A bleak and timeworn beauty lingered in the rock-strewn waste of the eastern Bight, and Astren, as she hiked through it, took pleasure in its melancholy grandeur. Around her in the distance towered the Walls of the World — the massive black cliffs of staggering height that enclosed the L-shaped Great Valley. An immense canyon opened westward through the Walls; and through the gap she could see the dying sun, a motionless disk of sullen ochre that smoldered in the tawny sky. It cast a feeble ruddy light across the chill and desolation round about her.
Yesterday, she'd travelled out from the City by the Lake of Bronze to add to the cache of supplies she was accumulating in the barrens; and at that time, she'd heard the scurrying of small animals concealed amongst the patchy vegetation, and the squawking of a flock of anteliornis on the Lake. But now, as she returned to the City, all seemed unnaturally quiet. A breathless stillness had spread across the land, as if it lay drowned beneath a tide of silence. The shards of dead coral crunched into the friable soil beneath her boots; but nothing else, save her own breathing, seemed to stir.
What's happening? If something's out here hunting, I should feel it, she thought. But the aether itself seemed hushed. To the south she could see the pale glow of the City's lights; but she couldn't sense the telempathic noise invariably produced by the minds of its fifty-eight thousand inhabitants.
Her brows knit, and she halted and turned, to scan her surroundings. A furlong to the northwest, a low-lying pool of fog marked the position of a magma-warmed spring; beyond it, far off, she could see smoke from a range of volcanoes curling skyward. To the north, many leagues away, a second huge opening gaped in the Walls of the World; and she eyed it warily. But she spied nothing noteworthy on the northern barrens, either with her unaided eyes or with binoculars. When she turned eastward, she could see the glare of a lava lake reflected dully against the foot of the gargantuan red-black cliffs; but again she detected nothing that could have produced the uncanny calm.
Peculiar. — Could the Heritage have invented some sort of an aetheric damper? She frowned. The basic research she'd seen published suggested that no human or perihuman power was close to creating such a device. Nor was the Federation for the Furtherance of the Heritage of Humankind well equipped to pursue aetheric research — they so distrusted anyone who might be able to make contact with the bizarre and deadly Outsiders that they routinely killed all the communers in the cities they controlled. But what else could produce such an effect?
For once, I'll be glad to back inside the City walls, she thought as she set off again, quickening her pace.
Soon the coral scrub ended, its old southern reaches buried beneath a millennium-old lava plain. She started to cross the plain, stepping carefully over its ropy black pahoehoe formations . And she stopped, suddenly.
She felt an evanescent contact in the aether — the touch of another mind, subtle as the brush of a single strand of spider's silk.
Her spine prickled, and she slipped her plasma lance out of its holster. Only another communer could have impinged upon her mind in quite that fashion — and not many human communers were left in the Great Valley, now that the Heritage controlled every city but her own.
Her lips compressed and her knuckles white, she stood motionless, listening.
Nothing disturbed the aether, and finally Astren began walking again. But she didn't, immediately, sheathe the lance. Ever since the Unforgivable Experiments had breached the Earth's defenses and allowed the bizarre and ominous entities of the Outer Circle to invade, the inhabitants of the Great Valley had had worse to fear than beasts, other humans, or their near-human kindred. Too many of the Outsiders were pneumavores — psychic predators and parasites.
They had found human psyches rich enough to feed upon, and scarcely adapted to resist them.
Astren had ridden nearly a mile ahead of the caravan, armed with lance and rifle. Few jobs held more peril than the position of forward scout, but she'd survived to travel more of the ancient Road than anyone else in the Bight.
A party of a dozen people had approached, heading in the opposite direction. From a distance they'd looked like an ordinary merchant family from the Tableland. She hadn't spotted anything unusual when they'd closed to fifty yards — but something had put her off, something indefinable. She'd fired a flare to warn the caravan's guards behind her, even before she'd recognized the faint aetheric chitter that distorted the timbres of their minds, and even before she'd spotted the waxy grey pockmarks on their exposed skin.
They were Ridden.
