'BEAST OF THE COMING DARKNESS'
- EXPLOITS IN FUTURITY -
THE TIME-MARSHES OF
A PRESCIENCE, A MADNESS,
AND THE MACHINE RELICS MINE
Weird Scenes inside the Relics Mine,
in which a seemingly accidental escape is
engineered, resulting in the discovery of
strange and unexpected worlds beyond
THIS HASN’T HAPPENED YET. BUT IT WILL...
A door opens. It lets two men into a large vault illuminated by a single dusty oriel set high in the wall. The outer periphery of the room is cluttered with the tools of alchemistic research, the hermetic, geomantic and cybernetic arts. They form a confusion of astrolobae, cucurbics, thaumaturgical artefacts, retorts, a caged lizard, an orrery, a crystal hemisphere, a monstrously deformed skull that may or may not have once been human, screens and keyboards, thuribles, mortars, amputated organs suspended in coloured chemicals, row upon row of phials, philtres, and bottles of apothecaries’ lushly pigmented liquid.
At the centre of the vault the floor opens out into a shallow well sunk into deepest blackness. “Wait here” instructs the Elector of Luna. He disappears into a branching network of frayed cables and twisting tubing. Through a distorting barrier of shaped glass and wiring he can be seen throwing a series of onyx-handled switches and depressing control keys to answering clicks as relays trip deep within unseen power sources. Movement is the crick-cricking of small feet far above him. Spindly bodies on cold legs, a half-life of multi-jointed rods keening in the gloom. Then the two men stand together again. “Watch the blackness. There. At its centre.” Taad does as instructed. It seems the blackness of the well is darker than before, connected to unseen points about the vault by slender traceries of lancing ebon, as if the last particles of colour and warmth are draining from the great crucible.
A chill of disquiet. A superstitious unease whispering that he’s in the presence of a proscribed and blasphemous science. Yet at the same time he’s drawn to the squirming half-shapes forming and condensing before him. A sprinkling of diamond-hard points of light against a velvet night. Then a shimmering tissue of mist, silvery, faery-like, gradually vortexing out from the centre of a void that is now richly three-dimensional, filling the chamber with insubstantial, but mesmeric images. The vapour contrails reach a limit of expansion, defining itself as a large lozenge that gradually assumes shifting concentrations and vortices of independent centres, each assuming its own character. It is impossible to look away.
“This,” announces the Elector of Luna, “is the Cluster. At its centre - Earth, Tellus itself.” An orb solidifying, as if sculpted from ice. Now becoming a mottled green sphere flecked with dirt-brown merging into incinerated areas of ash-grey. He can crudely identify the rough geographies, animated by fine outlines of raw light, as the planet’s tripartite divisions. The ethereal Pacantic territories of the Nine Blind Waterlords. The encircling belt of the Deadland. And the massive sprawling Spirit Domain with the towers of Ashiri at its centre. The longer he stares the more detail separates out, as if his act of concentration is causing the artificially projected ideoplast to clarify into finer focus.
“The planets.” A triangulation of phantom apparitions, a spin of crystalline spheres in fixed positions about the eidolon of Tellus, each one less than a hundred-thousand k from each of its companions, all of them enclosed within the same enveloping lozenge of air. The fish-eye centre of the fattened disc faces the sun that neither of them has ever seen. There’s Luna, silver-green with sparse cities and huge emptiness. Ochre Mars, a world the red of old blood, fretted with its pattern of canals. And metallic blue Venus divided by its equatorial magma flame-belts. Between the worlds run cascading swirls and currents of wind, the hazardous riptide set up by the conflicting gravities that plague Skyship traffic. And around the rim of the gaseous lens are the minor worlds - Deimos, Ceres, Pallas, Phobos, Juno, and a wealth of other private estates, reserves, and uninhabited planetoids far from the main routes of commerce and culture. Everything blurred by the feathery scum of Sky-Islands. Originally drifts of micro-organisms caught up in gravity null-pockets, billions of micro-plankton netting themselves together into web-like biomasess, they’d multiplied and spread, extending down into planetary skies trailing weed and insect accumulations like vast amorphous aerial continents.
They can see it all.
“Has it ever occurred to you that all this might not be a natural phenomenon...?” says the Elector of Luna.
--- 2 ---
THIS IS HAPPENING NOW...
As he steps through the iris he’s thinking of the burial in the sky... and he’s thinking of Mareeh.
