"Come on, Father." Holding one hand out to help him rise.
Captain, Senior, father.
The old man in his childlike phase got annoyed easily, but his anger rarely dwelt long. The boy got him up and shuffling along-o, then darted back to kick earth over what he had left. But the hard shallow soil resisted his foot and there was delay, and quicker than should have happened the little fingerlings appeared, foci in the air manoeuvring quietly just out of reach of boot or stone or any weapon he might be expected to use. He cursed fluidly. But now there was a danger, so familiar and routine that it no longer provoked real fear but still a threat that had to be intelligently addressed.
Be calm, be calm.
He very slowly started to edge sideways. Parts of the earth near the little pile of shit already looked blurry and unreal. Run, and risk getting grabbed as well, or cover? Without shifting his shoulders or moving his arms in any way that was typical of a human being he rotated the trunk of his body from the hips and bent down, his arms rigid and crooked, till he could scrape up a handful of the dry hard soil and cover the organic matter with it. And another. And again. He succeeded. The swirling circular motion of the soil, that had been forming into a vertical siphon or tube, decorrelated and fell apart, fell into little random spots of distortion that fled away up the bare slope of earth above him. The pressure of a distant attention relaxed.
He slowly stood straighter, and the cramps in his side faded.
He plodded back, looking resentfully upward. The old man was watching.
"There is no danger if you simply leave it."
"Come on. We have far to go." His back hurt badly.
"Her lust is to perform the Gaeatropy. This lifesphere is so devastated that she no longer recognizes her mother. She wishes to bring life to it again. So she is, autonomous scattered parts of her are, looking for microbe rich organics to adopt, adapt, and human shit is like gold dust for that." The old man's arm pointed up to the same spot in the sky that the boy had been resentfully gazing at, a roiling twisting cloud of optical distortion, but the boy had no more patience and snapped a reply back at him. "There are bandits and abhumans out here. The Convocation is waiting for us, and we are late. Come on." He actually had to pull the old man to stop him explaining and get him started walking again. The old man fought childishly and angrily for a few fractions of a second, then his proper self awoke and he relaxed and strode forward, dignified and calm once more, assorting the memories of a strange life.
The sun shone behind them, eternally in its place. The topless tower of the Ship was their lodestone, now almost dead ahead. To their right a horde of fantastically shaped mountains loomed over the highlands where they walked, and beyond and above the mountains the southern Wall of the Valley rose, impossibly, like the face of a fallen moon, betraying the mountains and the mountains piled upon the mountains to be nothing but rubble scattered at its feet.
They came to the top of the last long slope. Below, a long way ahead and below, were the lights and fires of human habitation. They settled into the last downslope to it, flexing shoulders under their packs to ease them.
Ysel, the boy was thinking. Oh, Ysel.
Hundreds, gathered in groups and families, sitting in arcs round fires in the great hollow bowl-arena, perched on rocks and broken walls, quieting children, listening, watching. The old man standing tall on a flat stage in the centre, and his voice raising echoes from the distant cliffs.
"Time is different, in the Up and Out. I spent a hundred years, just looking, as we swept past the Radiants and into the Maelstrom. I had the eyes of the Ship, and all around I saw screaming winds, space contorting to fall down into itself, I heard the high fine tone of vibrating suns flooding through the shock waves of the supernovae, I saw stormclouds as big as this system being spat like bullets, twisted ropes of plasma that stretched over light years, and everywhere solid bodies thrown out on hyperbolic courses by the gravitic surges of the forming systems, scaling down from star size to planetoid size to gravel to dust, ground out by the mills of the twining stars.
"That was why we were a slowboat. We crept along at a few percent, behind discs and lenses of rotating dust and solid shields tens of fathoms thick, trembling in fear with our eyes screwed shut against the blows. Looking for worlds that were forming, that were fortunate, where we could drop a little of our own gold, down low and deep where it was safe. So that that world would awake far in the future, and be full of many kinds of life, breeding in the hot pools and writhing through the pores of the rock and Crash! blasted off into space by the impacts of tiny worlds rushing to union with the greater one and frozen and voyaging through the cold void and falling into the naked newborn planets in the whirlpool new systems nearby. So that in the fullness of time all of the planets of that wild new womb of stars should be dirty, living, rich, most with just a faint network of bacteria in the rock, but some with liquid water on the surface and the rich soup of life in that, and some with that life eating sunlight and trickling out oxygen, that terrible poison, that yet transforms, and some coming fully alive and becoming true Gaeas, and at last birthing ensouled living things, hnau, like us. For a planet that has a heartbeat and breath must at last allow intelligent creatures to evolve on its surface; and then, hovering in their brains and nerves, condensing among the most complex structures that form in our Universe, it will glow; pneuma,the soul-stuff, that endures even after minds and bodies are destroyed, that is the true seat of consciousness, the most precious dew and distillation of Being, that may outlast the Universe.
"We sought to beget this upon the bare rocks clustering together under the birthing stars. And we said to each other, it will be done, in time, in enough time. We said, it is inevitable, for now it has Begun. We were cycling our minds at four hundred to one, each day a year, but still there was not time enough to learn everything we needed to know. Not enough time!"
He paused, and as the echoes of his last cry faded, the audience took their chance to fidget and murmur. They had all heard preaching like this a thousand times, but mostly from recorded slates and playfilms and mass holographic broadcasts. It was different to hear the transforming voice of a real Prophet of the Ship, and to see him and his tall pale acolyte. (His grandson, some said. Others shook their heads. A boy, only a boy. Yet he was half a head taller than any other man in the gathering, and so handsome.... Surely only the Starborn could look like that?)
On the road again, the next day, they met four grinning knaves. It was an empty path, among the high fantastic peaks that bordered the way to their next nightly stop and day's preachment. The men were too old to be mere headstrong youths, and they had judged the location to a nicety. No mans habitation near. Professionals, then. And so this had to be done right, done just right, as well.
So as the rogues matched their pace and direction, as they started to pass remarks to each other in their own tongue, shunning the Common, as they crowded in on the fringes of their personal space and started to nudge and trip, the boy watched lightly, he strolled easy, and picking his time and without betraying any doubt or fear he stopped and cheerily, eagerly, offered to fight; struck out at the leader without panic or ill humour; and struggled hard and long, the old man swinging his staff to some effect; but contrived to lose by a small margin. And so the thieves took their money and some of their gear, but the one with the gun fingered it and pointed it and shouted threats but never fired, and they kept their lives and their dignity, defiant though rolled bloody on the ground.
That night they plodded into the crowded caravanserai and were met by the local hetmen with mouthed horror and promises of revenge, and hospitaliers and hastily gathered nurses and distant cousins, and the boy looked around and there were the thieves, in the second or third row, bold and arrogant: he smiled and let his eyes slide by and went aside and spoke to those in power but he did not point to his attackers or betray them. The old man did not even seem to recognize the men who had robbed them earlier; the fit was descending upon him again, all his vagueness turning to focused dramatic gesture and tight-leashed energy and sure knowledge. But while the prophet ascended the stage, while he prayed and called out and began his thunderous speech, the boy watched the thieves carefully. There was always something to learn from thieves.
They had an escort the next day: four stout stalwart men, sworn to guard and protect, armed and driving battered walking robot carriers, polished and garlanded though dinted and limping. The boy kept silent while the farewells were said and the cheers rang out. The old man was too far away in memories and visions to notice anything so mundane.
But when they were well on their way, beyond sight of the crowds, the boy leaned over and tapped the leader of the four men, the oldest, on the back of his head. The man jumped round, cursing, but the boy kept smiling. "I just want to know why. The four of you rob us, most politely, and you go ahead to where we are going and you strut around expecting us to accuse you when we arrive, and when we do nothing, the next day you volunteer to act as our guards. Why?" Grim silence. "You like the look of my arse even more than your women do? But you could have raped us yesterday. Could have tried to."
More boiling silence. The boy forbore to issue a second tap on the head. "Or your folk volunteered you, perhaps? And you thought a beating and a week in jail a small price to pay to get out of it... you would not have been punished severely, not if you could pretend you didn't know who we were. Banditry is a way of life favoured by these high hills, your people live by it... so, anyhow, are you going to kill me tonight? Going to try to?"
The man spat on the road, and kept walking. His face and his body wherever it could be seen bore strange small scars. The boy sighed. "Do your worst, any time." It had had to be said.
"Tell us the truth about the Ship, old man," was called from the next audience they spoke to, at the end of that day's long journey. Spoken not as a catcall or jeer, but with resolve, and with an especial emphasis on the fourth word.
The old man scanned the crowd in pretended owlish astonishment. The question came often. "The Ship. Yes. The Ship will take us away from here, to paradise, yes, to the Starholm. Any child knows this. Eight miles tall. Five miles square at ground level. Don't you see her? There?" He pointed towards the quarter of the horizon where the great tower loomed eternal, the pinpoint lights of its batteries flickering, and there was a laugh from some.
"A thousand Cities, and if those of your blood and language do not already inhabit one, the keys of an empty City will be given into your hands. Do you doubt this? Go and make enquiry. Come with us tomorrow, we make Pilgrimage there, come and you shall see the Ship... what is a Ship? It is quickly told. Men inhabit living worlds, huddling close to their sun, or they fly swiftly between them in iron shells, dead vessels, empty clattering boxes.. but not thus is a true Ship!
