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

Delight (Part 2)

by

To Delight (Part 1)

Where do you come from?

"I come from Uthwer, the Fourth City."

Where?

"Sunward. Westward. There. My home."

Did you love your home?

"I loved my home."

What did you love?

"I loved it all. The old walls were of basalt, and carved with stories. The Guards moved like puppets, all blinking lights and rust. They would stop and ask you for help, but no-one knew how to give help any longer. We told them we loved them, and they blinked, turned, blinked, turned, blinked, waiting for us to do something for them. But we never could."

What did you love?

"We ran through the old library, and played games there. When it was cold we would make nests among the books and the old machines. We ate Basic, and grasshoppers, and berries."

Love makes us human.

"Yes.

"They had no true love. They changed everything."

They?

"Yes. No. I must not think about them."

They came to your home?

"Yes."

You understand now, you are able to say, that they had no real love?

"Yes, because I am dreaming, I can say it."

That they were evil?

"If I was awake I would not be able to call it evil or false. My mind is hurt, you see. They did it. If I was awake I would not be able to know that either."

So. And in Uthwer...?

She woke with her heart pounding. The questioning had bought back memories which could not be suppressed. Grief and fear welled up and left her shaking. She tiptoed away from the memories, fled past them with her eyes closed lest she wake them, and found herself shivering in a nest of plastic foam on a fossil coral mesa with the machine whirring and ticking before her. It was crushing and consuming living coral chunks in measured, single, gulps. " We love even our machines" she said to it as if obedient to command, and repeated the words several times. Her hands moved as if to hold or caress some thing. The machine regarded her.

She stood up, panting. The black and red world turned round her and she found herself sitting on the hard rock again, but still staring upward.

There was the flying machine, the flying ship, lower and closer now. She stared at it as hard as she could as it swept over. It was clearly a machine, a construct, not some kind of bird or pterodact. And was someone looking at her, someone gazing from the ship? There? At the side, there?

The ship swept away and vanished.

If she slept again, would she meet them again? Would she be questioned and forced back to her memories again? She resolved to try, very brave, but sleep would not come to her bidding and the machine merely stared at her. Giving up the attempt at last, and hungry, she tried to make the machine feed her, but it did nothing. So she scrabbled for some of the last cakes of bread she had saved in her pouch, and when the machine plucked one from her hand and nibbled it she gasped in anger and surprise. It gave her the crumbs back.

At last she managed to make it respond by talking as slowly and clearly as she could, saying simple short words like "walk" or "sun" which it repeated with solemn emphasis. It was clearly trying to learn her language but it was impenetrably stupid as well as inhumanly tireless and did not seem to understand simple concepts like pointing. It would hold one or two of its lantern goblin heads in front of her face and speak to her with them while the other head drifted around above them scanning at the horizon, on guard, she supposed. She found this distracting and funny.

Later, the machine spun a thread from its belly that tasted like bread and moistened into pulp in her mouth.


Two diphae later they found the Road. ("WRoooaadddd" said the machine, trying to give her a word of its own.) It was a flat line of stone and earth like nothing she had ever seen, stretching from horizon to horizon, not quite straight, overlain in places by bubbling vegetation or landslips or growing coral, cleared and mended in places by unknown hands, or routed round obstacles in unknown pasts, or trampled clean for stretches by unknown feet. It was ancient and battered but the original pattern was unmistakable whenever they returned to its true line, an avenue five times wider than the machine was long, paved with great hexagonal blocks of stone and edged with grey metal.

The road was busy with things that fled from them. Beasts skipped ahead of them and scurried off the path. Great arthropods lumbered aside. Presences watched them from hiding as they passed. Several times troops of slim tiptoeing abhumans stood up from grazing the herbage that bordered the road and fled squealing. But there was no conflict between the other road users, however much they feared the machine. She saw deadly swift alzabos hulking along, completely ignoring the bands of immec that hustled past timidly in the other direction, and stalking man-tall mantids spare fat beetles that passed only inches from their claws. She slowly came to understand that the road was a thing that all orders of inhabitants of this wild land shared and used, whatever they were, because its nature and structure compelled cooperation: no creature could use it without in some small way acting to keep it clear and so contributing to the welfare of every other entity that used the road, however alien. It seemed to her to be a wonderful idea and a revelation, a mode of cooperation that should be instituted in every other arena of life.

Later, however, the machine slew one of the abhumans ("Rhoss," it said) running it down easily on the flat road and crushing its skull with one blow. It was slender, half again her height, digitigrade, white-haired, black-skinned, long-limbed and tiny-skulled, breastless but female, with an enormous mouth full of grinding herbivorous teeth. The machine picked up the dead thing and carried it dangling in one arm. This clade of animalmen seemed no threat and she did not understand the machine's action until they came to a place where the road crossed a bridge over a deep gorge full of volcanic steam. The gorge was clearly younger than the road, which it had split with an offset gap thirty fathoms wide, and the bridge itself seemed half-organic, formed of landcoral that had been trained or cultured in some way. There were holes in it too small for a full-grown man to enter, and things she could not see clearly peeped out from them and darted back and hid.

