Across the Night Land, strange things unlike stars, things that ate the stars, spread. Called Eaters, they were black, but shone in an odd way, sending out rays that were also their substance. They glittered, and everything that came near them had the heat sucked from it through a thousand icy piercings.
Light once fell on human eyes the same way, from the stars. Once the Sun pushed out great quantities of heat. It was not the greatest, but the nearest, star, and it warmed the land, allowing oceans and forests to spread under blue skies. Now, it was no more, choked by these anti-stars. Stars were memories now, myths.
An old war machine approached the Redoubt. It was severely damaged, but still functioning; its internal self-repair systems were efficient and the broadcast power that was its sustenance became ever stronger as it closed. Within, its passengers peered into their telescopes and sensor screens anxiously, wondering if they would be granted entry. It was no foregone conclusion — men went Out into the Land risking not only death but their own corruption. If the latter was they case they would be slain by their erstwhile friends more surely than their enemies.
They were at last able to receive a transmission from the Redoubt, but it was hardly welcoming.
Pallin of Asphodelos peered through the eyepiece of the spyglass and read with dismay the green flickerings of the Set Speech runes as they ran down the Tower of Observation.
“What does it say?” asked his companion, a man named Langar.
“ ‘Stay. Schism. Asymmetry. In the immediate future, be seen. Imperative.’ We cannot approach any nearer in this machine and must abandon it and proceed on foot, in the open. The seers detect contamination and we must face Examination.”
Langar sighed fatalistically. “So be it. I can hardly imagine that the creatures of the Lowlands could be any harsher than what we have endured.”
The door would not open by command, but the emergency manual systems still operated and Pallin was able to trigger the explosive bolts that blew it free. As they stumbled to ground, they saw why the Monstruwacans had been so cautious. There were few of them, and they were mostly dead encrustations and smears, but one Eater still clung to the carapace of the vehicle, and, spinning in a way that no entirely solid creature could, it lashed out at them with its tendrils. They leapt back and it stretched after them like a shadow, unfolding fractal vanes as if iterating itself into higher orders of complexity.
Langar was fast, but his killing blow caused it to detonate in a muffled explosion of black dust, some of which settled on his helm, shoulder and chest plates and immediately began to corrode them, giving off a sickly glow as it did. He cursed.
“Check, systems?” Pallin asked. He could hear the alarms over the relay.
Langar paused a moment, reading his internal displays. “Not good.”
Pallin made a quick examination of the odd phosphorescent stains and tried to calculate their rate of spread, but he could not discern the deep nonlinear or scalar properties of the infestation. “Time?”
“Shed then.” They rapidly worked to unlatch the plates of Langar’s suit, but it was a complicated process and it would be a further race against time to get him to the Redoubt before he froze to death without its protection.
They were already too late. Langar’s undersuit was failing as the spores of the Eater spread their flower patterns across the fabric and tarnishing the metal ports and fittings. He staggered. “I feel the cold…” he muttered.
Pallin put his arm around him and propped him upright. “Walk with me, there may be time yet.”
“It’s not the cold of the air… I can hear something whispering.”
“It’s the wind.”
“Don’t lie, there is no wind.”
Pallin looked up to the Redoubt, estimating their chances and decided that there might be time, or value in an attempt. He pulled at his friend. “Walk,” he commanded. Langar obeyed, more by ingrained discipline than will. They began to make some progress.
Symbols in green rippled up the length of the finial Tower, distorted now by perspective. They indicated warning, and shortly after, bolts of light flashed out from the Barbican over their heads, vaporising first the abandoned vehicle and then Langar’s armour.
“The seers in the Tower are watching, aren’t they? They know,” Langar commented.
“They know nothing.”
“They know.” He sat down and refused to move. “I can hear the whispering more clearly now,” he said.
“It’s the Night Speech, from the Redoubt.”
He sighed or groaned. “Pallin, you are my friend because you are an honest man. Do not lie now. Ask me the Master Word, tell me if I am corrupted.”
Pallin knew what he meant and barely dared obey. The Master Word was no mere oath, but the perfect depiction of human identity in thought. If Langar could not pronounce the Word in his mind, the guardians of the Redoubt would not let him gain admittance. Instead, they would kill him.
“Ask,” he repeated. “You are as good a seer as they no doubt. Why waste their time?”
Pallin tried to call, reading as best he could in Night-Hearing the shape of his friend’s mind. He had not lied, there were whisperings there, a chaotic noise with already the first patterns of an alien order starting to coalesce. The Master Word was returned with sour echoes and strange reverberations.
“It’s true, isn’t it...?”
Pallin said nothing. He opened the beaver of his helm. In his last moments, his friend had the right to see his face at least and his expression said everything.
Langar looked at his exposed wrist, examining the scar where the trigger-capsule had been laid just under his skin. Biting it would grant him instant release. “I cannot raise my hand,” he said, seeming almost amused. He sighed and gave a bleak chuckle. “Well, I don’t have your curiousity, Monstruwacan. End it now.”
“My last words, friend. Tell everyone, tell them everything with your clever tongue as I never could. Tell them about the Astronomer. Tell Hecane. Say you saw the stars.”
Pallin took a deep breath. “I will,” he promised, and bent to bite the skin of Langar’s wrist.
The breath went out of Langar gently and he subsided into the Land. Traceries of blue light flickered for a moment over his armour as the soul-charge released by the trigger-capsule purged his nervous system of all traces of identity. The Eater’s spores continued to spread, however. Given no space in his mind, they still ate at his body, and as Pallin stepped back, he saw the first black flowering on his own armour.
For a moment he was tempted to stay, but he had made his promise and there was only one thing for it. He tuned his diskos to maximum power, hoping that it would cauterise the stump as it cut and swung it in one smooth arc.
The pain in his leg was excruciating, and as it crept up towards his heart, it trailed a sickly coldness, but there was no bleeding. There might be enough time for him. He looked up to the vast, shining mountain of the Last Redoubt and began to crawl. Behind him, another detonation marked the destruction of Langar’s body.
After his essential Examination in the Barbican, Pallin ex Asphodelos was conducted to the Star Chambers, nestled in the penultimate city of the immense pyramid that was the Last Redoubt of Humanity. He was less one leg, and other more minor parts, but synthetic substitutes were made. They hardly mattered to him, though he knew they would before he became used to them. Here now he was to face what was to himself a more rigorous test not only of his purity, but his honour and his judgment.
He had heard of the Star Chambers, and of the Custodes who met there, but he had never been admitted to their presence before. It might have been wonderful if he had, or perhaps it was never a boon to be brought before them...
Blue vaults arched over his head, segmented domes arranged like a honeycomb. One cell was higher and broader than the others and filled with light that spilled out into the darker expanse. The lantern that generated this light was a brilliant golden pearl, and surrounding it there was an intricate arrangement of articulated hoops and wheels bearing smaller globes of glass that sent shards of multicoloured refraction scattering about the space. In the ceiling itself, there were inlays of jewels and gradated lines of gold and silver. It was he realised, an elaborate planetarium.
Pallin was the only man alive who could compare the art with its model. To him it made a thin substitute.