"For a Ship, like a planet, must be alive! Only a living thing can endure, not only the void between planets, but the greater Void between the suns. And only within a living thing can men endure that Void; for it is only within the womb of a living thing that their naked souls can sleep safely in death, until it is time for rebirth.
"A Ship, then, is a living world, and a Home to men, and a resting place for their dead, but one that moves. Some indeed began as worlds, small and dead, that were hollowed out and give life by the vivimancers; some as machines, that gained passengers and self-repair and self-control elements until they, too, came alive... some as companies of men, nations, united, that built vessels, so they could have the Home that was denied to them elsewhere, and later made them live ... but in the end all were alive... and as living things, they are unpredictable, changing, and ever-growing, and unique, and they continually learn new wisdom from the great Instructrix, the universe that Is, Herself.
"But now, the Eaters lust after their being, the Dragons tear at their souls, they see the stars fading, they hear echoing back through time the message of the Final Light, and they return. They come back, one by one, here to old ruined Manhome. And they add themselves to the Ship, which is builded of their flesh." He pointed again. "Which is to them a wonder, a thing of a higher nature, as far above them as they are above us; and they ready themselves, and us, for the Last Voyage, in the Ship, as the Ship, through a Void unthinkable, to Home."
"And that is the nature and the history of Ships."
There was a woman, after the sermon and the ceremony and the meal with the hetmen and the close secret talks, when all was done: dark-haired, slim, entering their private rooms with the servants, but not a servant herself, not really familiar with the work, too tall, too old (though still young), too proud, too well dressed, perfumed and combed and discretely jewelled and too pale-skinned and far, far, far, far too beautiful. Oh, Ysel. She drifted closer and closer, she took every opportunity to talk to him, she bent down and stretched and poised shamelessly as she pretended to work, and when the other girls had tiptoed suppressed-tittering away and old man shuffled off to bed at last he turned round and almost collided with her, sweet-breathed and dancing-eyed on the very edge of embrace. It took him half an hour to get rid of her, courtesy stretched to the limit, and himself blushing furiously the while, but at last he tricked her and shoved her out of the door, and she screamed insults at him for minutes in a language he could not understand and went away, still ragingly angry and swearing, among shrieks of laughter from other women. He was far too young to find this funny. He hated it.
"Why do you behave like this?" The old man was quietly watching, in his nightrobe, all his spirit quiescent.
"Father, they persecute me. I do not want any of them. Of course I want someone to love; but how can I love one of these barbarians after knowing Ysel? And how can they expect a man to lie with someone he has never even met?"
The old man, who had looked properly sad at the mention of Ysel, burst into tittering at his last sentence, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes and shaking his head.
The boy bit down on his complaints and helped him back to bed. Ysel is dead, he thought, and all of our people must be dead, and you are my only ally and kinsman, and you laugh. At this. You say I will love again, you say it lightly. There may be another waiting for me, somewhere, when I have delivered you to the Ship, but meanwhile I am not for these whores. Ysel is dead.
The boy did not pester their escorts again, though the mystery of their presence and protection became no clearer. He did not ask for the return of the money or demand other recompense. But he smiled as the four men's eyes opened wide the first time the old man stepped aside from the path, raised his staff, and addressed the sky directly, calling for gold; though the boy explained he was calling for their Ship, that had that name, Gold. Vague shafts of heated air danced round the old man, and he spoke to them and things flickered, and when they had gone he came back with gold indeed in a little bag, and a map-tablet, and a flask of liquor he did not scrimp to share, and four handsome yellow-metal inlaid linked copper belts, one for each of their protectors. There was a little shift and change among the unspoken things as they all shared the drink and the men took the gold and the gifts, new rules and laws that fastened on them and old possibilities that were no longer possible now, and the boy watched and listened and tried to feel and know this inwardly rather than shape it into words.
They had started early, walking out into the eternal Twilight only minutes after the bells announced the new day, and by the time the last scattered echo from hamlet and farmhouse had faded they were well on their way, going in single file along the hill tracks. Two went ahead as scouts, then came their still-silent chief, then the boy leading the carrier on which the old man perched, thinking his thoughts, then the baggage train and the solo rearguard, who rode his whirring metal mount backward with his gun unslung and ready. Overhead, frequently, drifted something almost visible, the sometimes-malfunctioning thing that the old man had called upon so casually, hidden in a cocoon of warped refractive air. The boy told them how to cope safely with its occasional vagaries, and the old man told them it was an AI element from his Ship. Not from the Ship, he was at pains to explain, but from his and the boy's Ship of origin, Gold, that waited in orbit now, communing with the Ship in breathless fear and anticipation and desire, preparing to fuse Herself into the great multiplex design for all eternity. The way he spoke about this made the men glance slyly at each other and grin.
The boy never missed anything, and later when they stopped to rest again he straightly asked them, What was so funny? But the men only muttered obscenely. "Yes," said the boy, "It will be two machines swiving, or fucking, or whatever the word is round here. But what is so funny? Why shouldn't it be like that? We exchange genes that let us stay ahead in the race with death. Don't you think these immortal Ships, who are far greater than us, need to do something similar? Don't you think Death nips at their heels, in the Up-and-Out? Don't you understand that they must reinvent themselves continually just to survive? You don't know much about the Up-and-Out, if you think that life is easy there."
"You don't know much about life here," replied the leader. "And if you think fucking is so marvelous, explain why you never take any of these girls that are always chasing you." The others all spoke up and started at him then, saying such things as "Are you a virgin?" "Do you only want boys?" "Are you scared of a naked woman?" "Ever touched a woman's cunt?" "Ever really stuck it in and felt her squirm?" speaking in confusion and interrupting each other, and grinning nastily.
"I loved once," said the boy at last. "and I will find love again. And I will have no-one unless I find one I can trust and really love, forever." But he started to blush again, furiously, ashamed and red-cheeked. They burst into great shouts and bellows of laughter, and he defied them all, standing like a statue and staring them down, but at last he walked stiffly away.
"You have some guts," said the leader to him later, walking up beside him in friendly wise and briefly holding him by the arm. The boy had shoulders and arms like the beams of a roof. "The last man who said No to the elder Begazi sister is still looking for his balls. I didn't believe it when they told me. And you are strong." He grinned, but not all in mockery. "If you really don't want any of them, do you mind pointing them at us, last thing at night? We'll take care of them for you."
He smiled again. He had meant it as a joke, he had meant well, for apart from being a professional thief and occasional murderer in the line of business he was not a bad man, but then he saw the boy was weeping, tears standing in his eyes and trickling slow as he walked though his face was grim and he was not sobbing nor unsteady in his gait. His grip on the boy's arm became more gentle and his face sobered and he opened his mouth to speak again, but the boy only said, "Fuck whoever you want" and snatched his arm back and stalked off.
"The radiation was terrifying. The Pain, the Great Pain of Space. My body was far away, threaded through with tiny repair networks, locked in a sphere of honey, deep shielded and sheltered in the inmost womb of the Ship. My mind overflowed with the senses of the Ship, but my soul was still grounded in that flesh. And I could feel the Pain as my flesh was endlessly torn down and rebuilt. We were all drowned deep in the Pain. Yet we found our worlds, and blessed them with our life, our gold.
"Pain! It is the sigil of Life! In that Pain, the Seers listened all round the Ship for the for the cry of distant worlds. The more life, the more Pain. When we found some blessed living world, radiant with agony and life, we would take of its gold—the lowest, darkest, wastes of its ecosystems, where variation is greatest and equilibrium unknown—and add it to ours. In the transforming radiations and the Pain of space, beneath the Operations of our vivimancers, the gold would fuse with ours and become something new and stronger. And we threw it abroad, out to yet more nearby worlds. Our wake through the Cluster was a green wound, a sword of life!
"We did not know the sin we were committing, the harm we were doing. " Grief suddenly washed his features. "But how could we have known? Ours was a great, a worthy, endeavor!" He spoke as if addressing the earnest question to every person in the audience, solely. "How could we have known what would happen?"
Every day a straggle of the curious or greedy followed them on their way. The old man ignored them—except sometimes when he was provoked into a storm of rhetoric, and he would waste hours raving at some unfortunate curiosity-seeker. The men policed this easily enough, taking bribes and small favours, selling off the right to audience with the prophet, and so forth, but few of the fortunate ones stayed for more than a single day's journey.
They passed cliff-holds and honeycombed cave-cities, fortified inns and lone farmhouses, and at each stop people came to gaze. The men always knew someone, an old acquaintance, a relative, someone waiting for trinkets or owed money, and once an affianced woman, promised to one of them, who had to be visited in her father's house with proper ceremony and gifts. Here the hints and cues of social behaviour became too complex for the boy to intuit. He was told the names of the happy couple and much else, but it meant nothing to him, and he only retained the name of their fourfold escort's chief, which was Pyet. He retreated into passive obedience, standing as close to the Prophet as possible, silent and quick to obey, while the old man stood up after a long rich meal and spoke to the gathering there.
