The Serpent in the City An excerpt from Goldenhead

Preliminary information: Therana is a teacher at a virtual school that appears to be in a city-sized space-ship called HMSS Imperial Princess. She lives in the city of Nevrayapurh. During her working hours her physical body is in stasis.

Therana-chara, Goldenhead’s teacher

The shadows of the palm trees and the lamp posts were lengthening in Queen’s Way.Some of the stores were closing.

As they turned into Dachertha Avenue, which ran north-south, one half of the street was in shadow. Ulalua Square, however, was so open as to be mostly bright. It had a big fenced green in the center with a statue of the first Westrenne Empress borne aloft by angels. Two uniformed nannies were finishing their conversation, while their little charges chased each other around a tree, conveniently tiring themselves out for bedtime.

The cab glided around the green to the other side of the square, where stood Princess Mary House, a daughter house of Sai Candre College, Nevrayapurh. Princess Mary was a lay college, which meant that it was more a residential club with some academic activity than a full-time college. Most of its members were Queen’s College alumni. Very few Novarians of any age lived alone in private apartments, so lay colleges, clubs, and pensions, great and small, rich and poor, were to be found everywhere. Princess Mary was one of the grander establishments. Latala-chei could certainly not have afforded it on her journalist’s pay, but her family was a branch of one of the older Nevrayapurh dynasties and insisted, if their blonde child must work in the city, that she live somewhere decent.

The cabbie parked outside the white-pilastered edifice, and Therana started to get out, looking toward the impressive entranceway.

“Yoo-hoo!” The voice came from the opposite direction: from the green. Latala-chei, who had been sitting on one of the little wrought-iron benches, was approaching the car, waving a black cocktail-gloved hand.

Therana walked around the car and opened the green-side passenger door for her.

“It is the done thing,” she said, “to wait for your escort to—well, escort you from your residence.”

“I was waiting,” said Latala-chei. “Waiting in the little park. Charming evening. Anyway, I didn’t want to waste any time. I’d like to get a brief interview in before the festivvers get under way if possible.

“The Depths, Jukul-chei,” she called to the cabbie, “and don’t spare the horsepower.”

“Chalwë, ma’am,” responded the driver and took off with a lurch of acceleration.

The Depths was located down a cobbled side street in a less fashionable part of town, in one of those tall, gaunt blackstone buildings. On the long black front door was fixed a small black sign bearing the name of the establishment in white gothic lettering. Beneath the sign was a brass lion-head knocker. There was nothing else to indicate that the house was in any way open to the public.

The steps up to the door were narrow and steep. Therana helped Latala-chei to climb them. The door opened before she had a chance to knock, as if they had been watched secretly from within. The girl who had opened the door looked like a parlormaid in any of the private houses in the street, except that her black dress was adorned by a black apron, she wore a black beribboned cap on her head and black gloves on her hands. Her face was white and her lip rouge so dark a red as to be almost black. She bowed deeply.

“Rayati and welcome,” she said. “Please step this way.”

It took a short time to become accustomed to the light—of which there was very little. Only a few candles illuminated a windowless hallway with black-painted walls. The candles themselves burned in the palms of human hands moulded in plaster and protruding at intervals from the walls. Therana was able to make out a huge face in deep bass relief that took up most of the small end wall. It was not a normal human face but reminded Therana of the Queen of the Dead from Night’s Domain. As they approached, the eyes suddenly glowed red, bathing them in red light, and the mouth opened, revealing a small, dark chamber.

Latala-chei took Therana’s hand and stepped inside, and the huge mouth closed again, leaving them in complete darkness in a room only a few feet square. And then gravity itself seemed to go haywire with a horrible lurch, as if the tiny room had fallen into a deep chasm. Doors opened on the opposite side from where the mouth had been, and they were in a large candle-lit salon where black-clad waitresses served chattering blondes and brunettes. It seemed almost like a return to normalcy, except that the chairs, couches, and furnishings were all black. Even the candles—of which there were many more than there had been in the hallway—were black.

