Embrace the Night (Part 1)
"Your baby hasn't spoken yet?"
The Censor was standing next to Marat's cradle, his humming diskos discreetly hidden behind his back. Fredruk was the baby's uncle. The potential baby's uncle, he corrected himself. All newborn should be considered abhumans or animals until proven otherwise.
"Not a word," Dame Gudrin sighed.
"He only wailed and blew milk bubbles," Marat's father said.
The human race had been genetically upgraded long before the Redoubt was built. Their newborn spoke on their very first day, walked after a month.
Fredruk knelt next to the cradle. The baby looked back when Fredruk studied his face, blinked. A normal baby shouldn't have been able to focus yet, but this one clearly remembered.
He has been here before, Fredruk thought. A very old soul.
It filled him with a strange disquiet. The very second his nephew took his first breath the last star had winked out above the Redoubt, making the dark absolute. Brindaban had been a red giant, so far away and faint that only the trained eye of a Monstruwacan could have located it between the darting phosphenes of his own retina.
"Ta da?" Marat's mother tried. "Say it then. Mama?"
The baby kept his gaze on Fredruk, opened his mouth and clearly pronounced the master-word.
Fredruk flipped the switch of his weapon, put the diskos back in his sling and rose. "Your Marat is a true human, sister."
His favorite sister gave a shuddering sigh, tried to smile. A single tear slid down her cheek.
"You, eh, you want a slice of the birth-pie, Fredruk?" Dame Gudrin asked. "A glass of spiced alderwine?"
"Sorry. I have to get back to the Tower. The last star died today and there are certain..." He spread his hands. "You know."
He had come as a killer, an exterminator, not as an uncle. Best to leave them to their joy.
Two dozen well-wishers were waiting under the yellow hearth lamp of the patio. Pale, worried faces, eyes as black as tar. Two little girls were clutching wreaths of milk-glass lilies. Those flowers would have been put in the tiny hands of a dead baby. The baby would have looked peaceful, for a diskos could be discreet and sever a spine without piercing the skin.
"Go right in," Fredruk said. "It is a baby. Human, not a single taint."
He saw smiles erupt, heads jerk upright.
Now why did that sound like a lie? The baby had spoken the master-word. Nothing dark, nothing touched by the night could pronounce those syllables.
Marat, age 6
They were standing in the shadow of the big darling tree: Marat, Jehann, Sylphira and Dunja. Above them the titanium ribs of the ceiling gleamed in the glare of the Great Lamp. On the lower branches hung the embroidered girdles of the girls who had gone courting. Take a flower from the tree for your lover and leave your girdle. Only virgins wear a girdle.
"I spiek of something golden red," Dunja sang and spread her arms. "It has wings."
Dunja was a solemn little girl. Her red hair and emerald green eyes made her, if not the most beautiful, then certainly the most exotic girl of the Clan in the eyes of Marat.
Like Lurella of the Road Makers, Marat thought. Lurella who slew a dozen giants and rode on night-hounds. Compared to Dunja Sylphira was gray and colorless as a toadstool.
He closed his eyes, tried to hier Dunja's night-voice. The only sound was the whisper of the serpentine leaves, the rushing of his own blood.
"It is red and gold," she repeated. "Come on. I'm spieking as loud as I can. Any louder and it would be shouting."
"Lord Randall!" Jehann cried. "I mean his clockwork butterfly."
"Right. Your turn."
Jehann closed his own eyes, lifted a finger.
"It is also red and gold and it rustles."
Marat saw his lips move: Jehann wasn't that good a spieker. Sadly, reading lips wasn't one of Marat's talents.
"Autumn leaves," Sylphira promptly said. "Like they have in the Museum of Man. I saw them preserved in crystal." She grinned. "My turn now."
"The diskos of that dark-loving devil who almost broke the Redoubt," Dunja said in a rush. She snapped her fingers. "What was his name?"
"Rabath," Marat said. "Rabath, he founded the Lesser Redoubt. Went out in the night to the Sea of Giants."
