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

Salvage (Part 5)


To Salvage (Part 1)

To Salvage (Part 4)

Medeis had, as a way of chastising Io for her minor mistakes when she was very young, explained that there were laws governing accidents just as there were laws governing great events. The first was that anything that could possibly fail, given enough time, would. The second was that any problem unchecked would become progressively worse. By way of consolation, he had added that often only time could reveal the possibilities of the first and that hopefully, awareness and honesty could stall the second. That seemed little comfort now when there was a cascade of catastrophes, none of which seemed to seemed in any way open to understanding or mitigation.

The next shock was that the only way to avoid the coming catastrophe was to prevent the departure of Aeiphanes from the starport by any means necessary — including sabotage.

"And why must the Hiatus be continued — by sabotage if necessary as you say?" demanded Medeis

The Puppet Master took a folded map from a pocket. It was small, no larger than a small kerchief, but open it covered a large table. He tapped its corners and it became rigid. "Observe," he commanded. At first there were only silver lines indicating the Road and a red dot marking the landing-field and Castle. Running a fingertip along the edge of the map, he widened its scope to show a complete projection of the earth. The colour was on the whole, minimal: there was mainly the light and dark grey of bare rock and lava traps, the white of the icefields that covered the sea beds. The principal Roads and their cultivated chattel enklimai were still visible as parallel bands of meagre green with the cities indicated by tiny red dots. The cities were all in a line ahead of the Terminator, saving of course, one laggard.

"Here." He tapped the centre of the daylit face. "Here the litany of destruction begins. The Ulterior wish to murder earth. They have sent a projectile that flies barely slower than light and the energy of its momentum alone will be sufficient to kill almost everything." A blue-white spark appeared at the very centre of the bright side. He gestured energetically as he traced the effects of the impact. "The shock will spread outward in the manner of a ripple from a stone tossed into a pool. It will weaken — relatively — as it expands until it was at its most diffuse at the Terminator. Following that, the front will converge again until it meets at the antipode of the impact. Waves will also propagate through the earth itself, bent and focussed by its layers of varying density until they likewise meet at this point. The devastation there will be almost as severe as it would be at the impact site itself. Following that, the waves will echo back and forth between the two points — the earth will ring like a bell for heptaphae... the crust will be shattered into a million pieces..."

Io watched, horrified, as the effects of the impact spread across the map like the stain of black wine spilled across a linen tablecloth — or like blood from a stab wound.

"More destruction follows: much of the atmosphere would be peeled away, pulverised mountains will be flung up into space to fall back over the whole globe as a continual rain of fire. All that can burn will burn. It will not matter if your city can move again, because the sun will be hidden for a century — a dekacycle — behind black clouds. After the fire, then, ice — ice and darkness."

He looked up and into their eyes. "And then you will know the nature of my world."

The map was almost entirely erased. There were no familiar mountains, valleys or continents. There were no Roads. In their place was... nothing, except a crater and great, crooked scar that spanned an entire hemisphere.

The Puppet Master was emphatic, stabbing at the map with his finger: "You must lay down a new road as you go and break new mountains with your nucleic ploughshares. You must find the Precipice that borders a great new Valley that has been excavated by the impact and then anchor your city there. In the centuries that follow, you will descend into the last place on earth that can harbour life... and here... here your descendents will build the Last Redoubt of humanity. My inviolable home."

Io watched with dreadful fascination as the map evolved, as strange new features emerged and titanic beasts so vast that even at this scale they were visible converged on the centre — and at that centre, a single glittering point: the Redoubt.

"And this was why?" asked someone. It was Medeis.

The man nodded. "That was why."

"The other cities must be warned, they must be."

The man shrugged fatalistically. "You may warn them. I will furnish you with all the information needed to buttress your arguments."

"And what were we, everyone, to do?" asked someone.

"Disable the hippochalkoi, create a berm ahead of the city, evacuate the towers, release the brakes, uncouple and separate the cars. Secure stores to last a hundred hectaphae—"

"Every city has stores to last the period of an orbit, if there is a bad harvest—"

"Good; there was that at least, but there would be no more harvests from the soil. You must plan gardens, energise them with the Earth Current."

"The Earth Current?"

