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An armored man with a diskos, outside a tall pyramid in a dark land.

Out (Part 1)


To Out (Part 2)

Nothing came from the Land, nothing showed itself. In most places the vegetation Outside grew thick, up to the margin of the force field: bushes remembering ancient habits of photosynthesis, competing for the trickle of light that the Circle donated. Here and there the thick tangles grew man-high, stopping with geometrical exactness in a curved line six inches from the Wall, as if the Land had created a boundary of its own, one made of dark moss-bush fibre.

Other segments were clear, with the naked rock as bare as the trodden area Inside. But here, you saw the two sections were at different levels. The rock strata Inside had been worn down the depth of half a foot by the slow attrition of men from the Redoubt, coming here to check Her outermost defence. And there, just Outside, were the remains of the Beasts: a scattering of unique shapes.

"Are they watching us?"

"Always, something is watching."

The Circle was a thin tube, not made of matter, locked into the fabric of the ground below it. Above it, near the ground, the Air Clog, the Wall it anchored could actually be sensed, roiling the air and humming very very quietly. The curve of the ring of light, eight miles across, was just perceptable.

A little outside the incandescent line were the the ancient traces of the other, broken Circles: Circles made of glass, of steel, of electromagnetism, of once-flaming plasma: defences that had been overrun and reconstructed in the ancient past with apocalyptic labour, yielding ground to the Land, a span in each Aeon.

We paced beside them in order, along the Rim: three, then three, each with his allotted sector to scan. To our right loomed the Redoubt, Her brilliance toned down and controlled by the sentinel filters in our helms, so our eyes remained fully night-adapted. To our left lay vista after vista of bleak rock, and rubble, and black-haired vegetation, passing slowly.

And from time to time, we beheld one or another curious sight, near or far:

— Ancient bones. The gigantic phalanges of some Titan that had sought to penetrate the shield, or had fled enemies, or had simply shown curiosity. Scattered and broken.

— A carious beehive structure, each cell half a fathom across, their broken conical open ends directed toward the Redoubt. Inside each cell were what seemed to be tiny tools or mechanisms

— A three-fathom wide scar on the ground just Outside, glass-smooth, iridescent, of unguessable source.

— What seemed almost a tree, a giant moss-bush thrice the size of a man.

— A slowly moving mist that bubbled from the ground, hovered, and swirled without dispersing, rearing high and then humping and flattening against the ground.

— More broken organic matter, shells or cast skins, overlaying each other in a heap. Something alive might, or might not, have been concealed beneath them.

— A pit of shards, slowly shifting, with a trickling tinkling sound that could just be heard through the damping effect of the Wall. Possibly a volcanic effect.

— The tusked skull of something not human, as high as a man. Shreds of skin still adhered. It was set up facing the Redoubt, and flanked by an ordered pattern of stones.

— Bones tied together and set up in imitation of three set-speech runes: signalling mist, dream, fire.

— A strangely beautiful sculpture, of poised rocks thrice the size of a man's body.

Now a long passage of quietness and silence: an hour of bleak, open, rock; the far shine of fire-holes, and drifting mists. Darkness above, darkness below, and only far shadows to glimpse.

Now, an attack: A thing like a writhing cone, four fathoms long, a scythed head followed by a train of legs and blades, rolling madly as it ran. It charged the Wall, directly toward us, but Scyrr watched impassively, not even caring to raise his weapon. An instant before it would have leapt the Circle the flash of the earth-current struck it, as its formost palps contacted the field. It shrivelled like a fly, and burst from internal steam pressure, flinging chunks of metal-hard chitin, some of which in turn hit and skipped off the Wall. All the men but I had shielded their eyes with their hands. Despite the Armourers' boasts, the helms were not quite fast enough, not quite smart enough. I was blinded for half a minute, and they laughed at me.

But we continued, past:

— A circular labyrinth of stones, of curious geometry, two furlongs across.

— A structure of ice crystals, very slowly growing on one side and melting on the other, creeping along the ground parallel to the Circle, leaving a trail of frost. In three places it had tried to overlap the Wall, and been repulsed.

— A warping focus of dark-within-dark, hovering in the air.

— More hours of emptiness, and our slow tread.

