The center of the Milky Way, as seen by the Spitzer infrared space telescope, in red.

Across the Night Wall (Part 5)


To Across the Night Wall (Part 1)

To Across the Night Wall (Part 4)

Mythic’s infatuation with the Night Land drew him to the Scholars.

He haunted the Great Libraries of the Redoubt, wandering along canyons of script-laden shelves with their summits hidden in lofty gloom, and crossed soaring walkways that connected between them. Aeons of knowledge resided here, most of it long forgotten and likely unrecorded in the indexes — so many of which existed that they themselves required cataloguing. Terminals at most intersections projected lists of entries. The ghostly glows from the shimmering text filled the place with shadows.

Initially, he searched for the old stories that told of the time when a sun burned in the sky. He was interested in discovering what manner of creatures had roamed the Land of that legendary era. He intended to make comparisons with the bestiaries of the present to see if there existed a similar relation between those creatures as he’d observed between ab-humans and men. But, as the weeks became months, he realised that the challenge he had set himself would cost him a lifetime. He needed help.

One day, after coming up against another dead end, he leaned back from the glowing text, his eyes aching. He sighed. The huge mouldering chamber answered his frustration with echoes. Casting about, he listened for a clue to the recent passage of a Librarian. The reading hall was deserted, not one of the other thousands of desks occupied. Occasionally footfalls had whispered down from one of the gantries overhead, but now he was alone — had been for some time.

At his command the terminal threw up a map of the level. He traced a route to the nearest administration sector and committed it to memory. When he arrived all the rooms were empty. Retreating back into the corridor, he saw movement at the far end. He had to run to catch up with the green-robed figure. By the time he did, the lift doors were already closing and his side hurt with the memory of his old injury.

The Scholar, seeing the approaching man’s pained gait, took pity and commanded the lift door to open again. Mythic nodded gratefully and sank wincing onto the bench.

“What level do you require?” the Scholar asked pleasantly.

“None in particular. I was hoping you might help me. But I see now that you’re not a Librarian.”

“I am not, no. May I enquire what it is you need?”

So Mythic told him.

“Ah,” the Scholar said when he’d heard the request. “Quite a task you’ve set yourself. And if these writings exist, then I would not put my faith in a Librarian’s guidance. Their duty is to catalogue, but the volume of knowledge contained here is such that each is assigned a tiny fraction to work with during his lifetime. Before he dies he must pass on his work to a successor. By the time the indexes are completed, they are out of date and the whole process must begin again.”

“Then how will I ever find what I’m looking for?” said Mythic, downcast.

The Scholar, his face a mask of shadow within his cowl, said nothing further until the lift had come to rest. It was as they stepped from the platform and Mythic turned to go that he asked how Mythic came to be injured.

“This is an old wound.” Mythic recounted the event.

“Oh, then you are Mythic? I remember hearing what you did. Your name is still spoken with reverence. Did you know that?”

The former Watchman modestly acknowledged this, and tried to hide the swell of pride.

“In that case, my heroic young friend, if you will come with me to the Scholars' guild house, I might be able to introduce you to someone who may be able to help you. It’s not far, just a few levels up.”

“Thank you,” said Mythic and fell in beside him.

In the entrance chamber, the Scholar asked him to wait. He seated himself. Green-robed and hooded figures came and went. Presently two approached him. He stood to meet them.

“Please come with me,” said one of the Scholars, an older man.

“I am Loamah,” said the Scholar, as they walked. “My department is directly involved with the study of artefacts and samples brought back from the Land. As such, we have close ties with the historical department and the Monstruwacans, and our terminals have direct links into their archives. The work is interesting but time-consuming. We have a backlog of decades, and as such are always on the lookout for eager would-be Scholars to recruit. If you agree to join us you will have unlimited access and, let me assure you, our search engines are considerably more intuitive than the archaic indexes used by the Libraries.”

He paused. “Come to think of it, I do recall that I’ve chanced upon information relevant to what you’re looking for, though it was some years ago. If I had an assistant, it would lighten my load considerably and give me the opportunity to revise my notes. It shouldn’t take me long to locate the appropriate references. What do you say?”