Beneath the orrery and its warm light, there sat a dozen men and women in the formal garb of their various guilds. He recognised the amphiglaukos of a Censor, the argent of a Eugenicist and the sapphire of a Scholar, but the deep wine-purple of the Monstruwacans dominated. At the centre was the stocky figure of the Master Monstruwacan himself, Vesalius.
He raised his hand. “Begin,” he said.
In the Last Redoubt, warmth and light thrived. Within its adamantine mass, the Earth Current energised its conduits and allowing the exercise of simple human passions made complex by the game-like conventions of society. As was often the custom, a young man named Pallin called on a young woman in the name of his friend Langar.
“Ah, the go-between calls again,” the Lady Hecane said once her own intermediaries had conducted him to her.
He blushed and bowed. “My Lady, neither of us are of a house such as yours, and —
“You flatter me.”
He smiled, overcome by an impish desire would immediately regretted. “Why yes, I do.”
“On his behalf?”
He looked away. “Yes, I think that is so.”
Hecane laughed. “If your comrade is half as amusing as you, then you may tell him that I may well consent to meet him.”
Pallin bowed and retreated. He knew that this banter was only a game, and one played by amateurs at that, but then all people are amateurs in the art of life. In the best sense, he added to himself as he walked back to his barracks, a slight spring noticeable in his step.
The Astronomer was explaining an unusual proposition to a Captain of the Watch. “The Valley is deep,” he said.
“Surely that is well known,” grumbled the Captain.
“Exceedingly deep — as deep as the lowest of the Underground Fields according to some accounts.”
“So I have read.” His tone was sarcastic and sceptical.
The Astronomer’s own expression was joyful. “Consider then the management of the air in these deep domains!” he said. “For the air not to be unbearably thick or thin at either extremity of the Last Redoubt, we have our complicated system of air clogs and circulation arteries. The Valley itself has no such system — do you see what that implies?”
“I see that the when the Sun stilled and died, the Earth became cold and the last of its air settled into the deep valley carved by an immense catastrophe. The Highlands are therefore airless, frozen and uninhabitable.”
He made an exasperated gesture. “No! That is not all! There are certain implications!” If anything, his enthusiasm seemed to mount and he spoke rapidly. “So great is the change over this tremendous vertical scale, there is also a qualitative change in the atmosphere. I have made calculations based on this assumption and I have proven that at one level where temperatures and pressures reach a certain point, there is a dense layer of cloud, utterly impenetrable to light, that stretches across the Valley from one wall to another beneath the actual ultimate level of the Highlands!”
“Imagine if we could climb above this layer, we would... pass beyond the sky, as it were and see the real sky above!”
The Captain had to admit that he was intrigued by the concept and that somewhere deep it did stir him, but he could not risk the lives of his men on an expedition. He tried to explain this as sympathetically as he could. “In any case, all we will see is another image of despair — the stars are put out, the Sun itself is long gone. We can ill afford such a bleak confirmation in this age,” he said.
“Suppose that we are mistaken?” the Astronomer persisted. “I must see with my own eyes!”
“Your own eyes?” repeated the Captain.
“Pallin of Asphodelos, you are appointed as my second!”
“Ser, I — ”
“ — am grateful for the trust that I have shown in you. Your feelings of appreciation are themselves appreciated and I am glad to hear that you accept the position. I will present the Petition to go Out to the Seneschal of the Barbican in our names. That is all.”
Pallin swallowed, an immature gesture that embarrassed him.
The Seneschal of the Barbican examined the scroll of eleven names carefully, paying particular attention to those of the Prime Mover and the Seconder. “Pallin ex Asphodelos is an odd choice, is he not?” he asked. “He has shown a rare sensitivity of the sort that would make him more suitable for the Monstruwacans. That may make him vulnerable to the effects of the Land.”
The Captain nodded, conceding the point, but did not retreat. “Indeed. He has told me that he attended their school for some years, but became, as he put it, ‘caught on the line that divides observation and action’ and determined to ‘resolve this paradox’. Presumably his training in their company has prepared him in some way.”
“ ‘Presumably’?” queried the Seneschal.
“Nothing is certain until the test is made. That is the whole purpose of going Out.”
“So you are in effect his sponsor, rather than he being your Seconder?”
He shrugged. “Apparently.”
“There is a deeper reason for your choice. . . .”
“Other than my confidence in his abilities as a potential captain and a desire to advance his career accordingly?” suggested the Captain disingenuously.
“Yes,” said the Seneschal. “He is graded as a seer. The Eugenicists and the Censors both have sizable files on him and his prospects...”
“Then I wish to use him as a seer.”
“You propose to enter zones that are without life and spirit. What use is a seer there?”
“We will traverse zones that are abundant with both in their most malignant form.”
“That has always been the case. You are attempting to distract me.”
The Captain sighed. “You are very blunt, ser.”
The Seneschal’s reply was firm: “I have my duty — as do you, Captain. Explain.”
“Very well. We have another, of the seeing sort — ”
“‘Of the seeing sort’?”
“Yes, one who would be vulnerable, we think. Ser Pallin will see over this seer and let us know of the effects of whatever it is that he observes himself, and whether that knowledge is fit thereby to be brought back. None of us have any desire to be return as... what you might call heretics.”
The Seneschal dismissed the last statement with a wave of his hand and concentrated on the essence of the Captain’s plan. Despite his own caution, he was intrigued as the Captain had been upon hearing the initial proposition. “So this is a scientific expedition?” he asked.
“Are not all expeditions scientific experiments on the subject of being?”
“The journey itself will be comparatively easy,” the Astronomer explained. “We will be taking the original road that led down into the Valley from the Highlands.”
“On the road, the Silent Ones kill,” pointed out one of the men, almost laughing and certainly provoking sniggers amongst a few of the others.
“Pallin faced one once. He can go.”
The Astronomer deigned not to notice. “A Westerly route, South of the Plain of Blue Fire and North of the Towers and the Great Watcher of the South-West — ”
“ — will take us directly to the places of abhumans — ” interjected one.
“ — who are mere beasts, thank you,” grated the Astronomer. “Thus we will bypass the place of killing, and meet the road. According to the records that I have found, it shortly begins to rise up a relatively gentle incline of the cliffs known as the Walls of the World. These walls we will climb.”
“The road is millions of years old and ruined for much of its length,” Pallin pointed out.
“We will not be transporting a city — only ourselves.”
“A relatively gentle slope is only relatively gentle. The incline will hardly be easy... and then the Highlands are deadly cold and airless. The atmosphere has fallen like snow, I am told.”
The Astronomer nodded, more in appreciation than concession. “I have selected a machine that I think will be able to make the climb, and it will be sealed and heated so that we may live there, venturing outside for short forays in enhanced armoured suits to set up various experimental and observational apparatuses.”
“It is impossible,” commented one of the company.
“Ser, our ancestors built ships that sailed to the stars,” snapped the Astronomer. “It is very a modest endeavour indeed to attempt to see what is left of them.”