At the heart of Leviathan is stillness and a cold that is, at least in part, supernatural. And beyond its curved outer shell the Drhazilsk still spirals in near-null gravity, back into flux. War Chao removes his helm, hunches it precisely beneath his arm. His uniform pressed sweat-damp against his skin despite the cold, against the thousand small laceration scars on his abdomen. There are screens that are also spheres set into organically moulded walls, banks of them in frozen tides of foam. They’re flecked with the colours of dream and nightmare, swirls of cloud vortex, butterflies, circuit diagrams, images of torture, snowflake crystals, neural patterns, mathematical symbols, Tellurian, Marsian and Venerian topographies, city street grids. A woman whose memory has been altered, sitting in the Nonogon of Worlds. Two men connected by an ankle-ligature deep in a Penal Colony Machine Relics Mine.
The embalmed figure was shoved from the runnels of the Command Platform’s Docking Bay with canvas cracking, hawsers straining, and the dynamos low burr thrumming up through the floor. He’ll be drifting now into an ocean of air that goes on forever, more fathoms deep than Chao can imagine, encompassing all the planets, islands and moons that lie between him and Mareeh. The simplicity of the burial ritual, the continuity and the eternal renewal it represents, comforts him now, when he most needs such reassurance. Insurrectionists will die for this outrage. Of course. Retribution must be a precise science. Or it is nothing. And yet, and yet...
The spheres are shimmering, refocusing as if a series of lenses are slotting into place, a multi-image forming, faces superimposing one upon the other. ‘Something disturbing’ she’d said. ‘Some vague foreboding, tremors of unprecedented fear, a threatening indeterminacy’ that’s rippling through the thousand-cortex complex of the Ashirian Omphalos like panic through a crowd. She’d known it was coming, she’d been there in the trackless vaults beneath the city milking its terminals, using his authority to penetrate deep-zones few had access to - and even fewer knew how to interpret. Using techniques he could hardly guess at to pick up on their formless terror, tuning and retuning through their incomprehensible dialogues.
And what she’d intuited, he was now to be informed. And the actions he must take to counter their unease.
The Drhazilsk will soon be slow-motion cartwheeling through the fringe of filamentine tendrils, the spores and helium bladders of the Sky-Islands, gradually becoming enmeshed, movement arresting imperceptibly until there’ll be no movement but the crawling, slithering, scrattling and writhing of insects, grazing aero-krill, and other vile organisms, and he’ll cease to be distinguishable from the chlorophyll green. Then there’ll be little to differentiate between human flesh and plant flesh.
But for Chao, “the planned break-out is about to begin...” He extracts the fist-sized sphere that slides smoothly from the screen-mass. Its touch is chill.
--- 3 ---
WHILE THESE THINGS HAPPEN SIMULTANEOUSLY...
First impression, a pulse.
Next impression, worms of awareness quivering up through shock, and that pulse of soft warm pain. Pain tells you you’re still alive. But fear says don’t move lest the nightmare begin again. So you pause even breathing for as long as you can. Afraid to disturb the equilibrium, as memories storm at you. An explosion kilometres deep beneath the earth. Sharper more concussive than thunder. No warning. No sound preceding the blast. No premonition of impending disaster. Just, one moment working the face. Then waves of collapse corrugating the ceiling. Tides of acid dust skewing you sideways, sprawling winded, eyes clammed shut, awaiting that final roof-fall that must slam you through the floor. But instead... noise ebbs, its wake receding.
Now, you’re here. Raising one eyelid a cautious crack. Blackness. Dust grimes your hair, plugs your nostrils, lines your mouth. Sweat patterns it to your forehead and exposed areas of skin. Shaken, and crumpled. You smell bad. And all the while there’s that pulse of soft warm pain ticking from the restraining ligature. Awkwardly buckled, and bleeding, gouging a blood-blue welt into your ankle. The semi-organic ligature flexing like a decapitated snake. It’s a bad situation. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get worse. And the numb calm is too still, too perfect to hazard with movement. Yet.
Although, after infinite delay, the discomfort outweighs the lure to inaction. Anticipation saps courage. Don’t think. No more procrastination. This is it. He applies pressure to his ankle, wincing. Careful. Heaves up. Gets as far as a kneeling position, then something in his knee snaps, and he goes down again, inhaling dust-particles. But on the second try he slouches up, bear-like, supported by the wall. And nothing implodes.
A dropped globe gutters. He scoops it up, nurses the trapped bioluminosity until its bronze glare washes darkness back. Walls are bewilderingly complex, their ill-defined shapes forming through a slow haze of drizzling silt. The usual stratification of components impacted into each other, solid veins of silver wiring, wedges of black printed circuits, lattices of raw filaments and webs of microcircuitry. The regular carbons and alloys flaking with verdigris, congealed and fused, running together like melting flesh around skeletons of hair-fine corrupting aluminium. He can taste and smell the persistent pungency of partly fossilised plastics and dust-dry silicons mixed in with the toxic fumes of acids and rotting solvents.