Mythic didn’t need much time to consider the offer. “Agreed,” he said at once. Loamah showed Mythic to his workshop. Against the far wall, set out on tiered shelves, were rows of helms.

“We process the recordings made by the helms of the Long Patrols,” said Loamah. He shook his head sadly. “I should say that it’s a blessing that none go out as far as they used to. But it’s a tragedy nonetheless that the Monstuwacans find themselves compelled to send men out at all. You know of those who used to go into the Outer Land?”

“Who doesn’t?” Mythic responded automatically, as his eyes assimilated what they could of the huge workshop. He’d never seen so much equipment in one place. He had no idea what any of it might be for.

“Good. Let their legends be a lesson.”

Loamah turned and, with a sweep of his hand, indicated the large table standing in a sunken recess surrounded by machines. “There are some of the things brought back from the Land. Don’t fret, they’ve all been processed and judged untainted.” He gave Mythic a detailed tutorial. “Use the equipment as you need it. Most of it is automated and simple to operate; attach the receptor and they’ll root out what secrets there are to be found.” So saying, the Scholar turned towards the ranks of helms in order to continue his work.

Mythic approached the table. Upon its expanse a curious selection of artefacts were laid out in trays. The virtual data plates of each tray were unlabeled. He spent a while looking them over without touching. Where some point of detail caught his eye he pulled down one of the lens arrays to make a closer examination. Within an hour he had identified a quarter of them. He continued through to the end of the day, and when Loamah inspected his work, the old Scholar was pleased.

“Come back tomorrow,” he told his new apprentice.

Mythic learned quickly that the work was, in the main, tedious, but worthwhile when on rare occasions something interesting turned up. As Loamah had promised, he had access to the Historical Department’s archive. His personal projects moved on at a pace and eventually developed into a thesis worthy of presentation to the Guild. After three years as an assistant he received his green robe, but it took another five for him to be given his own research laboratory.

In the interim, his visits to the embrasures became less frequent. Progression through the Guild had seeded him with ambition and he worked hard to achieve. But also, hearing her whisper on the aether made him sad, because he knew that they would never allow him to go to her, to bring her home. She would remain as nothing more than a memory from a past that was aeons dead. And then, one day, maybe long after he was gone, she too would fade away.

Unable to endure this truth, he closed his mind to her.

The surviving Custodians assembled in the astro-lab. Everyone carried a weapon of some kind. An army of sentinels — explorers rigged with an assortment of firearms — patrolled the access ring, and a barrage of sensors covered every sealed hatch and the shafts beneath. The huge ringed corridor was the only transition point between the two habitats — any infiltration on the part of whatever it was that was down there would have to be made here. So far nothing had tried to get through, but sentries had heard noises from the shafts.

Something was moving down there, and coming closer.

The main topic of discussion was about turning the ship around, and trying to make it back to Earth. I’d found our sun on the holo-plate. Its luminosity had clearly been reduced, but it was likely that the Earth could still support life. Besides, it was home.

Out here, there was nothing.

Before we started homeward, something had to be done about the Residents before we all went back into hibernation. I had an idea that involved detonating shaped nuclear charges to rupture the outer skin of the ship. It was kilometres thick, but with a big enough hole, the difference in pressure would burst the outer habitat like a balloon. When I explained what I had in mind, no one was inclined to back me — Sara included. It was too drastic a measure and could damage the ship irreparably, or destroy it completely. Besides that, the mortals were our responsibility; it had been programmed into us from the start and continually reinforced every time we went into cryo-sleep. We were as incapable of harming them as a mother was of hurting her child — regardless of the monsters they had become.

There had to be another way, they argued: a method of confining them until we reached Earth where there were bound to be resources we could use to cure them. But I had seen the Night Land, and was beginning to understand that the forces we were dealing with could not be thwarted. They were gods that moved in the shadows, timeless, inexorable and inevitable. The only hope for humanity was to hide itself away and hope to go unnoticed.

But to my fellow Custodians these stories would be nothing but nightmares and fantasy. How could they be persuaded to put their faith in them?

I said nothing more and withdrew into myself, while they continued to formulate and plan. After the meeting broke up I became sullen and rebuffed Sara when she tried to offer consolation.

