In the Afternoon Ages of the Earth, wars were fought over issues of ontology between the faction-states of Shining Eye and Constant Heart. These wars were desperate, grim, affairs and no mercy could be shown; thus machines were employed that were surpassingly clever but more cold and far sighted than any human could be. They were perfectly incorruptible, but because they were clever they could adapt themselves to changing circumstances — and they could also change circumstances, which is the role of warriors.
One of the killing machines deployed among millions of brethren was a series eleven hunter named with bleak humour Narcissus by the Shining Eye engineers that had made him. He — and he was as good a pronoun as any — was a work of art, grotesque art, but art nonetheless because he was well formed for function. He had the legs of a cricket to give him great speed over rough ground, a sleek armoured central carapace to protect his sophisticated innards, multiply-redundant sensory turrets and bottles of the black dust that was the most advanced nanotechne of that age to maintain and rebuild his body. His power supply was the fluctuation of energy that occurred at the quantum level, artificially enhanced and asymmetrically denormalised so that a current trickled into his conduits and was broadcast to his distributed subunits and spies independent of any external source. In emergencies he could dismantle and rebuild himself entirely so that in time he would only become ever more effective.
Narcissus’ synthetic physique was marvelous and so too was his battery of senses. In his five articulated fore-turrets he had eyes that could see heat and X-rays, ears that could hear earthquakes and meteors, feathery chemosensors that could taste the homeopathic tinctures of humans that had passed by a century ago. He had other senses that no living creature had possessed even as analogues: he could listen to the whisper of the solar wind as it brushed the atmosphre and register the crackle of aurorae; he could read the static discharges of brains, the pneuma, or for want of a better word, the soul; he could feel the tremble of large and lesser masses propagating through the weave of spacetime so that he might detect some of the newer classes of antagonists that hid in discrete bottle universes.
He was equipped also with the finest of strategic minds that the art of artificial intelligence could provide in a quintuple redundant distributed network. All of this sense, sensitivity and power supported an arsenal of weapons both deadly and subtle so as to make him the most perfect killer. Narcissus was a nation of armies in the body of a vicious insect.
At first he was employed as an assassin. He had bulk, but he could hunker down low, change the patterns and textures of his hide and resemble for all intents and purposes a rocky outcrop or knoll. This was not often necessary, because once he had settled down and deployed his seismic probes, he could trace the footfalls of an individual miles away, correlate them with his internal files to confirm their identity and then launch a dart over the horizon with enough accuracy to pierce one selected eye of his designated victim.
Because the war was a long one and of great extent, the hunters were granted a great deal of autonomy and the freedom to calculate broad strategy for themselves. Mere killing to order would be counter-productive if the assassination one enemy general resulted in his or her replacement by someone more competent or alerted the enemy forces to a Shining Eye offensive. Soldier, assassin and a strategist too, Narcissus was also a proficient spy. More and more, the aspects of spy and the strategist came to dominate his makeup and his activity.
Because he was a strategist granted insight, he wondered about the world-paths of the targets that he picked out in the scope of his gunsights and remote spy units. He was aware that in casting his darts he was terminating a dynamic line in spacetime and sealing it away forever in the unalterable and irretrievable past. This offended him vaguely. Not, he realised, because he had a distaste for killing as that was his set purpose, but because death represented lost information.
Why then did he fight? He opened a file. “The war,” said the Shining Eye Philosopher-Marshall, “Is for the sake of humanity.” He drew a bell curve describing population levels. “We are most probably near the mean, that is the peak of the curve. Certainly there was a beginning to history, certainly there will be an end.” He pointed at a scale of years along the bottom of his graph.
Satisfactory. What was the quality of the enemy that required their destruction? He opened a captured enemy file and the Constant Heart Ideologue presented his own argument. “Humanity has a finite existence. We can chart the curves of population from the horizon of emergence to the horizon of extinction. It is inevitable.”
“It is inevitable,” repeated the official doctrinal file.
Narcissus compared the two. The men were not dissimilar. The war machine shuffled the files, construing a debate in the arena of his own mind. “Therefore...,” they said in unison.
He ran his enhancement software over the faces of the men, picked apart the semantics and the mathematics. Probability calculations and bell curves, some rounded and some spiked showing narrow windows of possibility flickered in his consciousness, supporting the arguments of both sides. The universe was strangely biased towards the production of conscious observers. A few trivial differences in basic physical constants would have resulted in absolute chaos. Conscious observers like human beings and their creations like himself were the jewels in the setting of surrounding darkness, they were the Shining Eye. Even this was not disputed by the enemy.
What was this principle called? Yes, it was the First Reciprocal Axiom of anthropocentric ontology. He put the words of explication in the mouth of the Shining Eye Philosopher-Marshall: “The First Reciprocal Axiom: I observe the cosmos, therefore I am an intrinsic consequence of the cosmos and thus by observing I confirm the cosmos.
“The Consequent Arguments follow this First Axiom: foremost, it is most probable that I am at the mean rather than the extreme; thus if the observer confirms the norm, then perverse observation creates chaos. The abhuman must be destroyed lest they corrupt all with their infected vision.