Pallin felt the laughter bubbling up from within and unable to contain it, he opened his mouth and guffawed loudly, a fountain of mirth. Soon the other Watchmen were laughing too. The Astronomer turned red, then white, ready to berate them for their stupidity and their ignorance until he realised that his framing of the dangers they would face as challenges had caught them.
“Yes,” said the Captain, bringing his hands together. “Why yes indeed.”
It was against the implication of the Creed of Heroes that any man going Out face the perils of the Land in anything other than his own armour and upon his own feet. Times though were strange, the expedition was unique and their charge, the Astronomer, was no skilled fighter. For his sake they reluctantly acceded to use an armoured vehicle for their transport and the climb.
The vehicle was based on the design of the ancient manshonyaggers, intelligent automata capable of crossing any land and slaying near any opponent — saving of course, the strangest and most titanic, the Eaters, the Watchers themselves... Still, Pallin was impressed: it was an powerful, complicated thing, like a great black stag beetle with the legs of a cricket and a quintet of articulated sensor-turrets fanning out from its fore-portion.
In the sections corresponding to the thorax and abdomen of the thing there were pressurised and heated compartments where a small company of eleven and their supplies could lodge themselves for the duration of the journey. Pallin would ride there himself, driving the machine. Several of the cadets refused to ride inside the beetle however, insisting that they were going Out, not riding inside a mobile Redoubt. They were not to be dissuaded and Pallin had suggested diplomatically that they act as scouts and the outer line of defence for what was essentially a freight carrier. Hooks and rings were welded on to the exterior to which they could lash themselves when the beetle was making its vertical ascent up the cliffs of the Valley. “Perhaps we can build a tower on top too,” suggested one wag. “A tower for our Monstruwacan.”
Pallin made a point of laughing at this.
The Captain took him aside. “Do you think that they won’t respect you lad?” he asked. “If they wanted to bring you down, they’d do a lot worse than make little jokes, a lot worse indeed.”
“I’m not like them and they know it,” he pointed out.
“On account of your studies? Do you think that you’re a failure because you left the Monstruwacan academy and you’ve got to succeed by being liked here in the Watch?”
Pallin was silent and then nodded reluctantly.
“You think you won’t climb up the steps of the ranks unless you lubricate them?” The Captain put his hand on his shoulder. “They’ll like you if you want them to — being liked is easy here. The trick is to make them respect you, to make them wish that you’d only like them if you could grant them such a reward. You can be a captain one day, Pallin, but to do that you have to hang on to your distance... do you have a lady, lad?”
The question confused him and he didn’t dare use his Night-Hearing to spy on the Captain’s thoughts. “Possibly,” he hedged.
“Ha! Good answer! You don’t know! Do you love her, do you hate her? You don’t know, do you? She’s your beloved and that’s fascination.” He leaned close to his face. “You have to be cruel to them in the right measure at the right time, you have to be their beloved so they don’t know if they love you or hate you but will do anything for you. That’s command, lad — or part of it. Now go.” He pushed him back to the assembly.
The cockpit of the beetle was as confined as a gauntlet — and fitted as well. Pallin relaxed into his seat and thought of the seers’ cradles in the Tower of Observation at the apex of the Pyramid and decided that this was better. He was not a fighter by inclination and his handling of the diskos was adequate at best, but on the other hand the manipulation of controls and the reading of artificial sense displays was almost an intuitive act for him. He laid his hands on the paired control sticks and thumbed the various wheels and switches built into them. Outside, turrets swiveled, the power relay antennae extruded and opened like fans and the legs of the machine tensed and were filled with power — no, not mere power, tone. He grinned.
Pallin called once more at the house of Hecane, and once more it was in the name of his comrade.
“I promise to guard him, to keep him safe,” he told her when they were seated privately.
“A safe man I do not want,” she replied, and smiled. Despite himself, he was sure that she smiled for him — and that she knew that he sensed this.
“Then I will ensure that his soul if not his body is safe,” he continued, not wanting to leave.
“Then that will do.” Her eyes were like two wells, deep and black. Thinking of the Astronomer, he imagined that he could see stars in them.
They bantered a while more in a similar vein. “Ah, what grim jokes we make,” he complained at this.
Hecane had her counter: “Ah, but if I am to be a wife of the Watch, then I must learn to laugh along with you.”
He looked at her for a while, not knowing what to say. She was very beautiful, he thought. Not conventionally so, but with an archness that kept a constant slight tension in any dealing with her and ensured that no man would be bored in her company unless she was bored herself... and she seemed to find him interesting too.
“What are you looking at?” she asked, knowing full well.
“My reflection in your eyes,” he joked. “I notice that I have not brushed my hair well this morning and my uniform is in need of pressing.”
She laughed. “And I see in yours... ah, no, I am sorry, I cannot...” She hid her face behind her hand.
He leaned forward, not quite touching her. “My Lady, have I offended?”
She looked up again, a little strain discernable in her face. “Oh, quite the opposite ser friend of my suitor — and not, I think, even entirely by your design or desire alone.”
He stood and bowed. “Then I should leave and not return, Respected Lady.”
“No, no.” She waved him to sit. “You must not say such a thing before an expedition. We may consider the negotiation of customs after you return. Now you will enjoy your tea with me and you will entertain me with your cleverness and thrill me with your tales of adventure...”
He did take his leave at last, bowing again, having made in his own heart a guilty promise to be true. Her wit, he thought was rare, and he was sure that she desired him as he had found his preference for her. It was a pity that it was Langar who had declared his love of her — and his trust of him to act as the safe intermediary to negotiate with her chaperones. He wondered whether he should hate himself, whether he should be honest, whether he was deceiving himself, whether he should declare his own attraction, challenge his friend to a duel, or do any number of absurd things.
The Night Land was almost an escape.
In the Halls of Preparation in the Barbican of the Last Redoubt, men were Prepared to go Out into the Night Land through the Great Gate under the eye of the revered Seneschal. It was a solemn and portentous process and consequently, on their last night before being sequestered in preparation for the expedition, the entire company became extremely drunk.
“Scholar, hey scholar, hey Monstruwacan!” called one man, his face glazed and shining with sweat.
Pallin staggered, more affected by the malt spirit than he thought and grinned blearily. “Langar!”
“Seer, tell us the readings of our spiders!”
The cadets had a makeshift arena set up and were placing bets. The even one-to-one combats had quickly substituted chaos for balance as the intoxicated spectators became bored with the arachnids’ own ritualistic approach and prodded and provoked them and added smaller appetisers to the ring.
“Which one do you think, ay?”
Pallin held his stomach, only half joking with the realisation that he might vomit. He could read the tides pulling at the mind of a man, or at least an unguarded man, but spiders had scarcely any awareness to speak of and his own faculties were hardly optimal at this time. He raised his finger and pointed into the ring, waving it about over the scuttling black shapes. They had been bred for fighting and were impressive creatures, some with abdomens as big as the head of his thumb, and were marked with the painted symbols of their owners. The blue rose, the gold spiral, the shining eye, which? “That one,” he said, more or less at random selecting the last.
“Narcissus! He’s never lost! An easy choice or no choice!”
“She, the fighting spiders are she.”