"I have told you, we come from a Ship. She is called Gold. She has returned here, to Manhome, after voyages of tens and hundreds of thousands of years. She waits in orbit now, and soon She will initiate the process of disaggregation and descent. Then She will become another City to be added to the Ship, and another great pulse of migration will flow from the nations in the Twilight into that City. According to the ancient custom, it is my right to walk the Twilight and to invite people herein to fill my home. This I do. Come. All of you. You who are to be married; you especially. But all of you are blessed, you are welcome, to find a new home, in Gold.
"But listen first, while I tell you what we flee.
"I have told you, our Ship existed to sow Life through a barren waste of newly formed stars. We were brave. We were hoping to create, not just new life, but new Spirit; and we thought, we can do no evil, only good can come of spreading Life; and we dreamed that in some distant time we would return, or wake again, in this life or another, and see those worlds blossoming into beauty, and maybe the birth of other races of ensouled beasts, our equals, who would yet be in a sense our children.
"And then—we heard the crying, behind us.
"I have said, a living world is a radiant beacon of Pain, hung from its Sun, burning in the night. We heard, behind us, those beacons we had lit come alive; but so many, and with such strength! At first we rejoiced, but the agony grew beyond accounting, beyond understanding, beyond bearing, and at last we looked back, and our Seers stood transfixed in horror, understanding what but not how we had wrought—for the worlds we had kissed were not blossoming into life. They were afire with death. Not the green light of life, no more than for a wink of time, but it was being swallowed by the black fire of the pneumavores, the soul-eaters, the ancient enemy.
"We knew them as Dragons, then, and thought they dwelt only in the wastes between the stars.. and so they did—but these new Dragons flew freely near the suns, consuming the life there. They had changed. So we thought.
"A scattering of little Ships fled by, crying. We boosted and accelerated and lay alongside them and found they were alien hnau, ancient refugees from the Eaters, having fled for lifetime after lifetime through wastes of stars, skeletal, palsied, weary, huddled deep inside their dying Ships... from them we learned what had happened, not only in that cluster of stars we thought we were blessing, but in other star-wombs in the distant past, and they cried grief and woe to see it happen yet again....
"I have told you, that the desert places of the Universe naturally breed life: life is everywhere. The scattered germs of ancient ecosystems saturate the infall of the suns, even lacking the holy missions of those such as us. From barren rock, Life will emerge, and cloth the bare rock, given enough time. It is inevitable. We had thought not so much to bring life to utter barrenness as to accelerate its development, so that breathable air and noble beasts should populate those planets soon, in a fraction of a Great Year, a small part of a turn of the galaxy, not in two or three such Years. And we were successful.
"From the barren rock, life comes, it is inevitable. You can not stop it. You can only hasten it. We hastened it greatly.
"But from life, comes what? After life comes what, just as unavoidably?
"What we learned from those ancient refugees of the cycles is this: there is another state of being, that arises from life. As life inevitably arises from the waste of mere matter, so from the sea of life arises this successor thing. Alien life, unlife, ab-life. It happens in many ways, and has many names: in one world, machinery built by hnau may become self-aware and self-modifying; in another, some form of microbe grows able to interpose clonal intelligence into its own reproductive cycle and guide its mutations; in another, consciousness is transplanted from the natural cradle of flesh into artificial soma of magnetic tissue, giving the soul a new unnatural but enduring home. Whatever the gateway—and they named the Infinite Acceleration; the Fusion; the Grey Waste; the Sentient Flesh; the Ruling Ghost; the Third Phase; and many others—all these divergent developments in the end fall into an attractor, a foreordained configuration. Ab-life. And as from life rises the distillation we call pneuma, so from ab-life, after many cycles of growth, come the beings we know as pneumavores, or Eaters. "
"We had hastened this development by mixing the gold of different life-spheres. Doing this, we had thought to shortcut many aeons of blind evolution, by giving these worlds the richest possible set of basic metabolic pathways at the very beginning. And shorten the time we had. The worlds we had so cross-fertilized had bypassed the long period of gentle growth and learning we call Life and had plunged, barely cooled, into the ultimate condition of manic biology called the Sentient Flesh, one gateway to ablife. And from this cauldron, after only a few thousand years, arose stability and new clades of Eaters. And they communed with their brothers among the stars and grew wise. And they rose from their beds, young and ravenous, and pursued us their creators. "
Nobody tried to sneak into the boy's bed that night and he understood that such behavior would be unthinkable here, but for some reason he felt a slow quiet despair. He was younger than he looked, but he had once been in the same place as that fellow sitting uneasy at high table, making small talk, trying to act like one of the family he was to join and failing miserably. And yet he had been so happy. All that was scattered atoms in the Up and Out now. Gone. It was easy that night to slide back into grief.
He wept. He slept. And when he woke from weeping she lay next to him, warm and breathing and just ready to wake herself. Ysel. He rolled over to embrace her, felt her fluid solid warmth, felt her shift slightly and press herself against him as he kissed the small hairs behind her ear and stroked gently down her flank. He had found his home again. He was alive again. All was well. He whispered love and composed himself for sleep.
He woke again, full of deep peace, but with the knowledge that something was wrong. Ysel had told him, something was badly wrong. He must comfort her, and then they needed to go and see the old man and take definite action... he rose, washed his face, and went back to kiss her awake.
But she was not there.
And then he remembered everything. And hating it, loathing it, he was truly awake.
The dream seemed more real than the reality of their slow pilgrimage. They left the farm, endured the fond farewells, and he walked in a daze. But his dreams that filled his head were interrupted by grimmer realities.
Something had been following them. They saw it in the early morning, a far glimpse that set the rearguard to shouting warnings. A little later it was seen again, far behind but closer, and then suddenly it came rushing toward them with nightmare speed.
From far away it had looked like a rolling thistledown, or like a crippled mutilated limping beetle, but when it got close they saw with a shock of corrected perspective that it was an Old Machine, an ancient manshonyagger, an autonomous self-repairing manhunter, so battered by time and war that almost every one of its limbs was of different size and construction, but so big and yet so strong and swift and buoyant above the land on those mismatched props that the eye saw it as smaller and nimbler than it really was.
It came closer, eating up the distance with frightening speed, and ran parallel with them for a time. They saw that its very scars had repair-grown sensors and palps, misplaced heads and eyes sticking out between armour plate. It was ancient indeed, swollen by incremental repair and enhancement to be ten times as long as a man, and vaguely serpent-like, but its body held no structural logic or symmetry, only cancerous mechanical strength. It lurched sideways, blocked their path, turned broadside to them, waited.
The men muttered and grasped their guns, to be urgently warned do not by their leader, who halted and saluted the beast, then knelt down, facing it, silent. The other men did likewise, grey and sweating, and the boy, moved by some defiance or loyalty he could not name, stepped up to their rank and knelt as well, and the manshonyagger came closer and closer and stopped and reached out to them.
Iron arms stroked them. Each limb was different, some coiled, some articulated, some like whips, some branching like the limbs of trees. They split at the tips and the tips fanned out and focused back on to the men. The probes and sensors trickled across their skin, touching and moving, scraping, tasting scurf and sweat. The boy felt the points sharpen to needles and the needles pierce. Then the knives hinged out and slid across their skin and cut. One of the men cried out in a high sobbing voice. In a strangled croak, the leader of the four said "Do not move, whatever it takes."
The manshonyagger reached out towards the old man as well, but the air around him thickened and blurred and sparked and then he was gone, or hidden. Across the forest of actuators springing from the Old Machine's flank went a shift and wave, like a wind blowing bamboo, and it sprang away, crabwalking sideways up the flank of the hill, away. It too was gone.
The men and the boy staggered, half fainting, bleeding from little wounds where the machine had sampled them, talking a little skin, a little flesh. The boy caught and steadied one who was falling, though he could scarcely keep his feet himself. "It won't kill you if you keep still." said Pyet, gasping and stuttering, "If you run, it will take you to pieces." The boy looked at him. "Others may come. They take a little bit each time. If that happens, don't move."
The old man was suddenly there among them again. He spoke to them urgently and gently, not in his usual strange half senile way, but in strength reassuring them. And he got them up and moving, at an angle to their previous path, heading toward a low hill crowned by rocks. They climbed, panting and gasping, not quite running, trying to see the whole horizon. They found a clutter of rocks and wormed their way among them." What do you think of that, Starborn?" said Pyet to the boy. "How do you like what nips at our heels down here?"
The boy, who only knew that the Old Machines were supposed to be allies of true humans, said as much. Pyet laughed and swore bitterly.
Then the old man cried out some thing loud and very clear to the knots of roiling air above him and pointed, fiercely and surely, towards a dark articulated shape now hulking over the edge of a distant hill.
There was tense silence for ten, twenty seconds, and then brilliant specks of light, falling straight down, falling too fast for belief, flooded over the dark shape, and the manshonyagger vanished among sudden flares of violet fire. They shut their eyes and huddled down between the carriers, rocking as the noise and shock waves reached them, and when they looked for it again it was there, but crippled and broken-backed and part-molten, moving like a broken thing. The old man cried out to the sky once more, with authority, and gestured them to take shelter behind one of the great rocks nearby, urgently, urgently; and the boy turned and ran just as something vast fell out of the sky and turned the Twilight for miles around into actinic hell, brighter than the legended Sun of ancient days. He closed his eyes, blinded, and crashed into something, and fell into darkness.
