Tuesday 11 November 2008


Concerning the significance of
a dream which is misunderstood, and a new 
journey which is undertaken to decipher it

Nine low Biome buildings embedded like fossils by the shore of the ‘lake’, their bio-organic material catching and retaining the light. And anchored a little way off, the galleon they’d been chasing. The ‘Tellurian’. The triskele sigil of the Domain - a triple-winged planet, inlaid across the upper lobe of its swelling, aerodynamically tapering canvas. Its drive rigging and aileron sails retracted into the underslung housing that connects and co-ordinates the two slave bladders. Its double-jointed hydraulic landing skids are arched insect legs. The sky-ramp is down.
A-Hylca halts abruptly, the ligature checking their descent. He watches figures move between the geodesics - natives, tall and dark-skinned, wearing loose-fitting smocks in a variety of bright colours, healthy and intimidatingly well-muscled. Then the aeronauts, tall and sinister, Drhazilsk-armoured, but seemingly slighted by the stronger strengths of their hosts. Two of them patrol the guy ropes anchoring the Skyship.
Ivaksho shoves him brutally.
A-Hylca and the dumbly unresisting Taad move on, targeting for the village, soon passing through the dwarfing shadow of the dreadnought. It rides an imperceptible wind that has it straining at hawsers, its rigging and moonraker canvases rustling, and above its harpoon and phlogiston portals pennants are streaming and curling. They pace the beaten earth separating glistening Biomes, children laughing and playing, pointing out the interlopers as they pass. Light pearls along the building seams in a rippling motion, but the material also holds its own luminance, a fact that becomes more apparent as they enter. The organic domes are identical with no indication of rank or status, and the habitat into which they are ushered differs in no way to others of its kind.
“You must be hungry” says their host. A woman offers them trays of food. Her loose smock gathered in bands of neutral greens, her body almost too flawlessly perfect, her delicacy of movement natural and unaffected. The interior is surprisingly spacious, peach-warm walls and ceiling giving an impression of infinite distance and volume, everything else deluged in rich-wove carpets and tapestries of pastel and largely abstract design. Every surface covered in repetitive patterns of interlocking triangles and geometrical complexes. The only furniture large enough to assume some form of physical tangibility through the rippling textiles is of polished hand-crafted wood.
Chao and his retinue stand just inside the threshold, Ivaksho radiating an air of sullen hostility as Taad and A-Hylca drop down into tasselled cushions before a low table and begin picking at the elegantly spiced concoctions of fruit and vegetable.
“Do you have to eat like that, Taad?”
“Eat like what? Anyway, I don’t have to answer to you, I’m not your servant.”
“No. You’re my problem, my encumbrance. These are sophisticated people. But you eat like the most deprived Penal Colony scum. Too messily and far too fast.”
“That’s because I’m ravenous. I’m sorry if my honest appetite offends your cultural sensitivities. But I eat as I always eat. And when I’m ravenous I tend to eat fast, alright?” grumbles Taad. Then, in a more conciliatory tone “I can’t even guess at the origins of this meal. In fact I’ve been constantly bewildered by the abundance of growing things I’ve seen since entering these marshes. Me, who spent my life tilling and nurturing plants. Who had confidence in my knowledge of their biota and classification. That confidence is now... totally shredded.” He drinks deep from a glass of smooth warming wine, shrugging mentally. If all this is illusion - how can it taste anyway...?
“There you go Taad, thinking again. That’s going to be your downfall.”
“Before this thing began I’d never moved outside Nonocastria, let alone the planet. I suppose, in a vague way, I associated home’s nine domes with the worlds making up the Cluster, each different, but connected. And the ‘Cluster’ itself was just a word to me, something suggesting an adherence of stones. A coronet of seeding heads on the stem of a plant. Even now I find it difficult to visualise beyond that point, and to be honest, I fear to do so. I know that you’ll say I’m clinging to constants assailed from all sides, clinging to the parts of a life-style I understand and in which I have a clearly defined role. Those men, those Drhazilsks, are my enemies. They destroyed my life. They murdered Solleen. I should burn with hatred. I should hurl this table away and attack them in blind fury. Yet I sit here meekly trying to identify fruit. I don’t understand, A-Hylca. I don’t understand.”