She'd drawn her lance as soon as she'd fired the flare — still almost too late to save herself. The Riders within the human hosts had begun to utter the vertigo-inducing infrasonics with which they stunned new victims. But the whole colony had recoiled in shock when her lance had cracked and struck the Ridden nearest to her.
She still remembered the man's face as he'd fallen, his sleepwalker's glazed expression giving way to an all-too-human look of agony and horror as he came back to full awareness for a few ghastly seconds. Then he'd bucked and flailed as the convulsions started. The Rider was trying to abandon him, to escape the destruction of its human host, but it had so altered his nerves and brain that he could not survive without it.
Later, she and certain of the guards had hunted down the rest of the colony. The hardest to kill had been the parasitized little girl. Astren had done it herself with the heaviest plasma cannon she could borrow, on the highest setting, so that the throes were over before they could begin.
After that, the dry heaves had hit her; and she'd spoken to no one, all the way back to camp.
By the time Astren had left the lava barrens behind, and had reached the plains near the Lake of Bronze, the strange hush had lifted. She could see the watchtowers ringing the City's walls, and the floodlights on its battlements; she could also sense the droning that emanated from it. At this distance, it sounded to her communer's sense like the buzzing of a beehive. From long experience, she knew that the closer she drew to it, the more it would jangle, as it resolved into a cacophony of individual signals broadcast into the aether.
Astren had long speculated that the unrelenting aetheric discord of the cities was why so many communers disappeared in adolescence, not long after their talents had manifested. The need to escape the onslaught of empathic noise had often driven her out beyond the city walls in her youth, despite the danger. Perhaps she'd escaped the fate of the others because she'd avoided — barely — the temptation to call out into the red twilight, hoping to be answered by someone who understood.
Certainly, the desire for quiet had inspired her choice of occupations — she'd chosen to become a scout partly out of curiosity, but mostly because she desperately needed a way to survive, for extended periods, outside city walls.
Her lips quirked. She never approached her intermittent home without mixed feelings, but sometimes she needed a respite from the dangers of the wilds more than she needed the calm of their aether. Some day, she'd have to learn to get by without ever returning to the shelter of city walls. Time would bring Heritage rule to the City, now that it stood alone in its independence; the only question was — how much time?
She hoped she could afford to buy a spare plasma lance for her cache before the City came under Heritage control, forcing her out into the wilderness for good. But since the Carven City had fallen to the Heritage a year ago, her own city had no trading partners more sophisticated than the nearest large perihuman settlement. Prices for such manufactures as weapons had shot up drastically almost at once; she'd had to spend nearly four months' earnings just to replace the shielding in the plasma tube, when she'd last taken her lance to the smith. A second weapon was still well out of her reach.
Three days later, Astren sat at her desk, dictating an article for The Chronicle of the City by the Lake of Bronze. The shielding she'd installed in her apartment, and its height above the City's streets, kept the aetheric din that prevailed among the crowds below from rasping her nerves too raw: only a muted brook-babble of emotion reached her.
At length, she laid down the microphone and stretched; then she critically read the text on the screen.
You already know about the latest attack on a caravan travelling toward the City by a raiding tribe of Rufous Folk. You know that the Rufous Men flayed all the true humans accompanying the caravan, and then impaled their red, skinless, and still-thrashing bodies on stakes, to blacken by the side of the Great Valley Road. The Heritage news release of three days ago provided a graphic record of the atrocity, as the smoke still rising from the perihuman quarter after the resulting riot attests.
Let me assure you that that datastream is accurate — as far as it goes.
What you don't know yet is that the reason the Heritage could provide such horrific footage is that a Heritage battalion was stationed less than two miles away. Despite their outnumbering the Rufous Men by five to one, the only action they took while seven men and two women screamed in agony was to send a scout with a camera.
"How could you possibly know that?" the Heritage supporters among my readers will demand. "Who told you?"
Nobody told me. Nobody had to. I'm a scout and an explorer, and my view of the world outside the City walls isn't limited to what the news services choose to show me. I saw the carnage from the Headland South of the Lake, a quarter of a mile below me. I listened to the screams and cursed under my breath because I was a lone woman carrying a light lance and a rifle, not two companies of soldiers armed with heavy plasmatics.