My rejection hurt her and she withdrew as well, leaving me by myself to brood. As Mission Commander, the responsibility for the Eternity fell upon Sara, and I’m of no doubt that she was capable. However, in the dark when we were alone she would confess to me that sometimes her confidence would falter. Now, more than ever, she needed my strength.

I sat quietly mulling over our situation, and guilt gradually began to creep over me until I realised that I’d let her down. The thought prompted me into seeking her out to make amends. I snatched up my rifle and left the astro-lab. With the localised sensorium net restored in the inner habitat, I pinpointed her heading forward towards the main bridge — about three kilometres from my current position. I thought about linking with her in order to apologise, but then decided it would sound better face-to-face.

The shuttle tubes were still offline so I walked, still engrossed in my thoughts. My route took me through the access ring. On both sides the unbroken corridor receded, gradually curving upwards into hazy distance. Its width made the fifty-metre ceiling seem low. On both sides, passages lead into the inner habitat. The floor was split into three sections along the corridor’s length, and the middle one slid along like a fat conveyor belt because of the outer habitat’s slower rotation. There was a constant sub-audio vibration in the air here. As I crossed the corridor towards the transition, one of the sealed hatches in the floor of the middle section was approaching. A sentinel crouched nearby. The robust machines resembled giant scorpions, their curved tails surmounted with a cluster of auxiliary sensors; manipulators had been replaced with powerful weapons. They were designed for exploration in extreme environments, and hence built with durability in mind. We’d also armoured them with mono-crystal plate. It acknowledged me as it slid by.

I’d just crossed the moving section when there was a sudden, deafening report from the hatch. The machine jerked around to face the sound, while I hesitated. The lights in this area had been restored and despite the gloom lingering in the recesses between duct pipes and stanchions, I was able to see clearly the upward bulge that had appeared in the welded hatch cover near the edge. A second bang, then a third, and the weld split. Clawed fingers as wide as my wrist were forced through the gap and began peeling back the cover.

I was still fumbling to ready my shouldered rifle, while fighting down a swell of panic, when the sentinel opened fire. High-velocity rounds misted the giant hand. An agonised roar issued from the hole. Then the panel erupted, disgorging a towering shape that vaulted from the hole in the floor. The sentinel’s guns blazed, the monster jerked and stumbled under the onslaught. It was torn to pieces before I could get a good look at it. But the next one was already clambering from the shaft, and I saw that one in its entirety. Thick, grey hide covered a muscular torso of excessive proportions. A dense growth of brown hair hid its genitals and hung in strands from its arms. They were as I remembered them from the Night Land: the tiny, hairless heads ridiculous on those massive bodies — but there was nothing funny about the tusked maw that gaped at me. Pinpoint eyes sought me out, and it charged. To my everlasting gratitude it seemed not to notice the sentinel that interposed itself between us, and the giant was subsequently cut down before it had taken three steps.

Another one was quick on the heels of the first two, and behind that I could see more spurting out from the shaft. Not all were as big. Smaller creatures, man-sized, poured between the legs of the giants, along with some kind of black vapour that oozed thick and ponderous across the floor. The sentinel unloaded into their midst, doing what it could to hold back the onrushing wall of monstrous flesh. I realised quickly that it wasn’t going to be enough.

Somewhere a claxon blared. Further away, along both directions of the gently up-curving corridor, more sentinels raced to join the fight. It quickly dawned on me that I’d be next to useless with my kinetic rifle so I decided on a hasty withdrawal. I darted for the corridor entrance that I’d been heading for to get to the bridge. As I went, I accessed the sensorium net to warn the others. There had been several breeches at various points around the access ring. This was beginning to look like a full-scale assault.

I searched the sensorium for Sara. To my great relief I found her on the bridge. That would put her out of harm’s way for the moment. When the alarms went off she’d dropped into the net to interface and coordinate directly with the sentinels. With a large percentage of her awareness occupied, she’d be sluggish reacting to any direct threat. I had to get to her so that if something did get through, I’d at least be able to do something to defend her.

