Above (Part 1)
The flat rocks curved down into mist behind him. He gripped with his fingers and skittered sideways. Held by friction alone, he strained to reach the proper hold.
Dull light laid its patina over every thing. The eternal sun shone fair in his eyes whenever he raised his head, and a giant shadow was cast ahead of him over the void. He could gesture and see a figure leap across a plane of red mist a mile below him, as red as fire: yet it was cold everywhere.
He shuffled backwards down the flat wedges of lichen-smeared rock. From time to time panic took him and plastered him flat against the convex surfaces, hugging and holding. The smell grew worse the lower he climbed down, and it grew hotter. He was surely lower than anyone else had ever climbed: he was entering the upper stratum of the mists. It was hard to breath, now, and fat pulsing animals like grey throats the width of a finger clustered in the windscour hollows, sucking the air slowly, their jelly flesh thick with bacteria. He kicked each foothold clear, revolted at the touch.
The infrequent plateaus were almost empty of vegetation at this level, but each cave and cranny had its webbed opening, a silken tunnel, and little movements came from within. He threw rocks into the largest, rewarded by no noise.
After each plateau he had to nerve himself again to go over the next edge. It is always harder to descend than to rise.
Six thousand feet down, he saw the thing.
Above him, the city of the Road Makers clung to forty miles along and three miles down of ridge and scree, crumbling rock, acid lava flow and fertile ash slopes. The new Houses were strong and well made, cut out of lava blocks and obsidian, nestled within their green gardens: the older ones, higher up and furthur back, had fallen into ruin, scavenged for electronics, furniture, and tools. A snail's trail of discarded habitats tailed slantwise aftward to the highlands, webbed together with walkways and covered tubes. At the highest levels they were reduced to a trace of metal and stone scribbled over the vast shoulders of the mountains, almost invisible against cone and ridge: it seemed incredible that that thread and that tiny crumble of stone shells had once been the heart of humanity, the vibrant City. On the farthest, highest, slopes, blankets of dirty ice and fluffy CO2 rime descended, erasing the rubble and the Road at a few paces every year, leaving only the black marker pylons built every few miles. No top was visible.
The still sun shone diagonally down on the Road and the City as they crept into the abyss. Here and there people had flung up Heliomancer's wheels in worship and hope, but far more numerous were the black squares of the solar panels, the turning mills of wind farms, the flooded fields of rice and maize and sweet potato and the quarries and pits that cut new terraces out of the mountain side. An infinite sky of copper black arched above, and to either side the mountains cut down into the sea of mist which stretched eastward to the darkness, opposite the sun. The slopes the City clung to were uneven, broken, ugly, and raw, yet the line of the Road across them was cunning, graceful and direct, and to each side and far away around the curve of the great valley the black slopes showed the growth of quick life, snatches and smears and great clumps of green sandwiched between the falling cold above and the dwindling poison below.
In the centre of the City were seventy nodes made of something that was not metal and not stone. Like the man-fashioned stone houses that surrounded them, they were individually immobile, their slow transition downward being a function of the successive disappearance of the aftmost one and its regrowth in a new location; but they showed in a hundred ways that they were not mere fabrications, and that they had once been part of something united and were still of one mind. Structural members crept out of their own accord to join and brace them, tubes carrying thick matter pulsed slowly, and a black web of wires connected them together, growing and flexing. Round the tall towers that clustered together in the very middle a net of fine lights and whispered signals flashed: men who walked through it caught a little of that mechanical knowledge, leaking into their heads. So the City built by mens' hands surrounded and imitated the organic City of ages past, and men dwelt in both.
The Road crept ahead and sideways and down the great slope. It halted its proper course at a definite limit: the Last Pylon, a black pier of rock reared on the slopes just before the City. Below and beyond that marker it had branched into several tentative threads. Tiny temporary habitats dotted these, each one sporting a slightly different clan marking. Some of these exploratory tracks plunged nearly straight down into the abyss, while others slanted to a greater or lesser extent horizontally along the gradient. An observer in the heavens, hovering a little below the dead and frozen surface of the world and so just within the safety of the great forked Valley that now split its crust, would have seen other ancient branches leading off the Road far back in time, far aftward up the mountains: and if they were very keen sighted they might have noted that the badges of allegiance seen on the dead cabins on these dead branches were never seen again on any other track; nor were displayed anywhere in the City.
