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

Salvage (Part 1)


Bristle-backed Aeiphanes crept on a thousand wheels though the twilight of a million years. In the West, the whole sky was heated to a rich red glow, and in the centre, its side touching but not quite crossing the horizon was the coppery disc of the sun. Snowflakes caught its light and became dancing splinters of gold and ruby.

Io squinted and shaded her eyes. There, at the very head of the city, the sunlight flashed from the gilded carapace of the champion hippochalkon, the Amphisbaena clan's Extravagant, and ranked almost aside him, shone the scarlet enamelled shell of the house Gault's Manticore. For twelve orbits these mighty engines had earned their lead, not faltering, not letting any other but themselves win the vanguard.

Ranked behind the two contesting leaders were the second echelon of engines: Exact, Ardent, Serene, Phonax, Stentor and a dozen more in an echelon a league broad. Trailing these there was a third rank, and yet another, each hippochalkon bearing its clan pennant and a boastful name. All strained in concert, the rumble of their wheels and their engines combined in a sound so rich in its interwoven layers that it was almost a quality of the air itself. Behind her reflected light splashed off the lenses of the Heliomancers' emplacements and the great mirrors that topped the public shafts, making it seem as if the whole atmosphere had been transformed into one great sea of illumination. It was such a beautiful vista.

The sun had been setting for an aeon now and the city had been following it for almost as long and it would never, ever catch up. Nor would it need to; following the great road, it was enough to keep the sun in sight, and while this was a mighty effort, it did not require a mighty speed. According to the most ancient records, the rotation of the earth once matched the natural human sleeping cycle but now it was more than three thousand times that, and becoming slower second by second each year. The Heliomancers had also measured a decline in the quantity and quality of radiance emitted: at a certain point the sun would stand still in the sky and the city would stop, but by then it would be black and cold and the earth would be still colder.

Io shivered and pulled the collar of her jacket tighter. From forward there came the muted roar of a returning harvest convoys, bringing back the produce of the seeds that had been sown over the stern on the last circuit of the earth. The fleet of vehicles went before the city and sowed the whole Western land before harvesting their crops and, as night advanced, drew themselves back onto the great road and into the fore ramps of the city. Even at this distance and in the glare of the sunset, she could tell that not all were heaped full of produce. The ration clocks would be counting thin slices of sustenance for another year.

Speaking of clocks...she consulted her pocket chronometer. It would be happening soon; would she stay to watch? After her conditioning, she had less of a stomach for blood than most. She drummed her fingers on her knee, took a sip from her flask. Where else was there to go today?, she asked herself and hoped that it wasn't morbidity that kept her here.

On the foremost decks of the foremost cars, thousands had gathered to peer through smoked lenses at the eternal sunset before them. Silhouetted against the faltering but still painful blaze and the glittering backs of the tenscore hippochalkoi that pulled the city through its unending orbit of the earth, the Judge-major of the Stress Masters stood on an articulated platform extended from the prow of his order's first car. She could barely see that the Judge-major had worn black over his uniform grey, indicating already the sentence that he would pronounce.

At his feet, there was a bundle.

She did not like the hot mood that she felt, rising from the mass of people along with the foggy plumes of their breath. This hora, she imagined, the Stress Masters were particularly stern, and the drivers were particularly careful in their management of their engine's guidance mills. Although the Stress Masters' algorithms ensured a stable and constant effect of effort from the chained fleet, there was an ongoing competition that would rise from time to time to acts of outright sabotage.

As it had now.

There were dreadful penalties for such a thing, but nevertheless, some desperate soul would convince himself that in order to gain an increment of advance for his clan, he would act to embarrass a rival, and sometimes if he was a fool, he would be condemned for endangering the advance of the whole city.

A shaft of golden light fell upon the Judge-major's platform, cast by a mirror high up on the Heliomancer's Palatine Tower. "Witness!" he cried, his voice thin but penetrating. "Our deliberations were concluded. I, in the name of my order, under the reflection of the spire of our Navigators, make this declaration.

"One formerly known as Entomo of Kalche, now nameless, that most low traitor and saboteur, has brought shame upon his former house by attempting to impede the progress of the engine, Excellent, pride of the clan Aexo! Furthermore, he most vilely tried to attribute sponsorship for his act to a third party, thus further compounding his evil! It is for these crimes, these most uncivil crimes that threaten to both stall the progress of the city of Aeiphanes in its orbit and to sow discord amongst the driving houses, that he is to executed on this hora! Bear witness all!"

