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

Salvage (Part 6)

by

To Salvage (Part 1)

To Salvage (Part 5)

The landscape that greeted the survivors after the initial disaster was unrecognisable. A great curved berm of cooling lava marked where the engines' sheath field had protected the city from the worst, but only the worst, effects. It loomed before them like a crusted black wave, vapours still rising from cracks which in their very depths showed the glow of fire. The city's mirrors were all shattered and torn from their mounts; whole towers were toppled, including the Palatine, and the hippochalkoi were all wrecked, save a few in the final echelon. It would take at least an orbit to get them all operational again, longer still to ensure their reliability. In the meantime, night would deepen over Aeiphanes, freezing it solid. Beyond the berm, the Road and all its milestones were scoured almost entirely away. The starport itself was indistinguishable from the rest of the ravaged lands, and needless to say the Castle had vanished entirely.

In addition to the mechanical damage, thousands of people had been killed, not only depleting the population of the city by a significant fraction but also decimating its administrative structure. Most of those who died had been in the upper, most exposed levels. Co-ordinated by a hasty alliance of the Heliomancers and Monstruwacans, the skilled and able were charged to compile an accurate catalogue of the city's surviving assets and to turn their labour to the priorities of survival.

As a member of one of the teams scavenging the new twisted and torn landscape, Io felt like an insect crawling through a pile of sodden, mildewed rags. Carpets of vegetation had been torn back here like a peeled skin, the thickly woven root systems still binding the soil in great soggy and ragged sheets. Water pooled in folds and hollows caused the sheets to bulge and split, releasing sudden cascades to tear away at the ash and mud and swell the streams that knitted themselves into a churning flood that spanned the plains. From everywhere came the smell of wet ashes and rot.

The ground squelched and bubbled under her feet, sinking disturbingly with each step, and the rain was turning to filthy sleet that splattered against her protective mask. She wiped her goggles as clear as she could and looked down at the mush in which she stood. Life was reappearing, mean as it was. Bacteria had already been at work breaking down the corpses and shredded plants, turning them into a rich mulch, and fungi were now sprouting in profusion: velvety pelts, blind caps, vibrantly coloured and faintly luminescent frills and flanges.

It was a sign of the first stages of recovery, the scaffolding and foundations of the biosphere made visible, but it was a sickly beauty, a loveliness built on death. She kicked a few over, stamping their insubstantial white flesh into the mud.

About her, the snowflakes fell on the earth and did not melt. Here and there a few flakes seemed to shine more than the others. The little blue-green stars were more bioluminescent life, hidden in caves now in the open, unable to sense the difference.

There were other things too, not yet seen by her, but reported. Things brought down with the missile, stirring like wind eddies in the dust, barely visible yet, but gathering...

She remembered the Sideromancer's reports on such things. There was, she thought, an historical clock ticking away, even after the sun had stopped, and its horai were marked by omens.

The team leader, called and pointed his handheld spotlight at their goal, a dead landwhale that stretched like a ridgeline before them. The carcass of the mountainous gestalt beast would be a valuable supply of meat and oil. The Puppet Master had been distinctly squeamish at the prospect of eating whale meat when he had heard of the expedition. "My people kill for defence — we never let ourselves consider the eating of meat routinely necessary," he had objected priggishly. His Companion had guffawed at this. Io, who had never had much interest in food except as fuel, thought that it was no more or less disgusting than any other meal. She did, however, dislike intensely the thought of such a magnificent, complex being reduced to a mere resource.

There were even less savoury tasks. Expeditors recruited from the few surviving members of the community of farmers and Salveurs were ordered to take their vehicles out and to search for the ruins of other cities. They were not to offer salves or supplies, but to take these — by force if necessary. If they found survivors, they were to rescue only those whose skills were on the index of the essential. These they were to bring back to Aeiphanes. No others were to be saved. Meanwhile in the city, ruthless economies of triage were instituted. A savant might be fed, but if he was old and he had written a book and there was another to read that book, then he was to starve, no matter how famous he might be.

