A strange pentagonal building.

Ex Machina (Part 2)


To Ex Machina (Part 1)

I did not pretend ignorance of the change beyond the Black Hills when I next faced the Assembly; instead I failed to suggest that I attributed any deeper motive to the Assembly than those the Brass Head stated. The assignment was inevitable and I was proud that it was entrusted to me and that was all.

“I will not fail you,” I told the Brass Head in tones of firm sincerity.

Equipment came first and before I could even consider a date and scale for the next expedition of Abiding, I had to know the scale of our resources. The battle with the horse riders had been won easily, but wear and tear accumulated and breakdowns in unknown territory would be intolerable. The workshop smelled of hot metal and oil with the sharp edge of ozone. Other odours infected the air too: solvents, resins, sweat, charring… It is surprising how evocative odours can be and I thought of my first phase of duty after my cadetship ended and…

A sudden spray of sparks broke my reverie and my progress. I staggered back and Charieis, the chief artifex, emerged from underneath a partly dismantled frame. When I first met him, he had struck me as an oddly slender man with the fingers of a musician and the eye of a watchmaker, a physique I would have thought far more suited to those callings than military support until I saw him at work. It was not his job to wrestle these machines into submission after all, or to heft their components about his shop. It was at work now that I saw the real application of those eyes and hands; despite their bulk, the frames were intricate machines and it was art and craft that ensured their functioning, not brute force. A frame, you must understand, is no mere suit of armour – though such is necessary in the Land – because if an unarmoured man cannot climb a slope, then one armoured certainly will not be able to do so. Frames augmented the protection of our skins, the length and power of our limbs, the scope of our senses. They were the key to our hegemony.

I asked the man for a rough prognosis on the readiness of our equipment. He told me that frames had all withstood the rigours of battle well enough, but that good news was belied by tightness at the corners of his mouth.

“But that’s not all, is it?” I prompted.

He nodded. “The accumulation of general wear for several hectophae throughout their systems is more profound and will require at least a complete dismantling and inspection in several cases.”

I looked at the machine that he had been repairing. Glowing cables trailed from ports in its oblate vrilcapacitor cells while about its legs, the greaves were hinged open, exposing the interior networks of pseudomuscle. There was no sign at all of the storage and cycling support panniers. All in all, it looked a long way from being ready. I glanced at the name plaque and saw that it was my own.

“How much longer?” I asked, expecting a figure of another dekaphase on double shifts. Charieis confirmed this regretfully. The Assembly would not be pleased with this, but they could hardly argue with the facts of engineering. There was nothing that I could do either except utter standard lines on the necessity of the work being completed on schedule and urge a redoubling of both efforts and care, taking into consideration the importance and unknown risks of our upcoming expedition – a set of goals I know to be contradictory. He at least heard my meaning over my words, nodded and made his own show of passing my frustrations on to his own underlings. Thus, as the gears of our calculating mills pass momentum from greater to lesser, so do the mills of frustration grind too, oiled by understanding. Woe betide us if that lubricant dries!

Later, I took him aside to a quieter corner. “I have something to discuss with you,” I said.

Time passed and time came and finally we were to walk out into the Twilit Land again. While I took Ariphrôn’s warning with the utmost gravity, there was in fact little I could do to prepare beyond that which was already in place. I was in no position to plan a coup or counter-Adjustment and indeed it was quite possible that the Assembly had timed the expedition so as to remove potentially disloyal Expediters from the Great House at the time of greatest tension. In fact it was more than possible.

What I did do was let it be known among my peers and subordinates my concerns in ways that were general or more explicit depending on where I judged their allegiances lay. Conspiracies and outright coups were desperate gambles and therefore almost certainly doomed to fail – especially when the greatest potential factor in any equation, the manshonyaggers, were so inscrutable. Accordingly, I decided, the greatest hope for success or at least survival under the circumstances would lie in subtlety and the hope that the oppressing force would sow confusion through – and I regretted to think this – the reckless application of force that could then be exploited in turn by ourselves. To that end then I did not order that stockpiles of weapons and the like be hidden away, but that secondary authorisation keys be pressed by the artificers and that they be hidden. In particular, I ensured that there would be networks of communication and pledges to give aid and temporary sanctuary. An Expediter is sworn to obey the Assembly, and to be an oathbreaker is to be the most contemptible of creatures and unfit to be called human, but one can still dissimulate and stall and fail to exercise due care at crucial times. Out in the Land, I could only pray and hope, but my fears would be tempered a little by secret trust.

I would leave behind a Great House in which its divisions were turning into chasms and in my case, the split was between my oath and my heart; but I swore too that it would never be between myself and my own family. I embraced my wife and daughters passionately in turn and together as I left them. As I kissed them, my hands cupped their sides, as if my palms too were open mouths. I wished that in some way I could assimilate them to myself, so that as one being we could be safe within a single frame, within a House of our own – but that was impossible, all I could do was offer internal fortitude. Some kilophae past, Ariphrôn had taught me simple chant denoted by a complex rune, that only a true human being could hold in their mind and which is vocalised approximately thus: Selan, shelan, sim, saret, mavv, essnn, kyrr. To any other being it would be unrepeatable nonsense. I have engraved it on the back of my cameo gem of the Maiden Io and I have taught it in turn to my wife and child and this time I was especially firm in instructing them to hold the sound of it in their minds each night before sleep, as I always do myself. The very fact that it was something we shared apart from the mechanism of the House would keep them strong when the House began to turn against them. Now it was up to me to return in time to ensure their permanent safety.

Before we had quite left the House’s glacis, the manshonyagger that had been guarding the gate abruptly left its post and stalked with its neat mincing gait to cross my path – and mine specifically. It stood there in the sterilised rock, regarding me with arachnid inscrutability. It said nothing for a while, but when I made to walk past it, a limb whirred out, barring my way. I demanded that it let me pass, but it did not move and continued to watch me from behind the foreshield of one of its faces, as inscrutable as a locust. The company had halted with me, but no-one dared to interfere yet. In theory the full company could probably overcome a Kaschei-class such as this, but the odds were hardly certainly and the likelihood was that I would be killed in the melee – hardly an auspicious start to the expedition!

Eventually the machine did speak, its voice having the achromatic quality of a focussed emission centred on my head so that no-one else would hear it. That in itself was odd, but not unknown. What it said was strange, partly indecipherable, and suggested that there was all too much sense in Ariphrôn’s warnings.

“Winnower, golden man, man in a frame, winnower, exterminator,” it hummed, its voice seeming to emanate from my own skull. “Visage clear, Agetor Chryseo. Your face, a shadow in man’s flesh of the blood of mothers long passed.”

This time I was silent.

“Protect mothers to come, you and I,” it went on. “Visages of daughters still to see I seek. Winnower too I am, sculptor. Paradox is born from the union of my art and my orders: protect not at all and all die, but armour too well and the seed is untested. What degeneration occurs? There is entropy and incest so that blood runs blandly. Viable visage on the horizon of time imperative, but dust of uncertainty obscures. Where is clarity? Have we fulfilled the orders of our creators? They are dead eons past, blood become dust before the Great House rose, before road descended walls, before the world’s turning ended… yet we remember. We see the long results and the long patterns. You record, but we remember. So I see now that in more aeons I will remember this place and foresee a face still. The doors of the House open and close to you, then your grave will close, but I will still walk, following the thread of blood not dust spun between your mothers and daughters.”