“I hope it didn’t scare you,” said Latala-chei. “I thought about warning you in advance.”

“Oh, I am glad you didn’t,” said Therana. “It would have spoiled the effect. An elevator that works like one of those drop tower rides, I suppose.”

“Yes, I think that’s how they do it. One has to admire the showmaidship.”

“One does. I am not sure it is all in the best—uh—taste though,” said Therana, pushing her spectacles firmly up the bridge of her nose.

“That is what a lot of people say.”

“It feels like—well, like invoking darkness.”

“In a way it is. But that doesn’t mean invoking evil. It means delving into the mysteries of being: things that are dark because we haven’t seen them fully yet.”

“Is this more than just a theme-café, then? Do they mean this seriously in some way?”

“In some way, yes,” said Latala-chei. “Even theme-cafés, after all, usually have a genuine dedication to their theme. That is why people find them so magical. But this is not just a café, it is a club.”

“Do people live here?”

“A few do, but it is not primarily a residential club. Most of its members are artists from all over town and even other parts of the country or followers of certain new movements in the arts. Exploring the Depths through art is the theme of the club, and it is a serious one.”

“The Depths of what?”

“Of the soul, of the cosmos, of the mind, of being itself  They are all the same, aren’t they?”

“Do you think they can reach those ‘depths’ through art?” asked Therana.

“They do. I am but a humble reporter. Oh, excuse me a moment—there is Andelini-chei.”

Latala-chei took off in search of her prey. Therana found an empty table and looked around the club. Most of its members and visitors were young and somewhat flamboyantly dressed. There was an atmosphere of energy and excitement. They were hoping to hear something really special tonight, and many of them seemed to have theories and creative plans of their own which they were animatedly sharing and discussing. It was a little like being back at Queens, only the atmosphere was more intense and the dress less conservative.

Therana felt, rather than saw, someone beside her chair. Someone quite small. She turned and half-saw someone standing beside her. A golden-haired girl—the one she had met this afternoon at Candret School. Her memories of the Imperial Princess were always a little like dream-memories. Clearer and more complete than dream-memories usually are, but with the same atmosphere of a certain unreality. When she was actually there it all seemed quite real—and indeed her more usual life, when she thought of it, seemed a little unreal. Now the girl standing beside her was not unlike her memory of her. She could not be certain whether she actually saw her in the candlelight or whether she was imagining her very strongly. She wondered whether this daily shifting from one reality to another and back was affecting her perceptions and her sense of what was real—assuming anything was actually more real than anything else.

“What are you doing here?” she thought.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” replied the girl, inside her head, not aloud. “I think I am dreaming.”

Therana laughed a little and then hoped no one had noticed her laughing at nothing—although, come to think of it, it would probably not be thought particularly odd in this company. “I think I am dreaming. Dreaming while awake. Seeing things that aren’t there.”

The girl looked unhappy. In fact she seemed about to cry. “I guess I deserve that,” she said. “Not long ago I refused to believe someone was there. She couldn’t convince me I wasn’t imagining her. Now it is happening to me.” She looked around her. There was no one here she knew except Therana-chara. It was a very strange place with black candles and a spooky atmosphere.

“It’s all right,” said Therana, “come closer. You’re Goldenhead, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Goldenhead, moving very close in to Therana-chara’s chair.

“There will be some music soon. You’ll enjoy that, won’t you? You can sit on my lap if you like.”

“Can I?” asked Goldenhead.

“Of course. Jump up!”

The little girl took Therana’s arm and jumped onto her lap. She weighed nothing, of course, and it was a better arrangement, since Therana could look ahead of her and not seem to be staring at something that wasn’t there, and since she didn’t have to use her mouth to talk to the child, there was nothing outwardly odd about her behavior.

