A bizarre creature that looks like a bald, beaked head devolving into many slender tentacles.

Little Watcher (Part 1)


To The Astronomer — the first story in this sequence

To Minotaur — the previous story in this sequence

The Redoubt is riddled. It is infested with questions, and, worse, it is yielding answers. Image casts from the Watchers and lesser beings of the Night Land have transgressed the Electric Circle and are imprinting themselves in the walls, while down in the libraries the aperiodic tiles are showing strange symmetries.

In the ceiling above Pallin’s bed, he observes the scrolling of the day’s reports as he drifts into wakefulness. In City Two Hundred and Ninety-Three, named Scent, a rose on one of its famous vines bloomed not in its usual blue, but a deep red. A Scholar confirmed that this was an archaic style while an examining Eugenicist ruled out simple atavism. In a hall of City Three Hundred and Nine, named Storr, folds suggestive of an eye were seen to emerge in the metal wall. It opened. In City Eight Hundred and Eighty-One, named K, a mouth opened in a wall and spoke the word, “Odradek.”

All of these manifestations were promptly destroyed of course, but there will be more.

This is how it happens, he thinks to himself. He can read these signs: that task is the very raison d’etre of his order. He knows where they have come from by their style and their tone, he knows that today he will direct an inquiry into their source. The notation of a horror that has been present for generations has become a ritual of reassurance to him. Everyone thinks more or less the same, he is sure, and it is perhaps even a justification.

He swings his stiff legs out of his bed and rises to dress himself. Though by scar and rank he could call a servant to aid him, he was a Watchman once, and refuses to do so. He polishes the silver gorget of the Watch, paying particular attention to the sigil, a woman’s face of peculiar symmetry and calm, wreathed in serpents so coiled that it seems to be nestled in the petals of a rose. He puts it on over his Monstruwacan purple.

Elsewhere, nearby, his charge Kore also wakes. She does not read. Her chaperone knocks at her chamber door.

As Pallin eats his breakfast of winter fruits and cereals, he maps out the day’s programme in his mind. The reports will be directed to a Scholastic librarian whom he has been cultivating, and in the meantime he and Kore will see what obliquely informative act of treason they can commit.

He sips his aromatic tea. Winter fruits, he thinks to himself. He marvels at the genius of the gardeners of the Underground Country; they have not been allowed the energy expenditure of a true summer for millennia now, but they are proud to coax strains of vegetables that are still near-perfect approximations of the produce of summertime out of the cool soil. In the case of the vintners, they have turned the frosts to advantage in producing wines of honeyed sweetness and refreshing lightness. He decides he will indulge himself with one tonight if the day’s observations are satisfactory.

He rises from his table and checks himself before a mirror. He has his vanities and admits to them as such, and in so doing he knows how to use them best. It is his duty to impress, because Kore must have confidence in him in order to perform her tasks well, and the pleasure that he feels in reciprocation sustains his further efforts. When Kore is presented to him that morning, she will see a tall man, the famous survivor of the last expeditions Outside. She will see that he was handsome once but is now aging and wounded by his experiences, which only serves to give him an aura of hard-won wisdom. He has a limp, a consequence of failing synchronization in a prosthesis. He thinks of having the leg recalibrated, but once again puts it off. Rather than dragging the weak leg, he hooks a thumb in his belt and swings with his steps so that instead he has an almost casual swagger. He knows she will think that she sees through his manner and will feel at once respectful and at ease with him. Simply, it pleases him that he pleases her.

There is a knock at his door and he leaves, almost smiling.

Kore has appeared at the antechambers of the Tower of Observation. There she relates her dreams to the monitor Monstruwacan, who listens to the counterpoint of her mind’s melody as she does so. He then signs the daily certificate of presentment to assure Master Pallin that nothing has infected her sleep to put them all at risk as she looks upon the Land. Her chaperone Hecane, herself a senior Lady of the guild, countersigns with him.

The Tower of Observation is nearly ruined and empty now. Rising more than eight miles above the Night Land, it is the most exposed extremity of the senescent arcology, but crucial instruments still operate, and some must by necessity be used here rather than in the body of the arcology itself, no matter what corruptions are already creeping there. All risk is relative, after all.

Pallin is almost the last to arrive at his post, which is at one of the highest levels still operating. The Tower’s rooms are scrupulously sterilised, but many are indelibly tainted. In some instances even the geometry of spacetime has undergone alterations and rooms are haunted by souls that have never returned to the common flux of humanity. Some of these rooms are miniature Night Lands in their own right, subject themselves to investigation. Heroic expeditions are sent on treks of a few dozen steps to retrieve grains of incomprehensible data and whatever scraps of glory can be found in all their warped, frozen confusion.

