THAT CAME TO XANTHUS
In these, the last of days, the four human worlds - Venus, Luna,
Terra and Mars, now united within their shared lozenge of air,
are growing unbelievably old. And with the irascible eccentricities
of age come new decadences, new madnesses
... and the resurgence of ancient evils
A story involving characters and environments from the
‘EARTH CLUSTER’ mythos. As featured in, but not part of,
the forthcoming novel ‘BEAST OF THE COMING DARKNESS’
He first begins to suspect that all is not well when Laars Trinkus notices the nine columns of smoke staining the sky above Xanthus.
At first he says nothing. His dark eyebrows merely contracting to a single line of concentration, as the barge noses low, without haste. The broad canal glimmers as it cuts its determinedly straight passage through what he knows is inaccurately called the Dead-Sea Bottom. It is two days since the last lock-gate community. Two days of insufferable silence from his wife, and his sullen daughter. He stays to the stern. They mutter endlessly to each other at the prow. Conspiring together. Glancing coldly at him as he imagines them deconstructing yet another of his inadequacies.
And now there are the worrying columns of smoke over Xanthus. An isolated city. Deliberately so. A city that keeps itself, and its obscure austere faith to itself. Something to do with the Old Gods. Who cares ?
Trinkus is no longer young. He has a wife who resents his failure. His fat useless wife who does nothing but complain and belittle his every slight - and admittedly few, achievements. With her long loud silences saying more than any amount of verbal criticism could have. And a daughter - bloating out into a disturbing replica of her mother, who also plots against him. They resent the fact that he’s brought them here. They share and mutually fuel that resentment. The barge is past its best years. But surely, together, they can accomplish one last trading mission ? One final all-or-nothing get-rich-quick venture ? And where better an objective than a city others shun ? A city lost and otherwise inaccessible in the Marsian wastes beyond bleak Mare Tyrrhenum ?
There’s a sharp chill in the air, carried on the fluttering whistle of the wind. The immediate canal-banks are rich with a profusion of strange growths, weirdly warped man-tall fungus and ugly cacti. An interwoven jungle of trees warped out of shape by the metallic hiss of the wind and jewelled with parasitic bio-systems that have no name. But every now and then, gaps betray thickets of dark flowers, poisonous and iridescent blossoms nodding their heads like hooded assassins, or shapes which twitch and scratch behind them in the thorns so wreathed in foliage and dust that they’re impossible to define, the artificial from the natural, the human from the non-human. And all the while there’s the sinister ticking and cricking of loess-hoppers... or something that only sounds like it could be loess-hoppers ? But worse still are the occasional glimpses of the empty dune-sea aridity beyond, which the waning light reveals. For their expectations are soured by dread - the barge is now moving through the slow wash of the canal into the margins of the Southern tundra region, and these are places where Dune Crawler brigands forage, Dust Devils - said to contain an evil sentience, twist their way across the sand, and the monstrous shapes of huge flying predators glide out of the slow tracking of shadows. Another reason for feminine disapproval. A man of real substance would not put us through this. A man of real substance would find ways to prosper and provide in the acceptable limits of society without resorting to these insanities.
In the hold, weighing the barge down perilously beyond the safety waterline, are negotiable ceramica from Sidonia with geometric design and triskele patterns, crystal wine-flutes from Cytheria with representations of mythic heroes in suitably heroic postures, silks from low-gravity asteroidal islands, jewellery - they’ll love that, these Xanthusians, cut off from mainstream luxuries by their self-imposed isolation. It’s almost visible now. The outlines of the city, its pure white stone gleaming beautifully in the twilight. The worrying columns of meandering smoke. Closer.
But night is approaching still faster. Already twilight is drowning the Dead-Sea Bottoms like a tide of foul fluid welling up from the ground. And there’s something forbidding about the landscape they’re entering. He can’t quite decide why. Mars light, of course, is an eternally low rusty ochre. But it is subtly modulated by the predominant planetary alignments. The eerily cobalt-blue glow of Venus-light, the soft green of Terra, the silvery-white of Luna, and all the usual permutations and occultations they make as they interact together through the skies. Then there’s the chlorophyll-green illumination filtering down through the shifting geography of Sky-Islands. The lower, faster ones visibly scudding across the face of higher slower belts.