“It’s me he beat over the head” touching flakes of dry blood on his temple. “I’ve got grudges to settle too. But I’m listening, watching. We might yet gain that understanding.”
Chao dismisses his troops and crosses to sit opposite them. He faces the villager. “We can’t remain in this Temporal Quadrant for long, as you know. I have little time to waste, so you want we should talk now?”
The alien smiles affable. “I have plenty of time for whatever purpose you choose. So, talk, if that is your wish.”
He glances suspiciously at Taad and A-Hylca, then begins hesitantly. “These Marshes mess up elements of past ages, mixing them in with the present. Normally the area is shunned by the Domain, yet the Omphalos ordered me here. Ordered me here, to this exact location. Its motive is not clear. But we have no choice but to go as directed.”
The villager squats down on his haunches. “You can speak freely here. Go on.”
“There are powerful precise indications that our civilisation is entering a period of catastrophic instability, what’s been long predicted as the Final Chaos, the Coming Darkness. I believe we were sent here to search out specific tremors. Indicators must exist here. Strands must stand out that we can decipher. But so far what we’ve discovered is far from clear.”
The stranger shrugs. “Time is simple. We sit here. I glance at you. You glance at me. Time has already passed. Your food is a little cooler. Your heart a few beats older. Your mind a little richer - if only because it now contains a recollection of how things were before we glanced at each other. Time is the predator stalking us all. But look around. Why do you imagine we should know more than you? What makes you think our society is any more or less advanced than yours?”
“You’ve evolved beyond leadership, militarism, hierarchy,” from A-Hylca. “That comes only with a level of maturity we’ve yet to reach.”
Chao snorts. “Yet there’s no technology, no machines. This is a scientifically primitive culture...”
“As you see, such equations are not necessarily easy to decipher” suggests the Time Marsh-dweller playfully. “Perhaps the Domain considers that the behaviour of time is not incontrovertibly fixed? That there are key events when it can be made to diverge, and with fore-knowledge, undesirable futures can be avoided? You think, maybe, that there are certain critical occasions when time splits off onto different paths, one leading to survival, the other to extinction? That it is possible to choose the tomorrow and the tomorrow’s to come that are most to your liking? That with the correct information, with immense will and struggle, that the Great Instability can be endured?”
A-Hylca stops eating, listening with rapt attention. Chao, more critically, awaits concise information he can use.
“Let’s imagine a world with a history that parallels our own, but is significantly different in just one major aspect. A world, a time-track, a history that diverges before - and therefore escapes what you call the Supernatural Wars...”
“You’re saying the Supernatural Wars were real?” says A-Hylca querulously. “Actual historical events?”
“There’s never been any doubt of their reality,” from Chao. “It’s as certain as the turning of worlds.”
The alien ignores the bickering interchange. “Such a world would have no Blind Waterlords. And it would have no Nine Dormant Gods. Hence it wouldn’t be threatened by the implications of what you so euphemistically call ‘instability’. It wouldn’t be threatened by the ‘Coming Darkness’ of the prophecy you fear, because the seeds of that Darkness would not exist in its conjectural history. So consider this, perhaps the crisis that afflict the Spirit Domain - what you call the Last Empire, is unique precisely because it is the result of the Supernatural Wars. What you are now, is determined by what occurred then. Hence it’s already decided. The unavoidable fact is that your problems are terminal. There’s no escape, and the inevitable result will be your total extinction.”