“It’s only a sort-of dream, you see,” said Goldenhead. “I know you are really here and not just in my mind. But I am sort-of asleep on the Imperial Princess, you see. But only sort-of asleep, because my physical body is actually asleep somewhere else all the time—I mean, even when I am awake on the Imperial Princess.”

“That is terribly interesting, you know,” said Therana-chara. “I have a friend here who would be just fascinated by that. In fact, I suspect a lot of the people here would be.”

“I don’t want to talk to them,” said Goldenhead.

“I don’t think you could anyway; but why don’t you want to?”

“I don’t know. It’s scary here. I came with you in that horrible dark room that was in that horrible creepy hall and then was here. It was like a really bad dream.”

“That was just an elevator really, you know,” said Therana-chara.

“Maybe it is my dreamingness. It didn’t seem like an elevator at all.”

“No, it isn’t your dreamingness. It really didn’t seem like an elevator. It was all tricked out to look spooky and scary. Like the ghost train at an amusement park.”

Goldenhead relaxed a little and looked less afraid. “Really? Is this an amusement park sort of place?”

“Yes, in a way. It is like a theme café. Do you know what that is?”

“Yes, I think so. That is so funny. It seemed just like a nightmare, and yet I knew it wasn’t a dream.”

“Perhaps whatever it is in us that draws us to nightmares drew you here, since you can’t really dream. But don’t worry. I am really here, and I will look after you.”

“Oh, thank you, Therana-chara.” Goldenhead snuggled against her.

A blonde lady came to the table. Goldenhead liked her. She was happy and full of energy.

“This is Latala-chei,” said Therana-chara. Goldenhead made a little sitting reverence, which, of course, Latala-chei did not see, since she could not see Goldenhead at all.

“Did you get an interview?” asked Therana.

“Andelini-chei was too busy to speak to me. Can you imagine that?”

“Well, she is in the last minutes of setting up for her concert.”

“I know, I know. I have almost forgiven her already. Anyway, I managed to collar Sestella-chei, who plays violin and also was involved in the orchestration. She is terribly excited—they all are. She told me all about their ideas on the Music of the Spheres. Nice to have her actual words to quote, but nothing new there. However—”

“I know that ‘however’,” said Therana. “You found something juicy.”

“Well, I was just talking about something that has been niggling in my mind about all this experimentation. The line of disciplic succession. Who is Andelini-chei’s Ranya—her Mistress of the Way?”

“One of the music-mistresses at Queen’s, I would suppose—unless she has found another since then.”

“Well, I didn’t suppose anyone at Queen’s would be any too keen on Andelini-chei’s experiments, and I was wondering what music-Ranya would be. Well, guess what?”


“Andelini-chei’s Ranya isn’t a musician at all. She’s a phenagulist.”

“Greenies!” exclaimed Therana. “A sorceress, you mean?”

“Phenagulists aren’t really sorceresses, you know. A few thousand  years ago, before people became so dependent on physical ways of doing things, most things were made by phenagulism. Most of the really ancient buildings in the world were conjured out of the rock by phenagulists, not built with hands.”

“Well, yes, I know that, but nowadays—”

“Nowadays, popular fiction—not to mention some of the less reputable newspapers—deals in all sorts of sensational stuff about phenagulists and makes it all out to be terribly dangerous—or else a lot of foolishness that doesn’t work any more. But there are a lot of quiet, scholarly phenagulists, you know. Their interest is largely academic, but they can achieve some interesting effects too.”

“Well, it will really set the cat among the pigeons if you print this news about Andelini-chei.”

“I know. If I was companioned at the Looking Glass I could do a lovely piece with stock images of phenagulists from the latest kinematics and photos of this place with its black candles and gargoyles. It might make the front page on a quiet day.”

“But you aren’t companioned at the Looking Glass.”

“No. But actually, I am thinking even the Intelligencer might like something along those lines, a little less obviously sensational, of course. It would probably do excellent business for sales of the Lunchtime Edition. But it wouldn’t be honorable, I fear. I think I should stick to a relatively respectable piece on the Arts Page.”