The thing was wedged between two dead lava flows. It was bigger than it seemed at first, and the flat arena before it was larger and more cluttered than he had assumed, and unpleasantly inhabited. As he approached he saw rapid sinuosities scurrying across and between rocks, flexing waves of legs. He scowled and loosed his gun.
As he grew closer the object became stranger. It was half-embedded in the ground, and its smooth surface told of ancient time: pitted, corroded, and buckled, its wounds were yet layered over a discolouration and an aging that was alien to any planet. It looked half alive but not in the static vegetable way of the central home Towers. Rather, its shape held the logic and attentive grace of a living thing, forced into metal. The lines and curves told a story, but not the story of a striding man, nor a scurrying insect, nor even of the soaring lammergeyers that sometimes preyed on lone wanderers like him, as if its environment had been different from any of these and it had been compelled to a different beauty. Sometimes, he knew, in legend, things fell from the sky.
He was intelligent and this perception absorbed him. It was only the click of rocks that alerted him and made him turn. The semicircle of centipedes approaching him included several individuals that were longer than he was tall. He killed one with a single shot, and the others fled.
Several of the gaps under the strange object were large enough to hide more predators. He stepped up onto its smooth flank and crabwalked to the top.
There was nothing there: no entry, no door, no controls, only more overlapping curves of metal, seamless and blank beneath the multicolored iridescent stains and the tiny pits that seemed to have been carved by explosions just below the surface, pits that somehow all pointed in one direction. He followed the flow towards the object's smooth trifid prow, seeing now more of the logic of its structure but finding no entry, and then crawled back in the other direction until the downcurving surfaces of metal arching over the abyss became too exposed for safety. He had a rope but there was no where on the object to hitch it. He walked back to the side he had mounted from: a cluster of centipedes were eating the dead one, their jaws working with a tiny chtorr-chtorr-chtorr and their bodies radiating out from it like a black flower. He jumped down, landing as hard as possible, and they fled. There were two suitable boulders near and he fastened a double loop round both, pulling hard to test it, stamping and swearing loud to keep the beasts away. He hitched the slider on his belt to the rope and scrabbled back up.
When he let himself down the far side again, rappelled on spread legs, he was just able to see what looked like an opening on the surface below him, a fathom across, puckered like a closed eye. He strained to see it better, manoeuvring sideways, and overbalanced, bumping out of control against the metal; and as he twisted to control his sideways slide towards the opening or eye his hands skated over the strange unblemished surfaces at its edge. The rope would not have broken under the weight of twenty men, and his knot was secure, but no climbers' wisdom could have anticipated that the strange object would tremble and shift, now, not as if his trivial weight had overbalanced it but as if it was awake and responding to some call, uprooting itself. He froze, gripping the rope in frantic tetany, but the rope was suddenly loose as the boulders pulled free in the shifting ground, and he fell; cried to his gods; and was caught and held by something vast and sure.
Far aftwards, far up, back along the Road, there were tiny unstirring glints, round like eggs, hard, glassy. Of all the things in the world of the Valley they alone held some kinship to the thing fallen on the slope.
Now they shifted and flashed: but no man in the City could have seen them. They passed a knowledge to each other, reached agreement, and settled down to wait again. And the things that surrounded them ignored their movements and did not perceive the data they exchanged. It was as if the dark curling webs and smoky candles of night that danced and flittered across the plains of frozen air, up there, belonged to a different universe.
He was crushed into the ground.
That, alone, he was sure of. His senses were confused. His memory was dim, holding little certain but a gap between the cluttered past and the sudden present. He had ... swallowed some thing, a glowing core of life and consciousness that animated him and made him real. Without it, he was a mere mechanism. With it, now, he Was. But that was his function, he remembered as he came fully alive: to surround such cores of being, guard and serve them, fly and fight with them.
