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

Delight (Part 1)

by

The land through which she was fleeing was red, and far, far, different from the gardens she had known in Uthwer. The plants she had called weeds were swollen to giants, and ruled here. Their form and manner of life was strange to her. The earth itself was humped with overlapping layers of fungal growth, ascomycetes feeding on the bacterial haulm in the stinking soil which in turn consumed the sulphur and nitrate deposited by the last volcano: the sporing bodies rose three fathoms or more above the ground, exploding with a soft pssshhht and a choking cloud, while the black blades of grass and bamboos intertwined with the fleshy rhizomes and nets of white hyphal threads, rooting into the actual tissue and predominating in some places.

She hungered, among the strange vegetation. Her right hand held the fusil, butt down, for a crutch. Her left pulled seeds from grass heads or scooped spores from where they had accumulated on the shelves of woody rotting tissue, and she chewed carefully, favouring the side of her mouth where the molars were intact, sorting through each mouthful with her tongue and spitting out the most poisonous and bitter morsels. She was slowly getting better at nourishing herself and felt herself to be a little less likely to fall now. Between the stiff ridges of fungus were wide stretches of black sand where walking was possible even with her wounds. Though there was still almost no strength in the sinews down the inside of her legs, her knees would keep straight, and if she did stumble she could usually rise again in one or two attempts.

She could eat and move, but she had problems finding safe places to sleep in the wild. Arthropods and large insects were numerous. Beetles the size of her hand plodded everywhere, and eusocial ant swarms divided the ground into territories which they defended with stinging sprays and chewed-off poison thorns. She was too weak to climb, so she would find some hollow or shelter and worm into it as deeply as possible, relying on her instinct or her half-awake hiering to save her from the predators. She would have followed the unthinkably ancient human pattern and made fire as protection, but there was nothing that she could have burnt without days of drying, just as there was little she could have climbed even if she had the strength, only the iron-hard pillars of the bamboo or the flopping rotting fungus. So sleeping was hard, and she dozed for snatches as she walked.

Awake or asleep, her inner hearing continually bought her messages. Some were far away echoes, mere chatterings of pain and fear that she was too weak to assign a range or direction to with any certainty. The snaps and attentions of nearby hunting beasts were more frequent and more intense, and she changed course to avoid these from time to time.

The band of Lovers pursuing her was a continuous distant presence, overriding and drowning out the minor signals. She knew they could heir fear or attention from far beyond visual range and she strove to keep her mind as empty as possible so as not to be noticed by them. There was no reason why they should detect her now. She was hidden by the fuzz of local life-signs, and left no track, and they were far behind her.

Every time she woke she remembered the last days in Uthwer and tried to reckon back the time since her escape. She knew what had happened then, in a literal, factual, manner, but whenever she actually replayed the events of her escape in her mind she became badly confused and sometimes she fell. And sometimes her memory slid further back, to the days before the Lovers came. She remembered her room, and her sister's face (but do not think, do not grieve, beasts do not grieve and you are an obedient beast) and, with sharp longing, the comforts of her very ordinary bed. When she pulled back from these older memories her perception would give a bewildered lurch, a product of the differences in mental processing between the imposed constructions of the past and the unRidden present, and she would have to stop and stand still for a minute or two before settling into motion again.


She might have escaped if the land had stayed the same, but a further change came over it as she stumbled on. The fungus and bamboo were more and more replaced by red landcoral; great fleshy wrinkled bulbs of stone, rooted deep and threaded with capillary passages that fed the budding plantanimal microbes with nutrients and construction minerals. The coral was telepathically null, producing almost no life signals to hide her presence, and, worse, it was unclimbable. Walls of it confronted her and she had to extrapolate from what little she could see of its mode of growth and propagation to find a path through. When she hit deadends she had to turn and backtrack and turn again to find a path, and could not escape retracing miles of walking. The fifth or sixth time she lost her way she discovered she was trapped. She trudged wearily back through a labyrinth of red rock and realised her pursuers were now ahead of her. Their mind-noise was thrumming across the hollows of stone in the still air, insistent and sweet. They were still far away but coming closer and focusing on her, and their intention was changing from movement and hunt to capture.

Her manner of thought began to shift and change. Protective ignorance bloomed in her mind like drowsy flowers.

Why was she here, after all, so far from home? Never mind.

Who was pursuing her? Something bad. But don't think about them, or you will realize there is no reason to run and you should be with your Lovers.