Despite the desolation of the Tower, despite the dangers of looking out at a Land that looks too keenly back, Pallin has never seriously questioned the need for observation. In his early years as a Watchman, he learned very well that one must always observe, always learn, and be on guard most of all against the fatalism that would suggest that such an endeavour is pointless.

Instead, he is proud to see his team of assistants and apprentices, the Watchmen with their shining diskoi, the doctor and the others, all standing in their ranks as he enters. Formal gestures and salutes are made in the manner appropriate to each guild and subsection, all is confirmed in readiness for his inspection, and this done, he is satisfied. He, Master Monstruwacan Pallin ex Asphodelos, is the last, aging hero of the Redoubt. He is their leader, their guide, their talisman.

He opens the wallet that he has carried with him and unfolds the day’s plan from within. He reads aloud, informing his staff of his requirements, their object of inquiry, the instruments to be activated, the spectral windows to be opened, the radiations to be registered. He does not tell them of the reasons for his selection, and never will. While no one would think to betray him, everyone who looks into the Land lets slip a little of themselves in doing so. The less that is known to the seers, the less there is to be lost.

The briefing done, he does not take his seat, but waits, facing the door. On time to the second, as he has made clear must always be the case, the door opens and Kore is presented by her chaperone. Hecane presents Kore’s certificate, receives in turn Pallin’s formal assurance that she may leave the girl in his charge, and departs for the safety of the lower levels once more.

Kore, who watches the Land most closely, is told the least of all. Before him, she makes a small, slightly odd figure, with the disconcerting red irises of her gene line. She smiles, hoping that he is reassured, but she seems slightly haggard and he detects something just a little out of true in her consciousness. Pallin’s spyglass room awes her too much and she tries too hard at times. Surely, though, she is well; her dreams have been certified.

As usual, Pallin feels a twinge of paternal concern despite the formal gestures. Her courage is heartbreaking. These seers, these living spyglasses, are by necessity taken from their parents at a young age and kept carefully isolated from the society of the Redoubt where they are laden with little knowledge, much skill, and great risk. Her parents still live, but they see less of them than he himself does, and in effect he and the Lady Hecane both supersede her parents and are guiltily beholden to both them and to her. He holds his palm out to her, quashing his doubts before she can read them, and leads her to her cradle before the central lens. The refraction and filtering of light within its substance and all the prisms that connect it to the outer optics give it an odd glitter, a gleam that is as deep and intoxicating as wine and suggests voyages into realms of treasure and danger more profound than the long-gone seas.

Kore closes her eyes for a few moments and begins her breathing exercises. Silence is maintained as the machines are powered up and her own pulse slows. The Watchmen drop the beavers of their helms, their fingers flexing about the grips of their diskoi, though the real weapons deployed here are more subtle and effective.

Pallin takes his own position in a tandem seat immediately behind her and signals to the orienteers to turn the room in its orbit about the Tower to point directly at its target, the Watcher of the South. It is the largest, nearest and most powerful of the Watchers, and it is the most fascinating.

Slowly, in sequence, the room revolves, filters are raised and Kore recites the stilling chant quietly to herself so that the face she presents to the immense, powerful force of the Watcher’s gaze will be perfectly smooth, featureless and transparent. So skilled is she, the ideal will almost be the truth.

The controllers peer at their screens, deliberately shielded from the central lens. Only Kore could bear its sight and even the great Master himself does not look directly, but watches with his inner sight her state of mind. He will direct her like an extension of himself, and she will feed her focussed perceptions to him, a sentient lens for his own interpretive mind. Should she crack, he will throw the shutters down, calm her and hope to save her. This is a particularly risky assignment, he knows, but the latest image casts, by their orientation and manner, show the signature of this Watcher in particular. Permitting himself a trivialising emotional analogy, he would say that it had something like wit with its conflation of eyes, lips and roses and he is intensely curious as to why this should be so.

The observations begin obliquely and they scan the geoglyphs patterning the landscape around the Watcher first, noting their spread and how they intensify and wind together around the body of the beast. It is hard to tell, as the light bends in odd ways in the Watcher’s vicinity, but glassy black lines and knots that might be merely shadow — but possibly something more — have been observed growing in the deeper channels and have lately appeared to coalesce into something resembling a coherent pattern. The thing might almost be consciously writing something on the Land, or else compelling some sort of crystallisation. It is in the nature of the Watchers for their very presence to alter whatever lies around — and whoever might look too closely upon them — into new patterns of inhuman order. Pallin tends towards the hypothesis that they are effectively discrete universes in their own right, with localised physical laws that by their concentration overpower any others.

