For the prose challenge. I used the prompt ‘hidden valley’
It was thanks to Mr Tesla’s amazing invention that I was now able to patrol more efficiently the Region that I had been assigned to. Assessing the population following the schisms, separation and reformation of Britain was an important task, and a massive one. The old records had been lost in the chaos and in order to raise taxes it was necessary to identify and catalogue the various groups and communities that now lay scattered across the land.
Previously, I had had to travel on foot, on horseback, or where roads still existed, by carriage. It was a slow, laborious process.
Mr Tesla’s vehicles, which are like enclosed carriages that he calls ‘cars’, can skim over obstacles, water, and over hills and valleys. They are powered by enormous towers which are placed strategically about the countryside, each with its boiler house producing steam to drive the electrical generators powering the Tesla energy field. One can sit in comfort, sheltered from wind and weather, warm and safe, as one travels. Of course, only the very top government officials have personal use of these vehicles. However, when the towers appeared in my Region, I was granted access to a Tesla car for official use – and what a godsend it has been. I was able to complete months of work in weeks. I am pleased that I am well thought of by the Chief Assessor – only a handful of my fellow Assessors have the privilege of such a mode of transport.
It was in one of the more remote parts of my Region that I discovered the valley. I thought I was aware of the all the features of the countryside and had studied the maps carefully. As well as marked settlements, I had been trained to look for geographical features which could encourage settlement, such as a river valley, where new communities might spring up. I was on the way to a small settlement deeper in the hills when, as the Tesla car rose up over a peak, below me was a partially wooded valley, wide, flat-bottomed with a river. But that was not all. Filling the valley were people, constructions like tents, and, strangest of all, two large silver archways at its far end. I first thought that a circus or fairground had set up in that place – but where had the people come from? I knew for sure that the community I intended to visit nearby had not half as many inhabitants as I saw below me.
I was shocked. I had hopes of high office, and my record to that point was spotless. The unrecorded community could well become a blot on my reputation unless I investigated quickly. I decided on a discrete approach and quickly lowered the vehicle behind some trees, letting it settle on the ground. I then proceeded on foot to make an initial investigation.
I approached from behind one of the constructions, which was like a large tent, so I could observe without being noticed. The material of the tent was nothing I could identify, shiny and slick, unyielding. It was not metal, nor any fabric I knew. As I observed the people more closely, it struck me that they were somehow different. It is hard to explain: their clothes were sleek and unusual; they walked and laughed with confidence rather than comporting themselves as normal people might. Their behaviour was odd, as was their language. I had to strain to understand the meaning. It was a form of English with a very heavy accent spoken very quickly with many words omitted. One conversation, clearer to me than most, puzzled me: ‘No mask, Zad. Good air. Breath,’ an adult said to a child. It sounded like some native language from the Orient. And why should one wear a mask? It was not a fancy dress ball – and what had it to do with air?
Observing their general behaviour, I was amazed by the enthusiasm they all had for common things – plants and flowers were greeted with cries of delight and exclamations, people clustering around the more colourful species. A small animal running across a path seemed to make the nearby group almost delirious with joy. They all raised their wrists and held the inside towards the creature. I have no idea what they were doing, perhaps some religious gesture.
I cast my gaze further around the whole scene, and noticed that occasionally people would come and go through the silver archways, the new arrivals bursting out with joy on the faces and the others trudging back. What was behind those archways – was that where their town was? – I had seen no sign of any houses as I’d approached. And why should this valley be so different from where they lived? It was just an ordinary valley with no special features, save them.
I could hold back no longer, I stepped out and walked through the crowd. My appearance, my clothes so clearly different from theirs, evinced no surprise. Some interest, yes, but accompanied by smiles and greetings. Then as I proceeded I came upon what looked like a small kitchen garden. In it were a man and a woman, dressed in normal worker’s clothes, digging up vegetables and laying them out on a wooden table, around which people crowded, chattering and pointing, picking up the vegetables and laughing,
I went to the man and said, ‘What is going on here? Who are these people and where are they from?’ To my disappointment, he replied in the clipped form of English all the others spoke. ‘Us. Show. See. Touch. No before. Stranger? Your place?’ he said, waving an arm around at the valley.