I'm a sniper. I did what had to be done with that rifle.
Readers of this publication know me as a critic of the Heritage, but I've always supported their policy calling for the eradication of the Rufi raiding tribes — a policy the raiders themselves have made it extremely hard to quarrel with. There could have been no question, during those hideous hours, that the use of all force against the raiders was justified. So why didn't the Heritage troops act to protect the lives of the helpless humans in that caravan?
Was it miscommunication, as some diehard Heritage supporters will surely insist? Was it the fog of war — never mind that the battalion wasn't engaged? Or is it that the Heritage considers nine people dying by torture a small price to pay for the ill will the Rufi action has roused against the perihumans in this city? How many cities have fallen to the Heritage only after riots fomented by their supporters are quelled by their troops arriving to impose martial law?
Where would the Heritage be without the Enemy?
There was more she wished she could cover, but she didn't have the space, and so she transmitted the article to Loren, the editor of The Chronicle, as it was.
I'm not sure even my sister would recognize me. I look like a used-up harlot, Astren thought as she stared at her reflection in the cracked mirror of the women's washroom. Heavy shadows now marked the hollows of her eyes; deep lines of worry etched her sallow skin; her newly-cropped hair, dyed a yellow-brown, hung limp and oily against her skull. She wore a frayed tunic and a stained skirt; she stood, slump-shouldered, like the City's hopeless poor.
Seventeen days ago, she'd written her article for The Chronicle. Five days ago, the City by the Lake of Bronze had finally caved in before a Heritage siege, assisted, as she'd predicted, by uprisings within; and she'd been trapped within the City. She'd always kept the fact that she was a communer secret; but since the Heritage counted their political opponents as traitors to humanity, they would certainly arrest Astren if they could identify her. Thus, some of her new shabbiness was deliberate disguise.
Stress had caused the rest. For days now she had been locked into the Six-East Honeycomb with its other denizens, while a miasma of anxiety, helpless resentment, and despair festered in the aether, beneath the deceptive calm of boredom. She wished she could stop her aetheric sense, but she hadn't dared to bring any shielding devices from her apartment, for fear of calling attention to herself. As she left the washroom to step into the corridor of the honeycomb, she moved with a subdued despondence that blended in perfectly with the attitudes of its other inhabitants.
The combs looked like their namesakes, on a grand scale: hexagonal cells a bit more than a yard across were stacked row upon row. Her own cell was up on the second tier, accessible via a ladder and catwalk, so she had to climb to reach it and unlock its hatch. Some of her neighbors had left their hatches open and were leaning out to talk. Preoccupied, she nodded to them.
A second passed before Astren remembered to react to her assumed name. She glanced over to the second cell on her right, where an unusually pale and plump-looking woman was peering out, while trying to comfort a little girl only slightly darker and thinner.
"Hello, Leni," Astren answered. She smiled, though she knew that the expression must appear more wan than cheering on her haggard face.
"You haven't heard anything, have you?"
Astren shook her head. "No one's been allowed out of the comb yet." The occupation forces had welded bars to the doors at the top of the stairwells leading up to ground level, and had stationed guards there until the residents could be screened for loyalty to humanity. The only good thing about the situation was that the residents had received food deliveries regularly during the days they'd been penned here.
"I hope they let us leave the City."
"I hope so, too," said Astren. But she looked away as she said it. Leni was pale blond, and her face and hands had some of the smooth plump look of the Delvers, a troglodytic branch of humanity who had adapted to the cold and the dimness of the land by becoming near-albinos with a heavy layer of subcutaneous fat for insulation. Astren suspected that the other woman was a City-Delver hybrid. Neither she nor her daughter would fare well under the new regime.
Astren saw that Leni was consoling her child again, so she hoisted herself into her dark and nearly-empty cell and lay down on her sleeping bag.
The bag, and some clothing heavy enough to protect her from the cold outside the City, were the only things that she had dared to bring with her. She had been forced to forsake everything that might connect her to her former life: she had abandoned her mementos of her family, her friends, her books, and her own writing. She had even, with considerable reluctance, left behind her lance. The indigent and uneducated woman she was pretending to be could never have afforded one, and if she'd been caught with it, she couldn't have explained it.