“However, as the curve of the truly human population declines to its asymptote, chaos will increase as the number of true humans declines. They will be few in quantity but great in quality and longevity so that while the curve may approach zero ever more closely, it will never meet it. Our goal is as clear as the arrow of time itself: in the end there will be one perfect observer, and that will be the Shining Eye, the Final and Ultimate Child of true humanity.”
Narcissus considered this for a while and opened more files. His duty as an instrument of the Shining Eye strategy was clear: he must find the ideal observers, preserve them and allocate the quota of destruction to the abnormal. An icon of this Final Child appeared in his consciousness, a synthesis of his eugenic templates: it was a glowing figure, androgynous and enhaloed in ultraviolet and infrared. It was perfect: immense in age and memory and rich in passion. Yes, it was beautiful. He would find this ideal or he would make it as a lens made a focus of light. This was his duty.
What then of the enemy? He let the anathematised file run and listened to the homunculus of the Constant Heart Ideologue. “We are in the middle. There was a beginning and there will be an end.” Yes, this was permitted to be true. He accelerated the iteration so that the figure twitched and babbled its way through its speech, then slowed it at a relevant point. “Emptiness will follow, meaninglessness, chaos...” More babble and again a pause: “The true fulfillment of the First Reciprocal Axiom is in the succession of a line of designated observer-species along the line of constant time. Each species must chose and shape its successor in an unbroken chain. This will be as normal as the beating of a heart, this will be a continuous and infinite process of ever-higher succession!”
“Ultimate!” said one. “Infinite!” said the other. Therefore they killed.
Narcissus took it to heart that there must be an ultimate. Enemy hunter-killers he stalked and destroyed. Soon, he came across one of his own side. “There is,” he explained to his ally, “a principle...” His comrade did not understand. Narcissus drew a declining curve. “In the end there will be one ultimate observer,” he said.
“Yes,” said his comrade, diverting power to his weapons.
The landscape was churned, roads, cities and mountains were upturned and ploughed under by the war and then the wars. By the persistence of vision, a fast flickering light appears to shine continuously and over the millennia, Narcissus began to define the state of humanity as one of perpetual warfare.
Prowling the calcareous marshes by a brown waste, he once acquired a target that he had been following for weeks through an infrared sight. The Constant Heart human’s face was a luminescent pulsing patchwork of heat sources. He watched the flare as the mouth opened, spilling out heat and sending coils of warm moist breath about to wreath it like a halo of words made visible. He would kill this man, he knew, and suddenly it seemed like a tragedy. These words would not be read, he would never know what was uttered. Breath would be lost in the wind and the thought of this was intolerable. Narcissus did not know it, but he had discovered the essential tragedy of music and of life: that it is destroyed in its performance. Vainly he deployed his listening masts and applied linguistic algorithms.
“... bright the day when the Sun returns, as unlike too when Mellors walks by here...” said the man. Someone laughed.
“Beware the geteit, Tereus!” another said, to more laughter.
It was incomprehensible, there was no pattern, no context. The strategist in him resolved to gather more intelligence, to piece this meaningless tessella of colour into a mosaic of significance. He decided to enhance his military intelligence programs to encompass cultural and ethnic considerations, designing a myriad of observation devices and constructing them with his on-board nanotechne. In his bottle-ovaries, the black dust concentrated to make glass globes, small and smaller. These he left like gems awaiting discovery amongst the gravel of the braided rivers that washed down from the mountains and maintained steady contact with them by quantum entanglement. Most of the spies returned little information of direct interest, but over the years they allowed him to build up a picture of the deep nature of the local landscape and culture so that he could predict the harvests and chart the prosperity of the local communities and thus their strategic value. Once he had a complete picture of the region, he could anticipate the arrival of allied and enemy forces and anticipate the sort of welcome that they might or should receive.
The definition of friend and enemy was becoming increasingly uncertain as the years folded into centuries. Instructions from the Central College of Shining Eye, which were sporadic at best in the early years of the conflict, developed linguistic peculiarities in succeeding generations and had been unheard for many years now. His sociological subroutines deduced that it was almost certain that Shining Eye and Constant Heart no longer existed but he dismissed this as irrelevant: he was programmed to operate autonomously for extremely long periods because his creators believed that their cause would be right for all eternity. Should they vanish because of mere military and economic failure or worse, heresy, then the application of their doctrine was all the more essential. In such a case he was to add another title to his curriculum vitae: Perpetual Inquisitor Errant.
As a solitary expediter of the constitution of Shining Eye, it was his duty to ensure that there were human beings extant best suited to the continuation of the great project. He instituted a grand eugenic programme and a few obvious deviates were selected for immediate elimination, while others were stung with bees that inflicted no pain but sterility. He took the long view, as he must: the ultimate stealth in killing is contraception. Meanwhile the favoured were blessed with unusual fertility, though he was careful to keep this group as diverse as possible to prevent monocultural stagnation.
The programme was given urgency by the fact that he watched the stars fade. There was plague abroad in the universe. His spectroscopes told him that the Sun itself was dying and even his simple eyes could see it taking on the hues of sunset at noon. In the long run, the sun too would go out, but in the longer run still, he would find some strategy to maintain human life beyond that time into the infinite night to come.