I was confused. Here were some of these strange people pretending to be normal. ‘Show’ he’d said. I guessed the others had classed me as part of it, one of the ‘players’ perhaps. I thanked the man and wandered on. When I looked back, I saw him walking hurriedly toward one of the larger tents and decided it might be time to leave and return with some support. But I was too late. A tall man, confident, clearly some kind of organiser, was heading for me. I was not prepared to flee, and indeed, if he meant me any harm, I would be trapped anyway. So I walked towards him.
‘Good day sir, and welcome,’ he said. ‘May I ask what it is that brings you here? It is unusual to see strangers at our gatherings.’ He spoke normal English, but he was indeed different. Something about the eyes and the head, the very pale skin and of course his garments set him apart.
‘Thankyou,’ I replied. ‘But first, please tell me what country you are from. You are not English, are you?’
He smiled. ‘We are, but from a place you don’t know.’ I noticed a hesitation before he said ‘place’ as if he’d been about to say some other word. ‘Please come for some refreshment. It is a warm day.’
I explained my duties and position to him as we sat in his tent. Inside was a fantastic room, with clean, smooth walls, strange furniture and devices I did not understand. The air was cool. We drank of juice of a type I’d never tasted before. When I’d finished explaining, he said, ‘Thank you, I understand why you are here and what your duties are.’ He paused for a moment and added, ‘Of course you must carry out your duty and you have my full cooperation, but believe me, it is impossible for me to describe to you what place we come from.’
Although I sputtered and argued, he remained obdurate, simply repeating that he had no means of describing where his people came from. Finally, I gave up and told him,’ Well, I’m afraid I will have to put in an urgent report. With due respect sir, pleasant and civilised though your people may be, we cannot tolerate immigrants in our country who cannot even reveal their origin. You may expect a further visit in the next forty-eight hours, and I’m afraid it may eventually involve the police force and government officials if no information is forthcoming.’
‘I see. Well you must do as your duty takes you, but I advise you, for your own sake, to delay your report until you yourself make a return visit, alone.’ He leaned forward. ‘This is very important for you. I know your society and how it reacts. Please take my advice, I beg you.’
What nonsense! For a moment, I suspected a threat, but the man’s manner was benevolent and his tone kind. However, I could not understand what lay behind his plea. Was he hoping to gain time for his people to pack up and move somewhere else? That was impossible in this country as we could find them easily. I merely thanked him for his advice, and returned to my vehicle.
At my offices, I immediately sent a telegraph to London. I thought the matter urgent enough to go to the Chief Assessor himself, rather than the usual intermediaries, in order to avoid delay. There could be more of these strange people entering the country and warnings needed to be sent to the ports.
The Chief Assessor replied to me personally. He thanked me for my diligence and recognition of the dangers these people represented, and asked me to return with a task force which he assigned to me. The men arrived the next day in Tesla cars, which had been gathered from my colleagues in other Regions, a force of a dozen or so officers, armed and experienced in police work and interrogation.
I had mixed emotions as we approached the valley with my car in the lead and the others following. Each had to keep a good distance behind me and each other because the Tesla field could not sustain cars in close proximity, even though the local Tesla generators had been fired up to maximum levels for us. Thus I arrived probably ten minutes before the first following car.
I crested the rise in anticipation, then gaped. Below me lay the valley. It was the same valley, no doubt about that – as I swept down the hillside, I could see the patch of flattened grass where I had rested the vehicle two days before. I rose over the trees and skimmed up and down the valley, scouring the ground for traces of the former occupiers. There was nothing – no marks, nothing out of place. Even the patch which had been dug for the garden had disappeared and, although there was a patch of grass slightly greener than its surroundings, that was no proof anyone had been there.
I rested the Tesla car by the river, and awaited the arrival of my task force. I wished I had heeded the man’s advice. I would send out the other cars to scour the surroundings but in my heart I had little hope. A people who could do this were beyond our comprehension. They would not be toiling along carrying bundles. I began to laugh wildly. Of course, they’d walked through the silver archways, hadn’t they? I began to feel dissociated, delirious, and it was in such a state the others found me, striding up and down, raving.
My career is in ruins. My bright future gone. And to my dying day I shall be tormented by imaginings of where those people came from, and where they returned to.