The machine laid down the dead abhuman by the side of the road and walked gravely over the bridge, slowly and without threat. She watched behind her to see what happened to the corpse for as long as possible but saw nothing. Yet when she looked away for a second and looked back it had vanished.

The continued along the road on the other side of the gorge. She looked forward at the new lands they were entering, and then looked back again. Far behind them, something large and dark was crawling across the bridge. A horde of smaller things surrounded it, leaping forward and back like fleas. It was striking or beating them. Unconsciously she urged the machine onward, gripping with her hands and muttering Go On and Hurry, looking forwards and glancing back. The machine refused to speed up. She stared back anxiously: the strange thing seemed to be being blocked and forced back off the bridge, failing to make the crossing. But it was all too far behind for her to see any thing in detail, and at last the bridge fell out of view.

That night she slept without being questioned by anyone. But when she awoke one dream came back to her. She had been in Uthwer, in the before-time, working in the gardens, scarifying the grass beneath the fruit trees with the other unmarried girls, leaning hard on the rakes as they dragged them over the ground to snag the hyphae. She had turned her head to speak to the person working beside her. It was someone she had known, her neighbour, but at the same time it was the slain abhuman from the road. It turned its narrow-skulled black face and chittered to her, and then raised its forearm to its mouth and took a bite from its own flesh and chewed.


They continued eastward. The sun stood eternally in place. Thin mists of volcanic sulphur and ash fell like gritty rain, and were blown away by gentle winds. At the end of each diphae the machine would leave the road so she could rest safely while it stood guard over her. Things passed as she slept and usually offered them no harm, but once the machine woke her and carried her away from the road as fast as it could. A party of what seemed robed human beings was passing along the way behind them, walking slowly and gravely in a line. She tried to gaze back at them but her eyes did not seem to focus properly.

The flying ship had been gone for a time, but now it returned, coming from the east, and settled down to circle very slowly overhead. It did not depart again. She would look to see it when she woke and sometimes she waved. It never replied and never shifted its path in response to her gesture, and no face ever peered at her from it, but each night she returned to it in her dreams


"Well, what do you love?" She was spieking to the young man alone now, not to the grave elders who had been questioning her about Uthwer.

I love my Ship.

"Your Ship?"

She flies above you. I am required by the Anakritoi to carry them in and out and back and forth above the Twilight Land.

"She is beautiful, yes."

She loves the Sun. Loves to spread her wings. With them she drinks the Sun, though he is so old and dying. So she lives and flies.

"Yes, we love even our machines." She was trying to be wise.

Better to love each other. Beware of the jager that carries you: it does not carry you for love.

"Why?"

It has killed hundreds. Thousands.

"Then why rescue me?"

You will be told at the right time.

"Where is it taking me?"

That too you will be told at the right time.

"I do not think it is evil."

Enough. I am young and should not be spieking with you. If I am discovered I will be rebuked. Go now. But take my advice.


She awoke angry and unsure of the reality of the dream. But the flying ship could not be denied. It slid across the sky, far above, gliding, achingly slow, never seeming to expend effort. She watched it for an hour, carefully, trying to understand what manner of thing it was, and saw only that it was very slowly getting lower. Then it slipped away toward the rising cloud-tower of cumulus above a hot vent about two miles to the south, and entered the clouds, riding the currents effortlessly, mounting higher and higher on them in a wide vertical gyre. She realised she was standing up on the machine's back, straining to see. It vanished in the high mists.

Behind her, very close, something crashed and cracked. Something heavy was moving there.

She tried to regain her seat and almost fell off. Straining to see this new thing in the clutter of rock and vegetation nearby, she witnessed only a confused rustling behind the nearby stands of blacksage. She twisted around and then had to cling hard as the machine she was riding accelerated to what was almost a run, clattering along the flat open road in a sustained burst that left her exhilarated at first and then sore and bruised. It kept up the sprint for half the day, and selected a particularly high and steep spike of rock to climb when it was time to halt for sleep.


"What is it like, to fly?" She was dreaming that she was spieking to the young man again.

It is beautiful beyond words. We go forth from the high platforms of the One Thousandth city out into the Twilight, back and forth above the surviving cities of True men there, from the Redoubt even to the start of the Road, high in the western Wall. We fly above a sea and a gulf of blue air. The sky is our realm, and nothing dare challenge us.

"The Thousandth city? How many cities do your people inhabit?"

More than an thousand. But they are in one great Tower, the last Tower mankind will build, ranked one above another.

"There must be tens of thousands of you!" Her idea of a city was a huddle of houses containing a few hundred people.

In my city alone, three hundred thousand men and women. He told her of the gardens and libraries, the palaces and groves, of his high cold home. She had read of such vast gatherings of people only in ancient books of marvels. She thought of him striding across some glittering imagined terrace, mounting into the flying machine and controlling it. With dreamtime shamelessness she imagined his body, moving. It was the first time any though of venery had entered her mind, even her sleeping mind, for longer than she could reckon, and it made her drunk.


To Delight (Part 3)

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