alt="A

Salvage (Part 4)

by

To Salvage (Part 1)

To Salvage (Part 3)

It was not difficult to take the fae-folk to the city. They seemed used to weaving their way from shadow to shadow, and when they were in the open, they were no stranger than any of the masquers now abroad on the starport plain. Entering the city was even easier, to her surprise. The man spoke in whispers to one of the Monstruwacans and without a word of reply, they were immediately admitted to the most secure deck of the stacks car. The ease with which this was accomplished surprised Io. She tugged at Medeis' sleeve and gave him a querulous look. "He knows the Master Word, the distillation in thought of true human identity," he explained in an almost silent whisper. "It is only an hypothesis to us, extrapolated from the traces of Set Speech in records that we salvaged from the Castle — and yet he speaks in his mind with a fluency impossible to imitate."

"Who is he?" Io asked, equally hushed.

"An Adeptus Exemptus at least, perhaps of the third order and a Magister or even higher. That is all I can guess, but I can sense that he carries the thoughts of someone who saw all our secrets as his own ancient history."

"Then he is from the future?"

"Somehow—"

"Yes, that is true," the Puppet Master interrupted, somehow overhearing them. He found a chair and sat stiffly, favouring a leg. "The Monstruwacans of this age have a method of divination that is as useless as any other except when the courses of causality converge on a single imminent catastrophe. These events are in different times, and the relationship that they have is rather like that of an echo — it cannot be separated from the original sound. However, in this case both are echoes; we are components of your vision, or you are components of ours — or the distinction is irrelevant."

Unable to make sense of this, she decided to assume that he had described something simple and plain: he was here, things had been happening because of something and now something else would happen. The why and the how did not matter, only the what. "And what is to happen now?"

"Soon."

"What will happen?"

"The balance will tip one way, and I will be and have been able to help you, or it will tip another way and I will never be and never have been able to help you."

She laughed nervously. "But you're here..."

He shook his head. "It's impossible to explain in your tongue. We have a Set Speech, but ... all I can say is that I am, but it could be that I might not had been." He spread his hands in a gesture that suggested a shrug. "Imagine that I could disappear, and with me, your memory of me. Of course, in such an event, your own destruction would be imminent."

Incomprehensible whys and hows again. If she had his 'Set Speech', could he explain rather than describe? In any case, his last sentence was very easy to understand ...

The man gave a slight, wry smile. "However, you have escaped your fate once before, Io. There is hope."

Nobody gave any sign that they understood what he had said. Pressed to elucidate, he smirked and demanded to see the sarcophagus containing the body of Io's mother.

Medeis seemed surprised for a moment, and opened his mouth in readiness to deny that there was any such thing, but then he shrugged. "Very well then."

As soon as he was taken to the infirmary chamber and before anyone could stop him, the Puppet Master unlatched the cover of the sarcophagus, flung the wings of its cover-shield open and turned to face Io. "Do you know the history of this person?" he asked. "Have they told you?"

The body that lay espaliered between the spread wings was as uncanny as an effigy. It was true, accurate and radiant in its beauty, but somehow unreal and needing sustenance simply to be. There were mechanical fingers as slender and delicate as cricket's antennae that were laid upon her vellum skin, glittering wires as fine as her own hair that trailed from her temples and tiny lights as bright and unchanging as jewels. These did not obscure the fact that the body in the sarcophagus was the exact image of the young woman breathing before them, and that her lips smiled as if she had performed a clever trick.

Io stammered out an explanation as it had been taught to her by her guardians. "My mother, they say, bore me in a dream. She's still asleep. She'd been sleeping since they salvaged her from the Castle a pentascore orbits ago. They brought her back, tried to wake her, only made her warm ... and they say I grew in her then, though my ember was sparked ages before. I was born, and she is still asleep. I've grown, and never spoken to her, seen her eyes open, heard her voice ... why won't she ... ?" Her face was red. She choked back a sob. "She has no pneuma and yet her body is not dead, they say. It's not just the machines."