Another face rose to regard me. A couple of active sensors glimmered briefly. I regarded the dark patina of its armour, strangely-tinted oxidation worn over the ages to glassy smoothness and then abraded again into a fractal hatchwork texture by sand storms and futile assaults. It was a thing, a machine made with human hands and tools, then made by time and its own intelligence into something else again. Whose hands then, I wondered, and whose motives now?

“Winnower,” it repeated. “Winnower, you are, I am. Charged thus, I will find or make the shape of the last face.”

Despite the warmth of the heating elements built into my frame, I shivered. The manshonyaggers rarely spoke gratuitously, but occasionally they made strange oracular pronouncements that reminded us all too well of an irreducible autonomy. Never though had one spoken to hint at the Adjustments that they made themselves, nor had one ever singled out a particular individual to receive its message. Never since the Foundation of the Great House had one explicitly suggested an oath.

“Go,” it finished. “Then return. Remember for your brief while you consider too the intention of my art. Agree?”

I nodded and satisfied for now, the huge machine turned away and went back to its post.

Phaino asked me what it had said to me when I rejoined him. “Nothing,” I said, knowing that I would hear me. “Merely a reminder of the scale of history here and our responsibility.”

“Nothing mere about either,” he commented.

“True enough.”

Despite my forebodings and the machine’s sinister confidence in me, I must admit that I felt exhilarated by the steady tread of my frame’s feet upon the soil of the Land once more. There is a sublime and rich beauty in the Twilit Land, with its red-golden light, the wine-like depth and darkness of the sky nesting the ember stars and the long shadows that stretched like black rivulets from the bases of trees across the soft carpets of frostmoss and everted land-corals. Cupping this land there were far distant through the haze, the mighty Walls of the World, threaded at their Western extremity with the line of the Road that the citizens of the dromopoli had built from the upper world down to the Valley. With my spyglass set at its greatest magnification and enhancement, I could see a golden splinter that I liked to believe was Astrarchê Io’s obelisk. In the perpetual Sunset it caught the light and flashed even across this enormous distance and I silently made my prayer, my real promise to succeed in returning from my mission.

I wondered how this land would seem once it was enclosed entirely in darkness. I could not imagine it.

We, the crew, spoke little as we rode out. In the early days, we talked often, bantered, competed, told tales of what we left and what we hoped to attain or regain on our return. Now, fitted together and at ease with our shared experience, only the most functional speech was necessary now – and even then only when some novelty confronted us.

There was time aplenty in the many phases it took to traverse the plain in which to discover novelties in even the shape of the landscape itself. In places the long reefs of land coral had been breached, providing funnels that concentrated the already strong wind and creating unpredictable eddies to carve out complex bowls and hollows. In other places, the coral had never gained purchase and was not there to shelter the more fragile mosses and fungi. There, great and small had been carved by the wind into long curves reminiscent of bones.

In some cases they were bones, a few of species that we had exterminated, others unknown to us and of worrying size. Once we came across the skull and vertebrae of a genuinely titanic beast. The remains were crumbling and grey but impressive nonetheless; its head alone might have made a mansion-sized house, its pitted fangs battlements. We considered setting up camp under the vault of its cranium or in its lee, but decided against it. Who knew what predators and pests made their homes in its crevices?

As the Great House slipped beneath the horizon and we entered the unstable realm of the Black Hills, I could not help but think of our possible predecessors who had come this way by air and by foot. There were stories of defectors who had walked across the land in that direction and never come back. Probably they had died; perhaps they had thrived – and if so… Well, there were many possibilities, all indistinct.

Now and again I squinted into the not-quite-bearable light of the Sun. It still had the power to sear, but barely. Sol no longer invictus… Its disc rippled and blurred through tears as I sought to behold it. I could see that it was not a smooth unblemished globe, but was blotched with patches of lesser brightness, as if even this mass of fire could be infected, as if it could… But we all knew that. The Sun was dying and one day it would be dark and cold in a sky of complete blackness as the last remaining stars followed it into oblivion.

What kind of men then would carry on to live in a Night Land? How? And why?

The youthfulness of the Black Hills became harshly apparent as we entered their environs and the dimly-outlined ramparts of the Great Wall rose behind them to blot out the sky. The raw basalt and obsidian had not been broken by the action of life into honest soil and we forded many newly-hardened lava streams that were elongated and twisted, like dough that had been roughly kneaded and stretched and then burned black. We worried that the feet of our machines would break through the crust and reveal the molten rock beneath, but the reflex systems built into the pedal components were effective. Though they seemed to walk smoothly, each step involved continual sensing of force and feedback to keep their purchase true.

In places the volcanic slopes gave way to plateaus and groves of a more modest vulcanism. These places, we found, had an eerie beauty. They teased our sensibilities like wanton women, never revealing everything, but alternately veiling and unveiling various parts of their anatomy in a slow dance of mists and breezes. There were geysers like a new form of life there, violent and unpredictable in their activity, their emissions reeking. Once we knew our limits of safety, however, their hissing and spattering declarations were sublime rather than crudely fearsome.

There were many pools of water about too, luridly tinted and linked in intricate networks of trickling streams and rimmed with calcareous encrustations and spires that for all their real hardness resembled nothing so much as elaborate lacework or madly overwrought icing on a cake. The smell, of course, was not sweet. We became somewhat accustomed to the ever-present tang of sulphur, but near many of the vents or when one of the many wandering clouds of mist passed through our company, it became overpowering, driving into our sinuses like nails and drawing tears from our eyes.

Of course we did not dare drink the water. It seemed enchanting, but in reality it had no aspect of a children’s tale. There was no witch to charm us; we would simply be poisoned, we would bleed from our orifices and we would die, clenched in pain. I have seen it happen.

The steaming groves gave way at last to the higher peaks, some of which were topped with active craters churning with incandescence and spewing forth fresh streams of quick-moving lava. There was no way that we could imagine anything living here, but so we were assured by the observatory crews and so we continued. Perhaps beyond, we though, there were gentler lands. If so, even if there were rival Houses, we could conquer them and make the land our own. The volcanoes at least provided an excellent natural defence.

It was at this point my seditious thoughts returned. Perhaps in that realm, I thought, there was a real place to build a proper Redoubt. There might be details then that I should keep secret from the Heliomancers and convey only to the Monstruwacans…

We came upon the horror by degrees as the cold light of the Nine Lights began to mingle with the natural light of the Sun and paint the landscape in sick new tones. My Deuteroagetor, Phaino, noticed it, her… it first: a silhouette kneeling before the endless sunset, a red light shining from her hair. We diverted ourselves, hoping to help or question this fellow refugee and did not notice that she did not respond to the sound of our approach. Perhaps she was deaf, or deep in meditation. I dismounted from my frame, drew my machaira and approached on foot, my boots crunching in the scoria and still she did not turn. I must have noticed even then something strange, but chose not to. It was not until that I was about to lay my hand on the bare skin of her shoulder that I realised that skin was all she was. Her entire body had been hollowed out, or – and I cannot imagine how this was done – skin was wrapped about the form of a woman like the cocoon a spider makes about its prey, but unevenly, revealing through its many gaps the space underneath. What I had thought was the reflection of sunlight on hair was instead the gleam of a cluster of fiery motes fluttering like trapped insects within the cavity of her head. Entangled about her was a thicket of wires and tubes connected to a machine that I could not identify.