“It’s combat, not mating.”
“Same to a spider.”
“So the same, as I said!”
Bets were laid, but Narcissus, with his or her record offered a small advantage of odds for backers. The opponents warily faced each other, vibrating in their odd intimidating dances and waving their forelegs about as if they hoped to hypnotise each other. Suddenly the large black one with the eye painted on its back, Narcissus, pounced on one of the smaller spiders while the ones with the blue rose and the gold spiral dealt with each other. There were cheers at this as the first round of wagers were collected and paid. The next round saw Narcissus facing a red-gold opponent and missing a leg, but winning again. Langar took his money and slapped Pallin on the back. “Not bad Scholar, next time I’ll place my bets on you!”
“I’m sure that I could win against a spider,” he agreed and then collapsed.
Human beings were aliens on their own homeworld. Survival on the Land depended on augmentations and alterations that tested the limits of puritanical Creed of Heroes. There were creatures in the Land which had adapted too well and had thereby become monstrous. Humanity, said the Creed, lay in the assertion of will, the embrace of a position that even in the eyes of the most serious was fundamentally absurd. In going Out into the Land, every man found himself seeking the intersection of ethos and environment. If they failed in this, they would die. Preparation was therefore at one level a process of physical reinforcement and also an even more intimate process of understanding and facing no mere darkness but extinction.
Physical preparation revolved about fitting for suits, flushing of toxins, the implantation of various telemetric and palliative systems under the skin. A restricted, low-residue diet prepared the metabolism for an extended sojourn with a purely tabletised diet.
Not least of the preparations was the Capsule, named after a simple suicide pill once taken to release the spirit from corruption when death was inevitable and now evolved into the subtle rewiring of the nervous system that was activated by the bite to a trigger under the skin of the left wrist. All of the Watchmen had been implanted with these and carried them dormant, but now under the authorisation of the Seneschal they were rearmed.
The Astronomer was used to none of these and while a grim determination of his own ensured that he was never going to show a single sign of weakness to the Watchmen, Pallin was not the only one who read in him a constant, enervating dread. The Captain ordered his second to keep a close eye on the misfit scholar and he tried to be as tactful as he could. “We are not concerned that you might be weak or fearful,” he explained in a rare moment of privacy. “On the contrary, we look to you for purpose in this expedition. You have made that known, the men have chosen to follow it as their theme because every expedition must have its unique question to answer. You are not our weakness... as a scholar, perhaps you would understand the meaning of such a term as ‘ikon’ or ‘totem’?”
The Astronomer gave him a look that was an instant of pure poison and then he softened — a little. “Spoken like a Monstruwacan,” he said. “You should ask yourself whether you have come down from your Tower on an expedition of your own. Perhaps you have your own questions, eh?”
“Perhaps I do,” Pallin admitted.
The older man raised his arm and examined the still-livid scar where the Capsule had been laid. “So many questions that were abstract to me have now become real...” he mused, “and faced with this, I am not sure if I can... tell me, it is your custom to slay the corrupted. If I found an answer that displeased you, would you take my life? I do not think that I could... bite.”
“Yes, we all swear such an oath to each other.”
“Rather more than what a Monstruwacan would be expected to face, eh?”
Pallin shook his head. “No, we face the same threats in our own observations. The Watchers merely by being seen provoke madness at times, and there are other things that can corrupt our souls.”
“And all this without the Capsule?”
“That is correct.”
Pallin spoke evenly. “The Order has a forensic staff. We are not to needlessly deprive them of information.”
The Astronomer chuckled. “I notice that while dressed in Watchman’s armour, you spoke in the first person plural when referring to the Order, ser Pallin. Where exactly are you?” Pallin did not answer, but he did not blink either. The Astronomer nodded eventually, conceding a point. “Very well, I am so interested in you because there is some small affinity or coincidence between us... and I am not used to saying such a thing to another person.”
“I am honoured,” Pallin said blandly and walked away.
“Are we ready, Ser Pallin?” asked the Captain.
“All displays are bracketed in green, ser. The power supply — ”
“A monosyllable will suffice — provided your judgment is sound.” This brought laughter from the company.
“Good.” He waved his hand over the company. “Now, all load — and with the Astronomer first,” he told them. “Outriders take position. On my call we will proceed.”
The men obeyed. The lights of the chamber dimmed and were extinguished. From somewhere came the low rumble of the engines that opened the Great Gate. Slowly, the portal opened to reveal a waste of blackness and ice. Here and there, points of dull light at the ends of the spectrum marked fitful life. The Captain gave his command over the relays and the flankers marched forward, fanning out ahead of the beetle. Beyond the Gate, the layered force field of the Electric Circle briefly narrowed its frequency in stages to let them pass through and they were in the Land.
In the initial stage of their journey, despite the usual concentration of hostile life about the perimeter of the Electric Circle, they were unmolested. Clearly the machine intimidated the lesser beasts while the more sensitive felt the stray currents given off by it and realised that it was an extension of the Redoubt itself, not some mere isolate. Pallin completed an orbit of the Pyramid for the benefit of their observers and sponsors — of whom there were millions — and set off to the West, North of the mountainous Watcher of the South-West.
The first days were relatively uneventful, though a few ambush predators, kraken-like beings called Whips launched their long clawed tentacles at the flanking men on foot in attempts to capture them. One was caught unawares, but thereafter an informal competition developed between the walkers with their diskoi and the gunners in the beetle to bait the beasts and slay them. After five victories, Pallin called a halt to the game. “They are not unintelligent,” he warned. “Some will sacrifice themselves to lure you away and deal with you on their own terms. Now they know that we are dangerous and that is enough.”
“And how do you know this?” asked one insolently.
“In the Tower I made a study of the ecology of the Land. I saw these things from above playing very elaborate games with their prey as if on a board. Let them calculate the odds as they are and do not underestimate them yourselves.”
“They are puny.”
“Only close to our field.”
The Captain terminated the argument. “Save your sport for after. Now obey and be silent,” he ordered. The men complied and left the Whips alone.
“Do you detect any emanations from the Watcher?” the Captain asked as they passed within a score of miles of the huge beast.
Pallin shook his head. “No,” he said.
“Does it notice us?”
He thought a while, straining with his mind. “I am not sure... I do feel something like the ringing of a great bell, the long tones that are felt a minute after it is struck...”
“Its thoughts — if that is what they are — are slow. It may know, it may care, but... it watches.”
“That is all?”
“So it seems.”
“Hmmm. Very well, keep alert, inform me if you are affected. How is the Astronomer?”
He looked back to their passenger who had been silent for much of the journey. The man had been listening and nodded. “There seems to be no effect, though when I slept, I dreamed...”
“Of what?” asked the Captain.
“Hah, of course.” He turned forward. “Well, on then ser Pallin. Keep ahead.”
A couple of days later they met the curve of the road and began to make swifter progress on its relatively smooth surface. They established a rota of walking outside and sleeping aboard the beetle so that they did not need to pause at all and Pallin took his own turns pacing alongside as Langar practiced his skills as backup driver.