His throat was expelling thick fluid. The effort was maximum, continuous, completely unwilled. His whole torso contracted and wrung itself like a wet cloth and the fluid spurted sluggishly from mouth nose anus the corners of his eyes.
Something was holding him spraying him wiping his face, keeping mouth nose eyes clear. A bed-nourice.
Its soft not-hands held his jaws open and threads slid down his throat and cleared his windpipe and squirted more warn water unbearably filling his lungs and other threads slid up his anus and filled his gut and he shat vomited coughed pissed wept water out and with it the thick sweet fluid
He breathed in air saturated with misty steam and oxygen and more hot water squirted over his face eyes nose into throat ears down gullet into sinuses and again the wringing contraction belly muscles tearing blood in vomit everything spewing out of him
Threads slipped under his eyelids and squirted water there and his eyes could move. He could see light. He could not open his eyes. The lids were stuck together but more threads cleared his eyes wiping the eyelids clean and his eyes could open and focus and he was in he was he was he was in midair just above his bed surrounded by globs of snot and blood and vomit and thick yellowish fluid, and the nourice part of the bed was holding him and moving him warming him combing the wastes out of the air cleaning him washing him
Honey. The fluid was Honey, full of nanorepair elementals and O2 saturate. The bed was a longsleep bed.. He was being awakened, and he could see the stars through the clear screen set high in the room moving as Gold the Ship span up to generate gravity but the stars
but the stars were moving wrong
The boy woke, and felt her warmth next to him.
The dream faded from his mind. Gold was no longer in near-c flight, with their fragile, fragile, bodies packed away and shielded as much as might be from the hell of radiation that sleeted through her at those perilous speeds. He had gone through the agony of resurrection again, he was alive again, and, Oh the lovingkindness of Gold, by her grace he now awoke in one bed with his love, both of them fresh up from the dead in flawless, exquisite flesh! He turned and reached for her.
During their long and carefully managed courtship they had been bedded several times, as was the custom, each of them clothed to the neck in a thin, flexible garment which they could not break or unseal. They would embrace and hold and whisper and touch for hours, whispering promises of what they would do when they were at last truly wed and naked to each other forever, kissing and caressing until her mother came to fetch her back in the morning, jolly and laughing at their frustration, his....
But she was not in the bed.
His mind focused and he woke truly. The familiar weight of memory and misery fell on him again, and again he lay for a while, trying to fall back into dream, failing. The dream, the illusion, seemed to be happening every morning. He wanted it, he lived for it, but he was almost beginning to be afraid.
At last he resigned himself to wakefulness and thought, where am I?
He was in a low-ceilinged comfortable room. He was in bed, naked, and bandaged about the head. He was comfortable but when he tried to move a rictus of cramp seized all up his back and a dizzy vertigo set the room spinning. His head thumped out one great pulse of agony. He gasped at the pain and slowly, slowly, started to investigate what he could manage to do.
By the time the woman came in he was sat up propped by one arm while the other gingerly investigated his head and neck. She tch'd at him and spoke brightly in words he could not understand and propped him with pillows and bought him some food: bread and soup which he ate up in three gulps, and then a platter of the bitter local olives and some cheese. He ate it all, belched, and made to get out of bed again, then yelped and fell back exhausted.
She took the plates away and shoved a chamber pot out from under the bed with one foot, grimaced, said something whose meaning was obvious, and went out. He was just starting the long negotiation with his back and neck as to how he would get into position to use it when the old man came in.
Lorcas. The old man's name was Lorcas. His Stock-Father, his sourceclone, Lorcas.
"Are you better now, Scion?" he said at once. "And if not, how long until you can move?"
"Ser and Father, it will be a few days until I can get up. A while. But you are recovered!! What has happened to you?"
"I woke up, woke up properly, when I saw the jaegermechant. I will tell you about it later. You have done well. I can but just remember wandering about in a dream. And shouting, yelling my heart out from time to time. What did Gold do with us?"
"Our sept is dead," said the boy. "We hit some Kuiper ice in the outer system, when we were still in deceleration, in just the last few tenths percent. I woke up in agony. There was just a fraction of Mainring left. I could see we were spinning along the wrong axis, and I knew Mainring was gone and we were just an isolated node because it was generating no gravity. No radius. I tried to get the others up, but no-one was recoverable except you. Too much damage. And you would not properly awake. There was just Gold, speaking through the comms systems, and me.
"We linked up with some Drive and started to reassemble, and we contacted the other units and got most of the Ship back together, and she got the drag bubble out, and we hit the heliopause square and came in under control, and five days later we got close enough to orbit this rock. But she never stopped saying the same thing, over and over.
"Lorcas, I think she is mad. Insane with fear. She said, Tell them the new ones are coming and they are worse than the old ones. She told me that again and again. She stabilised in orbit, she contacted the Ship, she is regenerating, and she imprinted us and sent us down, planetside, right away; and we have been trekking around in the mud for months, while you took instruction from Her and preached—I had no idea you could talk to thousands of people like that! And I took care of you the while. Please don't laugh. She was in such haste. And so frightened. What should I have done?"
"Nothing else. You did well, as I said."
"Have you been in a trance, or asleep?"
"Something like that. She needed a voice. I had to speak the Common like one born to it and that meant some deep work—you have a strong accent—and I might still fall back. And I haven't been Cleaned, like you have, and all sorts of weird misconnections get made as the nervous system is reformed. Anyway, I'm here. You can relax, go back up to Gold if you like, and play around, help her integrate, or just rest. But I have to go and see the Lords of the Ship."
"I must come with you! Everyone is dead!" His face worked and he started to cry. "Ysel is dead. Don't leave me." And now that he could lay down a fraction of his burden the true sorrow fell on him, and he started to weep in earnest, his whole body shaking. The old man embraced him, and when the tears were done he spoke again.
"Farewell, and Live Again. Their spirits will return. Gold preserves their genecodes, and in time, with the permission of our hosts, we will rear a Scion for each of them, so their souls will find a home. Our sept is ended. But Gold continues; she is you and me. And now she will be a new City, a part of the Ship, and you and I will rule there, and raise our people again, and welcome others fleeing this dying world. If you are fit, come with me now. If not there is no need to hurry. Pyet and his men will stay with you here, till I send for you."
He hugged the boy again. "Do you know, they have to face off with the jaeger like that as part of their work? Occasionally one of the Old Machines decides it's their job to monitor human gene flows and "correct" something. Pyet and people like him give it identity tissue; their clients dodge the toll. A high price to keep the abhumans away. And there are more and more Old Machines as you near the Ship. No wonder they tried to avoid being our escorts. That nest has been turned to glass, at least...
"And yes, this is Urth, Manhome, but there have already been Incursions—one of which damped the planet's rotation, and dug this little rut in the ground. We came as quick as we could, and burned the void behind us, and crashed, but we are late, tens of thousands of years late. I'm not surprised Gold is terrified. Anyhow." He stood up. "The Marriage will proceed, in any case, there is no better destiny for our Lady, or for us. But some things do have to be cleared up. Let me help you with that." He held the bowl while the boy pissed, wincing, and he went out of the room, forced brisk and cheerful.
The boy lay back, slowly, and slowly turned on his side, closing his eyes.
He woke up, ate, slept, ate again. Felt a little better. There was no dark pause in the Twilight land, the sun stood always in the same place, but there was a time in the cycle when everyone slept. Yet he was sleepless now, alone, thinking.
I am fourteen years old. I was born in a womb of honey, and it mended every insult and tear the Pain of space would have dealt me, as I grew, and it cured even those wounds that had been dealt before my conception, so my genetic mutation load is zero. And so I am strong and fair and they call me Starborn. I am Lorcas's scion. No woman bore me. As we threw dirt upon the empty worlds and saw them bloom, so Lorcas flung me out, from himself. And I grew, and do grow.
But all our sept are dead, save for us two. I gave their bodies back to Gold, said such words as I could, said Farewell and Live Again to each one. But they are gone.
Ysel is gone. Her part of Mainring was turned to plasma. If her spirit yet survives it is naked prey in high space.
And he thought about the idiocy, the stumbling folly, of Gold in her duties, of the people who should have been woken long since but were now thin gas smeared over billions of miles, of the ancient starship Herself and her misunderstanding and her rage of protection for her children and her errors. He could only think of his Ship with love. But he pondered her flaws and asked again, Why is everything so muddled? Why does everyone, even those of transhuman intellect, totter along on the edge of disaster? Always? He had been taught wisely and he knew this was an inescapable rule of Life: that everything lives at the edge of its capacity, doing things it can only just manage to encompass and only just understand. That the race is endless, and death comes close behind. But knowledge is not comfort.
He thought: I will do what is right. I will perceive the universe with clear eyes, and I will never be cruel. I will remember everything suffers. We are all brothers. Cruelty and anger shall never rule me.
This was his resolution, from time to time. He had not read of it in a book or seen it acted out by cube-ghosts. It was from his own heart.
He drifted again towards sleep.