---- 2 ----

Once the meal is over the villager indicates the ligature connecting Taad and A-Hylca, offering to remove it. Taad glances down. In places the pseudo-flesh is ruptured. Through the wound he can see the flexible metal spine along its centre, its terminals embedded in each ankle. His own, and A-Hylca’s. Surgically implanted on arrival at the Penal Colony he knows it has an elaborate network of nerves and blood vessels interconnecting their bodies. Severance will be as profound as the amputation of a limb.
“Will it hurt?”
“Do it” from A-Hylca evenly, glancing skewed at the implacable Chao. “Just do it.”
An act performed by the simple expedient of applying a slim silver rod to each ankle. A stab of pain, and the ligature falls away, flexing and writhing obscenely. A blind snake thrashing furiously, as if in the spasms of death. Then more slowly, its skin corrupts and flakes, breaking up into maggoty wriggling segments that dissolve away into the ground.
The four men straggle from the low table to emerge into the village. But before stepping outside Taad feels compelled to look fearfully over his shoulder at where he’d been separated from the column of dead half-flesh. Nothing now remains to show it ever existed. Apart from the odd sensation of unaccustomed freedom of movement. Then, looking ahead, smoking ochre clouds hang low between the mountains. And he can’t help but suspiciously search out long shadows on the steep slopes for evidence of last night’s bizarre pursuers. He finds none. The group stand by the shore. The lake is impenetrably dark, the cloud-colour turning it to reflected blood. It has no bottom, as though its depths extend down to infinity. Its surface moves in a peculiar way, reminding Taad of the breathing of a huge mindless creature heaving in its sleep. Wavelets that are thickly viscous lick and tongue overhung loam, tracing the outline of a clear white cairn of stones extending out into the body of ‘water’ like a withered finger.
A-Hylca breaks the brooding silence. “I thought the Ashirian Omphalos could see the future anyway?”
Chao pauses. What is it Mareeh had said? How does she phrase it? ‘The Omphalos accesses information from every point clear across the Domain. It processes and digests every pixel of knowledge, percolates and cross-references it through its thousand-cortex mass so it sees the total picture. And the greater the human numbers involved, the more accurately predictable behaviour contours become. When those figures are compiled from the populations of entire cities and worlds, so individual vagaries get subsumed into the mass demographic, and inflexible patterns become apparent. From such a base it can intuit probabilities with faultless accuracy. Everything, that is, except when unique human variables intervene, what it terms ‘unstable radicals’, the actions of which are dangerously unpredictable.’ A situation like this one. “Of course,” he said. “It can see the future.”
“So tell us, what is the nature of this imminent instability, this ‘Coming Darkness’? Hurry, I’m breathless with anticipation.” His tone suggests polite disbelief.
The villager sits back on the mound of stones, plucks a tall grass stem and plays it across the lake’s surface. The scratches made by its passage not only remain visible, but open out like a network of expanding slits.
Chao coughs nervously. “So let me tell you what you already know. The deductive powers of the Omphalos, guided and interpreted by the Wyzeird, govern all aspects of the Domain. The worlds of the Cluster follow as they direct. If they announce a course of action it will be in the sure and certain knowledge that it is logical and necessary. That they have considered every possibility, and further - that they will arrange matters so that failure is not an option. That the collective powers of all agencies human and inhuman will be brought to bear to achieve those ends. And through the permanence that results - with the Wyzeird as its focal point, the Domain has known thousands of years of stability...”
