A red sky over a cobblestone road that leads past alien plants toward a land of lava.

Salvage (Part 3)

by

To Salvage (Part 1)

To Salvage (Part 2)

The Hiatus was a necessary but frightening time. When Aeiphanes paused, the sun escaped it by slivers of a degree in each hora. It took two dekaphae for the disc of the sun to disappear once it had touched the horizon. Even now the last droplet of fire still trembled on the horizon, peculiar green flashes splitting off from it through the layers of atmosphere and a great misty half-halo spanning North-West to South-West. As the wall of the horizon darkened, the shadows spilled like a flood across the plain. The festival of the creeping end was a celebration of misrule and as such, of course, it merely confirmed the usual order. The preparations for the celebrations gathered apace and Io watched from a high gantry.

Fore, she could see, various parties of devotees were meditating and staring through smoked glass and mumbling their prayers, while Aft, once the skipping magenta afterimages had cleared from her eyes, the first, and — lore said — last stars were visible. There were very few, but they seemed, in light of her visions, far more real. Starboard, between the outrider cars and the ruined Castle, the starport had been transformed into the festive field for the celebrations. She watched the marquees and pavilions being set up and mentally traced the route she would take through them to the ruined Castle. There was nothing save Medeis' word that would actually bar her from investigating the structure herself. It would be a simple matter to present herself as acting as the library's liaison for the various sects that would perform their rituals there; as he had put it himself once, you could go anywhere with a cap, a chart on a slate and a pen. The high do not deign to notice minor officials and the low dread being caught up in time-wasting checks and references. Everyone would pretend not to see her and hope that she would move on — which was exactly what she would do. She grinned to herself and tied the ear flaps of her very official librarian's cap under her chin.

There was a flutter from above and she started. The tail of a long silver ribbon fell from the mast atop the Palatine Tower to the foredeck, where it was secured by red-clad crew. It glittered with the very last flashes of coloured light from the sun. Down the train, the gesture was repeated in turn. In theory, the shadow of the horizon would rise until only the electrum mast tips shone briefly with the last of the light. When the moment of true darkness came, a Monstruwacan would be permitted — grudgingly, even now, after the centuries of their existence — to climb to the top of the aftmost tower and light the green terminal lantern.

There was even, spectacle of spectacles, a hobbled azhdarcho, its wings trimmed and split so that they were no more than twenty yards of bioluminescent banners. Handlers pulled it this way and that as they tried to steer it into a ceremonial enclosure. Where and how did they capture such a monster? The thing was hideous, like a half-erected tent come to life and equipped with a head like a three-yard sword. Even more hideous perhaps were the souls of men who would torture and humiliate such a magnificent beast. Thankfully the landwhales had moved on or been driven off. Their immense lumbering masses made them barely faster than the Terminator, but then they did not need to be much faster, and with the city stalled by the dictate of calendar and ritual, they had been able to flee whatever butchery they might have risked.

Why was she so cynical? Why could she never adopt the pretence when even pretence was such a joy, all the more so because it was chosen? She would have thought that the melancholy foundation on which it was built would make it all the more piquant for her peculiar soul. She took a deep breath and the cold air was like spring water. She felt alive, too alive perhaps. The time of darkness seemed too natural, too real to her.

Was she born out of time? Was this too late or too soon?

She looked down and tried not to think. She was old enough to be aware of these feelings, too young yet to understand them.

Below, it was simple. The bustling workers were setting up the tables that would be laden with hot pastries, sweets and broth, the kindling for the bonfires was being stacked, the stages for the mystery plays and other entertainments were being assembled. She could climb down to the plain, wander about, eat honeyed cakes, meet a boy perhaps and take him into one of the proliferating shadows behind a wheel, grapple and stroke his long limbs and let him taste the sweetness still on her tongue, then she might take him into herself ...

Ah, that. She took a sip from her flask. The warmth that spread in her chest made her forget it for a while.

Her wrist hurt, she could not stay here forever.

She climbed down, thinking that this was what she wanted and she walked, and continued walking, the slate tucked neatly under her arm and her stride purposeful. The fairground passed into her trail and the ruined Sky-Castle rose. There was something about it that was somehow more compelling than any ephemeral pleasures.


The eye of memory opened on Io's childhood. This was how she had seen the place an orbit ago.

Of the very oldest ruins alongside the Road, some were identified as castles, towers, pyramids and, of course, the ever-present milestone obelisks. Like all fixed things, they seemed strange, lacking in some essential symmetry by being fused so intimately with the earth. The city in which she lived was an example of proper symmetry and beauty: it had a full-roundedness, elevated upon its many wheels, and was not some mere imitation of an excrescence. The girl had not thought that the Castle was at all odd. She knew that it flew.

She had been flying through the halls that encircled the Castle's perimeter, skipping and bowling her hoop before her. Her route had wound up to a broken gallery where she caught the golden light of the sunset and down again, where she saw ponderous machinery of unknown purpose, and then it took a turn she never saw before. So fast, so absorbed in her play, she had not noticed where she turned into this hall, still singing the nursery rhyme to herself.

The snail that follows the sun
What will he do when winter comes?