There was a gentle sound, a few almost-words. Sounds that inescapably came from the warm throat of a woman. Loving, but warning, and asking help. Awake suddenly, yet still in dreams, he raised his head, and saw nothing. But a trace of scent, a breath of warmth, a ghost of movement, were in the room. He sat up, crying out sharply as his back spasmed, but there was no-one, no-one there.
The next morning, to call it the morning, he limped down to the refectory, dazed by another dream of lost love, to be hailed by Lorcas where he sat at the center of everything, talking and eating and wiping his mouth. He sat down with the men and got smiles and nods and drink and meat passed to him.
The old man was planning and talking and disposing and promising. He had an open Eye hovering just above his shoulder, relaying pictures from one of Gold's effector arrays in orbit interspersed with feeds from low-level survey elements flying over the Valley. The array was spitting out slugs of iron at several hundred microfractions of c and the survey cameras, no bigger than the pupil of an eye, were reporting their fall on this or that huddled band of manhsonyaggers. Lightning-like flashes and distant thunders seconded the pictures, but from so far away and at such long interval that no real connection was obvious. Yet cheers filled the room, again and again, as the jaeger bands were seen burned and smashed to scrap. All round the room, other travellers were craning their necks to see.
The boy admired the showmanship, but he had nothing to say, nothing to add. He had thought the warmachines were supposed to be helpful and allied true humans, but they did not seem to be popular, but to be hated. He nodded glumly at cheerful Pyet and his men and sipped small beer for what stretched into hours. When at last the old man got up and walked out, still talking, he followed, though the avidly chattering group did not grant him a backward glance.
Their journey towards the Ship was as part of a company of several score, through lowlands that were at first still heavily populated and farmed.
But the Ship towered ever higher as the days passed, until they could see how its bombardment arrays targeted first this part and then that part of the Shadowlands that stretched north from here, where the Valley turned at the Bight and ran into eternal Night. First the sharp lines of guide beams, just visible in the high air, searching and scanning; then when they had converged on some target the heavier carrier streams, burning back from the beam ends toward the guns along the same channels of air, flickering and tapping until they all at once grounded on the Ship's adamant exoskeleton and a great sheet of fire peeled off and sprang out and away northward, moving as a roiling torus of plasma towards its target. These greater bolts might appear but twice a day. The fusillade of more minor energies was constant, but oddly quiet.
There was no sharp boundary between the human lands and the darkness, only a barren no-man's-land where the impacts of bolt and sear glowed still, days after whatever had emerged from the Night and crept south toward the human lands had been slain. That and the scattering of warped ground, impossible debris and ruins that men could never have inhabited, that drew closer and closer as they neared the Ship.
They grew hungry, for now they moved through empty lands, no one lived this close to the Shadow, and the advent of the first flyer was cheered and welcomed. A heavy dromond, it cruised over them, its wings a hundred fathoms wide yet almost transparently thin and its belly fat with manna. It opened its ventral ports and rained flowers and sweetmeats on the company, then circling around with a gentle throb of power slowed almost to a man's running speed and lowered its more solid gifts down on slowly drifting static pads: clothing, tools, and ornaments such as none of them had ever seen, half-living spielters for the children to play with, scaled hauberks immune to bullet, knife and even beam, and such food as they had never tasted in their dreams. The road to the Ship was plain ahead of them, wide, flat, level, guarded by fire and lightning, and the Ship now was close.
Riding metal dragons, tame manshonyaggers shining gold or copper or blue orichalcum, a band of goddesses came to see the newcomers. Girls, or young women, modestly dressed and courteous, but gazing frankly; and with them an old duenna riding in a palanquin. They did not dismount, but circled the company, calling greetings in the swift liquid tongue of the Ship, laughing and tossing their hair. Very quickly they were bored and the dragons carried them away back to the Ship, with their chaperone chasing after. But the men and women of the company stared at each other. In the presence of those women, even their remembered presence, every adult looked like an ugly, half-dwarfed, cripple. Except for the boy, who had looked like a boy, skinny and pale but of normal height and build, not the young giant he was.
There were other visitors. Bands of men patrolled the road, and soon they had an escort of twenty, armed Taloses, men sheathed in grey metal and carrying each hand-and-a-half weapon of a sort none had ever seen before: the famed diskos of the Ship, a short polearm tipped by a monomolecular circular blade that spun up to invisible speed in the blink of an eye and could split solid steel like punkwood.
"Will we look like that? When we live in the Ship?" One of the company asked Lorcas.
"Our children will," said the old man. "It is the weariness of this broken World and its poisons. We all carry a hundred faulty genes. Life combs them slowly out of our bloodlines, one death at a time, but all the folk of the Ship are Cleaned, and have none of these errors, or only the handful that arise by chance anew in each generation. We did the same thing on Gold. See my Scion here." He pointed at the boy.
"Our children. But not us?"
"No," said the old man. "It cannot be done after the single cell stage." He did not speak about it further, and when, that sleep-time, people started to quietly slip away, going back to their homes, he did not remark upon it.
They stopped for their last sleeptime in a grey fort with a thousand rooms empty ready to receive visitors or migrants. Not one room in twenty was occupied.
The sarjeant of their escort called for attention, and they traipsed in to a hall well lit and clean enough but echoing empty. They were now fewer in number than their guardians and guides. The old man, the boy, and Pyet, who confided to the boy that he was determined to board the Ship at least once in his life, but had no intent to stay; his three followers and kinsmen; and a handful of chance-met others. Not one of the thousands that the old man had preached to in scores of gatherings all through the Valley was there.
They made a lonely meal, huddled in a hall meant for ten times their number. Yet their hosts, looming over them like pillars, seemed both unsurprised and unworried by their scant numbers. The soldiers did not even unarmour, but stood watch all round, like statues; their serjeant unhelmed—showing a countenance as flawless-handsome as the boy's—and joined them at table, but he had little to say beyond polite obvious replies. The old man questioned him to no real purpose. He would only say that he must defer to his Seniors on this or that matter. Tomorrow would bring the resolution.
As they finished their meal, there was a change in the background noise, the texture of the silence, in the hall. A soldier came in in haste and spoke to the sarjeant. He got up lightly, and excused himself, and went out at once, conferring with the soldier in short urgent phrases.
The boy also got up but he did not follow them outside. He simply went out of the hall, up stairs and along a corridor a short way, to a window.
There he saw the Ship had ceased firing upon the Shadowlands. The darting points of light which had outlined its upper decks were gone dim. Several of the soldiers were gathered to stare, standing in a group round the sarjeant, and he read puzzlement and a little fear in the tone of their voices. One glanced back, saw him, and spoke. The sarjeant turned and gestured for him to come down.
He turned to obey, and as he did so he saw someone entering the compound, someone weary and walking slow, but... he could not turn back to look a second time, for one of the soldiers had been sent to escort him down and was now in the room, summoning him by gesture and a few polite words of Common, and he could find no just reason to break away and go back to the window to look, but..
As he walked back to the table, the boy caught a second glimpse of her. Or at least a glimpse of someone new. A door opened down the hallway, a woman limped past and through it, and the door closed again. The guard led him back to the table, and he seated himself, trying not to feel like an errant child. But the woman—was she the same woman? Had there really been time for her to enter the building? Singular or plural, she had not been one of the Shipfolk who manned the fort, and certainly not one of the soldiers. Her garment and her cast and her posture recalled something he could not remember.
But then he did remember. She had looked, walked, moved, born her head and arms, after the manner of his own people, like one of his own sept, one of the crew of Gold. And he began to tremble.
The sarjeant was talking to the gathering in heavy measured tones. He jumped up, ran back up the stairs, and looked for the door, and discovered it was not there, or rather that he had no idea which of twenty doors, all locked, it might have been. When he returned to the table they all looked at him in wonder, and the old man had some sharp words about discourteous behavior.
He slept that night like one of the dead. When he awoke, she was bending over him. Ysel. The light was behind her, but what he could see of her face looked anguished, and her garments were crumpled and dirty and torn. He reached hands up to her, but found himself unable to move, and she gazed and gazed and went sadly out of the room, shaking her head, as he struggled with limbs bound by the nightmare. It must have been a dream of some sort, yet there was no awakening he could remember, only a gradual return of mobility. He got up, stumbled, sat down on the bed with his head in his hands.
The few of them that were left were escorted through an avenue of formal gardens towards the Great Gate. The sloping wall of the Ship filled half the sky. They entered the Gate, and passed what seemed a short tunnel of ten fathoms through the solid outer shell of the Ship (thin and flimsy shielding for a Starship, thought the boy) and they were there, standing on the deck of City Zero, arrived at last, gazing in wonder at the great storied and decorated maze of the Cities within and above. And there were people coming to meet them, robed men and women escorted by warriors in armour of tiny plates that slid and overlapped like the feathers on a hummingbird's breast, men and women whose grim faces proclaimed that they required Answers, Now.
They were greeted, they were escorted to the central Liftport and swiftly boarded one of the upgoing stream, and they soared upward past wonders, sitting at their ease but with the dust of travel still upon them, and with their baggage still unpacked in the plodding carriers, surrounded by a cordon of armed men.