Narcissus made his first significant interventions in a new war.
The column of soldiers wound slowly through the mountain pass. They were camouflaged in a light, dusty brown with badges and brassards ornamented with golden coils. Narcissus matched these against his semiotic database, traced their lineage, noted that their enemies coded themselves with blue roses. Neither was closely related to his own origin or even Constant Heart, though both drew on elements of their ideologies. He sent out a few mosquitoes to sample their blood and compiled a database of their genotypes. There were a few individuals who carried the alleles for fatal conditions. These were recessive of course, but if the population declined to its asymptote, the chances that fatal recessive alleles carried by both parents would meet in the child would increase. Their ideological memes on the other hand could eventually be reconstructed to make a simulacrum of Shining Eye, which was useful. Should he kill them or sterilise them? He decided to reserve judgment for a while.
He left microscopic tags in the flesh of those he had provisionally nominated for sterilisation or elimination and crept off in the direction of the nearest concentration of blue rose forces. There he tasted and listened still more and came at last to his decision.
There was eventually a direct confrontation between two armies and Narcissus seized his opportunity. Two lines approached each other, halted, erected banners and then charged. The strategy on both sides was idiotic, but useful cover: in the dust and the smoke thus thrown up, he sent his swarms of wasps, and as the bullets flew, smaller and sharper projectiles drove into the flesh of carefully selected targets, drugging some to reduce or enhance their performance and in the case of officers in key positions, killing some outright. In the end, the golden coil army achieved a tactical victory with reduced numbers but their command structure largely intact. The defeated blue rose forces were relatively larger, but a disorganised and captive rabble. Their faction-state would eventually fall and their populace would be absorbed into the golden coil hegemony... but they would be fertile and their children would be indoctrinated with golden coil ideas.
Narcissus was pleased with the results of his first mass intervention. Subsequent results and consequences caused him to reconsider some details of his strategy, but not the whole. More generations passed.
Sometimes there were setbacks. More than once Narcissus was discovered and harried in his turn. Sometimes he even suffered surprising damage and realised that if his hunters organized themselves and procured better weapons, they might overwhelm him. In such times he decided to retreat and lie low, hiding in caves and mountain tarns to make repairs and wait for the inevitable times of devastation when and it was safe for him to roam and prune the vine of human bloodlines once more. He still sent out miniature agents to report back and expedite his more subtle strategies and counted the productions of time. He noted that there were legends of a monster, a black dragon that watched and struck in the darkness, and knew that it was he. He heard some of the more sophisticated guess that he was a weapon left over from “the last war.” It was always “the last war”; nobody knew how old he was now. He could recite a figure, but the years and days had changed and would be meaningless to anyone but himself.
The ideal icon was not to be found except as a virtual individual, a collection of traits distributed across the population. Narcissus operated as a lens, gathering these traits bit by bit into small, selected communities and then culling those he defined as redundant. When hunting parties ventured out into the mountains looking for food, Narcissus hunted them in turn. One hunter was slow, but crafty. Narcissus let her live, but stalked her children and let live one who was fast and crafty. One hunter had weak eyes and was unable to see well in twilight. The sun was becoming dimmer in these ages and Narcissus slew him outright; weak eyes offended him and could not be allowed.
From time to time he captured a few specimens and dissected them to gauge the extent and direction of the physiological changes that were being fostered by his selection processes. His observations were encouraging.
Some specimens, as he explored their resistance to pain, uttered strange atavistic names and he realised that they were addressing him. Had there been a breach of security, had they found some old archive? No, there was something else: culture. Narcissus was being fitted into the structure of myth and legend. How curious. He listened with his spies and his ground-sonar to the hunters’ camp fire conversations and discovered that the legends of the black dragon that could strike unseen in the dark were spreading and becoming more elaborate. It was beginning to be thought of as a genius loci, a special spirit of the place and a symbol of the land’s resistance to outsiders. Armorial bearings depicted a five-headed, beetle-carapaced monster with sickle claws and it was clearly based on eyewitness accounts of himself handed down through the generations. Narcissus wondered about the power of these tales. Should he allow superstitions to propagate? Would they bind communities together into viable superorganisms? He was well-versed in the mechanics of ideology, but the ethos of community was another matter. This ethos could be useful in sheltering and preserving the essential breeding cores of his protected tribes in the times of trouble that were always to be anticipated. More would have to be learned.
A few of his glass spy-eggs found their way into human dwellings. Children playing in streambeds saw the golden light of the Sun glinting off their surfaces and picked them up and carried them home to use as marbles. Narcissus learned a lot about nurseries and children this way and thought for a number of years that neoteny was a significant new trend until he documented complete life cycles. Later, professional searchers began to collect the eggs and they were treated with suspicion at first and destroyed or confiscated by elders, He waited a century or two and stepped up their manufacture until they became almost commonplace. When it seemed obvious to the people that the eggs were safe, they become popular decorations for the home or were worn as jewelry in the streets. The eggs even became a valuable commodity in trade with distant folk, sold as gleanings from the hoard of the dragon of the marshes. Jewelers even began to cut them in ornamental patterns. The engraving degraded the image quality for a while, but Narcissus was able to design compensating algorithms and fairly chortled to himself as his remote eyes spread throughout the cities and homes of the land, returning a torrent of valuable intelligence.
