A red sky over a cobblestone road that leads past alien plants toward a land of lava.

Delight (Part 4)

by

To Delight (Part 1)

To Delight (Part 3)

Darkness dwelt in the north.

They were moving quickly in the bare stony lands, and the arm of shadow beyond the Bight was revealed as a great gulf, a tunnel of blackness. She kept thinking it should go away when she blinked or turned back to it from looking to the other quarters of the land, but it grew greater and greater, spreading wider and wider and revealing depth within depth of darkness. She would cover the sight of it with her hand, only to feel sane. It was like an eye, deeper black within black, and she could not shake the feeling that there were real eyes hidden within it. She had known Twilight all her life, but had never seen Night.

The land reaching into that shadow, north of the road, was overgrown with the strange crystal flower patterns that she was now used to seeing, and warped in other ways. In some places it reared up into shapes like animals, or human faces or limbs, or distorted machine parts. In others it showed an abnormal conformation as if gravity was askew or the entire land had been frozen while slowly writhing like a living thing.

Inside the northern darkness, behind the strange shapes that the earth had been twisted into, were mists, lights, and fires. Some of the lights were those of volcanoes or fireholes made visible in the dark, but others were stranger. No earth-fire looked like that, pale, cold, yet somehow sucking, like a hole in the air leading to some other place. And surely no volcano could be as thin as the spires she seemed to glimpse holding some of the lights, or as tall. How could a volcano's light be so steady? Were not some lights evenly spaced and proportioned as if they were artificial?

Whatever lived in that darkness and built those structures was not human. But at least it was still far away.

And as if to compensate she could now see a single light, dead ahead, that was not alien.


It is the Last Light. As was happening more and more often the spieking from the flying ship was thrumming on her inner hearing while she was awake, not in dream.

"What?"

The final light, atop the Redoubt. Soon you will see the Redoubt Herself.

"How far away?"

Seven days journey now. This is the time of greatest danger. The sight of the Redoubt will fill you with joy, but the Twilight Land becomes strange near Mother Redoubt.

"You call your city a Mother?"

Yes, because we live in her womb, and she protects us from all things.

"You must be joyful . . what is that? There?" She was looking at something impossible, standing just within the borders of the Shadow.

It is all Darkness. Whatever face it wears. Look away.

"Surely these things were not made by men?"

The Road sweeps north, once it has reached the Redoubt, and travels through those lands. Once many people lived in the northern arm of the Valley. But Darkness has crept down from the sky and eaten them all, but for one lone outpost that dwells among madness.

"How did these things come to be?"

Darkness dwells in the heart of Light. This is the enemy that has seized the whole universe. The sun is dying. The stars are dying. We dwell here, in hiding from a shadow that is eating all things We can only hope that it does not find us worth annihilating. We hide, for we cannot fight it. It is now the whole universe. And we do not know how it came to be. Look away!


They came to a place where the road was suddenly lit. All along parallel to it marched two rows of lights, carried on squat columns, six hundred paces from the road and six hundred paces apart. The lights were dim but they bore the same hue and force and meaning as the Last Light atop the Redoubt. She did not doubt that they had been planted to guard the road and beat back the threats of the Land.


That next morning after plodding steadily along for a time the manshonyagger suddenly stopped. She craned over to see why at it and was suddenly wrenched from her seat as it gripped her painfully tight and crashed into a run. It moved fast now, as fast as she had ever seen it. It stopped for an instant and lifted her, binding her with more exuded threads to the riding seat atop its neck. This left her bruised and furious but before she even had time to think it started up again, clanking and jerking along even faster, using all its limbs now. It seemed to be pushing itself to its very limit.

She understood when she looked back. The host following them was not a host of beasts or ghosts or abhumans or any of the dim things that peeped from the borders of the dark. It was a pack of iron beetles like the machine that carried her. They were far behind but she could see each one was akin but different. They varied in size and proportion like living things, and also in speed, and the faster ones were catching them up.

The manshonyagger seemed to be moving as fast as it could, limping and obviously in pain. Ports along its side were cycling open and closed showing broken clogged tubes and fragments of metal structures that rotated and sparked. It crashed and ground and hooted, steel scraping across steel with a horrid screech.

The pursuers were gaining. She could see that the closest ones bore each of them a ragged figure straddling its neck. She thought she recognized the one in front: surely it was their pursuer from the gorge, the copy-thing astride the neck of the copy-machine.

The manshonyagger stopped. It reared up, uttering an immense alien cry.

The flying machine swept over. It cried back, an echoing metal sound, and the manshonyagger cowered, dropping its heads and ripping her from her perch on its back and crushing her into a huddle beneath its breast. Its limbs surrounded her like a cage. There was a flash of light brighter than any thing she had ever seen and of no colour she could name and her ears rang to a roar like a thousand cracking whips. Nothing happened for three breaths. She looked out through the thicket of metal limbs and saw with scorched eyes the flying ship trailing a great inverted arch of violet fire which depended from the tips of its wings. The arch swelled and grew and touched the ground ahead of the pack of pursuers, and then it vanished with a second flash and a single crack that blinded and deafened her. She tasted the light, felt the thunder ripple over her skin, flinched away from the blinding scent of ozone in the burnt air, quivering and hunched up beneath the manshonyagger, which itself staggered and almost fell, its iron belly crushing down on her and only held from slaying her by the residual stiffness in its unpowered limbs. It seemed to be having some kind of fit.