My proximity to the action meant that she was, in turn, able to pinpoint me straight away. A fragment of her personality desperately urged me to get out of there. I assured her that I wasn’t taking my time. Already my ears were raw with the sound of gunfire. I sprinted from the assess ring down the side corridor, while the walls and floor shuddered repeatedly. Waves of hot concussion overtook me, rippling the air I ran through. Somewhere in the midst of all that noise there was the sound of metal rending. I felt Sara give a gasp as the first sentinel was torn apart. They must have ruptured the machine’s fusion cell, because in the next instant a titanic explosion rocked the access ring. As I stumbled, I happened to glance back and saw that a convulsing fireball filled the corridor, driving heated air before it.

The distance I’d covered was swallowed in an instant. The flames managed to slap me with a hot fist just before Sara slammed down a bulkhead door in their path. Fireproof fatigues had protected my body from the lash of heat, but my face had been badly burned. For a second the pain was unbearable; then it at once receded to a terrible ache as my skin started to repair itself.

With an effort I climbed to my feet. Through the sensorium I surveyed the access ring. The superstructure remained intact, despite the violence of the detonation, but it was likely that many of the more fragile systems had been destroyed. For a half kilometre in both directions nothing moved. Scanning turn-wise, I caught sight of another pitched battle. The sentinels were holding up against a formidable assault, but they could do little to prevent the invaders from dispersing through side exits into the inner habitat. I searched for the other Custodians, simultaneously transmitting a global directive ordering them to make their way forward to the main bridge. Most acknowledged, but a few had already been cornered and were engaging the enemy.

It took me another twenty minutes to reach the bridge. I saw no hostiles along the way, and met none of my fellow crew.

Sara sat in front of one of the control points. Before her, the banks of 2D screens were active; I assumed that she’d emerged from the net and the battle was over. But her expression was bland, eyes dull, almost lifeless. This was the first time the sensorium had been employed to coordinate combat in a real environment. The sentinels were machines, but they had a sense of self and she had felt their deaths across the empathic link. Now the attack had been repelled, she had to come to terms with the feeling of grief, of despair.

I went to her, and her hands reached for mine. She was shaking.

“Your face,” she said sleepily. I reassured her that I was okay and told her to rest, but she didn’t appear to be listening. “I felt them. It was like...” she slurred and the words trailed off.

I glanced about. “Where are the others?”

All she could manage was a shrug, so I conducted the search myself and quickly discovered that they were undetectable on the net.

“There,” said Sara, and her hand wavered in the air, pointing to one of the screen. I looked in time to see it flare. There was a rip of gunfire heavily distorted by static. A figure was briefly silhouetted by muzzle flash. Whoever it was seemed to be firing at the pillar of the black smoke that I’d seen earlier. It was rapidly expanding. Suddenly the shooting stopped. The gun clattered on the deck and the figure fell to its knees, pitched over and didn’t move again. I craned to gaze into the screen, but whatever had killed the Custodian was no longer there.

“Did you see that?”

Sara responded with a sigh, her head lolling.

Presently she seemed to come out of it. Then abruptly she started to cry. I knelt in front of her couch, held her as her body was wracked with sobs. When she regained her composure, she was unable to tell me what it was that had upset her. She wiped her eyes and apologised repeatedly for the outburst.

“Next time I’m going in,” I told her.

She smiled at that but didn’t argue the point. She seemed to be recovering quickly.

“I can understand how humans could devolve into some of those things,” she said. “But there were some that I can’t associate with any kind of life form that we’re familiar with. Those figures in the black smoke... where did they come from?”

“The ship’s biosphere might not have been as diverse as Earth’s, but I suspect that doesn’t limit this corruption’s creativity when it comes to mutation.”

“Corruption,” she said, testing the word. “You make it sound biblical. Like a plague.”

“A plague. Perhaps more than that. It seems to have a purpose.”

She looked at me quizzically.

“Point in fact, our course change. We’re heading for an apparently uncontaminated galaxy, so it’s using the ship as a means of transfer. And then this: a major attack almost as soon as we decide to turn around and go home.”

“It was trying to stop us?”

“Perhaps. And it’ll keep trying until it’s neutralised us.”