A roar rose from the crowd and as it died, the Judge-major spoke again. In the sky, the lammergeiers were gathering and their human equivalents were already feeding on the anticipation of blood.

"Witness! The sponsoring house of Kalche is to be handicapped! In making necessary the just punishment of the decommissioning of their foremost hippochalkon, Illustrious, they are to endure the opprobrium of all. Their dormitory and mercantile cars are to be transferred to the rearmost position of the city. Hated by all, their scions may contemplate the advancing darkness and consider the fate that all of us fear! Bear witness all!"

Again, there was an angry roar from the throats of all assembled. Io fancied that she felt through her feet the vibration of thousands more who could not leave their posts screaming in rage from inside their cars.

Once more the Judge-major pronounced, but this time it was to the huddled, naked figure tied at his feet. "Witness, nameless one, witness! In seeking to hobble the rivals of your former house, you had shamed those who were your blood. There is no place for the nameless and unhoused in this city and accordingly, in small and inadequate recompense, the Master of House Kalche will enforce justice. As you have lied, you shall be silenced by the splitting of your tongue. As you have sought to break the limbs of Aeiphanes, your limbs shall be broken. As you have sought to let the darkness overtake her, your eyes shall be put out shall no longer receive the divine light of the sun. You will be left still alive on the road, unmoving and unseeing while the darkness advances and the ice claws at you. You will lie blind and motionless in your own filth while your own orphan blood freezes in your veins, and when Aeiphanes comes upon your remains in the next orbit, they will be crushed beneath her wheels unnoticed, for you are not and you never were. Witness—and witness no more!"

It was then that the Master of Kalche in his dual costume of lictor and penitent stepped forward and performs the first of his duties. The man's screams become a horrible gargle, followed by a muffled thump as he was dumped over the side. Squalling carrion birds begin to contest for places in the feeding queue as they spiralled down. Shading her eyes, Io was able to see an immense azhdarcho gliding from the West, the sun shining through its membranous wings. The lammergeiers, it seemed, would have to eat fast.

She did not remain to see the rest and went clambering across the tangled superstructure of the city to find some less gruesome spectacle. Soon enough she found a conjunction of supports with a good view of the East and uncapped her flask and took measured sips of spirits while she waited for the Stress Masters to get to work. In the following horai when they unhitched and relocated the suburbs of Kalche and the various components of Aeiphanes remade their map, she tried not to think. On the verge of majority, she was only two orbits old at this time, but already she understood all that had caused this man's desperation and the still greater desperation of his executioners. She too was clanless and unattributed. Her tag was Io, but that was half a name; Foundling Io was the entry that was written in the census, meaning that she was no-one. Since the obscure circumstance of her birth, she had never been adopted into any clan, and so it was Io, plain strange Io, she remained. The Monstruwacans took good care of her, put her to work as one of their librarians. There was more treasure for her to savour in their books than she ever thought that she would find as a scion of a major house and usually, that was enough for her. Events such as this execution reminded her though of just how precarious her existence was. Majority was going to present a dilemma for her sponsors...

The girder on which she was perched shook under her, as if a gust of wind had caught it. There was no gust. It, the affliction, was happening now.

The seizures were even more terrifying than orgasms. It was the absolute certainty that once the first intimations began, the sequence could not be stopped and would only intensify and that she was condemned to experience it in all its overwhelming power that enraged her and made her sick and terrified at once. It started with the scent of roses and a whispering somewhere behind her, then the whispering became a tinny, wordless chant that became irritatingly repetitious and more and more penetrating. Underlying that there was an intense feeling that everything she was seeing, she had seen before somewhere, though she could not tell where or when. In the final stage of the beginning, when the fit swallowed her whole, the world seemed at once to loose focus and to become too loud before imploding upon itself. Her very knowledge of who she was would be eroded away by the onslaught of strange sensations and inexplicable new memories. Her guardians, if they were near, would find her twitching and frothing and carry her back to be nursed back into her normal self-awareness. Sometimes it took diphae, and in that time she would thrash and sweat in her cot, cry out and soil herself to finally come to, exhausted and chaffed with blood in her mouth and aching where she had pulled muscles.