And I must say this: she was no effigy. I laid my hand upon her shoulder and she turned her face to mine and her eyes blinked and swivelled to look at me. Though that face was less than a mask, I saw knowing there, and an intense emotion that I could not classify as suffering or ecstasy alone.

She did not speak, but the wind whispered through her.

This woman would have been shapely, had she been completely shaped. I could see that, but was the machine eating or making her? Was this a tragedy of pain or something far stranger? Would I, in destroying the mysterious device connected to her be offering mercy or ending a life that I now had no right to declare alien to my own? Shuddering, I backed away and rejoined my party.

As we continued on our way, we say many others of the woman’s kind scattered singly and in small groups about the landscape, but while we speculated on what they might be – penitents, stylites, prey, bait, fruit or something we could not imagine – we went close to none of them.

As we marched onward, the Nine Lights rose like multiplied memories of the old Sun-that-was. From the vantage of elevated land, we could see that they did not float by themselves, or sit upon hills, but were elevated upon great columns almost a league in elevation.

Their glow illuminated a shadowed portion of the Valley, letting fall pools of light in broad diffuse circles about their bases and sending glimmers across the face of the Wall itself. Here we could see that the broad curved Northwest protrusion of the Wall into the Great Bight of the Valley had collapsed, forming a sort of colossal theatre or stair that was revealed to us in shades of basalt and ash-stained snow and streaked with rivulets of ember-lit smoke, reaching up to meet the purple sky.

The broad chaotic apron of the avalanche itself was the domain of the Lights. The landscape overall was tumbled and rugged, but in the vicinity of the Lights, it had been smoothed and excavated into a series of overlapping shallow bowls that straggled in a line from one horizon to the other, each centred on a single tower. With the light shining down upon them, the bowls looked like pools of dim silver and were in their strange way, quite beautiful. It was my guess that they were the farmlands or habitats of whatever race had erected the columns and Lights.

We made camp in the fork of two ridges, angled so that we were obscured from direct sight while still being of sufficient elevation to look down on any force that might approach us – though of course if watchers had been posted atop the columns themselves, we would have been under continual observation from the moment we exited the Great House.

I took out my spyglass and made a preliminary survey of the theatre and its players. I could tell that the general ruination was geological, but there was a pervading order too, on such a scale as to indicate no mere settlement, but a full civilisation. Amongst the smoke, the drifting folds of black shadow and squalls of ash intermittently obscuring the backdrop, I could also see a thin, wavering line extending from one level to the next, switching back and forth until by stages it could be seen to link the uttermost precipice with the valley floor.

This civilisation had built its own Road from the High Land to the Valley. I presumed that they could not have been too unlike ourselves. Perhaps there had been a second history of the upper land, another party led by an alter Astrarchê Io. That seemed unlikely, but yesterday I and all of the people known to me would have said that it was impossible.

And the Road was not the strangest of the greatest of their works. Standing like sentinels over undulating fields that at this distance could only be described as carpet-like, there were the aforementioned nine towers, bearing their nine lamps. The towers were as vast as mountains, but steep as cliffs all around. Plainly they were unnatural.

In fact, they were most unnatural. I cannot say how, but I can say that they seemed surpassingly strange, as if the lamps were not merely glazed spheres – no matter how large – with a light source within. They were openings. I know that a hole is an aperture, a tear, a pit, a vacancy; it cannot be a sphere – and yet these globes were, I am sure, openings and not enclosures. Light leaked from them, and it was an unhealthy light – pale, cold, tinged with the actinic.

They bowls beneath the towers were lined with a texture that from this distance resembled a carpet, but may well have been forest or city. If it was forest, it was of a half-ordered sort – but then it might have been a city, and maybe the granular appearance was due to that being its real nature. I took out my spyglass, but whatever it was that I observed there was still too dark and distant for me to resolve the individual elements. It seemed too that a faintly glowing haze blurred the vista – though again there was uncertainty and it might have simply been the scattering of light in a mist that gave the appearance of a glow.

I motioned to my companions to keep low. Whatever the organised structures were – farms or cities or other things that we could not think to understand – our worst fears were realised. The strange civilisation had roots that had grown deep into the earth. It would be hard to pull this weed up without the risk it sprouting again and again – and each time it would likely be more pernicious and intractable. It was imperative that we did our best to gauge as best we could its magnitude and capabilities and take our report back safe to the Great House.

Over the next few diphae we set up a camp and hide from which we observed as much as we could the doings of the ‘cities’ and ‘fields’ under the lights. At first, we could see various indistinct dots moving in clusters to and fro from city to field (if that is what they were) and were able to resolve them as human beings – at least in form. Their manner was not that of normal people however, lacking the spontaneous quality seen in individual movements and in the eddying of larger groups. They seemed to be herded in some fashion, but when we sought those that herded them, we saw nothing – at first.

I ordered the construction of a hide under some mossbush close to one of the main pathways we had charted from the eastern anteterminal tower which had been determined to be the most recent construction by observers in the Great House. I took first watch, and the second. I timed and numbered the flow of people, saw that they performed various activities in the fields that might have suggested the harvesting of crops, but are more complex than that. Something less akin to a harvest than an exchange took place with each of the tangled plants growing there – if indeed they were plants. They seemed to stand still and let the mobile fronds of these feathery black shapes whisk over them before reaching into the cores and taking what may or may not be their fruit from them and stowing it in backslings.

Why the brief period of enthrallment? Why the regular marches with none of the normal human complications of banter, play and conflict to relieve the tedium? Even hereditary slaves would not be so conditioned to servitude as to express their subordination in every movement. Were their minds at another level invisible to me? Were they addicted?

Of course I could not help but compare them in my mind with the carvings on my hidden gem and felt a frisson of premonition fulfilled.

I selected a higher magnification and the strange in my sight became weird. There are certain qualities to sentience and many varieties of its manifestation that I had seen in the faces of all the abhuman beings that I had encountered in my campaigns. There were signs of its perversion too that I had seen on the faces of subjects who had been sat in the uncomfortable chairs of the Adjustors. These people bore the unmistakable and inexplicable expression of the hollowed woman we had found on our way, neither agony nor ecstasy, but compounded of both and without any hint of the linear cogitation that we associate with consciousness. They were like sleepwalkers, caught in a dream – and yet, their feelings were as intense as orgasms when they beheld the dark flowers. The faces of some were wet with tears.

The things that Io had fought were destroyers, not these… other things, however horrific they were. What were they then?

It was possible that these people had made this place and organised themselves and domesticated the flowers, but was a passivity in them that begged a class of masters. I was not to find one in the early watches, but in the end I did see one of these superior beings. Captured in the lens of my spyglass I saw one of the grey masters standing upon a heap of boulders that reared out of the dark thickets. It was a tall thing, almost as tall as a man in a frame perhaps. I think that it was roughly manlike in form, but I could not quite find the correct focus to resolve its specifics in any detail – which was most curious, as I was able to discern the rocks around it quite clearly. Moreover, while the lenses of our spyglasses are designed not to give away glints, I had the distinct impression that this thing was aware of my presence and watching me in turn.