She closed the cell's hatch, but this merely deadened the drone and babble of voices reaching her ears, and it did nothing to quiet the thumps and creaks caused by people moving around in their own cells. That she could never find silence in the combs vexed her; it was second only to the place's dismal aether as a source of discomfort. Since they'd been locked in, there had been several killings — all but one of them caused by someone's persistent refusal to shut up.
A raucous braying jolted Astren half-awake. She had reached reflexively for her lance; only after her fingers closed upon nothing did her sleep-slowed mind resolve the noise into words from a loudspeaker.
" ... repeat, all residents will be escorted to the Examiners for determination of their eligibility to remain within the City limits ..."
Astren sat up groggily, then sighed and reached into her backpack for a long-acting tranquilizer and a tack — her equipment for fooling the detector, which posed the greatest threat to her. The tranquilizer would mute all of her stress reactions; the tack, placed in the outside edge of her shoe so that she could conveniently rock her foot onto it, would allow her to add stress responses when she answered innocuous questions, so that her answers to the dangerous ones wouldn't stand out.
Eleven hours later, Astren lurched out of the Detention Center into the unchanging rusty sunlight she hadn't beheld in days. The tranquilizer had worn off, and the release from tension tempted her to laugh giddily. Instead, she walked farther down the street, to slip into the recessed doorway of a bolted and shuttered shop. Then she leaned against the door, slipped her shoe off, and pried the tack out of it.
Her disguise had worked. The Heritage scrutinized the backgrounds of those who had the education and the resources to lead — they might be effective troublemakers — but the feckless poor received only cursory attention. There had been a tense moment when she'd confessed to being a petty thief in order to account for the nervousness she'd felt when asked about her occupation. But the Examiner she'd faced was not an interrogator skilled at cracking cover stories; he was, instead, an overworked bureaucrat who'd asked only routine questions, and who had gazed more often at the clock's face than at hers.
She rubbed her bandaged left forearm. It still smarted: when the Examiner was satisfied, the technicians had tattooed her. Her skin now permanently bore her name, an identification number, and a certification of the City-bred purity of her genes; in ink that would eventually fade, it noted her residence in the Six-East Honeycomb. Those of higher status received their marks in a clear ink that fluoresced in ultraviolet light; hers was a visible brand that would forever stigmatize her as a scrub in any Heritage domain. But avoiding a thorough background check was worth the disfigurement.
I hope the others get through it. If they read Thansa's papers, or Loren's articles —
She noticed her fists had clenched, and consciously relaxed them.
Astren clutched a ragged shawl over her head and made her way back to the comb. She was tired and her feet ached, because she'd been walking around in worn thin-soled shoes that suited her current persona. But she still contemplated — briefly and madly — turning around and walking away again, even though it was nearly curfew.
Just one more night, she told herself, as she showed her tattooed arm to the guard, who checked her name off on the list of residents. I can stand one more night.
But, as she descended the metal stairs, she caught her breath. She felt as if despair, shot through with grief and anger, had driven the air from the room and soon would drown her. The comb dwellers spoke in murmurs and tense whispers of the missing: one in five had not returned from the examination.
Occasionally, flashes of malicious satisfaction mingled with the emotions of the mourners, as here and there a vengeful neighbor smirked instead.
Leni's cell, of course, was one of the unoccupied. Astren tried not to look at it as she crawled into her own.
The Heritage demanded that anyone leaving their cities present an exit permit she'd had no prospect of obtaining; and the guards had been searching the departing merchants' wagons. But Astren had noticed that not even the most conscientious guards cared to closely inspect the wagons carrying organic refuse outside the City's walls.
Thus, two days later, she crouched low in a compost heap that stank to the Abandoned Heights, feeling cramped and nauseated. The rubbish was newly dumped, and the vapors rising from it had not yet frozen; they masked the mist of her breath.
To the south, she could see the City's lights shining in the sepia gloom. To the west, lurid sunlight glowed through plumes of smoke and acid steam rising from the volcanoes south of the Black Hills.