Always, every time, she would lie there, knowing too well what she had experienced. There would be almost nothing that she could understand, except that she fought terrible battles with monsters she could not describe. It was always it was the same and always it was drenched with the same sick fear.

She called it the here-it-comes.

It was happening now, and she groaned through clenched jaws. Not now! No! It was no use. Step by step it mounted, blasting the pillars of her identity until her mind collapsed into pure, uncomprehending terror, while the nonsensical chant became louder and louder, like a sandstorm eroding the very contours of her identity. The here-it-comes swept her away and threw her hard against the wall of the Castle.

Dreams are the magical tyrants of unconsciousness. Fanciful and fanatical, within their span they will prescribe every acquiescent thought. The dreamer will see a butterfly and know with utter certainty that it is a terrible threat, or they will see the face of a stranger and have known them for a lifetime. Event, knowledge and belief are all mixed as one.

This is what the dreamer believed: there was a man and his duty was to be the Sideromancer. He measured the stars and deduced facts from their appearance, he listened to the voices that called from the planets.

Here was his world: Ahead, above, fore, a ring of stars turned blue and each was a precise, hard point. Behind, below, aft, a black sea of infinite depth, the horizon edged with embers, far away. Suspended between the two was his Castle, Lachesis, built in the shape of a necklace and slowly turning like a clock. Set within the centre of the necklace, made of magnetism and the thin winds of space, was something vast and tall and strangely indistinct. It might have been an attenuated flower, stretched so long and high that it was merely a misty image of itself, but this frail-seeming stream was the great propulsive reaction that had driven the Castle constantly for centuries.

Watching, measuring and acting when he could, the Sideromancer's task was that of a spider, to make a web, to tend it, to keep it strong and integral. There was an empire, or hope of an empire as much as there could be an empire of stars. There were a thousand suns with planets inhabited by human beings. Once, long ago when people lived on one world, kings built castles in their conquered lands. Now the sky was too vast for castles that stood still, so they flew from world to world, passing by each once every thousand years to raise their flags and impose order. In return for fealty, the castles traded assurance; paladins such as himself raised their armaments over the subject worlds, but in honour of their imperial law, they averted their aim from human beings and used them to battle the common enemy of all, the Eaters of Light.

Let the daughter worlds of earth lay down their burdens of solitude, let us take up their burdens of fear and of justice, the Sideromancers swore.

And they were admired.

And they were losing.

Sorrowing, he stood on the enclosed battlements of the Castle and put his eye to a weird sextant to measure the angle of the horizon. It was not easy, because there was no distinct line between the blackness of the sky and the blackness of the sea, merely a region were the few stars there became too red and too dim to see. Nonetheless, he made his measurements and compared them with readings from other devices: a pendulum, a clock, a calculator mill. The results gave him no comfort. He and his companions expected the sky to draw itself into a tight halo about the misty rose, but the rising blackness was not the sea and the stars ahead were not as bright or as blue as a sky should be.

The Eaters of Light were more, far more than had been predicted.

Io realised that she had come to herself again. She was lying in her familiar hospital cot, naked under felt blankets. Her tender parts felt raw and she smelled soap, and underneath it, the faint hint of stale sweat and urine. Her temples throbbed, there was the taste of something horrible in her mouth and a leaden pain was pounding at her wrist. It had been bad this time, wounding her body, sapping her psyche and pneuma. She sighed and threw her arm across her face and felt splinted bandages against her brow. Wires trailed from them.

Eventually someone came, Medeis. He had brought her old entekora and he tossed it to her. She was too old for dolls, but the familiarity of the toy was a consolation. She played with it absentmindedly as they spoke, turning it inside-out over and over again so that it showed first one face and then another.

"You fell," he said. "If you hadn't been caught, you'd had fallen off the car altogether."

"I almost wish that I had," she muttered.

The Monstruwacan physician put his finger to her lips. "Quiet. If your affliction got better or worse and if there was a therefore a pattern, the cause could be divined and by interfering with that cause, we might..."