“Thousands of years of tyranny and oppression.”
“...but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t know. The present Wyzeird - Chlorel Et-Snaar, is dying. We fear the disruption to the morphogenetic field caused by the anarchy and power struggles that will follow his death. His life span has been artificially extended, and still is, but even that has limits.”
A-Hylca regards him incredulously. “I welcome his death. Welcome the tearing down of the whole poxy Domain and its senescent Presidium. The anarchy you fear will free the human worlds to be diverse, egalitarian, without centre or government, torture or terror.”
The substance of the lake is now indigo. The lips of each ripple spattered with what at first seem to be reflections, shimmers glistening off its surface swarming with incidents eclipsed and extinguished as the huge beast breathes, and new planes and angles catch fire. But the reflections, or memories, are of cities alive with storm, ramparts of ice, jungles of threshing viridian tentacles, a plain of seamless glass ignited by moonlight from horizon to horizon, a metal hive of mechanical insects, a flooded city, crowds of masked people...
“But Wyzeirds have died in the past. A great many of them. How can the death of this one man be the precursor of the racial extinction you speak of?” cuts in Taad bluntly.
“You are the protagonists,” says the tall stranger dismissively. “You, and one other you’ve yet to meet. These are your worlds. We can offer you the opportunity of glimpsing what will come. Oceans may boil. Lands may burn. Cities rise in smoke and flame towards the sky. But we cannot be held to blame if you have neither the vision nor the will to act on what we offer. For it is you who must determine what outcomes are still possible.”
“And what of the Sentinels? I swear I saw the Sentinels of Wolvorta-Hgadin out there. Are they part of this grand scheme?”
“Perhaps they wait to extract the price of your failure? The triumph of ‘The Beast Of The Coming Darkness’. It’s not for us to say. We only observe.”
Taad turns away violently and watches shapes slither within the body of the lake. “Why should we believe anything you say? I want no part of this.”
“You have no choice,” says the alien softly.
But A-Hylca catches his gaze and holds it. “Now it’s time for you to level with us. I know exactly where we are, and who you are. This is no illusion of the past conjured up by necromantic powers, and you are not part of some phantasmagoria created by the Waterlords to confound and confuse us. Acknowledge my correctness.”
Along the rim of wavelets Taad can see armies of screaming gargoyles writhing beneath the lake’s darkly organic skin. They seem to him lost in an eternity of horror and pain. Illuminated ripples narrowing each image down, icing it all to absolute clarity.
“We’ll talk more tomorrow. Night falls. We must sleep.”
They meander back towards the Biomes, Taad hesitating, watching the sentient lake. He’s seen the images thrown up by its disturbed sleep before. A monument at water’s edge. A white column. An ivory obelisque beside a flooded city. As he watches, the image of the tower divides and multiplies, spreading out into a raft of small towers eventually covering the entire surface. Suddenly it panics him. He tears himself away to join A-Hylca bringing up the party’s rear.
Events have left him weary, heavy and leaden with doubts. But A-Hylca is vibrantly alive. “At last” he gloats. “The Wyzeird is dying. Resistance forces all over the Cluster uniting in the final conflict to eradicate the Domain for ever. Look at this village Taad, it has no leaders, no military, no social hierarchy or repression. It is tangible proof that everything I ever dreamed and fought for is possible and can be achieved.”
“But first we sleep” grunts Taad pragmatically.