"That doesn't count," Dunja protested. "That is just knowing something. Not hiering." She put her hands on her hips, glared at Marat. "Are you deaf or something?"
"I can hier as good as you," Marat said. "Spiek, too."
"So spiek." She looked at the others. "We are all listening to your night-thoughts."
Marat balled his fists. Just whisper a word. Whisper a word without sound. How hard could thinking real loud be? Because that was all spieking was, thinking real loud.
The sun, he thought, and pictured that yellow orb that none now alive had ever seen. The sun, the roaring yellow lion of the sky.
"I don't hier anything," Sylphia said.
Jehann snorted. "Me neither."
"Deaf and dumb," Dunja concluded and Marat felt them turn away from him. He was no longer of any interest. Almost if he had become a statue or a shrub.
"Deaf and dumb," Dunja repeated. "Like an animal."
"Tell me," Dame Gudrin said. She stood next to his bed and Marat could smell her, even with his face buried in his pillow: freshly baked tortillas and sweet-and-sour dumplings.
"They, they called me an animal, Mother. Said I was deaf and dumb. An abhuman."
"Dunja and Jehann."
Dame Gudrin snorted. "That girl! You know, two of her brothers were judged tainted? Her own father went down into the Dark Cities and never did return. An animal? Hah, look at her hair. Red as sin! She is a throwback herself."
"She can spiek. She can hier."
"So what? Armin of the Yellow House makes dice dance without touching them, but he can't even write his own name or count past five. Night-thought is just a talent and not even that important a talent."
His mother just didn't get it. He had lost Dunja forever. His true love would never pluck a flower from the darling tree for an animal, a dumb and deaf animal.
It took him several hours to ascend all the way to the Tower of Observation. There were a hundred elevators and moving stairs, empty shafts that took you and flung you upwards a dozen floors in a heartbeat. This time of the month Uncle Fredruk would be inspecting the Monstruwacans, because even the watchers must be watched.
"Ah, young Marat," the clockwork guardian said. "Come right in. Your uncle is expecting you." The guardian looked like a cross between a greyhound and a praying mantis, both animals that had been extinct for close to five million years.
Uncle Fredruk was Marat's personal hero. Stern and athletic, while his father liked to laugh and sported a comfortable potbelly. Now his uncle, he was a Censor with a level three diskos that spat blue sparks and could slice right through the hardest steel. He had patrolled the Air Clog and walked the road with the Silent Ones, killed night-hounds and giants. But the most important thing was that he would always tell the truth. No comforting lie would ever cross Fredruk's lips.
He'll tell me what I am. If I'm worth anything.
The Censor listened to his nephew, gravely nodded.
"Only one in a hundred-and-twenty is a full mind-reader. What your friends did is nothing very imposing. They stood so close to each other that plain speaking would have been more effective. And if you go outside hiering only makes you more vulnerable. A thousand voices are whispering to you, invading your thoughts." He folded his arms. "I'm deaf and dumb and that makes me a much better soldier."
"But the Monstruwacans here in the Observatory, they are all sensitives."
"That is right. They listen to the night, see everything. Scholars, my boy, scientists, and quite learned. They never, ever go outside." He took Marat by the hand, put him in front of one of mighty lenses. "Look."
The Night Land rolled away in the distance, hills and mountain ridges, the silver serpent of an ancient road. The power of the lens magnified every photon until the land seemed clear as a moonlit night.
"There, the Watcher of the South-West."
The being looked like a heap of rough-hewn pillars, not organic at all. A single literally blinding ray transfixed his right eye.
The lens rotated and focused on a road. The road was made of slabs of self-repairing diamond and older than even the Redoubt itself. Three beings came striding across the road, their faces hidden by the caps of their cloaks. Their walking staffs were five meters long and probably fashioned from the thighbones of giants.
"Monsters and vermin," his uncle stated. "And the Redoubt stops them all."
"The Redoubt and you," Marat said. It was all right that he was deaf and dumb. He would become a Censor and defend the city. The telepaths, those sensitives, were delicate as spun glass: he and his uncle were made of sterner stuff.
"Show me the House of Silence again," he said. "Tell me how you saved my father when he went there."