Miraculously, there had been survivors found in the ruins of other cities, eking out an existence on stored supplies and their own hastily contrived taps of the Earth Current. Surprised by the relatively more organised forces of Aeiphanes, they had capitulated eagerly, hoping to receive aid, and been brutally disappointed by subsequent events.

These raids had served as warnings to the citizens of Aeiphanes to make themselves indispensable. Io, whose citizenship was marginal at best, had managed to be sponsored by Medeis as a specialist on biological matters. This meant, to her profoundly mixed reaction, that she was to accompany parties whose essential purpose was to consider any surviving animal and plant life as either a threat or a resource, hence the examination of the whale.

News from further afield was even more disheartening, though it contained elements of the hope that the Puppet Master had proffered. Scout cars had been driven into the far West to find the sun and after an uncertain time the dying star finally let sliver-thin shafts of light through the clouds to fall tentatively upon the land there. The Heliomancers raised their sextants and learned that it now stood still; the slow rotation of the earth had been ended once and for all. Unable to believe this, they took their measurements again and again and seized upon the tiniest of discrepancies.

The sun did move, they found... and it did not. The earth's own great orbit was now elongated, the apparent movement was libation keyed to the cycles of perihelion and aphelion. One half of the earth would lie in perpetual darkness, another in light... and that light would continue to ebb.

They found too that the site where the missile had fallen was hidden behind fresh mountains and cliffs many leagues high where whole segments of the earth's crust had been torn up and brought crashing down upon each other.

Touching these walls, they counted thousands of layers, and in those layers, the bones of incomprehensible creatures not seen for aeons. Among those traces they also found the remains of men and of roads lesser and greater than their own. It was the library of forgotten geological time. Io, as ever, was fascinated by news of fossils and urged efforts to correlate them with the histories and bestiaries in the library, but there was neither time nor resources available. There were other priorities.

Between split volumes, the navigators had found a route into a valley of immeasurable extent and depth, eerily lit from beneath by scores of volcanic eruptions. They fled back then to Aeiphanes and laid plans for the last progress to the sunlit land that they guessed lay beyond.

The precipice was where Io wanted to be, if not for the fossils, then because it was far, far away from this grim trudge. She looked up at the circle of light splashed against the cliff face of the dead whale's hide and groaned. Already it was beginning to rot, and within its corruption, there was something even more vile: threaded through its liquefying flesh were glassy black fractals, as if some cybernetic plague had infected it and was slowly transforming it into something else.


There seemed to be little more cause for consolation within Aeiphanes. Messages filtered down from what remained of on high: the cause of the halt of the city was indeed sabotage, the surviving Stress Masters had proven. Moreover, they found inside the control and relay mill of the Extravagant a single red hair. There was only one citizen who had hair of that colour. The Monstruwacans counseled mercy, for if the sabotage had not occurred, the city would have been far ahead along the road and therefore almost certainly destroyed in its entirety. True enough, the Judge-major conceded, but punishments existed to instruct and to warn as much as they did to punish. The saboteur may have saved the city, but could it be proven that that was their intention? What too of the example that must be set? One day another saboteur would believe that they too had an extenuating cause...

In reality, it was a power play. The distinguishing power of any ruling authority is the ability to control life and death, and this had to be demonstrated to confirm the authority of the Heliomancers.

The Puppet Master's private response to this was glib: "We will definitely have to make you indispensable," he quipped, but she knew him well enough to see the dread that he concealed. It was his Companion who came to the fore in this plan. The woman had found armour of the sort the Sideromancer would wear when he walked the outer walls of his Castle or the deadly trails of the murdered worlds. She was checking the various contacts and ports of the complicated suit of devices maintain its integrity with obvious familiarity.

"Observe! You or your companions would have to wear this when going outside for a while." She made a few basic moves and passes. The armour emitted a faint hum until she adjusted a sliding scale and silenced it. When that was done, she stretched out her hand and regarded it through the lenses of her helm, flexing her fingers. Already a massive presence, this wearable machine had made her a monster. "Aha! Pass my diskos," she instructed, holding out her open hand.