--- 3 ---

A brutal kick drives Taad awake like an animal. Instantly alert. There’s a blade at his throat in a confusion of receding nightmares. It’s difficult to orientate, dark creatures skitter in blackness. Monstrous Waterlords evaporate like mist through sepulchral silences leaving splintering holes of light.
He’s in a zone of dead cars, but the perspective is not as it should be. There are serpentine corridors leading off, but the walls don’t even seem to meet at right angles. At the end of a long corridor there are buildings, some organic, others skeletal or phantasmal. Time has stopped. He is moving through long timeless moments of utter silence. He looks up. This is Nonocastria, stupid of him not to recognise it sooner, but tides of blood ripple across the curved ceiling in scintillations of colour. He sees two figures at the corridor’s farthest point. Perhaps they know what’s going on? He must reach them. Suddenly nothing is more vitally importance than that. He begins to run. But as he runs the air presses itself in against him, suffocating him. The man ahead is a Drhazilsk. Each segment of his armour burnished to a mirror surface until he becomes a figure of glass supernaturally animated. He holds a woman by her hair. The woman is Solleen. The ceiling is in flames, showering them with a thin mist of moist particles. Beyond them is a lake of something other than water.
“Read death in my eyes Taad.” He can’t see the face. The voice merely glittering splinters of glass set within the helmet.
Taad reaches out to stop the unfolding horror, but the air thickens and he can’t fight his way through. Solleen is screaming. The Drhazilsk grips her hair tighter, and swings her grotesquely. Smashes her head with slow deliberation into the curved wall. Taad opens his mouth to yell and he drowns in thick choking tides of air. Her head is exploding in a welter of blood as the flames roar...
When he blinks back the tears of helpless rage, the figures are gone. Instead he’s watching the surface of the strange lake. He knows now with absolute certainty that this is the very heart of the Time Marshes. This is the source of its every zonal mirage and memory, the germ of every fantasy it generates into flesh. And its sub-mind is infinite. Yet as he watches, the single image of the ivory tower refirms and divides to cover every part of its surface. Then each obelisque becomes an eye. Solleen’s eyes. Watching him in that helpless and accusing rage that haunts and torments. He lunges out wildly to reach her, howling her name, and at the same moment the shimmering liquid erupts. A giant claw, half insect half crustacean, bursts up through the indigo scum of the fathomless lake. Huge and terrifying. Solleen’s baleful gem eyes beading it, bright with malevolence and unnatural threat.
Suddenly he’s home, waking before dawn, anticipating work in the Warren. Then in catacombs of entombed dirt-encrusted circuitry. Then his eyes pick out the quicksilver quiver of light moving along a peach-bruised interface in the Biome above his head. And the shape of Ivaksho holding a blade sharp and painfully tight against his skin. “On your feet” hisses the Trooper brutally. “We’re leaving.”
Taad has no choice but to obey. Movement in the shadows tells him A-Hylca is also being hauled up. He lurches to his feet, heavy and bearlike, walking as if on broken glass to the sphincter and out into the night. A caustic wind has grown, the swish of foliage a continual undertow of sound. Clouds race across the face of a vast maroon Mars. But he has little time for speculation, the squad of Skyfarers has assembled and, at War Chao’s direction, they move off towards their craft. The ‘Tellurian’ now pulsates with light, its varicoloured beacons fore and aft, and its two forward bug-eye blisters, the quarters and galleries beneath, all lit up.
The rest of the village sleeps. Taad could cry out, but he’d be dead before the villagers could intervene. Even if they would. Anyway, they are unarmed. They possess a technology of some sophistication, but not one adapted to combat Prayerblades and handbows. The party moves stealthily, dark with menace, through the cluster of Biomes into the outer perimeter of sheltering orchards.
He can hear the thrumming of generators, the steady throb of propellers on standby. The forest alive with wind, some emanating from the galleon’s airscrews. The lizard-helmed Troopers a hard knot of steel around him.
‘They’re going to kill us. Here. In the woods. They’re going to ditch our bodies where they’ll never be found. And then they’re going to leave in their ‘ship.’ He chances a glance across to where A-Hylca is similarly encircled. The older man catches his eye. His expression transparent. No alternatives are on offer. There’s no refuge anywhere in the Time Marshes, only death. Only insanity.
Taad is propelled roughly forward. ‘This is it. Oh shit, no NO.’ But instead they’re prompting him beneath the towering hydraulic legs and straining hawsers towards the elaborately engraved skyramp, feeling it vibrate beneath his fingers as he mounts, hearing the hiss of the three stabilising-bags inflating. A symmetrical slab of light above, Ivaksho with levelled handbow, and he’s ushered into the craft. A-Hylca a step behind him. There are stage-whispers from the night outside as the electro-magnetic charges reach a dissonant whine, the generators thrashing the air. Cables retract into the bulkhead. With War Chao and the last of the retinue now aboard, the ramp gullwings back into place, sealing them from all externals.
In the grove beyond, a villager with luminous tattoo’s shifting and squirming beneath the skin of his arms and chest, stands in the shadows of foliage. He parts small star-blooms and pear-shaped fruit so he can see the fantastic craft to greater advantage. An expression of amusement on his face, a mix of emotion in the pit of his stomach.
An urge to mock the whole ludicrous joke of unwieldy mechanics and military posturing. A half-envious desire to be a part of it.
He watches the last hawser part. The beating now almost unbearable as the heterodyning plates are activated and the Skyship turns into the wind, its sails fanning and streaming as it torturously ascends. For a while it oscillates, like a pendulum, to and fro, then it firms, gliding at a perilous angle into a roaring torment of distortion as its repellers fight course corrections.
He allows the parted foliage to fall back into place. He can eclipse the galleon now with the palm of his hand. Begins the leisurely walk back to the subtly changing village, its lines slowly becoming fluid and insubstantial.

A dialogue concerning the
nature of the Nine Blind Waterlords,
and the collision with a ghost that
curtails their escape from the Time Marshes 