I backed down, put away my equipment and mused upon what I had seen. Clearly we would have to gather information on these creatures, and yet even gathering the merest morsel of information had already alerted one to our presence and by whatever means of communication they used, all would know. Then again, we counted their lights from far beyond the Black Hills and sent expeditions by air to their realm. They knew of us already and had not yet sent and force of their own to attack the Great House. Then again, I reminded myself, no-one had ever returned from this place to the Great House either. Well then, it was my vocation to take risks, calculated or not. I would make a close reconnaissance on an isolated being myself and if I survived sound of psyche, soma and soul, I would have then a great prize of vital knowledge to take back. If not… then my duty had been fulfilled.

I gave Phaino his orders: if I did not return to the encampment within a given period, then he was to take the party with all urgency back to the Great House, assuming that they were being pursued. Or at least observed. There, he was to first ensure my family’s safety. I bound him by secret oath to this latter clause, something he did unwillingly only because ardently wished them the good fortune of a natural husband and father. “Another phase I would say better yourself than myself,” he complained, “but I wish there was never this phase for their sakes.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Better otherwise too, but always better otherwise, hey?” I joked.

He gave a melancholic smile and returned the gesture. “Oh yes, better perfected I would say, but here and so I swear.”

I nodded in acknowledgment, but did not say another word as I turned to make my preparations.

I took a circuitous path around the aureole of ‘farmlands’ surrounding one of the great pillars to find the outcrop where I had seen the being that I decided to call an Aphon for wont of a better term. I knew that there was no way that I could remain unseen and that I would have to rely on the imperturbability of these Silent Things. They seemed to be creatures of routine and if I did not actively hinder it, the one I sought might permit my approach. Accordingly, I went without a frame, armed only with a machaira, hoping that while slower I might be more nimble and seem less belligerent.

Close up and with unaided senses, the rough land looked mottled with odd colours where the red-bronze light of the Sun was obscured by shadows and gave out to the cyanotic emission of the Lights. I looked up from time to time to see them hanging like a constellation of alien moons in the sky. They illuminated each other so that I could see details carved in the black matter of their supports: whorls and parallel furrows, ridges, flanges all of an elaborate but obviously co-ordinated pattern. Creeping up and down the engraved channels I could make out tiny motes of more various luminescence, tinted green and blue and violet. I could not imagine what they might be – traffic, subassemblies, corpuscles, packets of energy or information, perhaps living things in the manner of the bioluminescent ants that inhabited the permanently shaded portions of the Land? Who knew? Well, someone or something did, as they also knew about the black flowers.

Ironically, under the sickly mixed light and the Lights that seemed more and more like malevolent eyes I was effectively naked, but my own view was increasingly obscured without the aid of my frame and clouds of steam periodically blinded me to all but the next few fathoms or less of my path. It was when the grey cloaks of vapour spread in a particularly convoluted manner that all at once I found by object.

I thought at first that the thing was a fata morgana – and then I saw that it was as real as anything solid, even if it was a thing of incorporeal matter. Shadows that were not its own flickered in the mist about it. Sometimes they spread like flowers, or withered hands, or black afterimages of lightning. There were other shapes too, come and gone and too strange to even described by any likeness at all.

The being was man-like… but I could not be sure. I had fought and slaughtered abhumans and could recognise their thick bones and brows, their shoulders humped with heavy knotted muscle and their hands more suited to be fists than the manipulators of a harp’s strings. They were brutes, through and through. This was not one of them; in its way, it was quite the opposite.

It was as attenuated as a man in a frame, but it wore no frame; those limbs were its own. This was the very Aphon that I had seen on my original distant sighting of this place or one occupying the same role and vantage. Then I had watched it from afar, but now I stood within mere paces of it.

A limb that I shall call and arm reached out to me, insofar as I could say that it ‘moved’ as a convenience; rather I might say that I saw a superimposition of possible positions, all indistinct, but some of these took on a solidity and through these stages that blurred into each other, the ‘arm’ shifted from relaxation to extension. The being, I said, appeared like an illusion – and even seeing that it was real, it still moved in a manner that was illusory.

And then it was near to me, emanations from its fingertips stung my nostrils like the vapours of metal being welded. The smell spoke to me, or perhaps there was some synaesthetic crossing from one sense to another. There was a sharp and metallic odour, there was a vibration that made my teeth ache, there were words that I could not understand. Perhaps it was singing.

Song, yes, perhaps that was the best description. The melody was a hard and painful one, its notes as thin and cutting as a garrotte wire. I felt that my mind might be sliced and might bleed if I could not follow it accurately.

Can I describe how beautiful that song was? Can I say how abject I became in my love for it?

No, I cannot, because now, as human words flood back into me, I cannot describe it. I can only shake my head in confusion at how I felt, at why I fell to my knees and bowed my head. I clasped my hands as if praying, I felt something brush my scalp, fingertips – what I call fingertips – that seemed to pass through my skull and stir eddies in my brain.

I awoke alone without knowing that I had slept. The ground was cold, I shivered.

I felt violated, shamed and filthy. There were stains beneath my skin. I felt strange desires like the feelings of a dream that cannot be fully recalled or explained.

I tried to piece together my experience. Rather than struggling to remember, it came to me all at once. The problem and the agony lay not in recalling what had happened, but in telling myself that it was a memory, that I was not living it all at once again and holding it in such a way that I could make sense of it. In both, I think, I failed – but not entirely. There are some things that I can describe.

There was, I know, do not ask me how I know… It is difficult for me to describe. The revelations, knowledge, intuitions and probable misunderstandings are like something seen in a warped mirror, all skewed and fragmented. I know that there is a coherent pattern, but the mirror of my mind is the wrong shape to hold it clearly. I think too that if I could be the sort of being that could hold it clearly… then there would be no words to describe my experience.

Somehow it had slipped into my memory splinters of knowledge.

This is what I think I know as I try to fit these splinters together: these Aphonoi are not alien to the Earth. They might once have been humans, or something bearing a familial relation to humans. They live on the colder lands, shunning the concentrations of energy made by human industry but tapping hidden, chilly currents not entirely described by our knowledge of electricity and other forces. There are other things with which they treat, things like the afterimages of lightning that I had seem. These things, we might come to call them Eaters, can… Or they climb to meet…

I climbed. Forgive me, I am confused.

I climbed to meet a being, it too is a climber, I think. It climbed and made a meeting and was changed, a bit, to meet yet another, one that had descended, from the upper land. From the sky, I think. It told me of the sky-things, the Eaters. This sky-thing is of a race that thrives in the dark and the cold and the so very slow turning of time in the spaces between the stars, but it is attracted, sometimes fatally to hot-bright-fast life. There is something of those upon which it feeds. Kinds of thought, feeling. It destroys these things in feeding, it does not know how not to, this sky-thing.

It is a spore, I think, or maybe an ally of those things that plague the dying stars.