The new central part of him was ignorant, but that was acceptable under the circumstances. Untutored or not, it would serve as the necessary fulcrum. More serious than its unskill was the loss of information and memory he had suffered. Awake or not, he did not know his past and he did not understand his present. He knew only that he should not be so low. Not so far down in a gravity well, blinded and stifled by dense impure fluids, pressed against rock, unable to manoever, unable to see.
He could try to rise. He could wake, stir, shake his limbs.
He moved and there was pain. He moved again, and the pain eased and flared in the complex ways that signalled damage, but not the maiming crippling damage that forbade action. He explored his body, shifting and changing stress and orientation, but he could not yet move freely.
Memory was returning, but he could not bear to wait for it. He was trapped. He was too low, too crushed.
But the pain was easing. Now he moved more freely. Soon, he would be able to rise.
A great noise washed over the City. It was not the noise of a volcanic eruption, nor a landslide, nor a thunderstorm, nor a great wind: but it held some element of all those things. The noise welled up from below, from the margin of the mist, where no man could see its source.
They ran to stare; gripped weapons; and were stunned when a line of light was drawn through the sky, reaching up from the ground below, clawing up toward the dead heavens.
The gas he was immersed in was dense and served as adequate reaction mass. He pulled free of the surface and rose, sucking the fluid in and expelling it at a fraction of a mile a second, slowly increasing power. He lifted rapidly, vertically, straining against the planet's strong gravity, and tried to extend the seeds of Wings. Instantly he was bruised as their field lines warped to nullity and the plasma cores dispersed. He was still below the geonorm, it seemed, in some sort of crack or valley in the planet's surface, and the subsurface magnetic currents apparently forbade magnetohydrodynamic propulsion.
He strained upward by brute force alone. As he lifted out of the valley the damping effect ceased. The planet surface showed some activity, transmissions that might have been directed at him, but in the fury of early flight he could not sense any thing clearly, nor could he pause at this stage. He rose further, to the level where he was able to extend fans of plasma and grip the planet's strong magnetic field. Now inertia, geomagnetism, gravity and the thinning gas offered him multiple contrasting holds to play against each other and he flew more easily. The world rededed beneath him. The tropopause fell behind him and his Wings spread into mile-long fans as he completely abandoned reaction drive and soared effortlessly and noiselessly upward, a tiny speck at the junction of two flowers of light. The plasma web he rode expanded in exact proportion as the atmosphere grew more rare. He flew higher and higher, clawing towards vacuum, and his senses came alive. He gathered photons and hearkened to the beat of radiation, he entered fully into the realm of nothingness and his Eyes opened.
For the first few seconds what he saw denied analysis. The planet had risen from had a dense atmosphere and the radiations of its sun included a high-energy ionising component. This was normal enough, and much of the activity he saw near him was normal. The layers of the ionosphere around him showed the typical array of self-organising systems trembling at the threshold of animation, most of them as simple as vortices and whirlpools and waves, but some spontaneously recomplicating and iterating and storing information that keyed back in to their ability to survive and to grow and to divide, and beginning to reach toward the ambiguous state called Life. Sprites and red leaders rocketed up from the stratosphere and back, and weak aurora flashed toward the poles, and further out, as the thin gas faded to vacuum, larger and more enduring entities rode the waves of the ionosphere and harvested the flow of electron and proton radiation from the system's sun, migrating back and forth round the poles.
Yet this was not all. It was not the harmless half-living natural entities native to the plasmas near gravity wells that predominated here. This world was infested by his enemies.
All round the planet, just outside the atmosphere, threads and crystals of darkness crept and darted. The metal core of the world radiated a strong magnetic field which had trapped concentric belts of radiation out to six planet radii, and in these belts the invaders writhed like maggots. Higher, the geopause itself was dotted with regularly spaced Nests, their aetheric flesh reaching tendrils out into the solar realm and dipping into the quiet cool plasma controlled by the planet, bleeding the enthalpy gradient to structure and life. And as he tuned his Eyes to the greatest resolution and looked into the realm ancient savants had called the Outer Circle he saw that even the Sun of this system was too cool to keep the pneumavores far away. The tides of plasma and magnetic force they fed on still erupted from its surface, but they swarmed close to it, tunneling through the interfaces of the of tubes of radiation that filled space out to the heliopause, feasting. Their substance was vastly attenuated in that realm, but they moved correspondingly fast. If he rose that far he would be Eaten instantly.