The double-blister of the Skyship Bridge is plush with symbols of wealth and power. It describes two bulging crescents around the galleon’s blunt snout. Together, the protuberances of gridded lucite give full panoramic views of the world beneath. Instrument panels glow read-outs of wind speed and altitude-climb, sextants, the circular face of the radaric screen, velocometers, Aneroid pressure gauges and rheostats the size of a man’s palm, while externalmonitors tick and twitch. They are meticulously engraved, insetted with screens and systems of control levers and toggles, all limned with frescoes of gold and crimson that catch at the smoky globelight.
War Chao sits at the command plinth upholstered in deep maroon, from where he can survey the activity, issue commands and curse the crewmen poring over the gaggles of instruments, and through communication tubes to those on other decks. A steersman in goggles is webbed into a harness. An angle-poise optic mounted before him, a triangular helm moving towards and away from him, as well as laterally. To his left hunches the ship’s emaciated Trancer, wired by electrodes to the navigational system, providing instant-response reactions and computations on course problems. The eyes and ears of the ‘Tellurian’, she is the sentient adjunct to canvas, steel, and Cavorite, spaced in a sensory fantasia of swirling air tides, spiralling thermals and magnetic drifts.
Taad and A-Hylca stand beneath a cupola to the rear, ignored but for the hostile attentions of Ivaksho, glowering with a down-angled handbow. Beyond the lucite grid they can see the village dissolve beside the now-ebon lake. The Skyship climbs through a violent slipstream over its ‘waters’ towards the mountains, lanced blue-white in reflected light, patterned by shifting cloud shadow. Visibility holds sharp and ice clear, the slopes of the cliffs rush at them, pitted with dark quarries, a waterfall surging silver over a precipice hung with black trees, shrubs and glacial moraines.
Then they slide between peaks. The wind lessens. There are towering banks of mist the colour of steel. The helmsman takes it higher. The first tenuous strands move around the nose, turning to bronze. The lake shimmers in mirror-image, until surface and cloudbase are dawn-flamed, and they burst free aiming the sky. Behind them lake, village, and mountains are gone, replaced by oceans of luminous mist boiling and heaving in vaporous storm.
The trimaran levels off, crewmen exchanging course correction vectors. Chao slumps back, relinquishing command, turning back to his prisoners as though suddenly remembering their presence on the bridge.
“We’ll be leaving the Time Marshes in a matter of hours. But first, A-Hylca, I’m intrigued by the way you spoke to our ‘host’ in the village back there. I’m curious about what exactly you meant when you claimed to know ‘who they are’. Do you feel inclined to let me in on the secret you so obviously share with them?”
“You mean you don’t know? You didn’t guess?,” he cocks his head in a rapid bird-like movement, smirking provocatively. “But first, just how, exactly, do you propose to extricate us from the Marshes?”
Chao indicates the small sphere of milky crystal, brought from the Leviathan, now inset in its waist-high column on his plinth array. “With this.”
A-Hylca had seen such devices before, used in Domain territories to monitor and communicate over long distances. Trancers feed the Ashirian Omphalos shadow-pictures of figures and movement through such spheres. Exchanging images that fuel the organic data-bank and surveillance network of the Last Empire, enabling it to co-ordinate strikes against rebellion in any sector of Chlorel Et-Snaar’s vast realm.
“With altitude we can ride out the temporal dislocations. Get navigational fixes fed from Ashiri, and from our destination.”
“Only a feeble-wit would assume it’s that simple. The Waterlord’s mischief puts obstacles in every path.” His voice drops to an almost confessional whisper. “If even the application of my intellect failed to interpret it, then your toys stand no chance. Here, all logics get twisted out of shape. And the people in the village were the Waterlords, don’t you realise? They are playing some kind of Satanic game with us. Presumably they’re still playing that same game.”
Chao pauses for a moment, as though turning the information over in his head. Tasting its various implications. “No. I don’t think so. The Waterlords are the result of a fierce miscegenation between men and gods. More vile, gigantic and eternal than we can imagine. Why should they choose to concern themselves with us? And why assume so elaborate a charade for our benefit?”
“The Omphalos knows why. That’s why it willed you to that exact location. Perhaps I could have discovered more if you’d allowed us to stay there and question them further.”
Ivaksho strikes A-Hylca viciously over the head. “You speak with respect, Mine-Rat.”
“Keep this Turd-for-Brains on a leash will you, Chao. This is becoming tedious.”
Taad ignores the action. “Where are you taking us when we leave the Marshes? Back to Ashiri? Or the Penal Colony...?”
“First we blind you. It’s quite easy. Just a matter of tuning an oscillator to the correct frequency and beaming it to the optic nerve” the Trooper sneers.