Only now a newly revealed face created by the roof-fall, stretches up vertigo-high, obsessively reticulated, until darkness swallows it.
He tugs nervously at the metre-long ankle-connection to Ansor A-Hylca. “Hey, Dung-head, move.” He’s often wished him dead. But what if he’s now siamesed to a corpse? But no, the older man rouses.
“Are you alright? How do you feel?” “I feel dead. Thank you for asking. Help me up anyway.”
For the moment they’re alone, the rest of the labour squad either killed or bolted in terror. “So what happened?” Taad’s breath is foul, his mouth coated with a fine dry acid dust. He’s breathing strangely. His voice pitched at little over a whisper. Even that sounds blasphemous.
“I’d have thought that much was obvious. Even to a fumblewit.” A-Hylca slumps to his feet, shaking his head irritably. The movement dislodges swirling eddies of carbon dust from the ruptured ceiling. Taad ducks reflexively as it sprays him. “Perhaps we should find out more, hmmm?” With no trace of indecision he shuffles forward, the ligature forcing Taad to hobble more reluctantly alongside.
The Machine Relics mineshaft is roughly hewn and cramped. Its air is thin and dry. But now it has been abruptly extended where - seconds before, they’d been working the face, excavating a rich new seam of dead circuits. The opening breached by their tools, and enlarged by the roof-fall, leads into unnatural emptiness. Taad forces himself through, feet pacing loose grit, senses alert to every shift of nuance, the stink of decay, the taint of metal corrosion. He raises the dark-dispeller so its luminance leaks away, his eyes adjusting to relentless twilight. The newly opened grotto is vast, constructed of ferrocrete tiers supported by rigidly functional pillars. It stretches away in a monotonous repetition of arches and rippling concrete for as far as he can see, broken by squatting slabs of rusting vehicles, shallow lakes of trapped condensation and patches of white sunless weed growing in tangled forests knee high.
“I don’t like this place. It carries the stink of a tomb. We must go back.” But Taad makes no move to return to the mine complex. “The Lhyrill will be here soon anyway, hunting our corpses.”
He glances sideways at A-Hylca. Catches impressions of frailty and rapid bird-like movements in the glow. The light emphasises every line of a fleshless face, turning short white hair - close-clipped to the skull, to ochre. But there are other qualities there too. Fierce intelligence. A bias to scrutiny and reason. A sharpness of perception now being applied to this new, unexpected environment. “Sure, they’ll come,” he snaps abruptly, “but they won’t find us!” A-Hylca lunges forward, the snaking ligature wrenching Taad ludicrously in his wake, light swaying, its patterns spasming. Despite their grotesquely impeded gait, and Taad’s pronounced limp, they cross to the first line of pillars in a moment, and begin circling the metal husk of an antique powered vehicle. There’s a strident yell from somewhere behind them, Taad chances a glance over his shoulder. The first of the Lhyrill are struggling awkwardly through the opening, followed by a second and a third. A confusion of voices. A ring of black armour. An impression of dark metal-headed soldiers fanning out behind them.
Taad’s instinct is to obey. To freeze. But A-Hylca’s already moving off rapidly up an inclined ramp towards the next tier, Taad scuffing furiously after him, hobbling and lurching, skidding wildly on slime and moss. They splash through a wide effluence-way of fetid water, pausing on the edge of a new plateau even more densely populated with cars.
“Why... run?”, grabbing huge gulps of laboured breath. “We can’t... escape. Wait, or they’ll kill us for sure.”
“No. We’ll get through this, and when we come out the other side, you’re going to be very grateful to me.”
“I’m going to be grateful to you?”, an incredulous bellow. “If we get out of this alive, I’ll probably kill you.”
A high-pitched scream. A fletched handbow dart impacts above their heads in a fine spray of white powder and sharp splinters of stone. “It’s already too late” instructs A-Hylca evenly. “Move.”
And Taad is dragged, weaving from cover to cover, defensively crouching, through a dense maze of decaying vehicles. The immediate fear of the Lhyrills’ cold steel temporarily strangling his terror of the catacombs. The labyrinth seems limitless. They run blind, the sound of pursuit goading them. Temples pounding, breath fast and painful at his throat, legs nailed with lead from months of prison rigour.
Then A-Hylca is brought up sharp, eyes wide, racing the limits of visibility. Taad slouches against the cold metal of a car, sucking clean air gratefully. They’ve reached cul-de-sac. Only a sheer wall scabbed brown with lichen ahead of them. Realisation comes slow. Taad’s eyes whip back the way they’ve come, over the curved roofs of cars in neat rows. The incline to the next tier, the ramp their desperate flight has missed, now cut off by an implacable line of encircling Lhyrill. Eight, maybe ten of them. A-Hylca slumps visibly, all energy gone.