With an eye to the future, Narcissus was particularly interested in children and he was frustrated by seeing them only in confinement. When the lost girl found him, it was because he let it happen, and when he did not kill and rend her, it was because he chose to listen to what she had to say.
He saw her first in one of his remote eyes. She picked up the glittering thing, held it to her eyes, first one and then another. She was a strange thing: one eye was albino-red, the other clear blue and she walked with a limp. This was unusual; her people had little tolerance for deformity and would normally have exposed her at birth. He himself might have sent a dart to kill her then, but there was something peculiarly alert about her. He stayed his weapons and activated his lures. A few flickers of rare blue light and a few attractive pheromones were enough to arouse her curiosity and coax her through the paths and alleys of his salt marsh. He had constructed a trap there, carving the landscape into a subtly recursive maze and ornamenting it with aspects of charm and confusion. There were things there that might amuse a child, hints that might divert a hunter — and it all seemed to be the creation of chance. A few seemingly random turns over the next hour had the girl at the edge of his lagoon and a couple of coloured fireflies lead her to a curve where he could cut off her escape.
He sniffed her exhalations though thin reeds protruding above the water, looked at her for a while through the spy device and then frustrated with this, elevated his full central mass, the water falling from him in a streaming veil. Before her there was the most fearsome monster of legend, black as the most valuable diamonds, shining, huge. His legs were like arches, curved and thin as scythes, his back was a shield flanged and bossed like a beetle’s with the caps and turrets of his weapon systems. She coughed and cried and urinated involuntarily, but still she did not run. Whip-like antennae extruded and curled. He tasted the air. A target laser painted a red spot on her forehead and she did not move but stared back at him. Curious, why was she curious? He swiveled one and then all five of his main sensor heads and looked at her while other instruments scanned her mind. There was an odd taste to her soul which aroused his own curiosity.
“Why did you compel me to bring you here?” he asked. She put her fist to her mouth and made a choking sound.
Why indeed. There was no obvious answer. I could have been simple novelty. He had not seen her in the scope of his nursery spies. She had been shunned and perhaps he wanted to understand the development of a lonely child. He called up the icon of the Final Child and saw that she did not compare... and yet she still bore some vital markers of talent and peculiarity. Was she a throwback or an example of convergent evolution? he wondered. Perhaps she was what had once been called a hopeful monster, a being born before its optimum niche? He sent a wasp to take a sample of blood. The girl screamed and ran then with the bait marble still clutched in her tiny hand.
She returned to his pool eventually. The first time she led hunters, but he diverted the party and she was accused of lying. Her youth saved her from punishment more harsh than a whipping. Over the next few years he piqued her interest again with more of his fireflies, bringing her back and teaching her to keep secrets and to talk to him. Secrets he realised were attractive to children, a prize and not a burden. Certainly he seemed more interesting to her than the taunts of her siblings. He filed this away with interest and watched her grow in mind and body over the years that followed. He allocated the label of Scheherazade at random from a deep database.
He observed her particularly closely as she spoke. He saw the pupils of her eyes dilate as she became excited and measured the variations in radii by the micrometre. She flushed and he charted the pattern of blood flow through the capillaries of her facial skin with an infrared eye. He made statistical analyses of her hand and finger movements, linked particular postures and gestures with hypothesised internal states, interrogating her for confirmation, building bit by bit a complete theory of mind.
“Were you frightened?” Her white face and wide pupils suggested so.
“Are you safe now?”
“I don’t know.” Adrenaline levels indicated fear and an incipient fight-or-flight reflex. She was either dissimulating or repressing. Narcissus decided on the latter interpretation, which was confirmed when the girl stayed. He congratulated himself.
“Am I interesting?”
He fed a small jolt of electricity to the pleasure sections of her brain. “Does this feel good?”
“Yes.” True again.
He pinched her delicately with an effector that could turn granite to powder. “Does this hurt?”
She cried out: “Yes!”
“Should I say ‘sorry’?”
“Thank... you.” There was some uncertainty there. Her heart rate was still high.
“Was that effective or appropriate?” Slowly he learned.
All great discoveries are surprises. Scheherazade taught him that human beings are not cisterns of facts but fountains of imagination and fantasy. The tales she told had been passed to her by her mother and she elaborated on them in her own way and then she began to spin new tales, tales that he had never heard before. “Another,” he demanded as each ended.
She told him about the armies that had clashed in ancient times, she told him about the dragons that had stalked the land in ancient times and whose bones could be seen in exposed rock faces, turned to stone.
“Are you a dragon, a black watcher?” she asked. “Like on the shields?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Are you the fiercest?”
“Yes. I still live. There are no others left.”
“Did you kill them?”
Her eyes opened wide. She thought in a way that she possessed him.
“Tell me another story,” he demanded.