A low breeze comes in off the tundra emptiness carrying a freight of fine, hard granules, and infused with strange aromas. Trinkus stays to the stern where the drive-bug hums and whirrs contentedly. He pretends to concentrate his attention on the rudder, even though the precise alignment of the canal means that this is hardly necessary.
And they press on into gathering night ...
Morning. And they are moving through a stone forest of threatening shadows. Massively tall, intimidatingly eroded, whittled by wind-blown grit into columns from a cyclopean maze. The canal continues die-straight through its centre, its rippling movement of wash flecked by the ghost-flash of sleek flying-fish, lurking with crustacea and cephalopods - dark prehistoric creatures from leagues below and aeons ago.
Then the barge is emerging out of its monolithic immensity. And the city lies beyond. Roofs flashing white between sky-storming towers of white metal. All clearly visible now.
The next thing that makes Trinkus suspect that all is not well - after the nine columns of smoke, is the unattended lock-gates, dangerously swollen by sub-polar meltwater from further south. He berths the barge at a deserted quayside, by sets of slimy iron ladderways corroded with neat rust beards, in the tall chill shadows of the city walls. The quay ripples with reflection. Flotillas of weed moored to its edge drool in the slight wash of his barge, sipping and sucking at rough and eaten stone, slapping impatiently at the barge’s tardily caulked flanks. He goes on alone, meeting no-one. His calls go unanswered. The silence giving no response.
The streets, through the unguarded ingress, are also bare of life. An emptiness that is numbing in its completeness. He loiters in a small paved square ornate with statuary, drinks from a marble pool fed by a set of gurgling gargoyle mouths, but samples the water from his fingers first, suspiciously. Disease ? How can you taste the presence of disease ? What does it taste like ? Yet it seems that the very wind carries the echoes of voices in it, the smells of spices and freshly-spilled blood. Decisively he sets out to find the source of the smoke-columns, pacing an avenue lined with great identical stone beasts, with his footfall the only human stir. Until there is a central plaza surrounded by impossible tall multiply-domed buildings. And here are the nine mounds drenched in vivid colours, the nine pyres. And although at first it’s not exactly clear what the guttering mounds consist of... dawn gives shape to their horrors...
It’s only some considerable time later, as the vomit-spasms and crawling revulsion-sickness leaves him, that he wipes his snot-runny nose, and begins to piece together what has happened. This is how the darkness began. In Xanthus. They killed the children first. Constructed the triskele shape of pyres from the small corpses, the four centres, the formation of connecting chevrons. Doused and ignited. Then they use each other to feed the flames. Not in violence or anger. Not in brutal acts of murder. But lovingly. Consensually. In an ordered ritualistic way. Ushering friends into death’s awful embrace as an act of love. With dignity. The end of all things is celebrated. It is anticipated. And they go on to join its finality together.
He sits for a long while. The pyre’s simmering heat on his skin, its breath on his face. There are skulls and thighbones visible in the silt of ash. Clumps of unburned hair and melted flesh congealed black. An unhealthy stench that stings at the back of his throat.
All religious extremism is a form of madness. Particularly when it gets in the way of commerce. But what must it have been like for the very last of them ? Stumbling insane with horror through a city of fever and flies, bloated corpses, pyramids of skulls. A cityscape of slaughter. A pit of death. Or conversely - did he look around with a grim smile of satisfaction, at a task well accomplished, as his children and family burn ? Before gouging open jagged slits in his own wrists and leaping onto the pyre, pulsing sprays of eager life-blood, to join them ?
Trinkus shudders. So the worlds are dying ? Seers, sages, the wizards of the ages, all have predicted the death of worlds countless times before. But we are still here. Why should it be different this time ? Prophecy changes all the time. Commerce goes on. So which malign god of antiquity chose to inflict this vileness on him ? Why this mass suicidal gesture of faith now, before poor Laars Trinkus has even had chance to begin his transactions ? Why now ? And what will he tell his wife ? Already he can see her large cold fish-eyes emphasising her smug ‘I-told-you-so’ scowl of vindication. That hostile huddle of feminine complicity.
He moves away from the morbid glow of guttering flames. Through the darkly colonnaded facades into the nearest of the multiply-domed palaces. At first the interior semi-darkness steals his sight. But there are high windows of some kind of coloured glassine which filter interactions of vari-tinted stains, ruby and saffron, sapphire and green down over the walls, soaking into glowing mosaics, gilded frescoes and brightly phosphorescent icons. Each column, each crossbeam, every alcove lintel and cornice, every available surface is sheened in them. Endless arrays of imagery telling the story of the city and its belief-system.