Nearer at hand, a column of prisoners and their guards marched along the road in silhouette, their forms visible against the tarnished-bronze sheen of the lake's surface. The man-tall shapes of Pioneer Dogs trotted alongside the human and perihuman figures, so close that they certainly would have discovered Astren, if the reek of the offal around her hadn't masked her scent.
Not daring to move, she watched them pass. She saw former respected citizens mixed indiscriminately among hardened criminals of every variety. Fur-traders of the shaggy Rufous Folk were driven along with captured caravan-raiders; Delver merchants trudged beside the members of a snatch gang who'd sold their victims as slaves — or as food: the gang had dealt with Outsiders.
Behind them, in a motley assortment of part-humans, Leni stumbled forward with red puffy eyes. There was no sign of her little girl.
Only a third of the prisoners were perihumans and hybrids. The Heritage had condemned many humans for treason to the species, and Astren spotted some of her own colleagues from the Hall of Study, or from the News Service, in the column. She thought she recognized Loren, though she only saw him briefly before others cut off her view. He kept his balding head lowered and his back hunched; on his face swelled a bruise so large and livid that she suspected his cheekbone had been smashed.
Astren's stomach knotted as if she'd been kicked. I hope that's not Loren. I hope. But the cynical underside of her mind added: I'll bet they took offense at his article on the number of full-blooded humans they've worked to death building the Great House.
I'll bet the Great House is where they're going, too.
Eventually, the guards' lights, and the tramp of many feet, receded to the northwest. Astren crawled out of the compost and hauled her tarp-wrapped backpack after her. Then she looked back toward the City's north watchtower, and carefully eyed the rotation of the infrared scanner. By the time she stood to sprint toward the spinegrove three hundred yards off, the scanner's eye was spinning away from her.
Escaped at last! she thought, as she dashed from her hiding place in a jumble of boulders to drop, shivering and panting, behind an escarpment. She could no longer be seen from the watchtower — she knew, because she'd helped maintain the City's defenses herself, and because she'd thoroughly explored the local landscape. Whoever would have thought that I'd flee the City as if its instruments were the eyes of a monster?
She threw the stinking tarp and her befouled clothing into a fissure, and then spent an hour scrubbing with pumice soap in a hot spring before she dressed again, this time in insulated garments suited to the chill of the wilderness. After that, she sought out her cache, to add to the meagre stock of provisions she'd been able to carry out with her.
Finally, she located a firehollow. The lava in the central pit cast an orange glow upward, onto the surrounding black basalt; by its light, she extracted her sleeping bag from her backpack and unrolled it on the flattest rock she could find. Then she lay down to drowse in the warmth. Exhaustion had already levelled her emotions; her stiff muscles began to relax.
I'll sleep soon — too soundly, maybe. But there's nothing I can do about that. Anyway, I almost don't care what eats me, as long as it doesn't wake me up first.
As Astren slept, huddled in the firehollow's warmth, a wild and distant cry shivered the aether, and pricked at her awareness without waking her. At first it sounded like an oddly resonant wind keening down through the Great Valley from the Abandoned Heights; her dreaming mind only placed it as a descant when her communer's sense registered the lower notes of the eerie melody it counterpointed.
There had been other occasions when she'd caught the echoes of an undersong within the aether; but not before tonight had its tones carried strongly enough for her to know that she had not imagined it. In it she perceived a strand of an alien emotion that she would have described as elation, if there had not been a curiously cerebral quality to it; this interlaced with an equally reflective, yet profound, sense of loss.
Even half-asleep, she knew it for the voice of an Outsider. Had it roused her to full consciousness, she would have recognized her peril; since she'd been forced to abandon all her other countermeasures, she would have whispered rhymed and cadenced verses to herself to block out its influence. But she slept, and so the call entranced her before she could defend against it; and it kindled in her a yearning for a forgotten splendor that had glittered in the darkness of the ancient sky.
She sank back into slumber when the aether stilled, but the influence of the song lingered.
When Astren awoke, she frowned as her eyes opened to the heavens. In that first instant she had, impossibly, expected to see a spangled expanse of sapphire. But the sky, as always, was a russet murk; and over the western lip of the hollow, the red sun glowered.