This climber, the one like, unlike me, has learned things. It has adapted. It believes itself to be elegant. Except that it is not aware in the sense that I use the word. It is a state of being-in-elegance, not objective, conscious knowledge.

It is not aware as we think of awareness as being a self looking out of the Great House of the mind, pulling levers and turning wheels that cause the body to act. A Monstruwacan – Istôr, I think – once told me that he had measured the actions of nerves and found that when someone thought that they intended to reach for an object – perhaps a glass of water because they were thirsty – the nerves in their arm were active a fraction of a second before they had formulated the desire to drink in their mind. The implication was, he suggested, that will, intention and desire, were illusions created within the mind; the lower parts of the brain acted according to need, and then the higher parts were tricked into imagining that they had made an intention and then acted. The very idea had disturbed me then. It was a loose thread that if plucked would unravel and entire garment and I refused to think of it again.

This being had found that same loose thread, and it had pulled at it and momentarily stripped its entire raiment. Its mind, the core of its mind was naked to the world. It saw and reacted to everything, instantly. There was no muffling of cognition. It did not see the Nine Lights and count to seven; it saw the lights and knew nineness in the very act of looking. If it saw a thousand and five, then seeing would be the knowledge of a thousand and five, exactly. Everything was pure, clear and sharp, every action was a reflex. In dreams we are provided with knowledge, rarely do we have the option of directing our actions, as it is in a book or a play. So it was with this being, this perfectly perceptive dreamer, this lightning-quick somnambulist.

I was confronted with what I had feared and I saw that it was magnificent.

It said that it understood time. No, not said, because it is a dreamer, and dreamers know. Time is – as a splinter flashed and imparted its enlightenment to me – without time for them. A memory is not recalled, it is relived, an expectation is not anticipated, it is a vision. I recall that it knows that the sun will darken still further, that the Twilit Land will become the Night Land.

It is ready, having taken from its mediations – again, with the Eaters – knowledge that this has happened on other worlds. All inhabited worlds.

Eaters. My mind skirts about this clumsy, misshapen, slippery label. I turn inwardly to face the word, the name. In the myth of Astrarchê Io there was such a thing. Dragon, fought by the Sideromancers and Lighters. Dragon… Eater.

This being, that communicated without speaking, whose conscience was something oblique, this Aphon understood the Eaters and it did not fear them.

It did fear them, no.

There was an arrangement. Something of a state in-between. Becoming after-human so that it was neither Eater nor man, but found a space that it could exploit between the two states of being. It was like an Eater, it saw… glories, said another splinter. Beauty in the magnetic fields, like a vast, translucent whorled rose that surrounded the Earth, that set within a still greater gyre of energy about the Sun, and between the stars, other suns, winds that pressed gently but persistently against the sun-gyres, breaking like soft surf against them.

And below, in the scale of people. It saw glories there too. Hot-bright-fast life. People whirled and hummed, their bodies like sweet fruit bursting with sweet energy…

Dreams and thoughts. Patterns of infinite density and delicacy. These it loved. They were inexhaustible and it fed endlessly from them. The Eaters did not know, greedy beasts that they were. They destroyed.

Not so the thoughtless Aphonoi. Truly elegant.

The Aphonoi have created a balance, using their great Lights to keep weakened Eaters in docile submission and they harvest unnameable sustenance from them, as they allow them in turn to harvest their human thralls.

Such a being humbled me by its very existence. Here was something that lived what philsophes merely deduced abstractly and discarded as incredible. I wanted to thank it, tell it how much I was in awe of it, but it merely took my words, matched them to whatever obscure rules of reflex it carried and returned more words to me that were shapes of sounds without content. That is why they do not speak: they have nothing to express.

We, as we are, cannot live in this land and it will grow ever more inhospitable, feeling the loss of our past lives and anticipating more fear and misery and privation. We would draw our thoughts about us all the more tightly, thinking that thinking that clothed us would keep us warm while all the while we grew colder and colder until in the end we died. This kind of being can and will exist purely and nakedly. I must tell my people, I decided. Some will resist. They must be made to understand. It is necessary. It is impossible not to. We will die otherwise in this, the next or the tenth generation, but die we will, inevitably.

It has saved us.

They must be made to understand.

I repeated the chant of the rune to myself, ensuring, I hoped, my human reason.

I turned over the images of our expedition in my mind and with my men on the journey back home, particularly those of the Aphon that I had met. Our discoveries would be of the greatest importance to our masters and we all knew what they meant of course: the immediate preparation for total war.

I was not sure that that was the wisest choice, and I did not trust in the Assembly’s superior wisdom. What could we say of the Aphoi? They lived, indeed they thrived, that meant that they were rivals and therefore they were enemies. They were so unlike us to be destroyed without compunction, the filthy Eaters with which they dealt, their thralls so degraded to themselves be classified as abhuman. Yet, I reminded myself, they thrived; they tapped some abundant power source unknown to us, the walked openly in the Twilit Land, they made their analogues of farms and houses there. What is it that they have and that we need? I knew that I would recommend further and deeper investigation of their culture, not mere military reconnaissance.

And again the lurking traitor within me wondered just how much I should tell and whom. I felt no attraction to the Realm of the Nine Lights, but its site was a tempting alternative to that of the Great House nonetheless. Clearly this settlement should be abolished, but if the land was fertile, then some of our own seed should be sown here… but maybe not by the Heliomancers. No, they would be corrupted. Only the Monstruwacans had an inkling of what would be necessary to live long there in a pure state.

Could a movement be assembled surreptitiously and set out in mass to take over the Realm of the Nine Lights? No, it could not be done… but an army could be subverted, either by the placement of sympathisers in the most senior positions or in the vital secondary positions, ready to topple the Agetors who would not be turned and take over for themselves the lines of communication. It would only grow after all from the conspiracy that we had already instituted.

On our return, I noticed even before the gate a strange tension. There was something afoot, I sensed. Perhaps we were too late. My heart pounded as if struggling for escape from my body. Kastchei Three made its rote challenge in a voice that grated more than it should – or rather the shadow side of my mind furnished its sound with that inflection. Oddly too, and that was no product of my imagination, it took blood samples from all of us, even before the usual contagion check and it refused to explain either its reasons or orders. My hand fluttered to hold the gorget, then scuttled away. I remembered the strange discourse I had had with its companion at our departure. Something was afoot, something concerning blood. Had matters overtaken us, had there been a spy in my troop transmitting a warning ahead? I was fearful, but decided to proceed as if nothing were amiss. I would most surely condemn my family if I were to run now. Facing the Brass Head, I might at least find myself able to negotiate. I looked up at the immense gears of the gate mechanism grinding together as it closed the portal behind us and tried not to make a metaphor of the sight.

We were summoned to deliver our preliminary reports with greater than usual urgency after decontamination, but that was to be expected, I told myself. We were in fact safe after all, the anticipated Adjustment had not occurred and if it was still winding up, then it might yet be averted without bloodshed and Phaino would not have to fulfil his secret oath. Soon after we had made our depositions and were released however, I began to notice that things truly were amiss. Walking through the halls of the Great House, I turned – not for the first time in my life – my gaze upon the architecture and my fellow citizens as if I were abroad in the Twilit Land, hoping to read subtle signs as to the ambient situation. The signs however were not subtle; people where gathered in clusters, whispering to each other. I could see herd patterns beginning to coalesce and them break apart constantly in the crowds flowing by. There was agitation even in the clockmills as they processed new data. I made my face a mask and hurried home, my first concern being for my family. No-one had looked at me or made any effort to be seen not looking at me, but obviously in this time of aggravated alertness, I would have to be careful.