Outside, the protective field cast a peculiar, dull glow about the landscape. Frustratingly, the artificial light source only served to deepen shadows and multiply hiding places for potential threats. With the limited processing power of his helm sensors, Pallin strained his eyes in vain to make sense of the contrasts until he forced himself to relax and trust in his armour and the broadcast energies transmitted from the Redoubt that were reradiated by the beetle to ward off any hostile forces. Nonetheless, he was happier to be back at the controls of the beetle and observing the Land through its powerful wide-spectrum sensors.
No one accused him of cowardice on this regard — his fascination with the capabilities of the machine and its synthetic eyes was plain to all.
The attack was not unexpected, but it was sudden. Pallin first noted a dozen signatures on his control boards and was only momentarily surprised to discover that they were the electromagnetic spoor of manshonyaggers. What surprised him more was that according to his Night-Hearing, they were linked with abhumans.
A magnifying periscope with a photomultiplier gave him the most interesting view of one of the charging adversaries. The war machine was of the same basic plan as his own beetle, sharing as it did a common origin in the workshops of the Last Redoubt, but it was smaller, of a more antique design and encrusted with strange ornamentation. Luminous paint had been daubed in spiral patterns over its carapace, gilding had been applied to its caps and bosses and tassels and streamers flowed from its sides. Upon its independent heads there had been fixed the skulls of creatures not far removed from humanity, but fiercely tusked and with their lesser teeth filed to points.
The rider was the strangest of all. Anthropoid in origin, it had undergone a strange ritual mutilation: its painted skin was studded with lines of metal hooks and spikes and keratinous thorns and flanges were grafted to its joints while its long red mane was matted with what looked like dried blood and threaded with glass beads. Over the its expanses of bare white skin, Pallin could not help but notice the bloody carven flowers that had been the sigil of the ancient, Land-inspired Heresy of Scyrr.
Most shocking of all, the rider had no legs but had been entangled somehow with the chassis of the manshoyagger itself. Exposed but armoured cables and pipes wreathed its truncated loins and their higher attachments made an extravagant rill of its spine.
Its jaws gaped in a rictus that might have been fury or ecstasy. Loops of saliva dangled from its fangs.
“Kentaur,” he whispered, remembering myths of prehistory.
The men outside stood little chance against the monsters and two were instantly turned into living torches, their screams swiftly cut off as they were hacked to pieces by the brutes as they closed in. Pallin immediately turned the beetle off the road, not to flee but to face them. The beetle shuddered as it was struck full on by bolts from the kentaurs, but then he was upon them, tearing flesh and metal apart in mists of blood and oil. The abhumans may have been one with their machines, or the machines may have taken human totems, he thought with grim pride, but adaptation had not made them strongest — resistance had made the humans of the Redoubt stronger still. The coldness of his own fury astonished him.
In the end, it was the Captain who put an end to it, pulling him from his own levers.
“That was rash, very rash,” he growled. “You may have taken us into a trap such as you warned us of yourself.”
“They had no heavy weapons with them, nor backing forces nearby.”
“And how did you know that?”
“You called me Monstruwacan, ser.”
He frowned, but he also smiled.
A close examination of the carnage tended to confirm Pallin’s interpretation. The kentaurs showed obvious signs of being a tribal, itinerant society who stole and appropriated what they desired: components of the manshonyagger chasses that they used bore the serial numbers of workshops in the Barbican and it was clear thereby that they had been cobbled together from various ruined machines left over from old conflicts. Though they had no independent industrial base, it was deeply disturbing that culture able to pervert the machines of the Redoubt to their own ends was current in the Land and further missions might have to be organised to deal with them.
The Captain suggested as much in his report back to the Redoubt. He noted Pallin’s judgment and the men noted his bravado. No doubt stories would spread back in the Bright Cities.
They continued on their way without any further serious action, but Pallin was forced to turn off the road for a few miles and cross the icy ground again when he sensed and odd but familiar tension in the aether. The crew of the beetle watched, though they tried not to, as a file of seventeen grey-cloaked Silent Ones passed along the road. They seemed still, and yet they passed, drawing eyes and minds after them like a wake pulled through stagnant water. Pallin whispered to himself an ancient apotropaic chant: “Selan, shelan, sim, saret, mavv, essnn, kyrr...”
The next day the road began to rise, and curved as it did. Within the space of a few score miles, it had doubled back on itself at a higher level, and then again at a higher level yet, zig-zagging back and forth up a steepening slope. Slips had alternately and covered and eroded portions of it for long stretches and the machine had to cross tumbled fields of rubble for many miles. It appeared also that the road had itself been built on a huge slip, otherwise the slope would have been nearly vertical. As a consequence, the loose rock had further subsided over the ages and the previously constant plane of the road undulated and tilted like a girl’s ribbon let to fall across a pile of cushions. The point came soon then that the machine left the road entirely and took directly to the cliff face.
Each of the machine’s several feet incorporated spreadable pads, which were themselves surfaced with microscopic fibres that gave an strong grip on any relatively smooth, hard surface such as bare rock. The climb was slow, with only one leg being moved at a time, but it was steady. On the looser surfaces, drills and pitons fired from a battery in the nose of the machine ensured that they did not fall back.
In his aborted education as a Monstruwacan, Pallin had often looked down on the Land from high levels in their colleges at the peak of the Pyramid and was immune to vertigo, but he was unsure about his companions. He turned back to see how they were and saw a faint glimmering through the dorsal observation cupola.
The light that he could see was the Final Light atop the Last Redoubt shining still, a minute green star-like point several hundred miles distant. The Pyramid itself was not yet lost over the horizon because of their extreme elevation, and though it was diminished greatly by distance, it was still a visible geometric shape, not much smaller than a fingernail at arm’s length. He stretched out his hand and covered it with the end of his index finger and thereby hid the entire orbit of a million generations of five hundred million souls, saving the tiny portion who had ventured Out into the Night Land. Was the Pyramid huge or was it small? Folded into its volume, the Cities and the Underground Fields had a total surface area greater than many of the ancient continents and whole sagas spanning seas and generations had been enacted there. He took his finger away and looked at the green star again. He could cover that defiant light for a few seconds, but it had shone upon the Land for more than twenty million years now with scarce a flicker, it broadcast the power that propelled their vessel and it stretched out its reach through them to this place. All paradoxes are the result the limitations of one’s own perspective, he reminded himself and recorded an image of the far spire for the contemplation of others.
At a height of a score of miles, as the Astronomer had predicted, they did indeed find a layer of dense, smoky cloud, fed by condensation and smoke from the volcanoes of the Valley. The air of the Valley was dry and cold on the whole, but it could not disperse and the permanent cold smog made an effective ceiling, which they were now penetrating. Sleet pattered against the hull of the machine.
Suddenly, there was a flash and the cabin went dark. Pallin smelt carbon and ozone and the vehicle lurched sickeningly. If he had not been strapped into his seat, he would have fallen and been injured. Jale lights were flashing and a siren sounded, mechanical voices were reciting notes of danger and caution.
“Pedals. One. Five. Lost. Contact. With. Surface.”
“Overload. Main. Distribution. System.”