She shook her head to clear it, then wriggled partway out of her sleeping bag and propped herself up, feeling the roughness of the basalt ledge against her palms. Heat and orange light rose from the lava pool in the central pit of the firehollow, far below.
That's one night passed, and I'm still alive ... I wonder — when was the last time anyone survived more than three days alone in the wilderness, armed only with a knife?
It would probably take her four days to cross the northern Bight and reach Geode Camp, a mixed Delver-and-human mining settlement in the Black Hills. If Delver feeling against city-bred humanity hadn't grown too strong, she still might be find a temporary place to stay there.
She knew that finding a permanent home there would be impossible. Now that the Heritage had taken the last free city in the Valley, they would begin to send small detachments of troops to destroy the lesser outposts of resistance. But perhaps they wouldn't bother with Geode until they'd finished the Great House and had complete command of the northern Road. She could hope, anyway.
So she made ready to travel, and scrabbled up out of the firehollow onto the coral-clumped plain. She walked steadily to the northwest, keeping to cover when she could; and late in the day she crossed the bridge over the White River.
Astren camped in a spinegrove that night; and again she dreamed.
Once more she beheld sapphire skies alight with tiny diamonds. This time she walked beneath them, through drifts of snow that gleamed blue beneath the light of a shining silver crescent. A keen wind stung her face with frozen crystals whipped up from the drifts, and she shivered as she looked skyward.
In the heavens strange diaphanous curtains of colored fire rippled and floated, like the slow-falling robes and veils of unearthly dancers. And something whispered to her, softer than the hiss of wind-driven ice.
The next evening, as she hiked up a rise, Astren began to see a yellow-white glow to the northwest; it stood out sharply against the blackness of the Walls of the World behind it. When she reached the crest and peered through her binoculars, she could see the rows of floodlights fixed to the turrets of the immense Great House, which sprawled across the summit of a low hill.
She could just barely make out, along the base of the House, the dimmer lights that marked the positions of the labor gangs and their guards. Nearer, columns of lanterns snaked along the Great Valley Road, as draymen hauled building materials to the construction site, or returned to the cities of the south.
She had meant to cross the Road to the south of the Great House, but the traffic was heavier than she had expected, and she could see a long row of lights moving across the landscape, like a line of beaters. Almost certainly they belonged to a Heritage patrol. They would have Pioneer Dogs with them, which meant that she couldn't afford to cross the Road where they might discover her scent trail.
She had little choice but to veer to the north, instead; but she hesitated, for a long moment. That would take her close to the Valley of the Shadow, where the Walls of the World blocked all sight of the sun. Amidst the perpetual darkness of the valley floor dwelt certain of the Outsiders who had wrought humanity's first major defeat, when they had thrust the Road Makers back to the Bight — though that greatest of all known human civilizations had then reached the zenith of its power.
She had no desire to meet them.
Four days later, Astren limped down to the bank of a warm stream flowing eastward out of the Black Hills. She passed a palisade of asymmetrical tree corals whose streamward sides were branchless, rimed with frost from the mists that rose from the purling water. Moisture-loving mesh corals grew on the banks, and their branches stretched out over the water's surface to form a dripping three-dimensional lattice; she had to break some of them in order to sink down, bone-weary, on a rock by the water's edge.
She craned her neck, to peer through the coral toward the Great House, now to the south of her. She could still see the floodlights on its high turrets, but no lesser lights moved across the umber landscape between it and the stream. That meant that no patrols were in the vicinity, and she slumped in relief. She ought to be out of their range, but the Pioneer Dogs might conceivably track her, regardless.
With more unease, she eyed the northern approach. The black bulk of the Walls of the World towered over the land here; and, in their midst, a scant few miles away, the great northern gap opened up onto the Slope Where the Great Road Ends, which led down to the Valley of the Shadow.
She grimaced and splayed her fingers along her temples. She wasn't sure she was capable of travelling on, even if there had been a hungry pneumavore over the next rise; at least, she probably wouldn't get far enough to make any real difference to her safety before she dropped from exhaustion. To evade the patrols, she'd had to slog on for almost a day and a half, with her halts short and infrequent; and she'd seldom had the chance to tend her feet, which hurt everywhere they weren't numb.