These are temples. Churches. Basilici. Places of worship.
And this is their creed. Their cave of memories. His eyes follow their dramas. There must be a logical development in which to read them in their correct chronological sequence. But his attention flits at whim from one image to another. It seems to begin with epic struggles against others intolerant of their doctrine. And internecine conflicts designed to enforce doctrinal purity. Then a tribal cult migration across dunes of ochre grit. Hermits lodged in isolation on the pinnacle-tops of what he recognises as the stone forest they’ve so recently passed through.
This is their past. Then there is their iconography of what is to come. The Darkness that is to engulf the city and consume it. A future cataclysm. One predicated by the movement of the worlds in the sky. A rare alignment. A double eclipse which will coincide with the waking of ancient gods, ghastly forms even now immured beneath the crust of worlds, sleeping there, gathering and regenerating their strengths dormant since the beginnings of recorded time.
Could it possibly be that all this is true ? And these are the city’s last days ? Surely not.
He listens. Nothing. Nothing but the steady drip of moisture from a tall ceremonial urn. Each drip. And its echo. And a slow procession of golden centipedes spiralling across the floor, disappearing beneath a bank of ornamental orbs. The tastes and smells of the place reach him. Sniffing the smothering aroma of incense ingrained into the very walls. Old smells. Pious. Dry. And very dead. In the stern reprimand of silvered eyes, their colours varied by the fall of light. Accusing him.
Yet there are no demons or dark gods congealing out of these dry darknesses. There are only ghosts. Vindictive ghosts, the tangible after-image of lives. Molecular memories that still reverberate here in the form of imprinted past experiences. But what manner of mean-spirited deity would do a thing like this, with the single objective of spiting the carefully-laid plans of Laars Trinkus ? Whichever one it is, he curses its unknowable name. Cold sweat slicks his tunic to his back. He turns away deliberately to more immediate concerns. What now ? We’ve come all this way. Only to arrive too late. The stupid populace too impatient for eternity to wait for him. The stink of their mass cremation seeping in even here.
But his eyes have fully adjusted now. And there’s an array of censor’s over there. Thuribles made of silver, probably. Inlaid with gold ornamentation. A complex jewelled chandelier of electrum, its thick mauve candles suspended from the central cupola, but within easy reach, if he were to stand on that bench. Offertory plates of orichalcum and other equally precious metals. Lavish mitres decorated in triskeles of precious stones. Sacramental chalices, each of them shaped from a single flawless diamond. Holy grails. Votive offerings. All this in but a single temple. And there’s an entire city of them out there, palaces of the stuff, just waiting to be pilfered.
Why not ? He can leave his cheap ceramica and junk jewellery here. That’s a trade transaction - isn’t it ? Who is to say if that trade had occurred before or after they’d all gone on to embrace oblivion ? Who is there left to care ... ?
In high spirits now he hunts around for some kind of sack to begin putting them in, making exaggerated mock-genuflection at mosaics of luminous gold tessarae as he passes. He soon discovers a wealth of ceremonial vestments in an alcove - already itching in his eagerness to fondle them. One of these will serve. For now. The people have no further need for these trinkets. They’ve left all of this to those who remain. And it might as well be Laars Trinkus.
He whistles tunelessly as he sets to work.
This will show his fish-eyed wife. And that daughter of hers. This will show them ...
Trinkus casts off, and the barge begins its slow return journey across the wastes of Mare Tyrrhenum, laden with spoils. He turns for a moment, covetously admiring the white-stone walls of the city as they recede beyond the lazy wake, wishing he could have taken more, before returning to the tiller. His wife had even smiled at him. A strange moment. And a strange uncertain expression, almost a grimace. But, in a conciliatory way she has moved down to the centre of the vessel, and both of them are wearing jewellery he’d brought them - as an afterthought, out of the city. With a grunt of satisfaction he critically surveys his handiwork. If only he could have looted more !
Then, even as he settles down for the long uneventful voyage, he glances up, his dark eyebrows beetling into a single line of concern. It is only mid-morning, but the light is dimming. In the sky, a black planet is rimmed with a crescent of fire. An eclipse. As portrayed in the city’s mosaics. And a premature night is falling upon the city. Not once, but twice. For there is also a second black and sombre disc. Shadows growing misshapenly into phantoms of preternatural stillness. But - at least, at first, he has his mind on other matters, and even the incandescent Marsian occultations and the fiery scintillations of sky they engender fail to engage his interest.