“Secondary. Distribution. System. Enabled.”
“Grip. Pedal. Three. Failure.”
“Rock. Anchors. Firing.”
Outside, there were muffled detonations and rattles as the damaged transport steadied itself. There was another lurch that might have predicated a fall, but was abruptly arrested. They hung there, hearing creaks from the straining legs and support cables.
“Report!” demanded the Captain.
Pallin checked the instrument gauges and the wavering lines of their logs. “We have been struck by lightning,” he said.
He flipped a few toggles. Most indicators shone jale, few green. At least they were not dark. “We will have to wait for the automatic repair systems to complete their work.” Telescopic relays showed images of grey figures falling down until the smog swallowed them. “We’ve lost men.” Which? Langar had been one of the outriders... Telltales showed that his suit still picked up a heartbeat, but that would be the case with the fallen too, until they hit the ground...
“So I see,” grated the Captain. “Now act.”
Is this the moment where he is supposed to let them hate and need him? Pallin asked himself sarcastically, and hated himself for wasting time. “Count!” he barked into the external communicator.
“Three fallen, one burned and dead,” came the reply. It was Langar’s voice. “Kellon and I live.”
Pallin scanned his instruments, seeing what options were open to him. There were few. “Most of our internal systems are overloaded, the repair routines are operating and I should — ”
“Never make a habit of explaining,” snapped the Captain. “They’ll start to disobey you when you don’t.”
Pallin stared at him. “Is this the time for a lesson?” he asked, surprised at his own anger.
“Everything is a lesson, Monstruwacan. Now act.”
He nodded, chastised, and turned back to his instruments. “Stay and hold,” he ordered the survivors as emotionlessly as he could. “Secure your lines, then make a close examination of the beetle’s legs and feet and power relay antennae. Report thereafter.”
“Ser,” they acknowledged.
It took more than a bolt of lightning to permanently disable the old war machine and the internal repair systems and bypasses eventually returned it to proper trim. Pallin ordered Langar and Kellon inside once they had completed their inspections and confirmed that the beetle could continue its climb, then he released the rock anchors and put it in motion again.
The survivors uttered a few private oaths in memory of their lost comrades.
“A good thing I we had a good pilot, eh?” Langar said, trying to laugh. “Otherwise not even he would carry a message back to Hecane telling of my heroic demise!”
Pallin said nothing.
The South-Western Wall of the World had suffered collapses and had been eroded over the ages so that it had no definite edge as such, but altered from the vertical to the plain in a series of stages and set backs, but there came a point that was definitely of the Highlands and it was there that with great relief Pallin was able to say, “One small step... and twenty million years.” Indeed it felt as if their climb had inverted the passage of time and as they rose up in space, they also rose up the ladder of history from present to deep past. It was a metaphor shown to be tangible.
He turned the periscopes in a slow circuit. The Redoubt and the entire Valley was now invisible, hidden under its layer of smoke and cloud while about them stretched a black, tumbled plain under an even blacker sky. It lacked even the sporadic glow of the bioluminescence and vulcanism of the Night Land — and there were no stars. Pallin had not thought that such desolation was possible.
Langar peered up through the cupola. “It’s empty,” he said. “The sky is still empty.”
The Astronomer shook his head. “I thought... maybe... no, it is likely that the Eaters have consumed most of them, but if we set up our telescopes, we will look deeper. Light takes time to cross space, you see, and if we look far enough up into space, we will look also up into a time when there were no Eaters...”
“Pallin, lay and set the relay first,” ordered the Captain, “then we can find an observation point and then we can celebrate.”
“Surely this is a great moment?” protested the Astronomer.
“The great moment lies in the proof — and that will be our return.”
“I disagree — ”
The Captain dismissed him. “We know the Land, the Valley. However antithetical it is, we know it. These Highlands are completely unknown to us and we must be careful. I for one will celebrate when I have brought my men home.”
“I’ve deployed the relay, ser,” Pallin announced, deciding not to take part in the argument. The relay would allow them to operate for extended periods out of direct line of sight of the Redoubt, providing that they stayed within line of sight of the relay. Perhaps, in the future, a whole network could be established... but there would be no point. The long-term object was survival, and that was impossible here. And perhaps the sheer banality of that restriction was what drove the Astronomer to push for this expedition in the first place.
“Permission to survey the site and check the relay?” asked Langar.
The Captain thought for a while. “No,” he decided.
“I am expendable.”
“Who is not? Call it lust for glory if you will, but I wish to step out on to the Highlands first to see if it is safe. Pallin is my second, as you know. Seal your suits, take combat positions, depressurise. I will go Out now.” He latched his own helm shut and took his diskos from the armoury rack.
The Captain was not one for grandiloquent speeches and his foray was marked only with a brief description of the frosty ground and a catalogue of the damage and wear on the beetle. The power relay, which had anchored itself at a point of the slope affording a direct pickup from the now hidden Redoubt, was already opening its collection fans and casting a dim blue nimbus about itself, sending up wisps of sublimating ice.
Pallin swiveled the external cameras about, feeding their input through various enhancement programmes. “Ser,” he said when he was able to read the output. “It the visual processing algorithms indicate a strangely low level of... noise.”
“ ‘A strangely low level of noise’? What do you mean by that?”
He gave the displays another scan, confirming his impressions. “The local topology is non-fractionated, showing and index of consistency in its — ”
“Set Speech, Monstruwacan.”
Pallin suppressed a retort, reminding himself that he respected the man. “I would guess that under the snow and ice, we are surrounded by ruined but regular structures,” he summarised.
The relay was fully extended and energised now, and as it shed its heat, more and more of the ice evaporated, producing in a slow explosion from a crater centred on the device the first winds that had been felt here in millions of years. As the cloak of sublimating ice was drawn back, it revealed that Pallin’s interpretation had been correct and they were in the plaza of a ruined city. It was an eerie sight, almost invisible to the naked eye, but discernable in the strange glow of an artificial synaesthesia of photomultiplication and radar.
The city to Pallin’s eye was a strange and barbaric place. While any roof it may have had would have collapsed over the ages without maintenance, he was sure that it had never been covered. Moreover, it sprawled without sense or balance across the plane of the ground. Despite a basic grid, it was an ugly sight: here and there the combs of eroded walls rose up, surrounding the platforms and pits of interior floors, ramps and wells and buildings were scattered with gaping streets like open ditches between them, and walls were pointlessly duplicated on either side. Clusters of squat pyramids seemed to clog up the confluences and nodes of the labyrinth like angular fungal growths. It all seemed, even at first examination, hopelessly contingent and clashing.
Pallin made a broader survey and noticed a central structure of some considerable size still hidden under a mound of ice. The visual algorithms noted in this case a degree of bilateral symmetry, though whatever the thing was, it too had suffered substantial collapse and was tilted at several degrees from the horizontal. “Ser, I think I have found something important,” he said.
“What is it?”
He turned on a spotlight, casting a ghostly finger through the mists to point at the thing. He dialed in a significant ratio of far ulfire to the light and the heat began to strip away its shroud. “I think it is a city of the Road Makers, a mobile city such as circled the Earth in the annual days of the Last Turning.”