It is astonishing that the Redoubt has been able to withstand the Watchers’ direct sight for so many millions of years. The sheer ordered mass of humanity contained and concentrated within must have been, with its own rigidly disciplined sense of ontology, an even stronger defence than the Electric Circle, the Air Clog, the armour plate and the active ordnance of the pyramid. Now, with the Earth Current at last fading and the population in gradual but real decline, that power is weakening and the Watchers are creeping nearer and exerting their influence all the more sharply. This one in particular is starting to see within, its sight leaving traces such as those that were reported to him this morning.

The scan nears the flank of the beast, skirting the faintly phosphorescent shards of the Broken Dome that lie in its wake. It has no edge as such, no recognisable limbs. Barely beneath the upper darkness, it seems to rise out of the Night Land like a hill more than sit upon it, and move through it like a slow wave rather than crawl. The labyrinthine geoglyphs trail in its millennial wake like complex turbulence. What semblance of a face it has derives largely from its eyes, and they may well be simply a reflection of its own perceptions of the humanity that so fascinates it rather than any genuinely inherent visage.

Yes, Pallin thinks, there is a strange dialogue between us, isn’t there? You see us, and unravel us, remake us, and yet we may do the same to you. Do you see us as one great, hot hive-beast? Are you drawn to us like a moth to a light that will destroy you, or are you feeding already? Unfortunately all observations tend to support the latter explanation. But they do not strictly contradict the first. He hopes that before he dies he will eventually be certain of one thing more than its increasing nearness and the vulnerability of his own seat.

The day draws on and Kore is ready now to observe the face of the thing itself. She will look into its eyes for only seconds, a time set to be automatically curtailed no matter what she may or may not see. The Watchmen activate the higher levels of the automatic defences and Pallin sets the timer for the spyglass’s shutters.

Kore stares at the lens, darkness shines upon her face and her body stiffens. Physical readouts register shifts in her skin conductivity, fluctuations in her core temperature, a change in mode in her brainwave patterns and emergent disorder in her heart rate. A pacemaker overrides the extremes of the latter. Words of commentary flow almost like glossolalia from her mouth, broken by gasps and yet with a strange, almost affectionate sing-song tone. Pallin frowns. “I see, of course I see,” she croons, “I see its eyes, the shards of the dome, yet woven, unwinding, raddling, infesting... No, hands fluttering, weave too within it? No, not within it, before it... oh, I do not see, no I do not see, it stands before, its hands spread like delicate white flowers, that brow, those orbits, those eyes, my eyes, Little Watcher, why do you bar me from its sight? Why, when you are not even here? Oh, no, I will not, won’t I? I have not, I was not. Why do you stand sideways? Why do you not stand here? I have not counted sideways…”

Plainly something is awry and he shuts down the observation before the timer reaches the end of its brief cycle. The Watchmen tense and the doctors run to Kore, but she waves them away. He looks into her mind and finds her cultivated stillness shattered and deep, deep exhaustion, but nothing else that seems to be seriously wrong. This in itself is enough to raise his suspicions, as to even read the geoglyphs emanating from a Watcher can be harrowing in ways that are not always immediately apparent. If his conscious mind did not tell him so, his instincts would warn that something is seriously amiss. He orders an immediate and total end to the day’s observation. Better a fiasco than a tragedy.

“What happened?” he asks her, when the two of them are in a private chamber back in the putative safety of the Redoubt.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I didn’t see the Watcher, I know that. I saw something else.”

“You said, ‘Little Watcher’. An emanation of the Watcher? An extension, like yourself looking out from the body of the Redoubt?”

“I don’t know.”

The poor girl is almost in tears, not for fear of what she has seen, but because she feels that she has let him down. This is his fault: he has been too good an example. She should see him fail a few more times — it will lessen the shock of her own coming adulthood.

He does the best he can to reassure her, probably compounding his error, and dispatches her to the care of Hecane. Alone, he steeples his fingers and does not touch his wine. He senses that some new phase has begun. Spreading a hand across the surface of his table, he calls up an update on the day’s reports. The image casts, he notes, are almost of a sort that could be called familiar, though he is not complacent. Some of the voices emanating from the mouths that appear in the walls seemed to argue, though their dispute is incomprehensible. Apparently they accuse their listeners or each other of obscure crimes. He notes the strange words in the hope of finding some connection at a later date.