The feeling that overwhelmed me utterly was a passionate relief when I saw Argyra and my twin daughters. It was as if I had known them forever, but only now seen them for the very first time. They were so clear, so distinct in their particular being and in my bond to them.

It is often shown in dramas that under such circumstances, couplings are impulsive and desperate, but in the frame of awareness in which we stood, we were as tender as we always have been, if not more so. Every sensation was set like a jewel in our enhanced experience. We did not so much proceed as find ourselves creating a succession of tableaux: first, unfastening, our hands insinuating into the gaps of our clothing to find the warm and velvet smooth surprises of flesh hidden beneath, laughing as we did so; the next, our garments shed and limbs entangling; the next with glistening lips trembling…

Argyra guided me with butterfly touches of her fingertips and I complied, playing her in turn and leading her up the steps of the tower of love. She took in her hand my key and led it to the protracted turning of her lock that would open the innermost chamber and release its store of shared ecstasy and then… And then there was no need for words or images and all was real and direct. In those moments we could forget everything and we did.

I did not need to tell her that this affirmation felt to me like the final cleansing of the stain that the Aphon had left on me.

The idyll was not to last though, and soon a more vulgar reality invaded the air of our bedchamber. I heard the sounds of alarm from without and trembling already with a sudden feel of chill on my skin, I wrapped myself in a robe and went to the common room of the domicile to see the relay from the newsmills.

The experience was strange, as strange as the feeling that one has from time to time of looking into a mirror and not recognising the face seen there. A report of my just-completed expedition was portrayed in superficially accurate form with the expected censorship of strategic details, but it was slanted and distorted. Following that there were descriptions of the panicked reaction of the populace to this news of a strange force growing beyond the Black Hills and potentially – certainly, it was implied – ready to attack. This was no news report that I saw, but a lever stuck into a crack in our society and heaved so as to open the split still wider. It was a thing, hard and sharp and destructive.

The calculations of the Assembly were immediately clear to me as I watched reports of the reaction to the initial relation of news. There was escalating panic and loud calls for radical discipline to be imposed throughout society, military and civil. Clearly we had not been sent away to permit the Adjustment to proceed with greater ease, and neither was our report the basis for a genuine external defensive policy; instead our report was used to justify the internal Adjustment. Now we were too exhausted to hinder it in any meaningful way. Even our disappearance could have been used, demonstrating as it would the hostility of the Realm of the Nine Lights. Oh yes, they had managed very well indeed!

And they were cursed fools too. Blood was the very worst of lubricants; the great mill of the House would seize in the coming Adjustment.

Just as Ariphrôn had warned, the disaster in the heavens had anticipated an ignition on earth, and following that a true calamity: as above, so below. It’s playing out I knew depended on the manshonyaggers now. The black-gowned Adjustors had constitutional legitimacy backed by fear on their side, but neither would mean anything if their sentient allies refused to aid them. That was a hope, but it was an exceedingly thin one and I knew that I could not depend upon it.

Whatever plans we had or could conceive would have to become reality soon. Even the most outrageous possibility had to be considered; the secret of success in apparent defeat is to always have, however unthinkable it may seem, a plan to deal with the opponents’ ultimate effort. This then was my last contingency: escape. Permanent flight from the Great House was inconceivable; inconceivable at least to the masters and the Adjustors and that gave us a chance. That chance was enhanced by the solidarity of the Expediter corps. Not all would follow us into the Twilit Land, but none would actively hinder us either; they were already retrenching into their strict divisions and procedures, demanding orders from the Archagetor himself drafted in the most minute detail and then performing strictly to the letter and ignoring their spirit. The Archagetor himself might be angered, but likewise reluctant to apply too much initiative. He would retain loyalty to the persons of the corps despite the mask of anonymity he wore, I knew.

It was necessary now to make what preparations I could to enact what threadbare conspiracy I had prepared to ensure at least the safety of those I loved. I dressed quickly in my uniform. It was conspicuous, but I reasoned that my face was already known and it would open more doors than it barred. I quickly instructed Argyra to bolt the door behind me and to admit no-one until I or Phaino returned. I hurried out into the corridors of the domicile wing and thence to the legionary halls.

It was up to me to ensure that planning for the ultimate contingency was in place and I was not disappointed. I found Phaino already hard at work reprogramming the quatermastering mills and security interlocks. Several other Expediters were assisting him. It had the look of an efficient military exercise, not the treasonous and near-hopeless gamble that it was. My relief, despite believing even then that surely this plan was mere insurance, was immeasurable.

Phaino took me aside and told me what he had seen. “Some of the class minor manshonyaggers have been released in the halls – Tettix, Mantis and Lykos classes thus far, none as mighty as a Kastchei of course. They have been given authority to undertake broad brain-pattern analyses so as to forestall dissent. For the time being, they will be limited to searching for signs of panic, maintaining order.” I smirked briefly at the thought of the bulky Kastcheis manoeuvring in the confines of the tributary halls.

“But that’s not all, is it?” I said. “That panic is not going to be suppressed, it’s going to be directed.”

“Yes – yes it will be,” he agreed. “And therefore we have to act quickly – should we assemble an armed expeditionary force now? We might be able to do it.”

“To do what?” I demanded. “This has been planned for a long time and we have barely established a fretwork of promises.”


I cut him off. “Yes, I know,” I snapped. “We will assemble. Send word and take the keys I have had made. We will unlock our frames in the legionary hall and shelter our people there until… until we can negotiate or do more; show them that the Adjustment is untenable.” It was absurd; I had no real confidence that we could make a direct – but then I was an Expediter and when I had no plan, I made one. I would take command of this situation now; there was no other choice. Suddenly all the abstractions of contingency were real.

Phaino stood watching me, waiting for one more thing.

“Yes,” I said at last. “I am sorry to put my petty interests above those of us all, but-”

He grinned. “I remember my oath, you need not fear that.” And then he went.

My next destination was the house of Ariphrôn and the College of Monstruwacans, but I was already too late, as I should have known I would be. I was held back by a dense crowd pressing the walls of the nexus hall before the College’s gates, which were torn from their hinges. Lykoi were creeping across the ceiling vaults, their legs neatly grasping the structural ribs as if walking upside-down was as natural as crossing a flat floor. Manshonyaggers are extremely logical beings and the Lykoi, knowing that they could not carry their captives whole from the College carried them in pieces instead. Those that they wanted alive for interviewing merely lacked their limbs, with their stumps neatly cauterised – but there are also ways of extracting some information from a brain provided that it is only freshly dead and some were more economical with their loads…

Blood drizzled down upon the crowd and their screams blended into one undulating cacophony. It took the utter limits of my skill and self-control to leave that place. My flight had all of the qualities of a nightmare. Every breathless step seemed but an increment on an endless path. Dread enveloped me in a cloak that burned my skin and drove aching pain into my muscles as I struggled against the press of the crowds, every fathom became a league and while in objective reality I ran, it was as if I crawled. There was no sense in finding my home now. If such as I saw was underway everywhere, and I knew it was, then I would be too late there too. I had to trust Phaino’s wit and speed and make my way instead to the Legionary Halls in the hope of meeting him and my family there.