Two quarters of the Circle had been surveyed when Scyrr raised his hand and signalled a pause. Ahead of us were three shapes. Living, not dead. Half again man height, standing in a quiet order, three abreast, equally spaced, only just Outside. They seemed like statues except for the thin plumes of their breath. Naked. Night-grey figures like men, but larger than men, thick-furred, watching calmly.

I expected horrors, and horrors they were: but as we came closer to them it was we who seemed estranged. They were not hostile. They did not move to attack, nor did they show fear. They were at peace, almost. We passed them, and they did not move. They only stared. Only their eyes shifted as we passed. Each picked one of us and stared into our eyes, and each of us stared back, helplessly, until Scyrr, one at a time, broke the link, taking our helmed heads one at a time in his hands and turning them each by force, chanting quietly. He broke us free of their eyes, and we continued, shying away from their gaze. But I alone strove to look back: and Scyrr struck my head, once, swiftly, a ringing blow that did not hurt.

Unstirring, they had sent us no message except their own being. Unable to look with the eyes of my body, I visited that message again in my memory, and found it haltingly interpreted to me thus: that, compared to them, we were strange and small things. Puzzling. Dwarfed, ugly. Trammeled by metal, soft inside. Stinking sweet, corrupt, filthy, brittle.

How could the Land birth such creatures as these?

The last quarter of the Rim. The land beyond the Circle here was bleak, empty, sloping down to the Deep Valley and the ancient shimmering skeletal Towers. Beyond them loomed the South-West Watcher, an unviewable segment of the horizon, automatically occluded by our helms, however we turned our heads. Nothing here but rock and bare land, not even a lichen or a bone, for three hours of slow march. But here and there, signs showed:

— A mouth of stone, open in a grin, puckering up from the Land in millennial mockery. An image-cast from one of the Watchers, slowly moulding the ground.

— A long rod of black metal, seemingly dropped down without care.

— A network of blue glowing light, held aloft by a widespread scaffold of rock splinters, too far away for its details to be seen.

— Broken armour: nightsuits of antique pattern, smashed and splintered, scattered in tens and twenties over a wide field, inhabited not by the vanished skeletons of their wearers but by darting tiny insectile things.

Then more bare bleakness, and the distant red and ulfire glint of fires, for mile after mile.

We completed the circuit. Scyrr turned, and saluted the Land.

We moved back, in order. We came to the Petty Door, now open ajar for us. One at a time, poised between the jaws of guardian energies, we Sent, evoking the Master-Word from our Souls in proof of our enduring humanity.

Spared by the fire, we reentered the last home of Man.

Inside. And the beat of the Earth-current filled my bones. The Petty Chamber was still cold, unpressurised, full of grit, but we were home. Light kindled about us. We unhelmed. And Scyrr smiled.

He extended his hand to me, while quick looks flashed between the others.

"Give it to me."

I gave him the stone. He turned it over and over, smiling.

"Respected Senior, Captain, Father..."

"Never mind. What did she promise you? Is she pretty? Oh, my son, I am sure she is. But you will have to win her with another present. Not something unholy."

He laughed in his beard, lips red among the white, and spun round on his heel. He took the stone and flung it through the Door, hard, far, Out. The Door closed behind us, shutting Out the Night, and he put one hand on my shoulder.

"Come with me, my son."

"So, shall you to the Rim again?"

"In a fortnight. I have no choice, of course. But I'm not trying to pluck you another stone."

"Ah. Coward."

"It's wrong. Cahaire: I'm not afraid. But this is stupid. Every second tenderfoot tries it, on his first Patrol. Scyrr did not have to see me pick it up to know I'd have it in my cuff. And every man there laughed at me."

She gave me a turned head.

"Cahaire, I — ah! — listen, I want to tell you what I saw."

"Can you not get comfortable?"

"If I don't let anything touch my back."

"Lie there a minute." She rose, and returned with a wide bowl of water.

"Are you mad?"

"You're hurt, aren't you? So it is quite proper for me to do this. 'My mother won't mind, and my father won't find out.' If you keep your voice down, at least. Now lie down on your front."

"I got spanked, but I'm hardly a wounded hero."

"Oh, but do lie down, Bann: you are stubborn." And she towsled my hair, stroked my head till it lay low, slipped up my vest with a kind hand, and started to wash the stripes on my back. Very wifely-in-practice: and what a change. Daring, I tried to settle a kiss on her hip, from where I lay, and earned myself a ringing slap round the ear.

