not begin to identify. They varied in size and shape and no doubt in purpose, but most of his attention was caught by the object occupying the centre.

It was some kind of vessel, big enough to house hundreds of people and mounted on a complex metal runway like a ship in dry dock. There the resemblance ended, for the vessel had no masts or sails or any other regular features of a ship. Instead it was shaped like a giant triangular kite and made of gleaming smooth metal. The words “USS Indiana” were written in black letters ten feet tall on the hull.

“A ship, Hasan” Kendrick spoke behind him “but it sails no oceans. Instead it takes us to the stars. It could take you one day”

“I am dreaming” Hasan muttered. “Or else I have died and gone to someone else’s afterlife”

Joyce Stevens laid a hand on his shoulder. “You are not dead, you are not dreaming, and none of us wish you any harm” she said quietly.

The gentle tone of her voice, after so many months of hardship and cruelty, would have brought tears to the eyes of most men. Even so, Hasan was forced to bow his head.

“Perhaps we should leave him in your care, Dr Stevens” mused Kendrick after a moment’s silence “he seems to react to you. Yes, I think that would be best.” The timeline floated above the floor, a translucent image covered in dates and references and generated by a projector built into the opposite wall. Joyce had tried explaining to Hasan that the image was a creation of science, not sorcery, but he refused to understand.

“No human alive can create a picture out of thin air” he insisted “unless he or she is a sorcerer”

“As I have told you a hundred times, there is no such thing as sorcery” Joyce retorted, half-amused, half-exasperated. “There is only science. Facts rule the universe, Hasan, not superstition”

“I agree. And sorcery is a fact. It must be, for I am looking at it”

Joyce gave up and focused on the content of the timeline. “This shows the history of civilisation on your world” she explained “the point marked Year Zero marks the arrival of my predecessors. They were scientists like us”

“Not just scientists, but philosophers and social theorists. Their ambition was to observe the development and growth of human society. It was possible to do this by studying our own history, but they wished to observe the process in action”

Hasan struggled to concentrate. He did not understand half the words she was using, but he liked listening to her talk and so sat quiet like an obedient schoolboy. They had removed his chains and fitted him with a security device that sent an electric shock through his body the moment he had physical contact with anyone.

“Strong enough to knock you out, buddy” Dr Bannerman gleefully informed him as the device was fitted. Hasan smiled weakly and made a mental note to keep his hands to himself.

“Their arrival occurred four hundred years ago” Joyce continued “they discovered that the people here were primitives, much like us millions of years ago. Your ancestors lived in caves, wore animal skins and hunted with tools made of flint. With a little assistance from those first scientists and successive expeditions, something extraordinary happened”

Joyce turned to look at Hasan, her face flushed with enthusiasm.

“It took our ancestors thousands of years to develop into a proper society with laws, culture and an organised system of government. Your world, in a mere four centuries, has evolved into a quasi-medieval society. Crude, to be sure, and your Renaissance may be a long time in coming, but that’s still an extraordinary rate of progress!”

“I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about” said Hasan, noting the depth of colour in her green eyes. She frowned and looked away.

“Of course there have been difficulties” she said, biting her lip “the people of this world suffer from the same flaws as humans anywhere. They can be cruel, bigoted, ignorant…but I don’t have tell you this”

“I have been treated like an animal all my life” Hasan replied “as have the rest of my people. The Shunned, we are called”

“I know. Your country was invaded and destroyed by an alliance of Western armies several decades ago. We did our best to prevent it but our policy has always been to avoid direct intervention. Otherwise the project becomes meaningless”

Hasan snapped out of his reverie. “Are you telling me” he said quietly “that you ‘scientists’ had the power to stop my country being destroyed, but chose not to because it would interfere with your experiment?”

Joyce had the decency to look embarrassed. “I am sorry. It must be hard for you to understand, but history must be allowed to take its course. All we can do is provide occasional guidance”

Hasan leaned forward in his chair, kneading his forehead and trying to ignore the rush of anger and despair inside him. “I don’t know what to think” he said eventually “I don’t know why you are telling me this or what you want of me”

“I’m sorry” Joyce repeated. “We are not trying to hurt you. The Professor will explain the next part”

The book was slim and bound in black leather. It had no title and the hundred or so pages were covered in small neatly typed script.

“What’s this?” asked Hasan, looking up at Professor Kendrick. He had been escorted to the old man’s quarters by the usual file of grim-faced soldiers, and the first thing Kendrick did upon seeing Hasan was place the book solemnly in his hands.

Kendrick ignored the question. “We have been watching you for a long time, Hasan” he said “ever since your childhood. You have grown into a fascinating subject. So many contradictions”

“Contradictions?”