The fusil she was carrying had four charges left. It was a killing weapon. She was carrying it for a purpose. A reason. Don't think. She worked its action, limped slightly faster.

There was a clutter of great rocks ahead. Rocks were good to sleep between if there was nothing hidden there. She scanned them, saw a nook, a cave, reaching deep between two stones, stones that now she looked again bore the marks of hands and the signs of ancient shaping. And close by were dead trees, orchard groves riddled with white rot, shriveled black branches of pyrus and medlar. But there was no time to study them or think: she reached the cave, limping as fast as she could but not daring to run in case her legs gave way again, and they were upon her, breaking through the rotten powdery plants and loping up the slope. Seven great-boned shaggy men, naked, twice her height, with copper rings constraining their temples and warping their skulls, idiotic and drooling; and, riding each one, a hideous red-furred dwarf. Hideous. Hideous/beautiful. Lovers. Her mind flip-flopped, yearning for approval through obedience, but she was already into the mouth of the cave or building and stubbornly not-thinking.

One of the dwarves called to her,"Here are your Lovers! Here are your Lovers!"—the words they always said. He leapt off his mount and scuttled forward, stopping when she raised the fusil. She retreated further. As she had not-expected the others had mounted the rocks behind her while the first engaged her attention, but she was too quick and they were not able to leap on her neck. She felt the frustrated patterns of their actions around her as she wormed deep into the cave.

There was a little space of quiet. Her mind moved as slowly as beetle drowning in honey. Outside was half-heard chatter in a tongue no man could understand, and wonderful red faces darting, but it was safe and cosy inside. And it was too curious here to leave soon, despite the wonderful things that waited for her outside. This was indeed no cave, she saw, but some ancient dwelling. Wrecked ironstone plates overgrown with roots surrounded her, but the ruin did not hide the fact that it had been a home, a fort, and at last a tomb. The people who had dwelt here were gone. Their grandsons stalked the sand outside, with sores on their necks and shit caked down their legs, carrying their masters; their granddaughters were gone to dance with Dibidi's people.

One of them remained. Her reaching hand behind her found a slab and traced clogged, ancient, letters.

Traveller, short is my say.
Stop and read these runes.
This sombre slab covers a beautiful woman...

One of the dwarves had entered the cave. She hiered his mind, a sharp acquisitiveness, proprietorial, almost casual, like a hand fingering her. She smelt him. She saw him dimly. But she was really thinking about something else.

...my light and my only love.
What I wished, she wished also.
What I shunned, she shunned also.
Good she was, and chaste, loyal...

Like a mouth toothed with honey-stings, the dwarf's mind focused.

"Lovers! Lovers, lovers, lovers..."

It rushed towards her. But her fingers and her mind were still elsewhere.

She walked nobly and spoke kindly.
Traveller, I have finished.
Go.

Go?

The fusil's retort filled the room and deafened her. Built to crude tolerances, its discharge spread wide. The sweet-sharp mind winked out. She felt reality adjust again as the subjective dreamspace the Lover had projected to overwhelm her perception and memory receded. She could still act if she choked off her own thoughts.

She shifted in a new charge. Three, now. And still everything was simple, very simple, and could be kept simple.


The struggle was never physical. It was the struggle to keep lying to herself, to keep acting in ways that were not really controlled by her primary mind but by under-mind processes that were not subject to the influences of the Lovers. It was surprisingly easy once you learned the trick. Lying to yourself was an ancient human skill. Unless she had been very very good at it she would never have walked away from her Lovers.

Her Lovers. They were surrounding the old house but they would not enter now. And why was that? Somewhere at the back of her mind she knew but she did not let herself know. In a little while she would attend to it, but not yet.

They would wait her out, she understood, not letting herself realize she understood. In a day or ten days she would stagger out and then they would take her.

She thought of reversing the fusil and taking it in her mouth. But why should she do that, with her Lovers near? So she thought of other things. She tried to shut down the slow changes in her perception that the near presence of the Lovers was causing, but the price was that many of the ordinary processes of her mind and body were disarrayed. She could not allow herself to become curious or speculate. She could not even allow herself to become bored. If each second was exactly like the one that preceded it, defeat could be avoided, for one more second. She fought for each second. Time passed without measure or dimension.


There was a noise, like nothing she had ever heard.