“Do I thank you now? I don’t understand. Where was there to run to?”
“You’ve got senses? Use them. Weed grows here. There’s movement in the air. Feel it? - that’s coming from somewhere outside. There’s a way out. To the surface. A way to escape the Penal Colony. Reason says there has to be. Only now it’s too late.”
The logic digests slowly. The hunters are still a good way off, but their semi-circle is complete and closing relentlessly. The fluctuating halo of their dark-dispellers, faces showing as white ovals, and the flash of plasteel cut sharply onto night. He looks down. A glass insert in the body of the vehicle. A window, or windshield. Dark. So he finds himself studying his own reflection. The face of a stout middle-aged man of unprepossessing appearance. Beard, and long untidy strands of greasy hair in a tonsure, the mark of an inoffensive craftsman or farmer. Rotund, loose-limbed, big scarred hands callused and blistered. Is this the image of the rebel documented in the charges laid against him? Is this the insurrectionist in the charges that led to incarceration?
A sneer of bitter amusement. Then his head comes up angrily. No. The Lhyrill mustn’t win. They’re drawn to the beacon of his light, so Taad swings it round his head, releasing it in a comet-tail, bouncing and caroming across vehicle roofs before flaring down into damp weedbeds. It dims instantly, but continues glimmering for long moments. The light no longer betrays their position, but they’re in darkness, on hands and knees now. Crawling, towing A-Hylca behind him.
The ring tightens as it closes. They must break that ring. A-Hylca catches Taad’s intention and follows stealthily, muffling sound as best he can. Ahead, as they circle the vehicles, the Lhyrill move more cautiously, sensing activity. Now they’re more clearly visible, conscientiously polished breastplates, oxygen tubes, and visored helmets catch globelight and fling it back in violent chromatic explosions. Some prime handbows, barbed metal darts strung on taut wire, others couch ornate razor-edged Prayerblades. Taad selects a target, a break-out point. Slinks furtively to meet him. In the shelter of rusting hulks tall white weed turns to rotting slime which soaks through his coarse hose at the knee, its disturbed aroma rich and fecund.
Desperation settles into ice-sharp logic. The two escapees move as one. Their objective now so close they can hear the squelch of his heels as the hunter paces, recognising the lazy gait, the fidgety movement. Cumaryll. A Deimosian over-fond of ruby wine. If they move fast they can club him down and escape encirclement, reach the gradient to the next terrace, lose pursuit in its vastness. A-Hylca slithers to one side of the aisle, Taad the other, the half-flesh connecting them concealed by unhealthy weed.
Cumaryll closes. Moving between them. They hear the amplified rasp of his cramped breath. Not yet, not yet. Come on. A little further. Now. Now. Now. At the same moment the ligature jerks up, snagging viciously with the shock of physical impact. The man lurches and falls, but for once his co-ordination is impeccable. He rolls sideways, already alert, serrated blade drawn and angling. Taad leaps heavily, and misses, sprawling in vile sludge, grabbing at flailing plasteel-clad limbs in dumb ballet. A-Hylca fares better, he’s got the weapon arm prised back. They tumble together in absurd shadow combat, grunting, thrashing, and cursing. Taad slams his knee up hard into unprotected groin, hears the ragged exhalation of breath as the Lhyrill doubles up. A-Hylca pinions the muddied Prayerblade, gnawing at the exposed wrist with his teeth as Cumaryll wrestles, then A-Hylca begins shifting the weapon gradually back to his own advantage. Their dual assault is gaining, but it’s taking too long, months of imprisonment eat their muscles.
There’s movement and confused yelling in the grotto beyond.
The trapped man bucks in writhing contortions, whimpering now as A-Hylca forces the blade in beneath the fanged muzzle of his helmet. A sudden hiss, severed aerator oxy-tubes wheeze and fish-tail frantically. Oesophagus. Then there’s an obscene gurgling sound as the jugular opens. Aorta. Crimson blood pulsing and spouting until spasms cease, the head sagging to a dead weight, and A-Hylca’s hands are welded to a sticky-warm hilt. Tubes still exhale limply, dribbling blood and saliva. The leaking life is crimson. Domain crimson.
“Is he...?” “Dead? Yes, very.”
But it’s too late. The aisle fills with Lhyrill, handbows levelling.
Taad’s stomach drops a long long way and he waits, cringing, throat dry.