She jerked her head to one side and stared pointedly at the gleaming black cylinder that occupied the other half of the room. This was the sign of his most obvious failure: the hypothermic sarcophagus had been rescued from the ruined Castle many years ago and through all the years since, the pinpoint telltales that clustered the bundle of conduits at its flanged crown had shone unchanging red and amber for a chiliad. Despite the best efforts of various technicians and doctors at revival, the passenger cradled within still hung in stasis between death and sleep

The gibe saddened him, but did not dissuade him from his own attempt at persuasion. "There was a difference, Io. Despite your link with...despite the suggestive coincidence of your fits beginning after your first visit to the grounded Sky-Castle and declining thereafter..."  He paused, then recovered his thread: "And because we now see a repeat of the pattern in your seizures that proves that they are related to the specific location..."

"So they will get worse."

He shrugged. "I brought you into this world, Io. You were all lurid hair and knees and elbows even then. Nobody thought that you would live, nobody thought that my experiments with the earth current would be beneficial. In the last orbit, when you were still small, the seizures came and nobody thought that you would live through them. It appears that nobody was right. Call me Nobody, Io."

"Nobody," she acknowledged with a weary smile and relaxed a little. It was an old, familiar joke. It had never been very funny, but they both knew that the point was the familiarity and reassurance of a long bond, not wit. She would try to hurt him sometimes, make him feel her pain, but he was the one person whom she could never disappoint without feeling real shame.

The wrist healed quickly under the application of the earth current over the following diphae, but the dull pain was monotonous and worse, it itched furiously under the bandage and she was unable to scratch it. She shambled around with her arms folded and her hand tucked protectively in her armpit. She surreptitiously rubbed at it, but it was no use; while the healing was speeded, it could not yet be completed.

In the meantime, every whiff of perfume, every stumble, every hypnic jerk on the edge of sleep in her bed seemed like the first touch of her daemon possessor. Waiting for the attacks to come, she stayed awake late into hesperophaos reading. As a librarian of the Monstruwacans, she had some necessary privileges and some of what she read was knowledge never to be shared and it served to distract her. In the dim blue light of hesperophaos, with her bedding wrapped like a cocoon about her and the heavy books propped on the peaks of her bony knees, she ran her fingers down the pages, skipping and pausing here and there on particularly elaborate rubrics.

For instance, according to one file marked with the emblem of a fisher spider, the Monstruwacans had let down superconducting cables from spinnerets built into the belly of the city. With these they had spent the long circuits of the earth mapping the currents flowing through its crust. They had made the most elaborate charts and maps of veins in the earth where currents run right and powerful, nodes and concentrations. The pattern was as rich as a lavish carpet, as rich and as alive as an ocean. They had also found what they were sure were the signs of creatures that inhabited this sea of energy. They darted back and forth, gathered themselves together and followed the city itself with something like curiosity. Or so it appeared; they might simply have been following the dictates of hunger.

Over the ages, with the perspectives that only the Monstruwacans had been able to master, changes had been observed in the taxonomy and morphology of these creatures. They might be evolving, readying themselves for diversification that could involve emergence onto the surface of the earth. Then again, it was probably too soon to tell.

In any case, they marvelled at this world that was like an ocean under an ice crust and more pragmatically wondered if the stone of the earth's surface might be split to let loose this secret energy. Perhaps it might be tapped; perhaps if they had this blue light coursing through the mirrored shafts and conductive passages of the city, they might stop their endless procession and live well without the sun. This was of course heresy to the sun-scryers and therefore one of the hermetic secrets of the Monstruwacan order.

Another document seemed much drier, being a compilation of reports from the archaeologists of the Salvage Corps. Still, it recalled the glories of earth's old empire and the wonders of thousands of worlds. Io scratched her head, pursed her lips and made the exaggerated frown that indicated her own interest. Reading as she had read more times than she could count, she heard her earnest inner voice telling her that there was a time when the castles of humanity flew far across the stars, making great tours of the galaxy as the cities now crept their mean way around the earth. They were weavers, these castles; they knitted the empire with law and knowledge, planting colonies, returning centuries later to trim them as needs dictated, bringing back their splendid novelties. The scholars of the Salvage Corps eventually founded the Monstruwacans, who became the supreme analysts of alien cultures—and how alien some were! It was hard to told if they were borne of human flesh adapted to new environments or arose from separate geneses even further away.

Further or farther? The grammatical appropriateness of one or the other had never been quite clear to her. She brushed a strand of hair from her face and tapped the corner of the book in an economical gesture to brighten the luminous text so that she could read more easily.