There was a smattering of applause as some of the musicians came onto the raised stage-area. It was not a full stage, more like the performance area of a cabaret, yet it had seen the first performances of several plays, readings, and pieces of music, some of which had attained some public following, and many of those which had not were held in high regard among followers of the New Movement in Nevrayapurhi art.

There was a violinist and a bassist, a drummer and some players on metallic percussion instruments that Goldenhead did not recognize at all, and there were several very long flute-like instruments. There were some tuning sounds and the conversation seemed to have quieted to a murmur.

“Can you hear properly, Goldenhead?” asked Therana-chara.

“Yes, thank you, ma’am,” replied Goldenhead. “Well, it is a little bit vague.”

“They are just tuning up,” said Therana-chara.

Andelini-chei rapped her bow. She was the violinist. The murmur of conversation ceased and there was a little applause followed by silence.

The silence seemed to last a long time, and then Goldenhead realized that a single note was emerging from it—being played first by one of the percussionists vibrating her hammer against a single set of three strings on a dulcimer-like instrument, at first so softly that it could almost not be heard but then gradually becoming more audible in a way that somehow felt as though it were creeping up from inside one’s skin. Andelini-chei, who had been waiting with her bow poised, began vibrating it against the strings, again almost inaudibly at first. As the sound swelled, hollow metal percussion sounds, infinitely delicate, joined her and began to swell. To Goldenhead, who only half-heard and half-saw or felt the performance, it seemed as though successive and ever-growing waves were running down a single luminous thread—and that thread was inside her and inside everyone present: inside the room as a whole and inside the entire world.

Then there was a discordance as the sound of other instruments seemed to cut the thread. The thread was severed; and yet the thread could not be severed. There it was again, shining in the darkness, uncut and uncuttable despite the fact that, again and again, it appeared to be severed.

And then from the deep silence at the base of the music rose up something else. Something made of gong-like swelling and deep-stringed sinuosity. Something that should not be there and yet something that was foreordained to be there. It sounded like the winding of an immortal serpent with great wings. Goldenhead tried to hold onto the shining thread, for she knew that, in all the universe, it was the only protection from the great winged serpent. The thread never broke, but the serpent became louder and louder until it seemed to hover over the entire room.

There were screams. It was hard for Goldenhead to tell on what level perception was taking place. She had thought herself to be inside the music, experiencing its meaning. But now she could see and hear that the people in the room were reacting to the winged serpent as if it were a real being in their presence. Some were running toward the elevator; others were calling for calm and shouting that it was only part of the performance.

The musicians ceased playing on a signal from Andelini-chei. The serpent did not disappear, but it seemed to get smaller—or was it only rising higher? There were signs of panic. A blonde appeared to be choking, and Therana-chara got up and ran to assist her. The serpent rose higher and began to disappear through the black ceiling of the room.

Latala-chei got up from her chair, moved swiftly over to a far corner of the room, and disappeared through a small doorway. The room began to calm a little as the serpent disappeared completely—through the ceiling as it seemed—but it was still chaotic. Tables had been overturned; drinks were spilled. Some were still seized by fear, and others by embarrassment, while a few began to laugh.

The laughter proved contagious. It was a laughter of relief and also a dispelling of embarrassment, for any loss of face seemed to be a very critical matter to these people. In laughter both the fear and the embarrassment were dissolved. It had all been part of the fun after all.

The musicians struck up a light, bouncy tune which further drove away dark feelings and added to a strange sort of euphoria. Perhaps it had all been part of the show, but Goldenhead had the feeling that the musicians were as startled as everyone else and had only just recovered their composure enough to do their duty and set the atmosphere to rights.

Therana-chara returned to the table, having reunited the now choke-free blonde with her now hilarious party. She stared at Latala-chei’s empty chair.