Sensing her distress, the Companion was at Io's side while the Puppet Master was making urgent gestures at the attending physicians. They fled, and returned with trolleys of equipment — and a duplicate of the sarcophagus. She barely noticed, or noticed instead a rising dread. She gripped the sides of the sarcophagus to stand straight and staring directly into the foreshortened face of her undead 'mother', she began to hyperventilate, trying to stave off what was already inevitable. "They keep me, they taught me things," she gasped. "Everything anyone should know ... other things like exercises and skills too, of course, otherwise they would not be a secret order." This last she tried to make a joke. She must continue talking, she commanded herself. My will is like iron; I must obey. "If they could draw her pneuma back ... " The words meant nothing; they were mere noises uttered by someone else. "Brought back, from where it is ... brought, brought, still in battle between the stars perhaps, if that's my visions explain so bright ... " It was no use. There was the sweet smell, the crinkling of the air. All of this had happened before, over and over again ... "My life!"

"Forgive me," the man said, pointing his wand at her. "I cannot stop this, but I can make it gentler."

Suddenly she fell as if he was a literal Puppet Master and he had cut her strings. Numbly, she was aware of being lifted and laid in a padded cradle, the second sarcophagus. For a dreadful moment, she thought that her life was ended for ever and she would be condemned like her mother to sleep forever. She tried to protest, but only thick slurs passed her dull tongue. She forgot who she was.


The Lighter-capsule was gently brought back into the harbour-hall of the Castle. It arrived with a scrape like a knife being sharpened, and it was not a smooth sound. He guessed then that the victory was not so clean. He rushed to the chamber and saw that his intuition was correct: the capsule had suffered severe damage. It did not come apart as it should: at the first touch, some of its plating crumbled, another part peeled like the rind of a fruit, another piece shattered. Its surface was charred in some parts, but glass-like in others. The capsule inside was jammed, half-released. Through the gap between the tripartite jaws of the greater capsule and its cargo, buzzing motes of light drifted as the protective energies misfired. It was as if it too was caught in a dream of matter, slipping across interpretations and not knowing in the end whether it should be glass, ash or leather. He tried not to imagine what horror he would found where the Lighter was embedded.

Layer by layer, the capsule was stripped, and, reassuringly, the matter-warping effects of the attack were progressively less severe. Finally the sarcophagus itself was revealed, substantially intact. The telltales were all dark, saving the one indicator on the edge of violet. This was an ambiguous sign at least. Perhaps a contact sensor set from the medical bays would reveal what was inside? He ordered the effectors to convey the set to him.

Standing back, the purple-clad stranger watched, not interfering, inscrutable. The Sideromancer forced himself to take heart from his stability. Surely he expected a proper functioning of the mechanisms of care that he was now applying. Surely he must.

The sensor set assured him that the sarcophagus held something in a state that was not directly dangerous to the Castle and the last lock was accordingly released.

Heedless of danger, the Sideromancer rushed to see with his own eyes.

The lottery of selection had performed the most perfect irony. It was her, of course. She seemed well, but she went out seeming well, and so had come back only seeming.

He fell to his knees, too afraid to know if she was safe or corrupted. It was left to the stranger to make the assessment: he brought a wand forth from his sleeve, other devices from elsewhere about his clothes. He made passes, consulted his device and gave a grunt of affirmation. It was not a sound of happiness, only of an expectation met.

The Sideromancer let the machines take her away and begin their own diagnosis. He found himself, horai later, holding in his hand a chart produced by the iatrikotechnoi, looking through the great central lens of the observatory on the black vista outside. The stranger was with him; he did not known when he had entered the chamber. "They have as good as murdered her," he said, not caring if the man heard his intimate thoughts or not. "Darkness is become the sky, darkness will become the earth, darkness is already shrouded about her."

The stranger took a step forward and joined him at the lens. "Tell me what you read," he said.

The Sideromancer tried to explain as best he could. The Castle's long-seeing instruments had suggested and the peculiar phase-changes in the shell of the Lighter-capsule had reinforced the suspicion that the Eaters were not mere opportunists, but intimately tied with more fundamental changes afoot in the Cosmos.

"Ah, yes." The stranger nodded to himself. "The Ulterior. This is the age in which they and their work become known."

"The Ulterior, yes, of course ... " he repeated. The Sideromancer knew that the 'stranger' was merely a splinter of his own consciousness. Unable to deal directly with his guilt and despair and his loneliness, he had created this imaginary figure with which to discuss his fears. By reducing them to mere conversation, he could pretend that they were no more than abstractions — and abstractions originating in the mind of this other. Even though he knew this, it was nonetheless a comfort that he could so contrive to look at his predicament from an external perspective.