“Indeed. You are fiercely patriotic but despise your own people. You are unquestioningly devout but highly educated. You are highly intelligent and yet have the inclinations of a petty thug. You do not hesitate to turn to violence if you feel threatened or insulted”

“I am a Warrior. Warriors do not brook insults”

“A man named Hitler once said similar things. You would recognise him in other ways”

“Who is Hitler?”

“He was a curse. It is to avoid the emergence of Hitlers in this world that we employ people like you”

“I am not in your employment”

“Perhaps that is the wrong word. The deal is this: you will serve us for five years and at the end of that time, depending on your results, you will be given a reward”

Hasan narrowed his eyes. “What reward?”

“The reward differs, depending on the servant’s needs. In your case we offer freedom for you and as many fellow Shunned as you can persuade to follow you”

“I don’t understand”

The Professor jabbed his thumb skywards. The roof in his quarters was transparent and the night sky above speckled with countless stars.

“We will take you away” he said “in one of our ships, like the one you saw. To another world where you and your people can start afresh in a place free of prejudice and hatred. There are many worlds, Hasan, as many as there are stars in the sky”

There was a pause while Hasan digested this. “And the book?” he asked.

“If you agree to serve us, you will spend the next five years wandering this world reading the contents of the book to anyone who cares to listen”

Hasan turned the book over in his hands. It looked shabby and unremarkable, like a cheap prayer volume. “That’s all I have to do?”

“Yes. Read it first, of course. Read it many times over until you know the words by heart and fully appreciate their meaning”

Opening the book at random, Hasan read out a few lines. “Imagine there’s no Heaven, it’s easy if you try…no Hell below, above us only sky” he said “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…who wrote this stuff?”

“It’s a compilation of writings by various seers and prophets from my own world. Jesus Christ, Allah, Mohamed, Marcus Aurelius, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Public Enemy…but these names will mean nothing to you. They all in their own way preached peace to mankind. This is what we want you to do”

“So you want me to become some sort of wandering preacher”

Kendrick nodded and smiled encouragingly. “You catch on fast” he said.

Two days later the small group of scientists gathered in an observatory to watch Hasan as he was escorted out of the base and released back into the world. The observatory was a small chamber dominated by a bank of camera screens showing different parts of the base in real time.

They watched as a platoon of soldiers escorted Hasan through a bewildering series of corridors until they reached the last, a narrow passageway sloping upwards and ending in a thick steel door. The soldiers pointed Hasan towards the door. It slid open as he approached and then eased shut again as soon as he stepped beyond it.

Hasan found himself standing in the open. He was back in the barren rocky landscape of the mountains. All was silence except for the whistling wind and the distant cries of hawks gliding high above.

He turned around, expecting to see the smooth metal surface of the door that he had just stepped through, but there was nothing. All trace of the door had vanished as though it had merged somehow with the rock.

For a moment he studied the landscape with a baffled expression on his face. Then he shrugged, smiled at nothing in particular and walked away.

He was headed south, back to the lands of men. With him he took an ample supply of money, supplies and the book tucked into his haversack.

“There goes our latest preacher” said Bannerman “how long do you think this one will last?”

“We chose well this time” replied Kendrick “Hasan is a survivor. He should live long enough to produce some interesting results”

“It seems unfair” said Joyce Stevens, looking sadly at the image of Hasan as he walked away “we are using him as a guinea pig, just as we used the others”

Kendrick irritably waved away her protest. “This whole planet is an experiment, including the people living on it. Through their behaviour and reactions we learn valuable lessons about human nature. How, for instance, will they react to the book? Will it be a civilising influence?”

“That book is ridiculous” sneered Bannerman “all you’ve done is mix up bits of the Koran and the New Testament with random pop culture lyrics”

“That’s the whole point. The words have been stripped of their context and given to someone who knows nothing of where they came from. Will the Christian and Muslim parables maintain their power, or will the people of this world react more favourably to John Lennon’s lyrics? What if they come to regard Hasan as a prophet?”

“Or a martyr” Joyce said quietly.

“We shall just have to wait and see” said Kendrick, looking even more pleased with himself than usual. “And if our man Hasan does not last very long, well, there are plenty more where he came from”

Joyce said nothing more, and the three of them watched in silence as the figure on the screen before them dwindled until it was just a speck in the distance, and then was gone.

x x x

Spring has sprung, the grass is riz, do you know where the Hasan is? A convoluted story for the lusty month of May from a newcomer to these pages. Want further tales of this character from Mr. Pilling? Encourage him on our BBS. - GM

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