“She left,” said Goldenhead. “She went out that door.”

“Thank you,” said Therana-chara, and made for the door herself.

Goldenhead followed her. She did not choose to, or not choose to. She just seemed to be seeing the dream now from a somewhat Therana-chara perspective. She did not run to keep up with her, but rather seemed simply to be caught up in the movement-stream of Therana-chara.

Therana found the little door. It led out into an enclosed airey, open to the sky, with iron steps leading up the outside of the building to street level. She raced up the ringing steps to a little metal landing that led onto a side street at the back of the Depths. Latala-chei was nowhere to be seen. Therana-chei was fairly sure what had happened. Latala-chei was not, in the normal course of things, enormate enough to desert her escort, but there were few social laws she would not break when in hot pursuit of a story.

Therana was pretty sure that Latala-chei, seeing the serpent moving upward through the ceiling had decided to follow it. The elevator was being rushed by a panicky crowd, but Latala-chei had clearly known of this fire escape and used it. Following the same line of reasoning, Therana was fairly sure that Latala-chei had seen the serpent when she got out. If she had not, she would have returned. So either she had followed it or—something worse, which Therana did not even want to think about.

Goldenhead was, a little foggily, aware of all that was passing through Therana-chara’s mind. She must be thinking in the front of her head, she thought. Thinking that directly about her drew Therana-chara’s attention. She became aware of the small blonde-haloed child standing beside the black iron railings.

“I suppose you have no idea where Latala-chei has gone, honey?” she said.

“I have a kind of feeling,” said Goldenhead, “but I don’t know if it is right.”

“Well, it’s all we have,” said Therana-chara. “Let’s try it. Can you lead the way?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Goldenhead.

They went together, in the same stream, down another side street and another, yet narrower. It did not seem like a stream to Therana. It felt like running. Running down very real, solid, ordinary streets in the gathering twilight. Little back streets of a sort she rarely saw. Running after a half-visible little girl who did not seem to be moving her legs and stayed always exactly the same distance in front of her. Running to find a girl who was chasing a winged serpent. Dream and reality seemed to have collided.

The streets became smaller and darker until finally they reached a dead end—a high wall of old, discolored bricks.

“I’m sorry,” said Goldenhead. “I must have been wrong.”

They both looked for a little while at the dead-end wall, wondering if there was something there they might have missed. A way forward, perhaps, or a clue. But there was nothing.

They turned back. They could no longer see the end of the narrow street. It was blocked by something huge moving toward them. At first neither of them could make out what it was, but then it became clear. It was a black serpent with a body as thick as a hundred-year-old oak; its foremost part was sustained in the air by great leathery wings, while the bulk of its great length writhed and coiled along the pavement behind. In front of it someone was running. It was Latala-chei. She threw herself, sobbing, into Therana-chara’s arms.

Therana felt more than alarmed. Happy as she was to comfort her blonde friend, this would do nothing to save her from the oncoming monster. There was no way of retreat in this blind alley. It was almost as if they had been led into a trap. She looked at the little girl who had guided her here. Goldenhead appeared to be staring at the serpent, transfixed. Perhaps she was wondering how real it was or whether it would really strike.

The answer to the second of those questions became horribly clear. The creature reared back its head, opening its mouth to display two huge curved fangs and then lunged toward them.

At that precise moment, without her blank, transfixed look clearing—almost as if the action was somehow automatic—Goldenhead drew a pistol that Therana had not noticed her carrying before and squeezed off a shot into the monster’s front part—what would have been its chest if it had had one. A square beam of brightness knocked the creature backward, but it recovered its equilibrium almost immediately. Goldenhead fired and fired again, and then, while the serpent was momentarily reeling from the double blow,  made an adjustment to a small dial on the pistol.

Hissing furiously, and with a horrible foam at the corner of its mouth, the creature lunged. Goldenhead fired, and this time the beam of brightness had a red tinge. The serpent’s head was flung backward with such force that it hit the ground some twenty feet away. Goldenhead fired again, and it was gone.