The House seemed close enough to touch. A dollhouse with a hundred gables and balconies, perched on a peak with every ridge a razor-edged dragon scale. None of the windows were lit. According to the stories that hadn't been always so. Once the House had formed a dazzling beacon, luring beings from hundreds of miles around.
"I'll go there when I'm a Censor," Marat said. "Burn it down."
His uncle laughed, ruffled his hair. "And the Watchers will be next, I guess?"
Marat, age 12
Marat's teacher of seven years was ambushed by a dark-dream and was found babbling in the courtyard while he embraced the marble statue of a faun. The hastily summoned Censor pronounced him tainted and cut off his head.
For two weeks the classroom remained empty and then a new teacher was found. Master Hindemar hailed from quite a way upstairs, where learning was seen as an end in itself. The young man believed in an all-round education even for those of his pupils who would end up spinning mushroom silk or herding giant beetles.
So, three days after the Festival of Broken Amphoras, he took his charges to the Museum of Man, all the way up to the 786th floor.
The Museum had been constructed in the shape of a hundred interlocking nautilus-shells, Master Hindemar told them while the ancient elevator rose hissing and puffing like an old man and stopped at every floor. Like many Road Makers' artifacts, the Museum was self-repairing and almost alive. Each year it grew new sections and not even the Librarians had charted them all.
To go inside without a guide was foolhardy if not suicidal: there were rooms that hadn't heard a human voice in centuries and in some corridors the dust lay ankle-deep.
"Impressive gate, eh?" the teacher said when they stepped from the elevator. "Forty meters high and carved from a single piece of asteroid platinum."
"It looks kind of dull for platinum," Sylphia said. "I mean, my aunt has this ring and..."
"Look closer," the teacher urged.
"There are letters," Jehann, whose eyesight was hyper-acute, finally said. "Very small letters."
"So there are. On this door you'll find the complete texts of all seventeen thousand holy books from the fifteenth millennium of the Second Age of Space. Just before they were all burned as superstitious nonsense and unworthy of a scientific utopia." He laughed. "Only nine generations later barbarians from Jupiter's outer moons went over the whole surface, peering though magnifying glasses, and wrote it all down again on the tanned skins of their victims."
An old man stepped out of the wall.
"You would be the party from Gray Blossoms, on level thirty-five?"
It was probably a hologram, Marat thought. No more than a dozen sensitives in the whole Redoubt could walk through a wall and they certainly wouldn't waste their time conducting a guided tour for a school class. Yes, I am right. The guide doesn't throw a shadow.
"Follow me." The man waved his hand without waiting for an answer and the platinum gate rolled ponderously aside.
There wasn't a single straight line to be found in the museum, Marat noticed. Even the display cases showed a gentle curve.
"Now these are ceremonial knives from the First Blossoming," their guide said, "forged from Martian iron."
"They sure look wicked," Sylphia said. "Like claws."
"Well, the followers of Cybele used them to cut off their own genitals." The teacher looked around. "Anybody know what the Recapitulation was?"
Marat raised his hand.
"That was when they did the whole of history over. Babylon and Rome, Egypt and the USA. To find out what went so horribly wrong."
"Because they broke the moon," Dunja said.
"No, stupid," Jehann laughed, "that came later. Much later." Dunja looked daggers with him, but Jehann wasn't impressed. The last year a stretch of his genetic code had kicked in, broadening his shoulders, straightening his nose. Girls three years his senior eyed him, giggled behind their hands.
They walked through the Time of Retreat, when all colonists had fled back to the home world. Then came the death of stars, the Cataclysm.
Ancient satellite photos showed the Earth split like a rotten pumpkin, with all the oceans draining into that immense wound.
"It wasn't the Eaters," the guide said. "Just the eruption of a super-volcano. One that was long overdue."
The next exhibition showed the ecology of the Night Land itself. "The oceans are all still there, deep underground," the guide lectured. "Most of the water is boiling furiously, supercritical and saturated with sulfur. A million kinds of thermophilic bacteria flourish in those lightless deeps. Algae and weird armored fish with silicon bones and boiling blood." He pulled pictures and videos of those bizarre monsters from the thin air. The denizens of the deep were many-eyed and tentacled, studded with poison thorns. Just like outside, Marat thought.