Tap, tap, tap. The sound of her feet, her hand on her hoop, driving it before her. Tap, tap, tap-tap. She thought that she had heard a footfall, just one, but there was no such thing as one step. She stopped, the hoop rolled around the bend, wobbling. She did not hear another step and she did not hear the hoop fall. Carefully she crept ahead and took a look around the corner. The hall was empty, without even her hoop.

The walls were strange. They glittered like glass or water.

She snatched herself back and then she heard another footfall. A man stepped around the corner of the corridor that had been empty. From the way she had come, his companion, a woman, came. The hoop was in her hands.

Why were they companions? Because they were. It was obvious that they fitted together. It was obvious too that they did not fit here. He wore wine-purple, like a Monstruwacan, but his oddly-cut coat was embroidered with luminous thread, and she wore a cloak of shimmering grey velvet, shot with the hint of red flame. Also, both of them were very tall, with white hair like silk, though they were not extremely old. Actually, it was hard to tell what age they were. There was nobody who looked like them in Aeiphanes.

They frightened her, she wanted to run, but they were close on either side of her now.

"We had not seen you here before," the woman in grey said.

She looked around. The walls were not decent metal, but something translucent, like glass or jade. The strangers were reflected there as if they might be inside the walls.

"Why not share tea with us and tell us why we are here?" the man asked, holding out his hand and smiling. The corners of his eyes crinkled with mischief or kindness; she could not tell.

She fled, but the hall seemed to bend to their intentions and wound back to a round, intimate room. There were chairs, a samovar, a table like a Heliomancer's board-wheel, a pedestal with a bust upon it.

The face depicted was just like that of the man in purple.

He was behind her. She spun around.

"What have you been singing?"

"I, I—" she fumbled. He was strange, far too tall even for an adult, too.

"I won't hurt you."

So she sang, suddenly self conscious so that the notes sounded skewed:

The snail that follows the sun
What will he do when winter comes?

"Indeed," the man said. "Have you ever really asked yourself that question?"

"What do you mean? I know what happens."

Crawl abed and wind up tight
And never, never roll again.

"Never is a word I hear often," he said. "Do you believe in never?"

 "I'm not sure"

"Ah ... is there another couplet to the rhyme?"

"A cup?"

"More words."

She nodded. Possibly he could be trusted. She had been warned about strangers of course, but ... she couldn't think of a reason, except that he seemed familiar and because of what she almost remembered, he wasn't a bad man.

There are spiders creeping too
Are they coming for me or for you?

Now that was creepy. It didn't really help to think too much about the words.

 "Ah, I see — and more?" he prompted.

"I'm not sure that I like it, really. It's just a song."

"Have you ever wondered why rhymes are written? Don't you want to know what it means?"

She shook her head, wide-eyed and let a few more fragments stumble out of her mouth:

Do you see their webs made of eyes, do ...

That was enough. "Oh, I don't remember the rest."

He smiled, the seams of his face deepening. "That is enough. It is scary, isn't it?"

She nodded.

"Do you know," he asked, "that the snail has a better way of hiding?"

A shake this time.

"I do," said the companion suddenly, as if on cue.

Io was a precocious girl, even then. She knew when she was being manipulated. "You're just like spiders too," she blurted. "Giant white spiders."

The couple exchanged glances. The man nodded, then both backed away from her and sat down together on one of the couches. The woman gestured towards another. "Sit, please."

Io thought about this for a while and then complied. If they sat down, then they weren't going to grab her at once.

"Would you like some tea?" The woman pointed at the steaming samovar.

"No." Everyone knew that if you accepted food and drink from fae-folk, you were bound to them forever.

"We're not really spiders," the woman cooed. She might have been soothing, but there was too much of a hint of pent-up energy in her.

"Except just a little," the man said lightly.

Io hoped that he was joking, but her hands were wringing the arms of her chair with unease.

"I make lines, you see. Connections," he added.

She stopped squirming and stood up. "I have to go now, I'm with people, they're missing me," she stuttered.

"Of course," said the man. "But wouldn't you like to take something with you?"

Gifts were snares, but they were still gifts. "What?"

"This." He held out a bundle of cloth to her which she realised was a stuffed doll of some kind. It was lanky and had red hair, like her. Nobody made dolls that looked like her. Unthinking, she reached out her hand to take it, but he withdrew. "Careful," he said. "You're right to worry; we do have tricks. Look." He gave the doll a twist, turning it inside out, making her wince in sympathy. Rather than showing bare lining, the doll had another appearance. This time, it was a woman with white hair in a suit of armour. Little panels of golden cloth made the plates ... and she looked a little like the man's companion. "And then there's this." Another twist, and this time a queen in a red veil, which was, she saw peering at it closely, made of dozens of ants.

"Do you like it?" the woman asked.

"Her," Io corrected. "Like her."

"Ah, so you do."

"What's she called?"

"I don't know, what do you think that she should be called? There are so many of her after all ... "

Io held out her hand again. "Thank you," she said. "I'll think of names, I'll look after her."

Satisfied, the man passed the doll to her at last. "It's up to you to think of names, but if you like, you can start with what she is: Entekora."