He nodded. "Already you use it to heal, and as a lever in your attempted to shift the balance of power with the Heliomancers, you have proposed that it substitute for the sun in the shadowed levels of the cars, have you not? Use it now; life will prosper in its light."

The darkness outside was complete now. There was no light from the sun at all, not even the diffuse glow scattered through the atmosphere in the wake of sunset. The festive field had been cleared, the marquees and trestles packed away for another orbit. Floodlighting maintained a kind of security about the city, but no-one walked outside now.

Ahead, the hippochakoi were already humming as the engineers warmed them in preparation for the resumption of progress, pink and blue coronae flaring about their carapaces. As soon as the last Feast of Night was ended and most citizens retired to bed, they would be started and the city would wake to find itself in motion once more, incrementally gaining on the sun.

Io climbed one of her favourite spires and tried to imagine what it was like to be falling through space among the stars. She was surprised only momentarily to find the Puppet Master already there, a black outline against the floodlit field. He was apparently admiring the view, but, strangely, he was looking into what seemed to be utter darkness rather than the nearby illuminated landscape. "There," he said, pointing. "A landwhale. The composite beast is conserving its heat, so that it’s barely visible and even its minor commensals are deeply shrouded. It appears to be injured."

"I can’t see anything," Io protested.

"Ah, sorry, I forgot. Your descendents will have better vision than you."


"This world is almost a paradise to me," he went on. "I have only seen these beasts before as fossils. There are a few of their distant descendents, much changed and made sinister... and there!" He pointed at another patch of impenetrable darkness.

"What do you see there?"

"You call them azhdarchos. There are two of them."

Io could barely hear their wings flapping as they passed overhead. "You find this scene beautiful?"

"I find it marvellous. There are no flying creatures at all outside the Last Redoubt; the air is too thin. We have insects of course — bees, moths, butterflies and when I was a boy, I bred dragonflies..." He sighed. "This world is so rich with life, simple life that is uncorrupted by the Ulterior."

Io wrapped her arms around herself. "You terrify me," she said.

"Yes, I imagine that I do," he admitted.

"It’s what you’ve shown me, us. The whole universe... I knew, but..."

Barely visible in silhouette, he nodded. "There is hope," he said with quiet insistence. "Do you remember the rhyme about the snail?"

"Yes... but not all of it."

"You don’t have to remember all of it, just the lines that count."

"Crawl up tight — no it’s—"

"Crawl abed and wind up tight," he corrected.

"And never, never—"

"But there will be no never. There is another time, you see. The snail curled up inside his shell so tight, he curled himself right out of this world and into the next, and there it will be warm again."

Io said nothing and began to climb down.

Discussion over the means to protect the city from the attenuated but still devastating effects of the impact continued with suggestions and objections passing back and forth.

"The city was hardly the adamantine of—"

"The current. It could be used to generate an air-clog such as will surround the Last Redoubt."

"There will be no time to construct the generators."

The Puppet Master raised a finger. "There is no need — the Castle gathered fuel for itself by sweeping the thin wind between the stars, did it not? Its engines also served to brake it and to shield it when it descended through thick atmospheres. If they have been salvaged, then they might be reactivated."

"They have indeed been salvaged," Medeis was able to confirm. "Several of the hippochalkoi use coils from the Castle’s engines as the rotors and stators of their motors."

The man cursed in what Io guessed was his native tongue. It might have been an extended diatribe, but it was as brief as a cough. "Inaccessible, then... though perfectly placed to the fore..." He frowned, his hand to his chin. "However... They are perfectly placed, not completely scrapped and recycled, the major components are essentially intact and linked to power sources..."

The Companion smirked. "I can guess what you’re thinking — you have a tendency to find the means of your schemes behind other people’s desires, don’t you?"

He cocked an eyebrow. "Do I? I never noticed. It must come reflexively."

"In any case—?"

He nodded. "Yes, in any case, our aim of stalling the city and protecting it could be accomplished by surreptitiously turning the engines of the hippochalkoi to the task of generating a Castle’s drive field once more."

"That would be... despite the intent, sabotage," Medeis interjected. "Of all the crimes that we name, endangering the progress of Aeiphanes was the worst, and the hippochalkoi are... almost objects of veneration. The Stress Masters would never let anyone near."

"Need anyone go near?"

"What did you mean?"