"Actually the biomass of the Earth is three times greater now than in the sun-lit times. Geysers and erupting volcanoes fill the upper world with a haze of algae and bacteria. A veritable rain of manna to feed the fungi and the land-coral."
"And now we get to the central hall," the guide said. They must have walked for miles, through more rooms than Marat could count, while the guide kept droning on. Dust burned Marat's nasal passages and the soles of his shoes seemed transmuted to pure lead. It was almost impossible to lift his feet.
"Ladies and gentleman, I give you...the Redoubt!"
The model was at least fifty meters high and disappointingly featureless. The double view-ports were all that was visible.
The guide seemed to read Marat's mind. "The Road Makers made it slick, polished it down to the micron. It is hard for claws and tentacles to get a grip on a surface slick as oil."
"I see." Marat frowned. "They had pictures in the Observatory. Of the outside. There were craters, places where you could see the supporting beams and cables of woven diamond."
"Time tears anything down. When I was still alive the Redoubt shone like a mirror." He nodded and grew almost transparent. "Like a mirror," the guide whispered.
Marat drifted away from the group. A hundred meters beyond a second pyramid rose, the Lesser Redoubt.
Rabath's pyramid, Marat thought. Rabath the Great Traitor. Even his uncle kind of admired Rabath. "He was wrong and he almost killed us, but by the gods, he was a real man!"
Rabath had railed against the complacency of the citizens.
"You huddle like fearful sheep in the circle of your hearth lamps!" he had accused them. "So afraid of the Dark, of the night. It won't go away, you know. It will creep closer, invade your very dreams." He had spread his arms. "The dark has its own ecstasy. Embrace the night! We are men, we are strong and once we ruled the whole world. All the planets.
"We can take it back. There are other places to tap the earth current."
The Censors had stripped him of his rank, exiled him. They didn't quite dare to kill him: Rabath was just too popular and he voiced the concerns of too many other citizens. When he left the Redoubt he had taken a quarter of all guild-masters with him, almost half of the sensitives.
Three years later the Dark launched a new assault. The earth current failed for a horrible half an hour and the Redoubt was almost taken. That earned Rabath the name of the Great Traitor. He had fatally weakened the Redoubt and it didn't matter that the Censors had exiled him themselves.
In front of the model an exhibition case stood, with panels of clear ruby. He studied the hologram of Rabath and he could feel the charisma, the sheer power of the man. Such a strange quirky smile on his lips. As if the Dark had told him the very secret of life and it had turned out to be a big joke.
I would have followed him outside, Marat thought. I would have followed him right into the clean dark, far from this dust and the tired corridors.
"When a man dies his diskos is given back to the earth current," the voice of the guide spoke in his ear. Marat started, looked around. The guide was still standing a hundred meters away, in the middle of the group. It must the exhibit itself that was talking.
"They took his personal weapon away, made him a non-citizen, less than abhuman. They couldn't very well give the weapon of a traitor back to the current, eh? The mind of man and diskos meld, become one. Rabath's weapon would have poisoned the current, so it is still here."
A light-beam flipped on, made the length of the diskos glitter. Marat stared at the weapon, unable to avert his gaze. He bent his left thumb like he had seen his uncle do a dozen times. The diskos stirred and the circular blade started to rotate. Marat's blood turned into ice water.
Now I know who I have been before. Who I still am. And his next thought was: If Uncle Fredruk ever finds out, he'll kill me without the slightest hesitation.
Marat, age 14
It was his uncle who gave him his first diskos and instructed him.
"See it as your third arm," the Censor said. "Or as the claw evolution decided to deny us. Now a diskos will cut anything material."
"But not a pneumavore. Not a soul-eater."
"That depends. If it decides to materialize..." He placed the diskos in Marat hands. The grip quivered, almost as if the weapon was alive. It probably was, by any definition of "life".