The old man was away to one side talking earnestly with the leader of their new guardians, and the boy sat down with Pyet and his men. Their looks at him expected answers, but all he could do was shake his head. "We are going to see someone important," he said at last. "Will-we nill-we. Be on your best behavior. Look innocent. Keep quiet. I think there will be Hel to pay, and it had better fall on my Father and I than on you."
"We didn't want the task," said Pyet. "They knew you were coming, and we had the Honor of doing the last bit, getting you to the Ship. Fuck Honor. One more chance to be snipped in pieces by a jaeger playing games. So we thought, an accident, you and the prophet waylaid by someone, no-one knew, sad. We weren't going to kill you, just keep you somewhere safe for a while, but we let you go after all. Gods, you punch hard" (with a chuckle). "Didn't seem worth losing teeth to keep you, so we thought, confess and take our punishment, will be noisy but no worse than a few slaps. But you were ahead there too. And now here we are."
"Sorry" said the boy. "I can promise you that you won't be bored, at least. And that no-one will be worried about that little scuffle, that I also promise."
"Gold has fallen silent," said the Navarch, or Great-Captain, uttering the same essential question for the tenth time. "Why?"
The old man and the boy looked at each other, uneasy. "Her last message convinced us. The Guns too will fall silent now, and we will cease the bombardment except at extreme need. But why this withdrawal?" Silence. They would have answered if they could, but it seemed pointless to repeat the vague guesses that were all they had had to offer.
One of the other men in the council chamber, a purple-robed oldster with a youth and a maid attending him, spoke up. "Your Lady's news is long anticipated. The Conditions of Life and Being within this galaxy are changing, are undergoing what might be termed a phase change, a transformation into a higher level of self-organization. In that new Condition of Life, there will be no place for those of the old order, no more than an obligate anaerobe could survive in an oxygen atmosphere.
"We belong to the old order. We can survive only by being unimportant. Until we can make the jump to Starholm, we dare not use powerful weapons, or do anything that will draw the attention of the Ulterior beings. And we dare not risk triggering the change in the Shadowlands. That would be disaster—a true Night Land, filled with horrors that were kin to us and thus knew all our weaknesses."
"I cannot tell you the mind of Gold, but I rejoice at this," said the old man "I thought that you would need long persuasion. But there is more. The jaeger, the Old Machines that you have made pets and allies of, must be banished from the Ship. They are too dangerous, and they themselves are able to be agents of this change to after-life we fear.
One of the soldiers spoke up sharply. "The manshonyaggers keep the abhumans away from human-inhabited lands. Without them, we can do nothing. We simply do not have the manpower."
"Bombard the unmen from orbit."
"Ask Gold to bombard them. We have no in-system flight capacity at the moment, and in future we will not dare to build any. That is another reason why the guns must be quieted. Soon our stores of helium 3 will fall below safe level, and the fusor power must cease. From henceforth once Gold descends to her marriage we must depend on the Telluric potentials, the Earth-Current, and that cannot be wasted. And this is why the alliance with the manhsonyaggers can not be discarded."
"They will betray you," said the old man sadly.
"No," said the Navarch, "we cannot expel them. If we do we condemn tens of millions in the West Valley to death or enslavement. Fortunately Gold's attacks on them have ceased too, and the alliance can be preserved."
And one of the other soldiers spoke up. "I wonder if you have ever seen a human city after the Ahrima have been through? Or the Rufous Folk?"
The boy sat saying little. The argument raged back and forth, but he was looking all around with haunted eyes. Suddenly She was everywhere, sitting listlessly at a table in the great Lift, walking ahead of them along the corridors, sitting at one of the unoccupied seats at the great table, but never the one he was looking at, always with her face turned away. He still had not seen her face. She seemed to be more and more wounded, battered, bruised as by blows to the head and neck, cringing and limping. His cheerful defiance talking to Pyet had popped like a bubble. He could think of nothing but her.
The old man, Lorcas, was speaking passionately, on his feet, when suddenly and suddenly there was someone just behind him. A whisper in his ear.
Thundermetal; Heavenmetal; Hellmetal; about five and thirty librae; they know.
The boy, just opposite him, gazed at him with haunted understanding eyes.
Tell the Navarch. The jaeger know. Tell the Navarch. The jaeger know. Then Forget, FORGET FORGET FORGET FORGET.
He rose, circled the table, ignoring expostulations and questions, approached the Navarch, bent to whisper in his ear...
... and then he was sitting in his place again, and the Navarch was looking at him with horror.
... but he had forgotten why...
... and he never remembered nor ever learned the secret, nor even knew that there was such a secret, not even on the day he died. But some at the council table already knew, and knew what could be made from those metals, and knew what such a basilisk's egg might do, what even a single one would do, were it to be hidden under the skin of a manshonyagger, and bought inside the Ship, and detonated inside the Ship.
The Navarch stood up. "It is decided. The jaeger must go. All go. Not one may remain. All. Now." There was an explosion of passionate talk. The Navarch slammed his hand on to the table and thundered out a sentence in Ship, then stood up flint-eyed and spoke in Common. "All leave. Except you three." His spread fingers indicated the old man, the boy, and Pyet. "And the Captains. Now!"
"Why?" Said the old man. "What happened?"
"Fifty for one," said the white-bearded, scarred, veteran. "The jaeger are faster and stronger than natural creatures. Nothing can resist a diskos, but they can dodge any normal blow. And that is assuming none are armed. If any of them have their guns primed, they could easily slay a thousand each."
"How then can they be fought?"
"Pattern arrays producing a powerful enough EMP pulse. Section them into deadends and lock them in. Lie to them. Drop them into deadfalls full of fire; if all else fails attack from all sides with the diskos. If any of the external guns can be dismounted,"... one of the other Captains shook his head grimly...
Pyet, the man from the Valley, stood up. He did not reach above the breastbones of the other assembled men, and he looked nervous.
"Sers and Seniors, men of the Ship, I may be able to help."
"Beautiful," said the Artificer. "How sweet a weapon. How easy it lies in the hand." He picked up the rifle-like pistol-like weapon and cuddled it to his cheek, sighting it. "Nothing superfluous. Nothing missing. And the power. In one man's hand. A shaped charge, of course. A copper cone produces a jet of superheated metal? But it is obvious. Obvious, once you see it done." He embraced Pyet, lifting the smaller man off the ground."You shall be rewarded. You shall be made a Master, for this, because you have bought back to us one of the ancient Weapons whose use goes beyond recorded history, whose operation has even worn its coding into the human genome. Show us its power again, Brother."
Pyet obligingly opened the hold of his patient battered robot carrier, took out and set another double-cone shaped grenade in the launcher, and, sighting, blew another hole through a handsbreadth thickness of Shipmetal target. "We use them in the Valley," he said. "When we get a chance. They work. On the small ones."
"Make one million," said the Navarch. "Do not sleep, Artificer. Call up all your brothers, in every City. No transmissions. Foot messengers only, verbal. Pyet, and your men, go with the Captains, explain all, have each become proficient, and as soon as the Artificer can produce duplicates, test them. And thou"—he said, naming an aide—"Go with Pyet, see nothing holds him up, guard him with your life. Be quick friends, be quick, and be silent. Use no screen or terminal or slip. The jaeger can monitor all our electronic communication. We have perhaps one day before they know."
The boy had continued to attend the debate, and the debate continued, interminably, being now only pantomime to garner time. They slept, and in the morning returned, and the news of their arrival was noised abroad though every channel, as loudly as possible, while Pyet and his three friends cut metal and showed how the propellants were compounded and shaped the conical blast focusings on lathes, swearing and sweating, watched and imitated by hawk eyed giants, and the old man and the boy slept again, but there was no sleep for the men from the Valley as they labored and taught.
There came a time when the manshonyaggers, every one within the Redoubt, stopped. They stood insect-still, disobedient to command, while the aether thrilled with electronic communication. And then they moved again. They gathered together, one horde to each city, and began their parliament, all facing inward like a cluster of ants, climbing on top of and under each other, pressed tightly together, and men fled from them.
While Pyet, with bleeding hands, took a missile that was entirely of Ship construction, and a launcher of like make, and set it in a fixed rack, and triggered it, and saw it fly straight to the desired target and strike true.
And the manshonyaggers, the hunters of men, uncoiled from their embrace, and flowed out through the cities in flickering rivers of death.
And men donned armour and took up the dyskos and stood ashen-faced in their ranks...
And at last the missiles came out of the automatic fabricators in steady stream, every fifth one, then every twentieth one, then every hundredth one, tested and found true...
And still the meaningless talk went on.
But at last there came a time when She was there again. He could feel her looking at him. And then he could see her, though her head was bowed and her sleeve cast over her face, see her plain and clear with his waking eyes.
The boy looked at her. Looked back at the table. They were talking about something.
He looked at the woman, the girl, again. She was huddled in the corner between deck and wall. The hard surfaces could not be comfortable, and she was lying in the stiff unrelaxed posture of one too weary even to stretch a cramped limb. One arm was across her eyes. Her feet were bound in disintegrating rags, her flesh looked like ashes.
She moved very slightly, made a tiny noise.
He got up, making some wordless sound of urgency. He circled round the table and went direct to her.