He was right. First the shattered arches of its canopy and upper works were revealed, but low and near, as he directed the heat ray, loudly hissing billows of steam revealed immense articulated suspension units and wheels bigger than houses. Many of the units were broken and torn away from the great chassis of the city either by time or by violence.
“What has happened here?” Langar breathed. “They could have descended into the Valley...”
“Clearly they are not of our line,” the Captain transmitted. “They stayed and our people made their home in the Valley and eventually built the Last Redoubt. These people stayed and they died.”
“How can we know that? Their langue probably predates the Set Speech. If we had a true scholar or more than one unfinished Monstruwacan here, we might be able to decipher their records — given time, that is, but we have none of those things.”
They took their own turns to explore the ruined city and its sprawling environs, but their hearts were repelled; it was as if a magnificent beast had been overcome by a fatal paralysis of will on the brink of the cliff and in its frustration it had torn out its own entrails and strewn them upon the ground.
They decided unanimously to find a more suitable site, free of ice and away from the spoiled city where their heat did not stir up storms and vapours and as they were preparing to move on, Pallin noticed that one of the low pyramids on the far side a large plaza shone a little too brightly on his displays. As he watched, trying to discern the cause of this oddity, it began to open. “Ser, the pyramid...” he warned the Captain who was still outside.
The Captain spun around, his diskos instantly ready in his hand. The blue light of the weapon illuminated a humped black shape not unlike a spider — or their own vehicle. Three heads waved about on the ends of articulated arms and then one suddenly flared with heat. The beetle rocked as the first plasma bolts hit it. Alarms sounded. The weapons were too weak to do any serious damage to the armoured vehicle, but an exposed man might be vulnerable. The Captain had the sense to leap out of the way as Pallin fired back and obliterated the thing.
“Analysis!” he demanded before he even had found his feet.
“Encysted manshonyagger, miniature, autonomous — no life signs.”
“Checking...” Pallin set the sensors on a broad scan, based on the electromagnetic signatures detected in the last few seconds. His board lit up with several traces of varying intensity that had not been present before. Some were moving. “Yes!”
“No need to shout. Recall the others, power primary weapons, prepare to move out of the city now.”
“Ready now, ser...” He checked the personnel telltales. Langar’s was lit, but Kellon’s was dark. “Kellon is missing.”
The Captain swore. “Broadcast a recall in case the instrument is defective, in the mean — ” An energy bolt hit him in a leg and toppled him. Langar emerged from another alley that converged on the plaza, waving his fully-powered diskos about and obviously trying to distract the unseen assailant, but it ignored him. Pallin advanced the beetle carefully and then stopped.
“Langar, come back here!” he called.
“No, I’m bait, aren’t I Pallin?” the Captain said. Pallin could hear the strain in his voice. Parts of his armour were incandescent.
“That’s my interpretation, ser.” Pallin admitted.
“Clever... I hope you’re cleverer than that machine. Langar, fall back to the vehicle, then withdraw from the city.”
“Ser — ” Langar protested.
The Captain chuckled grimly. “Ah, see Langar, that’s why I nominated your friend as my second — he’s quicker on the uptake than you are and he sees the larger objective. Now obey!”
Stung, Langar backed towards the beetle. The Captain began to crawl after him slowly, probably hoping to draw the adversary out himself. He was almost right: another bolt was fired, severing his other leg and sending it spinning across the plaza. He cried out and swore. Somewhere spilled or outgassing volatiles ignited, illuminating the scene in harsh red and ulfire.
Pallin tracked the shot and correlated with the traces on his board. The adversary was apparently co-ordinating subunits through the labyrinth and they were slowly closing in. All would converge on this plaza in a few minutes and the party would be inevitably doomed if they achieved their concentration. “Langar, get on board now!” he ordered.
“We cannot forget the Captain!”
“Ah yes, that’s right, you cannot forget me,” the Captain put in. “Ser Pallin, be so kind as to charge up my suit’s power cell to overload levels now.”
There was a shadow moving at the far side of the plaza. A clear shot was almost possible. It was in fact very tempting. He held his thumbs over the primary triggers and calculated. If he advanced by two more steps he could have a clear shot with the main gun. It was too tempting. . .
“Pallin, you’re not the forgetting kind, are you?” the Captain prompted. He could hear the strain in his voice.
“No ser.” He switched off the overrides on the power transmission controls and dialed up a maximum download.
Langar clambered about and hustled himself into the cockpit. Pallin could hear his heavy breath. “Make sure the Astronomer and his equipment are secured,” he said without looking over his shoulder. The man obeyed without a word.
He took the beetle back one step. The shadow moved. . . and then the source revealed itself. No miniature, it was a full-scale war machine, immensely aged, but still deadly. The bronze-coloured armour of its long, segmented body glinted in the firelight.
It raised its tail. Pallin took the beetle out of the plaza at full speed, deliberately slamming it into walls to ricochet around corners rather than slow to turn. Behind him, the adversary sprung after him — and at that moment the Captain detonated his power cell. Pallin saw the shadow of his own machine outlined in dazzling blue-white against a stone wall, and then the light died.
Afterwards, the subsidiaries were small work, and quickly and joylessly dealt with. When they went back to the plaza, they found fragments of the big manshonyagger scattered about, but there was of course no sign of the Captain or Kellon.
A few miles beyond the city they found a small nunatak where they hoped that the vapours provoked by their heat emissions would not interfere greatly with their observations, and on top of that, a few weapons discharges made a level platform. These seemed to provoke some obscure reaction from the Highland as a perceptible shiver ran through the ground and strange electric crackle was felt by the men as it discharged through their suits’ systems.
“Something is different here. . .” the Astronomer breathed.
“What, what has changed?” asked Langar. The sky was still a featureless black, even at the greatest level of enhancement available.
“I don’t know, something I felt. . . Pallin, do you feel it?”
“Something,” he admitted. “Some twist or other, but still — where are the stars?”
“In time, in time,” muttered the Astronomer, shaking his head. “Up and in the past and in the distance — that is why we have a telescope.”
Pallin could not shake the feeling that they had traversed more than space and linear time, but he could not grasp either what it was that they had traversed. Was it a state of mind? He bent to his work assisting the Astronomer.
The telescope was no delicate arrangement of mirrors and lenses — which was well and good considering the trials they had endured — but a densely-packed system of solid-state micromechanisms and phased array panels brought out of storage in one of the most secure museums of ancient techne. In its inert state it resembled a tight flower bud, and open, it looked not unlike a flower too. Overlapping panels spread themselves out, curving slightly as they twisted to and fro, apparently searching automatically for its targets or building a mosaic image of the sky piece by piece.
In the Underground Fields that fed the Redoubt there were species of flower that turned to follow the lantern suns that patrolled the caverns on rails. Pallin decided that the telescope reminded him of those plants.