He stopped at the edge of the atmosphere, hovering on magnetic blades that were now the size of continents, and directed his sensors down onto the planet surface. Drifts of frozen gas covered everything, with black mountains rearing above them, but here, too, the Eaters paced and flitted, moving across the white plains like flames, dancing in odd patterns, compressed to a size that apparently allowed them to endure the cold still remnant atmosphere without disruption. Ancient structures miles long, frozen and still, fluttered with superfluid ghostly life as their memetic content was mined. He would have focused on these structures to learn more except that he was stunned to see pneumavores on the very surface of a planet. It was unprecedented to see them even in vacuum this close to an active sun: and though in theory they could endure thin neutral gas no memory he could summon recorded their presence on a planet surface. Yet they, who had been known only in interstellar space, were here, infesting even the rocks of this ruined system. He wondered if the Eaters had changed, had evolved: and how long he had slept.
Only one thing broke the wasteland — the great Valley he had risen from. Here heat and geomagnetism combined in a nexus that made it impregnable to the Eaters, too hot and dense for their whispy flesh to retain integrity. It would therefore be the only spot in the entire system that could support biological life.
He looked up again. Where was he? What was this system? Where were his comrades, and the great Ships of command?
He started to take sightings of the more distant stars, but there seemed to be few stars in the local region, all dull and red like the primary of the planet and none immediately recognisable.
He looked beyond for the brighter beacons, but they too were absent. The stars looked not merely dim, but wrong. Where was the background radiation of the galaxy? Where was the galactic core?
The system primary itself was following no possible rational stellar evolution. It was a medium sized hydrogen burning star that should have been evolving towards helium flash, yet the photosphere was uneven, with vast speckles of light and dark marring it, spots occupying up to a tenth of the visual disk, as if fusion in the core had ceased and the normal convection in the upper layers had become disordered. He tuned his sensors to their maximum and studied the star core, stripping it down through successive shells of neutrino emmission...
But he had been fatally distracted. His instincts flared alarm as something darted down on him from the Night, stooping like a hawk. He fell faster than it, leaving blinding light that slew by energy alone, rendering the stingray thing into a sifting of inert dust, but he knew the only thing that was saving him was the inescapable drag on the pneumavores manoeuvring in even thin gas. The Eaters had seen him, and come to hunt.
A thousand jets of night lanced toward him from the high sky. He fell swiftly, returning to Earth.
The lower atmosphere stripped his Wings and he tumbled, righting himself by sheer power. Now sudden exhaustion clutched him. He had gathered some energy from the sick sun, but his reserves were depleted and he was desperate, and he was in terrible dread of the pursuit. He fell as fast as he dared, trusting to the lower air to cushion his fall when he reached it, the low calm airs which he had once spurned, and the only thing that saved him from an out of control crash was the fact that he had directed his retreat to the Valley. He regained control within it a little below the geonorm, scanning desperately for a landing spot but safe at last from the threads of darkness that speared down behind him from the heights. There was nowhere obviously flat or safe, the Valley sides were steep, the tiny clutter of the City was too delicate to go near, but there were signals, the same signals he had ignored on his Promethean rise, and they gave him just a little advice. There. There. He was able to sense the same tiny flat area he had risen from, and he had no time to look further, no time, no strength, he was half blind, and in disastrous haste he fell back not far from the barren clutter of rocks he had quit not an hour before, crashing and splintering the ground, raising a second thunder and a cloud of ruin and rock fragments.
Pain and darkness swept over him: yet he still had time for his last duty; to disengage, release his rider back to the life he had plucked it from. The pneumosomatic links split, and the core fields protecting the delicate biological entity that had been the source of his borrowed soul tuned down, gently depositing its flesh onto the soft metal of his centre. Surrendering life to duty, he died. Consciousness left him, but for a dim sylvae-thread of daemon mentation. He remembered Being, he remembered Life, but he had given the thing itself back to its owner.
Darkness, and the taste of blood.