Under the emblem of a snowflake, she saw a drawing of a creature with four limbs that might once have been a man, though it had no visible head and each limb divided in two, and then four and then eight and sixteen until it did indeed look like a rosette of ice crystals. The book told her that this being's eyes were individually very simple, mere slivers of calcite, but it had thousands spangled throughout its body and its extremities so that sight and touch were virtually the same thing.

Then there were intelligences that existed entirely in the medium of language, humming in the cilia of tiny glow-worms that were themselves unintelligent. Every silence was a death and yet they were resurrected when the worms gathered and began to buzz and shine again. In theory, they could be brought to life on earth through programmed musical instruments that could iterate variations from basic algorithms.

And there was another musical race, self-replicating machines that flew and communicated by song. They called themselves the So-la-si. Explorers called them beautiful and wished that they could be transformed into their kind.

And there were beings that had no eyes and communicated entirely by scents and traces. They did not take seriously the idea that anyone could be said to be absent when their smell remained. Everything for them was constantly changing as new scent trails were laid, but nothing was ever quite gone either...

No-one outside of the order knew of these files, for fear that knowledge of how much their circumstances were reduced might provoke revolt among the masses. That was too much for Io to care about herself just now; she read purely for pleasure. Secrets were always thrilling and she forgot to worry for as long as she read. The ten horai of hesperophaos passed beyond her awareness until she woke with the book lying across her stomach and her arm hanging to the floor. She rubbed her stiff neck, bathed and worked and returned and read again.

The diphae passed at their constant pace. Beyond her cubby, time and space were segmented as neatly as the horai on a clock dial as Aeiphanes passed marker obelisks. The grey metal spires were for the most part unmarked, saving their standard inscriptions of longitude, but those numbers in themselves were as sinister as a countdown to her, and some were capped with bright electrum now to indicate the proximity of the festive field. If this was the place that caused her fits, then the nearer she approached, the worse they would become. It had been no exaggeration when she told Medeis that she'd rather have fallen from the city altogether.

Inevitably, the clock began to strike more often as the long diphae ended. Instead of tinkling bells, it rang the changes with the smell of roses and the incoherent chanting that almost sounded like the taunts of her childhood: "Copper hair! Copper hair!"  Sometimes the chant was different—"stick legs" or "green eyes" were also recurring themes. She knew that the words of the chant were an auditory illusion, but that hardly altered their cause or effect. They were just an added reminder that she was too visibly different to the other people of this city. And that difference was mattering more than it did when she was a child.

As Medeis said, she needed to love more than nobody, but how could that happen? She was less able these diphae to say that she didn't need it and that was one more reason to hate her disease and by extension, herself.

Medeis had a line for that too: "Nobody loves you, someone has to."

That had become much less amusing to her for half an orbit now.

To be out and about, as much as she could be, was refreshing as it always was after her periods of invalidism, though also the exposure was frustrating. Her flesh was healed, but her flesh wanted. Io lacked neither desire nor initiative, but there was something missing. Was it something that had been forced out by her seizures, as if her brain was a bookcase with limited room? She hoped not. Though she had never been in love, it was something she was sure she wanted to experience and she was sceptical when her friends said that there was more said than done in its realisation. She wasn't even sure about synduazo, which was, as far as she could gather, a combination of ambiguous proof of something or other and a sort of score in an endless game. Reading between the lines, she suspected that the former was truer, and needed to be covered by the cynicism of the latter because of the vulnerability that it entailed. A few fumbling approaches, baited with her own novelty, had left her sore, disappointed and faintly greasy. According to much of literature, synduazo was the ultimate, or was at least the reflection of the ultimate as inexpertly practiced on earth. Comparing her experience and the ideal, she was forced to conclude there was something missing from her sensibility after all.

It did not help at all to discover after her sexual experiments that she had gained a 'reputation'. She understood then why the matter of keeping score was such an important matter. One must either refrain from playing altogether or aim for the extreme, which actually incited her disgust. Fortunately memories were short and while she was dismissed on the rounds of rumour as a loser for a while, attention always gravitated towards the supposed winner and their rival and she was thankfully left alone.

In the long run, seeing it as a game, she saw a few who teetered on the boundary between girl and woman and gambled far too much. Their falls were spectacular and terrifying and their returns to the 'game' were as dreadful as the slow, inexorable crash of a city she had seen once in a parallel enklima to the North.