"If anything, the co-ordination of scores of hippochalkoi is a complex task, requiring constant balance of force management. I presume that an eidognostic mill of the sort used to co-ordinate the field generators of a castle was employed?"

Medeis nodded. "It is."

"And was that too salvaged from the Castle?"

"I am not sure..." He consulted with a colleague and after some muttering exchange, they both nodded.

The man clapped his hands together. "Excellent! We would inform this mill that it is dreaming and that it is in reality not driving a city, but is among the stars, steering the Castle toward landfall."

The plan was, of course, not as simple as it was sketched. Medeis was right to say that whatever the intent of the scheme, its form was sabotage. It was necessary for direct contact to be made with the houses’ eidognostic governors and the great co-ordinating mill itself. Io, as the most agile climber, was the only one likely to be able to slip into the housings of the lead engines and change the settings of the governors. Even the Puppet Master, for all his inflated confidence in her obscure abilities, did not want to risk so exposing her to discovery, but there was no alternative. Io left the room before the discussion was concluded and went to look for the filed schematics and handicap tables.

There was in the oldest bestiary in the library, the description of a roughly humanoid creature with a tail called a monkey. Supposedly these long-extinct beings were adept at imitating human gestures and mannerisms and were particularly skilled at climbing and creating mischief. If more people had cared to read, perhaps Monkey might have been her nickname. In any case, it was a monkey she thought of as she dangled and swung among the power and tension cables that knitted the ranks of hippochakoi together. A tail, she decided, would certainly be an advantage, along with the superbly discriminating eyes that the Puppet Master had. As it was, she was barely less disadvantaged than anyone else. A leap and a sprawling landing, followed by a scuttle along the curved side of the Extravagant recalled her more familiar moniker, Spider.

And then there were perhaps other similes, she thought to herself. Anything to keep my mind engaged while my reflexes took me through my mission. Anything to avoid fear: Monkey, Moth, Worm, Rat, perhaps. She had been surprised to learn from the Companion that she had never seen a rat. There were, apparently, no non-human vertebrates at all left in the Last Redoubt.

The maintenance access panels were narrow, making it quite clear that the only other candidate for the mission, the Companion, would not have been able to reach the innards of the engine. The exposed control and relay mill was itself far to complex a device for Io to be able to constructively interfere with it, but that was not necessary. The Salvage Corps reports had detailed a specific control module containing the default command systems of the Castle’s stellar engines and as Aeiphanes’ engineers had been careful not to tinker overmuch themselves, it would probably be a fairly simple matter to reset and reintegrate it. In theory, as the engines were optimised to act in synchrony driving the Castle — which was their attraction to the city engineers as well — then once the optimal programme was reactivated, the rest would fall into line. Such was the theory at least. Cutting her fingers on exposed metal flanges, Io was not so sure.

Finally the task was complete and she started to retrace her route back to the stacks car via several diversions. It was too much to think that she had not been seen, but she hoped for the simple sake of her own life that she would not be identified.

The Puppet Master was full of information about the practices of his home, but in describing the Lighter-capsule and sarcophagus he spoke like an aesthete admiring an antique — as well he might.

"Primeval as it is, the flight control system is too complex for any human to understand in any true manner — though quite elegant in some of its solutions. The mills will construct a metaphor cued to your natural reflexes that will enable you to respond by touch, sight and reflex and other natural senses."

Io nodded without really listening. It was just another medical procedure. The technicians could be trusted to activate the machine, and if they could not, there was nothing that she could do to improve on their work, she thought fatalistically. She laid herself in the sarcophagus, vaguely surprised at her own willingness. Was it not a death of a kind? Did she not let herself be swallowed up in darkness? Did she not confront the naked universe herself naked?

Lists, she thought. I have an obsession with lists. Lists give order to chaos, remove reality to the realm of text. Lists create a form of safety even when they catalogue danger. Now, perhaps, she understood doctors.

The Monstruwacans started to assemble the components of the inner casket about her, attaching with all the care of ritual the various glittering plates and contacts to ornament her skin. It was, she thought, a little akin to a coronation...