Yet he watches the poisonous beauty of the burning Marsian-red sky roaring around two polished anthracite blacknesses at its centre. Two vast perfect discs of blackness that are like holes sucking up the world. It is, he muses calmly, a terrifying spectacle, even to those who understand the planetary mechanics that underlie it. Two black convex holes, formed by worlds in alignment, set in a haemoglobin-coloured vortex forming a mock-triskele above Xanthus. The veined crimson sky shocked with reflected blood.
Suddenly the barge is a shadow gliding through eerie otherness. Then there’s an immense glaring flash flinging new contra-shadows to where, moments before, there’d only been a pale dawn shading the decking. A roar follows, too mighty for human ears to register, and the deck is suddenly trembling like a smitten thing beneath his feet.
Trinkus throws his hands up automatically... but he can’t help but see. At first it seems that the entire immensity of raging sky is collapsing in upon Xanthus. And all that pearly immensity is descending. Spiralling in upon the city. While simultaneously it is as though the light of a new planet is erupting up through some deep rift in the Dead-Sea Bottom to devour the white stone buildings from below. And at the centre of the brilliant disturbance, masonry is falling, followed by the grating shudder of stone avalanching on stone. Squalls of dust erupt in instant storm, bizarrely illuminated by whatever singularity is occurring within, a veil obscuring the city, but from which an eerie orange glow diffuses.
A tormented tide of wind-driven grit the colour of dried blood is raging outwards from the event horizon of the roaring implosion, a concussion wave carrying odours of pulverised stone. Trinkus goes down screaming. Even inhaling its gale scorches his throat in a way no ordinary breath should have done.
Then, some long time later - and only gradually, the scene hardens back into stability. Until the canal water looks wet and the ground looks hard again. While the sounds - numbed to silence, grow and separate out. The barge is riding suddenly high in the water. He breathes deeply, watching the churning sky, waiting for his stomach to settle, his pulse to normalise. The last vestiges of the sudden deluge of light has paled, leaving only a faint reddish glow that quickly fades out at the rim of the world. While the moment of total double-eclipse has also passed, visibility seeping slowly back.
And Xanthus is gone. As though it had never been. And with it, every trace of its sacred wealth too, including every last particle of the barge’s cargo. As though whatever force has taken the city, is also scrupulously intent on taking everything that has touched the city while it lay unattended.
Trinkus sits down suddenly more weary than he’s ever felt before. A draining weakness assails him. And long shadows seem to be weaving patterns before his eyes. Yet even through its drizzling vagueness he can see the cancerous blackness smearing the faces of his wife and daughter. A smudge of stray shadow ? But no. He watches, with absurd fascination as their bloated cheeks fall inwards, their lips curling back to reveal teeth like those of long-dead cadavers. He tries to turn. Tries to run. But there is nowhere to escape to. And, pace by pace, he already feels the urgent sloughing of flesh corrupting on his own bones. He screams. With a shrivelling tongue. Then his tongue is broken, and it’s no longer possible to form coherent sounds.
His hands stiffen into claws. Immobile. The skin visibly contracting to stretched parchment. And even that flaking away to reveal bone-whiteness beneath. Incapable of standing, sinews coming apart from the bone, he falls to the deck, as a living death lingers on in them - he and his wife, and their daughter. Oddly, there’s no terror. Only a dull emptiness. His mind can hold no more. Only their retained senses are sufficient to register the full appalling horror of what is happening to them. He can see through her eyes. He can see through her brain. The blood that runs in her veins. Her body is burning outwards from within. And in their dark agony of corruption they writhe and crawl. Their spasming movements slowing, becoming yet more imperceptible, until even their brains decay to vile grey sludge. Eventually what little is left dries, and blows away.
Now there is only the canal, die-straight, cutting through dreary and unforgiving pools of purple shade which swell and broaden in the hollows between the Dead-Sea Bottom. And the dunes of Marsian desert which stretch on in undulating flatness to the far horizon. Civilisation had only ever brushed over these hills with a light hand.
And now even that is gone.
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
‘PREMONITIONS no.3’ (UK – August 2004)