She shifted uneasily, cramped by her hiding place, and tried to dismiss the noise as an illusion. But it came again. It was a ticking and whirring, mechanical rather than animal, very quiet, and, she realised, not heard with the ears of her body but overflowing from the minds of the abhumans surrounding her. She shuddered and her heart jumped, and then the influence upon her mind was breaking, shattering, layer after layer of illusion and telepathic hypnotism draining away until her own real thoughts came to the surface, choking and slow. She could not tell what had happened but she could sense her Lovers her Lovers/enemies her enemies were in great fear, in panic, fleeing. She staggered out of the cave, half-intending to help them despite herself, but they were not there to mount her. Before her was the wide open space she had crossed, and there were the dwarves on their mounts loping away, and coming up the slope was a machine, like a landturtle, like a spider, like a great beetle, making the noise that she could now hear with her own ears. The machine strode up the slope towards her. She watched it approaching, standing there with her arms hanging, too weary to raise the fusil or run. The dwarves leapt off the necks of their mounts and scuttled away to one side. The great shaggy men stood each a quarter second and then rushed towards the machine with their faces contorted with programmed maniac rage, but it stepped round them faster than they could react and spider-ran after the red abhumans.

There was a high animal screech, and another. The machine vanished behind a screen of landcoral.

Had it been real?

She looked around, remembering to look up. They leapt on you from above. But nothing, nothing. She sat down, her legs bending faster than she had intended. She awoke a little later to a thin blue light shining in her eyes and metal claws holding her as gently as a baby. The undefeated thing planning and fighting in her lower mind made her raise the fusil then and pull the trigger. Metal fragments spalled off the shell of the machine before her, but it did not startle or react in any way.


When she awoke again, still later, she was travelling. The machine sang to her in a gentle irregular stream of notes that sounded like the murmurs and babblings of a baby to its mother. She was comfortable. She was curled in a cradle made by two of its minor limbs and warmed by a cloak of air it exhaled.

Unknown shapes of rocks and plants fled by. How strange was life.

She tried to twist around to see the ruined house she had sheltered in, and caught a last glimpse of it, far behind and far away. An upthrusting of orange rock occluded it, but before it vanished she sent a last prayer to it and the one resting in it, giving thanks for help and deliverance.


Again she had slept, and again she was awake. Her limbs were cramped and she stretched. She was very hungry. The machine fed her an oily tasting thick liquid and spoke or sang to her again while she drank. She tried to hier it but it was not that sort of machine. She tried to speak to it with her mouth, for some of the sounds it made made a sort of sense, but each word she uttered only led to it giving more unmeaning responses or imitations like expanding varying echoes of her own phrases and she finally gave up. When she was silent it wrapped her in a mat of thick fibres it extruded and set her down on the wet ironstone. The mat was comfortable, almost weightless but yielding solidly. She found herself shrinking from contact with the ground, and curled deeper into its tangle.

She dreampt that a man came and spoke to her. She could see he was a True man. He was arrogant and hesitant and, she thought, had been required to speak to her by another, by some senior person. But his speech was as meaningless as the machine's. She waited patiently for a long time but he did not become intelligible to her and at last he faded sadly away.

When she opened her eyes again the tangle of fibres she had burrowed into was crumbling to nothing. The machine stood near her with its forelimbs almost straddling her. She looked at it, studying it properly for the first time. It was cleverly made and, though so inhuman, elegant and beautiful and somehow delicate. It had eight major limbs tucked well in under its curved shell. Three minor heads or arms bobbed under its forebody, each one bearded with sensor/manipulator clusters. She could see scars and chips upon it, none of them of her making, the smoothing and rounding of aeons of wear that lent it the similitude of a living thing. The metal of it looked hard and ancient beyond reckoning but she was not moved to wonder by its age. She was familiar with ancient machineries, indeed she had never seen a machine that was not ancient.

One of the heads dipped towards her. It spoke to her again and again she tried to address it back. The stream and tumble of phonemes seemed more familiar, maddeningly like human speech, but she still could not make sense of it.

After a little time it picked her up again and started to move. She felt well and alert. For the first time in days her attention expanded beyond her own body and its pains. She looked around. The machine was moving a little faster than a man would walk, stepping carefully over the black sand with its claws splayed wide. It came to the edge of the clearing she had slept in and stepped upward off the ground and started to pick its way delicately across the ribbed and fluted surfaces of the giant landcorals, the tips of its legs gripping the red wavy ridges. In three breaths she was ten fathoms in the air, swaying, clutching the arms that held her and the ridges of the machine's shell. She could see great distances from here, back westward under the stationary sun and ahead where all the shadows pointed forever, but there was nothing she could recognize: no landmark, no city. Still she stared. There were great towers ahead of her that looked as if they had grown and not been built, swelling out of the landcoral. At their tips they effloresced into rays of rigid stone that trailed beards of creeping moving tissue, half-flesh, half vegetable. The machine was picking its way forward and round the towers, crossing a great hump, striding from ridge to ridge nimbly. It pulled itself up and over the edge of a flat level, scattering clusters of beetles as long as her hand from the nest hollows they had dug or eaten between the ridges, and then moved on. The towers passed slowly by, revealing other shapes and spaces behind them, and it seemed to her that she need never descend, that she could remain safe here forever. The charm of riding, of being safe and protected yet moving bravely abroad, ravished and delighted her for the first time ever.