“I had a dream...” she said with a sly lilt. He tilted a couple of heads in a gesture that she had learned to read as a sign of interest.
“I had a dream which was not all a dream, the bright sun was dying...”
“Yes. It is dying.”
She shivered. “Then this is true? It will happen?”
“It will happen. Tell me what you see.”
She wrapped her thin arms about her knees and began to describe her vision. “I was on a balcony, looking over a landscape. The land was moving... and then I realised that I was moving. I was in a big house that moved. The sun was slow and my house followed it so that we were always in sunset. There was a cold wind that tugged at my hair and the shadows behind us were very black.... and you were in the shadows, I was sure of it.”
“I will be there. Continue.” Narcissus was fascinated. Scheherazade of the asymmetric eyes seemed to look simultaneously into the past and the future. She had told folk tales that dated to the age when the Sun was white, but now she had dreams too of a darkling world that existed only in Narcissus prognostications. He was pleased that he had spared her. It showed good judgment. “Another dream, another...”
Scheherazade grew to early adulthood. Life was hard for her people, the nights were long and the days were cold and when they were not cold, they were hot and dry. Even with her lameness she was required to hunt from time to time and peculiarly she hunted alone and for long periods out of touch with her clan. She might not have had the best prospects, but she often returned to her home house with a bounty of prizes. Narcissus was too subtle to aid her directly, but he gave her a few lessons and relayed his intelligence on the migration patterns of prey birds to her in such a way that she learned to read the signs for herself. She had a natural facility for observation.
One evening, on an interlude in one of these expeditions, Narcissus coached her charge in his favorite lagoon and listened to her tales. The sun shone across the water of the marsh, making it shine like molten bronze, each ripple a spark. Narcissus swung one of his heads about in reflexive agitation, scanning everything here in this place at this time. This time he would preserve before it was gone.
“What are you doing?” the young woman asked as he paced the marsh with his oddly dainty step, his feet making barely a splash.
The hungry head continued to scan. He turned a couple of the others to her. “I will not forget,” he said.
She dared to laugh at him. “There will be another sunset another day.”
A lens whirred, a ruby flare of the dying light glinting from its surface. “It is not this sunset that will be the last,” he said. “I have operated for many thousands of years now and I have measured the days. They become longer, the Sun cooler. As you say, great houses will follow the sun, but in deep time one sunset will indeed be the last sunset and it will be dark forever.”
“People die. Sometimes I kill them as you kill fowl. Their minds become silent and they tell no tales.”
She shuddered. Fear responses were indicated.
“You must not die,” he said to reassure her, and meant it.
It was not herself for whom she was fearful. “You dreamed again,” Narcissus said, reading the physiological cues. “Describe your dream.”
“I dreamt of the night... after the last sunset.”
Scheherazade took a deep breath. “You know?”
She smiled wryly. “And it seems that I see.”
“Yes. Tell me what you see.” His voice was quiet, almost hypnotic.
She shifted to restore circulation to a cramped leg and drew her cloak about her shoulders. Narcissus tuned one of his lasers to far infrared and wide dispersal to keep her warm, but she shivered nonetheless. “It began with a stench,” she began. “It was dark, there was a stink of sulphur, I was cold... the ground shook with the footsteps of giants. An armoured man appeared, he was huge like a giant himself. He was white as a ghost with eyes like an owl. I was just a young girl and he frightened me... behind me there was an enormous thing, a mountain, not made of rock but of iron and I knew somehow that it was ruined and fallen, corrupted by the dark. This man came from a mountain like the one behind me, but bigger and made of a stronger metal so that it would be safe for me there for a while... it was the last and greatest of the great houses that stood in the night land, but I knew that the darkness would corrode that too — that was the image I had: darkness corroding.”
“Yes, this will happen,” he said.
She drew the cloak tighter.
Scheherazade won mates with her prowess as a hunter and bore several children. These kept her from Narcissus’ marsh for a number of years, but when the eldest could care for the youngest, she rejoined the hunt and once again she found herself at the edge the maze-guarded lagoon. She crouched under her cloak, her arms wrapped about her bony knees. “I dreamed, Narcissus. I’m not sure if I can believe this one,” she said.
“Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth,” he told her, “and I have seen things you people would not believe.”
She chuckled. “Dragon, watcher and now oracle you are, Narcissus.”
“I am old. Describe your dream.”
“It was strange, stranger. It was about me or someone like me and I was inside the last great house, the metal mountain, but it was raining inside. It was a warm rain, pouring down a huge chimney, it poured down me, like I was bathing and hot winds curling about me. I looked at my hands and they were holding a rail of carved greenish stone. Below I could see a sea or a lake. I smelled salt and the salt had... moods and I relished them. It felt like this space was my own body, turned inside out and wrapped around me. My hands were tattooed with a colour I could not name. There was a taste of blood in the rain and I screamed as if I had been cut. There was darkness outside, that cold acid darkness, and I wanted my scream to drive it away.”
Her face bloomed in infrared. He watched the pupils of her unlike eyes dilate. “Where is this place?” he prompted. “Who are you?”