And impression piles on impression in bewildering rapidity. There’s a nerveless shriek. Taad takes it for A-Hylca, and looks up with dread expectation. But sees a creature uncoiling from the solid wall, the Lhyrill transfixed in horror by its sudden appearance. At first it seems to be a snake, monstrous head swimming and darting above the roofs of collapsing autos, impenetrable hooded eyes like wells of perfect blackness, forked tongue flick-flickering faster than the eye can trace, scales gleaming with blue mother-of-pearl sheen. Then there are webbed feet, stubby by comparison, but each one taller than a man, ending in razor-sharp scimitar claws. The monster slithers from the wall, head poised, sampling alien scents in the air before striking, questing for prey.
The first of the Lhyrill breaks. Scurries screaming back for the excavations, his howl shattering their spell of frozen horror. A few badly aimed quarrels leap at the demon as they retreat in a disorderly rabble, pushing and gouging past each other in their haste to escape. Taad lies breathlessly over the bloodied corpse, he can only watch. The giant lizard moves in jerky lunges, unblinking eyes absorbing all but reflecting nothing.
A foot arches above them. Now it’s descending. Talons glisten with moisture. Each overlapping scale clearly delineated. And it’s coming down to crush them. His vocal chords freeze, incapable of sound, his brain is numb. The foot comes down. Makes contact... And goes through him. Is this death? The amphibian foot can be seen translucently through his stomach, but there’s no blood, and no pain. Taad holds a hand before his face, perplexed.
A-Hylca scrambles slowly to his feet as the spectral limb retracts. Tugs the ligature to activate his stupefied companion. And they lurch unsteadily up the aisle towards the incline. The Lhyrill are nowhere to be seen, while the giant lizard recedes up the catacomb oblivious to human activity, its gargantuan tail scything insubstantially through cars, pillars, and solid ferrocrete structures.
The fugitives scrabble up the ramp to the next tier of vaulted cathedral vastness, where dissolving verticals of ochre light shaft down from an undetectable source. They pause to grab lungfulls of air, supporting each other’s sagging bodies, then move on more slowly. The vegetation grows more densely here, pale contorted things tall and unnatural bristling with bayonet leaves. As they pass, something like dandelion gives off plumes of gossamer seeds that hang on the air and on their prison fatigue uniforms. Taad’s grizzled beard quivers with droplets of sweat. He moves automatically, following A-Hylca’s impatient guidance through the cloying growths, across the grotto of dead machines and up the final terrace.
Ahead the route forks, one path winding higher to yet more identical levels of ferrocrete, the other leading directly to an austere gateway, a monolithic arch framing an oblong slab of blood-red sky. It has to be a mirage - like the lizard. But they shamble towards it anyway, drawn hypnotically, until they stand on the threshold and look out across the two worlds beyond....
THE TWO WORLDS
BENEATH A MARS RED SKY
Being about Grenaman Taad and Ansor A-Hylca
finding themselves lost in unanticipated landscapes
beneath a foreign planet
A memory-etching sight. Mars too clear and too glaringly bright to be natural. Its immense dome of planetrise eclipsing half the sky. But through narrowing eyes shapes etch themselves against the too-perfect brilliance beneath it. There, wedges of shadow slowly emerge, growing architectural proportion and, later, detail. Taad and A-Hylca look out over a deserted city of black buildings in solid squares, gradually melting into decay. There are punctuations of blind glassless windows and crawls of parasitic ivy spidering charred fascias. There are thick infestations of tall grass, moonweed, closed buttercups, and flowering magenta vines growing over piles of rough-edged rubble, softening and rounding all abrasive angles. Soon, Taad senses, the city will be gone, masked in swarming green terrain and forgotten.
The second world is superimposed over the first. A place of primeval starkness, a rich aroma to its air. A slope of ferns and low undeveloped trees with large flat leaves - no flowers, running down to a shingle ocean shore. The sluggish water, glinting faintly, extends around and through the buildings. The two scenes have no point of contact, neither dominates the other, they merely co-exist in the same space. Taad sees jewelled dragonflies hovering over unsophisticated jungle, shoals of multi-coloured lizards playing in the shallows or basking along the stony perimeter of grey-green water. He gets an impression of unhealthy humidity, but whether that’s real, or merely implied he’s not sure. The murky sea level is several metres over his head, he can see the waves glimmering. Mars-light prisming like planished copper in silvers and ruby above him.
Taad exhales sharply, besieged by superstitious fear. Washes a big grimy hand over uncomprehending eyes. “I don’t understand. It’s not possible. We should be underground. We should go back.” The statement absolves him from the need to find reason or explanation.
“It’s as well the Lhyrill are as stupid.”