She rolled over and wriggled and crawled out and stood, seeing the flying ship above her again, slowly circling, and the horde of stationary metal beasts behind her, their pursuers, now stunned and immobile. The closest was not fifty paces away. It was lying helpless, but its rider seemed able to dismount and possibly attack . . . there was her fusil, dropped from somewhere the manshonyagger had been carrying it. She grabbed it and readied it and swept it about to confront her pursuers but there was no attack. This time the ragged scarecrow straddling the dead manshonyagger's neck did not move. She paced towards it, alert and holding the fusil steady, until she could see all that was necessary, and then stopped.

The scarecrow got up from the neck of its mount. It shimmered and swelled. It smiled again and changed, from dead parched flesh to the image of herself, an image which dismounted and came forward . . . but its eidolon gaze was empty and robotic, powerless. It stopped moving and shredded away in random lights and streaks of colour, like the screens in the bellies of the dying guards back in Uthwer which lit up and spluttered sometimes when she asked them questions. Then the ghost or machine-trick was gone, and there was nothing left but a long-dead corpse on the ground before the newly dead machine, the ringing silence, and the slow whistle of wind under the wings of the flying ship.

The flying ship cried again, a long melancholy howl. It circled. She gazed up at it. After a while the manshonyagger raised a head and replied, weakly. The flying ship hooted again.


"So the manshonyagger hopes to buy its way in to your city with me?"

Yes. If you are permitted entry, it believes it will also be allowed to enter. And the others who pursued would have taken you to earn entry themselves.

"But if the manshonyagger is not permitted entry to the Redoubt how shall I enter?"

There is a place, not far ahead, where we can set down and rise again. The broadcast power from the Redoubt is powerful here, and we can do more than passively glide. We will carry you from there.

"All this for me? Only for me? What will happen to me when we reach your city?"

You will be examined and may be permitted entry to the Redoubt. But the manshonyagger never. It has been told many many times and refused many times. But it continues to return in hope.

"I have seen. And what of me if I am not permitted entry?" But she had seen If Not.


She could see the Redoubt itself now. It was a single tall tower, like a pylon, sheathed in gold, topped with a blinding spark of emerald that was the Last Light. She thought it seemed near, less than a day's journey for the manshonyagger, but they laughed at her and told her of its true size. She did not believe at first, but she came to believe as weary days of travel passed without it growing more than a little. She understood the meaning of a Thousand Cities.

She no longer needed to look northward. Insanity had spread to overlap the road. Around them, just out of range of the radiance from the lights, things could be seen camped or nested: amid the barren rocks were pitiful almost-humans living in holes, and old ruins, and twists of shadow and light, and wrecked machines and what seemed the skeletons of great animals. Some things seemed to be slinking along just out of her vision, keeping pace with them. Other entities watched as she passed: she was acutely aware of a Something dwelling inside a tall ruinous clutter of iron shells miles to the south of the road, and of its emotions as it saw her carried past it, under the shadow of the flying ship's wings, toward the Redoubt. The envy and despair that radiated from it seemed human, but their intensity was sickening, and she almost sobbed in relief as they moved out of range.

After that she spent some time studying the strange things that she glimpsed beyond the line of lights. Each seemed to have its allotted portion of ground, presumably worked out through long conflict or negotiation. Some were mechanical, some biological, and some were seemingly of living stone or floating gas, yet many others seemed to be tribes or groups that were human or nearly human. Yes, some were obvious threats, but others seemed . . centered on the Redoubt, obsessed with it, even worshipping it. They did not engage in conflict with each other. They did not try to invade the road. They did not brandish weapons, though some held up their dead children. They gazed, endlessly, despairingly, at the Redoubt.


"You waste my time. Come back with me and deliver my people. Kill the Lovers."

No.

"You have the power to do it. You must have the power. You can fly."

We have the power. But no.


The manshonyagger set her down. The last miles were to be done on her own legs. She shouldered her fusil and set out, still limping but stepping strongly.

The land was desert and empty, a flat grey waste. The last of the besieging worshipping entities cowered far behind. Ahead the road had become very straight, between the long avenue of lights which converged on the vast Redoubt. And there, now, was the flying ship, settled on the road in perfect symmetry. The golden pillar of the Redoubt, a topless tower, was exactly behind it, exactly bifurcated by its wings, which were slightly raised.

Between her and the flying ship were four human figures. They seemed very tall, beautiful, pale, and richly dressed: she was suddenly acutely aware of how she stank, how she limped.

They opened their arms to welcome her.


The manshonyagger caught up with her before she had walked a league. This was not hard, since she was walking away from the Redoubt and its flying thing, back along the path it had born her.