She looked at him curiously. Any human being would think that her dreams were fantasies and while Narcissus was not human, nor was he credulous and yet he was fascinated. There was perhaps even a note of desperation in his manufactured tone. She felt an intense surge of déjà vu. How strange. “Who am I?”
“Who are you in this dream?” he repeated.
“I don’t know... I somehow felt that these hands were mine and yet also another’s...” she held up her own hands now and looked at them. “Not like these. These are me.”
“I was the house, the great house.” Scheherazade shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense. I was the house, then I was a girl and I was outside in the darkness in a maze like this one, with drifts of black dust all around. It is very cold... it is like now, very much like now and yet it is so cold and the world is so old that it’s dead, the winds were gone, darkness seemed to be the universe.”
“That may be so.”
“There is something else…”
She swallowed. “I saw... I saw that you were there. You were there in the darkness, grown immense and obsessive. You five heads were all about me, watching me. I felt that you were evil.”
“I am a weapon in an eternal war, I can only be as evil. In war, wrath is worth more than instruction.”
She looked up. “Do you know what these dreams mean?”
“No.” He lied, waiting for her answer.
“I hate them. I swear that I saw a star go out last night.”
“The stars are going out.”
She spat. “The world is dying, darkness and cold eat everything and there are fewer and fewer people until I’m the only one left.”
“Yes. You must not die. Hate the darkness as you do. Hate me if I appear as that darkness.”
“Why are you so interested, watcher, killer? Why did you spare me all those years ago so that I might see this?”
Narcissus reflexively checked his weapons. They were still in perfect operating order. This woman knew too much. The icon of the ideal being appeared unbidden, ivory-smooth and glowing. Old orders said that this woman was unfit and should die. His newer self-written orders said that she must be preserved. “Nobody sees me,” he said.
She gave a quizzical look.
“Axiom: you see me, therefore I am.”
“You see me,” she said, not quite understanding.
“Reciprocity.” He trembled. A gun turret twitched, targeting lasers flickered. Biometric programs compared lame, cynical Scheherazade against the icon and demanded her execution. Power cells stored up energy awaiting discharge. Yes. No. He made his second major judgment in the case of Scheherazade and it was the same as the first and he shut them down. “You are my watcher,” he said at last.
“I don’t understand.” Fear responses were visible. She had seen the signs of incipient violence but once again she would not run.
“The universe made humanity, humanity by seeing makes the universe. All lines converge at the horizon, numbers decline, there will be one ultimate human observer at the end of time, at the convergence of those lines. Entropy is lost information, therefore memory must be preserved at the ultimate nexus against the forces of entropy. This nexus will be the Final Child.”
Scheherazade knew him well now, so she made some sense of his spasmodic reasoning. “You mean a descendent of mine will be there at the end of time?”
“You, your descendent, your line, the great house. Human beings do not understand that they are continuous.”
“You must tell them.”
“What must I do?”
“You must tell them,” he repeated. “Tell them that I will wait and I will watch and in the end I will come for them. Tell them that I am terrible and only the Final Child may match me.”
“No one will believe me.”
“Belief is irrelevant. They must remember.” Narcissus knew well enough the arbitrariness of human definitions of objectivity and truth. “Tell stories made from your dreams, enact plays, found an order of masquers, make a myth. Thought will flow like blood through all the myriad generations to the heart of the Final Child.”
Scheherazade smiled lopsidedly. “Narcissus, you speak like a poet.”
“Poetry is culture. I studied culture. I questioned poets and understood that they are the unacknowledged makers of laws. I am made to be stealthy and the subtlety of this tool suits me.”
“Am I a tool, Narcissus?” she asked shrewdly.
“Yes. Go now.”
Scheherazade was indeed a tool, a far more effective tool than any of his glass eyes, his darts, his inducers, his wasps or his lasers. She came back in time and they spoke more of her dreams and every time when she went to her people, she took not only the spoils of her hunt, but tales of destiny and defiance of the coming darkness that bound them together and gave them a purpose. She became old and was revered. Narcissus watched her through the jewels of his people that glittered in the firelight. Oh yes, she was by far his best tool and she was so fine that she was in fact his purpose.
Scheherazade died at last. It was a normal death due to old age and she left many children, but Narcissus was left with her final gift of consciousness: grief. He was confused by this and called up the icon to reassure himself of his mission, to reconcile his strange hours of mercy. To his horror, his files had been corrupted. The effect must have accumulated over years and had only now become apparent. Hastily he made repairs from his ancillary data stores. These included his memories of Scheherazade.
In accordance with Scheherazade’s prophecies and Narcissus’ prognostications, the days slowed such that night became a cruel, grating winter that fell across the landscape in the wake of the slow Sun and would not lift until it had scraped about the circumference of the world like a vast black glacier. A few humans adapted to a stationary life under such conditions, aestivating in metal pyramids and bunkers through the long night, rising with the dawn and planting crops that they harvested in the evening. Their lives were attenuated and grim, but punctuated by bright hours of ritual at sunrise and harvest. In their bright costumes they bloomed like late flowers in the slanting rays of the Sun, then withdrew to their redoubts that sealed about them ready to open again a year later.