Taad backs off into the shadow of the arch, quasi-flesh springing taut between them. While A-Hylca holds his ground, benign smile solidifying into inflexibility. Taad answers the challenge, his urgency fuelled by a growing panic beating inside his ribcage with predatory wings. “I don’t like open spaces. Open skies.”
“So what do you dream of, Taad? Tunnels. Caves. Corridors. Dark places in which to hide? The sky goes on forever and you prefer to grovel underground?” A-Hylca speaks fast in an unbroken flow of persuasion. “You know the Penal Colony is built on an inlet of the Marshes of Time? You know that it is connected to the Deadland, and - through it, back to the Domain, by a slender peninsula of normalcy? Well, now - finally, the excavations have extended out beneath the Marshes. An accident. A miscalculation on their part from which we will benefit.”
Realisation dawns gradually. “So all this stuff isn’t real?”
“Oh, it’s real enough. Just that the city is merely 48,000 years old. From shortly after what they call the Supernatural Wars. While the primeval landscape is considerably older, several hundred millions I’d guess. Hence it’s less strong and can’t influence us as directly. But it’s real enough. The lizard that scared off the Lhyrill was part of this landscape too, so it’s real, only less real than the autodrome we first emerged into, or this city. Or the machine relics we grubbed for.”
Earlier conversations regurgitate into Taad’s head, about the enchanted Marshes that form the Prison’s ultimate escape barrier. A constant meshing of past ages washing into and over one another. A temporal phantasmagoria that either drives escapees mad, or loses them hopelessly in an endlessly refocusing maze of time. But it’s one thing to be half-listening as someone tells scare-tales of the Marshes, another thing to become part of them. They were prisoners working deep underground. Then suddenly they’ve blustered into a ‘now’ when the rise and fall of geological stratum dictates they are at the surface. And a contradictory ‘now’ in which they are several metres beneath a prehistoric sea. “So we’re as good as dead.” The words form slowly and carefully so as not to betray his panicky fear.
A-Hylca seizes the negative tone as his own triumph. “Not necessarily, Taad.” A voice contrastingly light, playful, conversational. More suited to debating theological minutiae in the cool academic cloisters of Calyx University. “Beyond these Marshes we have friends. We have contacts in the city of Baal-Shadaam. From there we can ship out to Selene, or to the Ceresian Estates. There we have allies”.
“I’ve no friends there. Or anywhere”.
“You were imprisoned by the Domain? Ergo we are allies. We met in the Penal Colony. You probably know me only by my reputation as a leading dissident. An important insurrectionist against the Last Empire and the Wyzeird who holds it in thrall.”
Taad nods, baffled.
“For me, Taad, modesty would be tantamount to dishonesty. For you see, I’m a scholar too. I’ve learned much, and forgotten more than you’ll ever know. A man such as I, with detailed knowledge of Geohistorical events, should be able to interpret the Time Marshes. And map his way out of them. For I use ideas as my maps. I see all this as merely a novel form of intellectual challenge”.
“So we can escape?”
“I consider it probable. Yes.” He concedes the point with carefully contrived modesty. “The application of intelligence can resolve most predicaments. And anyway, we can’t go back. We killed Cumaryll”.
“We killed Cumaryll? WE? It was YOU who killed him!”
“Well... whatever. It was unfortunate. He was stupid. A buffoon. But by no means the worst of them. The ruby wine tended to have a... shall I say - ameliorating? effect on him. But the end result is the same. He’s dead. So we can’t go back”.
Looking around, Taad becomes conscious of the sickly-rich scent of bell-like purple blooms that hang thickly on the air. The symptom of a fantastic alteration to his escapist imaginings, bringing the first inkling of hope he’s had since arriving at the excavations in chains. “I suppose someone has to come and keep you out of trouble” he mutters dourly.
A-Hylca straightens, indicating they should walk. A school of blunt ugly human-headed fish dart in a burst of incandescent colours through and around his head in graceful gyrations. Reluctantly Taad acquiesces, and the two men hobble awkwardly through the crumbling city of large empty buildings, A-Hylca offering a constant commentary. “This looks to be a region of Merique, supposed to be the lost continent destroyed in the Supernatural Wars. Now part of Pacantic, the territory of the Nine Blind Waterlords. They say men mated with the Old Ones here. Spawned god-hybrids, omnipotent entities huge and awesome.” He rolls the phrases carefully around his mouth, tasting the eloquent sarcasm of his agnosticism.