When she listened carefully to the aether, she could hear clicks and murmurs in the distance, but she sensed nothing nearby. Apparently safe for the moment, she took off her boots to lance and bandage her blisters. After that, since nothing happened to alarm her, she wolfed down her rations, washed some of her clothes in the stream and hung them over coral branches to dry, and then unrolled her sleeping bag. She climbed into it and fell asleep at once.
The first thing Astren saw when she began to wake was the crisscross of the coral branches overhead, darkly limned against the bronze sky. The fatigue of the previous two days lingered, and it took her another hour to shake off sleep altogether and sit up, brain-befogged; only after a moment of disorientation did she remember where she was. Hastily, she turned and looked toward the Slope then, but she saw nothing moving upon it.
Next she looked through the branches in the direction of the Great House. She could see the handheld spotlights borne by a line of soldiers passing her position; they made her uneasy, but they were a fair distance off, and she didn't expect their lights to be able to pick her out among the coral. But there was something else wrong.
She could barely detect them through the aether, even though she should have been able to sense their presence well before she could see them.
The Silence had returned.
I don't want to know what it is. All I want is to get out of here, she thought, as she hastily retrieved her clothing from the coral, shaking the frost from it. She rebandaged her feet as quickly as she could, acutely conscious of the empty space at her belt where the holster of her lance should be. She clambered to her knees and reached for her pack —
And the aether cracked and rang with stress-shivers that sounded like the splintering of tiny glass bells.
There came, toward the stream's banks, a cold and brilliant mind of terrible power — an awful presence that made the aether shudder with overtones of mystery and undertones of dread. No sound accompanied its arrival.
Then a tall figure entered her field of view, shrouded and veiled in dark draperies that made her think of shadow made substantial. For a long moment, it regarded her with wide eyes that had the gleam of the lost moon shining through them.
She stared up at it, her lips parted, her hand arrested in mid-motion. Her thoughts froze, as if her soul had held its breath.
After that, the aether quieted, and lost its unnatural stillness; again she could sense the Heritage squads in the distance, and she surmised that the entity had cloaked its strength.
When she discovered that she could move again, she rocked back onto her heels, staring at the thing still. Now what? she thought. She feared to address it, since it had not yet spoken; what was the etiquette of its kind? Finally she spread her hands to show that she held no weapon; then she stood, and bowed.
The Silent One inclined its dark shrouded head to her.
Astren let out a breath. She was still wondering whether she dared attempt her first-ever aetheric conversation with it when it half-turned and beckoned to her.
At that, she swallowed. But she took a tentative step after it, and then another, as it glided before her to the northwest, up from the stream's bank toward the Black Hills. She walked carefully, though her blisters were well bandaged; her boots left treaded prints behind in the frost that verged the streambed.
I've gone mad. I know this thing's an Eater. I could feel it, before it ... veiled.
I'll bet it's a stealth hunter. Who knew any of them could hide that way?
I wonder what would happen if I didn't follow.
I wonder what will happen if I do.
They had climbed part way up a hill, away from the thick corals of the stream, when one of the Heritage spotlights swept swiftly over the form of the Silent One, and then returned to fix upon it. Within seconds, the mix of wariness and boredom emanating from the patrol to the south vanished in a spike of fear, excitement, and aggression.
Astren knew what was coming — she'd seen enough Heritage contacts with Outsiders — and flung herself down the hill in a roll. The Silent One evidently anticipated the Heritage's next move as well, for it suddenly dissolved into shadowy filaments, and spilled down the slope like a river of black cirrus clouds in some surreal dream.
Abruptly a blinding white glare stabbed through the rusty twilight, while the air above sizzled and exploded in a thunderous crack. Astren ducked reflexively and covered her ears. Then she felt heat roiling down the slope toward her, and she crawled into a clump of barrel corals to shield herself.
Bright pain flared in the aether, close at hand; it quickly faded, to be replaced by an icy emotion that was not the seething of human anger, but a chill determination to destroy. An appalling energy began to build — and then it surged through the aether with the devastating force of a seismic wave on a sunless sea.