As I went, I saw yet more horrors that affirmed my choice and my dread. Larger Manshonyaggers stalked the main thoroughfare halls and climbed the solid clan-piers like long-legs spiders, probing the domiciles to draw out their prey. They glittered and spun, dropping and swinging from the beams and crashing through the walls of the clustered homes. Standing and gawking like some common passer-by, I saw one snatch a struggling figure, strip them of their clothing and accoutrements and drop them into a basket slung over its back with dozen other similarly abjected victims.

I could not but think of the Aphoi and their charges – though these grey things, I thought bitterly, strode with more dignity. Why, I cried within my heart – and only within my heart, because I would betray truly them and myself aloud – why had I pretended to be so recklessly brave when I had such an obvious duty to protect those who were not?

Astonishingly – and in retrospect I should have wondered more at my good luck – I found my way to the gates of the Legionary Halls and found too that my keys still admitted me.

The press of people beyond was dense and hot, reeking of sweat and fear, but not yet insane. They were coherent enough to obey my commands and convey me to the most precious of prizes. Argyra flung herself at me, her embrace as ardent for complete fusion as ever I had known. “Where’s Phaino?” I asked her, already guessing.

“Phaino, he… he…” she sobbed. “He came for us, led us through the halls and air passages… the machines chased us… he drew his machaira… he stayed behind and!”

I cradled her head and pressed it against my breast. “I know,” I whispered. “There is no need to tell me, nor remember it so clearly. We are safe and he is honoured.”

It was the most profound meeting I had ever felt. Nothing would ever compare to that. I wept in relief, glorying in my tears as a true man should. They were safe! I had myself imperilled them, foolishly placed their lives at risk for the sake of my abstracted virtues and fortune forgave me! Here they were, in my arms, knowing and loving me all the more. I renewed my vows to them both then and there, redoubled my bond to them. Never, never would I let them be put in harm’s way for my sake.

And then, you see, my conversion was total. Astrarchê Io had loved her people at her time of crisis and fought for them and finally I understood her. I saw the love of my wife and child and knew at last the true meaning of our beloved maiden’s own love. It was the love for us all that we saw each in the love for one another.

Yes! It was so perfect, so precious, so utterly indicative of true humanity.

My oaths became curses upon the Great House and its perfect unfeeling order then. I was at last at the end of my accommodation. It was ignorant, it was cruel, it obscured the true path and it must be repudiated. This was the true path. It was clear to me now in the wet shining faces of my beloved wife and child, in the deep warm glow of my own heart. It was no matter that there would be no stout metal walls about us at first. I or Schea and Aletheia or their own children would build then anew in proper form as an accurate reflection of our hearts.

What had been my last resort of flight was now our imperative. Yes, and so as commander I had to continue commanding. I let the arms of the other wives enfold her while I went to the task of organising.

First, I made a rough census of the names and skills that we had at our disposal. Charieis I was glad to see, and he had in addition most of his crew of artificers. On the negative side of the scale, Phaino and Ariphrôn were dead, but Istôr lived and he was brought to us. Astonishingly he had a score of students with him too, dressed in odd utilitarian variations of an Expediter’s excursion dress, with many pockets and pouches filled with devices and supplies strapped about them. The Adjustors may have struck fast and hard at the Order, but they had made their plans to get some to safety even before we had made our own. For that I was happy; they would be able to navigate safe paths through dangers we Expediters would not be able even to see.

In total, we had fully two thirds of Abiding there in the servicing bays, with the addition of a substantial corps of artificers and the Monstruwacans. To these skills and their loyalty I was profoundly grateful. We would need strength to fight and run as we knew we must, and we would need art to ensure that we could keep fighting and running.

I would liked to have thought that thus we had assembled a new legion, fully prepared and stocked with unique talents, but the fact was that we were a rabble, no less of a mob than those that rioted in the halls. In addition to our strengths and our and our prize Monstruwacans we had also cargo, things not suited to the Land… and of course we had those few of our dependents who had escaped – yes, they were the real prize – for what were we without those we loved? – but they would also hamper us because we could never assume that they could be subjected to the risks that Expediters undertook without a thought. We had not been moulded together as one unit, not tempered and adjusted so that in the heat of battle barely any commands would ever need to be given. Those that were of the legion would always be fighting the reflex to synchronise with those who were now absent and those who were not of the legion could not synchronise at all. We were outnumbered, perhaps our comrades who stayed would show their covert loyalty and fellowship by injecting a certain reticence and the appearance of bad luck into their pursuit, buying us time… but then the manshonyaggers could come and the Kastcheis were never reticent in open action.

Our choices were narrowing at a swift rate. We would have to forego flight to any obvious or easy refuge, because if we found it easy to arrive there, the machines would find it easier. There was only one place to go: the Realm of the Nine Lights. We would flee our new enemy to hide in the shadow of our former enemy. To our advantage, the habits of caution on the part of the Great House’s strategists would not change, no matter what revolution was whirling about us now – and even that revolution was an introverted, conservative move. They would hesitate to send an army out and risk provoking an enemy that was imperfectly known and might well be mightier when they were so weakened by the desertion of their greatest legion now.

With my face set I strode into the crowd to check the readiness of my people, to direct them to the most appropriate quarters of the hall so that they might aid our preparations. Where someone looked doubtful, I did my best to reassure them with a direct gaze and an inspiring word.

When I came back to Argyra and the twins, they were already turning themselves to packing and co-ordinating. I smiled with sincere tears in my eyes, relieved and overcome with pride at how well they were finding themselves in such a desperate situation. Argyra was as brave as the wife of an Expediter should be and she played the manner of our preparations as a game and adventure to the children, as if it was a pleasant novelty in order to pull them along in her wake. While they knew that it was not a game, they applied the skill of pretence that all children have to make it easy for themselves. The machines in particular caught their interest: they had never seen frames outside of books and were immediately fascinated by them. They were excitingly fearsome in their eyes, but to mine they were not nearly fearsome enough when matched with a manshonyagger. If only they were! Well, animated by the souls of desperate men, they just might be – but no, it was more than ever our duty to protect this time and without shame, we would flee, not fight.

A sudden whirr turned me from my thoughts and I saw Schea with her hand thrust into the gauntlet of a frame, flexing its elongated fingers before her face. The various extensions extended and rotated, emitting pulses of light, activating and deactivating. Fortunately she had not uncoupled the safety locks and the weaponry itself remained passive. Her expression was peculiarly dispassionate – but mine was not. I quickly marched over and shut off the power, scolding her loudly as I did so. She was proud and might have been humiliated to be disciplined before strangers, but the spectacle of my own daughter injuring herself or another so soon could not be permitted to taint the auspices of our escape!

I pointed to her fingertip, where a bead of blood stood showing where she had nicked her finger and warned that it was but a hint of far worse things that could happen to an unskilled operator – why, the artificial muscles of a frame might well dismember one who had not learned the reflexes of its force-feedback system!