"I wish you would not do that." But I had to laugh, though laughing hurt too. "Scyrr cuffed me, on Patrol. That's worse. How would you like to have your ear clouted in front of twenty million people?"

"Oh? But there is no-one else here but us, and you can pay me back when we are married."

"Cahaire, I will never!"

"Well. Tell me, then. What is it like, in the Land?"

It is . . it is not like it is here.

If you have lived with any quietness in your life at all, you have heard the voices at the edge of your mind, calling. Humming. Sighing. Here, Inside, at night, when you are asleep, or lying between sleep and waking, when it is quietest and most peaceful, you can hear the mind-murmur of the Folk, a voice too soft to hear awake, a whisper from half a billion Souls. And at night, when it is most silent and most peaceful, you can feel the blood of the Redoubt flowing through Her bones, through switching systems vaster than hills, along conduits thicker than the height of a man, splitting down to the tiniest wires: the Earth-current in its ancient streams.

Two voices there are, of Life. But in the Land, they are not. There is no life: there is only a void. But if you listen very quietly, very carefully, you will begin to think you can hear sounds in that void. Then cease to listen. If you stare intently, you will see the eyes: then cease to stare.

There are no dangers here, no perils Inside the Circle. The Wall guards us completely. I have seen things thrice the length of this room flash into steam when they brushed it with a limb: I have seen boulders greater than that, flung by Titans, puff into dust. Space is not twisted into other space, here, through the Doorways: the Eaters come not near. There is no danger. Even at the Rim.

There is only the Night. And the things that move, and watch, in the Night.

"What happened then?"

"Nothing, Cahaire. They but stared at us. And we couldn't look away. They were the strangest of all the things there. Stranger than the mouth in the ground. Stranger than the crawling ice castle. Because they were somehow beautiful. I think another eye might have seen them as beautiful. And they simply looked. I would ask one of the others, but ..."

"Ask them"

"Practical. No. I must not. This is one of those things you learn by not being told. 'Selan, shelan, sim, saret, mavv, essnn, kyrr.'"


"That is what he said, Scyrr said, when he made us stop looking at them."

"I . . . Say it for me again, please, Bann, and as clearly as you can remember it."

I recited, twice, and she listened, frowning.

The water in the bowl was tinged faintly pink now. She wrung one cloth out with small strong hands, half-turned from me, spread it and soaked it again, continuing to listen; and the while, her feet peeked out, and her hair drifted and swung, and her shoulder blades slid across her back.

"When do you train again?"

"Tomorrow. Four day's rest."

"With your back like that? They can't ... You cannot bear a nightsuit, armour, like that."

"I can, easily. It hurts at first, but after the first few minutes, it is nothing. It is part of you. It slows you a little, that is all."

I had not been excused ordinary duties or ordinary training: only the ranked combats in full armour, unlimited by any rules or constraints, which were the agon of each second day. Not a place for an unfit man. A nightsuit, composed of hundreds of pieces ribbed and fluted like living bone, weighs less than a tenth of your body mass, and will turn a live Diskos, in theory. That, we never tested on each other, for live weapons were too dangerous for unlimited combat, and the spinning disks were edgeless, buffered. But a blow could still flatten, could still do real damage to flesh and bone, however well protected.

The sweat burned. I had expected the deeper pains, but not that. But, past that initial sting, it was amazingly good to fight again. We matched, saluted, gave the cry, and fell to it, man to man. And once I had proper balance and integration the armour again ceased to be protection, ceased to be clothing, and became part of my flesh, not galling or hobbling me. I leapt, I spun, joyfully, and I was only a little slower, only a little less quick, than I would have been naked. In return, the nightsuit glanced away every blow.

And then, something utterly new happened. It came upon me, and was not of my will. I went further Out. I fused completely with my armour and gear, and with the weapon I swung, and became one thing. Each gliding plate of metal, each joint, was as alive, as loved, as much part of me, as my own bones. The Diskos was a limb of my own being. Distractions vanished. I became unaware of any damage or hurt, and totally aware of the position of my body, my limbs and head. My pain was not pain. It was beside me, not within me. I observed it, but it had no mastery over me at all.