The words mean little to Taad. He’s heard most of the terms at one time or another but they impart no real meaning. He’s thinking instead of the stories he’s heard about the Marshes, of how the body adjusts internally to the transition from zone to zone by accelerating ageing - or the reverse process, by growing back to childhood, and beyond. Shedding years and bodies like lizard scales with each pace. Of how the Marshes are haunted by the shells of lost men, and the deep mires congeal with discarded human skins empty and translucent as cast-off snakeskins. What is really important about A-Hylca’s carefully measured flow of words is the strong undertone of confidence, of understanding, that they imply. He concentrates on matching his stride to the older man’s, attempting to minimise the discomfort from the connection that continually hampers their progress.
At length a subtle reorientation takes place. They emerge above the waterline to scramble up the stony shore skirting groups of basking lizards. The air is steamy moist, the lap of waves a continual ululation behind them. Taad looks back the way they’ve come to see the gaunt hulks of buildings extruded from vermilion ocean like ghostly island. Already the more distant ones are fading, the nearer ones losing definition, blurring into uniform grey masses, and as it - and Mars above it, dissolves, the primeval land becomes by contrast harder and more tactile.
They continue up the draw until the half-submerged city is gone, and they ford dense banks of cycad and fern, brittle fronds snapping in sparking showers of milky sap. The lizards frequent the beach, and there’s no sign of animal life as they reach the crest of the hill, which becomes the brink of a steep cliff looking down through endless ravines and awful chasms into a bleak red country of rock, sand, and magma. Rows of fire-mountains and flame-spouts space the horizon, their smudges of inky smoke outlined flickering orange, slurring the sky above constellations of sulphurous lava-pits. Gradually, as they follow the lip of the cliff, the smoke spreads to obscure the strange sky, darkening the landscape. Geysers and traceries of lava become the sole source of light, gushing highways of spilling flame casting their own tall shadows. Several peaks are ablaze, the ground trembles alarmingly beneath their feet. Vegetation is gone now, replaced by an aridity of dry fissured basalt sprinkled with pockets and screes of loose grit and crater depressions. A world lit only by fire.
“How can you be sure we’re heading in the right direction?” says Taad dourly. A-Hylca has grown silent. The scrunch of dead pebbles underfoot unnerves him.
“Linear distance doesn’t mean that much” the older man responds. “Directions are only relative to each Time area. Segments are set diametrically opposed to each other so that no amount of straight-line travel takes you nearer escape. It’s a maze. It’s deliberately built to baffle and confuse”.
“Built? By whom...?”
“The Waterlords” he snorts. “Do you know nothing?”
“There are more useful things to do than learning.” For a moment Taad flees back decades, retreating into warm and luminous thoughts. To Nonocastria - his extended family of the giant agricultural Warren now worlds away. Memories painful in their sweetness. But close enough to reach out and touch. Memories encased in the massive idiosyncratic collective of nine labyrinthine lucite and steel domes, each as huge and populous as a city, interconnected and shot through with aerial skyways. Nonocastria. It was already thousands of years old when he’d been born into it, and he’s as much a part of its continuity as the sky and the soil. In its tangled acres of sealed terraces he’d grown through childhood and spent an entire adult life that allowed little time for non-productive activity, as much a part of its permanently renewing continuity as the crops that link the seasons.
He breathes deep. “Work. Eating and sleeping. ‘Blade Rituals’...”
“Taad, you are mercifully untroubled by the burdens of intelligence” snipes A-Hylca. “I’d heard how tediously dull Warren-Brood are. But could never quite bring myself to believe it was true. Perhaps you could save your fascinating reminiscences for some other time...?”
Taad hardly hears the sarcasm. He’s already trapped in inescapable cycles of recall. “Warrens are complete self-contained worlds. Under direct Domain authority with exact quotas to fill. But it’s not important where the stuff goes after we harvest it. Because nothing outside the Warren is real. I don’t understand why it ended. What laws we transgressed that demanded annihilation. But they fell on us - Throndups, Drhazilsks, Gyalas. They came to Nonocastria to seal off and tear our dome apart totally. We fought back. So they hit us harder. Those who survived the Black Terror were put in chains, branded subversives, brought to stand showtrial.”
“What of the other domes?”
“What do you mean?”
“You say they sealed off your dome for annihilation. And that you fought back. But what did the people of the other eight Nonocastrian domes do to help you in your hour of need?”
“Do? They could do nothing. They had their own work to accomplish. And anyway, why should they provoke the Domain into new retaliations which they could not possibly survive? The question has no meaning.” But even as he speaks, other questions resurface. Questions of guilt and self-recrimination. By surviving he’d betrayed the thousands who’d died. There had to have been some way to intervene, some way to stop it all. To save Solleen... at least. He’d learned to hold the accusations at bay, but once begun, there’s no way to staunch the flow of images. Skyships descending through aerial Islands towards dark multi-levelled Ashiri. The protean polyglot ruling city of the Presidium set in its ancient land. The air above Ashiri black with Skyships. Endless vistas of hangars, docks, repair shops and marshalling yards alive with smoke, lights and toiling figures. A whole metropolis vaster and more populous than he’d dreamed possible, all raised on piles above the poisonous surface of the planet. “You are Earthian? Born here, on Tellus?” he prompts, attempting to derail the conversational direction.