He tried to rise. In an instant the nightmare memory swept over him, and in a crazy second he tried to repeat the actions of the last hour by analogue, moving his legs as he had once shifted the conductive veins of a metal flying body, gasping for air as he had once pumped electricity through storage cells.
He could still see, somehow, though his eyes were closed. The rocks of the mountain side surrounded him in ghostly images.
Pain dragged him back to his authentic flesh. Weaker than metal, he dared not move, but he could open his eyes. As he did, that other vision faded and he saw where he really was. He was inside a hollow duodecahedral sphere, and from eleven of the twelve faces, what seemed a thousand thin whips twined and penetrated his body, holding him in mid-air. They were a little like the strange threads that linked the High Towers and like nothing else he had ever known. They pierced his skin without blood or pain and when he moved they slipped free without leaving marks; and when the last left him, pulling from his temples as thin as a hair, so did the last ghost of that other-vision of the landscape outside. Now only his true fleshly eyes reported to him in the dim light that shone in here. The twelfth side was open, and through it came the only thing he could understand in this new environment — the scent and world-noise of the lower slopes of the Valley.
He was naked, but as the threads slid back into the walls his gear and clothing appeared, crumpled but undamaged, as a seamless part of one face everted.
He fell onto the bottom of the duodecahedron, rose, staggered, fell again. After a very long time he was able to dress, take his gun, and crawl out of the short tunnel.
He climbed slowly, painfully, back toward the City. Every so often he stopped as exhaustion took him, and as he sat or lay panting he remembered how in another life he had leapt up from these rocks like an armoured god. But he did not look up, remembering what filled the sky.
The beasts of the lower slopes, drawn by the flavour of his sick and stumbling footfalls, approached, and when he killed them more came. There was no end to them. When he shouted and stamped they fled, but then they crept back behind him, flowing over the curved rocks towards him with hundred-clawed surety. It became a race between the exhaustion of his ammunition and his physical endurance. He climbed as fast as he could, killing only the closest.
At last he approached the lowest Houses. Here he saw what he had seen an hundred times before: the scattered huts of the very poor, piles of filth, hollow-cheeked children running, and the eyes of the Low City, ever ready to find some prey. He was safe enough here with his gun, for none of these were permitted to bear arms or could legally speak to him without first being addressed by him. He walked forward, climbing toward the low poor dwellings, and found a road that would lead him towards his home, avoiding the places where the shacks clustered.
The people came out to stare and some started toward him, posturing through the familiar ritual of supplication. He had despised scum like this, and thought of them as less than nothing, yet when he faced the first vagabond beggar it was as if his new vision returned and he flew again far above the Earth, looking at one of the dark things that twisted in the sky. An entity confronted him. It was a moving thinking thing. The spirit that dwelt in it was human, but seeing it unblinded by ordinary senses he felt the same ruthless mechanical horror, the same vastness, the same ancient practiced cunning, that he had seen with borrowed eyes in the vacuum above. He faced the survivor of countless trials and failures, and the descendant of a million generations of such survivors, endlessly refined, packed full with the instructions of war and death behind a smooth mask. It would kill and consume him on every level of being if it could, and the fact that he was just such a beast himself and kin to it meant nothing.
The beggar whined and came forward with its hand extended. He was unable to prevent himself cringing back in fear, and his sight edged in black as the new vision intensified. He tried to govern himself, but the thing facing him learned, varied its strategy, and crept closer to him, exuding some sort of vibration. He grabbed for his weapon and poised it, and the thing halted, silent, then signalled to others like itself.
He tried to regain his normal blindness. It was a beggar, just a poor filthy beggar.
But he could see all of it, every thing inside it, and in truth, it was terrible.
His hands trembled, holding the gun. He forced himself to walk forward, silent, ignoring the thing. Beyond it were others, and yet others. He was scarcely able to force himself through the City to his home, and his terrified demeanour eventually drew whole packs of human predators after him, laughing at his threats to shoot, patently stalking him, blind and armoured and self-assured. He saw them clearly now: therefore they also saw him clearly. It took him half a day to creep to his house, hiding and stumbling away from the gangs.
He hammered on the panels of the door. It opened and he fell inside. Sharp noises assaulted his ears, and something grapped him and pressed itself against his face.