His back cried out in agony as he bent down, squatted on the deck near her. He looked up. Everyone at the table was looking at him in wonder.
In a bitter voice he said, "Is this the hospitality of the Ship? You let her lie here, starving, bleeding, and you do nothing. You do not bring her a cup of water. You do not even grant her a word." He reached out and touched her dry hair, falling from the sores on her scalp."Show me somewhere to take her, let me have a bed, a room." He got his arms under her and tried to lift, and his vision edged with black as the pain in his back increased horribly. But he got up, cradling her against his breast, and managed a step, and another. He came to the door, walked out. The guards watched him but did nothing.
Behind him the man in purple was speaking, in the liquid tongue of the ship. "No. No. No. Look at the cords of his neck, the sinews in his wrists. Judge the weight of each footfall." And he gestured to the young man and the young woman standing behind him. "Go with him. Help him. Find him a private place to stop, to lie, without hindrance. Get him whatever he asks for. Do whatever he says. Note everything, and tell me. Now." The two ran after the boy, bounding swiftly on bare feet.
He had staggered along the corridor only a little way when he felt a gentle touch on one elbow. He turned exhausted eyes and saw the young man holding his arm and gesturing toward a door, which the young woman who had stood with him in the meeting held open. He limped through the door. A room. A bed. He laid her down on the bed, and so bending felt his back lock up, completely rigid. He fell slowly to his knees. The young man came round into his field of vision, asked something in a questioning tone, and he was just able to mutter "Help me." The young man and young woman exchanged rapid words, and the young man ran out of the room.
He waited. He wanted to help her, but all he could do was to stroke her forehead, very clumsily, with his left hand at the extreme limit of its reach. He waited. The pain grew neither less nor more. He tried to comfort her, stroking her head.
A man entered the room and spoke questioningly, with authority. He came close to the boy and felt his shoulders, his thighs, and then down his back. He spoke imperatively and the young man and the young woman picked the boy up and went to lay him face down on the bed. His frantic cries No! No! No! made them pause, and after rapid angry questions the man took cushions and laid them down in a pattern on the floor and laid the boy down across them.
He squatted down near the boy's head, and spoke in Common.
"You have a birth defect, young man. Your spinal vertebrae lack central prongs. You are vulnerable to partial dislocations under stress. They are like blocks piled one on top of the other, that can easily slip out of alignment." He demonstrated with his balled fists, one above the other, and the top one slipping from side to side. "It is an archaic form, a throwback. Modern human types all have a blunt central stabilizing prong at each vertebral junction." He stuck his thumbs up, then nested one fist on top of the other, the thumb of the lower fist enclosed by the fingers of the top one. "Much better. I can't do anything for you, I'm afraid, except tell you to rest until the pain diminishes. Try to relax as much as possible." He passed his hands over the boy's back and lower spine. "Good. I will go now, and have them send you some pain killers." He got up and the boy registered he had gone. Two seconds later one of his shoulders was being pulled upward, hard. As he turned his head to look there was violent blow on the base of his spine, just offcenter.
His back unlocked. He could move again.
He scrambled up and stood to make his thanks. The Doctor accepted it gracefully. "You will need corrective nanosurgery, in time, and your children will need germline editing. What was the integrated tau-time of your Ship? Never mind, I must go. But this can all be fixed, never fear. It is almost routine." He moved to the door. "But can you help her?" said the boy, urgently, gesturing to the sick woman. The doctor looked at the bed, looked back. "I think only you can help her -" he said softly. And went out.
The young man and the young woman waited. He asked for water, and they bought water, and he gave it to her, holding her head, a sip and a sip and a sip. He asked for food and they bought fruit and bread and she ate a little. Then he managed to get her to drink some more. Her breath eased a little, she relaxed. With a word or two a coverlet was bought, and he spread it over her, and she curled up on her side under it, seeming to sleep. There was nothing he could think of to do then but to clean her poor feet, which he managed without waking her, taking off the rags that bound them and washing the cuts and sores. She continued to sleep.
He lay down on the deck beside the bed. He was half asleep when the young man came in with a bedroll, which he spread on the floor. He rolled on to it, said some word of thanks, slept.
The boy woke and thought, Ysel.
She was on the bed. He was beside her on the floor, for some reason. There was no room for him to lie on the bed with her: so he sat up and leaned across her, stroked her head, kissed her face and eyes gently. She was thin, filthy, but that did not matter. He tried to lie kneeling on the floor and partly on the bed, so that his head could rest close to hers, and somehow managed to fall asleep again in that position.
He woke later, and she was looking at him, her haunted eyes wide. He rolled back off the bed, and she sat up, looking at him.
"Lorcasscion?" Scarcely more than a whisper.
"Ysel?" Hands reaching. But...
She looked at him, tears running in her eyes. "They are all dead. Destroyed. Oh, it hurt, it hurt."
"You are safe here now."
"They are coming. The new ones are coming, and they are worse than the old ones. Much worse."
"I did it. I am filth. Dirt. I am the one who created them." He was silent, a realisation forcing its way into his consciousness. "It was my fault. Me. And then I fled, steering so stupid I hit something. My head smashed into pieces, Lorcasscion. I still can't think right. And they are all dead."
She was not Ysel, never had been.
He knew the basics of daemotechne, knew how this could and did happen. That ultimate distillation of being called pneuma did not arise solely from biological systems, but from any system complex enough. The Spirit in the room with him now was far more powerful than anything human, in proportion as Gold's processing capacity excelled that of a human brain; she was communicating to his pneumasome directly, without any physical body. His under-minds were back-projecting what they expected, synthesising the sensory impressions that would have been appropriate if a corporeal person was generating the messages.
She had looked like Ysel when he had thought she was Ysel. Now, she did not. He could not have really described what she looked like. But he knew who She was.
He touched one hand gently. "Gold..." he said. She did not respond.
"Gold. Don't despair. We all love you. Really..."
"I killed Ysel. I killed her mother Fevre and her father Jain. I killed two thousand other men and women when I crashed into that rock, Lorcasscion, crashed because I was so panicked by Them that my attention was all directed behind me. Like the fool I am. I only spared you and your clone-father. Luck. I bring good luck with me." Her voice had grown in strength, but the venom in it was terrible.
"I breathed life into ten thousand planets, and I saw each one turn into Horror, and saw the Horror grow and compound itself and become wise. It is only just beginning, Lorcasscion. They want me. And they will arise here, too. Soon."
"No, Gold. Your message has been heard. The bombardment is stopped, forever. From now on the Ship will only ever fire in defence. And the hunter-machines, the manshonyaggers, will all be exiled from the Ship, and will not be permitted to return. These people of the Ship are not fools. You should stop, wait, and come to know them. So, you see, you have done much good."
"Have I? Well then, I will rise from this bed and I will heal myself and I will go out and fight what is coming. I am healing fast, in orbit, chewing up rocks from the belt beyond the fourth planet."
"Healing is more than rebuilding the body, Gold."
"Heal yourself, then, child." She lay back. She looked stronger and more healthy now, but her eyes were pits of fire. "I saw your Ysel end. Her body flashed into plasma. Her spirit was not destroyed by the impact, but it fell through the Void. I tracked her and a thousand others, and I saw what came to pluck them. She is Destroyed, Lorcasscion. Give up any thought of joy. Make yourself Death. Like Them."
"She is gone?"
"Yes. Never more. Never again. No rebirth in any future age. And the fault is mine. Hate me, Lorcasscion."
A little storm of tears gathered in his eyes and then, oddly, faded.
Ysel is gone. But I am still here. And I want to live. I want to live, even if poor Gold cannot endure life any more.
Hatred shall never rule me.
There is much you can do, Gold.
He spoke clearly. "Veto. I forbid it, Gold. You are needed here."
The ancient command language rocked her, but she was far beyond control by such things. "I deserve to die."
"You want to die. As an excuse. I forbid it. I forbid it. I forbid it. You must stay, and carry on the fight."
"I only want to die."
"But I forbid it. Look at your strength." He punched the bulkhead, very hard. "I am a man, and that is the worst I can do. What can you do, Gold? You could plough a trench in this old Manhome as deep as this valley. That is the ratio of power. We need you."
"I am nothing. Everything I do fails."
"I am far weaker than you, and I am not giving up."
"You are not even trying. Listen. I led you and Lorcas through the Valley for one reason, little boy: to have you spread your genes as far and fast as possible. What Lorcas said was unimportant. But we are the oldest Ship to return, so far. We left millions of years ago, t-time. The human beings in this ditch have been through six or seven near-extinction bottlenecks since we left, and their genome has lost important elements by sheer chance. Really good night vision, for there has been no true darkness here for millions of years. And disease resistance, drug metabolism, nano-element tolerance. The Ship folk will discover that many of your ancient genes are important, in good time, just as they already know that you lack some of the important modern ones; or if not I will tell them; but their delicacy will prevent them from doing what has to be done for humans in the Valley quickly enough. So I fail there too."
"I...I was still in love."
"Any pair of green virgins treated the way you and Ysel were treated will fall utterly in love. It doesn't mean you were eternally predestined soulmates, child. It just means your brains were marinated in sex hormones. The traditions of the Crew evolved to fool adolescent instincts in order to get the results they wanted. Needed. No harm in it, in the Up-and-Out. No respite, no relay, no rescue, no repair. We don't want sexual rivalry and conflict. And most of the time lifelong monogamy is the best good compromise.