To some degree then, she was thankful for her solitude. This was she realised, her natural inclination. Or at least, solitude was not so much a desert as a safe harbour. This was a simile that someone less well read than her might not appreciate.

Nonetheless, at the edges of hesperophaos, desire taunted her. Her nerves and glands constituted a system of triggers that she could release at will as palliatives and the resulting explosions sufficed until the next dimming of the lights. If it was a sort of warm serenity she desired, then a comfortable aerie, a vista and a flask of spirits would bring her to stability. All in all, these things were controllable. She could not stand the awkwardness of love, let alone the more severe wounds that she saw resulting from it.

Neither did she care much for her angular, attenuated body. It was better if no-one saw it and commented on it. Human beings were such graceless things, and when quadruped, degraded as animals, but without their accustomed poise.

Still...the questions came every time she stood at the portals of sleep and kept her back. The very fact that they came again and again was too significant to dismiss with what the dictionary called anaphlasma (nominative) or tribia, kataibata and any number of odd similes. Obviously her fascination with dictionary definitions for what was a very simple, private and somewhat messy action was symptomatic also. The very fact that so many writers had devoted so much energy to thinking of oblique names for it testified to their own unease and compulsion as well. At least she was not alone in that.

The library's store of information on love, which she had previously thought to be euphemy might after all have been a guide...but ultimately, when it came to fulfilment, she came up against the same walls, the same oafish fumbling and insensitivity. She dared not invest and remained, ultimately, a watcher too well aware now of the impossibility—it seemed—of fulfilment.

Self-pity then, a talent well practiced after her seizures began, provided a comfortable wallow.

Medeis of course observed her too, and understood from his own years of experience. "A man will destroy," he told her. "A woman will destroy...herself."

Not long after that she took his advice too literally and found herself in front of a mirror, with a blade in one hand and a row of very neat, shallow, parallel incisions down one forearm while skeins of blood patterned her skin like wet lace and dripped with perfect regularity from her hanging forefinger. She was astonished as much as anything by the fact that it seemed so precise and methodical when she was barely even conscious of doing it. Despite this paradox, the pain somehow made perfect sense because she had willed it, however obliquely.

The first time was not the last time, but she was intelligent or detached enough to observe the aesthetics of her predicament and realise that, even though it was not an attempt at self-destruction as such, there was something desperately wrong. Because of her seizures she was never far from attention and the scars were noticed. She went into the treatment room struggling, but when she emerged from the last of her sessions of aversion therapy, she was in fact relieved. If she was to wallow, and to play the part of invalid, then the seizures were certainly adequate. Gradually, she learned to fit them to the dark desire that had made her take up the knife, acquiesced to her programme of reflex-conditioning and felt thereby that if she did not have control, she did at least have the consolation of ritual and regularity.

It was funny that if a cure was found, she might not even want it...

The ruined Starport had been visible for heptahorai, close enough to see in detail for lesser horai, and was now imminently near. Io had tucked her hair into a black cap for discretion as much as warmth and made her way to one of the promenade decks of one of the starboard cars. There, she was able to take advantage of her narrow size to force her way to the fore of the crowd of thick-bundled spectators and clamber to the extremity of a cantilevered gnomon. It was slippery with ice and creaked under her slight weight, but still held.

Barely a league aft-starboard, a pod of landwhales and their retinue of noisy commensals were gathering and uttering their long, thrilling songs of mating. Sounds seemed clearer in the clear cold air of outside.

Just as she settled herself, the high voices of hydropneumatic braking machinery ascended the throats of Aeiphanes' towers, attended by a deep thrum in the deck plates; a mechanical contingency elaborated to make a mournful choir. The city began its halt. Even though the city moved more slowly than a walk, its inertia was huge and stopping was a delicate procedure. As delicate as a landwhale's copulation, no doubt.

Despite the risk of the creeping dark and the fear that, once stopped, the city might not move again, a sort of happy excitement elevated the crowd and they chattered and pointed towards the strewn complex. Every hora they had counted down and they all cheered as a new festive marker obelisk passed their vantage. Leaning just as much as she could, a hand on a strut and a heel on an ornamental curlicue, Io could almost touch their electrum caps as they passed at their slow pace.