"Enke—?"

"Entekora," he repeated. "It means inside-out doll. They're popular where we come from."

Io took the doll and held it to her breast, not thinking to ask him where exactly it was that he came from. "Thank you," she repeated, and cradled the soft doll, murmuring the new word. "Ent-ek-kora, Entekora."

"You can go now. We'll see you again."

And she had gone, forgetting her hoop.

She had never told Medeis or anyone else what she had seen or whom she had met. The doll, she had said, was simply lying in an old sealed compartment. It was perhaps the first harbinger of adulthood, when a person becomes aware of their individuality and certain experiences and fancies are entirely one's own. Preoccupied with the mysteries of the wrecked hibernaculum and astrogation chamber, the Monstruwacans had not had time to question her more deeply. The fits, though, she could never keep secret.


A discrete structure in its operational prime, the Castle now had no edges as such. Plates and frames had collapsed, strewing their fragments about in a glacis of litter. She picked her way through the wreckage, the task made difficult by the low light that sent long lines of deep shadow across her path and hid the numerous crevasses and pitfalls along the way. The basic structure, segmented and a little like a city made into a ring, was still visible, but time and the Salvage Corps had reduced it to little more than a sketch and a pile. What they had left was both functionally useless and highly significant — as it should be.

Indeed, the whole surface of the earth, and the layers beneath, were a great garden of memorials, a history rewritten over again with each circuit, leeched of all utility and ever more deeply imbued with meaning. Like so many of the memorial sites along the sides of the Roads, the Castle was a place regarded by the enlightened of Aeiphanes as an example of the picturesque to be venerated and to inspire reflection. Few would bother or dare to actually visit the place.

Except of course various scavengers, cultists, Monstruwacans and their young charges.

The wind was rising now, singing and thrumming in the tall interlaced frames. A superstitious soul might have thought that spirits inhabited the ruin. The ruin was, after a thousand years of decay, completely bare of life. One a little more observant than her might had wondered why no creatures had made their homes here, but she did not notice, concentrating all the more on finding the place of the fae-folk who had given her the doll, but there was the real mystery now of how they could be everywhere and everywhen now, something she had barely conceived of when she was a mere girl.

The hidden cell was, in the end, no more a puzzle to open than any trap. By deceit or some violation of the normal rules of space that a wall crossed by a bar of shadow turned into overlapping planes with enough space between for her to squeeze through. Under her feet, the strangely coloured oxidation disappeared and the floor became smooth and glassy and they were there, so simply and so directly. The aristocratic features of the man and the woman that she thought of now as the Puppet Master and the Companion were sculpted in white and shadow like engravings in the air. They were subtly and significantly different from how they seem in her memory. With eyes of two orbits' age, she had learned to see details that she could not be aware of as a child: the woman was stockier than the man, she realised, her curves a combination of fluidity and muscle. She looked like a lover and a brawler. The man had the face of a sophisticate, but there was something sad in his eyes.

The woman in grey took a step toward her. Io was about to speak, but she staggered and the floor seemed to tilt ... No! she cried silently. Not now of all times! The smell was overpowering, sickening. She doubled over and fell to her knees. In anger, she slammed her wounded fist against the floor. The agony transfixed her like a thunderbolt and she howled.

She howled, but the did not see the floor vanish from beneath her. When she could understand her own senses again, she was still kneeling. She looked up to catch the white-haired man tucking a wand into his sleeve. She stared at him.

"Your ... condition was known to us. We know palliatives, we even cultivate its expression."

"Cultivate?"

"Of course. A person such as yourself was better than any spyglass."

She thought then that she did not like the ruthlessness that was implied in his phrasing. "Who are you, where are you from?" she demanded. "Why this ... game?"

"It is in the nature of prophecies to be somewhat obscure." The man gave a nervous, almost shameful smile. "That is what we are: not so much prophets as prophecies in our own right."

Io nursed her hand. It was throbbing with a dull agony. "As clear as iron," she muttered.

The woman leant over and put her hand on her shoulder. "We are sorry," she said. "We are more dependent on you than you might think. We need you, and we can help."

"We can help," the man repeated, "but we cannot cure you. Nonetheless, we can ameliorate the effects of your condition and turn it to your advantage."

She pulled herself to her feet. They still loomed over her like adults over a child. She had no idea what to say. These apparitions were clear and certain as anyone could be, but where did they come from? They had deliberately not answered her questions and had in fact added more. "Please," she begged. "I need to understand. If you say you care, please let me understand."

The man nodded. "We owe you that, indeed it is necessary. Your questions ... some answers lie in your own home. Will you take us there?"

Io considered this. She trusted them, a little — very little. They had done nothing to persuade her trust; they had not patronised her with any bribes, possibly because they knew that they did not need to. She felt in their voices, with something other than hearing, a basic timbre that was utterly sincere and caring. Her secret, pricking more sharply on the Anniversary, wanted to fly from her and settle in their hands. "I'll show you," she decided. "Follow me."


To Salvage (Part 4)

© 2006 by Brett Davidson.
Image © 2015 by Kate Coady.