Turning to the records of Kore’s dream of the night before, he is shocked.

In the log she describes her dream as well as she can. At first there is darkness, which then reddens. It has a depth to it. There is a sheen about it that recalls wine or honey or blood. Then there is the appearance of a more solid mass moving within the translucent depths. She perceives coils and folds of some nature in this field of colour, though she cannot tell yet if she is seeing the layered petals of a flower bud of an odd glassy texture or the roiling of a viscous fluid. Slowly the form or perspective blooms and swells, as if a spherical lens is being held before her eye. If it is a flower, perhaps it is opening. Despite the obscurity of her vision, she experiences an intense feeling of déjà vu and a certainty that something is about to be revealed, which frightens her. At this point, the dream fades, or the rest is forgotten.

The dream seems inconsequential, but most dreams have a syntax and action that reflect upon the life of the dreamer and an impetus that drives image to image to image. They are safely idiosyncratic and trivial, arising and ending in finite cycles within the minds of the sleepers. This dream is too static, too narrow in its range, as if one particular facet and only this one facet of something more complex were being held up to tantalise her.

This was certified without comment or tag? Pallin asks himself. How?

He shakes his head, fearing for her. He sends a message to his Scholar librarian, instructing him to search for patterns in the image casting and if possible, any uses of the term, ‘Little Watcher’ associated with the vague characteristics of the thing in her dream. Absolute security is required.

The next day, the ceiling scrolls a new batch of reports, and the request for a pattern analysis is largely redundant as Pallin can see for himself the convergence of phenomena. In a library, a complete face has been seen in the wall tiles, with strange radiating lines reminiscent of fingers or tentacles. Elsewhere, a man declared that his hands were not his own, the eyes on butterflies’ wings showed expressions of curiosity (how can one tell? he asks himself at this), red roses were observed to moisten and breathe like strange pudenda, more eyes opened in walls and another mouth appeared, uttering the words of dead languages. Most of these obscene puns appeared in one city, City One Thousand, called Ogygia, which is the city of Kore.

The narrative of Kore’s latest dream is even more portentous. He listens to the recording of her voice: She dreams, she says, of what appears to be an oiled flower, and this time it opens. Something is nestled in its volume, which she realises is in fact an entirely liquid medium. A dome rises out of the depths, the meniscus of the fluid at first forming a membrane or caul over its surface and then splitting and dilating like an enormous iris. It is as if something is both being born and opening its eye to her, though the lens is clouded.

A Watcher, Great or Little, knows her now.

A meeting of the Monstruwacan Council is convened. It is lengthy, but resolution is lacking. They cannot close their eyes to the Land, but they fear also what has been let in by Kore’s sight. It is suggested that the girl be protected, kept from the Tower, while other seers, those who are less sensitive and deemed expendable, are sent up in her place. This is naive: the relationship between Master and seer is one that takes years to build into a perfect synergy. In such a case as is proposed, Pallin says, he may as well look through a telescope and make drawings with a piece of charcoal.

Another points out to gloomy agreement that the walls of the Redoubt have already been transgressed. They would be, so to speak, closing the cage after the butterfly has flown. Whether or not she watches, she will be watched and they may as well take advantage of the situation.

One rash soul new to the council comments that this heralds the end, a remark that is not excessive, but redundant. It was the end when the sun died, Pallin thinks to himself, when the Last Redoubt was built and the Electric Circle inscribed upon the Land, it was the end when the Watchers appeared and it was the end when the Watcher of the South broke the Glowing Dome. We live in an age that is itself the End.

Strangely, he finds relief in this litany of decline. He looks back on his life not as a man of action but as an aesthete, and the Redoubt itself, the pinnacle of a vast construction of history, is the vantage and vanishing point of human time. For millions of years already they have been looking back at memories of sunsets, former incarnations and lost loves. Perhaps they should be less concerned with such spurious ideas as fate and consider the beauty of what they already have. He is an old man, a hero. The younger man would not understand this.

It is finally decided that Kore will be watched. An observatory of sorts will be constructed within the Redoubt dedicated to this purpose. Pallin naturally arrogates to himself control of the enterprise.

He cannot dance, so it is Pallin’s habit to play a board game with Hecane at regular intervals. The game is an odd and old one, supposedly devised by a person whose name it bears, ‘Ildred,’ though an etymologist once told him that the name has the ring of an acronym rather than a real name. No matter. The game is amusing and demanding enough to take his mind from his mundane and metaphysical cares.