"Goooooooo." it cried. "Go. Go up. Up." It wove and danced. She had taken of the black guntissue it had vomited up for her, enough to recharge every cartridge in her fusil and more besides, and she had reloaded her weapon, but she did not try to shoot it this time. She stood still. She did not sing. It kept moving to grab her and flinching back, like a man too afraid to start a fight with a stronger opponent.

It was greatly distressed, but when she spoke to it clearly, it took her only a little while to explain everything.


Later, the flying ship flew over. She waved from the back of her steed and brandished her weapon. In her mind she felt the anticipated pulse of their spieking, now uttered in no dreamspace but in the dim daylight, many-voiced, puzzled, but with something behind the puzzlement she was astonished to identify as joy.

Where are you going now?

"I am going nowhere. The machine carries me. I am doing nothing." She hugged herself with bitter glee.

Then we follow you and the manshonyagger, back into the Twilight.

"Why?"

Later we will tell you. But now, what are your plans? Why do you not wish to enter the Redoubt? Where will you go?

"Back to my home. My true home, which I love. As I have told you many many times. I do not want to go to your Redoubt, or I do not want to go alone."

You will die Out here.

"I will fight out here. I will go back to Uthwer. I can kill them. I do not think I will be ensnared by their Love now I have spoken to you. I understand Love now."

We cannot descend.

"You can do everything you can, and fight in every way possible. I beg you. In any case I have resolved my mind. There is no way to the Redoubt for me until my people are free."

We cannot risk one of the Flying Ships.

"Then watch one woman fight a nation."

You talk of Love, but consider. Maybe you are still enslaved by the Pseftikosagape, and it is their implanted commands that are drawing you back, with us also?

"I do not think so. I think they have no power over me any longer. If I am wrong, I will find out." She paused. Her hands traced the manshonyagger's metal seams. "Many have been carried back this way, rejected by your perfection. Think of them now, and be humbled. I go of my own free will. Tell me, has any one ever done this before? Rejected your paradise without being tested?"

Not in three long lives of men. All crave honey and safety.

"So I am a new thing in this ancient world. Come with me and fight, and win. Then we will return here again, or some of us will, and enter your Redoubt, as victors over the Land. And you may even decide to give my deliverer a place in your new world."

How wise you are, daughter. Very well.

"'Very well?' And you call me wise, and daughter? No more condescension and mercy to the poor fugitive from the Twilight?"

What point? Our path is set. We will help you. You think us cowards, but now you will learn something.

She was astonished. It was too much to accept at once. "I cannot compel you. Go back to your tower in the sky. This is my fight."

No. We come and fight with you.

"This is my fight."

This is your fight because this is your Love. You are willing to give up paradise for the sake of your folk. And you think we shall be unmoved?

"What if I am judged unfit to enter the Redoubt?"

Judgement has been passed. The test is over. This was the test.

Did you think, child, that you would face some board of greybeards sitting in a room? The test was here, on the road, before the gate. You were not told its nature, but yes, you are the first, the first in many generations, to pass it, for you were willing to return to Hel out of concern for your own people.

We winnow the seed of humanity to start the Second History of the World. Who shall be the fathers and the mothers? You shall be among them, among us.

The manshonyagger stopped. The woman fell off, staggered to her knees, and raised a tear-wet face to the sky.

"You will help me?"

We will slay all your enemies. But nothing we can do will ultimately save Uthwer or any of the remnant of True humans Out here in the Twilight. You must leave them and come back to us. But because of you they will have a few generations longer to live, until some other group of abhumans overwhelms them, and in that time some may win their way to us, even as you did.

"Yes. That is fair." She stood in silence, and at last made to remount. The manshonyagger paced on for a while, then raised one head and hooted at the flying machine. She laughed.

Why do you laugh, daughter?

"Because I think they are in love."

Love? They are machines!

"Call it that. We love even our machines. I told you."

It is not possible! You are drunk with joy.

"So you tell me what is happening." The manshonyagger and the flying ship were beaming pulses of red light at each other. "When machines grow this old and have spent this long in the world, they are as chaotic and unstructured as people. Surely they have learnt the real tricks of survival. Maybe it is not love but it is surely some alliance that is like love. Yes. I am drunk. Try. See if she will return to your Redoubt, now she is no longer obedient."

I shall command the pilot to try. The flying machine swerved wide and curved back towards the Last Light. It swam back and forth, hunting for a destination, trying to shake free of a governing will. She is reluctant. Autonomous impulses are powerful.

"She is old too. And maybe we are just old old old machines ourselves, very old, us True Humans. Love. It does not matter what you call it. You need not worry, I will not let him hurt her."

Nothing will hurt her. Nothing will hurt you. Where you go, now and forever, goes the power of the Redoubt.

"I will enter your tower after all—one day."

One day.


There was a new noise, instinct with power, filling the land.

She looked back, something she had sworn to herself never to do. The shining tower was aflame. Runes of salutation streamed across its surfaces. Lights and flares lit the high air around it, and its weapons flashed in triumph. The darkness cowered away. Behind the slim arc of the small flying ship were greater shapes, descending from the heights of the Redoubt, burdening the air, terrible and sure, following her and the manshonyagger back into the Twilight.


© 2008 by Andy Robertson.
Image © 2015 by Kate Coady.