“But it wasn’t the glove that did it,” she protested. “It was a metal spider – a tiny manshonyagger.”

“What?” I demanded, surprised by this revelation.

“I’ve been talking to the others – everyone’s been tasted, tested by them. Everyone here has.”

It didn’t take long to establish three facts: many people had been tested by manshonyaggers; many had not been and none who had not been tested had made it to this place. There was an obvious set of corollaries to this pattern because it was too clear to be coincidence – if the manshonyaggers truly wished to prevent our escape, then all of those they tested could have been apprehended but were not; therefore they had selected according to genotype those that were to be allowed to pass.

Their plans were likely not those of the Adjustors. What then were they? I did not care to know. The fact was that they were still choreographing the schedule of the Great House, even when it fell into apparent chaos. It was doubly imperative then that we did escape – immediately. I began to issue commands to that effect and within the hour, the gates were opened and we embarked on our exodus.

We made it as far of the great beast’s skull before we saw the dust cloud on the horizon that was the first sign of pursuit. It had taken us some time before we made it that far and I dreaded the thought of how long – and therefore how thorough – the conclusion of the Adjustment had been. However, as Istôr reminded me, everything that we knew, remembered and supposed had to be put far behind. The man had a ruthlessness in him that I had not expected of a scholar, but he was right; what lay ahead was terrible, but we could afford no illusions about what lay behind and if we allowed ourselves to feel nostalgia, we would only be baiting our own trap. Grimly, I kept our path true to the object of the Realm of the Nine Lights.

There was no rest as we fled, and many of the young succumbed to exhaustion. I would not of course leave them behind and I ordered them to be tied to the harnesses of our frames, where we had previously strapped our heavy weapons. Well, taking the long perspective, Istôr said, our progeny might well be our weapons. He laughed, but I did not.

There were yet new lava flows so that even the maps that my legion had made were deceptive and sagas might be written of how we navigated new hazards to find our way over the hills at last into the chill light of the Nine Lights. They were magnificent indeed, but I could forgive anyone for thinking that they were not welcoming. Welcome however, nor even refuge exactly was what we sought; the fact was that we were rogues, parasites, predators. The Aphonoi were complacent concerning the merely human, so caught up were they in their delicate balance with the Eaters and that gave us a tremendous advantage.

Istôr may have been a man less capable of love than myself, but we shared a calculating nature and he saw the promise of my plan. I think that with Phaino’s jocular courage he and I might have made a fine triumvirate, but that was never to have been – a pity.

It was a pity then that we failed even in our ultimate contingency because before we found the environs of the Nine Lights, the manshonyagger found us.

The machine had cornered us neatly. Despite its immemorial age and great bulk, it was far nimbler than our rabble, and being so ancient, it had had the time to learn the manner of the land far better than any of us. Outmanoeuvred, we had not choice but to surrender if we were to wring a few more precious minutes out of our fated lives. To my surprise, the machine did not open fire, though its weapon ports were uncovered. Apparently it had a deeper aim.

Delicately, the machine stepped over the tumbled boulders to within a few fathoms. “Kastchei Four, I am. Hail!” its voice blared as it bobbed and waved its effectors with a quickness that belied its mass. This was the machine that had addressed me so strangely on our earlier trek.

“Hail!” it repeated. This was not a greeting, nor even a challenge. It was a command.

“Hail!” I returned, straining for the effect of confidence I did not feel. What was its intention? Was it to use a truce as cover for a more efficacious slaughter?

“Name your name, in whose name those with you stand.”

“Agetor Chryseos Drakonhaema Philindikos,” I offered. “I am.”

“Name. Name of you. Clan. Confirmed.”

“Yes…” I ventured. What did it want? Why this pause, this discourse?

“Time was. Time is. Time will be.”

I kept silent. If this were a game of sorts, then I would let the machine make its pieces visible first.

“Task mission is to protect human race, face. Visage clear.”

Somewhere a geyser hissed. Kastchei Four’s targeting lasers produced visible fans of ruby lacework in the passing mist. The light flashed in my eyes, dazzling me with blood drops and jewels.

“Question then, question ourselves, question your blood. Sift, sort, divide, match. The spices of your blood we taste to ensure a suitable diversity. You one, you all will attempt to thrive. You must or we will kill, winnow, assured that Great House contains truly and sole human stock. If you will thrive, then you will be rival. Then we will match once again, sift, sort, unify the blood and taste it again. Thus you are beholden to bring forth the last face: the true and final human child to be born at the end of ending. Prepare. Remember. Anticipate answer.

“Agetor Chryseos Drakonhaema Philindikos, you are. Kastchei Four, I am. Your name, my name. You for yours, myself for manshonyaggers and all for the unseen face we adore. Remember this, tell your brood of your duty made this phase. This is your order, burden, trial. Verdict to come with child at end of ending. Your answer of the now to come in this instant.”

Istôr and I exchanged astonished glances. What times! Rebellion and oaths made with machines! It was hardly a choice, but it was a gift, sharp-edged as it may be. It was a confirmation too; that in the end, in the Great House we were never going to be our own masters; the manshonyaggers had made and wound that clock and would continue to run it, adjusting even the Adjustors.

I gave my answer, sealing our intentions.

Within a few diphae we were nearing the bight where the obelisk of Astrarchê Io would be hidden from direct sight. I would miss it and on that hour then I made a brief ceremony, sighting it for the last time in my spyglass. It glinted as it always had in the rays of the dying Sun and in that reflected light I made clear to myself and all the understanding that I had. Yes, the Sun was dying, the Twilit Land would become the Night Land and we would die, all of us. But now I was alive and free of the Great House I would live and deny these facts and I would not follow the clocks as they counted smaller and smaller measures or become like a nameless shelled thing that has been frightened and draws deeper and deeper into its hard coiled armour. I would love my wife and my child and there will be more children and they will have children and I will see them and the rays of Sun will glint on their hair as if it is risen and we will count the tenscore stars of the sky as if they have appeared for the first time. We would tell each other that time itself is reversed and the Final Child of our generations will be Astrarchê Io herself.

“Yes!” I shouted to my company, “Yes!” the shouted to me.

There were risks – and they would become dreadful actualities, and I did not gloss these. We were also free to die I told them, as most certainly we would if we became simply a sojourning band. We would have to accept another niche quickly, and the only one to offer any promise for the long term was the Realm of the Nine Lights. The Aphonoi were vile, I knew that, and some of us would become enthralled, I accepted that. Such calculations are the lot of an Agetor and those who follow one. Nonetheless, we would submit for a time to become parasites, spying upon them, infiltrating their herded communities and stealing knowledge of the Nine Lights and their mysterious power source from them. I knew from my long training and my career how parasites and rivals rose in the Twilit Land; now we would rise in their manner to challenge not the Aphonoi, but the Great House itself and we would build a proper home for the true people.

Kastchei Four had proposed a competition. Very well: it would have it!

“Yes!” they cried.

As the crown of cold lights rose before us on their great columns, we began to strip our frames and with them the very last traces of the Great House.

Related story: Red Twilight, by Keran Parizek.

Image and story © 2013 by Brett Davidson.