He begins by programming the layout of the first of the aperiodic tiles, first five dart shapes clustered to make a star which stands for the Redoubt, then a ring of diamonds around that, followed by more clusters in a rosette that symbolises the Watchers and the other features of the Land.

“You always begin with this proposition,” observes Hecane.

“Yes,” he agrees with a bland expression, “and so do we all.”

“You’re so serious in your escapes,” she teases.

“Of course,” he says, not so serious.

She sighs. So much of what they say is only signaled. They begin casting the dodecahedral dice that will determine the pieces with which they will play. Their movements on the board that they lay out together will constitute a complex philosophical discussion. It should be a good game, as he is in an argumentative mood.

Late that night he dons his old armour, still with its marks and bends unrestored after so many years, and ascends to the contaminated upper reaches of the Tower with two Praetorian Watchmen. It is an odd mission, unplanned and without resources, but his own legend is enough to permit its authorisation. Speculation paints a picture of standoff and confrontation, which he thinks absurd, if not crude. He does not ask himself overmuch about his own motivations, knowing already that it is a foolish gesture of penance that may indeed be fatal. Foolish or not, he would not permit himself to use Kore as his spyglass if he did not look Out with his own eyes now and again. In any case, just by chance, he may learn something too subtle or abstract for a young mind or a mechanical device to grasp.

He steps out of the airlock onto a balcony that was once used to service some of the externally mounted instrumentation and looks towards the South. His vision is neither enhanced nor filtered. The Watchmen are sceptical, not raising their own blinds, and continue to have that sector of the horizon automatically edited from their sight. They are ordered to maintain this restraint should he fall under the influence of the Watcher. If necessary, they will kill him.

The spread robe of the living mountain’s imposed geography twists his mind, but it is not beyond bearing, and he does not fall. Like Kore, he is the product of a long eugenic programme and in his case he has been given a curious mixture of personal sensitivity and lack of affect. That hybrid facility protected him well years ago out in the Night Land when others were driven mad or fatally warped in their bodies by what they saw. The writings and folds almost make sense to him, a syntax becomes perceptible, and he is almost fascinated, but he is able to realise that this is a subtle trap and dodges it, shielding himself with obstinate incomprehension. The geoglyphs do not alter in counter strategy, being mere unconscious castings of the mind of the Watcher.

Its eyes should be another matter. He braces himself.

They appear as great spheres of obsidian in mockery of normal human eyes. Curiously, they seem not to affect him at all. They reflect the ambient luminosity of the Land, little points of light appearing in their depths like stars, but the only thing he feels within himself is the pressure of his own wistfulness.

Ah yes, stars. There was an expedition once, testing new equipment. He saw how the stars would have looked had the universal pestilence not consumed them… and now he is the only man alive who remembers that sight.

His will takes over and bottles the spasm of nostalgia. Analysis is his object; everything, even his private feelings are phenomena to be interpreted. How can it be that I am free to experience these emotions, he wonders? Few are substantially unaffected by a Watcher's gaze and nobody feels nothing. It is as if the mind of the Watcher, concentrating all of its exertions through the eyes, is blocked at precisely the place from which its energy is directed. It is as if the Watcher is blindfolded, he thinks, amazed. Another barrier more subtle than the wrecked Glowing Dome has been erected before it.

He descends swiftly into the body of the Redoubt. He does not trust this new barrier. It may not last, it may be a deceit. The monster watches through its own castings in the walls already and does not need those eyes, or it is not interested in him. Is it capable of such discrimination between individuals? Apparently so, if the castings that are beginning to crowd around Kore are any indication. If indeed they are its castings and not the creation of this new, unknown agency.

All of these thoughts are questions, not answers, but they are at least useful lines of inquiry. Hopefully Kore’s dreams will provide answers. Again he abstains from his sweet wine. He has never regretted the need for his skills and his duty more than he does tonight.

When he finally sleeps, he has a dream of his own. He dreams that he is descending into a well of black water. He is holding a motley doll to his breast and knows, as one knows things in dreams without that knowledge having any source, that this little thing is the mountainous Watcher of the South. Looking up through the surface, he sees shimmering points of light, the stars again. As he descends, slowly and without any fuss, they go out, one by one until only one, a pure emerald green is left.

Kore is with him, somehow dancing in the water at his side and smiling. “This is only a dream,” she says — to both of them, him and the Watcher-doll. “The Night Land is only a dream, you know. Why don’t you just wake up?”

He does wake up, and he is still in his bed in the Redoubt.

To Little Watcher (Part 2)

© 2002 by Brett Davidson.
Image also © by Brett Davidson.