The stranger gave a quizzical look, but that was necessary to maintain the pretence and the Sideromancer smiled approvingly, nodding to prompt him further. He could almost anticipate his next words, or at least, when he heard them, they fell neatly into mental niches unconsciously prepared for them.

"The Eaters are not only prepared for the universe, they have had longer to live in it. Some of them have reached the very apex of possibility, they have risen ... Imagine a great chain linking the highest and the lowest. This chain spans everything from one extreme to the other — time, space, consciousness. The human clade has climbed up from the very lowest and has been much transformed from mere slime and dust; once we became aware of the existence of this chain, we imagined beings still higher than ourselves, and logically, we thought that they would be things called 'gods', entities like ourselves, but greater in every magnitude ... and that was our mistake."

Despite himself, the Sideromancer found himself engaged. "If there are no gods, then there are other things, higher states of being that we could aspire to. Why was that a mistake?" he asked.

"Yes", the man answered. "When the lineage of a clade climbs the chain to the very highest link, awareness and will and power grow until they become less like the attributes of an entity and more like a force of nature itself. There was life of a sort that existed in darkness long before the suns were lit and those dark beings climbed the chain long before life even began on earth. The Eaters you see are not merely predators upon a field; their field is an order of being in itself, insofar as that description had any meaning. We call them the Ulterior and as you could not imagine them, we cannot understand them, let alone defeat them. They emerged in darkness, rose up and became the darkness and the darkness will continue to rise until it is the universe itself. Already they are indistinguishable from natural laws: the suns are dying and the planets slowing in their turning by means that seem utterly natural ... because nature itself is perverted by those things."

"Ah, all of nature. Naturally." He nodded, quite certain now that this plan of astral evolution was no more than a grimly comforting fantasy, scaled in such a way as to distract him from his own little grief. "I have seen this, and now, my dear, my beloved is infected, and so I believe ... ah yes, an elaborate fantasy of a prophecy fulfilled, a magician come to tell me what somewhere in my mind I have already decided to believe—"

The man struck him, sending him sprawling to the deck. He stared up at his assailant, aghast, and then he tried to laugh, but the white-haired man would have none of it. He stood over him with his legs planted widely and glared. "Do not hide from me, astrogator!" he shouted. "You do not know how acute this tragedy is to me. You will listen!" He raised his fist again and the Sideromancer cringed. "Ah, so you acknowledge that I am real?" he sneered.

"I acknowledge that pain is real," he snapped in turn.

"In the oldest and most secure libraries of my Reboubt I have read your logs and your deductions, astrogator. I am here to ensure that you will write them. Listen to me and record."

"And who are you to demand?"

"I am the child of your children, astrogator."

The man's stare penetrated any reserve he might have. "Then do you have hope, do you have weapons, strategies to defeat these abominations?" he demanded. "Have you corrected the laws that they have perverted?"

"No, I have none of these things. Your people imagined that the Eaters were terrible predators, but ultimately only another kind of animal on another kind of field. That is not the case at all. You are hot, bright and fast creatures that were came and gone in an hora and you can never understand what it means to have lived for aeons. Defeat is written into the very firmament."

"Then tell me this, messenger, or whatever title—"

"She will live, in a way that you cannot understand."

The Sideromancer shook his head, refusing to believe either side of despair or promise. Neither could be true at once.

The stranger leaned over him, reached down to grab the front of his garment in his fist and lifted him up so that his toes barely brushed the floor. He realised how tall the man was; he was lean as a whip, but he must have been the descendent of heroes and he was strong too. His black eyes bored into him. "She is safe in the only way it was possible to be safe here. She has made herself invisible to the Eaters by cloaking her soul in sleep. They are persistent, they will sniff about the walls, scrape at the doors, but she lets forth nothing: no scent, no sound. If she awakens here, then they would have her, and all of you through her and all the worlds you would touch. Hide her from them. Take her back to earth and she will be safe. Her soul may escape them then and flower in another body."

The Sideromancer was confused. "Safe?" He felt assaulted, he struggled, stoked his anger, careless of the reserve and dignity now lost. "How could you know? Turn back? Now? Do you know who she is, how I feel?" He twisted, but could not free himself. The man deigned to release him.