A nod, but there’s no reply.
Taad pauses. Glances across at A-Hylca. Sees several strangers. Chimeras in studded leather and snoods. The shock is almost physical, and even as he watches there are Dust Serpents shimmying the air into contrails of distortion, snapping at the strangers who twist away from their wraith-like attackers, hands over faces to protect their eyes. Fingers become bloodied, flesh raw and glittering to the white naked bone. They scream but there’s no sound other than the rolling waves of wind. Now limbs are playfully snapped away.
Taad blinks hard, and when he opens his eyes sees only A-Hylca. “Is this the same time as the Lizard beach?”
“I’m not sure. Think we’ve crossed over and it’s even earlier.” The doubt in his voice is frightening.
There’s a fine silt of volcanic ash drifting. It is snuff-dry and faintly warm. At the same time, it’s also raining. In places the two fall separately, patches of ash stirring into lazy clouds as they walk across it, clinging to folds in their coarse worsted uniforms, or areas where rain falls clean into irrigating pools and gullies, swirling and hissing, targeted by colliding intersecting rings of fresh torrential droplets. Elsewhere the two fall together, congealing into smoky rivulets of sludge and tides of scum. The volcanic light dims.
It is night, an evil blackness. They eat up a few more muddy kilometres, hands and faces loamed with grime, bare feet soaking, warm and uncomfortable. Then light spills over a ridge and they descend through chill morning and waist-high pampas grass towards a wide sluggish river. Huge tripedal animals cluster in the shallows but amble away across the veldt as the escapees near. There’s a grove of trees with small mauve berries, and orange thickets of oblong-leafed bushes bearing barbed orchids. They rest in its shade. Taad washes as leisurely as the ligature allows in the dull water, a discoloration of mud and white volcanic dust swirling away from him as in some purification rite.
A-Hylca sits watching him critically, chin on one drawn-up knee, chewing messily on a cluster of berries. “Could you imagine a more absurdly miss-matched pair on one yoke than you and I?” he taunts. “They must have considered it a fine jest,” he shakes his head in mock disapproval. “Perhaps they intend your extra weight to compensate for my lack of it.” The barbs become more pointed as Taad does his best to bathe. When at last they sit together the older man coughs self-importantly as though signalling a change in tone. Taad over-concentrates on picking an edge of dead skin from his ankle, a slight rill of pain as he worries it away from an ooze of puss and raw flesh, the metal spine along the ligature’s core just visible through the wound.
“Never fully realised” A-Hylca begins in a more patrician manner. “These worlds are so hoary with years. And humans have been here for eternity. The planets are so layered with their remains that wherever we excavate we find traces of lost technologies and sciences.” He clears his throat theatrically. Taad prises an area of dead white skin from his ankle, the size of a coin, and considers it carefully.
“ ... and yet in the lives of worlds the whole sequence of human history is so brief.”
Taad waits. Rolls the detached skin into a tight ball between thumb and fore-finger, and flicks it in the vague direction of the river. As the silence lengthens, he offers a stimulus. “What you’re saying is that you don’t know where we are?”
“Correction, you ingrate. I don’t know where, or when we are.”
Taad emits a high-pitched keening noise and, despite his considerable bulk, is on his feet in one smooth movement, wrenching insanely at the column binding them together, tearing at it so its deep roots writhe painfully, resentfully ripping chafed and bleeding skin, deliberately using the pain to stoke his anger. “You... said... you... could... get... us... out. You lied. I was mad to listen. I should kill you!”
A-Hylca meets his accusations unflinchingly. “Would you rather still be in the Penal Colony? Worked to certain death? No-one gets out of there alive. Why do you think the Lhyrill wear masks and armour - so that they’re not offended by the stink of their prisoners? No - it’s so they don’t have to breathe the poison that passes for air down there, that’s why. Here at least we have a chance. A slender one. To escape, to fight back against vile tyranny.”
The moment passes. Taad’s murderous rage evaporating. Replaced by a great void of emptiness. “I’m no insurrectionist” he says softly. “I’m no hero. This is all a mistake, just a mistake. I’m a Farmer. I want to go home.”
“If we continue like this...” A-Hylca moistens his thin lips, “if we continue like this... it seems highly unlikely you’ll live long enough to luxuriate in the self-indulgence of your wretched homesickness.”
TO BE CONTINUED...