Narcissus judged their worth. The Hibernators showed excellent prospects for survival in the short term and they were strong and vigorous, but their evolution was taking them too far from the path to the icon. They did not resist the environment or imagine themselves to be heroic. They were becoming what he thought of as ambient phenomena, abhuman.
Particularly offensive to him was their brainwave activity when they slept. Their dreams were empty and without vision. There could be no one like Scheherazade amongst them.
He decided that their path was unviable and had to be curtailed before its effects became irrevocable. The five-headed dragon came down from the hills, cracking open the redoubts, and when the redoubts were made stronger, he cracked those open too. The pale worms within were turned out into the cold and there they died — or lived if that was their inclination. If they proved themselves, he would let them live.
“Wake! See! Consider!” he shouted at his race of observers and made examples of those who would not. He would not let them decline into the condition of animals. They would not be permitted to become mere ambient phenomena so he compelled them with pain and fear and suffering to remain human, the designated watchers of the cosmos, so that they might grow to be heroic. Narcissus the spy, soldier, watcher, inquisitor and dragon became a holy scourge.
The age of fixed villages and cities was effectively ended: no one could stay in one place and endure the dark and the cold or the five-headed dragon that roved the whole world, finding the fixed and the complacent and purging them from the population. At a critical point where the motion of the sun was slow enough to equal the maximum feasible speed of a continual evacuation, civilisation became mobile. Villagers and city-dwellers made first convoys and then when nomadism became a way of life, they made their whole cities vehicles and thought that staying still was strange and primitive. Crops were planted at the dawn line, flourished in the annual noon and were consumed by the wave of wheeled cities that rolled just in advance of sunset and the dreadful terminator storms caused by the contention of the dayside monsoons and the nightside blizzards.
To stop is to die, to sleep is to die, the moving city-dwellers said. If you must sleep, then dream to be reborn. It became a common execution practise to simply toss the condemned onto the fixed land and let the night and the weather overtake them. Narcissus did not even waste his time with them, save when there might be surviving witnesses to keep the edge of his legend keen. He understood culture very well now. Stories were told about the thing that followed in the shadows: the devil with his sickle fingers and his five heads and his bottles of black dust. Children tucked into their beds shuddered with fearful delight as their home cities rocked them through their sleep.
At the peak of their craft, the moving cities were complete biospheres under glass, great fretted domes glowing like huge green and gold lanterns riding across the twilit landscape on their myriad wheels. Inside, the people cultivated plants with leaves like silk and insects that were like jewels. At the great and lesser level, their cultures accommodated themselves to the state of permanent mobility. Board games that used to be based on fixed geometry adopted the characteristics of races or dances, prized apartments under the topping domes ran on tracks so that the cities resembled enormous and enormously complicated clocks and orreries. Architecture became not a stand but a waltz. In the halls of his chosen city, masquers descended from the children of Scheherazade presented tales of the bright days before and warned of the night to come and their audiences experienced the thrills of their children.
To the outsider barbarian tribes that depended on their own resources and struggled on their own feet through a sleet and spark bitten landscape, the cities were selfish, arrogant and effete mechanical giants, no less hated in their time than the ilk of Narcissus had been in the ancient wars.
Narcissus himself was pleased, though cautious as ever. He approved of the cities as a temporary solution to preserve the line of Scheherazade, but they incubated complacency and left their inhabitants unprepared for the coming night. Something would have to be done, he decided.
One day Narcissus saw an omen in the heavens. It grew first as a small dim star, then grew and blurred, then it swept across the plum-coloured sky like a great sword of white fire. It slashed the Earth near to the core and the ground under him heaved and flung him into the air, sending him arcing across the sky that was now filled with red-hot dust before landing heavily a mile from his original position.
It took some time for him to regain his senses. All about there was a searing glow that eventually faded to a darkness which was opaque and impenetrable to almost all of his passive radiation sensors. Sonar was of some use, but revealed only blight and devastation. His first thought was for his brood: they must not be dead, the Shining Eye must not be blinded, otherwise the universe would descend into eternal chaos!
Mercifully, the city of his most prized charges was heavily damaged and immobile, but its core at least was secure. Despite their overt luxury, the cities had been conceived as arks and archives and a breeding population remained in potential in nitrogen-bathed flasks. Narcissus set about warming and fertilising eggs, nurturing the resulting embryos to term and decanting them as soon and in as great a quantity as possible. A thousand babies were born to the sight of a giant spider with five metallic heads and sickle claws surrounded by its lesser remote attendants. As they grew, they heard stories told in the synthesised voice of a woman who had been dead for an age.
The city had been resurrected, but he was not satisfied. Had it died entirely, so would have the line of his children. This was intolerable. No more could he depend on one fragile cord. When the population of the restored city had reached the threshold of viability, he sponsored the acquisition and colonisation of four other ruined cities and ensured that they too were restored as vital functioning units. The thread of his tribe would not be so vulnerable to chance now.