The Companion leaned over, guiding her through the fine steps of attachment. "I have done something similar in my time, Io," she told her, trying to smile reassuringly. Taking her hands, she carefully fitted each of her fingers into a ring, each of which was tension-linked by cables to the master engine flux-balance. Maybe she would dream that she was a harpist, or perhaps a spider with her limbs resting lightly on the taut radial strands of her web. Maybe, she would be not an imaginary arachnid, but simply a girl clambering about the struts and linkages of the city. Then again, like one of the ancient kings whose treasured burial she imitated, she might fly into the afterlife, past the ranks of lesser deities to the ultimate judge...

She wondered about what it meant to tempt fate and why she compulsively pursued danger. It was not so simple as hiding a secret desire in the fall of dice. Letting chance decide, perhaps, was a reflection of a desire to avoid the unwanted obligation to choose. Was this then now a choice? Or had she passed the burden of choice to the Puppet Master?

Someone to love her, hate her, to blame her, for her to blame. Was that the sum of the equation of power and obedience?

Another list. She smiled.

The mask and then the lid were closed upon her. The casket began to flood with something viscous like warm honey. She shifted uncomfortably, waiting for the scent of roses, the knowledge that this had all happened before.

Distracted by her analysis, she felt a mental jerk as her mind was brought to the task again. There was no time to daydream about a fantastic city pulled by huge engines through an eternal twilight. The Castle was about to begin the dangerous flyby of a hot blue-white star while severely damaged, its few functioning engines barely coupled with each other and their intake field generators out of phase. It was all she could to bleed the energy from one ring-segment to the next, to build step by step a shell that would protect the Castle as it began its hyperbolic acceleration run around about the star.

The metaphoric algorithms were unstable. From time to time, the view of the searing hot sphere ahead of her collapsed and became, bafflingly, a flat, black land spanned by a wall of fire charging towards her like a wave. She tried to ignore this, instituting her own disciplines, making sense of that wall as a metaphor. That was no wall, it was a two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional environment of space and she plunged toward periastron within the outer chromosphere. Her path was a hyperbola grazing a sphere and it was a straight path on a plain. She fell toward the ball of fire at increasing velocity and she was fixed in one place and the wall of fire approached. Either or the former was an image, neither might be true.

The Sideromancer intervened, reinforcing the mapping algorithms, and she clenched her hand, locking at last the elements of the intake system into place. The Castle was a ring, the target was the edge of the bright sphere, a conic section line was her path. All was as it was described.

The sphere loomed. It was close and bright now. The density of plasma was near the limits of a fully-functioning intake field, the tanks were brimming with the matter of star-wind. She inverted the field then. It was a slow, painfully slow process, the imperfect integration threatened to tear the whole Castle apart. The Castle shuddered and bucked, the great mass of metal structure and degenerate hydrogen fuel seemed to kick under her. Deliberately, she uncoupled the joints between the segments, letting them hang passively in the fluctuating field itself. It was a risky move: the unstable field might well have scattered the components apart if any sudden disequilibrium had exceeded the scope of her reflexes, but on the other hand, to keep the Castle rigid would surely have caused it to shatter. She grimaced behind her visor and hoped for the best.

Miraculously, the field completed its inversion safely; now it no longer presented an open mouth to the plasma gale, but was closed about the Castle like a protective shield. It began to glow, brighter even than the atmosphere of the star itself. A shockwave bloomed and then was drawn tight by the field into a narrow cone in the Castle’s wake, reducing its drag to nearly nothing. How must the Castle have seemed? A blinding comet against fire, a searing wake blazing with the colours of ultraviolet and X-rays across seas of flame broader than worlds? It was unimaginable, depicted only with mere images that showed nothing of the still greater disruption the field wreaked with the star’s magnetic patterns.

The wounded patterns were more unpredictable than those of the damaged Castle itself. Her management faltered, letting the heat touch too closely the merely solid hull. Molten metal began to flow like wax, threatening the engines themselves. If the wax liquefied, then the furled wings themselves would be town away and the Castle would fall naked from sky to fire to be consumed in an instant and she would be boiled alive in her honeyed casket too swiftly to know.

And suddenly in seconds it was over and the Castle was flung into the sky with the prize of stolen momentum towards the distant golden speck of earth’s home star. A flare triggered by the incursion waved like a slow banner in its wake.

And suddenly in seconds it was over and Aeiphanes, torn and wounded but still living, was steady upon the black plains.

To Salvage (Part 6)

© 2006 by Brett Davidson.
Image © 2015 by Kate Coady.