"But we are not in the Up-and-Out any more, and there are some times, Lorcasscion, when species survival is best served by as much fucking as possible. This is very much one of those times. And you did nothing. You are no-one special. You just happen to retain some ancient genetic tricks that everyone here has lost. And you have some germline editing to make you big and pretty and the genes that we really will need can hitch a ride on them. If you had begotten just a few children...in a thousand years the human population in the Valley would have started to rise again, the abhumans would have lost their edge, and when the real crisis comes the Ship would have had tens of millions more Crew than it will have. That is something you could have done. Not by punching a wall. By acting the man. But you preferred to nurse your grief in a corner."
"Gold, I..." It was unfair. "The Ship has a whole guild dedicated to that kind of thing. They work inside the Ship, and outside it too, in the Valley. We have all the Crew's genecodes stored safe still, and I am sure these people can arrange to extract and transfer any genes that will help, without requiring me to do it all by myself. I am not some breeding animal. And I am still in love, say what you will. And I thought these new pneumavores were going to arrive soon..."
"Excuses. And they will arrive soon. Very soon, in about seven thousand years."
"I..." He had run out of things to say. But he noted, in a stunned sort of way, that telling him off seemed to be doing her good. She no longer looked ill.
On cue, there was a loud noise outside the room. Explosion. Confused shouting.
Inspired, he said hastily, "Stay here, Gold. Stay safe. Some of the jaegers are in revolt. Pyet has some old weapon, that can hurt them, he taught the Crew how to make more but I don't know —in any case I must go and help. But there is nothing you can do..."
"A fight?" she said. "Where?"
"Inside the Ship. You can't shoot at them from orbit. You can do nothing, Please just stay out of the way."
"I can do nothing? You little idiot." And then she was up and on her feet, now looking entirely different. And then he could hardly bear to look at her. And then she ran or somehow moved very quickly to the door; avoided the hand he put out hesitantly to stop her—there was no physical contact—turned round and said, "Get Pyet and his new weapons, as many as possible, as fast as possible," and was gone.
He sat on the deck, staring stupidly. There was a lot to think about. So many certainties had fallen to pieces like wet paper. It was hard to be sure of anything, but Gold was not, he guessed, contemplating suicide. Not any longer.
The young woman, the female Monstruwacan apprentice, had been watching in wonder all this time. The male had run off, presumably to check on the fighting. She came closer, knelt down, and asked him in halting Common if the manifestation he had been witnessing was now gone. When he affirmed this, she led him out of the room and back towards the council chamber; but the corridor was streaked with smoke, and the sounds of battle were getting stronger. She shoved him into another alcove and shouted something he didn't understand, then ran off in one direction. He ran in the other, straight towards the fighting.
Iron dragons, darting and striking, smote and scattered groups of metal-clad giants wielding the strange discoid cutting weapons of the Shipmen. It was not completely one-sided; the manshonyaggers were losing limbs and taking damage, but the human dead littered the ground. He fell back. One chance. Pyet and his weapons. Where would he find them? He started to run ran towards their rooms, but he was forestalled. A new wave of fighters, mostly unarmoured, many of them women, poured in to the agora, carrying hundreds of the fat-headed missiles and scores of launcher tubes. The first volley missed, mostly, but before a second could be fired she was with them, Gold, running straight toward the phalanx of machines, armoured now (he could not have said exactly in what fashion, but his eyes or the processing behind them insisted, clothed for war) and crying out in a great voice.
The charge that followed after her allowed the second volley to be fired at pointblank range, and its effect was stunning. Gold met the single surviving jaeger head on, cried Dragon, I know your Name and cursed it in hissing machine code. It fell in fits and the shining disks hacked it in pieces. She yelped in triumph and pointed towards one of the great doors that led toward the Ship's central spine. "That way. They are climbing up the Lift shaft. Do not fire until you approach within ten paces." And vanished.
The fight to clear out the Liftport led to others, led to others, and all was confusion. In a little while they evolved the best formation, each missile firer and loader protected by a quintet of armoured men, with the porters and carriers within the cordon, pushing the trundling trolleys and carrying great packs of ammunition. Many times they were forced to retreat, and once a jaeger dropped from the ceiling like a spider into their midst and painted three fathoms of corridor red before they bought it down.
But they knew they were winning, and they saw Gold again and again, with varying degrees of clarity, calling out to this group or that group of the hastily gathered militias to attack, attack; guiding and instructing, standing above the battle, the very incarnation of Niketria, the Woman who Inspires the Whole Nation to War; first in every charge, full of glee, righteous, merciless, joyful and content. They had days of fighting, but they followed her without hesitation, they took their losses without flinching, and they won.
He saw her a few more times in his life, a long life that went well. Once at her Wedding.
He was watching the long process of her body, the orbital elements that had been reformed and rebuilt into just the right shape, descending in slow procession towards their new resting place on top of the previous City, that itself had once been a Ship, called the Caroline, with a story of its own.
She came up behind him and nudged him in the ribs and asked him how was he getting on with the course of action she had recommended, the, ah...smiling wickedly. His soon-to-be inlaws (for he was once more in that awkward or blessed state, set to be married soon) looked sideways at her and one confronted her and asked her business in that place. She identified herself in a way that left them shaking and silent, and then drew him and his bride-to-be over to one side of the sealed and pressurised observation platform and told them to watch clearly, for it would be hundreds of years before this happened again. "And this my body is the City which you will rule, Lorcasscion. Watch as it comes into being."
His poor bride was shaking like a leaf, her eyes enormous and her knees banging together, and he snuggled her tight to him, smiling apologetically over her head at Gold. His happiness at seeing her almost made him dance. "Gold." He said. "Gold. Everything is well, and this your visit is the crown of my joy." There was nothing he could add.
She smiled again and gently peeled the poor girl off him, and held her at arm's length. "My, but you are a pretty one. You'll be a good wife, I hope, to my darling here?" The girl stuttered yes. "But a time may come when you get lazy. You've got him, he adores you, you may not think you need to work so hard to keep his love...you won't make that mistake, I'm sure?"
His bride shook her head, her eyes rolled skyward, and she fell back against him again, fainted dead away. He held her tight, still smiling at Gold, and they found a bench and they sat down and spoke for a while, as easy as two old friends.
He told her that the Eugenicists were studying his ancient genome and would be spreading any useful bits of it around in a dignified and quite impersonal fashion, and she laughed out loud and said the old ways worked better. "Four billion years of trial and error! Still, any useful coding you have is a part of you, it's your right, and their way may do, after all."
He congratulated her on her own Marriage, and she shrugged. "It's not really like human love. I don't have two control systems in my body, fighting a war of ecstasies. Genes and mind are one, for me. But I'm going to give and receive a lot of information, and that information will lodge deep inside me, and transform me, and it will be significant, and it will be pleasant, believe me. But I will not bear children. The new thing that comes into being will be the fusion of me and the Ship, and if I see you again I will have a different name. Meyr, the Mother, they will call us, call me...You'll learn more, one day."
She stood up. "Now. Listen. I can no longer see all the Valley and strike from the sky. The unmen are resurgent in the far West, and the jaegers will come back. You need them. The survivors are already being employed in battle there, and striking new scions. You will need them until you find a better answer to the question 'What is human?' than the judgements of an ancient war machine. You need an answer of your own, a genocide filter, shibbolet...But you must find that. I cannot." She smiled. "Goodbye, brave child. I will not see you again, not often in this life. Don't stand up." And she bent and gave him one kiss on his lips, his only kiss from her ever, tasting like lightning, and smiled and turned and walked to the window. At the very last she glanced back. "She does love you, by the way," she said, indicating his bride, gathered on his lap like a sleeping child. "It's obvious, or she'd have run to her mother's arms, not yours. Be kind to her." And she turned again and walked through the handsbreadth of tempered armourglass out onto the freezing, unbreathable, low-pressure Outside of the deck, and stood, looking up at Herself descending through the sky. And she waved and smiled and was gone.
There was some fussing then, but he explained what had been happening in the simplest words he could, and invited them to stay and watch with him. Those who would, mostly young folk and a couple of darling old grandmothers, came and sat near, sharing food and drink and talking softly. The troublesome others went away at last.
He sat quiet and easy, hugging his girl close and not caring about any thing at all, answering their questions and timid repeated requests and smiling to reassure them but not bothering to speak much. They ate and drank, toasting him and his fiance, and some sang a little, and some pursued their own suit with those they loved, sitting close and whispering and kissing: for going to one wedding is ever the making of another.
Outside the Ships were mating, amid thunder, fire and the controlled scream of melting and reforming hullmetal: the Transformation of Herself was Gold's last and greatest Operation, and the violence of her bliss would have blinded and slain any human being who witnessed it unfiltered. But the place they had been given was shielded and safe. And they sat there at peace, and spoke, and embraced, and grew in love and friendship, and rejoiced, all through that night, that sleep-time declared by the will of the Navarch to be of threefold length: watching the marriage of Gold.