"Bend your thumb."
The blade of the weapon started to move, became a deadly blur.
This was power. Marat felt his penis stiffen and a dark ecstasy flooded his soul. I can cut anything, kill all my enemies.
The whirring became a shriek and the diskos spat sparks of searing jale.
"That was fast," Fredruk said. "I never saw a weapon meld so quickly with his handler."
In those days nobody stopped you if you wanted to go Outside. The Redoubt believed in survival of the fittest and would never mourn a suicidal fool.
"You bear your diskos?" was the only thing the tame mansonyagger asked. The guardian of the gate had two heads: one, turned to the Redoubt, showed the savage simplicity of a ferret; the other was angelic, smiling with an infinite compassion.
Marat showed his weapon.
"Good. See you your next incarnation." He laughed, a harsh bark that sounded almost human.
The Air Clog formed a wavering wall a mile distant. It seemed curiously indistinct, more a bank of mist than the roaring wall of fire Marat had imagined.
One of the Watchers loomed in the distance, wearing a crown of blue fire. He heard the savage cry of a night-hound and his blood seemed to move faster, filled his veins with a sparkling joy. I am finally outside. I am walking the Dark.
"Embrace the night," he whispered.
"Yes, embrace the night. Kiss me."
A very beautiful girl stood just beyond the barrier. She had long curling hair, the color of a fox-tail. Her eyes would probably be emerald.
He laughed. "You are so out of date. I no longer love Dunja, lady soul-eater. Haven't loved her for years."
"I can be all she isn't. Walk with me. We'll knock on the silver gate of my House of Silence and couple on nests of eiderdown. Each kiss will last a thousand years."
"And then you'll eat my soul. Destroy me forever."
The girl licked her lips and she must have been a bit careless because the tongue was long and thin, like the tail of a lizard.
"We have met before, Rabath. You didn't scorn me then."
He lifted his diskos, bent his thumb. Ultraviolet sparks leaped from the blade and he knew he could hurt her, perhaps even kill her. She was solid enough to cast a shadow.
"Begone, Eater! This is just a shape you have stolen."
"Yes," the girl said. "I'm much more beautiful than this."
She turned, and just before she vanished behind a man-high shrub she looked over her shoulder. "You still love Dunja, you know. You still lust after that red-haired harridan."
The Air Clog rooted in the black sand, rising in wavering flames. Marat laid the diskos down and the flames crept over it. It promptly became transparent and crumbled into a fine dust. The death cry of the diskos echoed in his brain.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You were a fine weapon. A very fine weapon for anyone but me."
Lemurel the Elder had written a poem about the love of a warrior for his diskos: "My third arm, my second soul." Dumping your diskos was surely the ultimate betrayal, like leaving your child for the night-hounds.
"You are a strange one," the mansonyagger said. "Destroying your weapon and conversing with darklings." His angel-face extended an eye-stalk, switched filters. "I have met you before. Though not in this body." He raised one of this claws and Marat saw droplets of fresh nerve poison appear. A bitter, acrid smell filled his nostrils, the smell of death, of oblivion.
Running was no use. The nervous system of a mansonyagger was woven from glass fiber, with reaction times twenty times faster than a human's.
"No." The guardian shook his head, retracted his claw. "It is so much more amusing to see what develops. I'm to deny all darklings entrance in the Redoubt. You are no darkling. Not exactly." He stepped aside.
It was full night when Marat reached the Museum of Man, the great lamp dim and the ceiling filled with projected stars.
The old man stepped from the wall, regarded him with eyes that seemed very much awake.
"Do you need a guide?"
"I know the way."
"Learn and enjoy then." The hologram winked out.
Marat didn't even have to break the ruby pane of the case. He just bent his thumb and the diskos came on, cut a circle in the crystal.
When Marat took the diskos it felt exactly right. Yes, like a third arm, a second soul.
When he looked in the mirror the next morning Marat saw the first pale hairs of adolescence sprouting on the crown of his head. Soon all his his hair would turn snow-white and he would be wearing the white cap of a true human.
Image and story © 2011 by Tais Teng.