Io looked around, wondering what she meant.

"There, that!" She pointed.

The thing was nothing she had seen before. It consisted of a long, subtly double-curved shaft, a grip knurled to take gauntleted fingers. At its far terminus, it crooked to meet the axis of a flat disc wider than both her spread hands. It was a sharp, cutting blade. She drew back as if the sight burned her eyes.

"What's wrong?" the Companion asked.

"Me, I've been...they made sure that I wouldn't..." She began to tremble.

The Companion suddenly shed her martial aspect and stepped over to Io, wordlessly enveloping her with an incongruous tenderness in her metal arms. Io came barely up to the woman's solar plexus; she felt like a child. The suit's ventral plating was warm as skin.

"Look again," the woman said after a while. "Look again. It is art. Look at it and touch it."

Io tried to press herself into the woman's breast, but the metal was unyielding. She put her gauntlets on Io's shoulders and forced her to turn to face the thing. It glittered and shone as if it was a source of light in itself. There was the naked edge of the blade revealed by the retracted segments of the sheath, the sharpness that seemed to prick her retinas... Her eyes watered and she blinked. The very sight of the thing was painful. It's conditioning, she told herself. It's reflex, only a reflex. Pain. You're used to pain. Pain comes in all varieties, this pain you can understand, encircle, shut away...

"See it, take hold of it."

Io forced her eyes to focus, tried to assemble the extreme sensations of the sight of it into a pattern, and in the pattern of its overall shape, to see the patterns engraved upon it. She saw then that it was beautifully engraved with images of armoured figures fighting grotesque and abhuman beings and still stranger monsters beyond her ability to describe. It was strange how elegant the depicted battles seemed — almost like a dance.

It caught her then, dragging her across the barrier of aversion.

She looked more closely. Looming over the dancer-fighters was something clearly important to the artist, a tall spire seen in many aspects. It was shaped like a milestone but clearly of an incomparably greater scale. "What is that?" she asked, touching the metal with a fingertip and drawing away again. It had been as warm as the woman's armour, as warm as something living.

"Home. The Unmovable and Inviolable Redoubt."

"It looks like a milestone."

"So it is — the last milestone. Now, pick it up and give it to me."

Io didn't want to, but she wasn't going to be forced. She reached out, brushing the handle. It tingled, like the wiring of a generator. Her fingers twitched and contracted. Carefully, she opened her fist, and before the reaction could occur again, clutched the handle. This time there was no shock. It fitted neatly to her hand, as neatly as if there had been some other conditioning in another time...

"Good, now pick it up."

The 'diskos' was surprisingly light. The woman took it, laughing and balanced it on her palm, the motors of her armour whining like a horde of mosquitoes. "Watch!" She took the grip and held the weapon aloft. The blade spun with a roar and blazed with a corona of blue light, turning the room into a blast of glare and ink-deep shadows. "Ha!" She mimed battle, flinging the thing around in flashing arcs and booming echoes.

Io cowered. It was not merely the explosive power that she feared, but the terrible relish that this warrior had in its exercise. This she must overcome, she reminded herself. This is normal to these people and you must accept it. The thought gave her an obscure thrill that confused her.

The Puppet Master appeared, applauding ironically. "So, you are Mira today. Don't forget that flames attract moths before it kills them and that you were the only one armed and armoured."

The woman, 'Mira', sighed exaggeratedly, compacted the diskos and hitched it to her hip. "They are already coming," she countered.

Io switched her head from side to side. "What were you talking about?" she demanded.

The man laid his hand on her shoulder. "The Eaters. Their Ulterior father-forces sent the thunderbolt to split the earth, and—"

"The Sideromancer, he saw—"

"Yes."

"Here, on earth, now?"

"Yes."

And then she wished that the fugue that took her to the flying Castle would take her further into the past, further away. She trembled and expected to sink to the floor, but the here-it-comes did not rise to cover her.

Outside, the winds began to beat at the barricades of broken cars.

And the Companion danced and flashed, overcome, it seemed, with nothing more than joy.


To Salvage (Part 7)

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