“You make it sound as if we are the contamination.”

“As far as it’s concerned, we are.”

We fell into silence for a spell. I climbed into the couch beside Sara and we enfolded each other, finding comfort in the embrace while we gazed at the screens, waiting.

At length she asked me if I knew how to stop it.

I said that I didn’t. “In the Night Land they had something called Earth Current to keep the monsters away. Remember I told you it’s some kind of energy that comes out of the ground, like the spirit of the Earth. We don’t have that. That’s why the Residents were susceptible to the Dark’s influence.”

“Then why didn’t it affect the Custodians?”

“Because we were born on Earth. We still retain that connection, which was bred out of the mortals a few million years ago.”

The creases that grew from the corners of her eyes told me Sara was attempting to assimilate what I was telling her. Then she’d try to come up with a way to use it. I hoped that she would have more success than I’d had.

Meanwhile I slipped into the sensorium to look for the others again. As I passed through the access ring I couldn’t help but voice my shock at what I saw.

“Dear God!” I swallowed hard.

The areas in which fighting had been concentrated now resembled the inside of an oil pipe. Black ichor coated walls, floor and ceiling in a glutinous veneer, dripping profusely. Ruptured and disassembled bodies were everywhere, thousands of them, and of all sizes and grotesque designs. Vapour congregated, mingling with the smoke from a multitude of scorches and burn marks. In some places whole sections of bulkhead had been blasted naked, spilling pipes and tubes to mingle with the swathes of gore. Some corridors were utterly clogged with the sheer number of corpses. I continued my search for the other Custodians, but gave up after a while.

“I don’t think there’s anyone left but us,” said Sara after I reported my lack of success.

We sat in silence, huddled together in the couch and waited for a little longer, just in case. But no one came.

The sensorium stayed silent, the wall of screens still. A nearby holo-plate displayed every corridor and room within two kilometres of the main bridge. The ghostly grid turned slowly. Nothing else moved.

An uncertain period of time passed, in which I was aware of nothing but the displays — and the warm contact of my lover’s body against mine. Exhausted from the battle, she’d begun to doze. Her chest gently pushed against me as it expanded and contracted rhythmically. It was a pleasant sensation and I was gradually becoming more and more aroused.

Suddenly my attention captured a flicker of motion. With a start, my eye darted to the screen. Sara felt me twitch, and came awake. I wordlessly tipped my head at the monitor.

Together we watched the black mist spill from one of the vents high in the stairway wall. It seemed almost liquid as it poured in thick clumps down the curving panels and spread out across the wide landing. When it reached the edges it spilled over, dropping down to the floor below. Lumps formed in the ethereal flow, unfolding like someone rising from a crouched position. There were the distinct outlines of shoulders and heads at the top of these spectral columns, and when they started to congregate near the top of the broad stairway, their locomotion was as if hidden by robes.

“Are those the quiet ones?” Sara hissed, remembering one of my stories. Her body had become rigid with fear. We were holding onto each other tightly again, our fingers knitted together. Her grip was painful but reassuring. I kept hold and used my index finger on a panel beside the couch to adjust the view.

“Silent,” I whispered. “Silent Ones. No idea, don’t think so. Hope not.”

The wraiths had begun to descend. We watched from the next level as they slowly drifted down on a carpet of the black mist. They were already indistinct in the dingy light, and would vanish completely when they passed through shadows — except for what I can only describe as a faint sinuous web of luminous green glowing inside their torsos and heads.

Down through the levels they came, a spectral congregation. We must have been observing them for a few minutes when I noticed the location readout at the bottom of the screen.

“We have to go,” I said sharply, wrenching my hand away from hers. I sprang from the couch, scooping up my rifle. Sara was staring at me, afraid and confused. I was myself fighting hard to control the nausea of absolute terror. I pointed. “That’s just three decks above us, and those stairs lead to the end of the corridor outside. They’re coming. We have to go. Now!”

It seemed to sink in then. She was up in an instant, gun in hand.

To Across the Night Wall (Part 6)

© 2006 by Martin Isitt.
Spitzer infrared space telescope image of the Milky Way by NASA.