"You think that you know the Eaters?" the man asked. "I and my order watched them and much greater beasts for ages you could not count. You will never defeat them. Your sole privilege is to be present at the time when they learned of the existence of rich, sweet earth. They will follow your trail now; they will follow the trails of every castle. Your empire of stars is doomed, your only hope — and mine — lies in the salvage of souls such as hers."

"And why should you care? I see your pride and it seems like colossal arrogance. You say that we could not go out to the stars, but who were you to say this? Have you never known-?"

The man smiled grimly. "Do you think that I do not know who she is? Do you think that I counsel cowardice and murder hope?" He almost laughed, but his tone was bitter and hollow. " Oh yes, I know what it is to love and to fight and I even know what it is to make and rule an empire — it is an empire of one world, but one that is still vaster in time than all the histories of all the colonies that you have seen. Space is closed to you by these abominations — but in battling them, you will temper yourself to gain the vast fertile fields of time and mind, and while the Ulterior rule this universe, we will found portals to other spaces yet to come."

Something in the man's gaze was too ancient and too assured to be a lie. Souls flowering anew, he said ...   "Who are you? Who, when — ?"

"I am who you might be," he said quietly. "Be sure that I am." With that he turned a corner that should not exist and was gone.

The Sideromancer rushed to the control station, not sure if he intended to obey, but not surprised to find that the decision had been made for him already. The helm was set and programmed and no effort would change it. The Castle was inverting itself: already the floor was trembling as the bracelet-beads of the Castle rotated about their lateral axes and the thrust of the engine turned now to what was had been the zenith. The ark was set toward its only true harbour and he could not alter its course.

Very well.

He renewed his vows. He took her body, seemingly dead, but only seeming, and deposited her in a new cradle in the hibernaculum. That cradle had been intended for him, but it was the only spare he had left for her. When the Castle Lachesis berthed once more, his sleeping companions would wake and find his dust across the floor.

And then on earth, the two of them reborn in time.

Perhaps.

To say 'perhaps' was to wish. That stranger was strong, not merely in his arm, but in his will. What he spoke of was not perhaps; it was "what must be", and so he strived and battled. The battles he must have fought — would fight — occurred, occur when he was wide awake in the night. This must be his inspiration and solace in the years of the voyage to come.

He laid her body straight, connected the necessary supports and closed the lid. And then he waited.


The Puppet Master and his Companion remained within the stacks car for several diphae while they explained in turn what it was they were there to accomplish. The first thing they must do, he explained as he stood over Io's recovery cot, was to cease treating Io as the victim of a disease, but the alternative that he proposed seemed hardly less cruel.

Io, he explained, was not the daughter of a comatose mother in the conventional sense — insofar as such a thing could be conventional. The woman in the sarcophagus was indeed dead, even deeper in death than any body with a beating heart and an extinguished mind could be. There was no hope for her revival — none at all.

"How could this be?" asked Medeis. "We had tested most exhaustively and monitored—"

"And you had failed, had you not?"

He admitted that this was so. "But—" he began to object before the Puppet Master cut him off.

"Good. Now the question is, why?"

Medeis had no suggestion. "I imagine that you were about to tell me," he said rather petulantly.

The man grimaced. The expression was not smug, but severe. "Yes, I am. Io is a Lighter, a seer. She was the guide and the warrior aboard a Sky-Castle. The Io that lies here now was not seeing the events of another soul's incarnation, she was remembering events that she was a part of herself."

"That can't be true," Io wailed. "I don't feel old. I know nothing about her earlier life, I don't remember, I only see the Castle, I only see!"

"That is because a part of you is still fighting that battle in the Castle, over and over again."

"No!"

The man shrugged and passed a glance to his erstwhile silent Companion.

In many ways, the sublime assurance of this tall, solid woman was even more overbearing that the Puppet Master's arrogance. "Had you wondered why I had never questioned you about your visions, Io?" she asked.

Io cringed, dreading her meaning. "Because you ... see them too?"

"Yes."

She moaned and covered her face in her hands. She wanted to run, but she was cornered before she could even take a step.

Medeis took a deep breath. "There were further implications to this," he said quietly.

Io clenched her fists in her eye sockets and then clapped her hands over her ears. She did not want to hear what followed, but she could not keep it out because every word was already obvious.

"The dragons were coming still," Medeis said. "If Io has escaped, then they will escape in time also, and Io is ... "

"The only one alive in this age who has the ability to fight them," the woman finished.


To Salvage (Part 5)

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