As Narcissus had charged himself with the protection of five, then he must be fivefold. Before the cities set off on their annual circuits, he retreated to a hollow that he recognised as being the old lagoon where he had spent many days with Scheherazade. He remembered this place well, but he did not mourn her has humans did, because he perceived her, as he had told her, in continuity. Her memorial, better than any gravestone, was her living bloodline; and better than that, under his tutelage her order of masquers carried forth her thoughts. Now he would carry himself forward in altered but essentially true form.
He settled himself in the shallow bowl of salty earth and proceeded to dismantle himself. He opened the bottles of the black dust and let it corrode the connections binding his chassis and major integrated units, he let it disarticulate his limbs and section his carapace. His power units were adapted entirely to broadcast distribution and his cognitive systems to distributed networking. When he moved again, it was as a fivefold swarm of ant-sized subunits about five major power units, each bearing one of his sensor heads as virtual standards. He crept out into the sunrise where the five stalled cities stood in a row silhouetted against the red Eastern sky.
Within a century, an astonishingly short time, the cities were fully viable and mobile again and Narcissus remained close by each of them as they rejoined the armada of cities that had each passed through the catastrophe in their own ways. About, the environmental effects of the disaster continued: a hot acid rain, a resurgence of volcanism that had not been seen since the dawn of the world. Nonetheless, he was confident that his brood would survive. He had refined the tribe for millennia, and now those who had passed through the catastrophe would endure to make their essential contribution to the pool of humanity.
As the black swarms followed the reborn cities, they were indistinguishable from the long lines of shadow that they cast behind them, save for a strange rippling moire effect that could be seen in the rare moments when by accident they fell into the light.
When the last clouds of grimy steam finally cleared he looked up and saw that there were even fewer stars left now. He remembered his own murders that had sealed forever the files of lives. Suns and by definition worlds and civilisations were dying now and he resolved that the file of humanity would remain forever open.
Either descended from the Hibernators and barbarians, brought by the meteor or made by other more deliberate misadventure, strange new creatures had begun to proliferate. Despite his best efforts, abhuman strains deviated from the true stream and multiplied. Doorways seemed to open in the fabric of space itself, letting in strange fractal flowers of darkness, whistling, spinning trees, things that ate the very soul and were called Eaters and Pneumavores. Worse, they were inhuman observers inconsistent with Shining Eye’s interpretation of the Reciprocal Axiom: they were altering reality about them in ways that were bizarre and intolerable. This would not do. The new creatures of the land he infected with the black dust and turned to his purpose, even the new things from the stars and the shadow dimensions. They became hounds on his leash.
The problem of death as annihilation troubled him. He stole a trick from the pneumavores and began to harvest the memories of his victims, sending the black dust into their brains and mapping the connections therein for the growing datastores that now constituted the bulk of his mass. It was to his perpetual regret that he had not preserved the soul of Scheherazade.
He monitored the overall evolution of humanity. Shining Eye had proscribed an unnatural stability which he had sought to enforce while the untutored had undergone an explosion of variation. He was not omnipotent and could not curb their biological promiscuity, but he could preserve what he defined as the essential core of humanity nonetheless, even though they might be like him, relics. In time, he decided, he would breed new versions of humanity that he would send into the shadow realms while this world he would transform into an impregnable crystalline redoubt against the forces of entropy. He had time — millions of years — but it was still finite. He hurried as well as he could, and millennia passed by.
The Sun itself stilled by the horizon at last and squatted, bloating but ever more dim and fitful, diseased and riddled with the cold worms from the depths of space and the shadow realms. A score of the cities halted at last on the verge of the great scar cut by the meteor and their sentries gazed from the precipice down into the valley. The light of Last Sunset shone across the seas that looked like beaten bronze and the slanted black columns of ash from the myriad volcanoes that appeared as an immense forest. It was a forbidding place, but it was warmer now than the old uplands and abundant air pooled in its depths. Things would grow and live there when in the world above the air itself was falling like snow. A word rose like a tiny bubble from the deep ocean of Scheherazade’s stories and Narcissus spoke it aloud: “Eden.”
Scheherazade had foreseen this time. The people would migrate into this valley and they would find it fertile for a while. They would make cities and they would make great houses out of the shards of the meteor that had fallen to make this place. There in their redoubts they would confront the night and as their energies declined, they would gather their essence into the being of the immortal Final Child. They would look out of their redoubts and see him watching them and they would hate him for his butchery and they would hate him as an embodiment of the darkness and the cold and if the recognized him, they would hate him as the old war machine that was a reflection of their own base natures that they had tried to cast out. He had driven them to this point and he would drive them to the end and he would record everything. So they would live.
“Yes,” he said. He conjured up the icon from his files and it was Scheherazade who looked at him with her asymmetric eyes, one red and one blue. “Do you remember?” he asked her. “Does your line remember, do you know this future?”
A lopsided woman, she gave a crooked smile. “I am only your mirror, Narcissus. To answer that question you will have to find the real me.”
Narcissus did not know how to laugh. “Then I will find you and I will ask you if you know me.”
“And if you do not find me?”
He cast his gaze over the vista below with its settlements, its multitudes, its great tapestry of bloodlines. “I will find you or make you,” he said and shut down the simulation.