I fought, I fought amazingly well. I scored higher in the melee than I ever had: but I did not care for my score, or for any thing except the battle. I even challenged Scyrr, and got flattened, of course, but I held up against him a few seconds longer than before, I gave him a real fight, I saw him move and understood him in ways I never could have before, ways I could not explain to you in words. And when I fell, I was neither shamed nor stunned.

For a little while I was in That Place, as the masters name it: all one being. I was life. I was the Earth-current. I was blessed. I had touched on that state before, but never entered it. And without the pain driving me Out, I know, would never have gotten there.

But — when I came down from that plateau — when I unarmed — it hurt, and hurt terribly. As I slipped off the gauntlets and vambrace I felt the first return of indwelling agony. Then my whole back seized up, and it took me half an hour to strip to the undersuit, which I peeled off from my flesh an inch at a time.

Funny, almost. I was so ashamed, crouched there, fearing, trying to move, trying not to groan aloud. But there was no real damage, as I checked later. I suppose it was the reflex of my earlier exhilaration. Some necessary growth and movement within the Soul, a debt of pain, which had been set aside, now being repaid.

But for a little while I was afraid to try again. Afraid of what it might feel like, when I fought again.

But you can't yield to that, for if you do, even once, there is no end to surrender.

"So what will you do now?"

"To please you?"

"No, stupid sweetheart. When will you patrol the Rim again?"

"Soon. I told you. A patrol is every fourteen days. It is our City's duty this year . . . But I'm not getting . . . I meant it, Cahaire. Don't ask again."

"Oh no, I don't mean that. I was wrong to ask for that. I was a little spoilt baby." Other couples moved sedately in the half-dark, each flanked by a chaperone. Jewels and lamps and flowers glowed to each side, and the luminous patterns on the pavements shone and dimmed as human warmth shadowed them. She turned sideways, looked up and down the long Concourse: in this light her eyes were flashing black pools, echoed by her ornaments, while her moth, her white-furred Vhasti, fluttered span-wide wings softly round her, settling from time to time on her shoulder and unrolling a long tongue to lap from the cachet-broach there. We walked peacefully enough for a while.

"But it is this. I have read that spell, those words . . . 'Selan, shelan . . .' and so forth . . . and I think I understand what he did. And it is very interesting. We study these things."

"Do you? From where?"

"Everything is in the Library. Somewhere." She laughed. "The problem is interpreting it, and finding the truth in a billion lies and echoes."

"It seems to me you would ... no, excuse me. I do not mean to be rude, but how can you tell what is true?"

"Perhaps we can't. . . . . . . Oh Vhasti, come back!" The night-moth had fled, and was bumbling round one of the statues, trying to make love to a pulsing lit jewel. "Catch him, Bann!" She laughed while I tried to call the moth with my lure, and then called him back herself. I made some conventional comment about her beauty moving all creatures, which she daffed off. "Boring man! No more of that nonsense. Listen to me!"

"Alright. You are ugly, and I am sorry."

"That is better. But no, those words are known, I have seen them before, in many forms."

"I did not know that. But I shall have to remain ignorant of those studies."

"It would help you."

"No. I don't wish to insult you. I am very thankful that you did this, but you should not have. You must not intrude here."

"Why not?"

"How can I explain? You must not. We are Watchmen, not Scholars. I must believe that I am told what I need, and in the way I need to be told, and that I am kept ignorant in the ways I need to be ignorant. And the ignorance is important. There are words, and there is knowledge that does not come by words. Like a negative. A cut-out. Black spaces. A pattern made by colouring in everything else. In that realm, words are stumbling-blocks. Don't tell me."

"I spent three days, searching. Don't you want to know what I discovered?"

"Tell me what you did."

"I went to the deepest parts of the Library: half a mile in. I climbed through twenty stacks, unpicked the software of two obsolete search engines, and choked on bookworm dust. I got lost ten times. Old, crumbling books. Beetles running, the size of my hand. I swear there are men and women in that place who never emerge. I think they have passages to the other Libraries, in the Cities above and below us."

"We know about them."

"Then why don't you tell the scholars?"

"I was joking. There are no such passages. There may have been, once, but they have long since been closed."

"You are not funny. You are broken-stupid."