And perhaps for the sake of risk, she tempted fate so that she might not had to deal with responsibility. Perhaps the reflex-conditioning had not been enough. Perhaps this was another form of cutting...

The odour wafted by. It might have been perfume, it might have been warning. She shook the struts supporting her, daring them to break or her fit to come.

Not yet, its absence said, but soon...

Other spectators held up lorgnettes and read the inscriptions on the tall pyramid, noting the events and lives memorialised, the measurement of the degrees from the meridian; statistics, facts, history. Others pointed at the landwhales, joking vulgarly.

She scanned the crowd herself, finding more variety and interest in faces than markers. There might be someone she had seen before in more private corners—but of course he would never acknowledge her openly in public.

Still, if she caught his eye, she might savour a sign of his discomfort...but she could not even find him. No surprise, no matter, she told herself. He was anyone and no-one, a mannequin for her imagination and no more.

In sympathy perhaps, a bull landwhale began to mount a female with slow undulations.

The barely repressed mood of celebration was infectious and she inhaled as if she drew it into her lungs like tobacco smoke and fantasised a languorous synduazo with the little puppet figures of herself and the nameless boy. It made her giggle at least.

This Anniversary festival was as special as any for a long time: there was to be an Adjustment and one more second was to be added to the leaping hora that ended this orbit. The earth's rotation was slowing more quickly than had been calculated. Already children grew almost to adulthood in one rotation and one 'day', as the old languages had it, there would be no more days. The sun would set for the last time over one half of the earth and never rise again - while on the other side, it would never set.

It was customary during such times that Aeiphanes paused awhile by the sacred ruins of a starport and let the sun slip a little below the horizon, to celebrate remembrance and to anticipate the coming eternal night. In that period of misrule, Medeis and the other Monstruwacans, those-who-see-the-omens-of-shadows, would stage their own secret observances.

A snowflake caught in her eyelashes and began to melt like a tear. She blinked and pulled her collar tighter, careful to keep her balance as she moved to a safer position. The car was shaking and suddenly the height was too much. Nonetheless, she still leaned out and watched.

Now was the pause. When the wheels had stopped at last, there was a quiet somehow more thick and dense than noise. Even the landwhales seemed muted. Suddenly, the silence was violently split as the cooling stacks uttered their shrieks and the crowd let forth its cheer.

That was the signal; officially, Aeiphanes had arrived at its place of pause. She stared across the plain; the Starport, so-called, was a paved plain bisected by the Road. A league away to starboard, like a strange fortification, lay the remains of the grounded Castle that once flew spinning between the stars. Once there was an age when earth was the nexus of an empire and maybe in a way it still was. Time slowed at the speeds needed to span the sky, so she was told without quite understanding how. Maybe more lost castles might yet land and their passengers would wake in the belief that the empire was still real. If they were real, then the empire would be too. An empire was dominion, and dominion was knowledge and knowledge was a thought and thoughts were fancies, so the litany went.

Many of the things that had been found in the Castle - such as the black sarcophagus—were kept as secrets between the allied factions of the elite, but there were loose stories of an ancient battle in deep space and a crew hidden in aestivation. Rumours made constellations of small points of fact and Io was privileged to be an astrologer of rumours. She knew half of what was true, she thought, and ached to divine the rest.

Another snowflake fell, touching her on narrow strip of bare skin between sleeve and mitten. A little point, ending a fall. A pinprick of cold.

Clanless and unattributed, she was still unique. Her own life was like a rumour and that was why she was so eager to see, and so eager to be insensate.

It came then. It rose like a wave and broke over her, broke her.

The quivering of the struts intensified and she realised that it was her hand and not the metal that shook. This was it, now. The here-it-comes. She gritted her teeth and her jaws locked. What she felt was terror, but the imposition of terror enraged her. If she had the control that had been snatched from her, she would lash out, punch through glass windows with her fists, break her knuckles against iron, but she could did none of these things. Her tongue felt swollen, she heard the sounds she made: whines and grunts, like a rutting animal in plain view of the crowd who were now turning their collective stare towards her. Someone was climbing out along the gnomon, his hand extended. She hated herself. Then she fell.

The landing was hard for one who was now like a vapour. Dazed, her viewpoint skewed and then sharpened on another view. Once again she was in the Castle.

To Salvage (Part 2)

© 2006 by Brett Davidson.
Image © 2015 by Kate Coady.