Both Pallin and Langar were uneasy with the telescope, though in their own ways. The people of the Redoubt instinctively distrusted autonomous cybernetics and their encounters with the manshonyaggers had only served to reinforce that prejudice. The Astronomer on the other hand, while clearly frightened by the violence he had witnessed, seemed to make no such connection and eagerly pawed over the instruments and readouts attached to the machine. Pallin stayed close, watching the Astronomer’s every move, fascinated by the machine, until the man waved him away with irritation. Langar stalked the edge of the platform as if he expected attack at any moment.
The Astronomer was muttering to himself over the communication channels: "Anaphosphoric axis gain. no, kataphosphoric, invert, invert. ulshift compensation algorithms."
Slowly it made its scans, odd colours discharging from its conduits as it did so. Hours passed and neither Pallin nor Langar could tell what was happening.
“Ahhh. . .” the Astronomer sighed eventually, and then straightened up, tilting his head towards the sky. “There, see, the stars!” he said, pointing.
“The stars?” Pallin strained his eyes. The sky, from each invisible horizon to the zenith, was completely barren.
“Surely you must see!”
Pallin turned to the figure of the Astronomer, his armour spangled with the tiny pinpoints of its ulfire running lights. Did stars look like these?
“The stars — you must see them!”
He turned up again, dialed the maximum enhancement on his helm sensors. “No,” he said.
“What can he see?” asked Langar, baffled. “I see nothing at all. Does his telescope work or does it not?”
The Astronomer was weeping now, he could hear him, and in his mind, he could feel the grief and anger at his failure, his betrayal. “Why? Why don’t you see them?”
“I don’t know,” Pallin said. This puzzled him and he decided to grant the man the benefit of his doubt. It was not a compassionate gesture, but one motivated by his own scientific curiousity. The Astronomer was not mad, not a liar, therefore there was some fundamental difference in perception. Pallin took a breath, remembered the concentration litanies of his Monstruwacan teachers, focused his other senses and looked into the mind of his companion. . . and saw the stars.
The sky wheeled about him, showing first one scene, then another, then many. At first there was one distant green glimmering point like the Final Light and for a moment Pallin thought they were back by the Last Redoubt, and then it seemed as if the blackness exploded.
Stars were nothing like lights and they were certainly not five-pointed as they were in children’s books. Each was a point smaller than a point, a puncture so sharp it pierced space. They were not bright, but their sharpness made them seem so. They were not coloured, but they had subtle tones — here like bronze, there like steel, elsewhere pearl. There were millions of them, uncountable, gathered into great drifts that swept across the sky measured by irregular patterns that his mind compelled to make into the shapes of men and insects and other creatures. Through the Astronomer’s eyes he saw himself with his helm thrown back and his face naked to the magnificent sky, his eyes glinting.
And if this were so, he would have died in an instant. This was not real, yet it was true. . .
“Astronomer, what is this place?” he demanded. “You see, Langar cannot, I. . . am between. What is this . . . arena?”
The Astronomer shook his head. “We are out of the domain of the Redoubt. . .”
“I know that!”
“Then I do not know, unless. . .”
“I see from a place where stars can exist. I understand now. As we climbed up, we found a point where two histories split apart. I have glimpsed where time might have gone if things had been otherwise and I should not die here.”
Pallin was aghast. “You will die here!” he said.
“I cannot die, I have seen the stars.”
“You will die,” Pallin insisted. “Ser Astronomer, in the prehistoric past, there were things under the stars that could still kill us, and many absences too. You may not be able to provide yourself with the banal necessities of life, no matter how inspiring the stars might be.”
“Then I will find what I lack — or as you say, I will die. I cannot continue to live otherwise now, having seen what I have seen. How can you live knowing that there were stars — or believing that they are dead?”
“I will live with the memory of the stars, knowing that there were stars — as we all do in the Last Redoubt. Everything lives in us if we live.”
The Astronomer shook his head. “That is not enough for me.”
“No, it is not,” Pallin admitted. “Perhaps the stars are your puzzle which you must solve and the Night Land is mine. I want to know everything about it and about myself — and there is a more perfect symmetry for me there. . . and maybe there is someone that I love. Perhaps that is the case.”
“ ‘Maybe’, ‘perhaps’?”
“I promised and I gambled, Astronomer, and I have my. . . own dilemmas — and my duty.” His decision made, he pointed back the way that they had come. “I think that there is my arena.”
The Astronomer read him in some way, better than he might have read himself. “There is someone you love? Do you fall down for some hopeless dream of insectile compulsion, some trail of pheromones?” he asked bitterly, making his own last attempt to keep him.
Pallin might have struck him, but his helm concealed his face and while his fist clenched, he did not raise it. “So what if that is so? Perhaps I am tired of being the man between, perhaps not. . . but it is my business and my fault. I have said that I am human. Pity me if you must.” He saluted ironically. “Goodbye.”
“You are a petty man, I thought better of you,” the Astronomer said, and walked away into the darkness.
The orrery in the Star Chambers turned and the council deliberated. “Your loyalty is to be commended,” Vesalius said at last.
Was it loyalty, something so limited?
“Few self-styled heroes realise that the return of intelligence is more honorable than death,” said another. “We will have need of you — and your children.”
The Censor on the panel spoke: “It is not reasonable that you propose to marry Hecane.”
“But surely — ”
“You have survived, ser Pallin. Consider the meaning of that.”
“I consider my rights by custom.”
“In times passed, yes, but there is a longer plan now. One day all will have to escape into the Land as the Redoubt falls. You have a rare facility to see and not be caught by what you see and that is what we need. Your genes must be spread among the population as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. No Lady of her social rank could tolerate the compromises that would be necessary.”
He turned to Vesalius, who smiled for the wrong reason. “Remember your duty to the longer plan, ser,” he said. “You will be honoured. You are well blessed with abilities and intelligence, you have the ability to command. There is a place for you in the Tower and your career as a Monstruwacan will advance smoothly. Your fortune is our fortune.”
Pallin bowed his head to hide his expression and wondered if he lied. “I can and shall obey.”
From the external galleries of the Tower of Observation, The Night Land was an expanse of deep, velvet blackness. Here and there, no stars but lights that were sure signs of present life were visible. Beautiful was not the word that Pallin would have used, but he saw more mystery of the sort his selfish intellect needed for its sustenance than he had in the vista of the stars. Perhaps that made him a little man.
He sorted through possibilities as a miser might sort through his hoard. . . but no; that was mere self-loathing. The stars were a mystery, but the lights of the black Land and the human hearts that faced it — including his own — were a mystery too. Surely the rewards in facing those mysteries would be greater if he were warmed with the accomplishment of duty?
Perhaps again. He had to admit that he did not know. The Astronomer might have had the answer to his questions, but they were only his answers to his own questions. A decent man tries to live well with questions that cannot be solved, does he not? And when there is a pall, he goes Out for his ultimate test of himself. Surely this must be so.
He had doubts nonetheless.
“I cannot help but think that we are being herded in a way ourselves, that other beings have made this arena for us...” he mused.
“The Watchers?” asked his companion, a Monstruwacan more junior than he.
“I don’t know ... " He raised the beaver of his helm and regarded one of the distant, vast monster that lay in the South with his naked eyes. His companion gasped and he felt the tug at his arm, but he ignored it. “One day I will have to see,” he said.