"Cahaire. Stop. Please. Why do I do this to you? You try to help, and I try to explain. And I anger you, and I think sometimes you cry tears. If I smiled and nodded, or only spoke sweet words and lies to you, would you love me? But I must tell you the truth. You must not tell me this, because if you do, it might kill me."

"Ridiculous. And I do not ever weep."

"Don't tell me. Please, you truly might kill me."

"You trust that Captain yours better than me?"

"In the Land? Yes. Of course I do. Cahaire, don't be so incredibly arrogant! He's been Out — beyond the Wall. It's true."

"But something is certainly happening, and I..."

I turned, and signalled to the chaperone. She glided up, bowed, and moved between us. As etiquette compelled, Cahaire retired a little, stiff with rage, and left me to speak to her, while other strollers delicately avoided seeing us or hearing us.

"The lady is not pleased, sire? And I must conduct her home?"


"Shall we see you again?"

"You must ask her. Wait a day, please. She is angry."

"If I may advise, sire..." she moved closer to speak privately.

"Ask, respected lady."

"Sire, why do you anger her so? Again?"

"Respected lady, are you married?"

"Forty-three years in his arms, sire: and I love him as if I were yesterday's bride. That is why I am a matchmaker."

"Is it true"?

"What? As the mystes say? That we all lived before, and loved before? You are young, and in love, and you ask an old woman?"

"You are not old, respected lady. Come here." I bent and kissed her on her shapely lined cheek. She went as red as wine, and laughed.

"What shall I do with that? Give it to my husband?"

"No. Give it to her, please."

"Young man, it had much better wait. You Believe: so we are friends, believers in Love, and I will do my very best for you. Tomorrow I will approach her again, and if her mother consents, you will be able to see her again. But if you don't change, she will not endure this for very much longer. Love must rule you, it must rule you both, and nothing else at all. Sire, it will not do."

I bowed and left, looking behind me as I went, and seeing only her rigid back and turned head. I made my way to the commons and the brightly lit areas. Something strange was abroad, as Cahaire had hinted. In the Agora, in the streets, people noted my dress gorget and started toward me, ready to ask a question of an off-duty Watchman. I saw this again and again, from mere strangers: people to whom I had never been introduced, and who should never have approached me. And indeed they remembered their manners, and did not speak, but paused, held their tongues, and went on. It would have been different if I had been on duty, of course: they would have had the right to ask. But in any case, I would not have been able to tell them anything.

As it was, the first question uttered came from a near friend: and I was happy to tell him that I knew nothing about new movements in the Land, nothing about any rumors, and to remind him that he could see a lot farther from his cushioned seat in a viewing gallery than I could, marching round the Rim. He complimented me politely, made smalltalk about Cahaire and my luck in getting her, and asked again: was anything happening among the leaders of the Watch? And what was Scyrr about nowadays? With the smile that seemed to touch everyone's face when they spoke of that great Hero. I remarked that Scyrr had had me flogged a week ago, for playing the fool; and that I had deserved it; and apart from that, I knew nothing. I am sure he did not believe me.

No chance of seeing angry Cahaire again today: no more work to do: I quickly became bored. I viewed the Land: I went and bathed, hearing more chatter among the men there, and went Home. I might have seen or visited other friends, but I wanted her, and as was usual and fitting my own stubbornness and arrogance was my own punishment.

I was alert for real news: I wondered what Scyrr was about, knowing that for all the theoretical humility of his position, he was a Master-spirit, a mover among the great of the Redoubt. But you cannot approach such a one with questions.

I remember seeing him the next day, stripped to arm, before training. Above the plates of muscle that covered chest and belly was a criss-cross of scars easily born; the marks of indriven, splintered, armour, negatived in his flesh still, seventeen years after his return from the Land; and the burns, and the places where acid or some unguessable poison melted flesh, the deep pits, the blurred shapes of the Surgeons' work. All carried like so much skin paint; all transformed, from wound to ornament, by Will.

Whatever pain he suffered . . . he was beyond noticing. Even when he slept. I might achieve it for a moment, but he was always in That Place.

In the melee session that followed I tried to recapture the spirit of what I had felt on my last day's training, and I failed, of course. If you try for it, it leaves you. It is not at command. So I merely fought as hard as I could, sheer slogging, and I did not go so badly. On my last match I lost the Diskos — smashed out of my hand, holdbuckle gone, and my whole forearm numbed: and instead of falling I wrapped up, hands over my ears, elbows before my face, and charged my opponent; felled him, straddled him, and unsnapped and ripped off his helm with my gauntletted hands.