Astren, already prostrate, wrapped her arms about her head and ears in a futile but instinctive effort to ward it away. She began to shiver, and lay limp against the earth; as her field of vision greyed, she scarcely felt the small coral shoots that jabbed her in the cheek.
In a dazed way, she was aware of the passing of time.
Afterward, somehow, the aether shimmered about her, and an electric energy crackled lightly up her spine and about her head. She blinked, sat up, and turned around, to see the Silent One, less then ten feet away, lowering its dark-draped arm.
She averted her eyes from its disturbing gaze, brushed some grit from her face, and ran her fingers across her temples. What — ? Why are we alive? Oh. They didn't fire twice.
The aether had changed. The patrol ... still seemed to be in position. Still seemed to be alive. But she detected no indications of conscious thought from any of them.
She looked at the Silent One. But it merely beckoned to her again.
With a feeling of doomed fascination, she rose to follow. This time they skirted the hillside, avoiding the acrid smoke and steam rising from its calcined soil, and the blackened shards of coral on its slope.
They travelled over the dark rocks and red basalt soils of the Black Hills. Astren tried to keep her mind on remembering their route and on noting the flora and fauna, rather than speculating on the purposes of the enigma she was trailing. She stopped often to apply lubricant and bandages to her blisters — with some trepidation, the first time; but the Silent One had simply waited for her without evincing any impatience.
About the sixth hour, the aether stilled again, and she saw that they were heading toward a pale glow in the sky; but its origin was hidden by the masses of the Black Hills. At the seventh hour, they crested a hill. The Silent One halted at the top of it; and when Astren finally reached the top to look down into the valley below, she stopped, astonished.
Seven brilliant globes of light traced out a three-dimensional curve in the sky, supported by immense, fantastically wrought pillars that looked like black iron. Below them lay a great circular courtyard paved with pale limestone, and large enough to contain a small village; scattered outside the circle were cottages, and strange houses with turrets and silver-scaled roofs. Here and there she could see the figures of the inhabitants crossing the circle, or following pathways from dwelling to dwelling.
And the aether had burst into life again. She could feel thousands of minds spread out over the valley; a few of them felt like cloaked Silent Ones. But most of them impressed her as human, though they were stronger than any other human minds she'd ever encountered save her own; the atmosphere of the place felt quiet and calm, but there was a quicksilver responsiveness to it that she'd never encountered anywhere else. The moods of the inhabitants apparently fed back to each other, rapidly and continuously.
She stared at the valley for a long moment, and then turned back to the Silent One. So this is what became of all the others. Her never-used aetheric voice sounded hoarse and unsteady.
The Silent One lowered itself to a seat on a rock, its draperies flowing out around it like a black mist, to drift so slowly toward the ground that they seemed to be falling in low gravity. You look on the Place of the Memory of Stars. Its sending was soft enough, but it had the harmonics and the reverberation that Astren had come to associate with creatures that could effortlessly make themselves heard across the whole length of the Valley. I am the One That Sets Lights in a Silver Array, and Remembers the Singing of Stars in the Aeons of Brightness.
You're a pneumavore, aren't you? The one that's been haunting my dreams.
Why am I alive? She gestured toward the valley. Why are they?
Do keepers of bees rifle all the hive's honey at once? My kind are not bound to destroy when we feed. It paused, seeming to regard her; and then it stood, floating up from the stone. Descend, and ask of the others all you would know; tell them I said it is well that they find you a dwelling.
You're going somewhere else, then? Astren felt that the question was forward even as she asked it, but she could sense something in the Silent One's mind — a distracted pondering that felt not wholly placid — which sparked her curiosity.
The Silent One regarded her for a moment. The House Near the End of the Road is proving a trial. The People of Fear seem not to be comfortable neighbors.
Then it turned its attention away from her, and the aether rang with the complex cry that it uttered as it called to the others of its kind.
Astren turned and walked down toward the village. Why am I obeying so easily? Is it influence, or pure intimidation? she wondered to herself. But even as she asked the questions, a part of her mind, less cynical and analytical, whispered of the strange cold beauty of the Silent Ones' works.