The small girl twirled her gun and replaced it in the holster at her side, and once again, neither gun nor holster could be seen. She was simply a very small girl dressed in a sailor school uniform, looking as normal and everyday as a half-visible girl with decided leanings toward the appearance a three-dimensional anime character could reasonably be expected to look.

Latala-chei raised her head from Therana’s chest. “What happened?” she asked.

“It is all right,” said Therana. “The monster is gone.”

“Was it really there, do you think?”

“We both saw it very clearly.”

“What about the little girl?”

“What little girl?” asked Therana disingenuously.

“I thought I saw a little girl. She drew a gun and shot the serpent.”

“How could you have? Your head was buried in my breast.”

“I know. I must have seen her with other than physical eyes. Or is that silly?”

“It is hard to know what is silly right now,” said Therana.

“There she is. I can see her—at least I can half-see her,” said Latala-chei, looking directly at Goldenhead. Goldenhead put her hands together and bowed.

“What is your name, little sweetie?” asked Latala-chei.

“I am called Goldenhead.”

Latala-chei turned to Therana. “Did she say something? I couldn’t hear anything.”

“She said that she is called Goldenhead.”

“Goldenhead! What a lovely name. Make a nice smile, Goldenhead. I am going to take your photograph.”

“Now look,” said Therana, “this is a naval matter, you know.”

“Nonsense! It is a little girl,” said Latala-chei, making a framing-square with her forefingers and thumbs. The camera HUD appeared in the rectangle and the through-the-lens view of the scene became visible (these were not seen with her eyes—although it was impossible to tell the difference—they were direct feeds to the visual receptors of Latala-chei’s brain taken from the microscopic camera-projector lens mounted invisibly on her forehead). There was a pause while Goldenhead obediently tried to hold her smile, which she felt was becoming increasingly stiff and artificial.

“Oh, pickled onions,” expostulated Latala-chei. “I can’t see her at all through the camera lens.” She took a few shots anyway and then dropped her hands. “And now I can’t see her at all, even without the camera. Can you still see her, Therana-chei?”

“See who?” asked Therana.

“Don’t be aggravating. She was here, or sort-of here, and I am sure you could see her. Can you still see her now?”

“I am not going to say anything on the record for the Intelligencer or any other paper,” said Therana.

“Well, privately then, off the record. Can you see her?”

“Yes, she is still there.”

Latala-chei held up the back of her gloved hand and projected a picture onto it. She swiped it aside to see the next shot and the next. “The pictures of her didn’t come out,” she said, “and—ohh, pickled octopus! The pictures of the serpent aren’t here either. And it was perfectly visible through the camera’s lens. I got a wonderful shot a few streets back of it rearing with its red eyes and fangs. It was the most prodigious action shot. I was thinking it might win the Jana Morwen prize. But look. There’s nothing. Just the empty street and a few cars—oh, and look there—there’s someone running for cover. You see, the serpent was there. It just didn’t come out on the camera.”

“Do you mean,” asked Therana, “that while that beast was trying to kill you, you were stopping to take its photograph?”

“Well, I was running away, but I got a good lead, so I thought I could afford to take a couple of shots. That is how it ended up so hot on my heels.”

“That is the most crazy, irresponsible thing I have ever heard of.”

“Therana-cheri, there are different kinds of responsibility, you know. Imagine a news-girl being this close to one of the biggest stories of the century and not getting anything on camera.”

“Well, it looks as if that is what happened anyway.”

“I know. It is positively mad-making. I am going back to the Depths to interview the customers. You don’t suppose one of them had the initiative to take a snapshot, do you? I suppose it wouldn’t have come out, anyway. Well, at least I can try for some eye-witness accounts. Are you coming, Therana-chei? And shouldn’t that little girl be in bed?”

“I suspect that is exactly where she has been all along,” said Therana.