Not conventional, but perfectly legal. I made an enemy, I think, but I heard Scyrr laugh behind me.

Later, he had something else to tell me, something else to say, and I had all the news I could stomach.

"Respected Senior — why me?"

"Because you are the best." He glanced around. By common conspiracy the other cadets had all vanished. Veterans occupied them in errands or chores. "You are fast and good, yes, but I have seen better. But there is this one thing: you obey, you don't question, and this of your own will: not of ignorance or humility or cowardice. Because you know that only one mind may guide a flank of men. All others must be limbs, hands and feet obeying. You do not need to be told this. That is why I select you."

&copy Martin Isitt 2004

"What is the mission?"

"You will not know that, of course. You will go to fight, not to understand. It is seventeen years since any of us were Out. Anything might pick it from your head."

"I cannot believe it."

"Beyond the Wall: a deep probe. If the Civitas agree. I will go. And each City puts forth one man. From our City, you. From these, thirteen hundred and twenty, two hundreds will be selected. Perhaps, perhaps, you may be among them."

"I don't know why I talk to you. I attempted to warn you, and you would not listen. You never listen. No decent woman, no woman of respect, would allow herself to be treated like this." She strode fast, with an angry face.

"But there is no honor like this one."

"It is death. Destruction. I know what is to be done. The investigations. Oh, but it is another one of these things you must not know. Because you'll be 'wiser not knowing.' Stupid man."

"What is it?"

"I can not tell you. I am a girl, remember? Ignorant. These are big men's matters."

"You can't know."

"Not in every part. But every Scholar knows what they want to do. Because they have been talking about it, theorising, at my level, for a decade and more, all through the colleges of the Redoubt. Since your marvellous Captain came back with nothing but his hide and some stories he like enough made up of his nightmares. And I tried to tell you. A sixty per cent chance of mission success. A thirty per cent chance of individual physical survival. A seventy per cent chance of avoiding terminal pneumasomatic Destruction: if the Eaters don't sniff our intentions out of a Watcher's mind and pith you all the instant they depolarise the Wall. Those are some estimates I have read. But what do I know? What does anyone know? You are mad. And you won't listen to me. You will not have any chance."


"I can tell you what they want to do Out there. In general matters. I can — "


"Why not?"

"Because if you do I won't be able to go. The risk will be too great. I have a low index, but I cannot shield my mind, like an adept. I have to be ignorant. Otherwise I will broadcast the knowledge, all our plans, as surely as I would if I was shouting at the top of my voice. And I don't believe you truly know."

"I am sure I do. But I haven't been told by anyone. It is merely obvious. As obvious as where the last piece in a jigsaw must go."

"Tell me one thing. Does it have to do with Them? The ones who came to the Wall, and looked, and did no harm?"

"It does. I am sure it does. Can't I tell you?"

"Please, No. Not here."

"Then I will take you somewhere else, and I will tell you there."

She led me to the Colleges, past four or five sealed great ancient Houses where porters drowsed and robed men went in and out, and to the greatest House of all: the city Library, where I had been an hundred times. But the door she took was not one I had ever passed before, and the room we entered was unknown to me: full of equipment and fuller of old books, though the walls were covered with the aperiodic ochre-and-gold dart-and-diamond tiles you see nowhere else.

The backside of the Library, then, not the vast glittering place I had visited an hundred times. I looked on with mild curiosity, but here Cahaire was obviously at home, known, not a half-child but a respected co-worker. Five or six people here knew her.

"Keep silent, and look impressive."

She muttered and argued: I understood that I was there on some official buisness (I tried to look official) and that authority was to be granted. And granted it was, rather easily. She marched off towards a door (trying to gesture to me to follow in such a way that she was not seen) and I followed her, (trying to look as if I was leading us both with the authority of the Watch). This little comedy ended at once as the door closed behind us. Now she walked fast down the musty, crammed corridor, her limbs rigid, and her face almost grim. I expected her to tell me her news the moment we were alone: but she led me a long, long, way, down many dim paths, before she attempted to begin her explanations.

To Out (Part 2)

© 2002 by Andy Robertson. Image © by Martin Isitt.