“Hold, Ivaksho,” from Chao. “There are reasons why the Omphalos directed us to those co-ordinates. That’s why I brought you out of the Marshes instead of executing you there, as my enthusiastic friend Ivaksho would so dearly love to do.”
“Don’t disappoint him further on my account,” A-Hylca in mock acquiescence. “Take my life. You’ve taken everything else. You took Mareeh, used her to decimate our Movement. You took my freedom. Take my life too...”
Chao ignores him. Stands up. Crosses to the foredeck. Clouds are breaking and reforming. Taad glimpses land beneath, hastily obscured slivers of grassed plains with light snow falling on huge skeletons, rib-cages as vast as cathedrals. Then coiling mangrove forests of impossibly tall tripod trees clawing moisture from dripping mats of moss and diseased fungi, dark shapes like anthropoid bats gliding between untidy artificial structures high in the foliage. And once he sees a clear formation of sapphire pyramids dwarfing an interconnecting web of metal highways that glint silver like snail-trails, and again... the hideous land contorts into skull faces with double sets of eyes dressed in uncanny shadows that swarm like beetles. But the tantalising vistas are transitory, washed by forlorn mist so persistent it covers and neutralises all colour.
“Almost beautiful, don’t you think?” he breathes softly.
“I don’t like open spaces, open skies,” from Taad.
“You don’t like ANYTHING!,” from A-Hylca, heavy with sarcasm.
Then, “strange crises demand unpredictable alliances” says Chao, almost to himself. “Mareeh chose to ally herself with the Domain. With me. You see that as betrayal. But events demand their own logics. Maybe time is fixed and inflexible, as your friend in the Marshes suggests. But he also said ‘you are the protagonists. It’s you who must determine what outcomes are still possible’.”
“I see. That’s why we’re here. Because the Waterlords see us as the ‘Protagonists’ of what is to come?”
“That’s typical of your own inflated self-regard A-Hylca. No, he means ‘you’ as a race, as a civilisation. Not ‘you’ as an individual.”
“No. He meant me, you, Taad, and another we’ve yet to meet.”
Chao stands framed against the tortured canopy of cloud. Arms folded. Thinking uncomfortably of what Mareeh had said about the significance of unpredictable ‘Unstable Radicals’. “I prefer to think that tomorrow is waiting to be fleshed out by our actions. That it belongs to those strong enough to seize and shape it. You’ve heard of the Deadland city of Baal-Shadaam?”
A-Hylca nods. “I traded Saffron there.”
“One of its leaders, Naws Tenrab - who styles himself Elector of Mars, is aiding us in our attempts at further extending Chlorel Et-Snaar’s life. He performs this valuable function in exchange for military and technological aid for his local war. But he uses necromancy and perverted sciences to do it. To me, dealing with Deadlanders in this way, is also a form of betrayal. I find such transactions distasteful, but we have no alternative. Our ship follows the guidance of his Trancer, a natural Trancer born into the Deadland. We continue our flight as that guidance from Baal-Shadaam indicates. But enough...” he laughs at the bitter irony, then gestures in irritable dismissal.
A Trooper prods the prisoners down cross-level ramps towards the rear of the galleon, the officer returning his attention to the sky. Mist is thinning, they are nearing the outer limits of the Marshes, they’ve defeated the accursed land and are escaping with their lives.
“Chao.” One of the crew point.
He follows the direction. A mote of crimson stands on the horizon. “What is it?”
The Trancer begins a low babble beneath the threshold of audibility, a tirade of figures and equations providing a panicky soundtrack to the jittery activity on the bridge.
“A Skyship. Bearing our altitude and course,” the helmsman announces.
His eyes strain to pick out details as the interloper expands, his flesh crawling uncontrollably. They are above the time distortions, yet still within the influence of Pacantic, the evil of the Elder Gods hangs tangibly in the air. Deities who can twist ages, control illusions of reality, treat human lives like savage toys...
Yet the new craft is Domain crimson. As it closes he can make out its triple-bladder formation, can identify its squadron, artillery, even its year of commission.
The Trancer’s murmuration rises a clear octave, speeding like an overwound recording. She spasms against her crown of wires.
“Take evasive action” he instructs. “It’s on collision course.” The helm swings. Ballast bleeds from the stabilisers and the galleon veers to starboard in streamers of billowing wings. Vanes and drive rigging vibrate with low shrieks of wind resistance conducted up through the superstructure.
It’s only now he recognises the Domain triskele emblazoned across the central helium bag, his throat constricting with horror. The other craft also turns, describing a graceful arc exactly mirroring their own. He can see verniers, banks of racing air-screws, phlogiston and harpoon portals, the latticed crescent of the Bridge, can even see himself standing there, arms folded. An illusion. A bizarre jest thrown up by the Waterlords. Unless it’s temporal displacement, and they are meeting themselves on the inward journey? Chao watches in mesmerised fear as the identical skycraft race towards each other.
The Trancer is talking backwards.
The roar if impact is deafening.