She sat up straight, noting without remark how much better she felt now, and looked around, looking beyond her immediate surroundings for the first time, trying to place herself on some internal map. But she had no map. Behind her was the Sun. Ahead and all round her were the pillowy swellings of landcoral and black bamboo stalks thirty fathoms tall. In the south a volcano spewed a slow stream of smoke lit from within by glints of fire. In the far, far, distance, beyond the horizon, grey misty walls of rock stained dark by shadow curved away, and a bar of darkness cut across the high air to the north-east, but all of it was far ahead, the way she had never been, the way the strange machine was taking her, eastward, away from the Sun.


That sleeptime they halted on top of a tall upthrusting of rock. The machine rocked and ticked her to sleep and she dreampt again. This time she stood in front of a trio of men, seated men, aged men, men of rank, who regarded her kindly. They asked her to sit, but she was shy and remained standing, waiting for them to finish and release her. They questioned her, not seeming to understand or talk very clearly for all their wisdom, but more clear to her than the single young man had been. They were rich and fat and strong, but there was a shadow in their words, and after a while she had to leave. The walls of the room unfolded and she saw they were actually the limbs and flanks of the machine, which was striding across the stone platform away from her as she awoke. Something heavy and clanking slid down the side of the rock and gathered itself up and fled away, and the machine came back to her and offered her its steel breast.

They went onwards. Each view was unlike any other but they were all the same: red coral surfaces like swelling brain tissue, grey stretches of frostmoss, upjutting black spikes of bamboo, rare cups of poisonous blue in the hollows (don't go near), fireholes spewing steam or smoke, and the scuttle of insects of many sizes, most tiny, some as large as her hand, and a few comparable in size to the machine that carried her. But the giants were slow, herbivorous and passive, shifting each great limb carefully and painfully, unlike the iron beast that flitted so fast. The machine needed all its legs to grip the rocks and now it carried her above and behind its heads in a fluted hollow that seemed shaped for a passenger but was still all metal and was uncomfortable enough to make her shift and turn from time to time. She wanted to retire completely, to become one with the metal and be safe and strong like it, but she was not able to, and she wondered if the discomfort was deliberate. Perhaps the machine wanted her safe and comfortable but not so comfortable that she would be reluctant to say goodbye to it?

Where was it taking her?

She rolled over on her back and looked up into the sky. Above her was the copper arch of the heaven, with nothing in its depth but the few dim stars. But hanging under the stars was a thing, a crooked streak of colour, a long warped bent shape seen from beneath, a pod or body suspended from two wings. It was a flying bird, perhaps, perhaps one of the azhdarcho? No, it was far away, very high up (the start of panic left her) and must be even bigger than the dragons. She could see its two translucent membranous wings flexing ever so slightly as it glided through the air, and the long thin rigid fuselage at the junction between them. Was it dangerous? It was drifting slowly, far above, gliding in the still air scarcely faster than the machine was walking. It was doing nothing. The membranes that supported it flexed very slowly. She watched it as it turned and circled, and finally it drifted away.

How long had it been flying above them?

They came to another of the stepped mesas the machine favoured as stopping places and it set her down. She looked up again. The machine approached her, and spoke, and this time she understood.

"Sssleeppp."

She tried to reply, though her mouth was dry and rusty. "No. I do not need more sleep yet." She was soaked and dizzy with sleep. She broke away but there was nowhere to run. The machine came up behind her. It pawed her arm very gently and then wrapped it in a steel claw as tender as a breath. It had started to extrude the thick puffy threads she loved to rest in again, coiling them into a round nest before her.

"Heeeerrre. Sleep."

She lay down obediently, angrily, and gazed into the sky, In the center of its dome hung the flying thing, returned, with the dim red light shining through its wings. Her eyelids drooped.


To Delight (Part 2)

© 2008 by Andy Robertson.
Image © 2015 by Kate Coady.