Detailing the vile perversity of War Chao, 
and what Mareeh discovers in the 
dream-space between planets

A high-pitched keening.
A continual wind passes around and through the vibrating towers of Chao’s Demesne in unseen rivers. She knows these sounds. These are the sounds that haunt Ashiri’s minarets and the towering ranges of what, in other civilisations, might have been called Skysweepers. The arcs and rectangles that tilt and intersect, the death-defying and audacious quartz and jet surfaces where whites melt into whites, and yellows tower pale and bleeding into air...
But Ashiri is a city that is running down, like the dying Cluster, into blackness. Time itself is ebbing away. And no escape is possible, because all energies are equally distributed, and all are equally caught up in this twilight of worlds.
But no, this keening is wrong.
And the smell. The stench of an animal’s wet fur.
The cool metal floor tilts. Her feet on the metal are bare. She’s naked. This must be a projection, of course. She’s riding the system of whispers and visions that span the Cluster on webs of light. Images that move at the speed of nerve impulses, with the entire Last Empire as its body. In this way, and this way alone, can Mareeh escape the imprisoning barrier of the Nonogon Fortress. The addiction she’s programmed with is a unique personal synthesis that can’t be replicated anywhere else. She can survive for a day at most, until the need for a jolt forces her back.
She concentrates hard until she is clothed in a long white gown. And then she moves down the corridor without exerting any physical effort. The corridor ends at an egress. A lank and bristling giant of a Drhazilsk stands idly by its threshold. He fails to notice her presence despite his genetic enhancement, his neural and synaptic implants...
‘I wonder, do they hurt, those fibrous modifiers? When they’re surgically introduced as children, are they painful? When they lie awake at night are they conscious of them...?’
The keening she can hear is the wind that moves in a Skyship’s vanes, the sound now muted with the pullulation of machine drives. And through the peculiar acoustics of the deck she can feel the clangour of its plates as they throb. She’s entered the observation gallery, looking out on a thick wedge of Marsian surface. Sky-Island clouds envelop both extremes like closing curtains.
This is Leviathan, War Chao’s massive Battle Platform. Eighteen decks. A permanent complement of one-thousand two-hundred and something. A galleon so huge it can never make planetfall, but remains forever in the space between worlds. An aerial fortress from which he co-ordinates his never-ending campaign against insurgents. Chao should be here, his movements as controlled and decisive as those of the ‘ship itself.
Through a drizzling Marsian light she can see a line of Skyships. Rebel craft. This is Chao’s own campaign. He should be pacing this floor. But he’s absent. Perhaps he’s in Prayerblade ritual? She recalls the horror and revulsion the first time she’d witnessed his Dawn Observance. Chao is a web of scars stretched over a frame of discipline. The Prayerblade ritual is part of that discipline. Ashiri is an evil place. Others of its upper echelons use powerful narcotics, debauched sexual or sadistic excess to intensify the experience. Torture and madness are commonplace.
But Chao hangs in a darkened room. Suspended naked from the ceiling on a network of wires, hooks painfully embedded in the flesh of his chest and abdomen. A slow but persistent drip drip drip of blood slurring the grooved floor under him. Grooved exactly for that purpose of drainage. The leaking blood is crimson. Domain crimson. She’d only been Chao’s ‘guest’ for a week. Not knowing what to expect. Her horror and revulsion at what she witnesses in this ritual chamber tempered by relief. If masochism is his chosen route to heightened states of awareness, she’s safe from the infliction of... other methods.
There’s a deep vibrant hum of coils. The Empire ship stands at libration, a gravitational null-point of equilibrium between worlds. But already generators and vacuum tubes, interconnected by slender but enormously powerful filaments, are flickering with life. Degravitation is being achieved by energising the plates of Cavorite with high-tension currents of electro-magnetic charges, taking them from suspension between, into a controlled reversal of gravity.
A line of rebel craft drift down from the filamentine tentacles and pedicles of the Sky-Islands. One by one. In tight formation. Their harpoon vents, set into scarred fuselages, resemble the gill-slits of deep ocean predators. Their phlogiston portals already winking open like rows of small mouths. Arrow-Engines ready.
An aerial conflict is about to commence.
What - to War Chao, can possibly be of greater importance than this?


jed said...

Hi Andy,

Thank you for supporting Middle Ditch, quirky tales of village life. I hope that you're enjoying episode 23 with Dr. Brian Hinton and Rowena Kitchen in great form!

Cheers, Jed

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